Peaceful Protests and Prejudice

This article, in a slightly edited form, first appeared on Pain News Network on June 6, 2020.

The Salt Lake Tribune recently published a story that distressed me. It said that Scott Senjo, a criminal justice associate professor at Weber State University in Utah, tweeted threats at those who were peacefully protesting the alleged murder of George Floyd.

His incendiary comments are hard to accept, particularly in light of actions of by a Minnesota police officer. The peaceful protestors whom Senjo threatened in his tweets were innocent of any crime.

Our First Amendment Right to Protest

Amazingly, protests can trigger anger in some people. Sometimes, they are willing to suggest harming, or even killing, the protestors. It is even worse when political leaders specifically suggest using military force to “dominate” protestors. These perverted, authoritarian attitudes are attempts to deny Americans their First Amendment right to peacefully “assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

George Floyd’s death from asphyxiation by a police officer lit a match to a tinder box of anger and frustration built up over centuries. The outrage has become national, and even international, in scope.

At the outset, the protests focused on anger about the injustice and police brutality levied against people of color. As the peaceful protests intensified, however, the actions became diffused by people who were committing acts of violence and unlawfulness. Some engaged in looting, arson, and other crimes. These destructive actions nearly drowned out the voices of peaceful protesters who were trying to be heard.

Understanding How Violence Begins

Critics such as Scott Senjo may draw no distinction between the two groups, and may simply think of all protestors as criminals, radicals, and revolutionaries who want to destroy property and tear down America’s values. For some, it may not matter whether protests are peaceful or not; anyone who opposes authority, in their opinion, should be met with a heavy-handed response.

You may remember the story of Francine Hughes, who stood trial for murdering her husband as he slept. The book and movie based on her experiences are called The Burning Bed. Hughes suffered years of domestic abuse, and the police refused to help her. Finally, she felt her survival depended on ending her abuser’s life. Her violent protest of the brutality she suffered was wrong, but it was understandable. Outrage at oppression and the will to survive can elicit primal behaviors.

Today’s protestors are reacting to oppression, injustice, violence, and racism that have never been adequately addressed. We, as a society, have continued to tolerate a criminal justice system that subjugates those who lack the resources to defend themselves (along with some people who can afford legal representation). It is easy to point fingers at abusive members of law enforcement without questioning how we, ourselves, contribute to the situation with our own behaviors.

Even Nonviolent Protestors May Be Demonized

It is a fallacy to think that even peaceful protests by people of color are accepted. National Football League (NFL) quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police violence and social injustice. President Trump deemed his action to be disrespectful to our flag and our heritage, and he suggested that the NFL fire anyone who kneels during the national anthem. Many Americans applauded President Trump’s remarks. Indeed, Kaepernick apparently was blackballed from the NFL after his peaceful protest, and his football career was severely damaged.

Peaceful protests of police brutality are, metaphorically, another form of kneeling during the national anthem. It is not disrespectful to kneel in protest, and it is not wrong to ask that those in power treat all people with dignity and respect. On the contrary: peaceful protesting shows respect for our flag and our First Amendment rights.

People in pain can probably relate very personally to current events. They have been verbally protesting peacefully for years, but their voices haven’t been heard. Their suffering hasn’t been sufficiently acknowledged or addressed. Unfortunately, most people in pain would struggle with the physical requirements of in-person protesting. Yet their frustration and anger are similar in many ways to the feelings of those who are protesting George Lloyd’s death.

How to Peacefully Protest

If you are among the hundreds of thousands of people who want to protest peacefully, please know the rights you have and the rules you must follow. CNN has a helpful article about what you should understand.

For example, while you are entitled to peacefully protest, you are bound by certain restrictions, including “the time, place and manner of the protest.” You can’t break a curfew, and you are not allowed to walk on a highway or block roads without getting a permit ahead of time.

Plan ahead so that you can stay as safe as possible. Wired recommends wearing comfortable shoes; carrying cash rather than a credit card so that you can retain your privacy; and bringing hand sanitizer, water, snacks, and a face mask. Also, take along a change of clothing in case yours becomes sweaty or contaminated by chemicals.

If the protest does turn violent, you may be subjected to tear gas. Today reminds us that the immediate effects of tear gas are temporary. They will pass, so do not panic. Also, avoid wearing oil-based sunscreens and lotions, as well as contact lenses, because they can trap tear gas and cause problems.

Protesting is our right, but destroying property is not. The latter is criminal behavior.

An Example of How We Will Heal

I want to close by sharing an example of the Randolph, Massachusetts Police Department (see the above photo). It was taken a few minutes after a planned protest was scheduled to begin on June 4.

The planned protest did occur, and it was peaceful. Perhaps that was at least partly because of how members of the police force greeted the protestors.

The Randolph Police Department evidently trusted that anyone who participated in a protest would do so in a spirit of peace and respect, and they felt a responsibility to respond in kind. They also wanted to demonstrate their solidarity with a statement made by Randolph Chief of Police William Pace: “The Randolph Police Department will always be committed to providing the best possible service to the community in a dignified and equitable fashion. Officers are trained to approach every situation with respect, compassion and fairness, and these are all traits that were not present in the treatment of George Floyd.”

Thank you, Chief Pace, and your police force, for your service and your compassion. This is where our country’s healing begins.


Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, The Painful Truth,” and co-producer of the documentary,It Hurts Until You Die.” Opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views or policy of PRA Health Sciences.

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.


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