Barbecuing while black. Attending a college tour while Mohawk. White people so frequently call the police on people of color who are merely exercising or enjoying their rights that perhaps we need to think of these calls as hate crimes. Clearly, the women and men who are so quick to dial 911 are not only motivated by bigotry; they are also, I would argue, driven by a hateful desire to use police as their proxy both to oppress and to injure – physically, legally, and spiritually – the men, women and children whom they report.
With this in mind, then, I offer below suggested changes (in bold) to California’s “Hate Crime” laws (thank you, Becky). May it inspire the passage of state legislation throughout the country to end this abuse once and for all.
PENAL CODE – PEN
PART 1. OF CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS
TITLE: BARBECUE BECKY ACT OF 2018
CHAPTER 1. Definitions
422.55. For purposes of this title, the following shall apply:
(a) “Hate crime” means a criminal act committed, in whole or in part, because of one or more of the following actual or perceived characteristics of the victim:
(4) Race or ethnicity.
(6) Sexual orientation.
(7) Association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics.
(b) “Hate crime” includes, but is not limited to, a violation of Section 422.6.
CHAPTER 2. Crimes and Penalties
(a) No person, whether or not acting under color of law, shall by force or threat of force, willfully injure, intimidate, interfere with, oppress, or threaten any other person in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him or her by the Constitution or laws of this state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States in whole or in part because of one or more of the actual or perceived characteristics of the victim listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55.
(b) No person, whether or not acting under color of law, shall knowingly deface, damage, or destroy the real or personal property of any other person for the purpose of intimidating or interfering with the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to the other person by the Constitution or laws of this state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States, in whole or in part because of one or more of the actual or perceived characteristics of the victim listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55.
(c) No person, whether or not acting under color of law, shall report to the police any other person for the purpose of oppressing, intimidating or interfering with the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to the other person by the Constitution or laws of this state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States, in whole or in part because of one or more of the actual or perceived characteristics of the victim listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55.*
(d) Any person convicted of violating subdivision (a), (b) or (c) shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, or by a fine not to exceed five thousand dollars ($5,000), or by both the above imprisonment and fine, and the court shall order the defendant to perform a minimum of community service, not to exceed 400 hours, to be performed over a period not to exceed 350 days, during a time other than his or her hours of employment or school attendance. However, no person may be convicted of violating subdivision (a) based upon speech alone, except upon a showing that the speech itself threatened violence against a specific person or group of persons and that the defendant had the apparent ability to carry out the threat. No person may be convicted of violating subdivision (c) based alone upon a threat to call the police, except upon a showing that the defendant who issued the threat also 1) threatened violence against a specific person or group of persons and that the defendant had the apparent ability to carry out the threat; 2) knowingly defaced, damaged, or destroyed the real or personal property of a specific person or group of persons; and/or 3) previously called the police, is known to have called the police, or has a record of calling police for the reasons described in subdivision (c).
(e) Any person who commits a felony that is a hate crime, or attempts to commit a felony that is a hate crime, and who voluntarily acted in concert with another person, either personally or by aiding and abetting another person, shall receive an additional two, three, or four years in the state prison, at the court’s discretion.
(a) It is the public policy of this state that the principal goals of sentencing for hate crimes, are the following:
(1) Punishment for the hate crimes committed.
(2) Crime and violence prevention, including prevention of recidivism and prevention of crimes and violence in prisons and jails.
(3) Prevention of the routine use of police to oppress, intimidate, injure and terrorize the classes of persons listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55.
(4) Restorative justice for the immediate victims of the hate crimes and for the classes of persons terrorized by the hate crimes.
(b) The Judicial Council shall develop a rule of court guiding hate crime sentencing to implement the policy in subdivision (a). In developing the rule of court, the council shall consult experts including organizations representing hate crime victims.
*Examples of the violation of this law include, but are not limited to, calling police on a specific person or group of persons (listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55) who are merely peaceably engaged in such mundane activities as 1) barbecuing at public parks, 2) attending a college tour, 3) waiting peaceably for friends at a café, 4) napping in a dorm common room, 5) golfing, 6) shopping, and 8) inspecting repairs to a home.
“It is critically important to recognize and start working through how the moment of violence and the moment of neoliberalism coalesce.” – Simon Springer
If we examine through the prism of neoliberalism the killing of Philando Castile – that is, if we think of the killing as a moment when violence and neoliberalism coalesced – then we are immediately confronted with the fact that, to a great extent, the current problem of policing is a problem of neoliberal policing. It is a problem of the production of police as officers whose enforcement of the law is guided by neoliberal policies and procedures, the violence of which no amount of body cameras or use of force training or diversity training can adequately address. Indeed, the fact of neoliberal policing requires from all of us a radically different response to policing and police killings, a response by which we directly confront policing, and our governments’ constitution of law enforcement, as neoliberal practice.
So let’s talk about this moment when neoliberalism and violence converged:
Over the course of fourteen years, Minnesota police initiated at least 52 encounters (a staggering number) with Philando Castile, citing him for minor offenses like driving without wearing a seat belt, speeding, and driving without a muffler. These encounters resulted in Philando being assessed a total of $6,588 in fines and fees.
Given these circumstances, let’s assume (indeed, it is probably safe to assume) that St. Anthony Police Department – the police department that employs Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who killed Philando – operates under a scheme similar to the one that was in place in Ferguson, Missouri when Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown.
Under that scheme (as the U.S. Department of Justice found), City of Ferguson officials “routinely” urged its Chief of Police “to generate more revenue” for the City “through enforcement” and to meet specific revenue goals. In response, the Chief pressured his officers and created a culture in which officers competed with one another in generating revenue; created opportunities to issue citations in order to meet revenue goals; engaged primarily African American citizens as objects from which they could profit as well as subjected them to the department’s and City’s market discipline; and, measured their own value and success as police officers in market terms (the department looked favorably upon and rewarded officers who met their revenue demands).
