Thursday, August 24, 2017

What do we teach about community protests and working for causes?

As my mother gets older and cannot do what she once did, she does not protest or work on social causes as much anymore.  She did, though.  A lot.  One of my strongest memories at age 7 was going door to door canvassing for Eugene McCarthy because Robert Kennedy was not liberal enough and might send more blacks to be killed in the Vietnam War. Oddly, Kennedy was killed the next day, and I was relieved when I found my mother distraught and sad that Kennedy had been killed, and I figured out that we did not have a nefarious part in his death.  But the canvasing had shown me that she knew that part of our role was try to take stands for justice. 

My mother did not stop then.  When I was about 10, she was a social worker doing home visits in Cabrini Green, a Chicago housing project, trying to help in a place so crime-ridden that she was once turned away by police who did not think it safe for a middle-class white woman to be there.  At age 18, when I went to the post office to register for the draft, I had to walk past my mother, who was protesting outside, perhaps egged on by her new husband/my new father who had his own protesting to do.  When the Gulf War happened in 1990, he joined her and they protested together, and when we invaded Iraq in 2003, they were picketing on the street.  They were snow birds by then, but I knew I could not call them on Saturday because that was their day for standing on a bridge somewhere or outside a military base holding a sign, sometimes being yelled at by the passersby. 

What is extraordinary about this other than the commitment my mother has shown is the type of person she is.  She is quieter than some.  She hates confrontation.  Further, she has not had an easy life.  When we were canvasing together, she was already for four years a widow with three kids who at the time of my father’s death were 6, 3, and 21 months.  She was going to school so she could earn enough so that she did not have to depend on Social Security (she started turning down the parents’ share when she started earning enough, though keeping the kids’ share for her kids).  She certainly had other things to do.  When she remarried 9 years after being widowed, our family became 9 people living in a house together, 6 of us between 11 and 17 who were not always so happy to be in the experience.  She had these and other commitments, too. But she protested.

And though I couldn’t tell her, I disagreed with her protests.  Why do you protest?  A lot of good your McCarthy support did.  Humphrey won and then Nixon!  Really?  Do you really think that your sign on Route 1 against the war is going to change whether we go to war or keep fighting?  It seemed fruitless.  If I had to be honest, perhaps her protesting meant more than the law review article I am sitting in my office writing on social justice as a competency and “social justice manifestos,” an article which will be read by a few and be just one among a pantheon of others already written on social justice.  Maybe she did more by protesting.  But how do these protests help?

Which brings me to last Sunday, when I found myself at a demonstration against the white supremacists who marched and then killed and injured some of those that disagreed with them in Charlottesville, oddly enough a town in which my mother lived while my father went to law school.  The protest I attended over Charlottesville had all the makings of the protests that I would find fruitless.  First, it was in my suburban town, where it might be noticed by the community but would go largely unnoticed by anyone outside our community.  Second, it would be particularly unseen by those who held an opposite opinion about what was being protested.  Why protest if it changes no one’s mind?  Third, there was no doubt that the speakers would all say the same thing, as they did.  The listeners would clap at appropriate times but no direct action would be planned that day, which it wasn't.  But I went.  And I did not find it fruitless.

I found some of my neighbors were there, and learned that they were willing to demonstrate, at least when the issue was so obviously outrageous.  I was not alone in my neighborhood.  Then, I saw people from my temple and my rabbi, who must satisfy people of many different political persuasions but was ready to stand for this as he does for other causes.  I am not alone in that community.  Even the repetitive speakers made a difference to me by their presence, including among others our sheriff’s office, our congressman, and our state senator, all of whom I learned were not only supporting the protest but demonstrated that they were willing to speak out for a cause like this.  I found that the predominantly black speakers, whom this directly affects more than me and many of my neighbors, were listened to and their speeches could describe problems better than the whites who were less affected.  I began to feel a little like there could be change despite overwhelming odds when much of our federal government will not take a stand.  I felt a little less hopeless. 

And I thought about what I could tell my students. As their teacher, I will talk with them about the social justice lawyering perspective to protest.  We'll talk about political reasons to protest, some of which include potential change. I'll believe that a little more.  We'll talk about why as lawyers for causes  of communities with which we are working but don't belong should listen to what those closer to the cause are saying and get ideas from them.  We should remember they are better at choosing strategies and be the ones on the front lines--not their attorneys. I'll know that more.  But I’ll also tell them that protests can matter to form community and help people belong. They'll know that when I was part of this protest community, the protest itself helped me belong.  

I’ll go back to my law review article, and if it's accepted (a few weeks late in the cycle), I'll share some ideas with my academic colleagues and maybe with my students about what law school should teach and what I hope they will learn from me and others about social justice.  But I will also talk about my mother and what I learned from her about standing up and demonstrating a little, even if it seems fruitless.

| Permalink


Bravo Spencer! We too protest. and I think it does make a difference. One of my grandsons was affected. He said "Grandmother, Do you stand peace Vigil?" and I said "Yes." and his eyebrow went up approvingly. Protesting runs in the blood. LOL

Posted by: Barbara Roberts | Aug 25, 2017 12:58:44 AM

This really touched me, Spencer. You, and your mom's memory, are inspiring!

Posted by: Jill Engle | Aug 29, 2017 6:18:58 AM

Post a comment