Whenever people stand up and speak truth to power, demonstrating against injustices perpetrated by the powers that be, a similar refrain often amplifies through social echo chambers.
“I don’t mind people protesting. I just wish they would protest the right way.”
Others express this sentiment by discrediting each and every variant of protest they encounter.
“I don’t mind protests, but don’t take a knee and disgrace our flag and troops.”
“I Don’t mind protests, but don’t block traffic.”
“I don’t mind protests, but looting distracts from the message.”
“I don’t mind protests, but do it legally.”
I’m not saying it’s right to vandalize stores or take a knee during an anthem. Then again, I can’t say it’s wrong either. In fact, I’ve come to think that evaluating modes of protest in such ways make little sense at all.
What is the “proper” way to protest?
That short question along belies an additional question worth unpacking.
Who is in a position to define “the right way to protest?”
To meditate on that question is to point yourself towards why people protest in the first place.
Power does not distribute equally within a society. Such utopias only exist on paper. Some have more power and some have less. Some societies distribute a excessive proportion of power to a select few while others enforce a more equitable division. But any system of government, any legitimate state, produces a social contract in which some people wield political, economic, or social power over others. In return, others trust those on top to protect their human rights.
It would take multiple books to spell out how power distributes itself in society. When referring to people, groups, or categories that wield a lion share of power, some may use terms like “privileged class”, “the elite,” “the oppressors”, or “the powers that be.”
On the reverse side, many identify categories of people with less power as an “underclass”, or “the oppressed”.
This works not only among individuals, but also in social systems. It allows individuals to experience either privilege or disadvantage regardless of their internal attitudes or dispositions. This seems to produce great disconnect among white folks who deny racial privilege by virtue of their economic disadvantage. In other words, “I’m not privileged because I grew up poor.”
Privilege is a multi-sided coin that operates on near countless facets. One’s economic advantage does not discredit one’s racial disadvantage. Identities within social systems operate on an inter-sectional basis.
So why do people protest?
I’m sure they are countless reasons. But most seem to boil down to oppressed and allied individuals standing against oppressive groups or social systems. Speaking truth to power. Lobbying for change. Seeking to redistribute power from those who abuse it.
And most importantly, people protest to gain leverage over those who wield inordinate power.
Because why on Earth would those in politically or economically powerful positions surrender that power willingly? If you’re in charge, why make a change at all?
They would if their power came under threat.
The United States is not a dictatorship (on paper).
But how does a dictator keep its power? There is one dictator and millions of citizens. They outnumber him. They’ll tear him to shreds. No man rules alone.
How can he stay in control?
He has two main choices. One, he could appease his citizens with the social and economic reforms necessary to pacify them. In other words, he must sacrifice some of his economic and social power to satisfy his citizens. Satisfied citizens don’t protest or assassinate leaders.
But that’s expensive, no?
Not to mention risky. As Grey puts it, rulers who give away more “keys to power” typically have shorter reigns.
Another option – he could subdue the citizens with fear. Kill a few dissidents. Hire a police force to patrol the neighborhood. Give them guns – big ones.
It might be cheaper than sweeping social welfare programs.
But now he has to appease the police he hires to enforce this fear. A happy police force will do his bidding. A disgruntled one will dig his grave.
No matter what the choice, a dictator is in constant calculation of how much power he can manage to sacrifice to stay in command. He is at the mercy of his citizens in one way or another.
So as a dictator, it’s reasonable to feel skeptical about disgruntled citizens. Dissatisfaction somewhere is a threat to the throne everywhere, he thinks.
If citizens want to protest his unfavorable policies or demand change, should he allow it?
In our modern Information Age, it’s a tough choice. Can he squash the protest with force? If he did, who would find out about it? How many would find out? What would others do if they did find out?
Should they be allowed to burn the flag? He’s not comfortable with that. To disgrace national symbols is to disgrace his pride, his reputation, his right to lead. He is the “powers that be”, and only a pacified populace will do.
Best to allow them to protest, but only if they stay in a designated space, apply for a permit, and remain peaceful at all times. If they disobey, crush them.
What a dictator wants is to give citizens the illusion of protest without supplying the means for citizens to gain real leverage over him.
Because most of the time, powerful people will only cede power when the oppressed gain leverage.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott didn’t succeed because bus executives grew a conscience. Rather, the bus companies relented when growing public pressure and lost income (from a majority black ridership) forced their hand.
Did Adam Silver ban Donald Sterling from the NBA for life because it was the “right thing to do”? Maybe. In part. Or perhaps the NBA stood to lose millions if the fan base of a team in a major metropolitan area boycotted the team and sponsors readied themselves to jump ship.
Generally, the powerful do not surrender power out of the goodness of their hearts. They do so as a necessary compromise to keep the power they can – a calculated move to maintain some power rather than potentially lose it all.
So who likes to lecture on the “proper way to protest?”
Those who want to ignore them.
Those who want to put the oppressed in a corner of silence.
Those who would rather not feel uncomfortable.
Those who preach that all lives matter but don’t back up that talk when black lives are at stake.
The goal of protestors is to amplify their voice.
The goal of “protest-splainers” is to mute them.
Because if a social movement brings inconvenience and discomfort, it means it’s working.
Effective protest, almost by definition, involves breaking rules. Why would the rules – rules written by those in power – provide loopholes to subvert that power?
The system as it stands is racist, unjust, and discriminatory. The leverage needed to dismantle it only exists beyond it. And brick-by-brick by way of the ship of Theseus, power will readjust to a more just level.
I know I made some mistakes in writing this. I’m sorry. I know I have a long way to go on my journey from non-racism to anti-racism.
As a white man, I cannot say I have an enlightened view on what it means to be oppressed or how these racist systems operate. The more I read about systemic racism, the more I realize that the answer to the question of “how is America racist?” is ” in just about every way.”
By “America,” I do mean the entire blessed and cursed duo-continent on which I was born.
But I would also make a grave mistake were I to say nothing. As a fish surrounded by water I cannot escape the society in which I grew up – even if I move across the world.
My education is one of unlearning at this point.
And part of that unlearning is to recognize that even though all lives matter, it is people of color whose lives need validation at this time.
Black lives matter.
For every page view this post gets from now until June 24th, I will donate $2 to The Bail Project to fight against a racist and unjust American carceral system.