A ‘Good’ Protester is Just a ‘Bad’ Protester in the Misty Rearview MirrorRoundup
tags: civil rights, Protest, social movements, respectability
Beware of advice from people who don’t want you to succeed. Last week, someone on Twitter sent Bernice King, the youngest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a minister herself, an iconic 1965 photo of her father and mother, arms linked, at the front of a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. The men all wear suits and ties, and one carries a little girl in a fancy dress. Coretta Scott King, Bernice’s mother, wears a plaid skirt suit. American flags fly everywhere, and in one corner of the photo is a very young John Lewis, future congressman. Superimposed over the picture are the words “THIS IS A PROTEST,” clearly offered as a sharp rebuke to the messier, disruptive protests sweeping across America and dominating television news and social media feeds today.
The photo presents a beautiful image. But displayed out of context, like a graduation snapshot pulled from a family album, it offers a distorted picture of King’s life, the development of the civil rights movement and the much more complicated process of social change. Social movements are sloppy and undisciplined affairs, with people and organizations spilling in and out of action over long periods of time, deploying a wide repertoire of tactics in the service of diverse goals. When we look back, we always see an edited history that grossly simplifies the knotty politics of social change, identifying an archetypal “good” protester — often King — to provide a contrast and criticism of contemporary committed activists, who are always judged to fall short.
Diversity, disputes and mobilized opposition haunt today’s campaign against racialized police violence. But that’s the story of virtually every influential social movement in American history. Marches are not like nightclubs. Clubs hire bouncers to work the rope line or the door, sorting and sifting out people who might make trouble, might not spend enough money or might undermine the club’s desired image. But no one is a bouncer at a political demonstration. Right now in the streets, some marchers believe that once alerted, local police departments will sift out their own bad apples, and others think that police are beyond reform. Some focus exclusively on the criminal justice system, while others claim that capitalism must be uprooted to pursue justice. Although most reject any kind of violence for moral or pragmatic political reasons, some are sanguine about breaking windows. They’re all out marching together, and they don’t necessarily know who thinks what. And at any rate, protesters in coats and ties rarely turn up in the pictures from today’s protests.
Conservative critics love to remember King, but only when facing contemporary activists trying to pursue the very same goals that animated King a half-century ago. Rather than admonishing today’s protesters, they could help by providing the conditions that would allow those less disruptive events to matter.
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