The Value of Protest

Photo courtesy of Elijah Nouvelage/ Getty Images, February 1, 2017

2017 has been a year of incredible controversy. Shock waves of nativist populism and widespread dissent could be indicators that American identity is shifting away from traditional partisan politics, and is becoming more extreme. Yet, at a personal level, I struggled to establish a clear-cut resolve. This was not despite challenging introspection; in fact, I wrote an opinion-ed back in April for The Triton that I called “The Value of Protest.” In it, I carefully argued my views on the effectiveness of civil disobedience and its importance during the time following Trump’s election. I discussed the merits and flaws of two protests in particular: the April March for Science, and the February UC Berkeley protests-turned black bloc ‘disruption’ against Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech. I compared the shortcomings of the March for Science to the effectiveness of the latter, and argued that violent protests deserve more thorough analyses that can adequately acknowledge the circumstances causing them. I wrote, “Violent protesters may not always be productive, but their perspectives are real and justified, and in order to prevent tragedy in the future, we need to work to understand them.” Now, after three months and some space from the initial chaos, I’ve decided to write a more personal article.

When I arrived at UC San Diego, I was extremely hopeful about what college could be. Because my failures in high school left me in a state of anger, depression, and confusion, I yearned for a fresh start in a new place, where living away from family and working hard for a broad education about the world would be a positive distraction. Unfortunately, UCSD’s heavy STEM focus, huge student body, and even its architecture struck a discord with the liberal arts college narrative I was seeking. During more melancholy moments, every building, face, and homework problem seemed to assure me that I didn’t belong at UCSD–and perhaps not at any college at all.

The escalating political upheaval only deepened my unhappiness. Nihilist thinking became habitual, especially whenever I thought about attempting to reconcile the world’s violence and inequality, while having lived a privileged experience. The more I learned, both in school and from the news, the more hopeless the world seemed to become. So for me, Donald Trump’s ascension in November was not just a regression of democracy; it was an insult to my psychological progress. It seemed that I had spent the longest time trying to become a better person–somebody who respected himself and others–but here was a man embodying everything I had tried to leave behind, rising to the most powerful office in the world. And I myself felt completely alone not only because a huge portion of America chose to disregard beliefs I held about humanity, but also because neither UCSD nor my closest friends seemed to offer an escape from what felt like an eternal misery.

After UC Berkeley erupted in protest against Milo Yiannopoulos, I felt that anarchism (or violent anti-capitalism, anti-fascism, etc.) sufficiently expressed the political urgency that I felt was so lacking in liberal America. And on a deeper level, Berkeley’s tear gas, fire, and broken glass provided an ecstatic release for me. Looking through my friends’ blurry Snapchat stories, I saw something finally being done. I saw people standing up for themselves and for ideals I believed in, and I felt a level of formidability that I thought might finally cause political reactionaries to back down.

But although my desperation, fear, and anger all found outlet in violent politics, I felt increasingly restless. My head began to spin constantly with the images I saw from February 1st, and I became envious of the black bloc protesters’ freedom because they could smash windows, beat up neo-Nazis, and create an external hell that somehow accurately portrayed my anguish. I stopped sleeping and lost track of my schoolwork, because a part of me wanted to believe that the time for violent protest was coming soon–maybe even tomorrow. As I pushed through my first year, fantasized rebellion provided a wistful distraction from my reality of world suffering, career anxiety, and isolation at college.

It took a few weeks for me to decide that my urgent desire to participate in violent protest was laughable. My eagerness for militancy felt illogical based on my participation and benefit from power structures that only benefit educated, privileged white males. Even though my identity offered me protection that was unavailable to victims of systematic oppression, I was not ready to break a window or start a fire.

My hesitancy was further prolonged when my ideas for violent organizing were shut down in social spaces. Feeling reclusive and arrogant, I abandoned the idea. I stopped looking at most news sources and left my Facebook echo chambers, and started to dig deeper into self-reflection. I still had no idea what the right way forward was politically, but I knew that for my own peace of mind, I had to distance myself from the lonely martyr identity I had formed. And with time, I finally saw my ideas about the state of things for what they were: not absurd  delusions but understandable reactions to a dark and terrifying moment.

I considered violent protest a productive form of action because America was going through an insane time. As long as protest is needed, there will be different forms of it, and this includes violence. But especially now, I want people to know that others like me, who struggle with isolation and hopelessness, are more prone to radical ideas. That’s important to remember and watch out for. What I’m trying to accomplish with this opinion piece is not an apology for believing in violent tactics, nor is it a message that with time alone, America’s problems will go away.

This is a letter of consolation for people suffering in our college and nation. I think one of the hardest things for people to do after Donald Trump’s taking to office is decide what they can do to combat what seems to be a frightening monolith. So to everyone who felt bloodlust more than once during the last 9 months: you’re not alone, and thanks to those of us who are willing to organize, the violence we see now will be temporary. But in these times of fear and uncertainty, let’s remember to fight oppression not just in our institutions, but at the level of our psyches, too.
Nathaniel Imel is a staff writer for The Triton. We welcome responses to opinion pieces. If you’d like to submit a response, or comment on a different issue affecting the UC community, please submit here.