I’ve been a bit reticent to dive too far into commentary on the current protests against police brutality and racism taking place all across the continent, not because I am apathetic or don’t have an opinion, but because my voice isn’t really one that needs to be centred in this case (check my .avi if you’re wondering why that’s the case). With that being said, I’m hugely sympathetic to the cause, and believe that I (along with other white people) should focus on allyship and elevating the voices of people of colour through protest and donation and full-throated vocal support and also knowing when to cede the spotlight to those who have lived experience with this oppression. Donate to a bail fund, go to a protest and slide into a support roll, promote art and writing and creation by people of colour. All of those things are helpful and a signal of support to those who need it most right now.
What you shouldn’t be doing — ‘you’ in this case being me and other people not centred by this issue, is making aggro or feel-good social media posts without first thinking about the message you’re sending. And I’m not even talking about the recent #blackouttuesday attack of all-black Instagram posts, which on one hand is slacktivism at its finest, acknowledgment without action, but on the other is well-meaning people, including many of my good friends, trying their hand at protest for the first time. Maybe it’s taking up unnecessary space, it’s not up to me to decide that (don’t use the #blm hashtag, though). But if this inspires even a few people to move onto bigger forms of activism it’s a forgivable stunt, if ultimately toothless.
I’m not even really talking about the people who plaster Thin Blue Line flags everywhere and act willfully obtuse when you explain why #AllLivesMatter is an inherently oppressive sentiment (aside: I’ve had a bit of success calmly explaining the issues with #AllLivesMatter to people from my rural high school — a lot of people aren’t willfully obtuse, just misinformed and sheltered and will listen when you discuss instead of accuse).For the most part, this genre of person is forsaken and trying to convince them to change their ways is wasting your breath. No, what I’m talking about here are people who are ostensibly on the ‘same side’ as the protestors, who believe they’re working towards the same goals but are, through their actions and words, hindering the cause they wish to help.
I’m talking about the people I’ve seen who want me to know that they support the protests, as long as they’re peaceful. What they don’t support, they say implicitly or explicitly, is the violence carried out by protestors that has been sprayed across TV and computer screens everywhere. Doesn’t violence diminish the message you want to convey?, they ask earnestly. In the interest of protecting myself of accusations of creating a strawman, take a look at the replies to this tweet, or this tweet, or this one. Disregarding the fact nearly all the protests are peaceful, the argument that statements like the linked tweets and replies posit is that all violence is bad and no distinction should be drawn between the state-sanctioned violence of the militarized police and the violence boiling over from people who have been oppressed by that same state-sanctioned violence for centuries. This type of argument is extremely flawed, in no small part because it typically comes from people who are uncomfortable with violence precisely because it upsets the status quo that is beneficial for them. Understand that much of the violence displayed by the protestors is a direct response to the violence of the police, and there is plenty of evidence to show that a less-aggressive police response to protest necessarily means less violence from protestors. Before you condemn, think about who’s to blame.
Although it doesn’t always necessitate violence, effective protest demands that you’re uncomfortable. Peaceful protest makes you easy to ignore, to push to the side and tune out. Peaceful protest means you are subject to all the same aspersions and accusations thrown by society’s worst members, even if what you’re doing is exactly what they want. Peaceful protest can work sometimes, when the conditions are perfect, and more often is the spark that ignites a larger and more aggressive response. But when those who have a monopoly on violence use that monopoly to silence and oppress and kill, peaceful protest becomes effectively impossible. The violence of the masses is the answer to these authoritarian tactics. Cast your gaze back to the most famous uprisings of all time: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian slaves didn’t break free of their French enslavers by holding signs (learn more here)! The apartheid state of South Africa wasn’t ended just because Nelson Mandela was an excellent orator! The eternal symbol of the French Revolution is a machine specifically designed to execute people! Even one of the only successful peaceful protests in recent memory, South Korea’s Candlelight Protest, was possible because the police couldn’t be bothered to get aggressive for a president who was sitting at a solid 4% approval rating. Compare that to the instigating tactics we are seeing the police use every day, both in the US and here in Canada too – don’t forget, it wasn’t three months ago that the RCMP was raiding unceded territory to arrest protestors opposed to a pipeline running through their lands. Contrary to what they’ll have you believe, when the police show up to protests they aren’t quelling violence, they’re instigating and promoting it. To pull my strawman out again, maybe you don’t think the protests in America are comparable to the revolts I mentioned above. But for all the unarmed black people (or, in Canada, Indigenous people too) who see themselves in those killed by police whenever they go for a run, or reach for their wallet, or enter their home, this is a matter of life and death. Now, I’m not telling you to go start rioting in the streets (although I am telling you to make sure not to gum the boot so hard you end up cleaning graffiti from a ChaseBank), just think about the overall context of the situation a bit before screaming ‘all violence is bad’ from your position of power.
I’m talking about people sharing stories about how this violence is due to outside agitators, be those Antifa or white nationalists, and not a response to the countless thoughtless killings of people of colour by police. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be critical when you see videos of sketchy white dudes smashing the windows of an Autozone, but it does mean you should read up on the history of scapegoating outside groups for violence and by extension removing the activists’ leverage and agency. This article and this thread do a much better job explaining this than I’m able to, so take a look.
Last, and most egregiously, I’m talking about people posting faux uplifting stories about cops kneeling with protestors, or cops showing solidarity against racism. Every time, without fail, your heartwarming story is just a photo op and moments later those same cops will be pepper spraying those same protestors and beating them with sticks. Look, I’m not even going to swing all the way over and tell you all cops are evil. I’m certain that many of them joined the force out of a sense of duty to their community, to do good in the world, to help people. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that to try to push reform from within the police force is futile because the the culture is slick with rot. There are cops who are good people, I’ve no doubt, but that doesn’t prevent them from being extremely misguided in their mission. To operate within a system absolutely overrun by systemic racism, where murders and assaults are routinely covered up and rarely prosecuted, is to implicitly support that system regardless of your personal motivations.
In order for healing to take place, it is paramount that policing as a culture be torn down and built anew, with a new set of values and different goals. Full demilitarization is a good first step. Past that, we need to focus on creating cops who are social workers and crisis managers and experts at non-violent deescalation, people whose first instinct isn’t violence, or to stand idly by while violence occurs. Maybe replace a lot of them with people who already do these types of things! We need them to be from within their communities, engaged with the people, and be willing to actually put themselves at risk. People have already built framework for this type of policing; the Peelian principles and policing by consent and 8 Can’t Wait offer us a vision of what proper policing could look like. Until we can figure that out, though, we’re going to see no improvement from our current situation.
There are lots of writers who are far more talented than I am talking about this in much more eloquent ways than I could ever hope to achieve. From here on, I’m content to let them do the talking. I’ll be back to talking about music in a couple days, but I felt that it’s necessary to say something about what I’ve been seeing. I encourage you to do the same —giving someone whose heart is in the right place a push in the proper direction may be all they need to learn a little more about the context and history behind these protests, and then start supporting them without qualifiers. Honestly, I’ve been mostly heartened by the response I’ve seen online and elsewhere, coming sometimes from people whom I didn’t expect it to. And, as always, if you come across someone being openly fascistic, praising police tactics and advocating for the silencing of protestors, remember that saying something, no matter how awkwardly, is better than 21 seconds of silence. If you speak up and condemn this type of thinking, swiftly and in no uncertain terms, then you’re on the right side of history. If you can do that, then you’re helping. Stay safe, everyone.