Clearing through my old university things, I found a 100-page political zine recounting some of the responses to the murder of Michael Brown. Brown was a black teenager from Missouri who was shot six times — to death — by a white police officer in 2014. The officer was not indicted. Eric Garner had died a few weeks earlier, in similar circumstances. The two deaths prompted months of protest and international reportage. “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe” were the refrains. This was six years ago.
The Black Lives Matter hashtag sprung into existence following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the white police officer who shot African American teen Trayvon Martin in February 2012. That was eight years ago. This year, George Floyd’s story gripped the world, with an estimated 15–26 million US citizens hitting the streets in protest. Analyses tend to agree that protests of this scale are unprecedented. White people protested, rich people protested; the world protested.
Right direction, little movement
While the trajectory seems overwhelmingly positive (protests increasing in size, scope, social spread), it is important not to get too hopeful. On the one hand, many publications have written on the limited capability of protest (a, b, c, d). More on this below.
On the other, there is a place for despair. Despair is what drives people to the streets in the first place. Despair is the first catalyst. Without protest, there is likely no change. It requires a critical mass of despair to drive sufficient numbers to the streets to catalyse real change.
If we get too hopeful, too expectant, we risk becoming complacent. Not all those involved, but a certain proportion. It is easy, upon feeling that one has contributed adequately to a cause to spur it along, to take a backseat, leaving the core to fend for themselves with reduced numbers. Looking back to ‘successful’ protests, one thing is clear: protesting is an ingredient, not the whole dish. Like gravy, it cannot be served alone.
The Pankhursts and the Panthers
Emmeline Pankhurst, of the British suffragettes, knew that women “had to do the work ourselves”. The movement’s motto became “deeds, not words” or, in other words, do stuff, don’t say stuff. They didn’t win universal suffrage without a) disrupting the status quo, and b) committing themselves to sacrifice. It was ‘won’ by smashing windows and hunger-striking. They were imprisoned and force-fed. But that wasn’t all. Alongside and throughout, a dedicated National Union deployed ‘constitutional’ methods, lobbying continuously during WWI. The two-pronged approach was necessary to push laws through.
It took 15 years for legislation to pass through the barriers of constitutionalised patriarchy. Of course, the BLM movement has roots in decades — centuries — of black protest. But in the 1950s, protestors rallied and organised like never before, and unified their efforts towards enacting policy change.
The United States’ Civil Rights Movement, dated 1954–1968, resulted in the passage of several federal laws and the formation of various federal agencies. It also provided a way to trivialise black suffering in subsequent decades. Amendments were made, bills passed; ‘equality’ was ‘written into law’. Therefore any complainants lacked ground to stand on — or so the narrative goes.
Oppression of minorities is now more nuanced and nebulous than ever before. Protest is good, and/but other forms of push are necessary. Sweeping national laws don’t iron out creases. They provide a legal basis upon which to push society one way or another. But this is the type of change that protest is geared towards — the passage of laws, the adjustment of national constitutions, binary alterations. Addressing and healing societal ills requires a different approach.
Social change requires education reform
In 1977, Carl Lieberman wrote of the ‘two conflicting views concerning the relationship between education and social change’. In the article, he contends that schools ‘can play a significant role in enabling students to respond to social change’. They do this by constructing specific learning environments and teaching ‘participatory and decision-making skills’. Properly equipped, students should be able to ‘comprehend […] the choices which confront them’ and ‘evaluate various options’.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, there have been calls to include a more realistic view of Britain’s colonial history in our education system. It is well understood, to the point of cliche, that comprehension of the present requires knowledge of the past. Privilege is product as well as cause. Education reform may not be as glamorous as the passing of laws — its effects too distant, too illegible — but it is the next major hurdle in the advancement of civilisation.
Protest is invaluable, and essential. As a reaction to oppression, it is also inevitable. But its purpose is not to achieve — except to achieve widespread acknowledgement of an issue. It must exist in conjunction with other tools if anything is to change for the oppressed. We have our laws, next must come our lessons.