Young adults are forcing our society to deal with several injustices and tensions. The long neglect is no more. Their protest movements are remarkably strong, even though the young adult leaders mobilize amid a deadly pandemic. The movements are now though at a crossroads. Thus, some of those leaders are studying U.S. history to learn what to do and what not to do next. Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), for example, is for some young adults a source for consideration, particularly his 1964 essay, “From Protest to Politics.”
A protest movement, says Rustin, must take a “turn toward political action.” The movement’s fervor must aggregate people “into power units capable of effecting social change.” To counter police brutality, for example, it might be necessary “to get rid of the local sheriff.” During Rustin’s time and in the South, “that meant political action which in turn meant, and still means, political action within the Democratic Party.” Protesters, in this example, must figure out a way to get inside the party’s decision-making—through voter registration, through campaigning for a candidate, by forming a local caucus and more. The turn to power requires getting allies and making compromises.
The established system knows that the predictable news coverage of a protest soon fades. Then, says Rustin, those protesters who’ve given insufficient attention to political organizing are left “with no forces prepared to move toward radical solutions. From this they conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all, the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed… They think they can frighten white people into doing the right thing.” Too often for apolitical protesters “militancy is a matter of posture and volume and not of effect.”
Instead, Rustin concludes, leaders of a protest movement must find ways to institutionalize power through alliances with like-minded groups, including those whose support comes with tradeoffs. “The leader who shrinks from this task reveals not purity, but lack of political sense.”
Droel is with National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)
Time on Two Crosses (Cleis Press; $21.95) is a collection of Rustin’s essays.