What The Revolution Looks Like

There were four #HandsUpWalkout events protesting for racial justice happening in Chicago on Monday. Three marches; one in the Loop, and two in Hyde Park on the south side, near the University of Chicago campus. And then a fourth, a town hall meeting at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, hosted by the Social Justice Initiative at UIC as well as the Black Youth Project. I had my choice of which to attend, and while I really and truly love photographing political demonstrations, it seemed like the better idea to sacrifice aesthetic for content and attend the town hall.

I made that choice because the news is already saturated with images of demonstrations that are disruptive but peaceful. There’s a lot of virtue to those actions: They’re a manifestation of the outrage and sorrow and grief and hurt that comes along with suffering injustice, particularly with suffering injustice for a long time. They’re attractive to take part in and to empathize with, and they draw attention to the fact that injustice doesn’t just put oppressed people at a disadvantage economically or socially, it makes them feel some pretty horrible things — as human beings, not just as participants in a supposedly democratic society, or in a capitalist economy.

But I’ve been concerned about that saturation, first of all because it’s constantly tied to the riots in Ferguson on the night of Monday, November 25, when it was announced that Darren Wilson would not be indicted (it should be noted that the police acted as some of those violent “opportunists” on the night of the 25th — they tear-gassed peaceful protesters inside a café that had announced itself as a safe space for activists, after having also spent days making threatening phone calls to that café; there’s also a theory going around that police may have burned some of the cars that night, although that isn’t perfectly clear). Peaceful demonstrations are associated with rioting by saying that the riots have calmed down, not that peaceful protesting is essentially different than rioting, that peaceful protests have clear and stated motives. The police send the message that a peaceful protest is just a riot waiting to happen by showing up at candlelight vigils with M-16s.

As a result, you get characterizations of peaceful protesters as rioters who are just tamping it down so that they don’t get arrested. I didn’t want to continue to contribute to that, although I try to take protest photos that portray camaraderie, sorrow, heartbreak, love, courage, and joy, in addition to outrage. Sometimes that portrayal doesn’t get past preconceptions.

The revolution doesn’t just look like people in the streets, is the other thing. It’s also 100+ people crowded into a room, listening to a panel of respected educators and student activists talk about what they’ve been doing for the movement — like presenting reports on police brutality in Chicago as institutionalized torture to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva, in addition to organizing and participating in demonstrations — and what they think about how to keep the movement rolling forward. It’s the attendees at those meetings having a chance to take the mic and voice their own perspectives and ask questions.

It’s the calm, rational, organized side of protest that informs the goals of the movement and the motives of public demonstrations. And it’s what people who clutch their pearls over public demonstrations and bemoan them as useless calls for civil discussion of the issues. The thing is, if those people are going to object to public demonstrations and say that they prefer civil discussions — that they’d listen to protesters if their concerns were voiced in a different format — they have to actually attend those meetings and listen. They don’t, of course. They don’t even know that those meetings exist, and have been in ongoing existence for decades.

And if they did attend, they’d bemoan those meetings as “radical,” too, because when you attend, you hear about ideas like abolishing the prison system and instituting restorative justice instead, because, as activist Page May put it, we have a system that asks, “Who did it, and how can we punish them?”, not “Who was hurt, and how can we make sure it never happens again?” Attend those meetings and you’ll hear about a capitalist economy that, as activist Ethan Viet-Vanlear said, sees a society that has a surplus of people who are expendable for the sake of financial profit (therefore, the privatization of prisons and the institution of mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug crimes to fill those prisons), and that values profit over human life — demonstrated most vividly by police in riot gear and the National Guard forming lines around Wal-Marts across the country. You’ll hear professor Dave Stovall talking about reforming education so that teachers facilitate their students’ curiosity instead of being forced to tunnel them through standardized tests as a measure of success. You’ll hear about ideas like guaranteeing access to food, housing, medical treatment, and education for everyone.

Those ideas are uncomfortable to Americans for whom the Red Scare never really died, who not only value property, but hoard it. They are loath to share because in American capitalism you’re taught to believe that whatever you have, you earned, without ever questioning that logic, how that belief sizes up to the historical reality of which you are the most recent part, or if it comes with a human cost. It also means believing that those who don’t have things just didn’t earn them, and that that’s not your problem. Nonetheless, if protest pearl-clutchers want a civil discussion, it is available, and those are the ideas they’re going to have to be open-minded about.

Those beliefs are best summed up by poet Malcolm London, who spoke on the panel: “We’re angry. Of course we’re angry. But we’re angry not because ‘we just mad,’ but because we love people so much.” That’s what the revolution looks like.

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[Image via Rebecca Vipond Brink]