FREE SPEECH: Why Protest?

By on December 6, 2016

What happens when people stay silent on important issues.

Young Jacksonites work on signs in the Town Square during a recent protest. (Photo: Robyn Vincent)

Young Jacksonites work on signs in the Town Square during a recent protest. (Photo: Robyn Vincent)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Since September, I’ve held a weekly protest in the Town Square. I began protesting after the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. They are among the many unarmed black men killed by police in recent months and years. I have continued holding protests in solidarity with indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock.

I protest partially because of a question my mom once posed.

“You’re in a locked room that is filling with poisonous gas,” she said. “There is no way out. You know you’ll die if you stay. There is a sleeping person in the room with you. Do you wake them up?”

“Let them sleep,” I replied, “then they won’t suffer.”

“No,” she said decisively. “You wake them up. Maybe they have the key to the door in their pocket. Maybe they know a way out.”

As Audre Lorde, the black lesbian poet and activist, warned: “Your silence will not protect you.”

This ethos may be applied to myriad arenas. When you are sick, you can end up in danger if you don’t say anything. I learned this when I went to the Teton Science School for a week with a high school class. The first day, my throat hurt. By the third day, I was wheezing. On the fifth day, I finally admitted to my teacher I could barely breathe and was rushed to the emergency room.

While working as a patient advocate in Colorado Springs, I became more suspicious of silence. I spent many hours in anonymous rooms with anonymous women who arrived at the hospital with injuries from domestic violence and sexualt assault. One woman was being treated for frostbite after walking for hours in the cold to get to help. A young woman fought exhaustion all night because she was scared to sleep—most nights she was assaulted by someone close to her. Another woman who was bruised head to toe wept for her husband, begging to see him.

One thing many of the women had in common was a belief that what they’d been through wasn’t that bad. A woman who’d had a gun held to her head said she didn’t want to make a big deal out of nothing. They’d been taught to doubt their experiences, to protect their abusers. When they had tried to speak, they were often dismissed or not believed.

So they stopped speaking.

This didn’t mean they were safe or that nothing was wrong. It often meant that they had been taught not to speak, or they had normalized a certain level of pain and abuse. They’d adjusted to its frequency and had forgotten the possibility of safety.

From these experiences, I’ve learned three things about silence and expression.

First, language can bridge the gap between private suffering and public help, though the ability to access that help is contingent on someone hearing and believing what has been said. Some people have a greater chance of being listened to—white people, men, the wealthy. It is those people’s responsibility to highlight the voices of those who are not heard or believed.

Second, if you speak and are condemned, it is important to use your voice anyway. As Zora Neale Hurston, one of the preeminent African American writers of the 20th century, said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

Third, silence does not mean that nothing is wrong. It is not neutral. “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless,’” noted Indian author Arundhati Roy. “There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

These lessons are true for individual bodies in pain or danger, and they are true of social bodies. Liberation relies on our ability to speak to and believe one another. People without resources, representation, or institutional power have always used their bodies and voices in protest to express their politics, to demand justice and visibility for their pain and the pain of others.

I protest because there are ills in this country, state, and town that need treatment. Using speech in this way is a right afforded to me by my citizenship, though we have entered a time in which the most powerful people in the country threaten those who would speak out.

During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump quipped that he wanted to punch protesters in the face. He’s called the protests in the wake of his election “unfair” and suggested that those who burn the American flag should lose their citizenship or go to jail for a year.

During times of national unrest, Jackson Hole can be decidedly quiet. What I’ve learned from holding “Black Lives Matter” signs and having conversations about racism and privilege in public is that we should not mistake silence for peacefulness or lack of racism.

A culture of silence around issues such as these protects those who hold racist or prejudiced views, and lulls others into believing those views are not held. It also makes it easier to write off those who vocalize their discontent as irrational or irrelevant.

While protesting, I’ve been told that I’m a bitch, a waste of space, and that I should get a job. People have said that they don’t care about people of color being killed by police, that black people are naturally criminals, and that I’m desecrating the memory of people who have died for this country. I’ve been told that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization, that I am a terrorist, that I should leave the country.

I liken these strong responses to a blister that has been popped—these conversations can be painful and messy. They irreversibly reveal what has been hidden.

However, they also allow the opportunity for healing. We don’t know what wounds exist until we expose them. We can’t heal until we speak.

In our lives and in our communities, we cannot afford silence. I will keep speaking publicly, inconveniently, messily, because I don’t trust that silence is a healthy alternative. People can say that I’m a waste of time and air, but I won’t be tricked into believing that I am being dramatic, making a big deal out of nothing.

I saw what happened to women at the domestic violence shelter who were taught to believe that their voices were an inconvenience, a threat. They stopped talking, stopped believing what they were enduring. These women learned to self-censor in order to survive abusive homes and partnerships that were protected by their silence.

We learn to self-censor in systems that would dehumanize us. Especially now, when leaders casually threaten to imprison those who resist, we cannot censor ourselves. If we do, we will be doing their jobs for them. PJH

About Sarah Ross

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