Social change at Princeton (and everywhere): slowly, then suddenly

Princeton University is renaming some buildings, awards, and programs, striking Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public dsc2929and International Affairs, a response to the heightened awareness of structural racism in the United States, demonstrated most literally by hundreds of thousands of people in the streets.

Before two terms as president of the United States, Wilson had been governor of New Jersey, and before that a professor and a president of Princeton University, where he had studied as an undergraduate; sometime in there, he also served as president of the American Political Science Association.

Wilson could claim credit for a lot, including: reducing tariffs; instituting an income tax; establishing federal institutions to regulate trade and labor; appointing the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis; promising to stay out of foreign wars; getting the United States into World War I; successfully supporting woman suffrage; and unsuccessfully supporting the League of Nations. (The record continues to provoke critics from across the political spectrum; Glenn Beck blames Wilson for beginning the end of the American ideal.)

Wilson also instituted reforms in the curriculum and social life of Princeton University; Princeton credits him with establishing a departmental structure for its faculty, whose numbers he increased dramatically, instituting a more dynamic approach to education, and diversifying the faculty by hiring the first Catholic and Jewish professors.

Wilson was also a committed white supremacist, as Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber notes:

Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time. He segregated the federal civil service after it had been racially integrated for decades, thereby taking America backward in its pursuit of justice. He not only acquiesced in but added to the persistent practice of racism in this country, a practice that continues to do harm today.

You can read about Wilson’s substantial and decidedly mixed legacy in a special report commissioned by Princeton’s Board of Trustees in November of 2015, a response to the occupation of President Eisgruber’s office.

Students then were protesting institutional racism at Princeton, as at scores of other campuses, focusing on curricula, student and faculty diversity, and monuments of all sorts. The students–everywhere–walked out of classes, staged large demonstrations, and made demands.

At Princeton, the special committee to consider Wilson’s legacy was Eisgruber’s first response to the 2015 protests. The committee did not call for striking the name, but instead recommended providing a fuller accounting of the Wilson legacy, and diversifying the “iconography” of Princeton’s history on campus. It also recommended adopting reforms that would diversify the campusscreen-shot-2020-06-03-at-2-09-02-am by recruiting and cultivating a wider range of students into a wider range of programs. And Princetonians didn’t stop protesting.

Even relatively modest institutional reforms can have longer term effects. When a series of well-publicized racist killings provoked national concern and widespread protests, students no longer had to push all that hard in Princeton to change the names so vigorously defended not that long ago.

The effects of recruiting and curricular reforms were barely visible outside the campus, but they changed the conversation inside. Wilson’s record didn’t change in the last five years, but the balance of  concerns when considering what was worth commemorating did.

So, social progress takes place slowly–then suddenly, because it’s too easy to ignore the less dramatic, slow stuff. The students who occupied the president’s office in 2015 won–but only after they graduated.

Note: I wish I were the first to coin the phrase, slowly, then suddenly, but lots of authors have experimented with a similar construction. In The Sun Also Rises (1926), Ernest Hemmingway allows a character to explain how he went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”

More recently, in The Fault in Our Stars (2012), John Green has a character describe his romance, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep; slowly, and then all at once.”

I guess waking up is like that too.

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Statue, of limitations

Just because someone once thought a statue was a good idea doesn’t The statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the Museum of Natural History, under police watch, will be coming down. It has drawn many protests in recent years.mean the rest of us have to live with it forever.

The American Museum of Natural History is removing the statue of Theodore Roosevelt that guards its entrance, and it’s way past time. The bronze monument shows Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by an African on one side and an indigenous American on the other; they’re on foot.

The removal is political, to be sure, but it’s personal too.

I grew up outside New York City, and visited the museum often, with school and with family; I later lived a few blocks away as an adult, and later, I made sure to bring my children to the museum when we visited New York. By the way, I also visited TR’s home at Sagamore Hill, a national historic site, more than a few times.

I don’t think I noticed anything odd about the Roosevelt statue as a child–I was more interested in the dinosaur bones inside. As a grown-up, however, I started to wonder how long New Yorkers would tolerate the monument, which exudes a celebration of racism and imperialism. Second thoughts and debate about the siting of the statue go back at least a couple of  decades.File:AMNH Apatosaurus.jpg

AMNH doesn’t view its exhibitions as sacrosanct, and reconfigures displays to reflect contemporary science and current aims.  [Note: Commemoration of the past is always about the future.] The big draw for me as a kid wasn’t the Roosevelt statue anyway, it was the gargantuan “brontosaurus” in the entry hall, an exhibit mounted in 1905.

