The Evolution of Protests

What is the recipe for the perfect protest and how did we go from marching on Washington to changing our profile pictures to show solidarity?
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Lorie Shaull / Wikipedia

In today’s era of hashtag activism, acts of protest have to be carefully curated and are often still heavily criticized no matter what the cause may be. Messages have to hold weight but be concise enough to go viral and survive multiple news cycles. The faces of these campaigns must be untarnished in any way for the sake of the cause’s perceived legitimacy. More and more battles about social issues are happening in comment sections and the fight for social justice, for better or worse, doesn’t just happen by boycotting a public transportation service or marching across bridges or to political seats of power. Although a large enough group of people doing any of those things in this day may be even more of a statement now than it was sixty years ago. So, what is the recipe for the perfect protest and how did we go from marching on Washington to changing our profile pictures to show solidarity?

The Social Media Age

Social media is a powerful and essential tool in the modern protest. Platforms like Twitter and YouTube have proven to be crucial vehicles for political messages, calls to actions, and the organization of disenfranchised groups of people. Just last year, post-millennials across the country used this defining aspect of their generation to combat gun violence and school shootings by organizing marches, walk-outs, and rallies via Facebook and other social media sites. And less than a year after the Stoneman Douglass High School Shooting, survivors of the event have become activists in their own right by using the media storm response to express their views. David Hogg, one of the most vocal survivors, has just south of a million followers on Twitter. But is social media the make or break of a protest?

Hogg’s platform is no coincidence, but despite the tragedy he endured and the courage he’s displayed since, he could have just as easily gained a following being a viral trend turned overnight sensation like some of his contemporaries. By comparison, Russell Horning (you might know him as that backpack kid, the inventor of the floss dance) has 2.3 million Instagram followers. Anyone with a phone, good lighting, and something to say has an equal opportunity to make it big and therefore have a platform to use at their disposal. But that fact never seemed to discredit David or his opinions. If anything, politicians cited his youth (and therefore naivety) when trying to undermine him. The same can be said for others like Malala Yousafzai and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

But what about those who took the opposite route; those whose following turned them into activist whether than their activism gaining them a following? Names like Colin Kaepernick, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and Oprah come to mind. They’re all older and they’ve all organized or participated in protests, but their fame and fortune became what their detractors used to paint a picture that these people were out of touch or only supported causes for vanity sake. When Nike released it’s “Dream Crazy” campaign featuring the former quarterback, many took issue with the ad’s slogan, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” In the context of Kaepernick’s protest, he had millions of dollars to fall back on. Some don’t qualify what he did as a true sacrifice. That begs the question does your foray into activism make your activism more or less legitimate than others? Is the standard the same for the protests you lead?

The Perfect Representative

Maybe it’s in the presentation. Celebrities find themselves at an interesting crossroads in today’s political landscape. Often held to a higher standard because of their platform, celebrities, now more than ever, are taking their visibility seriously, but in their own way. Take Cardi B for instance. The stripper turned rapper used social media to get to where she is today and all the while spoke up about sexism and misogyny in the music industry, bullying, gun control and most recently the government shutdown (check out the video below). But she did it in ways that were in tune with her brand of gangster quirkiness and were relatable to her audience but because of her presentation, specifically her vernacular and use of copious amounts of curse words, her messages are often looked over. Similar tactics have been used to diminish protests of all sorts, most recently that of Tiffany Haddish.

During a recent stop on her comedy tour, the comedian took to Instagram to show off a recently gifted fur coat she received from a fan. In the video Haddish promises to wear the jacket “as much as possible” then goes on to explain “I’m about to start protesting. I’m going to wear fur every day until they stop killing Black people. When the police stop killing Black people, I’ll stop wearing fur; it’s my new protest,” To drive her point home, she directed the rest of her commentary at animal rights organization PETA saying, “Sorry, PETA. Don’t be mad at me, be mad at the police; because people are important and so are the animals.” The declaration was made in typical Haddish fashion; comedic and straddling the, “I can’t tell if she’s serious or not” fence but does her presentation negate the correlation she’s trying to explore? One can remember a time when responses to Cecil the Lion and Harambe garnered think-pieces asking white audiences why they cared so much about the lives of animals but not about the lives of black and brown people?

“We love you, Tiffany, and as an animal rights organization, we advocate for and believe in kindness towards all, including animals,” PETA said in response. “We hope that you choose to protest in a different way that doesn’t harm any humans or any animals, but is kind to all <3.” The statement makes a reasonable request while still supporting Haddish’s narrative and indirectly poses a question about celebrities having the compassion to support more than one cause at a time or at the very least making a conscious effort to support one in a way that doesn’t come at the detriment of another. But some of Haddish’s generation of Black Americans and potentially most of the one that came before it may not feel that way. That’s where the conversation shifts from protesting in the context of celebrity activism to protesting for the sake or everyday lives.

No one considered Malcolm X or Cesar Chavez celebrities and despite their influence, celebrities don’t make social change on their own. So maybe the legitimacy of a protest lies in those doing the protesting. The faces you see in crowds holding up signs look a lot different today than they did during the civil rights era. To explore that change you have to examine generational differences that lie outside of technological advancements and focus more on the information and access those advancements have given us.

