I’d like my latte with an extra shot of politics, please.
This week, Donald Trump supporters showed their support for the President-elect by having Starbucks baristas write “Trump” on their coffee cups in an act of solidarity with a man who was refused a drink he wanted entitled “#TrumpCup” by a Starbucks barista.
These aren’t the only protests that America has seen the past couple weeks. Trump supporters also took to Twitter this weekend to spread the hashtag #BoycottHamilton in protest of the blockbuster Broadway show. Vice President-elect Mike Pence was booed as he entered Richard Rodgers Theatre Nov. 18, and at the end of the performance, cast member Brandon Victor Dixon delivered a short appeal to Pence.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, there have been so many anti-Trump protests that there is a Wikipedia page documenting them all. Many people have criticized anti-Trump protests for not being peaceful, and dismissed the expressions as being childish.
With all these criticisms of different forms of protest floating around, many say it is important to consider what the First Amendment says about the matter. How do free speech and the right to protest fit in here?
The Constitution is quite objective about the matter. The First Amendment protects “peaceful public assembly,” but not assemblies that cause violence or present the clear and present danger of a riot.
From my perspective, it seems as if many use these guidelines to judge how “kosher” a specific protest, or a form of protest, is.
So it is true that all peaceful protests are equally legitimate expressions under the First Amendment, and that assembly where there is a clear and present danger of a riot is not protected. However, considering the history of our nation, I think it is unfair and ignorant to completely denigrate a protest because it’s not peaceful.
Let us be clear: I’m not advocating for or condoning violence in any form. Period. However, protest is, by nature, gritty. The point of a protest is to be disruptive.
Think of Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, the Great Railroad Strike or the Pullman Strike. Or the fight for the 19th Amendment, Zoot Suit riots, Birmingham, Watts and the Long Hot Summer of 1967, Black Panthers and parts of the Civil Rights movement, Stonewall riots, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter protests and the recent Dakota Access Pipeline protests. I could go on. None of these protests adhered strictly to the rules of the First Amendment. But all of these protests were and remain to be incredibly formative in weaving the fabric of American culture and politics.
Worker’s rights, minority rights and women’s suffrage would be different today if not for these protests. They worked because the public listened. Although the public may not have agreed with the methods, they were unable to dismiss them either. We internalized the message of the protesters and used them to move forward and make our country what it is today.
In the end, you might not agree with a method of protest, and I’m not asking you to. The First Amendment may not even protect the form of protest. But just because you think it’s dumb people are asking for #TrumpCups, or that people blocking traffic in protest of Trump’s policy plans is dangerous and pointless, that doesn’t mean you can ignore the point of the protest. Every protest has a message behind it. If we want to move forward in this country, it is important to understand the message behind forms of protest, rather than judge the legitimacy of the method of the protest itself. Only then can we address the root of the problem in a real and tangible way and make an effort to eradicate civil discontent.