WHEN THE ’80s arms race was at its peak, my mother bemoaned the government’s penchant for bigger, better weapons — weapons that promised to keep the world safe and peaceful. While she cooked dinner she would listen to National Public Radio, muttering angrily to herself or to me about the growing number of cruise missiles and the corresponding lack of education funding. I figured she knew what she talking about: she had been teaching high-school English since she was 22. She was also my mother, and, to an eight-year-old, that title put her somewhere up near God. Sometimes she would go to candlelight vigils, rallies, and protests, and often — for my moral instruction or because she couldn’t find a babysitter or both — she would take me along.
I loved going with her. Protests had all the appeal of a park or museum, only better, because I knew they were Important. Adult. Bigger than the things that had been central to my life thus far: playing outside with the neighborhood kids, eking one more story out of my parents at bedtime, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. My parents’ romance had taken root in the political unrest of the 1960s and the sit-ins at the university they attended; and so political protest was integral to the birth of our family.
These days, my mother rarely goes to protests, a change I once included in the list of sell-outs and failures my generation has had the great pleasure of flinging at hers. For my part, when something happens in the world or in my community that shakes, saddens, or disturbs me, I look in the newspaper for word of a gathering that addresses the issue. I don’t always go. But recently, worn out from being talked at by newscasters, I decided I wanted to be around people to wring out some of the emotions with which I had sat silently since September 11.
So I headed to a park near my house, a place that is the jumping-off point for most of the city’s parades and marches. It was a beautiful day, cloudless and entirely too warm for fall. People were sitting on blankets and milling around in front of the temporary stage. At the mike, a woman kept up a steady rant, raising her arm at key intervals, then pausing for effect like a doll in a Christmas display. Then everyone, whether or not they’d been listening, would cheer. People dressed in their cutest protest clothes: old D.A.R.E. T-shirts (ironic!), halter-tops (carefree!), hip-huggers (grrl pop!), mesh shirts ... mesh shirts? Clear violation. One should at least try to mask one’s desire to look cute. But there they were, in all their gauzy glory.
In short, who in this crowd of the young and beautiful, spending a sunny Saturday in the park, was really paying much attention to world affairs?
I shouldn’t have been so critical; I was probably checking out the people just as much as everyone else was — and feeling just as self-conscious. But if I wasn’t going to get any more meaningful sense of community at a protest than I did on a Saturday night at the neighborhood bar, then what was I here for? Hoping for salve or inspiration, I focused on the woman at the mike. But all I could gather from her speech was that she was simultaneously against everything and vehemently for the big givens: Peace, Justice, Equality. To use these words in such a vague way after whining about every major institution seemed to be irresponsible, or at least juvenile. Like a middle-schooler who hates everyone but Bob Dylan. Like, duh. I bet you only have the Greatest Hits.
Finally, a new speaker mounted the stage, one who said things that resonated with me. I tried to clap and cheer like a good protester, but I was paralyzed. My hands tapped inaudibly against my water bottle. I glanced around — could everyone tell? Look here: impotent protester.
I felt as useless to the protest as the protest was to me. Think about it. Most protests are structured as follows: we supply the "community" and inspirational speeches, you bring the noise. It’s like a barbecue: the hosts provide the alcohol, the guests bring the cheese dip. Cheese dip is not a hard thing to bring. But at the protest, though my only real responsibility was to cheer and clap and shout inane slogans without looking as silly as I felt, I was mute — cheese-dip-less.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I found the protest so maddening, and how I might have felt differently. Protests have many purposes, but their main point is to give people a venue for voicing their opinions — a venue in which "making your voice heard" is not figurative. Most people actually shout, cheer, or clap. Apparently I am not a screamer, or even a clapper. Would I prefer silent marches? Speeches given in American Sign Language? I don’t know. It might be that in spite of my desire to carry on the family tradition, I’ll have to express my thoughts in different ways: in conversation with friends, in letters to my representative, in writing. I’m sure my mother, never really a screamer herself, will understand.
Rebecca Wieder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org