BY A. RAHMAN FORD
The Ferguson episode has been instructive in many ways. On the one hand, the protest and catharsis are inspirational and invigorating. On the other hand, there is also that residue of concern that it will become troublingly illustrative of a much larger malady plaguing post-Civil Rights black politics. If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we must admit that the black systemic political voice has become monotone, without cadence, without inflection, without rhythm, a droning like that which precipitates hypnosis. It is precisely this trance that permeates the voting booth and pervades popular discourse around black politics, fomenting political stagnation at best and retrenchment at worst. The causes of this problem are multifarious. One major contributor is what I like to refer to as the recreation/re-creation paradigm.
By recreational I simply mean without a meaningful action orientation. Black politics has become ritualized, unattached to anything either overtly or even obliquely programmatic. It has become fragmented and rhetorical with no coherent strategy or scheme to achieve any substantive results. Protesting seems to have become a reactionary and an end in and of itself. The more cynical or conspiratorial among us might even refer to this state of affairs as anti-programmatic or anti-strategic.
If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we must admit that the black systemic political voice has become monotone, without cadence, without inflection, without rhythm, a droning like that which precipitates hypnosis.
Without clearly defined objectives and readily articulable goals, then the protest itself, no matter how well-intentioned, becomes at best a mere spectacle or show. At worst, it becomes a diversion or delusion, in which its participants perceive the protest itself as “winning.” By failing to protest without marrying such action to a plan or program, the protest becomes recreation, a game, with any potential political value limited to the immediate term. Protest without concrete purpose can simply have no long term value.
At the same time, we seem to be attempting the re-creation of certain elements of a Civil Rights era protest model. The central element of this model is non-violent public protest, ostensibly for the purposes of displaying solidarity for a mass audience. Obviously, this tactic can be extremely valuable. However, such political tools must be manipulated under the guiding principle of situational specificity, rather than misplaced nostalgia about the successes of the Civil Rights Movement or some unfounded investment in a fabricated public narrative about how certain groups are “supposed” to orient themselves politically.
Because the public narrative of Civil Rights, which has undeniably been processed for mass consumption, has been so deeply ingrained in the American psyche, it seems to have become the template for movements to be applied regardless of context. Both the personae and the methods from that era have been sufficiently lionized that questioning the virtue of either is sacrilege. Reflexive application of any blueprint for social movement is always dangerous, as the risk of suboptimal outcomes or downright failure inevitably increases. Movements based on processed narratives can, by definition, never be organic and can never satiate the hunger of people who seek redress.
What’s more, recreation and re-creation become mutually reinforcing, ultimately resulting in a downward spiral of social frustration and disappointment because the psychic toll of the failure of the protest can actually make matters worse than if a protest had never even happened. Indeed, naked symbolism and false nostalgia raises the expectations of the masses of the socially dispossessed, only to have those expectations violently unmet. What we’re left with is a recreational ethic infused within a pageant of protest, all bound by a subconscious, unrequited lust for a black political meta-narrative of the struggling, long-suffering subaltern. In this way, black protests have become a never-ending, routinized, reactionary addiction.
Additionally, it must be always be borne in mind that, contrary to the popular portrayal, the methods and strategy employed by Dr. Martin Luther King and the SCLC, barely worked. Time and time again, their movement would be exhausted of money, manpower and ideas, only to be recatalysed by unplanned events, such as Dr. King’s jailing in Birmingham and the subsequent “viral” dissemination of his letter. To be sure, they did the best with what they had and achieved revolutionary results. However, the fact remains that to blindly emulate that paradigm would equate to the unknowing reproduction of sub-optimality. In the end, the inexorable effect of blacks’ uncritical adherence to the recreation/re-creation paradigm of protest effectuation leads to a social movement that is perpetually perched on the precipice of failure and retrenchment.
It is crucial that the protesters in Ferguson not fall into the recreation/re-creational paradigm that has hampered black protest for decades. To avoid the trap, any movement needs to have a cadre of “operationalizers.” Any good political scientist knows that proper operationalization of key variables is crucial in the accurate measurement of political phenomena. Similarly, the success of a movement must be measured by operationalizing the triplet variables of “freedom,” “justice” and “equality” in a manner that is not only strategic, but adapted to the situational particularities of the political matter in question.
A. Rahman Ford is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.