Six in the morn’, fire in the street / Burn, baby, burn… that’s all I wanna see / And sometimes I get off watchin’ you die in vain / It’s such a shame, they may call me crazy / They may say I suffer from schizophrenia or somethin’ / But homie, you made me…
— Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”
As night fell over Missouri on November 24, 2014, the streets of Ferguson erupted in protest and then riot. The occasion was the announcement that Darren Wilson, a white officer in the Ferguson police department, would face no criminal charges for killing Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, the preceding August. Bob McCulloch, St. Louis County’s prosecuting attorney, delivered the news in a performance notable both for its condescension and its violation of the canonical norms governing the relationship between prosecutors and grand juries. Shortly thereafter, the perpetually flammable contents of moral outrage and civic distrust, accumulated resentment and plain human grief ignited the violent conflagration that nearly all, it seemed, had come to expect in the saga of Michael Brown.
As Prime Beauty Supply and Hunan Chop Suey burned through the night, a small Midwestern town took its improbable place alongside Watts, Newark, Detroit and South Central Los Angeles in the annals of urban unrest that form an especially contentious chapter in the history of race and class division in America. Meanwhile, several hundred miles away, the first African-American president stood wearily behind a podium adorned with the seal of his office. The cable networks, faced with the choice of broadcasting Barack Obama’s remarks or the unfolding riot in Missouri, decided instead to display them simultaneously. No picture better captured the dialectic between expectation and frustration, hope and nihilism that characterizes black political life today.
The president, bearing a visage troubled by reluctance, exhaustion, or both, began his remarks by counseling that, though we may be disappointed, we must remember “we are a nation built on the rule of law.” No harm, therefore, must come to person or property in dissent. This responsibility suitably discharged, the president pleaded for peace and understanding, reminding us of the mutual goodwill he has made a career of insisting lies beneath the Sturm und Drang of racial recrimination. But as Obama spoke, uncomfortably posed alongside the burning remnants of police cruisers on television, it was difficult to surmise what work he thought those words might perform that evening.
This is not to deny that there remains, even now, totemic force in the combination of the presidential seal and a black body. This is particularly true for the descendants of American slaves, far too many of whom had been led, by an interminable diet of “not in my lifetime” prognostications, to settle on Bill Clinton as a provisional standard-bearer for the race. But the insurgence of les damnés de la terre into the familiar ritual of power that evening was unmistakably jarring and undeniably diminishing. The ordeal evinced a cruel irony: the prophet of racial reconciliation was invoking the sanctity of the rule of law to no effect on white impunity and with no authority against black impudence.
How could it be otherwise? Since August, this municipal regime had deployed the hand-me-down war materiel of the military-industrial complex to defend itself against its own citizenry. These efforts were met not with capitulation but with entrenched resolve. Ferguson witnessed daily youth-led demonstrations, often punctuated by rapper Boosie Badazz’s “Fuck the Police”—the unofficial anthem of their dissent.
Although Brown’s slaying—followed by the Sophoclean indignity of his corpse lying in the street for over four hours—was the immediate impetus to mass protest, relations between the city government and its residents had long taken on a near-colonial character. According to the U.S. Justice Department, each year Ferguson expects to produce a significant and growing portion of its budget (23 percent in the pre-uprising fiscal plan for 2015) from the aggressive pursuit of municipal fines and fees. The scale of the enterprise and its concentrated focus on African-Americans led the Justice Department to declare that the city viewed its residents “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.” While many in the news media focused on the report’s documentation of racist “humor” in official emails, the notion that individual prejudice is solely responsible for the situation in Ferguson is a profound error.
“Ferguson,” Cornel West declared in the wake of the November unrest, “signifies the end of the Age of Obama.” This, at least from the vantage point of African-American politics, appears appropriate. Though not many wanted to say it at the time, a notable chill fell over progressive and radical black politics from 2007 until roughly 2012, the year of Trayvon Martin’s slaying. This deep freeze stemmed from strategic concerns about Obama’s reelection prospects and political standing, genuine outrage at the intransigence and hostility he has faced from some Republicans, broadly shared affective investments in his and his family’s symbolic import, and an optimism born of the improbable fact of his electoral success.
The Ferguson eruption and the movement that arose in its aftermath are only the most spectacular evidence that these factors appear to be less constraining on African-American politics than at any time since Obama’s ascendancy. For a rising number of African-Americans and their racially egalitarian allies, the reactions to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—and the non-indictments of those responsible—dramatized the need for another path. That the protestors in Ferguson were met with such an enthusiastic and imitative response across the country signals the thawing out of the black protest tradition and a rejection of more conciliatory and consensus-oriented conceptions of black politics. Once again, extraordinary effort is being devoted to building militant, independent social movements with organized African-American participation, capable of transcending the limits of conventional electoral politics and effectively channeling black rage and resentment.
We so elated, we celebrated like Obama waited / until his last day in office to tell the nation / brothers is getting their reparations, hey— / A man can dream can’t he? / No disrespect, in terms of change I haven’t seen any / Maybe he had good intentions but was stifled by the system / And was sad to learn that he actually couldn’t bring any…
— J. Cole, “Be Free (Live)”
Unlike the groundswell around the first Obama campaign, the activist energies of our moment have coalesced under a capacious sign—“Black Lives Matter”—rather than a specific organization, program or leader. Indeed, the disparate efforts might best be described as sharing a determination to defect from the vision of racial justice and reconciliation articulated by our 44th president. As prominent figures within Black Lives Matter activism, like Alicia Garza, decry black poverty, mass incarceration and police violence as forms of “state violence” that leave African-Americans “deprived of our basic human rights and dignity,” it is remarkable to remember that just seven years ago the most vital forms of black political participation were geared toward the election of a man who famously proclaimed: “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
Beneath the president’s stubbornly optimistic rhetoric on race is a political theory that betrays cold realism. The American polity is starkly polarized, particularly on issues that appear to call for the reconfiguration of public goods or practices in response to African-American claims of injustice. Social psychologists, for example, find that presenting white Americans with data that shows racial disparity in incarceration or death penalty sentencing, even in ways that suggest these disparities may be partly unfair, tends to increase support for more punitive policies. These findings give rise to a suspicion, which the Obama administration has fashioned into a principle of governance, that criticism of racialized inequality or injustice is only likely to embolden and intensify opposition, and thus, as practical politics, is self-defeating. Consequently, the president traditionally avoids emphasizing the amelioration of racial injustice or deep poverty, focusing instead on the “universal” impact of social policies and foregrounding technocratic problem-solving, pragmatic compromise, efficiency and cost-effectiveness. In addition, the administration pursues policies that elide public justification altogether, seeking to advance racial equality through the arcane labyrinths of the executive branch (e.g. the Justice Department, the Department of Agriculture, etc.) where they are less likely to generate scrutiny. Both approaches reflect a judgment that “results,” defined as comparatively immediate improvements in the life chances of African-Americans, are more important than an ethical commitment to transparency or the practice of public reason.
There are two major exceptions to this approach, both of which in their own way confirm the rule. The first are those efforts, like My Brother’s Keeper and the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which can be framed palatably because they promote equality of opportunity by repairing social capital deficits among blacks through education, job preparation and cultural socialization. The second are those occasions where Obama feels obliged to comment on potentially explosive racial incidents. There, his default instinct seems to be to immediately personalize the issue. In discussing his own experiences with racial profiling, or in proclaiming, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama has attempted to reassure black supporters while also using the symbolic power of the presidency to displace the stigmas that frustrate interracial sympathy.
This symbolic power is not easily dismissed, and its integrity has been a core concern of black politics in the Obama era. For many African-Americans, 2008 enlarged the political imagination and emboldened expectations. The massive increase in black voter turnout and participation is a powerful reminder of the emotional, aesthetic and moral force of democracy. At its best, democratic life offers the chance—a rare one in the history of the human species—to see ourselves as co-authors of a society where we can feel at home. As was perhaps inevitable, however, these raised expectations soon crashed headlong into the enduring realities of American civilization. These include not only racial and economic inequality and the limits of executive authority, but also the power of capital to bend government to its ends, the tragic entanglements of the American military and national-security state at home and abroad, and a cultivated disregard for the equal value and significance of non-white lives that has helped to build, among other horrors, the largest carceral system in the history of the world.
If Ferguson is indeed where we will come to mark the eclipse of the Age of Obama, it is in large part because the crisis exhibited to a stunning degree both the deep interpenetration of these factors and the limited ability of this presidential administration, or perhaps any administration, to lead the confrontation against them. There remains hope there, perhaps, but not of the audacious sort.
It would not be accurate to say that the direct actionists speak for all Negroes under all circumstances. It is fair to say that their philosophy is ascendant, that their influence is becoming pervasive and that their voices are heard with increasing respect and diminishing dissent in Negro communities. Those voices are harsh and strident, and jarring to the liberal ear.
— Loren Miller, “Farewell to Liberals” (1962)
Those who persist in search of that elusive quality of audacity, however, seem to have rediscovered it in the ecstatic experience of resistance in Ferguson. While the death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, in 2013 gave rise to some of the most significant protest organizations of the moment (e.g. the Dream Defenders), as well as the original use of #BlackLivesMatter as a social-media hashtag, it was the crisis in St. Louis County that ignited political organizing, direct-action demonstrations and identification with the rhetorical cry of “Black Lives Matter” nationwide. In the latter half of 2014, Ferguson became a hotbed of political exchange and collaboration, with professional activists traveling in from all over the nation for events like the August “Freedom Ride” and the dramatic Columbus Day weekend of protests known as “Ferguson October.” These efforts were led, in many respects, not by familiar charismatic male religious figures, but by women, labor organizers, local community members and queer-identified activists. In addition to the media coverage these actions generated, the vibrant digital public sphere known as “Black Twitter” amplified their impact far beyond Missouri—reflecting both an evolving terrain of organizing as well as the innovative and idiosyncratic efforts of new media citizen-journalists like DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elzie, publishers of the online newsletter This Is the Movement.
Intellectually, the disparate efforts unfolding across the country under the banner of Black Lives Matter share two unifying commitments, both of which entail ethical and political rejection of the accommodations counseled by the Obama administration and its civil rights allies. The first entails foregrounding white supremacy and state violence as categories of critique and analysis in opposition to “racism” and “discrimination.” The second is to unapologetic blackness.
“Racism,” at least in everyday discourse, tends to refer either to discriminatory acts and intentions or to prejudicial beliefs. The vocabulary of white supremacy and state violence, however, seeks instead to emphasize forms of racial degradation, domination and disadvantage that are not reducible to individual intent or episodic acts. The focus is instead on the systematic and cumulative character of racial hierarchy, and on the barriers it erects to human flourishing. In a recent essay, for example, Garza describes black poverty, mass incarceration, welfare and education policy, immigration policy and the “unique burden” of “black queer and trans folks … in a hetero-patriarchal society,” among other social problems, all as forms of state violence.
Although these terms perform corrective work in drawing attention to the coercive quality of slow-moving social threats, like residential segregation and lead-paint exposure, such invocations of “state violence” risk obscuring forms of disadvantage that do not have origins only in the actions of government agents or institutions, or so inflating the concepts of “state” and “violence” as to obscure more precise and persuasive analyses of racial injustice. But perhaps this sacrifice of analytical clarity is in the service of a more important moral claim, which we would do well to confront forthrightly. The claim, quite radical in its implications, is that a government’s failure to protect its members’ civil liberties, the social bases of their dignity and their material security from the unjust distribution of social burdens simply is a form of injury morally equivalent to arbitrary violence—and must be resisted accordingly.
The second commitment, to what I call “unapologetic blackness,” is an axiomatic rejection of political, sociological or moral “post-racialism.” It insists that race is indispensable for explaining the origins and reproduction of social inequality and injustice in America. Further, it endorses the idea that black political solidarity—especially within broader coalitions—is empowering and expansive, rather than divisive, distracting or morally objectionable. This solidarity is defended as an indispensable element of an emancipatory politics capable not only of confronting the unique challenges facing African-Americans, but also of illuminating the ways that “racial” injustice is inextricably intertwined with other forms of injustice. As Garza writes, “#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important—it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. … When Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide reaching and transformative for society as a whole.”
