The protesters’ presenting a list of demands alters the dynamic of the disruption campaign, as it suggests a straightforward avenue – not a solution – for peace. Now the tension created by the sustained strikes has a path.The pressure by the protesters for the police to stop killing blacks is this generation’s cry for justice for black people, especially young black people. This is the problem – their plight. And while a set of demands will provide a framework for ameliorating their plight, it will be the power shown in getting a response to the demands that will ultimately alleviate it. Getting demands met reforms the system, having the power to make demands transforms it.
When the black contractors group organized and shut down I-70 in 1999, the protest was about the lack of black contractors on that particular highway project, and the demand that had been made by the group prior to the shutdown was simply for MODOT to increase the number to at least 25%. The group had not put on the table as a demand, or even thought of for that matter, what became the best tangible outcome of that protest – the establishment of a construction training school that lasted thirteen years and matriculated over a thousand blacks into the construction industry.
Once I-70 was shut down, thus legitimizing the threat made to shut down I-64 ten days thereafter, the demands became almost unbounded because of the unique power the community held during that interim between the actual shutdown and the threatened one. It was a power that emanated from black people being organized and united and unafraid.
The school, named the Construction Prep Center, became a model for urban blacks reorienting their lives through getting into construction that was studied and emulated nationally, putting St. Louis on the map. The CPC was born out of the tension of that moment. In that moment, when the leverage for disruption to achieve concrete gains is heightened, the proverbial coming to the table process intensifies.
In the case of the I-70 protest, after some failed political maneuverings, the governor dispatched to meet with the black contractors group his chief of staff, the chairman of MODOT, and a well known political operative whose name and role all stipulated would forever remain undisclosed. While the CPC and a laundry list of other items, including raising the minority goal beyond 25%, were birthed around the table that evening and late into the night meeting, which had its own tension, what was more importantly birthed was the black contractors becoming an institutionalized presence and force in the entire construction industry thereafter.
If a protest is effective, there is a moment in time when the power shifts from the institution holding the power to the hands of the group leading the disturbance. In that moment the leaders of the group, having the trust of the movement they are spearheading, are faced less with the prospect of selling the people out and more the prospect of either selling them short or leaving them without.
The direct confrontation tactics of the protesters have forced the power structure to see the problem. The impact of the disturbances will determine whether they pay attention to it. The determination of the disturbers will decide whether they come to the table to solve it.
Eric E. Vickers, Civil Rights Attorney and Activist.