The news has been bleak in America, and world wide for a number of months. We have watched death tolls climb and the economy fall apart and seen what should be a crisis that brings us all together to work for a solution turn into yet another partisan shooting match. It seemed there could be no bigger story than COVID-19. But the USA is full of surprises.
In some ways this has been boiling just beneath the surface of the COVID story all along. Black Americans have died from COVID at 3X the rate of White Americans. 1 out of every 2000 Black Americans have died from COVID. These rates are staggering. The story of the disparity between White and Black America has been in our faces for months, now. And then, in an all too familiar scene, the country was reminded again of what that disparity really looks like in the horrifying image of Derek Chauvin, along with Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Keung, kneeling on George Floyd.
Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, a 46 year-old unarmed black man, by kneeling on his neck. Floyd could be heard pleading for help in a video that captured the horrific event. For many, this was just another incident of police brutality against a community that has been repeatedly and systematically oppressed and abused by a police state. But for others, this was a tipping point. The event led to protests in Minneapolis that began peacefully but transitioned to more volatile demonstrations after the police reacted in hostile ways. By the weekend Minneapolis was wracked with rioting and looting. It was a community torn apart, similar to the L.A. riots after a jury acquitted police of the beating of Rodney King. The National Guard is involved, the President has threatened protesters and quoted an infamous segregationist in saying when the looting starts the shooting starts, and the news coming out of Minneapolis gets more distressing by the hour.
It is interesting to note that the two presidents in the modern era that have been most invested in the rhetoric of “law and order” have been the most lawless and corrupt Presidents. Nixon and Trump were both elected on “law & order” platforms, but both struggled with ethics and legal violations throughout their presidencies. This just emphasizes that “law and order” rhetoric has little to do with maintaining any kind of organization and is really coded rhetoric for oppressing marginalized communities. “Law and order” has long been recognized as “dog whistle” politics that is really a message to supporters that a candidate will engage in as many suppressive tactics and policies as possible. Some commentators, mostly white, criticize protesters for their actions, asking, as Tomi Lahren did, “How does looting, rioting, and destroying your OWN community bring justice for anyone?”
So let’s talk about rioting for just a minute. Is it rhetorical? What are you saying when you stop using your words and get physical?
First there tend to be two kids of rioters, and they tend to be at two very opposite ends of the spectrum. The first kind of rioter is the most privileged among us. They riot when everything is great. These are the groups that get violent or disruptive when their team wins the national championship or groups seem to simply delight in destruction like the fraternities at the Keene, New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival. These are groups who riot because everything is great and there is this exuberant energy with nowhere to put it and there doesn’t seem to be any fear of consequences. These rioters are operating out of a real sense of privilege. They feel like destruction is a legitimate form of expression for which they will not be held accountable. The destruction is supposed to be fun. The rioting is an expression of joy or excitement. Interestingly, there is much less criticism of this kind of rioting than there is of the other.
The second kind of rioting is at the other end of the spectrum. This kind of rioting happens when a group has been denied all other means of argumentation. When a group has been systematically marginalized and silenced and they have no means of speech left – they have been pushed out of normal means of discourse – they turn to physical rhetoric. This kind of rioting happens when all other venues of argument have been closed to a group – often a marginalized group. Public speech has been silenced, protest has been shut down – the only means they have left to communicate is disruption. This kind of rioting usually receives a great deal of criticism. But we have to be honest with ourselves – the people who are rioting have been criticized for a long time up to that point. These rioters have been unduly policed and disciplined for quite some time and in ways that the powerful have had to deal with already. Critics have been trying to silence them for quite some time before the volatility of a riot – that’s why a riot happens – because their voice has been stripped from them previously.
Critics may respond, “that’s nonsense, no one is silenced in America, we have free speech.” But do we? I’m a free speech scholar and nothing I have studied or read indicates to me that “free speech” is at all evenly applied. The speech of People of Color is policed and disciplined in ways that White speech never is. People of Color, and specifically Black people, are criticized for speaking out in just about every venue.
