The Resurgence of Policy Protests
"On Saturday, The Poor People’s Campaign, Black Lives Matter, Beto O’Rourke and other activists concluded a 27-mile Selma-to-Montgomery-style march in Texas from Georgetown to the State Capitol in Austin, in part to protest attempts in Texas to pass restrictive voting laws.
Activists and members of Congress have gotten themselves arrested demanding that the Senate abandon or alter the filibuster so that federal voting rights legislation could be passed. In fact, as The Washington Post reported on Tuesday, “according to Capitol Police, more than 200 faith-led demonstrators were arrested while praying, singing and protesting in the street, hoping to draw attention to voting rights and a slate of other issues participants argued impact the poor and low-wage workers.”
Representative Cori Bush of Missouri, along with other members of Congress and activists, slept on the steps of the Capitol until the Biden administration reversed course and extended the evictions moratorium.
This is a moment of the re-emergence of the policy-specific protest, and a demonstration of just how effective it can be.
There are different kinds of civil rights protests we have seen in this country.
One kind of protest is like the massive, unprecedented protests following the murder of George Floyd. They are somewhat organic reactions to an individual outrage that epitomized a pattern of outrages. They are tragedy-specific, breaking-point protests that often have policy grafted onto them after the initial outbursts by smart activists.
But many of the chants in the streets are still about a broad range of umbrella issues that are hard to measure and therefore hard to know how to address and hold politicians accountable for: systemic racism, equality, justice. The terms can mean something different to each person saying them.
There is moral indignity and righteousness in these protests, but they are also often fueled by passion, rage and sadness, all expensive emotions that are nearly impossible to sustain.
News cameras are drawn like flies to this cauldron of emotion and any hostility, violence or looting it might generate. They make sport and spectacle of Black pain, and only so long as the performance of that pain is laced with destruction.
And as the emotions wane, the protests recede, the cameras pack up and move on, what is left is the memory of the movement, the aching, empty space where once there was energy.
But what we have seen recently are different kinds of protest: organized, policy specific protests, sparked not by individual tragedy, but born of plan and strategy. They are nonviolent. Many of their participants and leaders are older. They are crowdsourced on social media and may never go viral.
These protests harken back to the Civil Rights Movement and even borrow some of its language, philosophy and tactics.
As Bishop William Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach and a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, told me Wednesday about the difference in protest styles, on the one hand there are those who either “want to ride a wave or have a moment,” and then there are those who engage in protest, “direct actions,” where the act of protesting itself is the thing that “creates tension.”
I am always struck by how many riots in American history were sparked by an individual outrage, real or manufactured, and how many protests during the Civil Rights Movement were not. Those protests were often planned acts of civil disobedience against abusive systems and complicit power.
As the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. told me, “The difference is between long-term agenda oriented protests and short-term reaction protests.”
It is my belief that both forms of protest have a role to play and both can yield results.
There is no question that last summer’s protests changed some government policies, corporate strategies and some individual citizens’ minds about being better informed about race and better allies to those suffering with racial oppression.
But, there is also no question that those changes weren’t the kind of national-policy prescriptions required to truly put an end to — or even significantly curtail — police killings of Black people, racial income inequality, or the proliferate expressions of anti-Black white supremacy in society.
On the flip side, there is no question that the current direct action protests are also having an impact on members of Congress and the White House. Joe Biden, it seems to me, wants to govern by consensus, to pursue the things on which most Americans agree, and therefore ruffle few feathers.
Making a nuisance of yourself is very effective when dealing with people like that. They will adjust and accommodate just to restore peace and their own equanimity.
Passion protests and policy protests can both work, and both need each other. You have to lay out the policy and then put a face on it, as Bishop Barber told me.
Barber continued: “You both have a policy and personal reality, and you start connecting people across all these different lines. So, you can put a white mama from Appalachia and a Black mama from Alabama, but both of them lost their child because neither state expanded health care.”