Exploring Generational Differences

In the context of Tiffany Haddish, her generation, Generation X, is in a unique space in terms of what it means to protest. Caught between a generation of minorities who may not have had the time to care about animal’s rights because they were too busy fighting for their own and a generation that challenges itself to have the emotional bandwidth to care about more than one cause at a time, Generation X is defined by the resilience and adaptability of its members. This is the generation that was raised during an AIDS pandemic that went unacknowledged during entire presidencies, fought a war on drugs that mainly target black and brown people, and saw the end of apartheid. But its also the same generation that watched the OJ case play out and the LA riots of 1992 from the comfort of their living rooms. Those are all important aspects of this generation.

Post-civil rights era race politics gave rise to the political climate of activism we see today; a day and age where true activism explores the complexities of intersectionality and the necessity of inclusivity. For example, the term “white feminism” was coined to differentiate feminist ideals that didn’t take into account the plight of minority, queer, disabled, or elderly women from those of modern feminism. The idea is that feminism has historically benefitted straight, white women the most despite the efforts of women that don’t fit that description. Modern day feminism includes sex workers, trans women, and other marginalized groups of women and men that the movement has never sought to involve. Despite its name and how some may portray its motives, the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t just about Black lives. The #BLM website created by its organizers expresses its views on diversity, feminism, LGBTQ equality, representation, and global engagement and puts forth that those who really support the movement believe that justice for Black people in America is not the only definition of social change but a prerequisite to freedom and equality for everyone everywhere.

To explore the evolution of the protest further I looked to my own family. My grandmother, who grew up in rural Oklahoma felt as though the act of protest came with a negative connotation and initially stated she didn’t support protesting of any kind. After a little probing and the addition of context I found that she gave exception to protests that dealt with causes that might affect her and her family, most specifically racism, in which case despite admitting she may not have been the one to join in, she felt the protests were justified, as I assumed she might. Her disconnect with Haddish’s plight, however, was the comparison to animal abuse.

After a lengthy conversation about what PETA is and some of their views both my grandparents admitted that some of the farming techniques they used or were familiar with in their youth would upset members of the animals’ rights group, but were common practice at the time and weren’t considered cruel to them. They were genuinely confused that an organization like PETA even exists and had even more questions when my mother and I tried to explain to them that some people, associated with PETA or not, feel there are humane and inhumane ways to raise and slaughter cattle and that support of companies that employ humane methods by meat-eaters is a tolerable compromise. In Haddish’s case, a similar compromise might look like her wearing faux fur to make her point but doing so might cripple her metaphor. That might be her point; that there is no compromise when it comes to black lives and police brutality.

My grandfather, who spoke about the small role he played in bringing pay equality to the black people in the Mississippi community he grew up in was skeptical that the word protest had lost its meaning. He expressed discomfort with what he saw as other groups picky-backing off of the work done by black civil rights leaders and activists. But this is where my mother jumped into the conversation and explained to him what my generation has defined as allyship. She explained that despite their protesting, it was absurd to think black people made change happen for themselves without the help of other for the simple fact that most people in power at that time were white. Even today, when we have the most-diverse government ever, it still isn’t an accurate representation of cultures and backgrounds in America, so it would have been impossible for black protestors to make change happen for themselves. This doesn’t even take into account the fact that there were Hispanic Americans, queer Americans, and other minorities that attended marches and other protests and stood alongside black civil rights leaders.

Fast-forward fifty years and my mother cites the election of President Obama as proof of her argument. Black people played a large role in his election, yes, but he did not win his presidency with black support alone and in turn, his only focus wasn’t just that of Black America. He fought homophobia and Islamophobia and wanted to create an inclusive and comprehensive healthcare system. So, where my grandfather saw bandwagon-ing, my mother saw solidarity. And that solidarity has forged alliances between organizations and given a voice to people who existed in multiple spaces. It’s why we have people like Amara La Negra championing Afro-Latinx visibility and Crissle and Kid Fury combating misogynoir and homophobia in the African-American community.

A surprising revelation was where my brother stood in all this. He felt as though today’s protest didn’t go far enough, that they didn’t affect real change, that Tiffany Haddish was wasting her time. There was a sense of pessimism that had birthed an indifference. At 18, his political awareness was born in the Trump era where the lines between politics and twitter rants are blurred. “What’s the point of protesting,” he asked, “when nothing is going to change?” and again my mother stepped in and told him that he was too young to see the change that’s happening and warned that that wasn’t a reason to be apathetic. In a perfect world, PETA may have put all of its resources into combating police brutality so that maybe one day Haddish would stop contributing to the cycle of animal cruelty that they’ve chosen to try to end and at the end of the day both protests accomplish their goals. And that, no matter how hypothetical it may seem, is the perfect protest; the perfect form of activism.

Despite the fact that protesters in Charlotte were met with white supremacist, the important signifier of progress is that those protesters were not homogeneous. They were Hispanic. They were Jewish. There were young people. There were veterans. There were people in wheelchairs. There were people there seeking justice and equality, not just for themselves, but for everyone.

The Power is in the People

At a glance it may seem like the evolution of the protest is about the ‘how’. Older generations often criticize younger people’s affinity for ‘liking’ a cause instead of advocating for one. Arguments never end about the benefits of connected-ness and access versus the harms of anonymity, misinformation, and potential laziness associated with social media. But the true testament of change and a hopeful reminder that the act of protesting has not lost its efficacy is the ‘who’.

During a speech, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about rioting. He said, “…I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.” The same could be said about protests. Despite the context, the “unheard” that the late reverend spoke of could be any marginalized group of people, any minority group that’s been treated unfairly.

Protests will continue to evolve and affect change when more of those groups come together. In any room, if every person who identified as some form of disenfranchised minority stood up, I bet more times than not, those standing would make up the majority. Now imagine if all those people worked together for the common good.

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