Protest in the Black Lives Matter movement: an interview with activist and lawyer Justin Hansford

We discuss how BLM protests have brought forth a cultural shift, highlighted by the recent dissent of NFL star Colin Kaepernick, and how protest dynamics have changed in the Trump era.

2 October 2017
Protester holds up a Black Lives Matter sign at a protest in St Louis in September 2017

Protest in St Louis on 18 September 2017, at the acquittal of ex-police officer Jason Stockley. Image: Dane Iwata / Xinhua News Agency / PA Images. All rights reserved.

This interview is part of Right to Protest, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, examining the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society


Anna Norman (AN): Can you reflect on the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, and explain why the death of Michael Brown in August 2014 was a tipping point in US race relations ?

Justin Hansford (JH): Some people say that the start of the movement was the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, but in my view this was not the turning point. Before Trayvon Martin there were other young black people who had been killed by the police, or by people like George Zimmerman who were acting as if they were the police, and who had gotten off scot-free. So the killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent protests weren’t really anything out of the ordinary. What was different about the killing of Mike Brown was that this time people had had enough. The protests were organic, and they came out of frustration and anger.

I had been living in St. Louis for about three years at that time, about ten minutes from the city of Ferguson. And after Mike Brown was killed I saw his image on my Facebook timeline, laid out on the street, with police standing over him like they’ve just killed an animal; his body was lying there for over four hours. And people came out not because the NACCP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] told them to, or because a non-profit organisation told them to; they came out of genuine distress. They saw the body, and the situation harked back to lynchings, to the tradition of hanging black people from trees. It was symbolic. His body was laid out for display, and that was meant to intimidate and to show the community that this could be you next if you are in any way unsubmissive to our state violence and intimidation. And that outraged people. People came out in their thousands, by word of mouth, because they decided on their own that enough was enough.

It was not fundamental for us to be completely non-violent in our response to police violence

It was led by young people, who weren’t chanting ‘We shall overcome’, but were chanting ‘Fuck the police’ and ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’. We were very confrontational. The local gas station was lit on fire and some things were damaged, but I don’t consider property damage violence. Those were ways for people to vent their frustration. It was not a non-violent protest but it was an anti-violent protest, that’s the distinction. It was not fundamental for us to be completely non-violent in our response to police violence.

[The protesting] went on for a few weeks, but the state used a number of techniques to ensure that it died out after that. People are familiar with the tools of war that were used against us, like tear gas and rubber bullets, and the brutality of some people being beaten and arrested. They created a law: the police said that people had to keep moving while they were protesting. They couldn’t stand still and shout ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’, they had to continue walking the entire time, and if they ever stood still they would be arrested for standing still.

This was later ruled unconstitutional by the federal district court – the ACLU brought that litigation in October 2014, after the technique had already been effective by using up people’s energy and forcing people through fatigue to stop protesting. So, it was an effective technique that was used, amongst other techniques, that was illegal but that was effective in helping to end that initial uprising.

But in spite of that there were people who had a great deal of determination and they continued to protest for months on end; they became leaders, so to speak, because of their endurance.

AN: Was having a black president in power at the time an important factor for why the movement started when it did?

JH: This will always be debated, but in my view, a number of factors came together.

Let’s start with the local situation. You had to have lived in this particular neighbourhood to understand what was happening at the time. St. Louis is a predominantly black city with a predominantly white power structure, and it’s almost always been like that. Even during the Civil Rights Movement, St. Louis was seen as a place that… it was the south but it was so far north that it didn’t get as much attention from civil rights activists. So they continued to stay oppressed. So you had pent up anger and aggression there that was waiting to erupt. And Trayvon Martin had been killed a couple of years before, which had a huge impact on the sensibilities of the people. So that local dynamic came into play with the image of Mike Brown’s dead body. And the fact that it lay there for so long meant that people got a chance to see it themselves and to become outraged. There was a particular injury to our psychology to see his body like that. So these are three factors: the local dynamic, the killing of Trayvon Martin, the display of Mike Brown’s body.

