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Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles supporters protest outside the Unified School District headquarters calling on the board of education to defund school police on June 23.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

These protests feel different because they’re shifting public opinion

To sustain the current anti-racism movement, look to the past, says professor Megan Ming Francis.

When protests for black lives erupted across the country in May, the images were inspiring if not surprising: In big cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC, protesters filled massive boulevards for miles in the middle of a pandemic. Meanwhile, in small, mostly white towns across the country, hundreds of people gathered to chant “Black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace” in the middle of the day. It felt like a moment not seen for generations.

Now, weeks later, activists are still organizing marches, whether they’re fighting for trans lives, toppling Confederate statues, or calling for the removal of other racist symbols like the Confederate flag. But with the media no longer covering protests well into the night, it can be hard to gauge the strength and popularity of the current marches. And even if people continue to rally in the streets, the question remains: How can activists sustain the momentum that has moved people to question the deep-rooted racism in American systems like policing?

Megan Ming Francis, a political science professor at the University of Washington and a visiting professor at Harvard University, told Vox that there are a few things activists and allies must do to achieve even greater wins through November and in the coming years. These steps involve public education and a greater recognition of how protest shifts public opinion. “Protest is key,” she said, but the movement can’t end in the street.

As she points out in her book, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State, the NAACP from 1909 to 1923 mobilized state-building by first shifting public opinion, then creating change within political and legal structures. And according to polls, opinion is already shifting: In 2015, just 51 percent of Americans believed racism is a big problem in the US; now 76 percent of Americans do. Ming Francis also noted how sustaining the movement will require that big philanthropy do more to fund grassroots movements that are Black-led, particularly Black-woman led.

I talked to Francis about the parallels and differences between the modern movement and the NAACP’s civil rights efforts in the early 20th century, and the lessons this early movement teaches us about longevity. Our interview has been edited for clarity.

Fabiola Cineas

Demonstrations kicked off about a month ago, with people around the country and world taking to the streets to protest the killing of Black people and other ills like systemic racism and police brutality. What about this period seems different to you, if anything, especially in comparison to the early 20th-century movements you study?

Megan Ming Francis

I am certain that something feels different this time. It is different from all past movements but particularly different from earlier Black Lives Matter protests from 2014, 2015, and 2016. Initially, when everything popped off, I was like, “Here we go again. People are going to go for about a day or a week then aren’t going to care.” But then, the endurance and longevity of these protests, the size of these protests — they are inspiring.

In terms of how big and diverse they are, you get the sense that it’s not just Black people. Black people are saying we deserve to live, do not kill us, and that this American democracy does not extend to us. But you’re seeing it’s not just them that are making this claim. Other people are making this claim, and we know there’s strength in numbers. The history of protest in this country is that when there’s more people, politicians pay attention. With the Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 and 2015, it wasn’t just Republicans but the Democratic establishment also basically gave it lip service, pushed it to the side, and treated protesters like nuisances. But this time it’s clear that protests are a force to be reckoned with, and the Democratic establishment needs to wake up and pay attention to what protesters are saying.

Right now what you are hearing in the streets are the feelings, thoughts, pain, rage, and frustrations of the nation — not just a small section of it. It is now clear that a growing number of people are empathetic to Black pain; they are trying to raise that as an issue and believe that we must address it to move forward. These people feel that their own understanding of what it means to be a citizen in this country is not complete because certain people in this country are not treated as full people. It’s been interesting, inspiring, and beautiful to watch so many of the protests taking place.

Fabiola Cineas

And what tangible outcomes have you noticed?

Megan Ming Francis

One of the things I’m seeing that’s a testament to the moment we’re in in American politics is that people are dreaming and imagining a different way forward, a different type of politics. That is really cool. There are those who have been used to the idea that the way you get change is through democratic politics. That you sign a petition (which is still good), try to get legislation passed, and try to get a court a victory. You try to get reform inside of the institution. But now we see Black people leading the way saying, “No, we reject that. Your institutions do not work. We can never actually be free and be considered full citizens inside your institution.” People are imagining new ways to be, with new forms of transparency, accountability, and harm reduction. We are seeing that pop up all over, like with CHAZ in Seattle, Washington. It’s an example that a different world is possible. That is what I see as different.

Fabiola Cineas

And in comparison to movements of the 20th century, what specific comparisons do you draw?