Through this scheme, the City in essence transformed the police into neoliberal police officers, into men and women who would enforce the law in ways that folded penal discipline into the “market-driven disciplinary logic” of neoliberalism, and whose policing became the expression of what Simon Springer calls neoliberalism’s “fundamental virtues”: “individualism, competitiveness and economic self-sufficiency.”
As they sought out opportunities to generate revenue, officers also engaged in the kind of ‘Othering’ upon which neoliberalism depends. As Springer writes, neoliberalism not only “treats as enemies” those “who don’t fit the mold of a proper neoliberal subject” (e.g., possessive individualism, economic self-sufficiency); it also “actively facilitates the abandonment of ‘Others’ who fall outside of ‘neoliberal normativity’, a conceptual category that cuts across multiple categories of discrimination including class, race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexuality, age and ability.”
Ferguson’s neoliberal police officers (and city officials) regarded African Americans and poor people as those who don’t fit the mold. The latter were not the victims of neoliberal policies that had been embraced on a local, national and global scale. Instead, they were failures, people who were unwilling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and remake themselves in the ways that the market demanded. Consequently, it was right to treat both as objects by which to profit and “as enemies” who needed to be disciplined and controlled.
That the City’s scheme and the neoliberal logic behind it would create the circumstances that led to Michael Brown’s death is clear. Indeed, through that scheme Ferguson officials and the police department produced a “‘state of exception,’ wherein…exceptional violence” – i.e.., violence that shocks, that “elicits a deep emotional response” – was “transformed into exemplary violence,” into violence that “forms the rule,” and particularly for those excluded and abandoned. Without social media, Brown’s death would have merely been a part of the everyday violence that police directed at Ferguson’s African American community and poor people generally, violence made increasingly likely by the market driven imperative of the Ferguson police force. And of course Brown’s death took place against the backdrop of the invisible violence of the City’s neoliberal policies (creation of unequal and increasingly privatized schools, attraction of business that paid little taxes and employed workers at low wages, privatization of public services, etc.).
If Officer Yanez worked under a governmental scheme similar to the one in Ferguson, then in that moment when he pulled the trigger (four or five times) he embodied, expressed and enacted the neoliberal principles and logic by which his department and his city operate.
But let’s suppose that the St. Anthony Police Department is not a business enterprise disguised as a police department, made so at the behest of city officials. Does that change the conclusion?
We live in the context of a global neoliberal order. And to a frightening degree, “we have become entrepreneurs of our lives,” as Johanna Oksala writes, “competing in the free market called society.” Indeed, we “compete in an ever-expanding range of fields, and invest in ourselves by enhancing our abilities and appearance, by improving our strategies of life coaching and time management. Our life has become an enterprise that we must lead to success.”
In other words, we are all neoliberals now, and as Springer argues, all of us are “implicated in the perpetuation of neoliberalised violence.”
A few months ago, I complained to my partner that the preschool our three-year old attends had not yet taught her the alphabet and numbers – at least not in any way that in my mind reflected academic rigor. “How is she going to succeed?” I asked. “When she gets to kindergarten, all the other kids will be way ahead.” I was ready to pull her out and send her to a school with a more disciplined, focused program, one that would lead to her academic success and, eventually, her career success. Lurking in the back of my mind was the fate of black girls, who have very little the market recognizes as valuable.
Let me repeat: my daughter is three. She attends a school in which learning happens outdoors – in a forest – where the kids discover things like rabbits and tadpoles and swarms of ladybugs and dead birds and, from those things, learn about habitats and camouflage and metamorphosis and death.
Against a neoliberal, market-driven idea of education – one that permeates the public sphere and that has redefined the purpose of school and education – I measured this wide-open, wonderful way of learning and found it wanting. Without even thinking about it, I was ready to subject my three-year old to the disciplinary logic of a neoliberal education and thus to perform an act, the violence of which (to creativity, to learning) I could not see.
Even if Officer Yanez had not performed his duty in accordance with the kind of policies that guided Ferguson’s police department, he nevertheless killed Philando within the context of a broader neoliberal framework that marked men like Philando as always already outside of neoliberal normativity (black male + broke ass car = enemy) and denied them any claim to the neoliberal virtues of economic self-sufficiency and possessive individualism. As to the latter, black people throughout United States history have been cast as anything but a collection of individuals. Instead, we are a monolith that can be used and disposed of at will (hence, Dallas police killer Micah Xavier Johnson is not Micah Xavier Johnson as such; instead, he is Black Lives Matter).
Moreover, that broader neoliberal framework, which defines (in the words of Lester Spence) “freedom in market terms rather than political terms,” is a racial capitalist framework that defines African Americans as unfree Others in order to naturalize class hierarchies. Thus, when Officer Yanez encountered Philando, he encountered an unfree Other who – in spite of that mark – had the audacity to claim the status of a free person by openly carrying a gun. Officer Yanez encountered the enemy.
My point in all of this is that Officer Yanez – like all of us, like me – was (is) immersed in neoliberalism and inevitably internalized as well as reproduced it in his employment life (and probably in his personal life as well). He was armed with it, so to speak, when he encountered and then killed Philando Castile, and I suspect this was true as well for Officer Darren Wilson of Ferguson, Missouri.
