Fighting for social justice has never been pretty. People get impatient and angry. Someone always gets knocked down.
John Lewis’ beating on Bloody Sunday revealed how treacherous it was to challenge the status quo more than a half-century ago. Eighteen-year-old Miracle Boyd, who got her teeth knocked out by police during a protest in Chicago’s Grant Park a week ago, reminded us how dangerous fighting for change still is.
The injured police officers revealed the risks of standing in the way of change.
No one condones violence, regardless of who the perpetrators are. But we need to at least try to understand it.
It is naive to think that protests are supposed to be cordial and respectful. Most of the young people taking to the streets recently have always played by the rules, while social injustice thrived. They aren’t going to keep using a tactic that doesn’t bring about results.
Too many people have created a rosy picture in their mind of what the struggle should look like. Unfortunately, it is based on a misconception about what civil unrest actually is. It’s about hostility, disobedience and demanding to be heard.
The young people who tried to bring down the statue of Christopher Columbus aren’t like the protesters from older generations. They don’t buy into the prevailing sentiment of their parents and grandparents that nonviolence is the best way to prove that you are worthy of the things you are fighting for.
These young protesters don’t give two cents about making middle-class Americans feel good about supporting their cause. They don’t care if you decide that they are the villains and the police are the innocent victims. They aren’t concerned about those of you who turn your back on the movement because suddenly it has become too uncomfortable.
This youthful, multiracial movement was not inspired by promise and hope. It was born out of anger and despair. There’s nothing nice about it.
The difference in the old civil rights protests and today’s is that there was a powerful leader at the helm laying out the agenda and setting the rules. While the current protests generally fall under the Black Lives Matter umbrella, they are often spontaneous and unorganized. Many aren’t officially sponsored by the BLM group.
There is no Southern Christian Leadership Conference to hold the Black Panthers at bay. And there are few, if any, young John Lewises who would take a blow to the head from a cop and not strike back.
Sometimes, it isn’t even clear what people are getting knocked down for.
When the stakes are this high, the idea of peaceful protests simply isn’t real. People on both sides have too much to lose and no one wants to walk away empty-handed.
Even King had trouble keeping up the facade that civil unrest could be peaceful. At the back of the line in Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham and Chicago, there always were people ready to toss a brick the moment police pulled out their batons.
Of course, it’s unpleasant to see protesters getting their teeth knocked out. And police officers shouldn’t end up in the hospital. But sometimes, it’s the unfortunate price that is paid to grab the attention of those in power.
In many ways, these protests are the antithesis of the 1960s civil rights movement, which achieved gains for a brief period that, decades later, have either disappeared or continue to be threatened.
It is understandable that the younger generation might look at the past and see a huge failure. They’re wrong, though. A lot has changed for the better, and there is much to be learned from the brave men and women who put their lives on line for them.
Change is often fleeting, whether obtained peacefully or by force. But the loudest protesters get the most attention.
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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