Martin Luther King Day, 2023

January 16, Martin Luther King Day, falls the day after what would have been King’s 95th birthday, a reminder of how young he was during his ministry. It’s really not that long ago.

The holiday offers a good chance for politicians across the political spectrum to misquote or misinterpret King. Advocates have unsuccessfully tried to use the Federal holiday to drum up support for protecting Voting Rights–a strong commitment for King during his life. Others push for a day of service, really because it’s much harder to create a consensual feel-good moment out of a commitment to racial and economic justice and opposition to war–both severe challenges in the current moment.

And I’d bet that when the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action in two cases brought by the front group, Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina–argued late last year, that patches of King’s most famous speeches will dot the final opinion.

King is constantly reinterpreted and appropriated for a range of causes. For a much fuller consideration, keep an eye out for Hajar Yazdiha’s forthcoming book (May!), The Struggle for the People’s King: How Politics Transforms the Memory of the Civil Rights Movement.

Here I repost a slightly edited version of an older post on the holiday.

Statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. with a light snow-covering

On the eve of the Martin Luther King Day holiday not long ago, the president of the United States announced, emphatically, that you can’t find anyone less racist than he is. If you’re suspicious of such proclamations, perhaps it’s just that you’ve learned to distrust people who laud their own honesty, their color-blindness, their respect for women, or concern for the poor. Like the salesman who claims the nickname, “Honest,” Donald Trump never succeeded in fooling most people, just enough to sell the next condo or secure the next loan. Then some large number of elected officials and voters who knew better chose to look the other way, and Trump won the 2016 election.

The office of the presidency, however, starts with obligations to all Americans, and it doesn’t end there. Trump is hardly the first US president to harbor racist thoughts or sentiments, but he’s displayed less worry about revealing them to large audiences, often through words, and consistently through deeds.

We now have a new president, and an African-American vice-president, but white supremacy has hardly disappeared into a Florida estate without its most visible champion.

It’s worth considering the resources and possibilities Martin Luther King’s memory gives us in combating those who would restore what he fought against.

One of the hard-won achievements of the civil rights movement was the establishment of King holiday. This means that Americans expect any president to pay respects to the man, and even more, to the movement. Tradition really is powerful, and activists are wise to attend to establishing new ones.

If Donald Trump displayed less appreciation or enthusiasm for the King holiday than, say, pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys, that’s no mystery or surprise.

Each holiday event is a moment, unlikely to capture much attention in the White House during the rest of the year.

For the rest of us, however, the King Day reminder is an alert. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many many others, put work behind their words on social justice, often facing great risks and paying serious penalties. Their heirs continue today.

Martin Luther King died young enough and dramatically enough to be turned into an American hero, but it was neither his youth nor his death that made him heroic.

To Build a Mature Society: The Lasting Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s  “Beyond Vietnam” Speech — The Gotham Center for New York City History

In his rather brief public life, beginning in Montgomery at 26, and ending with his assassination at 39, King consistently displayed rhetorical brilliance (on the podium and the page), strategic acumen, and exceptional moral and physical courage.

The effort to honor Martin Luther King with a holiday commemorating his birthday started at the King Center, in Atlanta, in the year after his assassination.  States began to follow suit, and by 1983, more than half celebrated King’s life with a day. That year, Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King day a national holiday, while expressing ambivalence, acknowledging that it was costly, and that King may have been a Communist.

The King holiday was about Martin Luther King, to be sure, but it was meant to represent far more than the man.  King stands in for the civil rights movement and for African-American history more generally.  I often wonder if the eloquence of the 1963 “I have a dream” speech winds up obscuring not only a man with broader goals, but a much more contested–and ambitious–movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial - Wikipedia

The man and the movement are ossified into an iconic image, like a statue, which locks King and the movement into the politics of 1963-1965.  We accept King’s dream, that little children will play together, and that people will be judged by “the content of their character” (a favorite phrase on the right).

The image, like a statue, is available for appropriation to advocates of all political stripes, and the establishment of the holiday itself represents an achievement of the civil rights movement, winning the holiday if not broader economic and social equality.

Before the transformation of the man into an icon, King transformed himself from a pastor into an activist, a peripatetic crusader for justice.

