Of all the tone-policing arguments that have come out of the dozen or so groups I’ve been shunted into since the election, the one that currently impresses me the least is “you won’t win anyone to your side by breaking windows and blocking streets.” There also seems to be some sort of delusion that movements must court and win the favor of moderate white liberals in order to prevail, and that anyone who refuses to use honeyed words and pleas is “hurting the movement.”
Look, if being polite to the oppressor made them see you as human, take your side, and award you rights, Gone with the Wind would have ended with Scarlett selling all those fancy dresses so that she could make sure to have the right mule-to-acreage ratio for Mammy and Pork and Prissy and Big Sam.
Listen up, moderates, cause this is going to sting a little. The movement – whichever movement, be it Black Lives Matter or the March on Washington – doesn’t need to beg anyone to join it or to stay with it. The movement doesn’t have to make sure it isn’t inconveniencing anyone. The movement doesn’t have to abase itself and hope for a caress rather than a kick. None of these things work anyway.
First of all, the threats to quit are unimpressive: we’ve hit “then they came for me…” (it’s not a good look on us, white liberals, but I digress). Quitting hurts you as much as anyone else at this point, and we all know it. So let’s get back to the “driving people away” question.
Typically, protests serve two purposes: awareness and disruption. In this age of social media “awareness” is almost obsolete, except in rare cases where it’s important to get all the warm bodies that have been working quietly behind closed doors together so that people – themselves included – can see the sheer weight of the numbers being applied to the problem at hand (the Women’s March for example). This leaves disruption.
Disruption is not at odds with peace. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the lunch counter sit-ins, and the Freedom Riders were not working to ensure economic prosperity for their targets. In fact, they were doing the opposite: ensuring economic shutdown and disruption if the status quo were maintained. The goal was not to make anyone “aware” that Blacks could be denied service. Everyone knew. The goal was to make the denial of that service unappetizing. “Peaceful” in this context means “not physically fighting.”
A protest that can be ignored, that inconveniences no-one and provides a pretty spectacle, might as well be a parade. It does little to change awareness or motivate anyone to call their governor and complain, or point out that if we just change a couple signs about where people can sit the whole thing could be over and we could get back to business and profit.
Similarly, when protestors block the street you need to travel on to reach Whole Foods, they’re not trying to make you aware that police are killing Black children. You know. You have access to the whole Internet. And they’re not trying to make you care. Either you care or you don’t (and if you don’t care, I don’t know how you live with yourself but that’s another story). On the other hand, they can get you to become part of the solution whether you want to or not.
One major question of any movement is how to mobilize comfortable people. How do you get someone who isn’t personally affected to put pressure on the authorities to change the status quo?
Some people will step up regardless. Some people will get off the couch and march with protestors even though they are not personally affected, because they believe it’s the right thing to do, that we cannot all be lifted up while some of us are held back. Others will write letters, make phone calls, and be involved in whatever ways their personal limits allow.
Others won’t, and that’s what disruption aims to change.
Not by making them care: obviously they don’t and won’t. And disruption can’t “drive them away” because they’re not really a part of the movement in the first place. What disruption does is make life less comfortable for these folks. It disturbs their inertia and inconveniences them to the point where they want the disruption to stop more than they want the oppression to continue.
Yes, disruption runs the risk of force being used against the protestors. And yes, absolutely I prefer peaceful disruption like blocking streets and bridges to the destruction of property. But when we can’t get people to wake up and start getting the problem dealt with any other way, fuck you if you value a Little Caesar’s or a Starbucks window over human lives. So yes, if what it takes to get people upset that protestors are on the streets is destruction rather than disruption, I’m ok with burning limos. The point is to get you, Comfortable Moderate Reading This At Home, to want the protests to stop.
See, even if you still give no fucks about the original problem, now you’re working for the protestors. You’re another point of leverage, and you’re a point of leverage the government cares a hell of a lot more about than a few black bodies in the street, as you’re well aware if you read the news.
So no, the movement doesn’t have to be nice to Becky and Jenny and Brad. It doesn’t have to beg them to stay and it doesn’t need their expertise. It’d be excited to have them join up, of course – it’s important to care about people and to work for justice. It’s important to value human life and dignity. It’s important to stand together for everyone’s rights. But if they can sleep well at night without working for those things, the movement can still use them.
It just doesn’t have to be nice about it.