A Global Language and History of Protest and Counterculture
by Khethiwe Mnganga + Lindsey Norward
Art Credit: “Black Unity” by Elizabeth Catlett, 1968
The Black Lives Matter movement, which has been protesting against racism, gun violence and police brutality against Black people since 2013 – first in response to 17 year old Trayvon Martin’s heinous murder, this time the large-scale protests were sparked by the tragic and unjust murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota by local police officers last May – has ignited an uproar across the world. And while the protests have kindled action, conversation and a long-awaited spotlight concerning institutionalized difference, race, class, poverty, (neo) colonialism, (modern) slavery, police brutality and representation, it is important to fully acknowledge the unrelenting velocity of this movement despite the skewed media representation amidst COVID-19 news and updates.
Today, activists and others who are also fed up with the continued attacks on Black lives and what seems like a never-ending regime of injustice rooted in white supremacy, follow in the legacy of radical tradition, remaining firm and active in peaceful protest through a variety of means.
Black and fellow unheard or historically silenced global communities have a historical investment in protests and protest culture. Unheard communities have not only turned towards protests as a form of voicing grievances against an unjust system but have also incited significant generational change through long-standing protest action and riots. Historically, unheard communities have chosen to use revolutionary methods of protest and rioting in order to highlight unjust human rights treatment and regimes with the intention to overthrow or revise an existing system that is perpetually violent and exploitative to specifically targeted groups.
Looking into the rich, yet often erased, history of protests led from the streets by unheard communities that turned into global movements and subsequently informing permanent change is incredibly valuable. This history allows for us to explore and note the way that protest culture has been central to Black global communities and analyze the strategies that reflected similar objectives. Successfully producing empowering outcomes, to pull from our ancestors’ distinctive techniques that could lend to a sustainable identity and revolution during the height of Black Lives Matter in 2020.
We can anchor our protest history in Haiti, the small Caribbean island republic ingrained in a culture of tenacity. The 1804 Haitian Revolution declared the independence of one of the first Black republics in the world. After almost 300 years of slavery enforced by the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, the enslaved Haitian population, led by Toussaint Louverture, ignited revolt against colonizers and slave owners that erupted a decades long battle, starting in 1791.
In his 1983 canonical text, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, American thinker, Cedric Robinson, demonstrates the ways that Black people across the diaspora create unique methods of inciting radical change through practices indigenous to Africa. The overthrowing of the colonial government led by enslaved Haitian people not only disputes the idea that Black people have been complacent, passive or accepting in their oppression – that Trinidadian philosopher CLR James identified in his formative text about the Haitian Revolution The Black Jacobins (1938) – as History would like to imply, but also represents how a counter-culture, propagated by protest became central to Black people. This very point is arguably why History tends to violently erase and ignore significant moments of our Black global archive, which can be read as a systemic tool of white supremacy. This violence reinforces common stereotypes that Black people were/are docile in captivity and created a culture of policing Blackness.
Our history also reveals the way that representation and policing of protest culture is enshrined in anti-black rhetoric. Given the vacillating global media representation and volatile responses towards Black Lives Matter, it is clear that a relationship amongst oppression, protest and policing exists. This indicates how discourse, armed forces, History, media and culture have been historically structured as weapons of systemic racism. Something that has not been reformed in the progress of the world despite the significant work our ancestors achieved.
Resembling the erasure of the Haitian Revolution in History, the current media coverage of Black Lives Matter in 2020 tends to highlight a few protestors that are not practicing peaceful protesting to achieve sensationalist representations of Black people and other historically silenced communities.
