This article was originally published online at Viewpoint Magazine on May 18, 2015.
A few months ago, all eyes were on Baltimore. For some, the gaze of fascination even transformed into a commitment to come act. Activists, medics, and lawyers from far-away places crowded the city, wanting, simply, hungrily to help. At Red Emma’s, the bookstore-café where I am a worker-owner, the phone lines were flooded with calls from people wanting to donate to something, someone—to the store itself, even. The store was packed with out-of-towners and well-intentioned folks, often white Baltimore residents, bearing bag upon bag of food donations and medical supplies.
Although Red Emma’s has worked to redirect callers to legal defense funds and organize and re-distribute donations to centers in West Baltimore, and though we have been a space for black organizers and youth to utilize, these moments have given me pause. Although a decade of tireless work has made Red Emma’s a place that the city (and beyond) looks to for leadership, it has been disorienting, to say the least, to be cast into a role of authority because of my relatively new presence in a radical space, particularly as a white person who has only lived in Baltimore for two years, and is so clearly not from West Baltimore. In these moments, I am struck by the complex, contentious role of outsiders, both politically and personally, and question of when, and how, it is appropriate to act.
Among other things, the Baltimore uprising has forced all of us to reexamine urgent strategic questions about solidarity. What does it mean to consider white people as participants in, and not just bystanders to or targets of, a black-led political movement? How do we maintain both the specificity of – and resonance between – different struggles? The movements against police brutality and the persistence of racist state practices in the past year have forced us to reflect on how the ideological commitments of outsiders (whether because they are white or because they are not from the community from which struggle has emerged) have been translated into practice. While at times the tactics and inclusion of outsiders has been productive, the involvement of outsiders often risks limiting the movement, or worse, serves as a form of co-optation. In this context one wonders whether the outstanding motivations for the refusal of black organizations during the Black Power struggles of the 1960s and 1970s to enter into coalitions with white co-actors persist. This poses the question: what is and isn’t novel about the solidarity work taking place in Baltimore today? And what can we learn from it?
Black Lives Matter
In Baltimore, the cameras only came out when the fires were burning, the windows of police cars were shattered, and cops were injured. They did not come out for the countless peaceful protests and calls for social change that have gone unanswered. They didn’t capture the mundane, quotidian struggle to survive on the West and East sides, where poverty is reported to be worse than in some third-world countries. They come out for the spectacle. Only this time, there was pushback; they were told to get out and go home. Take, for example, the video of a West Baltimore man confronting Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera.
“I want you and Fox News to get out of Baltimore City,” the man said.
It’s not just the media whose presence has been called into question. The No Boundaries Coalition, made up of residents of Sandtown (where Freddie Gray was murdered), put out a call for outsiders not from Baltimore and white folks, including those from Baltimore, to work with the black community not for it.
This call came a day after a peaceful student-led protest, which brought approximately 5,000 people out on April 29th to march from Johns Hopkins University downtown to city hall. Several groups of black students were at the head of the march, their fists raised to the air. But at Penn Station, a group of overwhelming white, young people with flowers in their hair, and hippie attire joined the march. Their signs read: All Lives Matter, Love is Colorblind, and Bmore Peace. One sign even read: Weird lives matter!
It is one thing for All Lives Matter chants to come from black folks. But it is quite another when a group of white people chants All Lives Matter. This not only renders race and racism invisible; it distorts and dilutes the specific struggle of black communities seeking justice into an empty, liberal cry for empathy and recognition. In this context, it is a slogan that erroneously attempts to re-center a movement that is not about justice for white folks back onto their lives, opening up the struggle for Black Lives Matter to the dangerous territory of outside demands: in this case, the demand to be included in and recognized as part of the movement, without consideration for how “equal” inclusion might hamper the message of that very same struggle. Once this level of equal inclusion and comparison of injustices enters the discourse, false and depoliticizing impressions follow. Simply put, the realities of state repression and police brutality within communities of color are obscured and deemphasized.
