Most reactions to the video have been favorable toward me, as many commended me for not giving in to the crowd. There is a strong argument that I should quit while I am ahead. But having been there in the moment and, now, having seen reaction to the video, I have a few thoughts to share.
First, let us not lose track of the underlying incident that led to the protest: The day before, a Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis. Blake was paralyzed, possibly permanently, from the waist down. However you try to reconcile the conflicting accounts of the confrontation, seven bullets in the back should not have happened. Too many similar shootings have occurred elsewhere that also should not have happened, and those victims did not come away with their lives.
Second, it is never okay to coerce people’s participation; that is just bullying. To be clear, this is not an argument against anger, expressed loudly, about terrible things that are allowed to happen. My desire is simply to see the vital energy that anger gives rise to be effectively directed to bring about important, lasting change.
As the marchers closed in on our table, I could not see any protest signs. I asked who they were and why they were marching. No one would answer me. Why march and hold back your message? This was not your usual Black Lives Matter protest, or really, any other protest I have attended. Marchers are usually delighted to tell you about their mission.
When they crowded around my table and started demanding that I raise my fist, it was their insistence that I participate in something that I did not understand that led me to withhold my hand. In retrospect, I would have done the same thing even if it was crystal clear to me who they were and what they stood for. If you want my support, ask it of me freely. That’s what we do in a democracy.
The protest video is more of a snapshot than a complete story. The most important thing that you do not see is what happened after. My instincts kept telling me this was not a crowd inclined to perpetuate violence with more violence. In the end, someone said “let’s go,” and the protesters moved on. They were not pleased with me, but I was not hurt in any way. No one ever tried to raise my hand for me or threw so much as a paper straw in my direction.
I offer this because while the protesters’ and my actions have become a kind of global Rorschach test differently interpreted by people across the political spectrum, the original event felt resolutely local. We were having a community conversation.
In the middle of the video, you clearly hear a woman demanding “Are you a Christian?” — a prime Rorschach moment. Some have assumed she meant it accusatorially: I must be a Christian, and that is why I won’t raise my hand. Others assumed the opposite: If I were a good Christian, I would raise my hand. I believe she meant the latter. I answered, “No. Why are you asking me that? How is that relevant?” I never got an answer. The expressions of the protesters around the woman suggested they found the question strange. In all the Black Lives Matter-related events I have attended, this was the only implied religious test I have encountered.
I have actively participated in protests since this event. I have experienced nothing coercive from my fellow protesters, nor toward bystanders. I wholeheartedly support the Black Lives Matter movement; however, I also support an individual’s choice to participate in a protest, or not.
The video looks scary, and, in fact, I felt fear at that moment. But as I scanned the crowd, I also felt great hope and appreciation. This was a group of mostly young people of many racial backgrounds working together to sustain a movement to uphold Black people’s civil rights. There are worse ways to spend a Monday night.