Finally, even if St. Anthony’s had not been blatantly transformed into a business enterprise, it nevertheless operates within a national and global paradigm of policing that aligns police with the interests of capital. As Oksala notes, governments throughout the world have adopted policies and practices designed to “intervene in the very being of society in order to make competition the dominant principle for guiding human behavior,” and to “give competition between enterprises and entrepreneurial conduct maximum range.” These policies and practices proceed from the understanding that maintaining these conditions for capital requires “objective, extensive and efficient state-violence,” i.e., “effective practices of policing.” They proceed from the understanding, in other words, that such violence is and must be “inherent to neoliberal governmentality.” When Officer Yanez approached and killed Philando, then, the police department for which he worked was hardly operating outside of this paradigm.
If what we are witnessing in these violent encounters with police is neoliberalism in action, then we have to come up with an entirely different set of solutions to change policing. This is not to dismiss body cameras and training, which will no doubt save some lives. But they are technical fixes that do not address at all the neoliberal character of our police departments, the transformation of peace officers into neoliberal police, the policies that align policing with corporate power, and the violence that neoliberalism produces.
In fact, these fixes amount to our use of the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. After all, through neoliberal policies governments regularly take “outside of the realm of the political” the myriad problems that communities face and then render these problems “technical and actionable,” as Lester Spence has observed. So when we offer solutions like body cameras, we make fixing the police a technical matter rather than a political matter, and in so doing we legitimize and further entrench neoliberal policies and practices that enact invisible, spectacular, and ultimately normalized violence on those who don’t fit the mold. The consequence is that we’ll continue to receive tweets and Facebook feeds of police killings.
But we’ll also see more retaliatory killings of police officers – like the killings that occurred recently in Dallas and Baton Rouge – as more people realize that neoliberal policing, and the violence it enacts, is exactly the kind of policing our governments intend. Such counter-violence, however, is extraordinarily ironic, for individuals who engage in retaliatory killings – individuals who are, and will likely continue to be, primarily men – ultimately express just how deeply they have internalized the ideals and attributes that constitute the Virtuous Neoliberal Citizen: self-reliance or rugged individualism, personal responsibility, distrust of government, efficiency, cruelty. With an Izhmash-Saiga 5.45 mm rifle or some other AK-style weapon in tow, they alone will fix the problem of police violence, and in so doing, they will precisely, and finally, fit the neoliberal mold.
Repairing the police and our system of policing, then, clearly demands that we end not only neoliberal policing, but also the transformation of men and women into neoliberal police. To do this, we must relentlessly break down these moments of violence between officers and the community in order to unearth the neoliberal politics they express and enact, and that our government officials (local, state, national) continue to impose upon us at our expense (and for the benefit of the wealthy), but most especially at the expense of our abandoned, disposed children, women and men.
It is through this kind of work, in fact, that we can begin to upend an order that neoliberal proponents present as the only alternative and that appears all-powerful and all-encompassing. By doing this work, we’ll discover just how much neoliberalism and the violence it produces is, as Oksala makes clear, a “specific, rationally reflected and coordinated way of governing” – including the hiring, training, management and oversight of police – that we absolutely have the power to change.
This article also appears in CounterPunch.
I can’t stop thinking about Dae’Anna – Diamond Reynold‘s four year-old daughter who was in the car when police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile, Reynold’s boyfriend. Specifically, I can’t stop thinking about Dae’Anna’s words to her mom as her mom broke down crying while sitting handcuffed in the back of a police car: “It’s okay mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”
I have a three-year old who crawls in bed with me whenever I am incapacitated with the pain of a migraine. She lies on my chest, kisses my face and says “It’s okay, momma.” I know that in such moments she is terribly afraid, and that it hurts her deeply to see her momma in such agony. So when I heard Dae’Anna comfort her mother during that incredibly violent, horrific event, I was not surprised, and I knew in my heart of hearts that not only was Dae’Anna unimaginably afraid; she was also in great pain – for her mother, for Philando, for herself. Maybe even for Officer Yanez.
She was also frighteningly vulnerable.
In my heart of hearts I also know that the violence suffered and perpetrated by adults must be answered by turning toward Dae’Anna – toward little black girls and other girls of color everywhere, especially those who are poor – and asking: what is required of us to make the world safe for you? What must we do to ensure that little girls never have to turn to mothers who are forced to flee war, to flee men, who suffer poverty and racism, who suffer through the violence of routine traffic stops and the funerals of kin cut down in the prime of life by state-sanctioned and private acts of violence and say, “It’s okay, mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you”?
We turn to them for our answers because it is clear that to resolve the question of their safety and well-being, and (by extension) that of the entire planet, is to commit unhesitatingly to a political, economic, and spiritual revolution that will completely upend the structural and gendered violence by which our society – all of it – is organized and in which all of us are immersed. To turn toward our little girls is to examine, through their eyes, what we have built and to see without blinders the shitty ways we recreate the very circumstances that force them – the most vulnerable in our society – to be their mothers’ comfort and keepers in the midst of violence (slow and fast, visible and invisible) that is also their own trauma and inheritance.
Indeed, if we can ever get to the point where we can say that our girls are safe and thriving — that society is right and just — it will be because we will have courageously and selflessly undertook the labor of radically transforming everything, every damn thing, from the bottom-up. It will be because we will have put to rest the very logic that has created a society that not only renders black people disposable; but that also renders violence “the most important tool of power” as well as “the mediating force” – to use the words of Henry Giroux – “in shaping social relationships.”
Ultimately, if we can ever say that our girls are safe and thriving, it will be because we had come to understand that the meaning and measure of a just society could have only been defined in terms of the needs and care of the least of these. We would have finally understood that this inescapable network of violence (racism, neoliberalism, militarism) — of which war, gun violence (nay, the very ownership of guns) as well as racist, militaristic policing are the articulate expressions — could never have been tweaked or refined or perfected enough to coexist with justice, and that it could have only guaranteed that four year-old black and brown girls would forever be witnesses to, and thus victims of, the horrors it inevitably produces.
