There will come a point when we realize that protest no longer works as a tool of systemic change. That it does not matter how many people you can bring out into the streets, or how many signatures you have on a petition, or how many calls a government office may receive. Systemic power has become immune to protest. Protest may actually support the continuation of current systems of power, because protest allows energy to be channeled and safely discharged into forms that systems of power know well how to mitigate and ignore. Protest has at its core an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the power being protested. Sometimes it even acknowledges that power by appealing to it for redress, thereby reinforcing the system of power.
The people can engage their outrage and grief at the unjustified killing of another black person by forms of protest that are no threat to police or other forms of systemic power. Activists can camp in a park to their hearts content, or until the public eye moves on, while presenting no real threat to systems of economic power. Activists can temporarily block the movement of an oil exploration rig, and temporarily change a corporation’s economic calculus without altering the basic financial structures upon which decisions are really made.
I want to acknowledge the grief, pain, and fear in this moment of our culture. The outrage that demands public cries for justice. The need to come together and be seen in this moment of pain and anguish. Protest does that, and it is important. It is a form of mass pastoral care and communal awareness and formation. I also want to acknowledge that for many, including for many activists of color, the spiritual practice of protest and the community that actions of protest build are the spiritual foundation upon which movements of social change can be built. The spiritual strength and power of community that can be built through actions of protest can transform into the kinetic shifting of tactics of interruption and disruption that I believe have the best chance of leading to systemic change in the world today. I am not denying the power of movements of protest to form the activists we need in this moment… only that those actions of protest themselves will be the tool of change that transforms the systems of power defending the status quo of active racial and economic repression upon which our society is based.
At some point, we are going to realize that protest no longer works as a way to effect change. At best, it is the training ground for the modern activism we need. At worst, it is a safe way for the energies of outrage and heartache to be released without threatening the systems of power. And my eyes and heart are on what we will do when the ineffectiveness of protest to effect change becomes so obvious that it cannot be denied. How do we effect change when all the tools we know no longer work, and we have forgotten how to think beyond them? Do we give up in frustration, or do we find new forms of activism to effect the change we need?
Yours in Faith,