Monday, May 13, 2013

Can young people afford the price of protest

Photograph form The Nation

“Say that we should protest just to get arrested.  That goes against all my hustling ethics,” those lines from Lupe Fiasco’s song Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free) keep ringing in my head.

The thought came to me as I watched young people march near North Carolina’s legislative building.  They demanded being arrested.  They refused to leave until police fastened plastic handcuffs behind their backs and placed them in the paddy wagon with the words division of prison inmates on the side.

Five young people were arrested on May Day to protest state cut backs in education.  It was two days after a group led by Rev. William Barber, state president of the NAACP, and Tim Tyson, history professor at Duke University, were sent to the can.

The group keeps coming back to be arrested.  It’s worn like a badge of honor.  It’s their way of protesting a list of injustices handed down by North Carolina legislators.  That list includes a voter identification law that will impact minorities, young people and senior citizens.  It also includes the passage of the unemployment insurance reform bill, which Gov. Pat McCrory signed in February.  The bill reduces the amount of weekly benefits those unemployed in North Carolina can receive, and the number of weeks benefits can be paid.

Those protestors keep coming back on Monday afternoons.  They’re willing to keep coming back until real change comes.  More willing to spend time in jail are showing up to exercise civil disobedience.  Jail time, in their minds, will somehow lead to change.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m willing to spend some time in jail for the old home team.  I’m also old enough to recognize the difference between being forced in the paddy wagon today versus the former days when being pushed in jail followed water hoses, beatings and getting chased by a German Shepard.

It’s not the same.  That’s not to minimize the importance of protest.  People need to show up singing old protest songs while holding signs demanding change.  Doing so comes with taking responsibility.  People my age understand the consequences related to a few hours behind bars.  Go for it.  Make your point.  Yes, fight the power.

With that being said, I worry about the young people signing up to go to jail.  I appreciate their passion for the cause.  I support their efforts to stand up and connect with a rich legacy of civil disobedience.  What disturbs me is the potential burden they will face after graduating from school in hope of making a possible impact on society.

Will their time behind bars make it more difficult to measure up in a society oversaturated with people looking to find a job?

That’s the point of Lupe’s rap lyrics. “Say that we should protest just to get arrested.  That goes against all my hustling ethics.” 

If the goal is to hustle oneself into a good job, what good can come in protesting in a way that prevents you from getting that job?

This brings to the surface the bully politics that keeps people from protesting.  Have we acculturated a generation of young people to fear speaking their minds? Has the power of activism been damaged by the consuming fear of repercussion connected to standing against those who compromise justice and peace?

What are the consequences of being perceived a radical?  Can young people take that risk? Is there space within the marketplace to offer young people room to speak their mind devoid of permanent bad marks on their record?

Haven’t all of us needed the freedom to speak our mind?  Sometimes that means coming against the wisdom of our parents.  Sometimes it means granting young people the permission to yell loud enough to be heard.

I was given my space to yell.  It felt good.  I continue to yell against systems that negatively impact my understanding of what it means to be a melting pot nation.

Are we willing to give this generation of young people that same right? Or, will that box on the application prevent them from getting a good job?

Have you ever been arrested?  Yes, but….

There’s no room for the but when judgment precedes the answer.

“Say that we should protest just to get arrested.  That goes against all my hustling ethics.” 

Fight the power young people.  Just be prepared for what comes with that fight.

Welcome to the other side of reality.


  1. I love you, Carl, but this is cloudy. "Jail time, in their minds, will somehow lead to change." You don't even understand the movements of the postwar decades, let alone what's going on now. Really, now. You think we believe in the mystical power of jail time to change things? That's silly. You must have been tired.

    We did not go to jail because "jail time," which we did not really even experience, has some kind of magical capacity to change things. Democracy changes things; when people see what is happening, they respond, and what is happening in Raleigh lately is against the interests and violates the values of most North Carolinians. We went to jail because a sufficiently visible moral witness makes people look into what is going on. Many North Carolinians, even those who voted for the majority and for McCrory, had no any idea what we being done in their name and with their money. The NAACP and our allies and our growing numbers of friends and neighbors are shining a light on a light on our General Assembly's war on the poor, on health care, and on the right to vote. Most folks, when they hear about it, are outraged. The "super-majority" in the General Assembly has about 520-some days until the election that is going to sweep out that ratty old barn and let some fresh air and sunshine in. We would just run endless TV ads about what they are doing, but we don't have money, we just have the growing support of the people of North Carolina.

    Nonviolent direct action has a long and distinguished tradition in this country, going back to Thoreau, the women's suffrage movement, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement. It is part of our national political conversation. Unlike a TV commercial campaign, it is not so costly, but it sends out a message. It is the people's lamp post and loudspeaker. In that sense, it is not that much different that politics generally, except that it comes from people who are firmly committed to speaking their minds peacefully, regardless of what comes at them. But like all politics, it is aimed at an audience, it has a practical purpose--in this case, letting folks know that McCrory and his minions are raising taxes on the middle class and the poor, and cutting taxes drastically for multimillionaires; letting people hear that the GA chose to turn down federal money to extend Medicaid to half a million of our people; making it known that they are attacking Early Voting, Sunday Voting, same-day on-site voter registration and so on. If people examine the facts and vote on that basis, we won't have to put up with these Tea Party extremists and ideologues much longer.

    We don't imagine that "somehow" being in jail changes things. Instead, we know that shining the light into the dark corners and letting the breeze into the hallway is going to give all of us a chance to change things at the ballot box and by lobbying our representatives.

