13 August 2015

Progressivism, Race and "Allies"...or...A Black Man's Answers to Progressive Claims regarding Seattle

Last Saturday, there was a well attended rally in Seattle, where Senator Bernie Sanders, a democrat from Vermont, was planning on speaking. At the rally, members of the movement #blacklivesmatter took the stage, in an attempt to get recognition that the lives of African Americans, in this system, are evaluated to mean less than non black lives. 

To say it was received poorly would be an understatement. 

People in the audience were yelling at the women making their pleas to the audience. At one point, someone in the audience yells for the police to "tase" her. Let's just look at that for a second. This is a person at a Bernie Sanders rally, someone who would, most likely, identify liberal and would consider themselves an ally of the cause. They would have, if you'd had asked them on the ride over, that black lives mattered. But here, in the heat of the moment, when there's someone on the stage, literally in tears talking about how she wants her life to matter, this person suggest that the police USE VIOLENCE to remove someone from the stage to talk about Social Security.

The action has caused a rift between those in the #BLM camp and those in the #feelthebern camp. Bernie's camp feels that #blm was unfair to them (you're not attacking other candidates), that they're hurting #BLM's cause (by hurting an ally), and that they were OK with the message, but the method was problematic (they should have done something different). The #BLM camp feels that #feelthebern put their feelings above the lives of black people, and when called out for racist actions, because has hate-filled and vitriolic as any right wing conservative. If you want to hear both sides of this debate, I'm sure someone on a Bernie Sanders site will do that. But here, all you'll get are answers to progressive claims...know that I agree with the claims #BLM is making and will be referencing some of that here...

...question one..why you picking on our guy? First of all, you're being melodramatic: at Netroots Nation, #BLM interrupted Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders. At that function, they were told that everyone would have to answer to them without putting forward a platform to address #BLM concerns. The day after NRN, O'Malley puts forth a racial justice plan addressing the concerns of #BLM. The day after Seattle, Sanders 1) hires a #BLM person to work on the campaign, and 2) puts forth a formalized position on the issues brought to the table by #blm. Despite the fact that whites don't really like it when black people protest despite being for protests in general, one thing has been held as true: At every single point of transformative change in this country, disruption has been key. Independently of all this, here's a reason: if Bernie Sanders is the "most progressive" candidate out there, as all of his camp would say, then it's imperative to get THAT PERSON to understand the necessity of your positions. If he truly is the person who is most likely to address these concerns, then he needs to know they are concerns, and that they need to be addressed. In a world where they had not previously been, there's no reason to assume, save something different happening, that no meaningful change would occur. 

This is the something different happening. 

Also, and I can't speak for everyone on this one, or really anything I say, but I feel I might be more on the ledge on this one than other things:

I'm. Not. Feeling. An. Ally. 

I don't want an ally. An ally, by definition, has the ability to remove themselves from a given situation if it becomes problematic, and an ally can quickly become an enemy if the circumstances align in just the right (or wrong) way- for those who are a bit of history fans will remember that the USSR was on OUR side during World War II and then...the alliance broke down... and they ended up as adversaries for really the next half century. I gave this slipshod history lesson to give a historical example, but I think the conceptualization of an alliance is it's only good when it's good for both parties, and when one party loses the benefit of the alliance, they withdraw. Alliances allow progressive whites to feel good about themselves, to assuage themselves from the guilt that drives them to do what deem as the right thing. But in terms of alliances with oppressed/marginalized peoples, the LAST thing they need is an ally that won't be there when it gets rough. It's really easy to be a friend in good times: so easy that I don't even measure if we could be a friend until there is some adversity to deal with- that there is some forced choice between me and something that would probably make your life easier- when you choose the easier action, you've said all I need to hear. We've stood at the cross-road together, and I now know I can NOT rely on you. But the shitty thing is: that's your RIGHT as an ally- when the alliance is no longer net beneficial, you dissolve the alliance. 

An accomplice is someone that is there, in the trenches with you: getting dirty with you- and understanding the implications of that dirt. An accomplice is defined someone who helps commit a crime, a co-conspirator. If you were to ask me what the crime is in the analogy, I'd say the crime was "Fighting White Supremacy". An accomplice is someone that didn't run in 1962 when someone called them a "nigger-lover", they embraced that and said, "no, I love Black people." An ally might just say nothing at all, and when the dogs and water hoses are brought out, they just quietly slide away; hey what happened to Karen, she was here all the time and now we never see her..."- Karen went home and looks back on those days fondly as part of her past. An accomplice is there with you, the whole time. There aren't many accomplices, as most people conflate this with an ally- so allies and the marginalized both convince that your allies are actually accomplices, and because we don't look for accomplices and instead for allies and then hope, it means we don't find out that someone doesn't have your back until you need them to have your back. I need accomplices- i don't need allies. You don't have to be an ally or an enemy, you could be neutral or you could be nothing- both are way better than a fake ally.

Now the second question people are asking with regard to this is actually a nuanced version of two separate questions- aren't you hurting your cause- with two lines of reasoning: 1) hurting an ally and 2) tactics hurting your cause. 

