Protesting the Protest
The anti-abortion movement in our country is picking up steam, and they organized a national de-fund Planned Parenthood day on Saturday, Oct 10th. There was a big protest planned in Ventura, CA, and so Jamie and I decided to attend in support of Planned Parenthood. Obama has clearly stated he will veto any bill that de-funds Planned Parenthood, so our desire to attend was not for any practical political motive, but because we truly felt the protest was immoral and we felt inspired to lend Planned Parenthood some support. In short, we were protesting the protest. (If you want to read more about this issue, you can check out these articles: NPR, WP, Cosmo, Bustle)
It was only two weeks prior that a nearby Planned Parenthood in Thousand Oaks, CA was the victim of an arson attack. Moreover, the thought that people using possibly-sensitive medical services would have to face protesters as they walk into the building just seemed awful.
The next day Jamie and I drove to Ventura, where Jamie’s sister joined us at the protest. I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I knew we would be outnumbered, but I didn’t know we would be the only ones there in support.
There was just the three of us with our homemade signs surrounded by a crowd of over a hundred anti-abortion protesters. They were a well-organized and cohesive group. They had T-shirts, big signs, and a PA system that blasted live sermons about the value of life and faith.
It was more than a little uncomfortable as we found our spot and held up our signs. I could feel the tension, and the blatant glares made it even more obvious. A few people did eventually come up to give us their support. A nearby business brought us waters, and the Planned Parenthood gave us the one sign they had left (and took our picture with our signs 🙂 ). Even though the community support felt good, we were still greatly outnumbered, and we were constantly bombarded by defunders that wanted to question us about our motives.
It only took about 20 minutes for the first group to approach us. They all asked the same questions: why do we support Planned Parenthood, do we know that they sell baby parts, have we watched the videos, when does life begin…
“Do you know that a heart starts beating at four weeks?!!!” said one girl, probably around 17 years of age. “Do you know that they harvest organs while the fetus is still alive!!?” said another. “Don’t you care about all of the young girls that they murder every year?” screamed an older woman as she walked by.
There was just the three of us with our homemade signs surrounded by a crowd of over a hundred defunders.
I started every conversation by saying I didn’t want to get into it, but somehow I was sucked in each time. They would say things like, “Well we are here to defend our views because we feel strongly about them. I am just asking you to do the same.”
Finally I said, “yeah but there are a hundred of you, and three of us. You at least get to take breaks.” This made the woman questioning me laugh, which broke some of the tension, but then she went right into it, sucking me into her worldview of conspiracy theories and pseudo-science.
Even when the conversations were cordial, they still felt vacant. It wasn’t two beings discussing opposing views, it was one group talking at another and expecting them to change their mind.
Granted, I played into it too, even though I knew better. In the beginning, the awkwardness and tension made it difficult to look the other side in the eye. Their discomfort only added to this, and it all pointed to a situation where we weren’t people to each other. At some point the tension settled a little, and I felt myself easing into the scene. We still weren’t welcome by them, but it just all seemed to be OK. I could begin to look at the defunders in the eye and even smile. It was around this time that we changed locations to be in the shade.
I looked over at a guy with his pro-life sign and he looked at me. It was just a short, less than a second glance, but in that moment we were not protesters, philosophies, political groups or anything else. Just one being looking at another. It was such a subtle and simple thing.
After this brief shared moment, I said “Hey,” and offered a nod of the head. He returned the gesture. No ulterior motive except to recognize each other. Then he said with a disarming smile, “Too bad we can’t meet on better terms.”
“Yeah, well you know… You have your views, and I have mine. But were not wholly defined by that, and we’re still just people.” This eventually did lead into the same conversation I had with everyone else, but it had a different flavor. We were both deeply interested in the other persons view point. We still brought up our arguments, but it was all in the backdrop of Beingness. It felt like we could have been long-time friends over coffee having a little disagreement.
This of course brought up other issues. There were times when I was too polite. I never brought up that I felt it was wrong for them to be there, I never challenged the fact that his views might not actually be about saving lives at all. I found myself on the defensive more and pandered to his questioning about when life begins. (This is something that is echoed in our national political debates. Related New York Times article here.)
Don’t get me wrong. I do feel that being civil is important for these types of conversations, and I feel its important to treat the other side of political issues as one of us. But I don’t need to be a people pleaser. I don’t need to pretend that the other person’s view point is sane when it is not. I don’t need to be friends. That’s just another role.What is needed is to be deeply rooted in Being so my role as a protester can play out with awareness, compassion, truth and love.
What is needed is to be deeply rooted in Being so my role as a protester can play out with awareness, compassion, truth and love.
So it brings up the question: how can we see another person as a soul, as another human being, just like us, while at the same time standing firm in our view? How can we be deeply interested in the person before us, truly wanting to know what fuels them, while still willing to point out where they are inconsistent with their own logic, even when it means we might make them uncomfortable? And how can we be vulnerable, willing to be wrong, willing to be open to the other side, while still standing firm in our deepest values? How can we protest, pouring all of our energy and fire into it, without becoming caught in the drama of it all?
What I can say is that the experience rocked me deeply. And I now feel a strong desire to attend more protests like that. It totally knocked me off my center, confused me, and left me swimming in questions for days after. I found myself rehearsing conversations with them as I lay in bed at night, waiting to go to sleep. I found myself thinking about it on my meditation cushion.
I see it as an important work for the world, and an important work for myself. I am excited for my next protest. I am excited to be outnumbered. And though I am excited to educate myself on the issues more, I am equally as excited to study the Bhagavad Gita, to dive more deeply into my sadhana, and to explore the attachments that inhibit my ability to perform protest as an act of devotion and service.