Except it wasn’t a brontosaurus, but a composite of four distinct sets of Dino from "The Flintstones".giffossilized remains, plus a head reconstructed from a different sort of dinosaur. In the 1990s, after nearly a century on display, the AMNH reconfigured and relabeled its signature exhibition, considering new information, better paleontology, and its longterm mission of promoting science. The improved exhibit displays an apatosaurus, with a few more vertabrae, and a longer tail that didn’t drag in the sand. Alas, it wasn’t the dinosaur of my childhood memories.

It was more important to get it right than to defer to a tradition that was wrong.

Certainly, Theodore Roosevelt, who was–among many other things–a scientist–would agree.

Roosevelt’s contributions certainly merit commemoration at the AMNH. His father was an initial supporter of the museum, whose charter was signed in his home. Roosevelt himself was a published naturalist, the architect of the national park system, and a committed conservationist. A great-grandson now serves as a museum trustee.

It’s important to remember all of TR’s contributions: as president, he invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him in the White House, a occasion that sparked controversy in an America racially segregated by law, but he was also a racist, imperialist, and a supporter of eugenics. He was a strong supporter of scholarship, sports, and war; he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for helping to negotiate an end to the Russo-Japan War. A sickly child, he leaned into physical vigor and became a promoter of what would now be termed “toxic masculinity.” He once delivered a speech of more than a hour just after being shot in the chest. He supported public housing, regulation of business, and sterilization of the “feeble-minded.”

It’s all worth remembering. It’s not all worth celebrating.

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Tactical innovation, COVID, K-Pop, and cars.

I learned of the Tik-Tok K-Pop Trump ticket troll from my teen Trump rally attendees wait for the President to arrive at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 20, 2020. | Peter van Agtmael—Magnum Photos for TIMEdaughter, when the large crowds the Trump campaign didn’t quite turn up in Tulsa. She told me that many of her friends, high school students in Southern California, had requested tickets–even though they didn’t support Trump and had no way of getting to Tulsa.

Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, had been bragging that more than one million people had requested tickets for the event, and Trump himself always bragged about the crowds. There was no way that they could all be accommodated, of course, but Parscale was pleased to announce that he was harvesting data. Tickets would be first-come, first-serve, with arena seating; the campaign planned an overflow outside the BOK arena, which could hold somewhere near 20,000 people.

Although die-hards had started lining up outside the arena days in advance, giving interviews testifying to their commitment, plus an obliviousness to the ongoing global pandemic (>120,000 deaths in America at this writing), there was no overflow event because there was no overflow. Fire officials estimated the arena was a little under 1/3 full. Enough space to socially distance, but the pictures look like everyone was trying to get up close.

Too bad.

There was no way the teen trolls could have cut into the turnout–the campaign kept announcing a welcome until the rally started, and took requests up until the last minute. But they surely could have tricked Trump’s staff into massively inflating expectations for everyone–especially Trump’s.

That was the plan. Media accounts credit K-Pop and Tik-Tok fans, but Demonstrators march near the BOK Center where President Trump is holding a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday, June 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)my daughter says she saw the action on Instagram. The point is that it was a low-cost, low-risk effort by (mostly) young people to dip into a political protest. They trolled Trump, got into the news, and occasioned the chance for all of us to talk about Trump’s very weak support among young people, underscored by the demonstrators outside in Tulsa. Anyway, the kids got to laugh or smirk or smile knowingly.

They had to give some contact information to the Trump campaign, which may mean some annoying email appeals. It’s pretty unlikely that they’ll offer much in the way of campaign contributions.

The ticket trolling requests represent a tactical innovation, one of many responses to the challenges of the #coronacrisis. Quarantines and caution have imposed new strictures on political protesters. Initially, I thought most activism would move online, and organizers would struggle to find ways to get attention and exercise influence.

Early on, we saw driving protests by immigrant rights activists, and then by the open-up protesters. But people were quick to get out of their cars and assemble at State Houses–and elsewhere, deploying familiar forms of demonstrations, sometimes armed, sometimes costumed.

The racial justice protests were larger and more extensive, and it looks like a greater share of the protesters wore masks. But large assemblies, even outdoors, represent risk in the pandemic, and organizers will keep trying to find new ways to protest and build a future.

Less amusing is a smaller contagion of car attacks launched by right-wing extremists on protesting crowds. You’ll remember that in Charlottesville, a frustrated white nationalist demonstrator drove his car into a crowd, killing a young woman, Heather Heyer.

It doesn’t take a lot of organization or coordination, and it seems to be spreading. There have been at least 50 vehicle ramming incidents at demonstrations in the past couple of months, more than a third linked to deliberate right-wing efforts, with another two dozen under active police investigation. Unlike the teen ticket trolls, this is criminal and punishable.

In America, people will find a way to protest, even in pandemic, and there will be more coming.

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Putting activists and authorities on alert and cultivating allies

One round of activism can clear the way for the next one–even by other people–to make larger gains.

The wave of protests against racialized police violence has already effectively promoted changes. It started with the arrests and indictments of the officers For the third day in a row the Black Lives Matter movement took the streets of New York to protest police brutality in the aftermath of the release of the security camera video capturing the death of Delrawn Small contradicting the NYPD story spread on the media, July 9, 2016.responsible for George Floyd’s death, and has extended to changes in policy in America’s cities. Shifts in what seems possible have been even more dramatic, with calls to defund the police winning some mainstream support, and efforts at better regulation and training winning support everywhere.

This round, however, took advantage of a world that earlier rounds of activism had created. The massive shift in public support for the cause (see  Michael Tesler’s overview, which features many more graphs that I could not copy) and even for #BlackLivesMatter seemed to happen overnight, but you have to remember that dramatic, sometimes disruptive, protests speckled the first Black president’s second term and the 2016 presidential campaign.

Civiqs surveys, reprinted in The Christian Science Monitor

The protests increasingly put Americans, Black then others, on higher alert to a recurrent injustice. Local activists paid even more attention; scholars conducted studies; newspapers published statistics; students worked on campus inequality, and Confederate monuments came under attack–all before the demonstrations and even the horrific killings. And everyone’s taking videos and putting them online.

Today’s activists are pushing on a row of dominoes that so many committed activists lined up over the past few years. Progress that seemed stalled or even invisible was progress nonetheless, opening doors, minds, opportunities for this moment. And today’s offenses are far less likely to pass unnoticed than those even a few months ago.

Donald Trump helped too, but not on purpose. It’s not just that he’s constantly displayed an almost wistful attachment to violence, encouraging people–including police–to beat up anyone he defined as a miscreant. It’s not just that Trump’s political strategy has been based on announcing that he’s not a racist while still signaling that he is.

It’s also that his generally polarizing approach to politics has unleashed a massive resistance movement that started even before he became president. The Women's Marchextraordinary Women’s March just after the Trump inaugural marked the beginning of a loose amalgam of diverse campaigns–for immigrants, reproductive rights, tax justice, truth, science, action on climate change, and much more–united, more than anything else, by their opposition to this president. The issues were distinct, but lots of people showed up for many causes. Protest was everywhere.

The presidential campaign sucked some energy, people, and money out of the resistance, and then COVID-19 flattened more of them into quarantine. But, when the racial justice protests emerged, these activists, now experienced and schooled in organizing, were available for coalition. The resistance was a resource; a common antagonist provided unity.

An initial commitment to change the world can take surprising turns, because protest is about learning as well as teaching. And the ultimate outcomes of protest campaigns are never known in advance.

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Why #JusticeforGeorge spurred a national movement

Certainly the Minneapolis police officer who crushed George Floyd’s neck with his knee, or the three other officers who stood by as it happened, had no sense that Justicethey’d face punishment, much less spark a national campaign against racial violence.  Why would they? Most incidents of racial violence don’t.

A few names reach national attention and spur shocked reaction. We know of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner, but the list of Black victims of white rage, often garbed in blue, is much longer. Community activists have much longer lists of neighbors who lost their lives, including: Oscar Grant in Oakland; Amadou Diallo in New York; Ezell Ford in Los Angeles.

