Has the Time for Spiritual Protests Passed?

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The tragic death of George Floyd struck a chord with many Americans because it, yet again, placed the reality of racially motivated police brutality so squarely in our sights. The video of Mr. Floyd taking his last breaths disturbed and appalled me because I, like so many black men in America, could see myself in a similar scenario: detained, actively not resisting, and still being treated as a criminal. These stirring images moved me in a way I had not expected. As a political conservative, I tend not to participate in social protests, which, more often than not, are spearheaded by liberal activists. However, understanding the gravity of this past month’s events, I felt it was wrong to not join the protests that were taking place near me.  

The diverse crowd of protesters, earlier this month, at Foley Square in downtown Manhattan that showed up in support and solidarity with black lives shocked me. Thousands of protestors, all from seemingly disparate backgrounds, situated themselves across the street from the New York City Police Department, the New York Supreme Court, and just blocks away from City Hall. Symbolically, this carried great significance, as it placed the protesters at the center of institutions that presumably have the power to redress their grievances. Our nation’s original sin of racism, which so stains the fabric of our society to this day, was being protested that day. The Foley Square protest was in the tradition of many protests before it that have sought to address police brutality against black individuals. 

As I walked along the streets of lower Manhattan, marching towards Gracie Mansion, I was reminded of stories my grandmother would tell me about her experiences growing up in the segregated South. In the 1950s, Granny was a young mother in Greensboro, North Carolina, and would recall memories of the racist Jim Crow South, restaurant sit-ins and protesting. It always appeared to me that the protestors she observed and walked with carried with them a sense that in fighting for their lives against Jim Crow laws, they were fighting for the soul of this nation. Stirring and defiant hymns of “We Shall Overcome” and “I Shall Not Be Moved” were sung as they made their arduous march towards freedom. In their protests, they carried with them the faith that though the journey might be long, justice would one day come for all Americans. 

Tuesday’s march felt largely devoid of the spiritualism that seemed to imbue the protests of my grandmother’s memory. Whereas my grandmother’s generation sang church spirituals to uplift the soul, this protest was peppered with chants of “NYPD Suck My D*ck” and “All Cops Are Bastards.” Hearing these jeers, I immediately thought, “Oh how far the art of protest has fallen since the days of Dr. King.” The exercise of resistant protest, once an act of righteous spiritual expression, had seemingly devolved into ugly slogans that I felt did nothing to get the message of racial justice across to those listening. But then, as I thought about the backdrop and motivations for this particular protest, it became clear to me that the art of protest had not fallen, so much as the societal situations that gave rise to the protests of old had not really improved. That police violence continues to be such a pertinent issue among black Americans questions the right-wing talking point that injustices fought against so long ago have really been largely resolved. That the black-white economic divide is as staggering now as it was in 1968 rightfully makes people wonder if those chants of “We Shall Overcome” were really just foolishly optimistic wishes for a more equitable America. That Ahmaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among others, could be killed with such impunity, makes folks think that the time for stoically subdued protests passed 50 years ago. When the realities we face are so pressing and so urgently in need of addressing, maybe we can no longer appeal to the patient, slow, styles of spiritual protest. Perhaps the time has come to address the jarring vulgarities of our society with equally shocking vulgarisms. 

At my core, I am an optimist. I believe that with time and understanding and work and patience, we can cure the ills that plague our society. But unless our society consciously acknowledges some of the root causes of police brutality, racial profiling in policing, and how our laws offer sanction to a wide range of unethical policing practices, we can never truly be cured of this illness that seems to metastasize in our nation. The perceived vulgarity of some of these protests, I believe, points to what Dr. King referred to as “the fierce urgency of now.” People are tired of the state of affairs in this country. People are tired of justice being deferred too often for too many Americans. The harshness and terseness of some of the slogans and actions of the protests speak to a long-held frustration and fierce desire for urgent resolutions. When thinking of how to assess these protests, try not to harp on the fact that people chant disturbing phrases. Instead, assess what causes people to chant them. Repression, suffering and exploitation can no longer be met with the tasteful chants of yesterdaynot when the changes yesterday promised have not come to pass.

Nolan Edmonson is a graduate of Yeshiva University where he received his Bachelors of Arts in Political Science. He converted to Judaism after graduating from high school. Edmonson lives in the greater tri-state area.

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