Protest Politics and the Jena Generation:
Lessons for 21st Century
Black Leaders (November 17, 2007)
Uhuru Hotep, Ed.
Kwame Ture Leadership Institute
essay lays the foundation for a paradigm shift in Black leadership practice by
exposing the limitations of protest politics and its major tactic, the mass
march. If we are to achieve real power
as a community of African people in 21st century America, present-day Black leaders
must subject even their most cherished practices, like the mass march, to
critical analysis. Without this critical
analysis, future Black leaders may settle for leading noisy demonstrations that
end up strengthening the powers against whom we struggle. This we must prevent
at all cost. As much as our tradition is
our guide, we must not be blinded by it.
Times and conditions change. What
was yesterday’s solution may be today’s problem. And so it is with protest politics and the
mass march in particular.
to historian Peter Bergman (1969), Africans in the U.S. have been petitioning the
White power structure for redress of our grievances since 1769. During the
first six decades of the 19th century, Black leaders like Frederick Douglass
and Sojourner Truth organized dozens of rallies, made hundreds of speeches, and
submitted numerous petitions to White America’s political and religious
leaders, North and South, demanding the abolition of slavery. Their rallies, speeches and petitions were
largely ignored, so it took a bloody Civil War (1861-65) to end chattel slavery
in this country.
first series of mass protest marches held by African Americans were organized
during the period 1919-25 by NAACP activists Ida B. Wells and W.E.B.
DuBois. Designed to pressure Congress
into passing legislation outlawing lynching as a federal crime, these early
efforts at protest politics failed to achieve their stated goal, though they
did succeed in placing the protest march into our political vocabulary.
the past 40 years, the protest march, perfected during the Civil Rights era
(1955-70), has become our preferred method of voicing our collective grievances
to the White power structure. Sanctioned
by the U.S. Constitution, held in public spaces and directed at the White
political establishment, the protest march, like a safety valve, has been
extremely effective at siphoning off pent-up Black frustration and anger, but
in a fashion that leaves our oppressor in tact and empowered.
The Importance of Jena
September 20, 2007 mobilization that attracted 60,000 Black youth (CNN reported
15-20,000) and their supporters to the backwater hamlet of Jena, La, to protest the injustice meted out
to six Black high school students, breathed new life into our fading protest
tradition. Columnist Steven Ward wrote
in the October 10th edition of Black Agenda Report that many in his generation
viewed the Jena mobilization as a “rekindling of the spirit of the civil rights
movement” when wide-spread discontent with institutional racism stirred
thousands of ordinary Black people to behave in extraordinary ways. According to CNN, both Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton voiced similar sentiments. But before we embark upon yet another round
of marching and protesting, let us first review the strengths and weakness of
our protest tradition as revealed by the Jena
Strengths of the Jena Mobilization
in an article published in the Michigan Citizen, Amber Jefferies, a 7th grade
student from Detroit reported that for her the Jena March was a “life-changing”
event. Sister Amber speaks for thousands
of Black youth who marched in Jena
or who participated in post-Jena demonstrations. Our protest tradition is extremely
powerful. It often makes a deep and
lasting impact on those who participate in it.
Coming together with tens of thousands of our people to collectively
voice our discontent is heady stuff.
It’s euphoric and literally mesmerizing, but only temporarily.
history tells us that planning and/or participating in a protest march have been
an important Black rite of passage into American political life since the
1950s. So it’s no surprise that the
Black youth who marched in Jena
were deeply moved by our protest tradition, which can in fact change one’s
life. As a child of the Black Power/Black Consciousness movement of the late
60s, I too can attest to the life-changing impact of protest politics.
mobilization, supported by key members of the hip hop community, was the first
Internet driven Black youth protest in American history. National Public Radio’s Eric Weiner reported
that African American bloggers, list servers and chat room junkies, not the
mainstream media, were the driving force publicizing the plight of the Jena 6 and the
March. Others have noted that Black
youth haven’t mobilized against our racial oppression on the scale of Jena since the Civil
Rights movement. As long as it exists,
Black youth must use the Internet as a tool for creating educational, economic,
medical, political, religious and other institutions to meet their needs and
the needs of African people, both a home and abroad.
final benefit of Jena
is the opportunity it provides to begin the emotionally cumbersome but
essential task of bridging the generation gap. Black activist Dr. Oba T’Shaka
in his book The Integration Trap: The Generation Gap correctly identifies the
“generation gap” between Black youth and their elders as “the most serious
internal issue facing African American communities across the United States.” If properly used, Jena could be the catalyst for an
intergenerational dialog and then widespread cooperation between Black youth
activists, progressive hip hop artists, African centered students, and their
politically astute elders. Personally, I’m interested in what made the plight
of the Jena 6 so compelling that it moved Black students across this country to
turn off BET, pull up their pants, reach into their wallets, and travel to Jena
to defend six of their own.
