At the height of the civil rights movement, SGATO Director Gary Manka remembers waking up one Christmas morning with his parents nowhere to be found.
Coming from a family of protestors and activists, Manka said that on Christmas Eve his parents challenged a local coffee shop’s enforcement of segregation laws by sitting down for service with their Black friends.
“During the civil rights [era], they went to an all-white coffee shop in Huntsville, Texas, where [Black people] weren’t allowed to order coffee in that shop. They went with Black friends, sat in the shop and they were all arrested, and that was Christmas Eve,” Manka said. “We spent Christmas without my parents one year. And so when I’m talking about passionate [protestors], that’s what I mean.”
The difference between protests today and those of decades past is passion, according to Manka. With so many protests and issues flooding social media pages, people aren’t committed to specific causes and sometimes utilize the platform for selfish purposes.
“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, there’s a group of charismatic people that saw an issue that needed to be fixed, and they were willing to spend years and years to fix it, no matter the outcome,” Manka said.
“Now, it’s more superficial and doesn’t go as deep. People may give up easier. ‘It’s me, I’m just as important as the cause and I want to prove that.’ I want people to know that, right? ‘I want people to start following me.’ But back then, [the motivations were] just the opposite.”
In addition to the attention of modern protestors being spread thin, Manka said he believes that today’s protests lack charismatic leadership to hold the movements together. When things got hard in the 1960s, he said people could lean on figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Manka said older protests were more bureaucratic, resulting in more effective leadership and organization. Although social media gets more people involved, the absence of clear leadership impacts efficiency and effectiveness.
“Back then, the only added incentive was you’re gonna get arrested and put in jail. I also feel that because anybody can do it, there are so many protests nowadays. It’s more planned and not as vibrant as protests in the past,” Manka said. “But it has flattened hierarchical structure because of [social media]. And so I don’t think [protests are] as well organized as they could be.”
Protests used to be spread by word of mouth and phone calls, but are now shared through social media posts, according to Manka.
More information is shared faster today and is more accessible for people to see who wish to attend protests, according to sophomore sustainability studies major Lauren Chrisien. It has allowed for people who feel angry about recent political decisions to find a forum for their protests and get information on the time and place for them.
While social media provides information on protests, it can also provide misinformation about its focus that requires further research, according to former state Sen. Arthenia Joyner.
“Social media has revolutionized the world, everybody knows about everything within minutes of it,” she said. “But a lot of what pops up on social media is misinformation, so you have a responsibility to do your work and find out if most of what you see is the truth.”
Social media has also allowed for negative press to be spread about protests, according to Chrisien.
“I think during the [Black Lives Matter] movement, there was a labeling of leftist protesters as violent or unpredictable, especially in right-leaning news,” Chrisien said. “I think that took away a lot of integrity that some people viewed protests with. It took away from the value they place on it.”
Chrisien has been attending protests for the past five years, and she said she has noticed a recent shift in the crowd’s energy from empowered to fearful and timid.
While attending a protest outside of the Youth Conservative Conference, Chrisien faced violence from attendees who yelled at protesters, pushed some and took their signs. She witnessed someone take a sign from an older couple and had her sign taken as well. Due to the violence, she and her friend had to leave after 30 minutes, she said.
While the energy and attitude have changed, the underlying sentiment is still there and protests have changed in good ways, according to Joyner. They are more diverse in terms of race, gender and age.
“We’ve got to find a way to sit down at the table and get things accomplished without folks getting bent out of shape,” Joyner said. “We need to recognize and understand that this has been a long road that we’ve been fighting all these years, and we still have yet to get there.”
It is important to learn about the past and be a positive person for change, according to Joyner, as citizens continue to seek equality and justice for all.
“The dash between life and death, you determine what it will be for you and that is what you leave as your legacy,” Joyner said. “It’s so important that we respect the right of each other to have opinions in a civil manner which is missing, and that life is dependent on relations and people need to understand that.”