In a year of discontent, social justice issues flare near and far into protests

“I can’t breathe” became the rallying cry for demonstrators who objected to the chokehold death of Eric Garner by a police officer in New York.
“I can’t breathe” became the rallying cry for demonstrators who objected to the chokehold death of Eric Garner by a police officer in New York. The Associated Press

Across the United States the evidence has been spilling out onto the streets: Now is the winter of our discontent.

In a time that may well be remembered for Ebola, the rise of the Islamic State and the revelations in the CIA torture report, sociologists, historians and others say 2014 also will be marked as the year in which a broad swath of social justice issues not only rose to the fore but in some cases erupted into national demonstrations.

Consider Richard Eiker, 45. He has worked his entire adult life at McDonald’s restaurants in Kansas City with little complaint.

He’s poor, but not as poor as others, having scrubbed floors and ovens as a fast-food janitor. While others make the state minimum wage of $7.50 an hour, his nearly 25 years of service has brought his hourly pay up to $11.

But with no retirement or medical benefits, no paid vacation, not a single paid day off for illness and work hours that keep him just shy of full time, he has barely enough to scrape by.

So when it became clear one week after Thanksgiving that some 120 low-wage workers in Kansas City were taking to the streets in protest, along with workers in 190 other cities nationwide, Eiker was there at 6 a.m. to march and shout with the throng.

Hey, hey, ho, ho! These poverty wages have got to go!

“We’re the working poor,” he said. “We’re working full time and we’re still poor.”

Likewise, it was only days before the wage protest that University of Missouri-Kansas City sociology student Rakeem Golden, 20, found himself clasping a bullhorn. He was exhorting a mass of fellow students to march down Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard to protest a grand jury’s decision of no indictment in the August shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo.

“No justice, no peace!” Golden’s voice boomed. “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

Since Dec. 3, when a New York grand jury handed down no indictment in the July choking death of 43-year-old Eric Garner by a Staten Island police officer, Garner’s words “I can’t breathe” have been added to his protests.

“I was swept into it,” said Golden, who this month also laid on the ground at a “die-in” at UMKC.

So it has been this year for thousands of others in major U.S. cities from New York to Los Angeles.

Beyond the plight of low-wage workers and the Brown and Garner cases, demonstrations surrounding the issues of same-sex marriage, immigration reform and the fight against sexual assaults on college campuses all have gained national headlines.

“In the 1960s and ’70s, we had the civil rights movement. That led to the women’s rights movement and the gay rights movement. That led to the nuclear movement,” said Harvard University sociologist and associate professor Jocelyn Viterna. “It does feel like we’re in a period of intensive conflict.”

To be sure, much of the social history of the United States can be viewed through the lens of its protest movements, from before the American Revolution to women’s suffrage to civil rights to the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and on to Occupy Wall Street, a movement reflecting the growing discontent with the economic gap between rich and poor.

Judy Ancel, the director of the Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said she is not convinced that the U.S. is experiencing more protests now than in the recent past.

“There’s always demonstrations going on,” she said. “Right before we went into Iraq there were demonstrations all over the world. The anti-globalization movement has had a series of massive demonstrations around the world in the last 20 years.”

But yes, she said, “there seems to be a pickup in people who seem to have had the thought ‘I’m tired.’”

Politics by other means

Sociologists posit theories on how social movements ignite that may offer some insight into 2014.

One holds that social movements and protests arise cyclically, with cultures going through periods of low and high conflict. The U.S., they said, currently is experiencing such political polarization and seemingly intractable gridlock that the nation has become ripe for social movement.

“Protests are routinely defined as ‘politics by other means,’” said Chris Zepeda-Millan, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “It is just a sign or symbol of a lack of faith in the political system.”

In other words, he said, when people don’t think their elected officials will act in the public’s best interest, the people eventually take to the streets.

“I think a large part of it is that people are looking at their leaders. Time and time again, people are let down,” said Diane Burkholder, 34, of Kansas City. She recently helped found One Struggle KC, a coalition of community activists formed in response to Brown, Garner and other issues.

In mid-December, about 30 people gathered at a Kansas City church to attend a workshop hosted by the group for advice on how to conduct effective demonstrations.

