It is so good to get out into the outdoors. On the street. Whiffing up the teargas and pepper spray. Trying to catch rubber bullets with your bare hands. Hugging that beauty from philosophy class (from a safe 6 micron distance, unless she lets you get closer). Feeling invincible. No damn cop nor any damn corona is gonna get you now that you’ve got a cause to fight for.
Fighting for victory. In high school we are all taught that what makes the sports jocks heroes is that they are fighters. They go out and defend the honor of the school. Not at all like the damn nerds who geek around with science experiments, or writing computer programs, or worst of all, arguing on the Debate Team.
High school and college jocks go on to score the babiest babes, until confronted with unexpected pregnancies, an angry father’s shotgun, careers at the local heating and air-conditioning shop, and perpetual bragging rights about how much they accomplished without the cushy treatment that the next generation of players got.
They get to avoid the burdensome billions the computer nerds get for their companies, or the Nobel Prizes the science nerds get (but only if they fly to some way off country where the people don’t even speak English, and eat too much fish). They remain grudgingly grateful to the Debate Team nerds who turn into lawyers who defend their drunk driving charges and beat back the worst excesses of their wives’ demands in divorce court.
It is far easier to march demanding change than it is to design changes that will have real effect. And getting real changes enacted is much harder still than designing them.
Into adulthood, middle age and dotage, it is human nature to be more eager to exercise the physical muscles in combat than the brain muscle between our ears. It is far easier to strum and sing We Shall Overcome, or Fuck the Police than it is to write such songs. It is far easier to march demanding change than it is to design changes that will have real effect. And getting real changes enacted is much harder still than designing them.
Public demonstrations are like athletic games or televangelical church programs. Everyone gets to make noise in a good cause. But the players don’t rewrite the rules of the games. The nature of their enthusiasm during the game or service may convince the business owner to change players or preachers, to attract more enthusiasm. But the owners remain in control.
So when demonstrators issue “demands” to the white, male power structure, they are conceding the authority of the power structure. It is odd to watch demonstrators demanding that the white power structure grant rights to black people, or women, or LGBTQ+-xyz people.
In early colonial America, black people had rights. They could own property, go to school, even sue and be sued in court. But they lost those rights as the power structure sought to more clearly distinguish between indentured white servants and slaves. The power structure took rights away from black people, and then used that deprivation of rights to convince white indentured servants that they were different from—and better than—the slaves alongside whom the white servants labored.
As the abolition movement gained influence, the slave states took even more rights away from black slaves. Where once slavery was “justified” by the “need” to provide “christian guidance” to slaves, by the mid-19th century slaves were widely prohibited from Christian worship, because it was too dangerous for them to hear Jesus’ message. Even teaching black people to read and write was criminalized.
When back people, slave or free, rebelled and demanded better treatment, the power structure responded with further repression. From the official putdown of Nat Turner’s rebellion to widespread informal lynchings and the (recently repopularized) Oakwood massacre (next year will be the 100th anniversary) and the burning and looting of other black towns and neighborhoods, the response to “demands” for better treatment has rarely been positive.
So we should feel concerned enough to wonder what else might be done.
One thing might be to consider the past. No pseudo-revolutionaries these days spend much time trying to get out the vote. They may point to gerrymandering and the aggressive voter suppression in states like Alabama, as if those proved some point. What they ignore is what Stacy Abrams says, and what she (and dozens of other black women) did getting Doug Jones elected to the senate.
Stacy Abrams built on a proud history. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Lunch Counter Sit-In movement were not simply mass demonstrations in the street. They were thought-out, targeted displays of organized power. At some point, some of today’s protesters will need to move out of the streets, into meeting rooms to research, discuss, and plan the appropriate, targeted actions to attract attention, and exhibit political power.
Similarly, to effect real change, protesters could look at the successes of both the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and of the gay rights movement. Both efforts built on using the legal system created by the power structure to turn the law against “the system.” For any legal scholar, it will always be a joy to read Justice Anthony Kennedy using language written by Antonin Scalia to explain why gay rights were legally necessary. And equally entertaining to read Antonin Scalia’s howls in dissent, essentially saying—but I didn’t mean it to apply to THEM!
2020 is not going to be a reprise of the 1968 election campaign. Sure, the Donald will try to recapitulate Tricky Dick’s overt racism and “Southern strategy.” But in 1968, we were just beginning to see what would become a flood of news footage of the war on Vietnam. Today, when a cop intentionally murders a man, in broad daylight, for the crime of being black, there is almost always at least one passerby to record the episode for all the world to see.
For decades, black parents have had to give their sons “the talk.” For years the ACLU and the National Lawyers’ Guild have handed out little cards listing your rights when you are confronted by the police (imagine asking a police officer to give you a moment to retrieve the card from your wallet!).
But today, every demonstrator has the ability to post the truth to the world. When police assault peaceful protesters, we see it almost instantly. When police lie on their incident reports, we know it as soon as the reports are made public.
The result is that the Montgomery Bus Boycott had almost exclusively black participants, the lunch counter sit-ins were mostly by black students. But this spring’s demonstrations have been multi-racial and multi-cultural. Because so many more people, of all races and social conditions, are becoming aware of hard truths that black people have known for centuries. That Native Americans, and Hispanics, and Asians, and others have known all their lives.
One of the downsides of the free speech of social media has been its use by well-funded and organized groups like the Proud Boys and the “Boogaloo” movement. People with vested interests in keeping the races at war with each other, instead of with the oppressors of all poor people, encourage strife and violent reactions to peaceful protests. Then their media lapdogs spin narratives that the peaceful protesters are actually violent and rioting and looting.
These false narratives have started to be exposed, just as the Westmoreland lies were exposed by news film from Vietnam. We have seen white people, men and women, looting stores, throwing things at police, and burning down the Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back by police.
We need to see more of this. We need to begin to see peaceful protesters acting as journalists, not confronting troublemakers. But following them, getting video of their vehicles and their license plates, and of them, when they take off their masks. NOT confrontationally, but to share with the public, to share with the police, to share with people planning demonstrations in other cities.
Sunlight is a great disinfectant. Exposing the troublemakers will increase the demonstrators’ impact, and the safety of both peaceful protesters and the police.