Weaknesses of the Jena Mobilization
Jena March, like all one-day mobilizations
including the “historic” March on Washington
in 1963 and the Million Man March in 1995, is at best symbolic and at worst
diversionary. We know that it takes
constant, long-term pressure by those, like Blacks, who lack the organized
wealth and high level influence to make even the smallest change in the
American political system. We also know
that nothing of lasting value can be achieved in American politics by a one-day
protest regardless of the numbers involved, except that it dupes us into
believing that we have accomplished something concrete and tangible. And that’s the hidden danger of protest
when it’s successful, we can still be manipulated by our psychological need for
recognition from our oppressors, who are masters at weaving what Minister Louis
Farrakhan calls an “illusion of inclusion,” in which symbolic acts are
substituted for substantive ones. In other words, once CNN, BET, NBC, MTV, New
York Times, etc., begins to cover our protest and we are invited to Washington to meet the
president, or downtown to meet the mayor, we celebrate believing that we have
won them over to our cause and they will soon redress our grievances, when
nothing could be further from the truth.
We have simply fallen victim to the “illusion of inclusion” and are
confusing symbol with substance.
if we insist on practicing protest politics, then we must accept that as long
as we restrict ourselves to protesting the actions of our adversaries, we will
never be proactive. Protesting is not
acting; it’s reacting, which means that protesting is basically reactionary. If
this weren’t enough, protesting actually plays right into our enemies’ hands
because it allows them to strategically manufacture events they know will stir
us to react. And as long as we are reacting to their initiatives, we are not
acting to further our agenda; and as long as we are reacting, we are not
building. Protest politics, by its very
nature, forces us to play our oppressors’ game, and not our own.
major limitation of protest politics is economic. It’s estimated that the 60,000 youth who
marched in Jena
on September 20th dumped at least $3.2 million into the local White-controlled
economy. This means that White-owned motels, restaurants, fast food joints,
grocery stores, gas stations, etc., made big money from the marchers as did the
White owned airlines and bus companies that transported them to Jena. The Africans who live in Jena
did not share in this stupendous cash flow because they own few businesses in
which the Jena
marchers could spend their money. To my
knowledge, no permanent Black owned and operated enterprise of any kind was
established in Jena
by the March organizers.
the Civil Rights activists who preceded them, the Jena March organizers failed to consider the
economics of mass mobilization. LIB
Radio commentator Keidi Awadu,
has leveled the same criticism at the organizers of the Million Man March, who
unwittingly delivered at least $100 million into the hands of Washington, DC’s
White business community. These are
funds we should have used to buy the farms, factories, schools and hospitals we
desperately need to truly empower ourselves, not squandered on one day
extravaganzas. Furthermore, as long as
our “protesting” enriches Whites as it did in Jena, they are in favor of it. But if it stops them from making money, they
will shut it down. One of the critical
lessons Black youth must learn from Jena
is that a true movement for social transformation and change will leave
grassroots institutions – businesses owned and operated by our people – in its
fourth limitation of protest politics is its endorsement by the White power
structure. Our right to peacefully
assemble and petition the government to redress our grievances is “guaranteed”
by the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This means that our protesting
and marching are actually sanctioned by the very people who oppress us: the super-rich White males who own and
operate this nation’s political and economic systems. Why? The answer is simple. There is no law or
power that requires the American ruling elite and its agents to change how they
govern in Jena
or anywhere else because we lead a public protest.
youth leaders and activists must overstand that
adopting forms of political engagement sanctioned by our adversaries will have
them actively participating in their own destruction. Simply protesting and marching, even voting
and winning public office, will not transform or even
reform how this nation treats Black people. This many of us know from living in
cities governed by Black officials we elected, naively
believing they had the power to change the quality of our lives.
fifth and most disturbing weakness of our protest tradition is
psychological. Protest politics are
rooted in what psychologists call an “external locus of control.” This means
that protesting has us looking outside of ourselves and our community to our
oppressor, the U.S.
government and its agents – the mayor, the governor, the President, et al – to
solve our problems under the false belief that they are better qualified than
we to make decisions about our lives.
foolishly turn our lives over to the wicked, then we march downtown to their
city-county building, their courthouse, their police department, or to Washington, DC or Jena, to demand justice
from the very people who created and profit from our unjust condition in the
first place. This is absolutely insane!