There is a much longer list of Black men and women who faced harassment that didn’t result in their deaths: searches, unwarranted traffic stops, and beatings. It’s Pallbearers carry the casket of Emmett Till through a crowd gathered outside Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ on Sept. 6, 1955.not that people don’t care, but concern isn’t enough to send hundreds of thousands of Americans out into the streets, now for more than two weeks.

So why this time? And why has it lasted, tipping some changes in policy almost immediately?

First, the particularly brutal killing of George Floyd was particularly well documented on a long clear video that hit social media hard.

Second, the video followed in relatively short order the police killing of EMT Breonna Taylor, shot 8 times in her own apartment, and the vigilante chase and killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery’s death was also well-documented on video, circulated on social media, two months after the event, provoking overdue indictments of the Jay-Z, Kevin Garnett & LeBron -- 'I Can't Breathe Protest ...killers. The issue of racist violence was knocking. And George Floyd’s last minutes included a futile plea, “I can’t breathe,” echoing Eric Garner’s last words.

Third, the video hit a public months into a quarantine, many stuck at home, frustrated, and anxious. It circulated more quickly and watched more carefully than it would have been in a normal moment. The Covid-19 pandemic has hit Black people in the United States particularly hard, exposing larger patterns of inequality in America.

Fourth, Donald Trump encouraged public concern with racialized police violence, continuously bragging about all he’s done for African-Americans, while reliably disparaging Black people. That same president also urged police to toughen up their treatment of suspects, worrying less about rights; he promised to pay legal fees for rally vigilantes who attacked hecklers.

Fifth, police were particularly harsh in policing demonstrations about police brutality. (Note: Heidi Reynolds-Stenson has shown that this is a recurrent pattern: police resist charges of brutality with brutality.) Police conduct confirmed and amplified the charges, effectively encouraging protesters to keep coming.

Sixth, the protests started producing results unusually quickly, starting with indictments of criminal officers and civilians, then resurrecting efforts to marginalize Confederate symbols–inside and outside government, and then offering more developed political strategies to change the world.

The innovative young scholar, LaGina Gause, says that these protests are working because the protesters are visibly taking risks and making sacrifices to protest in the face of a pandemic. Maybe.

But it’s critically important to remember that this last round of protests built on the efforts of many other campaigns lodged on the same issues over the past few years: #BlackLivesMatter started in the campaign to bring Trayvon Martin’s killer to justice in 2013; College students had begun protesting racial inequality on campus under the banner, The Demands, in the spring of 2015, spreading campaigns to scores of campuses; that same year, Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole in front of the capitol building in South Carolina, and personally struck the Confederate flag; And quarterback and philanthropist Colin Kaepernick began his anthem protests  against racialized police violence in the fall of 2016, when Barack Obama was still president.

The point is that the current wave of protest pushed some heavy boulders that many others had been pushing on for years. Like every overnight success, the victories reflect years of work. If these protests can claim some quick results, it’s only because many other committed activists provided a foundation for activism and for reform.

Justice for George Floyd has to start with his killers facing legal reckoning, but it should not stop there.

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Froze and reversed the arms race, anniversary repost

I’m reposting this reminder about the massive nuclear freeze march, part of an important campaign in the 1980s. Of course, nuclear weapons are not the most salient story today, when the United States is faced with a public health crisis, recognition of a long-stewing problem of  racialized police violence–and racial inequality in general, a steep economic recession, and a president abandoning the rule of law and democratic norms with reckless disregard for their importance.

But there are lots of lessons in the freeze campaign. Not the least of these is that movements (sometimes) matter, and don’t get credit for their efforts unless organizers claim it. The June 12 demonstration made international news in 1982, but is generally edited out of popular histories of the Cold War or the Reagan era. (See if you can find anniversary remembrances in your media feed today, and tell me if I’m wrong.)

The threat of nuclear war isn’t gone, and more than a few developments in the Trump era have made it more pronounced: The United States abandoned an arms control treaty with Iran that was working, while pursuing a kind of detente with North Korea that hasn’t worked. The United States also announced that it would no longer abide by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, negotiated in the mid-1980s, and announced that it was withdrawing from an “Open Skies” verification accord first proposed by Dwight Eisenhower, and in force for decades. Bilateral and multilateral negotiations on nuclear arms control have largely stalled.bulletin of atomic scientists 2020 doomsday clock 100 seconds to midnight

It’s an urgent moment.

