Last semester, as the protests that began in Ferguson, Missouri, began to spread across the country and coalesce into the movement that is now colloquially referred to as #BlackLivesMatter, I was teaching a course on social movements and a course on citizenship, or full membership in political community. As I followed the news coverage of actions taken in Ferguson in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown, I felt that these emerging events must be incorporated into my courses. The #BlackLivesMatter protests were directly relevant to the content of the courses I was teaching. I thought that by illustrating course content with contemporary examples, students would become more engaged in studying course materials.
On the whole, students were broadly sympathetic to the main goals of the movement: increased accountability for police officers who use force against the populations they have sworn to protect and ending racially discriminatory police practices. However, when students did voice an objection to the movement, it wasn’t focused on the goals but instead on the tactics. They would ask me, “Why shut down freeways? Why protest at the Mall of America? What does any of that have to do with cops and white supremacy?”
It’s an honest question coming from students who are just learning about civil disobedience and the disruptive tactics used by social movements. Technically, neither shutting down freeways nor staging a die-in at the Mall of America qualifies as civil disobedience. Civil disobedience only occurs when people break a law they believe is unjust and accept the consequences of breaking the law because they believe doing so will demonstrate the injustice of the law. Since the #BlackLivesMatter protesters (myself included) are not illustrating the injustice of traffic laws or trespassing laws, these disruptive protests do not meet the strict definition of civil disobedience. My students who were attempting for the first time to grapple with the concept did have a point there.
This is a common dismissal of the actions taken by the #BlackLivesMatter activists and protesters: There isn’t a close connection between the grievances they voice and the disruptions that they are causing. Their (our) actions are seen as misguided or arbitrary, not as focused or legitimate as similar actions by earlier civil rights activists (like the lunch counter sit-ins in the South). However, what is missed in this dismissal of the disruptive tactics of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is the fact that formal, legal conditions have changed.
Injustice while laws appear just
Explicitly racially discriminatory laws are now illegal. Because the earlier civil rights movement managed to achieve formal, legal equality, breaking explicitly racist laws as an act of civil disobedience is much more difficult to do. Our laws often seem just on paper, but perpetuate injustice in their practice (through discriminatory uses of police discretion and differential treatment throughout the process of prosecution and punishment). How can protesters use civil disobedience to illustrate injustice when the laws appear neutral without actually being so in practice?
At the same time that the laws in our country have changed, so has changed the way racism works in this country. Whereas before white supremacy was formally enshrined in many laws that were easier to point to as explicitly unjust, conditions have changed such that white supremacy is built into our informal practices in more subtle and diffuse ways. Much important research has been done on unconscious bias and the way it shapes interpersonal interaction. We now know that growing up in a society in which negative and pervasive stereotypes of people of color — and especially black people — are pervasive causes all people (including well-meaning white people and people of color themselves) to internalize negative associations that impact their judgments about and interactions with others. This learned unconscious bias benefits whites and disadvantages people of color, even in the absence of explicitly racially discriminatory laws.
White supremacy is so deeply a part of our social structure that any disruption of “business as usual” can be understood as an opportunity to make us conscious of the continued oppression of people of color in the United States. Actions such as freeway closures and die-ins may not strictly qualify as civil disobedience, but in a culture that promotes the internalization of unconscious biases against people of color — and especially black people — disrupting the normal, day-to-day functions of society can be seen as vitally necessary to help us wake up from our unconscious acceptance of how things are and work toward a more just and inclusive political community.
Charges should be dropped
It’s for these reasons that I stand with the MOA 11. I urge the City of Bloomington and Mall of America to drop all of the charges against the protesters. I also encourage everyone who can to stand with the protesters at their hearings in the Hennepin County Courts. For more information about attending the hearings, go here.
Kathleen Cole, Ph.D., is a political science professor in the Social Science Department at Metropolitan State University. Her views do not necessarily represent the views of her employer. Although she has participated in protest actions organized by Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, she is not an organizer and does not speak on the behalf of the group.
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