But the pastor didn’t disappear; rather this role grew into something larger, as King himself transformed himself from a minister into a an Old Testament prophet, one whose primary concern was always the people on the margins, the widows and orphans, the poor and hungry. In standing with those on the margins, King courageously used–and risked–the advantages of his privilege, pedigree, and education.  He also knew that he risked his safety and his life.

In his writing, King used his education and his vocation to support his political goals.  In the critically important “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he cited both the Constitution and the Bible in support of Federal intervention in local politics to support desegregation and human rights.  (We know that other activists now use the same sources to justify pushing the Federal government out of local politics.)

King explained that he was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, because he had nonviolently defied local authorities in the service of higher laws, the Constitution and the Gospel.  This was not like making a provocative statement on one’s own [profitable] radio or television show.  There were real costs and severe risks.

King was never less than controversial during his life, under FBI surveillance during his political career, and vigorously criticized by opponents (for demanding too much and too strongly) and allies (for not demanding more, more vigorously).

When he was assassinated outside a Memphis motel in 1968, he was standing with sanitation workers on strike, straying from a simpler civil rights agenda.  He had also alienated some civil rights supporters by coming out, strongly, against the war in Vietnam.  And Black Power activists saw their own efforts as overtaking King’s politics and rhetoric.  By the time he was killed, Martin Luther King’s popular support had been waning for some time.

Posterity has rescued an image of Martin Luther King, at the expense of the man’s own broader political vision.

Ironically, in elevating an insurgent to a position in America’s pantheon of historic heroes, we risk editing out the insurgency.

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Repression, Policing, and Punishment for the Oath Keepers

The Sedition trial of five Oath Keepers is just underway in Washington, DC. The government charges the leaders of the far right group with mobilizing and organized armed members to stop Congress from counting electoral votes to prevent Joe Biden from taking office.

Stewart Rhodes, the group’s leader, says they were counting on Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act. Trump didn’t, and months after the Capitol insurrection, some were arrested. A federal judge found that Rhodes was a “clear and continuing danger,” and denied bail. Rhodes has been in jail since his arrest in January.

Conspiring to overthrow the government is a felony, and the defendants are at risk of prison sentences of twenty years or more. Arresting, trying and punishing criminals is a function of government, a means to keep social order.

But the line between crime and dissent can get fuzzy.

Right now, in Iran and in Russia, protesters are being arrested and jailed, with (maybe) some kind of trial in the future. The state strategy is not just to get them off the streets and out of the public eye, but to warn off others from joining them. The possibility of harsh punishment–maybe underscored with a beating in the streets–can be a powerful deterrent.

Repression works by separating out dissenters from broader political support. Punishment is one tool for isolating and stigmatizing criminals/reformers/patriots/activists from everyone else. But punishment that’s overly harsh or capricious can have exactly the opposite effect, garnering public sympathy. Governments try to punish criminals without creating public martyrs.

The Oath Keepers are only the most recent of the Capitol insurrectionists to face trial. (Even the label, “insurrectionists,” reflects a political judgment.) Since January 2020, more than 900 protesters have been arrested and charged with various crimes, and nearly 400 have entered guilty pleas. A few have gone to trial and been convicted, and are now serving time. Others are detained awaiting trial. (Here’s the long list from the US Attorney’s Office.)

Rhodes and his co-defendants are mounting a vigorous defense, claiming their conduct was lawful and their cause righteous, but three of his allies have already entered guilty pleas and are likely to be called to testify. In addition to the testimony of co-conspirators, the government will deploy videos, phone records, testimony from police and informants, and the defendants’ statements. The evidence that Rhodes and the rest were trying to overturn the election seems pretty overwhelming.

What happens in the courtroom is important, but what happens outside in response is even more important. Thus far, the Capitol protesters, including the Oath Keepers, have received (astonishing!) support from a few Republican politicians in office. Donald Trump has promised more, pledging to issue blanket pardons–plus apologies–if he is returned to the presidency.

So, the stakes are high, and the path forward is more difficult than it might initially seem. The government needs to convince a jury that the defendants broke serious laws. The prosecutor and judge must also show a much broader public that these Oath Keepers deserve what they’re getting, and certainly not the support of anyone who claims to be a patriot.

