Sunday, August 30, 2015

All movements can be co-opted - even #BlackLivesMatter

Yesterday, Glenn Beck led thousands of protesters in a march through Birmingham, Alabama. Multiple speakers invoked Martin Luther King Jr., and organizers distributed signs of Frederick Douglass for participants to carry. People of color (POC) sang in a choir at a rally the night before, and POC were positioned prominently in most publicity photos.

Most people who aren't already in league with Beck will instantly recognize this as a shameless attempt to co-opt Americans of color and their extraordinary activism over the past few years. Glenn Beck's agenda obviously does not have significant support among them; it largely opposes their interests, in this case quite directly. And Beck's Restoring Unity rally bears all of the familiar signs of an astroturf operation: aggressive promotion, a savvy media strategy, carefully stage-managed optics, centralized control, and so on.

Most people on the left get this; and one would hope that their skepticism would translate into a broader concern about attempts by the powerful to co-opt the activism of POC. That's why it's so puzzling that so many have so conclusively ruled out the very possibility of liberal interests trying the same thing; there is, in fact, every reason to believe that it's already happening.

To start with an obvious point, political operatives and the media have both actively (and quite successfully) imposed upon the entire movement a single brand: Black Lives Matter (BLM). As a way of representing the multiplicity of protesters with a single collective designation, this necessarily erases the autonomy and diversity of POC who have participated. Consider for example this tweet by Jamil Smith:
Set aside whether or not Smith's critique of left politics happens to be correct. Is it not enough to point out that there are clearly people involved in the movement who disagree with him? And that most will never even have the opportunity to challenge him on this, or on anything - certainly not on equal terms? What is "Black Lives Matter," in Smith's mouth, but a way for a powerful man who controls massive media platforms to substitute his opinions for some of the most powerless and silenced people in America?

Liberals will be tempted to consider this situation through the lens of what Matt Bruenig calls Identitarian Deference (ID), and conclude that we should defer to Smith on this since he is himself a POC. This is pretty dicey even if we take his claim at face value, since deferring to Smith here necessarily means rejecting the perspective of another POC (the one he is at odds with) - a move ID categorically forbids.

That kind of internal contradiction's a significant problem for ID, but I see another that's even more compelling: to the extent that we recognize that POC are oppressed, silenced and excluded from the controlling mechanisms of public discourse, we have to recognize that they are therefore necessarily vulnerable to co-option. The people who speak for them most visibly and who do the most to define their public identity will always be people whose lives are significantly different from theirs: they will be media figures, politicians, and members of the activist elite, all groups still dominated by the interests of racism and white supremacy.

In particular, it's worth bearing in mind that the POC most victimized by police violence are the poor. From this it follows trivially that a truly representative movement would be overwhelmingly spoken for and constituted by the poor - even if middle-class and wealthy POC also participate. These are largely people who are not involved in college activism, since they are not in college; who do not have large media platforms or significant media connections; who do not have the financial support necessary for full-time activism; and who have relatively little training and experience with organizing high-profile political and media campaigns. They are far more likely to be the people we see in news footage marching in the streets or getting arrested by riot police; they are relatively unlikely to be talking heads on cable news or Twitter celebrities with blue checks by their names.

Bearing this in mind, activism by Americans of color in recent years takes on a somewhat different character than its representation in the media. First, it appears to be almost exclusively concerned with the specific problems of racist police brutality and prosecution. Groups identified with BLM have certainly addressed a whole range of worthy issues, from LGBT rights to disproportionate incarceration rates; but by far, the largest, most powerful actions with the greatest claim to participation and representation are the ones that have followed the murder of POC by police and subsequent refusals to prosecute. These are the incidents that have compelled huge numbers of POC to take to the streets, and these are the protests that they've been willing to push to the point of crisis, often taking absolutely heroic risks and sacrificing their own safety and freedom in the process.

Second, the largest protests have typically been relatively autonomous and spontaneous. In Ferguson, for example, it's clear that the riots emerged organically from an initial candlelight vigil; that they snowballed from there as local residents and a wide range of local organizations got involved; and that the national, "original" BLM organization only got involved after the fact. Notably, many of the initial protests were so distinctly independent that multiple (largely white) media figures were scandalized to discover that radical leftists across the country had joined in solidarity. It's telling that many of these same critics abandoned their suspicion of co-option when different outsiders got involved, and now rarely challenge the elites who claim to speak for BLM on a regular basis.

And third, while the actual movement has enjoyed significant participation among POC - and while its actual actions are significantly aligned with the concerns of most POC - we cannot forget that an extraordinary number of POC remain completely alienated and disengaged from the movement. There are all kinds of reasons for this, ranging from the incidental (some people don't live near any of the flashpoints) to the intrinsic (some are afraid to participate, some can't afford to, some are incarcerated, and some have simply despaired). There are still ways that we can deduce their interests - through polls, for example, or through various modes of socioeconomic and political analysis - but we must in any case acknowledge that many of the people we should care about the most are precisely the people who remain voiceless.

When we consider these three points, I think there's reason to regard #BLM - not the movement, but the brand - with some minimal degree of vigilance and skepticism. To my mind, one of the most important refrains to emerge from all of this is the expectation that white people should listen to what POC are actually saying; this is a worthy point whether one buys into the politics of ID or not. But listening to POC doesn't mean just listening to people who claim to speak on their behalf. It means listening to the people themselves - all of them.