As four of us from the class walked into India Point Park armed with a stack of surveys, clipboards, and pens on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I was struck by how laid back the whole event looked. Around 30 people wearing shirts emblazoned with #blacklivesmatter and the logos of other progressive organizations, milled around a grassy, secluded field on the east side of Providence.They chatted and stopped by various booths, which gave out information and gathered signatures on issues ranging from prison reform to subsidized school lunch programs. The four of us fanned out to different parts of the park to engage with those in attendance. We had come prepared with a script we’d been instructed to follow.
“Hello, I am a student at Brown University. I am conducting an anonymous survey of the people here today. It will take 10-15 minutes, will you fill one out?”
-> Hand them the clipboard while you finish up, they’re more likely to take it.
We were distributing surveys on behalf of a University of Michigan professor who was studying mass mobilization in the age of Trump, and the key takeaway from our half-hour video call with him was that we shouldn’t bias participants. We were supposed to wear plain clothing and avoid expressing our own political beliefs while administering surveys (“leave your ‘Make America Great Again’ hat at home, the professor had told us). Engaging with those in attendance was nerve-racking at first, and I found myself wanting to express solidarity with participants in order convince them to take the survey. I refrained and managed to persuade a handful to take the survey using my provided script.
A short walk around the park handing out surveys revealed a notable fact: the organizers had prepared for the worst. Violent white nationalist rallies and counter-protests in Charlottesville were fresh in people’s finds, and in addition to a handful of Providence police officers stationed around the park, a few impartial observers with law degrees had volunteered to monitor the whole thing. I was also surprised by the demographics of those in attendance. Approximately 70% were white while the remaining 30% was split between black (a larger share) and Latino activists. The average age was probably 45, and other than a handful of Brown students I recognized, and a few young adults who spoke, those in attendance were predominantly middle-aged suburban liberals.
By 4 pm, the crowd had grown to around 300 people (far less than the 1,000+ who had clicked “attending” on the Facebook event), and the first speaker came on. He was a member of the Narragansett tribe, and his remarks centered on the oppression that all people of color had encountered throughout history, especially Native Americans. His comments elicited nods and sounds of approval from the crowd as he passionately worked to unify those in attendance. After he finished, a series of other speakers (around 10 in total) took over the microphone to discuss the racial justice issue that mattered most to them. These ranged from a local activist committed to rent control to a speaker working to create more community policing. Interspersed were activists whose aims were unclear to me due both to the many issues they touched on in the brief speeches and the lofty goals they touted (abolishing prisons, for example).
After about three of these speeches, it became clear to me that the March for Racial Justice Rhode Island was not a march at all, or even a protest. It was a nonviolent movement, sure. Maybe it was even resistance in the mental and rhetorical sense. But this event was not meant to change the general public’s opinions or recruit new followers. This was about solidarity, or put another way, preaching to the choir. The location (a park by the river, far from any businesses or residences), and the fact that in order to find such an event one would have to be in liberal/leftist circles, meant that practically everyone in attendance agreed with the message of racial justice from the get-go.
M4RJRI was a far cry from the civil resistance movements Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth describe in their 2008 Article Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. The focus on broad participation outlined in the article was a departure from the rhetoric most speakers at the event employed, which tended to be more radical and tailored to a niche audience, limiting the appeal for wide swaths of the larger population. For example, one of the speakers started her speech with the phrase “I am waiting for the revolution,” indicating that the best possible outcome from her perspective was a complete restructuring of American social, political and economic life. She went on to declare, “Fuck the police! Fuck all 8 officers who are here today and all the undercover in the crowd.” This statement received a smattering of applause, but it was clear that even among the three-hundred-and-something people gathered in a sunny Providence park this was a divisive statement. Imagine how this would be received in a more politically diverse setting where 57% of Americans view Black Lives Matter unfavorably. Quite frankly, I fail to see how a movement using such rhetoric could possibly garner legitimacy and widespread support, both of which are integral to successful resistance movement according to Chenoweth and Stephan.
Before the last speaker came on, a moderator reminded the crowd that this event did not let them off the hook. Action must continue for them to truly be successful, she elaborated, echoing a point made by Erica Chenoweth in a Washington Post article from last year. In it, she conveyed the importance of long-term planning with a quote from a veteran activist: “95 percent of our time was spent in planning and preparation; 5 percent of our time was spent doing actions.” Despite her warning, most participants seemed to drift back towards their everyday lives without visiting many of the booths. Perhaps the chief problem here is the appeal to morality central to almost every speech. As Chenoweth explains, “the aim is to change incentives, not to melt hearts.” Instead, speakers tended to focus on the immorality of prisons, police, or President Donald Trump and didn’t give community members motivation for concrete actions.
Though The March for Racial Justice, RI is unlikely to have substantial changes at the national scale, perhaps it served the purpose of bringing like-minded activists together which may prove beneficial down the line. Furthermore, not everything needs to be coordinated resistance. Sometimes solidarity and feeling supported by one’s community is just as important to combat the despair and trauma many are experiencing.
Photo by: Cody Duane-McGlashan