As hundreds of thousands of people across the world take to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and call for a halt to police violence and racism towards Black individuals and communities, the power of public protest is undeniable. Not only are the protestors drawing attention to police violence and structural racism, they played a role in elevating the charges against Floyd’s murderer and accomplices, instigated a global conversation about anti-Black racism and police funding, and even paved the road for proposed legislative changes. History surely shows the significance of protest. It generates concrete outcomes and reform. It establishes community and solidarity among activists, and it draws attention to an issue of social concern to the broader population.
History also shows, however, that public protest is not particularly inclusive. For example, protest routes and large crowds are not always conducive to someone in a wheelchair or with mobility challenges; Black protesters and gender non-conforming individuals in particular are more vulnerable to police brutality or assault at protests than other individuals; in mixed-gender protest, gender inequality is common, and women are less likely than men to be spokespeople or mic-holders. An intersectional lens allows us to fully understand the dynamics of street protest—who is participating, who is not, and how street protest fits into the broader context of social change.
This matters because protests tend to set a tone for a movement or campaign. Protesters’ demands, speeches and pictures are in the news media, and protests allow movement leaders and spokespeople to be acknowledged or elevated. This is why it is relevant to understand the gendered, racial, and class dimensions that prevent some from participating in protest while allowing others to partake more freely. Historically, feminists have been the least likely of all social movement participants to take it to the streets, for reasons of safety, as well as due to financial and time constraints. To provide some examples, women are disproportionately caretakers, whether paid outside their homes or unpaid in their own homes. They are overwhelmingly responsible for the children, home, and also for elders or ailing relatives. Paid caretakers, often Black women and women of color, have obligations to their employers as well as to their own families. And because of the feminization of poverty, many women are also more likely to be less class- privileged than men and are concentrated in lower wage jobs. Having spare time to protest while working for pay or caretaking in the home is unlikely. The many men who are significantly less likely to be burdened with caregiving responsibilities have more time to protest.
Having spare time to protest while working for pay or caretaking in the home is unlikely. The many men who are significantly less likely to be burdened with caregiving responsibilities have more time to protest.
During COVID-19 these existing barriers to protest are heightened. Caretakers may not be willing to risk bringing COVID-19 home, perhaps to an immunocompromised or chronically ill family member, or risk getting sick themselves and being unable to work. What if you’re pregnant? The combination of the danger of police violence and potential for getting COVID-19 and becoming seriously ill during pregnancy may be too much of a risk for some. What if you are an essential worker
who doesn’t have the time to go to a protest because of the economic pressures related to retaining a job, not getting sick, and balancing child care? Even meeting the most basic of needs has become nearly insurmountable for some during the pandemic. A recent national survey found that more than 17 percent of mothers reported their children under age 12 did not have enough food to eat because of lack of money.
To be sure, there are women involved in protest. Well-known Black women activists like Tamika Mallory and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors
have spoken at protests, and Black women before them have paved the way for them. Black women and their allies have continued to rally for justice for Breonna Taylor and the hundreds of other Black women whose deaths at the hands of police have been overlooked. While these important contributions persist, and there is some speculation that current protests may be more demographically diverse than past street protests, systematic inequalities do heighten the barrier for some women to participate in order to make their voices heard.
With an intersectional lens on street protest, we may understand how some may opt out of the present historic protests. Fortunately, because street protest is but one way of participating in a social movement, there are other options. It may be the time for those who have access to the Internet and a device to engage solely in online activism. This would include writing or tweeting elected officials, participating in an online community group that educates itself about the arguments for defunding police departments, supporting online campaigns like #SayHerName or #BlackLivesMatter to amplify the work of Black activists, or fundraising for Black-led nonprofits or organizations that provide bail for protestors.
Online activism is a powerful tactic for social change. In my study of on and offline feminist activism, I found that online activism is critical to the perpetuation of social movements in three central ways. First, social movement communities are generated online. This is significant because in order to advance their goals, movement participants need networks of activists, a sense of solidarity, and a shared collective identity. Online communities are especially important to those who may not have access to like-minded offline communities. Second, online activism paves the way for a variety of other forms of activism. Robust online communities are poised to communicate rapidly and widely about pressing social matters as they unfold, such as quickly organizing an online campaign or an offline protest. Strong and sustained online networks allow activists to be nimble and effective. Third, online activism expands recruitment bases to draw in new movement participants. In order to join a movement, prospective activists need movement resources and information, which they can find online. The research respondents in my study reported learning about social movements, campaigns, and activist organizations online. They were able to understand various strands of movement activities, activist perspectives on current issues, and even have their own personal experiences with inequality validated or confirmed when they felt isolated and alone. They reported this information could not be fully garnered in their offline lives.
Photo by Joan Villalon at Unsplash.com
Unfortunately, online activism is sometimes considered “slacktivism” or “armchair activism,” meaning that it is either for the lazy activist or doesn’t really count as activism. Terms that deride online activism are based upon the belief that activism done in the home is less valuable than street protest. The notion that the only “true activists” are those protesting in the streets inherently cuts out large swaths of people for whom street protest is unfeasible, especially during COVID-19. Hence, stereotypes dismissing online activism as feckless can actually perpetuate sexist, ableist, and even white supremacist ideals of how to create social change. In reality, the street protests demanding police accountability and an end to anti-Black violence likely wouldn’t have occurred with such sustained force and in such diverse geographic locations without online activism. Moreover, dismissing online activism is also based on outdated modes of thinking about our lives as in distinct offline or online spheres. Rigid distinctions that prop up street protest and devalue online activity are not an accurate reflection of our lives—activist or not.
An intersectional view exposes the specific benefits of online activism to groups whose contributions to social change may be overlooked or devalued. For example, more so than participants in other movements, feminist activists of all racial backgrounds have historically relied on offline community building to perpetuate the movement. Historic examples include consciousness-raising groups and Black feminist community organizations like the Combahee River Collective. Because community building has been a central tenet of feminism for generations, I found that online social networking emphasizing community and connection is ready-made to advance feminist movements and make visible feminist contributions to social change.
Although the current protests have gone on for weeks and are certainly impressive, at some point they might subside. Activists engaged in online activism, community building, grassroots organizing, as well as those working to change policy and laws at the community, state, and federal level, will continue as they always have. An intersectional lens centering race, gender, and class ensures that we do not overlook the heterogeneity of social movement tactics and diversity of participants, and the valuable but sometimes less visible tactic of online organizing. A broad outlook on what social change is and how it can occur allows us to see how the movement for Black Lives continues alongside and beyond street protest.
Alison Dahl Crossley is associate director of the Clayman Institute.