January 22, 2021 Feature

Understanding Protests: The Importance of Meaningful Dialogue

By Keith Allen

“Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”1 The summer of 2020 was filled with an unending stream of protests. Why are these protests occurring? Are they effective in forwarding the protesters’ interests? Is there anything we can do to dissolve the underlying tension? While the First Amendment’s solution of meaningful dialogue may be uncomfortable, it has the potential to advance the interests of both the protesters and their detractors.

America Was Born from a Protest

Protests are part of America’s nature. This nation started when the colonists raised their voices—i.e., “protested”—against an unsympathetic king who treated them like outcasts. When British soldiers fired into a group of unarmed colonists during the Boston Massacre, this country declared to the world that people have a right to alter a government that ignores the basic truth that all people are created equal with certain unalienable rights.2 It created the First Amendment to show its commitment to “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” debate on all issues, including the right to peacefully protest.3

Protests generally arise when a group feels it has no voice and/or power against another group’s practice(s).4 Over time, the group gathers people with similar experiences to raise awareness of their plight. When the group grows large enough, it has the potential of expressing its position in the form of protests.

America does not assume that every protester is correct. Instead, it recognizes protests warn of areas where meaningful dialogue is absent. When the country heeds this warning, the resulting dialogue has the power to strengthen the union and change the course of history.

For example, the Boston Tea Party was the result of colonists who grew tired of “taxation without representation.” For more than 100 years, the king imposed increasing taxes on the colonists. When the king refused to listen to the colonists’ objections, 9,000 people staged a peaceful protest against the latest Tea Act.5 When that peaceful protest failed, 60 attackers disguised as Native Americans threw British tea into the ocean.6 The king’s continued refusal to engage in any dialogue led to the American Revolution.

The civil rights movement was the result of American frustration with Jim Crow laws. In 1943, a Black seamstress named Rosa Parks stepped on to a bus driven by James Blake. She paid her bus fare and, when she got off the bus to walk around to the back for her seat, she saw Blake drive off with her fare—a common practice to torment Black passengers.7 Parks avoided Blake’s bus for 12 years until that fateful day in December 1, 1955, when she inadvertently boarded Blake’s bus again. This time, Blake had her arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat to a white passenger. Black Alabamans staged a 381-day protest in which they refused to ride Montgomery buses.8

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers were arrested, bloodied, beaten, and attacked with fire hoses and police dogs during peaceful demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama.9 A few months later, King appeared in Washington, D.C., to speak to 25,000 people about his dream. In his speech, he pleaded with all sides to “sit down together at the table of brotherhood” to create meaningful dialogue on several issues, including police brutality. He envisioned a day when “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands” and work out their differences.10 The failure of all sides to fully engage in this dialogue has allowed the fires of our past to smolder, ready to flare up whenever new fuel is added.

Dialogue may seem impossible in today’s world because every incident has the potential to spark a new round of protests. However, this mindset may be the consequence of all sides using a micro-level lens to manage a macro-level complaint. Protests are rarely the result of a single incident. Instead, they arise out of a chain of events that protesters rightly or wrongly perceive as a pattern. For example, protesters may agree that it was improper for Jacob Blake to allegedly wrestle with the police and disobey their commands. But the image of bullets going through Blake’s body reinforced the centuries-old story that everything can be taken away from minorities—from Rosa Parks’s bus fare to places of worship to Blake’s mobility. Shifting dialogue to the ongoing story is the key to resolving the tension.

Are We Listening?

The first step in creating meaningful dialogue is to listen to what the other person is saying. This does not necessarily mean agreeing with the statement; power exists in merely understanding what the other person believes.

The heart of protesting is perceived powerlessness. As a Black male, I know what it is like to have accomplished much but feel powerless simply because of the color of my skin. Though I may have been an associate at a large multinational law firm, that meant nothing when a security guard conspicuously followed me at a Target and told me he prevented me from stealing. Nor did it matter when my wife and I were pulled over by the Illinois State Police—one of my firm’s clients—because we were driving in a luxury car we rented for a vacation. I also remember a state judge who referred to me in the third person and informed my opposing counsel that “they” (I could only assume Black lawyers) practice law in a certain way. The sting of these experiences was not the blatant racism; it was the perceived underlying sentiment that I—a person of color—did not deserve what I earned, that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness did not apply to me. Whether that perception was right or wrong, it cannot be resolved until it is understood.

The same is true for addressing protests. Instead of listening to the colonists’ cries for representation, Great Britain told the people to pay taxes or face military retaliation. When Rosa Parks asked one of the arresting officers why Black people were being pushed around, he confessed, “I don’t know. But the law’s the law and you’re under arrest.”11 When King spoke out against segregation, he was vehemently attacked. Each of those protests could have been resolved by listening. The key task is identifying the story causing the unrest.

Listening is a two-way street. The failure to be heard does not give protesters the right to stop listening. Protests have little effect if protesters do not listen to their audience. For example, some of my white friends are frustrated because people of color reject their attempts to help. They feel people of color will never accept their sincerity. They “protest” by leaving integrated neighborhoods. This too can be solved by dialogue.

