On Black Friday, my Twitter feed was ablaze with messages about the shutdown of the West Oakland BART station. Tweets praised protesters for chaining themselves to BART cars in order to block train service to and from San Francisco. This disciplined, nonviolent direct action by African-Americans seeking to send a message about Ferguson and the value of black people’s lives was positively contrasted with the Oakland vandalism by primarily white activists earlier in the week
None of the many tweets I got about the protest asked whether the protest was tied to a larger ongoing campaign. Or connected to a broader strategy.Instead, the action was deemed a success by its ability to shut down BART and to make people think about the nation’s racial injustices.”
People need to “do something” after another racially charged police killing, and the killer’s exoneration. But it is hard to see how local protests absent a specific target or achievable goal advance the larger agenda of reducing police violence against blacks.
Direct Action Needs Targets
My first reaction to the shutdown of West Oakland station was to wonder how those who decided to take BART into San Francisco that day felt about thirty activists deciding to interfere with their plans. The “victims” of the shutdown had no power over the situation in Ferguson, and given they were coming from the East Bay, many were likely people of color themselves.
Can you recall a major African-American civil rights protest from the 1950’s and 1960’s that had no specific target or demand? Or a farmworkers movement protest that was not part of a broader, winnable campaign?
Earth First! engaged in brilliantly creative direct actions which regularly had specific targets. So did New York City’s ACT UP.
These targeted direct actions are very different from a protest designed to “make people think about racism,” or to “send a message that Americans reject racist police.” The activists shutting down BART on Friday had no way of knowing if those directly inconvenienced needed to be “educated” about racism; I suspect that like much of the Bay Area these BART riders were also outraged by Michael Brown’s murder and the justice system’s failed response (this group includes the activists headed on BART to Black Friday protests in Milpitas).
Direct Action Needs Broader Campaign
Direct action is most effective when connected to a broader grassroots campaign. Yet the Ferguson protests outside Missouri do not appear linked to such an effort.
Since police shootings of black males are a national crisis, why do we still lack national grassroots organizations capable of winning meaningful reforms? Or even networks of local and/or state groups that can build grassroots campaigns in places like Ferguson where the local power structure promotes and protects racially charged police misconduct?
We saw such organizing around foreclosures, and these campaigns won major victories in cities and states across the nation. Why couldn’t the same occur around racially-based police shootings?
When e real organizing behind a campaign for specific police reforms has occurred, as in New York City, Los Angeles, and Oakland, it has made a difference. Progress remains too slow, but the direction in these cities and others is positive.
The lack of organizational or movement backing for serious police reform may be the real message behind the BART protests. People lacking real power seize what they can. It could mean shutting down BART for a few hours, or closing a freeway.
Participants enjoy these events and they provide immediate major media coverage. But a week after they end it is as if they never occurred.
“Better Than Doing Nothing”
After the Grand Jury outrage, many felt they had to do something to send a message that giving Michael Brown’s killer a pass was unacceptable. But let’s not confuse these spontaneous outpourings of anger and grief with an effective grassroots strategy to address persistent racism.
Many strategies have been raised, including a proposed “Michael Brown law” requiring police to wear body cameras. Activists can also mobilize grassroots pressure to ensure Attorney General Holder files federal charges against Officer Darren Wilson. Many are focusing on the political opportunities in places like Ferguson with a black majority population and a white power structure.
If even a small portion of those outraged by Ferguson could be enlisted in a broader campaign, we would have the makings of a movement that could do far more than temporarily shut down a BART station. Its emergence would be the best tribute to Michael Brown’s legacy.
Randy Shaw is editor of Beyond Chron. He analyzes the use of direct action by Act Up and other groups in The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century