When asked about the violent white supremacist, neo-Nazi rally that occurred in Charlottesville, Va., a few weeks ago, President Donald Trump not-so-deftly shifted attention to the “alt-Left that came charging at (the neo-Nazis)” asking, “(D)o they have any semblance of guilt?” President Trump’s false equivalency of the predominantly peaceful counterprotesters with the neo-Nazis (one of whom actually murdered a counterprotester) at Charlottesville is but the latest in a growing tradition of conservatives attempting to delegitimize liberal, and often student, protesters as either silly and inconsequential children or dangerous free speech fascists. These attacks on protesters are both wrongheaded and a potential threat to the constitutionally guaranteed right to freely assemble.

Fascinatingly, conservative commentators employ what appear to be two diametrically opposed lines of attack against student protesters whose causes they deem illegitimate. First, pundits sneer at self-important millennials overly triggered by such “trivial” matters as systematic racism or police brutality. Former host for “The Blaze” Tomi Lahren has achieved viral star status on social media by insulting “typical snowflake millennials.” After protests broke out on college campuses throughout the nation in the days after Trump’s election, Lahren stated: “A protest is a peaceful objection to a grievance. A bunch of sore losers occupying a space is called a tantrum. …”

Pundits often paint a separate — and sometimes simultaneous — portrait of liberal student protesters as politically correct fascists ruthlessly silencing any voices they disagree with. These pundits seemingly miss the irony of simultaneously declaring student protesters to be whining babies and some sort of politically correct Gestapo.

Conflating peaceful protesters with violent, speech-suppressing activists is a transparent attempt to discredit and silence students with legitimate concerns about the threat to vulnerable groups the often racist and misogynistic rhetoric of speakers, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, pose. Students have the same freedom to object to Yiannopoulos’s language as Yiannopoulos has to speak in the first place. The right to peacefully protest the racism and misogyny of another individual isn’t a tantrum; it’s a constitutionally protected right and an American tradition. In addition, attributing violence to liberal protesters obscures the fact that right-wing extremists committed 74 percent of domestic extremist-related murders in the United States in the last decade.

Do not take my defense of young liberal protesters as a defense of anarchist violence as a means to silence ideological opponents. As dangerous, violent and disgusting neo-Nazis and white supremacists are, normalizing violence against these groups normalizes political violence in a manner which could ultimately harm the vulnerable individuals and minorities the left seeks to empower. Legitimizing violence sets anti-governmental and anti-constitutional precedents neo-Nazis and white supremacists could seize upon throughout and beyond the Trump era.

Beyond being a completely valid and constitutionally protected form of self-expression, protests simply work. Perhaps the most obvious value of protests is their sheer visibility. The larger and more raucous the protest, the more media attention the protest receives. The attention protests generate act as a sort of protective shield for minority groups without proper representation in democratic countries. Think of Gandhi’s Salt March in India, civil rights activists being sprayed with fire hoses in Birmingham, Ala. or, more recently, the police decked out in full military gear to control protesters in Ferguson, Mo. Media dissemination of protests promulgates bad press, which pressures elected leaders to acknowledge, and sometimes acquiesce to, the grievances of marchers. Student protesters demonstrated the power of bad press during the ’60s and ’70s when student activism against the Vietnam War helped garner enough public ill will to ultimately halt the conflict.  

Protests also act as a gathering ground for like-minded individuals to build political community and solidarity. Marches and gatherings offer a critical space for citizens to collectively grieve, celebrate or diffuse anger. The community building aspect of protests becomes especially important when responding to tragedies. Following the death of counter protester Heather Hayes in Charlottesville, thousands of University of Virginia students held a candlelight vigil to mourn and broadcast campus solidarity in the face of hate.

Traditionally, invisible and underrepresented groups find these spaces critical. From the 1960s through today, LGBTQ individuals have found validation, security, dignity and joy through Pride parades. Whether marching for basic dignity in the 1960s, AIDS relief in the ’80s and ’90s or the right to marry before 2015, otherwise invisible gender and sexuality non-conforming young people have used Pride parades to break out into the open.

Lastly, protests act as an entry point to further political activism for many students. Most protests entail much more than simply marching down a street chanting slogans and holding signs. Protests may begin or end with a slew of speakers offering information about the topic being protested. Organizers often give marchers a suggestion of relevant nonprofits to donate to in the future. In addition, some protests include political workshops where attendees sign up for political organizations or nonprofits and receive training in fundraising and other forms of political activism. The nationwide Women’s March in January initiated a wave of female candidates running for office and young people getting involved in politics.

Peaceful public demonstrations are the backbone of democratic free speech traditions and promulgate critical political action. Consequently, petty attacks on students peacefully exercising their right to protest only undermines a fundamental American tradition. Young protesters have been critical in every social movement in the United States, from civil rights to sexual liberation.

Tom Aiello can be reached at thomaiel@umich.edu.

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