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After Protest, What?

Taking to the streets to protest government policies is a time-honored method of social and political activism across the world. It has happened in China, Hong Kong, Egypt, Libya, Myanmar, Greece, France, Syria, Britain and of course the United States. Sometimes it has led to the toppling of governments: in Egypt and Myanmar, for instance, or to drastic changes in policy, as in the UK recently. Sometimes it has not. Sometimes the changes brought about by the protests are worse than what was being protested (this might be true with regard to Libya and Syria and the jury is still out with regard to Egypt and Britain). Sometimes the changes are better, as in Tunisia, producing a more democratic government,  or in the 1960s in France and Algeria regarding giving Algerians their freedom, or in Myanmar in toppling a military government.

Confrontational protests usually have one or the other of two aims, sometimes both: they aim to bring public attention to a perceived injustice or harmful policy or they aim to prevent a policy or action (usually a government action) from being implemented. Protests related to police killings of Black people have the former aim of bringing injustice to the focus of public attention. Protests, such as preventing the Keystone Pipeline from being laid or stopping shipping of dangerous cargoes by rail, have the aim of preventing something from happening. But in most cases, even those protests that aim to prevent the government or an industry from carrying out an action, are short-lived and gain more power by bringing attention to an issue than through sustained prevention of the implementation of a government or industry policy.

Changes that occur as a result of protest seem to follow any of three major pathways: in Syria and China, protests led to greater government control and targeting of citizens. In Syria, a civil war ensued in response to the savagery of the government’s response to what began as peaceful protests. In Libya and Egypt, the governments were overthrown and the dictatorial leaders ousted (or in the case of Libya, murdered). In Myanmar and Tunisia, new governments were voted into office and greater democratization of the political process was the result.

In the United States only a handful of fringe groups and individuals hope that protests will lead to an overthrow of the government in the sense in which it occurred in Libya or Egypt. A fair number of groups and people, disturbed by the virulence of protesters and the targeting of policemen by people who claim to be sympathetic to the protesters, have called for greater “law and order” with the primary response being calls to better arm the country’s police, and more jailing of those who use disruptive techniques, such as interfering with traffic during their demonstrations. A larger number of people have called for various forms of increased civil discourse on the topics being protested, i.e. race relations and police-community relations related to race. There have been fewer concrete suggestions of reforms within the existing political or judicial system to change the conditions that have led to the perceived transgressions. Unlike Myanmar or Tunisia, almost no one in America has suggested that voting in a new leader, i.e. president, will result in drastic changes in the situations leading to the protests.

So what should happen?

Protesting, by itself has served a valuable function of drawing attention to the inequities in our criminal justice system caused both by policies (e.g. “three-strike” or “zero-tolerance” laws, unequal laws related to type of drug possessed or sold), or the ways in which policing, court decisions and sentencing have been carried out within the U.S. The protests, and even the murder of policemen in Dallas, have led to numerous “town halls,” many, if not most, brought about by the media, in the interests of having a dialogue by people on all sides of the issue. Past demonstrations, namely those related to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner in New York, led to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a group composed of law enforcement, academics, and community leaders, which, in fact, did make recommendations for changes in how police forces interacted with the communities they serve. These recommendations included an emphasis upon building community relations, especially in communities that are problematic because of high crime or distrust of police, acknowledging community distrust, using body cameras to promote transparency and accountability in policing activities, developing extensive data bases on arrests, crimes, and demographics of victims and suspects and providing funding and resources for study of these data, developing guidelines and resource opportunities for equipment designed to better apprehend criminals and increase the safety of police, but including development  of nonlethal equipment, limitations on military-style weaponry being used, etc. To date, the effects of police departments implementing these recommendations is anecdotal.

Many of those involved in the protests about racially biased criminal justice have said that we “need more than a task force, more than a conversation.” Of course that is true, but what is needed is a change in policies and practices at all levels of the criminal justice system, from community policing, to traffic law enforcement, to the ways laws are written and to the practices of courts in rendering convictions and sentencing (which numerous studies have shown are biased against Black people). Behind those direct changes, we also need to address the conditions that lead to our high crime neighborhoods so often being predominately Black neighborhoods, from our unemployed young men being disproportionately Black, from our public services and infrastructure often being markedly worse in predominately Black neighborhoods, from our education system so often being under resourced in poor neighborhoods. These conditions are those that have been lamented but ignored in terms of solutions for decades. The solution to what amounts to gross inequality in the quality of life of people in America depending upon their race, has to come from the political sphere, nationally, at the state level and locally in each county and city.

Street protests have made the problem of injustice within our criminal justice system an issue that is being talked about. So far this has led to some valuable conversation. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, following the deaths of Black men in Missouri and New York was one concrete positive response, but we don’t know yet whether it has made a difference, and certainly it was not enough. If the street protesters stop, the public’s attention will be caught by other issues and the sense of urgency that the nation now feels will dissipate. But the protests only serve to bring attention, they do not provide, nor are they intended to provide, any solutions.

A great number of energetic, intelligent, informed people are involved in protesting police bias and the resultant shootings of Black people. It is time for those people to join forces with elected officials and forge some solutions. This needs to be done at all levels of government. It also may take more protests to force government to take action. But the protests themselves are not the solution. Changing our political system’s response to the people it serves is the solution and that involves using votes as leverage, demanding committee representation and new policies, having the leadership within communities come to the fore and speak for their communities, and many of such things that are old-fashioned grass roots community organizing and politicking. Combining this with electing federal (yes our president and congressmen matter), state (governors and congressmen), county (supervisors) and city (mayors and councilmen) officials who will take actions to better the situation and creating a partnership between the grass roots and the government at all levels, will stand a chance of solving the problems.


Reader Comments (2)

While I mostly agree with you, from my own interractions with local activists peacefully joining forces with Government would be looked at as being part of the problem. Many are even calling for violence, unfortunately.

July 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea Culy

I hear people who are defending the systems we use claim that we need to be patient, and let the systems work. They claim that a real impediment to the systems working properly is the public not participating.

As if the public has any access to that legislative process.

So, let me ask this and I really hope you consider this.
While the police were stuck defending the public from a violent angry asshole, while they were being killed standing in a line, defending the system from an angry public protesting the lack of resolutions to the problems we see in bold detail, WHERE WAS CONGRESS???

Were they in session, frantically searching for answers, speaking in committee, asking for research, getting public input, discussing solutions and costs?? WERE THEY ACTIVELY WORKING ON SOLUTIONS???

Well, no. They were not.

If the police are standing in a line, being killed to defend the system from an angry frustrated public, how does that advance solutions, when those people entrusted to find and implement solutions are protected and insulated from that consequence of inaction?

If those elected to fix problems are not actively engaged in FIXING problems, then why are the police defending them, and that process??

Is this just another iteration of the blue line, protecting their boss from the serfs? Are they merely muscle being used to squeeze the blood from the public??

Where is the success of the experiment we started with our declaration of independence??

When do we look at the evidence and conclude that the process outlined in our constitution is not a viable process? When do we start seriously accepting that it is time to search for a better process?

When do we start testing new ideas and debugging those and seriously start looking for BETTER ways of self governance??

July 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMike Anderson

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