Colonial visual art has shown us a European obsession with the Black body, often in polarizing ways. Either through erasure or exhibitionistism. This ambivalent obsession has been articulated as the “white gaze” that has created a sense of spectre and hypervisibility around Black bodies and the way they behave, especially when naked. Sensationalist mainstream media depicts similar imagery and influences international discourse through their coverage of Black Lives Matter in 2020 as well as other significant moments of protest and demand throughout history ignited by silenced people. Anti-black language and rhetoric accompanies these salacious intentions in order to police protestors, distract from the cause at hand and dilute ally-ship. Through generations, we have been called ‘looters’, ‘barbarians’, ‘they’ and ‘these people’ amidst a time when communities are trying to heal and confront grief and pain.
These harmful representations and symbols of colonialism and white capitalism are being dismantled and marked with labels such as “RACIST” seen in London with statues of Winston Churchill and Cecil John Rhodes. In Belgium, statues of King Leopold II have been disfigured. These acts are not only valid but necessary action to overthrow systemic racism and institutionalized difference.
As was mentioned in reference to colonial visual art, these statues symbolize injustice and significantly contribute to creating a violent space for Black British and Black Belgian communities to reify a sense of unbelonging and non-citizenship for Black people in these countries on a daily basis.
Similar to Black communities, LGBTIQA+ and queer communities have been considered outside of the framework of human and criminalized for it. More significantly, Black queer communities have not only been excluded from humanity, they have been subject to great targeted violence, most specifically Black transgender communities. The 1969 Stonewall riots erupted after a targeted police raid disrupted the popular queer friendly bar, Stonewall, in New York City. Led by Black transgender activists, sex workers and Black members of the queer community, addressing police violence against queer people was the primary objective of the Stonewall protest. The riots quickly became a monumental moment for queer liberation in the US, celebrated currently as LGBT Pride across the world.
Within queer communities, Blackness has demonstrated a demand for change through protest culture and created a legacy that incorporated demand for transformation, acknowledging growth and fostered joy in the form of Pride.
In contemporary culture, we find the voices of grieved unheard communities through music, film, fashion and visual art that are consumed for joy. Late 21st century American history reveals how Hip-Hop served the cosmic ‘anti-establishment’ rhetoric, addressing race, poverty, police brutality and the politics of being invisible in America, cementing a formidable counter-culture of music.
The policing nature of white supremacy finds itself infiltrating Black queerness in the way that the Stonewall Riots has been documented and represented in culture. The popular 2015 film, Stonewall, completely erases the presence and impact that Black transgender people, sex workers and queer communities’ in the Stonewall riots and presents the idea that white, rich, gay cis-gender men incited the protests. Once again, policing Blackness reveals itself in cultural products through erasure.
These histories of retaliation resonate across generations as well as the struggle against racism. Protest culture has remained crucial to Black and ignored population’s struggles. Drawing from Robinson’s ideas, protest culture can be read as a product of a spiritual ancestral memory.
In 2015, the Fees Must Fall movement in South African universities ignited a nationwide protest, that was supported by Oxford students in the UK, calling for free higher education for all South Africans. Alongside this call was a demand for a decolonized tertiary education system and dismantling the colonial legacies in certain South African universities that was catalyzed by the dismantling of Cecil John Rhodes imperialist statue in the University of Cape Town in early 2015. The narrative quickly shifted from paying attention to the primary objectives of Fees Must Fall and lay on the “destruction of property” occurring across South African universities. Resonating with the current attitude towards Black Lives Matter.
Sitting with the idea of protest that turn violent, it is worthy to explore protests led by ignored communities that intended to demarcate their frustration, pain and grief in property as an equally valid measure to articulate a demand for change. Peaceful protest can be read as a form of respectability politics imposed upon Black people due to white supremacy even though Black anger is valid. The Detroit Riots (1967) and Los Angeles Riots (1992) incited by Black Americans regarding institutional racism and police brutality against Black people. These protests were not peaceful, nor did they intend to be. The Detroit Riot was ignited by the history of racial segregation in housing and education opportunities and police brutality against Black people in the city resulting in limited opportunities for Black Americans, risk to over incarceration and death by police. The scale of the Detroit Riot surpassed that of the riots against drafts for soldier duty in the American Civil War and stayed such until the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. Rodney King’s unjust trial, where four police officers were acquitted despite having had used excessive force and violence against him during his arrest, instigated a series of riots. Looting and arson were the two most common forms of protest used and the national government responded with several armed forces, including the California National Guard and US military, where thousands were arrested and killed.
