Last summer I walked through Pioneer Square and dodged a bunch of chubby white guys with red paint splashed on the crotches of their shorts to protest circumcision. Right across the street there was a topless woman holding a sign to protest the Hobby Lobby decision. Everyone’s too familiar with the anti-abortion protestors and their five-foot-tall bloody fetus posters who like to spend time on campus.
Portland’s weird reputation and very liberal attitudes about free expression seem to encourage protests about any kind of issue, but I think Portlanders have gotten so used to frivolous protests and kooky methods that they don’t recognize it when serious ones happen.
Go to the comments section of any news article about protests and you’ll see people complaining about “professional protestors” and people who are protesting for the sake of protesting. Watching things like the anti-circumcision protest, I can understand those complaints. If you’re really upset about being circumcised or have some trauma about it, dumping red paint on your shorts and complaining about feminine cruelty probably isn’t going to make people seriously think about your issue.
What I don’t understand is people who level those same accusations at the #BlackLivesMatter protests, the 15 Now movement and all the other activism that’s come out of the awful tail end of 2014.
People aren’t mad about police brutality and racial justice because they don’t have anything better to do with their time. Fast food workers and other low-wage employees aren’t protesting because they’re slackers. These are real issues that the media has presented ample evidence for over the last few months. But when there were demonstrations about these issues, I mostly hear people complain about traffic being blocked or hear the normal whining of, “If they had real jobs they wouldn’t have time to protest.”
I think Portlanders have gotten so used to seeing protests and being hassled to sign a petition as an everyday thing that they’re starting to see all causes as equal. In the case of the #BlackLivesMatter protests, there’s no denying that Portland has historically been more than ready to ignore or reject black voices, and there’s an element of that involved, too. It’s easy to ignore a cause that makes you uncomfortable or makes you think about questions that are hard to answer. But it’s disheartening to see a city with a reputation for being liberal—that was so up in arms to keep fluoride out of the water and legalize weed—to be so disinterested with issues that directly affect the lives of some of the most disadvantaged people in our city.
Not all causes are equal. When a group has the resources and manpower to shut down traffic or convince the mayor to schedule a meeting with them, they should be taken a little more seriously than the “professional protestors.” When that same group is responding to inequality and is part of a movement that has been reported on for six months, maybe it’s time to listen to them.