The BEST example is Colin Kaepernick. The constant refrain when there is an outbreak of violent protest is “why can’t they protest civilly, non-violently, the way MLK did?” (The whitewashing of MLK is a complete issue in and of itself). What do you think Kaepernick was doing? He wasn’t doing anything but kneeling. He wasn’t blocking any businesses, he wasn’t picketing anything, he wasn’t causing ANY problems, he was just silently kneeling. What’s ironic is that kneeling was supposed to be a sign of respect. He initially sat during the National Anthem. But after some conversations with a Green Beret, Nate Boyer, he decided that kneeling would be more appropriate. And people lost their DAMNED MINDS. It was a national controversy. There literally could not have been a more peaceful protest and it so offended SO MANY people that Presidential hopeful Donald Trump, and then President Donald Trump, felt compelled to weigh in, about how those who kneeled were “sons of bitches” and deserved to be fired. (If I have to designate this episode as “explicit” because I quoted the President I’m going to be so sad.)
And White critics came up with all kinds of excuses why he shouldn’t be allowed to protest – it wasn’t the right venue, it was disrespectful, he was on the job – but the truth is what we were seeing was the “white moderate” in action. I’ll explain the “white moderate” in a minute.
White people have never allowed for peaceful protest from the Black community. White people beat the Freedom Riders and turned fire hoses on marchers in the South in the 60s. White people threatened and harassed Black people sitting a lunch counters and just walking into schools. White people who say, “why can’t they just protest peacefully?” have a disingenuous view of history. Peaceful protest has never been acceptable.
Everybody knows “I Have a Dream.” It’s MLK’s most famous speech. But if that’s all you know of him than you don’t know him at all. MLK was not just this guy who went around talking about how great it would be if we were nice to each other. MLK was considered a radical by many. We forget that MLK was a criminal. He was arrested multiple times for his insistence on breaking the law. MLK was anti-war, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-poverty, and anti-racism. He was such a threat to the establishment that the FBI led a campaign to get him to try and kill himself (that’s not conspiracy mongering that’s confirmed – you can look it up).
But a piece people are less familiar with, but tells you more about King’s philosophy is his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In April of 1963 he was in jail in Birmingham and took it upon himself to respond to his critics and wrote a letter while he was sitting in his cell. The letter was ultimately published and because quite famous. What is notable about this letter is that it is not responding to his “racist” critics. It is responding to fellow clergy who supposedly support his goals, but find his actions “unwise and untimely.” He’s responding to White people who claim to not be racist but are telling him this isn’t the right time or the right way to protest.
His detractors claim that protest is not the appropriate way to exact change, but that he should try “negotiation.” He agrees that negotiation is best. Which is the whole point of his actions. He says “direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” The whole purpose of a protest is to create tension. So much tension that you can’t look away. It’s not a successful protest if it doesn’t cause a problem. The word “crisis” is important, here. A protest is supposed to cause an insurmountable problem. Protest should be something that brings normal life to a halt.
His critics question the timing of his protests. But he says there is no good time. Never in the history of social movements have oppressors agreed with the timing of a protest or movement. That is in the nature of oppressors. “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” If you wait for the right time to protest, you will be waiting forever.
He addresses those critics who are concerned that he is willing to break the law. And he acknowledges that yes, he IS very ready to break the law. “One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all. “Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” This is, perhaps, the bitterest pill for the people of the establishment who see themselves as the “good ones” to swallow. If marginalized people clamor for justice they sometime have to do so outside of the bounds of the law. But the establishment, and people who profit from the establishment, will cry out for “law and order.” “Law and order” is a rallying cry for those who seek the status quo over change. “Law and order” is a tool of the establishment to police those who have been pushed to places where they have to go to extranormal means to demand justice. “Law and order” is coded language for oppressing marginalized communities. “Law and order” is the establishment exercising its power simply by virtue of it being the establishment. MLK was not a “law and order” kind of guy. He believed in justice, not law and order. And that realization is very difficult for some modern folks who have been fed a whitewashed version of him.
