Black Protester, White Protester

Hi, this is Jay with another weekly post and some links.

For the purposes of this post, picture a good liberal seated at their kitchen table. While doomscrolling through Twitter on a Macbook Pro, they take in scene after scene of protests around the country. Every few moments, they squint, pick up a fountain pen they received as a wedding gift (once belonged to Tom Wolfe or whoever the fuck) and jot down notes in a ledger that has been divided into two columns: Good Protester; Bad Protester. Think of them as a kind of Riot Santa Claus.

The criteria for Good Protester is pretty simple. They must be Black or sometimes Latinx. They must be ‘passionate.’ Bonuses are given to those who can talk about a moment of pain in their own lives. But the best Good Protesters are those who stop the Bad Protesters -- little white brats -- from destroying property to “change the conversation” or “distract from the memory of George Floyd.”

The bad protesters are the “outside agitators.” We don’t have space here to list off all the police departments, mayors, governors and federal officials who have screamed in recent days about “shadowy figures” or “white supremacist infiltrators” or “professional anarchists,” but they run from small town mayors to seemingly progressive media outlets to the President, himself. All these outlets, whether government or media, are speaking to a hypothetical sympathetic onlooker who might be watching the protests from their homes and grappling with the senselessness of smashing up a store window. 

The Riot Santa Claus only really sees the “bad protester” on TV news or social media. Video footage of naughty suburban kids smashing windows with skateboards get retweeted thousands of times with some pious commentary, whether “really looks like they care about racial justice,” or some seemingly sympathetic missive about how the actual residents of that neighborhood will have to pay for the destruction. (The latter of these concerns is real, for what it’s worth, but more on that soon…) There’s never any attempt to explain why someone would come down to a protest to smash shit and incite violence, so these bad protesters are usually branded as “anarchists” or “nihilists,” which takes away any political agency they might have. 

The profile of the Riot Santa Claus has stayed more or less the same over the past fifty years, but their iconography has changed. During the Civil Rights Movement, they may have believed that Martin Luther King was an inspirational speaker and a “credit to his race,” but they also might have said that change could only take place slowly and without disruption. Today, they might believe George Floyd was murdered by Derrick Chauvin and that the people should protest. They may have even marched in one. Compelled by Martin Luther King’s much-passed around quote, “the riot is the language of the unheard,” they might have supported the first few days of riots in Minneapolis, and although the burning of the 3rd police precinct -- one of the most stunning acts of civil disobedience in the last thirty years -- stunned them, they also understood the rage. (A recent Monmouth poll found that 54% of respondents believed the burning of the precinct was “justified,” although other polls around violence against police and destruction of police cars seems to suggest that number might be an outlier.)  

Over the past two weeks, there have been two narratives put out to sway the Riot Santas towards supporting de-escalation. The first is the myth of the “outside agitator,” which is so old and boring and effective that it’s not worth discussing here. A good, cursory history can be found in this thread. 

The only interesting update to the “outside agitator” trope is it seems to have branched into two forms: Right-wing police chiefs, mayors and politicians blame ‘ANTIFA’ or ‘anarchists’ in the same way they blamed ‘Communists’ during the Civil Rights Movement. Progressives, strung along by credulous reporters who have consistently bungled almost every story about the ‘alt-right’ over the past five years, scream about infiltration from ‘white supremacists,’ the ‘Boogaloos,’ or whatever. Both narratives have been more or less debunked as jail data has consistently shown that the vast majority of people who are arrested at the protests have come from within the area.

The other update to the Good Protester/Bad Protester playbook is far more interesting. It isn’t technically new -- it was used during Freedom Summer, and then again in Ferguson -- but it’s prevalence today seems to reflect the shifting prejudices of the Riot Santas and their lists of good protesters and bad protester. An example can be found here, from the Mayor of Seattle: 

What, exactly, is being said here? Forget the demographics of Seattle, a city that’s 2/3 white and only 7% black, which might account for any “racial imbalance” you’d find in the arrest logs of the protests, but the only reasonable takeaway is that white men do not have the standing to participate in the riots, which, as we know, are the “voice of the unheard.” And by its evocation of “privilege,” it also sets up a hierarchy of protester that makes some people’s acts of political violence more acceptable than others. (For what it’s worth, if this was in any way reflected in the policing, prosecution and sentencing of rioters and looters, maybe this would actually be a worthwhile exercise, but there’s no reason to think the same inequalities that plague every single part of the criminal justice system wouldn’t just be replicated here.)

