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Another manifestation of West Michigan Nice: When systems of power insist on telling people resisting oppression, how they should protest

June 13, 2022

People in power will always counsel the public to engage in “peaceful protest.” When those in power use the term “peaceful protest,” they essentially mean the kind of protest that is non-confrontational and often performative.

Ever since the May 2020 uprising in Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids City Officials have been tell the public that they need to engage in peaceful protests. Hell, even the GRPD has been saying that they respect the public’s right to protest and long as it is peaceful. The fact is that virtually all of the protests that have taken place since May 2020 have been non-violent. However, City Officials consider confrontation, swearing, disruption and protesting outside their homes as disrespectful. City Manager, Mark Washington, who had to protestors come to his home recently, stated:

“These types of tactics and attempts to harass and intimidate will not be tolerated nor will bullying impact my judgement in carrying out my duties as City Manager. As was discussed during Thursday’s press conference, I suspended Officer Schurr without pay on Friday pending his termination hearing which is scheduled to take place this coming Thursday. I made that decision because I believe it was the right thing and not because of the obnoxious tactics of a handful of confrontational activists who tried to intimidate me and my family into action.’

Many of those who have been making demands of City Officials and confronting them on public policies in recent years, have come to expect the type of responses from government bureaucrats, like the above statement from March Washington. What is always instructive is the fact that Mark Washington, and other City Officials, never publicly call upon the GRPD to be peaceful towards protesters. What is truly obnoxious, is the constant monitoring, harassment, abuse and arrests of those who have been protesting in recent years.

Additionally, what is maybe even more difficult to accept is the same admonition to only engage in “peaceful protests,” which are coming from non-profit groups, even established Civil Rights organizations. Last Thursday, after the Kent County Prosector charged a GRPD cop with Second-degree murder, the Grand Rapids NAACP President Cle Jackson stated:

We have the right, based on the constitution to protest, but we also have to be very cautious and protest in a way that is peaceful, that is civil and gets work done from a policy perspective.

There is a great deal to unpack from the statement. First, people do not need the US Constitution to give them the right to protest. Since when has the US Constitution actually been a benefit to those who have suffered from genocide, slavery, Jim Crow laws, and numerous other forms of exploitation and State violence since the founding of the United States?

Second, again we are told to be peaceful, cautious and civil if we want to change things. This is an interesting statement, since my reading of US history is filled with people NOT being civil, cautious or peaceful when it comes to protest. Here is a brief overview of US history and how people have responded to various forms of oppression:

  • Indigenous people took up arms in hundreds of cases as a way to respond to the genocidal policies being implemented by the US government. While this period is often mislabeled as the Indian Wars – it was more accurately the US government instigated counter-insurgency wars meant to dispossess Indigenous people of their land – the taking up of arms was a natural response to the brutality of the US Government, implemented by the US Cavalry. (See Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States)
  • The Black Freedom Struggle has primarily relied on disruptive acts of resistance. People who were enslaves didn’t ask to be liberated, they rose up, engaged in work strikes, fled the plantation (which was illegal), sometimes burned the crops and/or the plantation, even killed the plantation owners. After slavery was abolished, the federal government passed the 13th Amendment, which allowed Black be to subject to another form of slavery, then there were Jim Crow laws that Black people resisted, sometimes with violence. The Civil Rights Movements used disruptive tactics, civil disobedience, boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, freedom rides, and there were various armed components of this movement, such as the Deacons for Defense. Even Dr. King, in the last years of his life, while working primarily in the north, used armed body guards (Deacons for Defense), because of the constant death threats he faced. More recently, the Movement for Black Lives and other Black-led groups have engaged in uprisings all across the US, calling for the Defunding of Police, to shut down government meetings, disrupting business as usual in all of its forms, especially economic and political. (See Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South, by Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford, plus,This Nonviolent Stuff′ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles E. Cobb.)
  • The US Labor Movement was rather militant from its origins in the 19th Century, into the early part of the 20th Century, with wildcat strikes, attacking scab workers and fighting with the cops. ( See the book, Strike by Jeremy Brecher.) 
  • The South African Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Central American Solidarity Movements used disruptive tactics, civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts and confronting politicians at numerous levels. The Central American Solidarity Movement engaged in Sanctuary, which was illegal during the 1980s, even targeted by the US Federal Government. (See Sanctuary: The New Underground Railroad, by Renny Golden and Michael McConnell)
  • The LGBTQ Movement began as a riot with Stonewall. The group ACT Up engaged in civil disobedience, disruption, confronting civic and religious leaders and defying oppressive social norms. (See the films Before Stonewall and United in Anger: A History of ACT UP)

Third, Cle Jackson makes the point that you need to have peaceful protest, “to get work done from a policy perspective.” Again, this is simply not accurate. Every major policy around critical social issues have come about because social movements forced federal, state and local governments to make changes. Those in power never make significant structural changes because people ask nicely. Those changes came about because the system felt threatened with civil unrest.

For example, during the Great Depression and the ensuing years, the labor movement was so militant, engaging in thousands of strikes annually, that the FDR administration was forced to pass the Wagner Act and then to adopt some robust social policies known as the New Deal. Had the New Deal policies not been adopted, the Labor Movement may have moved toward a more revolutionary strategy. 

The Johnson Administration passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act because of the constant disruption, civil disobedience and growing militant resistance to Structural Racism in the US, not because the federal government thought it was a good idea, but because they were forced to meet the demands of an increasingly militant movement.

Major policy changes almost always are the result of mass movements on the ground disrupting business as usual, to the degree that systems of power, both economic and political, felt threatened enough to concede to movement demands. This is the whole point of Howard Zinn’s monumental work, A People’s History of the United States. What ever rights or gains we have made, it is because of social movements. It’s never a gift from those in power.

The founder of the NAACP, W.E.B. DuBois, understood the necessity of resisting structural racism and White Supremacy through disruptive tactics and strategies. DuBois even referred to the organized resistance to slavery as, “A General Strike.” The great Black Intellectual would no doubt be dismayed by the insistence from Mr. Jackson that people protest peacefully. 

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