You Protest Your Way, I'll Protest Mine

You Protest Your Way, I'll Protest Mine

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because getting around “no” is not just a sales trick.

By Eugene S. Robinson

The interview had suddenly gone cold. Beyond that, actually: full-on baleful. The host, a friend of a friend with a public access channel, had exercised poor impulse control, and while it was nice that the green room had free wine and beer, it wasn’t so nice that the host had gulped down quite so many so fast. 

“So…” And he pushed back in the director’s chair where he was sitting while he interviewed me, sliding his clipboard across his knees, his eyes narrowing. “What you’re trying to tell me is that by getting a degree from Stanford and working for a defense-industry publication, you’re ‘fighting the system’?”

I laughed. Genuine mirth.

“I’m actually not trying to tell you anything. But what I’ve just told you is that my band has a new record out, and all 11 of the people who watch your show should buy it.”

This, followed by about eight seconds of silent staring — an eternity in TV time — before a break for station ID and a production assistant showing me the door. She even opened it for me.

Yeah, Gil-Scott Heron had it right the first time: The revolution was probably not going to be televised. So it goes that, in 2017, anarchists I know in D.C. are tear-assing through the streets, breaking windows with the bricks they brought to break windows with, to express verbal, visual, actual displeasure with the 45th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump. During the inaugural address, Trump was being screamed at by protesters. Memes have sprouted up comparing the crowds for Trump’s inaugural to Obama’s, and of the exiting first lady stink-eyeing the entering first lady. 

And, almost 50 years removed from the protest heydays of the ’60s, America is getting its protest groove on.

“Do you ever feel like…” and he paused, his voice dropping into a near-whisper, “like … maybe we sold out?” The speaker, to put this in perspective, was a heavily muscled Georgian, as in Stalin — muscled, tattooed and a former hardcore drummer who had stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me in more than a few street fights when he was a skinhead and I was sporting a mohawk and we were having to adjust attitudes just to make it out of Brooklyn and down to the Lower East Side in the early ’80s.

“Sold out?” I said. Through luck, pluck and perseverance, he had done the damned near impossible in the West: become a worldwide authority in Chinese medicine, acupressure and acupuncture. He had founded a number of clinics and traveled around the world teaching and healing. “When you look at how many friends of ours have died, I’d say the exact opposite. We are what’s supposed to happen.” Engaged in the system, but not of the system. Managing the system, not being managed by it.

It all went back to not being a joiner. Hands were pulling at me as I shouldered my way through the gathered throng outside of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School. All of the school athletes and fans of student athletics had scheduled a walkout. Down to City Hall to protest planned budget cuts. In my swim team varsity jacket, I waved them off, went to class. Later, I ran the Swim-a-Thon that had us swimming for miles to raise the money that had been lost. You protest your way, I’ll protest mine.

Because: Crispus Attucks. Attucks, the first person killed in what became the Revolutionary War that ultimately created the United States of America, brought a stick to a gunfight, and while the good should always strive to right evil’s wrong, it’s my sense that resistance, when best applied, is not a singular act of passion. It can be, but given my preference for the long game? I’m going to put my money on a sustained commitment to what the Bad Brains once sang: “We will not do what they want or do what they say.” Simple, declarative and fairly airtight.

Or to quote Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, “I prefer not to.” Or even the Marx Brothers, “Whatever it is, I’m against it!” The historical record is replete with fairly effective examples of a passive yet comprehensive kind of nonromantic resistance. It doesn’t play as well on the big screen as the young Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, whose fiery death due to extensive governmental harassment for his efforts to sell fruit and produce from a wheelbarrow kicked off the Arab Spring. But at least you’re around afterward to enjoy the fruits of your labors.

Sure, quiet acts of resistance don’t quite carry the same buzz. Self-proclaimed soccer hooligan Lome Brown once told me that nothing else in life gave him that surge of adrenaline that he gets right before a massive street fight. “It can’t be explained. Addictive? Yes.” But we’d all be very surprised if, in a month, people were still breaking windows to send a message to our 45th president, even if those messages still needed to be sent. However, resistance as a philosophical stance evidenced by a steadfast refusal to play nice or play along? Well, that works well too.

“You realize this is ridiculous, don’t you?” A judge in a misdemeanor case, about false impersonation and false information to a police officer, looked down at me and waited for me to answer. You see, a cop in a fairly garbage moving-vehicle stop — in this instance, a moped — had asked me my name, and I had told him it was Abraham Lincoln. My name is not Abraham Lincoln.

“Yeah, I thought so too!” 

False impersonation charge dropped. Credited with the day spent in jail on the false information charge, no fine, no fee, released on my own recognizance. Case closed. Success.

You protest your way, I’ll protest mine.