Millions marched across the United States in protest and celebration of Juneteenth on June 19. There have been localized million people marches, specifically in 1982 in New York for a nuclear freeze; in Washington D.C. in 1995 the Million Man March to “convey to the world a vastly different picture of the Black male;” the Million People March in the Philippines in 2013 to abolish the Pork Barrel fund, and the 2019 million people march in Santiago, Chile, to protest economic inequality.
Recent marches in Geneva (where I live) against racism and for women’s rights have been much smaller. But like the larger protests, people took to the streets to express anger and frustration in their desire for a more just society.
What are the objectives of marches, both large and small?
Large scale mobilizations energize the public. Seeing people with similar points of view reinforces the marchers’ belief that they are not alone. There is more than safety in numbers.
And, perhaps most importantly, the number of people puts pressure on politicians to do something about the marchers’ grievances. There can be a direct cause and effect relationship between the number of people marching and the actions of elected officials, although this has yet to be proven statistically. The million people in Central Park in 1982 had little effect on the nuclear programs of the Soviet Union and the United States.
The shift from mobilize to organize is assumed in all manifestations. Although mobilizing does require organization – obtaining permissions and contacting participants – any mobilization is connected to a larger strategy. In Switzerland, for example, any public demonstration could be related to signing a referendum or initiative to have a citizens’ vote on a specific law. Marching in the street is a tactic related to a larger strategy. Or, at least, it should be.
Fast forward to the recent demonstrations against racism in the United States and throughout the world. What did the demonstrations accomplish? President Trump did sign an executive order that mildly made recommendations dealing with police accountability. Whether or not the Congress will pass legislation to concretize the order remains to be seen. Pressure has grown on states to make police officers more accountable.
On a global scale, there are UN instruments against racism: The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination adopted by the General Assembly in 1963; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination entered into force in 1969; The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) monitors implementation of the Convention.
But is legislation enough? Mobilizing energizes. Organizing puts pressure on politicians and states. Legislation provides legal instruments. UN Declarations, Conventions and Committees provide important norms. And then what?
Racism is both a legal reality as well as a societal attitude. Confederate flags in state capitols or at NASCAR races are the most obvious examples. So are statutes of Confederate heroes in southern cities. There have been changes. Statues have been removed, officially as well as torn down. In 2017, Yale University changed the name of one of its colleges from John C. Calhoun, the seventh vice-president of the United States and a staunch defender of slavery.
My point is that mobilizing, organizing and legislating are formal actions that are easy to evaluate. We can see them. But attitudes are not simple to change. While it may be illegal to bar someone from a job or university because of race or color, how a person is treated is more complex. The interplay between the formal and informal is not obvious.
There is no question that the recent upheaval in the United States has had a tremendous impact within then country and abroad. We are living through a moment of a general sensitization to racial discrimination unlike what we have seen since the 1960s. Those marches in the South were against separate facilities for Blacks and whites. That battle has been won legally. Separate is no longer equal.
Will the current protests lead to greater sensitivity to the situation of the Blacks in the United States? Will it improve their economic situation? The fact that they are more likely to die from Covid-19 than their percentage of the population? Will the protests eliminate more subtle forms of discrimination?
Legal philosopher Lon Fuller described the unfolding purpose of the law as the search for justice. Whatever legal ramifications may come out of the current protests, it is not obvious that a society’s attitudes will change. After all, the 1982 protest for a nuclear freeze has been long forgotten, with all its wonderful mobilization and organization. Watch the magnificent documentary film In Our Hands by Robert Richter to witness the energy behind the movement.
Black lives more than matter. They are an integral part of any multiracial society. If the current movement only succeeds in reforming the police, then it will be an historical footnote. If it is part of a larger societal change, then the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., George Floyd and others will not have been in vain.
Those who marched in the 1960s now watch police brutality in videos and the continuing anger of the Black community and wonder; “When will they ever learn?”