4 People Killed by Their Own Protests
If you have decided to launch yourself into a life of advocacy, we have some simple advice to start you out: Don’t die. Don’t kill yourself, because even though some people immolate themselves in protest, this accomplishes nothing. Don’t get murdered (admittedly, this part may be outside your control). Finally — and this instruction should be the most inarguable one — do not die accidentally.
If you die accidentally, well, we can all agree that this wasn’t the plan at all. Depending on how it happens, it might even prove that this whole protesting crusade of yours was never a good idea in the first place.
A BASE Jumper Died Proving the Safety of Jumping
BASE jumping is like skydiving, except rather than jumping out of a plane, you leap from somewhere fixed, like a cliff. That makes it much more dangerous because (counterintuitive as this sounds), you’re falling a shorter distance. When you skydive, you have quite a bit of time to get your chute open and working, and if that chute fails, you have enough time for your reserve chute to do the job. When you jump off a cliff just a couple thousand feet high, you have no margin for error.
Thanks to the risks, plenty of places that look attractive to jumpers ban BASE jumping. For starters, every national park bans the activity. If you go jumping in Yosemite, the jump itself offers some thrills, but you might also be aiming for the thrills of doing it at night, wearing night vision goggles, trying to avoid getting caught. In 1999, jumper Frank Gambalie died in Yosemite. He didn’t die jumping. He drowned, while fleeing pursuers after jumping.
The jumping community mourned Gambalie’s death, and they felt it important to let people know that jumping itself isn’t so dangerous, and jumping didn’t kill Frank. Four jumpers scheduled a demonstration jump from El Capitan, a Yosemite peak with a 3,500-foot drop. Park staff helped organize the demo, and media attended, but it was still officially against the rules. Three jumpers made the plunge successfully. Then came Jan Davis, an especially experienced daredevil, who performed stunts in such films as Waterworld and Congo. Her chute didn’t open. She hit the ground at full speed.
The parachute she was wearing hadn’t been hers. She’d donned someone else’s, one with its own weird orientation that spelled her doom, because she didn’t want anyone confiscating hers if authorities decided to shut down the event. So, you can chalk this up as yet another activity that offers some risk of death but becomes even deadlier when made illegal. The risk of death is the second most objectionable thing about BASE jumping. The most objectionable part is its ridiculous name. It’s an acronym, but the word “base” means bottom, which is the exact opposite of the sort of thing you BASE jump off.
A Biker Died at an Anti-Helmet Protest
Philip A. Contos was a trucker, biker and general outdoorsman. He owned no computer, and when a prospective employer one time asked for a résumé, he had a friend type the following up: “Built my own home right from the bottom up. Can use a hammer. Can sheetrock.” In 2011, he rode a Harley as part of protest against mandatory helmet laws. He crashed and died, after braking too fast to avoid other bikers in front of him.
He would have survived, said medical examiners, had he worn his helmet. And Contos did wear his helmet, usually, but he went without on this day specifically because of the protest.
Contos was one of 550 bikers in this protest, and this was the 11th straight year that they’d done this protest ride, something they schedule every single Fourth of July. So, this isn’t exactly a tale of the universe spotting one single case of hubris and delivering its punishment. With thousands of bikers over the years protesting, one was bound to crash eventually and demonstrate just why helmets are good.
This story has some similarities with Jan Davis’ as well. Here, too, the departed wasn’t using their own equipment; Contos’ own bike was in pieces, so he was riding someone else’s. Here, too, we have a ridiculous acronym: The protest group is called ABATE, which stands for American Bikers Aimed Toward Education.
You might also say both are examples of people undermining their causes by dying, but that’s not necessarily true. ABATE doesn’t oppose helmets. Instead, their position is that “mandatory helmet laws do nothing to prevent accidents.” Indeed, the mandatory helmet law didn’t prevent Contos’ death — in fact, it caused it.
A Suffragette Died by the King’s Horse
In June 1913, suffragette Emily Davison ran onto the track during that year’s Epsom Derby. She ran on right when a horse named Anmer came around, a horse owned by King George V. The horse fell over her, and the collision killed her a few days later. Though it happened before what we’d call mass media, we actually have footage of this, thanks to newsreels:
Davison’s exact motives were a mystery. Had she wanted the horse to kill her, to bring attention to her cause? On one hand, the coroner said it wasn’t a suicide, she’d said nothing about wanting to be a martyr, and no other suffragette pursued that sort of thing. On the other, Davison was pretty unpredictable (one time, she hid in a cupboard in Westminster for reasons that are still unclear), and suffragettes were terrorists, so who knows what they’re capable of.
We assign no moral value to the word “terrorist” in the previous sentence. We’re just referring to the oft-forgotten fact that suffragettes waged their campaign using bombs, arson and repeatedly trying to kill the prime minister. If Davison did intentionally martyr herself, it wouldn’t be the most extreme thing suffragettes ever did.
Analysis of the footage a century later revealed something no one had noticed at the time. It looks like Davison ran to the horse in an attempt to tie a scarf to its bridle. That would have been a fine publicity stunt for her cause but probably not worth dying for.
So, you can say Emily Davison didn’t kill herself. You know who did take their own life, though? The jockey who rode Anmer and who attended Davison’s funeral. Many even say he killed himself over trauma from the event, but that is unlikely. He did so 40 years later, at the age of 70, just out of general dissatisfaction over having to live in England.
A Flag-Burner Died from Smoke Inhalation
In 2012, protesters across the Islamic world were angry about The Innocence of Muslims. This was a YouTube video that claimed to be highlights from a larger epic and dubbed over all the actors' dialogue to shoddily make it into an attack on Islam. People were up in arms over this video, sometimes literally. This anger may even have been behind that year’s attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi — or maybe not; if you want to look further into it, you’ll find no shortage of analysis out there.
In Lahore, Pakistan, tens of thousands of people protested the video. As so often happens, the crowd burned American flags. They blamed not just the creator of the video but the U.S. government, whom they said either backed the film or neglected to pass a blasphemy law banning it. One protester, Abdullah Ismail, inhaled so much smoke from the flags that he had trouble breathing and went to the hospital. He died soon afterward.
Conspiracy theories suggested that the U.S. government had deliberately manufactured flags with poison in them, to kill anyone who desecrates them. This is very much in line with the sort of anti-blasphemy stance that the protesters wished America had, and we don’t consider it a credible theory. Mostly, we doubt that these protesters could have gotten their hands on a flag manufactured by America. Far more likely, they bought a Chinese-made flag, whose synthetic material released toxic fumes upon being burned.
For a long time, when people took offense over YouTube videos, we told them that protesting isn't the answer — the correct outlet for their fury is to hit the dislike button. That no longer works as advice, as YouTube has removed the dislike counter (unless you go under the hood and bring it back). That gives us no choice but to blame YouTube for all fatal anti-YouTube protests going forward.
No, we’re not blaming them for leaving the videos up. We’re blaming them for removing the dislike counter. You hear that, YouTube? People are dying, not just because of their own oversensitivity but because of yours.