Colin Kaepernick and the Myth of the Good Protest

New Orleans  Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore is a professor of history at Yale. Her op-ed on protest was published in the New York Times and warrants sharing in full because its message of how protest develops from organization and organizing is an essential historical reminder. What follows are Professor Gilmore’s remarks:

Credit Matt Rota

LAST week, the editors of GQ named the quarterback Colin Kaepernick its Citizen of the Year for his work protesting racial injustice. Kaepernick has been heavily criticized by people like President Trump, who claims that an N.F.L. player who kneels during the playing of the national anthem “disrespects our flag” and should be fired; others argue that he is out of bounds as an activist who mixes sports with politics.

The problem is that Kaepernick’s critics, and most of America, don’t really understand how protests work. Our textbooks and national mythology celebrate moments when single acts of civil disobedience, untainted by political organizations, seemed to change the course of history. But the ideal of the “good” protest — one that materialized from an individual’s epiphany — is a fantasy. More often, effective protest is like Mr. Kaepernick’s: it’s collective and contingent and all about long and difficult struggles.

Consider what most Americans would agree were two “good” protests: Rosa Parks’s refusal to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and the student sit-ins at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Parks, the story goes, was exhausted from a day’s work and took a seat in the “whites only” section. To the astonishment of onlookers, she refused to give up her seat when asked. In Greensboro, black college students decided to eat at the local five-and-dime and initiated the first sit-in at a segregated Southern restaurant. They were idealistic and perhaps naïve.

These stories follow a set narrative. They are “firsts”: the first time a black woman refused to give up her seat or the first time students staged a sit-in. They seemed to arise spontaneously when someone fed up with unfair treatment couldn’t take it anymore. Good protesters act as individual citizens, untainted by associations with suspect political organizations.

The trouble is that these stories are historically inaccurate and obscure just how protest in the 20th century forged a more democratic country. A narrative with greater accuracy would allow us to better evaluate protests against racial discrimination. Earlier protests, similar to the one that Kaepernick started, sprang from protesters’ associations with activist organizations, were deeply political rather than individual, and played out in unfamiliar venues in new forms.

Protests that change history have their own long histories. They are almost never the first of their kind. Successful protesters plan campaigns, rather than respond to oppression in a single, spontaneous act. Protesters often belong to organizations that lend theoretical, moral and logistical support. Protests don’t reveal previously hidden wrongs to an unaware public. Instead, they cast those wrongs in a new light. They fail, time and time again. When they succeed, they win only partial victories.

Rosa Parks, for example, was a trained civil rights activist. She built on efforts that started in the 19th century to desegregate transportation and gained speed in the 1930s. In 1940, for example, Pauli Murray, a black woman, refused to give up her seat on a bus in Petersburg, Va.

Though most Americans today look back on the desegregation of public transportation with pride, most white Southerners opposed it vehemently, and many did so violently. During World War II, white passengers and bus drivers beat uniformed black soldiers who tried to integrate buses.

A. Philip Randolph knew that the emergency of war meant that these instances of discrimination ran counter to the nation’s interests. Randolph drew on his long experience as a labor leader to found the March on Washington Movement in 1941. The movement threatened to bring millions of African-Americans to Washington to protest; when President Franklin Roosevelt promised reforms, Randolph called off the march.

Throughout the war, the movement continued to train people who became civil rights protesters in the 1950s, including Pauli Murray. This pressure influenced the Supreme Court in 1946, which ordered desegregation on interstate buses in Morgan v. Virginia. That case set a precedent that Parks strategically worked to extend to local and state laws in Montgomery.

Just as Parks had done, the students sitting-in at the Woolworth counter drew from a long history of struggle. African-Americans had been “stool sitting” since the early 1940s. Howard University students in Washington staged some of the first sit-ins, which involved movement-trained protesters led by Murray. Those sit-ins aimed at national chain stores that operated outside the South, just as the Greensboro sit-ins purposefully did later. The Greensboro students knew all of this, because they were advised by the legendary organizer Ella Baker.