    1. Great points Tim, but isn’t the challenge for people to willingly go to jail rooted in a position of privilege? That’s the point I’m attempting to make. Shouldn’t we add to this conversation the critical disconnect created when the weak and vulnerable willing go to jail to fight a cause. That isn’t to assert they should fight, but don’t we, as people fighting for justice, place on the table the potential harm caused when people take a stand. Take that stand, but understand the consequences.
      You have asked people to willingly go to jail. Count me among those willing to make that leap, but also consider the massive harm that could come in doing so. Again, failure to consider those consequences makes this a decision rooted in the privilege of being able to make that decision without major harm. Not everyone has that privilege.
      Why do I say a position of privilege? Because it’s a privilege to be in a position that affords you the opportunity to take that risk devoid of consequences. It’s a position of privilege when you have a job and income that solidifies your willingness to take that step. It’s a position of privilege when you’re not looking for work, and don’t have to contend with the mean ways of those who use the yes in that box to keep you locked out of work.
      The age of protest has changed with the emergence of technology that makes it more difficult to hide. People are being asked if they have been arrested. It’s keeping people from obtaining work. As we protest, and we should, it’s imperative that young people be informed about the possibility of being denied a chance to find a job due to protest. It’s the responsible thing to do. They need to ponder those consequences, and we have an obligation to make that connection. If we don’t, we prevent them from fulfilling their goal.
      This is a complicated topic Tim. It is not an invalidation of protest, but rather aimed at asking these questions within a rapidly changing context. Yes, fight the power, but doing so requires serious consideration related to how protest may impact those devoid of privilege.

    2. Carl, this is not rooted in the history of nonviolent direct action or in the reality of what is going on in Raleigh every Monday, either. Has the willingness to go to jail for human rights really been "rooted in a position of privilege?" The sit-in movement in the South was led by African American young people who had much less opportunity than similar youth today. Did their behavior demonstrate "a critical disconnect," just because they lacked "a position of privilege," really? Have the well-fed and affluent put themselves on the line for justice? Warning of "massive harm" for a misdemeanor in a nonviolent direct action protest is unrealistic. The elementary and middle school students of Birmingham defied the police dogs, fire hoses and Bull Connor to pass the Civil Rights Act. But young people today are risking everything?

      What is risky is letting things keep careening toward disaster. Now that takes some crazy courage, to let the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity and Art Pope and the Tea Party keep driving the bus. Yay too reckless for me.

      If position and privilege and employment and income give people "the opportunity to take that risk devoid of consequences," how come the the street rebellions are virtually never peopled by anyone with any of those things?

      The young have been the storm troops of social movements everywhere for exactly the opposite reason: they didn't have mortgages to pay, children to feed, or the system's tentacles wrapped around their lives. They did things their parents could not afford to do. Ella Baker's wisdom was to put her faith in young people, not to lecture them to be careful.

      Are today's employment prospects worse than in the Jim Crow South? Are today's youth more vulnerable to reprisal just because of the internet? Do today's youth need our counsel to be more politically cautious? Being "responsible" goes deeper than making sure people don't stick their necks out, ever, for anything; that's terrible advice. The young push the old world forward. Old people like me are too worn down, too rooted in the past, too despairing. We say things like "You've got to think of your career," without even looking into the realities. A deadening caution surrenders before the fight starts, and it surrenders something more than the field of battle.

      If you were telling young people to stay away from selling cocaine, I would agree. But a misdemeanor nonviolent direct action arrest? Tell me some people "denied a chance to find a job due to protest." What empirical basis is there for these claims?

      The problem, if any, with most young folks' politicsis not that we've bred a generation of reckless radicals. It's that we have somehow allowed our young people to lose the sense that they can take history in their hands. And that is a delusion, actually, that is the "unrealistic" sensibility, because there is genuine hope when people get together and move. The young are probably the only people who can change things. They know the unfolding world in ways older people scarcely imagine. But today's young tend to be prisoners of despair, gripped an unearned cynicism rooted in cliches borrowed from the missing generations who didn't show up as citizens and thought of that as sophisticated. Actually, it was only a dangerous delusion that history couldn't happen to them. That was a misguided confidence that everything would be okay without them, that they could make a separate deal, or that nothing could be done, none of which were true.

      If you're willing to go to jail to protest the outrageous assault on the poor, on the unemployed, on public education, on voting rights and on human decency, great. I look forward to seeing you out there.

  2. One more thing. I knew a number of high school students who got arrested during the Wake County school board protests in 2010-11, and every single one of the young people whom I knew used their civil disobedience arrest in their college admissions essay.

    And though I am a fan of Lupe Fiasco, nobody, absolutely nobody, has ever said in my presence or in any of the dozens of books that I've read on nonviolence, that "we should protest just to get arrested." He's got that all turned around. (It's like saying we rob banks so that we can carry guns; no fool, we carry guns so that we can rob banks.) And dear Lupe's "hustling ethics" are just fronting. If he was really devoted to getting a job, as you suggest, why would he have become a rapper? Do you think that is a high-percentage career move, a real pragmatic approach to one's career? Nonsense. I am glad it worked out for him, but it's not a good hustle. Most people who devote all their time to hip-hop never make any money from it.

    Young people, you don't get to make a separate deal. If money wins, people lose, and that includes you, unless you happen to be wealthy. And getting arrested for nonviolent direct action, while it is a serious moral and political decision whose consequences you should contemplate--in addition to contemplating what silence is going to cost you--is a misdemeanor. You're likely to be released without having to pay a bond. If a misdemeanor arrest ruined your career, then spring break at Myrtle Beach, Ocean Drive, Daytona Beach, et. al. would ruining more young lives than crack cocaine. And those kids are being arrested for drunk and disorderly, underage drinking, public urination and so on. Which would you rather explain? Why you were found naked, plastered, belligerent and urinating in the hotel fountain? Or how your conscience led you to oppose the destruction of the public schools or the governor's decision to push half a million people out of health insurance?

    Carl, very little of any side of reality is in evidence here.