A Waste of Shoe Leather?
On the afternoon of May 22, 1970 forty seven student protestors were arrested, charged with unlawful assembly for blocking traffic along Shaw Avenue outside Fresno State University. The students were protesting issues that ranged from the war in Vietnam to the removal of the university’s lone Black Studies professor, Marvin X. My father, who was among the arrested, always maintained that the protest was infiltrated by police provocateurs, that is, counter-demonstrators hired by the cops to hurl rocks, incite mayhem and discredit the aims of the protest. For his involvement, my father would pay a heavy price; expelled for his role in the demonstration, he lost his scholarship and his draft deferment and was subsequently drafted to fight in the very war that he had protested that day in May.
The case against bringing bodies into the streets begins here, with the susceptibility of spectacular protest to sabotage.
The week that Philando Castile was shot dead by police in front of his girlfriend Lavish Reynolds and their daughter, the same week that Alton Sterling went down to police bullets, protest marches and rallies were convened in cities across the country, some under the banner of Black Lives Matter, some under no banner whatsoever. Almost wholly peaceful in their demonstration of righteous indignation at not only these but several videotaped killings of unarmed black men by police, the protest actions were capped by the incongruous act of a lone wolf murderer in the early Dallas evening: Micah X. Johnson, a military veteran with advanced weapons training, positioned himself outside the perimeter of the protest and fired upon police, murdering five. At least for some, Johnson’s act overshadowed the message of the protests themselves, despite the fact that Johnson had no affiliation with BLM or any other widely recognized organization.
The afrocentrist historian John Henrik Clarke once called protest marches a waste of good shoe leather. This might be too dismissive. But given that their only barrier to entry is the perimeter that the police set and even this is permeable, their resultant susceptibility to infiltration and re-direction from all manner of forces makes street protests seem like the lowest, commonest fruit on the tree of resistance.
In the days after Donald Trump secured the electoral college majority and became President-elect, spontaneous street demonstrations, some peaceful, others riotous, broke out nationwide. Now, with his inauguration, an estimated 200,000 demonstrators converge on the nation’s capitol to protest Trump’s race-baiting and misogyny, his xenophobia, and ultimately his victory in an election where the popular vote tally tilted against him by more than 2.5 million votes cast. But what, if anything, will all these planned protests amount to? Obviously, no one tactic will turn ripe what is rotten in our Denmark, but are there better tactics than taking ourselves into the streets to hurl our bodies upon the gears of the system?
Certainly, there are other ways, as demonstrated by the anti-Obamacare town halls of 2009. Deemed vitriolic and out-of-control by many in the media, these protest forums nevertheless provided conservatives a highly televisable forum to harangue the Affordable Care Act and to foment a relentless opposition that has culminated in Donald Trump’s promise, however flimsy, to repeal ACA. Activists on the left would do well to take up the town hall formula: Its controlled, enclosed space has some advantages over the streets, among them that weapons can be kept out, limiting the lone wolf element, and that TV cameras can easily capture the fervor and specific thesis of the proceedings, whereas street protests are often portrayed by TV news as more diffuse than in fact they are.
It should be noted that street protests of police shootings have resulted in several city police departments deciding to equip their officers with body cameras, a significant concession to police oversight advocates. Whether this reform can withstand the back-sliding that is likely to take place across police departments nationally once Trump starts beating the law and order drum from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is another matter.
It remains to be seen what will come of all the post-election protests. In view of the vulnerability of street protest to sabotage and lone wolf actions, the blood and treasure expended will seem, to many in the mainstream, too heavy a price to pay, resulting in the marginalization both of the protestors and their message. Witness, for instance, the widespread and false notion that Black Lives Matter is a radical front organization for cop killers, responsible for the murders of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge when, in fact, BLM is a nakedly stated sentiment and crowdsourced concept without headquarters, centralized leadership or fixed agenda.
In Oakland after the election, street demonstrations against Trump’s multiform assault on decency themselves turned ugly, with scattered but spectacular acts of violence, windows broken, a building set alight. We have a bad reputation, by the way: According to FOX News, the city of Oakland has been nuked to the daisies by its own inhabitants at least five times annually since forever yet, amazingly, enough of us seem to survive the carnage to do it all over again come the next crisis in the American conscience. Point being, the substance of Oakland’s protests is typically subsumed in the national consciousness by the fits of violence that follow close in the wake of the on-message protesters like an anarchic second line. Not just the political right, but mainstream folks of all stripes, driven to moderation by their jobs and the responsibilities of parenthood and property see Oakland’s street protests as something to stay clear of. I mostly stay away, for my own reasons.
