I Must Protest! (Maybe Not)

A few months ago, I went to see a movie. While me going to see a movie in and of itself is fairly unremarkable, what was remarkable was that the movie I was going to see was Penny Lane’s Hail Satan?, and my boyfriend had come down to visit for the occasion (not entirely relevant to my story, but it was the first time he’d been able to visit since I moved down to Houston, so it is of significance to me).

There were to be protestors at the theater.

Now, anyone who is involved with the Satanic community has probably heard of Hail Satan?. It’s a somewhat controversial documentary, initially shown at Sundance Film Festival, and now streaming on various platforms. It has been lauded as witty and intellectually challenging, mostly by fellow Satanists and those sympathetic to the cause of religious liberty for people besides just Christians.

As for what Evangelical Christians think, it doesn’t take much to figure it out. The fact that they were protesting it really tells it all.

I was a bit nervous about going, and understandably so. Protests, no matter how peaceably started, can get violent. I was expecting to have to fight through a crowd just to get into the theater. I was worried that some of the protestors might try to get physical.

It turns out, I worried needlessly.

We didn’t even see the protestors. My boyfriend and I initially though they chickened out, but we found out later that they were in fact there. Or, somewhere. Only a handful of them showed up, and they weren’t even at the actual theater (apparently the owner wouldn’t give them permission to protest on site, and they weren’t willing to get arrested over it – more on that in a bit). But they had their signs.

All in all, a pretty unsuccessful protest.

So why was this protest such a miserable failure? My theory is they had no sense of urgency. Those people weren’t at risk of losing anything by being there, except maybe a few bucks on the gas it took to get there. Satanists don’t represent a threat to their way of life (as long as you keep your bullshit to yourselves, we are happy to keep our own bullshit to ourselves). Not in the way Jim Crow is for black Americans (because let’s be honest, Jim Crow laws never really went away). Not in the way those cops were for the queens at Stonewall. Our Christian friends had nothing to lose by protesting simply because they weren’t at risk of losing anything in the first place, and they weren’t willing to risk anything for it.

Historically speaking, the most effective protests are the ones where the protestors are putting something at risk (more often than not their safety or their jobs). Otherwise, who would pay attention? If whatever you’re protesting isn’t worth risking anything for, why should anyone else take up your cause? It can’t be that important, so there’s no need for anyone to change their usual pattern of behavior, or contact their elected lawmakers.

Standing at the side of the road with signs might be a fairly effective advertising campaign for your fundraising car wash, but it doesn’t make a very good protest. Because an effective protest requires risk. And if you’re not willing to risk anything, what is the point in protesting in the first place?

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