In recent weeks, Mayor Bill de Blasio has frequently appealed to moderate sentiments of the situation surrounding policing in the City seeking to drive a wedge between various organizations involved in the movement. In mid-January, the Mayor publicly condemned the roles People’s Power Assemblies and Occu-Evolve played in New York’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. He told reporters these groups had a long history of letting their members say reprehensible things about the NYPD. As de Blasio explained, “They may have a constitutional right to chant their chants, but they’re wrong, and they’re denigrating any notion of calling for reform.” This came as a clear shock to many activists who have marched under the banners of People’s Power Assemblies for the past two months. As one of the major organizations involved with organizing many of the movement’s actions, PPA leaders interpreted this as an attack.
Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio has been regularly meeting with organizers from the Justice League NYC since mid-December. Rumors swirled among different activist groups who feared de Blasio allegedly advised the Justice League to inform on protestors who the City deemed “troublemakers.” The debates on social media failed to adequately confirm this claim but its ramifications are stark.
For example, during the demonstrations in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day the Justice League and People’s Power Assemblies held two separate marches within the same time frame effectively forcing activists to choose which group they wished to demonstrate with that day. While both crowds were diverse in both identity and opinions, the Justice League march was heavily pacified while the PPA march attracted a wider variety of radical influences yet focused around victims’ families and system change. The mainstream media had photos and video of both marches but failed to distinguish the nuanced differences in their reports.
The Token Liaison
This episode demonstrates the divide and conquer techniques used by the state to diminish and eventually crush the budding protest movement.This tactic has been employed against social movements since the dawn of colonization. The goal has always been to recognize and isolate a moderate faction from protest movements and grant this faction privileges by allowing them a seat at the table of power to form a list of piecemeal reforms. The moderate demonstrators thus become the ‘legitimate’ representative of the entire movement in the eyes of the state and only those who recognize their leadership are considered ‘legitimate’ protestors. In recent years, the historical imagination of Martin Luther King, Jr. combined with the soundbite culture of the 21st century has led to many activists to create a legitimacy dichotomy regarding protest tactics.
In the larger Black Lives Matter movement, this role is filled by former FBI informant Al Sharpton. Sharpton serves as the personal liaison between the Obama Administration and the black community, a role many in that community reject. His organization National Action Network has been busy coordinating in cities across the United States to direct protestors outrage back into the system through canvassing and electing Democratic politicians to office. Sharpton has personally denounced the rioting in Ferguson and the East Bay and consistently snubbed the leadership of young activists in the movement. Al Sharpton’s role is to pacify the movement to keep a black power faction from gaining significant influence. Sinisterly, all of this is done through the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Era.
Similarly, the city of New York seeks to criminalize protestors by granting the Justice League legitimacy. Through the Mayor’s eyes, only the Justice League has the authority to organize protests and their demands are the only grievances worth addressing. The extent to which activists believe and work within this dichotomy is what inevitably results in schism.
The Violence Behind Respectability Politics
American liberalism has always enjoyed a comfortable seat at the table of power through its representation as a balancing force between extremes. As Noam Chomsky points out, liberalism historically embodies the political center, not the Left, with liberal politicians supporting incremental reform to appease the masses while keeping the oppressive social structures in place. Much of how liberals react to outbursts of radical democracy revolves around claiming a hegemony on legitimacy. Monopolizing legitimacy requires liberals to play political games by appealing to wide masses of people as to not alienate the elite or members of privileged classes. A good statesman is one that gets the most respect from the elite.
Respectability, like legitimacy, is determined by those whose power it helps uphold. To the privileged, respect means obeying authority, remaining passive, and exercising power through state channels even if those channels ultimately dilute and redirect passionate energy. The systematic killing of black and brown people is noticeably not seen as a breach of respect. In recent years, this mentality has become cemented within the liberal psyche, with its advocates preaching that young activists must not rock the boat lest they anger those in power who could actually provide them with structural support. It never dawns on these self-appointed leaders that these young activists may not be trying to appeal to those in power at all, but rather claiming power through self-determination.
A Rhetorical Dilemma
When Mayor de Blasio called out the members of People’s Power Assemblies for their ‘abhorrent rhetoric’ he was contrasting these populist chants with what he views as ‘appropriate rhetoric.’ Among the PPA language that disturbed de Blasio were blanket condemnations of the police as racist, critiques and rejection of the prison-industrial complex and chants comparing the NYPD to the KKK. Yet, it is with these slogans that activists can raise the conscious of the movement to create a more nuanced and holistic critique of policing, how it feeds mass incarceration and the historical implications of white supremacy. Instead, De Blasio and his allies champion dialogue that does not indict America for its dark history but rather reaffirms America’s commitment to upholding justice for all its citizens.
