(Update) Trayvon Martin, Chicago, and Toledo: System Failure and Getting From Outrage to Meaningful and Durable Change

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Benjamin G. Davis, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law

Since the Trayvon Martin decision, there has been ferment on many levels and across the spectrum.  There are those who considered the system failed Trayvon Martin (Charles Blow, The Whole System Failed Trayvon Martin – (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/16/opinion/the-whole-system-failed.html?ref=charlesmblow&_r=0) and some who believe the system is set up to operate just as it did with Trayvon Martin (Robin D. G. Kelley, The US v. Trayvon Martin:How The System Worked – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robin-d-g-kelley/nra-stand-your-ground-trayvon-martin_b_3599843.html?utm_content=buffer45c53&amp).

A view that the system failed is juxtaposed with a view that the system worked the way it is set up to do.  I heard this tension described last night as the difference between what is said about equal justice under the law and what is experienced by young black males in the reality of the criminal justice system are incompatible.

Stepping into this ferment are so many people who have been agitated by a sense of a wrong having occurred – or maybe one more wrong.  For me, this experience is an experience of a contradiction – a contradiction between what one feels internally is the way law should work and the reality of what happened to Trayvon Martin.

What will happen to all this energy coming from outrage?  Will it lead to meaningful change or will it dissipate again awaiting the next tragedy?

Thinking about the fault lines in opinion and this sense of contradiction brought me back to the work of an Italian sociologist, Professor Francesco Alberoni, author of many works but in particular one called Movement and Institution  (Patricia C. Arden Delmoro trans., Columbia University Press 1984)(1977); FRANCESCO ALBERONI, L’AMITIE (Ramsay 1985)(1984); FRANCESCO ALBERONI, LE CHOC AMOUREUX (Ramsay1981)(1979). Alberoni analyzes social movements from movements of two people (falling in love and friendship) through mass worldwide social movements analyzing the manner in which the creative idea turns into a nascent state, and then a movement. He further examines the interaction with and changing of institutions as the movement may itself become one of four things: institutionalized, extinct, repressed, or be dissolved in illusion.

I have always been warned about the systematizers, but Alberoni’s lucid thinking has helped me greatly in thinking through the difficult steps before a movement starts, once a movement starts, and what happens when that movement comes up against the institutions of daily life.

So let us start with where many of us are right now: the contradiction.  The contradiction is expressed in so many ways but at its heart it is the sense that there is something terribly wrong when a 17 year old unarmed child can be killed and the killer is acquitted.  Layered against this internal sense is the external reality of all of the steps in the way that the system worked that led to that result.  The tension between these two things has become unbearable for too many and we express ourselves.

Alberoni is completely familiar with this state of affairs.  From this contradiction germinates an idea, an idea of what needs to be done to end this contradiction.  That idea germinates from the depressive overload that we are experiencing from the contradiction and calls us to  do something.

We are searching for the idea and the idea is searching for us as the explosion of repressed thoughts come out.  At some point, I sense very soon, the idea will crystallize and we will go into a place that Alberoni called the nascent state.  The nascent state comes from having an idea and through affinity having others join in that idea, shape that idea and then seek to move forward that idea in society.  As the idea goes from one person to the other and on and on, a movement develops.

One idea now is the “No Justice, No Peace” idea.  From that idea there is an effort to create demonstrations this weekend all over the country as a way of people being able to continue to express their sense of something wrong having happened.  A white woman in the woman’s rights struggle in the Texas legislature sought to make a link of that effort with the Trayvon Martin case by calling for Justice4Trayvon – a classic effort at seeking affinity (Katy Otto – http://feministing.com/2013/07/16/white-womanhood-protectionism-and-complicity-in-injustice-for-trayvon/) between groups experiencing contradictions in an effort to create a link to a mass movement.  Last night on NBC’s Race and Justice special, there were a series of commentators trying to come to a consensus on what to do.  The same kind of thing was going on at Foxnews in a different direction.  All of this is the ferment and people seeking affinity.  The ferment may come from a reaction to  the reaction of those upset with the trial result (Update – Here is a very disturbing video of a person attacking one of the Chambers Brothers singing Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” that he had dedicated to Trayvon Martin – http://www.seattlepi.com/news/crime/article/R-B-singer-shoved-after-Trayvon-Martin-dedication-4669017.php).  There is some reaction even from the jurors as they try to explain the meaning of what they did to argue the system worked as it should.  Attorney General Holder calls for changing stand your ground laws at the NAACP meeting. Others call for a civil rights case to be started by the Justice Department or seek to encourage the family to do a civil case now against George Zimmerman.  There is reaction the other way trying to tamp down the outrage and call upon our respect for the institution of justice criticizing the criticizers.

