In Patriots vs. protest, racial bias revealed

by Sam Weisberg / Beacon Correspondent • February 5, 2015

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At 1 am on Monday, immediately following the New England Patriots Super Bowl win, there were at least 100 people gathering outside my dorm window, blocking traffic on Tremont Street, screaming their lungs out, honking their car horns for long intervals, and destroying public property by tearing down street signs. And all of this happened without any noticeable police intervention.

About two weeks ago, the Boston Globe ran a story on the recent protests that shut down Interstate 93 for a couple hours on Jan. 15. The protests, staged by other advocates for social change in response to the recent shooting deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and other unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers who were never indicted for their actions, was organized by the Black Lives Matter activist group. Despite being an entirely peaceful human barricade of traffic, the protest eventually broken up by police officers—who arrested 29 of the participants.

The paper reported Massachusetts Governor Baker’s words that protest is part of what makes us American, and that he supports the “more peaceful stuff,” but that blocking traffic is a disruption that crosses his line.

Where were you on Sunday night, Mr. Governor?

Most of what I witnessed would not be considered “peaceful stuff,” nor would it be classified as a form of protest protected by the constitution. What I saw on Monday could be considered a public disturbance with acts of vandalism, and I suspect that it wasn’t shut down or classified as public disturbance or vandalism was because it was a group of mostly white sports fans cheering for their winning team. 

The massively uncomfortable truth here is that if the crowd outside my window on Sunday night had been protesting some issue of racial injustice, it probably would have been shut down. Had the night’s activities been part of a protest for Black Lives Matter or a similar cause it would have been positively eviscerated.

There is a clear double standard for public behavior in our country: People who shut down roads to protest blatant injustice are “universally panned,” in the words of our fine governor, while people who shut down roads to celebrate the Patriots can take down street signs without repercussions.

Sunday night is not an isolated incident of this double standard becoming the modus operandi of public officials, especially in the city. Look at the countless other sports-related “celebrations” in Boston and other cities—the Red Sox World Series win comes to mind—that have included high levels of public disturbance and vandalism that go largely untouched by law enforcement. Meanwhile, protests—even nonviolent ones like the marches in New York following the Eric Garner decision—are not only shut down by police, but are viewed as unacceptable, unnecessary disturbances by many.

There is a difference between public celebration and public protest. One improves our civic discourse, promotes political efficacy, and strengthens our national identity. The other binds people (weakly) together by some mutually experienced but often distant or simulated event, and then allows them to behave recklessly and ecstatically in support of it. I’m fed up with the feeling that if I want to raise an important issue in my country, which was founded on the basis of protest (both peaceful and violent), I am pressured not to protest it, but to celebrate it.

We can spend all of February “celebrating” the achievements of civil rights leaders, but unless we follow in their footsteps and actively protest, I guarantee we will not see the changes  they envisioned for our country. 

I’d like to say that there isn’t a race component in this argument, but it’s not the case. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, when shooters raided the newspaper of the French satirical magazine, there was a clear and largely uncontested outpour of grief and solidarity on social media in the form of #JeSuisCharlie. Comparatively, the similar outpouring following the non-indictments in the cases of the white officers that killed Brown and Garner, in the form of #BlackLivesMatter, was met with a huge amount of contention and debate over the necessity of the movement. The reason? #BlackLivesMatter exposed an unpleasant truth in our country; it put the average white American into direct contact with the fact that the mistreatment of people of color in this country is rampant. Like protest, dealing with issues of race feels unpleasant for many of us—but that is no reason to shy away from it. 

If we allow Sunday night’s activities, we must also allow January 15th’s activities. We cannot let the pick-and-choose reality of social media and 24-hour news cycles, where we can determine the shape of the world based off of our own personal preferences, seep into our public discourse. We cannot condone the “feel-good” disruption of the Patriots victory while condemning the “unpleasant” disruption of the Black Lives Matter protests. If we choose to engage with the world, we engage with all of it—good and bad, black and white, celebration and protest.