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A moment where protest leads to change? UW professor sees an historic arc

In these weeks of protest against police brutality and the killings of black people, we've seen violence and we've seen peace.

To put this moment in some historical context, I spoke with Michael McCann at the University of Washington. He teaches about both police violence and social movements.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

As he watches the Seattle protests, McCann says a couple of things have stood out: who is showing up, and the situations that have become violent.

One is the diversity of the marchers and protesters. I think back to the African-American civil rights movement. There were some whites who participated, but not a great number. These protests are very striking in that there are black, and white, and Hispanic, and Native American, women and men, old and young. It's extremely diverse.

Some studies have been done showing that a lot of these protests are 50% and 60% white. I think that that's unusual, and probably says a lot about the character of the protests, and their likely persistence.

Much of what we know about protests is that what draws a lot of attention is violence. Peaceful protest can be very useful, can draw attention and can amplify messages, and so forth, but if violence is involved, especially when peaceful protesters are attacked or the objects of violence, that can generate a lot of attention.

That's clearly been true in these protests as well. It seems to me that looking at TV and reading social media and print media, that the violence for a while received most of the attention. So that's common, and that's one of both the challenges and opportunities for protesters.

Professor, it strikes me that you have been teaching all this while. You've been working and your students have been showing up for classes. Of course, you've been doing this remotely on Zoom. What kind of impact are you seeing on your students right now?

Students are traumatized. There's no doubt about it. Between the pandemic, the virus which has made everybody fearful and anxious, and then on top of that, seeing the violence and the frustration and anger, has been just palpable.

A class I taught the spring, half of the class is on the issue of state violence and the law. And whether law provides its own constraints to violence of the state. We were talking about police violence almost every day; police violence, incarceration, and punishment every day, and students were incredibly engaged, but they were also, it was obvious, hurt, they were in pain.

We had to spend a lot of time just supporting each other, and talking about this. Most of the students are young people, and it's the first time they've ever gone through either of these types of experiences, the virus and these incidents of police violence and protests. It's going to be transformative. Hopefully it will be transformative in positive ways.

You've got your own personal experience as well as your historical perspective, is there anything that you share with them to help them put this into perspective?

I always begin my class about the civil rights movement, and I always end the class-- even though it became very frustrating and maybe disappointing for them to see what is going on, that so little change has happened for so long -- to know that there are moments in history where people do act, and do challenge injustice, and can really make a difference.

I would hope that they took away a message both of serious critical consciousness about our history, and how this moment reflects that history, but also that there are possibilities for some change. One of the things I try and tell them is, you're never going to get full justice. It is just a long process of struggle.

One other note, Professor McCann thinks Seattle is well situated to lead change, not just reform, in policing and racial justice.

I think because this is a context where there is a lot of opposition to the Trump administration and what the Trump administration stands for. It's also a place with a strong progressive tradition, connections between the labor community and people of color.

I'm hopeful that things are going to change and that Seattle's going to be one of the places where there's the greatest opportunities, and the greatest resources to really make a difference in terms of moving away from standard warrior policing, and reliance on weaponry and violence; to other ways of dealing with our many, many social problems and injustices.

Michael McCann is Gordon Hirabayashi Professor for the Advancement of Citizenship at the University of Washington.

Link here to his perspectives on the George Floyd protests.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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