Discover more from Everything Is Horrible
Ana Kasparian Would Not Have Supported the Civil Rights Movement
The CRM was controversial and very much not respectable.
Yesterday Ana Kasparian, of the supposedly left YouTube network The Young Turks, attacked trans activists who she claimed were not sufficiently deferential and respectable.
The idea that the civil rights movement was unfailingly respectable and undisruptive is…not historically accurate. Nor is it meant to be. These statements are not about supporting progressive change. On the contrary, they are deployed by reactionaries to delegitimize protest.
I wrote the piece below in 2020, but the arguments are much the same. Reactionaries always pretend that they’d have supported past progressive change, but it’s always a lie. What you would do now is what you would have done. What you would say now is what you would have said. And it’s clear what side Ana is on.
When conservatives and centrists want to highlight the excesses of the left during the Trump era, they often point to disruptions of dinner.
When a small restaurant in Virginia refused to serve Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders because of her role in the Trump administrations child separation policies, the Washington Post editorial board penned an op-ed insisting that, in the name of civility, the left should “Let the Trump Team Eat in Peace.” Similarly, when Texas Senator Ted Cruz and his wife were driven from a DC restaurant by protestors opposed to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Georgia’s Augusta Chronicle called for “all of us to stand together against out-of-control tantrum-throwing bullies dressed up as protesters who are harassing public servants in restaurants.”
And last week, after antiracist Black Lives Matter protestors in Rochester took over restaurants and forced patrons to leave, Arc Digital editor Berny Belvedere chastised the activists, writing that “there’s no interest to persuade or win people over using the techniques befitting a democratic society. The idea is to ‘force’ solidarity. Yet on both pragmatic *and* philosophical grounds, this approach is patently absurd.” Belvedere also worries that these tactics will harm low-income service workers who can ill afford an evening without pay.
Based on the backlash, you’d think mealtime protests violated one of our society’s sacred taboos. Protests, critics argue, should be on the street or in public spaces, and shouldn’t disturb people just trying to eat in civil comity.
And yet, one of the early and iconic protest tactics during the Civil Rights Movement involved restaurants. In 1960, four Black students in Greensboro, NC, sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. Soon hundreds of students were occupying Woolworth’s in a lunch counter sit-in, and the tactic spread across the country.
Many people who object to disturbing Sanders or Cruz at their meals accept that those lunch counter sit-ins were reasonable. So what changed? Why was interrupting meals an acceptable, even laudatory protest tactic in 1960, but verboten today?
Part of the answer is the Civil Rights Movement is safely in the past. 1960s protestors aren’t disrupting anyone’s comfort in the present. Moreover, the CRM is celebrated now by people across the political spectrum as an unambiguous moral good. Protestors in the past are seen as peaceful, orderly, disciplined, and focused, in contrast to today’s “tantrum-throwing bullies.”
This view of the Civil Rights Movement is ahistorical. In its own time, the CRM was extremely controversial, and protestors were not seen as reasonable or respectable at all. As history professor Peniel Joseph wrote, “Black college students who engaged in peaceful sit-ins at lunch counters that denied them service because of the color of their skin were criticized for behavior that, however passive, appeared provocative to defenders of the status quo.” Sit-in protestors were accused of being communist subversives, and were often arrested for disorderly conduct, when they weren’t just outright beaten by police and vigilantes. (Sound familiar?)
Critics of protestors today don’t just forget the controversy of the Civil Rights Movement. They also forget how contingent it was. Many CRM tactics, including the sit-ins, were successful in their goals. Woolworth’s desegregated its lunch counters a few months after protests started. But when Black students started to occupy eateries, no one knew for sure it would work. Some restaurants shut down for days, threatening the wages of the same group of low-income workers Berny Belvedere worries about today. Lunch counter sit-ins inspired wade-ins at segregated public pools. Cities often closed municipal pools for everyone rather than open them to Black people. Some never reopened.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that discomfort, inconvenience, lost wages, and even lost municipal services were worth gains in voting rights and desegregation in public accommodations. The CRM didn’t end racism in the United States, but striking down legal barriers was valuable and necessary.
It’s difficult, though, for many to imagine change until it arrives. And when people don’t think anything is going to change, they often are reluctant to accept discomfort in the name of a better world. If you believe we can end racist police brutality, breaking a few tables seems like a small price to pay. If you don’t, it seems like a needless cost. Often, when someone says “this protest tactic antagonizes people, it won’t work,” what they really mean is, “no tactics will work, so why bother to irritate anyone?”
Erasing these successful Civil Rights tactics is also convenient for pundits and speakers who see punditing and speaking as the best, perhaps only, way to bring about change. People with public platforms — people who write for a living — tend to believe that writing op-eds, or crafting careful, nuanced arguments can change people’s minds. Once those minds are changed, people act differently. Careful words lead to just actions.
But this isn’t actually how antiracist change has happened in America. Lincoln wasn’t argued into support for abolition. Rather, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains, Black people escaped slavery themselves once the war started. In addition, many Black people took up arms against the Confederacy by joining the Union forces. Both of these actions by Black people, and the bloodshed of the war itself, helped radicalize Northern opinion, and made the Emancipation Proclamation — which legalized those Black Americans’ use of force — not just imaginable, but inevitable.
Similarly, the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t exactly trying to persuade. It was trying to make the status quo so intolerable and chaotic that people would have to start doing things a different way. Lunch counters weren’t integrated by arguing with restaurant owners. They were integrated by making segregation difficult for those same owners and their patrons. Once the owners decided it was easier to integrate, they changed their actions. People’s minds followed. Which is why even conservative white people now generally agree that segregated restaurants are wrong.
This isn’t to say that persuasion is completely useless. Often protestors are inspired by writers and speakers, just as writers and speakers can learn from or be inspired by direct action. And arguing on behalf of a cause can help persuade people who are persuadable. But I’d urge my fellow pundits to recognize our own limitations. Try not to assume direct action is illegitimate or useless, even though it takes place over there, at some distance from the keyboard.
At the very least, it might be a useful exercise for pundits to ask themselves, “If protestors used these tactics in the Civil Rights Movement, would they have been justified? Would showing up to protest at someone’s house, or breaking a table or a window, or shutting down a basketball game, or closing a highway, be worthwhile if it helped to end Jim Crow?”
And consider, in light of your answers, whether you would have been on the right side then, and whether you’re on the right side now.
Everything Is Horrible is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.