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Protest resumes in Iran

The death of Mahsa Amini–in custody–became a focal point for opposition to Iran’s theocracy. A twenty-two year old Kurdish woman, Amini was arrested for the offense of not wearing her hijab properly. It’s still not quite clear what happened to her in detention, but that’s where her life ended. Protests erupted across Iran.

It’s a common, easy, and inaccurate story to report that the incident awakened dormant dissatisfaction with the state, leading to an unanticipated round of street protests.

In fact, protests against the Iranian government are persistent, if limited, sometimes reaching the attention of Western media. The government has faced protests about the imposition of harsh restrictions on public and private life, to be sure, but also to corruption, repression and poor economic performance, resulting in high prices for food. American sanctions are part of this story, a reaction to Iran’s foreign policies and an apparent project to develop nuclear weapons.

A Green Movement erupted in Iran in 2009–before the wave of protests across the Middle East that defined the Arab Spring. In the last few years, M. Ali Kadivar notes at the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage, protests on a variety of issues have increased across the country, and faced harsh repression.

Police repress in the streets, beating, teargassing, and shooting demonstrators. And arrested protesters can face not only long prison sentences, but brutality in custody. As the protests increased, the repression has become more severe.

Repression often works, Kadivar notes, deterring public dissent. But sometimes, branded as state misconduct, repression becomes another grievance that builds broader alliances among dissenters. The current wave of protests, he argues, unites a range of ethnic groups, students and businesses, and has drawn visible support from cultural elites like athletes and artists. Dissidents upset with corruption or economic failures are now supporting women protesters mistreated by the state–for the first time, Kadivar says, since the successful revolutionary movement of 1979 which toppled the Shah.

It takes more than a grievance to get most people to protest. They need to believe that regular politics won’t deliver the reforms they want, and that their efforts, including participation in protest might help. More action and more allies feed a sense of possibility, encouraging more activism.

Will state repression succeed in shutting down enough of those protests to stifle hope and activism? It usually does, but sometimes it intensifies grievances and commitment. It’s important to recognize this wave of dissent in Iran builds upon years of less visible efforts. And the key thing to watch is the nature of emergent alliances.

The same issues are attendant to disruptive challenges to governments elsewhere–like the antiwar/antidraft protesters in Russia–and also right wing racist movements across the West.

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Protests and Repression in Russia

The Russian army needs more soldiers for its war in Ukraine than its leaders promised at the outset, to fight a war that has already gone longer than they expected. Vladimir Putin has announced enhanced

“mobilization,” which means drafting young Russians.

Young Russians–and their families and friends–are understandably less than enthusiastic about getting sucked out of their lives, mustered into uniform, and sent to battles that aren’t going so well. Some are protesting.

More than 1,000 protesters have been arrested, removed to the public square and sent to prison for an uncertain fate.

Protesting against war–and especially against conscription–is at least as old as war and conscription. And it’s not new in Russia. In March, when Putin started this war, thousands of Russians staged protests in major cities, leading to harsh policing and mass arrests, and disruption faded. It’s hard to keep turning out when harsh punishments are likely and the prospects for influence seem weak. Repression can work.

Is this time different? It’s not just a war now, but a war that’s not going well that’s provoked political isolation and economic pressure–plus conscription. A run on flights out of Russia also followed Putin’s announcement.

Leaving–and certainly staying to protest–are both tougher in Russia today than across Western democracies. The first reaction must be to appreciate the bravery, commitment, and frustration that drives these people out to this streets.

Will any of this matter?

One round of protests, even if massive and disruptive, won’t end the war–or Putin’s rule. But they represent a signal to others: to people watching from their apartment windows; to police wielding clubs and carting away demonstrators; to military and business leaders who might even get close to Putin; to leaders–and dissidents–in neighboring states that somehow support Russia. The signal is about limits to Putin’s support, and the possibilities for something or someone else to follow. And just that wisp of an alternative can be enough to encourage those others to take action with more direct influence.

Putin also sees the same signal, and can think twice or a third time about his strategies for escalation, and certainly about the reliability of his allies. He’s likely to pause before ordering another round of conscription–and certainly before sampling homemade baked goods or a very special wine.

