“Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”
Anyone who has attended a protest will be quick to recognize those lines as a fixed feature of any demonstration, whether it be the Women’s March or Black Lives Matter. “The right of the people peaceably to assemble” is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution as a central tenet of free expression; protesting is emblematic of democracy.
However, protest and democracy do not always march alongside one another — society is selective with which protestors it supports, mostly granting its approval exclusively to white Americans. Meanwhile, when advocates of minority backgrounds protest and critique social norms, they are disproportionately targeted by the public, the media, and the government, impeding their ability to vocalize their concerns.
In the United States, this phenomenon most visibly affects African-American and Muslim-American protestors. In 2015, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 67 percent of white Americans believed the protest of unfair treatment “always makes our country better.” However, this figure dropped to 45 percent when the protestors were presented as “Black Americans,” illuminating a harsh double standard that exists for protestors of a racial minority. With regard to the Muslim-American experience, National Deputy Director Edward Mitchell of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Islamic civil rights organization within the United States, stated in an interview with the HPR that activists of this religious background face “disparaging claims” and accusations that diminish the gravity of their message.
Such negative reception is disproportionately targeted at protestors from a minority background, while white activists largely escape the same criticism. In an interview with the HPR, Colin Wayne Leach, a professor of psychology and Africana studies at Columbia University, considered why society might be selective. “From a democracy-rights point of view, … [protest is] something that we should all embrace,” he said, but he continued that “protest also means to some people, ‘Oh, these people are criticizing my society. They’re criticizing my government. They’re criticizing the country that I love.’”
Protest is frequently viewed as unjustified criticism when those speaking out are of marginalized backgrounds, forcing these activists to defend not only the cause for which they are advocating, but also their ability to protest at all. Ultimately, these exclusionary attitudes serve to disenfranchise minorities of their ability to exercise their right to protest within the United States, perpetuating a longstanding hierarchy of inequality.
A History of Inequality
To understand the experiences of minority protestors, it is crucial to evaluate the reception of past protest movements, which cemented many of the exclusionary attitudes seen today. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is a prime example. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 1961, 57 percent of Americans reported that tactics such as peaceful demonstrations during the civil rights movement hurt chances of racial integration. This figure rose to 60 percent in 1963 as the Civil Rights Movement gained more steam, displaying how negative perceptions of demonstrations increased when protest began to pose a legitimate threat to the social order. Such antagonistic sentiments towards black movements were targeted at professional advocacy organizations as well. The NAACP came under numerous charges of affiliating with communists, charges that discredited the organization and thus the Civil Rights Movement, allowing opponents to impede lasting civil rights reform.
Muslim-Americans have similarly shared in a difficult history of protest, facing challenges to advocacy from the government. In 1987, federal agents stormed into the homes of eight pro-Palestine activists without any official charges to arrest them on. Over 100 law enforcement officers were involved, and while the government soon dropped criminal charges, it tried to deport the eight activists by alleging ties to a communist organization. The incident, which became known as the L.A. Eight, serves as another example of how protestors themselves have been attacked in order to erode the legitimacy of the underlying concern.
This antagonism towards minority protest and advocacy movements can be attributed to an underlying desire to preserve a social hierarchy within the United States. Specific to the African-American experience, Harvard University professor Lawrence Bobo wrote in the Social Psychology Quarterly in 1988 that black protestors presented “an unwanted threat to an accepted social order and to a privileged group position,” and as a result, those in the racial majority felt that these protestors “should elicit negative evaluation.” Further, the antagonism is only amplified when onlookers do not understand the issues that demonstrators face. Leach remarked that, “If the people seeing [protestors] don’t think they have anything to complain about, then being out in the street is illegitimate and dangerous.” Often, differences in whether there is “anything to complain about” are drawn along racial lines, and protest becomes “dangerous” when these complaints undermine the existing social order.
Problems in the Present Day
Attitudes towards protest movements in the 21st century are informed by this legacy of discrimination, as racial divisions have persisted and continue to influence the reception of minority activism today. Such divisions are evident in the experiences of African-American advocates protesting police brutality. According to the 2017 study “Race and Reaction” from the Journal of Social Issues, white participants had a more negative view of protests against police brutality than black participants and understood the causes of them less. Leach, a co-author of the study, conducted the experiment by showing African-American and white participants pictures of black protest scenes, which he said were “very typical, … [and] very peaceful.” However, the reactions he received were unexpectedly intense, as he “was surprised by how many of the white participants especially found it really unpleasant, aversive, and … threatening.” This reception conforms with underlying stereotypes of African-American criminality and deviance, perpetuating the negative images surrounding minority groups.
These negative perceptions of black activism have had great effects on the reception of Black Lives Matter, a protest movement founded in 2013 to challenge police brutality and racial profiling by law enforcement. Mirroring the historical reception of black protest movements, the organization has been labeled as “dangerous” and “terrorist” by the public and the media. In an interview with the HPR, Angela Waters Austin, founder of Black Lives Matter Michigan and Lansing, said these negative reactions perpetuate “a constant narrative that the fight for peace and anti-violence and anti-racism is somehow a threat to America.” This is the same narrative that opponents to the Civil Rights movement perpetuated in the 1960s; despite the progress made with regard to racial equality since then, it is as if nothing has changed at all.