It’s analogous to a rape victim turning to her rapist for
protection. The Jena generation must first love themselves,
then “flip the script” and establish an “internal” locus of control, which
means their locus or center of power, authority and legitimacy must reside
within their families, our people and our culture, and not mainstream
politicians and government agencies.
21st century Black leaders to embrace the politics of protest and its tactic of
“mass mobilization for one-day of demonstration” as its preferred mode of
direct action is dangerous because it misdirects our energies, finances and
other resources into political activity that is largely symbolic at a time when
our people need secure sources of food, clothing, shelter and the other
essentials of life, not empty rituals.
Consequently, Black leadership must call a nation-wide moratorium on
protest marches while we shift our political paradigm to embrace new forms of
direct action tailored for Black empowerment in a post-Katrina America.
“new” direct action that I envision will mobilize millions of us who are
dissatisfied with the status quo, not to nosily march or loudly protest, but to
quietly pool our resources so we can buy the land, buildings, equipment, and
everything else we need, to exercise sovereign control over the production,
distribution, and consumption of the basic necessities of life: our food,
clothing, shelter, education, transportation, medication and self-defense.
Black youth must overstand that ethnic groups in 21st
who fail to control the production, distribution and consumption of their basic
survival needs will be the servants of those who do, and no amount of marching
and protesting will change this fact.
people in the United States
have been practicing protest politics for more than 250 years with mixed
results. Over the past 40 years, the “mass mobilization for a one-day
demonstration” has become the preferred medium through which U.S. Black
leadership publicly communicates our grievances to the White power structure. To the exclusion of other forms of direct
action, the mass protest march, according to our leaders, is the most effective
way to bring attention to our concerns, demonstrate our group strength and
thereby pressure the ruling class into redressing our grievances. In keeping with this belief, the Jena March is being
exploited by these same leaders (or should I say “misleaders”?) to sell what
they know is a failed political strategy to a new generation of Black youth and
their leaders. This must not happen; this we must challenge; and this we must
spite of the fact that protest politics has won us concessions in the form of
federal legislation, its cost far outweigh its
benefits. As we have seen, it encourages
reactionary behavior; it obscures our need to build independent Black
institutions; it compels us to spend our protest dollars with non-Africans; it
persuades us to surrender control of our lives to external powers; and it blinds us to the
reality that peaceful mass protest in the American political system is
state-sanctioned and thus of symbolic value only.
core political challenge facing the Jena
generation and its leadership is three-fold.
First, they must overstand the symbolic and
diversionary nature of protest politics; next, they must ignore foul-mouth
rappers, media-hungry preachers, hip hop scholars and anyone else who would
suggest that mobilizing Black people for a one-day protest march is an
intelligent response to institutional racism; and finally they must devise new
and engaging forms of direct action that generate the emotional appeal of the
protest march while moving us forward toward economic and political
Akinwole-Bandele, L. (October,
Resistance and Self
News 323. www.pambazuka.org.
Bergman, P. (1969). The Chronological
History of the Negro in America.
Harper & Row.
Gray, P. (September, 2007). “The
Fried Chickens Have Come Home to Roost! We All Live in
T’Shaka, O. (2004). The Integration Trap: The
Generation Gap. Oakland,
CA: Pan African Publishers and
Ward, S. (October, 2007). “Living
for Change: The Jena
6 and Black Leadership.” Black Agenda Report. www.blackagendareport.com.
Weiner, E. (October,
2007). “Bloggers a Force Behind Jena Protests” www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyid.
Uhuru Hotep is a consultant to the Kwame Ture Leadership Institute, host of Kilombo,
an African centered radio talk show, and co-editor of the best-selling 72 Concepts to Liberate the African Mind. He
is a nationally-recognized authority on academic and leadership development
initiatives for urban youth. Dr. Hotep
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.