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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

Black Lives Matter Protests and the Slow Boring of Hard Boards

Protest in Portland, OR, in June 2020 (photo: Matthew Roth)

Max Weber famously described politics as "a strong and slow boring of hard boards." It is difficult and painstaking to make meaningful change, it often takes not months but years or decades to do it, and sometimes things can get worse before they get better. But it can be done. It was through this lens that I wanted to examine the Black Lives Matter movement and especially the protests that swept the nation in the wake of George Floyd's killing at the hands of police over Memorial Day weekend.

In a recent panel discussion convened by the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, several leading scholars on these issues talked about just what political lessons we've learned from those protests. This panel included Laurel Eckhouse (University of Denver), Jamila Michener (Cornell), Megan Ming Francis (University of Washington), and Hakeem Jefferson (Stanford), who had convened the #raceandjusticeconvo back in early June that proved so prescient in discussing the issues that would dominate the American political landscape over the summer.

The extent of the protests during the summer of 2020 should not be underemphasized. Estimates are that 15 to 26 million people participated in demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd by mid-summer, and these demonstrations occurred in nearly half of the counties in the United States.

My initial question for the panelists was if we could tell just how effective this movement has been. And as the panelists explained, that's a really hard question to ask about any political movement, especially when it’s occurring right now. As Laurel Eckhouse noted, "The struggles are generational... When we try to think about effectiveness, you know, it's been a few months, right?" Hakeem Jefferson agreed that it's unfair "to ask of these protests to fix or remedy centuries of state violence against Black folks."

That's said, there are plenty of recent changes BLM can claim. In addition to the thousands of public protests that have emerged in all sorts of communities, several cities and states have enacted substantial new budgetary and policy reforms affecting policing. Chokeholds and other such tactics have been banned in many localities. Police officers have been removed from a number of public school districts. Colorado now allows victims of police violence to sue individual officers, a dramatic shift in liability law. As Jamila Michener said, very few of these changes "meet the standard of being truly transformative. At the same time, they are things that would not have happened were it not for the the kinds of discussions and demands that were sparked in the wake of George Floyd being killed."

Beyond these notable policy shifts, Megan Francis was impressed with the shift in the language that political leaders were using. She talked about watching the first presidential debate last month, when she caught herself asking, "Did Chris Wallace ask a question about, 'How do we reimagine policing?' Chris Wallace from Fox News asked Trump and Biden 'What does re-imagining policing look like?' That is a question that would not have been on the debate stage without the protests."

Eckhouse noted the snowball effects that training in activism can have. "When the Standing Rock protests were happening," she said, "they were training 200 people a day for a while in nonviolent civil disobedience tactics. That's a lot of people who can then go home and participate in protests and have this base of training and base of knowledge about tactics and a set of relationships that they wouldn't have had before."

"Did Chris Wallace ask a question about, 'How do we reimagine policing?' That is a question that would not have been on the debate stage without the protests."

Jefferson noted that the policy achievements resulting from these protests were pretty much all less than protesters had sought, and that they were all tenuous, requiring continued advocacy and activism. "There is a constant need to hold elected officials' feet to the fire," he said. "And this isn't happening... in just Republican or conservative districts. This is happening in places where Democratic politicians facing these same concerns and constraints are leaving a lot on the table."

Another issue that drew some attention was the overall popularity of the BLM movement. As recent public opinion surveys show, these protests remain highly popular among Black Americans. They actually had the support of a majority of whites at the beginning of the summer, although that support has waned with time.

But an important takeaway from that is that successful political movements are pretty much never popular while they're happening. Women's suffrage advocacy, labor movements, and other widespread protests were seen as destabilizing and dangerous while they were doing their most profound work. In the mid-1960s, 84 percent of southern whites, and 64 percent of non-southern whites, felt that civil rights advocates were pushing too fast. 63 percent of Americans had a negative opinion of Martin Luther King, Jr. Half of whites felt that King was "hurting the Negro cause."

In many senses, it is remarkable how much the BLM movement has achieved in a few years, no less in the few months since Memorial Day 2020. But we also see fresh examples each month of police violence visited upon unarmed Black citizens that remind us of how much more work needs to be done. None of this should be disheartening, but it is a reminder of just how much work and time is needed for policy change that affects people's lives, especially when many powerful people are invested in those changes not occurring.

At any rate, I do commend this discussion to your attention. It's a little over an hour in length and very much worth your time.

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