In the weeks leading up to this blog entry, I had planned on writing about something I was comfortable with—land use, alternative transportation, transit-oriented development, and the like. But as I sit here in the Dome Room of the Rotunda on this unusually warm February afternoon, I cannot help but be distracted by the crowd forming outside. Their chants echo across the terrace and into our little Pantheon. “What do we want?” “A Living Wage!” “When do we want it?” “Now."
The Living Wage Campaign at the University of Virginia has been making headlines for some time now, but an ongoing hunger strike and increased visibility around Charlottesville has brought it to the forefront of not just local, but regional issues. Just an hour to our east, silent protests in Richmond over the state’s anti-abortion legislation have made national headlines as the issue of women’s health steps into the political spotlight.
Virginia, for the time being, is a protest state. I wonder how Mr. Jefferson, the University’s founder might have thought about this. We get a glimpse in a letter he wrote to James Madison, January 30, 1787, in which he said, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
The Atlantic Cities recently featured an interesting article on the issue of protests in American communities. The author, Emily Badger, questions why these and other protests have not escalated to violent riots in recent years. When one considers the disastrous effects of the recent recession, the question becomes even harder to answer. She looks to University of Pennsylvania historian Michael Katz’s new book on urban violence for his opinion on the subject. Very generally, one of Katz’s arguments is that the masses have become complacent in the new “consumer republic.” He notes, “It's good that we don't have mass civil violence, for sure. But the question is: Why don't we have more political mobilization?”
As I sit here in the Rotunda, constantly distracted by tourists, prospective students, but most notably the Living Wage Campaign, I have to disagree with Mr. Katz. The political mobilization is present here in Virginia, and with the Tea Party and Occupy movement, political mobilization is present across the country.
Indeed, we do not have the mass civil violence of decades past. With few exceptions, my generation has not experienced urban violence comparable to that seen at the height of racial turmoil in the 1960s. But that does not mean progress is not being made now; the importance of nonviolent protests and organizing through social media cannot be downplayed when discussing contemporary social and economic unrest.
The relative lack of violent protests and urban riots is, in my opinion, something to be celebrated in America. We must feel safe in our community and comfortable in contributing and critiquing opinions. Change in our communities is healthy and happening, and nonviolent protests like the Living Wage Campaign should not only be expected, but also welcomed with open arms.
Ryan Yowell, Guest Contributor