If you read a lot of journalism, you’ve probably noticed a pattern in many articles. Before jumping into their main story, a writer will often treat you as if you’re reading a novel and open their piece with stuff like:
“The sun hangs low, casting a bright light on the darkened dirty corners of Abidem Street. Quite a contrast from the muted cleanliness of the Manhattan offices where I spend most of my time. This part of town wasn’t always this way. Before the freeway bifurcated the neighborhood, it was one of the cleanest and most popular thoroughfares in the city. But in 1965…”
Whether this approach is a bastardized hangover from a popular era of novelistic journalism exemplified in the work of Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and other luminaries from the 60s or simply a device to draw readers in I don’t know. But I always chafe a bit when I get stuck reading unnecessary expositions grafted onto a news story.
So I have to apologize if it seems like I’m doing the same thing in this piece today, which is about a video that went viral last week showing a collaboration between black and white activists at a contentious Sacramento, California city council meeting in the continuing aftermath of the March 2018 murder of Stephon Clark by Sacramento police.
If you’re a cinephile like I am you may be familiar with one of the great politically minded (and decidedly leftist) independent writer/directors of the last 40 years, John Sayles, and some of his best films such as Return of the Secaucus Seven, Brother from Another Planet, Matewan and Lone Star. What you may not know about John Sayles is that he was first a novelist and wrote an extraordinary book in the late 70s called Union Dues, which chronicles the desire and confusion of a teenage boy from West Virginia who seeks belonging in the world of late 60s left-wing activism. In the story, one of the white male leaders of the activist group the teenager falls in with decides that they will force their way into the community of a radical black organization and demand collaboration and alignment with the white-led group’s political agenda. Needless to say, this approach, dripping in arrogance, doesn’t get a warm response and bad things happens.
I bring this fiction up because in reality there is a longstanding and persistent paternalism in the way that majority white activist organizations engage with people who have been marginalized, dehumanized and abused in our culture. One need only do a few Internet or Twitter searches to find copious stories from activists who identify as black about having their priorities pushed aside and dismissed in such groups as The Green Party or Democratic Socialists of America. In all too many cases, white-led groups—either consciously or unconsciously—want black-identified activists to subordinate their experiences and ideas to better conform with strategies dictated by white leaders.
This week, the lefty British YouTuber Angie Speaks produced a satirical video about this very issue:
With all of this exposition as context, let’s get to what went down in Sacramento last week.
First, the background: In March of 2018, responding to a 911 call about vandalism, Sacramento police shot and killed a young unarmed black man, Stephon Clark, in his grandmother’s backyard. For more than a year, Black Lives Matter and other activists have been staging protests and advocating for accountability and justice, to no avail. They marched. They blocked a freeway. They blocked entrance to a Sacramento Kings basketball game. They shut down a mall. And they were summarily ignored by the city.
However, when county district attorney Anne Marie Schubert recently announced there would be no charges filed against the two police officers who killed Clark, activists took their peaceful protests to the streets of one of Sacramento’s wealthier majority white neighborhoods, prompting an immediate police response with over 80 arrests, including the unlawful detaining of reporters and clergy members.
It’s helpful to note here that it is tactically unusual for majority black activists to take their protests to well-heeled majority white neighborhoods. Given the rapid response from the police, one might say this approach ruffled feathers and might be used again to real effect in the future. But what’s even more notable about the latest protests is the evidence of fruitful collaboration between white and black activists. This got a lot of attention last week when video from the subsequent Sacramento City Council meeting went viral, showing a white activist going on an eloquent and expletive-laden tirade at city officials for their unwillingness to address Clark’s murder and the issue of police abuse of black citizens more broadly.
Here it is:
Now, unlike the organizational paternalism that silences many black activists, here we have an instance of a white activist embracing the humanity and the priorities of a marginalized community and using his voice—a voice that, because of the color of skin from which it’s issued, is given greater respect—to hold people in power to account. In our divided country, this kind of solidarity is rarely seen and that’s part of the reason the video went viral. Many comments from both black and white viewers pointed out that this was true “ally” behavior. Others stressed the danger of lauding the activist too much, for fear that attention would be taken away from activists and community members who are most directly affected by police violence. Given the historical co-option of black-identified activism by white-led groups, this view is absolutely understandable.
Black-supporting tirade aside, though, what happened after this comment-period confrontation may have been even more important. As the meeting got increasingly heated and unruly, one black activist leaped up onto a desk, which brought security officers rushing forward. However, in what appeared to be a coordinated and pre-planned act, white activists helped thwart a violent take-down of their fellow protester by surrounding and protecting him. Security officers were clearly unwilling to get violent with the white protesters and backed off.
— KRON4 News (@kron4news) March 6, 2019
This is one of the first instances I’m aware of where white activists have used the fact that law enforcement favors their skin tone to keep a black activist safe. It harkens back to the efforts of white freedom riders in the early 60s, who made the decision to put their bodies on the line to protect their fellow black freedom riders. There are, of course, multiple ways to look at this. One way might be to consider how unjust it is that favoritism towards white skin must be used in this fashion at all. Doesn’t it rob agency from black people? Is it merely paternalism in another form? As a confirmed movie freak, my mind immediately goes to the scene from the 2017 horror film Get Out where the protagonist’s girlfriend uses the illegitimate power of her whiteness to face down a cop intent on victimizing her black boyfriend. The film rightly positions the act as problematic, which comes into broader relief when we later learn that the girlfriend is the movie’s villain.
Let’s take this back out of fiction, though.
We talk a lot about unity in this publication. In that regard, it’s a fair question to ask: can there be true unity among unequal citizens?
Another way of looking at this tactic is that, when employed in good faith by white activists who understand deep within their beings that their black counterparts are every bit their equals; who understand that the forces that place higher value on whiteness are liars; who reach consensus on this approach not just among themselves but in dialogue with black activists; perhaps then it can become a canny and subversive act of unity to be built upon.
Because confronting a city council is one thing, but what about actually changing the nature of policing itself—away from its terrifying tradition of unaccountable slave patrols and overseers (KRS-One has a great track about this on Return of the Boom Bap) and towards a new paradigm of community-controlled peacekeeping? Community empowerment and governance will take a level of unity that has few precedents in the history of our deeply wounded and mixed up culture. #commUNITY Click To Tweet
I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. But I do see some doors cracking open and a light beyond.
As always, thanks for reading.
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