“White looter” has proven to be a particularly effective variant of the “outside agitators” narrative because it plays on the Riot Santa’s two main weaknesses: Racial piety and a general unfamiliarity with actual, living minorities. The piety demands an infantilization of black people — every scene that plays in the head of the Riot Santa comes from a movie or a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement. The “peaceful protester vs. outside agitator” dichotomy becomes racialized in such a complete way that Durkan, whose constituency is mostly white and liberal, can strategically push out a message that she knows will both deflect from her own response (who, really, can control white men?) and de-fuse the anger that drove the riots in the first place. By casting the riots as “white,” she can effectively dismiss it all without having to answer any actual questions about racial inequality in her city, whether in policing, education or housing.

This, of course, is it’s own form of racism. It’s appealing to think of the looting as being the work of “white suburban kids” who are just out to break shit and slide on back at night to Westchester, the Valley, Walnut Creek, or Grosse Pointe because it allows the Riot Santas, who are mostly white and rich Asian (I could do a whole other post on how this narrative has been like catnip for a certain type of upwardly mobile woke Asian, but I’ve promised myself to stop), to loudly declare their support for the protests, their belief in “the riot is the language of the unheard,” while also expressing their disappointment and fear of the riots, themselves. It allows them to fill up the “bad protester” column with white supremacists and bored, privileged teens, which, in turn, absolves them of any possible charges of racism.

During my time as what I’ll just charitably call a “protest reporter,” I saw a whole lot of white kids breaking shit in cities around the country. I also saw a whole lot of black, Latino and Asian kids doing the same. At a particularly tense stand-off in one city, I saw a white kid dressed in all black dragging a wooden pallet and a can of gasoline towards the line of police. He looked, for all intents and purposes, like a cartoon version of the “outside agitator.” The cops were firing markers and tear gas at the time and so nobody really made much of it, nor did they make some theatrical effort to stop him. When I asked the organizer about it afterwards, she explained that person, who she didn’t know, should be seen as part of the protest community. There was no reason to reject him or question his motives because he was on “our side.” Last night, at a planned Curfew Break in Oakland, where thousands of people sat in Oscar Grant Park, after one of the speakers said “We don’t want you anarchists in our movement,” the leader of the action came out, apologized, and said, “some of my best friends are anarchists.” Later, a different speaker cautioned against the “Good Protester/Bad Protester” division and said that a good protester was a protester who shows up.

But that’s just two cities, both with long-standing protest communities. The videos that have been shared of black protesters ejecting white looters, or, in some instances, handing them over to the police, are real, but they do not reflect some totemic belief in “non violence” or “peacefulness,” nor should there be some hierarchy of concerns and opinions that starts with “organizers” and trickles down from there. The messy, obvious truth is that in some cities, anti-racism organizers have long-standing partnerships with “anarchists,” while others might believe in a more top-down approach. Some organizers believe in tactics like the “wall of white allies,” where white people go to the front and face-down the police, while others believe they divide what should be a unified front. In some places, bored, white suburban teens are smashing up stores, while in others, those kids might belong to some anti-capitalism organization that fights the cops every May Day.

All those disparate groups are out in the streets of American cities right now and generating such a massive glut of video evidence that any narrative can take hold. It’s impossible to really delineate what’s happening and what’s not outside of this: Nearly every single one of those groups is getting tear gassed, beaten, and brutalized by the police. Many of those people are white and almost none of them are the “white looters” that Mayor Durkan warned against. Buying into the “white looter” not only trades on racist, condescending visions of black protesters as helpless, angelic victims who sing “We Shall Overcome” as they are beaten down, but it also divides the protest and convinces all the Riot Santas to stay home, lest they become part of the problem. In liberal cities like Seattle where such sentimentalizing runs rampant, it delegitimizes the action and takes away its moral righteousness. Which, of course, then justifies a swift shut down.

We should reject the “white looter, black protester” trope, but what do you do with all these white protesters? Should they become the infantry of the movement, dutifully heed the orders of black activists, and use their privilege in the fight for justice? Should organizers, as the mantra commands, ensure that any actions taken by “white allies” are done in the name of George Floyd and the patchy umbrella of Black Lives Matter? (I feel the need to say two things here to all the smooth-brained, Quillette-ish debate warriors in the media who might want to take this section as ammunition for your idiotic ‘wokespeak is indoctrinating America’ arguments: A) Fuck you, generally. B) Please go to a protest. All the things you take out of context and tweet, ‘BRRRRRR CRITICAL RACE THEORY IS MIND POISON!’ have actual, functional reasons for existing that help keep people safe and free from arrest. Because you refuse to consider these questions from a standpoint of empathy and solidarity, you’ll always miss the point.)

