Evan Marczynski/The AS Review
One of the freedoms we are guaranteed by the First Amendment is the right to peacefully assemble and protest to affect social change.
Bellingham is full of activists, from anti-war protesters to Western students pushing back against legislators raising college tuition and hundreds of women marching in the streets to raise awareness about sexual assault.
These activists strive to speak out against the injustice they see in today’s world. But why do they decide to use protests to spread their message? And what advice do they have for anyone else who might want to join a cause?
AS Women’s Center Assistant Coordinator Shawna Held was one of the organizers of the Take Back the Night march for sexual assault awareness and women’s rights on April 15.
Take Back the Night events are held around the world as a demonstration of solidarity with victims of rape, incest and other forms of sexual violence.
Held said that one goal of the march was to encourage people to not remain silent about the issue. Marching makes more of an impact than other forms of discourse, she said.
“It makes a really amazing statement,” Held said.
Held said there were nearly 400 participants in the march, which started on Western’s campus and headed into downtown Bellingham. The march was more about making sure people understand that violence against women is an issue that still needs to be addressed in our society, she said.
“You can’t end violence in one night, but you can raise awareness in one night,” she said.
Anna Eblen, chair of Western’s Communication Department, said that while protesting is just one method of engaging in politics that is guaranteed to citizens by the Constitution, it is an outspoken and public way to express your opinion.
Eblen said she thinks people protest because they want to be involved in the political process in a way that goes deeper than voting, signing petitions for referendums or writing to government representatives.
“I think it is a normal part of the political process for many people,” Eblen said. “It is more public than voting.”
Protesting is also a method activists can use to garner more publicity for a particular issue by attracting the attention of the media, she said.
When Eblen was still in college, she marched in Washington, D.C., during the Vietnam War Out Rally on April 24, 1971. The protest was one of the larger anti-war demonstrations of the time, with over 500,000 attendees.
Eblen said that public involvement in protests and social movements has come in waves throughout American history.
She said anyone who is considering joining a movement or attending a protest should find an organization that shares their values and represents issues in a way they agree with.
“If you’re going to go on a march with them, you want to be able to trust them,” she said.
Eblen also cautioned that if people engage in public protests without first obtaining the necessary permission and permits, they need to be willing to accept the potential consequence of being arrested.
Evan Knappenberger, one of the founders of the Bellingham chapter of the anti-war movement Iraq Veterans Against the War, said he is compelled to take part in protests and demonstrations because he does not want other people to experience the same things he has.
Knappenberger served in Iraq during the early stages of the war between 2004 and 2005. When he returned he became an outspoken advocate against the U.S. military presence in Iraq and the controversial military policy called stop-loss, where soldiers are required to stay on active duty for longer than they were initially assigned.
In June of 2007, Knappenberger staged a week-long protest outside of the Federal Building in downtown Bellingham. He built a makeshift tower out of scaffolding and sat on top wearing his army fatigues and talking to passersby about how the war in Iraq is unjust and immoral.
He later held a similar protest on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Knappenberger said he thinks today’s youth activists are taking on similar causes that their parents and grandparents took on, such as war, equality and the environment.
Popular interest in joining social and political causes is on the rise, but there is a different set of problems facing activists today, including the increasing prevalence of depression, serious mental illness and a culture of apathy among young people, he said.
“I think it’s picking up, I really do,” Knappenberger said. “I think people care, but it becomes a problem of all the other things that we’re fighting sociologically.”
Knappenberger said anyone looking to join a protest or movement should focus on an issue that they are really interested in regardless of whether or not they know everything about it.
He said that the more involved you get in activism of any nature, the more tiring it becomes, but on the flip side it is also more rewarding.
“If it moves you, then that’s where you belong,” he said.
One piece of advice Knappenberger had for anyone considering taking to the streets and engaging in any activist issue is to keep themselves from getting caught up in petty arguments and back and forth name calling with those who do not agree with whatever cause they are supporting.
“There’s some things that are worth doing and there are some things that are a waste,” he said.