Black Lives Matter, Presidential Candidates, Sit Down

Popular media coverage of Black Lives Matter in this presidential primary season often portrays activists in the movement as a less than civil bunch. Reporters tend to focus on their loudest, not their most civil, tactics. The group got a lot of attention, for example, for their action this past August 8, in which activistsaccording to Time onlineinterrupted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a rally in Seattle, stopping the politician from speaking. Two women and a man, the article explains, shoved Sanders aside, grabbed the microphone, and addressed the crowd themselves.

Black Lives Matter, Presidential Campaigns, Sit Down
Photo by Tiffany Von Arnim, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed CC-BY.

According to The Las Vegas Sun, Jeb Bush saw a similar disruption in Nevada just days later. And so did Hillary Clinton at a rally in New Hampshire.

But disruption is only one tactic that Black Lives Matter employs. And while the group may seem to privilege the adversarial over the civil at times, this article at Medium by DeRay Mckesson shows us that this is just the beginning of the story, and that civility, too, is well within the group’s arsenal of tools.

Mckesson, who is himself a Black Lives Matter activist, updates readers on a series of meetings that he and others have had these past few weeks with candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and on their plans to sit down for discussions with other candidates including Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Martin O’Malley.

The movement, according to what Mckesson has written, seems to take a page from the Institute’s own Student Legislative Seminars. In the Student Legislative Seminars, teams of high school students led by Institute officers choose and research one exigent problem, decide their positions on the issues together through active dialogue with one another, then meet – in this case with members of Congress and their staff – to share their concerns and opinions. The process requires that students find consensus. And it requires that they are able to advocate forcefully for their needs and beliefs while at the same time respecting others’ positions.

The Black Lives Matter strategy is not exactly this one, but it’s close. Mckesson writes that in preparation for meeting with the candidates, activists do extensive research: they review their previously stated policy positions and the campaigns published platform, in order to develop specific questions on focused topics.

He writes that they choose a relatively narrow list of topics about which to talk: issues related to policing, income inequality, marijuana legalization, legislative avenues to address racial inequality, and civil asset forfeiture in the case of Bernie Sanders; and criminal justice reform, prison privatization, and violence against the black trans community in the case of Hillary Clinton.

He tells us that the group recognizes that it is not just the candidate, but also their aides, who need to be involved. The staff, he writes, are often best versed in the details of specific legislation or policies.

And he tells us that, regardless of party affiliation, the movement is open to meeting with any candidate seeking to be the next President to discuss these ideas.

Based on Mckesson’s description, not everything about these interactions seems conventionally civil. The article repeatedly uses the term push to describe how activists interact with candidates. As in:

We pushed HRC to clarify her position on demilitarizing the police, pushing her to go beyond ending the use of federal funds by police departments to buy military equipment.

But pushing, from the perspective of the activists, may not be unwarranted. As Patrisse Cullors wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, there is a perception that the Democratic Party in particular has milked the Black vote while creating policies that completely decimate Black communities. And besides, there is no reason, from a civility perspective, not to advocate forcefully for your needs and beliefs as long as that forcefulness is tempered by respect and a willingness to listen.

And those two last elements do indeed seem to be present. Mckesson accepts Hillary Clinton’s response on police militarization, for example, when he says that she wanted to do more research before she can take a position. And he writes that – in the style of an honest discussion – Bernie Sanders pushed back in a discussion of income vs. wealth inequality: he sought to gain clarity on some of the data before he could come to any particular conclusion.

The results of these meetings have been productive. Mckesson writes that both Sanders and Clinton have released policy papers based partly on their outcomes, and that some of the ideas discussed made it into the recent Democratic debate.

But for our purposes on The Civility Blog, there are two issues that are even more important than any specific result. The first is that the Mckesson article offers further confirmation of media filtering: that media-generated narratives about most things – and especially issues related to race, class, or activism – are thoroughly shaped for one primary purpose: the project of attracting eyes and therefore selling ads.

The second important piece that we get from the Mckesson article is what amounts to a model. One thing we’ve seen in the media’s coverage of Black Lives Matter is that their tactics are often not in fact civil. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The sorts of meetings that Mckesson describes offer a way forward through discussion and the thoughtful exchange of ideas that is effective even, or perhaps especially, when the issues at hand are dire and require redress.

One could make the argument – and not be wrong – that without the direct action, without disrupting presidential candidates’ rallies, these meetings would never have happened at all. But more than a defense of this sort of incivility, that assertion suggests an important question: what steps can we take in our political culture so that more people – and especially young people of color – can have their voices heard and their needs met without having to stand up and shout?

Hands Up, Don’t Shoot and Other Discourses of Civility

Do civil disobedience and public protest have a part to play in a civil political culture?

The question seems like a strange one following more than six months of highly visible, sometimes violent protests that began in August 2014 with the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and that were fueled by the subsequent decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who pulled the trigger.

