Fighting for Black Lives—and Against the Rules of Political Expression

By Joelle Gamble |

The murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile sparked a high level of political action and calls for justice across the country. Yet all over social media, I saw folks questioning the respectability of protesters, arguing that they should be arrested for breaking the rules.

This kind of talk always happens when the most marginalized people find effective avenues of political expression. They are called rioters. But we never ask ourselves: What is it about the rules of political participation that makes mass protest necessary in the first place?

In mainstream discourse, political participation is typically only a matter of counting who votes and how often. But this is myopic: The current avenues available to us for creating political change are not producing the results we need. They are not protecting our lives. Take the issue of background checks, for example: If even 87 percent of Republicans support background checks, shouldn’t we have them by now? The presence of powerful, moneyed interests means that voter support does not necessarily equal legislative action.

What happens when the ballot box doesn’t result in policies that address critical issues? Or, to frame the question differently, how can election results reflect the views of all Americans when so many cannot vote? As the Brennan Center reports, 17 states have rolled out new voter restriction laws ahead of the 2016 election. We are already seeing unconscionable levels of disenfranchisement of people of color, young people, and the elderly across the country.

When traditional channels of political expression are insufficient to create change, other means become paramount. However, despite purporting to value free speech and assembly, the U.S. has rules that allow for bias and respectability politics to curb expression. For example, there are time, manner, and place restrictions on public protest. The state can curb protests deemed to be disorderly, unreasonably loud, or disruptive of traffic—including protests, like those of the Movement for Black Lives, directed against the state itself. The police discretion allowed here results in the kinds of arrests we saw in Baton Rouge over the weekend: Hundreds were arrested for things as simple as stepping off the sidewalk—by police wearing riot gear.

Essentially, the central question is this: When the rules are inadequate for elevating a serious issue, when does breaking them become the right course of action? Americans have a very persistent belief that anyone who does not follow the rules should be discredited. But, we rarely stop to think about the circumstances under which the rules are insufficient for solving problems—or protecting lives.

Instead, we subject protesters’ conduct to a litmus test of respectability and ask them to file calmly down a sidewalk. This only works if the political system is set up to acknowledge people’s voices when they participate through traditional means. But, as mentioned earlier, this is not the case—especially for people of color. When Black folks protest police brutality, instead of acknowledging the problem, prevailing powers instead divert the question to Black-on-Black crime. And when Black folks protest Black-on-Black crime, no one reports one it at all.

Sometimes, breaking those rules is the only way to elevate a need for change.

One of the clear outcomes of large-scale protest, particularly a protest that leads to conflicts of any kind—such as mass arrests—is that media actually pays attention. We must admit that peaceful, sustained action does not get coverage within our 24-hour news cycle. Thus, there is a tactical advantage to the kinds of protest we have seen over the last few months. One need to look no further than Baltimore, the site of many protests for Freddie Gray, as well as sustained community activism. We have only heard about one of those things.

This is why direct political action matters. It brings to the forefront real issues and grievances that otherwise may be left unnoticed. If we believe that the voices of the most marginalized in our country matter, we need to reimagine and rewrite the rules governing political action and expression to protect them.

Joelle Gamble is a Senior Advisor to the President & CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.