New Orleans Historians, celebrities, names in the news, and old warriors of the civil rights movements are being put in the uncomfortable position of being asked by the press as so-called opinion leaders to comment on everything from the movie, Selma, to the tactics of protestors in the post-Ferguson moment of pushback and leap forward for more racial equality and rights. A lot of the talk seems fuddy-duddy and old fashion as too many try to both line up with the drive to end injustice but shrink from the tactics, often seeming to channel school marms and old aunts.
Street blocking has been a favorite tactic of current protestors with dramatic impact. In Oakland several weeks ago the interstate along the east Bay was blocked for hours attracting wild publicity. More recently several dozen protestors chained themselves to 1200 pound concrete barrels and blocked a highway coming into Boston for hours there as well. There are reports of “speaking truth to power” actions where protestors interrupt lunches in restaurants with largely white clientele to demand that they deal with the issues.
All of this invariably leads to the general wet noodling by outsiders that adopt the standard line that they agree with the goals, but abhor the tactics.
David J. Garrow, the award winning and great historian of the civil rights movement is a good example of a less than helpful tendency to scold and deprecate. Saying to the Times:
…the impromptu protests that had erupted in recent months were not comparable to the strategies used by civil rights groups of the 1960s, which had clear goals such as winning the right to vote or the right to eat at a segregated lunch counter. “You could call it rebellious, or you could call it irrational,” Mr. Garrow said of the new waves of protests. “There has not been a rational analysis in how does A and B advance your policy change X and Y?” Mr. Garrow compared the protesters to those of Occupy Wall Street. “Occupy had a staying power of, what, six months?” Mr. Garrow said. “Three years later, is there any remaining footprint from Occupy? Not that I’m aware of.”
Even Rev. Al Sharpton, who knows something about protesting, took some shots by saying of the protests,
“I think some of them are absolutely what we need,” he said. Of others, he said: “I think some of them are hustling the media, they have no real following, no real intent, and they may not be around in four months.”
Rev. Sharpton knows something about working the media, and part of the tactical dilemma faced by today’s civil rights protestors, just as by others 50 years ago, is how to get enough attention to convert the protest to pressure.
From an organizing perspective the tactics don’t seem problematic to me. The fact that the actions are small and broadcast a limited base is what worries me. You can’t make change without troops, and putting lots of people in motion, and the choice of tactics in some of the more dramatic actions has been more about a vanguard leading, than building a movement for change. A movement for change can’t crystallize around folks watching YouTube videos of other people engaging risk and taking action. Unless this generation of organizers and activists starts assembling tactics that allow broad engagement and participation, the naysayer army is always mobilized and will drown them out and beat them down. If we look small, we quickly become irrelevant. Organizers can’t allow that to happen on campaigns of this importance.