Looking Up: The protest learning curve

Looking Up: The protest learning curve

My older daughter has newly discovered acting as a passion. Partway through the run of the show she was just in, she asked me for constructive criticism. “I want to know what you think I can do better,” said. “Just being told ‘you were great’ isn’t helpful.” I’ll admit that that moment made me prouder than anything she pulled off on the stage.

Organizing and resistance, especially large-scale protest, are in many ways an art form. We can’t wait for perfection to act—the show must go on. But like the best performing artists sit down after a show to receive their notes and feedback from a director, conductor, or trusted audience member, there should also be time to both celebrate and also reflect on each action and figure out what could be done better.

Like approximately 500 other people of the Capital Region, and many thousands across the country, when the Muslim ban was announced, I set aside the plans I’d had for the next Sunday morning to head out to the airport in protest. This, even more than the Women’s March, showed that real resistance is in effect. With less than 18 hours notice, that many people showed up to an unpermitted protest at an out-of-the-way location. And stayed for hours. And sang.

When I showed up near the beginning, there were very few faces in the then-smaller crowd that I recognized. And much as I loved seeing people I know from many parts of my life show up over the course of the morning, that first moment of approaching a gathering of strangers was a beautiful thing. It gave me hope and goosebumps, just as all of the more recent interfaith solidarity in the face of both the travel ban and the anti-Semitic bomb threats and vandalism has.

But since the dangers are not so easily dismissed and this resistance is going to have to be long haul, we are also going to have to do a lot of learning on the fly. In that spirit, here are a couple of my take-home notes from the Albany airport protest. I’d be curious about others’ reflections as well.

First, while it’s powerful and important to call the xenophobes on their hypocrisy about immigration, given that all white people in this country have ancestors (or, you know, in some cases, wives) that immigrated here themselves, often illegally, and often recently. That message is important in the current environment.

But at some point along the way, it should be acknowledged that we are not all immigrants. Native people are not gone. (And no, crossing a land bridge tens of thousands of years ago to an unpeopled land isn’t the same.) And African Americans’ enslaved ancestors were not immigrants, either voluntary or refugee. They were abducted. It’s a quite different thing. (For that matter, many Spanish-speaking folk came to be in this country by having their land conquered/annexed.)

Imagine how it feels to have those ancestries, and attend an event at which it is declared that the story of all Americans is immigration (or that America was built on liberty). We can declare ourselves committed to values of liberty and welcoming without pretending that until this moment our country has never failed to live up to them.

Second, please be thoughtful about how you talk about law enforcement. Being polite and thankful to individual officers who are being helpful is reasonable and appropriate, and I understand the impulse to want to give positive feedback. But it’s a low bar to offer gushing praise for being decent and accommodating our freedom of assembly when we weren’t causing any actual disruption in function.

Even more so, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, which is the law enforcement agency that patrols the airport, makes money off of holding detained asylum seekers in Albany County jail. And the Albany City police, which some people mistakenly were praising though they weren’t there, still haven’t adequately responded to the fact that some of their officers recently made an unconstitutional stop and then tased an innocent man to death.

To contribute to a multi-racial resistance, which is the only kind that will have the power to do what needs doing, we need to be aware of the structural problems with how policing is carried out in this country, how different groups are treated by law enforcement, and how it sounds to those who have real reason to fear police violence–both at a protest and in everyday life—to hear people not only praising officers for not bothering a mostly-white protest, but encouraging others to praise them as well.

Here’s to everyone who is pairing action and self-reflection. (One great way to do that is make sure your activism how-to reading lists include a diversity of veteran organizers from many communities, especially including people of color.) Thank you.

photo: Wikipedia Commons

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