August 25th, 2008
12:35 PM ET

At the DNC, is protesting unpatriotic?

Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
AC360° Contributor
The Ethics Guy,

The fear that as many as 30,000 protestors will disrupt the 2008 Democratic National Convention this week has led to preparations for an unprecedented turnout by federal and local authorities, according to the New York Times. The city of Denver has spent over $2 million on protection equipment for police officers, and millions more from the federal government will be tagged for Secret Service, FBI agents, and others charged with maintaining law and order. It’s quite possible that protests planned for the Republican National Convention, to be held in Minneapolis-St. Paul from September 1-4, will be even larger and more intense.

With such a hefty price tag for keeping the peace and the logistical nightmare of doing so, wouldn’t it be better if the protesters just kept their mouths shut? Isn’t it unpatriotic to voice dissent about political matters? What good does protest do, anyway?

The correct answers are: no, no, and a lot.

Here’s why.


Our country was founded on the twin platforms of dissent and protest. Dissent is thinking or feeling differently about something, and protest is taking action based on dissent. It’s easy to dismiss protests as the undertakings of zealots and kooks, but the history of the United States is largely one of protest: the Boston Tea Party, the Revolutionary War, and the Declaration of Independence are quintessential examples of protest and the reason why we have the freedoms we do.

“What does this have to do with me?” you might ask. “I’ve never protested anything in my life.” This isn’t true, at least if you’ve ever voted. Voting is the most powerful way you can make your voice heard, and it is often done as a form of protest. Don’t believe it? How often have you said, or heard someone else say, “I’m voting for candidate X not because I like him or her, but because I like the other candidate even less”? Not only is there nothing wrong with using your vote this way, but it would be wrong if you were truly bothered by what a candidate represented and did nothing about it.


Yes, we have a responsibility to speak up when we are upset by what’s going on in the world, but there are better and worse ways to do it, from both ethical and practical perspectives. The goal of any protest is a moral one: to make things better. However, this concern must be balanced against the ethical obligations to do no harm, respect others, and be fair. With these concerns in mind, I propose the following code of ethics for those on both sides of the forthcoming protests:

  1. Obey the law, or be willing to accept the consequences. Civil disobedience has an important role in democracy, but those who break the law, even in the name of a higher moral good, may have to pay a significant personal price. Rosa Parks rightly protested the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South but was arrested, went to jail, and received death threats. Those who take issue with any aspect of either convention should keep the law in mind at all times and recognize that the failure to do so may lead to civil or criminal penalties, or both.
  2. Be tolerant. It is great to be passionate about your point of view. It’s also great to recognize that others may not share it or even be passionately opposed to it. Yes, let others know what you think and feel, but remember Newton’s third law of motion: “For every action, there is an equal, but opposite, reaction.” Tolerance is a necessary condition for respectful protest. We should embrace diversity, not wish it away. 
  3. Being respectful increases the chances that you’ll get you what you want. Respectful protest doesn’t guarantee that you’ll achieve the result you’re hoping for, but disrespectful protest almost certainly means you won’t. This is where ethics meets practicality: by honoring the ethical principle of respect for others, you increase the likelihood that your voice will be heard rather than ignored.
  4. Accept that fairness is a bedrock of democracy. Winston Churchill noted that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried,” and fairness is one of the distinguishing characteristics of democracy. To be fair is to give to others their due, and in the context of protesting, this means that everyone deserves to be heard. Some cable news hosts and pundits seem to believe that yelling makes one’s argument stronger, but all it does it make it louder. Shouting someone down may make for entertaining television (for some), but at a political rally it is coarse, rude, and unethical.
  5. Recognize that our eyes are on the same prize. Judging by what each candidate says about the other, you’d think that one person stood for all that is right and good, while his opponent wants the exact opposite. But of course that’s nonsense. Both want what every rational person wants: a stable economy, a safe country, a livable environment, affordable housing, and the freedom to pursue one’s dreams. Yes, the two sides differ about how to get there—with such complex problems, that’s to be expected—but demonizing those who hold a different point of view isn’t just deeply disrespectful; it is a distortion of the truth, which is just as bad. 
  6. Spend your money. Whatever side of the fence you’re on, if you go to either convention, you owe a debt of gratitude to your host city. The best way to pay this debt is the old-fashioned way: with lots of your own cash. If Denver is your destination, go shopping at Larimer Square or LoDo, or drop by the Tattered Cover, one of the best independent bookstores in the country. If you’re heading to Minneapolis-St. Paul, check out the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Children’s Museum, or the shops and restaurants on Grand Avenue. Most of all, spend, spend, spend! Not only should you not feel guilty for taking some time for yourself, you ought to indulge—for yourself, and for the town that is making your all of this possible. Even in a flagging economy, sometimes there is an ethical obligation to splurge, and this is one of those times.
  7. Above all, take the high road. Whether you’re going to protest or to represent your party, you will encounter insults, nastiness, and other forms of hostility, and it will be easy to give in to the temptation to respond in kind. Don’t. You are there to advance your cause, and the best way to do this is to keep ethics front and center in all that you do. Besides, cameras will be everywhere, and the whole world will be watching. How do you want others to see you?
soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. John Engel

