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Protests Are 'An Outward Expression Of Something That Is Burning Within' Black Americans

One of the worst racial disturbances in American history erupted in Detroit, Michigan, on July 23, 1967.  More than a score of persons were killed in the rioting. (AP Photo)
One of the worst racial disturbances in American history erupted in Detroit, Michigan, on July 23, 1967. More than a score of persons were killed in the rioting. (AP Photo)

The nationwide call to action against police brutality and racism parallels a long, hot summer 53 years ago when about 160 uprisings erupted in the United States.

This screaming out for justice and destruction of property is an inevitable reaction to the weight of oppression, says Carvell Wallace, a New York Times best-selling author and podcaster. Wallace writes about how for black Americans, protests are a “spiritual impulse” — not a political strategy.

Living in America causes a fundamental disconnect for black people, he says, leaving most black Americans in a state of trying to piece together two “opposing realities.”

“You’re told that there’s rule of law. You’re told that you have to believe that your life matters in order for you to show up every day for your job and to raise your children,” he says. “And yet your experience continues to belie that. You continue to be lied to and in fact, gaslit by reality.”

When something brings those two realities together in the form of a protest or uprising, the action verifies the system’s dishonesty, Wallace says.

For the system to change, white people and members of oppressive groups must agree to give up power, he says.

“White people have to be willing to give up the power that this society affords them by nature of their birth,” he says. “And I don’t know if when the rubber meets the road people will do it, but I know that that’s what is necessary for change to happen.”

Interview Highlights

On protests as a spiritual impulse for black Americans

“What I see when I see uprisings and people and flames and people setting things on fire and people taking to the streets, is that that feeling of chaos, that feeling of seeing things destroyed in some sense is the only thing that makes sense. It verifies that this whole system that has been lying to you about your involvement in it, the mask has [been] taken off.

“You know, for me, this is not to, like, justify or even condone it. I don’t really have an opinion. I mean, my job as a writer is not to tell people what to do, but to understand why people do what we do. And that’s an important difference. And so what I understand is that when you see the things, the systems, the institutions and capitalism is a major player in that institution, when you see those things destroyed, when you see those windows broken and those fire alarms going off and those sprinklers raining down and everything, what you’re seeing is something that is satisfying because you’re like, ‘That’s what my experience is of this reality.’ It’s a broken and chaotic, destructive reality.”


On how a person’s understanding of this reality changes based on how far removed you are from it

“You can talk about that far removal in two ways. You can talk about it sort of politically or physically. And what I write in the piece is that if you’re watching this, you know, most Americans, even though there were these 100 and some odd riots, uprisings, whatever one likes to call them, I think those words do hold meaning. I think when you’re watching those from the news from your living room, what you’re saying is, ‘Wow, this doesn’t make any sense. They’re burning their own communities.’ Or even if you’re somewhat sympathetic to the cause, you’re saying, ‘Well, they just don’t have any other choice. You know, they’re doing this wrong thing, but I feel for them.’ But when you are in it, when you are living that reality, you’re experiencing something much more present. These actions are not a political strategy. They’re an outward expression of something that is burning within you. And one spiritually, one needs to see what is happening inside represented outside in order to feel whole.”


On what people need to remember about the civil rights movement as a narrative emerges that romanticizes the era’s peaceful demonstrations as the correct way to protest

“Everyone knows that Martin Luther King is associated with nonviolent protest, and it’s important to remember that that nonviolent protest was largely a strategic approach that he championed and saw the power of, and that had some impact. But I think it’s also quite important to remember that the impact of nonviolent protest was greatly bolstered by the threat of violent protest. In other words, Martin Luther King doesn’t make progress if Malcolm X doesn’t exist.

“In all of history, no oppressor has given up power without threat. Nonviolence calls on the morality of an oppressor. And if the oppressor had such morality, the oppression wouldn’t exist in the first place. That’s just the nature of the thing. And so you can argue whether or not that there’s strategic advantage to nonviolence. And I think that there are some. But I also think that, you know, people have conveniently forgotten that nonviolence works in tandem with the threat or perhaps the existence of potential violence. And I think that’s what people are missing from that civil rights movement.”


On the historical framing of protests, and his statement about police as counterprotesters

“What I was trying to say there is not that police should be considered counterprotesters, it’s that by default they are if the protest is against police brutality. I mean, you can argue that police are law enforcement if you’re protesting, say, to stop global warming or something of this nature, then you can argue that the police are there to make sure that things stay lawful and that people have the right to assemble. I don’t know if that’s true, but you can argue that.

“But if the protest is against the power of a violent police state whose job it is to protect property at the expense of lives, particularly lives of poor black and brown people, then the police are by definition, counterprotesters. At the very least, you’d have to say that they have split interests. They have a conflict of interest because they’re there, quote unquote, to keep the peace. But their presence is the exact thing that you’re organizing against. And so I said that to help people understand what they were seeing.”


On how he will write about this moment, which is being called one of the worst civil unrests in decades

“As a writer, your job is simply to say what you see truthfully in the moment. And the reason you have to do that is because you can’t go back and change what you said. Once you’ve said it, you say it. So I would like to believe that what I will say in the future is the same thing I’m saying now. I don’t know if that’s true, but I would like to believe that. And so what I would say in the future is that there is a constant battle between the need of people to be free and to be human, to live full humanity. That means safety, love, connection, to live honestly, to have honesty as part of their lived experience.

“There’s a battle between that on one hand and a force of oppression that needs people to be subjugated in order for it to continue. Capitalism does that. It needs people to be subjugated. Patriarchy, white supremacy, it needs people to be subjugated. There’s a constant battle between that. And I think what we’re seeing today in this moment is a very strong pushback against those oppressive forces and that this pushback is absolutely a result of what’s happened with COVID-19. And, you know, it’s a continuation of Black Lives Matter but it’s also a continuation of Occupy [Wall Street.] There is a large scale change in the way that people are thinking about how this country operates and treats its citizenry.

“And I know it’s fashionable for people to be cynical. And there’s a very strong argument made for Afro-pessimism, which I just, as a writer, really like reading about. … I’m 46 years old and I’ve been dealing with race and with white people and with these issues for as long as I can remember. And I’ve seen a tremendous shift in the way that average people talk about this and understand the machinations of systemic oppression. I’m not saying that I’m hopeful about it. I’m just saying I’ve seen that more average people grasp the way this system actually works. Will that bring about change? I don’t know, because it calls on white people and members of oppressive groups to give up power. Men have to give up power, not share power, not let other people have some power, but be willing to give up power.”

Cristina Kim produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Kathleen McKennaAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on

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