• Daniel Ethan Finneran

On The Right To Protest, And Its Essentiality

April 2020

I awoke one morning, no longer ago than a week today, to read among the headlines that the act of protesting—that once unique and aboriginal American right—had been deemed by the Raleigh Police Department in North Carolina a “non-essential activity”.

It was, in the terse announcement of the department’s tweeted decree, an activity from which we might all do well to desist. Indeed, more than that, the department made clear, with an economy of words and a lack of rationale by which, even in the clarity of my more wakeful state, I’m still thoroughly shocked, that protesting is an activity from which its state’s citizens will be barred. They simply won’t be allowed to do it, so far as the department is concerned—and the department’s concern is rather final and complete. And, given the source of the pronouncement and the power with which its officers are endowed, one might imagine its enforcement coming not from the abridged suggestions of the Twitter-machine (of which they’ve proven themselves of making fine and expedient use), but from the muzzle of a state-issued gun—an instrument to whose persuasiveness very few people, despite their outward pretentions of patriotism and strength, are unsusceptible.

Bleary of eye and languid of spirit, I thought myself—with the passing of a hope by which all of my fleetingly happy mornings are daily attended—dizzily in error, if not still entrenched in the mental morass of what had become of a bad and terrible dream. I rubbed my eyes, stiffened my soul, and looked down yet again at the headline with which I was previously and rudely confronted. My first impression, however sluggish it might’ve been, wasn’t in fact amiss. For this, I was sorry. I wasn’t wrong in believing that which I saw, and was now sufficiently sober to realize this was no mere bad dream. The words on the page were true. Protesting in North Carolina, if not in America, had become a “non-essential” activity as I slept, blithely and uninterruptedly, overnight in the safe and distant comfort of my warm and silent bed.

Like so many of the other “insufficiently important” activities to which, to our great and accruing frustration, that pervasive and ill-defined “non-essential” tag has been affixed, that of protesting, that of demonstrating before our elected officials the grievances by which we’ve been burdened and seeking from them their prompt redress, has been deemed one—not unlike haircuts, barbeques, and gatherings on the beach—of which we can be stripped. State and local governments can simply take that right, and possibly many others, away from your weakening grasp. Surely, you might respond, the right to protest, the right of the people “peaceably to assemble and to petition the government” for a correction of the affronts of which it’s invariably justly accused, is only slightly more sacrosanct than those three things of which I made earlier note. Can we not, then, for the sake of a pandemic, simply treat them as being, for all intents and purposes, one in the same?

Apparently, when it comes to matters of essentiality, protesting, along with all those others activities, are indeed very much of the same ilk. They might just as well be grouped together as a collective and growing whole, a mass of nonsense between which there’s little variation to be seen. It appears to be the case, in a reversal of Orwell’s animal axiom, that some activities are less non-essential than others, and protesting, viewed on this list, doesn’t rise especially high. As such, protesting becomes but another cheap and trivial privilege, a thing quite inferior to the enumerated and Constitutional right it once irreducibly claimed itself to be. It becomes a plaything of local officials intoxicated by their own gaseous fumes of power, a past-time from whose pursuit their own citizens can be blocked. All this, by way of an alien virus and a petty tyrant’s anxious tweet.

I think, sadly, in deeming an action essential or not, those by whom the decision is made incompletely grasp the weight of the meaning of term. They fail to acknowledge, much less accurately to measure, the gravity of the word they so liberally bandy about. What, after all, does it truly mean to be essential? It’s not a question of passing moment, one impatiently to be cast off when otherwise bothered by the events of the day. It isn’t to be lost in the midst of the many exigencies from which, one week and now one month to the next, there seem to be no respite. It must be faced, and seriously so.

I urgently wonder if anyone has deeply, or even passively taken the time to busy him or herself with the thought. By whom, along the journey our subjective preferences, is something finally given that lofty, inviolable imprimatur of “essential”? How does one action or entity, as opposed to its competitor, arrive at that estimable point upon which all hope to converge? What can that one which failed not also do to arrive there? And, once there, for what duration of time can it retain this approbation and this title? How long does it sit atop that sky-tickling perch of the essential, and when, if ever, will it be told to come down? Once rescinded, can it ever be given its title again? Once fallen, can it ever again climb so high a height?

In the pursuit of these answers, for which, so far as it appears to me, our intrepid leaders haven’t the smallest interest, one needn’t delve into the ancient subtleties of Greek philosophy and Scholastic Christian thought, nor into the life-affirming peculiarities of the existentialist’s creed. Certainly, we could. One might flip through the edifying but obscure pages of the Metaphysics of Aristotle for an answer. There, in that great but recondite work, the distinction between substance and essence will at some length be found. The former is that of which both form and matter partake—a hylomorphic combination with which the Stagirite’s master, Plato, would rather animatedly disagree. Essence, on the other hand, is that which exists in virtue of itself—in the tranquil absence of any foreign influence by which it might be corrupted and changed. It is fundamental, self-sustaining, and, on its own merit, unfailingly complete. It can’t be convinced to be otherwise.

Taken as such, based on the original denotation of the word essence and, from it, essential, the right to protest in America must be considered just that. It can be nothing less, it can exceed to be nothing more. It is at its uppermost height, and our Constitutional foundation. It is, in every meaningful way, as essential as an essence can be.

Protesting is not only an essential activity, contrary to that opinion about which, as we’ve seen, the Raleigh Police Department is so dimly imperious, but, rather, the essential activity from which we derive our very life. It is the rudimentary and native imprint upon our bones by which our American body is defined. It is that indivisible, inextricable part of us upon which, in foul weather or fair, we can always reliably lean. It is, in conclusion, something in whose absence we can’t hope to live, a vital piece of ourselves apart from which we can’t imagine ourselves. To call it otherwise is to misconstrue not only the term in itself, but the soul of the people, the spirit of America, by whom it’s given life.

A foreign pandemic, introduced from the Orient, has caused us to forget our essence. An anxious tyranny, grown on our shores, has ensured that it won’t soon be recalled. A supine people, living inside us, seems unequal to gathering its once mighty effort. In what ways do we ravage ourselves?

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