Monday Roundtable: Our First Protests

The past few years in the US have seen a surge in public protest and national conversation around it, earning our era comparisons to the 60s. What did we first protest and when? What about you?

Riese, Editor-in-Chief: Anti-KKK Rally, 1999

I keep thinking about this over and over and over again because I feel like there must be something earlier than this — my parents were both really politically active, talked about protests they’d attended as young people all the time, and we’d go to speeches, like I remember going to see Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton when they were campaigning for president. But I guess the first actual protest I can remember attending was my freshman year of college during the one semester I attended Sarah Lawrence. The KKK was hosting a rally in Brooklyn and a bunch of us came in on the train to protest whatever it was they’d come there to say. Protesters far outweighed supporters, so we felt successful. I don’t recall seeing any KKK members at all, or anybody visibly on their side, just the speakers. I remember that I wore my favorite sweater, it was colder than we’d expected, and afterwards we were really hungry but didn’t know our way around that part of Brooklyn very well, and nobody had cell phones yet, so we ended up somewhere very mediocre.

Heather Hogan, Senior Editor: Marriage Equality Protest, 2004

The level of my naiveté about the Baptist church when I was in my teens and very early 20s is honestly staggering to me at this point in my life. I was — quite literally — brainwashed. Anyway when I started waking up around my junior year of college I realized it was Southern Baptist institutions like Focus on the Family that were contributing to so much hate toward gay people and even though I hadn’t fully started examining my own gayness at that time I was exceptionally well versed in the Bible and I knew exactly what Jesus said about homosexuality (exactly nothing) so I wrote a letter to James Dobson politely explaining to him that he’d read the Bible wrong, and here’s what the Bible actually says, and so please let’s help hungry people, okay, and stop with the gay bashing. Focus on the Family sent me back the most hateful, condescending form letter back and so I huffed and puffed and went to a marriage equality rally to see what all the dang fuss was about. I had meant to observe, but I joined in. (And have been joined in ever since.)

Yvonne, Senior Editor: Die-in at GAP, 2013

I barely started learning all about social justice issues and gaining a political consciousness around my last semester in college when I took various queer and women’s studies classes, of course! At the same time, my partner was taking a lot of cool courses analyzing race and media and gender and sexuality so I would learn so much from her too. I graduated and then I got a job right out of college at a straight-laced heteronormative gay and lesbian magazine that I had been interning for a year, so I was just really new to social justice things.

My partner — who was interning for a labor union and doing all sorts of cool, radical shit with other way more advanced cool, radical af queers — invited me to a protest at GAP. On April 24, 2013, an eight-story building in Bangladesh collapsed killing more than 1,100 people, mostly women garment factory workers, and injuring a couple thousand more. The building housed more than five garment factories producing cheap clothes for major U.S. and European companies, one of them was GAP. The collapse shed light on horrible wages and safety conditions for factory workers.

The local chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops organized the die-in at a local GAP in order to pressure the company to sign a safety agreement for garment workers. This was my first protest and I was so nervous and scared. I was scared of the students leading the die-in and their megaphones and their chants and how we were about to make a scene. My whole life, I was trying not to get noticed and here I was about to cause a ruckus and disrupt this nice, white shopping area. I was uncomfortable the entire time but I did it! I followed the plan and we had to separate in the store and pretend like we were shopping and then when we heard our cue (someone announced very loudly what we were doing and talked about the garment workers) we all fell to the floor and had to lie there for a maybe a minute. I thought it was FOREVER. Once we got up and left, I felt an adrenaline rush and thought my heart was about to jump out of my chest. We circled the front of the store with chants and signs before we disbursed and it was so much for a first time protest! But it was kinda like one of those trial by fire situations, which made me feel stronger and more confident and set the stage for future protests.

Alexis, Staff Writer: Pro-Life March, 2009

Technically, I didn’t agree to go to this protest. As juniors, you’re required to go to the Pro-Life Rally and March in D.C. or you have to stay home and write a three page paper. I didn’t even write required papers in classes I liked and this was definitely a class I skipped a lot, so I thought I could just catch a nap and get through this. I’m the only one who didn’t dress for the occasion, I wore all black and kept my hood on. I took a nap during the rally, accidentally terrified my friends when I caught up with them because they thought I was trying to kidnap them, and was angry throughout the entire time because it was super white and too happy for a protest and made me feel like me and those who looked like me definitely didn’t belong there. I was in my baby Black Panther stage then, so I was ready to be the most bothersome black annoyance possible. There was one performer that had come to our school earlier and I listened to him perform cause he was cool, but other than that, definitely something that forced me to look at my values and make a decision for myself.

Rachel, Managing Editor: Anti-War Protest and Vigil, 2001

When I was about 13, my mother took my younger brother and I to a vigil against the occupation of Afghanistan that I feel like was probably organized through our church (Quaker). Somewhere there’s a photo of me holding a candle in my middle school hoodie, a photo which my mother saved in case my brother and I ever wanted to try to file as conscientious objectors and needed it as longitudinal evidence for the case. Quakers, man!

Carrie, Staff Writer: Marriage Equality Rally, 2004

Knowing my family, I doubt this was my actual first protest, but it’s the first one I remember clearly. We were standing outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles holding up signs on the street corner and getting an encouraging number of support honks. The best part was my sister had been at prom the night before so she and her best friend were still in their dresses. I think people driving by assumed they were dating. Fun fact: some people at our high school were so convinced my sister was gay that they tried to correct me when I came out the next year, thinking I’d gotten us confused. Nope, I had it right and nope, she’s straight, she just doesn’t care what men think ever. Thanks though!

Molly Priddy, Staff Writer: Women’s March 2017

Along with writing for Autostraddle, I’m also a full-time journalist working at a newspaper. This means I’ve only been allowed to go to protests as an observer for the last 12 years, and before that, I didn’t do any protesting because I was a myopic idiot. But after Trump was elected, I didn’t care if I gave the appearance of not being objective. There’s no way to be “objective” about such a threat to so many aspects of my own person, and those of the people I love. For the first time, I felt pulled to risk my job in order to march for what I believed in. I went to Helena, Montana, which is my state’s capital, and met up with about 10,000 other people. It was freezing, and it was the first time I’ve vocally repeated a chant to chant, not writing it down and reporting it later. It was liberating.

Tiara, Staff Writer: No Clean Feed, 2008

Growing up in Malaysia meant that protests were often illegal (the only protest I could think of that wasn’t explicitly pro-Government but was allowed to go ahead without complaint was one against Bush’s plans for war) – and a racial minority not-quite-a-citizen like myself would just end up getting jailed very quickly. When I moved to Australia for uni, I thought my student visa made it difficult for me to join protests: either Australia will deport me or Malaysia will, I dunno, drag me back just to kick me out or something.

The first protest I went to was to fight against the Clean Feed, a proposed Internet filter that would supposedly end child porn but had the effect of shutting out adult porn, resources for sex workers, GLTBQ content, and other content that the Government could deem “unwanted” (not even illegal!!!) at any time without any sort of accountability. Seeing how people in Malaysia have been arrested simply for posting an upside-down flag on their site, I was very concerned about the ramifications for such a filter. I spoke up about it, and while part of me was nervous as all hell I was surprised to find that I didn’t get arrested, deported, noticed by law enforcement…anything! I then attended a few more, and even prganised a Slutwalk rally in 2012. Haven’t been kicked out yet…

(When I was in the US for 3 years as a student I was much more reluctant to go protesting because there’d been much more of a precedent of non-citizens being deported, and nobody seemed to really have any idea what to do if ICE came our way. I just went to a MyNameIs rally outside Facebook as well as a Slutwalk rally, but that’s about it.)

