Today Columbus is having one of those brutal days, when the temperature is in the single digits and a hard, cold wind strikes you like a fist. So when I walked home from work this afternoon, I was surprised to see a vigorous protest on the Broad Street sidewalk in front of the Ohio Statehouse, with still other protestors marching on the sidewalks circling Statehouse square. The group of bundled-up protestors — men, mostly, from what I could see — were waving Don’t Tread on Me, Confederate, “III,” and American flags, handing out leaflets, and chanting at the behest of a guy holding a bullhorn.
What were they protesting? Just about everything. One handout had the Declaration of Independence on one side and the Bill of Rights on the other, and another encourages people to contribute to the “Ohio to Michigan: Flint Water Drop,” which is described as “a multi-state effort to collect and deliver much-needed water to the residents of Flint, Michigan.” One sign said “We Demand Justice” for the man shot by the authorities in connection with the Oregon public land protests. The “III” flag is called the Nyberg three percent flag (purportedly because only three percent of the colonists fought the British during the American Revolutionary War) and apparently is a favorite of people who hold anti-government, anti-gun control views. And when a city bus rolled up, the guy with the bullhorn started bellowing: “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” — which is a chant used by the protestors against the police in Ferguson, Missouri.
There was a lot going on at this protest, a heady mix of what might be viewed as some liberal and some conservative issues that had energized this group, but the overall message was clear: these guys were furious. Angry enough to come out to the center of downtown Columbus on an appallingly cold day to vent their spleens in a public forum. Incensed about the government that they think has let them down and failed the people. Outraged that the people of Flint, Michigan can’t get safe drinking water and willing to organize their own, people-driven effort to help the people of Flint even when the local, state, and federal government seem to be unable to do so. To these folks, Flint is not a conservative issue or a liberal issue, it’s an issue of basic governmental functioning and competence. If a government can’t be trusted to do the basics like provide drinking water that doesn’t poison its own citizens, then what good is it, and what are all those taxes we pay being used for?
Many pundits wonder what is driving people to support “anti-establishment” candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. I think a lot of it is anger, like the rage that motivated the cold protestors in front of the Ohio Statehouse today. It’s not political parties that have spurred them on, it’s their own perception of a country in a downward spiral. They’re not going to put up with the direction in which they think their country is heading, and if the government isn’t going to recognize the problems and change of its own accord, then they’re just going to have to change the government.
The last two lines of the “Ohio to Michigan: Flint Water Drop” leaflet read: “We the People are uniting to assist and support communities in need. No matter your race, religion, group or political affiliation, we all must come together.” It’s really not hard to see how angry people at all points on the political spectrum might unite behind that kind of message.