    Eventually, all that protest etiquette is useless as teats on a bull. If anyone thilnks the military/industrial/congressional complex will "change their ways" cuz a group of demonstrators "followed the rules of protest", man, are they dreaming. Eventually, eventually, violence, death, and fear of the American People will change government. Until then, all I can say is bend over and smile.

    August 25, 2008 at 7:21 pm |
  2. Kent, Illinois

    John Travis.............I agree.

    Bush has completely ignored the Constitution and does whatever he wants........without repercutions. Cheney as well. This Administration has gotten sooooooo wealthy at the expense of America it isn't even funny. Protest? This country in the past has had to protest to change many things.........not so much since the late 60's and early 70"s though. We may need a Civil War before this is all over...............

    August 25, 2008 at 4:56 pm |
  3. Kent, Illinois

    The real protest will be at the Republican convention next week. That will be an amazing display. They have turned out pretty tame in Denver so far. Hey.......the American public isn't mad at the Dems. They are mad as H_ll at the Republican Party. And, if you aren't? You are part of the problem..............

    August 25, 2008 at 4:52 pm |
  4. jim

    Protesting is not unpatriotic especially with Barack Hussein Obama being the most corrupt candidate in history He is a racist with his remark "typical white person" CNN would nail McCain if he said typical black person. It is typical of your biased reporting. Then there is Barack's association with Terrorist William Ayers and Lobbyists. He sure doesn't listen to the American people which 80% are in favor of off shore drilling and nuclear power. He thinks he knows what is best for the American people. I think he would prefer to be dictator than president.

    August 25, 2008 at 3:58 pm |
  5. Dennis

    Perhaps security would be best provided by the warlords of Chicago.

    August 25, 2008 at 3:51 pm |
  6. SARA.ro

    Strong words.Stunning picture!

    August 25, 2008 at 3:44 pm |
  7. Jan from Wood Dale IL

    Days of a good ole political protest are over, and have been for some time. In Denver, the protesters will be confined to the demonstration zone. This "zone" is about 700 feet from the Pepsi Center, and it is separated from the Center's parking lot by steel fencing atop concrete barriers. They decided not to use the looping barbed wire on top because the DNC said it looked too much like "Gitmo". So the "zone" has now been dubbed the "Freedom Cage".

    It is very unlikely that any of the protesters voices will be heard, or that they will be given any media coverage.

    August 25, 2008 at 3:27 pm |
  8. Heather

    Also amusing is that after 911 Bush suggested we go shopping. Liberals attacked him for that! But here we have someone suggesting that to be a good "patriotic protester" you have to go shopping.

    How odd how much the Liberals say the same things as republicans; just that when they say it it is OK, when the republican says it, it is bad.

    Bush says go shopping, this is bad. A CNN Contributor says go shopping, this is good!

    August 25, 2008 at 3:22 pm |
  9. Heather

    At the DNC, Is protesting unpatriotic? This seems an odd question.

    Aren't the Democrats the party that insisted that dessent was patriotic? So are you suggesting that dessent is OK if it is aimed at Republicans or at the Bush administration; but it is not patriotic when it is directed at the Democrat party.

    That is almost funny!

