writing on suffering and awakening

How to protest in a way that helps everyone

Over the past ten days, millions of people have marched in support of freedom, democracy, human rights and human decency. This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. The protesters want a world where everyone is loved and respected and where we look out for each other. I believe that really, this is what everyone wants.

The protests have so far been nonviolent and positive. In order to work in the long term, it’s important that they continue to come from a place of compassion, not anger.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that using anger as fuel for action is harmful, even if that anger is directed at social injustice. In other words, doing the right thing for the wrong reasons causes more harm than good. Think about it—when was the last time you acted in anger and had a helpful result?

If we protest oppression from a place of anger, the anger ends up coloring the protest. The protesters get caught up in the anger and close themselves off to the humanity of those they are protesting against. People who might otherwise agree with the protesters feel the anger and close themselves off to the message. Everybody ends up manning the barricades on their particular side. It just doesn’t work.

Protest that arises from compassion is different. When we protest from a place of compassion, we’re doing it with the intention to help liberate all people, not just those on our side. We open our hearts to everyone and then speak our truth.

Here’s what that looks like, in three steps:

  1. Understand that everyone is human, and that injustice hurts both its victims and its perpetrators. When we hurt someone else, we suffer too. Nelson Mandela acknowledged this when he spoke about the need to free the guards in a prison, not just the inmates.

  2. Actively offer love and compassion to everyone on all sides of the issue. Dr. Martin Luther King taught those who marched with him that they needed to love everyone, not just the people who agree with them. Practicing metta meditation or praying for the well-being of another is a great way to give love, especially to those we have conflict with.

  3. Speak your truth. With a spirit of compassion and loving-kindness, stand up for what you believe in. March, write, and speak when you see injustice. Stick with it. If you give up, that’s okay. Just begin again.

Protesting with compassion makes space for those who disagree with us to change their minds. We also make space inside ourselves to see our opponents as fellow human beings, not as agents of injustice. When we can meet each other person to person, things change for the better.

Ian Cooper