Ethics of Protesting

If you’ve been within miles of the Seattle University campus, you’ve felt an uneasy tension and probably know the source, which all stems from the removal of Planned Parenthood from the school’s list of resources. While certainly not the first source of conflict the school has ever faced, this one consumed the first several weeks of school and was unlike anything I (as a sophomore) have seen on campus.  The school’s president, Father Steve, chose to remove the resource following a religious, anti-choice group that lobbied Jesuit schools around the country.  This won’t be the focus of this article, but the Seattle Spectator covered the controversy in detail if you want to learn more.

As an avid defender of Planned Parenthood and someone who is familiar with both the administrative and activist side of protesting, I was eager to leap into the midst of chaos. On Monday of last week, I planted myself in the lobby of the Casey building with other students while my first-year Spanish class learned the verb “estar” without me. The big, campus-wide protest was scheduled for the following Wednesday but I had a problem standing in my way––Ethics. No, this wasn’t some moral ambiguity about the nature of abortion clouding my vision (it’s legal and not going away regardless of access to safe care), my Ethics class started less than twenty minutes after the protest began.

Normally, I wouldn’t think twice about skipping the class. I’ve skipped for far less egregious injustices than this one. But that day I had a small presentation, nothing major, but it might have been the difference between an A and B. So I went. And I felt the irony of sitting in an ethics class while a protest raged on outside crawl beneath my skin. I sat there for five minutes before our teacher canceled class for the day, allowing us to attend the event rather than talk about the theory of doing the right thing.

Of course, I sprinted out the door to join the frontlines and stayed for several hours until I had to go to Spanish. I knew better than to push my luck by skipping twice in a week--I still didn’t know the difference between “ser” and “estar”.

Making my way to the protest, presentation notes still in hand, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had made the wrong call. It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought about it. I even considered asking to change the date of my presentation but knew that would be the worst move of all––organizing my life to make the protest convenient when that’s the last thing it should be. But all of this still managed to present an ethical question: how much should we sacrifice for the struggle toward justice?

Many of my classmates, I reasoned to myself, didn’t even go to the protest when given the opportunity. There were no consequences, no plans, no excuses to shield them from joining the movement, and they still didn’t go. At least I did, right? But on the other hand, in every great movement, there are people who have far more to lose than I do, and still put that on the line for the cause.

Indigenous people in my hometown were forcibly removed by riot police from the steps of the Capitol building just last month in pursuit of climate justice. Protesters in Furgeson were gassed and belittled and arrested and beaten while resisting a system that is literally killing people. In the sixties, black activists were beaten with chairs as they peacefully sat in asking for equality in public spaces. During the struggle for women’s voting rights, women were force-fed, hit, and kicked following their demands. In the ever-present battle for justice, people have put their lives on hold, and I couldn’t even skip out on a couple of participation points in a class outside my major.

Protesting isn’t convenient, but then again, it shouldn’t be. In an academic space that’s meant for people like me (other than my gender, I suppose) it’s easy to lose touch with the reason protests exist. For the most marginalized groups, protesting isn’t easy either, but it is tied to their survival.

The fact that it is still more convenient for me to be complicit in a system that perpetuates injustice means I still have work to do, things to reflect on, and values to assess. Though the world of college––of late nights and complicated assignments and hard deadlines––blurs the big picture, it is still my job to carry out the fight for justice the best I can. Until pursuing justice becomes a natural reflex, I will continue to untangle myself from the systems that oppress myself and my peers and cloud my moral compass.

Lilla Watson, a Gangulu activist and visual artist who fights for the rights of Aboriginal people in Australia says this:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I am still working toward this idea. Resisting the default of relaxing into my privilege. Realizing that marginalized people are constantly choosing between navigating systems of oppression and disrupting those systems. Realizing, in that same breath, that I am not constantly faced with that choice. Unless I actively ask myself about my role in all of this, I can ignore it. Complacency can feel comforting, but I am willing to sit in discomfort until justice is my normal.