Freer and Better Speech

This past week, the members of Wake the Vote were so fortunate to explore the Cleveland area around the Quicken Loans arena, where the RNC is holding its convention, and many more supporters, protesters, and commentators are surrounding the area. I say “fortunate” because we had plenty of police to keep the areas safe and secure, so we could exercise our democratic traditions. I also say “fortunate” because of those democratic traditions and rights we are so truly fortunate to have.

When I first entered Cleveland, I felt uncomfortable and unsafe for obvious reasons. Following countless police shootings of civilians, civilian shootings of police, and protests spiraling out of control, the Wake the Vote cohort and I had been concerned about our involvement in the RNC amidst the presence of protests, tensions between police and civilians, clashes between liberals and conservatives, and all the possibility of violence breaking out as we have seen across the county. However, a seemingly ever-present police force and its positive relations with the countless civilians, voters, delegates, and protestors on the streets brought me solace. I felt safe seeing police maintain control and peace throughout the city, all while working with protestors to protect both everyone’s safety and our rights to protest and demonstrate, as our Constitution guarantees us, but others may deny us.

Walking through the streets I observed countless journalists and reporters: the protestors, marchers, demonstrators, and self-proclaimed “silent anarchists”; Hillary supporters and Trump supporters; Democrats and Republicans. I saw people interviewing others to hear opinions on what they were seeing and feeling. I saw other people buying, selling, and sporting clothing and accessories of all political affiliations and oppositions, from “Make America Great Again,” to “Hillary for Prison,” to “Bill for First Lady.” I noticed people wearing their hearts quite literally on their sleeves. At this time, during which Americans have become so opinionated, polarized, and disheartened, I have begun to realize how fortunate we are as Americans that we have the rights to feel the way we do, openly express our opinions, and do so under the diligent security of our police.

What does make me upset, however, is our failure to use our rights for positive, productive purposes. The one time I witnessed people feeling unsafe or uncomfortable was when people and their opinions clashed with one another. As one group marched and chanted for radical political change, they were confronted by pro-Trump supporters who were undoubtedly thrilled by the nomination of their candidate. When the two groups came together, tension, distaste, and fear arose. I personally witnessed an old woman yell “all lives matter” at a group holding signs that said “black lives matter.” If that woman truly felt that all lives mattered, wouldn’t she have held up a sign of her own and marched in the streets to share her opinion, and stand for all those lives that matter? Or perhaps she simply wanted to dismiss the protestors’ message. Another woman yelled “We don’t want you here, get lost!” to another group of demonstrators. But doesn’t this American understand our right and privilege to protest and demonstrate?

RNC protestor

Most disheartening of all was when I first encountered a demonstration whose marchers criticized me, a mostly independent voter, who leans to the left. While Wake the Vote was present in Cleveland for the RNC, we have been wearing Wake the Vote t-shirts featuring Republican elephants and the letters “RNC.” Unfortunately, I was not aware of how quickly this shirt would label me a “bigot” or a “racist.” I was booed, harassed, and criticized by groups of people walking by, all because I had an elephant on my shirt. I attempted to explain to these critical passers-by that I was only wearing a t-shirt as a part of an academic group, and was in no way a bigot, or even a Republican voter. But the hecklers weren’t even interested in listening to what I had to say. They only wanted to criticize and attack me for presumably holding and expressing views alternative to their own.

It has become apparent to me that people only want to hear what they want to hear. Americans are only interested in the voices that express the same opinions as their own. People will follow only the Twitter accounts of people whose views align with their own, read the newspapers whose opinions they agree with, and watch the news programs that share the same news they want to hear.  While it may be most comfortable for someone to maintain dialogue that pertains to his or her own views, it can become a dangerous trend for our republic. People seem to be incapable of understanding opposing views, and therefore are unable to see the possibilities for compromise, the key to any diverse, democratic country. When I was yelled at for my Republican shirt, nobody cared about what I had to say; they merely wanted to attack me and my views and then carry on with their own. However, it’s the conversations and interactions we have with people whose views differ from our own that can build a strong country with a productive government.

richard burr

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