Paulette Brown-Hinds, PhD
Several years ago, after the shooting deaths of a number of African-American young men by law enforcement officers and the subsequent lack of punishment of the perpetrators, I wrote a column entitled “The Spectacle of Protest.” It was my attempt to grapple with my own frustration with what I saw as ineffective protests.
Speaking of the protests after the Ferguson, Missouri grand jury declined to press charges against the police officer that killed Michael Brown I said then, I am not surprised that thousands of Americans took to the streets, or to social media, or just sat silently in protest, but I admit I am tired. Tired of the empty gestures. Tired of the lack of articulation of a goal that will lead to systemic change. Tired of what has become “the spectacle of protest.”
Writer/philosopher Henry David Thoreau penned Civil Disobedience after he was jailed for refusing to pay taxes to a country keeping a large percentage of its “citizens” in bondage. His treatise inspired generations of individuals across the globe to become “change makers” – from Gandhi and his fight against British imperialism in India to Dr. Martin Luther King’s fight for equal rights for Blacks in the segregated south to Cesar Chavez’s struggle on behalf of California’s farm workers. In all of these instances, the spectacle of protest was essential for change, but the spectacle was just a part of, and not the entire plan. There were clearly articulated goals with multi-pronged approaches.
A year before, I wrote a piece that attempted to explore how the protest spectacle was used masterfully to affect change:
When you have some time…pick-up a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s book David & Goliath and read Chapter Six on Wyatt Walker. The book is on the “art of battling giants” and the chapter on Mr. Walker paints the civil rights icon as a “trickster figure extraordinaire.” Mr. Walker, for those of you under the age of 50, was the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization led by Dr. King.
Mr. Walker was a Baptist minister from Massachusetts who joined Dr. King in 1960. Galdwell describes him as: Dr. King’s “nuts and bolts man”, his organizer and fixer. Dr. King was the prophet, gracious and charismatic. Mr. Wyatt was a mischief-maker – slender, elegant, and intellectual. Dr. King was the moral absolutist…Mr. Walker liked to call himself the pragmatist. Gladwell comments, Mr. Walker stayed in the shadows. He didn’t allow himself to be photographed with Dr. King. And when he was deployed to Birmingham, Alabama to lead the civil rights crusade in that city, many people had no idea what he looked like.
The year was 1963. The movement was in crisis and needed a major victory. Birmingham, nicknamed Bombingham at the time due to the Klan’s’ explosive crimes against Blacks, was considered one of the most racially divided cities in the nation. And the city’s chief law enforcement officer Eugene “Bull” Connor was a hard-line segregationist.
The goal of the Birmingham Campaign was to put America’s continued racial segregation in the spotlight by drawing consistent media attention. And Mr. Walker’s plan, he named Project C (C for Confrontation), was staged in three parts – all intended to built on the previous actions beginning with sit-ins at local businesses, then boycotts, then mass marches and mass arrests.
Once Mr. Walker’s plan finally started working, it was his idea to raise the stakes by using Birmingham’s children in the effort by staging non-violent protests that ended in the arrests of hundreds of school children. And while he and Dr. King were widely criticized for doing so, that was the very reason the campaign – and the inequality and racist laws it was fighting against – became a national and international media story.
Over the past week our television news shows, social media feeds, and newspaper headlines have been inundated with discussions of who is allowed to protest, when, and why after the president of the United States referred to NFL player Colin Kaepernick as a “SOB” for taking a knee during the National Anthem instead of standing and saluting. NFL owners, coaches, and players rallied in support and the protests as spectacle reemerged. I had started to feel the same way about the ineffectiveness of these protests, but shouldn’t have. Not only did it raise awareness and dialogue about the inequities that continue to plague our communities, Mr. Kaepernick, through his targeted charitable giving, granting close to his million dollar pledge, is making a difference at the very grassroots level through the work of a variety of organizations with social justice and political empowerment missions.
Like Dr. King and Mr. Walker, his trickster “nuts & bolts” mischief-maker, Mr. Kaepernick is utilizing the tools at his disposal much like they did with the children of Birmingham. He’s identified a problem, strategized the best solutions, and acted. Let’s hope others like him will use the spectacle of protest as a strategy for real change.