There is worth in the expression of shared principles, as well as in the support that stems from collaboration. But beyond the immediate affirmation of restating our moral convictions, I confess my nagging worry that ceaseless statement-writing as an act of protest is sucking us dry — of time, rest, energy, creativity and our place in the public square.
Protest aims to voice dissent and sway public opinion toward the ultimate end of shaping social change, or in our moment, halting social decline. But when formulaic statements are issued by committees of liberal professors, or “the educated elite” — the same voices who always lecture on race — the words have limited impact. Our proliferation of statements online may in fact spur those who enjoy setting off shock waves through race-baiting language and then sitting back and watching the show.
As the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report “The Alt-Right on Campus: What Students Need to Know” suggests, what these instigators crave is “spectacle.” When we respond to slurs with the visceral go-to words — “vile,” “heinous,” “inhumane,” “attacks,” “assaults” — we may be fueling the opposition. We might be diminishing the power of our lexicon for future and more egregious affronts. We certainly are expending precious time.
This is not to say that words do not matter. Words hold immeasurable weight, which is why we bemoan Donald Trump’s mean and facile use of them. But all word-work requires time, and some have more impact than others. In this mudslinging cultural melee, we need the right words: the stories, jokes, essays, poems, harangues and treatises that paint a compelling vision that we all want to stand for. And beyond judiciously choosing the words to put on the page, we would be wise to follow in the great social-movement tradition of matching our words with bodies in action.
Putting bodies on the line to advance a just vision was among the primary tactics of the transformational African-American movement for civil rights. The embodied form of protest employed by Rosa Parks is an iconic example. A flowing, gold-toned dress sewn by Mrs. Parks hangs with an aura of reverence at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, symbolizing her personal dignity and unyielding drive for justice. That single garment resounds so powerfully because it may have adorned the body of “Mother Parks,” the same body that she used and endangered when refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in the winter of 1955.
According to Jeanne Theoharis, a biographer of Mrs. Parks, she was a woman who applied the “judicious use of stories” and “chose her words with care” but was prepared to leverage her own body to enact her politics. Mrs. Parks’s colleague in the struggle, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., also backed well-chosen words with daring action. His “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was a treatise with moral force heightened by the radical position of his incarcerated body as well as by the presence of an aggrieved people marching in the streets.
Then and now, the surprising appearance of bodies in common spaces grabs public attention, and holds the potential to open and change minds. Sixty years after Mrs. Parks sat and Dr. King marched, the image of burly football players kneeling during the national anthem, adopting a pose of humility and sorrow to signal dissent, snatched a news cycle and dragged the president off-message.
At Michigan, students ramped up their response to the door-tag slur incident by taking a page from Rosa Parks’s notebook. They used their own bodies to block transit at a central bus stop on campus. They also subverted stereotypes; black students sat in the road with books open on their laps while white allies stood to protect them from traffic. The campus police did not interfere, but immediately barricaded the street to ensure everyone’s safety.
This creative protest broadcast the rejection of racially divisive acts more forcefully than any faculty statement produced that week. And in positioning their bodies in spatial relation to one another, the students presented a living picture in which people of diverse skin tones, ethnicities and identities could gather together on contested ground to claim their shared belonging. These bodies in space, out of place, engaging in the unexpected to advance a positive idea, sent a message with meaning.
Soon after the 2016 presidential election, the political scientist Frances Fox Piven wrote in The Nation that to be effective, protest movements must generate “mass refusals” that disrupt the complex systems on which everyday life depends. When protesters insert their bodies into forbidden places or adopt poses unsanctioned for their station, they are engaging in blatant acts of refusal. Rosa Parks did exactly this when, as Jeanne Theoharis recounts in her biography of Parks, “she decided to withdraw her participation in a system that was degrading” by refusing to change seats on the bus.
This tactic of corporeal protest, with its elements of immediacy and vulnerability, is riveting and consequential. It is also dangerous. In this dizzying time of multiple and very real threats, deciding which bodies go on the line, where and for what causes requires serious strategic discussion and clear commitment to protecting those who volunteer to risk their bodies.
I doubt my own courage and wonder each day whether I could deploy my body beyond the relative safety of marches approved by permits. But I am certain of this: The change we seek to make won’t be accomplished by words alone.