The night of Nov. 8, I stood outside of Uncle Ike’s on 23rd and Union, watching with stunned appreciation as the line of people clamoring to get inside snaked through the parking lot. There were more people than I’d ever seen in a pot shop standing outside of this one tonight.
The guy in line behind me struck up conversation. He was upset. Who wasn’t? But when I asked him what he planned to do about it, he said, “Get high.” I’d gathered that, but what about protest? His response: “Why bother?”
In a speech shortly after the November election, President Barack Obama urged anti-Trump protesters not to be silent. Yet, the number and attendance of events meant to challenge the values embodied by a Trump presidency dwindled exponentially months after election night. Why is this?
The answer is that the United States suffers from a weak culture of protest, exacerbated by an increasingly repressive civic space.
The Civic Space Monitor, a tool developed by CIVICUS Alliance that ranks the state of civil society in 134 countries, shows that civic space in the U.S. has narrowed: In recent years, the country saw over a thousand pro-government reform protesters arrested in Washington, D.C.; Black Lives Matter is increasingly met with violent police force; and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Rights is investigating a host of human rights violations at the Standing Rock reservation, including the use of tear gas, pepper spray and attack dogs against Native American Indian protesters and journalists.
In addition, the CIVICUS Monitor currently ranks the United States alongside other countries, such as France, Chile and South Africa. However, France, a country with a long history of protest, recently saw upwards of 390,000 students and labor union members during the Nuit Debout, protesting a government plan to make it easier and less costly to lay off workers. In Chile, hundreds of thousands of students protested against poor education standards between 2011 and 2013 in what became known as the ‘Chilean Winter’; student movement leaders were later elected to congress. Here in South Africa, I saw firsthand how the #FeesMustFall movement prevented an increase in higher education tuition fees.
Meanwhile, the United States hasn’t seen a large-scale student strike in over 40 years, and even the largest anti-Trump protest that took place in L.A. a few days after the election involved only around 8,000 people. Indeed, among many of the individuals I have spoken with who voted for Clinton, there looms a sense that taking to the streets is pointless.
Protests against a Trump presidency were also met with criticism from both the left and the right, for not accepting the outcome of a democratic election. However, this criticism is flawed: if we accept that we live in a democracy, then it is our duty to uphold our constitutional rights to freedom of speech, of assembly, and of expression. The problem then becomes not whether we have the right to freedom of speech, but whether we use it.
France, Chile and South Africa show us that the actions of a collective matter, even in more restricted civic environments. So on Jan. 20, 2017, we must heed the words of Trump’s predecessor, and remember that those that act are seen and those that speak are heard. May that date not only mark the beginning of a Trump presidency, but also the beginning of an era of citizen activism by Americans in the U.S. and around the world.
A Seattle native based in Johannesburg, South Africa, Elizabeth is communications officer for CIVICUS Alliance, an international organization that works to strengthen civil society. She is also a published author of two dystopian fiction novels.