What happened last night in Atlanta with the protest that organized in the Historic Fourth Ward Park, next to the Masquerade club, and across from the recently developed Ponce City Market (cough, “gentrification”), and then proceeded to march through Atlanta, taking an indirect route past Georgia State University and the State Capital building? More importantly, why were people gathering and protesting? Why were they disrupting the traffic, tying up intersections? From a variety of sources, it’s quite clear that there is either confusion or outright misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what happened and why. Having been there from 6 pm to 9:30, this is my take. I know that I leave many issues out that the protest concerned (may I be forgiven for that).
Even though I went to bed later than usual last night (around 1:00 am), I was not able to sleep past 5:00 am. This is in part because I’m still struggling with the time change, and in part because the energy, the import, and the chants from last night’s protest and march echo in my mind. So, getting up I fed the animals and sat down listening to the National News broadcast on NPR. They reported on protests around the country. In Oregon, things were more chaotic than in Atlanta, as one person was shot and police used teargas and flash-bang grenades to try to break things up. Thankfully, that did not happen in Atlanta last night.
NPR went on to report two things relevant to last night’s protest. First, they reported that Black University of Pennsylvania Students were victims of a cyber attack. Through a smartphone messaging service they received images of lynchings with the words, “I love America”; the source of the messages had an avatar of the electoral college map after Trump won.
Second, they reported that the Dakota access pipeline is nearly finished; remaining is the section that is to go under the Missouri river. The company laying the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, must receive an easement from the Army Core of Engineers before they proceed. The CEO of the company, Kelsy Warren, NPR reports is “looking forward to doing business under Donald Trump’s administration.” He is recorded saying, “Having a government that actually backs up what they say, that actually says we’re going to support infrastructure, we’re going to support job creation, we’re going to support growth in America, and then actually does it. Uh… My God, this is going to be refreshing.”
Last night’s protest was about many things. Donald Trump, of course, loomed large, as did his Vice President-elect, Mike Pence. But it was not simply about them as persons, them as terrible, horrifying persons. It was also in protest to the racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-LGBTQ, etc., that they represent, played into, and that their campaign (re)legitimized. An example of this is the first report above about the University of Pennsylvania students. And the protest was about the various systems, the various institutions, that underlie those overt acts of oppression. One such system is capitalism which requires there to be losers and which has as its prime directive the maximizing of (short-term) profits. It is this latter that we see in the remarks of CEO Kelsy Warren. When profit is the criterion of truth, the value that guides choice, then everything else false away: the wellbeing of the environment, of people, of sacred lands, etc. Warren knows that profit is Trump’s guiding principle, too. Yes, infrastructure, job growth, etc., are all important. But are they to be had despite the collateral damage? I am skeptical that Warren is genuinely interested in the state of American infrastructure, job growth, etc. However, given his language and his position, I know he is interested in maximizing the company’s profits; the environment, the health and wellbeing of the Native Americans and their sacred lands in North Dakota do not matter. Given all of the recent news about other gas and oil pipelines either leaking or exploding, and given the history of their doing so, it is a weak argument to claim that the Native Americans are paranoid—never mind the sacredness of the land being dug up to lay pipe; never mind the militarized police presence in North Dakota; never mind the brutality experienced by the peaceful Water Protectors.
So, the protest in Atlanta last night was in part against such an economic system, such a value system, and such actions, as reported the morning after on NPR. But it was still more. Before continuing with what it was about, I want to make clear that it was NOT about being sore losers in the presidential election; there were no claims of an unfair or rigged election, as some people seem to think. I heard from a relative that some were saying on the news (I’m guessing fox news) that the protestors needed to put their “big boy” pants on and get over it. I saw someone on Facebook compare the presidential election to a super bowl outcome and the protestors as whining about having lost a fair game. No. The group organizing the protest, and protestors themselves made clear that neither Clinton nor Trump were satisfactory or viable candidates, both representing in their different ways American imperialism and capitalism, and both lacking concern for the people who need most. An example of this for Clinton was her refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Dakota access pipeline protests.
The question as to the goals and methods of protests more generally is important. I’m not going to try to go through them all here, but the following are at least a few reasons for protesting, demonstrating, marching. By occupying spaces and streets, disrupting the flow of everyday life of those who are not protesting one does many things: a) bring attention to the issues; b) demonstrate that what is happening is not ok; c) make, for example, privileged whites confront and deal with a problem that they refuse to otherwise deal with; d) simply allow for the expression of outrage, and e) experience solidarity with each other and show solidarity with others, for example, those watching at home or form the buildings and sidewalks passed. Not all protests are meant to win the hearts of the oppressors, which one might think about when thinking about some of the marches of Martin Luther King, Jr.—the marches where he and his fellow marchers new that they would be non-violently putting themselves in harms way, in part to draw attention to what was happening, what whites were willing to do against Blacks, etc. Last night wasn’t that sort of Kingian protest or march. It was more about a)–e) above. I want now to speak to c), d), and e).
Consider c), making privileged whites confront and deal with a problem that they refuse to otherwise deal with. This is complicated by the fact that so many of those who need to be made to confront the issues of the protest are like antivaxxers: nothing you say or do will convince them that their beliefs and values are problematic (to put it charitably). In the case of the protest’s issues, many whites are so disconnected from the oppression of People of Color, of LGBTQ people, immigrants, etc., that their experiences do not allow them to empathize; and because of their political commitments and because of the protests represent a direct threat to their privilege, they cannot put themselves in a position even to sympathize. Even reading this, they would/will shake their heads and think that it is I who am like the antivaxxer. But I’m sorry, what are your arguments against the testimony of the oppressed? What are your arguments against what I have said above about Kelsy Warren? What are your arguments against the implications of the messages to the University of Pennsylvania students? Let’s look at them. We can attempt to evaluate together which side has the better argument/position. Not all opinions and positions are created equal, despite the pernicious claim that everyone is entitled to their own opinions. But we won’t look at them together, will we? Why? Because you will dismiss what I am saying outright. It is incommensurable with your worldview, your system of beliefs and values.
Despite such obstacles to understanding, however, we must still try to confront those complicit in oppression; we must try to get them to see that things cannot go on as they have gone on; that “business as usual” is not ok.
Regarding, d), the idea that the protest allows for the expression of outrage. People before the Trump campaign, particularly immigrants, People of Color, LGBTQ folks, and others, felt fear, despair, hopelessness, and more—we must never forget that the concrete and asphalt of this country’s shopping malls, parking lots, and roads is laid on a the foundations of slavery, genocide, and environmental degradation. The fear, despair, and hopelessness have been magnified by the past year’s campaign, and brought to a ever worsening depth in the hours and days after Trump became President-elect. So, protesting allows for the non-violent expression of that fear, despair, and hopelessness turned outrage. And, following Dr. King, “non-violent” here means not being violent to other persons—it does not include property. However, I did not see any property damage last night. There was no looting, nothing set afire. (Compare that to what has happened after some sporting events). The closest thing to property damage that I witnessed was anarchists trying to break the lock on a fence gate that led down to the interstate (which, contrary to some news reports, was never a goal of the protest—occupying and blocking interstate traffic, i.e., on a highway, is no a good strategy for protesting as it leaves the protestors in a precarious position). As I understand it, the anarchists are identifiable by their covered faces and black flags. They were a definite minority in the group of a thousand or so protestors last night.
If some cannot understand the need for this outrage, if they think it ridiculous, then I ask them to consider how their own experiences may be different from those who protest and those whom the protestors represented.
Lastly, consider e), the idea that protesting and marching, occupying the streets and interrupting traffic constitutes an experience of solidarity with each other and a show of solidarity with those watching. Last night was a very mixed crowd. Beforehand, when we gathered in the Fourth Ward Park, people took turns speaking to the crowd with a megaphone. One speaker was of Egyptian descent, at least three were Black, one was from Honduras, one from, I believe, Mexico, one a white gay man, one a white woman, and still others, to whom I apologize for not being able to do a better job representing your presence. If I am any judge, at least half the folks there and in the march were white. I cannot speak about their sexual orientation or gender, but in regard to their “race,” it is so important that so many white folks turned out. When the oppressor in the US is historically and still white—either because of overt beliefs and actions of prejudice and bigotry, or because of unconscious participation in systems of oppression— in the context of a Trump president-elect, such a show of solidarity is hugely important.
It was important to the non-white folks who were marching, but also to the people seeing news reports, and the people on the ground seeing us firsthand. And, not only that, but the protest and march itself demonstrated to those not with us, but whose interests are tied up with those of the protestors, that we are not sitting complacent, alone and disconnected, fuming, hurting, but not doing. To this end, please let me relate some of the things I saw as we marched through the streets of Atlanta.
We tied up traffic on a number of streets and intersections, sometimes occupying a whole lane of a street or a whole intersection, sometimes walking among the cars. I can imagine there were a great many frustrated people who just wanted to go home or get to where they were going. But what I overwhelmingly witnessed was people honking in solidarity, people giving protestors their hands to touch as they passed by, people recording and live streaming what they were seeing. So many were smiling at us. We passed a small bus carrying elderly Black Women who waved and returned, smiling, the two finger peace sign when given to them. My wife recalls them raising a fist in solidarity. When we passed by restaurants and hotels, people came out, some joined us, some held up their phones smiling, a number where People of Color (some immigrants?) at work in various service industry positions, valets, hotel and restaurant staff, and they were waving and grinning with joy on their faces. How important it is to demonstrate to them white solidarity and solidarity more generally, to demonstrate to them that despite their fear and the horror stories they see on social media and experience for themselves, that there are people who are saying, “No!” to an America that sees them as less valuable and unwelcome, exploitable, and fair game for oppression, prejudice, and discrimination?! That is a beautiful thing to see, to experience, to take part in.
And we must keep organizing, we must keep resisting. In the American context, I believe that that can be done non-violently (in the Kingian sense above). It is deplorable for anyone to attack another human being—and I am speaking now both to the reports I’ve heard of a Trump supporter(s?) being beaten bloody and to many attacks that are happening against People of Color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, etc., attacks both physical and psychological—where I take “psychological” to concern the psyche, to concern not just the mind, but the human soul and spirit, the whole embodied human being.
The violence must end on all sides, but to act as though isolated, though deplorable, incidents of Trump supports being attacked are on par with the daily violence done to the people represented last night is itself deplorable. It is to deny the history and institutionalization of violence that is our current system of capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchy. Much love and peace to everyone.