These positions undoubtedly echo important strands of thinking from the Black Power era, which also emerged, (in)famously, in the wake of urban rioting. Prominent figures and organizations within the current movement, including Garza, the St. Louis rapper-activist Tef Poe, Ashley Yates of Millennial Activists United and Phillip Agnew of Dream Defenders, often gesture toward Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Assata Shakur and other black radical icons of the mid-1960s. A joint list of demands from the groups Hands Up United and Black Lives Matter quotes almost verbatim from the 1966 Black Panther Party Platform in calling for, among other things, “full employment of our people,” “decent housing fit for shelter of human beings” and an “immediate end to police brutality and murder of black, brown and all oppressed people.”
Such rhetorical echoes of 1960s-era African-American social movements, alongside activists’ insistence, following Michelle Alexander, that present-day carceral and police practices amount to the “new Jim Crow,” have prompted comparisons between #BlackLivesMatter and the civil rights movement. Many of these comparisons have been unfavorable. The economist Glenn Loury, for example, has argued that unlike the struggle against Jim Crow segregation, there is now no clear law to oppose, and no existing “legislative agenda activists can point to as a plausible remedy for the conditions we all lament.” Worse yet, Loury criticizes activists for treating as “issues of race” what are really “structural problems—too few jobs, concentrated poverty, failing schools,” and therefore not the proper target of a “black movement.”
In making this comparison, critics like Loury project a streamlined coherence backward onto the aims of civil rights activists that was in fact, where achieved, the hard-earned work of theory and praxis or, more tragically, an unintended result of their more radical demands being ignored and written out of history. In “Organizing Manual No. 2,” the pamphlet written largely by Bayard Rustin summarizing the goals and strategy of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the focus is precisely on those structural problems that Loury describes as outside the bounds of “traditional” civil rights or “black movement” concerns. Rustin writes of “the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation,” which “rob all people … of dignity, self-respect, and freedom.” They “impose a special burden on the Negro,” however, who is “denied the right to vote, economically exploited, refused access to public accommodations, subjected to inferior education, and relegated to substandard ghetto housing.” To combat these problems, march leaders demanded not just anti-discrimination laws, but also “a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—Negro and white—on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages,” as well as a national minimum-wage act. Today’s activists, many of whom have backgrounds in organized labor, are similarly aware of “root causes,” and are once again forging alliances with minimum-wage campaigns like the nationwide Fight for $15 demonstrations.
It is similarly anachronistic to imply, as Loury does, that it was always clear during the civil rights protests who bore the “responsibility for changing the law,” or that “the moral conviction at stake” was never in doubt. In fact, in the Fifties and early Sixties, the question of responsibility was precisely the issue; civil rights protesters not only challenged the constitutionality of state-mandated segregation statutes but forced a constitutional crisis over the unsettled question of whether privately owned enterprises, including restaurants, theaters and private holding companies operating mass transit, were legally obligated to refrain from customs of racial discrimination and segregation if the state did not explicitly forbid them. To confront the latter principle, as activists compelled the nation to do, was hardly to follow an existing map of legal responsibilities and duties; it entailed bringing a tremendous array of the everyday operations of American consumer society into our fundamental understanding of the meaning of equal citizenship.
Of course, this is not the only terrain on which critics judge Black Lives Matter to be deficient in comparison with its civil rights predecessors. In notable contrast to the enduring image of the heroic activist and “respectable” citizen Rosa Parks peacefully submitting to unjust arrest in Montgomery, many of the victims of police violence ritually invoked by current protests have criminal records, attempted to flee or resist arrest and were alienated from politics. Given how Michael Brown died—as a suspect in a robbery, and likely in a mutually aggressive interaction with an officer—even sympathetic commentators have called into question, as Loury writes, “whether his case can be a viable focal point for change within the limits of ordinary politics [or] whether protests resulting from Brown’s death can lead to real improvement in the quality of American democracy.” John McWhorter likewise relayed his fear that “the facts on this specific incident are too knotted to coax a critical mass of America into seeing a civil rights icon in Brown and an institutionally racist devil in Wilson.”