These protests, which have almost reached their second week, are much more chaotic than what we saw in 2014 or 2016. Millions of people have lost their jobs and face an uncertain future due to a pandemic that exposed every type of disparity, not only in this country, but around the world. The massive solidarity protests that have sprung up in Japan, Paris, London, Amsterdam, and dozens of other cities on other continents, reflect a more universal anger, not only because of the murder of George Floyd, but over inequality and miscarriages of justice whose outcomes always feel foregone. As such, I imagine there will be no leaders who emerge out of these national protests, nor will there be any concrete demands. These protests will not look like the fetishized and thoroughly edited videos of the Civil Rights Movement.

Over the past ten days, tens of thousands of white Americans have been tear-gassed by cops; tens of thousands more have been arrested in largely peaceful protests. They have all seen the violence of the police state for themselves and while they might rightfully acknowledge that black people bear the brunt of this oppression — and not only during times of national protest — many will start to see their own struggle and subjugation under capitalism. Just over the past twenty-four hours, we’ve all seen the video footage of a 75 year old man being pushed to the ground in Buffalo. As he lays bleeding out his ears, the police, who seem completely unbothered, step over his rigid body. We’ve heard of Sarah Grossman, a 22-year-old in Columbus, Ohio, who died after being tear gassed by the local police. And we’ve seen dozens of videos and read accounts on social media of white, peaceful protesters getting beaten, maced and detained. We can point out they would’ve gotten it worse if they had been black, but I wonder if that sort of comparative reflex, while absolutely true (and certainly not voiced by everyone), makes the most sense when trying to build and sustain a movement.

It might be tempting, then, to argue for a renunciation of “identity politics” and try to turn the fight for Black Lives into a direct and forceful confrontation with capitalism, not only here in the United States, but around the world.

This is not a new question. It’s one that Noel Ignatiev, my old professor who passed away last November, considered throughout his entire career. Please forgive the long excerpt, but in a 1972 piece titled “Black Worker, White Worker” Ignatiev thought through the need for the centrality of “the race question” in revolutionary labor organizing.

At a large electrical appliance manufacturing plant in Chicago, one of the radical groups, the Revolutionary Union, sent a few people in. The radicals began putting out a plant newsletter which raised the issues of speedup, safety, low wages — all the various grievances of the workers — and also carried on a fairly aggressive campaign against racial discrimination, against the exclusion of Black workers from the better departments, etc.

The group managed to build up considerable support, most of it among Black workers, which wasn't surprising since Black workers made up almost half the work force and were most victimized by the oppressive conditions the group was agitating against.

After some time had passed, the strategists in the group who, it is safe to surmise, were the white radicals who had initiated it along with one or two newly radicalized workers from the plant, decided that, as a tactic, they ought to try and throw out the present union, the International Association of Machinists, which is one of the worst unions in the Chicago area, and bring in the United Electrical Workers union. That is the UE, the old left-led union expelled in 1949 from the CIO and still under what is called progressive leadership.

Anyhow, they took a group of workers down to the UE hall and met with the organizers there. The staff people were delighted that they were interested in bringing in the UE, but they observed that there weren't enough white workers in the committee. If they ever hoped to win the plant for the UE, they would have to involve more white workers in the organizing effort.

That was certainly a logical effort. And so, what did the group do? They went back into the plant and began campaigning for the UE, using the newsletter as their chief vehicle. But now there was a change. The main aim became to reach the white workers, and so the line of the newsletter now became: all workers unite, the boss makes no distinction between Black and white, do not let race feeling divide us, bringing in the UE will benefit us all, our interests are all the same, etc. As for the exposures of racial discrimination and the campaign to abolish it in the plant, which had occupied so much of the group's attention prior to the decision to bring in the UE, that was laid aside in the interests of appealing to the broadest number of workers who could be won to the immediate goal, getting a better union.

What is there to say about a story like this? What is there to do besides shake your head? Doesn't this represent, in capsule form, the whole history of labor movement in this country — the radicalization of the workers followed by the capitulation, on the part of the leadership, to the backward prejudices of the white workers? How many times does this experience have to be repeated? Apparently an infinite number until we learn the lesson.

