NOV. 20, 2016 — In the days after the election, people poured into the streets.
In some places, they came out by thousands: droves of people with signs, bullhorns and flags. From major coastal cities like New York and Portland to the heartland metropolises of Kansas City and Chicago, the American people, horrified at the election of Donald Trump, raised a ruckus.
But with the protests came disapproval.
At the Nov. 12 protest in Lawrence, some bystanders joined in or clapped along with the rhythmic chants, but others just watched — with looks of incredulity and disgust on their faces.
“I just think this is spreading hate,” said Jackson Brungardt, a local high school student who happened to encounter the protestors. “And it’s a bit ignorant as the way I see it.”
TOOLS FOR DEMOCRACY
Although not everyone has agreed with the consequential uproar following the election, public assembly and dissent are constitutional rights, and “as American as cherry pie,” according to David Farber.
“[It] goes all the way back to the beginning,” said Farber, a history professor at the University who studies political culture and social change movements. “It was so important to the founding fathers that it’s enshrined in our constitution.”
More than just a fundamental pillar of the country, Farber said protest is a democratic tool, just like voting. However, he said it’s only a small part of making a change.
“The purpose of that kind of street protest is to show other Americans that you’re not happy with the political climate. It’s to show your friends, your colleagues, your peers that you think something needs to be done,” Farber said. “But if that’s where things end, it’s not very effective.”
During the Lawrence protests, many marchers said they were speaking out for those who might suffer under a Trump presidency, or said they were standing in solidarity with minority groups.
It’s hard to turn feelings into concrete action, Farber said, but a public display of dissent can be a good starting place.
“We live in a democracy in which most people never act politically, most people don’t even usually vote,” Farber said. “So to move from apathy to concern is not an easy thing for most people, so most people need ways and means to do that.”
If the first step is public display, Farber said, the next is organization.
The University is no stranger to protests, sit-ins or activism, according to KU history.
The Vietnam era, in particular, was a catalyst for many student demonstrations. In 1970, a firebomb set the Kansas Union ablaze, resulting in $1 million worth of damage. In July of that year, a black student, Rick “Tiger” Dowdell, was shot and killed by police in Downtown Lawrence, resulting in several days of conflict between civil rights protestors and law enforcement.
That fall, Rusty Leffel was beginning his first year as a law student at the University. In a 1973 letter to fellow activists, Leffel described the campus as one of uncertainty and conflict.
“In this explosive atmosphere there was almost no room for rational thought or action,” Leffel wrote. “Everyone was concerned but little was being done to stabilize the situation for the long term improvement of the university structure. Students were ready to act and wanting to act but did not have a structure or vehicle through which to express themselves and act out their concern in a balanced, responsible way.”
Leffel, along with four other friends, created the “Phantom Five,” an anonymous group that over the next several years would work to address University students’ concerns.
“We worked behind the scenes as a type of student-citizen action group,” Leffel’s letter read. “Whenever we met we would begin by asking just what were the problems facing our school and what could we, as five ordinary individuals, do about it.”
The group went onto be known as Students Concerned About Higher Education and pushed for better state funding for Kansas universities. Among their many activities, the Concerned Students sent out questionnaires to student senate candidates, published full-page ads in the Kansan and handed out fliers at football games.
Rusty Leffel is now an attorney and lives with his wife in Mission Hills, Kan. He might have graduated, but his years as an activist are not behind him. Now, as a photographer, he travels around the country capturing urban life, including public protests. In 2011 he photographed the Occupy Portland Movement, and just this past week was at a rally in Kansas City to protest Donald Trump.
“Protest, demonstrations, rallies: this is how we make this country move forward,” Leffel said. “We must be active.”
Protests are an effective American tradition, Leffel said. They can get attention, but more importantly, they are platforms for organizing change. At the anti-Trump rally, for example, Leffel said people could sign up to join other organizations and groups to continue to fight for change outside of protesting.
“There’s just a whole wide range of things to do where you can speak out and participate and you need to do it,” Leffel said. “And certainly getting a sign and going to an assembly is just one piece of it, but it’s just too narrow, you need to do more.”
‘YOU HAVE TO DO WORK, AND NO ONE WANTS TO DO WORK’
Assembly is necessary, when it’s trying to accomplish something.
At least, that’s how Trinity Carpenter sees it.
Carpenter, a senior in the School of Social Welfare, is a well-known voice around campus. On any given day, she is pulled into administrative meetings, student meetings, and constantly sending letters and information, trying to advocate for social justice.
Sometimes, she said, traditional methods of change don’t always work.
“As a person of color, I know why we demonstrate, and it’s because historically those avenues and those procedures have never served us, they don’t work for us like they do our counterparts,” she said. “So direct action and disrupting spaces has served us, it has forced institutions, administration and even city commission to recognize or move in a direction that we’re trying to accomplish.”
But if there isn’t a purpose, if there isn’t a goal to a public protest, Carpenter said she really doesn’t see the point.
“I feel like a lot of times, it’s so you know other people are feeling similar to you or you need other people to show up in that moment to validate your feelings,” Carpenter said. “All that is fine ... but what I don’t like is if we are showing up to something and not asking to put things on the line to get that accomplished.”
Not everyone is willing to do the hard work, Carpenter said. Not everyone is willing to go beyond the initial reaction.
“Organizing is difficult,” Carpenter said. “Because when you organize you have to do work and no one wants to do work.”
GETTING BACK UP AGAIN
Twelve days after the election of Donald Trump, over 150 people gathered in the auditorium of the Lawrence Public Library.
As they filtered in, they were given two-page packets titled “Action Items & Resources.” For the next hour and a half, the group would discuss how to stay informed, where to volunteer time and money, and how to contact legislators.
Over the past week and a half, various groups throughout the country had gathered to protest, to grieve and to process, but now, after being knocked down, it was time to “get back up,” as organizer Nancy Hamilton put it.
“What does it mean to get back up again?” she asked the audience. “It means organizing, it means political action, it means coalition building. That’s really important right now, to build our coalition and bring people together.”
The time was focused on five main topics: combating hate and increasing inclusiveness, legislative advocacy, healthcare, economic equity and environment and energy. Each section gave links, names of legislators, phone numbers, websites and a list of “5 things you can do now.”
Protesting is important, Hamilton said. Expressing feelings is important, but it doesn’t always translate into legislative change.
The point, she said, is to do something about it.
“Just take the energy that we see and translate it into meaningful action,” Hamilton said.
What’s the best way to cause meaningful action? Adina Morse, another co-organizer, said she thinks people should make an effort to be politically involved all the time — not just after an election.
“It’s your civic duty, it’s your national duty, everybody should be involved all the time,” Morse said. “We’ve gotten into this thing where people say ‘oh I don’t pay attention to politics,’ and if you do you’re kind of an outlier. I think it should be the other way around — that everybody should pay attention and if you don’t you’re an outlier because it impacts us all, everything runs downstream.”
Throughout the meeting, various audience members suggested organizations, resources and practices to adopt to intact change on a local and, eventually, national scale. The ideas ranged from subscribing to reliable news outlets to volunteering at a food shelter to simply taking a bike to work.
The afternoon ended with plans to meet again in the near future and to next time bring a friend.
Although it might have only been a small, community gathering at the local library, Morse said its an important part of making an impact.
“I think it takes things like this,” she said. “I think it takes everyday conversations, I think it takes tiny steps everyday.”