Archive for December, 2014

Does a Movement Need an Ask?

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

This past Saturday, I spent an inspiring few hours marching through New York as part of the Millions March NYC — a protest of police violence against people of color and of our failure to indict the killers of Michael Brown (We chanted: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”) and Eric Garner (We chanted: “I Can’t Breathe”). Joining in peaceful demonstration with other New Yorkers of all ages and backgrounds was energizing, offsetting the feeling of powerlessness that comes when the justice system fails.

Particularly interesting to me, though, was the response I got afterward, when two intelligent and progressive people I know responded to my report of the experience with the skeptical question of whether the movement had “an ask.”

Is a clear “ask” always something we’ve expected of marchers carrying poster-board slogans and shouting out rhyming chants? Does a movement need to legitimate itself with a menu of requests? Is catharsis enough? Is awareness-raising?

Indeed, the Millions March did have specific demands — but even its own website was inconsistent in what those were, between its headline bullet points and its later, more detailed requests. “Immediate actions” included the indictment of Eric Garner’s killer, Daniel Pantaleo, and future policy changes like the release within 48 hours of names of cops involved in deadly shootings. Broader demands included such far-left policy goals as full employment and housing as a human right.

Certainly any one of the tens of thousands of marchers could have signed onto some subset of these requests and not others — or could have shown up without a clear picture of any of these particular actionable items. My friend and I, while marching, noticed the variety of progressive causes represented and joked that the motto of the march — of New York more broadly — could be “All agendas welcome.” What we shared was the desire to be heard and seen.

It reminded me of Oprah’s point in her Harvard 2013 commencement address :

I have to say that the single most important lesson I learned in 25 years talking every single day to people, was that there is a common denominator in our human experience. Most of us, I tell you[,] we don’t want to be divided. What we want, the common denominator that I found in every single interview, is we want to be validated. We want to be understood. I have done over 35,000 interviews in my career and as soon as that camera shuts off everyone always turns to me and inevitably in their own way asks this question “Was that okay?” …Did you hear me? Do you see me?

Of course, this desire to be heard and seen centered around the lack of vision, of recognition, that our systems of criminal justice and policing are deeply broken in the US — that people of color are treated differently, that whole communities are criminalized (We chanted: “Black Lives Matter”). My favorite chant of the day summed it up best:

Policy brutality
Shut it down
Mass incarceration
Shut it down
The new Jim Crow
Shut it down
The whole damn system
Shut it down

The death of Eric Garner, and the failure to indict his killer, are synecdochal of the bigger problem. Is it enough to draw attention to this metonymic chain?

And why are we so interested in “asks”? Is it fatigue with “ask creep” after the failure of a movement like Occupy Wall Street to coalesce into coherence? Or is it a symptom of a Silicon Valley–ish, management consulting mindset, in which any process without a deliverable is a failure of instrumental thinking?

The experience raised more questions than answers, but that feels appropriate. What matters most is operating in the world through a framework that sees and validates the questions.