The Democratic View: The American Tradition of Unpaid Protest

By Kathy Zahler

I had to laugh when the trope of “paid protesters” started making news following the Women’s March in January. As my sister asked from the aptly-named sister march in New York City, “Where do I send my time card?”
To our east, new U.S. Representative Claudia Tenney called for conference calls rather than facing her electorate in a town hall meeting that might be disrupted by “paid protesters.” John Katko did the same thing in Syracuse. Only after weeks of bad press and protest outside her offices did Tenney finally relent and promise to schedule meetings for March. A quick trip to her website finds no such meetings scheduled. You can, however, sign up on Katko’s website for a future telephone town hall at a time to be determined.
Some Trump supporters have called the various and continuing protests against his administration’s policies and actions “un-American.” In this, they could not be more wrong. The Boston Tea Party was not a tea party. It was a raucous protest complete with destruction of property in opposition to the colonies’ lack of representation in the British Parliament. From that original Tea Party to the Occupy Movement to the rallies today outside our representatives’ offices, protest – difficult, unruly, and yes, unpaid – has a strong, essential tradition in the United States.
The point of protest marches is to express resistance and to stand in solidarity with other, like-minded people. Some protests fizzle. Some – think women’s suffrage, civil rights, labor – burgeon into social movements that bring about change.
My earliest connections to protest were in 1960s-1970s Ithaca, when factions in our institutions of higher learning were deeply involved in antiwar politics. The National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam had its own Cornell Vietnam Mobilization Committee on campus. Along with Quakers, Daniel Berrigan’s Cornell United Religious Work, and several student groups, the Mobe Committee organized a major moratorium on October 15, 1969. This was a day on which like-minded protesters across the country held vigils, marches, speak-ins, and rallies. At Cornell, university President Dale Corson was the first of many speakers. According to the Cornell Daily Sun, it cost $1 to hear Melanie and other, less famous folk singers. Did the day of protest end the war? No. But it included Ithaca in a far greater mosaic of protest. Cornell’s “America Is Hard to Find” weekend the following April would bring 15,000 war resisters to Barton Hall.
The six Catholic Workers who sat in at Congressman Reed’s office in February were continuing the peaceful but oppositional work of Berrigan’s CURW. There are people at Ithaca’s Black Lives Matter rallies and Ithaca College labor marches who took part in antiwar events on the hill long ago and who now rally and march for and with their children and grandchildren.
One of the many signs I liked this winter in Washington read, “I can’t believe we’re still protesting this [stuff].” It’s true. It’s exhausting. We marched to ban the bomb, and there are still bombs. We marched for women’s rights, and rights remain under siege. We marched against wars in Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq, and there are still wars.
So why do we do it if we’re not getting paid? To spend hours organizing, stand outside in the cold, carpool through the countryside to attend town halls – that sort of dedication seems incomprehensible to some. The answer is simple: If we are not marching, we are standing still. As James Baldwin famously said in 1955: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
If our local representatives cannot take that kind of heat, they should find another job. Protest is a proud and noble American tradition.
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Lansing will hold its village election on April 25, with polls open noon to 9 p.m. Following school elections in May, the next critical date on the election calendar is June 6, which is the first date on which candidates may circulate petitions to run for town and county races.
A few new candidates have come forward, and a handful of incumbents have expressed a desire to run again or retire, but there will be a flurry of activity over the next month or two. Anyone with an interest in running for office, learning about running for office, or assisting on a local campaign should call Chairperson Irene Stein at (607) 266-7579.
This may be an off-year, but I count 60 seats up for election in Tompkins County this November. Surely there’s a place for you in all of this local activity! Check the website at or like us on Facebook to learn more.
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Kathy Zahler is director of communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee.