By LaKeshia N. Myers
As a teacher of American history, I teach my students that protest is an American concept. In fact, the power of protest is embedded in the fabric of our culture, so much so, that it has been used as a tactic in every social justice campaign since our country’s founding. However, in the past few years I have noticed that the right to protest is only protected for some Americans and not all. The rhetoric of “law and order” that is spewed (primarily) by the right is often visualized as “colored compliance”—or the need to control how and when African Americans and other people of color choose to protest.
During this election season, candidates on both sides have made reference to and openly condemned “violence and looting” as it relates to responses to police shootings of Black and Hispanic people. Yet very little has been said to condemn predominantly white, far-right extremists who invade communities and wreak havoc during times of unrest. In fact, the president even called the members, “very fine people.” But groups like the Boogaloo and the Proud Boys are just the latest iteration of domestic terrorists whose history of fearmongering, intimidation and violence go back for generations.
For me, one question is at the crux of this paradox: What form of protest should people of color use that is palatable to whites? When Martin Luther King and others chose to kneel in prayer in front of southern courthouses, they were jailed. When they chose to sing hymns and march in the streets, they were met with water hoses and dogs. When the Black Panther Party stormed the floor of the California State Assembly, they were met with state police. When Milwaukeeans protested for open housing, they were met with bricks, bottles and armed guardsmen. When Los Angeles burned because of police brutality in the 90s, protestors were met with mob rule. In my experience, there is no acceptable form of protest for people of color, only control.
For white Americans, protesting is viewed as an unencumbered right, this is evident throughout history. In March 1770, a crowd of Bostonians jeering at British soldiers began to throw snowballs filled with crab claws and rocks, all in the name of independence, this was the Boston Massacre. December 1773, colonists dressed as Indigenous people, commandeered a ship, and poured tea in Boston Harbor to protest George III’s tea tax, this was the Boston Tea Party. In 1861, rather than evolve, South Carolina chose to secede from the United States and declare war against its former countrymen, over the issue of chattel slavery, this was the Civil War. In 1919 because a number of African American WWI vets returned home seeking equity, white mobs descended on Black neighborhoods in dozens of American cities, burning them to the ground, this was the Red Summer. In 1920, seething at the thought of a thriving Black business district and spurred by a lie of attempted sexual assault, white mobs burned down the Greenwood District of Tulsa, OK, and this was the Tulsa Race Riot.
There are too many additional events to list. Too much blood that has been shed. Too many tears cried. What remains is the fact that African Americans and other people of color must always beg for liberties that are assumed for those that are white. Protest is an American concept, and there is no perfect way to do it, because injustice is imperfect.
Therefore, no justice, no peace.