Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 19: Protests Work


Before we forget, here’s our website of past newsletters, here’s a link to subscribe to our Patreon, here’s an anonymous question bank for anyone who wants to keep their questions private, and here’s the link to sign up to receive these newsletters if someone forwarded them to you. 

Hi friends,

We are so excited to host the second event of our Speaker Series this Sunday, October 11 at 7PM EST/5PM MDT! This week, our speaker will cover her involvement in protests this summer in NYC, the importance of organizing, the intersections of climate justice, racial justice, and economic justice, and what we should be looking for re: organizing in the coming months of election transition, COVID-19, and cold weather plans for protests.

In her own words, she says:

My name is Sophie Michel and I am a climate activist and political organizer. Born and raised in New York, I am a recent graduate of the University at Buffalo and started organizing in 2019. I organize with a newly formed team called Strategy for Black Lives (SFBL). SFBL seeks to organize, educate, and engage communities to raise awareness of America’s history in the mistreatment of marginalized populations. Aside from organizing and leading protests across New York City and New York State with my team and other black/POC organizers, I work to bring new members into the team and uplift team morale. Being a part of this movement means lifting liberated Black voices and I am excited to be a part of the process! 

Our $100 speaker payment will be donated to Strategy for Black Lives this week, but if you would like to make an additional donation to their team and the movement, you can directly Venmo or Cashapp: $ItsaStrategy and follow them on Instagram @strategyforblacklives.  

Something else fun and cool about Sophonie: she was featured in Cosmo at the beginning of the summer to share her self-care routine. The article title teetered upon being a little #girlboss-y to us at first but it makes a really valuable point: we can’t pour from an empty cup. If you want to read about how Sophie Michel and other NYC organizers are prioritizing their needs, too, this season, you can check it out here


In the past five months since the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests related to George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s murders, there have been countless minor and massive changes to community infrastructure, budgets, and public understanding of racism. In the first three weeks of protests alone, one in five people in the United States reported that they had participated in a protest in some form or fashion this year. And while those numbers have dwindled recently (as dialogue participants often tell us their “feeds have gone back to normal” or they just “aren’t hearing about local organizing the same way [they were] at the beginning of the summer”), we wanted to take this week’s newsletter and talk about the power of protest itself, particularly the cultural power that the Black Lives Matter protests have embedded into our shared history moving forward, regardless of whether we see the full extent of the movement’s effects in the short term. 



Overton window

What is the Overton window?

The Overton window is a political theory that suggests that there’s a “window” of ideas and policy proposals that are seen as acceptable when discussed publicly. What is inside the window is normal and expected, and everything outside the window is  seen as ridiculous, radical, or unthinkable. The idea’s developer, Joseph P. Overton, suggested that the easiest way to move that window of what the public sees as “normal” and “acceptable” is to force people to consider ideas at the extremes, as far away from the window as possible. The idea is that forcing the public to consider the extreme and unthinkable, even if they reject those beliefs initially, will make all slightly less extreme beliefs seem more acceptable by comparison. 

What does the Overton Window have to do with protesting?

Recent protests sparked conversations that ultimately moved the Overton window because what was initially considered radical or extreme began to appear in the mainstream and everyday conversations. We have seen that manifest in many ways throughout the past few months, perhaps most notably in news coverage by mainstream media featuring op-eds about abolishing or defunding the police. As a counterpoint, conservatives are publishing many pieces arguing that we should instead focus on police reform because abolition would push the limits too far. The fact that even the most conservative positions on policing still push for police reform in some capacity is an enormous shift in the Overton window in just a few years’ time. 

Black Lives Matter protests have been successful in their framing of conversations about race and racism as a cultural imperative. This current wave of antiracism work has increased public support of the basic tenets of antiracism by over 20%! Iin 2016, 40 percent of people living in the USA had reported supporting the movement. At present, two-thirds do. For the first time in recorded history, a poll found that 76 percent of Americans (and 71 percent of white people) thought racism was a “big problem,” a 26 percent increase since 2015. For the first time, over 50% of adults in the country also support removing Confederate statues from public buildings and streets. 



Why are we unlearning this?

So often when we talk about race and racism, we have a coded language that we use to describe white protestors vs. Black (or Brown) protestors, that allows us to know the race of the actor often before even looking more into it. This coded language often describes phrases targeted at a specific group of people or ideology, and, too often, the circumstances become so entrenched into the word’s meaning that they become somehow interchangeable. Since “thug” has frequently been employed by politicians and average joes alike to describe Black men in particular, it carries a remarkably racist connotation.