Alongside the anti-blackness within controlling, measuring and questioning protest, the police have been long standing instruments of racial surveillance to result in detainment and murder. The current policing towards Black Lives Matter in 2020 in monitoring protests as well as in media and collective discourse can be seen as a reenactment of white supremacy in its aim to control and measure Black livelihood.
Resonating with the hyper-present Black body in Colonial visual art, racial surveillance has been used as a tool to contain and detain Black people. The famous images of peaceful Black protestors fleeing the Apartheid police and other armed forces from shooting at them during South Africa’s 1960 Sharpeville Massacre haunts the legacy of racial surveillance. The demonstrators, led by the African National Congress, were protesting against the legalized dompass, an identification document that dictated the movements and whereabouts of Black people. It was both criminalized and illegal to not carry your dompass with you at all times and if you were found in an area that did not correspond with the document, it was justifiable for arrest. The Sharpeville Massacre was intended to be an act of non-violent protest where people were encouraged to burn their dompass in retaliation to the racist government however, many gun shots in hundreds of people’s backs by Apartheid police concluded the protest.
Racial surveillance has played a large role in Black Brazilians lives, despite experiencing being ignored and racial segregation by the state across several generations. Surges in police brutality and murders in Brazilian favelas have been committed at alarming rates since 2010 and ignored by national government. Black queer councilwoman, Marielle Franco’s assassination in 2016 was distinctively read as a product of hate crime. Franco openly addressed issues of inequality across racial, gender and sexuality lines in Rio De Janeiro, using her governmental platform as a form of protest. Her fight was met with violence to police her voice and existence as a brown queer woman. More recently, the former president Michel Temer (2016-2018) specifically sent combative military forces to patrol and harass mostly poor, Black neighborhoods in Rio De Janeiro. Unfortunately, racist police brutality has a longer history in Brazil. Religions of Afro-descent practiced in Brazil by members of the Black population have also been subject to mass duress by the Brazilian police. The invisibility of systemic racial oppression through housing, economic opportunity and surveillance in Brazil maintains its position as a form of policing of Black people in Brazil.
The African National Congress in South Africa was banned by the Apartheid government several times and often operated underground and many leaders of the liberation movement lived and operated incognito and exile. Similar to American liberation icons Dr Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Kwame Ture, Fred Hampton amongst others lived large parts of their young lives under the detailed eye of FBI espionage during the 1960s and were often forced to operate under alias and congregated in secret locations to escape racial surveillance.
In a more quotidian case of racial surveillance, historically Black neighborhoods in America and beyond are usually heavily militarized and littered with police presence and intel. John Singelton’s Boyz N the Hood (1991) portrays an effective and popular depiction of this through the omnipresent quietened drone of helicopter propellors and police sirens that was interwoven into the environmental fabric where the film is set.
There’s nothing that oppressive forces want more from us than our silence – Blair Imani
The fight for freedom is a constant struggle and does not always involve the change demanded. What do we do when our uproar is silenced? In 2011, the world witnessed Arab Spring in Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Bahrain, Libya and Egypt, sparked by a street vendor who publicly lit himself on fire. Members of the youth protested against the theocratic and authoritarian government which purveyed issues concerning economic, cultural and democratic freedom. Resulting in many deaths and arrests, mirroring an anti-black approach towards policing protest, Egyptian youth were banished and threatened to not talk about what happened to them while in detainment and an authoritarian government was re-elected in Egypt. Young Egyptians lived experiences through their revolution is similar to global Black communities, where we are accustomed to being ignored even when we cry loudly. While regime changes were made in Tunisia – Tunisia saw its first democratic election in 2011 – other countries were not as successful. Libya (after the overthrow of Muammar Quaddafi), Syria and Yemen were shortly plagued by civil war and unrest resulting in human rights violations and international support.
