I’ve heard many folks, including some of our Black Elders, compare and contrast the most recent protests against racial injustice and police accountability with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s .
Making such a comparison is, frankly, ridiculous . We live in a different time with different technology and different circumstances and reasons for protest. The two are no where near the same. This is not that.
Now, I’m only 52 years old. I was not quite yet born when most of those early protest actions were going on. But, my Mother and Grandmother were very involved in them. They participated in marches and sit ins. They let themselves get arrested at “Whites Only” lunch counters and filled the jails next to their neighbors. I heard the stories in great detail when I was growing up. What was sacrificed for me, a Black child, to be able to go to a desegregated school. So, I know quite a bit, from first hand accounts, how those marches and sit-ins and jail-fills came to be.
They were organized by leaders in the movement (local and national) and planned months in advance. This was done in secret — in homes and church basements and businesses after close. Word spread around mouth to mouth to those who could not make it to the meetings. They decided how they would dress, what they would do, where they would go, what injustice they would target, when they would do it, who would be in the front of the march and who would be in the back. In what order they would take their seats at the lunch counter. All of it would be planned within an inch of its life.
It was not published in the newspapers. There were no flyers posted. It wasn’t even spoken about on a telephone (because in those days operators could and did often listen in). Because, if the word got out that something was going to happen, those doing the planning would be hung from a prominent tree as a message to the rest. There was little chance of word getting out of the circle of those in the know ahead of time, unless there was an infiltrating informant in the midst. That did happen from time to time and people got killed because of it. But, in general, a march or sit-in or other civil unrest action was not known by the wider world until it happened.
This is not the way protests are planned today. In fact, most are barely even planned.
To the extent these things are organized today, it happens online. Publicly. On a social network. It happens largely spontaneously. There are no leaders in the traditional sense. It’s mostly a critical mass. And while there is much power and speed in getting something together after, say, a Black man is murdered on video by police (which is also only widely known due to those same social networks), it is mostly spontaneous. There’s no real plan. No real coordination. Just a call to show up and make your voice heard.
Of course, this also means that those that wish to infiltrate an otherwise peaceful protest to commit violence, loot, and/or advance an agenda also know about it and show up too. They see the opportunity to ferment chaos and they use it. This is what they do. Thus, what was otherwise a peaceful protest becomes a “riot” in the eyes of all that were not there. What are otherwise the majority — citizens peacefully yet vocally demanding justice and equality — are lumped together with a violent minority and the message drowned out.
Now, are there lessons the current movements could learn from the past ones? Sure, there are always lessons to be learned from history. That said, the technology has change so vastly that the results, good and bad, would likely still happen all the same.
So, I get very, very annoyed when these two movements are compared without the context of history and technology considered. Doing so only serves misunderstanding and propping up straw-man narratives.
These protests are not those protests.