The first question of hurting an ally is hysterically problematic: the idea that, because two groups are both viewed as progressive that #blm should just tow the line of whatever the most progressive candidate says makes the assumption that #blm should, literally, have no agency, and that since Bernie is "the best we got" then we should get behind him. This presupposes that candidates can't get better by responding to their possible electorate- by answering the call of the voting public to give the people the change they ask for and need. It also presupposes that #BLM shouldn't get to use the tactic that movements have been using for centuries to mobilize action, one that has been historically proven to work in this country, and has been proven to work ON THIS TOPIC as this was done weeks earlier and the response (that time as well as this) was a formulated strategy to answer the specific concerns of the movement making the disturbance (#BLM). I know it's going to sound weird to white progressives with regard to this: but #BLM is making an argument that the system nullifies value in the lives of African Americans and that that's way more important than an "alliance" with someone who doesn't have your interest at heart. And the way you know that they don't have my interest at heart? The "tase" her comments during her disruption is pretty telling...also see all the stuff above about allies- i don't want an ally so there's no disadvantage to hurting an alliance i don't want to be a part of. 

The second question revolves around "hurting the cause" and this also kind of breaks down to: won't people be turned off by your actions? People may not like the tactics chosen by #BLM. They may wonder what people will think of their actions, and that if people don't like what happened then it'll make it harder...this makes a bunch of presuppositions that I'm straight up not feeling: 1) assumes that there can be conditions placed on my humanity: that my humanity is tied to respectability politics. I call shenanigans on that. I get to be a human, despite what the world wants me to see or that American society wants me to feel. Telling me I should have used other tactics (despite the concession nobody wants to make: that it worked) makes the assumption that the abilities I should have access to protect myself should be at your disposal, to affirm or negate at your leisure, to my benefit or detriment. It means I lose the choice on how I interact with conflict- and it's definitionally paternalistic- assumes I can't make my own decisions. It means you get to determine the legitimacy of my claim based on the respectability of the claim I make, which means you get to dictate how I act and interact which essentially shuts my role out of my own fight against my own exploitation. It also means I may never get out- if it's in their interest to keep me in a world where I can never access my humanity (because someone took it from me) that could lead to a bunch of bad stuff: can't really do truly evil to people you think of as people: stripping someone of humanity allows you to not think of them as people...2) this makes the assumption that i should care about the White Gaze- which I ALSO call shenanigans on. I don't really care what people think about the action- what I care about is the result. Sometimes, movements have to move faster than the country, especially to rectify past actions. African Americans are being killed at soul crushing rates. 

True progressives are down for the cause even when the chips are down. They're the ones in the trenches even if it looks like you won't win the war. True progressives are accomplices. 

Unfortunately, most progressives you know proudly call themselves allies. 

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post. I was actually at Netroots so I wanted to fill in some stuff I saw that got either unreported or undereported to add some to the backdrop.

    At Netroots the protest was comparatively received very well: the moderator of the event jumped into the crowd and asked for a representative to come onstage and take over the mic. Tia Oso got onstage and after a few minutes laid out a statement (maybe I'm wrong but I thought the protest was caught a little off guard that the organizers gave them the official floor -- that was a real "tactical" mistake in not having a gameplan for that possibility). The chanting continued and O'Malley stood there looking sympathetic and nodding gravely -- people at my table even commented that it was a little ridiculous that the former mayor of Baltimore is getting away with looking like the consummate race relations expert by taking the protest so well. Then the Netroots organizers told the group that they could keep their presence at the front of the stage but that they needed to let O'Malley respond. This did not go over well and it took several minutes of negotiation both on and off mic, but eventually the chanting subsided enough that O'Malley got to talk.

    And this is when he drops an "All Lives Matter" and the whole Netroots audience starts booing him.

    Then Bernie came out and there was another round of negotiating just to see if the candidate would get a chance to speak. This time the chanting never really quieted but he spoke over it. Having had about 25 minutes of knowing this was going to happen, he went pretty directly into race issues, but entirely focused on economics and long-term policy changes.

    That's when someone from the protest yelled over the din "but that doesn't stop me from being shot now."

    And it's been since then (starting at the rally Bernie had later that night in Phoenix) that he started talking about prosecutions for killer cops, fighting the militarization of police forces, ending the drug war, etc. and O'Malley started talking about how he never understood why "All Lives Matter" was wrong until then (I actually don't give credit to the protest for O'Malley's specific racial justice proposal as much as I do to this mindset/rhetoric change because having looked at his proposal, he outlined pretty much all of those policies in his remarks before the protest started because he was grilled on Freddie Gray by the official moderator right off the top and he unveiled all this then).

    It struck me that the protestors may not have wanted to relinquish the floor but the most powerful moments happened when they did (and not just because it broke up the flow -- 40 sustained minutes of any protest strains the attention span of a crowd). It wasn't until the candidates had a chance to respond and display ignorance -- clearly both thought that they were "with" the protesters with their answers -- that they really learned anything from what was going on. If they never got a chance to struggle onstage they would have walked out of there thinking that their stock answers were perfectly fine if, shucks, only they got a chance to say them!

    Personally, that's why I didn't really get the Seattle protest. Not that a protest was bad per se like some people are saying, but because it seemed like, "let's do Netroots again!" as opposed to, "Bernie you have started talking about some good stuff, BUT... why aren't you bringing this rally and its media attention to Ferguson this weekend?" or something else like that. The ole carrot and stick kind of thing -- acknowledge that it's not the pre-Netroots status quo and then raise the stakes.

    And then put him on the spot to actually respond and sink or swim like the Netroots protest did.