This is the second installment of the series, Protecting Protest: We Need All Hands on Deck, published in partnership with the Protect Dissent Network. Writers examine how the constitutional right to protest is being threatened and why we must fight to protect it. Analyzing what anti-protest legislation signals for the future of the country and our democracy, contributors address what we must do to defeat these attempts to repress our voices and reverse progress.
Growing up in Oakland, I went to Juneteenth festivals every year. These celebrations were full of joy, mouth-watering food, and community. We honored what freedom has meant and can mean for Black people.
For me, Juneteenth has always served as a reminder that there is no Black joy without healing as well as struggle. We continue to feel the legacy of chattel slavery today in anti-Blackness, and in white supremacist institutions and policies that continue to harm Black and other communities of color. I emphasize healing alongside struggle because we cannot access the fullness of our humanity without both—Black people have always had to fight for our rights and protections, and we need healing to process the historical and ongoing trauma we’ve experienced.
With Juneteenth now recognized and honored as a federal holiday, we must not forget that it is only through protest and advocacy that Black people have been able to win the rights that we long deserved. The fight to recognize this holiday took 156 years of struggle. And despite growing interest in and awareness of the day, Juneteenth’s recognition was not assured: The Biden administration’s decision to declare Juneteenth a national holiday was a direct outcome of the summer 2020 uprising in defense of Black lives after the brutal police murder of George Floyd. In remarks made while signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, the president acknowledged that federal recognition of the holiday is no replacement for sustained action in our pursuit of racial justice: “To honor the true meaning of Juneteenth, we have to continue toward that promise [of equality] because we’ve not gotten there yet.”
To do that, we must be able to protest oppression. The great orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, understood this. On the anniversary of the British West Indies’ emancipation, Douglass spoke passionately about the relationship between protest and social progress, concluding with his now-famous line: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”
Because our communities’ emancipation and freedom have never come without a fight, white supremacist lawmakers are now attempting to rollback our hard-won right to protest by introducing anti-protest bills across the country. This wave of anti-democratic legislation has intensified since we demonstrated our power by taking to the streets in 2020, encouraging millions around the world to do the same.
That summer, more than 26 million people turned out to call for an end to police violence and an investment in Black life and Black futures. People from all corners of the country—from all neighborhoods, backgrounds, classes, and races—joined to defend Black lives and affirm that we do, indeed, matter.
More than two-thirds of Americans polled at the time said they supported the uprising, and a majority of American voters affirmed that Black lives matter. This enormous support spoke to the fact that the uprising was the largest social movement in US history.
Unfortunately, what we’ve observed in our states and communities since 2020 points to what happens when Black people are vocal and visible about our power and our right to thrive in a country that has long tried to silence us. Lawmakers in nearly every state have doubled down on the policies they began introducing in 2017 during the Trump administration to curtail our right to protest. In 2021 alone, nearly 100 anti-protest bills were introduced by elected officials who had been influenced by law enforcement and corporate lobbies and were threatened by the will of the people.
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The attempt to silence protest is at the core of the anti-democratic backlash since 2020, and it extends to legislation designed to curb , and more. Most recently, these issues have collided, with members of Congress complaining that reproductive justice activists shouldn’t have the right to protest outside a Supreme Court justice’s residence.
The backlash against democratic protest is not new, nor is it surprising. Unfortunately, Black people have always understood the cost of standing up for ourselves. We’ve been organizing for our lives since our ancestors were enslaved. Every freedom we have was won through protest, from the . And with every win, there have been those who have tried to silence us in more ways than one.
In 2022, our organization, BlackOUT Collective, is building power and community to not only confront anti-Black racism and white supremacy, but to build the world of our collective dreams—and that includes fighting to protect our right to dissent. We are working with organizations and communities around the nation to maintain our presence in the streets while acknowledging the risks are higher now as we navigate anti-democratic policies and politics. We are working with organizations and communities around the nation to maintain our presence in the streets while acknowledging the risks are higher now as we navigate anti-democratic policies and politics.
As it gets harder and harder to civically engage and participate in collective action, our collective reminds ourselves and our community that we must not let fear win. We equip community advocates and leaders with information about anti-protest laws, but we also encourage them to continue to speak up. Those who have a vested interest in silencing us are not giving up their anti-democratic efforts, so we must not give up the fight to uphold our basic constitutional rights. , but we also encourage them to continue to speak up. Those who have a vested interest in silencing us are not giving up their anti-democratic efforts, so we must not give up the fight to uphold our basic constitutional rights.
Protecting protest is also about taking back our dignity while healing from generational trauma and injustice. When we put our bodies on the line to say that “business cannot and will not operate as usual,” we allow ourselves to collectively embody hope and transformation. We need this healing and action in our communities now more than ever.
I hope that the recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday will lead a wider group of Americans to consider their own histories, particularly those whose ancestors were involved in upholding the violent and extractive institution of chattel slavery. It is time for everyone to understand that true emancipation and freedom requires all of us to center Black and Native American liberation. Without liberation for these historically oppressed communities—the very people whose ancestors birthed and built this nation—we will not be able to experience a society free from violence and harm.
This is the only way for the United States to live up to its promised ideals. Protest is a cornerstone of our democratic freedoms; it is the primary lever by which we hold those in power accountable to our needs and priorities. By protecting protest and dissent, we honor Black freedom fighters and ensure a solid foundation for our movements, enabling us to continue to fight for radical change.
As we get educated and take action, it is also important for us to financially support groups that are on the frontlines of protecting protest—the local coalitions and community-based organizations that face the brunt of state and local anti-protest legislative attacks.
We don’t need Walmart ice cream or other attempts to commercialize Juneteenth. These efforts only serve to coopt and depoliticize a celebration born of Black struggle. What we need is a commitment to liberation and human dignity. This holiday must serve as a reminder—not just of our history, but also of important rights and freedoms that are now on the line. We want Juneteenth to continue to be about BBQs, joy, and community. But it must also be a time for us to recognize the power of our collective voice and commit ourselves to doing what it takes to guarantee that we don’t lose our right to use it.