On the Power and Pitfalls of Protests


I decided a long time ago that protests weren’t for me. After spending hours outside listening to people vent about a broken system, I told myself that my time would be better utilized using my skills to fight injustice, rather than marching down the street. In the aftermath of the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, however, I broke my vow and attended a few LA protests–where I encountered the same disorganization and division that had turned me off initially.

After watching police terrorize grieving protestors on Twitter, I headed straight to the streets to join my people. Before heading downtown, I attended a small sit-in at an intersection in the middle of Beverly Hills, a wealthy and culturally oblivious community. As I sat on the pavement and observed the frustrated drivers ready to run us over, I couldn’t help but to feel that we could be doing more to directly confront the issues at hand. Blocking traffic wasn’t going to indict Darren Wilson or the system that enabled him, but at the same time it felt important for all of us to be there, expressing our frustration and exercising our rights in solidarity. By disrupting a community that isn’t forced to deal with racism on a daily basis, we were making a statement that Black lives matter, and that was enough to sustain us in the moment.

As I marched down the street, I stopped chanting to ponder the differences between the Civil Rights Movement and the moment we’re in now, and reached some interesting conclusions. In the 1960s, protests were used to directly confront and abolish racist laws. For example, the infamous sit-ins that have become a staple in modern movements originated in order to desegregate public spaces. Before these sit-ins, the law forbade Black people from occupying “white only” establishments. Similarly, the bus boycotts were not a random act of rebellion, but rather a targeted action to desegregate buses and permit Black people to sit wherever they pleased instead of being confined to the back. In the same vein, freedom rides were far from the cross-country joy rides some paint them as today. By travelling together through the South, Black and white riders risked their lives, and in some cases lost them, in order to integrate interstate bus terminals. I could go on, but the pattern is clear.

All of the major protest actions of the Civil Rights Movement we’ve sought to adopt were calculated and precise. By attaching specific demands to each protest, they made it possible for the powers at be to eventually grant their requests. What we are experiencing 50 years later, however, is entirely different in nature. In the absence of explicitly racist laws, racism has evolved into a much more covert and intricate system of power. Now that our laws are less black and white, both figuratively and literally, it’s difficult to “fight the power” because our battles aren’t as clearly defined.

The reason why so many people are having a hard time understanding why they should boycott Black Friday, for example, is because they don’t understand how capitalism and consumerist culture is connected to racism and oppression. In past movements, however, boycotts weren’t hard to explain because the discrimination was clear—Black people literally could not sit, work, or live in certain places, and something had to be done. While not everyone participated, at least everyone knew why others were so invested. Unfortunately for us, these conversations are not nearly as simple.

Any mildly intelligent person knows that shutting down a freeway won’t dismantle institutionalized racism, but we do it anyway because it symbolizes the shut down of a system—it symbolizes the revolution.

In a world where major news networks refuse to air presidential speeches, protestors know that the only way their story will be told is if they make a big enough scene. And even then, mainstream reporters still manage to get it wrong. People of color know that they will be deemed violent thugs no matter how peaceful their demonstrations are, and in the midst of tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, drones, and helicopters, they march on, waiting patiently for the day that their humanity will be recognized and respected. Over the past few months, protestors have had to protest just to protect their right to protest. After being met with state-sanctioned violence at the hands of the police, people flooded the streets as an act of resistance to the entire system. It became less about strategy and more about principle. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, the time has come to start thinking more strategically.

Modeling the strategies and success of the Civil Rights Movement doesn’t necessarily equate to staging sit-ins, marches, and boycotts. Following in their footsteps simply means being resilient, creative, and strategic. But this very important work will only happen once clear leadership structures are established in every city. We need people who are willing to collect email addresses and phone numbers on the front lines. We need organizers willing to follow-up and plan events that advance our mission. And most importantly, we need to be in communication with one another so that we are united on all fronts.

I could publish a list of the solutions I’ve been considering for years, but the truth is that I don’t have the answers. Individually, none of us do. The only way that we will ever come to a consensus is by coming together. There is no way around it, and until we are fully committed to true community organizing, we won’t be nearly as effective as we can be.

For the record, I am in full support of the protestors who have risked their lives to bring us to this moment. Without their relentless dedication, this movement would have died a long time ago. Rather than denouncing modern freedom fighters for their efforts, I am calling for leaders in every city to step up and get organized. We cannot tell young, angry and grieving protesters to channel their energy into something productive and expect them to just figure it out. We must attune ourselves to the needs of our communities, and then provide them with the resources and guidance to achieve it. Instead of dictating the actions of others, we must seek to guide them and recognize that our society is far too divided and distracted to accept the leadership structures of the past.

In an age where Twitter rants and op-eds abound, people are looking for more than an idea. They are looking for ways to act in real time. And for many, the only solution their city has to offer is to shut down busy intersections, which is admirable, but misguided in the long run. While shutting down your city may not yield immediate results, this electrifying momentum, if utilized properly, can and will lead to a true revolution.

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