Don’t be Mesmerized by the Fetishization of Protest

By Laura Finley

The protests that have spread across the country in the last week due to the murder of George Floyd by Officer Derek Chauvin and the far too frequent police mistreatment and abuse of people of color are undoubtedly important. They symbolize the masses of people of color who are tired of hearing, seeing, and witnessing stories like these. They galvanize white allies to support movements like Black Lives Matter. Like any mass protest, these have allowed people to express their strong emotions. Yet, I fear that what has happened with other mass protests in the U.S. in recent years is that it has become a fetish for some, a sort of titillation that fails to produce the change that is needed.

I think the vast majority of the protestors truly believe in the cause and have been involved with other efforts to address racial injustice. Unfortunately, I see, and I personally know, some white people, who have joined these protests without really any engagement in the issues prior, and none other than to meet the masses at a given time in their city. While perhaps this involvement will lead them to further action, it seems to me that some people are attending protests so they can take to Facebook and Instagram live to announce that they were there.

Certainly some good can come out of such documentation—especially if there is police misconduct, as there was in my home city of Ft. Lauderdale—but it seems somewhat disingenuous, almost as if these people had FOMO (fear of missing out) so they attended and had to document their attendance to impress their friends. It comes out as holier than thou and as if the only, or even the best, way to support people of color as they seek to end police abuse is to attend a protest once. Many activists who have long been involved in addressing police abuse and racial injustice could not attend due to health issues during this global pandemic, and I saw and heard from them that they felt shamed about their non-participation. That is very sad. These are the allies that are needed.  

Research has shown that protest should be one of many strategies to make nonviolent social change. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen, authors of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, documented that successful social change movements always involve strategic use of an array of tools, protest being just one. Several of the organizers of Occupy Wall Street also cautioned about the fetishization of protest. Micah White argued that street protests appeal for their pageantry but are far less effective than running for local office, for example. 

I am not suggesting that these protests need to end. I do not think they should right now. But I do think white people need to consider how they can truly be allies to the movement and whether their motives to participate are more self-serving than helpful. I implore everyone who wants to be a white ally to read the tips at, “26 ways to be in the struggle beyond the streets,” and identify the best ways to act. 

Laura Finley, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology.

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