The Federation of Atomic Scientists, an expert group that has promoted nuclear safety and arms control since the end of the second World War, maintains a “Doomsday Clock,” signaling its perception of the nuclear danger. In 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office and the freeze campaign took off, the clock was set at 4 minutes to midnight. In 2012, when I first wrote the appreciation below, the Clock was set at 5 minutes to midnight. 

Today, the Doomsday Clock is set to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to apocalypse that it’s ever been.


Thirty (eight) years ago today, one million people marched in the streets of New York City to protest the nuclear arms race in general and the policies of Ronald Reagan in particular.

  Organized around a “nuclear freeze” proposal, the demonstration was a watershed for a movement that seemed to come out of nowhere, not just in the United States, but throughout what was then called Western Europe.

Of course, movements have deeper roots.  Relatively small groups of people have been protesting against nuclear weapons since the idea of nuclear bombs first appeared.  On occasion, they’re able to spread their concerns beyond the few to a larger public.  Such was the case in 1982, when Europeans rallied against new intermediate range missiles planned for West Europe, and when Americans protested against the extraordinary military build-up/ spend-up of Ronald Reagan’s first term in office.

The freeze proposal, imagined by Randall Forsberg as a reasonable first step in reversing the arms race, was the core of organizing efforts in the United States, which included out-of-power arms control advocates and radical pacifists.  Local governments passed resolutions supporting the freeze, while several states passed referenda.  People demonstrated and held vigils, while community groups in churches and neighborhoods organized freeze groups to discuss–and advocate–on the nuclear arms race.

The freeze figured in large Democratic gains in the 1982 election, and Ronald Reagan ran for reelection as a born-again arms controller.  Most activists didn’t buy it, but after Reagan won in a landslide, to the horror of his advisers and many of his supporters, he negotiated large reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the United States and what used to be called the Soviet Union.

US/ Russia nuclear warheads

The arms control agreements created the space in the East for reforms, reforms that spun out of control and eventually unraveled the cold war and the Eastern bloc.

The world changed.

It was both less and more than what most activists imagined possible.

Do you want to call it a victory?

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NASCAR, race, and the Confederate flag–plus a query about Great Neck South

NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) officials announced a ban on NASCAR bans Confederate flags and removes guidelines requiring ...the Confederate Battle Flag at its events.  At  once,  the  decision  was  a response  to nation-wide demonstrations sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.

The organization had been trying to get the Confederate flag out of its scene for quite some time; five years ago NASCAR promoted a flag exchange, offering American flags in trade to anyone who LOOK: Bubba Wallace wears 'I can't breathe shirt,' drives Black ...would turn in the stars and bars. The exchange generated more backlash than flags, and polite requests hadn’t done much to cut Confederate images out of NASCAR.

Activism against racialized police violence in the streets, in conjunction with public appeals from NASCAR drivers, who made a video to express their commitments to promote racial justice and to learn, and explicit calls to strike the flags from Bubba Wallace, the only black driver on the top NASCAR circuits.

The Confederate flag ban is likely to generate some backlash (one truck driver has announced he would leave the sport in response) and may cost NASCAR some fans. It will also  generate a little bit of goodwill among people who aren’t presently attending stock car races. It’s probably a good move for the sport’s longterm health, and certainly for the health of the nation.

The public story is that the demonstrations inspired the drivers to organize, but it’s clear that the drivers gave the executives cover to do something they’d been wanting to do for a while. Maybe the execs let the drivers know how NASCAR would respond in advance of the video.

It’s hard for me to think that many of the marchers in Minneapolis or New York or Houston had the flags at NASCAR events among their top 100 demands, but this is something they got quickly.

The protests didn’t convince NASCAR execs that there was something wrong with Confederate symbols at its races; they were already there. The protests convinced them that there would be a base of support for NASCAR to take action.

Symbols matter. If you think Americans are (finally!) overreacting to the Stars and Bars, substitute in a swastika, a defaced crucifix, or a flaming American flag and think again.

Moving artifacts of the Confederacy (monuments, flags, statues of traitorous generals on horseback) out of exalted positions in American culture is surely a positive step.

