A crowd streams down Anaheim Boulevard, carrying signs that read “Power through peace,” and “Anaheim is a city of kindness.”
It is Monday evening, and the group – made up of community organizers, labor unions, students, and local clergy – has gathered for an interfaith march and vigil against the Ku Klux Klan. Two days earlier, the Klan had held a rally in a city park that erupted in violence after counterprotesters came to challenge the Klansmen. The incident left three people wounded and 12 arrested.
For the most part, Monday’s walk is as peaceful as intended. But shortly after the march, as the crowd assembles at the steps of City Hall to pray, one young woman cries out in protest.
“People are getting stabbed!” yells Frida, who declined to give her last name when interviewed afterward. Behind her, a group of seven or eight young people shout in agreement. The crowd responds by launching into the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”
Undaunted, Frida raises her voice over the singing, accusing the clergy, big businesses, and city hall of focusing on talk, not action. “Our friend got stabbed!” she cries. “Where were you fools at?”
The scene is indicative of the tensions arising within today’s growing civil rights push. As the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum nationwide and college campuses become hotbeds of debate over racism and discrimination, disputes are also taking place at the community level about how to best achieve change and equality.
Indeed, while social movement researchers hesitate to make broad political statements about single incidents, they acknowledge that there is a dual message to today’s racial equality movement. Mainstream activists, they say, tend to advocate peaceful protest toward policy reform. Though a measure of civil disobedience can be helpful, outright aggression undermines any message of tolerance, such groups say.
On the other hand, groups such as Frida’s – who were among those who showed up at the Klan rally over the weekend – say that the fight against inequality is precisely that: A fight. It is a philosophical divide that has long existed in the civil rights movement, and perhaps was most famously embodied by Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“People in the front are saying, ‘We want to be nonviolent,’ ” says Eric McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas, Austin, who specializes in racial politics and organizational behavior. “But there are people in the back who are like, ‘If we have to use force to get you to treat us equally, we will.’ ”
While both groups are trying to achieve the same goal, Professor McDaniel continues, those who are more aggressive believe “that the system is so corrupt that it can’t be fixed.
“It’s an issue of lack of patience… [and] an underlying anger at the system,” he says.
'It doesn't have to be aggression'
People begin to turn up for the vigil at Pearson Park in downtown Anaheim just before sundown. Volunteers hand out colorful signs. Organizers set up a small stage and podium for the press conference, scheduled for 6 p.m.
At the edge of the scene, Mike Lopez stands with his wife, Celia. As an active member of the Latino community in Orange County, Mr. Lopez disagrees deeply with the Klan’s message of white supremacy.
Yet he insists that the battle against racism and discrimination is best fought on the high road.
“The key,” he says, “is tolerance. People don’t necessarily need to agree. But out of respect for all human beings, there should be no violence.”
Lopez’s opinion prevails among those gathered. The vigil, in fact, is as much about condemning violent attacks – from any corner – as it is about denouncing the Klan and what it stands for. Words like “peace” and “unity” pepper the banners people hold up, as do quotes from Dr. King.
“People who are mobilized for justice are an important part of our society’s civil progression,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. But “wooden planks and metal rods and flying fists and feet do nothing, and those who use the adversity of others as license to beat people in the streets should be called out for it.”
That, he adds, is why despite his aversion to the Klan’s message, he personally shielded a Klansman from being beaten during Saturday’s rally.
“It doesn’t have to be aggression,” Professor Levin says. “Turn it into positive change. Let’s make sure we’re writing op-eds and running for the school board and folks are going to college. Change and democracy and equality are hard work, and [in this case] … the spilling of blood didn’t do a [darn] thing.”
Data suggests that nonviolent civil resistance is the more effective method. In a 2008 study of major resistance movements around the world from 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns proved successful 53 percent of the time, compared with only 26 percent of those that employed violence, political scientists Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth found. Among the reasons: Nonviolent methods enhance a movement’s legitimacy and encourages broader participation, making it more difficult for the reigning establishment to justify violent counterattacks.
Which is perhaps why nonviolence – including strategies that advocate operating within the establishment to induce change – remains a critical part of the broader equality movement taking shape across the country.
“We know that there are some people who will be inspired to work within the system as-is. We’re not going to condemn them or denigrate all those actions,” said Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi to The Atlantic in September. Everybody, she added, has a civic duty to “stand on the side of people who have been oppressed for generations.”
But she went on to say that the Black Lives Matter movement was open to a "myriad of strategies and a myriad of tactics."
“Whatever means you need to take,” Ms. Tometi said, “we believe that folks should do that.”
'Who's gonna hear me if I don't yell?'
After the vigil ends and the crowd disperses, Frida and her friends gather with their skateboards in a patch of grass beside City Hall, where she and local youth activist Carlos Becerra fume.
A friend of theirs, Marquis DeShawn Turner, was one of the counterprotesters arrested after Saturday’s brawl. As of Monday, Mr. Turner remained in custody with six others – but, they note, the five Klan members also arrested have since been released, with police saying that video evidence supported their claims of acting in self-defense.
How, Mr. Becerra asks, can anyone expect them to be OK with that?
Frida shakes her head. “Who’s gonna hear me if I don’t yell?” she asks.
And to an extent, says McDaniel at the University of Texas, riots and other more aggressive means of protest do work. “It opens people’s eyes, too, to some degree,” he says.
“These people are … struggling to survive,” McDaniel says. “They feel disconnected from the power structure. If you’re not connected, you feel helpless, and it can take shape in a lot of different ways.”
Finding a way to reach out to these groups – many of which are made up of young, angry individuals – will require an effort from the broader community, some say. After all, the civil rights movement of the 1960s had to work to ensure its members embraced Dr. King’s strategy of nonaggression.
“It was not a nonviolence by birth. It was a nonviolence by training,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammed, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, to NPR in January.
Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, which helped organize Monday’s vigil, says a big part of the burden of bridging the gap between those on the same side lies with community members like himself.
“There is a significant voice out there that is less strategic, and more, ‘I don’t know what to do so at least I’m going to make it messy … I’m going to tear things down because I’m so angry at the injustice and I can’t see a road forward,’ ” he says. “If we don’t find a way to create some of the change that would make a more just society, you stand to foment a situation that may become worse.”