On November 18, 2015, protesters attempted to disrupt a speech by former president Bill Clinton at the university where I worked. I was the one person who kept them out.
My Experience as a Target for Anger
I’ve had my share of experiences with protests, both as a participant and as a protector. Growing up in Ann Arbor in the late 60s, we protested Vietnam. We marched in mourning for Dr. King, to support women’s rights, and for our 20th Century version of Black Lives Matter.
So it was a bit surreal to be the white guy in a business suit, blocking the venue entrance as about fifty students and other protesters of color converged on the one choke point where spectators could enter the venue where President Clinton would speak.
My only backup was one cop and a lone Secret Service agent. The protesters had been marching on campus earlier in the day and saw tonight’s event as an easy target of opportunity.
I turned to the police officer as they approached me. “Do you want to take over?”
“There is always more trouble when they face down a uniform,” he said.
I was stuck.
The group was well organized and carefully coached. Their leader had a bullhorn. But he was using it to communicate with them, not to echo grievances.
“You can yell at him all you want,” he said, pointing to me, “but don’t touch him. Do nothing to get arrested.”
The protesters pressed within inches of me, screaming their concerns in my face.
How do you defuse the tension?
I maintained eye contact. “You are part of the problem,” they yelled.
“I am,” I answered. “Tell me how I can be better.”
I could feel the hot breath on my face. “The university needs to take our concerns seriously,” another said.
“I agree with you. It absolutely does. What should we do?”
“You represent the oppressors.” A third protester was in my face.
“I do. But I don’t want to. What can allies like me do to help you?”
“Let us in!” A young man yelled. “If you really care, you won’t stop us.”
The TV people were here now. Discord always draws the camera’s eye. I nodded to the reporters, hands outstretched with microphones pointed in our direction. “You’re making your point. It will lead the news tonight. Well done.”
The protester turned to his leader, obviously frustrated. “How can we hate him if he doesn’t hate us?”
The man with the bullhorn met my gaze. We exchanged some knowing non-verbal communication, the hint of a smile creasing his face.
“We are doing just fine,” he said. “Keep up the noise so President Clinton can hear you.”
There are best practices for effective protests.
By now, the police chief was there. His casual clothes told me this incident has interrupted his evening plans. I knew him well. “Are you going to relieve me?” I asked.
He grinned and shook his head. “You represent all they are protesting. Stay the course.”
I recognized a dozen more officers in the hall behind me, most in plain clothes. If things escalated, I had backup. My phone vibrated. It was my wife. “Where are you?” She demanded, knowing exactly where I was.
“Hey, you guys,” I said to the group, “Wanna be in a selfie for my wife?”
Some backed away in distrust. But others crowded around me, fists raised in defiance. “Give me your best war face,” I said, snapping three photos. They did.
Sending the shot to Colleen was a mistake. She’s seen me wade into danger before and was, in fact, about 50 yards behind the knot of protesters with the growing line of attendees who held tickets for the event.
I endured a spousal text rant that was much worse than anything the crowd had dispensed. By now, the organizers had figured out how to redirect the throngs around the protesters. Soon, President Clinton’s speech began to a standing room only crowd.
I missed it.
I spent almost two hours standing in that three foot opening, until the university president came out and welcomed the protestors into a nearby auditorium to hear their concerns.
As they drifted away, one shook my hand. “It’s not personal,” he said.
“Yes, it is,” I answered.
“We all have to own this if we hope to change the world.”
It was a mantra I said often in those days.
“Thanks for being a good guy,” he said before turning toward the auditorium.
The police chief dismissed his cavalry. “Six incidents. No arrests,” he said.
I was a little angry that he didn’t acknowledge me. “You owe me overtime and another chance to hear the speaker,” I joked. “He’s in Hawaii next week. I’ll send you the bill for my ticket.”
In a corner, I could see a friend who supervised the venue’s maintenance crew. He would have had to put things back together if stuff hit the fan. “Want a job?” He asked.
“I had better go calm Colleen down,” I said. He knew her. He didn’t envy me.
We ate eat dinner in the venue’s restaurant. It was late enough that we were the only ones there. I enjoyed my usual interaction with the waitstaff and the chef. We laughed and joked like always. But they knew what had happened.
When we finished our meal, I asked for the check.
“This one’s on us,” our waitress said.
What I learned.
Yes, I was at risk. I’ve been in similar situations where the outcome was very different and have the scars to prove it.
But I learned something about humanity from those experiences. We all crave that one person who listens, who cares about our situation and will to engage to make a difference. Sometimes it’s as simple as expressing empathy. It works best when we put words into action. Talk is cheap. Walking the talk is character.
If we are to begin to heal the deep divisions that separate us, we must begin with a willingness to listen and a desire to understand.
We are susceptible to demagogues when we allow fear to cloud our better nature. We can stand up for what we believe, stand against unacceptable behavior, and disagree without being disagreeable. And we can do it without physical harm or destruction of property. Dr. King, whose birthday we celebrate this week, taught us that.
Effective protest is an art. It’s a learned skill that is essential, not just to our experiment in democracy, but to our very survival.