Updated: Jun 18, 2020
by: Barbara Peterson - June 15, 2020
Since the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, protests have surpassed anything we’ve seen thus far, and not just in the Resistance. This is the largest global civil rights movement in history. It has gone beyond one-off or annual street demonstrations to a united movement that includes mass civil disobedience and courageous nonviolent struggle against the cruel and deadly impacts of systemic racism. Millions around the globe are breaking curfews and facing very real and serious risks of physical harm by law enforcement to show that they will no longer tolerate police killing one black life after another, systemic racism, nor the destructive economic, socio-cultural, political, and environmental policies and actions taken by greedy and self-serving corporations and governments all across the world.
Historically, successful people’s movements must do more than demand change. Nonviolent action pioneering scholar Gene Sharp in his book with colleague Jamila Raqib (2010) asked people to consider “whether they wish simply to condemn the oppression and protest against the system. Or, do they wish actually to end the oppression, and replace it with a system of greater freedom, democracy, and justice … [because many] have assumed that if they denounce the oppression strongly enough, and protest long enough, the desired change will somehow happen. That assumption is an error.” History has shown that people must go beyond verbalizing demands. They must engage in persistent and cohesive nonviolent campaigns that make it costlier for elected officials to ignore them than to meet those demands.
George Floyd was killed not because of one racist cop. He was killed because we have political structural and systemic racism within a culture of white supremacy. As black feminist education scholar bell hooks (1995) asks, “Why is it so difficult for many white folks to understand that racism is oppressive not because white folks have prejudicial feelings about blacks (they could have such feelings and leave us alone) but because it is a system that promotes domination and subjugation?” It should come as no surprise that George Floyd was yet another black victim in a society only too happy to ignore the lethal effects of brutally oppressive racism.
Effective nonviolent struggle puts people strategically into direct conflict with their opponents. It uses nonviolent weapons to disarm their opponents, take away the support holding up their opponents’ authority, and build alternative, more just structures of power throughout society. Like armed conflict, nonviolent struggle can and often does put the activists in harm’s way; however, nonviolence accomplishes this, not by physically attacking and dominating their opponents, but by revealing the violently unjust nature of the oppressive existing system. Throughout history, those engaged in nonviolent struggles to abolish corrupt governing systems risked job loss, school expulsion, incarceration, beatings, and even their lives. They face these harms with courage and the discipline to fight back with more powerful escalating nonviolent weapons of persistence, noncooperation, and disruption. When a people fight to take away power from those who have it and have built their entire lives around exercising it with little threat from others, the people cannot expect success by simply asking or even demanding justice. It is only when people act in a way that truly challenges their opponents’ power (that is, in a way that their opponents cannot ignore and therefore have little to no choice but to adhere to the people’s demands) will we see their opponents no longer able to merely wait them out or offer moderate compensatory concessions that do not diminish their ultimate authority and power.
We live in a constitutional, representative democracy. This means, ideally, that our elected officials are obligated to act in accordance with the people’s stated wishes. As noted scholar John Dewey (1927) wrote, despite the differences in how people may define what characterizes a democracy, a foundational tenet is that it must take the expressed interests of the people as its “supreme guide and criterion of governmental activity.” The vast majority of people in the United States have demanded affordable, quality health care, sustainable energy sources and land use, livable wages and fair labor compensation, and genuine equity and justice for all groups in our country and around the world. Yet, the wage gap has only increased dramatically, workers’ pay has stagnated while cost of living has markedly increased, sexual and gender violence continues at an alarming and largely unheeded rate, and racial hatred, discrimination, and violence goes unabated and systematically ignored.
