Editors note: Updated from original publication on May 26, 2015. Peaceful protests are as relevant now as they ever were. The more things change the more they stay the same.
what kind of protest is acceptable?
I’d like to ask you a few questions about what “peaceful protests” means to you. To begin, STOP calling them PEACEFUL protests. Using that phrase is akin to calling married men “non-abusive spouses” or referring to “rational women”. But I digress. Do you approve of any type of protest against police brutality and other oppression so long as it’s non-violent? Perhaps it just depends.
Should protesters be required to get a permit in order to gain your approval? Maybe a peaceful protest on a sidewalk is okay. Are those peaceful protests you can wrap your head around? In other words, if protests adhere to certain social norms, you believe, “If they’re going to have peaceful protests at least they are doing it the right way.” Was Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the national anthem protest peaceful enough for you or did it raise your blood pressure? Along those lines, should sports figures and celebrities stay in their fucking lanes and do their jobs without dragging politics into everything?
Let’s dig a little deeper regarding acceptable peaceful protests. How does a spontaneous protest in front of a police station or outside a public official’s house strike you? If protesters burn the American flag, does that convert peaceful protests into violent ones? Cutting to the chase, do you understand what civil disobedience is? Do you believe yelling “Fuck the police” or similar aggressive speech is grounds for arrest and does that alter your perception of whether the protest is “peaceful”?
how do you react to protests?
What comes to mind when you think of a “violent” protest? Is it when people in the crowd break windows and set shit on fire? Perhaps most importantly, tell me your definition of “violent”. Can you differentiate between the terms “protest”, “vandalism”, “looting” and “riot”, or are they all pretty much the same?
Let me set you straight. Those terms are not interchangeable. Grabbing ho-ho’s and six packs from a convenience store after a brick opens the door is theft. Looting is despicable, but it doesn’t elevate a protest to a riot, nor does spray painting a wall. A riot is protester-instigated physical aggression towards police, like shooting or lobbing objects at them. Protesters running from tear gas does not a riot make. Be careful with your language because it can perpetuate stereotypes, lies and further aggression towards marginalized people. The media and government officials use the word “riot” for protests to get you to accept their worldview that all protest is chaos.
are you the same as you were before you knew stuff?
There are certain things I don’t believe I would ever do. I phrased that carefully because a person doesn’t know what they will do in a given situation until they’re tested. Case in point, in my twenties I said I’d never go to herculean feats to have a baby. Six in vitro procedures later, I have three children.
No one puts baby in the corner. (pun intended) I’m talking about actions against my moral code. For instance, I’m never going to bludgeon a puppy. I can say that with relative certainty. Even if its cuteness tries to kill me. I will never call anyone the “R word”. And, no, I’m not talking about Republicans.
protests and their many forms
Since the unjustified killing of Michael Brown, I’ve done things I never thought I would. I used to wonder what compelled me to continue protesting in the streets. Is it white savior complex? I don’t think so, but how can I be sure? I’ve attended over a hundred protests since August 2014, peaceful and otherwise. They included: pre-planned marches, protests in neighborhoods, protests outside major sporting events, pop-up protests. Some peaceful protests occurred outside various police departments. I protested inside the America’s Center, Wal-Mart, malls, restaurants and at various points of interest around St. Louis. I’ve attended silent street protests, protests in front of churches and street die-ins. The list goes on.
I say this to illustrate how varied protest can be, not to congratulate myself. Acting human doesn’t deserve special recognition. To be clear, I wasn’t out there when an L.A. jury acquitted officers who beat Rodney King. I didn’t take to the streets after Florida legal fuckery denied Trayvon Martin’s mother justice for the murder of her son. There’s not enough internet to list all the lives that didn’t inspire me to activism before Michael Brown.
Peaceful protests in front of elected officials’ house used to make me wince. Highway protests seemed too extreme. I cringed when a beloved, now deceased, friend screamed obscenities at the police. Getting to the scene of a police-involved killing in an unfamiliar neighborhood before protest friends initially scared me. Fast forward six years, and I’m stridently yelling “Fuck the police” as loud as my voice will carry. I see the folks in those neighborhoods as people, usually hurting. The trauma in these neighborhoods is palpable. As soon as I start talking to someone the apprehension melts. This is a human being in front of me.
Additionally, I’ve carried signs and chanted in front of the houses of the Governor, a couple Mayors and City Managers, and city prosecutors. I’ve been to protests where police and protesters were shot as well as completely chill Mother’s marches. And highways? Shut many of those down following black leaders over the years.
Many white people fixate on HOW something is presented to the detriment of THE MESSAGE.
has your view of protests changed over time?
My viewpoint of what is an acceptable protest has evolved. Politicians saying their view on a controversial subject “evolved” sounds like yesterday’s bullshit. It is a way to lubricate the public’s psyche to the politician flip-flopping on an important issue. In my case, I didn’t understand. As a matter of fact, I continue to struggle to understand. I will never fully get it. Understanding takes constant vigilance, and pivoting my world view.
Protest, by definition, is supposed to be disruptive. Otherwise, it would be pointless. It’s designed to make you uncomfortable so you remember it. Peaceful protest wants to stop you and make you think. It knows interrupting your meal isn’t going to win hearts but it will give you pause, and that’s as much as it can do unless you investigate the underlying principles of the protest.
Returning to how I started this piece, think about how you answered the question of what “violent” means. Recall how you defined “peaceful”. After all the preventable death and lack of justice, I can’t get riled up about the “violence” of property damage. No one condones setting candy bars and chips on fire, but I accept setting a fire as a completely rational response to rampant systemic racism. How would you react if police shot your child while sleeping or playing with a toy gun on a playground, and were not held to account?
Imagine if that scenario played out in different and cruel ways for your kin. Think about if the news continually blasted out photos of victims that died like your child. It would be traumatic and re-traumatizing. Would you be beside yourself enough to curse at the people in authority and their representatives who could have done something? Would trying to raise consciousness about the injustice motivate you to stop traffic for twenty minutes?
Shouting at the house of a prosecutor who maintains the status quo and refuses to prosecute police brutality is a sensible thing for oppressed people to do. I accept the marginalized screaming “Fuck the police” as fair game in response to police continually killing unarmed black citizens. I am finally evolving.