Last night, a crowd of 300-500 nonviolent protesters gathered in the cold rain in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, to peacefully voice their anger, anguish, and fear after several recent high profile instances of police killing unarmed black men. The protest was organized by several Pittsburgh high school students, and it was attended by mostly high school and college students, with some adults. It was one of dozens of #ShutItDown protests taking place across the country: peaceful protesters gathering, rallying, and then marching down the street. I was one of the protesters, and I wanted to share my experiences and thoughts with all my Dunker Punks friends.
First, here’s how things went down for me:
I arrived at approximately 5:05 PM, about 5 minutes after the protest was scheduled to begin. The protest took place in a public area called Schenley Plaza. The people were packed around a series of speakers using a megaphone. By the time I got there, the crowd was too large to even see the people speaking, so I circled the crowd taking pictures.
At around 5:45, we began the “Shut It Down” part of the protest. We made a loop around two city blocks, marching on the two major streets in this area of Pittsburgh, and chanting phrases like “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “Black Lives Matter.” This took all of about 15 minutes, but it sent a powerful message, and onlookers joined the crowd as we continued to march.
When we returned to Schenley Plaza, we made a circle in the intersection. The organizers stood in the middle of the circle, and led us in a few chants. After the organizers left the circle, the protesters joined in an impromptu “die in,” where they laid on the ground for a few minutes in the intersection. The organizers came back, and asked the crowd to peacefully disperse. We had made our point, and it was time to be cooperative and respectful, especially since the people of Pittsburgh and the police had been cooperative and respectful to us.
At this point, I left, which leads me to my thoughts:
First of all, this was an entirely student led protest. It was organized by a group of high school students. They saw something wrong with the world, and they decided to do something about it. That’s Dunker Punk level leadership, and it’s also a Dunker Punks challenge. If you think you’re too young to make a difference or take leadership, look at all the amazing young people across the world who are doing just that.
I also want to make it clear that the Pittsburgh Police were exemplary in this protest, and they deserve a lot of credit for the actions they took. Though the police responded to the situation, they did so in a calm, measured, and respectful way. It became immediately clear to me that they were concerned with protecting our safety and our right to protest, rather than with clearing the protest so that the city could return to its business. The police cleared the streets and stopped traffic so that we wouldn’t be in danger of oncoming cars.
These protests are not to say that all police are bad. We know that all police aren’t bad, and everyone at this protest saw it first hand. These protests are to say that there are bad police who use bad tactics, tactics that are far too forceful, and tactics that have very clear racial bias to them. These protests are to say that there is a system in place that protects the bad police, rather than encouraging all police to be like the good ones. These protests are to say that the system acts as if black lives do not matter. These protests are to say that there are people in this country who feel afraid and demonized by the people who are supposed to protect and serve them. These protests are to say that the black community is deeply hurting at the loss of its loved ones. And that’s why I joined the protest. I’ve never felt afraid or untrusting of the police. I’ve never been hurt by the police. And I think everyone deserves to live in a world where they can feel that way. If I was a good police officer, I would feel outraged at the bad police officers who are tarnishing my efforts and commitment to protect people and make them feel safe.
And that takes me to some of the negatives that I saw in the protest:
First: the crowd was very excited, and it was getting a lot of positive energy from the people speaking. Until this one guy took the megaphone. Whereas every other speaker was a black man or woman (they were mostly women), this guy was a white man. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I’ll get to that in a moment), but his message was bad. He took this opportunity in front of hundreds of people to promote his own political organization. He talked at length about what his organization does and when and where they meet. You could feel the crowd deflating. In terms of energy, it was the low point of the night.
Second: There are chants that I think are productive, and there are chants that I think are counterintuitive. I like chants like “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breath” and “Black Lives Matter” and “Shut It Down.” These chants are all peaceful and nonviolent. They call attention to injustice, while elevating the conversation to a higher standard. I don’t like chants like “No Justice, No Peace” or chants about individual racist police officers or chants that use profanity. These chants still highlight the injustice, but they make it hard for the protesters to separate themselves from the injustice that they are protesting.
