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October 21, 2017
Movement Politics


The strategic placement of an activist's body

I was cheering a piece by Tiya Miles the NY Times Sunday Review, Fighting Racism Is Not Just a War of Words, about the effect of bodies as a tool of activism rather than bland statements. Her example of Rosa Parks nailed it. I was with her right up to the next to last paragraph where she agreed with the tactic of disrupting complex systems that a community depends on. I think that tactic is a counter-productive, self-medicating circus compared to Rosa Parks’ scalpel-like action.

Rosa Parks’ body in that bus disrupted the racist seating protocol of buses. The site of action was the site of transgression. She didn’t block egress. The bus could hit the road as soon as it was decided to drop the needless and offensive protocol. As always, passengers and the driver controlled the pace. Her body opened the observer’s mind about a singular issue and it’s place in the broader issue. It was a win – a fully thought–out action as part of a long-term disciplined strategy. That’s what’s missing in contemporary movement activism. An exception is taking the knee.

Kneeling for the anthem is aimed at a widely understood symbol of freedom. That symbol – the National Anthem – is played at every pro sports event in front of millions of eyeballs. The action is a refusal to honor the symbol’s failed promise. Kneeling stirs emotion and may offend, but it doesn’t block stadium access, the game itself, or traffic leaving the stadium. So the conversation, pro and con, stays focused on the kneeling and the lives impacted by the reason for the kneeling, not the consequences of the kneeling. Like Parks, power was projected through restraint. Like Parks – a win.

Labor action disrupts the company that imposes the conditions that the workers are addressing.

In Ferguson, traffic was disrupted by protesters’ bodies on the street where Michael Brown had just been murdered by the police. The street was consequential, not symbolic.

When bodies of protesters disrupt a major urban traffic venue with no specific connection to the issue at hand it fails in proportion to disruption generates. A venue’s symbolic connection is useless if the meaning isn’t universally and viscerally understood. The tactic of blocking major traffic routes affects the livelihood of many thousands and adds significant stress to an over-stressed populace. And most who see the footage will instantly identify with the disrupted, not the issue the action is supposed to address. Too bad, we say; they need a wake-up call.

Commuter traffic jams and the stress of supporting families while hounded by debt and employment insecurity are daily wake-up calls. The sight of bodies – with no families to support – blocking the highway creates a movement-hating wake-up call before anyone knows the movement or the mission. When it does become known, that movement will be widely hated instead of supported or joined; even supporters of the cause are likely to blow-off the movement. In the time spent while stuck in Traffic And Lost Wages For Justice, Limbaugh is screaming louder and more persuasively than the protestors. Those impressions rarely shift.

Rosa Parks was seen occupying her seat with quiet dignity in the face of mortal threat for having done so. For most people – unlike sitting rush-hour traffic, taking an open seat on a bus was an easy mundane act. That made Parks’ act a disrupter of the nation’s conscience.

It’s highly focused strategic thinking that places bodies where change happens.

— Polar Levine, News Goo Dissection, October 21, 2017

© Polar Levine 2017 content should not be reproduced elsewhere without prior permission

Polar Levine

working class college dropout who loves to learn, poke his biases and waste time looking around