Honestly, if anyone was surprised by the Grand Jury’s decision to not indict Darren Wilson, you have not been paying attention.
I have a lot on my mind – the need to articulate justice, privilege in the movement, long term strategy – so I’m just gonna start writing and we’ll see where this goes.
Let me just say one thing quickly. I have often times been critical of movements that to me lack long-term strategy or discipline, and I’ve been open about voicing them. And some have criticized me for criticizing the movement. Which is fine. I welcome criticism, as long as a willingness to dialogue comes with it.
But I think it’s really unhealthy when criticism of aspects of a movement is interpreted as an overall condemnation of the movement. I encourage those who disagree with me to be in dialogue about it, and I encourage all parties to be willing to be challenged. I think a lot of what’s happening in the streets right now is amazing, incredible, courageous work. I just think we can do even better.
The Face of (privilege in) the Movement
My friend and I got to the rally a little late, so we were running to catch up to the main group when we passed a white man holding a sign with an image of a young black man with the words “Am I Next?” My friend sighed and said under his breath, “no, you will not be next.”
And that kind of symbolizes a lot of what I’m struggling with, especially in Oakland. It’s already been voiced by a lot of folks more articulate then I.
White people should be incensed at each police killing. White people should be in the streets in solidarity with this struggle. But they should also be very aware of their privilege, and recognize the differences between the anger that they may have with the anger that young black and brown folks have about this issue. And that awareness should guide how they engage in this critical movement. Instead, I’ve seen a lot of young white folks calling rallies, starting fires, smashing windows and looting stores with no acknowledgement of that difference or the impact of their actions.
I wrote a while ago that, while I don’t condone property, I will not condemn the young people of Ferguson for it. And that extends to all black and brown youth, including in Oakland. But I’m sorry, that understanding and empathy is not universal.
It feels like there are some (white) people who are using the righteous indignation over the Mike Brown shooting as an excuse to throw a party in the streets, play revolutionary, earn radical activist points, prove their militancy and become the face of a movement that should not and cannot belong to them.
I am Japanese, and with that comes a lot of privilege. I am trying to figure out how I can best be in service to the communities that suffer directly from police violence. How can I create space for and empower the people who look like Mike Brown? How can I stand behind them? I’m not always sure how to do that, but I know breaking windows and looting stores – especially stores owned by local Oaklanders – is not that.
If you are a white person breaking windows, consider the impact that action may have. You are escalating a conflict with the police that you have the privilege to stay out of once the sun comes up. You are not the ones who will have to suffer the consequence of escalation and pissed off cops.
There was a moment when I was out in the streets the other day, watching people shut down the highway. I was looking on from the other side of the fence with a friend, when a young white man wearing a mask came up behind us and said, “if the cops start attacking them (the protesters), we all have to tear down the fence, OK?” And I couldn’t help but think, in a group of mostly white protesters, who the police will come after if we tore down the fence and things got chaotic.
You are encouraging people to take actions that may have consequences that you won’t have to deal with.
If you are out in the streets, you are there on behalf of Mike Brown, other victims of police violence and their families. If you think you are there to express your rage at the system, then check your privilege. This is not about you. We need people who are not black and brown to be out in the streets, but it needs to be with a very clear understanding of who we are there for.
Disciplined Anger: Rage vs. Indignation
This is a battle. And battles require training, preparation and discipline. While I commend all the communities who were out in the streets shutting down highways to force the country to keep this issue on the front page, discipline is not what I saw in Oakland the other night.
There was a moment when a line of cops started moving towards the protesters, and a small group of mostly young folks started running down the highway as cars were trying to weave by. Not only did they risk getting hit, they also isolated themselves from the rest of the group.
I think back to the Sit-In movement of the early 60s, when students trained themselves – sometimes for months on end – to sit there and not react as people were pouring coffee on them, spitting in their faces, ashing cigarettes on them. And while folks will have different opinions about that strategy, I wonder if our movements today couldn’t benefit from more training, preparation and strategy.
Instead of small groups splintering and running off while others come in and out of the line while others antagonize the cops while others try to stop people from antagonizing the cops while others chant while others sing while others yell while others decide to start marching while others refuse to move – what if we all decided to sit and refuse to budge regardless of what happens?
I’ve been thinking a lot about anger lately, and I think anger can manifest in two ways: as rage or as indignation. We should all be angry about the state of the world.
But when that anger comes out as rage, it tends to be uncontrollable, undisciplined and unsustainable. It’s hard if not impossible to channel it or to focus it in a particular direction. We start out being angry about police violence, and before we know it we’re looting a locally owned store and getting into shouting matches with drivers who are just trying to get home to their kids. We internalize it and start arguing with those we are organizing with or with our families. We get bitter and hopeless when we don’t see change right away. That rage hurts us as much as anyone.
