What the History of Civil Rights Movements Can Tell Us About Civil Unrest During a Global Pandemic

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956. Wikimedia Commons.

Listening to Angela Davis speak about the achievements of the Black Panther Party, I was particularly struck by her depiction of two commonly juxtaposed ‘styles’ of civil rights struggle in the United States — one ‘successful’, one ‘unsuccessful’. Davis begins by telling us about the iconic 1956 picture of Rosa Parks sitting on a bus that appears to be populated by only her and the white man sitting behind her. The picture is meant to represent Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience, a “peaceful ambiance”, and “an individualist focus.” But what we see in it is ultimately a single triumphant black woman and a defeated anonymous white male individual. This image, Davis tells us, has been incorporated into American history, used to mark two radically different periods in the development of American democracy, and to explain how the nation came to be what it is today. As such, this picture tells us not only a story of discrimination overcome and of wrongs righted, but also “stands for the triumph of American democracy” and “invites identification” with the heroic individualism of Rosa Parks.

On the other hand, we have the Black Panther Party whose photographs, according to Davis, “still appear as marginal, exotic, utterly incapable of being incorporated into a historical narrative…that explains where we are today”. Unlike Rosa Parks’ picture, images of the Black Panthers are about “rebels, the lumpenproletariats, militants, they aren’t peaceful, they aren’t non-violent”. It is easy to see here that the Black Panthers’ exclusion from American history as an important moment in the nation’s democratic development might be related to their radical incompatibility with the celebrated image of civil disobedience and cool-headed democratic political engagement represented by the figure of Rosa Parks.

The images of Rosa Parks and of the Black Panther Party therefore symbolize two radically incompatible styles of political practice that continue to reappear in moments of civil unrest to inform and justify attitudes toward specific types of demonstrations and organizing. In the figure of Rosa Parks, for instance, we find a peaceful and individualist style of citizenship and democratic practice that, according to mainstream American history, was not only successful but also able to push American democracy as a whole to a new and more progressive stage of development. The Black Panther Party, on the other hand, stands for the opposite of this. In them, we are told, one finds a radical and aggressive style of political practice that failed to do what it set out to do while struggling to maintain its own integrity due to internal and external conflicts.

Yet, this mainstream framing of these civil rights movements and corresponding tactics only holds when we overlook (as is typically done) Rosa Parks’ experience as a trained organizer (e.g. as a member of the NAACP) and the success and longevity of programs founded by the Black Panther Party (e.g. the Breakfast program). What we have here is therefore a false narrative about the nature and potential success of two artificially constructed styles of political practice concerning civil rights movements in America. What is left out of this narrative is not only the significant overlap between the political and organizational logics informing the two movements, but also how they emerged as powerfully unique responses to shared realities of anti-black racism that — contrary to the radical change in American democracy that the figure of Rosa Parks is supposed to symbolize — continue to ignite civil unrest today. Also overlooked or understated are the contributions of non-black groups and individuals to these civil rights movements. As such, this narrative downplays not only the importance of creatively resourceful and system-oriented grassroots political organization in favour of an idealist, individualist, and ‘civil’ style of political practice, but also obscures important contributions made by widely different actors who joined the movement because of a shared interest in its success or on purely ethical grounds.

Certainly, one can see today some continuity between the unequal social realities out of which emerged figures like Rosa Parks and the Black Panther Party. Our current Black Lives Matter movement attests to this, showing us that our struggles for freedom, equality, dignity, and well-being are far from over but continue to depend on the action we take today — action that, despite the misleading portrayal of Rosa Parks’ individualist heroism, must be carried out collectively, in collaboration with other oppressed groups and individuals in a series of united fronts driven by a shared interest in the production of a more just and egalitarian world.

But who are the potential candidates for these united fronts today? Well, COVID-19 has brought many of them to light.

The COVID-19 pandemic and our governments’ responses to it have put tremendous financial strain on poor and marginalized populations, as well as exacerbated among the working class job precarity, discrimination, and pressure to work under unsafe conditions — conditions already shared by large segments of the population before the pandemic (e.g. women, ethnic minorities, migrant workers, the LGBTQ community, etc.).

Among students, we find incertitude not only regarding graduations and course credits, but also about loan repayments, scholarships, internships, and employment opportunities, accompanied by new tentative and obscure institutional procedures, as well as tremendous cuts to educational staff, resources, and infrastructure — and thus a significant decline in the overall quality of education and educational resources available to students and educators without a corresponding decrease in their cost and significance.

Meanwhile, underfunded and ill-equipped health care workers — our so-called first line of defense — risk their lives to battle and contain a pandemic while also trying to care for a population that is out on the streets protesting against the unjust social and political realities responsible for this dreadful situation in the first place.

We also have the deployment of openly racist and anti-democratic tactics aimed at the protection of for-profit structures and endeavors at the expense of the security, dignity, and well-being of the affected populations (e.g. Canada’s Wet’suwet’en struggle and the Critical Infrastructure Defense Act, which will “create offences for trespassing on, destroying, damaging, and obstructing the use or operation” of infrastructure deemed essential — by whom? In the interest of whom?. ‘Essential infrastructures’ meaning, of course, not schools, libraries, health care facilities, community and recreational centers, and the like, but “pipelines and related infrastructure, oil and gas production and refinery sites, utilities (electric, gas, and water), telecommunication lines, towers, and equipment, highways, railways, mines”).

On top of this, we are also witnessing world-wide mobilization against police brutality, anti-black racism, and, more generally, against the hegemony of an imperialist and militaristic white supremacy seamlessly embodied in the police force.

And let’s not forget president Trump’s wishes to officially designate ANTIFA a terrorist organization.

I will end by emphasizing that the pandemic has not generated but intensified and made yet more visible these unequal social realities, power relations, and conflicts of interest. To say that conditions for real change are ripe would be an understatement. But who do we turn to when we can’t count on our democratic processes and institutions to deliver these changes? Who do we turn to when we have lost faith in our democratic, legal, health care, and education systems and institutions(to name a few)? The answer is simply: to ourselves.

So, if you find yourself negatively affected by any of the things I’ve mentioned, know that whether you like it or not you are part of this ongoing struggle for a better world. Whatever you decide to do (or not to do) about this will have consequences. There is simply no opting out of it, so I urge you to think and act accordingly. As we have seen, oppression has many forms, but so does solidarity and comradeship — so support each other’s struggles and remember that in a context of oppression ALL COMPLAINTS AND ALL DEMANDS ARE VALID!

Public scholar and educator. Environmental politics, human-nature relations, and the history of social & political thought. Find me on Twitter @mcqposts