So let’s transform the words “It’s okay mommy” into a subversive call to action, into a promise we make to our little girls, and thus to ourselves, that we will transform this world into one where we all – but most especially they – will be absolutely okay.
As many of you have heard by now, the Verizon strike was, by all indications, a successful labor action with far-reaching consequences for future union organizing. On April 13, 2016, close to 40,000 Verizon workers walked off the job because Verizon refused to renew its contract with the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) – the two unions representing Verizon workers. The company insisted that any new contract had to include terms that, for example, enabled it to outsource thousands of jobs, reduce retirement benefits, and send workers out of state for specific work assignments.
Rather than accept these fundamentally anti-labor contract provisions, the workers voted to go on strike – a labor action that turned out to be the largest one conducted in the U.S. in the last four years. Though Verizon tried to break the strike by (for example) eliminating workers’ health benefits and hiring scabs, it utterly failed, for throughout the course of the strike Verizon was faced with an unsympathetic public, a Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton walk on the picket lines, falling profits, inept scabs, expressions of solidarity from members of Congress, and tremendous strike discipline on the part of Verizon workers. By the end of May, Verizon relented and agreed to a number of favorable union contract terms. It also dropped many of the contract demands that it made prior to the strike.
On June 1, 2016, most of the striking workers returned to work.
What you might not know, however – because it got very little attention from the press – is that the strike was precipitated in part by Verizon’s refusal to negotiate with its Brooklyn, New York retail workers, who are primarily African American.
Two years ago, these workers had the audacity to organize and join CWA. In fact, they were “the first retail workers to form a union in Verizon Wireless.” However, the company refused to negotiate with them any raises, any improvements in benefits and working conditions – any contract whatsoever. By so refusing, Verizon made clear not only that it wanted to smash the union even before it got off the ground; but also that it was entirely comfortable with the fact that its employees found it difficult to make ends meet on the wages they earned, often couldn’t secure adequate health care for themselves and their families; couldn’t contribute much to the economic well-being of their communities; and, ultimately returned home every day to communities crowded with people who faced similar, if not worse, circumstances.
This latter point regarding the distress in places workers call home was not addressed at all during the course of the Verizon labor strike. And yet it is arguably the most critical point, precisely because of what it says about both the effects of corporate anti-labor policies on the communities in which workers live and labors’ failure to secure more broad-based support for unionization.
Let’s assume, for instance, that the African American retail workers who unionized two years ago actually live in Brooklyn, where black people constitute 35.2% of the Brooklyn population as a whole (note: my attempts to speak to union representatives about the Brooklyn retail workers were unsuccessful). And let’s assume further that these workers live in the primarily black neighborhoods that cover a mere 4 mile square area of Brooklyn (close to one million African Americans and blacks from the diaspora reside in this New York City borough, making it home to the largest concentration of black Americans in the nation).
While Brooklyn is certainly a space where black people thrive in so many ways, it is also a place of high black poverty and unemployment. Almost a quarter of Brooklyn residents live below the poverty line and, of that number, 23.7% are black (the numbers recited here reflect 2015 estimates). The unemployment rate in Brooklyn’s primarily black neighborhoods ranges from 8.1% to 12.5%, and “over half of the residents” who reside in these highly segregated communities “spend more than 30% of their monthly gross income on rent.”
In Brownsville – a Brooklyn neighborhood that is 75% black; “the poorest…in Brooklyn”; “the seventh-poorest neighborhood” in New York City; and, has “the second-highest” incarceration rate in the city (“three and a half times the Brooklyn and citywide rates”) – 10.7 % of the residents are unemployed and a whopping 38.6% live below the poverty line (the median income in Brownsville is $25,291).
Finally, in all of Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods, many of the residents – like others throughout New York City – go “without needed medical care” in spite of the existence of Obamacare. A consequence is that too many deaths in Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods are entirely preventable.
When we examine the distress of the communities in which the newly unionized African American retail workers more likely than not live (we can presume this precisely because Brooklyn is so segregated), then we are necessarily confronted with the fact that Verizon’s refusal to negotiate a contract with them directly contributed – in some small way – to those communities’ distress. That is to say, we see that, through its workers, the company actively helped to reproduce these Brooklyn neighborhoods as communities with large numbers of people who work for low wages or no wages at all; who spend a huge percentage of their income on rent; who cannot afford or obtain adequate health care when they or their family members need it; whose personal lives are often circumscribed by the whims and demands of their employers; who are economically constrained to live in segregated spaces that, by and large, lack good public schools, affordable housing, and other resources available to Brooklyn’s more affluent neighborhoods; who cannot – because of the wages they earn – contribute much (through taxes, for example) to the economic vibrancy and well-being of their communities; and, who are often policed as if the fact of their economic and social distress makes them criminals.
Did Verizon refuse to negotiate with its Brooklyn retail workers because they are primarily African American? Maybe. Maybe not. We can nevertheless presume that its no-contract strategy could have only compounded suffering (like, for example, residential segregation, employment discrimination, racist law enforcement) that is by and large the product of long term, systemic racist economic and social practices of government and business institutions.
Moreover, it bears noting that African American retail workers in general are more likely than their white counterparts to be working poor, the lowest paid, and offered only part-time work even though they want and ask for full-time employment. Verizon’s actions can be reasonably viewed as part and parcel of industry practices that relegate African American workers to the bottom of the retail workforce and that simultaneously facilitate the exploitation (as well as harm the communities) of working class retail workers as a whole.
In any event, by paying attention to black Brooklyn – by following the newly-unionized workers home or simply considering the neighborhoods where workers live – we see Verizon in the distress of the workers’ communities. And once we see Verizon in that distress, we are compelled to consider and further scrutinize just how deeply implicated the company is in broader corporate/government policies and practices that reproduce social and economic inequalities in neighborhoods across the nation and throughout the world.
The Brooklyn workers’ successful win of a first contract and the success of the Verizon strike generally are great victories – and greater than generally conceived because of the implications of the companies’ no-contract and other anti-labor practices for the communities in which the workers live.
And yet, had the labor action been one through which the unions framed Verizon’s anti-labor policies and practices as fundamentally anti-community, the victories might have been even greater and more far-reaching. Imagine, for example, what it would have meant to hear, as he walked the picket line, Bernie Sanders speak out about Verizon’s role in reproducing distress in black Brooklyn. Imagine how that might have changed the terms by which race, class, and labor were talked about during the course of the strike and the final weeks of the primary season.
Indeed, imagine how such a critique could transform union organizing going forward.
A friend recently told me that while I could “afford” to vote for Bernie Sanders because I am, as she put it, “highly educated,” she absolutely could not vote for him – nor could many of her friends and others who were decidedly not like me (i.e., highly educated). “For me,” she argued, “the stakes are too high” – the stakes being the elevation of Donald Trump to the highest office in the nation, and thus potentially four years of GOP control over all branches of government. Because of the real and present danger that a Donald Trump win would pose, “I will vote this November,” she declared emphatically, “for Hilary Clinton.”
My friend is right, of course. I am highly (or perhaps, as my brother would put it, over) educated.
And just for the record, I am also middle-class, African American, lesbian, 52, gainfully employed, insured, and a U.S. citizen with a (meager) retirement savings. Et cetera. I will vote for Sanders when my time comes, and if she captures the nomination, I will vote for Clinton. (That’s a strategic black vote, by the way).
Like many, I live a life of both privilege and vulnerability. I don’t apologize for what I can afford – voting or otherwise. And while I don’t fool myself about my vulnerabilities by believing that they don’t exist, I also don’t use them to claim a sameness with all African American women or others in ways that belie class, citizenship status, education and other differences among us – differences that often make for vastly dissimilar experiences with (for example) racism, sexism, economic instability.
But of course there are moments when our experiences are remarkably similar.
Nevertheless, my friend is right as well about the fact that the stakes of this election are YUGE (to use Bernie-speak). A Donald Trump win! win! win! would be absolutely disastrous for the country (and for me. I would not, as she incorrectly assumes, escape unscathed the consequences of his victory). Continued inaction on climate change; the ability to install a Supreme Court thoroughly committed to inequality, the decimation of individual rights, economic and environmental deregulation, and the interests of the rich; expansion of war in the Middle East and a return to Cold War politics; reversal of marriage equality and freedom of choice; the plunder of the treasury; repeal of Obamacare; the shredding of what little safety net we have left….this is the kind of craziness we face.
Given these stakes, then, we must vote, and vote wisely.
My friend is not alone in thinking that a vote for Sanders is a dangerous vote – one that threatens the safety of many of us, most especially those targeted by Trump, Trump supporters, and the GOP generally – while a vote for Clinton is a safe vote or, to put it differently, a vote for safety. You encounter this argument all the time from HRC supporters – in editorial pages, on Twitter, in blogs, on Facebook, in coffee houses, over the airwaves, and in conversations overheard on BART. Bernie Sanders supporters, they say, are fools – elite fools – who might very well usher us all to the end of times.
Or something like that.
Yet, I have heard similar arguments as well from Bernie supporters. Because the polls say Clinton will lose against Trump (some argue), to vote for her is to cast a dangerous vote, one that will plunge us all deep into GOP chaos. On the other hand, the polls do predict that Bernie will beat Trump. Consequently, our safety lies with his nomination.
But we should wonder about this propensity to speak of Hilary’s or Bernie’s supporters, or of a Clinton/Sanders presidency, in terms of danger, protection and refuge – this willingness, in other words, to believe that voting for either candidate will make us safe.
Should Donald Trump lose to Sanders or Clinton (assuming that he will defeat a Republican coup and actually become the Party’s nominee), we will still go home to families, coworkers, friends, neighbors – and mingle daily with strangers – who are willing to sacrifice democracy to authoritarianism, xenophobia, tribalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the machinations of wealthy white men (e.g., Trump, the Koch brothers) whose hunger for power is, it seems, absolutely bottomless.
We will still be surrounded by neighbors and intimates who do not eschew violence as a means to redress economic dislocation and to contend with change that is not merely a reiteration of current power arrangements.
We will still live in a country riven by hate and divisiveness, and be governed by a Congress for which that hate and divisiveness is the stuff of religious creed and public policy.
We will still live in a nation in which the infrastructure is crumbling, coastal cities sinking, schools failing, inequality increasing, desperation mounting and hunger considered just deserts for those who are poor — especially those who are poor, black and female.
We will still be at war, everywhere.
In other words, we are already unsafe – already living dangerously, and we were doing so long before Donald Trump upended the Republican Party.
So whether you vote for Hilary Rodham Clinton or Bernie Sanders, your vote will not protect you.
Thinking of safety in the narrow terms that we do – i.e., merely voting for a president every four years in order to keep at bay the draconian policies of a mean-spirited party and electorate – will not protect us. This is especially true given that our narrow conception of safety is itself a buy-in to a top-down politics of change.
Now don’t get me wrong: vote we must. It is imperative. But we need to think more deeply and ask: what does it mean to be safe? What does real safety look like and how do we create it for all of us – haters included?
