We’re Done Being Polite: A Reflection on the Mizzou Protests
Social movements over the years have taught us that politeness and respectabiility rarely result in lasting social change. When 15-year-old Claudette Colvin first resisted public bus segregation in Alabama on March 2, 1955, she did so knowing that she’d be classified as unruly, dangerous, and a threat to the very fabric of American society. Nine months later, when Rosa Parks did the same, it was groundswell effect of women like Colvin’s actions which helped to shift the public’s attention to the nonviolent but very disruptive actions of Blacks in Montgomery, Alabama. But these women, their fellow organizers and their tactics weren’t polite. So, why is anyone demanding politeness from young Black organizers today?
News has been coming out of the University of Missouri higher education system for the past week highlighting a culmination of racist events on their campuses. Black students have been working to draw attention to these issues for quite some time now. But, it wasn’t until they started getting very impolite that the UM System decided to take action.
During the school’s annual homecoming parade in October, eleven Black students from an organization called Concerned Student 1950 (named in honor of the first year Black students were permitted to attend the University) initiated a formal protest, blocking the UM System President’s vehicle during the homecoming parade.
Shortly after the protest rose to mass media attention, the group released a list of demands for the leaders of the UM System. Seeing that these efforts were still not being taken as seriously as they should have been, a graduate student named Jonathan Butler vowed to deny himself “food and nutritional sustenance” until Tim Wolfe was removed as president of the UM System. Then, 32 members of the Mizzou football team boycotted their own games and practices. Some have said that this was the act that required Wolfe’s removal because it carried the weight of very large fines if the team didn’t play in upcoming games.
Finally, on Monday, Tim Wolfe was forced to resign after years of mismanagement of racial targeting of Black Mizzou students including a swastika drawn with human feces on University of Missouri’s main predominantly White Columbia campus. Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin also resigned following these events.
Clearly, there were stakes involved. In taking this stand, the Black students engaged in protest were jeered and targeted by predominantly White onlookers hell-bent on devaluing and invalidating their demonstration. Butler risked his life to change the conditions at the school he loved. And, the football players themselves threatened their status at the university and their potential future careers. They all had something to lose too.
But, the thing about being impolite in social protest is that the other side has something to lose too. The disruptions at homecoming probably pissed a few White people off, enough that presidential candidates began to take notice. Presidential candidate Donald Trump went so far as to call the protests “disgusting” while lamenting that the resignations would “set something in motion that’s gonna be a disaster for the next long period of time.”
According to Politico, the only Black presidential candidate on either side of the aisle, Ben Carson, had this to say about the protests.
“Well we’re being a little bit too tolerant, I guess you might say, accepting infantile behavior. I don’t care which side it comes from. To say that I have the right to violate your civil rights because you’re offending me is un-American. It is unconstitutional. And the officials at these places must recognize that and have the moral courage to stand up [to] it. Because if they don’t, it will grow, it will exacerbate the situation and we will move much further toward anarchy than anybody can imagine, and much more quickly.”
In essence, a lot of White folks don’t like it when Black folks step out of line and demand their full humanity. And, as Trump’s and Carson’s words prove, the selfishness of Whites and, in some cases, Black conservatives in the face of injustice toward Black and brown people is evidence that being polite really won’t never get us nowhere.
And here is the nugget that we all should be taking from this moment: we do, indeed, hold power. Targeted, measured, and unified efforts can bring about the change we’d like to see. But it takes organization and solidarity focused on a specific goal. Just as organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), civil rights leaders like Ella Baker, and orators like Martin Luther King Jr. proved back in the 50’s and 60’s, change rarely comes in singular watershed moments. More often, it is earned bit by bit and piece by piece, with small victories rolling up into larger victories and, eventually, overall triumph.
Demands for politeness and threats of violence against Black students across this country – including students at the historically Black Washington DC icon Howard University – are all efforts to silence, invisibilize, and erase the very legitimate claims Black students have to safety and equal treatment on predominantly White campuses in the United States. If nothing else, this story shows that Black millennials are done being polite. This generation is simply not about that polite life.
Politeness means aligning with expected social norms. It means justifying the unjust by placating those who oppress and persecute us. Being polite in social protest means really doing nothing at all. These aren’t the times to be polite. We want to get somewhere cause nowhere hasn’t done much for us so far.
Photo credit: YouTube
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