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Froze and Reversed the Arms Race, June 12 anniversary

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 a war rages in Ukraine and hundreds of thousands of Americans march against gun violence. Just for starters.

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.)

bulletin of atomic scientists 2020 doomsday clock 100 seconds to midnight

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.

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 still set to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to apocalypse that it’s ever been.

Today’s debate is about the promise that members of the Senate have negotiated an agreement on a very modest set of gun safety reforms that might grab the needed sixty votes to pass the chamber. Activists and observers are all sorts are ranting about whether this is enough. The freeze story offers some clear lessons on the benefits of partial victories, gracelessly accepted, and the impermanence of any gains. You can skip to the end to see.


Thirty (nine) 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.

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.

US/ Russia nuclear warheads

The world changed.

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

Do you want to call it a victory?


The nuclear freeze movement was the subject of my doctoral dissertation and my first book

The issues in it remain relevant.

The story shows the long and complicated trajectory through which social movements affect influence. That’s the topic of my newest book.

There are a few simple lessons that merit repeating today:

  1. It’s never one event, action, demonstration, statement, or lawsuit that makes the difference; rather, it’s an accumulation of efforts.

2. All victories take forever.

3. And they’re never enough, and certainly not necessarily permanent.

The work is important, and it must continue in order to be effective.

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March for Our Lives is Still Marching

They’re back.

Teens in Parkland, Florida, who had survived the horrific Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in 2018, initially organized around the slogan, “Never Again.” They vowed to make sure no other kids would have to live with the loss and with the fear that had been forced upon them. They turned out to be resilient and effective organizers, supported by their parents and their community. They staged a demonstration in Parkland, then a lobbying trip to Tallahassee, and then another to Washington, DC. They followed with a much larger national rally in Washington, DC, a nation-wide school walk-out, then a national bus tour to register and motivate young people to vote. They even made it out here to Irvine.

They can claim credit for pressing the gun safety issue effectively, winning (modest) reforms at the state level (e.g., expanded background checks, age limits for purchasing some weapons), generating tons of publicity for the cause, raising a lot of money and establishing a powerful professional organization to support the cause, and inspiring countless other young people to take up the cause–and other causes. Swedish teen Greta Thunberg was one of them.

Never Again? Not quite. Or Not Yet. The young organizers picked a new name, March for our Lives, partly because anti-genocide activists had long been working Never Again. And the recent shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo–and, alas, countless others, including at schools, suggest that the end to the fear and the danger is a way off. (The activists against genocide still have work to do as well.)

So, after Buffalo and Uvalde, they’re back. March for Our Lives organized a large demonstration in Washington, DC, and hundreds of allied demonstrations across the country. (I pulled the map below off the group’s website, showing the location of planned actions.)

And a lot of the no-longer-kids are back. Some have stayed consistently involved in the issue and maintained political visibility, while others took a step back. It’s hard to think that many high school students have any sense of just how much sustained effort it takes for a movement to effect change in American politics. It’s far easier to think that once you discover an issue and a solution and demonstrate a willingness to work hard, you’ll see impressive results quickly. (James Madison giggles in his grave.)

But these young organizers are a little older, some with college degrees, and they understand both the personal costs of political visibility (harassment and threats, to start), and the very long haul ahead to make the country a little safer.

Collectively, at least, they also understand the mix of messages needed to inspire and sustain a powerful social movement. Compare, for example, Jaclyn Corin’s appearance on the Tonight Show with X Gonzalez’s interview in the Atlantic Monthly.

Sitting on the celebrity couch, Corin emphasized hope, claiming credit for state law reform, and emphasizing how one person can make a difference through activism, organizing, lobbying, and elections.

In an interview with Elaine Godfrey, Gonzalez shows her anger and disappointment with Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, and the need to do more. They claim not to have hope, but explain that they’re writing a speech to deliver at the DC rally. “Anything is better than nothing.”*

It will take a mix of anger and some optimism to sustain this movement long enough to effect large changes. I don’t know that Corin and Gonzalez negotiated a balance in advance, but it seems like, together, they’re hitting that mix.

Note: I’m glad to have had the chance to write something a little longer about the prospects for longer term change. See “What the gun control movement can learn from the antiabortion movement,” at the Washington Post.