Activist and scholar Cornel West (2013) wrote on Twitter, “You can't lead the people if you don't love the people. You can't save the people if you don't serve the people.” The people deserve leaders who love them, who take seriously the responsibility to meet their needs. Yet, leaders continue to put their own interests first, and therefore the culture of white supremacy lives on uninterrupted. Our society is one where white people can protest with military grade assault-styled weapons without any police interference, yet unarmed, peaceful black protesters must try to appease police fears or risk being killed. As leading contemporary antiracist scholar Ibram X. Kendi (2019) wrote, “Black people are apparently responsible for calming the fears of violent cops in the way women are supposedly responsible for calming the sexual desires of male rapists.” Being an antiracist means fighting as supportive allies with Black and Brown folks who take the lead in the movement for not just racial justice, but for a more equitable, sustainable, and empowered world for all people. We cannot have justice without being antiracist, just as we cannot have justice without actively opposing all forms of oppression and destructive polices and practices against the people and the land.
On the evening of May 26, 2020, one day after George Floyd was murdered, marches and rallies were organized to express outrage at the horrific way Floyd suffered and died and at how Floyd’s death was just the latest in what seems like a never-ending and relentless targeting by law enforcement of Black men, a practice Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest against in 2016. This struggle against racist policies, practices, and enculturated beliefs united the country in a common cause. Although this has happened before since Trump was elected, such as with the women’s marches, climate strikes, gun reform, and caging undocumented children and families, this is the first time the people, as a united force, have gone beyond occasional, short-term protest demonstrations.
As testament to the power of this movement, we see authorities responding in ways others have throughout history when their power is truly challenged. They try appeasing people by making moderate accommodations. They paint protesters as unreasonable or as puppets to partisan politics. They attempt to discredit protesters by sending in agents provocateurs to initiate violence, or by equating property damage to violence against human beings. Finally, they try to coerce protesters into quitting by setting curfews, or by meeting protesters with local, state, and even national law enforcement in full riot gear, ready and willing to attack peaceful protesters, medics, and reporters by shoving, punching, and kicking them as well as using an arsenal of brutal weapons: tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, truncheons, and even live ammunition.
When George Floyd was forced to suffer 8.46 minutes of suffocation until his death, the people, struggling against a wide range of cruelties and injustices at the hands of corporate and government power, started risking their physical safety against police retaliation and violating state-imposed curfews to show authorities that they will no longer support corrupt and deadly systems of diabolical privilege and cold-hearted, power-hungry greed. Put another way, the people have decided and are displaying their unwillingness to cooperate with political and cultural systems and structures that are killing us, and most especially, killing those who are marginalized and oppressed and have been for hundreds of years. Black men have been targets of hate by law enforcement in the United States since day one, and black and brown people have been forced to struggle against extreme discrimination in courts, schools, hospitals, and all other major societal institutions since the beginnings of our nation and for longer in countries all over the world.
The Black Lives Matter protests are not occasional, comfortable, risk-free expressions of disapproval or anger. They are not simply symbolic marches or rallies. Instead, they are protests that actively and purposively confront the prevalent and cruel racism in our culture, our societal institutions, and in our economic and political policies and practices. What we are seeing are active nonviolent battles for equity and justice against a system revealing its racism, violence, and fundamentally undemocratic nature. For the first time in over half a century, Black Americans are organizing and leading a diverse and inclusive movement that is making real headway in crippling the ability of the powerful few to continue to serve their own private interests at the cost of a fair and sustainable society, one that makes reparations to those that have been marginalized for centuries, and that builds a system where genuine equity and justice begin to rise as the new normal.
Dewey, John (1927). The public and its problems. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1954.
hooks, bell (1995) Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
Kendi, Ibram X. (2019) How to Be an Antiracist. New York, NY: One World.
Sharp, Gene, & Raqib, Jamila (2010). Self-liberation: A guide to strategic planning for action to end a dictatorship or other oppression. Boston, MA: The Albert Einstein Institution.
West, Cornel (Dec 5, 2013). Twitter. Retrieved from: https://twitter.com/CornelWest/status/408819728770027521
About the Author:
Barbara Peterson, PhD – Veteran activist, educator, and scholar in nonviolent action, author of Reclaiming Power: Building a Stronger Resistance in the Age of Trump, and founder of Nonviolent Citizen Action.