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Protest: Easy to mock, harder to take part in

Updated: June 29, 2012 9:37AM

Protest is an unpopular habit. Few do it. Which makes it like voting. Americans are big on defending our freedoms; on actually exercising them, not so much.

Think about it — given all the woe in the world, the crimes committed, the ongoing wrongs, at home and abroad, have you ever made a sign, marched down a street, spent an hour voicing your opinion? Protest takes guts.

Trying to answer that question myself, I came up with just two instances in my life when I took part in a protest, not as a reporter, but as a participant. One was decades ago, when the newspaper guild held informational pickets — a way of displaying the instruments of labor torture to management without actually going on strike — and in 1979, when we kids at Northwestern University held a rally against the draft.

I didn’t go to the draft rally out of passion; I was nearby, I was young, and 19-year-olds, which included me, were being asked to register for Selective Service. I wasn’t even particularly against the idea; when the time came, I dutifully trotted to the post office and registered. But my friends were protesting, my buddy’s band was playing, so I went, to stand in the crowd.

Those two dynamics resonate with what’s going on in Chicago this weekend. Self-interest and what-the-hell proximity. The bigwigs of NATO are here, the eyes of the world swivel in our direction, so why not? The unions mobilize, the nation’s disaffected jump on a bus to hurry here and protest . . . what exactly? A ragbag of causes — the existence of war, of capitalism. Some activist in jail in Los Angeles. Canada.

That last one isn’t made up — Occupy Chicago’s dance card of protests Thursday included one aimed at the Canadian consulate. At first I thought it was a joke. Canada? Aren’t they the world’s bystander, condemning the United States for whatever we do while pouting they don’t get the attention they deserve?

But no. Protesters were “exposing the dirty oil extraction of the Alberta tar sands, which is destroying the local ecosystem.” Golly.

Of course the public tunes this out. We hardly think about protests. Nobody ever wonders what Protestants were protesting so much it gave them their name. (Hint: Catholics). Often with good cause; many protests are silly. Not everything is civil rights. People picketed when Marshall Field’s changed its name to Macy’s. A Chicago tradition defiled! I’ll be honest, that protest disgusted me — your government’s corruption by corporate cash didn’t send you spilling into the streets, but what logo appears on your charge card does? Pathetic. But again, at least they were out there.

Protests only catch our attention in two ways — size or violence. All you need to know about Thursday’s Canada protest is that fewer than 100 participated. That’s laughable. Friday’s noon Daley Center rally should have a bigger crowd — estimates are 10,000 — but given all the buildup, that’s still mediocre.

And violence — it isn’t that the public wants it. We claim we don’t. But there’s also a NASCAR that’s-what-we’re-really-waiting-for aspect. At least some are. Many, I bet.

The general attitude seems to be a desire to not be bothered. Most just want to get to work. We crave normalcy and resent the idea that our commute might be affected. Which perhaps should give us pause, maybe more so than the protests themselves. Some fellow citizens feel strongly enough about this to take buses a thousand miles, and we’re concerned we might have to step around them on the way to the office. We must really like that office. Not a shameful thing, particularly in this economy. But nothing to be proud of either. I’m not saying that we need to get hot and bothered about the Alberta tar sands. But remember: all the evils in the world were committed while pliant populations put on their blinders and hotfooted to work. There are injustices out there, gathering environmental calamities, and given that some care about that a lot, I think it’s incumbent upon us, as Americans, to at least care about that a little, enough to glance at what they’re saying and try to extract whatever sense might lurk within. You might not feel the urge to march — most don’t — but would it really hurt to listen to what they’re saying, and think about it?

Radio notes

To encourage people to stay inside, as opposed to running riot in the streets, the authorities have asked Eric Zorn and me to take to the radio waves Friday and encourage calm.

OK — it’s the public radio authorities, no shady global powers involved. Just our periodic gig on National Public Radio’s Afternoon Shift, talking about the events of the week with Steve Edwards on WBEZ, 91.5 FM about 3:15 p.m. I don’t know Eric’s intentions, but I plan to further explore the concept of Canada as an irresponsible pariah state whose loathsome acts deserve public condemnation from people of goodwill everywhere. That sounds fun.

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