Without Disruption, Protest Isn’t Protest At All

Several months ago, when Colin Kaepernick began kneeling in protest during the playing of the national anthem at NFL football games, there was an immediate and furious uproar. The effect of his passive, wordless protest was to infuriate the no-politics-in-sports purists, to bring the issue of police violence to the attention of those who haven’t been paying attention to the news, and to encourage those who felt the same way he did to protest themselves.

In the ensuing weeks and months, numerous athletes at every level, as well as their fellow students and coaches, participated in national anthem protests. There was immediate blowback from any number of organizations to stifle these protests, to brand them as unpatriotic, and to threaten anyone who participated with various sorts of punishment.

In October, with the NBA season preparing to begin, there were numerous stories about players, coaches and team owners “discussing” how or if there would be similar protests. It’s safe to assume that owners were worried about fans being angered or turned off by similar protests, having seen how many NFL fans responded to the anthem protest. Players and coaches gave their soundbites to the press about trying to work out some way to show solidarity with Kaepernick, but you could tell there was a lot of pressure on them to do something, anything, other than kneeling during the national anthem.

…all of us must recognize that pleasant, polite, innocuous protest is literally no protest at all.

So when players began the season linking arms but still standing during the anthem, or not putting their hands over their hearts, it was disappointing but no surprise. Games were not disrupted. The anthem was seemingly respected, and (mostly white) fans were spared the sight of black athletes protesting the treatment of their communities by overzealous, militarized and too often racist police.

The NBA season and the college basketball season have both begun as usual, purely focused on the usual stories of athletes and their teams, who’s going to win, who’s better, who’s the most likely MVP or rookie of the year, etc. There’s been hardly a blip about police violence in African-American communities.

For the NBA and NCAA and the t.v. networks that spent millions to cover them, that’s just fine and dandy.

For the victims of unnecessary police violence, it’s a goddamn shame. Worse, it’s a complete abdication of compassion.

Saying that you care is not the same as caring. Hell, even quietly donating tens of thousands of dollars to an organization that works to end police violence isn’t enough. Disruptive displays, disruptive acts, disruptive efforts are absolutely required in order to fight injustice. Why? Because disruptive public acts – and there are plenty to choose from – show that individuals and large groups of individuals are openly advocating protest. These are the things that inspire others to action.

It’s pretty evident that the NBA and NCAA effectively quashed any effective protest by their players and coaches. Otherwise, we’d still be hearing from disgruntled sportscasters and fans, and the league owners would be publicly worried about the effect on the league’s profits, etc. That isn’t happening. All is hunky dory with the NBA and NCAA. Business – which is perfectly fine with police malfeasance – is booming.

Now let me say this: I don’t think that protest is the exclusive responsibility of athletes fortunate enough to play their games on television. Protest is the responsibility of everyone who wants change, who wants to end senseless violence, prejudicial policing policies, and institutional racism. That means you, that means me, and yes, that also means Steph Curry, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and any member of the NBA who has expressed their concern with police violence against the black communities across our country.

And all of us must recognize that pleasant, polite, innocuous protest is literally no protest at all.

Democracy is not docile. Nor is it a popularity contest. It won’t make you rich either. (Why should it?) It requires agitation and argument, and not just from our elected representatives.

Too often, we choose safer alternatives to disruptive protest. We give money to organizations who work on issues we’re concerned about. We sign petitions.

These are essential acts in supporting protest, of course. I don’t discourage them. But what’s missing in those actions is the certainty that we are being heard or even noticed.

Now think about the most disruptive acts we’ve witnessed over the last year or two.

Bree Newsome simply climbed a flagpole at the South Carolina statehouse and took down the confederate flag.

Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem before every NFL game his team played.

Members of the East Carolina marching band took a knee during the national anthem.

A woman dressed as the statue of liberty stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with a few hundred other protestors. She was arrested for “unlawful demonstration.”

Two Black Lives Matter protestors held up a sign reading “We have to bring them to heel” at a private fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. The sign was a direct quote of Clinton’s from a speech in 1996. One of the protestors, Ashley Williams, then told Clinton, “I am not a super predator, Hillary Clinton. Can you apologize to black people for mass incarceration?”

Ieshia Evans, in her first ever protest, calmly stood still as heavily armed police charged her during protests against the murder of Alton Sterling by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Hundreds of protestors gathered in Minneapolis’ Mall of America, disrupting shopping during the “Black Christmas” protest against the police killing of Jamal Clark.

Erdem Gunduz held an 8-hour silent vigil in Turkey, standing in front of the Ataturk Cultural Centre (which was draped in Turkish flags and a portrait of Turkey’s founder). His protest against police crackdowns on demonstrations inspired hundreds of others to join him and incited numerous similar protests around the country.

Bernie Sanders supporters completely took over Hillary Clinton’s #HillarySoQualified hashtag last April during the Democratic primaries, making it a not so flattering top national trend in social media. Sanders’ supporters flooded Twitter with reminders of the darker parts of Clinton’s record as First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State. 

Protests begin when public sentiment turns sour and angry about injustice and corruption. When that anger becomes more compelling than our fear of rocking the boat, we act more effectively.

The most important aspect of protest and dissent is that it must be disruptive. (Not violent, mind you. Violence is a non-starter.) Today, Bree Newsome’s and Ieshia Evans’ actions have become iconic images that energize and inspire like-minded people. What’s needed is ingenuity, passion, and the courage to ruffle feathers in public. Because if our protests – whatever they may consist of – don’t irritate someone trying to maintain the status quo, we’re failing in our jobs as protestors.

Self-reflection and self-respect will give us the strength to manage the consequences of disruptive protest.

That means wherever we have the chance to speak out publicly, to demonstrate our beliefs and dissatisfaction, we need to do so. Afraid of getting fired for posting something political on social media? Ask yourself why that should even be a concern. As long as you’re not cursing and calling names, you’re legally within your rights. Protests are not trolling. Demanding that police departments or attorney generals investigate police impropriety and brutality is in no way a fireable offense. Spreading the word about political corruption (from reliable sources) isn’t something your boss at Home Depot should give two shits about; and it gives him no right to punish employees who do so.

If you’re afraid of losing friends because of your political beliefs, ask yourself why. Are they so opposed to your beliefs that if you express passion about them they will be offended? If so, that’s not your problem, and maybe you should consider just how much of a friend they are. I express my beliefs passionately all the time. If friends don’t like it, the worst they’ve ever said to me is that they wish Facebook could be about posting baby and kitten pictures again. They are perfectly free to block your posts and remain your friend.

Democracy is not docile. Nor is it a popularity contest. It won’t make you rich either. (Why should it?) It requires agitation and argument, and not just from our elected representatives. The agitation and argument must come from us as well. Without that, democracy devolves into a dispassionate, bureaucratic plutocracy by professional politicians and corporate lobbyists. Polite inaction by a citizenry – demonstrated quite clearly in the NBA – enables the very worst in their governments.

Non-violent disruption is justice flexing its muscles against injustice. The restraints of injustice are social as much as they are legal. Overcoming the fear of societal reprisals is essential to overcoming the legal restraints.

“If we don’t rebel,” Chris Hedges says, “if we’re not physically in active rebellion, then it’s spiritual death.”

We must find comfort with being disruptive. Recognize the feeling of power it imbues us with. Relish our ability to openly express our concerns and frustration. Be emboldened by overcoming our trepidation. Self-reflection and self-respect will give us the strength to manage the consequences of disruptive protest.

The alternative is standing arm in arm, solemnly, inspiring no one, saving no one, changing nothing.

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