Our generation, seeing the socioeconomic and racial barriers we’ve inherited, has engaged in it’s own protest movement. On a regular basis, the names of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and other heroes of the civil rights movement are invoked as inspiration. These monolithic individuals tapped into incredible courage and an astute understanding of effective means to change their world. But now their names are being abused and misused. We have seen the Occupy Wall Street movement rise and fade away managing only to make the Guy Fawkes mask a serious symbol. After experiencing a lull the modern protest movement (in the U.S.) we saw the Michael Brown shooting grab the attention of social media followed (relatively slowly) by conventional media.
The upheaval over the case is a prime example of the impotence of protests in American society. There are two main indicators that it is a dying methodology:
1) Both sides failed to achieve their goals
2) The sociological and political means for protest to achieve those goals just aren’t there anymore.
1) Full disclosure, I work closer to Law Enforcement than any other profession so I’ll pick on them first. The initial response to the protest was an embarrassment. Militarization of the police aside, if you’re going to carry a pimped out M-4 in a crowd of civilians don’t point it at them. Veterans were, in my mind, the most legitimate critics. After the initial f*** up, the Highway Patrol did a much better job, and certainly then had to deal with a lot of crap they didn’t deserve.
I have no desire to call out specific figures in the protest movement- it’s a waste of my time. Suffice it to say, there was a lot of rhetoric that served to divide the American people, rather than unite them. The ability to unite people was one of Dr. King’s great skills. I’m white, and frankly while I can only begin to imagine what the African American experience has been in this nation the words of Dr. King get me riled up and ready to protest. However, in trying to activate people in response to the death of Michael Brown, misinformation lead the rhetoric down a divisive path. People of all races with a law enforcement background (and often right leaning) were turned off, despite actually being supportive of racial equality. For example, there was a great outcry over Michael Brown’s body being left out in the street for over four hours. This is standard policy, and if the body had been swept away immediately it would result in the destruction of evidence and actually indicate a cover up. This is just one of several points where it was clear that protest leadership were riling up their constituency for their own purposes, rather than actually trying to achieve change. Many are wealthy and powerful enough and have enough political connections that they could have realized their words would alienate a large portion of the population. The fact that they chose the words they did speaks volumes about their intentions. I think it is clear that in retrospect, both sides failed in their goals. The supporters of Michael Brown did not feel that he received justice. At the same time, although acquitted, former Officer Darren Wilson will forever be on the run from death threats and the hatred of a good portion of his community. Nobody won… except the system that enabled this whole scenario.
2) The second indicator of the end of the age of protests is more abstract. In political science, there is a term for the ability to move up in a society: political opportunity structure. Dr. King, Gandhi, etc led movements which opened up preexisting political opportunity structures to a previously discriminated against population. For example, in the United Stated the civil rights protest movement led to the African American population being integrated into the societal and governmental systems that already existed in the country. At this time, on paper, we should have an open and free society, with equality and justice for all. We don’t. There has been a myth that all we need now is time for the racial wounds of America to heal. This has, I think, put a muzzle on the discussion of race for the last several decades. Race is still a problem, but ultimately it is fueled by our growing economic divide which is cemented in place by policy. Policy, in turn, is the outline for the structure of our political system. This means that no matter how long you protest, how many streets you block or events you shut down, there is no place in the system for you if you haven’t already made it in. The political opportunity structure has been molded to prevent economic advancement for a majority of the population.
Protest, ultimately, is a form of communication. Dr. King himself called riots the “language of the unheard”. I would argue that the solution to our problem is in how we choose our leaders- not how we communicate with them. The only effective communication with our leaders is now with the dollar, and even collectively we cannot hope to raise our voices in unison with those of the 1%. I want to make it very clear that this barrier in the political opportunity structure is not an excuse for violence of any kind. I don’t want some terrorist asshole reading this to get the wrong idea and use me as an excuse in his quest to find his virgins. Political violence is never the answer, especially if you’re looking for positive results. We need to take both the money and the violence out of politics, and protesting won’t help us get there.