How to Deal When Protests Disrupt Your Day

Three simple mantras to help you deal with the inconvenience of movements for social justice

Protesters hold signs at a rally in support of minimum wage increase in New York City April 15th, 2015. Credit: Bloomberg/Getty

Among 21st century American life's many stresses and frustrations are the traffic stoppages, train delays and brunch interruptions resulting from protests of 21st century American life's many other brutalities and injustices. Each time a wave of compassion and outrage erupts into large-scale protest actions, many people whose normal routines are disrupted find themselves upset with the protesters, even though they might essentially support the protesters' aims.

Take Alec Baldwin, for example. In response to the Fight for 15 campaign's recent nationwide day of action in favor of higher service-industry wages, the actor took to Twitter to give voice to a sentiment very often seen on social media in the last few years.

Since waves of protest are unlikely to stop for good in the near future, here are three thoughts it may prove useful for Mr. "Life Is Hard Enough" Baldwin (worth $65 million) – and the many less-obnoxious people who agree with him – to focus on in those inevitable frustrating times.

1. "Normal is intolerable."

Your "normal" may consist of a commute or a meal, activities ranging from acceptable to pleasant, so the disruption of that routine annoys you. But the protest happens because someone else's "normal" is intolerable.  It consists of routine injustice, exploitation, and even violence – sometimes lethal violence. For these people's "normal," disruption is a vital exercise.

By and large, people only take to the streets reluctantly, after a situation has become so fraught that it compels them to protest. In hundreds of encampments across the country in 2011-2012 could be found debt-overburdened people chucked into a painful, hopeless economy by a bailed-out billionaire financial class. Desperate to confront austerity, furious at Wall Street's unaccountability, and frustrated with the available political options, they were driven to occupy squares and parks in the thousands to contest the insufferable state of their "normal" lives.

The recent wave of #BlackLivesMatter protests were driven by an even more urgent crisis: one that sees mostly unpunished killings of black people by police or security officers with disturbing frequency. The crisis is so dire that even killing a compliant grandfather with a choke-hold on film – a crime so brazen that even Bill O'Reilly was moved to condemn it – is liable to go un-prosecuted.

Many of the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, were not self-consciously "activists" until the circumstances of their lives and the treatment of their community by its police force hit a breaking point, thrusting them into activism. Their normal lives were so perilous, they could not be endured with dignity. The protesters were called to disrupt the intolerable "normal."

2. "Change requires disruption."

Even if you can internalize the first mantra, you may object that you yourself are not to blame for the protesters' plight. "Why don't they work to make a better normal," you may ask, "through volunteering, petitioning, and other means that don't inconvenience me?"

The answer to this was best supplied by Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, while King was conducting a civil disobedience program in Birmingham, Alabama, the local liberal white clergy advised him that though "we recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized," still "these demonstrations are unwise and untimely." Instead, they urged, the wise path was to "find proper channels" for "honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area." King's famous response, which he wrote in a Birmingham jail cell, assured these "White moderates" that they were "quite right in calling for negotiation." Indeed, he pointed out, "the purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation."

In other words, once the standard avenues for redress have failed – petitions, legislation, a court system that is supposed to prosecute murders and defrauders, and so on – direct action and civil disobedience are the only means left to the powerless to get their grievances on the agenda of the powerful and in the minds and hearts of their fellow citizens. These are necessary steps to dramatize injustices and bring them to light. Without them, more polite negotiations will never happen.

Before Occupy Wall Street, restoring to the American people the wealth and democratic political power being hoarded by the famed one percent was a fringe idea. Before #BlackLivesMatter, the ubiquity and frequency of official, permitted murder of black people was rarely discussed by the media and political class. The disruption, in forcing the issue, begins to open up political space in which redress through the normal channels becomes conceivable. To pry open that political space further – to where redress might actually be delivered – will require more disruption still.

3. "Inconvenience is a small sacrifice."

In the end, even conceding that normal is intolerable and acknowledging the necessity of disruption to achieve change might not salve your resentment at being inconvenienced. The last mantra represents a perspective shift that might not be easy to achieve, but that is guaranteed to make your extra time at the wheel or platform or table less disagreeable. Performing it requires conceptually separating two closely related things: the protesters' aims, to which you feel sympathetic, and the protesters' actions, to which you do not.

View your delay or uncomfortable brunch as making a small (granted, unplanned and perhaps reluctant) contribution to the aims – the effort to obtain justice. This act that you make, offering your sacrifice up to the cause of equality, whatever your feelings about the protesters and their tactics, can imbue what might otherwise be a pulse-raising source of stress with the type of moral significance that can have a calming effect. If changing the intolerable normal requires that someone be disrupted, you can see your delay as taking a turn, making a contribution, a small act of solidarity.

Solidarity involves taking action together in a shared struggle. If you find yourself compelled to perform the act of sitting in your car while crowds flood the highway, dedicate that act to righting the injustice. Even if you can't muster good feelings for the protesters' tactics, you can be in solidarity with their goals.  Solidarity is not unity, it is not perfect agreement. It allows for different perspectives and different feelings – but it involves situating those perspectives in an understanding of the larger social context. It involves seeing oneself not as a single individual, but as part of a society in which many are suffering.

 Consider sitting in your car a contribution to a traffic-blocking action that might make headlines, that might force the issue and open up political space for redress to be considered, to achieve a tolerable "normal." If you can foster this inclination toward solidarity, you might even discover you can take your wait enthusiastically. Should you find yourself smiling on the protesters, and notice that this makes the wait easier, then you'll know you're doing it right.