Safety, it seem to me, resides with us, in what we do every day – in whatever capacity we are able – to put in place policies and institutions that are grounded in safeguarding and nurturing the lives of the most vulnerable. For if the most vulnerable are cared for, if that which is creating the vulnerability in the first instance is eradicated (poverty, segregation, war funding, separate and unequal school systems, state-sponsored and private acts of violence, structural inequalities, the upward distribution of wealth), then safety will be the order of the day (I, for one, believe that this means envisioning economic, political, geopolitical and social security through the eyes of a poor, undocumented girl of color – but that’s just me).
That kind of safety is purchased in part by the vote, but most especially by political action and grassroots involvement at the local level – like, for example, sitting in on and participating in neighborhood meetings, helping to organize your workplace, conversing with and listening deeply to people who are different from you, running for office, creating viable third, fourth, fifth party alternatives.
Perhaps most of all, the kind of protection we seek – real safety – is purchased by our refusal to live in fear.
We need to stop proclaiming that we are afraid of Donald Trump and his supporters, and to stop telling everyone else that they should be afraid. When we do this, we make him, and them, larger than life, and in the process, we make us small, fearful and powerless.
Our fear will not protect us.
So let’s move beyond fear and way, way past thinking of either Sanders or Clinton as our saving grace; they are not (while we’re at it, let’s also abandon altogether the shitty, hateful, divisive discourse that passes as constructive political engagement. There’s nothing radical about speaking the same language as, and acting like, those who hate us).
Instead, let’s demonstrate the truism that we are in fact “the ones we have been waiting for” and that our calling is to be dangerous to the politics of what is. Let us make the nation absolutely unsafe for poverty, war mongering, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, neoliberalism, free (as opposed to fair) trade, economic inequality. Let us be dangerous to all that stands against peace. And let us be so regardless of whether or not Hilary, Bernie or Donald ends up in the White House.
But of course, let’s make sure that neither Donald nor a GOP alternative makes it anywhere near the Oval Office.
Thirty-seven percent of Flint, Michigan’s population is white. Approximately 14,000 of Flint’s white population live below the poverty line.
Neither statistic has factored much into discussions concerning the water crisis in Flint or in analyses of the “structural racism” that created the crisis in the first place (in fact, pundits and others have cited the statistics merely to show that Flint is, and Flint’s poor are, predominantly African American).
But these statistics matter, and they matter not only because they speak more fully to the suffering state and federal officials visited upon the people of Flint. They also matter because they betray Democrats’ and progressives’ failure to seize opportunities to speak directly to, and be in conversation with, poor and working class whites about the class and race politics that have created much of their suffering. No one who has talked about Flint – not Hilary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders, not their followers, not progressives in general – has had anything to say whatsoever about just how expendable to Michigan’s white elites are the lives of Flint’s poor and working class white folk. In fact, it is almost as if whites who live at the margins in Flint don’t exist at all (or exist only so that one can make a point about black people and racism).
At a recent event in Harlem, for example, Clinton said of the water crisis: “It’s a horrifying story, but what makes it even worse is that it’s not a coincidence that this was allowed to happen in a largely black, largely poor community. Just ask yourself: Would this have ever occurred in a wealthy, white suburb of Detroit? Absolutely not.” During a town hall meeting, Sanders, too, wondered what “the response” would have been had the water crisis happened in “a white suburb.” Flint “is a poor community,” Sanders stated. “It is disproportionately African-American and minority, and what has happened there is absolutely unacceptable.”
To be sure, both Clinton and Sanders probably considered whites included in the term “poor community.” But it is clear that poor white people were not the point Clinton and Sanders wanted to make. Instead, what Clinton and Sanders hoped to demonstrate (for good reason) was their understanding of how racist policies continue to constrain the lives of African Americans and to serve the interests of well-to-do whites. Or maybe what they hoped for was recognition of what New York Magazine writer Rembert Brown gleefully declared about Hilary Clinton: that they were willing to “chastise” their “own privilege” and, in so doing, to put “the privilege of whiteness front and center.”
If putting “the privilege of whiteness front and center” was what Clinton and Sanders were trying to accomplish (and I believe there’s some truth to this observation), then what they ultimately gave voice to was a class politics on the part of Democrats and progressives that erases the experiences of poor and working class whites, and does so through a racial politics that reifies the myth of a “naturalized, unmarked, homogenized, privileged white identity” (to borrow from law professor Camille Gear Rich’s “Marginal Whiteness”). This myth is one by which white elites have, throughout American history, defined white interests in terms of their own privileges, wealth, and power – as it is also one by which whites who live on the margins have framed (often to their great detriment) their own interests so as to enjoy the privileges of white identity.
Both candidates (as well as progressives who wrote about Flint) could have explicitly talked about how the water crisis was allowed to “happen” just as surely to Flint’s poor and working class white community as it was allowed to happen to Flint’s African American community; how the privileged whites and minorities who live in the “white suburbs” were provided with clean water; how anti-black racism constitutes a set of policies and practices that facilitate well-to-do whites’ exploitation of poor and working class white people (that is, after all, what happened in Flint). And both Clinton and Sanders (who just yesterday visited Flint & addressed the water crisis in front of an overwhelmingly white audience) could have had this discussion without giving credence to the fiction of equivalent victimization.
Indeed, both candidates could have discussed or put “front and center” for analysis and critique their own class privileges vis-à-vis the black and white Flint communities. They could have stated, as Rich observed, that for some whites “access…to the material and dignitary benefits associated with whiteness is not always assured,” and that some whites – like those in Flint, no doubt – “only enjoy white privilege in contingent, context-specific ways.” They could have spoken of whites – and even of African Americans – in terms of differences that belie the myth of homogeneity.
But that kind of discussion did not happen. Consequently, the Flint water crisis remains solely a story about anti-black politics.