White Americans’ deep investment in the myth that the civil rights movement quickly succeeded based on individual protests has left the impression that organizations such as Black Lives Matter are counterproductive, even sinister. The same things were said of the N.A.A.C.P.

Just as football players kneeling during the national anthem today must repeatedly insist that they are not protesting the flag, Parks and the Greensboro students had to fight against efforts to play down the stakes of their protests. Parks’s action was not about a seat in the front of the bus. It was about Jim Crow, a legal and social system of degradation. And as Baker argued in her speech “Bigger Than a Hamburger,” the Greensboro sit-ins marked the beginning of a fight for education, voting rights and economic opportunity.

Rosa Parks was a hero. So were the students who sat in at the Woolworth lunch counters. But they knew that their heroism was possible only because of decades of what Baker called “spade work.” They knew that organizations to which they belonged and that gave them strength were the most recent manifestations of decades of struggle.


Guns Have No Place at a Protests

White Nationalists in full military gear in Charlottesville  Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

New Orleans    Let’s spend a minute looking for some silver lining in the dark clouds that have arisen from the horror of Charlottesville before moving to the harder questions.

Cities have sprung into action in Nashville, Jacksonville (Florida), Annapolis (Maryland), and Lexington (Kentucky) to move forward on removing controversial Confederate statuary. In Durham, North Carolina, one-hundred protesters tied a rope around a statute of an unnamed Confederate solider and toppled it, Sadam-style. Rallies have been canceled at Texas A&M.

World leaders have come together to condemn the hate and violence of right-wing extremists. Republicans and Democrats across the aisle have joined in their condemnation of these groups. Attorney-General Sessions labeled them terrorists.

That’s about it for the silver lining, since a lot of the rest is still clouds, as well as some thunderstorms, including the pouting and petulant Trump, pulled back to the White House to make a seemingly begrudging statement of condemnation several days late. He then, as usual, showed his true colors by Twitter-tacking the African-American head of the Merck drug company for having the good sense and courage to resign for one of his showboat, do-nothing advisory committees.

I’ve got to admit as horrible as all of this has been and as disturbing as the pictures from Charlottesville have seemed, I’m most unsettled seeing all of the prominent displays of guns and assault weapons. Open carry law, permits, whatever, guns have no place at a demonstration, especially one like this. There’s a time bomb ticking before we will have to read – or worse, witness – some hothead, on one side or another, who believes he is being threatened, and claims he has to “defend” himself or herself, and starts firing. People will die.

It wasn’t so long ago when the police in Dallas were quoted publicly on this very problem. When someone went rouge and began killing police there last year in the wake of a Black Lives Matter protest, the Chief and other Dallas department spokespeople who where interviewed talked openly about how difficult it was to respond when they had to sort out who were the friendlies versus the baddies since so many were carrying guns.

In Charlottesville the police are coming in for criticism for essentially letting the two sides seemingly “fight it out,” rather than preemptively separating all sides, which they did in the New Orleans statue removal dispute very effectively, or stepping in more aggressively to stop the outbreak. I wonder if all of the guns were a factor. Photos in the newspapers yesterday showed demonstrators wearing full combat gear and arms. Today’s papers had pictures of the an antifa or antifascist group also strapped down with assault weapons. Cornell West was quoted crediting them in providing safe passage for himself and other ministers when the antifa created a perimeter for their exit. Were police tactics influenced by the display of gun play on all sides?

Who knows, but I know one thing for sure. Guns have no place in protests. The mere presence of guns is chilling and restricts the participation of citizens on all sides. A permit to carry should not include public demonstrations of any kind. Police need to be charged to disarm, to lock, and to unload. This is a tragedy waiting to happen, and demands action now. The second amendment does not trump freedom of speech and assembly when the gun is weaponized and not symbolic.

How is this not common sense?