Published on BlackCommentator.com, September 29, 2016
When the Ferguson Uprising was unfolding, just about two years ago, I sent out a plea through social media and allies for people across the country NOT to come to town. This was done for a host of reasons from trying to give our community space to heal from a traumatic murder to the need to build infrastructure to sustain the righteous protests and to work on strategy. I urged people to stay home and build organization in their respective communities because a similar incident of police violence was coming to a neighborhood near them, to start the necessary preparations.
Now, every time a black body is mowed down by a police, and an ensuing groundswell of protest happens, someone reminds me of my words. There’s an unfortunate tendency that has developed where we spent a lot of time and resources running from city to city. Protests have become the strategy and not a tactic; they have become the destination and not the vehicle to the destination. I think this is a dangerous precedent for the movement to protect and respect Black lives.
The New York Times recently published an article on responses to the latest police shootings with a headline of “At Least 88 Cities Have Had Protests in the Past 13 Days Over Killings of Blacks.” The article goes on to say that there have been about 112 reported protests since July 5. Tens of thousands of people have been in the streets—to what end?
We’re also hearing rumblings about power struggles on the ground over media attention and money. People are parachuting into these cities and becoming media spokespersons instead of deferring to the folks who live in the community or whose was doing the work on the ground before the cameras rolled in. There’s still resentment in Ferguson/St. Louis about opportunists who dropped in, bringing little to the table but who took away a whole lot (for themselves).
What are we doing with the widespread outrage to the assault on black bodies? How can we turn the energy from protests into organizing potential that brings some real relief to our people and transformational change to our communities?
In 1857, Frederick Douglass attempted to give some sound advice to Black people during the Abolitionist Movement. We all probably know the one famous sentence “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
During that famous speech in Canandaiqua, New York, covered a number of contradictions in the movement at that time. There are some nuggets of wisdom that our contemporary movement can learn from.
Douglass talked about the struggle being “exciting, agitating, all-absorbing” but warned that we had to take that struggle further. He said that we “want crops without plowing up the ground.” Fast forward—we want protests without organizing to actualize our demands.
In Missouri at the Moral Monday action in the State Capitol, one of the speakers put forward a challenge: No more vigils without action. I agree. Holding “exciting, agitating, all-absorbing” protests without moving people to build power and develop leaders will undermine our movement over time. People with busy lives aren’t going to keep responding to protest without seeing how those actions will ultimately lead to changing their material conditions.
The masses of our people are hurting, they’re suffering but they’re ready to fight back. They are looking for guidance and direction from seasoned organizers in this period full of organizing opportunities. It’s time for our movement to step up with a heap more of sophistication based upon organizing lesson learned from the past.
Power concedes nothing without a demand. And a demand is lifeless without an organizing strategy to bring it alive.