People are dying to give you the right to do this.” This mumble was directed to me by a lanky man pushing a baby carriage as he walked by.

I was standing on the street next to the liberty pole with a group of fellow protesters, holding a sign with a quote from Gandhi reading, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

The man wouldn’t engage in a discussion with me and I didn’t press him too hard to do so. I understood the temptation to utter one-liners better suited for bumper stickers rather than engaging in real dialogue. But I also understood that no one was dying to give me the right “to peaceably assemble.”

That right was affirmed with the rest of my First Amendment rights in 1789.

Protesting, or just assembling, has always been a key function in the operation of any of the activist groups that I’ve known. Recently however, the merits of this form of expression have been under attack.

These attacks stem primarily from two ideas about the nature of protest. The first is that it serves no real purpose, i.e. it will not, in and of itself, change any laws and probably won’t achieve its goals. The second claim is that protesting against the current actions of our government in Afghanistan degrades our country’s unity during this time of war.

I believe both claims to be seriously flawed. Publicly protesting or advocating something that you believe in is anything but pointless. This misconception is based on the notion that the only reason to protest a law, action, etc. is to provoke an immediate change. Proponents of this idea argue that a small group of people in Rochester protesting a war in Afghanistan will accomplish nothing.

In one very narrow respect, they are correct. My quaint sign will not stop a single bomb from being dropped, or stop lives from being lost. Although I would love for my sign to have that effect, I’m slightly less ambitious when I take to the street.

I believe there to be two main purposes to protesting something as large-scale as a war. The first is to accept the opportunity to express my opinions. This is no small thing. I need not draw from countless examples throughout the world and history where I would not be able to do so.

To merely voice our opinions to our televisions as we shout at the six o’clock news is to waste the precious gift ? or rather right ? we possess of freedom of expression.

The second purpose of protesting is education. By protesting something you have an opinion of and knowledge about, you may educate others about a situation. This education can take the form of transference of information or the sharing of ideas.

Protest can be so powerful because it has the ability to change people’s minds. After talking to friends and family over break, I realized that some people are completely unaware of valid, opposing viewpoints on our government’s actions in Afghanistan. It never occurs to some people that not everyone is rallying behind President George W. Bush and plastering their homes with American flags.

At the very least, protest raises awareness of issues and may incite others to learn more about a situation. The right to protest has also been under attack on the basis that we should all be unified behind our military and president, and to protest our recent military actions is to undermine this nationalism.

I think the problem with this line of reasoning, if it can be called that, was expressed nicely by a friend who stated, “I don’t really know everything about what’s going on in Afghanistan ? I just think it’s important and best for all of us to be behind President Bush and our military right now.”

As disappointed as I was to hear such a submission to apathy coming from my friend, I realized that the idea behind her words was not an uncommon component of many Americans’ thought processes.

What bothered me, and should bother you, is not her agreement with military action, but her willingness to abandon her right to have her own opinion and exchange it for one manufactured and spoon-fed to us everyday by the media and the government.

Let us never put such a blind trust in the government. None of us knows enough about what is going on in the name of America. Government officials brush off our questions, claiming the answers would compromise the integrity of vague missions we know next to nothing about.

Why should we unify ourselves under a blanket of ignorance?

If protesting will degrade this type of unity, then I will be the first to offer my support. Our right to protest is an important right we are fortunate enough to possess. We can deny the candy of ignorance and apathy, educate ourselves and change people’s minds simply by exercising a right promised in a very old bill.

That is a powerful thing.

Olton is a sophomore and can be reached at

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