Formative Experiences: Reflections from Students: Are the New Activist Movements Political or Cultural?


Kelechi Taye

At about 3:15pm local time on April 29, 1992, the jury deliberating the Rodney King Incident released its verdict. It had acquitted the four accused Los Angeles Police Department officers involved in the violent beating. Within a half hour of the announced verdict, a small crowd of a little over 300 people had gathered at the LA County Courthouse to protest it. The genesis of the riots was described in an episode of ABC’s Nightline titled “Anatomy of a Riot.” On the program, an eyewitness is interviewed on the happenings of the day at 4:15pm, an hour after the verdict had been read.

“From my understanding,” he says, “people went to the store [the Pay-less Liquor and Deli, on Florence just west of Normandie] and just decided they weren’t going to pay for what they were getting. They were stopped at the door, and at that point [store owner] Mr. Lee’s son was hit in the head with a bottle of beer.” As reported by Lou Cannon, two other youths threw beer bottles at the store’s glass front door, shattering it. “This is for Rodney King,” one of them yelled. [1]

This would become one of the first incidents that would mark the beginning of the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

It is no secret the issue at heart was the matter of police brutality, an issue recurring in many similar instances over the past three decades. It is on this same issue that the Black Lives Matter Movement was formed in 2013 to advocate against the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin Shooting of 2012. [2] This movement and others, however, have not gone by without generating its own sets of questions particularly regarding their political and cultural orientations.

There has been developing two prevailing notions surrounding the nature of the new activist movements. The first is the belief that they are apolitical in the sense that they transcend the political sphere. The second plays on questions of identity and politics as they relate to the pursuit of some underlying political agenda. These views contrast each other in the sense that the first focuses itself on social transformation based on cultural relations and the latter, on the alteration states of power.

As it applies to the movements of today, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, this debate creates an unfortunate dichotomy between the issues and obscures the essence of these movements. In some sense, the new activist movements rest on cultural foundations and play upon symbolic representations of cultural relations within our society. In the political sphere, all movements are political at some basic level regardless of whether these stances are explicit or implicit.

Nevertheless, the whole point of the discussion is there has been a growing contestation for the classification of the new activist movements. These classifications, as was noted earlier, are unfortunate for the very reason they ignore the transformative potential of these movements. Making distinctions based on a classification system would ultimately be fruitless. Perhaps, more useful would it be if we had discussions surrounding the purpose of these movements - producing meaningful social change.