Muslim-Americans activists have had to confront this same narrative, a narrative that seeks to diminish their message by attacking their identity. Mitchell sees a direct connection between the attacks the organization receives now — accusations of terrorist affiliations and anti-Semitism — and the charges of communist ties that were levied against Muslim-Americans in the 1980s. “It’s just history repeating itself,” he said. “It’s something that racists and bigots have done before, and they’ll keep doing it. Because they don’t want to address the substance of the message, they just want to tar the messenger.” When the messenger gets tarred, the message gets lost, impeding the activism efforts of minority protestors.
The perceptions that individuals carry towards protestors have consequences that permeate society on a structural level. In the 2010s, this manifested itself in the targeting of Black Lives Matter activists. Following the wrongful and fatal shooting of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin and acquittal of gunman George Zimmerman in 2013, protestors took to the streets to express discontent with law enforcement. In an intelligence assessment report released four years later, the FBI created the term “Black Identity Extremists” to identify African-Americans who retaliated against law enforcement with “premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence” due to “perceptions of police brutality.” Austin responded, “It’s a problem. It is an attempt to create a narrative to justify surveillance that is rooted in absolutely zero fact.”
Austin remarked that this label of “Black Identity Extremists” has dangerous impacts on American liberties as a whole: “It threatens the freedom and the liberty of every American when groups can be classified to justify surveillance and targeting.” Leach agreed, stating that public perceptions of protest movements have immense consequences on the roles that institutions such as law enforcement play in society; when the public, the government, and federal agencies deem minority movements illegitimate, it serves to uphold a system that disproportionately targets and punishes particular racial groups. Ultimately, targeting these protestors suppresses the discontent of minority groups in order to preserve a structurally racist establishment.
A similar suppression of discontent has been aimed at Muslim-American protestors, with many of the charges levied against the NAACP and the L.A. Eight in the 20th century brought up once again in the guise of 21st century fears regarding terrorism. In 2014, when Edward Snowden released documents from the National Security Agency, he revealed that the NSA and the FBI had been investigating numerous Muslim-American leaders, including politicians, academics, and civil rights activists. One of the Muslim-Americans investigated was Nihad Awad, the executive director of CAIR. The organization, which has been labeled as “militant” and “terrorist,” was even denounced as a front for the Palestinian militant organization Hamas. However, as Mitchell pointed out, the U.S. federal government has not designated CAIR as terrorist, and the organization has on multiple accounts denounced terrorism and violent extremism.
The constant threats of targeting and surveillance serve to take away from the ability of these protest groups to advocate for their causes and other important issues. Mitchell said, “In CAIR’s instance, it’s not only that we have to defend Muslims but we end up having to defend ourselves because we are a Muslim organization.” Mitchell stated that this drew energy away from fixing societal issues that Muslim-Americans could comment on with a unique voice.
This differential treatment of minority activists also carries severe consequences in the sphere of political lawmaking, where the concerns of protestors translate to substantial policy changes. Basheer Jones, the first Muslim councilmember in the city of Cleveland, said in an interview with the HPR that he felt “a triple conscious[ness] of being Black, American, and Muslim.” As a political activist, Jones faces the stigma that both Black Lives Matter and CAIR face, which has led to challenges within the arena of public office: within the first four months after his election, Jones faced two recall petitions. Jones elaborated, “That didn’t have anything to do with my work. … That had to do with some of my differences, being Muslim.” Jones’ identities were weaponized against him, an act which would have politically disenfranchised the people he represents. This political representation is crucial because it is the government that constitutes the formal response to protest; when lawmakers do not understand the cause for protest, it enables the perpetuation of structural racism.
A Way Forward
Despite the discrimination that minority protestors face, they still look to the future with optimism, seeking a way to end the prejudicial treatment they have undergone. Many advocacy groups see a solution in the increasingly politically active youth. For this reason, CAIR has created many opportunities for youth to get involved, from internships to lobbying to spreading CAIR’s message, according to Mitchell. Black Lives Matter has taken a similar approach, recognizing that young people are greatly impacted by the issues the movement addresses and that they want to become involved. Austin told the HPR, “Black Lives Matter overall is very much driven by an intergenerational framework, so that means really reaching and supporting our young people in middle and high school.” By focusing on the next generation, Black Lives Matter and CAIR hope to preserve their progress and counteract stereotypes regarding minority protest participation at a young age.
Black Lives Matter in Michigan is also focusing on electoral issues by expanding the right to vote, educating candidates on issues facing minority communities, and promoting diversity in government. This form of political activism is geared towards ensuring that all people are properly represented in places where laws are being made. Increased minority representation in turn leads to an even greater awareness of racial issues at the governmental level and greater empathy with those on the streets. Jones encapsulated this racial awareness as he said, “That is my goal, to go through this system in Cleveland and stomp out structural racism wherever I find it.”
This activism — both on the streets and in the legislative chambers — works to ensure that one day, protestors will no longer be divided into categories of “good” or “bad” based on their identity. However, it is hardly enough; inequality still exists, having not so much disappeared as adapted to modern times. It will take a tremendous but necessary effort, on both an interpersonal and structural level, in order to create a society that is more equitable for all of its participants. Until then, free expression will continue to be a right that is only selectively granted.
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