Talking about the racism African Americans face in Flint and beyond, of course, is not the problem. In fact, it is necessary. But while Democrats and progressives sustain the myth of a homogenized, privileged white identity and choose not to be in conversation with poor and working class whites about the kind of class and race politics that creates their suffering (whether we’re talking about Flint or inadequate health care), Donald Trump fills the void. Through a racist and xenophobic framework he engages poor and working class whites directly, casting their suffering as the fault of racial others. In the process, Trump recreates and reinvents – by casting himself as the answer to all white America’s woes – the myth of a homogenized and privileged white identity as well as the fiction that white interests are white elite interests. As long as Clinton, Sanders, Democrats, and progressives offer no real alternative – as long as they persist in spinning the myth themselves –Trump might very well capture the White House this November, and with the help of poor and working class whites.
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)
While there are countless reasons why Bernie Sanders’ adoption of a Racial Justice platform that tackles violence against African Americans is both extraordinary and unprecedented, certainly one reason must be that the platform in effect charges our government with the responsibility to practice nonviolence toward African Americans in particular and people of color generally. In fact, Sanders’ platform – the adoption of which was instigated by #BlackLivesMatter activists – presupposes that folks of color deserve nonviolence, both from the government and from private citizens. We deserve it, the platform suggests, because we are a valuable part of the body politic – “we must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color” – and because it is right and just.
The platform is not, as one might imagine, merely a recitation of platitudes about racism and justice (though it certainly includes many); instead, it offers specific policy changes that Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists hope will help to make African Americans’ and others’ lived experiences of violence a thing of the past: police retraining, expanding the franchise, ending the War on Drugs, banning “prisons for profit,” investing in youth employment programs. These are just a few of the proposals that the platform outlines.
Of course, the word “nonviolence” does not actually appear in Sanders’ Racial Justice platform, even though the platform refers to and quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. in the section dedicated to economic violence.
Nevertheless, with its focus on “the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans – physical, political, legal and economic,” it is hard not to see that what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists have done is something quite in keeping with what King did in “Beyond Vietnam,” his crucial 1967 speech against the Vietnam War: denounce the government’s violence and require from it something radically different. For King, that radically different something was for the government to conduct domestic and foreign policy in ways that reinforce “brotherhood,” and thus for it to choose “nonviolent coexistence” over “violent co-annihilation.” For Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists, that something is for the government to refrain from waging violence against black and brown people.
Because Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists produced a platform that expresses in great measure the spirit of King’s challenge, they accomplished something rather remarkable: they inadvertently produced a framework by which we can construct a platform that commits us to making nonviolence the crux of our nation’s domestic and foreign policies. Physical, political, legal and economic violence – these categories certainly capture what we justify nationally and internationally as in our national interest, and thus they provide us an opportunity to offer the kind of nonviolent alternatives we sorely need. Our undeclared war against ISIS, the unspeakable suffering of the Syrian people, the horrific attack in Paris, the everyday violence we suffer at the hands of one another – what else do we need to add in order to see, finally, that we really must choose between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation? What other kind of mass shooting, suicide bombing, war – what other kind of atrocity do you require?
So, forgive me for having the audacity to offer a nonviolent political platform – a work-in-progress that builds upon (and borrows from) what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists started. I offer this because it is clear to me that unless and until ordinary citizens step up to put forward alternatives to our culture of violence, we will continue to be mired in bloodshed, hate, and conflict both here and abroad until we destroy ourselves. It is my hope that you will comment, critique, talk about and add to what I have written here. It is my hope that you will even imagine a platform more daring, one that shifts this superpower inexorably toward militant nonviolence and to which you will, through bold action, hold every single candidate accountable from now until November 2016.
While the student protests at the University of Missouri continue to be dissected, analyzed, and judged, we might want to direct our attention to the folks who – remarkably enough – have not been thus far the subject of much debate and critique: those white students who shouted racial slurs at Peyton Head as he walked near campus, the drive-by racists who shouted “nigger” at the Legion of Black Collegians while they practiced for homecoming, and the other faceless, nameless students who engaged in racist conduct (we might also want to include the silent white assenters – students, faculty, staff – as well as any onlookers who stood on the sidelines and maybe even laughed or otherwise encouraged their colleagues).
It is not enough merely to call these students or their acts “racist” and their words “hate speech,” to speak only of epithets and hurt feelings, to evoke the First Amendment (while forgetting the Fourteenth), and then to turn and launch extended critiques of “political correctness” on the part of those protesting (a “political correctness” that we must – if we are honest with ourselves – see as, in part, an outgrowth of the heavier burden of free speech that some communities are forced to bear).
Instead, or perhaps primarily, we should be wondering out loud, and without distraction: what are these students trying to do? What do they hope to achieve?
It seems to me that one of the things that they are trying to do is to speak as, and on behalf of Mizzou – with the full power of the institution behind them. Or to put this differently: I suspect these racist students (and others) presume that Mizzou is the institutionalization of a particular kind of white power and privilege, and that because they are white and because they are Mizzou, then when they speak the language of racism and white power as well as engage in racist conduct, they are merely being Mizzou itself. And in being Mizzou, they hope to impress upon students of color, and African American students in particular, that they can never be Mizzou and thus can never embody and exercise power – on campus or anywhere else. No, power belongs to, and can only be exercised by whites and whites only.
If I am right, and I suspect that I’m a little right, then we need to ask whether the University of Missouri – the governing body, administration, staff, and faculty – give white students such as these every reason to believe that they and Mizzou are of one mind and one body. For if this is the case – and I suspect that this is the case – the resignation of Tim Wolfe will hardly suffice. Indeed, what will be required is nothing less than Mizzou’s radical transformation – its mission, its governance, its admissions policies and criteria, its hiring, its faculty, its student body – and, by extension, the entire state of Missouri itself.
