December 3, 2020

‘Can We Please Talk About Black Lives Matter for One Second?’

The night after a handful of activists in Seattle dragged some barricades onto the street and announced the establishment of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, more than a thousand people marched to City Hall for a rally. The action was notable because of the presence of Kshama Sawant, a City Council member. A Trotskyist and avowed radical, Sawant has a key to City Hall. She simply opened the front door and let the protesters in.

They ran through the halls and chanted, but before too long, everyone settled down to listen to the speakers, among them a young Black protester wearing a bright orange backpack. “At most of the protests I’ve been to, it’s all white people speaking and maybe two Black people,” the speaker said in a calm monotone. “I’m tired of white people talking for me,” the speaker continued. “I love you guys — you’re all my allies, and I love you all — but I would love for all the Black people to talk up here. I’m really sorry. Also, for all the council members and affiliates, please stop using Black Lives Matter for your political campaigns. I’m really sorry. I want to tax Amazon, too; I want to do all those things, too. But this is not a movement for you to be politically active, for you to be politically correct and for you to gain all these votes. Please stop taking advantage of us. I’m really sorry. I want to do all these things, too, but can we please talk about Black Lives Matter for one second?”

A video of these moments showed up online. In the days that followed, I watched it over and over, because it seemed to be asking a handful of questions that lie at the heart of this movement. First, and obviously: What should be done about all these white people? Protest data is notoriously bad, but it hardly seems controversial to ask whether there has ever been an American civil rights moment in which hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of white people have taken to the streets, thousands of whom have been tear-gassed, beaten or chased down by the police. Perhaps not coincidentally, there has never been a moment when the “authorities” — school boards, City Councils, mayors — seem so willing to embrace policies that would have seemed impossible a month earlier. And yet most of these proposals are mere proposals. Even if the goal extends only to reforming Police Departments, pressure must still come from the streets; white people will have to continue to show up.

The speech could also double as a prompt for a full-throated debate on the left about the complex interplay between representation-based identity politics and other political goals. Many activists would agree with the young speaker and say that a movement on behalf of Black lives should be led by Black voices and focus on the issues facing Black people. Elected politicians might cringe at being sidelined and argue that a member of the City Council, especially one as far left as Sawant, belongs in the movement. Indelicate Marxists might argue that the identity of speakers should not matter and that the only meaningful action would be to leverage the movement to tax Amazon. They might point out that it has driven up Seattle rents, which in turn has led to rapid gentrification of Black neighborhoods; action against Amazon could secure universal victory. The relevance of such debates, and even more so their resolution, is unclear.

These sorts of deliberations are not new. They were on the minds of the Combahee River Collective, a coalition of Black queer feminist radicals who first coined the term “identity politics” in 1974. The C.R.C., whose origins have been revisited recently in Asad Haider’s “Mistaken Identity” and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s “How We Got Free,” grew out of dissatisfaction with the narrow focus of the National Black Feminist Organization, which in turn had left the broader, white-led feminist movement. The C.R.C. believed that what set it apart from those two groups was its economic analysis, which called for an end to “bourgeois-feminist” politics. “Solidarity,” as Taylor points out, was not “subsuming your struggles to help someone else” but rather strengthening “the political commitments from other groups by getting them to recognize how the different struggles were related to each other and connected under capitalism.”

The C.R.C.’s vision of identity politics bears little resemblance to the modern version that tends to value representation over economic and racial justice — and at times, ritual over action. Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat and former presidential candidate, recently challenged his Republican colleagues in Congress to “unequivocally say that Black lives matter.” Swalwell’s heart might have been in the right place, but his stunt was pure ritual: checking to see who will say the right words to show they care and who will not. It’s easy to hear the protester’s address in Seattle’s City Hall and look at the public flagellations of white privilege and conclude that the speaker’s demands might result only in more Swalwell-like pandering.

But perhaps the most telling and wrenching parts of the young protester’s monologue were the constant, exhausted apologies. They didn’t sound like pleadings to be heard so much as weary incantations from someone who understands the way things go in Seattle. If white people keep coming to the protests, how do you prevent this Black protest movement from becoming a vehicle for white progressives to try to advance all their other hobbyhorses? If every action turns into a voter-registration party, the movement will have failed to secure the bare minimum of what it set out to accomplish: a radical change in policing.

The future of these national protests depends, in no small part, on the careful navigation between Swalwell’s sloganeering, gestural version of identity politics and a Black-centered radical movement that calls, in the words of the C.R.C., for an inclusive politics that also fights for “women, third world and working people.” At the protests I’ve been to in Oakland, Calif., the crowds come from every conceivable background, and I have sensed in them an intense desire for some message of solidarity focused squarely on the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. This, as the City Hall speaker pointed out, cannot be a carrot to keep white people engaged, nor should it stop only at police reform. But it could instead sound something like the C.R.C.’s belief that “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free, since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”