Chin: Movements Matter

by Clara Chin | 10/27/15 8:50pm

While watching the movie “Straight Outta Compton” (2015) at Loew Auditorium on Oct. 24, I was reminded of ongoing debates over the effectiveness of political protest. The F. Gary Gray-directed biopic is about the late 1980s rap group N.W.A. and its five members, and though many scenes in “Straight Outta Compton” consist of fist brawls and raunchy parties, the movie also highlights protests, riots and how the media and the police respond to these events. “Straight Outta Compton” features a protest against police brutality that predates the Black Lives Matter movement — the 1992 unrest that took place in Los Angeles after the acquittal of four white police officers, who had been caught on videotape beating black taxi driver Rodney King.

More than 20 years have passed, yet the same concerns over racial disparities in police treatment have reemerged as a central issue — and it might not seem like much has improved since. Like the beating of Rodney King, the recent police killings of young black males like Michael Brown and Tamir Rice have moved large numbers of Americans to support the victims in political protest. Because the issue of police violence persists despite these protests, one might question how effective political protests actually are.

Many prominent politicians have criticized, to varying degrees, the effectiveness of the Black Lives Matter movement. New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie (R-N.J.) concluded that “they are calling for the murder of police officers.” Offering a much milder critique of the movement, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton met with Black Lives Matter protesters and discussed their current aims with them. While she did acknowledge their analysis was “fair,” Clinton told them that she did not believe that the protestors should be trying to “change hearts,” and that they should focus instead on changing laws. I have experienced similar misgivings firsthand — when I staged a Black Lives Matter protest at my high school, many friends did not see the point. There is no concrete change that occurs directly from protesting, the thinking goes — holding signs and chanting will only have a minimal effect, especially if there is no specific policy demand. Clinton’s primary advice to the protesters was to ask for particular changes in the law. But what if changing hearts can indeed change laws?

This strategy has worked in the past. It is easy to simplify social change into dates when laws were promulgated, but legal change is often spurred by shifts in public opinion, as gauged by public commentary and social unrest. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, which sought to eliminate discriminatory voting barriers, gained momentum after the peaceful marches from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama. They rallied the country in favor of new laws and pressured then-U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to make a change. Like the unrest portrayed in “Straight Outta Compton” and the contemporary Black Lives Matter protests, civil rights demonstrations profoundly influenced the public consciousness, independent of the legal change they later inspired.

Some may see the fact that people are protesting yet again as evidence that no progress has been made since the 1992 Rodney King riots. Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck, however, has said, “When you see folks looting and fires and police cars being vandalized and the extreme degree of tension that we all saw, it does remind me of 1992. But it also reminds me of how far we’ve come.” Examples of progress in Los Angeles include the ouster of the divisive police chief Daryl Gates, the introduction of five-year police chief terms and 2015 rules mandating body cameras on officers. Present national protests could hold similar potential for change. In fact, the odds may be even better — demonstrations in recent years have more often taken the form of non-violent protest than violent, polarizing riots.

Because protesting is not a formal mechanism to propose policies, people sometimes fail to see it as a valid method to effect change. It is true that protests alone do not guarantee substantive reform. “Straight Outta Compton,” though a dramatization, shows how riots can lack nuance or any common, defining goal — running the risk of spreading senseless violence. Yet protest has its place — and legal change in anything, including police accountability, often requires a push from the masses.