Updated: Jun 3, 2020
By Barbara Peterson - June 2020
Thousands of rallies are taking place in cities around the world protesting inequality, discrimination, oppression, and violence against black men and all people of color and marginalized persons. The callous and egregious killing of George Floyd was the catalyst that sparked the recent massive street marches of people who have spent their lives afraid, angry, confused, and hopelessly frustrated by the relentless and horrifyingly destructive racism in this country.
Marches, rallies, and other symbolic forms of protest, especially when tens of thousands participate and when it's covered by mainstream media, help initiate and grow movements. They inspire people to act against the injustice because they see they are not alone and, more importantly, mass protests often reveal the systemic violence and repressive injustice of our law enforcement and governing institutions. Yet, alone, protests and rallies don’t make structural change. We must use these protests as stepping stones for escalating into nonviolent direct action.
Without getting into the details of the theory, history, or practices of nonviolent direct action and the importance of creatively formulating strategically escalating tactics in a fulsome and effective nonviolent campaign, I will focus instead on one proposed campaign for making deep-rooted changes for racial justice. What follows is only a suggestion. As a white, middle-class, cisgendered, heterosexual woman, my role is to use my various privileges to support intersectionally marginalized people, particularly black and brown people, who lead this campaign and movement. I do not speak for black people, nor should any white person. But as an ally, I would love to act in support of those who lead this movement.
My suggestion for one campaign is as follows. July 4th is fast approaching. Independence Day; a day to celebrate the establishment of a way of governing free from an authoritarian oppressive system into a system of representative democracy. It’s a day of flag waving and patriotism. Let’s own that narrative. Let’s take it back from conservatives who want to claim they have the monopoly on love for our country, on freedom and liberation, and on what makes America “great.” If folks from various organizations who work primarily on issues of racial justice start planning now, we can launch an outlandish and amazing nonviolent campaign that is both pandemic-safe and disruptive so policy makers cannot ignore our demands.
Thinking back to last year when women in India formed a 385-mile human line for gender equity, I was inspired to think of this plan. Imagine we select an East-West route across America. People from various racial justice groups in every state could organize people from their state to participate in a nation-wide effort to form a human line of people across the East-West route. Instead of standing, we would all take a knee, hold American flags and appropriate signs, wear masks, and place ourselves 6 feet apart. Granted, the entire route wouldn’t be filled with people, but imagine if there were hundreds of thousands of people at various places along this route during a 2 to 3-hour period on July 4th. Think of the headlines: “People form peaceful human chain spanning across the country for racial justice,” or “ Hundreds of thousands to millions of people across America refuse to tolerate one more day of racial hatred and violence.”
Impressive as this would be, it’s still not enough because it’s still another type of rally. So, in conjunction with this symbolic action, Black Lives Matter could work with other racial justice groups to send to our government (federal and states) a list of demands. These demands would be publicized and they would articulate what racial justice would look like with changes in education, housing, economic policies, law enforcement training and practices, and much more. If we demand racial justice, we have to be very clear what that would entail, and a list of demands does that.
Finally, for this campaign, we must back up our protests and demands with actions that force policy-makers to act and meet the demands. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor.” It is not enough, even, that we demand justice because demands in the form of speeches and even rallies can be ignored. We must engage in action that makes it cost more for policy-makers to ignore or oppose us than concede to our demands. So, when we give the list of demands, we must also be prepared to back them up with the most powerful weapon we have: our labor.
No country can operate if people don’t go to work; corporations would be bleeding millions of dollars and governments wouldn’t be able to control people if they refused to cooperate. This is our power: organized, strategic nonviolent noncooperation. Along with the demands, we also issue a threat we’re prepared to enact. We write that if we don’t see concrete evidence that the demands are beginning to be met, then we will call in sick to work on Monday, July 6th. If by the next Monday, July 13th, we still don’t see our demands being worked on, we will again call in sick. Additionally, in every state, people from local groups will ask businesses to shut down on Mondays in support of racial justice. We will continue this until our demands are being met.
All of this will take organizing, so we must begin immediately. If July 4th is too soon, then we can pick another date, but the symbolic significance of July 4th is too powerful not to consider. This is a proposed plan that I’m hoping will be effective because it does more than demand change; it backs up those demands with nonviolent coercion. Yes, there will be backlash and repercussions; this should be expected and planned for. This back-and-forthing between activists and their opponents is called nonviolent jiu-jitsu, and it is common when a people truly threaten the power of those who have enjoyed it with little if any serious challenge. So, this campaign will need careful planning, not only for the actions discussed here but for contingency plans and for using our opponents’ reprisals against them.
This is just a suggested plan. It includes actions that escalate into nonviolent noncooperation, a nonviolent activist’s most powerful weapon. As King stated: “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” We can no longer tolerate a power structure that kills black people for no other reason than being black. We must act, and we must act with an articulated, strategic, and effective plan.