In his remarkable book Democracy in Black, Eddie Glaude, Jr., writes of the Ferguson, Missouri, protests that they “disrupted the status quo and dramatically affected the lives of the people who lived there.” Some people, he continues, condemned the violence of the protests and “urged the protesters to channel their rage and turn to the ballot box. But the protests had a measurable effect.” Earlier in the same chapter, Glaude describes the struggle of black Americans to transform our democracy: “We’ve paid the price too,” he writes. “The country’s soil is soaked with the blood of black martyrs who turned their backs on the status quo and risked everything for a more expansive idea of what this country could be.”
The status quo is a stubborn thing, particularly when it comes to disrupting the balance of power, whether political or financial. No one parts with power or money without a fight. To effect change, Glaude calls for grassroots organization, for America’s youth to hit the streets and involve themselves—intellectually, emotionally, physically—in the process of transforming their country. It’s an urgent call to action, an appeal to those who would risk everything for what they believe is right—and it’s the same kind of engagement that led the signers of the Declaration of Independence to risk being hanged for treason.
That kind of activism takes serious guts.
With the rise of Donald Trump and the daily assaults being made on democratic ideals—even on our conception of reality—collective indignation has risen to unprecedented levels, fueled, of course, by social media and the ease with which one can “like” or “share” a political statement aligned with one’s own views. It’s no surprise that outraged citizens are looking for every means possible to express their frustration. Who can blame them? Women put on “pussy hats” and board busses to Washington. High school students wear #NeverAgain t-shirts to rage against school shootings. African American teens hang “Black Lives Matter” signs in their bedroom windows to remind us of what Glaude calls the racial “value gap.”
Banners and the Dangers of Half-ass-tivism
Protest has seldom felt as necessary or as urgent as it does today. But there is a difference between protesting and wearing a badge of protest. When I walk around my town of Saratoga Springs, I see well-meaning lawn signs announcing “All Are Welcome Here” or some version of it. When I see these placards, I find myself wondering whether they’re entirely honest. I realize they originated as opposition to Trump’s stance on immigration, but the absolute nature of their statement leads me to wonder: Are gun-toting NRA members welcome in those homes? Breitbart subscribers? Kellyanne Conway or Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Or how about heroin addicts or recently released prison inmates? Maybe I’m being snarky to think that way, but bold assertions invite those kinds of questions. I’m troubled by audacious statements we make easily—post on Facebook, retweet on Twitter, or print on a lawn sign—but enact meekly or incompletely. The danger in those statements is that they supplant or diminish the veracity of critically important sentiments—they clog up the collective conscience with catchy phrases and give the less actively inclined among us the illusion we are actually doing something to disrupt that status quo.
Hell, I feel the allure of those badges. After all, I agree that black lives are precious, that enough is enough with gun violence, that women have dealt with way too much boorish behavior from men. For my part, though, I feel truer to my beliefs when I risk something to defend them. A t-shirt might express some part of my values system, but simply wearing it runs the risk of confusing self-expression with actual involvement. Consider me a fan, albeit a wary one, of hashtags and catchy slogans; they are useful rallying cries. What we need more, though, is the tumult and disruption and fomentation that engender them. That, Eddie Glaude reminds us, is how real transformation happens.