As the old saying goes, “hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
But indignation is a different story. Indignation is controllable, it is fierce, it is disciplined and focused at the root causes of injustice. We can, with training and preparation, cultivate that indignation and channel all that energy against the forces of injustice in strategic ways that brings about change. And I believe it’s this type of disciplined anger that the movement needs.
Creating Space for Defection & Dissent
In a revolution, a sure sign that the powers that be are starting to crumble is when you begin to see defections from military forces. When members of the military being to see that they are upholding a system that is unjust, and join the movement or at the very least refuse to carry out orders from above.
Even a few people in positions of power that are traditionally thought of as the “opponents” speaking out can legitimize the movement in the eyes of the mainstream that may be unsure.
I say this because the whole “fuck the cops” messaging I don’t think is effective. It’s effective if your goal is simply to let the world know how pissed off you are. It works if all you’re concerned about is inspiring the people who are already down with the movement. But if we’re trying to win more people over? If we’re trying to create space for some cops to speak out? If we’re trying to win over more people who are watching this on the news?
People complain when police never speak out against police violence. And rightfully so. They have their own version of the “no snitch” rule. But we’re lying to ourselves if we think that every single cop supports Darren Wilson. And I think the movement would be better served if we tried to create space for even one cop to speak out.
This also goes back to the discussion about rage and indignation. I get the anger and the rage that makes people want to scream “fuck the police.” It’s 100% understandable. But that’s again why we need to cultivate indignation, so we can honor our anger and yet be disciplined about how it’s expressed.
I’ve said before that screaming “justice” won’t get you that. You need to articulate what justice looks like, have a concrete demand, figure out who has the power to meet that demand and figure out how to put pressure on that power to force a genuine negotiation.
I’m not sure I see that happening. Shutting down highways in and of itself is not an effective tactic unless it’s tied to a specific goal. Protesting is not a goal. Shutting down an intersection is not a goal. They are tactics. And tactics are used to get you to a goal.
Things like “justice” and “freedom” are visions more then they are concrete goals and demands. And it’s important for the public to understand our vision, but it’s also important that we are using the pressure and leverage created by these demonstrations to push towards concrete goals.
There is a list of local (to Ferguson) and national demands that have been put out by activists in Ferguson. And there are two thoughts that I have about them.
One, I don’t think there is enough focus and emphasis on those demands. I know about them because I’m on the Hands Up United mailing list. But I have not seen these demands in the press, nor have I heard about a specific strategy that ties the tactics to these demands.
What if instead of shutting down highways indefinitely, we ask every community to shut down highways every Monday until these demands are met? If you give the “opponents” an “out,” it makes it easier to gain victory because you are clearly defining what victory looks like, and how specifically the tactics you are using leads to that victory. You are defining a clear end goal, which is helpful for both the activists and for the powers that be.
And every community around the country needs to get behind those demands and those strategies. I personally have not seen anyone in Oakland specifically referencing these demands locally.
Second, I wonder if these demands go far enough. I feel like these demands still rely on the government to articulate justice and figure out the concrete next steps. What if we threw out our assumptions of what’s possible and articulated what justice looks like on our terms?
What if part of the demand was a requirement for all police around the country to wear front-facing body cameras, which has been shown to significantly lower use of force?
What if we demanded changes to the investigation methods of officer involved shootings, which currently only asks if the officer was justified in pulling the trigger in the exact moment he pulled the trigger? Because this is the main question asked by investigators, all a cop has to show is that they felt threatened in that exact moment and any shooting is “justified.”
Another thing I’ve been thinking about forever was validated in an interview that Darren Wilson gave, in which he said that he was “doing what he was trained to do.” And that’s the problem, right? He was literally doing his job. So his job and his training need to change.
So what if we demanded a review of the training that goes into the police academy, with an eye towards institutionalizing undoing racism and nonviolence trainings for all new recruits? What if they had to learn about the history of police violence in communities of color before they get their badge?
Imagine if, as part of the Academy, new recruits had to sit in restorative circles with young men of color from low-income neighborhoods that they will be working in? I’ve witnessed the impact of restorative circles in prison between victims and perpetrators of violent crime, and it is some of the most powerful and transformative work I’ve ever seen in my life.
If each cop could sit and face the reality of the pain, anger and violence that so many young people hold – as well as the inspirational stories of young people overcoming all of that – I have to believe that will have a huge impact on how they relate.
I recognize that these are very far-fetched ideas, and maybe they’re a couple decades away in our 250-year workplan. But the point of mass movements is to make the seemingly impossible and make it possible. We have to be willing to dream big and organize towards that.
So let’s throw out all of our assumptions about what is and what isn’t possible. The momentum built around this case is big right now, and in these moments, the regular rules that we are used to don’t apply. It’s an opportunity to try to get beyond our immediate rage and begin to vision.
So let’s envision what justice could really look like.