This Thursday’s Washington Post features a compelling piece of reporting on the power of racism and the struggle against it.
The article tells the story of Travon Brown, a seventeen year-old black high school student who successfully organized a BLM march in Marion, Virginia, the small town where he lives, and then had a cross burned in his yard, it turns out by a white neighbor whose son used to play ball with him (This vignette immediately brought to mind Peter Maass’s brilliant 1996 account of Serbian violence against Bosnian Muslims, Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War). Brown, a brave and intelligent young man, experienced a range of emotional reactions, as one might expect. He then proceeded to organize a second march. This one was met with a counter-demonstration: “50 bikers had roared into downtown Marion, many with Confederate flags on their Harleys and pistols on their hips. Two hundred additional counterprotesters were assembling around the Confederate memorial on the courthouse lawn.”
The article describes the confrontation between the non-violent BLM demonstrators and the angry, white counter-protesters, some of whom clearly threatened violence.
But the story centers on Travon Brown, an extraordinary person who apparently has grown through these recent experiences to become a confident public speaker and a real community leader, who rose to the challenge of the situation in a way that few people of any age can do, and who was able to deescalate the dangerous confrontation while simultaneously amplifying the BLM message.
As reporter Michael Miller describes, Brown: “led the marchers out of the farmers market and into town, shouting, ‘No Justice, No Peace.’ They hadn’t made it a block before counterprotesters began screaming at them. Young men Travon’s age waved Confederate flags on the sidewalk . . . scowling and smoking.” As violent confrontation seemed imminent, Brown exercised real leadership, summoning his marchers to keep moving, away from the hostile counter-protesters: “Keep it moving. We didn’t come out here to argue. We came out here to raise awareness.’’ The racists continued to threaten. And Brown continued to urge calm. As Miller recounts: “When protesters began to talk back, Travon turned and shushed them. He knelt near the front, his right fist raised to the air. . . . And then Travon began shouting ‘I love you’ across the divide, and soon all the protesters were shouting it and the faces opposite them were momentarily quiet and confused.”
Miller’s story is not a simple morality tale about how peaceful protest and love for one’s neighbors can dissolve hate or vanquish racism. It is a story of inspired, passionate, self-restrained, and thus dignified non-violent resistance to oppression, and of the profound obstacles to this resistance. As Miller concludes, with appropriate ambiguity: “The sun was setting as he walked along Pearl Avenue, past his neighbor’s Confederate flags and up his driveway, where the scorch marks on the pavement were nearly gone.”
This demonstration is one important and exemplary moment in the ongoing pursuit of justice.
It will take a lot more than demonstrations like this demonstration organized by young Travon Brown to advance the cause of racial justice. But this demonstration is one important and exemplary moment in the ongoing pursuit of justice. Brown yelled “Love.” But he seems to have meant it in the way that Martin Luther King, Jr. meant it—not as mere sentiment of affection, but as “agape,” an active performance of human solidarity, a way of engaging with one’s oppressors, and communicating with “bystanders,” that demonstrates “rightness.” (I recommend a fantastic recent essay by Quintez Brown that explores this meaning of “love”: “A young Black man’s letter to MLK: What King taught me about love.”)
The Travon Brown story put me in mind of the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” and especially its fourth episode, “No Easy Walk,” which centers on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s “Project C”—the “C” was for “Confrontation”—in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. King, and his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” loom large in this story. But so too do a range of other local and national leaders. The episode’s most dramatic moment features a lesser known but hugely important movement leader, James Bevel. Bevel, a leading tactician of non-violent direct action, found himself at the head of one particular march, during “the children’s crusade,” that was threatening to erupt into a violent confrontation. In newsreel footage, Bevel is seen being given a bullhorn by a policemen on site, and using it to calm his large and understandably heated crowd. In voiceover, he recounts the experience:
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We were coming off a demonstration and the police was driving the students back with water and dogs, and when we got back to the church a lot of their parents had come out to watch. The students was being playful and jovial and mocking the police, but the adults — upon seeing a lot of the students knocked down by the water and their clothes torn off by dogs — began to organize their guns and knives and bricks.
What I did, actually, was tell the students that they had to respect police officers, that their job was to help police and to keep order. That the police was there to keep order and that the people who was there throwing [things] was probably paid instigators, and therefore we had to watch them. And it was very effective. So what we did, we got the adults that day say, maybe nearly a thousand, to go into the church, and to go through the reasons why you don’t use violence. The fact that we were in control and that we were gaining because we were not using violence because the issues were being made clear.
Bevel explains that he request for the police bullhorn was a spur of the moment decision, and that he was a surprised as was the policeman who handed it over:
“So he just gave it to me, and I said, ‘OK, get off the streets now. We’re not going to have violence. If you’re not going to respect policemen, you’re not going to be in the movement.” And you know, it’s strange I guess for them. I’m with the police talking through their bullhorn and giving orders and everybody was obeying. It was like, it was wow! But what was at stake was the possibility of a riot and that, in a movement, once a riot break out, you have to stop, takes you four or five days to get re-established, and I was trying to avoid that kind of situation.
Bevel, John Lewis, Diane Nash, and other young movement leaders-- who studied nonviolent direct action with James Lawson at Vanderbilt, first practiced it at Greensboro lunch counters in 1960, and proceeded that year to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—knew from years of experience what Travon Brown knew instinctively: that the practice of self-restraint has both ethical and strategic value, especially in a society that claims to honor the rule of law, and that it can thus be a form of personal and political empowerment.
The rhetoric of civility is often a rhetoric of pacification, a way of saying “calm down, be reasonable, be patient” to rebellious citizens who have been told too long to “wait,” and of insinuating that “we are all in this together” to people who have for too long been ignored, denied, or suppressed. Appeals to this rhetoric are a way for power-holders and those who believe in the essential rightness of the status quo to quiet dissenting and disruptive voices (The very best book on this is Benjamin DeMott’s 1995 The Trouble With Friendship: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Race).
But this does not mean that the rhetoric of civility, restraint, and moderation is only that.
The example of Travon Brown makes this clear. He led his fellow marchers past the racist thugs who tried to provoke them, and then “shushed” his crowd, and yelled “Love!” while simultaneously raising his right fist in visible protest. This combination of actions was not a display of cowardice, or submission, or sappy belief in being “peaceful.” Nor was it a naïve expression of faith in the “goodness” of American citizens or of the American political system. It was a display of intelligence, defiance, and determination to keep moving forward. Such displays, especially by young people, are the most hopeful signs of a very hopeful moment. At a time when there is much suffering, fear, and righteous indignation, and partisans of justice literally and figuratively face angry mobs egged on by a malevolent, racist president, it is more important than ever to listen to people like Travon Brown, to amplify their message, to engage them in real political dialogue, and to work with them in the name of a better future.