How to Suffer Politely: Protest and the Politics of Civility
Without dwelling on the progressive policies of decades past, and how they sometimes failed the communities they were designed to safeguard, I’d like to discuss an editorial written by my colleague, Hamilton Nolan (“Don’t Piss on Your Best Friend”), which argues against the recent protest of Bernie Sanders by individuals associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and suggests black protestors don’t know what’s really in their best interest.
On Saturday, August 8, activists, organizers and supporters of Black Lives Matter in Seattle intervened at an event held by the Vermont senator. BLM Seattle felt Sanders, who has been a champion of racial justice, needed to be held “publicly accountable for his lack of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and his blatantly silencing response to the #SayHerName #IfIDieInPoliceCustody action that took place at Netroots this year,” a conference held in Arizona in July.
Nolan took offense to this, writing:
If you truly care about such inequality, you should be planning to vote for Bernie Sanders. And should the Black Lives Matter movement care about economic inequality? Of course. The average white household in America has 16 times the wealth of the average black household. No group in America suffers from our nation’s economic inequality more than black people. Further, closing the racial wealth gap is probably the single most effective thing that any politician could do to help advance the cause of ending structural racism in America.
Sanders, who is a veteran politician, is currently the best Democratic candidate running for president. As Nolan pointed out, he “is the most progressive serious presidential candidate, and the most liberal, and the most vocal and wise on the issue of America’s entrenched and widening economic inequality.” He is also the “candidate most aligned with the group’s values.”
But just how progressive is Sanders, and those he chooses to align himself with?
As the BLM Seattle press release stated: “Bernie’s arrival in Seattle is largely significant in the context of the state of emergency Black lives are in locally as well as across America.” Seattle, which is 70 percent white, is a city that often overlooks its residents of color in the interest of being “progressive.” But Seattle is not as progressive at it claims: Mayor Ed Murray has yet to pass any real policies for police reform, the Seattle School District disciplines black students at a disproportionately higher rate than their white peers, “feeding black children into the school-to-prison pipeline,” and black residents have been displaced in the Central District, a historically black neighborhood. The press release made evident the frustrations many shoulder in the struggle for equality: “We have yet to see [Sanders and other Seattle progressives] support Black grassroots movements or take on any measure of risk and responsibility for ending the tyranny of white supremacy in our country and in our city.”
Sanders, though, is not the problem here; of all the candidates, he does, for the most part, have the interests of black folk in mind. Neither is Nolan’s belief that Black Lives Matters protestors would be better off protesting a candidate who “deserves it,” like Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the Republican nomination. I agree; we should all rise up and protest Trump off the campaign trail and out of our lives forever.
The trouble is the language Nolan uses to police black suffering (and, really, the belief that it needs to be governed at all). He calls the protest of Sanders, who, lest we forget, is a politician, “counterproductive,” “remarkably dumb,” and “stupid.” He also reduces the trauma voiced by BLM Seattle members to shouting, which is both irresponsible and disrespectful of the group’s core belief that activism can shift political and social change (mostly because it has in other cities where racial discord and injustice are widespread). At its heart, Nolan’s message translates to: “Wait, just listen! Bernie can fix the structural inequality that has plagued this country since its birth.” There is an underlying sense (a posture, if you will) that he somehow knows what is best for Black Lives Matter protestors (Atlantic writer Conor Friedersdorf raised a similar point). I hesitate to label this privilege, mostly because Nolan often writes wonderfully on class inequality and America’s poor and is generally aware of his position in our country’s race-based hierarchy, but his assessment of the Sanders incident was misguided.
Call it the politics of civility. It is the practice—and the person-to-person negotiation of this practice in relation to others—of being told how to properly act or express yourself by someone who does not inhabit the same cultural space as you.
Let’s talk about what it means to be black in a society that, for generations, has insisted on your civility. And not just any society, but one, in fact, that has profited from the suppression of your collective power through the dismantling of voting rights laws, redlining, the denial of access to wealth, and the creation of the prison industrial complex, among other horrors.
“Civility,” begins Hua Hsu, “is invoked as a method of discipline, as a way of sanding down the edges of a conversation.” Thus: Civility is discipline. Discipline is control. Control, in the context of being black—or, more generally, any non-white individual at the edges of society who lacks not just tools, but the access to tools, to fashion a better life for his or herself—in a country that continually insists on your civility even as it offers none in return, is white supremacy.
I can’t ignore that Nolan (or Friedersdorf) is white no more than I can deny the reactions I experienced—confusion, anger, disbelief—as a black man, while reading his commentary. We are writers, and Nolan, better than most, understands the power our words hold. Words—and, by extension, language; or more to the point, the ways in which we shape and target our words to converse with one another—are important.
Hsu expands on the language of civility and how it is used to mute the behavior of others:
The language of civility has always been a code of sorts, a way of holding life’s quotidian messiness up against lofty, sometimes elitist ideals of proper behavior. Perhaps, in the most practical sense, we might agree that some basic understanding of civility is what compels us to hold doors open for strangers or to avoid cussing out the elderly. Over the past decade, however, civility has come to assume a more prescriptive dimension. At a time when our ideological divides feel wild and extreme, civility has become our polite-sounding call to fall back in line.
But now is not the time to be quiet, nor the time to wait for a white politician, or writer, to speak on the behalf of black individuals working through generations-long trauma, what Nolan might consider “proper behavior.” Regardless if Sanders is the right candidate for the cause or not—and, if he is, shouldn’t BLM challenge him on issues they deem central to their fight?—the protestors in Seattle succeeded in their goal to “disrupt the complicity and corruption of our anti-Black society; GOP, Democrat, and otherwise,” proclaiming, “There is no business as usual while Black lives are lost.”
At this juncture in American history—this old, familiar road we find ourselves on again—when communities of black people are under attack by state agents, at a time when they are being displaced from their homes and neighborhoods, at a moment when our lives, living under the threat of American custom, are at stake, asking black protestors to fall back in line, redirect, and lower the pitch of their suffering only fortifies the unjust structures the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting to dismantle.
[Image via AP]