One of my favorite pundits, Elon James White, recently wrote about How Occupy Wall Street Co-opted the Million Hoodie March, describing the behavior of OWS activists at the recent New York protest over the Trayvon Martin case.
In the post, White describes white OWS’ers taunting the police, which, besides just being insensitive of the always tense relationship between cops and African Americans, appeared to be a ploy to get attention. Many carried Occupy signs, chanted, “We are the 99%,” etc. Hence, White’s complaint that they attempted to co-opt the march.
The following weekend, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes addressed the conflict, saying that this kind of thing goes both ways, citing instances in which African Americans with Free Mumia signs protesting the incarceration of the African American political prisoner, often appear at anti-war demonstrations. I usually like Chris Hayes, but this statement made me squirm.
There are big differences between mostly white OWS protestors who are obviously being targeted for police repression showing up with 99% placards and chanting about economic inequality at a peaceful protest of a white on Black killing, and Free Mumia activists showing up with placards supporting their cause at a mostly white anti-war rally.
One difference, at least as I see it, is that when people of color show up to raise visibility for their causes at mostly white anti-war demonstrations, it’s an opportunity to escape the invisibility that is imposed on us by segregation and the indifference of the white majority, including the white media.
It’s a chance to build support among whites who, because of their concern over an unjust war, might be open to hearing about another kind of injustice. And, let’s face it, in a majority rule society in which white people not only hold the numerical advantage but control the media, you kinda have to get white permission for your cause to become visible.
Case in point: the Martin family tragedy is by no means isolated. Black men and boys die at the hands of people with guns with some regularity, and in those cases where the perpetrators are white, evidence of racially motivated bias is by no means rare. And yet, where are the protests? Meanwhile, a white child goes missing at a mall and it’s not just news, it’s a national crisis.
Not only are the problems affecting people of color happening mostly beyond the view of the white majority; the information necessary to understand these problems as injustice rarely get aired. Unless we can get white folks paying attention, like the white blogger who worked so diligently to bring the Trayvon Martin case to the public, our issues rarely become visible to the mainstream. So show up at a mostly white-led protest of something as big as a war to get some air time? Sure, how else can you get heard? And, BTW, we’re not there to distract media attention from the primary cause.
On the other hand, when white OWS’ers, who have been widely criticized for being isolated in their whiteness, use a march organized by Black people to raise visibility for themselves using distracting tactics, there is cause to complain. Given how polarizing OWS is (and BTW, polarizing is, strategically speaking, just what I think they ought to be), it doesn’t help the Martin family cause to have OWS’ers chanting, “We are the 99%.” In fact, it’s a detriment.
The Trayvon Martin protest isn’t about polarizing, it’s about coming together across race, politics and class to demonstrate broad-based public concern. Demonstrating broad, mainstream opposition to the Sanford police department’s handling of the shooting of Trayvon Martin is essential to achieving a just resolution.
But in the end, that’s not what made me squirm. What made me uncomfortable was that Chris Hayes’ false equivalency dismisses the racial dynamics underlying the conflict described by Mr. White. Too often white activists show up at the protests led by people of color (but not at the doors of our organizations offering to help behind the scenes) to say something, not about our causes, but about themselves. And what they want to say is some version of this: “Some of my best friends are Black.”