Convergence / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 4

High Tide of Activism

Nicole Peyrafitte, Karastic Action

Image Credit: Nicole Peyrafitte, Karastic Action, France, (2016). Courtesy of the artist.

Anyone who lives near a large body of water can appreciate the power and majesty of the tide. It ebbs and flows, a preternatural breathing that radically affects everything and everyone around it. We set our clocks to it. We structure our lives around it. Our security as well as our sense of being in the world are intricately connected to its rhythms and flows. The tide defines us.

Movements to which we commit bring attention to, and hopefully end the violence that targets Black folk. These movements are tidal. They have highs and lows, and are always in process: always rising and falling. A movement moves. It can arrive with an undeniable force that alters the surrounding landscape. It also can almost unnoticeably dissipate, seeming to have disappeared. We scratch our heads, wondering where its might and majesty went. Where did the water go?

As I write, the tide is coming in. The 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota catalyzed nationwide protests. In Portland, Oregon, activists organized and protested, not just once but every day, for one hundred consecutive days. The murder of Breonna Taylor (as well as the failure to indict the officers who shot and killed her as she rested in bed) inspired countless men and women to take to the streets to express their outrage. Others found alternate ways to keep her name and memory alive. Heeding the danger of COVID-19, tennis star Naomi Osaka wore a face covering emblazoned with Taylor’s name as she entered Arthur Ashe Stadium on her way to winning the US Open.

The water is high. It seems to be getting higher. There is a palpable sense of possibility as a presidential election looms, books on antiracism sit atop bestseller lists, and streets teem with people demanding change and declaring, “Enough.”

History tells us that the tide will go out. In the wake of the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, hundreds of people assembled in New York City’s Union Square for the “Million Hoodie March,” one of scores of public gatherings across the nation. Congressional representative Bobby Rush violated House rules by donning a hooded sweatshirt in protest of the racist profiling that led to the killing of Martin. The death of Martin dominated the headlines. NBA superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, alongside other members of their Miami Heat championship basketball team, shared an image of themselves tagged “We are Trayvon Martin.” The tide was high and yet it receded. The gap between then and now—the in-between—are reminders that movements can slow down. The volume can lower.

As the tide goes out, a tide pool remains. Yes, movements continue, but evidence of their effectiveness can sometimes be overlooked as the landscape changes, becoming more desolate and bleak.

A glimpse at Time magazine covers hints at this ebb and flow. The cover that billowed the flame of racism in 1994 by darkening O.J. Simpson’s image urged in a 2013 cover story on Trayvon Martin, “Less Talk, More Action.” Seven years later, the magazine spotlighted the nationwide protests related to Mr. Floyd and Ms. Taylor with the accompanying description, “The Overdue Awakening.” Of course, folks were alert to—and alarmed by—Martin’s murder. And yet, somehow, the nation had gone back to sleep.

There is a cyclical nature to movements. However, this tends to be deemphasized. Former US president Barack Obama frequently quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” which King borrowed (and revised) from Theodore Parker’s more cautious, “The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

Perhaps better than the long view of the horizontal axis is the metaphor of the tide. Here, Dr. King also proves helpful. In “I Have a Dream,” he declared, “No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” The rush of water as a metaphor reminds us of the urgency to act, to move forward, to advance. Although Dr. King was most certainly alluding to water as descending from the “mountaintop,” his language invites (without altering meaning) a consideration of the roll of water and tidal streams.

The metaphor of the tide—its cyclical yet evolving nature—allows us to account for the ascendancy of Barack Obama as a presidential candidate. A high-water mark might be the moment of his second inauguration. It also accounts for a series of lowering lows: the murder of Trayvon Martin, the persistence of hate speech, the election of a presidential successor determined to erase the legacy of the first African American president while bolstering both white nationalism and white supremacy.

The tide accounts for both the steps forward and backward in the larger journey toward racial justice and radical inclusion. It allows us to see, in a pragmatic way, what challenges exist ahead of us. It reveals the obstacles under the surface that threaten social movements. It renders apparent the hate that needs to be confronted and transcended. It helps us to see how (and where) to enter into a movement as well as when to launch, set sail, and advance forward.

As the water rises, the high tide of activism calls to us. It beckons: Get in, get in now before the tide moves out; do not allow the sinister depths of a country—what lies beneath—to deny the realization of our possibilities.

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