Graphic by Olivia Abeyta / North by Northwestern

It’s late Thursday morning. The usual congestion at the Arch was punctuated with fire: “What do you think about abortion?” and “Abortion is ageism!” Demonstrators had Go-Pro cameras strapped across their chests and offered grisly anti-abortion pamphlets to passerby.

As I watched these protesters and the students walking by them, I became a little conflicted by the fork in the road ahead of me. I’m a quiet person by nature. I steer clear of crowds and am wary of engaging with those unfamiliar to me. But coming across such a protest on a hot button topic that I care about, I felt compelled to speak out. And I wondered. If I didn’t speak out, would that be wrong? Should I look the other way, or directly engage?

I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I spoke to the people who did: those who chose to engage – calmly, angrily, frustratedly – and others who turned the other cheek. Why did some talk back, while others walked away?

Stephanie Edgerly, a Medill professor who researches audience insight, told me that the question of engagement is “really complicated,” especially when considering the motivations of the protesters. Sometimes the goal of protesters is not to change opinions or have conversations but rather gain media attention, according to Edgerly.

“That [is] where you see these really explicit images, which are not just the normal signs that you would see along the Arch,” Edgerly said. “These are very visceral images that garnered people’s attention for good or for bad, and garnered the media's attention.”

Weinberg second-year Sophia Chang told me this media attention was exactly what worried her. In an era where taking clips out of context is a go-to recipe for stirring up virtual pandemonium, Chang opted to say nothing, even though she was angry with the misleading information put up by the demonstrators.

“If people don't want these [protesters] on campus, the best thing that they can do is just ignore them, because they don't get any footage or content to make money off of or to publish online,” Chang said. “There's no incentive for them to come here if no one is interacting with them.”

Chang does not believe in street persuasion. Inflammatory protests like these, according to Chang, are “reactionary by nature” and are not good places for dialogue to occur.

“In the same way that I'm not going to change my mind,” Chang said, “They're not going to change their mind.”

Weinberg second-year Beatrix Stewart-Frommer walked past the protesters without engaging at least five times…until she took a closer look at the distorted abortion imagery on their signs. Stewart-Frommer, who once shadowed an OB-GYN for three weeks, found the posters aggravating.

“Those pictures were horrible and jarring, but just false,” Stewart-Frommer said. “I don’t think that would be enough to change someone’s mind, but somebody could see those posts and that could have a negative effect on them.”

Stewart-Frommer became motivated to speak out because she was concerned about the reach that the argument had. But then what about Chang’s concern? Whatever she said could be potentially taken out of context, cut up and packaged into another flippant viral video? She told me that was why it was equally important for her to have a civil conversation.

I mentioned Stewart-Frommer’s experience in my conversation with Edgerly, and she added that this is also a form of counter-protest. Specifically, a kind of “quiet counter-protest of civility.”

“Many people may disagree with your message and shout things to indicate that they disagree,” Edgerly said about people’s response to protesters. “But I am going to stand here and very calmly ask you questions about your beliefs, and have a very civil discussion with you, because that's the kind of counter-impression I want to leave.”

Yet that led me to question: how effective could a dialogue like this be? Stewart-Frommer said she hoped that she could maybe spark some doubt about the accuracy of the pictures, even though she believed that she wasn’t going to change anything.

“It was also an environment that wasn't conducive to accepting new information,” Stewart-Frommer said. “Maybe if there was a calmer environment, like a debate or something, it would be a better time to [have a conversation].”

It was interesting to me that Stewart-Frommer and Chang – who each responded differently to the demonstrators – converged on their insights. Chang also believed that the key to creating a dialogue would have to be in a “de-escalated, person-to-person environment.” One where people would care enough to go into the community to host forums or informational sessions, rather than sensationalize issues on the street.

I found the question of engaging really boils down to what’s the goal. There’s no one one-glove-fits all for everyone. Did I want to spark doubt? To leave a counter-impression? Or just try to grasp the other side’s reasons for protesting?

Engaging with protesters works for some people – like Stewart-Frommer – because they question the images used by the demonstrators, and want to pass that information along to others. But if I want to have effective dialogue, I might be pessimistic about its prospects on the street.

Edgerly described one form of engagement that I really resonated with. She provided that engaging with protesters does not have to take place on the street and could be a “slow burn.” Response does not have to immediately happen, nor does it need to be confrontational. It could take the form of reflecting on the event later that night. Perhaps those thoughts will materialize into something more, such as signing a petition or volunteering for an organization, Edgerly said.

For me, my thoughts brought me to Edgerly, Chang and Stewart-Frommer. And now you, the reader, who may also have felt similarly conflicted that day.

If the protesters came again, would I do anything different? To be honest, I’m still not quite sure. In that moment, I still might waver on the question of engagement. I do find comfort, however, in knowing that action doesn’t have to immediately happen, and I’m at peace with living in a “slow burn.”