The Politics of Protest: Liberty and Justice for All

Author: Camila Rios (Left Leaning)

“Some judicial decisions are so horrendously wrong that they leave us dumbstruck on the first encounter. Like survivors of natural disasters first surveying the scene, we must struggle at first to comprehend what has happened. Next begins the long mourning for the victims, mourning sharpened by our feelings of anger and betrayal at the injustice done by the very ones charged as our guardians against injustice.”

Roberta M. Berry, 1998

In 1927 the Buck v Bell, a Supreme Court decision, upheld a state’s right to forcibly sterilize a man or a woman who was considered feebleminded and genetically unfit to reproduce. According to Roberta M. Berry, a Public Policy Associate Professor at Georgia Tech, studies show that after Buck, 2,500 annual sterilizations were carried out as opposed to 8,500 carried out between 1907 to 1927. In 2009, unreleased medical records of “several hundred” African American patients in the South’s eugenics program between 1939 and 1953, made available to the public; the examinations exposed what procedural safeguards were in place. For example, the Georgia State Board of Eugenics would meet to decide on the sterilization of a patient and were required to notify each patient. The lack of protest or correspondence from the notified individuals was considered consent to carry on. Berry states that of the records examined in 2009, only 52 letters came from patients, and “33 were dictated by a person’s inability to read or write,” and 11 of these indicated a lack of consent. Research shows that from 1950 to 1966, black women were sterilized more than three times as often as white women and more than 12 times as often as white men. The research suggests a pattern of perception that Black women were not in fact capable of being effective parents. 

Do Protests Need To Be Socially Acceptable to be heard or respected?

Allow me to debunk the belief of socially acceptable mobilization. Polls have shown that public opinion has “a poor track record of predicting what will be effective.” A 1961 Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Americans thought sit-ins, a peaceful demonstration, and the Freedom Riders hurt the chances of integration in the South. Both protest tactics are considered peaceful as far as action is concerned. Freedom Rides directly challenged how southern states decided to ignore Boynton v Virginia, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling saying that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Therefore, Freedom Riders protested by riding the buses anyway. Two years later, another Gallup poll analyzing the March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech found that 74 percent of Americans believed that the mass demonstrations undermined the root cause.

Respectability politics in the United States is the idea that “[inferior groups] can minimize or avoid the injustices associated with discriminatory attitudes by behaving in a supposedly respectable manner, that is, by dressing, acting, talking, and even protesting in certain acceptable ways.” This perception of minority forces them to adopt the dominant Anglo-Saxon cultural norms to appeal to society’s approval and equal legal protection. Respectability politics can also be seen as a “regulation of individual behavior to the public presentation based on strong desire to refute negative racial stereotypes” as the National Center for Biotechnology puts it or how Mychal Smith, a New York Times best-selling author puts it, “presenting one’s self as a citizen worthy of respect as defined by the dominant cultural norms and standards.” More specifically, the perception of a dominant culture places the responsibility on minority groups to change stereotypes independently.

What kind of freedom is catered to Americans, and is it catered to all?

There is no such thing as a neatly packed protest narrative or a social change recipe. In 1963, Dr. King wrote the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” where he denounced “the white moderate,” for being “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods.'” 

In the face of social injustice, only a bold call to action makes transformation conceivable. Some people do not have the liberty to wait and find an acceptable form of protest. Although the protest’s goal is to raise awareness and cause pressure for change and growth, it often accounts for injustices that disenfranchised groups do not ask to bear. Dr. King also stated, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”

Social Movements

What do March for Our Lives (2018), the Pro-Life movement (2009), and the Black Lives Matter movement (2013) have in common? They are all examples of social movements that, whether left-wing or right-wing, radical or moderate, very well organized or very dispersed, all voice grievances.

Social movements have led to dramatic changes in societies around the world. Many sociologists study protest to understand how it forms, grows, and dissolves. Much of what researchers have discovered is that social movements don’t just happen. Realistically, people don’t suddenly get upset with a policy or system of government and then instinctively form a movement with a clear strategy that automatically builds up massive demonstrations to change a power structure. Instead, social movements only flourish at the right time within the right social platform, which requires various resources such as time and money, but most importantly, real devotion and motivation to a cause.

More recently, some major theories on how social movements form and grow have developed. One of these is the theory of relative deprivation, which focuses on groups that feel oppressed or disenfranchised by others in their society. For example, if one thinks of the Civil Rights Movement from this point of view, it was an evaluative, circumstantial response to the inequality experienced by people of color in the U.S. From this theory’s vantage point, people must feel that they deserve better and believe that conventional means will not help. Critics of this theory say that people who do not feel deprived still join social movements. In contrast, people who may feel deprived face inaccessibility to resources such as time (leaving work) and money (donating).

The resource mobilization theory focuses on the assets and capacities of aggrieved people that might help or hinder a social movement. Some of these factors include tangible resources—money and services—and intangible resources—political influence, access to the media, the network of groups that provide resources. Social theorists consider the focus of this theory to be a rational, goal-oriented social institution. It externally measures a social movement by the participation of individuals and organizations outside the community representing a specific movement.

Some argue that this theory focuses more on moving through the means to achieve goals and strategies than focusing on people’s grievances, culture, and identity. Consider social movements, the topic we have been discussing throughout this article, a contribution to conversations, and greater awareness of specific causes. These social movements comprise an infrastructure of social movements, for example, PETA, Greenpeace, and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), each of which advocates for animal rights. Although they vary significantly in terms of objectives and constituency alignment, each contributes to a common cause or causes. Suppose there are multiple movements within a category. In that case, it may discourage learning and even frustrate people because, from the outside, looking in, it appears as if these organizations have technically aligned within each other but have decided to build a voice of their own. Social scientists argue that because social movements are a “category,” they compete for attention, time, and resources, which can ultimately detract from the cause’s true meaning. 

A protest is a transformative tool and a powerful reminder that as human beings, we must stand firm and alert of our human rights and, most importantly, the rights of others. One protester or even a group of protesters does not speak for all protesters alike. Similarly, a 2-minute video on the news does not represent all participants’ ideas or strategies. There is a range of perspectives, values, and ideas—much like the uniqueness of our DNA. Secondly, protesting is a constitutional right to dissent and peacefully assemble. It is an act of love and respect for our country. If you think about it, it is a form of action that challenges a governing system to grow through accountability. 

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