Free Speech and Non Violent Protest

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photo credit: Tom Ferda

If you were the average American citizen going about your daily activity and ran in to a protest march and people were carrying this sign, what would you think was going on? How would you “see” the persons carrying this sign? Would you view them as peaceful protesters? Would you be fearful? Would you leave as quickly as possible without asking what they were protesting?

I am a firm believer in the 1st Amendment and our right to free speech. At the same time free speech means accepting responsibility for the words being used. One may see the words, “fuck the police” as violent speech. I certainly do. One cannot claim to be part of a peaceful demonstration/protest/march and use inflammatory language. If someone comes up to me and says, “fuck Inge.” I am probably not going to be open to hearing what they have to say next.

Seattle protester expressing himself

It was May Day two days ago and there were marches held all over the world, including Los Angeles. May Day began as an international day honoring workers, but it recently grew to include a myriad of grievances from immigration reform to home foreclosures to gay rights. Police escorted protesters through downtown Los Angeles (you can see an officer pictured in the photo above. I wonder what he was thinking walking alongside the “fuck the police” sign). I did not hear of any serious confrontations with police in L.A., but Seattle was a different story. Protesters chose to express themselves by damaging private property and insulting police.

photo credit: LA Times (customers inside Starbucks)

A couple years ago there was a “riot” downtown Anaheim and many businesses were damaged. Customers who were not aware that a protest was going on down the street, soon found themselves in the line of fire. How do you think those persons felt? I’m guessing they were scared. How do you think business owners felt about having their property damaged by protesters? I’m guessing they were pissed off. Do you think any one of them felt empathy for the reason people protested in the first place? In case you wonder why there was a protest, a young man was shot and killed by an Anaheim police officer.

I am against violence whether it’s from law enforcement or those protesting. Violent speech will not create a peaceful environment. Words (written and verbal) set the tone for whatever comes next. Words can soothe, educate and inspire or it can insight physical violence. Since the early 90s, I have been to so many protests that I lost count, but I do know those protesters that chanted “fuck the police!” always resulted in property damage and arrests. Now if that is the goal of a protest, then consider it a success. But mainstream Americans will not see it your way.

Martin Luther King and Ghandi were great examples of peaceful protesters. Yes, they both ended up spending time in jail but they gained the support of many others, started a movement and eventually were successful, because they chose to speak out using peaceful words. Choosing to speak out and doing so peacefully is much harder than just “flipping someone off.” It takes a great deal of patience and self discipline to remain peaceful in a potentially explosive situation.

I am all for civil disobedience but even that can be done peacefully. People get arrested all the time for failing to follow orders to disperse. If one chooses to attend such an action he/she should be willing to face the consequences and not be surprised if they do end up before a judge. It’s the name of the game and won’t change anytime soon.

In my opinion, those who organize protests should decide what their goal is. Do they want to be arrested? Do they want to challenge law enforcement? What is the core message? Are kids allowed to attend? If so, what kind of example do the adults want to give to impressionable young minds? If kids see and hear violent speech, what does that teach them about behaving in another situation, like when their teacher asks them to do something? Will they see such behavior as “ok?”

I am aware of the argument that “police plant provocateurs” to get the crowd riled up. I am sure that happens, but organizers of the action should take in to account all the different scenarios that can happen, especially ones that can turn a peaceful protest in to a violent one, and that should be discussed before the protest even happens. That is — if the organizers want to have a peaceful protest. We can’t just run in to the streets screaming and yelling without a plan and expect a positive result.

Police will always respond the way they are ordered to. We cannot control their actions, BUT protesters always have a choice about how they choose to behave.

About Inge

Cancer survivor. Healthy organic food coach. Public speaker. If you have a story you want told, contact me at