The fact that we did have a black president also I think encouraged people to think, ‘Well, if we speak out, there’s somebody there who will actually listen this time.’ So that’s a fourth factor: that someone may actually listen if we speak out.

And then, of course, there’s social media. The news reports initially tried to downplay the incident. But because of the reach of Twitter, in particular, people were able to go there themselves to Tweet firsthand accounts that in some instances had further reach than the news. So the corporate media’s attempt to sway the situation to the benefit of the police and to promote the status quo and hurry up to the next story, that was interrupted by social media. That is something we didn’t have access to before.

So those are five factors. Put them together and you have a perfect recipe for an uprising. 

In order to do anything that interrupts the status quo you are almost forced to be disruptive

AN: Turning the attention to the act of protest itself – what is its particular relevance for the Black Lives Matter movement?

JH: In the United States in particular we have a big problem. If we bring petitions and complaints before our authorities, oftentimes they don’t listen. They ignore us. Also, when we follow the rules, even during protests, if we get a permit and march in a circle, people may look and smile and go on about their day. And so you have a dilemma. In order to do anything that interrupts the status quo you are almost forced to be disruptive, and in a more specific way you’re forced to break the law. It’s called the lawful protesters dilemma – if you follow the law during your protest, and you do it in a nice peaceful, agreeable way, nobody cares.

I went to the UN, followed all the rules, brought a petition before the United Nations. I spoke before the US Civil Rights Commission. I spoke before President Obama’s taskforce on policing. We brought lawsuits. But the thing that shifted the culture was the protests in the streets when people were breaking the law. People got arrested, and to be honest, people protest all the time in the United States, but the cameras came once people set the QuikTrip [gas station] on fire.

When I was trying to help legally represent people, I spoke to people who were involved, damaging some of this property. And those people were deliberate and intentional in the sense that they knew that in order to get people to actually pay attention they couldn’t just follow the rules and put in a petition and write a letter to their congressman. They knew that to get the cameras to turn to a small town like Ferguson, something had to go up in flames. And so these people were going to take the risk and do so, and some of them are in jail because they sacrificed in order to do so.

A common strategy of people who want to uphold the status quo was to say that protesters are random, that they were successful by happenstance, it was a coincidence – but that’s false: all of this was based on a strategy. This is a little bit of an aside, but think about Rosa Parks. She sparked the Civil Rights Movement by not getting up when they told her to get to the back of the bus. Oftentimes that’s framed like it was an old lady who just didn’t feel like getting up from her seat one day. But that’s false. This was someone who was a longtime organiser for the NAACP, someone who had gone to a training the year before on how to do sit-ins. Someone who had learned how people had decided not to get up from their seats on buses in other parts of the country. And so she was mimicking a strategy, she was following a plan and she was trained to do it in a deliberate way. But the way that they try to retell the history is to make it seem random and lucky. That was not the case with Rosa Parks and it was not the case in Ferguson. In both cases you had people following a deliberate strategy to disrupt the status quo, and it was effective.

AN: Can you tell me more about the interactions with police during the Mike Brown protests. What was your experience of these interactions, both from a legal and personal perspective?

JH: The interactions left many of us with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD – some of us have been clinically diagnosed with that. It wasn’t just the fact that people are shooting things at you and you don’t know what it is, people are calling you racial slurs, you’re seeing friends get violently attacked. In the moment you don’t know what’s tear gas and what’s an actual bullet. And of course there were other people there in addition to the police who had live ammunition. There were white supremacists there, who had come out to antagonise us. These are things that I’ve continued to have nightmares about.

I went to jail after being arrested [during the protests]. It was an interesting experience being a lawyer and being in jail, arrested for protesting. Some of the other inmates were able to get free legal advice from me so I was pretty popular in there!

