The right of a population to assemble in civil protest was so important to America’s founding fathers that it was included in the first clause of the Bill of Rights. Whether that freedom manifests itself as a march through Washington, sitting at the front of a bus, or kneeling during the National Anthem, the first amendment right to free speech and peaceful protest is the cornerstone of America’s democracy.
Too often, in recent years, the justified protest of certain society ills has evolved into chaos, rioting, and violence, eventually shifting the conversation away from the initial subject of the protest and focusing on unrelated topics such as civic militarization or the sanctity of a song. The act of protesting for social change is a noble but, ultimately, fruitless endeavor without a centralized figurehead to lead and organize the masses.
A major factor in the success of Martin Luther King’s message was, simply, the fact that there was a Martin Luther King at all. His message was not a new message or a revolutionary message; he simply demanded that we, as a country, honor the credo that “all men are created equal”. The import of Dr. King was his ability to rally people around him, inspire those who felt they had no voice, apply pressure to the leaders who can enact real change, and counter attack the stereotype that his opposition so staunchly clung to.
Opponents to the civil rights movement believed black citizens to be inferior in virtually ever way imaginable but when they had to make their argument against a well-read, well-spoken, Christian, doctor it became substantially more difficult to hide behind a negative perception.
The protests today need a figurehead that can rally the voiceless and help enact positive change. As long as movements like Black Lives Matter are relegated to leaderless protests, no change will ever come.
The Black Lives Matter movement is, theoretically, fighting against the systemic targeting by police of black people in America. As the number of, often, unarmed black men and women die at the hands of police brutality grows on a daily basis, the movement has more and more reason to stand up and fight but those opposed to the movement will take little note of meaning if they see rioting on the streets. This, sadly, only reinforces the beliefs and bigotry and does nothing in the way of a remedy.
Colin Kaepernick has now famously knelt during the National Anthem and this gesture has spread to other sports at every level from school to professional. But, despite being a poignant and thought provoking gesture, the focus of his protest immediately divulged into an argument about respecting the flag and has not progressed the conversation related to perceived police racism a bit.
In the wake of criticism, Kaepernick has agreed to donate substantial money to causes related to his protest and, again, a noble gesture does nothing to progress the conversation.
If Kaepernick truly wants to be the harbinger of change, he needs to put his mouth where his money is. He needs to speak out, host rallies, and use his personality to become a central figure in the movement. Colin Kaepernick is in the perfect position to legitimize a movement in dire need of focus either by becoming that figurehead or finding a figurehead and throwing all of his support behind them.
Every successful movement needs someone who can speak to the masses. Every successful movement needs someone who can inspire the oppressed and change the minds of the oppressor. No law or public policy is going to end the violence within black communities but a fundamental shift in the perception of those communities will. The movement needs someone who understands the plight of the down-trodden but also understands the justification (right or wrong) of those causing the problem.
I cannot be that person. I understand the problem, I understand the movement, I understand where the bigots and critics draw their conclusions from, and I believe I have solutions but I have never had five police officers approach me in formation with guns drawn and a helicopter overhead when my car broke down on the road. I have never been stalked in a department store. I have never been pulled out of my car for a routine traffic stop. I have never been turned down for housing. I have never been denied the benefit of the doubt. I have never been stereotyped and marginalized. I have never been pepper-sprayed, beaten, or shot.
People like me, who support the movement, cannot become the leaders of the movement because we cannot speak to the actual struggle. People like President Obama cannot become the leaders of the movement because they are too entrenched in the system to make progressive changes. It takes people with an understanding of the problem, an ability to articulate the problem objectively, and a willingness to take on an unending barrage of haters and critics to help change the national dialogue because only when the national dialogue shifts can real change occur.
It seems simplistic but we see this happen all the time on smaller scales. We, as a nation, have stopped using words like retarded and faggot because the national consciousness shifted. We, as a nation, stopped allowing smoking in our restaurants and public spaces because the national consciousness shifted. We, as a nation, have decided that it is inappropriate to demand sexual favors in exchange for employment opportunities because the national consciousness shifted.
It is not impossible to change the national consciousness on this issue as well. The people against cops being so quick to use lethal force far out number those who are proponents of the practice but in order for real change to occur the movement needs a leader that can separate the ideas that being for BLM means you’re against police, that all cops are crooked, and that all situations of lethal force are unwarranted. Once these ideas are removed from the conversation, both sides are left to deal with the root of the problem, whether real or perceived, and come together for solutions.
As long as the movement is a leaderless hodgepodge of major city protests that end in riots the problems facing these communities will only get worse before they get better.
For the love of man, country, and God, find a leader.