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In Support of the Right to Protest

Riots. Law and Order. Protest Violence. Public Order.

This is the verbiage that has been blasted across news channels over the past two weeks in response to protests over yet another shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, at the hands of police. Instead of united outrage over the deeply imbedded racism in our country that is manifested in police violence resulting in injury and death of so many Black and Brown men and women, political rhetoric on both the left and right has overshadowed the messages of those taking to the streets, instead giving attention to the actions of right-wing extremists and a handful of spoilers. This is resulting in some very dangerous trends.

Weakening the BLM movement 

Much of the reach and strength that the Black Lives Matter movement has gained since the murder of George Floyd in May has been garnered through unity, especially through widespread participation of white people in these protests. However, there have long been concerns about White permeance in this movement. As fall approaches and schools in myriad forms resume, calls to distance from ‘criminal elements’ taking part in protests can lead to many white people stepping back. They can’t. In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander demonstrates the link between racism against Black people and misperceptions of crime and criminality. If white people disassociate from Black Lives Matter demonstrations, out of concerns about criminality, they are helping to elevate the false narrative that the majority of protesters are violent and destructive, thus facilitating the delegitimization of anti-racist protestors as criminals and rioters. 

Eclipsing the warning cry of systemic racism 

With a focus on the protest violence and ‘criminal elements,’ the claims of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators are getting eclipsed. We know that policy change is the culmination of democratic forces emanating from courts, local and federal governments, faith ministries, institutions of higher education and the streets. As we face one of the most substantive calls for widespread systemic policy change in this nation’s history, we cannot afford to have the Black Lives Matter movement, and with it a long-overdue push for systemic transformation towards civil rights, delegitimated by being portrayed as synonymous with anarchy engulfing ‘Democratically-run cities.’ 

Endangering the first amendment right to protest

As politicians on both the left and the right compete to ‘denounce protest violence’ over the past few weeks, they also shrink the space for expressing dissent. In 1930 the US Supreme Court adopted a broader interpretation of the 1st Amendment, creating the ‘Public Forum’ with the explicit intent of enshrining a protected space for public expression—including streets, parks and public squares—when other avenues were blocked. At the time they were thinking about combating the rising media empires, but the same holds true today. The social movements of the 1950s onwards (workers, civil rights, women’s movements, anti-war) flourished in these spaces, mobilizing social capital, messages and images in cafes, pubs and churches that resonated out into the streets, onto the TV, and eventually into the halls of power. When over-focusing on the threat of political violence serves to delimit the critical space for response, you’re in a very real sense cutting off democracy’s air supply.

Taking Action

Right now, with the physical restrictions from COVID, it feels like there are so few ways to be politically and socially responsive. At the NFSJ, we want to elevate upcoming protest opportunities and encourage protesters by educating them on their rights.

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