Megan Ming Francis

In terms of what is different about this moment in comparison to the mid-20th century and early 20th century civil rights struggle is I think there is a frustration that is even more urgent than it was in some ways in the ’60s. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there were not yet big pieces of legislation from the government. The federal government had not protected the rights of Black people in this country. So much of the protests were about securing federal protections in the workplace, in housing, and getting rid of Jim Crow — that separate could never be equal.

But then that falls. Things were supposed to be better. White people were supposed to stop killing Black people. We played by your rules and got the Civil Rights Act in 1964. We also eventually got Obama. Blacks got the highest office in this country and you still kill us. So it doesn’t matter if we were the president of this country, you still don’t see us as full people. What is different about this moment than in the past is that all of the work and playing by the rules and focusing on electoral politics for change as the main way change happens, that doesn’t work anymore. It’s clear that you have not just younger Black people, but middle-aged and older Black people who are frustrated and understand that something new needs to happen, that something more transformative needs to happen.

Fabiola Cineas

I’d like to talk more about the idea that this kind of action and urgency is no longer just a “Black thing.” What’s going on with non-Black people that is making them get involved this time around?

Megan Ming Francis

I’ve thought about this a lot. Why are there so many non-Black people who are suddenly so concerned? I think it’s two things. First, it’s the layering of the pandemic on top of old-fashioned white supremacy. The pandemic has forced people [to stay] home. They have been having conversations about health and health care, and it has been very clear to people that there is structural inequality in the system. People are open to talking about race a little bit when it comes to matters of health. Everyone has been experiencing a health crisis, so the American public has been primed that there’s social inequalities around health. And then the big thing here is: People can’t go anywhere! There are no trips, no vacations to be had. No dinner or brunches. There’s no real way for them to escape.

As somebody who teaches Black politics and civil rights in this country, I am always shocked by how much we do not know. Part of the reason why so many white Americans know so little about the Black experience in America is because they choose not to know. It is willful. For white people to not know that Black people are treated a particular way by the police means they are hiding under a rock. Most people have some inkling — whether it’s through The Wire or a friend or something that they perhaps saw. They choose not to learn more about it. What’s happening now is people are forced to consume social media and the news much more than they had before. For a good number of Americans, who perhaps never really paid that much attention to police brutality and or systemic racism in this country, they have time to listen, read, and think about their own culpability in creating a system where Black lives aren’t valued.

Fabiola Cineas

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen the different ways people take action at the protests. This has led to a conversation about the merits of nonviolence over violence. We have seen less media coverage, particularly cable news media coverage, of the protests once the looting stopped. From what you’ve observed, what is the role of violence and nonviolence in bringing about reform? Also, is this even a question that we should still be asking?

Megan Ming Francis

I think it’s a tremendously helpful question. When the protests started taking place, that was a frame or narrative for the media to harp on, like, “Look! There’s nonviolence and violence, and everybody should be nonviolent.” Then they pointed to a number of civil rights heroes and demonstrations as a way to shame and undermine the protests. I found that harmful and distracting. And it’s interesting that they’d focus on the violence of protesters even more than they would focus on the violence of policing over decades in their newsrooms.

It’s been said by many activists, journalists, and scholars that for people to say the only type of acceptable protest is nonviolent protest — that comes from a place of ignorance of the actual full Black freedom struggle in this country. Violence and nonviolence have always existed together at the same time. Anger and rage have always served a useful purpose. Even in fighting for one’s life, people want a clean and neat movement. And the thing about rights-making and progress in this country is you can’t point me to one movement that has produced and led to a more democratic United States that’s been tight and clean. That’s just not the way it happens.

Fabiola Cineas

In thinking about the NAACP’s civil rights work in the early 20th century, how did they sustain their movement over so many years?

Megan Ming Francis

What’s fascinating is they were a group of Black people in the early 20th century and you can imagine the kind of violent racism there was in this country. This is the importance of the imagination. A lot of people will say, “Why focus on the imagination and on a Utopian vision?” Well, that’s the only thing that has pushed Black people forward in this country. The civil rights movement in the ’60s was impossible until it happened. All these things are impossible until they happen. The NAACP actually imagined a world in which Black people’s lives are protected and treated equally. The United States was not protecting Black people’s lives — in fact they were lynching people. It was the peak of lynching, and the NAACP was focused on not accepting that fate and organizing to actually end the lynching and mob violence against Black people as well as other rights around voting, education, and housing.

Fabiola Cineas

So it sounds like their sheer will to fight injustice and the belief that freedom could be theirs was the foundation for how they sustained their platform and made progress.