The chant “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” itself represents an internalization of defenselessness. It promotes passivity among protestors by asking for power from an incredibly powerless position. Contrast this with the slogan “Fist Up, Fight Back” which is focused on exercising power through self-determination. These chants do not demand justice from a system but seek to empower those who have been oppressed by that system. Words like these scare the liberal establishment because they essentially reject the theory of rights. If justice doesn’t exist, then the only true measure of morality is through power. Who has the power but the ones who represent the bottom of the pyramid. Without them the pyramid collapses.
De Blasio and his allies would much rather see activists tone down such divisive messages by calling for specific policy demands. Ending the War on Drugs is not considered a specific demand. Liberals want the focus to be on the implementation of personal body cameras within police departments, the creation of court-appointed civilian review boards, and the fostering of relationships through the widely ambiguous practice of community policing.
Pacifism Doesn’t Exist in an Era of Eternal Violence
The legitimacy of violence is another social trend that changes meaning depending on the agent who is committing such an act. Liberal activist leaders and their allies in the Democratic Party repeatedly seek to divide protestors through this false dichotomy. For example, Al Sharpton consistently reminds younger activists that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” while invoking the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. and subsequently taking the late organizer’s quotes out of context to justify his condemnation of those he disagrees with.
Remember, it was Al Sharpton, Representative John Lewis, and President Obama who condemned the rioting in Ferguson, Missouri despite that without the bold actions undertaken by those activists, the shooting of Michael Brown would never have reached mainstream attention. All the time, those in positions of power deride activists who utilize a diversity of tactics as nihilistic hooligans whose property destruction seeks to “hijack” the movement. Yet, these same leaders have been silent for years while the state apparatus they represent continues to destroy black lives uninterrupted. In all public statements by Obama and Sharpton, property rights are valued over life.
The night Darren Wilson was cleared, President Obama began his statements to the public reminding Americans that “we are a nation built on the rule of law” denouncing the expected fallout that was to come. He then made a mediocre appeal to the protestors but emphasized that any protest’s legitimacy rests on its commitment not to destroy property or disrespect law enforcement officers. The disturbing irony of the first black president affirming the side of the police over black protestors demonstrates the deep entrenchment of white supremacy within the political-economic power structure. This narrative is meant to disempower those who seek to confront these systems by reaffirming that only those employed through the generosity of the state have a monopoly on the use of violence.
Over the course of the entire Black Lives Matter movement, including the trigger with Ferguson in August 2014, the level of violence actually exhibited at demonstrations has been minimal. Even if we include the killings of two officers in New York, one in Florida, and a handful of injuries throughout the protests, no more than 15 police officers were subjected to violence. Compare that to the countless deaths at the hands of the police and the violence coming out of this conflict seems to be disproportionally affecting communities of color. When liberal leaders use the rhetoric of nonviolence it is always done to mask the inherent violence embedded within the socioeconomic system.
So while Sharpton, Obama and de Blasio decry the violence of the protestors, they legitimize the violence of the state. Let’s talk about gentrification, how policies implemented in police departments and housing development associations have led to a virtual genocide against poor people of color and contributed to creation of mass incarceral prison state which holds one in thirty-five adults. Let’s talk about how these policies turned Times Square from a Red Light district into a consumerist tourist trap or how more people have been deported under the Obama administration than any other administration in the past 25 years. Let’s talk about the creation of “free speech zones” and the brutal mass arrest of protestors. Let’s discuss the $350 billion security and surveillance industry that lets the NSA collect bulk data on American citizens, militarizes customs checkpoints, and created a financial market for security forces through asset forfeiture, immigration detention, and for-profit prisons.
Maybe we should also acknowledge the rampant torture abuses undertaken not just in CIA black sites but also domestic detention centers like in California and Chicago. Let’s talk about US foreign policy and how the current drone assassination program is the deadliest terrorist campaign in human history. Hitler and Pinochet could only have dreamed of the type of security apparatus the United States currently uses to conduct targeted killings across the globe. Just by looking at the policies and how they’ve been implemented throughout history, it remains pretty clear that the American state has been very explicit in conducting violence both domestically and abroad. This is why Obama’s demeanor toward the Black Lives Matter protests is so disrespectful. When he said, “Nobody needs good policing more than poor communities with higher crime rates,” this was pretty much an affirmation of broken windows policing and the continuation of the national urban gentrification project.