In considering all of this, MLK comes to the conclusion that the most dangerous person to his cause is not the outright racist, but the White moderate. He says, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s (his word) great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” It is not those who stand in direct opposition to the cause that do irreparable harm, but those who tacitly agree with the cause, then question the tactics, timing, motivation, and actions of the movement in favor of propriety, respect, timing, appropriateness, or civility. It is the moderates who think they are on the side of justice but can’t handle unrest that do the most damage to the cause. Those who say, “I believe in equality, but this really isn’t the right time or place or way to protest.” Those are the real stumbling blocks to progress.
This letter is often left out of curriculum about MLK. My students are often shocked by its contents. There’s a reason for that. The establishment does not profit from a populous that thinks of MLK as crying for crisis, as rejecting law and order, and as one who rejects moderation. The national narrative is that MLK is a treasure and a hero. If we had to reconcile with the fact that he was, in many ways, also a radical who rejected the status quo, the cognitive dissonance would be too much for many a White moderate.
But at the same time, MLK called for peaceful protests, and what we are seeing in Minneapolis and other cities is rioting. How do we reconcile that? He kind of addresses that in the “Letter” as well. Critics of MLK disagreed with his tactics because they often preceded violence. That is, at his nonviolent protests violence often broke out. This is something that is often left out of stories of the Civil Rights Movement . It WAS violent. Black protesters may have been non-violent, but the response to them by the establishment was incredibly brutal. The “non-violent” Civil Rights Movement was INCREDIBLY violent. And many White people wanted to hold Black protesters accountable for that – it’s what we talked about earlier – policing Black speech (and bodies).
And this is why it’s important to understand what a riot is rhetorically. When people gather together to protest peacefully, as they have in many parts of the country, and the state doesn’t allow them to do that (by silencing them and responding with physical force) what is left is the rhetoric of the physical. That’s what a riot is. It is when that crisis MLK talked about has been pushed out of normal modes of discourse by an oppressive state.
And we KNOW this is an oppressive state toward marginalized communities because we can compare examples of protests. In the last few weeks there have been multiple protests about lock down procedures or mask regulations at a number of state house grounds. We have all seen the pictures of (mostly white) masses of people crowding capitals and legislative halls to demand that states open up. The pictures have been shocking because in many instances these have been armed men. Protesters have shown up carrying automatic weapons and military grade protective gear and crowds have been unruly, crowding the police and screaming in their faces. These have been scary and threatening pictures. But the weapons are what have shocked people the most. Our free speech is so expansive, apparently, that you can carry military style weapons to the capital in a threatening manner and express your displeasure with law makers.
But compare that to #BlackLivesMatter protesters. Even if reports are true that some protesters carried rocks or bottles, the difference between a rock and an automatic rifle cannot be overstated. And yet these protests are met with almost immediate and hostile police action. These protests are shut down and forced into physical confrontations, as happened in many cities on this week all over the nation, as the state attempts to quash these dissenting voices. The police escalated the protest to the level of riot by bringing violence to the protest. The state is to blame for the ensuing chaos. The way speech has been policed in these instances, the lock-down protests and the #BlackLivesMatter protests, is so NOTABLY, so OBVIOUSLY disparate it is almost laughable.
This is compounded by the distressing reports that White supremacists have gone to Minneapolis and are looting and setting fire to Black businesses and causing mayhem throughout the city. White nationalist groups are apparently going throughout the city wreaking havoc to make the situation look even worse than what it really is to cause problems for peaceful and civil protesters. Online extremists are encouraging others to show up to the protests with weapons to start the inevitable race war. So the speech of marginalized communities is even now being co-opted by White supremacy.
One of the prevailing narratives right now is that much of the destruction is being done by “outsiders.” That is, it is not the protesters who are causing destruction, but people coming from outside the situation to specifically cause chaos, often to the detriment of the protesters. Some of this is supported by images coming out of the protests, as it often appears that it is White people causing much of the damage.
