In the spirit of this blog post, please take a moment to read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s recent op-ed, “Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge,” which was first published in the Los Angeles Times.
I used to teach English at one of the City Colleges of Chicago, located in the north end of the Loop, a block or so away from Trump Tower. The night after Trump’s election in November 2016, large-scale protests formed outside our building. And even though our classroom was on the sixth floor, the noise from the street below—the chanting, the bullhorns—made teaching impossible. Instead, my students and I used our time that night to talk about what the protest outside made us feel.
As our conversation became increasingly charged and the noise continued to escalate outside, one student wanted to leave early. “It’s not safe for us to be here if they’re rioting outside.”
I recognized an opportunity to talk about the importance of words, how word choice affects the perception of the listener, how it affects our intended meaning. We discussed what it meant to feel safe in our classroom and in our city. We discussed how the terms “protest” and “riot” were defined, how they were similar, and why they were different. We discussed how one of those things was legal and protected by the First Amendment, while the other was not.
Then someone else asked, “But who decides where they draw the line?”
As a white man, it seemed to me that the difference was clear. Protests were peaceful. They were lawful. They were organized. Riots were out of control. They were violent. But for the young people in the room that night, the vast majority of whom were Black people or people of color, the differences weren’t so apparent—or at least, the differences didn’t seem to matter so much.
For months they had heard the threats of border walls and ICE raids and read about escalating hate crimes. Some of my students expressed their frustration with being told they must remain tolerant while their rights and personal safety were threatened. Others said that they feared the months and years to come. Many of my students felt that our country had changed and that we could never go back.
Thankfully, things stayed peaceful that night—at least, in terms of physical violence. No protestors suffered skull fractures or lost an eye from being shot with rubber-coated steel bullets. No police cruisers were torched, no tear gas was sprayed, no pepper balls were fired, no flash bangs were thrown into the crowd. As far as I know, my students all got home safely.
The events of the past few weeks have made me think back on that conversation and about the role our words and the language we use plays in progress and moving the conversation forward. That night, my students changed the way I lived in and experienced this city by changing how I thought about feeling safe and protected in public spaces, about having a voice and being heard, about how intolerance can never be blindly accepted.
The words we choose, sometimes without thinking, let others know how we feel when the world outside seems overwhelming. They are effective weapons. They connect us to the people around us in powerful ways. This is what it means to live in America: freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful assembly, and the sheer bravery it takes to say, “Things have to change.”
But a critical part of using this power, our words, for good is listening to what other people are saying. We must build on their words, and we must chart a new path forward. Many people are already showing us the way, if only we stop to listen. Listen to the words: I can’t breathe. No justice, no peace. Black lives matter. Listen to what people are saying. And then do something about it.