The most dramatic development in the United States in recent months in my mind was the sustained nationwide protests against two related events: the deaths of several African-American men and teenagers at the hands of police, and the decisions by the judicial system not to prosecute anyone for the deaths. Local protests across the country have gone on in different forms for several months now, and many ethnicities have participated in the movement that broadly marches under the banners of “Ferguson Action,” “Don’t Shoot!,” “Black Lives Matter,” and other coordinating groups.
The names of dead African-Americans like Michael Brown and Eric Garner resonated across a country that was not witnessing only a spontaneous expression of anger, vulnerability and self-assertion by African-Americans who feel that they are unfairly monitored, targeted, detained, frisked, arrested and occasionally killed by predominantly White police forces. This situation touches the fears of many more Americans, who see what appeared to them as a dysfunctional or prejudiced judicial system that allowed deaths of young Black men at the hands of police to pass without any judicial proceedings to discover if the police were acting illegally, unprofessionally or unethically. The status quo seemed to endanger young black men in the first instance, but many other Americans sense they would be losers also if they, too, do not enjoy the safeguards of the rule of law and an equitable justice system.
So during the last weeks of my extended visit to the United States this autumn, I sought out activists and organizers to learn more about the causes and consequences of the protests. Two seasoned community organizers in the Boston area, Terry Marshall and Lizzy Padgett, explained to me how community-based, locally-organized and largely spontaneous protest movements used street demonstrations and other non-violent actions to disrupt normal life in order to bring attention to the issues at hand. Marshall and Padgett have been involved in community organizing for 15 years, and are founders of groups such as Deep Abiding Love and Intelligent Mischief.
Based on their years of activism, they saw qualitative differences in the current protests from previous ones. They had learned from the short-lived Occupy Wall Street protests of two years ago that they had to prepare ahead of time in order to be able to maintain longer and more effective protests. They also felt that the active use of social media “amplified” local events such as the first major street demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, and spurred nationwide protests by Americans everywhere who felt that their system of law and justice had failed.
The tactic of peaceful marches that sought to disrupt normal life — like briefly closing the Brooklyn Bridge in New York or the metropolitan transport system in San Francisco — seeks to disrupt “business as usual” for people far away from the deaths of young Blacks, so that they “feel the pain and trauma,” and grasp that a crisis is happening in the lives of Black people that cannot continue.
When normal life and the economy are disrupted briefly, they told me, the American system feels uncomfortable, and America takes notice. They gave examples of some initial successes such the police in St. Louis issuing far fewer warrants to people, or the police in Boston now discussing the use of body cameras, after initially rejecting the idea. The extra costs of overtime for police personnel due to the protests — which amounted to some $2 million in Boston and the state of Massachusetts during the initial weeks of protests — also captures the attention of officialdom.
When I attended a training session for mostly young Black, Hispanic and White activists in a downtown Boston hall, the emphasis was on non-violent civil action and street protests, how to act when confronted by police, what information to gather when arrested, and how to communicate with others. The training reflected the point that Marshall and Padgett mentioned, about working hard to make it safe and sustainable for protestors to make their point in the streets, and then to move beyond street action for national political, judicial and policing changes. Only such structural changes can fix the deeper endemic problems of poverty, education, unofficial segregation, a prison culture and others that allow the state to use violence against Black bodies, they said. The recent deaths will happen again and again if nothing is done, they argued.
A poster at the training session spelled out the national goals that are the ultimate demands of the protests around the country: “The demilitarization of law enforcement across the country; comprehensive review of systemic abuses by local police departments; repurposing of law enforcement funds to support community based alternatives to incarceration; a congressional hearing to investigate the criminalization of communities of color, racial profiling, police abuses and torture by law enforcement; support the passage of the ‘end racial profiling act’; Obama administration develops, legislates and enacts a national plan of action for racial justice.”
A few days later, I attended a nighttime candlelight vigil in Watertown, Massachusetts, comprising mostly older, well-off white people. They heard from their religious and civic leaders about the need to hear the cries, protests and grievances of those in society who suffered but were not visible in suburban communities. One of the speakers was the local police chief, who gave the crowd his phone number as a sign of his understanding of the need to dialogue and address the grievances that have been amplified by the protests.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.