The nationwide reaction to the grand jury decision in Ferguson and police killings across the country taught the social justice movement an important lesson:
The people have the power to shut down the nation.
This is an important reality to consider. The reaction to the grand jury in 170 cities included people blocking major roadways, highways, bridges and tunnels. The police were unable to stop mobilized people working together to stop traffic. Those involved in the protest were still a small number, perhaps 200,000 people, but even this small percentage of the population had the power to #ShutItDown. In most instances protests were met with support even by people who were inconvenienced by traffic.
Now that we know that even a small percentage of Americans, well under .1%, have this power, how do we grow this capacity? How do we use it to our advantage in the case of racially unfair policing? How do we use this power for other issues?
Growing the Movement
Research over the last 100 years of resistance movements shows that when just 3.5% of the public mobilizes to support a movement for social, economic or environmental justice, it always wins. Many win with a smaller percentage, but no government can withstand 3.5% of the population working for transformative change.
One way to look at the movement is like an archery target, a series of concentric circles. At the center is the core group of people who feel strongly about a particular issue, often those directly affected. There are many who have been working on police abuse, racial injustice and militarization of police long before Ferguson, just as there have been Michael Brown-like incidents across the country. There are many Ferguson’s throughout the United States. With Ferguson, a whole new group of people joined, the circle grew as people were horrified that an unarmed teenager could be killed by police and his body left lying in the road for 4.5 hours. As publicity about the case grew, more people joined the circle of concern seeking Justice for Mike Brown. Then, there were more police killings in additional cities throughout the country and the circles grew larger; and after the grand jury reached its decision, more people joined. When people heard of the grand jury decision, and now as they learn about how the grand jury was manipulated to protect the killer of Mike Brown, more joined.
There will be other opportunities to grow the movement as the Department of Justice conducts its investigation of both the incident and the Ferguson police department. Then, there will be the civil suit the family of Michael Brown will bring and all the testimony and evidence brought out by that.
But, one of the keys to building the movement against racially unfair policing is to bring other social justice activists into it. All of our issues are connected and that includes the racial unfairness which communities of color experience, not just in the criminal justice system but also in the economic system as well as the reality of environmental racism. The black community is in a state of emergency and the government is ignoring it. No progress has been made under the first African American president and attorney general. Our job is to explain to people how the injustices faced by black and brown communities relate to their issue of concern and impact their lives. One example of doing this is how the Ferguson protests joined with Walmart protests to undermine Black Friday consumerism in thousands of protests across the nation. This action in St. Louis was particularly powerful. Racial injustice is intertwined with economic injustice. Militarized policing is intertwined with militarization abroad.
It is important for those most directly impacted to speak out. People from communities of color, families who have lost loved ones to police violence, young people who have been harassed because of the color of their skin must be in the lead. Their voices must be at the forefront so that people hear their stories, understand their experiences and begin to understand the injustice faced by millions every day.
The other key to growing the movement is raising consciousness. Whenever people are taking action in a public protest it is critical to remember that the primary target of our protest is the public. We want them to understand our message and join the movement. As Bruce Gagnon wrote about a protest at a mall in St. Louis, the people in the mall “would be too afraid to ever go near such an action but here today they suddenly were right in the middle of the whole event. They had to see the spirited non-violent protest was in fact not nearly as dangerous as corporate media keeps telling them.”
We want people to see we have power and they will also have power if they join the movement. While we may be protesting outside of a police department or an office of the Department of Justice and want to see them change and support our goals, the target is the public. Until we grow into the larger rings of the archery target and more people are involved in this campaign, government agencies will not be moved. It is mass movements that create change, not fringe movements (the movement for racial justice is already beyond a fringe movement and is growing toward a mass movement).
Finally, a brief comment on leadership: One of the great strengths of the post-Ferguson protests has been the diversity of leadership throughout the country. No one person or organization is directing these protests. All of us who care about racial injustice are playing our role. The lack of hierarchy has been one of the keys to making it difficult for the government to respond or predict what was going to happen next. The role played by Ferguson Action and Hand Up United was also important. Their gentle form of leadership, i.e. suggesting targets, themes, messages and tactics as well as types of spokespersons, gave people working throughout the country a common framework to work in with the flexibility appropriate for their community. People were able to join together in loose affiliation working toward a common goal within a common strategic framework.
Now That We Have Your Attention: What Is Our Message?
When an action like shutting down major roadways gets public attention we need to be clear in our messaging so that people understand what we stand for and why we are taking action. It is an opportunity to raise awareness of an issue and change the consciousness of many. Changing consciousness is a process of ongoing education and experience. We need to be very conscious of our messages and our actions. One well-crafted sign can often pierce people’s thinking and break through. Always remember, our goals are to educate, organize and mobilize large numbers of people.
There is a lot of room to raise the consciousness of Americans, in particular white America, regarding the racially unfair police practices in the nation. Multiple polls show that whites and blacks see the killing of Michael Brown, the grand jury decision and justice in America very differently. The differences can be 40% to 60% between how whites and blacks view issues of justice. The view of whites regarding racial disparity diverges far from reality. These misperceptions can change very quickly because they are inconsistent reality.