McWhorter may be right, of course, but what of it? The FPD, like departments in Baltimore, Chicago, New York and elsewhere, has a record of excessive force and other unconstitutional practices that fall disproportionately on African-Americans. Meanwhile, familiar stories of black deviance and statistics demonstrating the level of community violence function as default explanations—not just for any specific dispensation of violence, but for why no explanation should be needed in the first place. At its sparest, Black Lives Matter is a reaction against this kind of partitioning in American democracy. It seeks to expose the contempt and resentment with which far too many public officials and fellow citizens treat the idea that the basic structure of society, and especially law enforcement, should be accountable to the assent of African-Americans. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” may indeed be a lie, but this deception does not make the Ferguson police truthful, nor does it make Michael Brown’s death legitimate.
The movement aspires to nourish forms of sympathy and solidarity even with those members of society that may be, at present, our most violent, with the understanding that they often began life among the most vulnerable. Loury is right that no attempt to shoehorn these efforts into “ordinary politics” will produce the kind of “real improvement” in American democracy that would reach the next Michael Brown. Ordinary politics treats these deadly encounters between citizens and police as causal inevitabilities—high crime begets intensive policing, which brings unfortunate tragedies. But why stop there? What we need is an extraordinary politics informed by ordinary lives, one capable of provoking, and responsibly guiding, a process of civic reflection in a moment of moral crisis.
Clock ticking backwards on things we’ve already built / Sons and fathers die, soldiers, daughters killed / Question ain’t “do we have the resources to rebuild?” / It’s “do we have the will?” / Perilous dissidence evening up the score / Do we even know what we’re fighting for?
— D’Angelo, “Till It’s Done (Tutu)”
That some comparisons between the civil rights era and our current moment may be judged invidious does not mean that today’s activists have nothing to learn from exemplary moments of black political struggle. Unfortunately, the prevailing narratives often obscure the philosophical complexity of the civil rights and Black Power movements, especially as it relates to their staging of protests, direct-action demonstrations and other public, performative gestures. In my own work in political theory, I argue that when serious attention is paid to the way African-Americans have wrestled with questions of when, how and why to protest, the ethical, political, affective and aesthetic dimensions of these choices come to the fore. Above all, one sees how the demands and dramaturgy of the most powerful protests of the era managed to be at least three things at once: provocative, pedagogical and political.
Those who celebrate the demonstrations of the civil rights era often fail to ask why such images were so provocative to the public. Why did they disrupt everyday routine and arrest public attention? It is not simply that the orderly procession of stoically marching black bodies singing spirituals was inherently moving. The force of these demonstrations involved the powerful merging of black prophetic Christianity’s spiritual fervor with left-liberal politics, as well as the powerful contrast between the evident dignity and discipline needed to mount such spectacles and widely held stereotypes of black incompetence and cowardice. Further, the omnipresent threat of violence was of undeniable importance to the movement’s success in provocation.
This latter point is crucial. It is well known that Martin Luther King and other activists deliberately provoked violent repression to expose the state-sanctioned terror upholding segregation. But their efforts often inadvertently contributed to black violence as well—most significantly in Birmingham, Alabama. In the wake of King’s home being bombed, thousands of blacks rioted, leading to the death of a policeman and a frantic request for both National Guard troops and civil rights legislation by the White House. Months later, fear that the now-sacrosanct March on Washington would explode into violence led the city to close schools, ban alcohol sales and cancel the Washington Senators’ baseball games. Residents and shop owners fled the city, while the federal government placed nearly twenty thousand troops on standby. The same fascination with violence that directs attention to Ferguson or Baltimore today was at work then. As the historian Timothy Tyson writes, “one of the enduring ironies of the civil rights movement [is] that the threat of violence was so critical to the success of nonviolence.”
Not all provocations are created equal, however. The most effective were those that also employed what might be called a moral and civic pedagogy. In the Jim Crow South, for example, the array of legal techniques, bureaucratic justifications and forms of extralegal violence used to prevent blacks from casting ballots was purposely disparate and deceptive. Lyndon Johnson, in his 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech, described the myriad obstacles to black voting as representing “every device of which human ingenuity is capable.” In retrospect, what is remarkable about the voting rights struggle is that civil rights activists were able to communicate their claims in such a way that the phrase “voting rights” could be recognized to refer to a set of coherent and intelligible demands at all—a point brilliantly dramatized in Ava DuVernay’s film Selma (2014). If illegibility is often characteristic of injustice, part of what protest must entail is the disclosure of things otherwise unseen. As regarded voting rights, this was achieved through theatrical demonstrations designed to render the systematic nature of these “ingenious” obstacles more visible, trenchant criticism of the illegitimacy of these practices, and persuasive portrayals of the radical democratic vision of near-universal suffrage.