“People are told to just vote, just vote, just vote,” Burkholder said. “But voting is not working for a lot of people.”

Burkholder and others recognize that the issues around which people are organizing are not new. When cultural scholars speak of rising social movement, some speak of igniting moments of “moral shock” that sometimes tap into collective outrage and move people to action.

The images of tumult, riot and the militarized police response in Ferguson — followed shortly by video showing the death of Garner, fatally subdued in a chokehold during an arrest for selling cigarettes — may have acted as such moments. The psychic effect of those events, along with the ability to organize protest around them, they maintain, has only become intensified through the power of social media.

“I think Tumblr and Twitter, they’ve opened up the floodgates for people to be more socially conscious,” said Amber Stewart, 28, a Roeland Park mom who had never protested before but who has since found herself doing so on the front lines in Kansas City and Ferguson.

It was precisely because of social media images and online stories of black men dying at the hands of police officers that Grace Adams, a senior at Shawnee Mission East High School, opted to create an “I can’t breathe” T-shirt to wear through her school in silent protest on Dec. 12.

Adams also had never protested before. Fourteen other students quickly joined her.

“I just felt like I had to do it,” said Adams, 17. She found herself inspired by what she called “iconic figures,” such as basketball star LeBron James, also taking stances.

Movements tend to grow as people watch others in the mainstream joining in, sociologists said.

Amy Hansen-Maleck, 37, of Kansas City, said social media played a role in compelling her to protest after the events of Ferguson. She has two sons, one who is 12 and black and another who is 1 and white.

“I think there are rare moments in the history of a nation when people rise up from every generation and every class to call something unjust,” she said. “I think the events in Ferguson sparked this when a man was left in the street for four-and-a-half hours.

“I think seeing all that on social media, watching a man choked to death and then lie there with no CPR, I think that moves the core of people.”

Berkeley’s Zepeda-Millan concurred.

“One of the things that is different with the millennial generation is that they are very technologically savvy,” he said. “They are organizing online. The anti-police-brutality marches: Multiple people recorded them with their phones and then it went viral. People were pissed off about Ferguson. But then, after Eric Garner, it exploded.”

Moved by inequality

Mass social movements, however, rarely erupt spontaneously. Pressure typically builds.

Viterna suggests that before Michael Brown and Eric Garner, fuel that fed the outrage might already have been spilled in February 2012 in Sanford, Fla.

“The death of Trayvon Martin,” Viterna said.

Martin was an unarmed black 17-year-old who was shot by George Zimmerman, a white neighborhood security officer who confronted Martin as the teen walked through a gated and mostly white community. Then in the summer, anger intensified in New York with protests over the city’s stop-and-frisk policies that appeared to target black and Hispanic males.

Tension mounted in July 2013 when Zimmerman was acquitted at trial of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.

“Movements don’t happen in a vacuum,” Zepeda-Millan said.

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of “Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street,” suggested that the source of the current wave of protests may flow back even further to the start of the economic recession in 2008.

In September 2011, discontent over the growing gap between rich and poor, the haves and have-nots, burst like a broken water main onto America’s streets with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“What all these movements have in common is inequality,” Gitlin said. “Unless you are in the top 10 percent of America’s wealth ladder, you’ve been stagnating or declining in your position.

“And what goes along with that, especially for black people, is the continuous disregard that society pays. You’re not just dealing with young black men getting shot, you’re dealing with a piling up of that disregard.”

For Taco Bell worker Krystal McLemore — who since April has been participating in the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and a union — the issue also is about piles of bills. She and her boyfriend, who also has a fast-food job, are raising four children.

“You have to worry about lights and gas and gas in both cars,” she said. “I have an 8-month-old, so I have diapers and wipes and clothes and shoes for the kids.”

Opponents of the $15-an-hour movement argue that because many fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Domino’s are franchises, the corporate entity does not set employee wages or hours. Those decisions are up to individual franchisees.

In statements to media, Steve Caldeira, president and chief executive officer of the International Franchise Association, has held that the $15-an-hour movement, begun two years ago by workers in New York, is not at all about helping raise the salaries of the working poor. He claims instead that it is a politically motivated attempt by the Service Employees International Union to boost membership and broaden its influence in the fast-food industry.

