Last week, as yet another divisive national controversy regarding police shootings and crime unfolded, President Obama weighed in with a strange endorsement of the tactics used by the Black Lives Matter movement. Street protests, he said in a statement on Thursday, are not only understandable and legitimate—but appropriate. During a trip to Warsaw, Poland, the president said: “I would just ask those who question the sincerity or legitimacy of protests and vigils and expressions of outrage who somehow label those expressions of outrage as quote/unquote political correctness—I just ask folks to step back and think: what if this happened to someone in your family? How would you feel? To be concerned about these issues is not political correctness; it’s just being American and wanting to live up to our best and highest ideals.” The president is wrong to conflate street protests with our highest American ideals. The right of free assembly is found in the Bill of Rights and deserves unceasing protection, but ongoing street protests aren’t what we need right now. It’s time for street protests—whether that of Black Lives Matter or the offshoots of the Occupy movement—to stop.
Our legal and political orders differ fundamentally from the Civil Rights era, when African-Americans had no choice but to take to the streets. The movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. faced a government that was neither representative nor, under the voting rules of the time, potentially representative. It was an era of true legal disenfranchisement. Large numbers of Americans were legal outsiders, lacking access to legitimate means for redressing their deep moral grievances. They faced an unrepresentative political order and had every reason to conclude that “the system” must be pressured to change—or be replaced. They were right, in many cases, to presume bad faith on the part of public officials who could only be influenced by public pressure, fear of embarrassment, or even the threat of civil disobedience.
Things are different today. The legal and social “system” that the Civil Rights movement attacked has been toppled. Not only can African-Americans legally vote today in all states, they voted, in 2012, at a higher rate than whites. When King marched on Washington in 1963, only 1,400 blacks held elected office nationwide; today, more than 10,000 do. Nationwide, there are more than 58,000 black police officers, slightly less as a proportion of all police than the percentage of blacks in the overall population.
The point here is not merely to assert that America has made progress on racial matters, though, of course, it has. It is, rather, to question the presumption of street protests as a constructive tactic when officials at all levels of government are elected and, overwhelmingly, stand ready to try to work things out. We need a citizenry ready and willing to go beyond righteous indignation and to engage with government. What should the protocol for police encounters with suspected criminals be? How best can government serve the poor? These are matters that require ongoing engagement, especially at the local level—not angry outbursts honored by presidential pronouncement.
Street protest, as political strategy, has been the default mode of the Left since the early 1960s. In 1962, Students for a Democratic Society put it this way in the Port Huron Statement: “Institutions and practices which stifle dissent should be abolished, and the promotion of peaceful dissent should be actively promoted.” Many of our modern political leaders continue to pay homage to the idea of street protest as the highest form of patriotism. Hillary Clinton seeks the presidency to “break down all barriers,” as if she were running to be protestor-in-chief.
It’s time to put the active promotion of protest behind us. At this stage of our history—given the achievements of the Civil Rights movement and related movements for women’s, gay, and disabled rights—we’d be better served by our political leaders if they focused not on protest, but on building a society that accepts all Americans and that all Americans accept. As Dallas police chief David Brown put it yesterday: “We’re hiring. Get off that protest line and put an application in.”
Photo by StreetMuse/iStock