Extremity, Solidarity, and Passivity at the March for Racial Justice by Ezra Dulit-Greenberg @ Brown University
One unseasonably warm September Sunday, about two hundred people walked to a riverside park in Providence. They were there to listen to speeches and prayers decrying institutional racism, police brutality, and inequality in the United States. The speakers were passionate, and they were diverse: a recent college graduate leading a group prayer; an ex-prisoner speaking for criminal justice reform; a schoolteacher condemning unfair treatment of students of color. They were organized under the banner of the March for Racial Justice, a Providence sister march of a Washington, DC based organization.
I was attending the march as an impartial observer; a professor at the University of Michigan had enlisted me and three classmates to conduct surveys of the people in attendance. He was studying organizing tactics and political opinions of attendees, and asked us not to broadcast our own opinions as surveyors. We wore plain clothing and avoided clapping or cheering when we agreed with a speaker.
For me it was a very strange experience—I have attended several political rallies since the President’s inauguration, and agreed with many if not most of the speakers’ points. But because we intentionally adopted a neutral persona, I could feel myself questioning political statements I would have otherwise cheered at.
I suspect this is a result of groups’ natural tendency to drag each other towards extreme statements, ones that might not make sense as an individual (or separated group member). In Cass Sunstein’s Going to Extremes he lays out several sociological processes by which barriers to in-group agreement come down. By one of these processes, in-group members identify with their cohorts and more readily accept their opinions. We held our would-be group members at arm’s-length, and I believe I was more skeptical because of this dissociation.
I saw a similar effect in the disconnect between attendees and speakers. The crowd expressed approval for many of the speakers’ points, but not for the most radical ones. All speakers spoke of progressive change, but the professional activists were most extreme. There was a clear correlation between radicalism and time spent in radical groups—from professional activists to single-issue speakers on down to nonprofessional attendees. If Sunstein’s polarization argument is correct, it provides a neat explanation for this gradient: those who spend more time around more extreme viewpoints will become more extreme themselves.
The March for Racial Justice was misnamed. There was no walking, and very little chanting. I suppose the gathering was called a ‘march’ to evoke the high-energy, disruptive protests that have been commonplace for centuries. This march was subdued, with most of the energy coming from just a few speakers and almost never the crowd. People were spread out, clustered in the groups they came in, and occasionally picnicking.
India Point Park is a very secluded place. There are few streets and fewer homes or businesses near it. It’s also on the East Side of Providence—the whitest and richest area of the city, but also a very politically active one, populated by Brown students, young professionals, and liberal families. I saw no TV cameras.
In the march’s structure, its purpose is revealed. The seclusion, the location, the relative lack of publicization—all point to an event designed not to convert skeptics, but to consolidate supporters. The speeches were full of alienating language (“Fuck all police officers, especially the seven here today”) and little concrete policy. It seemed much more a display of solidarity, and an airing of grievances, than an attempted avenue of change.
In this, the march was not too dissimilar from the pro-Trump rallies Arlie Russell Hochschild describes in Strangers in Their Own Land. Those rallies are, she argues, borne out of a reclamation of white Christian identity. They bond the group members ever tighter while intentionally excluding others. The March for Racial Justice was not motivated by exclusion—quite the opposite—but the structure and rhetoric certainly had a similar effect. By design, racists were excluded to promote anti-racist thought and to bond anti-racists.
Much of the bonding, though, happened at the rally itself, with little promise of following up. It was a communal event, but most of the organizing I saw was in the form of email lists. Clipboards were often passed around the crowd without so much as a group leader with whom to interact. People often wordlessly passed the clipboards to each other. From the lists I saw, most signed up to receive emails but not to attend further events.
I often wonder whether a healthy, pluralist democracy requires deep participation itself or just the opportunity for deep participation. I lean towards the former. At the March for Racial Justice, I saw speakers and organizers putting their time and energy into strengthening community bonds—and a community that was on a certain level not particularly inclined towards bonding. Whether or not observers are seeing the same thing across the country may have far-reaching consequences for the long-term health of our system of government.