Some Thoughts on Protests

Anti-Scientology Protest
Anti-Scientology Protest (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I support non-violent protests as a part of the right to free expression. It doesn't particularly matter to me what is being protested. As long as the protests remain peaceful, I'm going to support the right of the protestors to protest. Even when I disagree with the protestors on whatever they are protesting, I can respect them for taking action to bring about the sort of change they seek. I don't think we see enough protests these days. Even when I despise the protestors' cause, I can usually still admire their passion.

Most generalities have exceptions, so are there exceptions here? Are there cases where I would not support protests even when they remained peaceful? Yes, I can think of at least one relevant exception. If the protestors, despite remaining peaceful, were to create a significant enough burden on others who were not willing participants in their protest, I would become less inclined to continue to support their actions. In other words, a protest should not interfere with the lives of those who opt not to participate in it. To the degree that it does, the protestors have overstepped the bounds of what is reasonable, and my support for their actions is going to be affected.

In recent years, the most common example of this involves protestors blocking traffic. I do not support this tactic because it does not strike me as being fair to others. Protestors need to be able to protest peacefully without interfering with others who are not involved in the protest. When they block traffic, they are interfering with others and potentially even preventing access by emergency vehicles. When it becomes clear that a group of protestors is going to use this tactic deliberately, I am unlikely to continue to support their right to protest in this particular way even though I'd continue to support their general right to protest. If they can do it without blocking traffic, more power to them. If not, clear them out.

Another possible exception would involve a different sort of public disruption: noise. Suppose that a group of peaceful protestors descended on your neighborhood and protested loudly all night long for several consecutive nights. It would not be fair to you to have your sleep disrupted in this manner. Even if such a group remained peaceful, I'd be unlikely to support this approach because it would not be fair to the residents of the neighborhood who were not part of the protest. Once again, I'd not support the right of the group to protest in this particular way. And once again, I'd want police to clear them out if they refused to stop disturbing the peace.

Although I am inclined to support peaceful protests that do not create an undue burden on those not involved in the protest, this does not necessarily mean that I'll never have anything critical to say about the protestors' cause or their choice of tactics. I can think of many instances where I have supported protestors' cause but thought their tactics were counterproductive. I can think of others where I strongly disagreed with the cause but found the tactics to be effective and even impressive. Support of the right to protest and support for those who exercise that right does not mean that one cannot criticize any aspects of the protestors' cause, agenda, or behavior. In fact, I find that for the causes I agree with, I'm generally motivated to suggest the sort of tactics I believe would be most effective.

In the end, I think that recent moves in some states to limit the right to protest are misguided. Protests that become violent or create undue interference on others (e.g., blocking traffic, excessive noise) require police action. Those that do not should be encouraged.