Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Social Movement Tactics--Integrating Symbols for Mutual Benefit

I had a recent unfortunate Facebook encounter. I posted the image above, and an interlocutor argued that the function of the image was to "erase" the Black civil rights movement by the "co-opting" of the iconic imagery of segregated water fountains by the LGBTQ movement. The catalyst for the image was the March passage of the Indiana's version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, causing a tidal wave of opposition nationwide, and is rightly seen primarily as a counter-offensive against the increase in LGBTQ rights, including a recent federal court decision striking down Indiana's attempt to enforce anti-gay marriage law. I have seen similar arguments appear based on individuals using other Black civil rights symbols in the current series of protests against Indiana's RFRA law. Language such as "co-opting," "dilution" and "erasing" of the symbols of racial injustice are being deployed to prevent LGBTQ activists from using any such imagery. Granted, I believe that such a practice has occurred in the wake of the Ferguson, "Black Lives Matter" slogan, when its counterpart, "All Lives Matter" became a point of controversy.

The issue in that case seems to be based on the false narrative of "reverse racism." This idea relies on an overly-simplistic understanding of the concept of "racism," which presumes that any type of discrimination or prejudice by one "race" or ethnic group against another can be called "racism." However, racism is neither a behavior, nor a belief/opinion--it is a systemic pattern of oppression built on unequal social power relations. While this blog post is not the place to argue that complex case, and while it is true that members of any race can have prejudices about another, and can discriminate against another, there is no such thing as "reverse racism," nor is there such a thing as "Black against White racism," specifically because of the fundamental structural inequalities between Blacks and Whites in the United States. Racism is about broad structural power, not individual acts.

So when the "Black Lives Matter" language was altered to "All Lives Matter," I believe that activists rightly argued that this represents an erasing of the importance of the race component of the broad social problem that started the "Black Lives Matter" movement. Given that the "Black Lives Matter" slogan was 1) new, so did not have the culturally iconic nature of symbols from the 1950s civil rights movements, such as the image of the segregated water fountains; and 2) that the revised slogan failed to link to any oppressed group or specific incident of injustice, I believe the opposition to "All Lives Matter" was justified. In that sense, "dilution" and "erasure" seem like an appropriate description. While it's certainly true that "All Lives Matter," movement success depends on the ability to highlight specific repression and motivate target groups. The revised slogan seems, at best, to merge all social problems into an abstraction, and at worst, tries to argue that, "sure, Black people get harassed by police, but so do White people, and you don't see us whining about it." That argument, ubiquitous among those who enjoy, but fail to identify, White privilege, fails to recognize the profound and specific disenfranchisement of race minorities in the US, and rightly needs to be vigorously confronted and rebutted.

I don't know where the specific image above came from--it seems to be a recent design. I can only track it back to a Facebook page from March 26, 2015. A similar image from 2010 points back to the 2008 California Proposition 8 campaign to prevent gay marriage in that state. However, the process of integrating movement symbology is not new. For example, the Black Power movement's primary symbol of the raised fist, which we see used at the 1968 Olympics by Tommy Smith and John Carlos, and other Black Power motifs of the 1960s-1970s, draws from a long history of "raised fist" imagery.

It more widely represents movements of mass solidarity against repressive states. For example, the following images are from the early 1900s, for the Russian Communist party, a 1917 union poster, and the cover of a 1948 Mexican resistance magazine. The Black Power movement's utilization of this early imagery I would argue, neither functions to, nor is intended to, "dilute" or "erase" the prior movements that had used these symbols, but rather, to pay homage to the fact that the movements are sharing in similar repression, and thus functions to link into the broader social consciousness and reinforce the connections between the movements.

Within social movements theory, a widely recognized phenomenon is the "protest cycle," where several movements often arise in tandem with each other, often preceded by the creation of a salient "master frame." For example, in the mid-late 1800s, Black civil rights gained significant ground during the Reconstruction Era, only to get quickly submerged and largely rolled back. The first wave feminist movement had much success in the late 1800s-early 1900s, then seemed to disappear. In the 1950s, the Black civil rights movement was revived, and the inclusion of university students into the movement, plus other explicit strategies to link it to other groups, broadened the movement into a national force, and created much broader and long-lasting effects than had the previous, and isolated movements. A broad anti-nuclear weapons and peace movement had been simmering in response to WWII, the Korean War, and the Cold War. Martin Luther King, Jr. was successfully able to connect those movements, largely White, middle class, together in a broader discussion about minority repression in the US, as is evidenced by his focus on non-violent actions in the protests he organized. This linked his movement constituency and goals to much wider groups than had been previously incorporated.

Specifically, the master frame that developed within this cultural milieu was rooted in the idea of civil rights and justice for all people, and was able to link many movements together--peace movements argued true peace requires social equality and justice; environmental movements argued that civil rights included a sustainable set of public policies that created livable spaces for all people; clearly, women and sexual minorities were able to draw from this frame to understand their own treatment by society, and join the broader movement for rights; similarly, class disenfranchisement can be understood as a basic civil rights-type issue of being treated with equality. When these varied groups were able to see each of their forms of repression under a common rubric, or 'frame,' then they were able to more effectively share experiences, leadership and tactics to resist, to protest, and to work together for broader social change. This synergy helped to produce the decade of mass protests in the 1960s, a 'protest cycle.'

Rather than "diluting" or "erasing" each other, these varied movements were able to create a larger mass movement by sharing their symbols, integrating them, and working together. The image at the top of the page is unmistakably a reference to the iconic image of the 1950s segregated water fountains, and the Black civil rights struggle that went into remediating the "separate but equal" fallacy. In a similar way, the Indiana RFRA creates the fallacy that all people will be treated equally, even though certain groups of people may be relegated to separate facilities of public accommodation, if one of those facilities is operated by a private individual who is offended by members of specific social groups. While it is claimed that current law prohibits discrimination based on race, so purportedly, even a religious objection to interracial marriage would not allow a restaurant to restrict access to an interracial couple (this is a disputed contention), no such protections exist for sexual minorities, so such groups, or any other non-protected classes of people, could legally be excluded from facilities of public accommodations--i.e., privately owned businesses which serve the public.

The historic image of the segregated water fountain overlaid with LGBTQ symbolism, points to the connections between these movements that were recognized at least as far as the 1960s. The linkage reminds the audience of the racist history of the United States, especially in the context of the current upsurge in recognition of continued race minority disenfranchisement in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. That reminder sensitizes the audience to that movement, while also raising the spectre of a revisitation of the past, both for the potential implications of this law for LGBTQ individuals, as well as any other minority group, including race minorities. I would argue, therefore, that, while there are ways that the majority can dilute and erase the power of minority resistance to oppression, such as the "All Lives Matter" counter-campaign, there are also powerful ways that movements can link arms together to support each other, show their solidarity with each other, and therefore benefit from each other's power. The segregated water fountain graphic above, from my perspective, works toward the goal of solidarity by connecting, in the popular consciousness, the same master frame of civil rights that unites all oppressed groups, and broad social repression that they face.