By the way, the upshot of the organizing campaign was that the group didn't succeed in. fooling any white workers; they still considered it a Black power group and kept it at arm's length. But it did succeed in cooling the enthusiasm of the Black workers who were its initial base.

Was there an alternative course that could have been followed in the particular situation? I think there was.

NOTHING LESS THAN A TOTAL CHANGE

The alternative would have been to encourage the group along its original lines, determined to fight consistently against white Supremacy regardless of what came up or came down — to develop the group as the core of a fighting movement in the plant that carried out struggles on the shop floor around all issues of concern to its members, including the issue of racial discrimination.

It's probably true that such a group could not have been a majority movement at the beginning, or perhaps even for a considerable length of time. Most likely, as the group pushed firmly against racial discrimination it would alienate some white workers who could have been won to it otherwise. That's a choice that has to be made. The group in the plant made the wrong choice.

I think that a group such as I describe, made up perhaps in the beginning almost entirely of Black workers, could have developed as a center of struggle in the plant, and a center of opposition to the company and the rotten union. As time went on, it could have attracted to itself white workers who were so fed up with their situation that they were looking for radical solutions — and would even identify with a "Black radical" outfit, so long as it seemed to offer a way out of the mess they were in. The very things which would make such a group repulsive to some workers would make it attractive to that increasing number of workers, Black as well as white, who are coming to sense that nothing less than a total change is worth fighting for.

The course I advocate offers great difficulties — no doubt about it. It is likely that the repression directed against a radical group that relentlessly fought racial discrimination would be greater than against a more moderate group. It is possible that a group such as I describe could never have gained admittance into the UE. I freely concede all the difficulties. But then, who ever said that making a revolution was easy?

As for the alternative, the course that was actually followed, we know all too well where that leads.

The parallels here are fairly obvious and it should be pointed out that a street movement that specifically started out of a call for racial justice is not the same as a labor union. But the threat of co-option remains more or less the same. Would discarding “white protester, black protester,” and refocusing the fight away from George Floyd and onto, say, capitalism, crowd out black voices? Would it be a form of “All Lives Matter?”

There are some decent arguments for why a broader focused movement that did not separate out white and black protesters might yield a better result than, say, fifty years ago, when the anti-War movement on college campuses became so dominated by the concerns of white men that minority groups and women had to go out and start their own organizations. White people in today’s protest spaces seem much more deferential than they might have in the past — some combination of true belief and fear of shaming compels most of them to listen to the Black voices. The leaderless nature of these movements means that nobody really has to come to the forefront anyway, which means there’s less risk of what Mayor Durkan called “co-option” because one charismatic voice can’t lead everyone to compromise.

But there’s a better argument to be made that what Ignatiev described might actually be happening right now in the streets of America. We can argue, I believe, that certain relics like “white ally,” discussions of “privilege,” and the sort of “seat at the rich table” identity politics that plagues the media, in particular, should be set aside, as should the self-flagellating cringe of upwardly mobile “people of color” who examine their own space in the movement. (Small parting shot: No group seems to be more concerned about the ‘white looter/black protester’ question than “seat at the rich table” professional Asian-Americans.)

I’m not sure of any of these concerns really matter within the context of the larger movement. Last week, while standing around waiting for a march to start at a high school in Oakland, I asked a friend what he thought about all the “black protester/white protester” discussions. We were surrounded by thousands of teenagers, many of whom were white. After some back and forth, my friend said that these kids had done everything we had asked them to do. At a moment when the police had murdered a black man, they had shown up to the march. They were trying their best to defeat white supremacy and anti-blackness. If they did not fully grasp what those terms meant or their complicity, they might have very well been woken up when the Oakland Police Department shut down the march that night by arresting dozens of protesters. If you believe, as Igantiev, inspired by CLR James did, in the spontaneous, self-organized revolution that can take place when white people cast off their whiteness, then you don’t need to constantly remind white protesters that they are white, but you should also trust that these kids, who have now seen their friends tear-gassed in peaceful protests, might not exactly care what column they fill in the heavy, dull ledgers of the Riot Santas.

Some links for this week!

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Black Worker, White Worker by NOEL IGNATIEV

WESLEY MORRIS on the Videos that Rocked America

Hard Crackers, the journal Ignatiev started with his radical friends.

“Why I’m Still Thinking About the Amy Cooper ‘Black Birder’ Episode” a powerful meditation by TOURÉ F. REED