For the past several months, protestors have been gathering at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to oppose the construction of a segment of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This segment would threaten the safety of the tribe’s waters and destroy burial sites sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux. Unarmed water protectors at the site faced brutal treatment by law enforcement, especially in recent weeks. As temperatures dropped below freezing, law enforcement blocked road access and threatened to arrest newcomers in an attempt to prevent supplies and warm weather gear from reaching the protestors.
The Standing Rock protests demonstrate the remarkable power of protest to change the course of policy. Refusing to bow to the government’s attempts to remove them from the site of the pipeline construction, the water protectors won a victory: the Army Corps of Engineers will not grant the final permit necessary to build through the reservation, although they do plan to reroute it through another area of North Dakota. Despite the continued threat to their lands and water, the Standing Rock protestors served as an excellent example of the efficacy of nonviolent resistance, when aimed towards accomplishing an explicit goal.
Since the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States, many more protests have erupted all over the country. Yet, these acts of resistance have noticeably lacked the kind of clear objective characterized by the Standing Rock protests, and instead seem intended to comfort the protestors themselves, who feel obligated to take some form of action. While this sort of self-affirming protest can occasionally help to build community and foster solidarity after a crisis, ultimately, the purpose of a protest should be to accomplish some concrete change.
The day after the 2016 election, the Colorado College community organized a protest intended to affirm our love, unity, and solidarity. Through it began as an on-campus rally, the protest soon transitioned into a full-blown march, with students blocking traffic on a busy midday Nevada Ave. Although we who participated in the march, myself included, felt powerful and empowered as we shouted messages of love and strength, the drivers we obstructed certainly were not feeling the love we claimed to profess. Instead of starting a conversation with the politically diverse city in which we find ourselves, we shouted our own truth at the top of our lungs. It felt good, but nobody was listening. And nobody had a reason to listen — we weren’t asking for anything. We merely wanted to feel that ask a group, we were acting.
A protest needs a purpose if it wants to accomplish anything positive outside of in-group solidarity. The purpose of the protests at Standing Rock was to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and it has succeeded, for now. The purpose of the protests at CC, on the other hand, was ambiguous at best. If the purpose was to spread a message of love and acceptance into Colorado Springs, it may have succeeded for the Palmer High School students who joined the march. However, it certainly did not for the driver screaming, “Please just let me get home to my children!” as I and other protestors swarmed in front of her car on Nevada Ave. If the purpose of the protest was to somehow impact the results of the election, it failed. But if the purpose was to make the participating CC students feel like they had accomplished something, had taken some sort of direct action rather that just sitting back and letting the results of this election pass unmarked, then it undoubtedly succeeded.
Maybe that feeling of accomplishment was necessary for us at the time. Our participation among the larger movement of post-election college protests certainly caught the attention of the media. But there are only so many self-affirming protests we can hold before we begin to embody that worst of millennial stereotypes: wanting acknowledgement without achievement. If we are going to parade down to City Hall, we need to be asking for something, trying to accomplish something. It is not enough for us to merely make our presence known. When they ask, “Okay, I see you, so what?” we need to have an answer ready. An answer like, “So make Colorado Springs a sanctuary city.” “So pledge not to revoke the rights granted to the LGBTQ community.” “So set goals for carbon neutrality and invest more in renewable energy for the city.” It doesn’t matter what we choose for our answer, but we must have one if we want to be taken seriously. We need to set an attainable goal, and we need to invite our fellow Colorado Springs residents to join us, not alienate them.
Are we trying to start a movement? If so, we need a direction. Just like the water protectors at Standing Rock, we have the power to create change with our action, but only if we decide what we want that change to be. We can ask our college to divest from fossil fuels, to commit to being a sanctuary school, or to take more seriously charges of sexual assault and other forms of harassment. We can ask the same of our city. This means we cannot just protest to protest, march to march, act to say that we have acted. We must ask for change, and protest with a purpose.