Only once the particular nature of a problem is made legible, and visions of how to resolve it brought into view, can the political function of protest be fully realized. I do not mean by this that protest must press immediate, clearly defined legislative demands—although it can, and it is often quite useful to do so. The suggestion is rather that effective protest must find some way to integrate its demands into a broader political vision that either helps orient one’s judgment about justification and strategy or paints a compelling portrait of an alternative social order. With King, for example, nonviolent direct action was not just a theological commitment or a pragmatic concession. King believed the strategy would be effective because it “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding,” leaving open the possibility for “redemption and reconciliation” within a political community. To do otherwise, even where it might win short-term victories, might undermine the higher aims of political struggle altogether.
The lunch-counter sit-ins of the early 1960s can be seen as having achieved a remarkable synthesis of these three dimensions. Their provocation consisted in the spectacle of black students, clothed in the accoutrements of respectability, disrupting the settled habits of everyday life. The sit-in activists demanded acknowledgment, challenged the boundaries of the political and undermined expectations of both black acquiescence and black violence.
Their pedagogy was similarly effective. We tend to remember Jim Crow as a practice of total exclusion, and the most prominent images of the era, like “whites-only” water fountains and schools, reinforce the idea that “separation” was at the heart of discrimination. But Jim Crow capitalism was in fact sustained by a complex admixture of commitments, often in tension, to the imperatives of profit, the obligations of law and the mores of white supremacy. The metaphor of “exclusion” can obscure this complexity, and we might easily lose sight of how a great many businesses navigated this terrain, incorporating ritual humiliation and exploitation into everyday consumption. Thus, at this Woolworth’s, Negroes may freely purchase school supplies at the store counter, but they may not purchase and consume food at the dining counter. At this restaurant, Negroes may order food, but they must be served in the back. At this department store, Negroes may purchase clothing, but they may not try items on before they purchase them. At this movie theater, Negroes may attend the screening, but they must sit upstairs in the balcony. The sit-ins revealed these practices of domination and acquiescence as connected problems, and they dramatized their moral stakes. By creating a crisis of order, they dismantled the public/private distinction, revealing how the state—and, by extension, the broader nation—was complicit in enforcing these ritual humiliations insofar as it was compelled to punish those who dissented.
Lastly, the activists managed to fuse their provocative and pedagogical dimensions with an inspiring political vision. By adopting an inclusive style of protest and appealing to the possibility of future reconciliation, in method as well as in rhetorical content, the sit-ins successfully conveyed a reformist (rather than a revolutionary or retaliatory) attitude, and thus undermined the kinds of suppression that might otherwise have been brought to bear against them. The activists leading the movement identified the most significant barriers to racial equality as racist attitudes and habits among Southern whites, the legal architecture of Jim Crow and the degrading accommodationism of black people themselves. If one accepts these views (it should be said that there are good reasons for rejecting them), then one can see the brilliance of a mode of direct action that suffers violence willingly without retaliation, accepts arrests, and justifies itself in the language of constitutional law and Christian morality. It is a stunningly powerful way to transform the fear and disgust of interracial proximity into feelings of human sympathy in the face of cruelty, which the activists hoped would serve as the affective basis for a reconstructed democracy.
The problem isn’t racial division or a need for healing. It is racial inequality and injustice. And the remedy isn’t an elaborately choreographed pageantry of essentializing yackety-yak about group experience, cultural difference, pain, and the inevitable platitudes about understanding. Rather, we need a clear commitment by the federal government to preserve, buttress, and extend civil rights…
— Adolph Reed, Jr., “Yackety-Yak About Race” (1997)
To draw attention to the exemplarity of these acts of protest from the civil rights era is not to suggest that they can be reprised in the same form today. At the same time, such reflection can help us evaluate current efforts. A very real fear is that Black Lives Matter will manifest the same limitations as the Occupy movement. This would mean that although it might succeed in influencing the political agenda and discourse, it would ultimately exercise a limited influence on the political and institutional formations that emerge in response to its provocations. Occupy, of course, was enamored with an idea that the political theorist and legal scholar Bernard Harcourt calls “political disobedience.” In Harcourt’s description, this is a strategy characterized by a “total refusal” of “the very way in which we are governed … the structure of partisan politics, the demand for policy reforms, the call for party identification, and the very ideologies that dominated the post-War period.”