How Can We Dialogue?

Once we heed the warning signs of protest and hear the underlying story, the moment is ripe for dialogue. In its simplest form, dialogue is making space for someone else’s humanity to meet your humanity. Jonathan Haidt opined this is possible by finding something in common to circle around, like a flag, a book, or an ideal.12 In so doing, we stop seeing the other side as evil and start seeing them as a partner in creating a shared vision. When we let go of comparing America to a perfect utopia and start recognizing the great things this country has accomplished, we find ways in which our philosophies can coexist to accomplish even more.

When we find common ground, or the “table of brotherhood” as King called it, we stop yelling over each other and start addressing the specific problems that confront us. We move beyond the specific incident at hand and co-create specific goals. Each side takes responsibility for its role in the problem. All sides take the vulnerable steps of questioning their perceptions and admitting where they might be failing.

Those who engage in dialogue create long-lasting results. For example, a Black blues musician named Darryl Davis was instrumental in more than 200 Klansmen giving up their robes. He did not do so by telling them how evil they were, but rather by befriending them, understanding them, and finding common ground.13

Dialogue also changed an anti-police activist’s approach to policing. Rev. Jarett Maupin agreed to put himself in police officer’s shoes by participating in Phoenix’s use-of-force training. When he failed almost every exercise, he saw that his expectations of officers may have been unreasonable.14 Thereafter, he collaborated with police officers to develop appropriate standards.

Dialogue is uncomfortable, but the pain of disregarding each other is much worse. The practice of using the government to legislate matters of the heart rarely succeeds. Segregation did not work. A decade from now, we may discover that removing flags and statues only allowed hate to fester underground until it exploded in the form of politicians or legislation seeking to revive that feeling.

At the time of this article, the federal government is seeking to suppress reporting on protests. The Ninth Circuit recently struck down an injunction exempting “Journalists” and “Legal Observers” from dispersal orders during the Portland protests.15 While the Ninth Circuit is scheduled to review its decision after the drafting of this article,16 the federal government’s position is troubling. If being heard is the underlying motivation for protests, then silencing the reporting of those protests will only exacerbate the unrest.

Dialogue starts by reaching out to those who we perceive to be our opponents. For example, I once arranged a meeting with the deputy chief of an all-white suburban police department. As I sat across the table from him, I described my perceptions concerning police behavior. I also explained to him that my perceptions of the police were just that—my perceptions—and I was willing to listen to his experiences and perceptions as a police officer dealing with a diverse range of individuals. Within an hour, we had created meaningful dialogue, developed respect for each other, and started to work on multiple ways to address my community’s concerns through enhanced training, body cams, detailed reporting, and other methods.

For those who are averse to starting these conversations alone, groups such as chambers of commerce, bar organizations, nonprofits, and other organizations provide dialogue opportunities. The key to dialoguing in such groups is to be an active participant in those conversations.

If change happens when the pain of the status quo is greater than the pain of change, then our divisive political environment is demanding the latter. We can no longer afford to overlook our fellow countrymen. We must engage in dialogue because it is a practice designed to create buy-in from all sides. And while a utopian result is not likely, we can create circumstances in which neither side will have the desire to protest because their goals are heard, respected, and addressed. America was built for this dialogue; it runs in our country’s blood. This current surge of protests gives us an opportunity to strengthen our nation. What will we do to rise to the challenge?


1. Tony Robbins.

2. Declaration of Independence (1776).

3. Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312, 318 (1988); Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham, 394 U.S. 147, 162 (1969).

4. Jeffrey Kluger, Raise Your Voice: 12 Protests That Shaped America 11–12 (2020).

5. Id. at 19.

6. Id. at 20.

7. Id. at 54.

8. Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707 (M.D. Ala. 1956).

9. Kluger, supra note 4, at 66.

10. Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King, Jr; August 28, 1963, available at https://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/mlk01.asp.

11. Kluger, supra note 4, at 58.

12. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012).

13. Dwane Brown, How One Man Convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan Members to Give Up Their Robes, NPR (Aug. 20, 2017), https://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544861933/how-one-man-convinced-200-ku-klux-klan-members-to-give-up-their-robes.

14. Police Brutality Activist Fails Use-of-Force Training, Fox 10 Phoenix (Sept. 16, 2020), https://www.prageru.com/video/police-brutality-activist-fails-use-of-force-training.

15. Index Newspapers LLC v. U.S. Marshals Serv., No. 20-35739, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 27408 (9th Cir. Aug. 27, 2020); Woodstock v. City of Portland, No. 3:20-cv-1035-SI, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 116612 (D. Or. July 2, 2020).

16. Index Newspapers LLC v. U.S. Marshals Serv., No. 20-35739, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 28429, at *2 (9th Cir. Sept. 8, 2020).


By Keith Allen

Keith Allen is a partner at Mandell Menkes LLC, a Chicago-based firm representing media companies in First Amendment matters. He also has experience leading efforts to build stronger police-civilian relationships and unite diverse communities.