This has real effects in terms of inverting and diminishing the central strategic aims and demands of the movement. Think of the problematic ways in which the mainstream media and elected officials (including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake) spoke of violence as a moralistic failure on the part of black communities rioting in Baltimore (as opposed to a political tactic embedded in the violence at hand, whether of the police or poverty itself). In this way, the media and government effectively pardons the violence of cops and white vigilantes. As Ta-Nehisi Coates observed in a relatable idiom that effectively reveals this incongruity: “Some humans riot because their school lost the big game. Others because the state can’t stop killing them.”
Later in the student march in which All Lives Matters made its entrance, I noticed a young white man with bleach-blonde hair flipping his middle finger off at a huge army tank. My partner, who is black, peeled off from the march and walked towards this man, afraid, he later told me, that he would incite violence. I was reminded that one of my friends witnessed, in an earlier march, a few young white protesters starting throw bottles at the police and otherwise agitate the crowd. Since then she watched them very closely, ready, she said, to ask them to stop should they do these same things again. She asked me, and some of our other white friends in the march, to do the same.
In both of these cases, the understanding was that the strategic, and political choice of whether or not to provoke the police should be left to that of black protesters, for whom police repression is far worse than that of outsiders. In this instance, it is evident that certain types of agitation from outsiders – agitation that fails to consider the input of people of color, the potentially negative repercussions towards people of color of such agitation, such as arrest, and the image evoked by such agitation –threatens to distract, and at times deem irrelevant, the struggle at hand. Furthermore, the act of deferring to black leadership, however varied black leadership might be, is in fact an essential solidarity practice. Deferring allows for the black communities to autonomously make political choices, choices which have historically been characterized by the state as terrorist, as made clear by COINTELPRO, the FBI project designed to infiltrate and destroy the Black Panthers during the 60s and 70s. If we are to take seriously that Black Lives Matter, and not succumb to the liberal counterpart of All Lives Matters, we must actively work to amplify the voices of the black community, and continually assert that the acts of dissent provoked by black leaders are political and, in fact, necessary tactics within a struggle for justice.
At the same time, however, we need to be cautious. Often, we speak as if community is a monolith or homogeneous bloc. The black community. The white community. The West Baltimore community. But when we speak of community as if it is just one, neatly categorizable entity, we ignore the way in which community itself is varied. Any so-called community contains multitudes: of people, histories, politics. While a community of people may be bound by some or many similar experiences, it is dangerous to speak of community as if it is unequivocal and constant.
The slipperiness of the notion of community has been revealed in some of the language used to talk about the Baltimore Uprising. For instance, protesters in Baltimore often speak of deferring to the black community. While deferring to black leadership is, as noted earlier, an important precondition for solidarity, we must not lose sight of the fact that the black community is diverse and at times divergent in its demands and tactics. Some black community organizations in Baltimore are asking for specific policy and legal changes to hold cops accountable. Others are speaking of systemic changes – community-control to replace policing in poor neighborhoods, and an end to the poverty that undercuts black communities.
It rapidly became clear that there is no single black leader in Baltimore, and as many black protesters have pointed out, even within the black community the lives of black and trans women killed by police are often effaced, despite the fact that the Black Lives Matter hashtag was created by a group of queer black women. Only two weeks before the murder of Freddie Gray, the life of a black trans woman, Mya Hall, was taken by security forces at the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, MD, after she made a wrong turn onto a restricted-access parkway. The disparity in the outrage her death motivated compared to Gray’s tragically reminds us that, beneath every representation of a uniform collectivity, there exists a whole series of subordinated interests. It becomes crucial, then, for outsiders to recognize cleavages and contradictions within “communities” as they move with them in solidarity. It is not possible to suspend our politics here, as there is often a stark choice between the tactics and aspirations demonstrated from below, from Baltimore’s criminalized black youth, and admonitions from above.
Comrades, not Allies
At the last march I attended, on May 1st, the day the state prosecutor announced charges of manslaughter and misconduct against the six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death, I politely asked a white man to give up his megaphone.