All of these efforts speaking to the system is fair and worked right or the system is not fair and must be changed form the space of ferment in which we currently live.  Competing ideas are out seeking affinity to form a movement.

I want to encourage this ferment and the discussion as people grapple with the contradiction they experience.  I want to encourage every single person to express in their way what they need to express to help overcome the burden of the depressive overload that they are experiencing.  I am certain that from this process can emerge an idea on which a movement can grow.

At the same time, again drawing on Alberoni, I want to highlight that whatever the step of the process from depressive overload, to the idea, to the nascent state, to the affinity and the movement, none of these steps happen in a vacuum.  Rather they happen in  society.

In addition to this first part of how a movement gets started, what I love about Alberoni is that he goes on and talks about what happens next.  What happens next is that at each step of this process and particularly in a social movement that questions the status quo, the institutions of daily life – the status quo – does not sit by idly and accept the new idea.  Rather all of the institutions of society react to the emerging movement.

To understand institutions one must see them in a way that a former creator of the European Union told me: people have ideas, we create institutions to preserve those ideas, those institutions have power, and the question is for what purpose is that power used.  Alberoni helped me understand this protean nature found in even the most sclerotic of institutions.

Alberoni has described the four types of generic reactions that the institutions of society have to a movement: institutionalization, extinction, repression, or dissolution in illusion.  For example, the movement now may be channeled into state and federal legislative efforts or court cases to challenge or repeal stand your ground laws and, if successful, will have the effect of institutionalizing the rejection of the way the laws worked in the Zimmerman case.  The movement may also be drawn into the traditional organizations (NAACP for example) and become identified with the agenda of those organizations as part of their broader institutional mission.  Extinction would be more of a fundamental destruction of all those in the movement so that the movement does not survive.  Repression is somewhat similar but entails concerted effort to raise the burdens of having the movement progress through both non-violent and violent efforts to thwart the movement participants.  Finally, people may simply be made to think that it is an illusion to try to change these things and the movement dissolves – like a wave against a clift.

According to my understanding of Alberoni, some type of institutional reaction from these four kinds to the movement’s action is inevitable and quite predictable.

So as we think of things to do – come up with ideas – and seek affinity to create a movement to change, we must understand that the institutions with their power will ineluctably work to sidetrack our efforts down one or more of these paths.  This view helps us to watch the reactions of institutions even as we seek affinity.

For example, the fear of violence is invoked to deter people from doing the 100 demonstrations.  The futility of demonstrations changing anything may also be invoked.  These kinds of statements by “thought leaders” are about channeling the fervor in a way that is acceptable to institutions that said thought leader likes.  THEY ARE NOT TRUTH.

Some may remember this kind of effort back in the anti-war days, when administration types assured the public that the demonstrations were not having an affect on the White House.  Then, of course later, we find out that in fact the White House was particularly attentive to these demonstrations.

I want to suggest that it is by the ordinary citizen under standing these levers as to how one moves from the contradiction to a successful movement, that one can begin to  think  attentively about what is going on and choose carefully the steps one is taking to cause the change or reinforce the status quo.

These mechanisms are ever present and relentless.  With the fervor and emotion one can have pure rationality, both are exploited by the institutions in their manner of channeling the movement.

One particularly strong part of the American approach to this is institutional misdirection: put simply, leaders of institutions will lie to create a kind of “false consciousness” that leads to persons acquiescing to the status quo.  Or maybe people think they have won and changed something and find out later that in fact they have not won.

All of these hypothetical situations are Alberoni’s playground and we must be attentive to the implications of these sociological forces on how we move forward from here.  I do not have the answer as to what is the idea that will lead us to the change that has meaning, but I truly believe Alberoni describes the process so accurately.

That sense of Alberoni’s wisdom on these points gives me great comfort as I try to figure out how I can overcome the contradiction I am experiencing.

Writing you is part of me finding my path out of depressive overload to meaningful and durable change.