Thursday, October 23, 2014


Political Mayhem Thursday: Protests that don't make sense

Pictured at right is a protest yesterday in Atlanta.  In order to draw attention to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, protesters blocked I-75.

Ferguson raises some important social issues that continue to plague our country, and the continuing discussion of militarized police is worthwhile (and may be productive).  However, this kind of protest is doing nothing to change hearts and minds.  It hurts a big bunch of innocent people, who are just going to be mad when they find out why they had to sit on a closed freeway.  It does nothing to advance the cause, and actually moves the ball backwards in terms of empathy for the victims of police violence.  Let's face it-- after sitting in traffic for two hours, some of the people stuck in their cars (black and white) were probably hoping for a little police violence.

Often, we confuse expression of anger with social justice advocacy.  Both have their place.  This kind of thing fails on both counts, though.  As an expression of anger, it isn't focused on the people who caused a problem-- it mostly going to inconvenience and enrage working people trying to get somewhere.  As social justice advocacy, it makes no statement whatsoever about the real issue, and has no chance to change anyone's mind.  That's just not how people work.

Too often, good causes have been hindered by bad tactics.  What were they trying to gain by this?  What was the goal?

In an era where injustice is often incredibly nuanced and solutions feel impossibly complicated, and where discourse about these issues is dominated by demagoguery (instead of honesty or even rationality), you have to expect some misfires from protestors.

Just look at Ferguson--you have one faction convinced that Darren Wilson murdered an unarmed Michael Brown and another certain that a brave cop justifiably defended himself and the community he's sworn to protect. Some witnesses say that Brown acted passively and was shot with his hands up, others argue that Brown assaulted Wilson and attempted to take his weapon. Add to that the subsequent national fervor about militarized police, the influence of outside rabble-rousers on the local protests, and the utter dearth of facts about what happened, and it's no surprise that pinpointing and responding to the real injustice is a challenge.

Of course, I'm not convinced that blocking a freeway in Atlanta is really a good faith effort to protest the events in Missouri. It reminds me of a scene I see play out everyday where I live: a young black man approaches an intersection on foot; when he arrives at the crossing, he notices that he does not have the right of way to cross; nevertheless, he defiantly steps out in front of oncoming traffic and slowly crosses the street; Arab cab drivers honk and yell, black drivers go around him, and white yuppies stop, frustrated but silent, so the man can cross.

What's happening here--and perhaps in Atlanta--is not a targeted protest at one thing or another, but rather a small but visible power play aimed at the big picture. It's a way of acting out against a society where class and privilege determine influence. It's a tactic to which there is no recourse for angry commuters where the disenfranchised can literally stop traffic. It's annoying as hell (especially when you're on a bicycle) and dangerous, but I guess we use the power we have.
Much the same reaction was observed when the graduate students at the university in our college town blocked most access to the campus for a couple of days in response to poor working conditions -- they were given so many duties and classes to teach that they could not complete their own studies.

And the community said, why are they impeding progress? Certainly they have grievances, but why do _we_ all have to suffer? Why does business need to be disrupted? The education of students? This is NOT constructive.

I was out there and saw the protestors -- just young people with a cause, protesting while heavily armed troops (when they're that armored, they're not cops anymore) loomed nearby and campus employees videotaped their every move.

Nothing changed; you might say it was useless. Or not; because a month later, at the beginning of finals week, the grad students walked out again and the university gave in to their demands the next day.

Sometimes a "senseless demonstration" is part of the negotiation process with a hierarchy; the other side needs to know your resolve before they'll treat you seriously. If so in academia, how much more so in the greater world?

Perhaps an interruption to our day will slow us down and make us think and question the reason for the inconvenience?
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