(RNS) — Serbian activist Srdja Popovic once led a successful nonviolent revolution to overthrow the brutal dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. He knows a thing or two about social change.
In his 2015 book “Blueprint for Revolution,” Popovic explains that people aren’t usually compelled to the streets because of high-minded abstract ideals like “economic justice” or “racial equality” or “democracy.”
He suggests, with history as a witness, that something more tangible like cottage cheese, salt or dog poop on the sidewalk is more likely to start an uprising. When the battles for the big ideals are encapsulated in some quotidian object, rebellions are more likely to ensue. That familiar thing becomes a symbol of a cause worth fighting for.
In the British Colonies in North America, tea was that mundane item that became a fulcrum of the revolutionary struggle. When American rebels threw 342 chests worth of British tea into Boston harbor, they were dramatizing their refusal to be dictated to by their Colonial parent.
As we commemorate the anniversary of America’s birth, images of two workaday objects have compelled two different social groups to the streets in protest. The two images are strikingly different, but both have come to symbolize a struggle for freedom. Their respective visions, though, diverge dramatically.
The first image is a pair of hair clippers. For those who misinterpret official shelter-in-place orders to slow the spread of COVID-19 as a dress rehearsal for martial law, grooming tools and al fresco barbershops have come to stand in for the struggle against what seems to them like the abuse of state power. “I want a haircut” is their rallying cry.
Their demonstrators have gone beyond haircutting to register their displeasure, of course. Some have organized caravans to block traffic, swarmed public spaces in blatant disregard of facial coverings or physical distancing protocols, and stormed capital buildings with firearms to coerce powers that be to reopen the country.
The reopen protesters have invoked the Founding Fathers. “Give me liberty or give me death,” reads a sign held by a woman in a Baskin-Robbins doorway. Another was captured dressed as George Washington on the steps of a government building with an AR-15 rifle in hand.
These uprisings aren’t in service of a revolution, but the opposite. They are tantrums demanding the freedom to contract and possibly die from COVID-19, or to infect others. More puzzling perhaps, they demand a return to a status quo that for many of the protesters themselves wasn’t working: a return to inadequate health care and a wage that likely couldn’t pay the rent on a two-bedroom apartment.
Even as COVID-19 has exposed an infrastructure in need of an upgrade, Americans continue to push for a future that looks something like America’s past.
The second symbol that has mobilized people is that of a person kneeling in protest of systemic racism in America, especially police brutality. The picture of someone taking a knee is as familiar to us as the sight of football practice — or, by now, that of Colin Kaepernick and his many imitators on one knee in silent protest.
That image was transformed horribly when Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd.
It might be profane to identify the public killing of George Floyd as something as common as a football or soccer or field hockey player taking a knee — as if to suggest that a lynching is as integral to American life as the delight Israelis take in eating cottage cheese. I don’t consider Floyd’s killing a delight or normal, but it’s a fact on the other hand that lynchings have been sources of white pleasure in American culture for centuries.
It is also apparent that some white people delight in the breaking of Black bodies. In the video of Floyd’s killing, a passerby can be heard yelling at Chauvin: “You’re enjoying it. Look at you. Your body language.”
The kneeling man, this time resulting in the death of a Black man, triggered the biggest wave of Black Lives Matter protests yet. Even some rural white towns have seen people marching for Black Lives Matter this summer. The slogan of these marches has been “Defund the police.” Their vision of freedom has been a world in which “public safety” no longer includes the state’s capacity for violence against its own citizens.
One group, those who brandish hair clippers, has taken to the streets to say, “You will not tell me what to do.” The other group has hit the streets to say “Get your knee off my neck!” These struggles aren’t the same, but both lay claim to the American revolutionary tradition — or right — the refusal to consent to how they’re being governed.
The self-same American principle, in other words — the one we all celebrate on Independence Day — is broken in two by the color line.
It’s the same disconnect that once caused white Americans to boycott Independence Day when Black people embraced the holiday as our own. In the years just after emancipation, historians Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts report:
“What ‘a dreadful day’ it was, complained one Charleston planter in a letter to his daughter. A local merchant lamented in his journal that the nation’s holiday had become ‘a nigger day’: ‘Nigger procession[,] nigger dinner and balls and promenades,” and “scarcely a white person seen in the streets.’”
The fact of the matter is many white Americans have always been indignant at the thought that the same revolutionary demand for freedom also applies to Black people when we want to be free from the tyranny of extrajudicial police violence (or any sort of systemic racial violence, for that matter).
The Founding Fathers who composed beautiful documents about liberty and justice depended for their own freedom on Blackness being understood as nonhuman. It’s a freedom tradition where the “all” has always been exclusive, from “all men are created equal” to “All Lives Matter.” And a tradition established in anti-Blackness can’t also accommodate Black freedom.
Can any mundane item found in American life unite these two visions of freedom? That’s the charge Americans are given on this July Fourth. We are confronted with a prophetic ultimatum, like ones from the Hebrew Scripture: Choose, this day, which America will be born.
(Andre Henry is program manager for the Racial Justice Institute at Evangelicals for Social Action. He writes a weekly email and hosts a podcast called “Hope & Hard Pills,” sharing insights on anti-racism and social change. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)