Defining Activism

It’s that sting of “All Lives Matter.” It’s the pestering arguments between the “oh so different” Malcolm X’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s. It’s respectability and it’s ignorance. It’s misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Whether virtual or physical, what it is, is the constant critique of the Black forms of protest. Arguably since day one, Black liberation movements have garnered continuous disapproval from anti-Black commentators. In fact one needn’t look beyond this year to find an example. In August of 2016 San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick dove headfirst into this issue when he chose to kneel instead of stand during the national anthem. The act was in a show of solidarity and, as he said in an interview with NFL Media, a refusal to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Almost immediately he received backlash from white America. A poll on Fox News labeled him the most disliked NFL player while Bob Knight, a former NCAA basketball coach, said he would have “got rid of the guy” for a “distraction like that.” These were the tame responses. Many others called it “disrespectful,” stating there were more peaceful ways he could have protested. Kaepernick’s actions, however, are perhaps the poster-child for “peaceful protest.” Drafting respectability politics onto Black protest isn’t a new tactic though. Policing Black activism through demonization has been in practice since the Civil Rights movement. And throughout these years of activism perhaps we can come to answer then what is the “correct” way to protest, if one has ever really existed.

Debunking a “Respectable” History

“We all need to breathe.” As she spoke to a crowd at “Breathe-In: Teach-In” for the Center for African American History’s second annual series on Black history, African American Studies professor Sherwin Bryant expressed how the history of Black liberation is frequently conflated with ideas of respectability politics. “All too often,” Bryant said, “we’ve allowed the Civil Rights Movement to be torn asunder from Black Power, as if it belongs to a more respectable black history. As if black history month had to be respectable in the first place.”
“There’s never been a good or safe time in American history for black populations to protest against violence, racism, oppression.”
The trimmed narrative taught in most schools today pervasively erases the radical nature of the Civil Rights Movement. Bryant chose to quote Rosa Park’s statement, “If we can protect ourselves against violence, it’s not actually violence on our part. That’s just self-protection.” This image is much more in line with what the public knows of Malcolm X instead of the sweet, matronly figure plastered on the memory of Rosa Parks. Bryant says Rosa Parks remains “an emissary of non-violence whose interest in the Black Power Movement and outspoken embrace of the necessity of Black self-defense becomes an inconvenient footnote.” An inconvenient footnote. Such is what years of sanitation has done to both Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. But what is now the respectable pinnacle of Black protest was once a heavily criminalized movement. Specifically, the FBI saw all forms of Black liberation movements as a threat to the state. In an interview with NPR Tim Weiner, author of Enemies: A History of the FBI, said, “[J. Edgar] Hoover saw the civil rights movement from the 1950s onward… as presenting the greatest threats to the stability of the American government since the Civil War. These people were enemies of the state, and in particular Martin Luther King [Jr.] was an enemy of the state.” This “enemy of state” title was a particular type of categorization. While it seems synonymous with criminal, one doesn’t necessarily have to do anything illegal to end up in that position.    
Rosa Parks remains “an emissary of non-violence whose interest in the Black Power Movement and outspoken embrace of the necessity of Black self-defense becomes an inconvenient footnote.”
As a result this distinction the FBI was legally allowed to target King and all of his affiliates. Regardless of the peaceful manner in which him and the movement is seen today, it still stands that, at the time, they were criminalized just as activists are today. In this light the seemingly stark contrast between the “tame” Civil Rights Movement and the “radical” Black Panthers unravels. While today they are pitted against each other like some twisted trope of good and evil, they are much closer to simply being forms of Black protest differing perhaps only in their historical portrayals. This problem continues today. These sterilized narratives steal legitimacy from the visceral reactions in current movements. Media coverage characterized protesters in Ferguson as rioting mobs acting through anger. When similar chaos occurred after contested sporting events, after the firing of a sexual predator and after the release of new electronic devices mainstream media characterized those creating havoc as fans celebrating a victory or even as college students just being college students. The media framed images of flipped cars and fires as revelry instead of senseless destruction.  The politics of respectability infiltrates these reports to portray communities protesting injustice as irrational. These protests have a rich history in American culture because they are, in every way, inconvenient. As Professor Hesse stated, “There’s never been a good or safe time in American history for black populations to protest against violence, racism, oppression.” How these inconveniences decide to manifest themselves can be highly individualistic.