Laura M, Staff Writer: No A La Guerra, 2003

My family went on a family vacation to Madrid in 2003. In the midst of our tourist activities, one morning as we were heading out, we were surprised to see every person in the city out on the streets, holding colorful signs, chanting “¡No a la guerra!” We’d accidentally stumbled into the middle of a huge anti-Iraq war protest — which we joined, for 15 minutes or so, then went on our way to the museum.

Kayla, Staff Writer: Anti-War Protest, 2007

My parents aren’t apolitical, but they also aren’t super politically active, so they were probably a little thrown by my early interest in politics and activism (I wrote my first piece of campaign literature in second grade. It was an acrostic poem for Al Gore.) Starting in high school, I had them dropping me off at various rallies, protests, and speeches constantly. My first full-fledged protest was an anti-war rally that I went to with a couple of friends. We were invigorated by the experience and made “peace” shirts that we wore to school the next day.

Valerie Anne, Staff Writer: Take Back the Night, 2006

My first protest I guess was technically a march? It was Take Back the Night my Freshman year of college. I had been dealing with some shit and it was very cathartic to be around all these strong women, strangers united for the same purpose. It was also a lot for me, my empathy being overwhelming at times, and this being the first time I was with people who were willing and able to talk about sexual assault so openly and honestly. It was an amazing day overall though and even though I’ve never gone back to that particular march, I think it was a really important experience for me to have when I had it.

Natalie, Staff Writer: Iraq War Protest, 2002

The joke around my family has always been, “we don’t have to be political, Natalie’s political enough for all of us,” but it wasn’t always that way. It wasn’t until 2000/2001 when I watched the presidency get stolen from Al Gore that I developed my political conscience. Months later, when hijackers sent American Airlines Flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon, with one of my mentors on-board, I was moved to activism. As the drumbeats for war in Iraq echoed across the nation, I climbed on a bus and travelled to Washington, DC to join with thousands of others in protest.

Reneice Charles, Staff Writer: No Spanking Protest, 1994

My very first protest was one my brother and I staged together. My mom used spankings as a form of punishment and we of course hated it and knew there must be a better way so we had a secret meeting where my brother drew up talking points then we confronted her together while holding hands and said we hated getting spanked and wanted her to stop. I think there was also a threat to go on a chore strike. It was a very successful protest. Our demands were met.

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  1. I love all of these stories.

    Heather- James Dobson was a hero in my church/community as a child (and probably still? IDK). I’m kind of horrified about all that now that I understand how horrible they are, and I absolutely love that you wrote to him.

    Alexis- They made you go to the Pro-Life rally? WTF? That’s really messed up…

    Carrie- The thing about people confusing you with your sister reminds me of Rhea Butcher’s bit where she talks about how people think women are so stupid that they don’t know the name of the sport they are actively participating in. Also, WOW.

    Reneice Charles- That is adorable! Ah! I love it so much.

    For me, my one and only protest was around 2010. I went to an immigration rights rally on the lawn of the state capitol. There were counter-protestors out on the street who had really vile signs (for the time–tame now. Oof.) and when I was riding down on the bus, people thought that the folks on the street were with us. The rally was great, and I intended to go to more, but shortly after that, I developed terrible anxiety. I have panic attacks in large crowds (or small ones, depending on the day). It irritates me, because I think protests are so important–especially now–and I feel guilty for not “taking to the streets” for causes I care about, but I just can’t do it.

    • Also, I forgot until just now that Rhea’s pronouns are they/them. Sorry about that.

  2. I was 17. During my senior year in high school the school district tried to transfer the best teacher in the best school in the city and bring in a horrible teacher who I had as a substitute. Apparently human resources had messed up and had given the position to the wrong person the year before.

    When I say the best teacher I mean the majority of her students called her mama. She taught English and life lessons. I was the closest to her because I would go home with her and babysit her kids. We called each other brother and sister. I had only just met her the year before.