    August 25, 2008 at 3:17 pm |
  10. Lynn

    Stop the Predjudice,a House divided cannot stand. God is real he is watching all of us. Let's face it Democrats, the republicans, I don't care who they are, are trying to keep their high dollar lifestyle. Thinking we are easy pickings, they are sure to try anything to get you to side with them. McCain is doing nothing to gain your vote but yet some of us have a problem voting our economical interest. Think of your children whether it be them going off to war in the future ( I bet you some of these children are still probably in High School right now) or getting a fair shake at the American dream like some others who can already afford it. You have nothing to gain voting Republican, because if you did you would have it already. I don't care what color the zebra in the zoo is, if I could benefit from it I'm going that way. Trust me, the Republicans really don't like they're candidate either but they are not going to vote Democrat. This time some of you are voting against yourselves. Obama has won the nomination fair and square and I'm told if the Democrats side with McCCain and McCain wins then when it comes to other elected officials such as governors, mayors,and etc. when it's time for re-election the betrayed Democrats will vote republican and will give those supporters what they want. Be careful what you vote for, you just might get it . What does a person have to do, to help you with your own struggles. Now we know what Jesus must have felt like when he tried to help, and the people chose Barrabas over him. God and the est of the world is watching and they have already come to a conclusion, whats yours? The Rush Linbaugh's and Sean Hannity's and even Hillary and Barack are able to withstand the McCain policies. What can you withstand? V O T E D E M O C R A T. It won't get no plainer than that.

    August 25, 2008 at 3:08 pm |
  11. Chris

    All but Bruce's sixth rule are solid. The federal government has injected several million dollars into law enforcement and public safety. Those are tax dollars, and I'm paying even from Philadelphia.

    It's irresponsible to tell people who may have sacrificed much simply to get to Denver to "spend, spend, spend," and to insist that there is "an ethical obligation to splurge."

    Were I to visit Denver, the city would owe *me* a debt of gratitude for choosing to visit and to spend my money even if only on the basics.

    One other thing: I wish Bruce would have addressed the absurdity of "Protest Zones" and "Free Speech Zones." That would have been far more intriguing than telling people to shop.

    August 25, 2008 at 3:08 pm |
  12. Mike in NYC

    To: Perry

    Your failure to spell "Benito Mussolini" correctly is a good indicator as to where your head is at.

    To: Mark

    That's the first mention of Alex Jones I've come across in these threads. Good times, good times!

    August 25, 2008 at 3:00 pm |
  13. Dan Engle

    Protesting is not unpatriotic at all. To truly hold your government accountable it's not only our right but our responsibility. I applaud the protesters at the DNC because it's those ears that need to hear and those minds that need to be changed.

    The above code of ethics are a good guideline but before you choose to follow them you should remember to do one thing... Dont forget to kiss the ground you're about to protest on because you live in a country that allows you to voice your opinion and challenge your government.

    August 25, 2008 at 2:45 pm |
  14. John Travis

    Political Correctness is not Protest or Dissent! The Politicians no longer pay any attention to the “We the People” unless they feel endangered and have great FEAR upon them. Since 1997, they no longer care if we live or die and have initiated our demise formally.

    The President no longer has to have the peoples consent for Un-Constitutional behavior because Congress will not do their job of enforcing our laws and the Constitution of the United States. Yes, they, support him and the New World Order. He signs contracts and treaties with foreign governments without anyone’s consent.

    You say we should keep the law tough our enemies do not.

    We will not be able to stop him or the ones to come as they have made up their mind to overthrow America. Our future protest must mirror the politicians’ lack of obedience to the law, as they have abandoned the law.

    August 25, 2008 at 2:43 pm |
  15. markansas

    are you kidding? most of these fine folks won't bathe all week, let alone adhere to some high-minded "ethical" framework. Get them to mix in a shower, then we can discuss the finer points of respectful protest.

    August 25, 2008 at 2:19 pm |
  16. Gillian

    You're kidding!?! "Spend your money" is part of your code of ethics for protesting.!?! Now I'm going to have to protest your blog.

    August 25, 2008 at 2:16 pm |
  17. Amelia

    Protesting is our right as American citizens. What, we have to be afraid to speak up because it's a presidential convention? I don't think so.

    August 25, 2008 at 2:12 pm |
  18. Dan Sichel

    Yeah, right. It was the polite, considerate, high road protests that ended the Vietnam war and Soviet rule. Protests work best when they are "in your face", confrontive and disruptive. Nobody pays ANY attention to polite people chanting peacefully in some irrelevant fenced off area removed from the convention center. But when Mayor Dailey laid out a red carpet (read bloodstained) for protestors, the nation listened. A nice fantasy Mr. Cooper.

    August 25, 2008 at 2:12 pm |
  19. Bob

    "Spend your money"

    how is this a protest advice?

    other ones seems legit.

    August 25, 2008 at 2:07 pm |
  20. Dan

    8. Do whatever this man tells you to do.

    August 25, 2008 at 2:06 pm |
  21. Bill

    That was a wonderful code of ethics for protesting...