“These protests are just another clear example of unions attempting to generate headlines and grow union membership, which has been declining in the private sector for decades,” he said. “The protest’s focus on franchises is part of a desperate, special-interest play by the SEIU to add to their dwindling financial coffers.”

But SEIU president Mary Kay Henry told The Star in an interview that the protest movement extends far beyond her own union’s influence.

“For us, it is a fundamental fight for justice,” said Henry, who thinks that the protests are growing because they have struck a chord.

“The essence of what has been tapped into is that people really believe it’s wrong,” she said of low-wage workers living in poverty. “I think we have touched the same nerve that people feel when they see immigrant families that are being broken up: That is not right. Black men are shot in the street when there is no reason to kill people: That is not right.

“I think what we have tapped into is that people are willing to stand up and make a change.”

Frustration, then action

It was that desire for change that prompted Emma Halling, 22, a senior at the University of Kansas, to help organize a September protest outside the university’s administration building.

Sexual assault on college campuses already had risen to become a national issue even before May, when the U.S. Department of Education released the names of 55 colleges that were under investigation for violation of federal civil rights law for how they might have handled claims of sexual assault or harassment. By August, the list had expanded to 76 schools, including KU.

Halling, then the acting student body president, said she already had been trying to work with university administrators to improve the handling of such cases.

But on Sept. 2, a Huffington Post story highlighted the case of a KU student whose perpetrator conceded to having what was deemed to be nonconsensual sex with her, but who then received only light punishment.

Administrators, the website reported, put the student on probation, banned him from student housing and required that he receive counseling, but the university also reportedly determined that performing community service was too “punitive.”

After that, Halling felt she needed to act.

“It became apparent,” she said, “that working for change through the normal administrative channels wasn’t working.”

Masses of students turned out to support a sit-in on the lawn of the administration building. Protesters hoisted signs: “No Consent is Rape!!” and “#A Great Place to be Unsafe,” a play on the university’s slogan, “This is Kansas: A great place to be.”

Students in the KU activist group September Siblings produced a video urging other students not to enroll at KU because of the way it dealt with sexual assault.

Two days after the video appeared, KU’s chancellor presented a plan for improvement.

“I absolutely think it worked,” Halling said of the protests and other actions.

‘Sustained drumbeat’

No one, of course, can predict what path America’s current wave of protest will take, whether it will ebb, surge or change course.

Ancel of UMKC emphasized that in the course of social justice, street demonstrations and public protests are but a tactic.

“We push for justice because we cannot tolerate injustice for very long,” she said. “Sometimes we do that by going into the streets. Sometimes we do that by striking. Sometimes we do that by calling up a congressman.”

She continued, “You look at what works. Are you moving toward your goal or not? If not, you need to change tactics.”

For now, activists insist, their tactics are showing results.

Fast-food workers claim that as many as 7.5 million low-wage workers have received some increase in their wages since their protests began to spread. A handful of cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, have pledged to gradually raise their minimum wages to $15 an hour.

In the wake of Ferguson, President Barack Obama on Dec. 1 announced that he would ask Congress for $75 million to buy 50,000 body cameras to be worn by police officers.

On college campuses nationwide, including KU, administrators are strengthening their responses to sexual assault and increasing awareness education.

Earlier this year, Laurie Anderson, 51, executive director in Kansas City of the Immigrant Justice Advocacy Movement, traveled to Washington, D.C, and was arrested during a protest at the White House on behalf of immigration reform and to scold the president for having deported more than 2 million immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally.

In November, the president signed an executive order that allows upward of 5 million of those immigrants to remain in the country and work legally without deportation. It’s the second action he has taken on immigration.

“I think it has been the sustained drumbeat of everything,” Anderson said. “The fly-ins, the protests, the prayer vigils, the conversations in the churches.”

On Thursday, Anderson, who is studying to be in the clergy, took part in a march and “die-in” in Johnson County with other students from the St. Paul School of Theology. They were on the ground for 41/2 minutes to symbolize the 41/2 hours Michael Brown’s body lay on the street in Ferguson.

“This is a leap of faith for many in our student body,” Anderson said in a statement for the media. “There will be forums and discussions when we return after semester break.

“And, yes, more protests.”

To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to eadler@kcstar.com.

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