By Jesse Crall
While walking to my supermarket last week, I took notice of something new: Two stores hung signs letting passersby know that they were “minority owned” and supported Black Lives Matter. Other stores lining the block, presumably white owned or inclined to not take any chances, boarded themselves up to avoid possible damage from unrest.
The current protests, looting & riots feature a mass collection of citizens spanning the nation, too complex a group to pigeonhole with easy assumptions or judgments. Too bad the reactionary forces of media both social and mainstream lend themselves well to declarations of certainty.
I’ve seen white commentators condemn looting. I’ve seen white commentators defend or even praise it. I’ve seen black commentators condemn looting. I’ve seen black commentators defend or even praise it. The Intercept’s Lee Fang spent the early days of the protests collecting testimony from black Americans critical of the destruction sweeping through their communities. His colleague, Akela Lacy, branded Fang a racist on Twitter, prompting him to write a personal narrative-cum-apology explaining his work.
Zaid Jilani, a journalist and former writing fellow at Berkeley, has collected data demonstrating black Americans’ antipathy to violence and looting while personally demonstrating his support for non-violent protest. Kimberly Jones, an Atlanta-based author, gave an impassioned defense of looting by connecting it to the long oppression of black communities. More progressive politicians want to defund police. Evidence suggests a majority of Americans, including black Americans, are opposed to the idea.
I can’t tell you who’s “correct.” There isn’t an easy answer. We can preen and moralize and sound as radical or moderate as we choose but when thoughtful individuals acting in the interests of impoverished, despairing and violent communities disagree and give entirely engaged rationales as to why, I don’t think it’s a cop-out to take a step back and accept that there isn’t a perfect answer, a magic bullet, a way to declare a firm position and lean back with the self-satisfaction of certitude. I believe in non-violent protest. That’s an opinion, not a truth.
I’m skeptical of calls for rioting from people who live nowhere near the aggrieved sites. I’m also skeptical of right-wing figures condemning rioting after years of denigrating peaceful protest. Establishment politicians will pander to a base or try to satisfy their donors. Activists will use the media attention from these events to further their own careers. And the massive, unwieldy groundswell of protestors will get swept up into different tribes, behaviors and calls to action that extend well beyond specific justice for George Floyd.
Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant, perhaps the most far-left American politician of any consequence, drew the ire from one set of protestors for pursuing insufficiently radical police reform. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer wore kente cloth scarves in some kind of display of…African solidarity? Bernie Sanders wants to give police officers raises and there’s video going around of all the times former California Attorney General Kamala Harris called herself a “top cop.” Things are getting strange.
I do know that any attempts at reform won’t matter much if we don’t adopt a sustained series of policies to alleviate the root causes of police violence. And crime. And despair. Without breaking down inequality and working to eradicate poverty, we’ll only find ourselves reforming various symptoms and over correcting when those efforts fail. My political focus lies on class issues more than racial ones. Maybe I’m mistaken in that regard. But when leaders like Mitt Romney and Jeff Bezos can so easily adopt the racial justice language of the moment even as they continue to engage in work that further undermines workers and helps cultivate inequality, I’m inclined to think “#BLM” doesn’t carry a whole lot of weight.
The power structures in this country will always be happy to add black bodies to the board room and elevate people of color who stay composed and help reinforce the status quo. They’ll elect Barack Obama so long as Goldman Sachs maintains a place in the White House. They’ll give Oprah every award under the sun so long as she dismisses class consciousness and insists luck played no role in her success. But will they support politicians who want to end corporatist trade deals that bring union jobs back to communities across the country? Will they champion efforts to end poverty by giving up their power and immense reserves of wealth? Jeff Bezos just undermined the organizing efforts of Chris Smalls during a pandemic. Mitt Romney continues to vote for arms deals used in the Yemen genocide. They can paint themselves as black allies with the right language and hashtags. But if they tried to paint themselves as class warriors, the game would come to a swift end.
Balkanist editor-in-chief Lily Lynch compared these protests to the “Color Revolutions” that emerged at the dawn of this century. Legitimate grievances from citizens were initiated or quickly co-opted by corporate forces, stirred by CIA-backed organizations and typically led to very little meaningful change. Well, we’re seeing legitimate grievances now, not just from black Americans outraged by police killings but also from a broadly enraged populace emerging from lockdown. Decades of a government serving corporations instead of people culminated in bailout bills that provided vast transfers of wealth to the very top and little for everyone else. Floyd’s murder proved a catalyst but it wouldn’t have taken much to get hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets.
Whether they stay is one question. Whether they organize around a clear set of demands is another. And whether they get them is, of course, the one we’re most inclined to ruminate over. While I’m inclined toward pessimism, I also realize we’re living in unusual times, with new developments hurtling past at velocities unprecedented in my lifetime. I argued that the policies set forth by Bernie Sanders during the primary weren’t just nice; they were necessary to avoid exactly the kind of turbulence sure to continue in some form or another. We may get some of them after all. Whether they emerge from protests, rioting, looting, the collapse of established structures…we can only speculate. I do know that it will take far more than simply voting Blue in November.
A Los Angeles native, Jesse Crall graduated from UCLA’s English Department before working as a copywriter, script reader and project manager for an engineering firm.