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What Makes an Effective Anti-Racism Protest? – Jintao Zhu

After four years, the Black Lives Matter movement has again obtained prominent global attention. Immediate dedication is observed in the fight against racism despite the threat of COVID-19. Street protests have been adopted by as the approach to address the concern. People from America, Europe and even Asia have decided to go to the street to express their attitude. 

While the organizers of the street protests may have a clear rationale, not all attendees are clear about the purpose of attending protests. The answer may not be as straightforward as it seems. From the perspective of political philosophy, protests can be used to express resentment regarding unfair treatment. People also attend protests to ask for compensation for the past unfairness. Besides, people use protests to advocate for policy changes from the governments.

Given the long history of racism and discrimination, all these reasons are fair and justified. However, there is a hierarchy of agendas. I believe advocating for long term change in government policies is the most desired and prioritized aim. I trust many will think the same. If we prioritize this aim, then we must reflect on how we can maximize the effectiveness of protests, in terms of conveying in actual desired policy changes.

We can roughly categorize protests into two forms, the peaceful ones, and the violent ones. Both types can potentially lead to successful policy changes but via different paths. The peaceful way tries to persuade the government using reasons and logic. It aims to convince the government that racial discrimination indeed exists, and it harms society in various aspects. Thus, there is an urgent need for policy reforms. On the other hand, the violent way attempts to coerce the government to make compromises. By creating social disorder and chaos, it seeks fear among the political leaders. It urges the political leaders to make policy changes by lively demonstrating some undesirable consequences of racial discrimination.

For both types, we have observed successful and failed attempts in history. The peaceful Sit-ins in 1958-1960 had successfully aborted the policy of segregated seating at the regional level. However, the Albany Movement from 1961-1962 failed. Malcolm X’s threat to use violence contributed to the success in Selma, but there were also incidents where the violent approach did not achieve progress but only exacerbated the tension. Although the outcome has been mixed, I still believe we should not adopt the violent approach as the default option. There are many reasons. Firstly, policy changes caused by violent protests happened with wrong reasons. We cannot expect a decision made due to fear to be well-thought or serve long-term interests. On the opposite, such decision tends to “look good,” directly appeasing the angry protestors. Also, violent protests put the government in a challenging position, making it hard to implement policy changes. If the government give in to the protests, it signals its weakness to populism, motivating future movements to adopt the same violence. In order to prevent future turmoil, the government is unwilling to compromise.

There are other more obvious reasons. Violent protests cause huge social damages in terms of casualty, infrastructure destruction, economic halt, and social disunity. Moreover, it can distance potential movement sympathizers. Extremist groups may also exploit the violent protests for their own agenda. Recently in London, we have observed the far-right extremists justify their thuggery under the name of “protecting historical statues.”

These reasons against violent protests are not new. However, why many groups still adopt violence even if they have justifiable reasons to protest? The main reason is that they believe the peaceful approach is hopeless.

Indeed, such pessimism should lead to reflection from the authority. For some governments, the long-accumulated trust crisis has been magnified by the pandemic. How to re-establish a truth-worthy government supported by the people is a million-dollar question. On the other hand, protest organizers should also reflect on any possible ways to make peaceful protests more effective.

Movement leaders should understand that protests cannot be the only weapon. Protests should serve as a secondary, complementary role. The primary tool should still be reasoning and logical arguments supported by evidence and facts. Here is where academics come in. Academics should work on evidence-based researches. The aim is not merely justifying anti-discrimination movements, but also proposing concrete policy reforms that can replace the current undesirable ones. Destroying the current system without creating a better one can only lead us to a worse system. 

Academics from the discriminated community have an inborn advantage in the field. As Du Bois stated, the black population is “gifted with a second-sight.” Suffering from discrimination themselves, they can better detect the lies and excuses for various kinds of discrimination. Furthermore, they have a better understanding of what the correct policies should be. The task is to combine the academic expertise and the inborn advantage, to advocate for policy changes from the policymakers, as well as obtain support from other communities to fight against the profound injustice. After all, spotting injustice or expressing unhappiness is never our end goal. The ultimate mission, which generations of anti-racist fighters committed to, is making a long-term, systematic difference, creating a society in which people from different backgrounds can be treated equally with respect. Visionary design and cautious implementation, rather than boldness and violence, are the keys to meet the target.

Mr. Jintao Zhu is the Chair for IAPSS Political Theory Student Research Committee. He is currently studying BSc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is the Singapore SM1 Scholar (2013-16). Currently he also holds the position of Editor in Chief for LSE Undergraduate Political Review. He is working on research projects on nationalism, socially desirability bias, data privacy policy and political leadership.

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