When activists debate tactics concerning nonviolence its important to understand to what extent these actions will be used to interrupt the violence already in progress. Remember this next time a riot breaks out in an occupied neighborhood.
The greatest trick the white liberals of the Civil Rights Era pulled was convincing the nation that white supremacy was defeated. With the election of Barack Obama as President of this empire, pundits and allies quickly began to circulate the “post-racial America” myth throughout the media echo chamber. Naively, many progressives and radicals assumed that with this glass ceiling shattered a new era of sweeping changes would lift the masses out of poverty and the wars oversees would abruptly end. A core antiwar group, United for Peace and Justice, closed its doors on January 20th, 2009 as Obama took office.
Why did the growing democracy movement from the anti-Bush years dissipate so fast? Well, masses of people put their faith in a symbolic mascot for the status quo. As President, Obama’s role was to set the limits as to how far progressive reform would be allowed to go. Incremental adjustments would be made as long as the privileges of the financial class were secured. Change never comes from the top, history shows that its quite the opposite.
The role of the black elite within the business community is to toe this same line. Oprah initially expressed support for the current movement but criticized it for its lack of leadership and goals. Oprah, as the sole black American billionaire, clearly identifies closely with this system of privilege. The brand she peddles with her show, television channel and image is the rugged self-reliance myth that if one just works hard enough, they will eventually achieve success and wealth. She has criticized the black community’s “culture of poverty” and fails to understand the nuances of economic oppression resulting from the very system that she derives her privilege. Oprah will fund the building of a school in South Africa but invests very little of her wealth in the impoverished communities in her own country. Members of the black business class carefully craft their language in voicing support for this movement focusing on individual achievements through representative diversity over the more inclusive and liberating aspects of participatory diversity. This current movement emphasizes community, workplace and tenant organizing seeking to confront the roots of systemic racism present within the prison-industrial structure. Many activists do in fact see this as an economic anti-colonial struggle against gentrification. That stance definitively places this movement’s goals in opposition to Oprah and the wider business community.
Frighteningly, the movements and institutions left over from the Civil Rights Era today have become institutionalized within the liberal fail-safe mechanism of the Democratic Party. What were once coordinated mass displays of civil disobedience now take the role of demonstrations led by non-profits and professional activists. Marches are now permitted along a set route established beforehand by protest organizers in cooperation with police. ‘Protest Marshals’ are present to ensure all activists remain within the confines of the march as well as isolate and pacify any whose rhetoric seems divisive or presents an attitude outside their definition of nonviolent. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network is in the business of co-optation ensuring that any popular democratic protests are funneled toward existing power institutions. The older generation of civil rights leaders was always skeptical of black power and even began to abandoned Martin Luther King Jr. after he sought alliances with anticapitalist and antiwar movements. For these moderate leaders, they believe appealing to the white power structure is the best course of action for the black civil rights movement to take. They believe liberty can only be recognized by those who wield power rather than those who reclaim it through self-determination. Al Sharpton and the current religious leadership are afraid of any social movement that channels its energy outside the confines of electoral politics. This is the rift we are beginning to see develop as Sharpton lashes out at younger activists struggling to maintain dominance over the diverse movement. If he fails to direct this movement into the appropriate political structures, then Black Lives Matter has the potential to seriously challenge white supremacy at its deepest levels.
The old Civil Rights institutions have been offered a privileged status among the white establishment. While not directly integrated into the system, they are allowed to challenge racist elements of American society as long as this is done through the legal process and they actively discredit and dismantle those seeking more radical solutions. Liberal institutions, by design, focus on individual empowerment rather than collective salvation. If one feels their rights have been violated they can seek justice by challenging these violations in the courts. The Civil Rights legislation enables individual plaintiffs to reclaim their rights. The Civil Rights Movement only succeeded in providing legal equality but failed in its second phase to assure economic equality among the black community.
Martin Luther King Jr. and the black power movement that rose to prominence after his death maintained that true liberation could only be achieved through economic means. It means nothing to be able to sit at a lunch counter when one can’t afford to buy the sandwiches on the menu. The long term goal of the black power movement was to develop class consciousness among the black community, to link their ancestral heritage to solidarity framework of working class struggles. As the Black Panthers consistently preached, the role of racism and slavery ultimately revolved around labor and it became popularly understood within these circles that in America, capitalism could not exist without white supremacy. This is about life and death. Such a serious situation requires the use of everything in the toolbox and to call out the empire for what it is. Disrespecting white supremacy means respecting communities of color.