(Editor’s Note: The following reflection and analysis piece was written by Edge City members B. Sandor and Jeremy.)
“It’s hard to begin to understand that the drift in American life towards chaos is masked by all these smiling faces and do good efforts.” James Baldwin
Over the last two weeks in the East Bay, we have been in the streets night after night. In spite of tear gas, flash bang grenades and mass arrests, our numbers and nightly presence have increased. These recent protests in Oakland and Berkeley have included many different constituencies but also featured struggles over leadership, tactics and decision-making.
A major shift in the East Bay protests has happened within the last week. On Saturday December 6th, several hundred protesters in Berkeley were kettled just outside the UC campus after a riotous march and brief clashes with police. As protestors were being detained by the police, a large group of students began filling the streets. The police soon issued a dispersal order, which incited the crowd even more. After a tense stand-off, students were met with police force and, as a result, many became radicalized overnight.
We have seen some very exciting aspects of participation of UC Berkeley students in the growing and ongoing anti-police movement. Freeways have been taken over and held multiple times, militant marches have stretched the capacity of the police and taken a toll on several large corporate business and thousands of young folks that never engaged politics in this way before have been out every night. More recently, high school students have walked out of their schools and are planning future actions. There is a lot of excitement here with no sign of it letting up anytime soon. But in spite of these promising signs, there is also a need to acknowledge some of the more disturbing trends we have witnessed.
“… Blackness is always-already criminalized in the collective unconscious.” Frank B. Wilderson, III
The last several weeks of marches and actions have not just been policed by riot cops or by infiltrators, but by large segments of those brought in through the Berkeley actions as well. We’ve seen some arguments play out in the streets, sometimes violently, over people’s conceptions of legitimate protest tactics and, under the banner of #Blacklivesmatter, there are several conflicting ideologies battling for legitimacy. On some occasions, protestors have literally split into two different camps: one side decrying the use of ‘confrontational’ tactics (which, apparently, also includes dragging trash cans into the street) and another favoring a diversity of approaches. Some self-appointed ‘peace police’ have attempted to mobilize support against ‘violent’ elements on social media through the Twitter hashtag #Walksafe while others have taken to Facebook to organize groups to guard businesses from being attacked. Other moments have highlighted more worrying, and dangerous, dynamics that raise important questions as we move into the third week of actions.
On December 9, at roughly 9pm, a march that started in Berkeley made its way into Oakland. There was a brief attempt at a highway takeover near the MacArthur BART station where police forced people off the freeway and fired tear gas, flash bang grenades and rubber bullets into the crowd of supporters below. At about 10:30pm, the crowd continued its march to Downtown Oakland. At this point, the makeup of the march had noticeably shifted from a predominantly white group, to one that was much more racially diverse. As protestors moved down 14th and Broadway, a young Black man fell to the ground from what we soon found to be a seizure. As a group his friends carried him into the nearby Pizza Man store, a large portion of the crowd began to raise a lot of commotion and drew attention to what was going on. But it wasn’t the health of the young man experiencing a seizure that they were upset about. These young Black men were yelled at by mostly white protestors who screamed: “keep marching” and “peaceful protest.” Some even attempted to physically prevent the youth from entering the store to help their friend, prompting two older Black men to stand guard outside the door. As a young Black man gasped for air this crowd — some wearing ‘Black lives matter’ shirts — immediately assumed the youth were attempting to loot or destroy the Pizza Man store. In this case, young Blacks were met with a familiar kind of white mob mentality that could only see the actions of Black youth as criminal and disruptive. Chants of “peaceful protest, peaceful protest” aimed at groups of militant Black folks would continue throughout the night.
While some liberal white protestors have been policing and attacking Black protestors in the name of “peaceful protest”, other radical white protestors have been mobilizing as “anti-racist allies”. Both the liberal white protestor and the radical “anti-racist ally” share an attachment to and investment in whiteness, the former through their defense of private property and their policing of Black youth and the latter through their desire to perfect a morally righteous whiteness. Both hold onto whiteness as the very category in which they understand their political activity.
The white anti-racist ally performs their politics through a public expression of outrage. Their performance is intended to be highly visible and provocative as evidenced by the recent slogan “white silence is violence.” The irony behind the slogan “white silence is violence” is that it ignores and fails to confront the actual physical violence committed by white protesters in defense of private property. Further, the slogan does nothing to amplify Black voices or support Black struggle. In actuality, this slogan, borne out of solidarity with Black struggle, actually displaces that struggle by centering a white response to police violence.
White liberals, by contrast, hold onto their whiteness by claiming that the movement is actually not about race and white supremacy but a host of other issues such as police militarization. In the face of a movement that declares #Blacklivesmatter, white liberals simply reply with the lie that “#Alllivesmatter”. While “white silence is violence” aims to make a certain kind of whiteness visible, “#alllivesmatter” aims to hide whiteness. Yet, both slogans work to remove blackness from the equation by either focusing on white anti-racist responses to police violence or by simply ignoring race entirely.
All of this is not to say that white people have no role to play in a Black-led struggle against the police and white supremacy, or that their role should be to simply listen and act when they are asked to by various Black leaders. Listening to and talking with anyone who participated in the anti-police rebellions in Los Angeles in 1992, Oakland in 2009-2010, and Ferguson most recently, would be immensely more valuable than listening to five minutes of a speech from any one of the current crop of well-known Black leaders in this country. Anyone who watched events unfold in Ferguson over the last few months knows that if Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson tells you to do something you probably shouldn’t do it because you will likely be acting against the real leaders of this movement — the youth who chased them out of town.
Instead of simply listening to and working under self-appointed Black leadership or acting without any input from Black folks, white radicals should pay attention to how the Black working class as a whole is moving, thinking, and acting in this particular moment. What segments of the class are in motion and what segments are not? What segments of the class are leading the protests and why? What can white radicals do to materially support the growth and development of new independent organization and leadership?
The troubling and contradictory internal dynamics outlined in this piece need to be debated and resolved in order for us to collectively determine which way we are headed. As anti-police protests move into their third week the racist policing of Black bodies and expressions of rage needs to be confronted quickly and forcefully. These dynamics threaten to reproduce the same logic that killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner while making it easier for the state to disrupt and contain the movement. While we agree for the need for thoughtful reflection on the use of certain tactics, the ‘good/bad protestor’ distinction must be destroyed. Finally, we need to act to prevent the centering of whiteness, color-blind ideology and an over-emphasis on police militarization. As a necessary first step, we suggest the opening of a broader political discussion space to hold the conversations that will provide us some road map to deeper cohesion, organization and effectiveness.