The Disruption of Protest

I was profoundly irritated, the intensity of which surprised me.  I was watching the semi-final US Open match between Coco Gauff and Karolina Muchova.   I was relaxed and enjoying their skill and passion, and silently hoping that some of the former might rub off on me, an avid recreational player.  In the second set, when Coco Gauff began to pull ahead (and whom I was rooting for), the match inexplicably stopped.  The TV commentators were confused by the turn of events.   After a couple of minutes it was reported that some protesters , who were making disruptive chants in the upper deck,  needed to be removed.  Good, I thought.  This is not the place for protest; it is an arena for tennis.  A few moments later the TV audience was told that the protesters were calling attention to the crisis of climate change. 

My irritation deepened.  As someone who has organized and participated in various social movements  and protests over the years, I said out loud — “what a screwed up strategy.  All they are doing is drawing attention to themselves.  Instead of recruiting allies to the crisis of climate change, they are only stoking resistance, if not hostility, to the activist cause.”  A memory immediately emerged: decades ago, hearing the Rev. William Sloane Coffin , who was a leading architect of protest over the Vietnam War and nuclear proliferation, remarking that in his experience seventy percent of protesters “don’t want to win; they just want to vent their spleen.”  We don’t need spleen venting at the US Open, I thought.  Let them play tennis.

They didn’t.  Because they couldn’t.  Most of the protesters had been easily removed by the security team.  But there was one who remained, literally glued his bare feet  to the  floor.  When this was reported, I yelled directly at the egomaniacal protester (at least from my perspective) through the TV screen:    “How self centered can you be?”   Other measures needed to be taken to unglue the offender from his perch, a process that took nearly fifty minutes.

Play resumed.  Coco Gauff and Karolina Muchova seemed to take the suspended match in stride.  After the match, which Ms. Gauff won, she said she had anticipated some sort of protest given that something similar had happened at Wimbledon a couple of months before.  She was resigned to the goings on.  She treated it like a rain delay.

Not me.

My irritation softened a bit the next day when I learned that the group which staged the protest were drawing a parallel to the disruption of a prime time tennis match with the disruption of climate change.  OK, I reluctantly conceded, climate change is disruptive.  But not at the US Open. 

Climate change is indeed disruptive.  We have been experiencing hotter summers, more violent weather storms, larger wildfires — in greater frequency and  without much warning.  Evacuations happen, property is destroyed, lives are lost.

Instead of paying attention to the disruptions — and to learn from them, more often than not our first instinct is to insulate ourselves from them.  That certainly was my initial reaction to the disruption at the US Open Women’s Semi-final.  We want life to go on, unencumbered, uninterrupted — following the script.  Let them play tennis.

One of the big illusions many of us carry is the idea that we can, in fact, script our life.  That we can follow a trajectory that we have crafted— and we do as much as we can to protect it.  It turns out that our zeal in providing that protection — by building more, fueling more, and mining more — has been a prime contributor to climate change.

Protests need to do more than disrupt.  The disruption generates anger and resentment that many, if not most, people can’t get beyond.  And they double down in response.  That certainly happened with me — and Lord knows how many others who were upset by the disruption of the US Open.  The ancient prophets — Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah and Micah; and the modern day prophets — Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, engaged in protests,  but they were always embedded in a vision — of justice and hope.  Disruption wasn’t the goal. Transformation was.  Their words and actions called people to turn — from looking toward insulation and protection, to an outlook where liberty and love can be equally shared.

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