The facts are stark showing injustice at every stage of the criminal process from arrest through incarceration. There are so many examples of racial injustice. The killing of a young black man is an extreme case of injustice but there are pervasive examples of racial injustice. People now understand terms like “driving while black” or “stop and frisk” and how those types of practices result in widespread harassment of African Americans who are merely driving or walking through a community. These practices have widespread impact on communities of color and when they are publicized or result in litigation, they educate the community.
The emotional impacts of these practices also need to be shown. Many people are not moved by facts no matter how stark they are, but when they hear personal stories they can be reached. For example, a mother describing how she worries about her son coming home from school safely because of police harassment or a young man describing how he was degraded by the police when he was stopped and searched in the street for no reason. People can feel their pain.
We now have tools that no other generation has had to get our message out. While the mass corporate media continues to mislead more often than not, we now have the Internet, a tool that democratizes the media and builds our voices. Every person has the capacity to become a media outlet. People can become news photographers, writers and even create their own video outlet. The power of twitter is beginning to be understood. Courts have consistently held that people can also video police as they interact with citizens; this is a powerful tool to ensure greater truth. As we become aware of our media power, we can act together and overcome the monopoly of corporate mass media. The people’s media is reaching a tipping point where it can become the most powerful source for information.
We saw this during the recent Ferguson protests. One media outlet, live streamer Bassem Masri, was sharing video with 90,000 viewers after the Ferguson grand jury decision was announced. He had as many viewers as cable television outlets. And, he was just one of many sources of livestream. Masri was such a serious threat to the Ferguson power structure that they fought back against him. First his phone, used to livestream, was stolen and then he was arrested. He was charged with driving on a suspended license, when he was a passenger in a car, and then he was held on $15,000 bond. The police and judge obviously wanted to keep him off the street and prevent him from showing the truth of what was occurring in Ferguson. A crowd funding campaign quickly raised the bail funds. There are video activists like Masri across the country in virtually every city. This means that the police do not control the narrative and citizens media can get out the story, with much greater credibility than the corporate media. (This is why another campaign that unites us is for the future of the Internet and net neutrality.)
In the case of Masri, we expect the injustice he has suffered because of the unnecessary arrest and extreme bond will have two impacts. First, it will strengthen Masri as he is now better known and has more public support. Second, it will undermine the justice system further. To take this journalist off the streets – violating not only his rights but our right to knowledge – required the collusion of the police, prosecutor and judge in St. Louis County. As people learn more about cases like these, it further undermines the power structure.
A more challenging example of that is the grand jury in Ferguson. The police and prosecutors used the grand jury as a way to justify not prosecuting Officer Darren Wilson. The president and many in the media have said that the grand jury decision must be respected and many Americans bought the grand jury decision without question. But, at the same time, a countercurrent is growing as people learn about how the grand jury was misused. How the prosecutors, rather than really seeking indictment, warped the grand jury to ensure it prevented an indictment. The prosecutors served more as defense lawyers for Officer Wilson than they served as prosecutors seeking justice in a killing of an unarmed youth. The mistakes of the grand jury are legion and significant, and more people are talking about it. If we can get our message out about how the grand jury was a rigged farce, it to will undermine the justice system in Ferguson.
The key strength of our consciousness-raising efforts is that we are trying to show people reality. This is important because when they hear our facts or personal stories, then it will be reinforced by their experiences. When people’s experiences match the messages of the movements, they are on the path to having their consciousness raised.
End Game: How Do We Win?
In any campaign we need to envision what victory looks like. In the Ferguson-Police Brutality campaign activists have put forward specific goals for both Ferguson and the nation. See Ferguson Action Demands. These demands are being carried by activists across the country, see e.g. the Hands-Up Coalition DC which is organizing a weekly protest at the US Department of Justice on 9th and Pennsylvania Ave at 4:00 pm every Monday beginning on December 1. People are beginning to write about how we can end abusive policing. Some cities, like Baltimore, have held town hall meetings on the issue. People are uniting to transform policing.
Some of these demands are reforms that can begin the transformation, but we recognize that racism and police abuse are long-term problems that will require time to change. We will win when it becomes politically untenable for people to oppose the justice we seek. When 75% or more of the population agrees injustice exists and that action must be taken to correct it, then we become an unstoppable political force. In this process we will also win over many police officers as well.
People involved in Ferguson Action and other allied groups across the country realize this needs to be an ongoing campaign, not a burst of energy that dissipates. It is the job of people who care about these issues to make them into ongoing campaigns.
Resistance campaigns have won important victories in our history – for worker’s rights, women’s rights, ending segregation and recognizing equality for gays and so much more. Currently we are seeing resistance movements working to win increased wages, stop extreme energy extraction, protect the future of the Internet, stop corporate trade agreements, win rights for immigrants and a multitude of economic issues.
Across the country and around the world, people are building their power. And when we see that our issues are connected, work across issues and act strategically, our power grows. Now that we have a taste of what we can accomplish together, let’s keep building and taking on the path to justice.