Recent media depictions of the protests in Ferguson, New York City, and around the country have given in to old-fashioned fear mongering.
On Fox News and CNN, protesters are depicted as irrational, and the protests as disordered and dysfunctional, a challenge to both our democratic functioning and our better natures. Thomas Sowell, writing for the National Review, lamented “The Steep Cost of the Ferguson Riots” and described the protests as an “orgy of anarchy.” He and his fellow hand-wringers are wrong. Protest is democracy at work.
For many Americans, public protest is sometimes the only meaningful avenue for democratic expression.
Protests are not about violence. The recent tragic killing of officers in Brooklyn only threatens to undermine the legitimate message of tens of thousands of peaceful protesters. We unequivocally condemn these acts of violence against members of our community. However, blaming all protesters or their supporters for the actions of one unstable individual fundamentally misrepresents the nature and importance of protests.
Similarly, small groups have resorted to vigilante violence during the protests of recent months. But to confuse the reprehensible actions of the few with the broad-based protest of the many is a strategic misrepresentation we have witnessed throughout history. The very movements that brought this nation’s practices into concert with its best ideals—the civil rights movement that brought down Jim Crow, the labor movement that resulted in regulations against child labor, the women’s suffrage movement, and even the Boston Tea Party, our country’s earliest and perhaps most defining moment of public protest—were, in some quarters, widely viewed at the time as threatening and disruptive. In all of these cases, opponents could—and frequently did—seize on the violent actions of lone individuals or an aberrant minority in order to distract, disregard, and deny the democratic claims of citizens who raised their voices for change.
For instance, a prominent U.S. senator decrying the civil rights protests in the 1960s and criticizing elites for supporting them argued that: “The seeds that have been sown by high officials encouraging violations of local law are now producing the crop of violence. ... If our highest officials continue to applaud sit-ins, lie-ins, stand-ins, and all other violations of property rights, it can lead us into a state of anarchy.” Another U.S. Senator at the time chided that “If [blacks] conduct themselves in an orderly way, they will not have to worry about police brutality.”
By giving a microphone to the voiceless, protest has historically been a tool to make us a more just society. In addition, criticism of insurgent movements misses a distressing but essential truth: For many Americans, public protest is sometimes the only meaningful avenue for democratic expression.
This is particularly true for those who are the most directly and disproportionately harmed by the criminal justice system, which is currently characterized by an extraordinary absence of effective mechanisms for accountability. In many communities around the nation, the formal grievance procedures provided by police departments are neither independent nor transparent. Instead, citizen complaints are frequently investigated through secret processes in which the police department plays both judge and jury.
Nor are such grievance procedures generally successful. In a study of 600 citizen complaints made about police abuse in Los Angeles, not one was sustained by the department. In addition, individual officers enjoy something called “qualified immunity,” which makes it difficult to successfully prosecute them on criminal charges so long as they can reasonably claim their actions were taken in good faith.
For example, the Maryland police in Robles v. Prince George’s County, a case heard in the 4th Circuit, tied a man named Nelson Robles to a metal pole in the middle of a deserted parking lot and left him there to be picked up by officers in another jurisdiction; the man had been arrested for an outstanding traffic warrant. The court found that the “the officers' actions were not reasonably related to any law enforcement purpose” and agreed that Robles had suffered significant harm. However, the officers claimed and were granted a good faith exception.
On the civil court side, citizens do not fare much better than in the criminal court. Even when a plaintiff recovers damages, frequently the officers involved are not investigated by internal affairs or disciplined in any way. One study examined 185 officers sued in successful civil lawsuits—the plaintiffs in these cases were collectively awarded $92 million in punitive damages—and found that only eight were actually disciplined and a galling 17 received promotions. Other studies have found even higher rates of promotion following violations by police. This is not accountability.
But surely, critics say, aggrieved people can find comfort and voice in broader channels of democratic expression, such as access to the ballot, which do not involve taking to the streets. For many Americans, however, even the most basic forms of democratic participation are not an option. Across the nation, 13 percent of black men are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. Many of these felonies were for non-violent crimes, and a substantial number of these individuals have completed their criminal sentences but are still denied the right to vote. In the handful of states that maintain the most restrictive disenfranchisement policies, fully 1 in 4 black men cannot participate at election time. Add to this voter ID laws, increasingly expensive elections, non-responsiveness to the poor by elected officials, and the fact that hourly wage workers are less able to take time off on election days, and a picture of widespread disenfranchisement begins to emerge.
An even larger number of citizens are also cast out of the jury box. Fully 37 percent of black men cannot serve on a jury because they have had a felony conviction, excluding them from what Justice Kennedy described as Americans’ “most significant opportunity to participate in the democratic process” after voting. As one legal commentator writes, this has left “a class of outsiders, forced to watch democracy move forward with only limited opportunities to influence its direction.” Thus, large swaths of our citizens are subject to our laws but cannot participate in decision-making.
In light of these substantial hurdles, it becomes understandable and all the more meaningful—impressive even—that thousands of citizens have chosen to raise their collective voices in political protest over the past few months. These current demonstrations may not result in immediate or wholesale reform. As history has shown, though, when formal channels for expression are precluded, people will turn to informal channels and outsider tactics to press for change.
Many of the groups exhibiting political agency at the present moment are some of the most disadvantaged and marginalized. Those concerned with the health of our democracy should fear only the quiet acquiescence of the oppressed. In contrast, we should celebrate the recent round of protests as a sign that our democracy remains strong.
The next generation may inherit the same issues of racial and class inequality that we struggle with today. But when they look back, they will know that their forebears did not sit quietly in the face of transgressions or decide that the only avenues for deliberation were in halls of power to which they did not have access. Democracy, it could be said, will not be stamped out easily. So, when thousands of our countrymen take to the streets to shout in unison, “no justice, no peace,” we are inclined to believe them.
Amy E. Lerman is an associate professor of public policy. She is the author of The Modern Prison Paradox: Politics, Punishment, and Social Community and co-author of Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control. This article was first posted in Slate.