I have always loved a good protest.
Growing up, I’d protest pretty much anything. It had less to do with any social or political ideology and more to do with the fact that I enjoyed making rage-fueled, pun-filled signs and screaming in unison.
My passion for protest started early. I’d wave angry posters and yell in my grade school’s gymnasium during volleyball games to protest cuts to the art program, then protest not being allowed to carry bagels out of the cafeteria.
During my college years, my protest dance card was often so full that I would forget which cause I was protesting. Did I want the student union to provide students with better access to biodegradable forks? Or was I anti-disposable fork? In the end, it really didn’t seem to matter to me. It wasn’t like anyone expected me to solve the fork problem, for God’s sake, I just protested it! All I had to do was show up with my sign and be ready to yell.
Protests were much easier for me than parties. I was tall and awkward and lacked basic young-person party skills like dancing and smiling for no reason. Because of this, raucous college parties felt particularly pointless.
Protests, on the other hand, had a purpose. They were like theme parties, and the theme was anger. Anger at The Man. Anger at The System. Anger at Forks.
Being angry alone is never fun. But being angry with other people? Now that’s a party! Anger was a stronger social lubricant than alcohol, and it was free!
With protesters, I shared more than just a hobby. I shared an enemy. And nothing unites strangers faster than a common enemy. Put me in a bar next to a tween gamer with a passion for taxidermy and death metal and we’d probably never even acknowledge each other’s presence.
But put us in a protest together in the freezing cold, packed like sardines — arms aching from holding signs while shouting at the top of our lungs — and we’ll be best friends in a matter of minutes. Joining any sports team, book club or dating app could never provide the sense of camaraderie of having a stranger guard the bush you’re peeing behind after you’ve spent six hours in 10-degree weather, chanting: “What do we want? Biodegradable forks! When do we want them? NOW!”
Having an in-depth knowledge of the “enemy” we were protesting seemed somewhat secondary. You can have three graduate degrees in the issue being protested, but when you step out into that angry crowd, it’s your sign that makes you shine.
Having never attended my high school prom (I boycotted it, obviously), I cannot speak from experience, but I imagine that protesting with a truly excellent sign isn’t all that different from being voted prom queen.
But this was all before Eight Belles.
Eight Belles was a horse whose ankles gave out right after the finish line of the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Veterinarians at the track determined that her injuries were so severe that she had to be euthanized, and she was killed in front of thousands of spectators and cameras. Her brutal death spurred conversations about the horse racing industry as a whole, with many people outraged at the treatment of the animals at its heart.
This was before Instagram. Before the financial crisis. George W. Bush was president. Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen’s new film, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” would soon be released to rave reviews. It was 11 years ago but felt like a very different news climate. And in this world, the death of Eight Belles was a major scandal.
The image of this beautiful animal getting shot was on the cover of every local newspaper the next day, and I felt a real sense of injustice and fury. I wanted to protest whatever enterprise caused this tragedy.
One of the articles about the incident said that the Belmont raceway was heightening security in preparation for animal rights protesters storming the track. My people! Within minutes, I had finished a giant “Just Say ‘Neigh’ to Horse Racing!” sign and had registered for the demonstration.
I’d always been a protesting hobbyist, so the idea of being a part of an official group of serious protesters felt like something I’d been training for my whole life: like some scrappy, cowpoke kid from Nowheresville getting recruited into the Major League.
I was so excited, I could hardly sleep the night before. I took the 6 a.m. train to Belmont and found Margaret, the group’s official “Protest Coordinator.” She was holding a clipboard.
“I’m here to protest!” I shouted, pumping my fist in the air.
Margaret looked at me strangely and checked my name off the list.
Her silence made me suddenly desperate for a reaction, to feel that camaraderie of battle. “I’m so happy to be here! What an important cause!”
I held up my sign, which I’d added glitter to that morning. “Get it? NEEEEEEIIIGGGHH!” I mouthed.
She motioned toward a pile of cardboard signs leaning up against the gate with her organization’s logo. “We don’t allow any unofficial signage,” she said, flatly.
I found my place in the lineup of protesters, facing a slowly moving cavalcade of cars entering the main gate of the raceway. I walked right up to a few, held my (officially sanctioned) sign high and shouted, “Eight Belles was murdered!”
It felt great. I turned to the two protesters on my right for a “Right on!” — or at least a thumbs up — but instead they said in eerie unison, “You’re going to get in trouble.”
“In trouble for what?”
I could already see Margaret rushing toward me.
“You’re shouting too loud!” she said.
I was utterly confused. “But how can we protest if we can’t yell?”
It struck me that no one in this group was here to make friends.
For an hour we silently held our signs and stared sullenly into traffic. A sweet-looking grandmother flipped us the bird as she drove by, and a father with a back-seat full of toddlers rolled down his window and yelled at us. It was like we were the ones being protested.
Just then, a friendly looking guy walked up to me. He was wearing a lanyard around his neck, like Margaret’s. He smiled at me warmly. “Are you protesting?” he said.
“Oh my gosh, yes! Yes, I am!” I said eagerly, desperate for a warm interaction.
He took out a notebook. “What’s your name?”
“I’m on the list for the protest. I swear.”
“Oh, I believe you,” he said, smiling. “Tell me about why you’re here today.”
Finally! I thought, someone cares what I have to say! I was thrilled to have a new protest friend.
I looked deep into his kind eyes and gave him a piece of my mind. The barbarity of horse racing, the ancient Roman Colosseum, even Mr. Ed. Who cares? We were just two protest pals having fun!
He was very encouraging and agreed with everything I said, so much so that he wrote it down so he wouldn’t forget it. He actually cares! I thought. This guy gets me. I felt heard. I started imagining all the fun protests we could attend together in the future.
I was so happy about my new friend that I hardly noticed Margaret shouting from the other end of the protest line, “Hey! Stop it! You’re not authorized to talk to the press!”
She started running toward me, and, like any normal anxious person, my first instinct was to drop my poster and run for my life.
At work Monday morning, my boss snickered and handed me a copy of the weekend’s Newsday opened to an article about the protest. My name was in bold print along with a few nonsensical quotes about Roman gladiators.
Apparently, being drunk with protest rage did not make me the brilliant Churchillian orator I thought it did. I was so embarrassed. Not only did I sound dumb, but I’d made the whole cause look dumb. I’d made the death of Eight Belles look dumb. I’d made protesting look dumb. I remember feeling very grateful that horses didn’t read newspapers.
Later that day, as I stood over the office paper shredder destroying all evidence of the article, I realized it might be time for me to pursue more mainstream, less anger-based social activities. At least until I could come up with a better reason for being so angry.
When I got home from work, I put my extensive collection of Sharpies and poster board away, changed into a shirt unadorned with any political or social statement, called up an old friend and went to a party.
Amanda McCall is a writer, producer and co-author of the book “Grandma’s Dead: Breaking Bad News With Baby Animals.”
Rites of Passage is a weekly-ish column from Styles and The Times Gender Initiative. For information on how to submit an essay, click here. To read past essays, check out this page.