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  • A protester marches through the streets during a demonstration in solidarity with the protests over the Baltimore death of Freddie Gray in Chicago, Illinois, April 28, 2015.

    A protester marches through the streets during a demonstration in solidarity with the protests over the Baltimore death of Freddie Gray in Chicago, Illinois, April 28, 2015. | Photo: Reuters

Published 30 April 2015
The widespread protests in Baltimore are a howl at injustice and an outbreak against oppression. But why do people protest?

Some support the Baltimore protests and want change. Some oppose the protests and want repression. Some are undecided.

Leftists typically write in outlets that reach people who support the protests yet we tend to provide commentary suited to the unsupportive constituency. If the goal is to have positive effect, shouldn’t we tell our audience something new and oriented to their needs?

Yes, I know that sometimes it makes sense to convey well formulated and carefully developed information that an already agreeable audience can use to reach out to others who are less receptive. But, what about also telling a sympathetic audience what it may not like to hear, may not enjoy hearing, or may not even abide hearing - but that is important to hear?

In this light, consider Baltimore.

When addressing well informed left and anti-racist audiences, to mainly repeat why murder by police is vile and why devastating inequality is horrendous, both critical to convey in the mainstream, doesn't convey anything that the receptive audience doesn't already know. So why do most left commentators, even in left outlets, do that so prevalently?

Baltimore is a howl at injustice, an outbreak against oppression. But why do it?

This is a serious question. After all, most people, most of the time, don't do it. It isn't surprising when people take to the streets, but nor is it common. The injustice and oppression are constant, but not the visible mass outrage.

An upsurge happens, we know, when a confluence of events causes a relatively large number of people to simultaneously feel a passionate arousal. We see this passion in one another. We see some folks act on it. We begin to do so as well, and soon we have Ferguson or Baltimore. The inciting event mainly generates simultaneity.

Given injustice, I see three broad reasons why people act.

First, people act because they have to. They are so outraged, so horrified, that they must react, and they dissent, rebel, express their own turmoil. The calculation is emotional. The actions are expressive. See me, hear me. This is what I feel. In a way, the surge into motion is not so different, nor any less admirable at its core,  I think, than when an artist, singer, dancer, or writer, is asked why they created some masterpiece and replies, I simply had to. It was me getting out. Baltimore is the same idea.

Second, people want to improve conditions immediately or, at worst quite soon. They address need. Outraged and horrified, they also want to win change. Beyond expressing themselves they assert desires they hope to fulfill. Emotion riles them but reason governs them. See us, hear us. This is what we want, and we aim to try to get it.

Third, even beyond immediate aims, people have long run goals and hope their actions will abet those. Their focus isn't just the current upsurge. They have in mind months and years to come. See us, hear us. What we want is a new society. Today is part of trying to get it, and tomorrow too.

Of course one person can be moved by reactive emotional, short term, or long term motives and one or another can predominate, perhaps even one interfering with another.

Why do the reasons even matter? It is because an upsurge is likely to start out and remain a directionless riot with little lasting future if reason one is preponderant.

A warranted riot, such as Ferguson or Baltimore, can certainly mature into a movement. Typically it will focus on some particular agenda, but also have strong staying power, when reason two rises in importance.

A movement can in turn become a revolutionary struggle focused on all of society's defining institutions, including having strength and persistence enough to lead to a new society, when reason three becomes preponderant.

And that is the rub and the possibility of falling short of that is the unpleasant thing I would like to see discussed before it is too late for a discussion to propel doing better.

Baltimore is not historically unique. There have been a great many riots over the years. More, Baltimore is not going to be unique in the coming months, either. There will be more.

So the question that cries out is how does an outpouring of pain, anger, and desire become something that lasts and wins proximate and then long run aims? What contributes to that? What obstructs it?

Opportunist personal enrichment doesn't horrify me at all. Why don't hungry people steal seems to me a far more sensible question than why do hungry people steal - but such behavior also doesn't move people from riot to rebellion to revolution.

Lashing out at targets doesn't horrify me at all. Why would we expect the powerless to not seize an opportunity to at least feel like having some power? Nor does the behavior of media pundits and officials occasion the slightest surprise. Of course they will try to tame the outbreak, to vilify it, to brand it, to repress it - each time. These are givens. What seems far more germane to accomplishing anything is to realize that generating collective views about aims and methods and embodying the shared commitments in lasting organizations is what can turn riots into sustained resistance and more.

As Bill Fletcher has rightly emphasized, the street gangs in Baltimore that came together to have a truce and cooperate, and the clergy and Nation of Islam members who have been in the streets trying to re-channel energies and especially engender discussion of steps needed to move forward rather than to merely scream in place, are far more in tune with winning lasting justice than are commentators writing pieces either celebrating or decrying upheaval for audiences far removed from the pain and far removed, as well, from carefully, passionately, militantly, but also soberly seeking change.

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