In an era rife with pop-culture trivialities juxtaposed with escalating calamities, we find ourselves at a remarkable moment that poses profound existential questions for the soul of the nation. Systems that have claimed the mantle of “justice” (while practicing little of it) are being exposed to an unprecedented level of scrutiny, demonstrating in stark terms that tragic episodes from Ferguson to New York are not exceptional but instead constitute the baseline norm of official behavior. The message is not that this system is broken, but rather that it is working exactly the way it was designed. The primary difference now is that people are paying attention.
To make sure that this moment of collective scrutiny doesn’t get lost in the woodwork of an attention-deficient culture, people have been taking to the streets and public places to remind us all of propositions that shouldn’t even have to be said, let alone agitated for, in a healthy society: #blacklivesmatter. Still, one is likely to hear the common retort that this emerging movement is incoherent, inconvenient, incomprehensible. “What do these people want, anyway?” utters a bystander. “I’ll run them over if they get in my way!” tweets another. “It’s terrible that they’re so violent,” laments many a liberal friend. The narrative of the mainstream response reads as a combination of confusion and contempt, simultaneously rapt and repulsed by the spectacle.
Most significantly, analytical consternation has focused more on the seemingly uncoordinated mayhem of the demonstrations than on the coordinated violence of the systems they oppose. The “flash mob” and “pop-up” protest ethos of today’s cutting-edge movements may be as confounding to the “old guard” of movements from a bygone era as they are to the entrenched powers. Still, if we go back a mere half century or so, for many Americans the appearance of a coordinated movement seeking an end to legalized discrimination in schools, transportation, and other places of public accommodation may have seemed like the beginning of a threatening revolution. Notwithstanding that this movement has been cast historically as more reformist than revolutionary in its aims and outcomes, in real-time the widely disseminated images of lunch counter sit-ins and street demonstrations were generally taken as radical in their implications.
The lessons we can take from this are instructive. Just as legislative brushstrokes were incapable of ending institutionalized racism in the nation, we can surmise that contemporary reforms such as police body cameras and civilian review boards will not sufficiently address the deep-seated issues being raised in the aftermath of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. More pointedly, today’s demonstrations ultimately are asking us to confront the realization that “business as usual” in itself is inherently unjust and reflective of a deeply rooted racial and socioeconomic caste order that persists despite decades of ostensible reforms—and that as long as this order remains intact, there in fact will be no business as usual.
In this sense, what is often taken as the American mythological “norm”—i.e., a level societal playing field defined by equal opportunity, mobility through merit, and justice for all—is undeniably inflected with our unchecked historical baggage and a set of unquestioned values that reflect the requisite power, property, and privilege of an entrenched ruling class consciousness. Those of us who are able to resemble that ruling cadre in certain manners, even superficially, can acquire some of the perquisites attendant to the elite strata—even as the reality is that we are not “them” at the end of the day. Those who lack the elite indicia or the capacity to emulate it sufficiently are left as little more than prey for profiteers, militarists, and wardens, with the double-edged construction of their identities as something to be feared by the elite emulators.
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The police, oftentimes appearing as modern-day equivalents of the “palace guard,” are on the front lines of enforcing this racialized socioeconomic order. Somewhat ironically, many of them actually come from the “other side” of the line than the one they’ve been hired to defend; in fact, joining the force may be viewed by some as one of only a few available pathways to try and cross the class divide. This renders the trope of “police versus protesters” particularly problematic, but also suggests a point of leverage if that latent consciousness can be aroused within the ranks of the police themselves. Indeed, it is hard to envision a movement ultimately succeeding without police defections, or at least accommodations such as those voiced by a police chief in Tennessee last week: “In Nashville, if you want to come to a public forum and express your thoughts, even if they're against the government, you’re going to get your First Amendment protection and you’re going to be treated fairly by the police officers involved.”
This characterization is complicated by another matter that is beginning to be unpacked in the public dialogue. The police are not merely modern-day Pinkertons hired by the bosses to maintain order in the company towns and terror among the workers to prevent them from organizing. Today, increasingly, they are also trained military alumni, having served tours in America’s imperialist wars (which can be viewed as the exported version of systemic violence), and oftentimes are armed with the vestiges of a bloated military-industrial complex that produces more implements of destruction than it could possibly use for its already anachronistic purposes. The police forces in many American cities function as a burgeoning occupying force that cuts a direct swath from Fallujah to Ferguson and all critical points of engagement in between.
We can choose to skirt around all of this and simply ask for a few cosmetic changes to business as usual, perhaps easing some of the more blatant atrocities for a time and even strengthening the mythological fabric of due process and equal treatment. The momentary rupture of traffic and commerce being disrupted [insert characterization here: by angry young people of color] will soon fade into the background with a Christmas-magic cutaway to a yule log and sparkling ornaments. “The system works after all, order is restored—and now back to our regularly scheduled programming…” will proclaim the voiceover reading the cue cards. The task for engaged viewers is to prevent the impending delivery of this colossal lump of holiday coal.
