Protest Strategies

Last week, protesters in Boston shut down 93 in both directions during rush hour. As they explained in their statement, they took this action to “disrupt business as usual” and protest police and state violence against Black people.

And disrupt they did.

But over the last few days, I’ve watched a fascinating debate emerge: was this the best form of action?

There are concerns about safety: at least one ambulance was diverted as a result of the action. There are concerns about precedent: do we want to be telling anyone that the dangerous act of blocking traffic is okay? There are concerns about effect: will this just make people angry, turning them off from really caring about the (important) cause?

And, of course, there are concerns about legitimacy: were the protesters just entitled white people? Did they truly have the buy in and support of Black Lives Matter? Were black people and people of color disproportionally negatively effected by being stuck in traffic? Did they lose wages? Did they lose their jobs? Did the protesters wildly misunderstand their target by calling Medford/Somerville “predominantly white, wealthy suburbs”?

These are all good questions.

There are, of course, rebuttals to all these points. One blogger, for example, argues: Boston is notorious for its traffic coming to a complete standstill on major thoroughfares. During baseball season, ambulances are routinely prevented from reaching major Boston hospitals in an efficient manner. I wonder whether the people who are attempting to discredit the #BlackLivesMatter protest also speak out against the Red Sox and their fans for blocking traffic? 

Those into history can revisit three weeks in 1981 when firefighters, police officers, and others regularly blocked rush hour traffic to protest layoffs – and there were no arrests. Like a Blue Mass Group blogger you might ask: Is it possible that there were no arrests because the police, although charged with trying to keep the roadways open, were basically in sympathy with the protesters?  Or have policies regarding when to arrest protesters changed over the years? 

These are also good questions.

Everybody has good questions, but but no one has good answers. It’s not that surprising, I suppose – if anyone had designed the “perfect protest” I’m sure we’d all have heard about it by now.

But there is no ideal protest formula, no way of know exactly what is best. Protests are messy, they’re complicated, and most of all, they are controversial.

And that is truly the crux of the matter. The debate isn’t really about how many ambulances were effected, or how this traffic compares to regular terrible traffic.

The real question is: are disruptive tactics good? Do they generate change in ways that other tactics cannot?

I don’t know the answer to that question – no one does – and it’s a great, interesting, rich topic of debate.

Personally, I tend to be conflict-avoidant: I can’t honestly say that I’m prepared to take part in any action which will lead to being arrested. But I’m not convinced that’s a good thing. Perhaps I am wise, perhaps I am a coward. I couldn’t say for sure.

But I will say this: I’m not prepared to judge anyone else for participating in the actions they think are most likely to bring about the change they want to see.

Let’s talk about strategy. Let’s talk about tactics. Let’s discuss what works and what doesn’t work, let’s debate what actions and reactions are most meaningful. But at the end of the day, yes – I stand by the Boston protesters.

I am proud they had the courage to stand up for what they believe. If only each of us could say the same.


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