This essay was published in a two-part series of opinions writers reflecting on their experience being arrested while protesting. Read the second account here.
The confirmation process of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh energized both Republicans and Democrats as they debated whether he should be confirmed amid allegations of sexual assault. Before Kavanaugh was confirmed to his lifetime appointment, a bitter, partisan battle took place with many protestors taking to the streets to express their displeasure.
Protestors risked arrest to stand up for their values, and I was among those arrested for inhibiting Congress by protesting on the Capitol Building steps on the day of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. I was detained with my hands zip tied together for a relatively short period of time and was released just two hours after being arrested. During that time, I wasn’t scared because in a room full of police officers, I knew the people sitting in chairs alongside me were all there for the same reason and were willing to support each other.
Additionally, as a white man, I don’t face the same possible repercussions people of other racial backgrounds incur when dealing with the police. While I agree with a fellow opinions writer who argues that students should follow the example set by Kavanaugh protestors and fight for institutional change at GW and in the government – it is especially important for students who come from privileged backgrounds to stand up.
At the protest I attended, only a few people appeared apprehensive about being arrested and some people left before the police began making a mass arrest. When a group of us were sent on a bus to a garage that served as a holding facility and were processed, the gender and racial makeup of the group became clear. Of the roughly 150 protestors I was held with, most were women and fewer than 20 were men, a representation I suspect resulted because women are more regularly affected by sexual assault. But more men should recognize their privilege and speak out about injustices against women.
Most of the people arrested were white, which shows the demographic that is able to protest with less fear of retribution. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, privilege plays a significant role in protesting and privileged individuals should use what they have been given to help uplift others.
Recognizing the role of privilege in protests allows those with more privilege to be allies to those with less. I had to pay a $50 fine in order to avoid jail time which was not a huge burden but some may not be able to sacrifice that amount. Therefore, those with who are able must step up and deal with the repercussions, economic or otherwise, to push for improvements on behalf of all citizens.
Some who are incredibly privileged may be less compelled to defend the rights of others because they are unlikely to be personally affected by certain issues at hand, but this is not an acceptable reason to be apathetic toward the plight of others. Having basic decency, compassion and empathy means we sacrifice for and protect one another. As citizens, it is our duty to use our rights to better the lives of those around us.
Many students at GW come from places of privilege, a benefit they should not be afraid to wield when protesting. Many come from upper-middle-class families, which puts them in a position to deal with the economic consequences of protesting, especially if they have their parents’ support.
Looking at the big picture reveals that I have incredible privilege, which gives me a tremendous advantage when protesting because of the low risk of serious, life-altering consequences. I wasn’t scared when I was detained or arrested and I was treated with respect the entire time, but not everyone can expect that.
Protesting is a way to bring people together and inform elected officials of public opinion. The point of protests is to change minds, but short of that, it’s to make voices heard. Sometimes – especially for poorly represented constituencies – it’s the only way to be heard.
Activism depends on everyday citizens to participate. But when the consequences of protesting further silence marginalized groups, it’s up to people with privilege to recognize their standing and sacrifice for all.
Matthew Zachary, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer.