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Advocacy: Your new Neighborhood Watch Program

By: Brie Bristol

The public has no choice but to accept activists who march for the Black Lives Matter movement as their new neighborhood watchmen – who campaign for human rights when the government fails to. 

The Old Advocacy: How It Started 

“My mom said it was going to take a while, so I got a little comic book – I was reading Batman and she was reading the newspaper and we waited to see how they [white waiters] were going to deal with us. We weren’t going anywhere. Finally, a colored waitress comes up and takes our order. They went down to the colored restaurant and brought a black woman up to serve us… it took them two hours to figure it out because none of the white people would feed us. After we finished breakfast, we went down to the colored waiting room and said ‘Y’all can eat upstairs now, they’re serving colored people up there’.”

John Bracey, the author of Black Nationalism in America and a previous Pan-African Student Association member, has been protesting since he was a young child, inspired by his mother to reform the inequality during the Jim Crow era. Now at 79-years-old, Bracey campaigns that protesting is a societal staple that will continue to evolve until people are “guaranteed their [physical] right to exist in the environment that they are in.” 

Bracey uses this guarantee as the main purpose of the spillover pushing the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to thrive as it uses diversity and technology to move towards global change. 

“The Black Lives Matter movement is analogous to the NAACP anti-lynching period of 1909, where the purpose was to get black people safe, as 5,000 blacks were killed over five years,” says Bracey. “This movement is in response to the current unchecked and persistent pattern of random shootings of black people, and we can’t figure out how to avoid it,” he finishes with a weighted sigh. 

To be a black person is to be considered lower than a second class citizen, some may dare to say a 10th class citizen, according to the 2013 documentary “White Like Me.” Bracey believes that this is because “African Americans have historically been the catalysts for worldwide fights against oppression because we are at the center of it.” 

In 1960, the Black Power movement was created as an after-effect reaction to the mistreatment of Civil Rights activists and community members. The Panthers watched their peers run through the streets continuing to beg for human rights as fire hose water struck their backs in similar ways that their ancestors were whipped before them. These battles for human rights have not once ceased since Bracey’s day in the 1960s, but now he has noticed a change in the audience who march alongside black persons – an audience whom Bracey was once wary of: white people.

“The Black Power movement meant that black people should run this and that black people should be on their own, and you didn’t want white people right in the middle of it getting in the way – but now that’s not the issue of this new generation at all. This new generation has energized a huge segment of the white population, where they are now willing to come out next to a black person and follow them… you come out saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ and here come the white kids wearing t-shirts with Black Lives Matter – and if they have an agenda you add it on.” 

Bracey laughs as he continues to detail the differences in organizational values. 

“The most striking thing to me growing up under Jim Crow is to [now] see a demonstration with young black men with their shirts off and their fists up in the air, and young white women standing next to them with a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on and their fist up in the air. That would not have happened in my generation, no way in the world,” he said. 

An unidentified white ally stands on a platform at a BLM march in the summer of 2020 (Brie Bristol/Rebirth Project)

Although Bracey doesn’t protest anymore, he notices that the consequences of protesting are still the same. 

“I went to jail for things, but you have to risk something, to get something. If you accept oppression, people will oppress you. You don’t go through life letting people walk all over you, you have to affirm your humanity or people will take it away from you.”

As Bracey’s generation shied away from accepting the few white allies available; they also avoided the chaotic notion that is being pinned to BLM, by planning out how to compose themselves in front of news cameras. There is an image that implies that all BLM does is destroy, as its participants loot from stores during late-night marches because there is no concrete initiative. 

Bracey remembers his attendance in the Revolutionary Action Movement, a movement that acquired a headquarters and one single voice – unlike the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“There’s no Black Lives Matter leadership that you can find in a building somewhere because it’s diffused. It’s organized extremely democratically…some may even say chaotically, by community per community but whatever issues you want to deal with, will lie under the banner of Black Lives Matter,” said Bracey. 

However, Bracey thinks that this decentralization can cause an open field for provocateurs who attempt to pin an anarchist label to the movement. But, Bracey doesn’t see this innovation as a flaw to today’s protesting – he embraces it as a positive functional difference.

“The purpose of a movement is not to get people killed, it’s to get your goal. And you will have people lose their lives along the way, but your goal [as an activist] is not to lose your life. Your goal is to see if you have enough courage within yourself to stand up and risk your life and that’s what the young kids are doing right now for Black Lives Matter.” 

As an activist, Bracey admits that it takes courage to go out and create change, “but courage is not, not being afraid. Courage is being afraid and doing it anyway.” 

The New Advocacy: The Changes We are Waiting On 

The right to protest may be embedded in the First Amendment of our Constitution, however, Traci Parker, an African American professor at UMass Amherst, believes that the Constitution wasn’t built for black people and that the “right to protest” is ignored when it concerns movements like BLM. 

“The system has never been structured for us because the system has been built on the institution of slavery, making American democracy intimately tied to slavery. It is a ‘racialized’ democracy. Our capitalism is a ‘racialized’ one, so anytime you have these conversations about laws – they are targeted towards a certain group of people,” Parker said. 

America’s prejudiced background has forced many people to constantly live in an air-locked-like box that entraps them to suffer through various human rights problems. 

Parker says that to break out of this box, protesting can be used as “a sustainable way to demand change but it can only be one aspect of it, it can’t be the entire movement.” The new legislation, as a result of protesting, is also required to strive towards the goal of creating a better environment for the underprivileged. 

“Protests work because they are visible, and they foster camaraderie which makes you feel more motivated because you’re standing next to people. You don’t get that type of feeling when you’re on social media because it doesn’t offer the same type of emotional and psychological motivation. There’s something special about a protest because not only is it visible but it disrupts the normal day-to-day,” she said. 

As encouraging as protests are, it is important to recognize that often protests fail. Parker believes that it is not the system that enables that; she thinks that certain people are to blame: your everyday racist. 

Often the BLM protests are taken out of their peaceful contexts and aligned with aggressive stereotypes in media coverage that imprint fear into society – which encourages people to label non-lily-white protestors as thugs and criminals. Unfortunately, these labels only reaffirm the broken bond between ‘Black America’ and ‘Constitutional America’ which has led to racism warping the constitutional definition of lawful assemblies. 

Parker states that the broken bond is a result of racial functions defining who should be allowed to protest. 

“It’s acceptable for white people to do it but when black people do it, it’s a mob. Think about the language that is often being used. Think about the white Trump supporters who are allowed to block any building whenever they want – nothing happens to them.” 

Parker recalls that historic events, like the 1964 Greensboro Four sit-ins, create new perceptions of protesting that left black people bruised, and white people running to suburbs demanding their states to create law and order. She says that the lunch counter-attacks on the Greensboro Four groups proved to Americans that law and order has never been balanced, even when America has attempted it with the Supreme Court case of “separate, but equal:” Plessy v. Ferguson.

“In my study of this, it seems to me that it is not the Constitution. What it is, is that you have these [old] movements of backlash [from white people] that institute federal and local laws that now tell us where we can and cannot protest because of court cases establishing private property.” 

Parker honors the death and trauma that comes with protesting as people continuously try to maneuver their agendas in new ways to be heard. But she believes that the anguish that activists go through is taken advantage of, as governors maneuver their pens onto laws that allow for the police to arrest advocators by the truckloads. 

But, these activists keep coming back to places where they are not welcomed to push for the change that we have been waiting on for over 50 years. According to Parker, “Every country has its issue with colonization, imperialism, racial politics, and ethnic politics because there’s always something wrong.” 

But as the movement continues globally, Parker has hope for the future. 

She thinks that “there’s a spirit in the current generation of people who understands the history and legacy of the movements, understands its lessons and flaws… and have a better sense of patriarchy of identity politics and what it means to be diverse.” 

The transformation of protests that are now rooted in new-age diversity, allows the exposure of racial contradictions in America to be universally known. With this, Parker has been waiting for over ten years on the answer of why the subjugation of black people must continue.

“[the growing diversity of protests] says a lot about the sacrifices that people historically have made, and continue to make to be recognized as human; to be treated with dignity, to be treated as first-class citizens, and to overthrow this current system of American democracy and capitalism because they know that it was flawed from the beginning,” Parker says. 

Her final encouraging advice is for people to continue waiting on the rumbling change that is growing from the bottom up. 

The Future of Advocacy: A Necessary Call to Action 

Parallel to Bracey’s recollections of his protesting journey, today’s advocacy marches are often run by minors as young as 16-years-old. 

“It’s no longer black versus white, it’s racist versus anti-racist,” says Yakob Lemma, an Enloe High School student and co-founder of the WakeCo Black Student Coalition. A coalition of similar yet stark differences from protest organizations during the Civil Rights movement. 