Underlying this “total refusal” is the idea, prominent among today’s left, that suggesting policy reforms, developing organizational infrastructure, promoting spokespersons or even articulating utopian political visions is likely to lead to unintended complicity in the oppression of marginalized groups. This suspicion is supported by the revisionist historiography of the civil rights movement and the New Left, which criticizes those movements for marginalizing minorities, women, LGBTQ communities and the poor. It is accompanied by a corresponding belief that anti-institutional politics is the best way to facilitate the “organic” and egalitarian development of political consciousness. In terms of the approach to protest, this seems to have inspired a remarkable faith in the power of transgressive performance as such to call into question the existing social order and facilitate conversation capable of dispelling indifference and mobilizing resistance.
In this intellectual atmosphere, protest politics and organizations become unmoored from the most serious questions of responsibility, judgment and vision. The abdication of responsibility for building organizations capable of mobilizing resources and resisting state suppression is seen as a progressive virtue. The justifiable criticism of patriarchal, racial and charismatic notions of leadership drifts into the suggestion that leaders are not needed at all, or the rhetorical mystification that “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” Protest itself takes on the character of contemporary performance art, investing the transgression of social norms with a power it is unlikely to have unless linked to the cultivation of particular affective responses and the development of countervailing political practices.
This alchemy produces bizarre consequences. Often protest gets evaluated essentially on its ironic or spectacular character, as opposed to on the political pedagogy it enacts, the emotional response it engenders or the strategic vision it advances. This makes it difficult to hold organizations accountable for their political judgment or for non-members to decide which organizations to join or support, much less to evaluate the practical success of their efforts. More perniciously, it becomes easy to obscure the subtle, surreptitious ways in which those organizers who most loudly proclaim that “everyone” is a leader become—by any functional, sociological account—de facto leaders, precisely because their quiet, unaccountable authority is purchased with gestures to egalitarianism.
One of the exciting elements of Black Lives Matter is how demonstrators have managed to develop forms of protest that are genuinely provocative and arresting, holding our attention and making many feel that something profoundly personal and political is at stake. The dramatic actions at athletic events, at the Brooklyn Bridge, on Oakland mass transit and at shopping malls on Black Friday have shaped public debate and empowered young African-Americans and other allies to courageously confront injustice. Where these protest actions have most obviously gone awry—attempts to disrupt the “white privilege” of Sunday brunch, blocking I-93 in Boston or the chaotic “Primal Scream” protest at Harvard, where students tried to interrupt a nude run that occurs on campus the night before finals—there has been a failure to turn the affective responses of demonstrators and spectators (e.g. anger, resentment, confusion, discomfort) into productive political energy and understanding. None of these acts persuasively disclosed the key obstacles or aims of reform, nor did they channel their provocations into critical self-reflection.
The challenge for today’s inheritors of the civil rights example, I want to be clear about suggesting, can be met not only by exposing the mechanisms of injustice through spectacular confrontation, but also by disclosing the limits of existing institutions—which entails the advancement of new models for the organization of society. For all its shortcomings, the Black Panther Party was remarkably adept at this latter task, providing armed patrols to watch police and prevent brutality, medical services like ambulances and clinics, and schools that emphasized African-American history. These dramatized the failures or weaknesses of existing institutions at the same time as they modeled the possibility of a world in which these communities would receive crucial social services without humiliation or disdain. There exist some contemporary efforts in this vein—Hands Up United has started a Freedom School and breakfast program in Ferguson—but not yet enough of them to sufficiently enlarge the imagination of their audience.
I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about “Where do we go from here?” that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.
— Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go from Here?”