So, here’s a tiny story with a request for more information from anyone who has it:

Long ago, when I was a high school student in the suburbs of New York,  my team competed against General Lee- 1969 Dodge Charger from The Dukes of HazzardGreat Neck South High School. They were called the “Rebels,” and a Confederate flag hung above the pool deck. Its mascot was a Confederate rifleman, adopted when the school opened in 1958.

I’m more than a little embarrassed that at 15 I thought nothing of it. But I was a white boy worried about my races and the petty injustices I might face. (Urgh.)

Looking back, my obliviousness to the standard of slavery and racial oppression was hardly peculiar to me (see oblivious alumni). Not long after, CBS premiered a prime-time chase show starring the General Lee, a stock car with the Confederate flag on its roof. The Dukes of Hazzard was a hit, and ran for 6 seasons on CBS.

But back to Great Neck: At the time, it was a relatively affluent suburb of New York renowned for its schools, with a large Jewish population–no obvious connection to the Confederacy, and a number of signals that educators should have been particularly embarrassed to fly that flag.

A few years ago, I wondered if the school still supported the Rebels and still flew the Confederate flag. From Wikipedia I learned that–following a lynching in Alabama–David Gurfein, quarterback of Great Neck South’s football team in 1982, proposed redefining the Rebel mascot as a revolutionary war soldier. The flags have been down for nearly 40 years.

Wikipedia reports that Gurfein went on to a career in the Marine Corps, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. In 2016, he ran a unsuccessful campaign for Congress representing Long Island as a Republican.

I’d like to summarize with some lesson about a different kind of Republican Party or the importance of persistence, but I can’t help but think there’s more to this whole story. Write if you know more.

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Statuary impacts: complex causality, the limits of social science, and striking Gen. Lee’s statue

In the wake of a dozen days and nights of protest against racialized police violence, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ordered the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, that has loomed over the state capital’s Monument Park for more than a century.

Striking the monuments to Confederate Army  commanders that freckle the South has periodically been the subject of political protest and intense debate–most notably in the lead-up to the odious gathering of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia–about an hour’s drive from the state capital in Richmond–in 2017.

But Confederate memorials haven’t been a prominent grievance in the marches across the United States over the past two weeks. Truth: I’ve seen calls for indictments and convictions of police officers who kill unarmed black people; demands to reform, defund, or abolish police departments; campaigns to register and mobilize voters; and discussions of wealth, inequality, and white privilege in America–but not talk about the monuments.

Governor Northam had apparently been thinking about the monument to Lee for quite some time, and was determined to do more to address racial injustice. White nationalist demonstrators walk into Lee park surrounded by counter demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency and police dressed in riot gear ordered people to disperse after chaotic violent clashes between white nationalists and counter protestors. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)Whatever commitment to the issue Northam brought to office in 2018 was certainly intensified when someone found and circulated a picture from the personal page in his 1984 medical school yearbook. One photo showed Northam, in blackface, partying with someone else dressed in the robes of the Ku Klux Klan.

Northam’s awkward denial, then defense, then apology, led to calls for his impeachment, foiled largely because his constitutional successors were themselves tainted: the lieutenant governor was accused of sexual assault; the state’s attorney general admitted that he’d attended a party wearing blackface in 1980–where someone had a camera.

Northam vowed to stay in office and use the remainder of his term-limited time in office to address racial justice. The protests offered additional pressure–and additional chances–to do something. More comprehensive remedies to racial inequality in America require efforts outside the governor’s office. Even changing 20180805_MET_LEE_03police practices will mean taking on police unions and navigating local politics in a couple of hundred city, town, and county governments in Virginia, and surely ending up in repeated legal challenges. In comparison, taking on the monuments, frequent targets for vandalism, is easier.

In response to public pressure on racial justice, Northam is pulling the levers that he can reach from his office, and those that might actually move.

Anyone who has been watching Virginia politics at all knows the protests about racialized police violence and Northam’s particular history contributed to action on an issue that has been on a back burner.

But social scientists, my people, could easily miss it.