    Now precisely what good has protesting done since the civil rights movement? Pretty much nothing because protesting has turned into a hobby, a weekend activity for those with little better to do. People protest to feel good about themselves, not to change things. If they actually wanted to change things, they wouldn't be protesting. They would, as Gandhi says, be the change they wanted to see in the world. Instead, they act like fanatical buffoons, wearing silly costumes and chanting x-rated nursery rhymes at police officers.

    August 25, 2008 at 2:02 pm |
  22. Stewart Zamudio (Poster Boy for the Army)

    Protesting in a creative and artistic manner is the most powerful way to voice yourself. You don't even have to go out physically to protest now a days, because you can reach millions by using technology such as the internet, magazines, music, the fine arts. The form of protesting has even changed due to our continuous modernization in technological advancements.

    I for one can attest to this in my own protests, towards the current administration.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:56 pm |
  23. Alan

    Excellent article! I agree it is sometimes hard to practice restraint when coming in contact with those who are opposing your protest/message but if you give in you may just make your message harder to convey.


    August 25, 2008 at 1:55 pm |
  24. yates

    Re # 6:

    So let me get this straight, any successful protest against American imperialism or the disastrous global effects of American consumerism must involve a trip to the Mall of America?

    August 25, 2008 at 1:55 pm |
  25. M. Rickey

    I say lets riot and riot good. Makes for some great tv watching. Sometimes it is good to see the good guys get there behinds kicked. Oama is a low life anyway so what the hey. He is not worth walking across the streeet to listen to or see.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:55 pm |
  26. laurie

    good article.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:53 pm |
  27. John Flanigan

    "Spend your money"? You obviously do not understand the nature of many modern day anti-capitalist stronghold amidst political protests. The point of respecting the "Host" city is fine but perhaps a better suggestion should go like : Volunteer at local homeless shelters, help organize a post-protest clean-up, etc.

    The city itself usually does a huge disserving to its own citizens during conventions such as violently removing the "burdensome" homeless poulation, making commute routes off limits or even more extreme messures like stopping suspicious looking people (like those wearing political messeges) for random bag checks.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:51 pm |
  28. TSMALL

    Please keep the protests going. It just makes them look like the angry fools that most fo the protesters are. They break windows and smash cars that could very well be fellow Dems. The world needs a strong Democratic American President. I do not see one running.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:48 pm |
  29. Kevin

    A peaceful protest defeats the purpose of the protest. Protests are always a last ditch effort to resolve a problem that has not been resolved through other means. There won't be much time for communication between the two parties during the short time they're within ear shot during the protest. So what brilliant arguement could the protesters have come up with that could make the other side see the light in just a few moments? Why didn't they bring this point up earlier? Why not just call and let this person know, instead of having thousands of people show up to tell them this? No, protests are about fear. Fear of what will happen to you if you do not listen to the protestors. Otherwise, there would be no reason to have as many people show up as possible.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:45 pm |
  30. Pat

    Dr. Weinstein

    Thank you for your time and effort. Great wisdom and information. But, I'm sure it will fall on deaf ears. Do you really think these PUMAS – ie: Paid Undignified Republican Menacing Arsenal Slingers give a hoot about wisdom or a peaceful demonstration? NO

    These are not disparaged Democrat Hillary Supporters. They are Paid Puppets for the Republican Party. They wouldn't vote for Hillary if the DNC made her the Nominee Today! Their thought to be Masked Deception is the biggest JOKE in every State through out America!

    They think they are fooling the Masses! They are only fooling themselves! And we will get the last laugh and Horrah! And spit red juice balls in their face at the Inauguration of Barack Obama, The Next President of the United States, despite the PUMAS' efforts to bring him down! They should all be carrying the signs depicting the FOOL as they enter the Convention! Oh what was that clever statement by the leading Republican Decider errr Leader? Oh yes, Fool me once.,,,, and and and and and ahhh ahhhhhhh you won't fool me again! GRIN ! Out with the Old – In with the New ! Fresh Air isn't it lovely!

    August 25, 2008 at 1:42 pm |
  31. Matthew

    I agree with the content of your article, but was it necessary to take an unprovoked shot at a certain cable news host? You undermine yourself by preaching tolerance and respect while practicing the opposite. You should look up hypocrite and limousine liberal in the dictionary.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:41 pm |
  32. t.hall flower mound tx.

    The fear is 30,000 protestors?

    It should be 300,000.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:38 pm |
  33. In Disbelief

    Most of the column was everyday CNN garbage, but I am still laughing over "spend, spend, spend!" as a component of "ethical" protest.

