Privilege in activism: avoiding white monopolization

Criminal is an eclectic, short-form true crime podcast, part of the Radiotopia network of eclectic, short-form podcasts. It’s genuinely a great listen, usually dealing with stories that are local, often in a historical context. The most recent episode, “The Finger”, deals with a white Oregon man who tested the limits of free speech protection by giving every cop he sees the bird.

This episode highlights something that I think is important, if we wish to have healthy social justice activism. The question of how white people fit into Black Lives Matter as a structure is not new- the White Panther Party is proof of that. What “The Finger” represents is a deep double-standard where authorities criminalize speech for marginalized groups, but are indifferent when coming from traditionally dominant ones.

If I decided to flip off every police officer I saw, there would be some consequences. My car would get pulled over more. Small infractions like jaywalking or speeding could get me fined. A cop might even yell at me and be confrontational. And though I can’t say this for sure, I’m relatively confident that I would not suffer bodily harm for my choices. This applies to acts of protest in general. The same action has a fundamentally different meaning depending on who does it. For me, the consequences are real, but limited. For a black person, someone LGBT-identified or undocumented, people have been killed for much less than The Finger.

Recently I read a 2010 paper titled “The achievement gap and the discipline gap: two sides of the same coin?” (PDF). A section talks about how white and black students are disciplined for different acts, despite similar levels of misbehavior.

reasons for referring White students tended to be for causes that were more objectively observable (smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, obscene language), whereas office referrals for Black students were more likely to occur in response to behaviors (loitering, disrespect, threat, excessive noise) that appear to be more subjective in nature.

The arrest of Sandra Bland was similar to this– based on subjective judgement about “attitude” and “disrespect.” Her minor traffic offense was inflated- despite white drivers doing a similar maneuver all the time. Similar actions, but vastly different consequences.

So that gets back to privilege and protest. I have space that others do not- I can get away with more provocative and militant tactics. The police are more likely to issue warnings before physical confrontation. Authority figures divulge more information around me because they don’t automatically assume I oppose them. This means people with privilege can be the most provocative, visible members of the movement. In the process, it diverts attention away from communities that are under attack by the state.

That’s unfortunate and counterproductive, because one of the most powerful aspects of Black Lives Matter is how dangerous it is to publicly confront the police as a black person in the United States. I can flip The Finger and curse out a police officer, but it doesn’t carry the same meaning.

One line of thought is weaponizing privilege. That is, people with privilege should exploit it to fight for social justice. My critique of white supremacy, the theory assumes, has special meaning because it is a critique of one’s own identity. But at the same time, it feels like things are going in the wrong direction. Privilege used for noble purposes is still fundamentally unjust, and its use cements it within society.

A counter, which after a year and a half around BLM, is that white, male allies are taking leadership positions within the movement when they weaponize privilege. I think that does happen, and I have witnessed it.

Ultimately, I feel my actions should exist within the democratic framework of a movement. That is, not unilaterally using my advantages, but rather offering it as an option should others feel it can be used in some way. White people have a tendency to make decisions personally, and then seek retroactive approval. That’s dangerous and undermines social justice movements. Marginalized groups should have their autonomy acknowledged and respected.

So I choose not to give cops The Finger, because most people cannot. It is important to respect how dangerous activism can be for certain groups of people, and not casually antagonize just because I can get away with it.

All Lives Matter? Like when the Founders said “all men are created equal”?

Tweet from twitter.com/blakedontcrack
Tweet from twitter.com/blakedontcrack

The rhetoric of “all lives matter” in response to “black lives matter” is one of the most tired, toxic debates of the past year. My own opinion is relatively common- the latter is clearly not true in our society, and thus the former is clearly not true until things change.

“All lives matter” is the cry of people who in one way or another don’t see black Americans as equal to themselves. This stretches from dime-a-dozen racists to immensely powerful people. A politician can say “all lives matter”, then go to the floor and vote for mass incarceration, for cuts to social programs, against police accountability, and all matter of policies that reinforce white supremacy and create second-class semi-citizens. The victims of the War on Drugs are not only caught in a cycle of poverty, they have an inferior set of civil rights. American political and social leaders exalt freedom and liberty, but draw clear lines on who is to receive them and who is not deserving.

As the tweet states, perhaps my favorite summary of the issue, we should not be surprised by the disingenuous use of “all lives matter”. The United States is built upon hypocrisy. Of promising one thing and delivering another. Just like “all men or created equal” was based on a very narrow definition of who is a person- male, free, and white- it is abundantly clear that in 2015 the lives of people of color are not worthy of consideration. My previous post about police intimidation of activists saw a law enforcement official create a line between “true citizens” and those that challenge the system. I doubt the author of the email thinks that all lives matter equally.

Liberty and justice for all? Hardly.

Courts are a model of efficiency when they impose mandatory minimums for crimes of survival, but have no interest in capitalist looting of society. Property is valued higher than certain types of people. A CVS was damaged in Baltimore? Clearly people of color can’t control their anger. An irate officer tackles Sandra Bland after arresting her for nothing? Well, she should have just cooperated with the officer- the officer didn’t do anything wrong!

This is the latest of many episodes where the core hypocrisy of the American state is exposed- a state built on the bones of indigenous people, and fueled by the forced labor of people deemed unworthy of being included in the statement “all men are created equal.”

Sandra Bland: No need to defend the well-defended

I was wondering yesterday how I would articulate the system oppressing black Americans, were I given a chance on the open mic at a protest rally. It distilled down to a single sentence:

The names change, but the system stays the same.

Sandra Bland is just the latest of an ever-growing roster of unarmed black people killed due to the actions of law enforcement. What happened in that jail is something I don’t know. But the talk of murder vs. suicide cannot overshadow the fact that both are different variations of the same injustice. Bland should never have been pulled over, never been arrested, restrained, booked, jailed. Her death is the result of how little we as Americans restrict the acceptable behavior of the police. She joins four centuries of victims of structural racism.

What keeps coming up in all these interrelated struggles- against the murder of trans* individuals, against corporate actions that attack working class people and pollute the environment, and against US-NATO imperialism all over the world- is that there is a group or institution that is well-defended and there is another who are open to interrogation. Why did that transgender person make those men angry? Why should burger-flippers make a living wage? If they don’t want to get bombed, why don’t the Palestinians commit to the peace process?

These are all questions borne of a certain unjust system, which put the vulnerable on trial for the misdeeds of the secure.

I have no need to defend the police. They don’t need me even if I wanted to. They have their own lawyers, union reps, and politicians to defend them. They have a vast majority of the media who rely on the police for stories and tend to accept their side of the story as more valid and official. The justice system simply does not prosecute police officers, and even when charges are brought they are usually watered down to something far less than what they actually did. The whole world tilts towards them in this fight.

What the world needs are people willing to defend the undefended.