The standard protocol for evaluating the impact of social movements on policy involves assessing the demands of challengers and setting some time frame (a few months, a year or two, fifteen years ?) within which to look for changes in media coverage, roll call votes, or policies on the issue. Ideally, the protest and political process would be tracked across a substantial number of similar cases. Northam’s response on memorials was a response to pressure on policing, so no match on the proximate pressure. It took place 3 years after the peak of the monument fight, which might count for the earlier protests. Or maybe not. And Northam was particularly committed or pressurable on racial justice issues, but I’ve never seen “chief executive in blackface” operationalized as an independent variable.

Social movement protest can force political change, but not by itself, and often not how and when activists imagine.

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Chains of change

ImageIn an expression of commitment and principle, served with a chaser of trolling for the president, Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed the plaza in front of the White House, and commissioned artists to paint BLACK LIVES MATTER in broad capital (or capitol?) letters on 16th street.

Black Lives Matter started as a hashtag after the acquittal of the neighborhood watch wannabe cop who killed Trayvon Martin, a Black teen, just about 7 years ago. The hashtag came to unify local protests against police violence and activist efforts to raise the issue in political campaigns.

Mayor Bowser’s actions represent a kind of progress and institutionalization of the movement and a set of concerns, and a broadening of support. Alas, that support and growth comes from a series of high profile killings and the consistently egregious rhetoric and conduct of the Trump administration. It’s a painful kind of progress.

Police at some of the demonstrations have knelt–on their own or next to activists–to offer some kind of support to the protests against racialized police violence.Image: TOPSHOT-US-POLITICS-POLICE-JUSTICE-RACISM The image at right is from Coral Gables, Florida, but you can find similar pictures from across the country. Note that kneeling on asphalt, not a man’s throat, hasn’t stopped many many of those same police officers from kettling, harassing, striking, or arresting non-violent protesters.

How did taking the knee come to be a symbol of the cause? Colin Kaepernick, philanthropist and former football player, didn’t feel comfortable saluting a flag that he saw as a front for racialized police violence. Initially, he sat on the bench during the anthem before a game. Nate Boyer, formerly a Green Beret, suggested that taking the knee might be a more effective and respectful way of lodging the protest; Boyer stood with Kaepernick. That’s less than four years ago, and while Kaepernick sacrificed his athletic career for the cause, the National Football League continues to struggle to accommodate the increasingly vocal concerns of its players, as larger numbers of players–and now, even some white quarterbacks–demand action on racial justice. I daresay none will have to make the sacrifices Kaepernick has. That’s influence.

Meanwhile, some Southern mayors and governors have begun taking down those statues commemorating Confederate Civil War heroes. Remember that a local battle over taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee was the initial flicker that attracted the Unite the Right stew to Charlottesville nearly four years ago. Campaigns about statues scattered across the South over the past few years, but removing the monuments hasn’t been an obvious concern of the current round of protests. Still, the protests provided incentive and cover for political leaders to do something–even if not exactly what the protesters were asking for. (At left is a statue slated to be removed from public property in Bentonville, Arkansas, and relocated to a private park.)

Social movements matter, but usually not just as the activists who make them intend. The pathways to influence meander back and forth across issues and campaigns, and everything takes longer than it should.

Organizers grow to develop a restless and persistence patience in remaking the world.


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Police, provocation, and protest

Bad policing poked an old open wound in American life, one that had suffered continual poking and scratching over the past few weeks, months, years, and turned thousands of people out into the streets in protest.

Protestors demonstrate in Columbia, S.C. on Saturday in response to the recent killing of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement.Bad policing of the understandably angry public reaction to police violence will keep people protesting, and increase the damage to all of us.

If most people thought the police officer who knelt on the throat of George Floyd for nearly 10 minutes was a rogue cop who would be swiftly punished, they would not have poured out into the streets of Minneapolis when Floyd’s death was not followed by immediate arrests and indictments.

If people across the rest of the United States thought that racialized police violence was limited to Minneapolis, protests would not have spread across the country.

Outrage about the almost casual killing of George Floyd was the trigger for protests. Demonstrators called for arrests and criminal charges but, judging from the signs and chants and statements, they want much larger reforms, not only in the criminal justice system, but in the larger political and economic world.

People will march when they believe its necessary and potentially effective in getting what they want. If there’s an easier and more direct way to influence policy, most people will opt to take it.

