Remember when protest was allowed to happen? When protest riveted the country and changed it too? In these dark days, when a
grieving middle-aged mother is roughed up, removed and arrested for silently wearing the wrong t-shirt to a speech about how free we
necessary to remember that it wasn't always this way.
Forty-six years ago this week, a silent protest by four young black men started a revolution. Remember?
It was on February 1, 1960 that Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond, four freshmen enrolled at the
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, walked into the local Woolworth's in Greensboro, sat down at the lunch counter
and asked to be served. They weren't, but they weren't arrested either and they remained seated at the counter, waiting, until the
store closed that evening. By then, a crowd had gathered outside the store and news of the four young men's actions had spread
throughout the state. The next day there were more than 20 students asking to be served. The following day other people showed up to
sit-in at other lunch counters in Greensboro. By the sixth day the protests had attracted hundreds of participants, both black and
Newspapers all over the state ran banner headlines and some described in detail the strategies that the protesters used. Intense
coverage of the sit-ins by newspapers and radio helped the protests to spread. Sympathizers in other cities scoured these stories of
protest and then they replicated them in their own towns.
In the next two weeks sit-ins had spread to 15 other cities. By April, sit-ins - these straightforward and highly symbolic protests
for recognition, justice, for equal treatment as American citizens - were taking place in more than 70 American cities.
A few months later, some of these protesters formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the pivotal student
protest groups of the era. SNCC members and many other Americans continued to protest for the cause of civil rights. Three years
later, President John F. Kennedy asked for legislation that would give all Americans "the kind of equality of treatment which we
would want for ourselves." That same summer, on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King thrilled a crowd of more than a quarter million
protesters in Washington with his dream for a future of racial integration and equality. Less than a year later, in the wake of the
Kennedy assassination, Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Civil Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act came the
following year. Both bills passed with bipartisan majorities in Congress.
These acts of protest and their effects inspired the hopes of millions of Americans and gradually gave rise to the women's movement,
the disabled persons' movement and the gay rights movement. And civil rights expanded significantly for all of us.
What a contrast with our nation's trajectory today, sliding fast into the dark waters of civil rights repression, even abrogation.
Today, protest is contained in advance.
Our unpopular president gives speeches to audiences specially selected for their inability to criticize him. When he's not talking
to members of our armed forces, he's regaling his tuxedoed funders or pre-screened loyal members of his fan club. And occasionally,
he speaks before that august body, our elected Representatives, who find it too unseemly, in their gentleman's fashion, to disrupt
the man who would be monarch. So he speaks without opposition and admonishes the other side to mind their manners. And they do.
At contentious events, protesters face police-created "free speech zones" - chain-link and cement-barricaded cordons far from the
action - where would-be protesters can complain - to nobody.
The Republican PR machine regularly rolls out dismissive or derogatory names for progressive protesters before they even open their
mouths. They are "French," "unpatriotic," even "traitors." We have a name now for what will happen to those who dare protest: They
will be swift-boated.
The mainstream media finds protest a yawn. They barely cover it. Peaceful protest, by today's standards, is insufficiently dramatic.
When more people than ever marched against the Vietnam War take to the streets to protest the invasion of Iraq, newspapers bury it
on page 23. The all-news channels spare 15 seconds in the wee hours to inform their viewers. And word of protest is contained.
Today's college students, the bulwark and often the shock troops of the movements of the sixties have been pre-contained too. They
live at home with their parents until their late 20's (what could be more stultifying?), they work full-time, they take overloads to
minimize their years in college. They mostly do these things because they must - the cost of an education is obscene these days and
the widespread federal college education grants that gave the baby boomers the freedom and free time to protest no longer exist.
Though many of today's students are dissatisfied with things as they are, most no longer believe in the potency of protest. So they
The average American's response to protest has been contained too by the unrelenting cynicism that has become our cultural currency.
Fed on a diet of television shows that revolve around glorified violence or humiliating the weak and nonconforming, our culture has
seen to it that nothing shocks, nor impresses, nor moves the American heart anymore. We are indifferent. Thus are the potential
effects of protest contained.
And in these days of massive technological abilities to snoop almost into our very thoughts, even those who still define themselves
as citizens might hesitate to voice a protest. They self-censor and are contained.
We who continue to plan and participate in protests (and I do) knowing in advance that mostly we'll be unheard and contained, bear
some of the blame too. It helps us through these hard times to gather with one another. But protests have become predictable rituals
and we haven't often found the recipe to make them fresh again.
As Marcuse observed at a similar moment in our history, we have become a society without opposition.
America can't go back fifty years and regain the propriety that made that lunch counter protest a discomfiting act of persuasion.
And we who would protest must keep faith with Gandhi, with Martin, with the Greensboro protesters and all those who were committed
to non-violent social change.
But given the state of our union, it's crucial to free protest from the many ways it has been contained and find a way to make it
shake up the nation again.
Where will we find the Woolworth's lunch counter of 2006?
Cynthia Bogard is a professor of sociology at Hofstra University in New York.