Activism Outside Academia

A Honduran Garifuna who crossed the border illegally with her children gets help from a housing activist at the Bronx Spanish Evangelical Church. (Bebeto Matthews / AP) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

Enjoying the recent Notes. One thing your reader alludes to is that it’s much easier to study and argue about the “language surrounding poor health in an Indian slum” than the facts on the ground. I am not an academic, but in my own field, law, I am aware how much easier it is to work with words on the page and in law books than to get out and do the messy work with witnesses, etc.  

Similarly, it seems to be easier to catch someone—e.g., using the word “thug” to refer to protesters in Ferguson—and get that person fired than to actually do anything about relations between police and the black community or the long exclusion of many African Americans from the the fruits of American prosperity. I wonder if this easiness factor might play a bigger part than we imagine.

A reader who would probably agree with that sentiment is Andrew Chen:

First of all, thanks for keeping so much Dish-ness alive at The Atlantic, and for providing a forum for robust, intelligent debate. I’m a public interest lawyer currently under a two-year-fellowship to run a clinic for homeless youth in Los Angeles. Public interest lawyers tend to be a pretty liberal bunch; I voted for Barack Obama twice and am likely to vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary.

And yet I, too, have become increasingly frustrated and angry over time with the authoritarian tendencies of student activists on college campuses. For some reason, the Mizzou anti-journalist chants touched a nerve, and I put down my thoughts here.

TL;DR: The attitude evinced by these protestors shows that, philosophically, they seem to have abandoned any belief in the individual worth or dignity of those who disagree with them. This is not only morally repugnant, but is also probably going to doom the progressive movement in the long run (which to me, is terrifying).

From the reader’s long and excellent post:

Put simply, political capital is a thing. There is only so much time, media attention, and political will to get things done.

I am a public interest attorney* (waiting on bar exam results in ten days - yikes). My job is to listen to my clients, help them with what I can, and on a broader level work to create a society which corrects the injustices inflicted upon them. In particular, the vast majority of my clients are young people of color. Homeless, runaway, gay, lesbian, transgender, abused, neglected, drug-addicted, mentally ill young people who live day-to-day, meal-to-meal, with the constant threat of mortal violence at the hands of law enforcement or another person on the street hanging over them.

My fights are to dispute thousands of dollars in unjust ticket debt, to force a school district to give a teenager an education, to find a way to make sure someone with no safety net has a safe place to stay, something good to eat, a friendly face to talk to, and a hand to pull them up if they fall. A phone number to call if they feel unsafe. A job, a home, a future. I had a client yesterday with a black eye come in and ask us to help her figure out how to escape from a boyfriend who chokes and beats her, and then threatens suicide when she threatens to leave. I had another client last week who got arrested and thrown in jail after asserting his right to reasonable suspicion for stepping into the street to avoid a homeless person camping on the sidewalk.

I guess my point is that in the fight for racial justice, in the fight against poverty, we have limited time and resources to accomplish the things we want to accomplish. So when I hear activists talking about how one professor’s alleged insensitivity to Halloween cultural appropriation is causing their friends to have breakdowns; when I see so-called progressives threatening and shoving journalists for covering their story; when I hear friends describe “conservatives” and "Republicans" like Hutus would refer to Tutsis, I see a swiftly emptying hourglass of attention for progressive issues.

If you disagree with these views or others posted thus far, please email and I’ll air the best counterpoints or differing viewpoints.