* Revised to reflect Gonzalez’s preferred pronouns.

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Celebrities talk about guns

Matthew McConaughey’s brief speech about the horrors of the last (at this writing) school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, made for a two-day story–at least. People will keep talking and taking pictures and arguing about the movie star’s take.

Of course, anyone can say anything they want about guns in the United States. Scroll through a few screens of any major social media platform, and it’s easy to find something inspiring or appalling. (There’s an abundance of passion, wisdom, and ignorance out there.) But virtually none of those posts will get any meaningful attention.

McConaughey is different because he’s a star. Celebrities carry their own platforms with them, the bigger the star, the brighter and broader the spotlight. There will be a burst of attention, and audiences will pick the celebrities who agree with their political stance, and then ridicule those who take an opposing stance. Virtually any news outlet or movement organization will promote the celebrities who take congenial positions–and then question the wisdom and talent of those who disagree, suggesting they “stay in their own lane” or “shut up and dribble.”

Celebrities take some risk of alienating their audiences or employers when they enter the political fray. Those with massive and reliable audiences (or “talent”) enjoy far more latitude than those without. (We must remember that the overwhelming majority of artists and actors are frustrated about their underemployment and have to come up with their own explanations for their status.)

And members of the audience draw their own lines about acceptability. I’ll happily watch a movie featuring Clint Eastwood or Susan Sarandon, even when I disagree with some elements of their politics. But Leni Riefenstahl? Eric Clapton? Maybe not.

It’s worth remembering that dramatic, athletic, or musical abilities are completely unconnected to political ideology or wisdom. And the more or less committed celebrity who draws a spotlight may obscure or misrepresent the larger movement.

Matthew McConaughey had more than his own star power. He delivered his speech from the White House press room, a platform unlikely to be granted to, say, Ted Nugent. The brief talk focused on the lives lost, and the personalities and unfulfilled dreams of the 10 year-olds and teachers killed at the Robb Elementary School. He didn’t take questions.

McConaughey published an op-ed in USA Today, outlining relatively modest “sensible” reforms in gun laws that would save lives, and justifying his presence in the political debate. He started with his qualifications: “I am a father, the son of a kindergarten teacher, and an American. I was also born in Uvalde, Texas. ” He makes the claim that he is not just another Hollywood actor and should enjoy more space in the debate than other celebrities, say, for example, Alec Baldwin.

The ongoing gun crisis in America is filled with people policing just who has the right to an audience, to have their views considered. I think it’s like the idea of “standing” in the legal system, the right to be heard. Unlike the law, however, the public sphere lacks explicit rules for standing. Living in America, we can find some of them:

Elected officials get audiences, as do celebrities from the arts, athletics, or business, regardless of their expertise on the law, the Constitution, public health and safety, or guns.

Rich people can claim the spotlight, again, regardless of experience.

Victims of gun violence, particularly including people who lost children, other relatives, or friends, claim standing in the debate by virtue of suffering harm. (This, by the way, aligns with the legal standard.) I am in awe of the grieving parents determined to honor their lost children by making the world a little better and safer, protecting others from what they’ve suffered.

And contenders argue about how much technical or Constitutional expertise one needs to have an informed opinion on appropriate policies–or whether parents or veterans deserve some special status in gun politics.

In movement politics, unlike the courtroom, standing is never unambiguous or uncontested. Effective activists have to make their case over and over, even knowing that people who disagree may never listen.

I’m glad Matthew McConaughey weighed in on the gun debate, and that his contribution expanded the window for discussion more than a little bit, but I have no illusion that he’ll change anyone’s mind. Still, encouraging those who agree is no small contribution.

Note: I’ve done some academic writing on this that might be of interest. Kaylin Bourdon and I wrote a long piece in the Emory Law Journal, “Social Movements and Standing in the American Gun Debate.”

Josh Gamson and I wrote a piece long ago on the celebrity problem, “The Challenge of Cultural Elites: Celebrities and Social Movements,” published in Sociological Inquiry.

