OP-ED: Protest fatigue is plaguing civil rights activists across the nation
Updated: Sep 17
Why are civil rights protests so lacking in numbers lately? Last summer, there were Black Lives Matter protests that numbered in the tens of thousands. The New York Times noted that the protests were the largest civil rights movement in the history of the United States of America. While countless protesters were, no doubt, merely performative; countless others are reeling from protest fatigue. Many Black Lives Matter activists who commited to protesting nearly every day since the murder of George Floyd describe experiencing burnout and fatigue. One protester told NPR: "sometimes you can have depression, and sometimes it's this very real feeling of hopelessness." All of this adds up together to a chronic phenomenon of activist burnout.
Other activists describe guilt from taking long breaks away from the protest scene. One individual even said they felt like a "sellout" if they were gone from the frontlines for too long. But PTSD, physical injuries, and financial struggles are taking their toll on the activists who never left the movement.
Meanwhile, activists of color cite problematic behaviors from white allies for the fatigue. "A lot of the racial justice activists of color we interviewed were pointing to white activists as one of their primary sources of burnout, dealing with the attitudes and behaviors of white allies" says researcher and activist Paul Gorski.
The constant stream of information can make the activist-lifestyle an unending cycle. How can those on the frontlines find sustainability in a life centered around a constant fight? According to legendary civil rights leader Angela Davis: the answer is something she calls "radical self-care."
This concept is especially relevant in today's atmosphere. Protesters and advocates, bombarded by social media, are in desperate need for mental health resources. Researchers suggest that daily frontline activists focus on self-care and sustainable action. "It's really just not a matter of the well-being of activists. It's a matter of the well-being and sustainability of social movements." - Cher Weixia, associate professor of legal studies, social justice, and human rights at George Mason University.
If activists cannot find a way to make their day-to-day protesting sustainable, it's not just to their own detriment. Beyond the health of individuals, we are talking about the health of movements themselves. A movement is a living thing, made up of living things. Radical self care is required at every level, not just for a movement to survive. But for a movement to thrive and flourish.
NOTE: Much of this piece was built around data from NPR.