Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust Will Not End Police Violence
Cover photo screenshot of a sign from the Bears Ears protest with a photo bomb courtesy of Peter Pan and Tinkerbell
The privilege that comes from living in a white body means feeling entitled to not only take up space anywhere, but also that you can consume the parts of another's culture to suit your own needs. White liberals have a messy and long history with corrupting and appropriating Black culture, from their watered down version of nonviolence, to acrylic nails and cornrows. Recently, with the fight for Bears Ears, white people are getting riled up and tossing around MLK Jr. quotes like they’re making a post-racial salad. These lands are their public lands, and white people who wouldn’t get off the couch for a Black Lives Matter march are suddenly “radicalized” for the cause, just like the white women who posed with cops at the Women’s March in their pink pussy hats. White liberals adamantly purport a position that is staunchly opposed to their Neanderthal Republican counterparts, but fail to see how they continue to invest in, and maintain the status quo. White supremacy doesn’t just exist in white men chanting with tiki torches, it exists in the complacency of those who believe we can work within the system.
White people time and time again corrupt nonviolent direct action by turning it into a kind of passivity that believes “polite” behavior will be rewarded, and that in the face of injustice you can simply insert heart emojis and keep on keeping on. As Damon Young from Very Smart Brothers writes in his piece, “Polite White People Are Useless,” published on The Root, “Ultimately, this laser focus on niceness and decorum is just a way of policing behavior.” This mentality of “love will conquer all” feels really good. It thinks itself transcendent, and romanticizes a version of revolution that completely erases history.
Social media is great for pinpointing this phenomenon. On Twitter, Jessica Chastain writes, “If we resort to violence as a way to combat hate, we become what we are fighting.” Only a white person would say this. This logic could only stem from someone who doesn’t have any skin in the game. Feminista Jones responded with, “Would you say those who took up arms to fight against slaveowners became…slaveowners?” Chastain’s lazy negotiation willfully ignores the roots of our structurally oppressive country, which functions by disenfranchising the poor, disabled, queer, Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. This mindset is a dangerous luxury only a white person can afford.
In the outdoor industry, we see this with the fight for Bears Ears National Monument. This fight is born out of environmental racism, but thanks to brands like Patagonia, the narratives in mainstream media often center whiteness in the form of recreation and economic benefit. White brands and organizations like the Sierra Club, Access Fund, and Duct Tape Then Beer, to name a few, may be nicer and more politically correct than Trump, but they still function within the status quo. The outdoor industry is what Martin Luther King Jr. warned us about: people who write a script of protesting and peace that in reality blocks the flow of social progress. On April 16th, 1963 King wrote in, A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Any true threat to the state will result in tension and confrontation. Because nonviolent direct action as King was calling for, is a threat to the current order of the status quo. And if the state is threatened they will respond with violence. We can look to Standing Rock: a peaceful ceremony that was rewarded with helicopters, water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, assault and detainment at the hands of the police.
Last week, thousands of protestors showed up to the Salt Lake City Capitol where Trump announced his plan to cut the protected areas down significantly. One vocal supporter of the monuments, Caroline Gleich, a ski mountaineer, endurance athlete, public speaker, and environmental activist, posted a message on Instagram the day of the protest pleading for everyone to show respect. She writes,
“Be kind. Stay vigilant. Keep showing up. Tomorrow, Trump is coming to Utah to announce his plans to gut our National Monuments. There is a protest scheduled at the State Capitol, event info in the link in my profile.
As angry and upset as we are, I want to send out a quick reminder to everyone to show a basic level of respect and decency to President Trump, Senator Hatch and all our elected officials. Everyone deserves respect. Love will always prevail. A great person once told me, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.” Keep criticism focused on policy, not on the person.
I hope to see you there at 10:45 am.”
Gleich encourages “the politics of respectability,” a concept coined by Evelyn Brooks. This concept describes an adherence to hegemonic standards of what it means to be “respectable.” Basically, whatever white people can tolerate. Gleich’s understandings of “indecency” and “disrespect” are influenced by her relationship with the level of power and privilege that she is afforded by her whiteness, her position as a settler, and her class-status. The post implies that cops only show up with batons and tear gas when people misbehave. It is much easier to talk about how marginalized people can avoid violence, then talk about the systems that uphold, perpetuate, and create that violence.
Let’s not get it twisted: the police were created to control BIPOC.