But in some ways this is a false dilemma. It is very possible that some of the unrest is coming from bad actors. And it seems to be clear that much of the violence is started by the state. But that does not negate the understanding of what unrest is – the language of the oppressed. The state may escalate the situation, and much of the destruction may come from bad actors, but the fact that the country is embroiled in this situation and that the government is responding with more suppression means that the people remain unheard. Those that need a voice are still being pushed to the side and their voices are being silenced. We still aren’t acknowledging that Black Lives Matter.
So how can I avoid being the white moderate? Because I, Elizabeth Thorpe, am definitely a white privileged woman living in a white privilege area in a predominantly white privilege job.
I can call out racism when I see it. Because it is not enough to try and not be racist myself, I need to be anti-racist. I need to work to dismantle the system of racism around me by addressing expressions of racism from people, institutions, and the media.
Along those lines, I need to recognize what racism IS. Racism isn’t the attitudes of one or two bad individuals. Racism is a systemic structure embedded in societal institutions that oppresses people of color. And when I say systemic I mean it touches everything and all of us. I need to recognize that I have been warped by racism. So if somebody calls me out on that I need to listen and learn. The same goes for all White people, because we have all gained from racism, so we need to be sensitive to it. We can’t see racism as the attitudes and actions of one or two bad actors. We have to see it as the system in which we live. If we think of it as singular people with singular attitudes it becomes to easy to ignore – those are bad people so we’ll just move along past them. I’ll teach my kids to not be like them and bam! Racism is cured! But we have to realize it is water in which we swim – nobody is absolved. We all have to fight it equally, in ourselves and in institutions.
Listen to Black people and People of Color. Let them speak and acknowledge their hurt and listen to what their community needs. Don’t try to speak over them, even when you think you are being an ally.
Support Black-owned businesses.
Follow Black people on social media. Alicia Garza and Kimberle Crenshaw (@aliciagarza and @sandylocks) are obvious choices, but you might also find Andre Johnson and Tressie McMillan Cottom great as well ( @aejohnsonphd and @tressiemcphd).
Read the books that Black people write. (Look into Roxanne Gay or Michelle Alexander.)
Acknowledge, if you are White, that you benefit from racist systems. This is profoundly uncomfortable but a necessary step in being truly anti-racist.
And don’t be afraid to say that Black Lives Matter.
I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a minute or two talking about the phrase #BlackLivesMatter and what it means and the way people have responded to it.
There probably has not been a more divisive hashtag in the last few years. Not even #MeToo sparked such outrage. But let’s be honest – if you have a problem saying Black Lives Matter, that says more about you then it does about anything else. Because why can’t you say it? Do they not? The most popular response to that has, of course, been #AllLivesMatter, but I want to talk about why that is a flat-out racist response.
First, it ignores the issues of the Black community. The whole point of #BlackLivesMatter is that there are problems that are particular to the Black community and those need to be addressed specifically. The Black community is dealing with issues that are a result of a history of Jim Crow, redlining, institutional racism, and the policing of their speech and their bodies for generations. #BlackLivesMatter is a means of calling attention to those specific issues that need to be addressed.
#AllLivesMatter is Black erasure. When you respond with #AllLivesMatter you are eliminating Black people and Black problems from the discourse and trying to make it colorblind. But colorblindness is just white moderate racism. Colorblindness is just a way of ignoring the specific issues that face People of Color in favor of replacing them with a single narrative, usually the White one that so often serves as the “universal” one. Colorblindness does nothing to help communities of Color who have specific issues and problems related to their identities that need to be addressed via policy and institution; but you can’t do that if you refuse to see color.
This was a difficult episode for me to write, and I am sure I made some mistakes and didn’t do it justice in myriad ways. But these are such important things to talk about, and things won’t get better until White people are talking about them, not just People of Color. White people have to take up the concerns of Black communities and People of Color or scenes like we are witnessing in Minneapolis will just continue. So talk to your friends. Vote for candidates who seem to take these things seriously. And ask yourself how you have fed into the system.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first licensed under CC-BY. Music modified by cutting and fading where appropriate.