Jefferson protest march

“It only takes one man with a voice to convince a hundred men to fight”

― Ondine Grace

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Protesting is good for the soul.

We should all embrace those who push back against the norm, who question authority and who challenge our social, political and economic assumptions.

The waves of protest that have rolled across the nation — and the world — over the last two weeks has been astounding. They are a sign of some deep-seated problems which need to be aired out in public.

Even here in Jackson County, population 75,000, there have been several organized protests over the last 10 days involving several hundred people.

The last similar protest I remember here was in 1977 in Jefferson when a group of black students walked out of Jefferson High School and marched through town to protest not having a black student on the school's homecoming court.

Things have changed since then — or have they?

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Protesting is part of American's political and cultural DNA. Our nation was founded by protesters who defied the British government.

It was a protest that led British soldiers to shoot into a crowd in Boston, an event now known as the Boston Massacre. The soldiers were under threat by a mob of protesters who threw stones, snowballs and clubs. That harassment led British soldiers to fire into the crowd, killing five people. That reaction became a huge propaganda tool for Americans who used it to paint British soldiers as killers and bullies. (Six of the eight soldiers were acquitted; the other two were convicted on manslaughter charges.)

Around the same time, the Sons of Liberty movement organized. It was the Black Lives Matter of its era, a loosely-affiliated organization that worked to undermine British authority across the colonies.

In their anti-British protests, the Sons sometime rioted and damaged property. They were the "radicals" of their time, using intimidation and harassment to further their anti-British cause.

Their most famous action was the looting of British tea by throwing cases of tea into the Boston Harbor in 1773. The Boston Tea Party has became one of the most famous incidents of American history — but it was done by the "liberals" of the 1770s who dared to challenge the status quo and government authority. (That some of today's conservative groups use the phrase "Tea Party" as a moniker is an ultimate irony of history.)

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It was British efforts to put down the protests in America that, in part, led to language in the First Amendment for citizens to have freedom of assembly.

Americans have used that right to protest many times over the last 240 years. Women would not be allowed to vote today if it had not been for the protests of the suffragist movement of the early 1900s.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a master of protesting. He strategically held protests in cities where he knew local officials would overreact. He knew that violence against protesters would expose local law enforcement and city officials as being racist bullies. And he knew that their overreaction would build sympathy and momentum for the Civil Rights movement.

He was right. White violence — often by police — against protesters in the 1950s and 1960s, led to change that might have otherwise never happened.

King was, of course, hated by many whites because he so effectively exposed their deep-seated racism. Especially in the South, institutional racism and segregation was often codified into the law. King not only protested, he endorsed civil disobedience as a way to challenge unjust laws.

When Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus in Montgomery, she was acting with civil disobedience.

Her action forced a city — and a nation — to confront the very real dynamics of how black citizens were considered second-class citizens, a people forced to sit at the back of society.

And then there were the protests against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those protests were also sometimes violent, both by protesters and from police forces sent to quell them. Still, they were effective. Many opposed the protests at the time, but the nation later came to see that the Vietnam War was a huge military mistake.

In all three of these movements — women voting, Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War — protesters upended the existing social and political order. They challenged authority and won.

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What is really amazing about the protests we've see over the last two weeks is how multi-racial they have been. In the 1960s, a few whites marched with King, but most whites didn't. (And very few whites supported the integration of public schools, a movement that also exposed deep-seated racial hatred in that era.)

That seems to have changed as more citizens of all skin colors now see the need to speak out. Silence is seen as acceptance.

In Jefferson last week, the mayor and two city council members, all three white, marched with protesters through town (see photo.) In Braselton, the town's white city manager handed out fans and water. All across the county, white pastors have spoken out against the killing of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement. Local law enforcement leaders, all white, have also spoken out against the killing and have worked to accommodate and protect local protesters. (The real fear in Jackson County wasn't the protesters, it was the possibility of racist counter-protesters creating a confrontation.)

None of that would have ever happened in rural Georgia in the 1960s.

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Despite that kind of progress, there's still a lot of anti-protest sentiment among some white Americans who don't seem to understand the message.

You can see that on social media where people have posted racist or anti-protest comments and memes. One local county public safety officials lost his job last week over a social media comment when he said protesters should be shot. A lot of others posted racist and dumb comments to Facebook sites that promoted the local protests.

You can also see that anti-protest sentiment from those who attempt to portray all protesters as looters and vandals. Just like all cops aren't bad, neither are all protesters.

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The bigger message of these protests is that the public is restless. The COVID virus, its economic fallout and four years of extremely divisive political rhetoric are coming to a head this year. There is a deep current of frustration across America from people of all political affiliations. That frustration exploded with the killing of Floyd.

His death was a tragedy, but the protest movement is larger than just George Floyd. Today's movement is akin to the anti-war and civil rights protests of the 1960s and early 1970s which grew to be about more than just the war or black voting. It was as much a social movement as it was political.

Today's protesting could morph into something broader and deeper, too. It could be the start a new social upheaval which changes our cultural and political norms for a generation to come.

Unlike other protests over the last two decades, this one feels like a deep movement rather than just a shallow moment.

There is a rage across America today. We ignore it at our own peril as a nation.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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