Perspectives on Protest

Last Saturday’s Women’s March has been widely praised as one of the largest acts of protest in US political history. Attendees talked about the amazing sense of camaraderie, and the inspiration of seeing more people than they could imagine taking to the street.

But, of course, the march isn’t without its disagreements. Now that it’s over, skeptics will ask “but how do we turn this into real action?” And leading up to the march, there were a number of difficult and important questions: who is represented in the women’s march? Who is really represented? What is the role of violence in protest?

There have been a number of great pieces about the racism of the white feminist movement, which has historically, unapologetically, sidelined women of color. In the New York Times, Jenna Wortham reflected on a picture from the Women’s March: Angela Peoples holding a sign that reads, “Don’t Forget: White Women Voted for Trump.” Wortham writes that of all the iconic images to come out of Saturday, this was the one she found most resonant: “It felt indicative of the ways in which the day’s events could be viewed as problematic: the notion that women’s rights were suddenly the most important cause in our nation, or that there haven’t been protests and activist movements worth attending until the election of Donald Trump.”

There have also been interesting discussions about core beliefs required for feminism, as a feminist anti-abortion group was removed from the list of official march partners.

Finally, the march has also raised important questions about the role of violence in protest – and the role of the police in responding to protest. The women’s march was praised for it’s lack of violence – which some have attributed to divergent police response to a largely white protest. That praise also overlooks the work of the Black Bloc – which sought to disrupt the status quo during inauguration and resulted in an infinitely meme-able clip of a neo-Nazi getting punched in the face.

In the Nation, Natasha Lennard argued that while such protests are often greeted with distain by more mainstream activists, their work is essential to to overall goal we seek. Most of us are free riders, benefiting from their actions while distancing ourselves from their tactics. As Lennard writes:

To talk with any romance for the black bloc risks falling into the worst tropes of bombastic revolutionary writing. We don’t don black masks and become instant revolutionary subjects. We don’t necessarily achieve more with property damage than a larger, more subdued rally achieves. In every case, the standard of achievement depends on the aims of the action, and all of us are far from creating the rupture we want to see in the world. One broken window, or a hundred, is not victory. But nor is over half a million people rallying on the National Mall. Both gain potency only if they are perceived as a threat by those in and around power. And neither action will appear threatening unless followed up again and again with unrelenting force, in a multitude of directions. You don’t have to choose between pink hat and black mask; each of us can wear both.

I raise this topics of disagreement around the march, because they are all important questions and they will not go away. Coalitions are hard to build and maintain, and we won’t ever agree on everything – from policy to tactics.

There’s a conventional wisdom that conservative win because they are better at collectively getting on message, while liberals are lost arguing amongst themselves.

But I don’t think that failure and disorganization are a intrinsic part of pluralism. As we continue in the work that comes out of the Women’s March, I don’t want to see us brush these disagreements under the rug – I want to see us embrace them. We need to keep raising these issues, keep having these conversations – and we need to keep working together.

I don’t think those ends are incompatible.

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