On Going Viral: What the Movement Still Teaches, What the Movement Still Needs

Ethiopian Israelis protesting occupation and police brutality this past weekend.

Ethiopian Israelis protesting occupation and police brutality this past weekend.

Last week an article on my blog addressing militancy and the uprisings in Baltimore was shared more times in 24 hours than most things on my blog have been shared in years. It struck a chord I had not predicted, and challenged the poisonous narratives that were dominating the airwaves last weekend.

Afterward, I got death threats. I got called a nigger, and a few conservative sites found my Facebook profile and reposted pictures of my image. Fox News called for an interview, as did the Huffington Post and several radio shows. I declined most of these offers, not only because I didn’t trust the goals of the outlets, but because centering my voice was not the point.

“…A riot is the language of the unheard,” many were surprised to learn Martin Luther King, Jr. said famously over Black riots in 1968, after being encouraged by media to calm protesters. Perhaps even more poignantly, James Baldwin stated in an interview with Esquire that same year, “…If the American Negro…is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.”

Some objectors to my argument made cliche appeals: “Both sides need to be held accountable,” or, “violence only begets more violence.” Many revealed they had not actually read the piece, or at least not carefully.

Virulent responses to the word “racist” to describe those criticizing the riots made it once again evident that racist is still seen as the worst insult one can call another in this country, when it shouldn’t be. We are all products of a racist society, all say and do racist things regularly. The only way to actually end racism is learning to recognize it in all its forms, to name it in ourselves and others, not for the sake of shaming individuals but for accepting responsibility for our own roles in its perpetuation.

Let us once again be clear: If we oppose violence, then we must oppose all forms of policing. If we oppose violence then we must call for an end to war, an end to occupation. We must oppose sexual assault, and prisons as institutions which wield it as a strategic tool. If we abhor violence to bodies, families, communities, then we should abhor all these systems and call for their immediate abolition. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said so perfectly, “When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.”

Other writers challenged some of my views in important ways—not by defaming rioters, but by acknowledging that rioting is rarely something than can be planned, controlled. Understanding riots, militant uprisings, as emotional reactions to extreme trauma as much as political demonstrations was an important point of reevaluation for myself, one I feel I am still learning about from other writers, community members and activists.

My heart is heavy at the end of this week over the indictments of six officers in Freddie Gray’s case, not because I do not believe in individual accountability, but because I, too, believe that violence begets more violence. As a movement, we cannot celebrate indictments for any crime. If we seek to end racist policing, we must seek the end of all policing, all incarceration. We have got to comprehend this once and for all. When we call out the violence in some of the state’s representatives while heralding others as our heroes, we are falling for its tricks. We are reinvesting in its authority, which means we are fortifying our own ultimate subjugation. Instead of invoking the names of our dead to call for more imprisonment, we need to tell their stories in service of demilitarizing, decriminalizing and freeing our communities from the prison system forever.

Some—in most cases conservatives and policing advocates who had not actually read my article or fully grasped it—tried to make the issue about me this week. It didn’t work, because the issue is not about me, just as it is not about individual police officers, the State’s Attorney, or individual slain Black people.

A movement cannot be about one voice. It is never led by one leader. The moment we are in inspires me so deeply because there are innumerable leaders. At the forefront are women, queers and young people of color. We are genius, we are loud, and we are tirelessly action-oriented.

There are too many of us to imprison, too many of us to arrest. There are too many of us to censor, to smother with senseless soundbites, to demoralize with propaganda. There are too many of us to intimidate with the very violence our movement seeks to eradicate.

Don’t let them make you forget that.

6 responses to “On Going Viral: What the Movement Still Teaches, What the Movement Still Needs

  1. The reason your article went viral is because it was like a breath of fresh air in the dark mine of historical ignorance and racist hypocrisy, which came from both liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, and state representatives and so-called peaceful protestors themselves. Any protest I’ve ever been to that ‘turned violent’ (as the newspapers like to put it) did so because the police made some crazy, totally uncalled-for attack on the protest, declaring it illegal and illegitimate from its very inception. I’d be quite surprised to see a riot where the protestors actually did ‘start it’ by throwing objects. Moreover, NOBODY wrote about violence and proportionality, not even Ta-Nehisi Coates––when the police are using rubber bullets, tear gas, batons, and at least the threat of live ammunition, why are we so shocked by bricks and burnt cars? Anyway, thanks for the article; the reason the media hated it was because you showed them up as the cowards and the boot-lickers of the capitalist state that they are.

  2. Much intense love to you. Going viral can be maddening and some of the worst people come out of the woodwork when you strike a cord. Your words were important and refreshing, as is this post. I am sorry people were awful to you. Know that for every person that was awful, you made a hundred or more think or feel met. I know that doesn’t make it less traumatic. But, you did something good.

    Please take care of yourself and allow yourself a break from the internet if you are able. Seems like you’ve done a good job knowing you don’t have to respond to everything.

    Thank you.

    • Thank you for your really kind thoughts, and wise advice. I also really appreciated your backup on that overwhelming comment thread!

  3. I’m not celebrating. I don’t think there will ever be anything to celebrate about the murder of a person ever. I can’t ignore the fact there is a larger problem than the murder of one individual man. I don’t count on convictions, and even if there were convictions and then incarceration, nothing will ever bring back the life that was taken, and it will not repair the trauma to others that is a result of this murder. But I’m asking because I want to know, what *would* be justice for these individuals who committed this particular crime? I want them to be stopped, prevented from doing it again. I want there to be some accountability, for them to understand and know and feel the seriousness of the pain and loss they’ve inflicted. I want there to be some deterrence, something to happen that will make it less likely to happen again. I don’t feel that I’m pro-policing or pro-incarceration, but I do have a desire and need for something to happen. What should “justice” look like in the case of these particular people?

    • Really important questions, and I won’t pretend to have answers.

      In Chicago, activists and community are organizing to get Dante Servin–the off-duty officer who shot and killed Rekia Boyd, and was cleared of all charges–to be fired from the CPD, and banned from working as an officer again. I think this is a more than reasonable demand, and does not rely on incarceration. Financial reparations, counseling, subsidized education, and housing for the survivors of police violence are also reasonable–though many states have begun putting caps on how many of these can be offered in individual cases, acknowledging how very many people would have the right to demand them.

      I also think we as oppressed communities have the right to make systemic demands in the names of our individual lost loved ones. Instead of charging a few officers, let’s demand the de-arming and demilitarizing of departments and forces. When police are violent in schools, let’s kick them out of schools. Atonement could look very different than punishment–since you are right that nothing will ever, truly make up for our lost family and community members.

      I think individual accountability, though, is one of the most difficult questions as we confront the prevalence of police violence in all our communities. I would like to see social supports built up in the name of justice, rather than individuals punished and torn down, but I don’t know if that is enough. I don’t know how to really make up for a violently lost life, and what it truly takes for us to heal.

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