The history of protest denial has some hideous roots
Last month, more than 1,000 Boston Public School students took their education into their own hands for the second time this semester, walking out of school and rallying at City Hall before attending a hearing on the school budget that day.
In response to the walkout, Mayor Marty Walsh assured the public that “adults are behind the situation.”
What Walsh meant is that adults, not our city’s youth, organized the walkout. Even as dozens of students testified at the budget hearing as to how they and their peers will be negatively affected by the proposed cuts to school budgets, Walsh stuck with a story he crafted in March after the first mass walkout.
As the mayor said at that time, “I’d love to see who’s behind the walkout. Whoever’s behind it, I hope they start to feed the young students in our city with accurate information and not misguided information.” While he didn’t name any particular outsiders, Walsh clearly placed the blame with organized teachers.
The flimsiness of this lie was clear to anyone who saw photos of the youth at either walkout, and Walsh was ultimately forced to dial back his remarks to avoid looking too condescending toward the youth of our city. But his administration’s instinctive denial of the organic nature of protests goes beyond these walkouts. He and his fellow officials routinely voice this line about hidden actors at the first hint of disruptive protest, insinuating that it’s outsiders, not Boston locals, taking issue with city policies.
Take the opposition to Boston’s doomed Olympics bid. Despite opinion polls showing the majority of residents opposed the bid, Walsh claimed the opposition was “10 people on Twitter.” These “10 people” didn’t fit into the mayor’s tidy view of his constituency, even as he and his fellow Boston 2024 boosters encountered hostility at every turn about the bid.
Or consider the past couple years of Black Lives Matter protests. When word got out in 2014 about a die-in planned to coincide with First Night celebrations, Boston Police Department Chief William Evans claimed “the majority of the community is behind the police force.” This in spite of multiple mass protests against police brutality having taken place in the months prior to the action. Evans added, “It’s not the community that is going to be up in arms protesting. This is for the most part people from outside the city who want to come in and protest.”
Denying that Boston residents might take issue with the policies of the Boston Police Department asserts an exceptionalism based on nothing but fantasy, as if the BPD is any less racist or violent than other police forces. But it also creates a dichotomy in which any individual who challenges city officials is by definition an outsider, someone beyond the body politic.
This is a narrative with a long and important history in this country. The character of the “outside agitator” first appeared as an anti-communist slur during the Cold War, with even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. labeled as such by public officials in an effort to diminish liberal support for his work in Selma, Alabama, and elsewhere.
For King and the civil rights movement, the insinuation that it was outsiders inciting protests was paired with the condescending belief that African-Americans could not arrive at the revolutionary ideas without incitement from white Northerners. Here, as in many of the comments of elected Boston officials, these outsiders are racially and geographically distinct from those deemed capable of organizing on their own. As George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor of political science at Drexel University, writes, the outside agitator line usually begins with the police, is parroted by the media, and, if a movement isn’t quick to recognize it, can get adopted by the organizers themselves.
We should be vigilant lest we fall into the same trap set by our officials. Where anyone in power denies a protest could have been planned or carried out by Bostonians, particularly young black and brown Bostonians, we should remind them that in a city as diverse as ours, some people are going to disagree with city policies—and they may not be willing to swallow their disagreement or stick to the boundaries in which Walsh thinks it is acceptable to express dissent.
The impulse Bostonians have to voice discontent and work to right injustice is marketed every day on the Freedom Trail—it’s the rightful pride of our city. Let’s not let Marty Walsh or anyone else pretend we need outsiders to know what’s right and wrong on our own turf. To quote Dr. King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Free Radical is a biweekly column syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Copyright 2016 Alex Press. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.