Recently I was in Portsmouth New Hampshire, a very small coastal town in the very small New Hampshire coastline. It was one of the coldest days so far this year and my friends and I were darting in and out of the little shops in the downtown area. When we passed a church, I noticed that there was a group of protesters standing by the road and showing their distaste about the wall and a number of other new political policy’s. Immediately after getting inside the next store and numbing myself back to a more reasonable state I wondered out loud “Who in their right mind would volunteer to stand outside on a day like today?” and sequentially “In such a small town what do these people think they will accomplish from freezing in the square with their signs?” Could such a small action like this actually provoke any change? Is it worth it?
From these ponderings, I decided to induct my first ever interview and walked over to ask who I could talk to. I was quickly directed toward Arnie Alpert the co-director of American Friends Service Committee in the New Hampshire office (https://www.afsc.org), an organization dedicated to social justice, peace, and nonviolent action, he has been working there since 1981. Below is that interview.
Q: What do you hope to achieve by standing out here?
A: This is a weekly event here in Portsmouth, it’s called Civil Rights Sunday and it’s been going on pretty much every week I’d say since the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president. The main group that organizes it is a group called Occupy Seacoast which grows out of the Occupy movement you might remember from a few years ago which supported the idea that it was important for people to be present in public spaces to stand up for democracy, for civil rights, for fundamental change in this country and to fight against inequality. That spirit continues here in downtown Portsmouth in a very busy public square. It’s the idea of democracy being something that isn’t just what we do on election days but what we do all the time in terms of how we live and how we try to engage the public in discussions about matters of public policy. For civil rights Sunday there’s often different themes, one week it might be a focus on the rights of immigrants, another might be on the rights of woman and a third week might be about the right to vote, sometimes it’s a potluck just based on whoever shows up.
Q: One of the main topics from my class is based on democracy and whether or not we are losing democracy, what is your personal standpoint on that?
A: There is a lot of risks right now. Democracy as a word used to be based on concepts of human rights which are not being observed by the current presidential administration. We can see this through there cruel treatment of immigrants and the way in which voting rights are being eroded around the country making it harder for a lot of people, especially college students, to be able to vote. But we also see people fighting back and changing things. We just saw recently in Florida the movement that had made it illegal for people who had committed felonies to be able to ever vote again in their lives, basically to lose your citizenship forever in effect for having done something wrong, that’s now been changed because people pushed to change them. That’s something that disproportionately affected people of color who are already disproportionally affected by the inequities of the common justice system, which is a way of disenfranchising people. Now in a sense by changing that law in Florida we are re-enfranchising people and strengthening democracy. It’s never just one thing or the other.
Q: What is the best thing that has come from standing out and publicly voicing your opinion?
A: Next week there is going to be the third annual woman’s march which is going to take place right here in the square of Portsmouth. There are people who are organizing for that and I was just with some of them to help them figure out how to make sure it stays peaceful and they have another meeting after this Civil Rights Sunday. To me what’s important is that we have people in this community, people all other the state, people in Rhode Island and people everywhere all over the country, participating in a protest. Little pockets of people who are saying we are going to stand up for Democracy, we are going to stand up for peace, we are going to stand up for civil rights, we are going to stand up against racism and misogyny and we are going to insist on bringing about change and we are not going to give up until we have done it. That keeps me encouraged and that keeps me hopeful that we really can do so.
Do these small acts truly affect policy and create change? The answer is twofold. Arnie Alberts comments were not strong enough to inspire me to grab a sign and join in and I still am not sure if the Civil Rights Sundays of Portsmouth, New Hampshire will actually make any tangible change on its own but this collective action of small groups around the country do signify something important. They show that no matter what criticisms there are of our democratic state there is still always opportunity to participate and indulge in your own democratic right with the hope that your public participation with encouraging others to think more deeply or act themselves, creating a larger and larger movement towards change and general democratic involvement.