In utilizing respectability politics, Gleich employs tone-policing, which is when someone detracts from the reasons for protest by attacking the mode of expression or approach that someone takes. Respectability politics ignore the machine of racism – that Black and Indigenous people are deprived of their basic human rights and dignity. A “quick reminder” to respect the man in office who embodies xenophobia, racism, and sexism, fails to acknowledge the fact that people of color in this country are under constant attack by a penal system that could have them pulled over for something as menial as an out headlight, face an adulthood of prison, probation, and then the consequences of a stained record. Gleich’s words could only come from a person so free from the prison-industrial complex that she can make an island of her activism.
Gleich explains what inspired her post: “… my philosophy on nonviolence and compassion [is] what inspired my post. I was concerned about the possibility of violence at the rally when Trump was here. It’s a message of peaceful resistance. We’re stronger when we work together. Even the worst criminals deserve a fair trial. When we succumb to name-calling and bullying, everyone loses. Society suffers. I believe we have more in common with our fellow Americans, even Trump supporters, than we realize.”
Trump is a trash-tastic fuck-boy, who repealed the Clean Water Act, designated a "No Vacancy" policy for Black people when renting out apartments through his real estate company, and LITERALLY 19 WOMEN accused him of sexual assault. Gleich’s language quells the power of past protests and erases the deliberate nature of the policing of Black and Brown bodies. Her words suggest that protestors are to blame for contentious relationships with the police. The implication is that any protests that have ended in violence or aggression by the hands of police must have not been practicing nonviolence and compassion. According to this logic, violence at rallies must only happen when our fellow Americans fail to realize their commonalities with the KKK. Protestors who have been arrested, pepper-sprayed, assaulted, beaten, or shot must have been acting indecently and disrespectfully. They must not have been acting out of love and compassion. They must have been very disagreeable.
In Policing Black Bodies: How Black Lives Are Surveilled and How to Work for Change, Angela J. Hattery and Earl Smith detail how America’s foundation was built on the control of literally every aspect of the lives of Black communities through “stop and frisk,” racial profiling in traffic stops, and disproportionately high sentences for all kinds of crimes from simple drug possession to capital murder, all of which contribute to the system of mass incarceration and the continued expansion of the prison-industrial complex, conveniently populated by Black bodies.” The policing of Black and Brown bodies by way of respectability politics happens everywhere. At the beginning of 2016, Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem to honor the Black men and women who were unjustly murdered by the police, or by those acting as if they were. Something as benign and peaceful as taking a knee was treated like a full on affront. It is clear that even when protest is quiet, subtle, and “polite,” there will still be consequences. Sometimes those consequences come in the form of the person losing social standing, their job, and/or receiving death threats.
What is missing from conversations about protests in mainstream media is the fact that protests are not isolated outbursts of discontent. In our current climate where shootings of unarmed black men and women are part of the nightly news, it must be acknowledged that protests, like the ones started by Black Lives Matter, are a response of a very long historically contentious relationship between the police and Black and Brown bodies. And if the protests have ended in police brutality, which they often do, it is not because the protestors didn’t tap into their inner Tinkerbell and bring enough faith, trust, and pixie dust. All too often white people corrupt the philosophy of nonviolence as a way to condemn BIPOC rage.
Inequitable power relations persist through the illusion that American government is grounded in logic and coherence, as if the features of our society are ultimately just, and we just have a few bad apples that need replacing. But this is a delusion. The unbalanced and unchecked power that lies in the hands of the police is sustained by the insistence of civil society as defined by whiteness. There is a need to believe in the innocence of the law, as if general prosperity wasn’t always under threat, as if slavery did indeed end, as if colonization wasn’t a modern day process. Norm Stamper, Seattle's police chief during the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests, now admits that his actions during that time were the worst mistakes of his career: “We gassed fellow Americans engaging in civil disobedience,” Stamper says. “We set a number of precedents, most of them bad. And police departments across the country learned all the wrong lessons from us. That’s disheartening. So disheartening. I mean, you look at what happened to those Occupy protesters at UC Davis, where the cop just pepper sprays them down like he’s watering a bed of flowers, and I think that we played a part in making that sort of thing so common—so easy to do now.…”
Riots and broken windows are not the problem. The violent systems of oppression that lead to sexual assault and rape, poverty, poor education, high unemployment, lack of health care, barriers to the right to vote, mass incarceration, and continued genocide, are the problem. If white people actually want to be a part of the solution, then they need to look at their own participation in oppressive systems. White people need to look at the ways in which their demand for palatable, respectability politics is actually silencing marginalized voices, and how this is the very reason why oppressive systems continue.
If white people are stuck in the fear of sacrificing their own comforts, how are we going to get anywhere? White people need to be wary of their individual positions of power, and how they might be silencing instead of advocating. Bolstering hegemonic codes of what is considered "decent" and "respectable" reproduces and reinforces oppressive structures.
“Radical change will come from avoiding being disagreeable,” said no one. Ever.