A number of Americans – maybe the majority – seem to detest protesting in nearly any form. That is understandable to a degree. Protests, in order to be effective, are disturbing. They bother, they upset, they rattle cages, they inconvenience.
Protests need to disturb in order to address immediate-and-longstanding concerns, which are usually pressing, necessary, life-changing.
And while there are a fair number of protests and actions at the behest of the establishment (these are normally called Astro-Turf. Many Tea Party actions such as their infamous ‘die-ins’ are signs of this; liberal and labor astroturfing is not as widespread as reported, but it does happen), oftentimes even the participants believe that their very lives or the lives of their loved ones are at stake. They may be mistaken, but they are still risking tremendously by putting their bodies, time, and resources on the line.
However, both liberals and conservatives believe that there are fundamental lines that one may not cross in protesting – that there is a time and a place (and even an appropriate attire) for protesting. There are official protest zones, officiated by the police, often miles away from the very action they are supposed to protest. At a Pride event hosted at the White House, transgender LatinX immigration rights activist Janicet Gutierrez, who is undocumented, interrupted President Obama while he was addressing the crowd to demand the release of LGBTQ undocumented prisoners detained by ICE. The LGBTQ audience, many presumably white gay, cisgender men, shouted her down, yelling “Shame on you” and even “This is not for you. This is for all of us.”
“All of us” does not include undocumented LGBTQ people, apparently.
Later, social media was adrift in shaming liberals who dismissed Gutierrez as merely a “heckler” and said that the location of her protest was inappropriate. The underlying current is that one should not protest in front of the president, as that is a sacred space. That there are sacred spaces in which protest should not happen, even though – and perhaps because – it is the locus of the very power that needs to be challenged and changed. The president was the one to change the very things that needed to be addressed. And Gutierrez risked her very body and even her life for it. Yet, it was deemed inappropriate.
Black protesters often get the brunt of such criticisms. The Black Lives Matter movement* is about many things having to do with the material living and existing conditions of black (and other) people in the US. It has to do with mass incarceration and extrajudicial murder disproportionately affecting Black people – but also with housing, living wages, the court system, LGBTQ rights – none of these just for Black people, but including Native, white, brown. It also centers Black women, Black girls, Black femmes. In its own words:
Black Lives Matter is a chapter-based national organization working for the validity of Black life. We are working to (re)build the Black liberation movement…
Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.
When we say Black Lives Matter, we are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state. We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity.
The movement and its adjoining protests are perceived in the mainstream in a limited frame: it is the Angry Black trope, concerned solely about extrajudicial killings of black people. This kind of malfeasance means that even many who claim to support the movement complain about and deem inappropriate actions such as street marches, traffic halts, campus take-overs, and business black-outs. Blocking traffic is inappropriate. Protesting presidential candidates is inappropriate. While many conservatives lament that the protesters aren’t wearing suits and ties while getting billy clubbed and fire-hosed, liberal allies are constantly limiting where, when, how, and to whom protest is acceptable. This includes the nation’s first black president, who said that BLM activists “can’t just keep yelling“, furthering the derailing criticism that activists are do-nothing crybabies, when in point of fact Black Lives Matter and associated protesters have been outlining policy distinctions and demands from the beginning while putting their bodies on the line.
But there was also, from liberals, complaints about students. Whining, really, that black students and survivors of sexual violence should not be able negotiate rare safe spaces for themselves when, in actuality, the whole world is a safe place for most white men. Toughen up, butter cup, say white wealthy men paid to share their unfounded opinions. The middle of a campus embroiled in White Supremacist and anti-black images may be safe for white people, but they are not for black. A graphic scene describing sexual assault in a book or movie clip may be perfectly acceptable to one who hasn’t experienced the receiving end of it, but less likely for nearly 20% of women.
Sometimes, protesters are just asking for the simplest things, the most basic of spaces to negotiate their existence. And it is liberals among with conservatives who take pleasure in mocking them for that. To be given a space for existence and an opportunity for flourishing, to given a chance to live out the preamble for the Declaration, that would-be promise of American democracy, where “All… are created equal” and should enjoy basic rights and liberties as a result
In speaking of ‘liberals’, we are not speaking of a political ideology so much as a political class – that of the entrenched Democrat who is quite satisfied with the status quo. And that is at the heart of the problem with the Democratic Party as it stands and the reason it needs to be occupied. Actions are being had right now to occupy the Democratic Party for people power.
Take the Democratic National Convention and Bernie Sanders’ delegates, for example:
On a night that was supposed to be about Democrats unifying behind Hillary Clinton as the official presidential nominee, Bernie Sanders supporters decided they would not go quietly into the night.
Angry over allegations of widespread voter fraud and orders to stay quiet during Tuesday night’s proceedings, an estimated 1,800 hard-core Sanders voters staged a spontaneous walkout Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Many said they felt disrespected and silenced.
Wearing “Black Lives Matter” tape over their mouths and holding pro-Sanders signs, they headed for the media tent adjacent to the Wells Fargo Arena where the roll call of states had just happened.
This is solidarity; it is protest; and it matters. What is happening in Philadelphia with protesting and booing Bernie Sanders delegates is in fact an act of political protest. It is a deliberate and risky act of resistance by relatively powerless people leveraging discomfort and comes at sacrifice. No one flew these volunteers to Philly to be booted out. To vote third party is also an act of defiance, an electoral act of sustainable protest. It says that we are voters and we are here and will be listened to. That the Democratic Party is not representing the people but is only primarily interested in the established plutocrats and the capitalist class that they represent.
We are people who demand health care for all. We demand an end to racist militarized policing in our neighborhoods and around the world (both interventionist practices and the War on Terror). We demand fair housing, progressive taxation, full funding for wrap-around neighborhood schools, and liveable wages. These are material needs for space for survival, and they are denied us. So we struggle. And protesting is part of that struggle for survival.
And if liberals don’t like it, then we ask if they are liberal – who by definition seek change over injustice – or merely tolerant conservatives.
*Often, Black Lives Matter is an umbrella term for BLM the coalition, BLM-inspired media activists, and similar Black liberation movements such as Black Youth Project 100, We Charge Genocide, and Dream Defenders. That is partially happening here.