Brown University

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.

2 Comments

  1. Cayna Sharp

    November 11, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    It is great to get an inside look at events like these happening across the country that receive little to no media attention. Your observation on feeling an intellectual detachment from the speakers words was a profound realization. The in-group confirmation we are all susceptible to when faced with a group of people we agree with or support can deeply distort our perceptions of what is said. Approaching events such as these with a more impartial eye and ear may be an important step in lessening political polarization. Also, your point on citizen participation in democracy also rings true. Activists and politicians can speak and host rallies all they want, but if citizens are unwilling to really engage with them, there is not much of a point to these activities.

    I would be interested to know what some of the attendees would have to say about why they had chosen to attend. Were they attempting to connect to their community, interested in the advertised speakers, or just attending casually with no real purpose? This may also answer some of the participation question that you raised. It is concerning for future of democratic participation in this country if even in a hyper-intellectual and liberal hub there is a distinct lack of citizen involvement and interest. What hope then do the rest of us have for facilitating a truly pluralistic democracy?

  2. Preston Beatty

    November 13, 2017 at 5:51 am

    Great write up, Ezra. This is a very interesting account of an in-group, solidarity-centered rally. Isn’t it a bit unsettling to step back and document impartially (especially when you feel compelled to applaud or show support for particular causes) and begin to notice group think? I have experienced similar rallies in which I personally agreed with most if not all of the key points but, for the purpose of insular community bonding, the language employed feels heavy handed. One’s acceptance and tolerance can be heightened for overarching statements and non-policy based (motivating?) information, perhaps out of a sense of necessary solidarity. Especially when the rally isn’t organized to be publicized, as you pointed out, speakers and their tactics don’t have to be persuasive or inclusive but rather reinforce the narratives that they assume you are bringing with you in your attendance.

    I firmly believe in a healthy dose of skepticism. However, this gets progressively more difficult when rallying around personal moral causes, convictions, and questions of justice, and with community members with which one most identifies (that being all-inclusive, minus racists and bigots). I have experienced discomfort in questioning why I was questioning a speaker’s points or language, and whether or not it was okay to feel that way. But it is, I think. Sweeping claims and extremities are to hype up crowds and hopefully mobilize them to act further beyond that particular event. But even if the focus is justice, when extreme and generalized statements from a podium become the foundation of an attendee or sympathizer’s knowledge of actual nuanced sociopolitical issues, then no one is really leaving more enlightened. Mobilized, maybe..

    Solid journalism!

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