Saying “no justice, no peace” is to say, “I have been treated wrongly, so I will respond with wrongdoing.” It’s a promise, or at least an invitation, to violence. And it’s not what is needed. Talking about individual racist police officers makes the conversation about vindication and vengeance, rather than about seeking to dissolve injustice. There is absolutely a big racial bias in our justice system, and the presence of racism needs to be addressed. But making it about individual racist police diminishes the problem and represents only a narrow conception of justice. I’m not offended when I hear profanity, but using profanity allows critics of these protests to make it about the language that the protesters are using, rather than the change they are seeking. Don’t give critics that ammo. Use language that is becoming of the change you wish to enact.
Nonviolent protest is effective because it draws a contrast between the victims and the perpetrators. It highlights the depravity of violence and injustice. It showcases the suffering caused by oppression. If your protest against injustice comes with the promise of acts of violence, or even the suggestion that that is acceptable, you are defeating yourself.
Finally, the protest continued after I left. I’m not against a long-winded protest, but I do think it was wrong in this case to continue, only because the organizers of the protest had asked the crowd to disperse or at least return to the sidewalk. As I was walking away, I turned around to see the protesters again heading down the street, except this time it was a much smaller, much whiter crowd. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of a protest, and that’s ok, but I do think protests should remain respectful to their organizers. The students who marched down the street a second time effectively demonstrated that they did not respect the leadership of the organizers. They hijacked the protest for their own reasons. But I want to be clear that my objection to this second protest was not because of the disruption it caused to traffic, but because it was outside the scope and leadership of the protest, and I’ll explain why shortly.
This brings me to my last section, tips for Dunker Punks if you want to join a protest:
Tip #1: Listen to the organizers, and respect their leadership. Chances are, your protest will be organized by black men and women, and chances are, if you’re a Dunker Punk, you are probably white. Not all Dunker Punks are white. We’re a diverse group, but in general the Church of the Brethren in the United States is a very white denomination. This is something we should fix, but it’s also just a true statement for the purposes of this article.
If you’re white, you’re more than welcome to get involved and protest. I’m white. It’s important that Dunker Punks care about these issues. But if you’re white, you have to take extra care to take a supportive and not leading role in protests like these that have racial motivations. It’s great that you want to get involved and make a difference, but if you become so dominant that you are usurping control of the situation, you are in effect reinforcing the influence of white supremacy in our society. White people aren’t supreme, but they have been raised in an environment that encourages them to take control of situations and be leaders. In this case, take care to be a follower, and if you see other white people doing this, say something to them. They probably don’t realize that their good intentions are being expressed in the wrong way. Remember that I said that the second protest was predominantly white, whereas the first was predominantly black. And remember that white guy who took the megaphone and promoted his own organization and cause. If you’re white, support, be empathetic, take leadership when it is appropriate, but don’t usurp leadership from black organizers.
Additionally, listening to the organizers is the best way to ensure that the protest stays under control. If the protest gets out of control, that when it can get violent or destructive.
Tip #2: Research the protest beforehand. As Dunker Punks, we should feel compelled to make a difference in the things that matter to us, but we must also be sure that we are using the proper, Christlike channels. Our motivation is not simply to seek out change, but to seek out change that looks like Jesus, in ways that look like Jesus. Please research to make sure the organizers of your protest are clear about keeping this nonviolent. In my case, the organizers were clear in inviting others to the protest that it was strictly nonviolent, and no violence would be tolerated.
Tip #3: Look like Jesus at the protest. If your protest is large enough, there will be people who believe in using violent measures to get what they want. There are always extremists. But we aren’t extremists, we’re radicals. And as radical Christians, we must look at the roots of our faith, where we see Jesus, who very clearly condemns violence, especially in response to injustice. Follow Jesus at your protests, don’t chant “No Justice, No Peace.” More importantly, don’t believe it. Don’t incite violence, and stop violence if you see it happening. Be peaceful, be nonviolent, but never keep your eye off the goal of stopping injustice. That’s how we enact cross-shaped change.
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Emmett Eldred is a sophomore Creative Writing; Professional Writing; and Ethics, History, and Public Policy Major at Carnegie Mellon University. His passions include reading about, writing about, and snuggling with pugs. Emmett is the founder of DunkerPunks.com, and he wants lots more people to contribute! Fill out a Dunker Punks profile, and join the conversation! Follow Emmett on twitter @emmetteldred and follow Dunker Punks on Twitter @DunkerPunks and on Facebook.