After Protest

After Protest

by Bill Droel

This column is hardy ready to endorse Hillary in 16. But Clinton is correct in her reaction to Black Lives Matter activists with whom she had an off-stage exchange early in August. They probed her how she will change hearts to eliminate racism. “How do you actually feel that’s different,” they asked?

“You can get lip service” from some people, Clinton replied. Some people will respond to your protest and say: We get it. We are going to be nicer. “That’s not enough, at least in my book,” she asserted. “I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.” Her point, reports Maggie Haberman in New York Times (8/20/15), is that “deeply felt emotions” have to be translated into “meaningful lasting change” because “movement politics gets you only so far.”

This same juncture was reached in the Occupy Wall Street movement. What is the specific goal and expected outcome of the protest? Is there anything more to this movement than dissipation of anger?

Some years ago a team of social scientists thoroughly studied ten cities to measure the “effectiveness of demand-protest strategies.” Their report is titled Protest Is Not Enough: the Struggle of Blacks and Hispanics for Equality by Rufus Browning et al. (University of California Press, 1984). Protest is frequently useful, they found. That is, when the protest supports “sustained and substantial” organizing. Browning and his colleagues concentrate on access to and responsiveness from electoral politics. But their analysis can apply to justice within business, education, cultural institutions, civic arenas and more.

Admittedly, protest activists are often frustrated by the long march through institutions. They find that their idealism succumbs to cooption, especially when they are unaware of being used.

Cooption comes by way of grandstanders who are attracted to any event that makes it onto TV or into newspapers. These media hounds might emerge from within the ranks of the protesters or they might be national personalities who visit the scene of action.

There might also be well-meaning celebrities who donate money to the cause. This type of money, especially at the early stages of the protest, almost never builds a lasting constituency.

Then there is the matter of coalitions. They are absolutely necessary to aggregate more power, but the original fervor can get subsumed into a diffuse agenda or a bureaucracy.

And finally there is the cooption of tokenism. The protest group feels like they and their grievance are incorporated, but real decisions are in fact made elsewhere. There is no substantial policy change. For example, a protest leader or two is put on an oversight board or even into a public office. It appears like an achievement, but endless meetings sap their energy. This cooption is very subtle. For example, many politicians (including presumably Hillary Clinton) are adept at attracting activists to their campaign, but then ignore the activists’ cause.

The outcome of a protest greatly depends on critical choices made by some primary activists, say Browning and his colleagues. Can they get savvy political advice from people experienced in the ways and means of business, criminal justice, neighborhood development and the like? Not academic background on issues. Not distracting guidance about someone else’s agenda. Can the protest leaders find and accept direction from skilled organizers who have no other interest than building genuine, accountable power from the grassroots? It is not easy. Cooption is everywhere. Fatigue is the constant temptation.

Droel is the author of What Is Social Justice? (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5.50)