The pop-up protests in the streets right now present the best opportunity for us to collectively engage the difficult issues that most have chosen to ignore but that are coming home to roost. It serves no purpose to continue denying the convergence of the military-industrial complex, the school-to-prison pipeline, redlining and racial profiling, environmental (in)justice, and the rest of the architecture of a dysfunctional system. Indeed, the recent episodes that have brought people into the streets—typifying cases that have been happening every day for a very long time—almost read like an admission of injustice and the raw power to not even care about appearances: “Your cameras and chants and crowds mean nothing; soon enough, most people will resent the intrusions and long for us to restore the comforts and conveniences of their ordinary lives. Your moment of protest will be a minor hindrance at best, and you’ll be branded as the enemy in the process. In the end, our power will be further consolidated and your subjugation expanded.”
Speculative machinations aside, the history of social change counsels that we tread cautiously when broaching revolutionary demands—not to flinch away from making them, but more so to be clear about to whom they are being presented. The gained experiences of movement actors themselves can be inspiring and transformative, and in themselves are part of the measure of success any time people slip the bonds of conformity and take a stand for a better world. On the other side of the coin, entrenched elite interests are not likely to be persuaded to suddenly embrace the “arc of the moral universe” and abdicate their positions of power and privilege. In the middle is that vast pool of onlookers—sometimes horrified, sometimes amused, sometimes inclined to ignore the whole thing and just get about their lives. These are the folks whose consent is counted on to maintain the present order, and whose conversion a movement seeks.
In addressing those still somewhere between elite detachment and flash-mob radicalization, a few points of consideration might be helpful. First, an inherently unjust system inevitably catches all of us in its tentacles, over time becoming an equal opportunity exploiter; when some are not free none are truly free, since (as MLK said) “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Second, the top tier in society do not actually resemble the masses of people, superficial appearances notwithstanding; the gross economic disparity in America, in which the upper echelon controls the vast majority of wealth while the middle and bottom’s combined holdings are nearly negligible, tells a good deal of this story. Third, the emergence of a militarized controlling force (and its concomitant securitized clandestine apparatus) does not discriminate between “good” and “bad” people in its application, but only between those who are an inconvenience and those who can for the moment be tolerated. Fourth, ignoring the crises at hand, from constant cruelty to changing climate, will not keep them from your doorstep.
And to those looking for a condensable movement message, consider that the preferred method of organizing today—consonant with the tenor of the times—is the decentralized network rather than the top-down “central organization” model favored by more entrenched actors. While this may give today’s movements the look of being incoherent, it also more closely resembles the ways in which many of us increasingly meet the world and process information. The internet appears to us as a decentralized network (even as this masks a deeper form of centralization and authoritarianism), so it is unsurprising that those raised squarely under its ambit would replicate this ethos. But the tendency to “pop up” and “go viral” reveals a more subtle consciousness articulated by today’s movements, namely that the most effective response to systemic injustice is one that meets it wherever it is found and that uses its own conveyances to undo its worst aspects. In particular, these disruptions yield great impact (via the conduits of real-time dissemination) at the day-to-day level, where oppressive structures often operate unabashedly yet are unnoticed by the masses: spaces of consumption and transportation, the habitus of low-wage workers, neighborhoods beset by police violence and other deprivations, urban and rural spaces of environmental despoliation. In other words, in the ordinary course of our “business as usual.”
“No Justice, No Profit” isn’t merely a protest chant; it reflects an emerging sensibility that, in many respects, the appearance of justice at all is wholly incompatible with the drive for profit. As a nation, we have blithely ignored this for too long, having become “comfortably numb” (as the Pink Floyd song opines) in the process and failing to recognize that the struggles of oppressed people must become the struggles of all people if any of us are to flourish … or perhaps even survive. As Howard Zinn wrote four decades ago in another moment of upheaval:
“As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem.... Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience…. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”
Noncooperation with oppression and injustice is a crucial first step; the next one is perhaps even more challenging: articulating and manifesting a vision to strive toward. Sustaining a movement will require the creation of alternative institutions, new models of distribution and collective decision-making, spaces of both diversity and equality. In today’s parlance, we come to discover that the movement itself is part of this message, constituting both a means and an end. On the cusp of pivoting from protest to resistance, movements for justice can sustain by leveraging resistance into persistence, and ultimately prevail through persistence for the continuation of our very existence. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke of the perils of “sleeping through a revolution.” Today, the alarm bells are ringing in town squares and city streets everywhere, urging everyone still holding out hope for a more just world to rise up and get busy making it.