Charles M. Blow

A new age of activism

The public action can be likened to a social network approach to social justice - not so much captain-led, as crowd-sourced.
The public action can be likened to a social network approach to social justice - not so much captain-led, as crowd-sourced.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

THERE seems to be a new age of activism rising. From Occupy Wall Street, to the "Stop Watching Us" march against government surveillance, to the Moral Monday protests, to the People's Climate March, to the recent nationwide protests over the killings of men and boys of colour by police, there is obviously a discontent in the United States that is pouring into the streets.

And yet much of it confounds and frustrates existing concepts of what movements should look like. Much does not fit neatly into the confines of conventional politics or the structures of traditional power.

It is often diffuse. It is often organic and largely leaderless. It is often about a primary event but also myriad secondary ones. It is, in a way, a social network approach to social justice, not so much captain-orchestrated as crowd-sourced, people sharing, following and liking their way to consensus and collective consciousness.

If there is a unifying theme, it is at least in part that more people are frustrated, aching for a better America and a better world, waking to the reality of the incredible fragility of our freedoms, our democracy and our planet. It is a chafing at grinding political intransigence and growing political corporatism. It is a rejection of the obscenity of economic inequality. And it is a collective expression of moral outrage over systemic bias.

The suspicion of bias, in particular, is what the most recent protests have been about. They are about a most basic question concerning the nature of humanity itself: If we are all created equal, shouldn't we all be treated equally? Anything less is an affront to our ideals.

Bias in the system often feels like fog in the morning: enveloping, amorphous and immeasurable. But individual cases, like the recent ones, hit us as discrete and concrete, about particular unarmed black men killed by particular policemen - although those particular policemen are representative of structures of power.

These cases make easy focal points for rallying cries, and force us to ask tough questions about the very nature of policing, force and justice: When is the line crossed from protecting and serving to occupying and suppressing? When do officers stop seeing their role as working for and with a community and start seeing that role as working against and in spite of it?

If bias exists in society at large, how do we keep it out of, or at least mitigate the effect of it on, every level of the criminal justice system, from police interactions to prison sentences?

There is a thin line between high-pressure policing and oppressive policing. Heavy hands leave bruised spirits, and occasionally buried bodies.

It cannot be said often enough that most police officers are not bad actors, but neither are most citizens.

Yet prejudice is a societal poison; each of us is in danger of ingesting it, and many of us do. We are constantly making judgments, but most of us are not wearing a holster with a gun. That is when the ante is upped about the nature and quality of those judgments: Did they unfairly weigh against any particular groups? How much force was used and how quickly?

This is why the people are in the streets. There are too many nagging questions, not enough satisfying answers. The people want their pain and anger registered.

But in a way, this is the part that can drive long-time activists to distraction: that this kind of people power does not neatly translate into political power. Why not follow the recent examples of activists for gay rights and immigrant rights, who pressured politicians and worked through the political and judicial systems to achieve specific policy objectives?

But maybe in this moment the exhaling of pain must come before the shaping of policy.

Indeed some activists have already moved beyond chants for "change" and begun to develop sophisticated answers to the retort, "change what?". The trick is to redirect the passions before they dissipate, to maintain momentum when the media attention fades, and to amplify raised voices with votes cast.

I believe - because the optimist in me must - that votes will soon, somehow, follow the passion, that people will come to see marching not as a substitute for voting but a supplement to it, that more people will work to effect change inside the system as well as outside it.

One of the people's greatest strengths in a democracy is the flexing of political muscle and the exercising of political power, through ballots and boot leather. This new activism has the potential to create a new political reality. And it will. Eventually. I hope.