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University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)

Protesting Police Brutality: UNLV African American Studies Professor on How Protests Can Enact Social Change

The days and weeks following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota have been marked by a civil rights movement that — in terms of size and structure — could be considered larger than the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Stop killing black men.

I can’t breathe.

Stop killing us.

Black lives matter.

These are the messages scrawled onto makeshift signs carried by multiracial groups of protestors from Minneapolis to Baltimore to Las Vegas and everywhere in between and beyond.

For Tyler D. Parry, an assistant professor of African American and African diaspora studies at UNLV, it’s the first time in a decade that he’s had hope that a real, lasting change of the kind that was accomplished during the Civil Rights Movement is possible again.

We caught up with Parry to understand the current landscape of protesting, how it can lead to progress — with the Civil Rights Movement as the standard bearer — and where we go from here.

How is the current culture of protesting similar to and different from unrest in the 1960s?

I think the first thought that comes to mind is, when you see Black Lives Matter taking the initiative, and having a truly multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic coalition, marching in protests peacefully throughout most major American cities and even rural areas throughout the country, I see it largely as a fulfillment of Dr. King’s vision right before he was assassinated.

We have this tendency to freeze Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in time — in 1963 when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. But some of his arguably most important sermons, and writings and speeches came around 1965 to 1968, where he was working to build what he called the “Poor People’s Campaign,” which didn’t just mean poor black people. It meant poor people everywhere. Poor people who would be described as Latino or Latina, poor people who were white, Asian American — he imagined a truly multiracial coalition. His March on Washington, however, which was scheduled for 1968, was cut short by his assassination. And ever since then it’s been very difficult for any black activist to bring King’s vision into fruition.

So what we’re seeing right now is that this is not unique as far as the desire and want for all people who have a common interest to march together for social change. What seems to be different, is that it’s much harder to imagine that the government can stop this movement in the same way it did back then.

In the case of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it’s no secret anymore that the government was wiretapping his phones, following his every movement, and trying to infiltrate.

The movement today, however, doesn’t seem to just be coalesced around one particular leader or individual. I think people are linked together in a way that they’ve never been before, so it can’t be as easily dismantled.

We’ve seen images of police using military-grade protection and weapons during the BLM protests. Is this normal?

In the U.S. it seems that the police are always geared toward some type of violent conflict, or  expecting it. And to some degree I think the presence of them as armed people amplifies the tension between them and the protestors. And I think that it’s always the fear of black protests, the fear rooted going back to the days of slavery, of slave insurrections — what many call the original policing force. Slave patrols were developed within the U.S. South with the idea that you had to contain a supposed problem before it presented itself.

And so the question that a police force would have to ask is: is this the message we want to send at the start? You can kneel all you want with the protestors, but if you’re showing up with shields and weapons designed to inflict bodily harm, under the suspicion that you have that these people will get violent without the evidence to support it, it sends a mixed message.

Even with the Civil Rights protests — which I think most people would agree were overtly peaceful — they were always met with armed police officers. Not quite militarized the way that we understand them today, but armed with deadly bullets and batons that were designed to hurt and kill people.

I think it’s rooted in a fear that has followed black men and women throughout this country’s history.

How does the media’s portrayal of protesting either help or hurt the cause behind the Black Lives Matter movement? How has social media either helped or hurt the cause?

On the one hand there’s what we could call mass media — the large corporations that take a particular stance on an issue, and hire people that largely regurgitate talking points that they prefer you to have. This is usually a right-left binary between Fox News and MSNBC or CNN, and so, depending on which one you watch, that’s the narrative that you get.

If you watch right-wing media, you get a perception that police brutality is real in certain circumstances, but police forces or the institution of policing is not disproportionately racist. On the other hand, if you watch left-wing media, you get a fuller picture of how police forces have — both historically and in the contemporary era — instituted and perpetuated a racist form of policing. This can be fact-checked simply in the data of over-policing.

I see the current Civil Rights Movement as led by Black Lives Matter having its origins after Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012. It’s continued all along into 2020. The difference is, how long will people march? How long will the people pay attention to its grievances? And I think that is where the importance of independent media, podcasts, and social activism come along to keep up that momentum even when larger corporate structures will either ignore the issues that are being raised or move on to the next story.

When it comes to social media — for all the good and ill that it does to our society — it does help continue the momentum because of the immediate transfer and dissemination of knowledge, and the access that people now have to news reports that are both favorable and unfavorable to them.

Do you think that the Black Lives Matter protests can lead to real, lasting change?

I do. This time I’m actually pretty optimistic. I have never seen this many people, even on the conservative side of politics — and I’ve been paying attention pretty closely for about a decade — start to question the police to this degree, and how much the police seem to be feeling the pressure. Recently a police union representative spoke out very vigorously, saying that they were being treated like “thugs” by the public, which was an ironic choice in language, to say the least.

So this is probably the first time in recent memory that there has been this much public pressure, almost unanimously that what happened to George Floyd was wrong, and that regardless of where you fall on the issue of race, there is something that has infected American policing that got us to this point. If we continue the coalition of people, if people continue the pressure, it could lead, not to just reforms, but actual societal change in regards to how the public is policed in cities throughout our country.

What does the Black Lives Matter movement need going forward in order for the momentum to continue?

I think elevating voices of people in the community is really what we need. We tend to talk about the U.S. as one singular place, but we also have to realize that each city has different sets of circumstances in which community leaders who are invested in those communities need to be elevated and propped up.

There’s a tendency for the media to go after leading political figures, for instance, and have them address a number of these questions that the social activists have been working on and innovating for a number of years. While I have no inherent problem with a person like Kamala Harris lending her voice to this particular discourse, I would much rather hear from a community activist who has organized around either Black Lives Matter or another organization and see what it is that the community needs at this time of social unrest.

I just encourage all news organizations to seek out people who have been invested in these communities for so many years because I think they have a lot to say, it’s just that they need a platform to say it.

Is it possible that the current movement could be larger than the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s?

What we’re seeing now is a large, multiracial group of people who are marching in extraordinarily large numbers all throughout the U.S. If we’re talking numbers, then yes, I think you could make the case that it’s bigger than the Civil Rights Movement.

However, the impact should be assessed by what is accomplished. And even though I should say Dr. King was a bit disenchanted with the progress being made in society, the fact that so many landmark pieces of legislation were achieved by the Civil Rights Movement does make it one of the most impactful movements in American history.

That’s why we have to have discussions on what society needs legislatively to be changed in order for us to actually accomplish legitimate progress.

I think looking at the police state broadly conceived — how Americans are policed, the rise of mass incarceration, and the war on drugs — those are probably the areas in which we would need to see some landmark victories in terms of the laws that can be changed, in order for the Black Lives Matter movement to rise to the challenge of the Civil Rights era and create a more just and equitable society.

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