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Sports are a platform for politics

Long ago, I helped organize a demonstration that drew about 10,000 people. Although all of the key organizers, who spent months in meetings and outreach efforts, viewed the turnout as success, I couldn’t help but think about the 33,000 people who turned out at Fenway Park for a baseball game 82 times a year. And, unlike Major League Baseball, we didn’t charge people to attend.

Big time sports come with a spotlight and a platform for politics and protest. It’s not new, and it’s usually laden with controversy. Think about the attention one-time quarterback Colin Kaepernick got for kneeling during the national anthem at football games. The loudest fans emphatically demand that politics be purged from the spectacle of sports–although they sing the anthem and cheer for the flag.

Sometimes, athletes can do a little more, and it depends upon the nature of the issue and the moment.

The National Basketball League has been the most visible of the men’s sports leagues to engage in movement politics, on Black Lives Matter and, just now, on guns. (Big time women’s sports have long been far more active!)

The players and coaches of the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors wore orange “End Gun Violence” t-shirts, before their second Finals game during warm-ups and media chats. They were trying to send a message to the massive audience on television and the Internet. (ESPN estimates that nearly 9 million people tuned into the game–and stories and photos of the warm-up shirts circulated everywhere.) I’m not sure that the players changed anyone’s mind on guns, but the t-shirts and statements encouraged people already active on the issue–and maybe helped others take those next few steps to political engagement on the issue.

Do you need the game? Gregg Popovich, long time coach of the San Antonio Spurs, who didn’t get very close to the Finals this year, went to a San Antonio rally in support of survivors of the Uvalde school shooting instead. Demanding political action and putting the blame clearly on Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Republican legislators, Popovich was characteristically clear and pointed. No stranger to politics, Popovich is a smart guy, but he commands an audience because of his success as a basketball coach (even if this year wasn’t so successful).

Do you need to be a jock?

A climate change activist bought a ticket to the French Open tennis championship, and found her way onto the court during a semifinal match. She tied herself to the net, then waited to be cut free and carried off the court. The match was paused for a little while, maybe 15 minutes, as the players went back to the locker room, and the not quite cryptic message (in English!) on the t-shirt, “WE HAVE 1028 DAYS LEFT,” was projected across the Internet.

Does any of this matter? Sure, but it’s not all the same, and effects play out over long periods of time. Although video of the French climate activist is easy to find, her name is more elusive in mainstream media. She has no special status or access to audiences, and it’s a safe bet that few came to the stadium to see her. It’s pretty easy to clear out a nonviolent protester, even if she has determination and chains. But the image–and certainly the issue–can remain.

But the NBA stars have ready access to a large audience–one that includes people who say they don’t want to hear about something other than basketball. Still, the t-shirts and the speeches can help create a sense of consensus and of urgency that could well push up voter turnouts and encourage others–even those who can’t hit a jump shot–to take actions of their own.

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Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (5)

Crisis provokes escalation.

Escalation can mean more people engaging in action, taking on an approach that is new for them.

It can mean some people taking on more aggressive, disruptive, or risky actions.

The tragic school shooting at the Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, following closely on other mass shootings—at a grocery in Buffalo, New York, and a church in Orange County, California, reminded Americans that we’re living through a gun crisis.

And Americans are escalating everywhere.

Across the nation, students staged walk-outs from school to call for gun safety legislation. (Yes, there were even more walk-outs across the nation’s schools following the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School; but this one came quicker, with a more prepared and mobilized infrastructure.)

Beto O’Rourke, candidate for governor in Texas, disrupted current Governor Gregg Abbott’s press conference on the Uvalde shooting, blaming Abbott and his allies on stage for making it easier for anyone to get and carry guns in Texas. When forced to leave, O’Rourke took his own focused rant outside, effusively hijacking Abbott’s press conference.

O’Rourke again spoke to gun safety protesters outside the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Houston, a larger and more urgent demonstration than the convention usually draws. Several entertainers and politicians pulled canceled their planned appearances inside the convention center, citing timing—or even newly discovered differences on policy.

Politics? Markets? Conscience? It really doesn’t matter.

Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors hijacked his own press conference about the NBA playoffs to talk about guns, calling out the 50 (Republican) senators who refused to vote on two very modest safety measures passed by the House of Representatives.

Kerr, whose father was shot and killed in his university office in Lebanon, has spoken about guns and politics before. And O’Rourke has campaigned for office on gun safety before. But there was a new intensity and urgency for both.

