Protesting our lack of purpose

Protesters in New York on November 28, four days after a grand jury chose not to indict a police officer over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. (Creative Commons/Flickr/The All-Nite Images)

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.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
David O'Day
4 years 1 month ago
It is interesting to compare such happenings as street protests regarding the events in Ferguson and New York City and the launch of Orion, NASA’s unmanned spaceship, in the same article concerning human purpose. So much of the protesting and street activism occurring in current events does reveal deep-rooted issues in our nation, but does it call for a correction in Congress? And would Congress be able to correct these issues and answer the uncut statements of some of these protesters? The recognition of this problem is what this article does well; it points out how difficult it can be for Americans to find a common purpose in a country with such dramatic economic dispersion and living standards. With such an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, how could an oppressed poor man share a common purpose (on a much larger than individual scale) with a rich man? How could this poor man share the same sense of purpose in society with the rich man? Tying Orion into this article shows us that there is so much more to life than ourselves; that we are caring about all of the wrong things in this life here on Earth. Of course the protests should take up much more limelight in the news than the spaceship launch because the protests are putting lives at risk in an effort to spread a message to the American people. On a side note, I notice in the photo a sign reading “Black Lives Matter”, a quote that seems popular during the Ferguson and New York City protests. Yet doesn't that just reaffirm the racial split people are trying so hard to eliminate? Why can’t signs read “Every Life Matters”? That would instantiate more of a sense of equality rather than creating different racial platforms. Alas, I digress. To have a sense of purpose in our country may be challenging, but finding a common sense of purpose among humankind seems out of reach in our country’s current state. Looking at ourselves from a larger perspective may help, and this is easier by paying attention to such things as space exploration. Yet this won’t nearly be enough to solve the problem and I’m not quite sure what will be.
Bennet Lima
4 years 1 month ago
I admire the protester's passionate feelings toward the subject matter. Boston Globe's Tom Keane may correct in saying that we need to focus on something larger than ourselves as individuals but we cannot overlook the problems within our society. Nothing is as important as the fair treatment of all of God's people. With so many deep rooted problems mentioned above is the appropriate response truly to just ignore them and turn our attention towards outwardly projects. I would argue that we cannot simply focus on these larger matters. We could accomplish much more if within us, as the human race, did not exist such strong separations. We are taught by Jesus Christ that we are all the children of God but act separately by race and culture. Within America alone still exists very strong evidence of racism, sexism and classism. We could achieve so much more if we were united. It is important that we as the body of Christ unite on these issues and remain passionate about them. I believe that it is each and every one of our jobs to stand up and fight for equal treatment of other people. We must not become distracted by what some may consider more important tasks. I would argue that nothing is as important as loving our brother and sisters.
Bob Baker
4 years 1 month ago
Sad that there were no demonstrations when a young white man with Down Syndrome met with "asphyxiation by homicide" by off-duty sheriffs acting as security guards in Maryland last January. The grand jury chose not to prosecute them, too. Ethan Saylor was also unarmed and didn't understand why he couldn't stay and watch a particular movie again. Where is the righteous indignation?


The latest from america

This week's guest is Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder of New Wave Feminists, a pro-life feminist organization dedicated to changing the divisive language surrounding the abortion debate.
Olga SeguraJanuary 18, 2019
Psychedelics can blur the line between science and spirituality—but Christian mysticism cannot be studied.
Terrance KleinJanuary 17, 2019
The extensive New York Times series in support of legal abortion unfolds as if the last 46 years of the abortion debate following Roe v. Wade never happened and did not need to.
​Helen AlvaréJanuary 17, 2019
In 1983, Sri Lanka descended into a bitter and prolonged ethnic conflict. Harry Miller, S.J., then almost 60, was thrust into a new role as witness, advocate, intermediary and protector not only for his students but for anyone in Batticaloa who sought his help.
Jeannine GuthrieJanuary 17, 2019