The March for Racial Justice in Providence was not a march at all. A group of Providence’s activists and allies gathered on a green in India Point Park, forming a largely white crowd that hung on every word spoken at the podium—all from the mouths of people of color that have been at the forefront of advancement on racially-charged community issues. The physical stagnancy of the gathering was ironically symbolic. Impassioned speakers delivered speeches, littered with anecdote of encounters with racial injustice to a highly receptive crowd. While all of them called the members of their audience to task, demanding some variation of ‘stand up,’ ‘speak out,’ or ‘make your voices heard,’ none of these valuable resources made use of their own voices in that moment to offer anything tangible. Not one made mention of any solutions they’d devised or any suggestions as to how the people in the crowd could move forward from a grass field in India Point Park to igniting some semblance of change in the realm of racial inequality.
Surely, many of the speakers had advice to offer. The lineup was comprised of a good deal of non-profit sector employees, civil servants in the local government, and people in various other changemaking positions. But what this rally made clear to me was that, despite the name, people do not attend these political events to seek answers to social issues like societally-promoted racial injustice. They go instead in search of affirmation and community—they go to get riled up.
The cohort of speakers had developed a vocabulary, which served as the framework through which issues of social import were to be spoken of (although this seems to be true of the left in general). When the speakers drew from this vocabulary, words and phrases like ‘institutionalized racism,’ ‘marginalization,’ and ‘white supremacy,’ the crowd would dissolve in uproar. As the day went on, the orators grew more and more bold in making use of this leftist rhetoric. Some stuttered through the bigger words, some misused them, but unfalteringly, they were met with vehement affirmation. Sunstein’s theory of group polarization suggests that through deliberation, in-groups become more radical in their beliefs. This rally seemed to me to be an even more radicalization-prone version of his experiment. While the deliberation that Sunstein’s subjects underwent must have been colored by some level of diversity of opinion, the deliberation in this case was comprised of a few members of the group (the speakers) expressing their beliefs and being met solely with affirmative responses. Each speaker’s performance was shaped by applause, endorsing shouts, and the presentation of all the speakers that had already gone. As Sunstein’s suggests, it was evident to me that the notion of upholding a favorable reputation was at play here. When a speakers saw all those who spoke before them utilized this particular rhetoric and received praise for doing so, they became convinced to do so themselves, in hopes of also being perceived favorably. Similarly, individuals in the crowd were compelled by neighbors, advocates of the same cause, to be responsive and show adequate disdain when such intolerance was brought to mind.
Thus, the image I hold of the rally is not so different from Hochschild’s description of the Trump rally he witnessed. The crowd was easily excitable, driven by emotion derived from familiarity to become entranced by unproductive discourse. The same way Trump is able to manipulate elements of the deep story for the alt-right in his delivery, the left has its own mechanisms for doing so. Their vocabulary is well-known and easily reproducible. Every time a speaker employed one of these key words it caused a visceral emotional reaction, likely because the audience’s image of the world—their own ‘deep story’ perhaps—was being corroborated by somewhat notable figures.
Based on the speeches given, I believe I could pretty accurately identify some integral facets of the left’s deep story. They believe, first and foremost, that there are hurdles on the line to the American Dream present only for people in the back of the line. Because of American history, those people are nearly always racial minorities. They have to jump over these high hurdles, and if they fall, they are told they should have jumped higher from people that did not have to jump at all. Another component of the deep story is that all institutions and every individual who is not a racial minority either actively tries to erect more hurdles or otherwise is guilty of feigning ignorance to them. The largely white crowd was reminded time and time again by the orators that anyone who benefits from white privilege is part of the problem (effectively, all white people). Still, the cheers for these statements were not any less voracious, presumably because they wanted to uphold the liberal principle of holding themselves accountable.
Based on the discourse I witnessed, I also think it’s plausible that they believe, in a populist vein, that there is a corrupt elite, antagonistic to what might be referred to as the ‘pure, deprived people.’ In contrast to the government that the alt-right sees as allowing people from further back in the line to cut, the left sees the government as monitoring and preserving the order in the line and the web of hurdles. One of the event’s emcees performed a litany that demonstrates this point. While already suggesting purity through the adoption of a traditional clergy practice, the emcee listed different branches of government and things they have done, like fund war and scorch the Earth. To this, he signaled to the crowd to respond, “Forgive us, for we know not what we do.” This paints the crowd and the movement as absolutely unwilling actors in the schemes of the government. The government is the total antithesis of the movement and the good people that advance the cause. And to further establish their purity, speakers consistently made comparisons between their work in social justice and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
I find it important to note that Chenoweth’s study on effective nonviolent movements claims that successful ones do not attack the morality or conscience of the adversary. Though the rallying cries of the March for Racial Justice can hardly be believed to have reached the ears of any adversaries, therein lies the event’s fundamental flaw. Nonviolent movements succeed, Chenoweth says, by shifting the allegiances of the elites entrenched in the institutions that oppress the movement. Though the march was not a march, and attendees were guaranteed to be assenting voices, the speakers had an opportunity to disseminate valuable wisdom with regard to tackling racial injustice, gained from first-hand experience. The opportunity was ignored, and what was meant to be activism dwindled into a politically-oriented community event. Thus, the March for Racial Justice was not only stagnant in setting, but in prospects for actually achieving racial justice.
Photo by Susan Melkisethian, “Charlottesville VA 8/12/17,” Creative Commons Zero license