Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Next Phase of Protest

If you study history at all one of the things you learn is that the periodization used, short-hand terms to label eras, are created almost universally after the fact. Living in one of those historical moments can be abundantly clear or far more murky. With the incidents in Dallas, Baton Rouge and elsewhere there is a real sense that the confrontation between civil rights advocates and the state is intensifying. This is not exclusively an American phenomenon. The growing activism of the organizations like Black Lives Matters Toronto illustrates that there are continent-wide concerns.

An already iconic photo of the Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, LA
As I reflect back on the evolution of civil rights groups over the last decade or so it is hard not feel like we have entered into a new era. Women's, transgender, and racialized minority right advocates have exploded in their presence in the popular consciousness and also their base of support. A cohort of North Americans have come to the conclusion that there is a significant power imbalance in society that needs to be addressed. Before the modern era I feel as though these debates were highly limited to the university seminar, dinner parties and within persecuted communities themselves. Clearly my social circle is not representative of North America as a whole but Black Lives Matter protests receive (inter)national attention now and response from the audience rather than passive indifference.

A photo from a recent protest that went viral critiquing the response of police
One of the big criticisms I recall hearing about the Millennial and Gen-X generations is that they were apathetic and disinterested in society beyond themselves. We were generation Me and the concerns of others were beyond our interest. Activism is back on the streets. While Black Lives Matters is often the focus, I think it's easy to see how Idle No More and allied movements signaled a sea change this decade.

It would be lazy and inaccurate to suggest that we're back to the 1960s, though this time and that time certainly offers some parallels. Too direct an examination reveals how much one is trying to stick a square peg into a round hole. The stakes are different, the conditions are different. These protests have unveiled the elements of the systemic racism visible and sexual minorities continue to experience in North America. Perhaps a combination of the election and disappointments of a liberal president and the escalating militarization of police has led to an explosion over this conflict. The photos are very different today from the 1960s, but no less inspiring on one hand and haunting on the other.  

Photo from an Idle No More protest in London, ON in 2012
So, where is this all going? With violent conflict between protestors, radicals and police/the state escalating the protest movement could grow even larger, or stifle it in its infancy. Other sectors of the continent are also experiencing change as the Republican Party embraces (however reluctantly) an openly racist candidate. It should come to no surprise to frequent readers of this blog that my sympathies are with these new civil rights movements. I do not condone any violence associated with them, but it is easy to understand the anger. It's an anger fueled by decades of neglect, apathy and abuse from others in society and the state. Social media and mass communications may fill in where prominent leaders did in the past.

History doesn't repeat itself, but it can often rhyme. With the bizarre American presidential election coming up, the growing social movements across North America and other changes in society, technology and culture I cannot help but wonder if 2016 is a year that will be well remembered as a key moment in an era, like 1964 or 1968. Only time will tell.

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