Responses to Ferguson, Missouri protests lead me to believe that people simply do not know how protests work. As protesters have taken to speaking out about this injustice, white people who don’t like discussing race have exasperated themselves about how violent the protesters are––while ignoring largely peaceful protesters––or going off about what an inconvenience they are to the city. To roughly paraphrase a tweet I saw this weekend, a riot has never helped any social movements ever, except the Boston Tea Party, the Stonewall riots, the Haymarket riots and so on.
The undue processes and the shoddy practices that occurred during former police officer Darren Wilson’s investigation are other issues to contend with in light of the grand jury’s decision not to indict him for fatally shooting unarmed teenager Michael Brown. When the state does not respond to demands for justice, people protest, block highways and make a statement. Protests aren’t supposed to be convenient to the state—that’s kind of the point.
While I understand the inconvenience it causes to people who have nothing to do with it—like the huge protests in New York City—change does not happen quietly, as cliché as that may sound. Docility doesn’t get coverage. And sometimes, action doesn’t either.
Ferguson protesters took to the Thanksgiving Day Parade last week to protest the grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson, but you would never know it from watching the broadcast. It was, however, trending on Twitter as “#StopTheParade.” The public responded with irritation—some complained about children being there, or there simply being a nuisance as families tried to enjoy the parade. How dare children witness a rightful exercise of one’s civil rights.
What was particularly worrisome was President Barack Obama’s call for peace and his request that protesters refrain from violence while police officers were using tear gas and rubber bullets against largely peaceful protesters. Much of the rhetoric used against protesters—both peaceful and non-peaceful—has been ignorant of the context of police brutality against protesters.
Perhaps this is in part due to the poor dissemination of information regarding the Ferguson protests. No one outside of New York City would have known about the Thanksgiving Parade protests if not for Twitter. When the media does report on protests––especially when black people are involved––there is a gross inclination to focus only on the most violent protesters while ignoring those being beaten and attacked by police officers. Were the police using tear gas and rubber bullets against white people, I imagine the public and national response would be very different.
It also doesn’t help that the rhetoric surrounding these protests is racially coded. Assistant professor of history at Kean University Abigail Perkiss noted the contentious history of the word “riot,” particularly to the “race riots” of the 1960s. Its connotations of violence and chaos led white opponents to appropriate it and use it against black Americans demanding racial justice. More pressingly, she emphasized that she particularly worries about how this will shape our historical memory of Ferguson in years to come.
While it would be nice if the government and police took peaceful, docile and compliant demands for peace seriously, it has been made evident over and over again that this is not the case. Those all make it easy for the state to ignore the quiet minority who ask for change, but widespread protests lead to movements that the government cannot help but pay attention to. This, ultimately, is the goal. Those who cared more about their personal convenience than racial injustice cannot overwrite our historical memory of Ferguson in years to come.