In the midst of a tumultuous week in America, I saw a couple things that expanded the possibilities of what protest can be.
The first was in downtown Cleveland, in the midst of a protest that was soon going to give way to a police riot. As thousands were gathering to protest police violence and demand systemic change, a fit white guy about my age was jogging shirtless through a gap in the crowd. Rude, I thought, until I saw that he had “Black Lives Matter” painted on his chest and “End Police Brutality” on his back. He’d made himself into a mobile protest sign. I don’t know if he stayed until the rubber bullets flew, but I know he showed up. That’s more than a lot of us white people in the Cleveland area did.
The second was a day later, on my way back from another hand-wipe-filled trip to grab takeout. In Lakewood, just about a mile west of the Cleveland border, two Black women stood near a bus stop with “Justice for George Floyd” signs. Passing cars honked in support.
We’re seeing a hard push back against a police force that, for too many Americans, is more like an occupying army. Given the President’s threats to criminalize dissent and impose an honest-to-God police state, it’s more important than ever to continue to take to the streets.
The massive scale of the current protest movement has made it impossible to ignore. Thousands are making the choice to put their health, their safety, and sometimes their lives on the line for a cause they believe in. The call must be made: if you can attend, please do. Add your voice. Collective power is real power, and building it starts—though it certainly doesn’t end—with people showing up.
But wear a mask to help protect yourself against COVID-19. And learn beforehand how to protect yourself against potential violence.
That said, there are legitimate reasons not to join the protestors against America’s pandemic of racist violence: maybe you’re immuno-compromised. Maybe you can’t afford to get arrested. Maybe you can’t get off work or get a ride. Maybe you’re afraid you might die. It’s happened.
I have another fear about the protests: that white people across the country, in our near-infinite capacity for distraction, will simply stop caring about police violence against African Americans and others. Given the carnival atmosphere of the media cycle and the attention-seeking behavior of our racist administration, this seems like a depressingly plausible scenario.
It’s for these reasons that I think we should take a cue from Woke Jogger and the Bus Station Ladies. Let’s invite our neighbors not to look away. Let’s encourage them not to forget.
Let’s have Little Protests Everywhere.
Let me be the first to say this idea might sound silly, or worse. There’s a whiff about it of the most abhorrent aspects of performative activism. It might also sound like a throwback to the awareness-raising of the aughts and early ’10s, a dipshit rehash of “Kony 2012” in 2020. But at this point, anything is better than complacency.
Most of us, for the past two months, have been living under some form of Shelter in Place laws. Why not try Protest in Place? Put a No Justice No Peace sign up in your window next to the Thank You Healthcare Heroes one. Make some signs with your pod buddies and hold them on a busy street for an hour. Wear a White Silence = Violence T-shirt on your biweekly grocery trip—white folks especially. Use your privilege and visibility to make a statement.
I know how this sounds. People are getting hit by police cars and I’m like, “Be brave, wear a shirt!” I know how similar it seems to the empty, self-promoting gestures of rocking expensive Resist fashion. I know how much it echoes all the hollow gestures of social media neoliberalism I’ve come to hate. In any other time, it would be just like that.
But. But. Quarantine makes for an exceptional set of circumstances. Everything is heightened. The tensions of the administration’s catastrophic inaction— endured the most by Black and Latinx Americans— has pushed us to this moment. Again. Even as coronavirus restrictions lift to varying degrees, plenty of people are justifiably on edge. Being in public has become an occasion; it’s both risky and exciting. If you take that occasion to convey a message of solidarity, even in some small way, that can make a difference. I have to believe it can.
Protests are, of course, only a part of achieving change. Signing petitions will never hurt. If you’re financially able, donating to organizations fighting racial oppression—here are a couple helpful lists—is of vital importance right now (consider making your donation a recurring one; supporting one’s beliefs is easier when it’s automated). Getting involved with a local advocacy group like a mutual aid organization is an excellent way to build a sustained commitment to battling injustice in your community—they’ll be the ones still working hard when media attention inevitably shifts elsewhere.
For white folks in particular, listening to Black leaders, writers, and advocates, rather than talking over them (or making fetishistic exaltations over Twitter), will be imperative for the genuine ally.
Obviously, there’s plenty we can do without resorting to Little Protests Everywhere. And the other stuff—donations, local advocacy—is ultimately the best way to help. But what are we going to do in between? Keep streaming like the country isn’t burning right now?
In Celeste Ng’s compelling novel Little Fires Everywhere—now both a Hulu series and the inspiration for this article title—characters are forced to confront the inherent injustices of the world they inhabit. That world happens to be Shaker Heights, Ohio, a “planned community” founded on the border of Cleveland. Tiny acts of rebellion make up much of the plot’s forward motion, culminating in a monumental break with authority.
As Izzie, one of our protagonists, contemplates irreversible action, she recalls the words of her friend Mia (played in the show by Kerry Washington): “Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can start to grow.”
Our criminal justice system, to echo signs from the movement, isn’t broken. It’s evil. And it needs—more metaphorically than literally—to burn down so we can start anew.
So that’s why I’m planning to start jogging again. It’s been a long time, and it shows. The early stages of dad bod are creeping in, and I’m not even a dad. But when I’m out for my run, I’m going to have a special message for the good people of Cleveland, the city I love despite its numerous flaws, and for the police that gassed its protestors. My body paint is coming in the mail tomorrow. It’s going to say “End Police Violence, Defund CPD” across my chest and sagging stomach. And you can bet your ass it’s going to say “And Give That Shit to Nurses” across my back.
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