The coalition, created by Lemma and his classmate Victoria Smith in June 2020, has flipped Raleigh, North Carolina upside down through their months-long BLM protesting with a call to action of building peace for communities that are riddled with systemic racism. 

“We’re living in a system that does what it was supposed to do – suppress minorities,” he says detailing an unjust society that uplifts inequality and police brutality. 

Even though years have gone by since the Civil Rights movement, these young activists feel as though America is still very late to systematic change. 

“No it’s not the 1950s, but it’s still going on as if it were the 50s,” says Smith. She believes that racism is still alive and thriving, but the advancement of media is changing the recognition of it. 

Smith recalled that when she watched George Floyd’s police brutality incident, she and all of her peers were home. She expressed that because of social media, and the world at a stand-still, non-black communities started to wake up and recognize the pain that black people have to go through. But for Smith, who lives the struggle of painful racial acts against her community often, she has become desensitized to the murders showcased on the nightly news. 

“When you have something as horrendous as seeing someone have their life sucked away from them on camera, I think all of these non-black communities were thinking ‘I never knew this’… but this is my livelihood, so when I am saying that Black Lives Matter – if my life can’t matter as a black female – then I have nothing left.” 

Lemma believes that “[the African American struggle], made me realize that… Yes, I’m going to have to work twice as hard just to catch up. Yes, I’m going to have to face twice the more struggles. Yes, I’m going to have to do all of this. But we can’t sit around and mope about it forever because they’re [politicians] not going to listen to us if we just sit around. We have to put our emotions, pain, sadness, anger, and frustration all into action – and we take it to the streets because that is what protesting is for.” 

Similarly to Parker, Smith believes that protesting can not stand on its own two feet, but it is a necessary piece of the puzzle that can hold those in charge accountable. 

In a short period, Smith and Lemma have coined the future of advocacy rooted in identity politics – a dream that Parker has been waiting for. Since March, Smith, and Lemma have been protesting every week in person, and on social media, with their coalition to get their political proposal passed. 

“If you’re local leaders aren’t listening to you – protest and call them out. Go sit in on their meetings, go listen to what they’re doing, and go listen to the policies that they are putting in place. If you don’t, they’re going to keep doing things that are not going to help you, unless you ask to see the documents and know what they are doing for the community,” said Smith. 

“Us protesting has caught attention, that’s the whole purpose – we want to bring light to a subject. This is us bringing light to being treated unfairly, and this is a national thing. If we didn’t protest, we would be stuck in a cycle,” Lemma continues. 

Multiracial citizens come together during a BLM protest in the summer of 2020 (Brie Bristol/Rebirth Project)

As Smith and Lemma picketed outside of the North Carolina State House, they collaborated on a five-step action plan for the Department of Education that demands the abolishment of policing in schools; which Lemma believes is the biggest obstacle for black teens today. 

Lemma and his coalition believe that black teens are deprived of being able to understand mental health issues and that the presence of cops in schools is not necessary. Smith and Lemma share the fear of being the next George Floyd – a fear that can not be overcome if their school system is heavily policed. 

Lemma admits that “when we go to protest, nobody wants to protest. We do it because we have to, because who else will. Who else is going to step up and lead? Nobody. We have to do this. I didn’t even get to enjoy this past summer because I was too busy fighting for my life, and for other black lives against police brutality.” 

Activists hibernate on solutions to racial equality for long periods of their lives. However, the evolution of progressive movements has stripped away relaxation for teenagers and has left them to spend hours routing out marches across town, gathering supplies for their supporters, selecting emergency medical volunteers, and writing speeches about their lifelong pain. 

Smith thinks that protesting has brought their community together better than ever with the influx of countless people that she did not know even lived around her. But she is unsure if their work will ever solve racism. “Racism has been in American history for 300 years, so it may take 300 years to get it out.” 

But her generation has what Bracey’s and Parker’s lacks: progressive inclusive radicalism, that strives not just for black people, but also for the LGBT+, low-income, and immigrants. 

“We led [this coalition] because so many people undermine the power of teenagers. Our job is to prove them wrong, and stand tall with every fiber of our being – even if it’s frustrating and it makes us cry,” she said. 

The WakeCo Coalition values themselves similar to all progressive activists as the pioneers for change – a change that will lead to another future of advocacy different than what anyone could ever predict. 

“We’ve never been in this position before, we’re improvising but we’re hopeful and motivated to keep going.” 

In a world that continuously neglects racial minorities, it is now up to the younger generations to continue the evolution of protest advocacy.

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