One thing that’s interesting from a legal standpoint is that, we had a situation in Charlotteville, Virginia, recently, which you probably were aware of, where literal Nazis were protesting with semi-automatic weapons. And the police came and stood there and watched them. Nobody shot tear gas at them, nobody shot rubber bullets at them, and nobody called them slurs. No police unions went and spoke out against them. In St. Louis, the police union lead wore a wristband to a city council meeting saying ‘I support Darren Wilson’, the policeman who shot Mike Brown. Police union chiefs around the country have talked about how much they dislike us. They don’t talk about how much they dislike Nazis.

It speaks of the character of law enforcement organisations in this country. We know about mass incarceration and we know that we have more black people in jail now than were in slavery during enslavement. And we’ve learned recently that many of them are there for things like traffic violations, like we saw in the Ferguson Report. It’s completely racialised. The law enforcement community in this country is one of the few places where you can explicitly use race to discriminate. You can racially profile and it’s not illegal. They called us racial slurs and they weren’t fired. The police union is too strong. The culture supports it and they can’t be held accountable.

What has Black Lives Matter achieved so far, in spite of the lack of structural change?

The biggest success is the way we’ve changed the culture. Whether it’s sports, with our NFL football player Colin Kaepernick protesting, or Beyonce speaking out, or new books, we’ve had a cultural renaissance that I attribute to those protests. If you look at some of the TV shows and movies that have been made, there’s so much that has shifted in our culture around that conversation. That’s our victory.

My hope is that the change in the law will follow the change in the culture 

We haven’t had any victories from a legal perspective. Recently, in St. Louis, there was an officer named Jason Stockley, who was also allowed to go scot-free after the killing of a black person, even after literally saying ‘I’m gonna kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it.’ And so people are protesting right now about that. There’s a list of these. Freddie Gray. None of the police officers were convicted in the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore. Or in the Tamir Rice case in Cleveland. Or Trayvon Martin, of course. If you look at the list of cases you see an innocent after innocent after innocent verdict.

But my hope is that the change in the law will follow the change in the culture. So, we saw that happening with same-sex marriage where culturally same-sex relationships became acceptable and then belatedly the law caught up. So the only hope we can cling to is that subsequently the law will catch up and try to undo this particular problem of the failure to secure police accountability.

I don’t think that’s the end of it because what has happened with the movement is that it started small and expanded, as it should. It started off with a simple goal – a conviction in the Mike Brown case. Then people realised that there’s a problem in the entire region of St. Louis. Then people realised that this is a national problem; with the Eric Garner and Tamir Rice protests, people started to connect the dots nationally. Then we started to think internationally. I went to the United Nations with Mike Brown’s family. And people are looking to connect with us in South Africa, in Gaza, in Brazil, all around the world. And so it’s a global human rights problem now. So, as our goals grow and enlarge, we have a different measurement. Even if we were to end mass incarceration and overturn racial injustice in the United States you could argue that we still wouldn’t be able to say ‘OK, that’s it, we’re done’. Because now we are tackling the problem of global racial hierarchy, global white supremacy. So we have a long way to go before we can say we’re a success but I think that what we have been able to do is shift the culture with the hope that maybe, somewhere down the line, we can shift the system of justice as well.

And my hope is that, with this organisation that I’m creating out of Howard University, we’ll find ways to launch a legal aspect of the movement that will help move things forward. Like other human rights activists have said in the past – Malcolm X, for example – for black Americans it’s important not to be pigeon-holed in a civil rights framework but to make sure we see the issue as a human rights issue. So that is my goal.

Kaepernick Protest at NFL Eagles, Philadelphia

Protesters follow NFL player Colin Kaepernick by kneeling in support of BLM, Sept 2017. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

AN: How is the movement evolving in the Trump era? Have new protest dynamics come into play?

