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Week 5: Recipe for a Protest Movement

What follows is an installment of my Writer’s Diary, which for twelve weeks I am sending every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Hello! It’s nice to see you again. Thank you for opening this email, this erstwhile cheese sandwich blog that has been pressed into duty as a chronicle of protest. Since last Sunday, it feels as though years have passed. Time is so plastic, stretching to fit the weight of events. And 2020 has insisted: stretch, stretch, stretch. It’s been a year for the books, and we’re not even halfway through it.

Last week I heard from a handful of you who were surprised and/or delighted to learn about the efforts of protesters to clean up the morning after an evening of sometimes violent protest and property damage. It ran against some of the images being presented on our screens, which are algorithmically optimized to showcase violence, fire, and blood. Truly here we are, beyond the reach of F*$%book, out where we can talk about the important stuff.

Since you last heard from me, I have actively joined the protests. On Wednesday and again yesterday I marched on the streets of Los Angeles. Each event filled me with so much hope. Partly this must just be a result of finding myself in a crowd of thousands after three months cooped up in my apartment. But I think it’s also because in these protests I see America talking to itself. Asking itself to do better. And so many are showing up to say, ‘Yes, we will do everything we can to do better.’

Today I want to talk more about the tactics and the tactile feel of these protests. Hopefully you will hear something you haven’t heard yet—and understand what’s happening a little bit better.

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But first—a video! This comes courtesy of my friend Johanna Case, a gifted filmmaker who graduated just this spring from the New School. (You can view more of her work at her website.)

Yesterday, Lisa and I met up with Johanna and her partner Ben. We walked to Pan Pacific Park where we joined several thousand other protesters. There was a teach-in at the park and then a march through West Hollywood, towards Beverly Hills. Johanna took video of everything. And when I asked if she would share her footage with you, she speedily put together this video for the newsletter. It’s hot off the presses—please enjoy!

Recipe for a Protest Movement

Many have tried to explain why some protests grow and change the world while others fizzle without making a mark. In one of my favorite books, the great Why Civil Resistance Works, the authors collect data about every major social uprising of the last century, see that violent uprisings tend to be less effective than nonviolent ones, and try to answer why. One of their conclusions is that violence seems to keep a movement from growing to include grandmothers, pregnant women, children, and others whose lives are precarious. It makes sense, and the authors bring receipts.

But no two movements are the same. The current protests differ in major ways from the 2014 protests that followed the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. And their tactics differ even more profoundly from the 2011 Occupy movement, the ongoing Gun Violence protests, and the Anti-Iraq War Protests of 2002-11. So what are the tactics of the current protests? How do they feel? And why do they seem to be having such a big effect?

The following “recipe” comes from my observations as a protester—and as a reader of news, the internet, and emails from readers of this newsletter. By its very nature this is an early draft. But I hope you will find it informative and useful. (And let me know if you have any further insights!)

There Is A Large Support Apparatus

It is striking the degree to which protesters are taking care of each other. In both the marches I participated in I encountered dozens of people circulating and handing out bottles of water, squirts of hand sanitizer, free face masks, snack bags. The support aparatus—this weight of generosity—makes everyone feel safer and more comfortable. Restaurants along the route of the march sometimes hand out glasses of water or, memorably, slices of pizza. Meanwhile a few support cars drive in the middle of the protests, handing out water, carrying protesters who feel faint, and even distributing single cut flowers for protests to hold.

Then there are the organizers working around the protests: the clean-up crews coming in the day after, the people running bail funds to help get protesters out of jail, the legal observers recording what happens, and the lawyers working pro bono on behalf of protesters targeted by police.

People spontaneously pouring into the streets can be powerful, but to keep those people in the movement requires support. Today this support is arriving on a scale I have never before seen.

The Tactics Emphasize Education

It may look on TV like protesters are spending their time yelling at cops, getting beaten by them, and demanding various changes. In fact, one of the central activities of the protests is education: first-time protesters are learning about the prevalence of police violence against black people, learning about the system’s refusal to change, and learning about the strength of collective action.

Yesterday at Pan-Pacific park, several thousand protesters sat in the grass, totally silent, listening as a woman with a bullhorn gave a history lesson about systemic racism. She talked about Tanya Lynn Blanding, a four-year-old girl who was killed by police or the National Guard during riots in Detroit in 1967. The speaker brought her up to show how police violence against black bodies isn’t something new. ‘My grandfather marched fifty years ago for the same things that I’m marching for today,’ she said. ‘And probably my grandchild will have to protest fifty years from now.’

After this teaching, everyone stood up and began marching. With the march came chants. ‘Black lives they matter here!’ ‘No Justice / NO PEACE! / No racist police!’ ‘I Can’t Breathe!’ These were also educational in a way, especially the core chant of these protests—’Say his name / GEORGE FLOYD’—which inevitably shifts to ‘Say her name / BREONNA TAYLOR,’ reminding people of this other recent victim of police violence.

When I first heard this chant, I didn’t know who Breonna Taylor was. Breonna Taylor was a 26-year-old ER tech in Louisville, Kentucky. Around midnight on March 13th she was asleep in her apartment when police broke down her door with a battering ram, swarmed into her house, and promptly shot her eight times. She died right there. The police had never even knocked or said they were police or announced why they were there. (It turned out they were investigating two people totally unconnected to Taylor, who were in fact already in police custody.) How did this happen? Because of a “no-knock warrant,” a legal authorization to burst fully armed into a private home without any warning. No-knock warrants are legal in 48 states—but these protests are aiming to change that.

If you participate in these protests, you learn more. You get angrier. You become more committed.

There Are Policy Goals—And Wins Are Being Notched

Most protests aim to change the way their government acts. But some are more coherent in their demands than others. These protests, which come after almost a decade of activism by the various organizations around Black Lives Matter, have some very specific demands. A central demand is to defund and demilitarize the police—and to reinvest the saved money in programs that benefit black communities.

Here in L.A., the protests have already gone some way towards achieving that goal: the mayor is proposing to cut $150M from LAPD’s $3B budget, and he is also vowing to steer $250M to programs benefiting black communities in the city. This isn’t a panacea, but it is a tangible win for the movement, showing that with good politicians and broad public support change can actually happen. In Minneapolis, where a policeman murdered George Floyd while three others watched, the protests have had an even bigger effect: its city council is now vowing to dismantle its police department and create a new system of public safety. Wins like these keep wind in the movement’s sails.

Black People Are Leading

A key organizational tactic of these protests is for them to be led by black people. This is smart because it nurtures black leaders, it means that the movement’s actions follow its values—and also because white people often have serious blind spots.

Here in West Hollywood there was a small dust-up when the organizers of the annual Pride march, which had been cancelled after covid-19 fears, decided to un-cancel it and re-imagine it as a march in support of black lives. This was a great idea, especially because black trans women like Marsha P. Johnson were at the very front lines of the gay liberation movement. But the lead organizer of the march, a white man, promptly asked the police for demonstration permits. The activists leading the current protest movement questioned this decision to ask police permission for a march against police violence; part of the motivation for these protests is a questioning of the idea that we should need police permission to protest. To the credit of L.A. Pride, they quickly stepped back from organizing the event and rescinded their permit applications. I am confident that the march will still happen—I intend to join it—but now it will be led by black people.

The good news is that white people seem to getting better at following, at supporting, at being allies. You can see it on the streets: white people standing alongside black people, giving support without hogging the mic.

The Protesters Are Profoundly Diverse

You see every type of person on the streets. The signs tell it well: “Latinos for Black Lives,” “Armenians Against Police Violence,” “Black Trans Lives Matter,” “Yellow Peril Supports Black Lives.” (This last one is a reference to a classic sign—“Yellow Peril Supports Black Power”—from the 1967 campaign to free Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panthers.) The diversity of this protest movement is a sign of its strength and durability. It also reflects the interconnectedness of the many struggles for justice today. As one sign reads, “All Lives Can’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter.”

The Protesters Are Overwhelmingly Young

This is striking here in Los Angeles, where protesters under the age of 18 seem to easily outnumber those older than 40. This is not to say that there are no older protesters. It is to say that there multitudes of young protesters. It reminds me a lot of the Hong Kong protesters—a group of people who have never yet had the chance to grow complacent—and who worry that if they are silent, they might never have a chance.

Our country’s political system is strongly tilted to favor older folks, who dominate the ranks of active voters and elected politicians. My eyes suggest that, should that balance change, the direction of this country will change dramatically, too.

The Protests Are Now Peaceful—Except the Police

As the raw rage of the early days after George Floyd’s murder has given way to a giant protest movement, the incidence of violence against property and provocation of police seems to have dissolved. This is certainly the case here in Los Angeles, where giant crowds have marched peacefully with almost no police supervision (beyond the omnipresent helicopters). It turns out that when not provoked by police, this movement is deeply committed to the tactics of nonviolent resistance. Which is no surprise, given the groundwork laid through years of nonviolent Black Lives Matter activism. But it is notable.

At the same time, police have committed many of the signal violent acts of the last week-and-a-half. Perhaps nowhere has this been clearer than when military police gassed and assaulting peaceful protesters in D.C.’s Lafayette Square so that our president could have his picture taken holding up a Bible like 12-pound salmon. But here in Los Angeles we have also had incidents of police intentionally ramming protesters with their cars, clubbing peaceful protesters, and even smashing out windows to drag people out of their cars for the crime of driving after curfew.

There’s a word for this: a police riot. I only learned the term this week, but I really believe that once you have a word for something it’s a lot easier to see it. According to Wikipedia, a police riot is “a riot carried out by the police; a riot that the police are responsible for instigating, escalating or sustaining as a violent confrontation; an event characterized by widespread police brutality; a mass police action that is violently undertaken against civilians for the purpose of political repression.” Now that you know what it means, keep your eyes open for one. And if you see one, say something.

8:46 is a Long Time

The police officer Eric Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. That is a very long time. I know that it is because this length of time has become a tool of the protests. On Wednesday, a little after noon, I joined a silent mass of protesters in trying to kneel for that long. Others in the protest were staging a die-in for this time, laying on their stomachs against the hot pavement, hands mock-cuffed behind their backs. Minutes passed. My knees hurt. But well before eight minutes passed the people laying face-down had to give up. They were in too much pain. Just the hot asphalt, plus 8:46, was too much. It proves a point.

That night, a call went around social media for people to go outside at 9:00pm and shine flashlights into the sky for, again, eight minutes and forty-six seconds. It would be a tribute to George Floyd, a devoted man of Christian faith, dispatched to heaven much too soon. Lisa and I went down to the street, where we found that there were others on our block answering the same call. We all pointed our flashlights to the sky and waited. Minutes passed. Then more minutes. It took long enough that the mind wandered, was called back, and wandered again. It was hard to think of anyone being killed like that. Finally the alarm on the phone went off. We said ‘Good night’ to our neighbors and went back upstairs to eat dinner.

Consider the Smaller Marches

The major newspapers are covering this story by focussing on a few major cities that have had massive marches: Minneapolis, New York, D.C., Philly, Los Angeles. But I think that equally hopeful are the thousands of protests in small towns across the country. Even in L.A. there are easily a dozen protests every day, and giant groups have come together in more conservative Newport Beach and Huntington Beach. The same is true in rural places. Dozens protested in Unalakleet, Alaska—population 697. And from Mendocino County Vincent Poturica writes to say there have been protests not just in Ukiah, Willits, and Fort Bragg, but also in Laytonville and Gualala. (See this invaluable—but only partial—worldwide map of George Floyd protests.) They may not get the glory of appearing on national TV, but isn’t it beautiful and heartbreaking to imagine this country as consisting of a thousand main streets, each holding a crowd bearing signs that affirm, “Black Lives Matter”?

That’s all for this week. I hope you’re well, and I send you my very best. As always, feel free to forward this to a friend, or to send me an email of dissent or affirmation. See you next week.

June 7, 2020