    So when she announced that she was being transferred a lot of us were devastated. I went home that day and started planning a protest. I printed out petitions and easily got over a thousand signatures just within the school. We also planned the protest for the next week in front of the school district offices. A bunch of us got together before and after school to make signs leading up to the protest. We were almost a hundred strong with students and parents with our signs and getting people walking past to sign the petitions. Several people commented that they were proud of us for standing up for something at our age. Some people said they didn’t think it would work, but they would support us by signing.

    We protested for 2 hours as our favorite teacher watched from a car across the street. She told us later that she was crying. She was proud of us as well and she really didn’t want to leave us.

    We didn’t actually talk to anyone official during the protest so later that evening when I got a call from my teacher saying that she was staying I collapsed on the upper floor landing in tears. We laughed and cried on the phone together for 10 minutes. Then we hung up to laugh and cry with friends, family, and colleagues as we made more calls that night with the good news.

    The next morning when I arrived just outside her

    • Sorry I hit submit by mistake!

      …classroom one of my “brothers” under our mama who was easily a foot taller than me came running toward me and actually jumped into my arms, legs around me with tears running down his face. Then more people surrounded us and we ended up in a snotty, crying, and laughing pile on the floor of the hallway outside our mama’s classroom as she looked on from the doorway with pride and happiness in her eyes.

      I still talk to this teacher 18 years later and the best teacher in the world still works at the best school in the city!

  3. First protest attendance was at two weeks old, being pushed in a stroller at the front of a march (anti-nuclear proliferation, maybe?)…

    First protest speech was at age 11, to the local school board that was shutting down my elementary school…

    First protest arrest was at 17, at a big anti-globalization protest in Windsor, Ontario – the golden age of big street puppets!…

    First protest that I was a primary organizer for was during grad school, in defense of health care after I lost access to student health insurance…

    What’s next?!

  4. Imagine if you will, a young, recent drop out from the US Air Force Academy trying to find community at her new college campus. She has come to terms with her burgeoning pacifism, if not her latent queerness, and seeks comrades in the struggle for social justice. She remembers how, after fleeing evangelicalism, she church-hopped for awhile, looking for a kinder, gentler Christianity and also a killer choir to join. So she organization hops on campus, joining in protests against South African apartheid, sexual violence, and US military incursions in Central and Latin America. These all feel right and good, but that day that she bravely dons face paint to mask her identity, marches through the streets of Raleigh, NC, and listens as fellow Tarheel Armisted Maupin tells tales about a splendid refuge called San Francisco is the day that she knew she had found her way home.

  5. Reneice, wow! Bravery, integrity, persuasive rhetoric, and collaborative action standing up to the biggest authority in your life, with possibly violent consequences, to ask for peace, at such a young age? Damn, girl. So impressed with you and your brother. I’m glad it worked.

    My first protest was for marriage equality. I felt as someone who already had the privilege of marriage, I needed to stand up for those who wanted it but didn’t have it. So my husband and I went downtown on a very cold day and joined one. Held up signs, got (supportively) honked at, came home, had hot chocolate. Baby steps!

    • Aww thank you! I definitely didn’t realize it was as big a deal as it was until much later in life.

  6. I think one of the first protests I remember going to was Iranian’s against the Iranian government in the early 90s with my mother and grandparents. This was outside the Federal building near Westwood Village/Little Persia. I don’t remember too much other than people essentially wanted a separation of church(well mosque in this case) and state. There was singers, dancers, people holding signs, and then across the street was counter protestors. I think somewhere in the late 90s, early 00s is when the community really started protesting the country less and went for the more hotly debated issues in the middle east.

    • All of my childhood protests were at that federal building as well! I remember going to protests and then walking to get cookies at Diddy Riece nearby.

  7. When I was 12 I convinced my parents to let me fly by myself from the Midwest to Washington D.C. for a Stand for Children march. I stayed with my dad’s cousin who was going to the march, too.

    When I was 16 and going on college tours, there happen to be a take back the night march so my dad went along with my friend and me.

    I did stand on the side of the street by myself several years ago as an counter-protest to a march for life/anti-choice rally in my smallish rural town.

    Goodness, now I feel old and boring.

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