No Wasted Effort: In Celebration of Protest Culture

Photo by Molly Adams, via Wikimedia Commons

Editor's Note:

Ryan McIlvain was born in Utah and raised in Massachusetts. His first novel, Elders, was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and his work has appeared in The Paris ReviewPost RoadThe Rumpus, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among many other publications. A former Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University, McIlvain now lives with his family in Tampa, Florida.

A good friend of mine and a model for one of the main characters in my new novel, The Radicals (brief, forgivable plug, and now I’m done), once told me that he and his friends – committed socialists all – turned up to the Occupy Wall Street events when there wasn’t real activism to do. “It was a good party,” Paul said.

He was joking, sort of, but the larger point he made in earnest: a protest is a staging ground, a preparation for realer, more material action. (Leave it to a Marxist to shoehorn “materialism” into pretty much any conversation.)

I thought of Paul’s bon mot on the morning of the Women’s March in Los Angeles, a little over a year ago. I was there with my wife Sharon and our three-year-old son James, who carried a neon green sign that said “FUTURE MAN FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS.” It was a fun day, high-spirited, a surprisingly family affair, we found, and even the cops lining the streets were smiling and occasionally nodding their heads to the music – the sky bluer than blue, the sun bright, a crisp, cerulean morning. I remember the space-agey Disney Hall, all shining planes and sharp elbows, rising there above a sea of heads and signs.

“SHOW ME WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!” someone would call, and we’d all answer back, “THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”

Never mind that Donald Trump had just taken office, that more than a few of the people marching probably came out of a kind of chagrin, a penance – they’d stayed home on Election Day, not believing things could get this bad, and now here they were. “So bad,” one sign read, “even introverts are here.” And a few others? They probably did just show up for the party.

It was real activism, though, whatever the reasons that brought us there – let the doctors of the church and the law worry over intent. What the rest of us care about is the material reality.

Over the last year the organizers of the women’s marches have formed a pair of standing protest organizations that agitate for a woman’s reproductive rights, equal pay, access to education, and other crucial issues – not to mention campaigning for the kind of people who’ll realize those visions in office. In the same way, alumni of the Occupy movements, with their cut teeth and their network of new comrades and friends, have been instrumental in pushing through a $15 minimum wage in Seattle, with San Francisco to follow, in forming groups that tackle the student debt crisis specifically, in forcing bans on fracking in states like New York and Maryland – and I could go on.

The take-home is simple: It isn’t wasted effort, none of it is. Not even if you’re enjoying yourself on a sunny L.A. morning, not even if the party’s good.