Monday, May 24, 2010

Protesting a protest

At a local community center, there is a monthly presentation of documentary films, usually with a strong advocating, progressive bent. The name of the film series is "Conscientious Projector," which really tickles me. I think it’s a terrific, even beautiful, clever take-off on conscientious objector.

But there are times when progressive advocacy and action isn’t so clever and terrific. It is often not beautiful, it is often downright ugly, but there are times when it is just silly and foolish. Such was the case on two Sundays ago.

It was Commencement Weekend here in Claremont, when the colleges held their graduation ceremonies. The speaker at Pomona College’s event on Sunday morning was Janet Napolitano, the former Democratic governor of Arizona and current director of homeland security under President Obama, and I decided to go by and hear her after attending Quaker meeting.

I thought I would get there in time to hear Ms. Napolitano, but as I approached the site, I heard considerable noise, like a large crowd cheering or clapping. Was I too late? Did Ms. Napolitano already speak, and were the diplomas already being handed out? It was only about 50 minutes into the ceremony.

When I was able to see what was going on, it turned out there was a big crowd, but it was not cheering or applauding. The people - a few hundred of them, according to reports that I read later - across the street from where the graduation was taking place were chanting and drumming, and they were not happy or celebrating. They were quite angry and all fired up.

Maybe it was because I was coming from the silent meeting for worship, but I was shocked and confused. Then I saw their signs about Arizona.

Of course. They were protesting the new Arizona law requiring state and local police to request proof of U.S citizenship from anyone they stop and suspect is an illegal immigrant, and they were targeting the director of homeland security, Ms. Napolitano, the morning’s honored guest and speaker. Perhaps I should have known.

But I was still shocked. Perhaps I was just not ready for such a large, noisy and angry protest. There was also a bunch of police, and it didn’t help that I had to go through a small contingent of supporters of the new law. Yikes!

And, more significantly, I was still confused.

When I made it into the graduation area, I saw that I had made it in plenty of time to hear Ms. Napolitano speak. I heard a few others speak before her, including honorary degree-recipient Robert Towne, the screenwriter of such highly regarded films as "Chinatown" and also a 1956 Pomona graduate. Hearing them was no problem, but there was definitely no escape from the relentless, furious noise from the protesters. I was exhausted just wondering how they kept it up. I was also wondering why they were doing it.

It’s not that I didn’t agree with what the protects were saying. Like them, I think the new Arizona law will lead to racial profiling and is discriminating and divisive. I also strongly believe in speaking up and protesting. But it seemed to me these people were barking up the wrong tree - and being unnecessarily obnoxious about it, to boot.

Sure, Ms. Napolitano and President Obama are operating with some of the old immigration policy from the Bush and previous administrations, but both have said that it has to be changed and made fairer, and both have strongly and clearly condemned the Arizona law. President Obama has directed the Department of Justice to see if the new law is unconstitutional, and Ms. Napolitano has said that if she was still governor, she definitely wouldn’t have signed the bill.

So why were these people angry at her? It occurred to me that they were perfect examples of liberals who are angry at Obama for not being the miracle-making Jesus that they expected.

More significantly, I was frustrated - yes, mad - at being made to feel bad for wanting to hear Ms. Napolitano. It was like I was guilty, like I supported the Arizona law. Moreover, although the college official who introduced Ms. Napolitano, who also received an honorary diploma, said that it was very exciting and a great honor that the day’s speaker was playing such a critical role in a vital national issue and also noted that many in attendance were wearing white ribbons in opposition to the law (if I’d known, I would have worn one), I felt bad for the graduates and their families and friends, whose big day was being marred.

I do wish Ms. Napolitano talked a bit more about policy. Instead, she veered more toward traditional commencement sentiments - being secure in one’s knowledge and values, having conviction and courage. In any case, I noticed that by the end of the speech, the protesters had left.

I left after the speech, I ran into a friend who had taken part in the protest and who was helping carry away a large sign. I was asked what I was doing there. "Are you protesting discrimination?" I laughed and said yes as they walked past me. If there had been more time, I would have explained that I was there to protest discrimination and also to listen to Ms. Napolitano.

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