    Corporate news and analysis are simply beyond satire.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:36 pm |
  34. Perry

    Spoken like a true imperialist. Do the police show tolerance towards protesters by pepper spray and batons to the head? Telling us to spend, spend, spend? You obviously have zero knowledge of what most of the protesters coming to Minneapolis support. A lot of us are anti-capitalists/fascist. We feel that most of our problems stem from the corporate influences in America. Bennito Mussolinni had it right when he said "Fascism should be called corporatism, because it is the merging of state and corporate power." Wait till Minneapolis, that's where the action will go down.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:35 pm |
  35. Mark

    Those are 7 very good points. Right on! However, I feel that they will fall on deaf ears. Too many protests recently have been filled with the rabid fanatics of one agenda or the another. The WTO and World Bank protests come to mind. You can't educate people who have already made up their minds to drag the rest of us down with them. I love my country, but I'm really starting to dislike my countrymen – it seems that too many of them are starting to suckle from the teat of tabloid extremism, fear mongering gossip, and Alex Jonesian conspiracy. You poor fools.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:34 pm |
  36. Sebastian

    Protests by PUMAs and others are not unpatriotic. They're just stupid, given the fact that in the last 40 years, a heated or contested convention for one party has unerringly resulted in victory for the other party. If Hillary's Sore Loser Brigade gets ugly enough, they will guarantee a Republican President, a Supreme Court stacked against all of the things near and dear to the hearts of Hillary supporters, the continuance of Bush policies into another term (when will that nightmare end?), and a phenomenal backlash against Hillary in 2012 by furious Obama supporters. The incredible selfishness, irrationality and childishness of these groups is astounding. The poor, the elderly, soldiers in Iraq- all of them will suffer under a McCain administration so that PUMA and other groups can throw their petulant fit- in spite of the fact that Hillary is urging them to stop.

    But they have a right to protest and destroy the political future of both Obama AND Hillary. It's kind of pathetic and sad. Young people like me just wish our elders would grow up and act like adults.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:31 pm |
  37. Ms. D

    The media fail to mention that most of those protestors are anti-war protestors and not Hilary supporters. The media always have to keep tensions brewing amongs people. Negative sells in the media. I don't care how good a person do they always can pick apart something!!

    August 25, 2008 at 1:26 pm |
  38. aaron c

    awesome article! my own political views shifted dramatically after living in Seattle during the WTO protests (later 'riot') and watching the 'peaceful' protesters toss bricks through windows, burn trash cans, and attack the city's police. i was floored when later, some of the arrested protesters were claiming all sorts of laws being broken in detaining them, and conspiracies against them ...

    a few years later, being delayed in my commute to work because anti-war protesters felt the need to (illegally) march down the highway during morning rush-hour almost cost me my job!

    i began to realise that i had little in common with these screaming, vandalizing lawbreakers, and it caused me to do a full review of my political beliefs and choices.

    while i still understand that some of their causes are worthwhile, i no longer blindly follow those with the loudest bark.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:25 pm |
  39. Otto Von Hinkie

    "Obey the law, or be willing to accept the consequences"

    That is, of course, unless you have an attorney general who says "not all violations of the law are a crime".

    "Obey the law" does not apply to those in Washington...

    August 25, 2008 at 1:25 pm |
  40. Nicole

    Why is it that if someone goes against the grain in America they are considered unpatriotic? I have nothing against a "peaceful" protest. If we all agreed on everything this world would be a scary place to live so let them have their say! This is America after all!

    August 25, 2008 at 1:21 pm |
  41. B. Farrar

    Well said, and timely. Protest si the founding principle of this country and no one should be afraid to make their voice heard.
    I agree with you on the fact that, if your protest takes a form that violates the law, be prepared to deal with the consequences. If you chain yourself to a pole, that belongs to the city, and refuse to move, you will be taken to jail. Don't whine about how you are being persecuted for your beliefs; you are being prosecuted for your illegal act.
    Speak up!! You have an obligation as a citizen to make sure that other people know how you feel about the issues. You just don't have to the right to force them to feel the same way.

    August 25, 2008 at 1:18 pm |
  42. Cindy

    I think that it is patriotic to protest. I mean it shows that we as a nation have a right to free speech. And if we don't like something that is going on we have the right to join together and say so. Now...I am meaning peaceful protests and nothing more than that.

    But not allowing anyone to protest, now that is unpatriotic!


    August 25, 2008 at 12:55 pm |
  43. Mike in NYC

    Cause-starved young people needing an outlet.

    Each time, the slogans are as unimaginative as the last.

    August 25, 2008 at 12:49 pm |