As occupying public spaces was to the Occupy movement, “Shutting It Down” is to the new wave of protest around police brutality and systemic racism. “If We Don’t Get It, Shut It Down” has long been a favorite chant of the labor movement, but for the rapidly growing movement saying #BlackLivesMatter, it’s also become a tactical mandate.
In the world of protests, “shutting it down” might seem self-evident. Disruption is the point: As Martin Luther King, Jr., famously wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
Over the last several weeks, demonstrators have created particular kinds of tension. Actions have not targeted particular organizations — like the Jewish peace group If Not Now did when it targeted prominent Jewish American institutions recently — or sites of production, as the environmental movement has done in the past. Instead, Shutting It Down has meant quite literally shutting down “business as usual.” The “target” is an American public that has been overwhelmingly complicit in the criminalization of black and brown life. The message is clear: Business as usual cannot continue because, for many, “business as usual” has represented a daily threat.
In the previous weeks, students at dozens of campuses nationwide walked out of class to hold die-ins, either at high-traffic campus locations or in the surrounding area. Activists in Washington, D.C, New York and Philadelphia held hundreds-strong die-ins in their cities’ major train stations. Organizers in Boston and Oakland even shut down the cities’ public transit systems. Expanding on an earlier call to boycott Black Friday in advance of the holiday shopping season, similar actions have targeted major shopping centers, city Christmas tree lighting ceremonies, even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Marches in countless cities have shut down major bridges and highways. Yesterday morning, during rush hour traffic, a small group of protesters shut down the Verrazano Bridge for seven minutes “in honor of the seven minutes that the NYPD and EMTs were recorded not providing medical care to Eric Garner after Officer Pantaleo applied a chokehold to him,” according to a statement by the group.
Alicia Garza, the Special Projects Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter, was one of the 14 arrested for shutting down a BART transit center in Oakland. Days later, she told Democracy Now! that the goal of that action, like others, was “to disrupt the system … We wanted to make sure that there was no more business as usual until Mike Brown’s family and families like John Crawford’s and Jordan Davis’s and Renisha McBride’s no longer have to look at an empty seat at the table.”
Just as it has narrowed in on a certain tactical unity, the movement is having strategic debates analogous to those that took place throughout Occupy about whether to adopt one demand or a set of specific demands. Stemming initially from a call by Michael Brown’s family, many groups — including the ACLU — have called for the increased use of body cameras for municipal police departments. Others have claimed that such an incremental demand would limit the movement’s scope and potential, and have a negligible impact in preventing police brutality, particularly after a grand jury failed to indict Pantaleo in the filmed killing of Eric Garner.
Like income inequality, racism is too broad and deeply entrenched a structure to be adequately addressed by any one policy— save, perhaps, for one on the scale of reparations or a universal basic income. Still, the question remains as to whether a tangible or even symbolic demand — feasible in the short term — could translate the pressure being generated now in the streets into a longer-term consolidation of power and progress. Ultimately, this question is best answered by experienced organizers on the ground, rooted in the communities who stand to benefit most. If the fall of 2011, when Occupy first emerged, could be called a “revolutionary moment,” the last few weeks constitute one at least as promising.
Kate Aronoff is an organizer and freelance journalist based in Philadelphia, PA. While in school, she worked extensively with the fossil fuel divestment movement on the local and national level, co-founding Swarthmore Mountain Justice and the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network (DSN). She is currently working to build a student power network across Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff