A good friend spoke to me about #BlackLivesMatter protestors at Ohio State. She complained about their walking through the union and disrupting her day without necessarily protesting in productive ways. Their march resulted in making others angry without stimulating conversation or change. My friend asked me how I could justify or support that kind of protesting, rather than agree that they “need to find a more productive way to protest.”
I am not an “activist” nor am I a “protester.” I genuinely subscribe to the belief that Truth has an immediate political impact. Hence, I find my niche in the university setting, blogging, and over the course of long, intimate conversations. That said, I consider “Protest” as we traditionally imagine it is largely ineffective. Micah White, one of many minds behind the first waves of Occupy Wallstreet, explained last year why protest has political limitations it did not always have. Such limitations exist in addition to the fact that racial and gender minorities are often denied the possibility of getting angry politically. Elizabeth Spelman, philosophy professor at Smith, has written that racial minorities and women are generally seen as “overemotional” whereas “anger” as a political emotion is almost always reserved for men (example: conservative men rallying against Abortion or for War and guns are generally seen as politically mad, whereas BlackLivesMatter activists are very often dismissed as simply being too emotional to understand the present state of society). Andrea Muehlebach, anthropologist as the University of Toronto, has even found that State withdrawals from welfare programs occur simultaneously to State mobilization of “Patriotic” values, which even forces Liberals and Marxists to volunteer in ways that neutralize their social agendas. In other words, when States inscribe a rigid individualism into law and remove or cut programs like Social Security and Unemployment, citizens are forced to volunteer to make up for missing labor. If volunteering was already one way of actualizing a social message then that message becomes subordinated to State necessity. In Muehlebach’s case, Italian Marxists felt at odds with State policies because they already volunteered out of a Marxist ethic, which now exists in tandem with rather than against the state – which further makes us wonder what remains Marxist and anti-statist about it.
We can look toward campus activism and observe other problems. Signs, chants, and rallies only have so much of an impact before they become reduced to spectatorship and forms of exclusion. When liberal millennials – not all liberal millennials, but here I mean specifically a kind of white and middle/upper class millennial – try to “find” themselves at colleges for the first time, activism can become a way of forging a social clique: you’re either with us or you’re “problematic.” Such latent issues compound those that already plague minority activism on campus settings. Thus, a protest is almost always likely to find itself dismissed by appeals to certain stereotypes, or the purpose of protesting ignored because of the anger of those experiencing its “disruption.” I do not mean to call for “abandoning” the idea of protest so much as recognize that I at least agree with my friend that more effective possibilities would be ideal. However, I am not confident that such possibilities exist. If one is a minority then they already inhabit a certain social field of ideas where others can dismiss them for a number of (invalid) reasons. Moreover, if one is always going to have one’s goals dismissed by virtue of institutionalized forms of prejudice, then what is left but to take up forms of protest we would consider ineffective or “mere” disruptions? (A few answers pop to mind, but they deserve their own conversations and contexts).
Such conditions are why I hope to take a more “horizontal” view of protest. To claim that the #BlackLivesMatter protesters were being merely disruptive and having no political impact is to assume a certain number of claims: that the burden falls on their protest to change you as a spectator; that your anger, by virtue of you feeling it, is justified in itself; and that alternative forms of protest exist, ones that would either meet the first of these conditions or at least be more hospitable to your day. I have already disagreed with this third claim, and now I intend to disagree with the first two. By wanting to take a “Horizontal” view of protest, I mean to imply that protest exists between social networks, and that those of us on the other end of a protest have as much of a political responsibility and a political situation as those doing the protesting. We are not simply apolitical actors having politics thrust upon us by a protest. We are responsible for changing ourselves.
Disruption holds a political purpose. To live as a raced minority is to, by virtue of being raced, faced various raced experiences on a daily basis – experiences I don’t want to recount here, if only because they are not only numerous but also readily available to access online through posts and articles written by those who experience them. To feel angry about a disrupted day is to, in a vastly smaller quantity, confront a different, but still negative, range of emotions akin (corollary moreso than similar) to racism. As a responsible actor, we bear the burden of channeling this feeling into anger with protesters whereas to channel this anger against them is to continue to thrust institutionalized prejudice upon them. Such is not to claim that “their day is probably worse than yours” but rather to state that this disruption opens a possible moment for empathy. To deny this empathy because you had a bad day is to in some way claim that you’re non-raced experiences are comparable to raced experiences; that “bad” versus “good” experiences are all equal by virtue of being good and bad and can be weighed accordingly. Such broad measurements is not how social prejudice operates. Raced “bad” experiences are not equal to gendered “bad” experiences or mental health “bad” experiences; these are three different kinds of situation existing alongside many others that can overlap but do not exist comparatively. Thus, If a #BlackLivesMatter protest makes you upset, even if you would other support ending racism, then you inhabit a problematic social position: do you chose to channel your anger in that moment toward them rather than against racism as an oppressive force, and it was easier for you to blame rather than self-analyze. Disruption as a form of protest inaugurate the moment that forces these decisions upon you, and the choices you make reveal whether or not you truly oppose or support the same agenda. We on the outside of a protest have the political responsibility to make the most ethical decisions (to be mad with, rather than against) which further requires that we do not emphasize our own life positions at the expense of those protesting where such experiences are not comparable.
While I do not think that encouraging self-reflection is politically chic for millennials observing a protest, I have little other to draw from in responding to my friend. Politics today is more totalizing for any person within the United States than it was five or six decades ago. Not merely because of social media, but precisely because of the post-Reagan and post-Clinton society that many of us are forced to live with. Protest is too easily manipulated or dismissed by the interests and agendas of spectators. Protest has become something to be consumed. Our primary concern for change, then, should not be attacking the limits of protest (which undoubtedly exist) so much as critiquing the role of the Spectator: You and I outside of the protest have a responsibility and obligation to change, which means accepting the annoying work of managing our reactions accordingly.