Since we learned about the grand jury’s decision to not indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Black organizers with the support of whites and other people of color have sent two clear messages through acts of civil disobedience: Black lives matter and Ferguson is everywhere. As the Ferguson solidarity protests move beyond marches on our streets to the nation’s freeways, malls and subway stations from Atlanta to Oakland, they also challenge the comfort levels and readiness of Americans to confront racial realities.
Americans are used to protests happening in the “city square” (before the White House, in front of local City Halls, on the streets), in front of a corporation’s headquarters or on college campuses. But the movement sparked by Ferguson is shifting to also include venues of everyday activities: subway stations, freeways and malls. In early November, organizers in Louisville, Kentucky where I grew up, marched through one of the city’s upscale malls with signs that read, “Black Lives Matter.” On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, protestors staged die-ins and held signs saying “If only Americans cared about Black lives as much as Black Friday” to send clear messages to customers in search of shopping deals. In the Bay Area, a group of protestors linked arms and held train doors open at the BART West Oakland station, leading to train delays and 14 arrests. In Washington DC, protestors stopped traffic on the 14th Street Bridge and I-395 and engaged in civic action at the Pentagon City Shopping Mall. In St. Louis, protest activities shut down two malls.
This is civil disobedience that seeks to reach beyond the political arena and social media, and reach shoppers, travelers, and onlookers. The goal is to disrupt the “business as usual” mentality – one that ignores the racial realities of profiling and violence – by interrupting “business as usual” activities such as Christmas shopping and traveling. The aim is to make people realize that the dehumanization of Black lives is a daily epidemic that cannot be avoided, ignored, or neglected as we go about our daily lives.
The Ferguson solidarity protests also bring to plain view how legal and policy solutions require the nation to undergo a cultural and moral transformation that can only be realized through sustained community organizing. Certainly, more effective policy initiatives and community policing regulations, many of which have been proposed by activists for decades and may now be considered by the federal government, are necessary to address discriminatory policing practices, the criminal justice system, and the geographic, economic and educational segregation happening in our cities. But in order for those policy changes to take hold, and to stick, we need to reach the hearts and minds of everyday Americans, especially those whose lives are largely shielded from the everyday violence of racial disparities and inequities.
Artist and activist Harry Belafonte reminded me of this a few years ago when he spoke to a group of racial justice and immigrant rights advocates. Mr. Belafonte told us that many of the strategies used by today’s social change movements had become sanitized to adjust to the comfort levels of the American public. The overwhelming focus on state-centered advocacy for political and policy change missed a critical component: the inclusion of people and the transformation of their hearts and minds. Mr. Belafonte reminded us: “You need the courage to be inconvenient.” He encouraged us to be creative, to be visible and present, to make it impossible to be ignored.
Around the nation, young African American organizers have come together since the killing of Trayvon Martin to do just that by engaging in collective action around issues of police violence and discriminatory policing. One of those organizers, Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, participated in the BART action in Oakland on Black Friday. She told me: “We stopped business as usual, and we take that very seriously. We know that passengers were inconvenienced. And that was the point. We asked you to work with us to end the war on Black communities by creating a disruption that could interrupt the largest shopping day of the year.”
Not surprisingly, the civil disobedience actions over the past week have given way to criticisms that the protests are unproductive and not helpful in creating empathy for the larger cause. After all, most Americans are not used to chants of “No Justice, No Peace” reverberating as they stop into Macy’s or use the subway. But that is precisely the point: to draw our attention while we engage in mundane, everyday activities. As David Wigger, one of the protestors who participated in the Louisville mall protest in early November, told me: “We wanted to disrupt daily life, and gain attention from people who may not realize what is happening in ‘the land of the free.’ Some in the mall were very appreciative while others were taken a little aback.”
Since the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson was announced, organizations representing lawyers, social workers, veterans and service members, civil rights groups, professors and writers have all made statements that raise alarm and concern about the failures of the criminal justice and legal systems. Yet, many Americans continue to be unaffected or unconvinced. The Ferguson solidarity protests aim to interrupt this mentality. There is always the possibility that the message that “Black Lives Matter” will permeate the consciousness of everyday shoppers and travelers going about their daily lives. Or that people of color will feel empowered that their experiences are given voice, as a Macy’s employee described when she joined the protestors at the St. Louis mall action. Or that young people will be inspired enough to make the connections, as University of Maryland students did this past week when they protested against the heavy police militarization on campus.
By having the courage to use what might be seen as inconvenient tactics in shopping malls and subway stations, organizers are making themselves and the broader cause of police profiling and violence against people of color impossible for Americans to ignore. In response, will we look away, or will we find the courage to sit in our discomfort, listen, and be moved to support a nationwide uprising to address racial realities in America?