We were marching through West Baltimore, yet again. A white friend of mine was distributing a flier he had put together, titled: “How to Be a White Person in Solidarity with the Baltimore Uprising.” Points included: 1. Understand Your White Privilege. 2. Stop Using #AllLivesMatter. 3. Speak With, Not Over. 4. Do Jail and Legal Support. 5. Talk to Other White People. I later brought the flier to Red Emma’s, feeling that this small piece of paper with clear, digestible bullet points might be of use to the white people so hungry to help. Copies were put in the vestibule (a space open to, and overflowing with, public fliers). A friend of color later told me about her experience handing this same flier out to people at a rally. She recalled the shifty-eyed looks of the white people she handed the flier to, noting the comparative friendliness of the white folks receiving the fliers from our white friend. The suggestion being that perhaps a sixth bullet-point is needed: Listen actively and openly when people of color engage you about race.
The notion of an ally is not new. Nor is the request from people of color for allies to be good allies. What feels new is the way in which ally-ship is being interrogated, and the desire for something more concrete, substantive, and politically meaningful than just allies. What of comrades? Co-conspirators? These are terms I’ve heard used as less-ambiguous step-ups to ally-ship. As Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sakou reflects: “What we need from white people is not be allies but freedom-fighters.” Or as Robin D.G. Kelley has put it, “We don’t need allies; we want comrades.”
When calling-out the white man with the megaphone, I was following my friend’s flier, believing that talking to other white people is a crucial aspect of solidarity work today, but I fear this calling-out risked creating a dangerous dynamic of good versus bad white person. We have to avoid this call-out culture of white folks policing white folks, which can often look like a competition to assert oneself as the best, “most-good,” white person.
Further, how can we move beyond call-out culture to develop solidarity practices that do more than merely present a spectacle? As Asam Ahmad points out: “Indeed, sometimes it can feel like the performance itself is more significant than the content of the call-out.” Ahmad further warns: “Call-out culture can end up mirroring what the prison industrial complex teaches us about crime and punishment: to banish and dispose of individuals rather than to engage with them as people with complicated stories and histories.”
The night before the mayor lifted the 10 p.m. curfew, a group of predominantly white people gathered in Hampden, a mostly white neighborhood, to silently break curfew. Their objective, as articulated in their Facebook event, was to reveal how starkly racism was impacting the police’s implementation of the curfew. Down at central bookings, jail support crews were busy supporting the many mostly young black men who had been arrested in poor Baltimore neighborhoods for breaking curfew by sometimes as little as ten minutes. Many were being released past curfew with no means of getting home, putting them at risk, once again, for arrest. One woman, I heard, had left her home to get tampons after curfew. When she left central bookings her one request was a tampon because, one long night later locked up, she still hadn’t been given one.
The silent curfew played out as expected. A group of cops came and spoke very nicely to the protesters: “We respect why you are here and understand what you are doing. Please don’t make us arrest you. This is your first warning…”
And the warnings went on. Two, three, four. Reportedly, some cops even offered to help folks get home. The police stated that they would arrest individuals if they did not disperse within five minutes. But after five minutes, the cops merely came back to make further warnings, and still did not arrest anyone. By 10:15 p.m. the protesters had dispersed, all safely, and freely, headed to their homes.
At least one black Baltimore activist, to my knowledge, questioned the fact that the protesters did not continue to break curfew and therefore force the police to arrest them. This activist criticized the silent curfew protest for simply demonstrating what is already evident to black people everyday. Some protesters claimed they were actually prepared and willing to be arrested. Some expressed concerns about bail – which was set at incredibly high prices during the state of emergency period – in this instance, it could take away bail resources from others, as white arrestees would likely get pushed through central booking first. The same Baltimore activist noted, however, that silent curfew protesters likely had more access to funds and resources – a dip into the bail pool might not have been necessary.
It is important to use whiteness as a tactic to reveal, as in this case, the racism of the state. But how can solidarity go further than performance? Must there be some greater sacrifice, and how might that sacrifice act as something more substantive than martyrdom? What are outsiders willing to sacrifice – and to what end? Though the silent curfew was organized as a response to calls for solidarity actions from several black leaders, this by no means represented the views of all black leaders, and the extent to which the silent curfew built lasting solidarity remains to be seen. Critiques remind us that, while this action did successfully deliver its goal of revealing the racist curfew enforcement practices of the police, while deferring to the political vision of some black leaders, it is still necessary for solidarity work to go further. What would it mean, for example, for solidarity actions to force the state to do precisely what it does not want to do? In this case to arrest a group of people they expressly do not want to criminalize. And to use the resources endowed by the state to these individuals to subvert, at least temporarily, the race and class-based power dynamics the state so desperately wants to conserve.
