Written by Najwa Jamal
It is not hard to look around today and realize we are in the midst of constant tension between the people and the state. Naturally, protest seems like a first step at absolving these conflicts. Passion and anger begin to fuel you. Those emotions whither away almost as quickly as they charged you. Headline after headline, atrocity after atrocity. Slowly but surely, disaster becomes the norm– the expected and the standard. And that same passion and anger that ignited a flame within you are now enveloped by an omniscient cloud of apathy to the atrocities seemingly dictating our lives today, turning our rebellious urges into lazy, helpless deep sighs.
Yet, how can we be so sure that protests are the answer to our pleas? Are we really pushing hard enough, and doing enough in the ways we as students are protesting today? In the end, what does protest mean to the world around us? Upon speaking to Austin Dilley ‘21 about his involvement in the Cancel Kavanaugh protests in Washington DC on October 3rd, I learned there is much more to this concept than meets the eye. Human bodies in recent times have not only been a vessel for protesters but have also become part of the protest themselves.
From passionate roots came the hastily organized protest. Dilley heard of the protests through social media from a former Bard student, Acacia Handel. Dilley recalls, “[Acacia said] This one is worth it. This is the most upfront; there’s [sic] arrests planned… if you wanna get arrested come to this. If you wanna do anything [revolving] around the Kavanagh protest come to this.”
This protest was organized by the Women’s March and Housing Works New York, two large non-profits who provided necessary legal aid, training, and bail money to people planning to get arrested. However, it was clear from the start the extent to which the Cancel Kavanaugh protest had a predetermined purpose: to attract media awareness. Every aspect of this protest was planned, down to who exactly was going to be arrested. Police were aware of impending protests. Aid was available. In a way, “it’s the most privileged kind of arrest you can have,” Dilley said.
Dilley covered the logistics of the protest back on campus, organizing transportation and housing. The protest at large was mainly organized and formulated by The Draft, however. Fourteen students ended up going to Washington with Dilley, and a couple of individuals met them at the protest. Students and protestors participated in a training session, a rally with Elizabeth Warren, and more upon arrival to Washington, as detailed by Dilley:
“…and so the way it worked… we got down there, we had a seminar and we did training. There were two parts of the protest—there was a rally action march starting from the Hart Senate Building which is where they had been doing all the judiciary hearings. We then marched to the supreme court and rallied outside of that, and that was the main event, pretty much marching to there… “
Individuals consented to be arrested. Discussion were held among Bard students regarding who in specific wanted to be arrested. Five current Bard College students, including Dilley, and two former students/alumni were arrested:
“[The police] gave us this 3 call thing. They were like ‘please move’ and if you didn’t move you’d be arrested. And they did that three times. Then they started moving in.”
There were no handcuffs. No immense show of resistance. Nothing but a calm motion in space, from one group to another, distinguished only by a pink wristband. It was at this point in my conversation with Dilley that I realized the extent to which the body was used as protest within the context of this civil disobedience. It really was privileged, lightly grazing the surface of sacrifice for those involved.
And because of this, it was difficult for Dilley to feel as if what was happening truly dented the control of the powers that be. Was it effective in any way beyond creating an expected and easily managed ruckus? And is it even disruptive if it was expected by all parties involved? He continued to describe the details of the arrests and the resulting procedural action:
“So what ended up happening was [a ticket for] 50 dollars for obstructing public space. It’s called a cease and forfeit, where pretty much you forfeit your right to go to court, and instead be fined. They give this to pretty much everyone who does this… “
He continued to express the complex kaleidoscope of emotions coming out of the protest. Opposing forces and feelings were working in tandem to evoke a divided outlook for Dilley:
“ I think it was disappointing, and I felt very dejected because it was like ‘Why am I doing this? Kavanaugh is still on the seat!’ I didn’t inconvenience anyone but myself in doing this. I felt like to some extent I wasted my time and money. [But] it was good to go there. It was good to connect with people.”
It is worth noting that not everyone shared this dejected emotion; some protestors and students did feel fulfilled post-arrest.
Where can we go from here? How do we find a way to radicalize protest, so that we rise above the apathetic pattern much of the student body and the world has fallen into? Dilley suggests a form of consciousness-raising.
Consciousness-raising emerged during the Second Wave Feminist movement. It was a means of discussing amongst feminists what they were protesting. This led to a proactive awareness and understanding of problems, whilst being a gateway to a more unified and interconnected approach to activism.
He recounted a powerful memory, one he believed as more powerful than the act of protesting itself. Dilley detailed his experience being amongst a group of 25 other individuals arrested at the protest. Protestors were seated together in a circle, on a patch of grass in a park 3 hours prior to being processed. A touching sense of unity emerged through a sharing of personal history:
“There was this group conversation happening and it was actually where I felt the most effective during the protest… It was in that unifying sense of urgency we all held, regardless of our political background, or where we stood or how we believed this worked. We just talked to people 3-4 hours, people you never knew.”
Much of what we see today results from broad desensitization and this passive mentality is one of the ways present-day protests are plagued. Apathy is our worst enemy in the fight against the fight itself—that is, the fight to learn how to fight. To learn how to poignantly use our bodies in protest, to move past the predictable, to recognize who doesn’t have the privilege to consent before participating… to do all this, we have to look through fresh eyes. Starting anew means we must start somewhere, however small. Dilley shared, “… I think we have to start somewhere, and as young people and students, we have to learn how to protest.”
Perhaps the end of apathy and to all-too-typical and unproductive protest methods can be found in solidarity and communication. Unifying may go hand in hand with re-vitalizing and radicalizing the protest movement at Bard and beyond: “[Group conversation] left you feeling re-energized and wanting to do this again.”