The massive political protests that have erupted from coast to coast across the US recently, the most sweeping in the nation’s history, are saying something troubling about both the present and the past of this tiresome but now tired “land of the free and home of the brave”.
Last Saturday, Washington DC, this columnist’s hometown for the last 45 years, became the epicentre of this national protest movement, whose activists have, in the tens of thousands, poured into the streets of Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Denver and dozens of other cities — effectively reaching every corner of the United States.
People demanded action against police brutality, but in reality to demand much more: That their leaders address the seeming intractability of systemic racism in society, a Gordian knot that W.E.B. Dubois, the black American historian and civil rights activist, who died in 1963 at the age of 95, averred in 1925 “is a wall which many centuries will not break down”.
Ten thousand active duty troops would’ve been not just a menacing scene on the streets but redundant against a peaceful rainbow crowd of black, white, brown and Latino folks, comprising families with kids, couples, professionals, students and old geezers like this columnist, a veteran protester who traces his activist pedigree to the heady Sixties.
My kinda scene. Time to dress for the occasion (cut-offs, sneakers and a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend “Black Lives Matter”) and head on downtown — which today is closed to vehicular traffic, creating a pedestrian-only demonstration zone — in order to join the thousands of protesters gathered there, protesters whom President Trump had earlier dismissed as an “angry mob”.
He also threatened to unleash “vicious dogs” and ominous weapons on, as he hunkered down in the White House (known as the People’s House), which now, after nine days of unrest, was surrounded by a meandering metal fence. That never bothered protesters, who had covered it with posters, art work and protest signs such as “Join the movement”.
Fear at White House
What the occupant of the White House feared was unclear. But news reports that day confirmed that the chief executive had that week actually told his advisers that he wanted 10,000 active duty troops to deploy to Washington in order to confront the demonstrators and “dominate the streets”.
He came close to, but finally decided against fulfilling his threat in the face of strong opposition from Pentagon officials, who convinced him that the traditional and legal tool for dealing with domestic crisis was the local police.
Surely, ten thousand active duty troops would’ve been not just a menacing scene on the streets but redundant against a peaceful rainbow crowd of black, white, brown and Latino folks, comprising families with kids, couples, professionals, students and old geezers like this columnist, a veteran protester who traces his activist pedigree to the heady Sixties.
Virtually all held up signs about black liberation. Some waved Palestinian flags. Others munched on free food handed out by local businesses. All festive.
The crowd fanned out on streets around Lafayette Square (known as the People’s Park), sometimes breaking into song and dance, and yes, sometimes into street theatrics, as one protester, a young man dressed as the Bible, stood outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, adjacent to the Square, a block away from the White House, and waved a sign that read, “Use me not for your bigotry” — the very spot where several days earlier President Trump had also stood, holding aloft the Christian Holy Book, much in the manner of a champion at the Masters Tournament showing off his trophy.
Driver of social change
Political protests in America have not only always been an important driver of social change, but also a cherished tradition.
During the global wave of dissent that shook the world in 2011, for example, when millions of people in thousands of cities in over one hundred countries around the world rose up in protest, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement, Time magazine named “The Protester” as its person of the year.
Let’s face it, even individual protesters have sparked social change in modern times, change that went on to touch our lives, from Rosa Parks, the black seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, who in December 1955 refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger, which sparked the civil rights movement, to the Tunisian peddler Muhammed Buaziz, whose self immolation almost exactly 55 years later, in December 2010, carried out in protest against police corruption and social injustice, launched the Arab Spring.
There’s something to be said for a protester who seizes, albeit teleologically, the right moment of immediacy, responsive to the mass sentiment, to act.
"All men are created equal"
What these demonstrators across the US are today saying to us is that Americans believe that their nation is not living up to its high ideals, namely, that “all men are created equal”, and by not doing so, it makes a mockery of its calls to other nations to embrace democracy and treat their citizens equitably.
Also at issue are the politico-cultural roots of racial inequality, anchored in the fantasies of white supremacy, that run deep and go far back in American history, from slavery (America’s “original sin”) to the present — and it is all damaging America’s standing as City upon a Hill and its role as “leader of the free world”.
White nationalists in America (yes, them, “the deplorables” who propelled Donald Trump to victory in 2016), with racist views amplified by a president who sees “fine people on both sides”, have created in black Americans a recognisable ethnic group and placed them outside society, as if, well, their lives do not matter.
You return home from Lafayette Square before curfew, pondering over how America is tearing itself apart. But you know in your heart of hearts that it is not the protesters at the People’s Park but the insurgents at the People’s House who are doing it.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.