Hashtag Activism is Still Activism

Protest signs are to Facebook posts what marches are to Twitter trends. The Internet, has without doubt added another tool to the activists arsenal. But with this addition have come the same forms of oppression and invalidation. Is retweeting activism? Journalists have written countless think pieces on the power and limitations of social media based social movements. Media pundits and various Twitter users have voiced either vapid denigrations of slacktivism, legitimate questions of accountability or an optimistic respect for a new generation of awareness based protest. With the death of Michael Brown and countless others at the hands of the police the debate swirling around the influence of hashtag activism has resumed. Black lives matter. I am Mike Brown. I can’t breathe. Say her name. These are the phrases that have defined the current movement. Phrases that started as hashtags and a vocalization of pain and grief and a need to define narratives outside of mainstream media. “The history of blackness is also a history of erasure. Everybody has told the story of black people in struggle except black people.” DeRay Mckesson said in an interview with The Atlantic. Mckesson has emerged as one of a number of leading organizers against police brutality in the aftermath of Ferguson. “There were a million slaves but you see very few slave narratives. So what was powerful in the context of Ferguson is that there were many people able to tell their story as the story unfolded.” That said, social media has become an integral component of activism for this current generation and along with micro-aggressions it has been belittled for its association with young women and men of color. “It’s not like social media activists dropped the ball or are doing worse than what people did in the past, that’s a trope that we buy into that’s crap.” Said director of African-American Student Affairs, Charles Kellom. As it stands we would not have Black Lives Matter, at least in its current iteration, without the Internet. For although some choose to depict its creation as some haphazard occurrence, it was intentional, and thought out. Citing the Black Liberation Movement as inspiration, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi founded the Black Lives Matter hashtag looking to spark a movement. “Hashtag activism has been super crucial to getting people together, getting people talking, raising the consciousness of a lot of folks over great distances, building solidarity.” Northwestern student activist, Darien Wendell said. “It has been crucial to making those connections and getting people to step up and do more. I don’t really think you can discount it if it’s doing work, which it clearly has been.”

From the Streets to the Students

Professor Ava Greenwell, one of the professors involved in the South African Journalism Residency program, teaches broadcast classes in Medill. She advocates for socially just educational practices and builds curriculums that aim to create reporters sensitive to the realities of varied lived experiences. Greenwell was integral to changing the curriculum of the South African JR prerequisite course, for the first time last year the class made a point of comparing the American Civil Rights Movement and South African apartheid. “Not to ground [the students] with some of that knowledge would be irresponsible,” Greenwell said. “I created this word the other day, to try to combine the word activism with education. The two really go hand in hand. ‘Acticate’ if you want to call it that.”

Black Lives Matter organizers protesting the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer (Photo Credit: CNN).

Challenging and disrupting dominant narratives from within is a concept very close to most educators of color. As a professor at Northwestern’s Law School specializing in interactions between minorities and the law, Destiny Peery also uses her influence as an educator to address issues that many of her colleagues find uncomfortable. “I don’t hide the ball on disparities,” she said. “I don’t hide the ball on the fact that the system is set up in a way that disadvantages certain groups, particularly men of color.” On the other hand, sophomore Sarah Oberholtzer’s activism is physical. She occupies and organizes events, using it as a deeply personal release for the emotions that come with being parts of targeted communities. She describes her activism, the spaces she creates as selfish because she herself needs “a space to be really mad and angry, to be publicly mad and angry.” Oberholtzer went to Chicago the night the grand jury in Ferguson failed to indict Darren Wilson. Protesters that night shut down Lake Shore Drive in a public demonstration of anger and grief. “I personally think that public demonstrations are more of a disturbance in the normal flow of societal activity,” she said. This disruption is the most visible form of activism, but she won’t discount the importance of social media activism, which she calls “an informative mode of resistance.” Oberholtzer says social media activism is vital for “introducing narratives that often aren’t discussed, aren’t often brought to light. Actively challenging discourses, popular discourses, white discourses.” “As difficult as it may be to face the reality that for centuries, constitutions and politics have suggested that a black life matters substantially less than a white one, we owe it to ourselves to breathe love into the language we use with and amongst each other,” said Adibu, a third-year graduate student in the Department of African American Studies. “The act of anointing the words we use with the love that has sustained us in the midst of anti-black violence, to me is a revolutionary act.” Along with naming the dead and shutting down highways, along with drafting legislature and screaming our anger so loud it cannot be ignored we must also celebrate each other and celebrate ourselves. We cannot continue to sacrifice our emotional and mental well-being and we must strive be carefree in the face of a society that desperately wants us to care. In that unique and banal way, we can ensure that black lives continue to matter.  

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