are all protests created equal?

There seems to be a trend when it comes to development of sociological theory. A man has an idea about or an observation of a social process, and outlines how an ideal society can be created if we simply use the social process in a positive way. The same is true for Castells’ theory of network connectivity.

Castells’ theory details how our increasingly global network society facilitates social movements. He asserts that all social movements in the 20th and 21st centuries have come out of a desire for dignity. He calls them “emotional outburst in non-tolerable situations.” Social movements can be considered to happen in what another scholar, Habermas, termed the public sphere: an area of social life where members of a society participate in open discourse about social problems and through which political action is organized. It is easy to see how a rapidly transforming and evolving network society would change the landscape of the public sphere.

Social media has facilitated much of the activism of the last few years. Often called “hashtag activism,” this new medium of political action has the power to unite and involve more people in the public sphere than ever before. Castells and Habermas discuss the network society and the public sphere as powerful tools for the oppressed to rise up. How does this work, though, in practice? Not all protests are created equal.

The last few years in America have been a year rife with political action, mainly because of the divisive figures and outspoken racism and sexism of the current regime. Different groups have promoted their interests through community organizing and protests, but three groups stand out: those who participated in the Women’s March, those who participated in Black Lives Matter protests, and those who participated in the action surrounded the Dakota Access Pipeline. All three of these actions were formed in response to a major social problem. Like Castells detailed, emotion, namely anger, played a significant role in what could be seen as uprising. The social and political response, however, couldn’t have been any different.

The Women’s March was a protest that took place January 21st, 2017 at locations all around the world. People marched in solidarity in what started “the resistance,” a movement set in place to counter the bigoted sexism and racism of the Trump campaign. The largest march happened in Washington, D.C.

There were no arrests made at the Women’s March. There were no riot police, no barricades to block protestors. Hundreds of thousands of people attended, there were speakers, and it went off without a hitch. Is this a testament to the gold star behavior of its attendees? Or is something else at play?

The Dakota Access Pipeline was to start construction in June 2016. Because it passed through Native American land and had a high risk of contaminating the water supply, many in the community were vocally opposed to it. When construction began, workers bulldozed a section of land that had been determined a sacred tribal site, and protests began. They became violent and lasted for months. Over 100 protestors were arrested at these protests. Dogs were used by the construction company, and the state and local police came in with tanks, water cannons, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. Hundreds of protestors were injured, with many needing hospitalization.

The Black Lives Matter movement began in response to unpunished police brutality, claiming an disproportionate amount of black lives. Multiple high profile police shootings of unarmed black men took a national stage, particularly when citizens began to protest not only the shootings, but the lack of accountability, condemnation, and consequence shown by police departments, the judicial system, and the general public. Protestors were met with police lines in riot gear, but were also met with hostility by pundits. There was much talk of MLK and how he protested peacefully, how protestors shouldn’t block the streets, how many of the protestors were “thugs” anyway. There seemed to be more criticism of the victims and the resulting protests than of the behavior of the police.

It is clear that the treatment of black and brown bodies in the United States as a threat shapes the way these individuals are allowed to operate in the public sphere. One can also point out how white femininity, and the protection of it, cause an even greater imbalance in the way individuals are allowed to express themselves politically. The most poignant example of this structural difference is the arrest of New York City nurse and mother Iesha Evans.

While the network society allows for ideas to be spread at a faster rate among a wider variety of people than ever before, it is unfortunately not the tool that will allow for the oppressed to bury their oppressors. To assume that the public sphere is an idealistic space where individuals can openly participate in discourse equally is to ignore the embedded, structural racism that exists in American society.

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