As a global community, we have been peaceful. We have turned our pain and grief into joy and art that have been cultural touchstones for the world. However, our peacefulness has been consistently met with aggression and punitive treatment as our history showcases. Questioning whether protest should be peaceful or not is counter-productive towards the intended objective and can fall under anti-back rhetoric, as we are and have remained peaceful throughout all the anguish and daily reminders of our mortality we experience.
The Haitian Revolution is valuable to us in having forged an identity, practice and relationship between protest culture and unheard communities. What is distinctive of Haitian Revolution compared to other protest-initiated global movements through our history is the complete overthrow of a system that was designed for the pursuits of imperial conquest at the free labor of Black people. We can take away that agency was indeed inherent in our parents, grandparents and ancestors and throughout history, protest has been a form of universal language for us. This language is spiritual and reflected in our ideological objectives for Black liberation in 2020 to incite irrevocable change. A revolution, for us, by us.
Our collective history reveals that protest culture is ingrained in our communities. Unheard, ignored, unprotected and silenced populations that are unrepresented and alienated from civil society and left to the street use the street as a way to counter the current system. Current global culture and order is innately anti-black and anti-queer, therefore the attack towards our counter-culture is anti-black, much like queerness. It may be obvious that Black folk have been addressing the anti-blackness inherent in almost all structures the govern people for at least a century, what is crucial about this moment in particular is that we are all finally talking about it, in the same place, at the same time through our global spiritual language of protest.
Timeline of Significant Protests Across the Diaspora + Resources
1741 New York City Conspiracy – A Rumor of Revolt: “The Great Negro Plot” in Colonial New York by Thomas Davis
1804 Haitian Revolution – Black Jacobins by CLR James
1960 Sharpeville Massacre – Let My People Go: Nkosi Albert Luthuli (currently unavailable for purchase)
1967 Detroit Riots – Black Detroit: A People’s History on Self Determination – Herb Boyd
1967 Biafra War – There was a Country by Chinua Achebe
1968 Riots after MLK Assassination (Civil Rights of 1968) – Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the of the Civil Rights Movement from 1950s through to the 1980s by Henry Hampton, Steve Fayer and Sarah Flynn
1969 Stonewall Riots – The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson on Netflix
1970 Black Power Revolution – The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Era by Peniel E Joseph
1976 Soweto Uprising – The Soweto Uprisings: Sfiso Mxolisi Ndlovu (out of stock)
1979 Second Chimurrenga – Rega Zvipore – John George Mayowe (currently unavailable)
1992 Los Angeles Riots – LA92 on Netflix
2012 Marikana Massacre – The Spirit of Marikana: The Rise of Insurgent Trade Unionism in South Africa by Luke Sinwell and Siphiwe Mbatha (temporarily unavailable)
2013 Brazil Protest Movement – Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age by Manuel Castells
2015 Rhodes/Fees Must Fall – #FeesMustFall and Youth Mobilisation in South Africa: Revolution or Reform? Musawenkosi Ndlovu
2019 Colombian Protests – Colombia: The Long Road to Peace After Civil War on Youtube
2020 Black Lives Matter – Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Davis
Born and raised in Durban, South Africa, Khethiwe Mnganga completed her undergraduate degree in the US, majoring in English Literature and Political Sciences with a special emphasis on English Studies. As a recent graduate of New York University graduate program in the Social and Cultural Analysis Department, Khethiwe first joined MoCADA as an intern, and now as the Social Justice Programming & Outreach Associate, where she is responsible for liaising with progressive leaders, social justice workers, activists and advocates to create unique partnerships and workshops that bridge social divides within our communities.