I would say yes. We have somehow come to equate expression in a democracy with civility. But democracy in a complex society demands contestation. Democracy needs processes and institutions that can support the public in voicing their lived experience. This point was emphasized by two different city planners in our podcast series TheMove. Wendal Joseph spoke of the need for cities to create spaces in public hearings for venting, while Sabrina Dorsainvil advocated for embracing delight in our civic life.
We need to remember the idea of democracy was built on a narrow concept of who was worthy to participate: Property owning white Christian men, many living in communities of faith. Over time we have challenged and adapted the notion of who could participate (women, nonmembers-property owners, asanas, blacks, people of the First Nation and so on...) without changing the system built on a foundational of exclusion.
As a result, our imagination for how democracy should function is stunted. We are in some sense trapped inside the Norman Rockwell Freedom of Speech which to me is a caricature of the town hall meeting. This image is so powerful that even today with our advanced technology and social processes we still hold the quaint New England idea as the pure form of citizen's voice in a democracy. Thus we end up with televised town hall meetings that are nothing more than orchestrated forms of theatre.
We have tinkered with our system of participation as much as we can. We have to invent new civic systems built on the notion of inclusion capable of supporting the varied ways we know and understand the world and the diverse ways we need to express that knowledge. We need to create a new civic system capable of strengthening the public's ability to be in dialogue and struggle around race, the most rooted tradition that binds us.
I find it helpful to think of the civic challenge facing America, and all democracies as threefold: 1. Designing spaces/places in which it is possible for the complex public to “peacefully struggle” with the traditions that bind and the interest that separate; 2. Designing the interactions that occur in those space/places so that the public emerges from these struggles with path(s) forward that provide just and equitable improvements on the past; 3. Designing a framework that overtime connects individual spaces/places into an organic infrastructure where the public is able to do that work that only the public can do in self-governing systems.
Is it possible? Yes. I think this is one of the main reasons The Movement for Black Lives is so important: they are on the frontlines of creating an inclusive civic system capable of sustaining joy, struggle, and hope.
As an historian of the civil rights era, I have been grappling with the question of what that history can illuminate about the strengths and weaknesses of the Black Lives Matter movement. In a recent article in The Journal of Black Studies, political scientist Dewey M. Clayton compares the civil rights movement to BLM suggesting that the former was more inclusive in its approach, while BLM was more exclusive and that the civil rights movement was better able to create an expansive “master frame” around the issues it was advancing -- equality, freedom, justice -- that could excite potential allies (such as white liberals and moderates) than has Black Lives Matter whose “master frames” have, he suggests, been more narrowly structured around police brutality and criminal justice reform. Non-black liberals and moderates might feel themselves less included by BLM’s framing of issues. “The genius of the civil rights movement,” he argues, “is that they were able to elaborate these values into a master frame that made the civil rights movement problem an American problem. Today Black Lives Matter does not utilize the same framing -- it has yet to appeal to mainstream Americans and convince them that its [BLM’s] concerns are part of the national identity.”
For instance, in Charlottesville, local BLM activists have chanted and draped the Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee with the slogan: “Fuck white supremacy.” This kind of “incivility” has raised hackles among some as potentially alienating supporters. The argument is that the civil rights movement was more dignified. In a Washington Post piece, veteran civil rights movement activist Barbara Reynolds wrote about why she found it difficult to fully support BLM: “The demonstrations are peppered with hate speech, profanity, and guys with saggy pants that show their underwear” even as she acknowledges that “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”
She’s concerned that the albeit justifiable rage and anger of BLM activists will be counter-productive. On the other hand, to criticize activists today for not being decorous in their protest style as Reynolds and others have done is to misremember how the civil rights movement was received much of the time as similarly raucous, alienating to white moderates because of its confrontational marches, civil disobedience, and encouragement of violence by white supremacists (the strategy required to get media attention). Only in nostalgic memory was the civil rights movement “civil.” Only in retrospect do we recognize the civil rights movement as a high point in the expansion of American democracy and a shining example of American ideals of equality and justice for all.
I raised The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) to acknowledge the structural work around organizing it began in Cleveland when over 50 community organizations and 2,000 individuals gathered to reflect on their movement. Over the next year, people gathered in local a national convening to create a platform for advancing the work of liberation and the policies necessary to get there.
The unapologetic focus on Black Lives (in all its forms) by M4BL exemplifies what I believe is one of the core tenets of designing an inclusive civic infrastructure: Design for the Margins. Solutions that emerge from focusing on those at the margins of society have a greater possibility of providing benefits for more people than solutions derived by concentrating just on the mainstream. Why? Those pushed to the margins of society are most attuned to the structural and value failures of the system. Participation solutions that emerge from a focus by and with those at the margins will not only improve engagement for those at the margins but inevitably, for the broader society.
M4BL's year-long and ongoing effort to create and maintain a Platform for dialogue and action around the liberation of black lives is to engage in the struggle with the traditions that bind us and the interest that separate us" that Moore suggests democracy requires. For me, M4BL has much to teach us about creating the spaces and processes in which it is possible to engage in the struggle for a future that is equitable, just and liberating improvement on the past. But will we allow ourselves to learn from what they have to offer?
Aniko Bodroghkozy is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and has been on its faculty since 2001. She is the author of Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement was published in 2012 by the University of Illinois Press. Her first book, Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion was published by Duke University Press in 2001. In 2018 she published a major anthology, edited for Wiley-Blackwell’s
Ceasar L. McDowell is Professor of the Practice of Civic Design at MIT. His current work is on the design of civic infrastructures and processes to connect the increasingly demographically complex public. Ceasar teaches on civic and community engagement and the use of social media to enhance both.
Gathering of Folks at M4BL Cleveland: