What I Learned At My First Protest

What I Learned At My First Protest

My parents have always told me I was born to be an activist.

As a kid, I was always rescuing stray animals or sticking up for other kids who were being bullied. As I got older, that passion for social justice only grew brighter and I quickly became active in identity based organizations at school. However, despite my heavy involvement in community activism, I had never been involved in an actual protest.

To me, protests were meant for people in bigger cities who were fighting federal laws or fraudulent corporations. When I thought about protests, I imagined groups of people storming the capitol building or chaining themselves to trees. I dreamed about one day being a part of something so powerful, but I never expected it to happen in my small, quiet, college town.

In 2014, unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot in his hometown of Ferguson, Missouri by police officer Darren Wilson. Three months later, it was announced that Wilson would not be indicted on any charges related to Brown’s death. For America, this event was one of many important catalysts for the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as for the conversation about police brutality. For my very white, very isolated private college, it was the catalyst for a school wide protest.

Even though we were on break, the second the news about Darren Wilson’s indictment broke, I received a flood of messages from my friends who were jumping at the seams to do something in support of Black Lives Matter. Our black student union quickly formed the idea to do a silent protest at our school’s biggest event of the semester; Luminaries. Luminaries includes an address from our President, performances from a capella groups, and even a visit from Santa Claus. The campus gets lit up in paper lanterns and Christmas lights. The entire town attends and students look forward to it all year. We knew that planning this protest during such an event would upset a lot of people. But after some debate, we decided that this was exactly what we needed to do.

We tried to keep news of our protest from the administration, but like most things at a small college, everyone found out about it pretty quickly. The administration insisted that we not interact with anyone at Luminaries and that we keep absolutely quiet during the protest. We decided to use silence to our advantage and made signs instead.

Just as the giant Christmas tree was illuminated, we marched out onto the field in front of the event and formed two solid lines. I could tell people were staring at us and whispering. I stared down strangers who shook their heads at our signs, resisting the urge to confront them. For a moment, I was glad that we had been ordered not to talk, because I could feel myself burning with rage.

I was one of only a handful of non black students involved in the protest that night. I’m ashamed to admit it now but at the time, I was extremely uncomfortable. I believed wholeheartedly in what I was protesting, but I also questioned whether it was my place to be at that protest at all. Was I using my white privilege to help others or to help myself? Was I there because I really needed to be, or only because I wanted people to know I was there? Was I ruining Luminaries for these families? Were we doing the right thing?

As I looked around at all the people who were either watching us or deliberately not watching us, I thought about those who would never get a chance to attend an event like this. Michael Brown would never get to go to Luminaries. He would never get another Christmas. Neither would Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, or Freddie Gray. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad about “ruining” Luminaries for anyone.

Protests are not as fun as they look on television and in movies. In reality, they’re pretty damn scary. Being confronted by people who actively oppose you is much different when you’re screaming your beliefs on a street corner, surrounded by a hundred people who don’t agree. I have now participated in over 20 non violent protests, and it never gets easier. I still get scared for the safety of myself and those around me. I still feel like crying when I get home. Sometimes I can’t even wait until I’m home. However, I have never regretted a single one.

Although protests aren’t for everyone, especially if you feel that your physical or mental safety is at risk, they can be a great way to make a difference. When you’re a part of a group that plans a protest, seeing people be physically present and in support of you is one of the most motivating things you could experience. The amount of love that surges through a group that protests together is unprecedented. My first protest taught me that showing your support for a cause in a physical way can be more impactful than a hundred social media posts. For me, seeing the faces of both those who fight for and against the cause reminds me of why I became an activist in the first place.

Cover image courtesy of Getty Images.