Megan Ming Francis

Yes, and they focus on a number of different areas, which is important for the current protest to think about in terms of what comes next. We constantly hear today that the only thing Black Lives Matter does is protest in the street and that what they need to be doing is trying to change some formal institution. But with the history of the NAACP, they first focused their energy on changing public opinion because they knew that demonstrations in the street and publicizing the deaths and lynching of Black people would do a lot to impact public opinion. They knew they had to change public opinion around members of Congress. They couldn’t just go directly to members of Congress. You need public opinion to create formal institutional change. What we know as legal scholars is that the Supreme Court rarely leads; it mostly follows the whims of change in society. If you want legal change, if you want political change, then it means you need to, at the same time or before, shift public opinion. That is crucial.

The NAACP first focused on that and then they moved inside of politics. It’s fascinating because they were unsure of what to do. They try to get statements from President Woodrow Wilson and President Warren G. Harding condemning lynching. Both men eventually do put out statements, but lynching still continues. They also try to pass an anti-lynching bill in Congress. (Yes, it’s 2020, and we’re still trying!) It passes the House but it dies in committee in the Senate. That didn’t work, but they got far and that’s tremendous. Then in 1923, they won a landmark criminal procedure case where the Supreme Court basically said you cannot have mob-dominated trials since they violate the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. This is extraordinary. Court wins are always incremental victories; it’s not like everything immediately changed. But court precedent is important, and this was the first time in a criminal procedure case that the Supreme Court interfered in a state court trial, on due process grounds, to say that this Jim Crow trial was not done appropriately.

Fabiola Cineas

So what lessons does the early NAACP movement teach us about the power of the current movements and the power to sustain them?

Megan Ming Francis

One, it affirms the importance of the protests. We’ve seen tremendous changes in public opinion. I didn’t think I’d see this kind of thing in my lifetime, that 60 percent of Americans now believe there needs to be transformative, large-scale change in policing. That has led to big changes in the allowance of police unions and policing and school districts ending contracts with the police. And this is in predominantly white areas in some cases. The NAACP affirmed that protests and public opinion work reaches the hearts and minds of Americans.

The protests are going to fade away, but I don’t see that work ending. I think that work is just going to carry over into formal politics. I’m really interested and excited about November in terms of the number of proposals that might be in place in the different cities and towns and states that these protests have touched. It’s clear that these protests have struck a chord with people, and that’s not going to end in July. One of the things we can learn from the NAACP is to carry that momentum forward and to bring these protests inside of formal politics.

Fabiola Cineas

You also explore movement funding in your work. What can you say about funders in this moment and how they’re working to help sustain the movement going forward?

Megan Ming Francis

What’s exciting now is the number of small donors that support the movement. Oftentimes, when we think of social justice movements, we think of big philanthropy and big donors. If anything, one of the things this moment has highlighted is the lack of proximity of big philanthropy and how out of touch big philanthropy actually is with Black-led, especially Black women-led, organizations. This has always been an issue with philanthropy and highlights the structural disparities in giving around social and racial justice issues. You should see big philanthropy all over these issues, but they are not, in part because philanthropy doesn’t necessarily like to fund direct action. They have been very slow to fund anything that is anti-capitalist and anything that smells of abolition.

Fabiola Cineas

If big philanthropy were to start funding Black-led organizations at a greater capacity, what would the impact of that be?

Megan Ming Francis

If big philanthropy supported Black women-led organizations at the level where they support white male-led organizations, this movement and protest could’ve come sooner. Money isn’t everything, and money doesn’t make movements, but if big philanthropy actually came and supported the imagination of Black women organizers and activists, so much could be possible in this country.

Fabiola Cineas

To close out, what are the top three steps the movement needs to take to keep this going through November and in years to come?

Megan Ming Francis

First, people need to continue to educate themselves about the depths of white supremacy and systemic racism in this country. It doesn’t mean reading just two books and say, “I’m anti-racist!” No, you have to do more work. You have to challenge yourself on things you may not agree with. Public education also means that people, communities, and institutions actually examine the past ways that they have contributed to the unmattering of black lives. One of the things we like to do is just move forward and say, “We’re going to do better in the future.” How, when you don’t even know what you did? Your corporation, your wealth, is built on Black people. Saying you will do better in the future does not yet address the past.

Second, people need to understand the role and importance of protests. People are a bit confused about the importance of protests, so moving forward people need to understand the importance of protests for large-scale, long-term change in this country. Protest is key.

And third, the movement must combine the protests in the streets with protests inside of formal political and legal institutions. That will propel the movement forward. It can’t end in the streets; it has to end in the transformation of political and legal structures in this country.

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