Now, there are people in the crowds who want to press for reforms. There are also people who believe that the economic and political system is so corrupt that reform is impossible. Now and virtually always, most people want to avoid violence–but not everyone.

Once masses of people turn out to exercise their free speech rights, police need to protect themselves, the marchers, and bystanders. Police need to help and protect peaceful protesters, while isolating and containing violent actors–including police and counter-demonstrators.

This is a tough job, but police should enjoy the advantage of superior equipment, training, and coordination. They face the additional challenge of showing that gratuitous police violence, like the killing that spurred the protests, is unacceptable.

Many of the early police responses to the difficult challenge of maintaining public safety give marchers every reason to believe that racism is a feature, not a bug, in the police and criminal justice system:

Driving a police car through an unarmed crowd (New York City).

Violently throwing a smaller person to the ground (New York City)

Tear gassing or pepper spraying unarmed protesters–including a member of A Los Angeles police officer prepares to fire rubber bullets on Saturday, May 30, 2020, during a protest over the death of George Floyd, who died while handcuffed in police custody in Minneapolis on Monday, May 25. [RINGO H.W. CHIU | AP]Congress (Columbus, Ohio).

Firing rubber bullets on distant crowds (Los Angeles).

Targeting journalists, particularly Black journalists, with arrests, bullets, or gas (Minneapolis).

Ripping the mask off a black man whose hands are raised to pepper spray him in the face (New York City).

If there’s a strategy behind these harsh responses, it’s to make protesting so difficult and dangerous that people will be scared to come out. It’s harsh, fundamentally undemocratic, and very dangerous. It’s also unlikely to work.

Certainly, it’s the approach embraced by the president of the United States, who, cowering beneath the covers of layers of secret service protection, bragged about the “ominous weapons,” “fierce dogs,” and agents eager for action.

The language and the action all work to polarize further a deeply divided population.

But some police officers and departments have tried to treat the protesters with respect and sympathy.

Officers in Santa Cruz joined their chief in kneeling (on  the sidewalk–not  a football  field  or  a person)  to  express  their  own  Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson high fives a woman who called his name as he marches with protestors of police brutality and in memory of George Floyd on Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Flint Township. Protestors marched along Miller Rd. In Flint Township before ending up at the Flint Township Police Department Headquarters where they were met by police in riot gear. Swanson deescalated the situation by asking one of the protesters what he wanted of them. They replied to walk with us and so he did with some of his deputies. "We're on the community's side. Al we had to do was talk to them and now we're walking with them. Everybody wins. The cops in this community, we condemn what happened. That guy's not one of us. You have police officers here that do it everyday for the right reasons. We're asking people just to trust the police. Trust us tonight we're walking with you. We prove it by our actions," Swanson said. "When I look at that all the good we do in the community across the nation can be destroyed in on act. We were the heroes a week ago so we're going to get back on the hero platform and treat people right. Give people a voice." protest  against  police  violence.

The Genesee County Sheriff asked protesters how he could support their efforts, and at their invitation, joined the march in Flint, Michigan.

In Kansas City, officers joined the marchers, holding signs protesting police View image on Twitterviolence.

Police chiefs in Atlanta and Houston have made a point of going out to talk to demonstrators–and to listen to them, expressing support for their concerns, and promising to help them demonstrate safely.

To be sure, gestures of sympathy won’t convince all the marchers that the police are really committed to the cause, but such efforts make it harder to mobilize large numbers to fight, break windows, or attack cars.

But small numbers of people can do a lot of damage. Windows have been broken, cars have been burned, and stores have been looted.

Reluctantly, I deploy the weak passive voice above because there are different explanations of just who is breaking windows:

Frantic and undisciplined individual demonstrators

“Outsiders” determined to make trouble.

Undercover police and agents provocateurs

Sinister antifa organizers looking to do damage

Right-wing white nationalists hoping to provoke a race war

Good evidence is scarce at the moment, but anyone who knows a little history would be prepared to believe that all of these groups are poking, trying to exploit the moment.

It’s all scary, first, because authorities use violence as an excuse to crack down on civil liberties and impose harsh measures.

Second, because violence gets in the way of addressing real systematic deficits in our criminal justice system.

Third, because we are still in the middle of a public health emergency, and it seems quite likely that the crowds and confrontation will help spread a virus to communities that are already suffering.

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