An Attempt to Understand Protest

On the way to work Monday morning, I turned on the radio hoping for music, but the morning show host was discussing Sunday’s protest. I am usually irritated by talk radio, but I found myself interested because I was at the protest the previous night. By the time I came to the first stoplight, one caller had ranted about how the “riot was out of control.” The host agreed saying, “the protest definitely picked up some riffraff as the day went on.” Another caller said the “delinquents were taking over the city” and “deserved to be thrown in jail.” Waiting for the green arrow to turn left, I pushed the radio off. A sinking feeling told me these perspectives dismissed the movement I had witnessed, but I too struggled to articulate what had happened.

As I recalled the events of the protest--the spray painting of walls, the blocking of the freeway, the climbing on the police substation, and the facing off with the SWAT team--I began to wonder if the critics were right. These events seemed more like delinquents rioting than protestors demonstrating. This conclusion, however, didn’t sit well with me, so I tried harder to understand.

I remembered a man yelling “Fuck the police!” at an officer wearing full SWAT gear. The man, face darkened and weathered, clothes torn--the word riffraff resonated in my head--stood at a nonthreatening distance, but he pointed at the officer and shook with rage. Immediately after he yelled, a white woman, another protestor, turned and screamed at the man, “Hey, we don’t need any of that! We are using nonviolent methods to protest here.” The man hung his head in shame, something that seemed familiar to him, and he shuffled away. I noticed his shoes had holes, and one was untied. As he walked away, he mumbled, “But that guy keeps waking me up, telling me I got to move no matter where I sleep.”

I understood the woman’s demand because the crude words had shocked me. I mean, it is one thing to say fuck the police, but it is a whole other thing to shout them at the police. I imagined this woman was at the protest for the same reasons I was. We wanted to peacefully demonstrate, demanding accountability for law enforcement and raising awareness regarding the need for mental healthcare. She seemed passionate to change our city, but, like me, wanted to keep the protest civil. I realized she and I were privileged to speak the same sophisticated language of a democratic society’s components: the appropriate role of law enforcement, the proper procedure of protest, and the deficiencies in social welfare.

While replaying this memory in my head, I realized I had dismissed the merit of the man’s protest simply because of his appearance. My failing was the same as the people on the radio; I had not made a conscious attempt to understand why others--people different from me--were protesting.

So, I tried. I began to imagine his impetus coming from a place of anger and frustration. I imagined him exhausted, trying to sleep in a public place, but a police officer demanding he move because he’s loitering. I imagined him hungry, asking for money at an intersection, but another officer, who doesn’t even get out of his car, tells him to move because he’s panhandling. I imagined the man waiting out a rainstorm in a fast food restaurant, but, again, being required to move because he hasn’t bought anything. The man was protesting every police officer who treated him with less dignity than he deserved. He protested every security guard and restaurant manager who bullied him from a warm space because his poverty was visible. He protested every person who called to have him removed, rather than asking if he needed help.

By this point, now days later, I realized my failure to understand the complexities behind the man’s protest occurred because I was too hung up on the belief that he lacked an understanding of civil protest to notice that his actions communicated his grievances clearly. I wanted the situation to be clear--about James Boyd and APD--but, for the man, it was about the everyday realities the man lived, ones that I could only imagine. So, I again dug deeper into what I saw during the protest.

I remember catching up to the march on Sunday and seeing “viva la revolución” graffitied on a wall along Central. When I first saw it, I disapproved. I thought it was nothing more than petty vandalism, but I thought about any drive or walk along Central; wherever you are, you are consumed by a visual sea of commercial advertisements and government signs. It is a landscape dominated by money and power. Creativity, individuality, and community are rarely given space to be expressed. While the graffiti agitated my sense of what was familiar, I thought about how frustrating it is to be voiceless in your community when so many things--some helpful, others worthless--demand your attention. The expression in Spanish also resonated with me. We have all heard the divisive, “This is America, speak English,” so the Spanish written along the city’s famous avenue spoke volumes. I wondered if the writer was protesting his desire to understand his grandma’s recipes and his mother tongue, without the shame which some connect with speaking Spanish.

I watched as protestors hopped the freeway’s guardrail and stopped two lanes of traffic. I, again, immediately disapproved, thinking of the wellbeing of the protestors and the drivers, but I tried to understand. I, however, remember seeing an indigenous person lying across the freeway as angry drivers cursed and shook their fists. I imagined her protesting the roads cutting through her ancestral lands and bringing racing automobiles as constant reminders of conquest. I imagined her worries after reading the report about how climate change will bring disastrous global conflict. As she stood in front of a Nissan Armada, she protested how our community’s lack of initiative will lead to a dire future.

Later in the evening, I watched a group of protestors climb to the roof of APD’s Monte Vista Substation. I thought they shouldn’t be doing that: I worried about them being arrested, hurting themselves, or damaging property. I remember I had thought these protestors looked like teenagers and should be at home in bed getting ready for school the next day. When I tried to understand their protest, I realized young people operate in one of the most disenfranchised positions in our society. Many tell young people that school is important, yet, nationally and locally, public education is labeled a failure. Schools are being defunded through tests that don’t account for parents who don’t speak English or children who don’t have breakfast. I wondered about the impression young people get when the people closest to them--teachers--are not valued or compensated for their dedication, but rather scapegoated and vilified. I imagined a young person protesting the notion that she should dedicate 180 days annually for 12 years to attend an institution that is considered a failure by many. I imagined her protesting the lack of agency she has to change a system that governs her life.

As the protestors stood, sat, and shouted at a line of nearly a hundred police officers, I again had an uneasy feeling. The police had come from armored trucks, wearing teargas masks; some holding batons; others carrying beanbag shotguns, rubber bullet rifles, and teargas canisters. As the police--not the protesters--militarized Albuquerque, I felt the situation teetering on the edge of violence. Recalling this moment, I understood the people protesting had been brought together by the murder of James Boyd, but, 12 hours later, the individuals still protesting had stuck together for many reasons.

Thinking back to the woman censuring the man who screamed obscenities, I realized she worried--just as I had--that he violated some code of civil protest. We wanted him to act within our palatable forms of disobedience, yet the circumstances of his life that I imagined were entirely unpalatable to me--even for a day. I realized it is easy to dismiss the protesters as delinquents rioting because it feels right; we have been taught to obey authority, protect property, and avoid inconveniencing anyone. It is much harder to consider that the place where we live--the place many of us love and call home--is diseased with inequality, hypocrisy, and divisive prejudice. Understanding the protestors does not mean that you have to condone their methods, or even support their causes, but I found some peace in the energy used to imagine the oppression some face every day. It must grind the spirits of many as they seek identity, opportunity, and hope. And, if we are unwilling to work every day to dissolve the local, national, and global systems of oppression, we must be prepared for how the effects manifests in public acts that make us uncomfortable.

This piece was written by:

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Stevie Olson

Stevie Olson hails from Bernalillo as a lifelong resident of the Middle Rio Grande Valley. His interests in the area span from social injustices and environmental issues to educational trends and local sports. He is currently working on his first collection of short stories.

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