What is the mechanism that leverages peaceful protest into tangible change? And is NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's National Anthem protest missing this piece?
I'll answer both these questions in a useful way below.
The Mechanism of a Successful Peaceful Protest
When sifting through the history of peaceful protests in America, four examples jumped out to me:
- Rosa Parks' sit-in on a segregated public bus in Montgomery, Alabama
- The Nashville sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee
- Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the podium in the 1968 Olympics with one black gloved fist raised high with solidarity for black America
- John Lennon and Yoko Ono's bed-in against the Vietnam War, and later to "Give peace a chance"
There are certainly many others, including autoworkers sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan and the Lady in White's Woman Suffrage procession (and who could forget the March on Washington?). But I want to discuss the four I listed above.
The first two on the list have a narrow focus with a broad implication. The narrow focus is the segregation of particular services in a single city. The broad implication is the repeatable nature of this narrow focus to other cities.
The last two on the list are singular events with a broad focus (black power and world peace).
Speaking of focus, I have to pause for a second to re-focus this article in the context of Colin Kaepernick's protest, which by his own declaration broadly focuses on the unfair treatment of black America. Stay with me here.
When I read through historical accounts of #1 and #2, I get excited. I see so much beauty in this upheaval of rooted American convention (segregated public services). Only 54 weeks after Rosa Parks sat down on that bus, Browder v. Gayle ruled the segregated public bus services in Montgomery, Alabama, including Rosa's bus, were unconstitutional.
And in Nashville in 1960, two months -- three weeks -- six days after the start of disciplined peaceful protest, six downtown stores began serving black Americans at their lunch counters for the first time.
Pause for a second to reflect. Both are timeless examples of successful peaceful protest in this country.
Now on to #3 and #4 from that list. The black gloved fist raised high on an Olympic podium somewhat resembles the Kaepernick protest in terms of scope and execution. But 48 years later, what are we to make of it? All I can do really is insert a shoulder shrug and add a look of bewilderment.
And for #4, I think its safe to say there are still a lot of folks out there not willing to "give peace a chance", so we can also put John and Yoko down into the unsuccessful peaceful protest column.
So what's the secret that #1 and #2 used to leverage tangible change?
The subtle distinction between successful and unsuccessful peaceful protests is what they force, yes force, people in charge to do.
When Rosa sat on that bus, she literally, LITERALLY, forced someone in charge of that bus to either figure out a way to let her stay, or figure out a way to get her off the bus. Her peaceful protest forced a decision in the present. Management was no longer able to kick the can down the road; they had to grapple with the present moment and answer these questions for themselves with tangible action, "How do we handle this? And is our approach worth the cost?"
Peaceful sit-ins in Nashville forced the same decisions upon management. "What do we do about these black kids sitting at our counter-tops when the sign says they can't?" (We either have to change the sign or we have to physically drag them out of here).
So what is the mechanism of peaceful protest? FORCE, force the person in charge to make an unavoidable decision on how to handle the peaceful protester in the present moment.
On the broadly focused issues (like black power, and world peace) one can argue quite reasonably that no one is in charge in the first place to be forced into an unavoidable decision. The nature of such a broad scope simply won't allow it, as history confirms. They simply lack the mechanism for success.
Does the Kaepernick peaceful protest have the missing piece?
The short answer is no.
The long answer:
Who watching Kaepernick kneeling before an American flag is forced into an unavoidable decision? NO ONE.
Kaepernick on one knee lacks the force required to make a peaceful protest successful. Moreover, the fundamental thesis of his protest is too broadly focused to actually have someone in charge to impart tangible change. Kaepernick fails on two counts.
Imagine if Rosa Parks, instead of sitting on that bus in Montgomery, sat at home in her bed and refused to go to work until all buses in the United States were desegregated, or even more vague, until black Americans were treated more fairly. Peaceful right? But, we probably wouldn't even know Rosa Parks' name, and those buses in Montgomery would've stayed segregated a little bit longer.