The Wrong Way to Protest

There’s a lot of talk about rights lately, what with the war and with all the protesting. “I have the right to protest!” “The great thing about America is that I have a right to dissent!” “We don’t have the right to invade Iraq.” “It’s the right thing to do.” Et cetera.

In short, the very word “right” is such a vague term and the concepts people talk about when the use it are often even less well defined. For example, nowhere in the Constitution does it say anything about a right to privacy or a right to expression—but those are often touted as something that all Americans deserve.

I don’t argue with that. I agree with the ideals of a right to privacy and a right to free expression, but I figure that if we want to keep those ‘rights’ we probably ought to put them down in stone like our Constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech, press, assembly, and petition.

But so far in this rant I’m living up to my website’s title—I’m off on a tangent. The rights I’d like to focus on here are the first few that I mentioned—the right to protest and dissent.

I think I’ve made it more than clear in my previous rants and other writings that I completely respect the right of people to disagree with me. In fact, I demand that people disagree with me. A homogenous world would not be a world worth living it, because the diversity of people and views is what makes this planet and this country such a great place to live.

But like any right, the right to dissent and protest can be used properly and can likewise be used improperly. For example, while we have free press that doesn’t give newspapers the right to lie or print libelous material. We have free speech, but—as the old adage goes—we don’t have the right to yell fire in a crowded theater if it’s not on fire.

The reason these rights have limits is because once you cross a certain line you’re no longer exercising your rights, but you’re trampling on somebody else’s. I touched on this issue in my rant about smoking (“Airborne Carcinogens . . . ”) when I said, “YOUR RIGHT TO SMOKE DOES NOT GIVE YOU LICENSE TO EXPOSE ANYBODY ELSE TO THAT SMOKE. Period.” In other words, I have the right not to be exposed to cigarette smoke just as much as anybody else has the right to expose themselves to it.

The right to free assembly and the unwritten right to dissent are the cornerstones behind protests that we’ve seen around the world about war in Iraq, and—as any local can vouch for—around our nation’s capital as well. In-and-of themselves, I have nothing against these protests happening (aside from the issues I raised with them in my last rant, The Benefit of the Doubt). I do, however, have a problem with the way that some of them have been executed.

These antiwar protesters have every right to protest, but what they have to remember is that everybody else in this metropolitan area—myself included—has a right to go to work, or to school, or—hell—just to drive across town if they want to. It’s part of that whole “life, liberty, and property” guarantee that is a core part of our Constitution. A few thousand protesters gathered at the Washington Monument or at the Capitol Building don’t inhibit these rights on any notable level. But, on the contrary, a throng of antiwar protesters laying down in the middle of the Key Bridge do.

Blocking roads (without large event permits—which allow the governments with jurisdiction to plan alternative routes, etc.), blocking places of business, harassing workers, and parking tractors in ponds are all poor examples of protest because they are not exercising any rights—no, they are trampling on everybody else’s’.

One of the baffling things about a country like the United States is that many people on all political sides have this strange idea that they have rights, without remembering that the other guys do to! America is about tolerance—both of good ideas and bad ones. We must remember that while the NAACP and other civil rights groups have a right to hold rallies and protests, so does the KKK—no matter how much we disagree with what they have to say, or how despicable that group may be.

But, of course, that’s an extreme example.

I’m not even talking about the right to counter-protest—and there have been a number of pro-war counter-protests—what I’m talking about is the right of people who have no interest in these protests to go about their lives without undue interruption. I would consider the right not to protest as paramount as the right to protest. When I can’t get to work on time because of a bunch of people laying down in the middle of the street, that’s trampling on my right not to protest.

In my past rants, message board posts, etc. I think I’ve made it more than clear that I expect dissenting views to be presented rationally and intelligently. If you come at me talking about how some view will have terrible “karmic retributions” or some such crap like that (paraphrasing Sheryl Crow), I’m not especially likely to listen to you. But if you present an intelligent counterpoint like Martin Sheen often does or like those I often see from Sly and others in the message boards, then you might have a little more luck (or at least it will result in a debate that contributes to both sides’ pool of knowledge).

I respect the views of people who present those views respectfully, and interrupting a Washington commute—already a nightmare—is about as disrespectful as you can get. It’s important to remember when any of us exercise any right we must balance that exercise against the rights of those around us. To not take the rights of others into consideration is simply selfish, and aside from being likely to get you arrested it’s most decidedly not likely that anybody will listen to you.

But say what you have to say in a proper forum—with a thought-out viewpoint and an intelligent demeanor—and I assure you that most people will at least listen to you. Once all the viewpoints are rationally put out on the table, only then are you likely to ever change anybody’s mind. I assure you though, you’ll never convince anybody of anything by pissing them off—and an easy way to piss somebody off in a city setting is to get in their way.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.