These, it should be apparent, are friendly criticisms. They should be taken as midpoint contributions to the development of an impressive movement still in its inchoate phase, but with the potential to have enormous import. My arguments here, like most of what has emerged from the crucible of creativity and contestation that is Black Lives Matter, share its fundamental premise: namely that taking the strivings and sufferings of black people seriously may lead us to reshape our political order and social life in ways more consonant with equality, justice, dignity, freedom and human flourishing. The hope is that from the wreckage of Ferguson and Baltimore we might build new theories of policing and punishment, refound criminal justice, and rescue some semblance of community from the cruelty of the neoliberal state.
There are, as always, reasons for apprehension. The movement’s efforts may run aground on rhetorical excess, poorly chosen alliances at home and abroad, personal enmity, disagreement or repression. The obstacles to radical change are enormous, and all the invocations of “white supremacy” and “state violence” in the world will not wave away the hard practical issues—the underground economy and real crime, bureaucracy and federalism, collective bargaining and labor politics—that are involved in any serious attempt to transform the police, let alone society at large. The country remains polarized in ways that protests, violent or nonviolent, may only exacerbate, and human beings, even those impassioned by justice, are easily exhausted. As the movement spreads and evolves, it will inevitably encounter, among new recruits and claimants to the mantle of black political leadership, old habits that can derail any progressive movement, including patriarchy, homophobia and elitism. And as demands inevitably become more specific, divisions between competing factions of the movement could become insurmountable.
There are, nonetheless, important reasons for hope. The habits of citizenship that long anchored our collectively muted and moderated response to what the poet Claudia Rankine calls the “wrongfully ordinary” phenomenon of police brutality have been unsettled by the technological innovations of social media and digital technology. So too has an impact been felt from shifts in public opinion regarding the fairness of the criminal justice system. These things alone are not, and could not be, decisive. In light of the last three decades, however, they amount to an unprecedented political and cultural opportunity.
Indeed, the waves of activism and unrest seem finally to be impacting the agendas of mainstream politicians. Following the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American resident of my hometown of Baltimore, who died from spinal-cord injuries sustained in police custody, television cameras once again zeroed in on the spectacle of urban protest and rioting. On April 28th, President Obama commandeered a joint White House press conference with the Prime Minister of Japan to speak to the unrest that unfolded roughly forty miles away. While the president assailed rioters as “thugs” and “criminals,” he nonetheless conveyed sympathy for peaceful demonstrators and uncharacteristically blunt outrage against police misconduct and the injustice of ghetto poverty.Obama exasperatedly declared that “we, as a country, have to do some soul searching” about the plight of inner-city youth, excoriating those who think that instead of providing economic opportunity, ameliorating poverty, treating drug abuse and reducing incarceration, “we’re just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise.” The next day, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton announced her support for police body cameras and an “end to the era of mass incarceration.” This entailed explicitly disavowing—alongside her husband, former President Bill Clinton—the “tough on crime” politics of their administration.
On the ground in Charm City, Marilyn Mosby, a rising Democratic Party star and the 35-year-old African-American state’s attorney in Baltimore, became a national sensation after an emotionally charged press conference where she announced that six police officers would face criminal prosecution for Gray’s death. With the city teetering on the edge of more violence, and thousands of National Guard troops patrolling West Baltimore, Mosby spoke explicitly to “the youth of the city” and “the demonstrators across America.” Implicitly identifying herself with these efforts, she exhorted the public to hold “peaceful and productive rallies that will develop structural and systemic changes for generations to come,” declaring that “as young people, our time is now.”
All of these remarks contain striking concessions to—and in Mosby’s case, identifications with—a social movement that currently relies far more on moral authority, social panic and public provocation than organizational capacity and long-term political strategy. They represent small victories, to be sure, but not irrelevant ones. It is clear that the activities of Black Lives Matter, and their associated unrest, have, for now, the attention of the politicians and the public—but to what ultimate end? What strategic provocations, civic pedagogies and political visions can be developed to leverage these gestures of recognition into concrete victories and the enduring exercise of responsible political power? How might these struggles best develop, and be informed by, the most incisive ideas concerning the reformation and reconstruction of our fundamental institutions and modes of citizenship? These, it seems, are among the most urgent questions facing Black Lives Matter; and they are unlikely to have easy answers. Yet as James Baldwin wrote, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
This essay appears in Issue 10 of The Point. To read the rest of the issue, subscribe now.
Image credit: Josh Nezam, Protests in Ferguson, Missouri, 2014