Letters to a Young Protestor, 3: Purpose and Perseverance

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Dear Niecie,

What’s good? I pray you’re well and staying strong in faith, hope and love!

I read something in the paper the other day that surprised me. Did you know that the protests stemming from the killing of Eric Garner and Michael Brown have become the second longest civil rights protest movement in the country since the Civil War??? Apparently, it’s second only to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That’s what one of the organizers claimed. If so, this young movement has already achieved something significant: a little longevity.

The fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to build and sustain a local movement of any sort, much more difficult to do it in a number of cities all at once! Your generation, with its widespread and constant use of social media, has organized and acted with a speed and spread previous generations could not have imagined. Take it from an ol’ head; this is impressive.

If you can get a word to your organizers locally and nationally, please let them know they encourage many of us older guys. They really do. And please tell them not to quit. Keep it up. Press in and press on!

I’m sure they’ve discovered this already, but the key things right now are purpose and perseverance. The early success and the organic nature of the protests means a lot of people have “joined” who perhaps have different agendas or the same agenda expressed in different ways. There’s a sense in which you don’t want to weaken that dynamism with too much control. But at the same time it’s imperative that a clear message emerges. One that states the purpose of the movement in clear and compelling terms. You want the purpose statement to be so clear that no one can mistake your meaning and your goal. And you want it to be so compelling that no good faith observer could oppose it.

That’s more difficult than it sounds when you consider the sheer number of words available in the English language and the many folks whose instinct will be to oppose protest. You’re trying to communicate in a context that ranges from antipathy to apathy. So getting the purpose statement clear and compelling is tough.

But think of the Civil Rights Movement. The aims of that movement could be reduced to two couplets printed in huge black letters on two posters: “Equal Rights” and “End Discrimination.” That’s clear. Everyone understands “equal rights” on a gut level. If you have a right and I don’t, then we ain’t equal yet. And everyone understands the wrongness of discrimination and the rightness of ending it. That doesn’t take much thought as all and it taps into a sense of parity we’ve all had since learning to share in the sandbox. In fact, the Civil Rights Movement’s simple demands for “Equal Rights” and “End Segregation” put the segregationist on his heels. He had to defend his prejudice and his inhumane treatment of African Americans against the rising conscience of the country. Now any time your statements prick the conscience you have an effective purpose statement! When you think about it, those statements not only galvanized the Civil Rights protestors, in time they won over most of the country and, indeed, most of the world. You had people in Third World countries looking at the U.S. Civil Rights Movement saying, “That ain’t right” even when they had no rights of their own! The only people left supporting America’s apartheid regime were die-hard segregationists and virulent racists. The moral appeal and authority of the movement and the message has all but eliminated any legitimacy racism ever had.

So you gotta have that clear and compelling message. Tell them the hours and hours and days and days they spend on this will be more important than they might think right now.

And along with the message, tell them they’re going to need some perseverance. Settle in, but don’t settle down. Most of the cameras have left the scene and now there’s no light for the media fly to buzz around. Now begins the test of mettle. If we would have a lasting justice and a systemic reform, we must be prepared for the long fight. This is a 15-round bout. There won’t be a quick KO. The “opponent” is big, muscular, bruising in retaliation, cunning, quick and deadly. Like a heavyweight, he will try to lean on you, wait you out, and finish you when you’re tired. “Power concedes nothing without a fight,” and the most frequent way power “fights” is by waiting you out and wearing you down.Yyou can get so tired that you just want to throw in the towel, not answer the bell. But the race is not given to the swift or the strong. You must wait on the Lord to renew your strength longer than they wait on you to fail in strength.

Getting the purpose clear helps with keeping the perseverance up. You’ll struggle longer if you have a compelling purpose that reaches deep into the heart. Likewise, your persevering will help spread the purpose beyond yourselves to others. Think about the reactions to #BlackLivesMatter. Now, that seems like an entirely reasonable statement. It’s just true. And it needs saying when events make it seem as if it’s been forgotten, taken for granted, or even denied. When several unarmed Black men get killed by those in authority in a one to two month span, it makes you naturally want to say, “These Black lives matter.” You marvel that you ever must say it, since the truth of it should be apparent to all!

But the marvel you felt at having to say “Black lives matter” is nothing. That marvel gets overshadowed by the second marvel of hearing other people retort, “All lives matter” or “White lives matter” or “Police lives matter.” As if you were denying any of those things. All of a sudden what you thought was a simple clear slogan gets met with counter-slogans and charges that you are the racist for saying “Black lives matter”! People act as if those words hurt more than the bullets that killed Black men! They act as if valuing Black life necessarily devalues or overlooks other life. And all of a sudden you realize you’re on your heels. You’re clarifying and playing defense when you’re on the side of justice. And the whole thing feels like you’ve entered this bizarre would where everything is upside down and inside out.

Perseverance requires that you figure out whether there’s a problem with your core message or whether you’re simply dealing with the know-nothing, admit-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing intransigence of ignorant people. If there’s a message problem, then you refine and restate. If there’s an intransigence problem, then you press on. Be undaunted by the sneers and stares of detractors pretending the high moral ground while demonstrating a willful ignorance. Every time you point out their ignorance or try helping them see your point more fairly, they’ll twist your words and keep you reeling on your heels. That’s their strategy. It takes the bright light off their own hearts, leaving them to go on unexamined and unimpeached. You have to know the difference between the genuine person working their way through important questions and the covert saboteur siphoning your energy to weaken your perseverance.

For my part, I think #BlackLivesMatter works  only in the way that “We Are All God’s Children” worked in earlier generations. That is, it says something true and general that forms part of the moral context for discussion. But it has the same failings of those other general slogans: It’s too abstract to inform action, communicate demands, or engender perseverance. It doesn’t quite aim at anything that can then be used to measure progress. So use it, but don’t think you’ve said anything that wins the day. We need our equivalent of “End Segregation” and “Equal Rights” applied to these policing and criminal justice issues.

I don’t know what the purpose statement should be. I’ll give that a lot more prayer and thought. And I’ll pray for the organizers as they work on this. It’s crazy how much of the movement’s success depends on getting untold volumes of pain, death, tragedy, grief, hope and pleading down to a few short words! But the right words will become boxcars freighting all that experience and more!

Hug your mama for me. I hope to see you over the holidays. If you have something going on then, I’d love to join you all!

Much love,

Thabiti

P.S.–I want to make something clear that I assume you would understand. Stay away from those whose messages contradict your own, call into question your motives and cause, and otherwise disrupt the positive efforts you’re making. Find ways to keep them out of your work, and certainly don’t join them in their destruction. Read the first 8-9 chapters of Proverbs for wisdom on this point.

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