If America is going to actually end police violence, it will take a movement like we’ve never seen before

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Demonstrators block the intersection of Chicago Avenue and State Street as they protest the fatal police shooting of Paul O’Neal August 7, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.

Joshua Lott/Getty Images


  • At the end of the Civil Rights Movement, there was a sentiment that Black Americans had won, and it was then time for policymakers to take the baton put into action what protesters were fighting for.
  • But today, curbing police violence will require a sentiment even more radical than that.
  • There must be a “movement of movements,” an all-encompassing effort to educate Americans, from top to bottom.
  • Christian Davenport is a Professor of Political Science and Faculty Associate at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
  • Sarah A. Soule is the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the authors.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In 1988, the rap group Public Enemy released the album,It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back. The title of the album was intended to highlight the individuals and institutions that have been used to tame Black Americans and keep them in line.

If police violence in America is to be tamed and kept in line, in an echo of the song’s title, it will take more than the courageous people out in the streets protesting. It will take a movement of movements. 

Our position on creating lasting change differs from the sentiment following the Civil Rights Movement – the unofficial guiding light and touchstone for discussing political change in this country. That sentiment held that the fight by Black Americans to get a seat at the table was won, but then (as now) it was time to let a different group of people (i.e., politicians and lawyers) get to the serious business of policy and lawmaking.

This sentiment is reflected in Bayard Rustin’s 1965 work,From Protest to Politicsand in comments President Barack Obama made in a recent Medium post:

“I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobedience that the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.”

The approach we advocate differs from this sentiment as well. Our approach holds that it is not prudent to let people go behind closed doors and get to the serious business of governance without expanding the number of participants at the table and getting rid of the idea that only what takes place at the table is worth doing. We did this already and it did not turn out well. We need a new way.

A familiar, and not so familiar sequence of events

Our path to this conclusion begins with a reflection on the recent sequence of events in the US, and some reflection on the history of social movements in the US.

The initial series of events is familiar to us by now: in the wake of three horrific deaths at the hands of police, Black Americans protested. The police responded aggressively. Then something different happened — other folks protested.

Interestingly and somewhat bafflingly, the police continued to respond aggressively, but there were also some solidarity efforts (a knee here, a hug there). Then other countries protested in solidarity about the treatment of Black Americans, but also to address the treatment of their own persecuted and vulnerable.

Equally interesting and somewhat baffling is the relatively rapid political response: firings of officers, resignations of police chiefs, investigations into prior behavior, discussions about defunding and abolishing police departments, and legislation to curb coercive policing.

Some of these ideas are new, but most of them come off a dusty shelf, where they have been waiting in abeyance for the chance to be reconsidered.

Why not let the politicians and lawyers take it from here? Aren’t Black Americans and their allies who have been standing up against state-sponsored violence “winning”? Isn’t change a-coming? Shouldn’t folks just go home now, and let the policy and lawmakers get to work?

As scholars of social movements, we acknowledge that the movement has done what movements do best: it has gotten important issues on the agenda, and has done so deftly and swiftly. But we also acknowledge that we shouldn’t naively trust the post-Civil Rights sentiment of “protest to politics.”

That sentiment assumes that there are knowledgeable and trustworthy insiders who can work through the mechanics of translating the movement into concrete and effective policies. If this were the case, countless black lives would not have been lost in the decades following the Civil Rights Movement.

A new approach to making lasting change

Our “movement of movements approach” (MoMa) acknowledges the need for politicians, lawyers, public policy experts and social scientists to draft and propose legislation.

Our approach acknowledges the need for lawyers to prosecute deviations from whatever these laws are. Lobbyists will be needed to lobby for better policies.

It acknowledges the need for journalists to investigate and report on all aspects of racial inequity and the solutions proposed and the compliance (or lack thereof) that follows. And it acknowledges that the changes made might be lost, thus there must be an effort to monitor and mitigate backsliding. 

But here is where MoMa diverges from the post-Civil Rights approach. Our approach requires all hands on deck.

Teachers will be needed to teach about both police violence and how to challenge it. Parents will be needed to help their children learn and grow as anti-racists.

Artists (writers, singers, rappers, painters, dancers, performance artists, comic and graphic novelists, film makers) will be needed to tell the stories of what has beenandwhat could be. Perhaps we need to get Lin Manuel to create “Stop and Frisk” – the musical?

Students will be needed to study, learn, provoke and populate the other categories on this list. Elders will be needed to tell stories, give advice and stand aside.

Doctors and health care providers will be needed to treat those in need without bias. Corporations will be needed to clean their houses of discriminatory practices. Clergy and counselors (and all decent human beings) will be needed to help those subjected to police violence to heal, in a human centered and empathetic way, meeting them where they are.

Researchers will be needed to place racism/white supremacy front and center in fields of inquiry. Foundations will be needed to support the investigation of coercion, force, and violations of human rights here and abroad.

Graphic designers will be needed to give us a logo, and marketing experts will be needed to make MoMa something that sparks the imaginations of American youth, as the Peace Corps once did.

Police will be needed to police, but they must do so in a way that is deemed acceptable as they begin their more limited role in society. And, yes, when necessary we will need citizens to remove their regular clothing and become protesters (again) in order to protest deviations and delays.

It will take a nation of millions to hold them back! Toward this end, we invite all citizens (here and abroad) to take the Movements of Movements Pledge (#MoMaPledge):

“We promise to devote a minimum of 10% of our time to learn about racism, coercion, and police violence, and use that knowledge to build an effective functioning democracy.”

This effort can involve searching, reading, reflecting, discussing, donating, volunteering, and teaching. It can also involve citizens showing up for one another, as in the mutual aid movement, which will be necessary until we address the problems of poverty and inequality in the US.

It will indeed take a nation of millions to hold them back but the past few weeks of protest seems to indicate that we may have the numbers to pull this off.

Sarah A. Soule is the Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Stanford. Her major areas of interest are organizational theory, social movements, and political sociology.

Christian Davenport is a Professor of Political Science and Faculty Associate at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and Elected Fellow at the American Association for the Arts and Sciences.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

Read the original article on Opinion Contributor. Copyright 2020.

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