In the spring of 2010, we witnessed massive protests in the Arab World. The people of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya had enough; they had enough of the violence propagated by the state, of the political and economic marginalization that characterized their existence for generations and they had enough of the unaccountable governmental agencies that inflicted harm with seeming impunity. The protests were driven by social media, the energy of the youth and people who were willing to use their bodies to disrupt the status quo. We were transfixed as images of these protests, dubbed the “Arab Spring,” flooded the airwaves in the United States and across the world.
The description of the Arab Spring could just as easily apply to the mobilizations in the United States, in Ferguson, in New York and now in Baltimore. The similarities between these movements have not escaped the notice of many activists in the United States, as they see the connections between the conditions they confront in poor Black neighborhoods, the eruption of protests in American cities, and the resistance efforts of peoples in the Arab World. For these activists, the protest movements in places like Baltimore signal the rise of a “Black Spring,” a kindred movement spurred by many of the same structural symptoms and subhuman conditions that ignited the popular protests in the Arab World.
Some may suggest that this comparison is unwise or hyperbolic; that the people in the Arab World were protesting autocratic systems that ruled by force rather than by the consent of the governed not the acts of members of law enforcement agencies established in the context of a representative system of government. Certainly, there are important distinctions. Yet the symptomatic and structural similarities between the Arab Spring and the newly dubbed Black Spring are striking. First, disenfranchised youth and young adults are at the forefront. Second, state policing strategy that links specific demographics to crime – or more broadly, security threat – is the target of popular resistance. Third, and perhaps most saliently, both have the archetypes, rallying cries, and social media savvy that not only galvanizes people for immediate action, but also long-term and sustainable movement building.
Between Baltimore and Benghazi
Poverty and the police state prevailed in Ferguson and Cairo, Baltimore and Benghazi. Soldiers and patrol cars closely monitored city blocks – where unemployed youth roamed with little purpose and ever shallower prospects for the future. Emaciated communities, rich in only nihilism and hopelessness, kept their residents trapped. For Mohammed Bouzazi, the Tunisian street vendor who sold produce to support his family, suicide was the only escape. He lit himself ablaze, and shortly after, ignited a revolution that inspired popular movements in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
In the Arab World, the intersection of poverty and stigmatized religion, sectarian status or tribe is at the crux of persecution. The economics of Arab dictatorships was simple: emaciate the opposition as a means to capitalize power. Although lacking the racial dimension of the American dialectic, the process is similar to how white supremacy and the maintenance of racialized wealth and poverty functions stateside.
In Ferguson or Baltimore, the present-day circumstance of poor Blacks is rooted in slavery, segregation and their contemporary manifestations such as racialized poverty, the school-to-prison pipeline, the mass incarceration of Black men and women, the rapid shuttering of schools and the erosion of affirmative action. The conditions that persist in Ferguson and elsewhere have been fueled by the corruption of the democratic process through felon disenfranchisement, voter identification requirements, and general neglect by elected officials. These dynamics have produced generations of people who feel voiceless, who are structurally alienated from political and economic participation, and perpetually excluded from the “American Dream.”
For decades, Black communities in Baltimore and elsewhere have been fighting what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “a degenerating sense of nobodiness.” In a community with a staggering unemployment rate of 58% – poor, Black men like Gray are born running from police, and away from the lure and costly wages of crime. Decayed schools, spatial and racial segregation, the conflation of Blackness with criminality, and their recurrent intersections leave few options. Therefore, young Black men and women from indigent inner-city contexts like Baltimore – running through a minefield of criminal suspicion and police violence, poverty and emaciated opportunity – are predisposed to slip, fall or fail.
The stories on the streets of Cairo or Tripoli were no different. The youth jobless rates in Egypt and Tunisia were 25% and 30% before their respective revolutions. These figures were far higher for indigent, urban youth without college educations, who did not have the means to travel or relocate for work. Squeezed between poverty and political regimes that suppressed economic opportunity as much as they did civil liberties, the youth in the Arab World spearheaded protests that blossomed into full-fledged revolutions.
Racialized poverty is at the core of the protests in the United States. In the United States today, 27.4% of African Americans live below the poverty line. The majority of America’s poor Blacks live in concentrated, urban sections of big cities like Detroit, St. Louis, and Baltimore, where community policing strategies are functionally equivalent to systematic racial profiling and prosecution. In most instances, the police officers patrolling the streets of these cities are often unfamiliar with the very communities they monitor. This breeds fear and animus, underlined by a machismo paternalism that often pervades police culture.
Residents of these communities view policemen as enforcers of their dismal status quo, rather than agents seeking to protect and serve. They view law enforcement as a means to discipline and contain poor, Black communities rather than as a means to ensure safety in their neighborhoods. The daily harassment, surveillance, selective enforcement of the law is at the core of the grievances laid bare by the protest movement. These perceptions are very similar to how protestors in Arab nations viewed militarized state police – the strongmen of the state assigned to streets and street-corners to maintain their politicized – instead of racialized – poverty.
Similar problems, different responses
When images of the crowds gathering in Tahrir Square emerged, when the people of Tunisia mobilized in the streets, the protestors associated with the Arab Spring were lauded for their courage and heroism in the face of systematic oppression by the American media and governmental representatives and the violent response by Arab states was roundly condemned. The resources of the United States were mobilized to support those protesting in the streets of Cairo and elsewhere. Although resisting similar kinds of conditions, protestors in Baltimore and cities like it, however, have not been subject to similar kinds of praise. Instead, they were called “thugs” and “criminals” when they took to the streets. In response, state and local governments deployed resources to contain and delegitimize the protestors.
To be clear, this is not an endorsement of violence. However, the vastly different responses to protests in the Arab World and in places such as Baltimore give us pause for a two reasons. First, this response represents a persistent unwillingness to see the conditions that give rise to the protests by Black people and a refusal grapple with the various forms of violence experienced by communities of color. When protestors and protest movements are framed as thugs and criminals, the corresponding response is to stop the protests through the deployment of the National Guard without a corresponding deployment of resources to address poverty, joblessness, dilapidated educational systems and discriminatory policing that prompted the protests in the first place. Condemnation of the protestors and not the conditions that are the subject of the protests is a rhetorical cloak that enables those conditions to continue unabated.
Second, the use of terms such as “thug” and “criminal” to describe all protestors is part of a long American tradition of attempting to stifle racial justice movements through the criminalization of protest. Indeed, Dr. King, who is held up as the paragon of non-violence, was labeled a “criminal,” “a communist,” and a “radical” in his day. In the contemporary protest era, lawmakers have proposed legislation that would criminalize the recording of police interactions by members of the public and the New York Police Department announced the creation of a heavily armed strategic response unit which is designed “for dealing with events like our recent protests, or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris.” The justification for this specialized unit is based on the conflation of protest and domestic terrorism. For obvious reasons, the criminalization of protest should alarm everyone, regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum.
Where do we go from here?
Across the United States, Black communities have staged protests against the killing of unarmed Black men, women and children. Collectively, they cried out “enough” and demanded fundamental transformation of the social institutions that are ostensibly designed to serve them. Such protests, whether in the United States or Egypt, are the most significant way for the marginalized and dispossessed to speak truth to power. If American is courageous enough to listen to the voices of the protestors and to see the root causes of the protests, then the Black Spring has the potential to blossom into real change for the Black communities that have suffered from police violence and racial exclusion.
Priscilla A. Ocen, Associate Professor of Law, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles-Twitter: @pannocen
Khaled A. Beydoun, Assistant Professor of Law, Barry University School of Law-Twitter: @khaledbeydoun