This position differs from the sentiment following the American Civil Rights Movement (ACRM) – the unofficial guiding light and touchstone for discussing political change in this country. That sentiment was that the fight by African Americans to get a seat at the table was won, but then (as now) it was time to let a different group of people (i.e., politicians and lawyers) get to the serious business of policy and lawmaking. This sentiment is reflected in Bayard Rustin’s 1965 work, From Protest to Politics and in the recent comments of President Barack Obama:
- I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobedience that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices— and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.
The approach we advocate differs from this sentiment. Our approach holds that it is not prudent to let people go behind closed doors and get to the serious business of governance without expanding the number of participants at the table and getting rid of the idea that only what takes place at the table is worth doing. We did this already and it did not turn out well. We need a new way.
Our path to this conclusion begins with a reflection on the recent sequence of events in the US, and some reflection on the history of social movements in the US as well as abroad. The recent wave of protests started simple enough. In the wake of three horrific deaths at the hands of police (again), African Americans protested (again). The police responded aggressively (again). Then something different happened - other folks protested. Interestingly and somewhat bafflingly, the police generally continued to respond aggressively, but there were also some solidarity efforts (a knee here, a hug there). Then other countries protested in solidarity about treatment of black Americans, but also to address the treatment of their own persecuted and vulnerable. Equally interesting and somewhat baffling, is the relatively rapid political response: firings of officers, investigations into prior behavior, discussions about defunding and abolition of police departments and legislation to curb coercive policing. Some of these ideas are new, but most of them come off a dusty shelf, where they waited in abeyance for the chance to be reconsidered.
Why not let the politicians and lawyers take it from here? Didn’t African Americans and their allies who stood up against state-sponsored violence “win”? Isn’t change a-coming? Shouldn’t folks just go home now, and let the policy and lawmakers get to work? As scholars of social movements, we acknowledge that the movement has done what movements do best: they got important issues on the agenda, and they did so deftly and swiftly. But we also note that the post-ACRM sentiment of “protest to politics” misunderstands the nature of change – portraying change as if it were one-way and irreversible. The post-ACRM sentiment assumes that there are knowledgeable and trustworthy insiders who can work through the mechanics translating the movement into concrete and effective policies. If this were the case, countless black lives would not have been lost in the decades following the ACRM.
Our movement of movements approach (MoMA) acknowledges the need for multiple institutions and people to be involved. It is clear that politicians, lawyers, public policy experts and social scientists will be needed to draft and propose legislation. Our approach acknowledges the need for lawyers to prosecute deviations from whatever laws are established, and it acknowledges the need for journalists to investigate and report on all aspects of the problem, the solutions proposed and the compliance (or lack thereof) that follows. It acknowledges that changes made might be lost, thus there must be an effort to monitor and mitigate backsliding. None of this should be surprising, as it emerges from the post-ACRM approach.
But here is where MoMa diverges from the post-ACRM approach. Our approach requires all hands on deck. Teachers will be needed to teach about both police violence and how to challenge it. Parents will be needed to help their children learn and grow as anti-racists. Lobbyists will be needed to lobby for better policies. Artists (writers, singers, rappers, painters, dancers, performance artists, comic and graphic novelists, film makers) will be needed to tell the stories of what has been and what could be. Perhaps we need to get Lin Manuel to create “Stop and Frisk” – the musical? Students will be needed to study, learn, provoke and populate the other categories on this list. Elders will be needed to tell stories, give advice and stand aside. Doctors and health care providers will be needed to treat those in need without bias. Corporations will be needed to clean their houses of discriminatory practices. Clergy and counselors (and all decent human beings) will be needed to help those subjected to police violence to heal, in a human centered and empathetic way, meeting them where they are. Researchers will be needed to place racism/white supremacy front and center in fields of inquiry. Foundations will be needed to support the investigation of coercion, force, and violations of human rights here and abroad. Graphic designers will be needed to give us a logo, and marketing experts will be needed to make MoMa something that sparks the imaginations of American youth, as the Peace Corps once did. Police will be needed to police, but they must do so in a way that is deemed acceptable as they begin their more limited role in society. And, yes, when necessary we will need citizens to remove their regular clothing and become protestors (again) in order to protest deviations and delays.
It will take a nation of millions to hold them back! Toward this end of moving MoMa forward, we invite all citizens (in as well as out of the United States) to take the Movements of Movements Pledge (#MOMAPledge).
We promise to devote a minimum of 10% of their time to learn about racism, coercion, violence, peace and assist in building an effective functioning democracy.
This effort can involve searching, reading, reflecting, discussing, donating, volunteering, constructing, but it can also involve engaging in town halls and teach outs/ins. It can also involve citizens showing up for one another, as in the mutual aid movement, which will be necessary until we address the problems of poverty and inequality in the US. It will indeed take a nation of millions to hold them back but the past few weeks of protest seems to indicate that we may have the numbers to pull this off.