As my dad, who was only kept out of war by the congenital condition that would one day kill him, grew older, he decided that John Henrik Clarke was right about protest marches wasting sneaker tread and shoe leather, and, heir to that line of experience and thought, I find myself thinking not about when the march will meet, but what comes after the placards go back in boxes and people return to the everydayness of living.
After the first two nights of protest, the Oakland police came out in force. It was a Saturday night and in gentrifying Oakland that meant people with money would descend downtown to dine at pricey restaurants. Prime commercial hours can never, in America, be jeopardized. The police presence was impressive in the full meaning of that word and the night went quietly as a nodding drunk. A day or two before, a Facebook invite had gone out calling for a silent Sunday afternoon demonstration at 3-mile wide Lake Merritt near downtown. It was estimated that thirty-five hundred people would be needed to ring the entire lake. By my count, three times that number showed up to silently express their disquiet with the turn our national politics has taken. We nodded at one another, smiled, held hands, bowed our heads, and abstained from chucking Molotov cocktails at glass windows. And we wondered what, beyond simple solidarity, this well-organized, on-message, highly mannered, mostly middle-aged, less than urgent demonstration achieved.
For me, there was nothing more. For me, street protest, whether malicious or milquetoast, serves the singular purpose of fortifying the protestors, of reminding each lone person that “You are not alone because I am here, too. All of us are here. We together will stoke this fire.” But the spectacle becomes obsolete precisely at the point where solidarity is no longer enough.
Just above our heads, drones of unknown origin orbited. It was a low-tech reminder that the state no longer exerts and replenishes its power through crowding bodies into the streets to see men crucified or drawn-and-quartered. Instead its power is maintained through systems of surveillance that are, if not always over our heads, often virtual and invisible. Ed Snowden exposed a host of semi-secret surveillance programs, all of which the American public has been assured are laser-focused on the bad guys abroad and in our midst and not on us. One is free to draw one’s own conclusions about America’s bedtime stories— the point is that the technological complexity by which the government girds itself against dissent renders primitive the grassroots left taking to the streets whenever injustices become too obvious or brutal to bear.
In the saga that will be Donald Trump’s season in power, various injustices will come to pass. It is in the nature of power, especially when held by a vindictive arbiter in a nation as powerful and as anxious as ours. Many on the Left fear Trump’s threats made against the press, against undocumented immigrants, women and individuals whom he personally dislikes. But if Trump’s policies prove ineffective or, worse, indifferent to the wayward working-class voters he’s excited, Trump may find that he has loosed political forces he cannot control. And then his authoritarian tendencies will be that much more troubling. Given that presidential powers have seen rapid expansion over the past several presidencies and given the post-9/11 expansion of the government’s capability to surveil us, the prospect of a malign individual given to retaliatory rage serving as Commander-in-Chief is, in Trump talk, very bad. Maybe the Donald once in Office will return to his roots in absurd celebrity. But if President Trump is the man he sold himself as on the campaign trail, there is great cause for concern.
But there is also cause for hope. And that hope is not in the protest actions we’ve seen of late, but in protective, restorative and ameliorative organizations and their sustained campaigns against injustice.
I wish my dad could have lived to see the water protectors at Standing Rock. The conflict at Standing Rock is not a protest action. It is not a march. It is a renaissance in the Goliath and David struggle for Indian dignity and sovereignty in their native lands. It is being engaged on the levels of legislation, land occupation, peaceful protest, confrontations with the police, and sabotage. As with the struggle for black freedom and freedom struggles throughout time, everything is on the table, including disorganized acts of resistance. And here the enemy is clear, and the resistance is not for a season alone.
There is not yet reason to oppose Trump to the degree that one sees the Dakota Access Pipeline battled at Standing Rock. But if Trump challenges the denial of easement decision of the Army Corps of Engineers on Standing Rock, and if his presidency turns as his campaign did to America’s most terrible motive forces, isolationism, xenophobia, and a draconian law and order politics, then taking to the streets will serve as little more than a first head count.