The media certainly characterized the events following those incidents in incendiary, uncivil terms., the online branch of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s Patriot-News, ran a story in the days following Brown’s death comparing the outcry in Ferguson to the violent racial strife of the 1960s. The unrest, wrote reporter Christine Vendel, brings back memories for some longtime Harrisburg residents who remember the 1969 race riots in Allison Hill that claimed the life of an 18-year-old man.

The Washington Post did the same, quoting civil rights attorney Barbara Arnwine, who compared the protests in Ferguson to the 1965 Watts Riots, saying: We’re in a time warp. Watts was bad, but this is the worst thing I’ve seen.

It is no wonder why the media framed the events in these terms, with looting and vandalism cropping up alongside the peaceful protests, and images like this one of tear-gas saturated conflicts with riot police appearing at the fore.

Hands Up, Don't Shoot and Other Discourses of Civility
Ferguson, Day 6. By Loavesofbread, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And it is no wonder, with so many authoritative voices striking the same tone, that even a well-informed public might have come to see the Ferguson protests — and public protest in general — as an inherently uncivil facet of American political culture.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. I asked Institute co-founder Cassandra Dahnke about the subject, and this is what she had to say:

I have been thinking for a long time about public demonstrations / civil disobedience and how all of that relates to civility. Some people think they are mutually exclusive. I do not. It is important for citizens to be able to exercise their right to assemble, and it is key to a healthy democracy that they do so. It is also a practice that is only enhanced when framed by civility.

There is no rule that says that public demonstrations — even demonstrations whose mantra is hands up, don’t shoot — must take on a tenor of violence and civil unrest. And there is every reason to think that they should (and can, and do) look more like this:

Hands Up, Don't Shoot and Other Discourses of Civility
“Community,” at MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment. By Adam D. Zolkover, CC-BY-SA 4.0

And this:

Hands Up, Don't Shoot and Other Discourses of Civility
“Justice, not Just Us,” at MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment, by Adam D. Zolkover, CC-BY-SA 4.0

On January 19, as part of an observance of Martin Luther King day, I attended a rally and march in Center City, Philadelphia that organizers dubbed the MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment. Resistance may sound uncivil, but that was far from the tone of the event. Protesters called for improved public education, increased wages, and an end to police violence. And participants, at odds in other aspects of their politics and identities, stood arm in arm — sometimes literally — to make their voices heard.

Religious groups with divergent beliefs on fundamental theological points came together to call for more justice and more peace. They marched in solidarity with protesters bearing the no justice, no peace slogan on their banners, who marched next to groups calling for school reform, a fifteen dollar minimum wage, and simple declarations that I am human.

Hands Up, Don't Shoot and Other Discourses of Civility
“Black Lives Matter,” at MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment, by Adam D. Zolkover, CC-BY-SA 4.0

White folks marched side by side with people of color. There were signs in Chinese declaring that black lives matter. Folks representing labor unions carried signs saying that racism kills. And even the Granny Peace Brigade made an appearance at the march.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, police officials estimated the crowd at 3,000, while organizers said it was closer to 6,000. And according to that same report, the police, who maintained a heavy presence all day, reported no arrests.

Rounding the southwest corner of City Hall, about halfway through the march which would end outside the Liberty Bell, I witnessed one woman, perhaps in her fifties, take what looked like a bad fall. The protesters near her all came to her aid, and so too did the police who were shadowing us. It was the closest police officer who arrived most swiftly. And he, seemingly without suspicion or malice, helped her to her feet and made sure she was okay before continuing on his way.

A public protest, of course, is never a civil chat, held quietly indoors. It isn’t a negotiation between two parties who are looking for a middle ground. But those need not be the only models for what civil discourse looks like. And if, as the founders of the Institute assert, civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process, then civility was all over Philadelphia’s MLK Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment.

Civility was present in the appearance of Mayor Michael Nutter at the rally before the event, the fact of which served as an acknowledgment that the protesters’ grievances were real, and deserved a reasonable response. It was present in the dozens of interest groups, who each appeared to raise awareness for their own cause, but who stood in solidarity with the causes of others. It was in the attitude of the crowd toward the police, who were clearly there for the protesters’ protection. And it was there in the attitude of the police toward the crowd, who clearly acknowledged their right to assemble.

And civility was there, especially, in the logic behind the protest. In a society that is all too ready to ignore the voices of the poor, and at a time in our history when — especially on Martin Luther King Day — we are all too ready to declare the Civil Rights Movement an article of our past, what is a public protest declaring that black lives matter and that poor lives matter but an attempt to claim and care for one’s identity? And under those same circumstances, what is the fact that it was done peacefully — often arm in arm and without a single arrest — but an attempt to do so without degrading someone else’s needs in the process?

To the eyes of many, public protests may not have the exterior appearance of civil discourse. But whatever the issue, if planned carefully and with adequate forethought, it is a venue in which civility can thrive.