Protests and Why They Matter

The number of protests across our nation is growing. And, the reasons for the protests are, on the surface, quite diverse. There are teacher protests in West Virginia, noting the paucity of pay among other issues; other school teachers from different states may follow suit. There are protests following the horrific school shooting in Parkland, with students across the nation rising up to push for laws and other protections to insure that schools are safe places. Some adults are insulted that youth are engaging legislators but many social changes in America are the result of the engagement of students. There is a protest outside my apartment building in DC right now against Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the director of the FDA, whose agency has not taken action to stop the use of aversives on disabled and mentally ill children and adults, such as the GED apparatus used at The Judge Rotenberg Center. The latter protest is lead by a grass roots disability organization. I can see that there will be more protests on college campuses when professors behave badly or when speakers spout offensive rhetoric.

These protests highlight the many freedoms accorded by the US Constitution for which many have fought and for which lives have been lost. Yes, the First, Second and Fifth Amendments among others are implicated. And, the scope and meaning of these Amendments are being debated. That is healthy for Democracy. It is also healthy for people of all ages and stages to voice their views and be heard, something that is vastly easier in a time of social media, although media attention seems to vary depending on the topics being protested and the status of the protesters.

We can debate, I suppose, whether gun access should be limited and whether we should arm teachers, although I struggle to reconcile the purchase of AR 15’s with the Second Amendment and I wonder about the wisdom of arming educators who seem singularly unprepared as a group to fire weapons. We can evaluate and assess the power of the NRA and the role of lobbying more generally.

We can ask whether students, who have not yet graduated from high school, have lessons to offer adults or whether wisdom is only revealed through age and experience. I’d suggest trauma and survival are surrogates for aging and wisdom in some respects. And youthful voice has a lack of cynicism and a burst of truth — — just remember the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

We can ask how well we treat those with mental and physical disabilities but surely we should think differently about treatment options and not treat humans as animals being trained with shock collars and biscuit rewards. I think we largely fail when the benefit/punishment dyad is stretched to incredulity and lacks individual, personalized approaches. This is true in all education.

We can ask, too, whether kneeling for the National Anthem or protesting offensive speech is justified; perhaps too we can flip out lens and perspective to see the felt experience of those who rights or feelings are trampled on day in and day out. Might we all benefit from “switching places” as movies and television shows have depicted for years to see the experience of the other. Doctors should be patients in their own or another hospital. Teachers should be learners. Police should try out a night in solitary confinement.

My point here is that protests have value, even if they are noisy and make us uncomfortable and force us out of our comfort zone. They all invoke these feelings in many who witness the protests whether they are near or far. High time for us, actually, to see the power in protests and herald it as an American value on which our Democracy rests.

If only civility and decency and respect for others were part of our credo too.

Written by

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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