Like many who watched Tuesday’s Democratic debate, I was a little annoyed by CNN’s choice to assign to debate moderators questions on the basis of their respective “identities” (Don Lemon got to field the “black” question, Juan Carlos Lopez the “immigrant” question, Dana Bush the “woman” question, and a young woman the “youth” [i.e., climate change] question). Those issues that were presumptively non-identity based – e.g., questions concerning our unending war on terror or TPP or Iran – were assigned primarily to Anderson Cooper, the white male who presided over the debate.
As tempting as it is to agree with some critics that CNN should have (as Janell Ross of the Washington Post argued) given Lemon and Lopez the opportunity to ask questions about, for example, “education,” “the economy,” “tax policy,” “Clinton’s reference to a New Deal,” “the Islamic State,” as well as “many of the other things that concern all Americans, including Americans who are not white,” it is hard to see this as a solution that addresses what was and is really at stake in CNN’s crass demonstration of tokenism and identity politics. For the truth of the matter is, had Lemon (who I’ll use as an example) had the opportunity to ask about Syria, his doing so would not have conveyed – by any stretch of the imagination – that Syria is an issue of importance to African American communities. This is because it is the practice of CNN – and the media writ large – to construe black interests solely in terms of race. Consequently, had Lemon asked about Syria, it would not have mattered one bit since Syria would have already been understood as an issue entirely outside of black people’s political, economic, and moral interests.
Of course, CNN and the media in general are greatly assisted by white as well as African American elites (on the right and left) in this reductionist practice concerning African American interests. It is telling, for example, that Bernie Sanders’ laudable Racial Justice platform does not intersect with or speak to his platform issue that focuses on the war on terror – though the devotion of over one trillion dollars to this disastrous adventure has cost black lives, militarized our police forces, eroded civil liberties, and come at the expense of addressing economic inequality (which African Americans suffer disproportionately). Given that the Racial Justice issue in Sanders’ platform at least nods to and intersects with other platform concerns, its silence on the issue of war and peace reinforces the presumption that the war (and foreign policy generally) doesn’t matter to African Americans and perhaps doesn’t even affect our day-to-day lives.
Permitting Lemon or Lopez to ask questions on “other” issues, therefore, would not have addressed this larger problem of how black interests are framed. What is needed, instead, is news and political analysis and candidate questions that assume African American communities (and Latino communities, and women) have a stake in our nation’s domestic and foreign policies that is shaped, no doubt, by our nation’s racial politics, but also by a host of other competing interests (such as class) and lived experiences within black communities that cannot possibly be conveyed by merely having Don Lemon ask more questions, and that problematize identity politics altogether.
I invite you to explore my recently published book, Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books, 2015), at www.amazon.com/author/alyceelane.
It is “quiet time” as I write this, a misnomer if there ever was one to characterize that coveted two hours when my two and-a-half year-old is supposed to take a nap or engage in some low key play activity in the privacy of her bedroom. She is having a deep but very loud and animated conversation with her dolls and stuffed animals. Periodically she says my or my partner’s name, and I have to suppress the thought that she might be casting spells from which we will never recover. I know that’s crazy to think, but guess what? It’s also radically insane that, at the ripe old age of 51, I have undertaken a journey with my partner to adopt someone who is not even 1000 days old. So I get to suspect that the child – or somebody – is casting spells and “workin’ roots,” as the old folks say. Not this old folk, but some other old folk. Someone older. Than me.
As you might suspect, I am a bit cranky and tired. And yes, it’s a “beautiful thing” blah blah blah. But I’m exhausted and I don’t want to say beautiful child-rearing things. She’s two and a half, for crying out loud. Funny, smart, cute, adorable, loving, precocious, and a pain in the ass. Like right now (she’s “tapping” the walls with her feet to the beat of a song that I believe she’s making up. Hmmm. It’s actually kind of funny. And quite good!). So of course I am also totally in love.
But I’m still annoyed and I’m still gonna say it (that’s one of the advantages of being an older mom).
In the early weeks of this journey I entertained the idea that I should write one of those Open Letters to My Daughter About What It Means to Be a Black Woman in America, but I nixed the idea not only because I find such projects problematic, but also because this little journey of mine has brought me face-to-face with my own none-too-subtle investments in tyranny (who knew how much the word “NO!” could drive me batty?). I thus realized that instead of focusing on what the World Out There might or might not do to my child, perhaps I should pay more attention to all the ways I might be bringing the world to her.
What if – just what if – instead of that open letter I looked at and raised my child as if she was the next Dalai Lama, a bodhisattva who has come to help us all achieve freedom from suffering? What if we all did this with our children? And what would be required of us to usher in and raise all of these Dalai Lamas? What do you think the world would look like as a result?
Admittedly, these are hard questions for me to ponder in the midst of a litany of “NOs” and “MINEs” and “AAHHHHs!!! (collapses on the floor, arms outstretched, rolls around. How, I wonder, did the monks deal with a two year-old in the midst of a tantrum – even if that two year-old was the manifestation of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion?). But they’re worth asking, for they require us to think of child-rearing in terms of making the world a better place, which in turn requires us to do the labor of changing everything about our own lives that makes us – on a day-to-day basis – complicit in creating an unjust, violent society. That labor is the work that goes into being compassionate, kind, open-hearted, loving, and just.
I guess in some ways this is, absolutely, an Open Letter to My Daughter About What It Means to Be a Black Woman in America.
Shhhh. She’s quiet now.
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (NY: Lantern Books). Would love to know what you think about it!