Uniting the Struggles
In 2011 when I was living in New York and participating in Occupy Wall Street, protesting and marching often felt like the most important thing I could, and should, do. In a movement that was criticized for having no clear demands and a lack of unity, the one thing everyone did agree on was occupation, and protest. In fact, Occupy, with its slogan “We are the 99%,” struggled to be as inclusive as possible, creating the feeling that everyone was an insider. Of course, this was not the case, and women, people of color, and many others critically interrogated this claim to inclusivity. In this context, caucuses emerged as a kind of organizational means of helping to create a higher, more inclusive sense of unity.
The scene in Baltimore is quite different, and the uprising showed that we need different organizational models, beyond caucuses or general assemblies, to link disparate struggles. For one, the categories of outsider and insider are being spoken of much more urgently and overtly, perhaps because the Black Lives Matter movement, unlike Occupy Wall Street, presents more concrete demands and higher stakes tied specifically to racial identity. In Baltimore, there are those standing on the outside, whether by choice or because they have been asked to. And there are insiders, countless, whom no one can claim. Both sides struggle, and their struggles, though certainly different, are nevertheless deeply connected. The challenge, then, is to hold multiple struggles at once without losing focus. Outsiders must find ways to act without disrupting the integrity of the struggle of those on the inside, such that different struggles become linked together without erasing the real differences integral to those struggles.
In doing so, we must ask what the struggle for black lives to matter requires us to do, and what it would mean for the black lives of those living under state repression in West Baltimore and beyond to truly matter. It is the responsibility of the outsider to not only listen to and learn of the many radical visions that have been put forward (pointing towards wider struggles, perspectives, experiences and realities), but to live out these visions as they relate to the outsider’s position and struggle, with the understanding that the categories of outsider and insider must themselves be manipulated and disrupted. At times, this requires relinquishing power, at other times, directly, and tactfully, confronting it.
Creating interracial solidarity is central to the struggle to helping make black lives matter. This was, in fact, a crucial aspect of the long tradition of black radicalism in this country. We would do well to recall, for instance, the famous Chicago Rainbow Coalition initiated by the Black Panther Party, the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Mexican-American Brown Berets, and the Young Patriots, a group of poor revolutionary white youths, in the summer of 1969. Later expanded to include other radical socialist organizations, the Coalition struggled against institutional racism, state terrorism, and capitalism, as well the racist chauvinism in its own constituent parties.
In a stirring scene captured in the film American Revolution 2, Black Panther Bobby Lee explains at a Young Patriots meeting, “The Panthers are here for anyone who lives in uptown, whether he’s brown, green, yellow, purple, or pink. When I say the Panthers are here, you have to tell us what we can do, and what we can do together.” He went on, “there’s police brutality, there’s rats and roaches, there’s poverty up here, and that’s the first thing we can unite on.” The poor whites at the meeting, some of whom, including Young Patriot leader William Fesperman, had moved to Chicago from Appalachia, shared similar concerns, complaining especially of police brutality – “you call up the police when nothing’s going on, and the police are gonna come make it happen,” or “they try to put your words in your mouth, make you put yourself in jail.”
The fight against racism, poverty, poor housing, and even police violence, the Coalition argued, could only be based on revolutionary interracial solidarity. As one older white man at the meeting put it, “I’ll stick with the Black Panthers if they stick with me, and I know they will.” While we can, and must, channel some of these powerful insights, the specific forms that such solidarity will take today remains an open question. Among other things, the Baltimore Uprising and the entirety of the cycle of struggles around the Black Lives Matter movement – in Ferguson, New York, other American cities, and even abroad – has forced us to confront a primary strategic question: the reinvention of the very idea of solidarity work.