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Protest: The Gift of Disruption

December 8, 2014

Protests are spreading across the country, and this, I think, is a gift. And I hope it is a very disruptive gift. Before you complain about the inconvenience of protests, remember this: protests need to be disruptive. They need not be violent, but they do need to disrupt the status quo. That’s what makes people pay attention to them. Rallies, concerts and support can all raise money, consciousness and feelings of solidarity, but until they disrupt the status quo in a sustained manner they don’t create change. It shocks me when I hear, as I’ve heard more than one person say recently, something along the lines of “What would Martin Luther King Jr. say if he could see all this. The civil rights movement was peaceful.”


The church bombings and the lynchings and murders were peaceful? The “race riots,” which were really disruptive protests by oppressed people who’d been pushed to their limits, were peaceful? The firehoses and the tear gas and the police dogs were peaceful? It’s easy to romanticize the past. It’s easy to imagine that a whole lot of people gathered on the Mall in Washington, DC and listened to a brave man give a speech about a dream, and then poof, there were civil rights. But it didn’t happen that way. The sit ins at lunch counters were disruptive. The boycotts and the strikes were disruptive. There was a great deal of nonviolent civil disobedience with the focus on disobedience.

Social movements depend on disruptive protest. To see how important disruptive tactics are, just google the phrase “____ movement protest disrupts” filling in the blank with the movement of your choice. In the US, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the labor movement, the reproductive rights movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement (I could go on but I won’t) all have needed disruptive direct action in order to create change. Globally, consider the Arab Spring, recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, or the uprisings across Mexico. In order to create change we need to disrupt the status quo, so to suggest that today’s protestors should calm down is to say, quite literally, that we should wait for more people to die before we take action.

Martin Luther King didn’t write his famous Letter from A Birmingham Starbucks. That famous letter was written from jail, where King was being held because his direct action protest activities. In that letter King responds to some clergy members who thought his methods were “unwise and untimely,” and in his response he makes some pretty forceful claims about the nature of protest and the danger of prioritizing order over justice. He explains that nonviolent but disruptive direct action is necessary when marches and rallies fail to bring about the real negotiations and social change that are needed. When promises are broken or injustices ignored, then direct action is required. King writes that “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” Nonviolent direction action may breaking unjust laws. This is civil disobedience. In deed, King reminds us that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” How do we know if a law is unjust? “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Further, “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.” And even just laws, like those requiring permits for certain kinds of protests, can be unjust when they are used specifically to prevent injustices from being aired.

I hope that the disruptions and the protests we are witnessing now will be sustained and will create the tension needed to compel those with power to make real changes to the methods by which we achieve public safety in our communities. And  I hope the framing of these issues reaches beyond civil rights to human rights. Carol Anderson argues that when King and others allowed the movement to shift from a human rights and liberation movement to a civil rights movement, they took their “eyes off the prize. The continued oppression of black and brown skinned people in the US has a lot to do with that. We’ve removed some of the legal barriers that impeded civil rights on paper but we haven’t created the structural change necessary for true liberation. Take education, the foundation of the fantasy called the “American Dream” just for one example. Schools have been desegregated by law since the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in 1954. But in reality, because of residential segregation, our schools are more segregated than they were in the decade after Brown. Institutional racism in the real estate and mortgage industries, and segregation in our social networks, prevent families of color from moving into white neighborhoods. Gentrification prices people of color out of urban neighborhoods as white young professionals move in, while suburban developments are organized by cost of housing (“starting from the 300s” is a sign I see routinely in the new subdivisions sprouting up in towns in North Georgia when I travel there at Christmas time) making class diversity unlikely. And because neighborhoods are often divided by class, despite every child being guaranteed a public school education, local funding based on property values pretty much guarantees that the education kids get will be different depending on where they grow up. And education is only one example of the structured inequality underpinning the need for the disruptive protests we are seeing right now.

Coinciding with the protests that erupted over the refusal by grand juries in Ferguson and Staten Island to indict the police officers who killed unarmed black men, were protests by fast food workers and Walmart workers demanding decent wages and reliable schedules. Many of those workers are also black and brown skinned people. We are living in a moment where racial justice and economic justice movements could amplify each other powerfully, and framing their intersecting issues as human rights issues rather than as civil rights issues is key. I hope that federal investigations find that the civil rights of Mike Brown and Eric Garner were violated when police unjustly took their lives. But I also hope that protesters focus on the violation of their human rights. We need to see each other as fully human, and to recognize that the reason we are entitled to live with dignity is because of that shared humanity, not because a government granted us the right to vote. We deserve educations and decent wages and safe shelter because of our basic humanity. All human beings deserve these things.

So back to those protests. The thing that intersects with racism most powerfully to create the oppression being resisted is capitalism. Contemporary globalized corporate capitalism requires many people, in the US and around the world, be denied their basic human rights. It makes sense that protesters are trying to disrupt capitalism and I can think of no better time to do so than during the holiday shopping rush. The labor movement and the racial justice movement have to organize together.

Meanwhile, the gay rights movement needs to pay attention. More on this in another post, perhaps, but for now let me just note that the movement for LGBT equality has also shifted its eyes from their original focus on liberation to a focus on civil rights. Now that it’s had some major civil rights victories it needs to ask itself where it will be if it doesn’t refocus itself on human rights. Marriage equality isn’t what Islan Nettles, a transwoman of color, needed when she was murdered with impunity in Harlem last year. Nor will it prevent the suicides of the many young people who are relentlessly bullied with gay-bashing and slut-shaming. Nor will it help the thousands of poor and working class gay parents struggling to earn enough income to support their families.

So let’s not talk about whether or not protests should be disruptive, especially during the holiday season. Let’s celebrate disruption during this holiday season. Let’s  civilly disobey the demands to capitulate and consume. Let’s peacefully refuse to cooperate with a system built on injustice and exploitation. Disruption is a gift. Let’s unwrap it with abandon. Then lets build something new.



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