Ian Haney-López—a professor at the University of California Berkeley—explained, “Current racial codes operate by appealing to deep-seated stereotypes of groups that are perceived as threatening. But they differ from naked racial terms in that they don’t emphasize biology…so it’s not referencing brown skin or black skin.” Haney-Lopez explains that the words play into stereotypes of particular racial groups’ presupposed behaviors, allowing people to feel like they’re just criticizing the behavior rather than the race of the person. This coded language allows us to feel like we’re “not racist” and to tap into bigoted ideas/racist preceonceptions, all while actively denying that we’re doing so


As we enter another season of uncertainty regarding politics, culture, and public health, we wanted to drop some tips from the frontlines for anyone who might take to the streets in the coming months: 

  • WEAR A MASK. Keep your mask on the entire time. We are still in a pandemic. Try to make noise in ways other than yelling. But, if you are yelling, please do everyone around you the basic kindness of wearing a mask.
  • Tell a friend where you’re going! Make sure someone who will not be attending the demonstration knows your location.
  • Use the buddy system! Bring a friend or make a friend at the demonstration.
  • Plan transportation. How are you going to get to and from?
  • Follow the directions of local (Black and Brown) organizers. No offense white people but if you want to talk about “outside agitators,” a lot of them have been white folks. Black leadership knows what they’re doing. Listen to them. 
  • Know whether or not you’re willing to get arrested. Usually at rallies there will come a point where leaders will say, “If you’re not arrestable, get back.” Make the decision ahead of time as to whether or not you’re willing to be arrested for something as mundane as “disorderly conduct” to something as severe as “assaulting an officer” if you fight back in any way. Be aware of charges other protestors in your area have gotten and the average bond set to bail them out. 
  • Know whether or not you’re willing to get tear gassed. Again, oftentimes the police will begin kettling protestors to indicate that they will deploy force (usually teargas, “sound cannons” (LRADS), rubber bullets, tasers, and mace/pepper spray). If that is a hard no for you (You’re pregnant! You’re recovering from an illness! You don’t want to be subjected to physical violence!), get away from the area surrounded by cops ASAP. 
  • What to wear: a mask (duh), comfortable shoes, nondescript solid-colored clothing that can be layered to cover any distinguishable scars or tattoos, emergency contacts written on your hands or arms, eye protection, heat resistant gloves (if you live in a city where teargas has or could be deployed), hair tied back in a ponytail or bun, etc. 
  • What to bring: water for drinking, water for sharing, water for potentially rinsing teargas out of eyes, cash and ID, bandages/basic first aid supplies, snacks for yourself, snacks for sharing, ear plugs, protest signs, any medicine you need throughout the day (including a nebulizer or other breathing apparatus), etc. 
  • What NOT to bring: jewelry, weapons, anything you would not want to be arrested with, contact lenses (if you are teargassed, your contacts may adhere to your eyeballs and lock in the chemical so wear glasses just in case), makeup (again, can trap in teargas or other chemical agents)
  • Turn off Face/Touch ID on phone and disable your data! 
  • If you are white, able-bodied, cisgender, straight, etc. put your body between those who aren’t and the cops. 
  • Avoid taking or posting photos of protestors’ faces or distinguishable marks. If you post anything, try to make the subjects of the photo or video as nondescript as possible. 


  • Donate to bail funds!
  • Call your local district attorneys’/solicitors’/attorneys’ general offices  and ask them to drop the charges against the protestors in your city.
  • Volunteer with community pop-up clinics or with medics during major protests 
  • Help with rent strike organizing and provide tenant support 
  • Help with disaster relief in places affected by wildfires, flooding, COVID-19, etc. Antiracism work is embedded into every crisis. Make community care part of your life in everyday ways, not just on the streets. 


Primary Resource

  • This lesson plan: How Black Lives Matter Reached Every Corner Of America – since we’re having a guest speaker again this Sunday, this is not required for participation. BUT it’s a great resource to have in your back pocket as a teacher, parent, or really anyone who wants to hone in on the power of social movements in changing our culture. 


We’ll be tuning into Their Democracy and Ours: A Conversation with Angela Davis put on by Jacobin Magazine and Haymarket Books next Tuesday, October 13 at 7:30 PM EST. Join Angela Davis, a revolutionary thinker and abolitionist of our time to talk about the disparate nature of democracy in this time of crisis and how to retain hope despite that.

Alright everyone, make sure your calendars are marked for this Sunday at 7PM EST/5PM MDT to hear from Sophonie! We will send details on Friday. Until then, we’ll be ogling this Pantry (love you Pineapple Collaborative), reading about Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative, and watching Sohla El-Waylly’s new show with Babish (this is a very food themed signoff this week but we’re not mad about it). 

In Solidarity,
Ellie and Emily

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