Street protests over several recent killings of unarmed black men (and boys) by police were surprisingly strong this past weekend. Reacting to grand jury decisions not to indict police officers involved in such deaths in New York City and the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, crowds blocked traffic in cities across the U.S.
At Harvard University, a seat of economic and political privilege, students and others staged a “die-in” and were stopped by police from marching across a bridge to Boston. And this week, protesters targeted a New York Nets basketball game attended by Britain’s Prince William and his wife.
The BBC has covered the protests against aggressive policing with a kind of deadpan awe (“Eric Garner Death: Fresh Protests Across US Cities”), citing “UN humans rights experts” concerned about the American judicial system and rounding up “other racially sensitive cases” in America. The coverage from abroad is approaching Vox’s satiric “How We’d Cover Ferguson If It Happened in Another Country,” from last month. (“Chinese and Russian officials are warning of a potential humanitarian crisis in the restive American province of Missouri, where ancient communal tensions have boiled over into full-blown violence.”)
As I wrote last week, Americans have always been leery of street activism (“Respecting Protest, from Ferguson to Hong Kong”). Seth Masket adds, “It’s worth remembering that the civil rights protesters of the 1950s and ’60s faced as much derision then as the Ferguson and New York protesters do today…probably more.” He writes, “if the [current] movement fails to achieve much, it won’t be because it got push-back from white moderates. Pretty much every important movement faces that.”
Despite this daunting history, we may be seeing a protest movement that goes beyond racial tension and police tactics. The Occupy Wall Street protests of a few years back (and the ideologically opposite Tea Party rallies before that) spoke to a frustration with what participants considered a remote and unresponsive government. In San Francisco and Oakland, protesters have blocked private buses for Google and Apple employees that use public bus stops, part of a larger protest against the effects of gentrification on housing costs and economic segregation.
Most of the genuine street protests in the past few years are not in support of a candidate, a piece of legislation, or any specific policy proposal. They are pleas for attention to deep-rooted problems and calls for some kind of common purpose among Americans. There is frustration at the blindness to potential crises (such as climate change, the subject of a march through New York City in September) and at the lack of consensus in addressing problems that do get widespread media coverage, such as income inequality.
Tuesday’s release of a U.S. Senate report on the use of torture by the CIA only reinforces the idea of a power structure that is unaccountable to the people it governs. (This was not a new revelation; see Raymond A. Schroth’s “Facing Up to Torture,” published in America in 2013.) Tufts University political scientist Michael J. Glennon, author of “National Security and Double Government,” warns that national-security and law-enforcement agencies operate independently from the democratic process. In an October interview with the Boston Globe (“Vote All You Want. The Secret Government Won’t Change”), Glennon said, “Government is very much the problem here. The people have to take the bull by the horns.” Street protests are one way to grab the horns, even if it’s unclear what happens next.
The protesters do not necessarily reflect a majority view. As with so many contemporary issues, there is a deep divide in America, and many citizens concur with the “broken windows” view described by the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson: “Police work, in this time of relative calm…involves the notion that if quality-of-life policing lets up for a minute we’ll return to the days when playgrounds were littered with empty crack vials.” The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham notes a 2009 Pew Research Center poll in which “49 percent of the public said that ‘the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information’ can ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ be justified.” As of yet, we have not seen widespread counter-protests in support of the authorities.
Another weekend story, with a decidedly lower profile, was the launch of NASA’s unmanned space ship Orion, which may eventually be used to send crews to the moon and Mars. The Boston Globe’s Tom Keane found the launch “thrilling” and proof of our “need to believe in something greater than ourselves.” He writes, “For the last four decades we have all, literally and figuratively, been grounded. We squabble over land and wealth. Our best and brightest devote themselves to creating new dating apps. We measure achievement in money and utility. We have lost, it seems to me, the ineffable—our sense of purpose.”
The glory days of American space exploration, including the 1969 walk on the moon, coincided with the one of the most extended periods of political protest in the United States, as the civil rights movement evolved to include opposition to the Vietnam War. But astronauts did not distract the nation from its problems then, and our distrust and cynicism have only grown in the past few decades. A “sense of purpose” is even more elusive now, when much of the population clamors for action to fight racism, economic inequality, and environmental threats—and equally sizable groups believe that any collective action to address these problems amounts to tyranny. This year’s street protests have specific causes, but they are all fueled by this sense that we’ve lost the will to even try to improve our society.
More photos by All-Nite Images at flickr.