But there was also more.

The Miami Heat called for a moment of silence before their playoff game, ending with a loudspeaker announcement: “The Heat urges you to contact your state senators by calling 202-224-3121 to leave a message demanding their support for common-sense gun laws.”

(That number, by the way, is a switchboard at the Capitol, and will get you to a US senator instead—like Florida Republican Marco Rubio, a staunch defender of easy access to firearms who is up for reelection in the fall.)

NBA athletes—and some coaches—have taken strong political stances in the past, but the strong endorsement by a franchise is more unusual.*

Even more unusual was a statement by the New York Yankees on Twitter that the team would use its social media to Tweet gun facts rather than game updates, angering more than a few fans.

All of this marks another period of intensified debate on guns in America. It’s happened before, generally in the wake of a tragic shooting: assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968; the shooting of President Ronald Reagan in 1981; school shootings at Columbine (1999), Sandy Hook (2012), and Parkland (2018)—a very partial list. But progress takes a very long time, and attention usually shifts before advocates win even very modest reforms.

Maybe this time is different. The key issue is whether gun safety advocates–American citizens, can extend this period of escalation and attention.

*Note: The gun issue isn’t new in the US or in professional basketball. In 1997, Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington team, changed its name to “Wizards” from “Bullets,” a reaction against glorifying gun violence.

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Dilemmas and Dynamics of Escalation (4)

Candle-lit vigils, peaceful marches, or more forceful demonstrations outside the homes of Supreme Court justices determined to end legal abortion probably won’t change many minds—certainly not the minds of the targeted justices. But reproductive rights activists have been assembling outside the homes of conspicuously anti-abortion justices since the draft Alito opinion overruling Roe v. Wade dropped.

This is an escalation made by moving the site of protest from the workplace to the homes of targets, and it’s nothing new. In response to protests of all sorts, the Supreme Court had just put up high fences to keep protesters quite a distance away.

Taking the issue to the homes of the justices is an escalation, to be sure, but in the context of a half-century of abortion politics, it’s a relatively modest one. Nearly a decade ago, in a case about “sidewalk counseling” on abortion, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that opponents of abortion had the right to try to dissuade women seeking to enter Planned Parenthood clinics.

Massachusetts had passed a law providing a 35 foot “buffer zone” around clinics so that clients could come and go without too disruption or fear. The Court ruled that 35 feet was too much space. That counseling didn’t change many minds either.

Surely, the justices, far more insulated and far better protected than the women at clinics, are far better protected, and would want to ensure that their domestic peace didn’t interfere with anyone’s free speech rights.

Abortion opponents used their free speech rights to post the names and pictures of doctors that they thought were providing abortions and publish books detailing strategies for sabotaging abortion clinics. Those Constitutionally protected actions inspired others to bomb clinics and shoot doctors. Or even the home of Harry Blackmun, the justice who wrote the opinion in Roe.

Speech matters.

Public assembly outside the home of a justice may make the people inside uncomfortable, family and friends as well as the justices. It’s hard to think that any of the hyper-conservative majority will be intimidated or persuaded to change their minds. Justice Clarence Thomas, mostly angry and defensive about the Court these days, forcefully announced that the justices would not be bullied.  Of course.

Senator Mitch McConnell explained that a critical decision from the packed Court that went against public opinion didn’t bother him. After all, he said, that’s the way the system is supposed to work—and often does—pointing to an unpopular decision protecting flag burning from the 1980s. McConnell was a little right this time.  He then went on to blame Democrats and the left for promoting disrespect for the Court by doing things like demonstrating outside the justices’ homes, trying to pull the focus off abortion.

More important than the mostly disingenuous critiques of the home protest tactic are the other protest and political actions it’s meant to inspire—including large demonstrations and directed voting. Those effects will play out over months and years.

There is, of course, always a risk of backlash to the home protests, direct and indirect. Just a few weeks ago, the US Freedom Convoy tried to escalate by protesting outside the home of Buffy Wicks, who serves in the California State Assembly. The protesters were met by counterprotesters well-equipped with eggs, no doubt compliant with California standards for humane production and food safety.
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