JH: The Trump era is interesting because I think some people made the mistake of buying into the narrative of progress. They thought, ‘Well, we’ve had a black president and now it’s just going to keep getting better and better.’ But if you look at history, things have always happened in cycles. We had abolition, we ended enslavement, we had some black elected officials and Congresspeople. We felt like we were making big strides, then they founded the Ku Klux Klan one year later, in 1866, and they had created Jim Crow by the end of the 1800s. So it was a step backwards. Then you had Martin Luther King, you had the Civil Rights Act, the March on Washington, and everything’s great for a little while. And then by the 70s you have mass incarceration. Nixon. Reagan. The war on drugs. Right now some people feel like it is even worse than it was during the Civil Rights Movement for people caught in that trap.

Our goal was never just black people as individuals, it was to fight against the racial hierarchy itself

So it makes sense that, after having the first black president, you then have an anti-black president. You have Trump, and he’s seeking to promote policies that are the antithesis of what you thought this progress would lead you to. So I think people are trying to get their minds around that and trying to adapt. It’s a very confusing time because it’s almost something different every week: an attorney general trying to reinstitute the war on drugs, Charlottesville, the Muslim ban, and all these things are related to Black Lives Matter because our goal was never just black people as individuals, it was to fight against the racial hierarchy itself. And Black people are just the quintessential example of that. But aggressions against Asians, Latinos, Muslims, Native Americans… any other ethnic background that’s not white, they all face aggression. So we have to be able to build solidarity and coalition.

Coming back to the question of violent or non-violent protest… I’m living in a society where Dylann Roof walked into a church and shot up people’s grandmothers. We saw a person get run over by a car in the Charlottesville protests. What people have been asking of us is to only allow the violence to accrue on one side. When they say, ‘You be non-violent’, they are saying ‘We, the police or the white supremacists or others, we will take care of all the violence for you. We’ll commit that violence against you. And your moral superiority will be based on your ability to be non-confrontational and non-violent when you respond.’ I reject that. We’re already living in an era of violence. I’m acclimated to the stance of people like Dr King and Ghandhi, who were not of the position that you can just stand by the wayside when people are being violent towards you. These were people who would not be involved in killing anyone or harming anyone. But they had to admit that violence is going on and, even if they weren’t going to perpetrate it, they were going to have to withstand some violence to justify their involvement in the movement.

They’re killing our children, they’re putting people in cages for many years of their lives for traffic violations or based on this war on drugs. So don’t condemn us when a window is broken, that’s ridiculous. The mistake is to allow people to intimidate you into adhering to ridiculous beliefs under the fear that you’ll be painted as bad if you don’t.

In this era it’s foolish to think that human rights or civil rights can be achieved by mobilising shame as the primary strategy

For us it’s very sensitive politically. Our elders have been into something called ‘respectability politics’, this idea that you gain the moral high ground by wearing a suit and tie, by being non-violent, by singing church songs, and that allows you to be persuasive to those who have power over you. Many of us in the movement today say that that is just one strategy of many. That strategy was effective at that particular time and place, the 1960s in the United States, but in 2017 where we have a president who talks about grabbing women in private places, respectability is not moving people like it used to. It’s not a persuasive tool any more. Trump is arguing that you should never be ashamed of anything. So I think in this era it’s foolish to think that human rights or civil rights can be achieved by mobilising shame as the primary strategy. Those tools are over, because that has been the whole point [of those in power], to eliminate the effectiveness of those tools. So we have to continue to experiment with other solutions.

AN: Can you sum up why protest is vital for any democracy?

JH: The question is, are we going to live in a country that’s like 1984, a totalitarian country, or will people have the right to freedom of thought, freedom to dissent? There’s a long line of dissenters who have moved society forward even when the majority of people in their environment thought they were wrong, or oppressed them. A fundamental bedrock of this society was established because of black peoples’ dissent during the Civil War era. And the Civil Rights Movement, which Martin Luther King and others were protesting for in the 1960s, created the right to equality, which also opened up opportunities for others.

The mistake to make is to feel like this one group is trying to speak out and protest, and the benefit will only accrue to this one group if they’re successful. ‘That’s their issue, that’s their business.’ That’s wrong. If you’re in any situation where you’re not dominant, where you’re not in power, then you better speak up for the little guy, because one day that will be you.  

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData