How white leftists should respond to Black Lives Matter protests.
On August 8th, a rally in Seattle for democratic Presidential candidate and self-described socialist Bernie Sanders was interrupted by local Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists, led by Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, who sought to challenge the class reductionism which they saw in Sanders’ campaign and the ‘white supremacist liberalism’ of his support base.
The two called for four and half minutes of silence in remembrance of Michael Brown, his body left in the street after being killed by a white police officer for four and a half hours. For this, the activists were met by many of Sanders’ white supporters with anger and condescension for attacking an ‘ally’, reactions which they continue to receive.
Those actions were however a response to the systemic dismissal, containment and erasure of black resistance by white ‘progressives’, a response which white human rights activists – including me – should support and strive to lessen the need for. We can work to this end by taking an intersectional approach to liberation, an approach benefitting anyone seeking to tackle other harmful power dynamics within the left as well.
Negative reactions to Willaford and Johnson are tellingly familiar. Martin Luther King in 1963 expressed frustration that ‘white moderates’ intent on dictating the borders of ‘acceptable’ and ‘orderly’ protest methods for the left seemed at times to constitute a greater hurdle to black liberation than either the KKK or racist citizens council members. The white moderate response which he called out of telling black activists to ‘wait to a more convenient season’ was a response which Willaford and Johnson received verbatim. Both those activists knew that asking permission of Sanders’ campaign to speak would have been capitulating to the ‘respectability politics’ that have long been demanded of black activists to gain the approval of whites.
The grievances of black activists cannot wait. White officers kill black suspects in the US on average twice a week. Black men are six times more likely to go to prison than white men. Most of the 19 trans women murdered in the US so far this year have been black. Black children in the US court system are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults than white children. Black college graduates are twice as likely as white graduates to struggle finding jobs, while the gap between black and white median household incomes is $84,000. White-on-black homicides in the country are 354% more likely to be ruled justifiable than white-on-white homicides, while qualified black jurors are illegally rejected in as much as 80% of selections. One in three of all black men now being born in the US will be imprisoned. Many more statistics show the same systemic white supremacy at play.
These facts should be at the forefront of the minds of any white people challenged or interrupted by black activists, as indeed all activists should remember that oppressions occur and intersect in ways which they might not experience or understand. It is not enough for white activists to be opposed to structural racism. We must also recognize that expecting or demanding ‘respectable’ activism from people living in a daily emergency situation is unacceptable. We must then recognize too that the prevalence of white supremacy within areas of life like law enforcement, employment and others means that no liberation movement can succeed in a vacuum. No privileged activists should go unchallenged who fail to recognize how they can perpetuate harmful power dynamics through narrow or exclusionary human rights activism, hostility to direct action taken by activists from oppressed groups, or both.
Sanders’ response to the interruption is telling. After some initial defensiveness, he endorsed the BLM movement and hired as press secretary Symone Sanders, a BLM activist who had approached him with suggestions on how to better incorporate BLM concerns into his campaign. His manifesto now includes a clearer commitment to racial justice which includes tackling of economic, physical, political and legal racism. Direct intervention works, whether by drawing attention, improving candidate’s policies, or both.
How to best avoid the need for such interventions? Human rights activists should look to the concept of intersectionality. Coined by the critical race theorist and law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality refers to a process, an experience and a tool for facilitating more comprehensive and inclusive activism – each involves recognizing that people experience distinct intersections in life, such as black women in employment who can experience workplace discrimination as black women, as well as racism and misogyny. Human rights groups in recognizing this could then invite and include, as much as possible, the representation of people living at intersections of any systems which those groups tackle.
The BLM movement itself is an excellent model of intersectional activism. Founded by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, BLM is all at once an affirmation, a demand and a movement, calling out racist state violence nationally and globally within law enforcement, labour, penal systems and immigration among other important areas. The movement also challenges systems like hetero-patriarchy, cis-sexism and ableism by affirming intergenerational, undocumented, queer, trans, women and disabled black lives. The movement is ‘leaderful’ and, as Cullors expressed, “anyone can be a Black Lives Matter activist”.
The founders also demonstrate the benefit of activists working together to identify the connecting systems behind distinct but related issues. Garza has spoken of the need to recognize the connections between racial and economic justice, through things like the demolition of public housing and the murder of young black people, or the hurdles facing domestic workers – many of whom in the US are black women with young children, regularly going without food to afford rent and living in areas of high unemployment and poor access to good education. Tometi has discussed ways in which attacks on labour unions have ‘gutted’ black communities through the lowering of living standards, employability and wage levels for black workers. Activists from BLM and the Fight for $15 minimum wage movement have marched together. When we make these connections, distinct experiences become opportunities for more holistic, joined-up activism.
With BLM activists in Minnesota planning to disrupt this weekend’s Twin Cities Marathon, similar hostile reactions will undoubtedly be levied at those activists by affronted white residents. It is now that aspiring white allies must challenge those who put the comfort of marathon runners and rally attendees ahead of the physical safety and integrity of black people. BLM is raising the bar for inclusive, effective and empowering activism.
We as activists should learn from their example and strive to ensure, wherever possible, that our own work follows suit.
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