Activists Must Do More Than Disrupt


Posted on 27 January 2015

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By Randy Shaw

As young people across the nation continue to block highways and transit systems, their commitment to the cause of racial justice has stirred millions. In the St. Louis region whose Ferguson shooting galvanized nationwide protests, longtime activists Laura Barrett of the Gamaliel Network reports that groups are coming together behind very specific agendas to address core racial issues. Barrett notes that "the courage of young protesters has been inspirational and has helped older civil rights activists recommit to the cause."

But in other cities, activists have not gotten beyond disruption. Such a limited focus often fails to target those who hold the power to change police practices, or to advance any specific program for racial justice. This reliance on militant tactics that many potential supporters find unacceptable also hinders the movement's growth.

Rosa Parks' Legacy

When the post-Ferguson/Eric Garner protests began, some young activists defended their disruption of city streets and highways by citing Rosa Parks. They argued that Parks' had "disrupted" the Montgomery bus system, and their blocking of highways and transit systems was part of this tradition.

It's great that Rosa Parks is proving an inspiration for a new generation of activists. Even better would be if the actual strategies and tactics of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott did become the model for what is now known as the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Rosa Parks' act of civil disobedience--refusing to go to the back of the bus where "Negroes" were required to sit--directly targeted the offending institution: the Montgomery, Alabama bus service. The subsequent black boycott of the bus system made no effort to stop bus service for whites. It did not disrupt bus routes, block whites from entering buses, or engage in any tactic that inconvenienced those not part of boycott.

Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other boycott leaders used economic pressure against an immediate target to achieve their goals.

There was nothing spontaneous about Parks' action. She was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, where she had been a member since 1943. In the summer before her heroic action she was trained as an organizer by the legendary Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. The campaign chose her to be the person whose arrest would lead to court action challenging bus segregation.

The black boycott of the Montgomery bus system lasted 381 days, crippling the system's finances. The city repealed its law after a U.S. Supreme Court case found the law requiring segregation on buses unconstitutional.

There is a vast difference between a sustained, organized boycott linked to a legal strategy and a group of activists deciding to block a freeway in order to "stop business as usual." Disruptions that were understandable in the wake of the Ferguson/Garner outrages are now outweighed by the negative consequences felt by thousands of workers whose work commutes have been derailed.

Remember the Targets

It's not clear how the latest freeway or public transit blockage puts pressure on those in power to reform police practices. It is unlikely that frustrated drivers will call their local district attorney and demand they shift their authority in police shootings to independent counsel. I'm not aware that drivers are even asked to take any specific action on behalf of the cause.

If reaction by workers in my office to last Friday's planned morning commute BART shutdown is any indication, these disruptive activities reduce rather than increase support for the activists. There is a huge support base for Black Lives Matter that is not comfortable with such tactics, yet as we saw with Occupy, far too few alternative activist opportunities have been made available.

As a result, the growth of what everyone is calling a "movement" is not producing movement level protest numbers. And those most responsible for perpetuating the system that allows ongoing racial killings are not being targeted at all.

For example, the ACLU's Peter Bibring recently wrote that "California has one of the nation's most restrictive laws for public access to information about police officer misconduct." Launching a massive protest/direct action/grassroots campaign to change this would be an obvious way to build a broader base for a result that would make a difference. Yet, to my knowledge, California officials who could change this law have faced nowhere near the inconvenience or pressure endured by BART commuters or drivers.

The passionate young activists taking to the streets have fueled a renewed political opportunity to change the policies and practices that underlie racially based police shootings. The question is whether their anger can build a broader movement that actually produces results, as occurred with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or whether it dissipates through the limited tactic of disruption.


Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses strategies behind successful direct action in The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century. This article was originally published at Beyond Chron.