The influence of protests has been a life long interest of mine. I often found Martin Luther King Jr. inspiring because he understood the way violent protests would be perceived. He understood human beings in ways that we have either forgotten or refuse to acknowledge. To me the most important thing he did was teach protesters what to expect, how to have courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and how to command presence through peace. That is over simplifying it, because he knew that not everyone was motivated by the same reasons. Which is why he continuously reminded and refocused people who participated and supported his movement. Sometimes when we talk about the Civil Rights Movement we neglect to mention other activist who were involved. They each brought their own philosophy and perceptions to the table. They were willing to work together, not always in agreement, but ultimately towards achieving a specific goal.
I don’t know about you or what is currently being taught in schools today, but I did not learn in a classroom that Martin Luther King Jr. was considered a terrorist and a threat. I did not learn about Malcom X there either. When I brought him up trying to find more information, I was told that unlike Martin Luther King Jr. he was an Islamic terrorist because of his “by any means necessary approach.” I did not grow up with a knowledge of these prominent Civil Rights Activist or that there were many, many hands involved in its success. Because I had been taught that equality had been achieved.
In my efforts to self-educate I learned that movements are more effective when they focus on very clear goals that everyone can get behind. They send very clear messages. Over time they build bridges and gain unlikely allies. They hold each other accountable to the standard they set for themselves. Because if they don’t hold each other accountable, it becomes difficult to distinguish a protest from an angry mob. The recent nationwide protest show that there is power and purpose when people call out those who were hurting their cause. It also revealed that these protests were not united in their efforts. Good people were derailed on both sides by people who brought their own agendas. Afterwards, Liliana Bakhtiari remarks about why these peaceful protests became violent says it all; “it’s complex, and it varies from state to state, but a lot of what we’re seeing has little to do with the A.P.D. and more to do with just general helplessness and anger at everything. People taking causes and emotion into their own hands and acting out.” At a press conference Atlanta’s city mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms said it loud and clear.
“What I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos. A protest has purpose. When Dr. King was assassinated, we didn’t do this to our city.”Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms
I have questions. I have always thought as an American it was my right to gather. Freedom of speech. What does that mean if armed men can protest and shout their dissatisfaction in the government’s actions over inconvenient public health policy, but other groups of citizens are seen as more of a danger because people are actually dying and they are tired of it? It begs the question what is a protest? When is it allowed? I have to also ask myself when is a protest a part of a movement? And when it is simply an expression of outrage? Is it being done right if it focuses on a sole purpose? Can it succeed if it is multifaceted? Are protest more noteworthy if they are done within the confines of legality? Or does it have no merit unless you are consumed by anger and disregard any and all social responsibility? I have been taught that violence is an answer. That if you live by the sword you will die by the sword. But is violence always the answer? I don’t think so.
Movements, even ones that appear messy, have the potential to become a revolution. The fear and unease that they can sometimes generate is not unwarranted. Protests, their perceptions and their impact, can make or break a movement. Some have toppled governments and others inspire social change and develop a nation’s identity.
In my observation chaos rarely achieves what was intended because it is indifferent. Chaos only know how to destroy. Chaos doesn’t care who it hurts or who it uses. People acting in anger don’t clear buildings. You can build from the remnants of chaos, but we cannot build while we are traumatized by the chaos. I know from personal experience, and watching people I admire in action, that being a voice of reason and action is often needed more than the loudest voice in the room. There doesn’t appear to be any reward in it because it isn’t about the notoriety that person receives. When we chose peace, everyone in the room shares that voice. And it takes real courage to chose peace. Again and Again. I know that fighting indifference with indifference, might feel good, but it ends up hurting everyone in the community. But I also know that this is not an observation everyone shares, especially if they are surrounded by ongoing violence and turmoil. They only can see through their eyes the injustice, the unfairness of it all. In a society that uses the same words but not the same definitions for those words, one that allows the loudest voice in the room to dominate reason, or when we herald insensitive bullies as leaders, because we feel they will get the job done, we give permission to everyone in our country that being a bully is the way to get it done. It is no wonder there are some lashing out, screaming do you hear me now? Do you see my pain now? They want an eye for an eye, and nothing less will do.
We can no longer stand on the outside and criticize one form of it unless we address all avenues of violence. I stand with those who find violence distasteful and we need to refuse to make excuses for it. We do that by acknowledging truth, guarding ourselves against those who would use us, and if we have made a mistake and we have the ability to make reparations-we do it. We grow and learn together, and we do that by proposing a new plan or policy that speaks to our values-those values that represent all of us. Until then I expect there will be more protests. And as long as we believe that one person is more important than another person, there will be more push back. There will be people who take advantage of that to demonstrate their point. Don’t let them win. Look for ways to make room for each other. We need to look for opportunities to hear each other without dismissing or invalidating each other’s experience. It will be messy. We will get it wrong half the time, but we will learn to move in the same direction together.
How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change
President Barack Obama recently shared his thoughts and outlines specific steps in achieving sustainable and meaningful change in How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change. If you are looking for ways to support that change he includes a toolkit developed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
“the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform.”President Barrack Obama
In my past occupations I have been trained to see gatherings of more than 3, 5, 7… even a peaceful demonstration showing patriotic support as a potentially hostile environment. I am also a person who chooses not to go through life with a chip on my shoulder. I cannot live my life imagining every person I see as a potential threat. What I have come to believe is that I personally think the difference between a group being perceived as a intentionally dangerous mob and a peaceful protest comes down to the unity that clarity of message and purpose brings. Without guidance and shared these protest and others like it quickly turn into tools for people to use other people’s outrage to magnify their own. But across the country we also saw communities like Flint where they chose to embrace the protesters and joined with them in solidarity. Instead of escalating the situation further, in those places communities chose to come together. They came together under the shared beliefs and values of their community. We need more leaders and organizers, we need everyday citizens who are willing to be bridges in our communities.
I don’t know if there is a right way to protest. I am still trying to process what I am seeing and hearing but I can keep looking and supporting leaders in the community who remind us to recognize and protect our humanity. Until then, it is my belief as a Humanist to see each person as a human being deserving of dignity and to treat them as such.