The Problem With The “Professional Protesters” At The Chicago Trump Rally

From September through November 2013, you’d most likely find me on the street, walking backward in front of a group of protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks and Black Bloc bandanas. After the Huffington Post published photos I took at the 2013 Chicago SlutWalk, an acquaintance from high school had invited me to an anti-fascist protest, in case I needed something interesting to photograph.

That was my entree to the social landscape of Chicago’s habitual public provocateurs: the leftovers of the Occupy movement who, once Occupy fizzled out, felt called to continue the work of shutting down streets. For the last four years, they’ve been crashing the same old protests, month after month if not week after week, for whatever leftist causes are demonstrating publicly, whether or not they’re invited. They did it on Friday at the UIC Pavilion. I was watching Rachel Maddow when I heard a familiar voice on the screen and saw familiar faces, holding a banner that read “TRUMP = HATE” with an orange figure holding a Nazi flag.

To be clear: This was meant to be a student-led protest. UIC, my alma mater, is a diverse school that prides itself on its commitment to social justice and equity. If you want to see the good work that UIC students do in the name of justice, I suggest looking through the website for the Social Justice Initiative, which aids faculty and students in creating a campus and a world that’s inclusive and peaceful through seminars, conferences, campus events, art installations, and a scholar program. Two SJI students spoke to the United Nations Committee Against Torture about violence in Chicago in 2014. The students at UIC by and large do activism via diplomacy, conversation, ground work, and peaceful demonstration.

I don’t blame UIC students for being upset that Donald Trump’s rally was going to be held at the Pavilion. It’s a cultural mismatch. And their stated objectives were merely to protest, not to shut the rally down: “Our goal must be to show the attendees the empathy, acceptance, and love that we strive to see in the world. Keep any signs and chants aimed at Trump and his campaign, instead of individual supporters.”

But there are the student organizers, and then there are the “anti-fascist, anti-capitalist” protesters who show up to public demonstrations whether they’re about GMOs or women’s rights or war or Black Lives Matter or Donald Trump and do the same thing every time: Lead a march with the intent to shut down traffic.

You would think that the nature of the protest would change with the content of the issue. As a former fly on the wall at these protests — the person jogging around, trying to capture the mood of the moment, the person who was there before everyone else and got to overhear conversations about the plan for the day — their tactics were always the same: disrupt, stop traffic, make noise, take the streets, shut it down, be seen.

It’s not always the wrong tactic. The Black Lives Matter movement used it because, at least as I understand it, the point was to assert the physical and spiritual presence of black Americans as they were being bodily harmed and murdered by law enforcement, day after day after day. But, too, people who took and are taking part in the Black Lives Matter movement held panel discussions and vigils, worked with local religious and political leaders, wrote for publication. Different kinds of protest and activism are appropriate in different situations.

But knowing what’s going to be appropriate for the situation takes a certain amount of investment in a particular cause, which doesn’t seem to be the case if you just show up everywhere to make a scene. Donald Trump was actually pretty spot-on when, on Saturday, he claimed that some of these people are “professional protesters.” The word around my social circles was, “LOL, yeah, it’s so lucrative to be a protester.” While it may not be lucrative for some of these organizers, some have been able to parlay their organizing experience into jobs with leftist publications, NPOs, or speaking engagements and workshops. Every demonstration is a resume-builder. The bigger the protest, the more disruptive the protest and the more famous or infamous the protest, the better. That being the case, I had to wonder, in 2013, if the point of organizing protests or hijacking other people’s protests was so much a fire inside about that cause and the issues of justice surrounding it, or if it was, you know, disrupting, making noise, and being seen for the good of your own reputation.

I came out of my experience with Chicago’s “professional protesters” with the impression that the work they were doing was often self-interested. The impression hasn’t changed. UIC students went into this demonstration wanting to extend empathy and compassion to Trump supporters. It got larger than they could possibly hope to control and it devolved into shoving matches and insults, in no small part thanks to a group of protesters who were photographed, invited to speak on news programs because they came there to yell and introduce incendiary rhetoric regardless of what the organizers wanted.

A chant went through the Pavilion: “We stopped Trump!” But Trump immediately  went on MSNBC and FOX and Face the Nation and held a rally the very next day and will, no doubt, come back to campaign in Chicago again if he receives the Republican nomination. The shoving matches and yelling and insults didn’t stop Trump; they stopped Trump supporters, and they stopped the process of a truly peaceful and compassionate demonstration of dissent to Trump’s ideas.

I hope that Chicago doesn’t serve as a model for further protest. As much as protesters have the right to peaceably assemble, so do Trump rally attendees; and just like the vast majority of the protesters weren’t there with any intention to hurt or insult anyone, neither were the vast majority of rally-goers. The whole point of protesting for diversity, equality, and justice is that America is diverse; diverse politics have to be tolerated, all minds are equal, and justice arises from serving each other, not only ourselves and those who agree with us.

Send me a line at rebecca@thefrisky.com.