As someone who lived near Chicago for 7 years, I have many people in my circle who I love and care about who either still live there or are still connected to the area. Consequently, I’ve seen a lot of posts about the Chicago protests that led to the canceling of Trump’s rally. While my echo chamber is usually in agreement about social and political issues, this one has created discordant echoes. Many friends are excited, proud they are from Chicago. Several other friends are posting their disappointment, highlighting how the shutdown violates first amendment rights. The event, and the reactions to it, are incredibly interesting to me. As many of you know, much of my work and research revolve around power, privilege, culture and voice. Additionally, I’ve even studied protest a bit and have a lot of reactions—not only to the protests themselves, but also the reactions they are causing.
What is most fascinating to me is how quickly issues like this become binary—about two diametrically opposed sides. This does an incredible injustice to the discussion of the multiple topics causing discord. Whenever I’m teaching students persuasion, I often warn them of falling into “taking sides” instead of finding the specific argument to craft. It is unsurprising protest is one of the areas where people fall into “taking sides.”
Protest has a long history in our country. And for just as long as protest has existed, the media representing protests has been dictated by power politics, often reporting, framing and discussing protest deceptively. I took an amazing class in graduate school called “Protest Rhetoric.” It was fascinating to learn about how integral protest has been to create change in our country. But the class also illustrated to me how power politics often dictate how those protests are represented. One of the most famous examples of protest is Rosa Parks and her well known bus ride. Most young people are taught that story in school. Rosa was tired, and so she just decided to not move to the back of the bus. Then, in response to the poor treatment of a tired woman, the boycotts magically began. That story leaves out the context of organized protest. Rosa’s actions happened in the context of many other individuals who were making the same action. The boycotts happened as momentum gained for individuals to strategically protest segregation law (This link talks about the myths and facts in the situation: Myth and Fact in the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.)
The current protests in response to Trump rallies seem to be bringing back the 1960’s civil rights debate over how protest should manifest: complete nonviolence (as advocated by MLK) or violence in response to violence (as advocated by Malcolm X). It’s important to note that BOTH of these theories are present in our current societal atmosphere—not just the election cycle, but other places such as the #blacklivesmatter movement.
We have to look beyond the actual protest acts happening and examine how the acts are being represented in the media. Protest is OFTEN framed very specifically to prevent the power of the protest. The canceled Chicago Trump rally is no exception. The majority of the news sources are focusing on the violent acts committed. Yet UIC Police Chief Kevin Booker stated (emphasis mine):
The University of Illinois at Chicago worked with all appropriate agencies to address the security concerns associated with an event of this nature including the Secret Service, Chicago Police Department and Illinois State Police as well as campaign and protest organizers. The vast majority of attendees at today’s events exercised their Constitutional rights of free speech and free assembly peacefully. The abrupt announcement of the cancellation of the event created challenges in managing an orderly exit from the Pavilion, which nonetheless, was accomplished with no injuries or arrests.
By focusing on the small pockets of violence that erupted from this event, the conversation is shifted from discussing what thousands of people are upset about to how Donald Trump’s rights are being taken away by violent protesters. And Trump is no fool. In response to the event, he tweeted “The organized group of people, many of them thugs, who shut down our First Amendment rights in Chicago, have totally energized America!” We know factually that the majority were peaceful protesters exercising their rights against what is happening at Trump rallies. But by calling them “thugs,” a well known racial slur, Trump continues to frame himself as the victim of inappropriate violence, allowing his actions to go unchecked.
Additionally, it’s interesting how the discussion of the first amendment seems to only be relevant at certain times. For those responding by claiming rights were violated in this incident (e.g. Trump didn’t get to speak), what about the thousands exercising THEIR rights? We need to be careful where we start the conversation of rights. It is incomplete to focus on only one piece (“their rights are being violated!”) without looking at the broader context.
Platform is also important. Trump’s rights are not being violated. He is still absolutely able to respond. In reality, he is still the one with the majority of the power in the situation. Losing some of your power does not immediately equate to loss of rights. Finally, the first amendment deals directly with the government impacting your freedom of speech, making the situation not even viable for a first amendment violation.
Personally, I’m interested in how the decision to call off the rally was made. Most of what I have read has discussed the safe exit of the people in attendance, and yet that was executed safely. As someone who studies power, canceling may have been a very strategic move by the Trump Campaign. Instead of dealing with the response from Chicagoans protesting his ideas, actions and the atmosphere he creates at his rallies, canceling the event makes Trump the victim. And yet Trump still has the ability to comment afterwards, very clearly still possessing his right to speak. Trump has had many rallies and continues to plan to have more. What did Trump lose by cancelling? If anything, it seems like a gain to his already hyper-entertaining campaign performance. More fuel for his fire.
My main question to those who are “disappointed” or upset by these protests: what are the other options?
These are the things happening at Trump rallies:
- A black woman is shoved by a Trump supporter
- Trump calls a man attending his rally “fat.”
- Trump security slams a photographer to the ground
And many are arguing Trump is encouraging this atmosphere.
My honest question is, what are the other options? How else, within the boundaries of democracy do we challenge this behavior? Whether you are a Trump supporter or not, we are all aware there is a portion of the nation who avidly supports him and consequently there is another part who very much oppose him. How should those who oppose him effectively react? We all know it’s not enough to post on Facebook (or even right a blog!). We are aware things do not always change by going through legal channels because of the way our system is constructed. Many would argue this is WHY protest has been legally protected in our country—to respond to those with the resources and ability to get their message heard. We can absolutely respond to the protests and we should definitely even critique them (as I’m about to do!) but we also need to look at what it is in response to.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my own place in all of this. For now, my main response has been to take in as much information as I possibly can. I read a lot about the election. I read about many different issues from many different sources. I’m not quite sure what I’m preparing for, but it has that distinct feel. Not just to vote. But to eventually respond to what is happening in our country. And I often wonder when the tipping point will be. When will I actively change my comfortable life to respond to what is happening? In the wake of genocides and extreme political takeovers, we are often left wondering, “Where were all the people?” Nazi Germany is maybe the most discussed example, but this has happened in many places, many times throughout history. “Why did the people stand by and allow this to happen?” It will be interesting to see how the framing of the Chicago protests changes (or stays the same) with time. Will this be just a response in an election cycle? Or will this be one of the first of many clashes as Trump’s rhetoric and actions continue to impact our country?
Finally, those of us who support the protests need to continue asking critical questions. How do we control the use of our rights while not taking away the rights of others? Are we ok responding to Trump with violence? If we are not, how do we control the acts of protest to prevent violent actions? Further, how do we prevent the protests from being framed as only violent?
We need to be responsible in how we oppose Trump.
Trump is incredibly smart in his rhetoric and tactics.
Many could argue this is a gain for Trump.
If people start to see him as the victim of liberal radicalism, that shifts the discussion away from his actions, which definitely benefits him.
Whether you are for the protests or are disappointed by the results, I encourage you to broaden the scope in which you are commenting. Do not fall into the trap of looking at this as just two “sides.” Do not start conversations in the middle of happenings without taking causality into account. One of the best actions we can all do is continue to educate, discuss and work to become aware participants in this current national atmosphere.
Have a beautiful day!