The Dangers of Activism

“We, having dutifully served our nation, do hereby affirm our greater responsibility to serve the cause of world peace.”
This is the mantra uttered at every meeting of San Diego’s chapter of Veterans for Peace, an organization of local World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and Gulf War veterans dedicated to “engaging conflict without violence,” according to their website.
“One thing we say is that new wounds scratch open old wounds,” president James Summers said.
The peace group has organized events such as beach memorials to increase public awareness of both the physical and emotional “costs of war,” according to Summers. Still, he said that protests or public statements made with even the most pacifistic of intentions have the potential to become heated.
“When the Iraq War first broke out, and there was all of the hysteria and grief going on, peace people, many of whom hadn’t been on the streets since the end of the Vietnam War, started turning out,” Summers said. “When they did, there were a number of ‘superpatriots’ [who] became rabid and angry at those peace people. The peace people, then, would start screaming and were full of hate and yelling at people in active duty and in uniform … You call that peace? That’s not peace.”
Summers said that because of this inherent tendency to provoke verbal or physical violence, protest sites are essentially glorified war zones.
“In a way, we glorify war, we glorify veterans, we glorify violence, we adopt the way of thinking, and we adapt the language,” Summers said. “You know, when you say you’re going to aim at something, [or] when you say, ‘Lock, stock and barrel’ [and] ‘Take the point on that,’ all those are military metaphors. That’s the cost of war.”
Third year University of California, Berkeley student Kate Kaplan has experienced this firsthand. Kaplan said that student protests at Sproul Hall routinely escalate quickly, especially when they concern controversial matters like politics and religion.
“There have been times when there are two groups on campus protesting different sides, and that can cause a lot of tension,” Kaplan said. “If it’s something I really believe in, I’ll absolutely be part of it.”
Kaplan, who has participated in many protests regarding food rights and environmental issues, said that while each protest is different, confrontational demonstrations “can be scary” for everyone involved.
“Occupy [Wall Street movement] in Oakland was so different [from] Occupy at Cal, and the march in Oakland against Trader Joe’s was a lot more unified because there was one single message,” Kaplan said. “It depends on how many different messages are going on and what kind of area you’re in. The Occupy movement in Oakland had a lot more police present, and was more of an issue that could get out of hand easier. In Oakland for Trader Joe’s, there weren’t any police. I guess it was a little more peaceful.”
The dangers of activism thus became apparent in these protests. The beating of Berkeley students by police while the students set up tents for the Occupy Wall Street movement was widely reported in the national press. Furthermore, according to ABC News, sexual assaults were a primary issue at Occupy Dallas and New York City, and according to NBC News, about 400 arrests were made at Occupy Oakland.
“More bad came from [Occupy Los Angeles] than good,” California Maritime Academy student Nick Geller said. “[People would] camp out, and there was no security, no guards. They wouldn’t let the cops come in … they basically pillaged the entire city [of Los Angeles].”
Through her experience on campus, Kaplan said that protests consistently become dangerously hectic when members of the community blindly join in without a uniform goal.
“Nobody who cares about what’s going on wants it to go violent because that’s just bad press, and you don’t really get much done with bad press,” Kaplan said. “Most of the time it is [the] people who aren’t really focused in on the subject that actually start the violence and the rioting.”
Will Johnson (12) believes that this aggression happens for a variety of reasons. During a recent trip to China, he encountered an anti-foreigner protest in the location where many foreigners were gathered — an event he attributed to nationalism.
“It was weird being on the opposite end of a protest when I really felt like I did nothing wrong but be there,” Johnson said.
Johnson, a member of the TPHS congressional debate team, said that, be it during an organized protest or an extemporaneous commentary round in debate competition, logic becomes convoluted when anger distracts from the main purpose of an argument. Team captain Nick Leslie (12) said that people stop paying attention to the main point of the speaker in these situations.
“If it gets too calm, it’s just not that fun, but if it gets too heated, it’s just too hectic, too much chaos,” Leslie said. “If you get in the nice, moderate level in-between, it works the best.People are going to be passionate about what they’re saying, and they can more easily get across what their point is, and it makes people more intrigued with what they’re saying.”
By the same token, Johnson said that protesting — be it heated or not — is only effective when there is a centralized goal in the minds of all parties involved.
“If you look at Egypt, the reason those protests fall apart is because there’s secularism, and you have people on both sides of the protest,” Johnson said. “Even if they don’t agree on one singular purpose, if they have a unified dream and a unified vision past their singular objective, then the thing’s going to get accomplished.”
According to Johnson, the problem with the Occupy movements was the perceived lack of this cohesiveness.
“There were people in the Occupy movement who were Tea Party, and there were people in the Occupy movement who were far left, radical liberals, so there was no central purpose,” Johnson said. “People were just out there like, ‘We hate banks, we hate greed, we hate socio-economic inequality,’ so there was this dislike of things, but no real action plan people could take forward.”
After experiencing the Occupy Wall Street movements firsthand, Kaplan believes that aggressive activism should be a last resort, but that it is sometimes necessary.
“I think it’s a lot more important to express in [a pacifistic] way because physical protests can get a little out of hand, and there are so many variables that you can’t control,” Kaplan said.
In both war and the pursuit of peace, a unified purpose and avoidance of the influence of emotion results in the greatest impact.