"On White People, Solidarity and (Not) Marching for Mike Brown"
Photo Source: Jamal Williams
On Thursday August 14th, 2014, Feminsta Jones called for a National Moment of Silence (NMOS) to pay ‘respect to fatal victims of police shootings and brutality’. New Orleans, a (for now…) majority black city with a long history of police violence against black bodies (including the famous case of Henry Glover, an unarmed black man who was shot by police who then burned his body in an attempted cover up), took part in the NMOS by hosting a vigil in Lafayette Park. According to the NOLA Defender, a young black woman named Chanelle Batiste organized and led the vigil activities:
Left Photo: Chanelle Batiste, Photo Source NOLA Defender
Right Photo: NOLA crowd in moment of silence, Photo Source Instagram @BMike2c
I showed up to the park and saw a racially diverse crowd of between 100-200 people. The largest racial groups that were visually represented were whites and blacks, and my initial thoughts were, ‘Well, if all these white folks gathered here today then they must at some level understand the targeting and criminalization of black bodies and its consequences, including Mike Brown’s death”
Baptiste started the vigil with a few words before asking the crowd to raise their hands in the “Don’t Shoot” pose that has become symbolic of Mike Brown’s death. Right before the moment of silence and call for raised hands, I took a moment to close my eyes and re-center myself. I re-opened them when Baptiste started reading the names of other victims of police violence after the moment of silence passed and was caught off guard by the numerous white people holding up their hands in the ‘Don’t Shoot’ pose:
Photo Source: Twitter #MikeBrownNOLA
After the reading of names, Baptiste and others announced follow up events to the vigil, then abruptly ended the gathering (it took no more 20 minutes from start to finish). When they stepped down from the steps they were speaking from, a collective, “Was that it?” feeling took over the park. I turned to a black woman activist friend of mine named Mshaiti A Uwenzo Siyanda and we quickly agreed that something about the brevity of the vigil did not feel right, did not feel like enough to encompass how we were feeling about the not-so-new phenomenon of disregard for black lives. Mshaiti and I took each other’s hands and made our way to the steps of the statue where I called out something along the lines of “EXCUSE ME! Is that all? I know too many busy people here who could be somewhere else but chose to be here. For Mike and others. There is too much collective energy here to waste. If we took to the streets, would you join us?”
Mshaiti and I stepped off the statue and into the street and led, what would be at its peak, a crowd of about 400 in a march for Mike Brown. We led them through downtown Canal St to Jackson Square and eventually ended the event with the occupation of a police station in the French Quarter where participants peacefully aired their grievances against police nationally & locally (including an August 11th incident where an NOPD officer shut off her body camera and shot a black man in the head. The NOPD failed to immediately release a public report about it).
Photo: Man holds up local Newspaper whose front page reads “NOPD Shoots man during traffic stop” in NOLA police station during occupation of police building,
Photo Source Twitter: @2ChainzLyrics
Up front, my friends (4 black women and 1 black man) and I were leading the group in chanting “Justice for Mike Brown” & “What do we want? JUSTICE. When do we want it? NOW” while a black man whom I did not know (pictured above holding newspaper) joined us in front and led a chant of ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’. Because the people leading the unregistered public event in honor of Mike Brown were black, we didn’t think twice about leading with that particular chant. At some point though, I stepped back and joined the body of the rally and it was at this point that I started getting upset.
As mentioned earlier, I had a brief instance during the moment of silence when I opened my eyes and saw a bunch of white folks with their hands raised in the same position that it’s believed Mike Brown adopted before he was shot. As I moved further back into the crowd of the march, I realized that everybody, including almost all the white people, had adopted the ‘Hands up’ pose. The initial rationalization I had done in the park when I first saw white folks in this pose disappeared as I watched white person after white person march past me with their hands up chanting ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!’ as if they would be criminalized and targeted by police because of the color of their skin. As if their existence was an inherent threat despite being unarmed and in a pose of surrender. As if their interactions with law enforcement as white people don’t usually look like this. I remember feeling the exact same way after Trayvon Martin died and white people, in their misguided attempts at solidarity, posted photos like this one:
Photo Source: Google Image search, White People I am Trayvon
Or when white people, after the criticism of the portrayal of Mike Brown (and other black victims of police violence) in the media posted photos like this one:
Photo Source: Twitter @goawayjoyce
Look, I understand wanting to show up and support, but white people need to understand that this symbolic act of raising your hands in a position of surrender is meant to illustrate how black people are violently targeted by police because of their race. If you don’t experience that, you should not mimic the gesture in an attempt at “solidarity”. It is centering yourself in a narrative that you cannot tell because of the protection your white privilege gives you. It shows a lack of understanding about the nature of systemic state sanctioned violence against black bodies. In fact, the day after the rally I was talking to a white male neighbor who had attended the rally (and marched with his hands up chanting ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’) who expressed that he thought the gesture was “too passive”. I had to literally break it down for him that the point of the gesture was so show that a non-aggressive surrender wasn’t enough to save Mike Brown because his blackness made him a threat, disposable, or both. In adopting this pose, Black people aren’t demonstrating passive surrender to oppression, they are communicating that they can make all attempts to appear non-threatening, but the historic and contemporary vilification of blackness in America has made the real danger the perception of their blackness as inherently threatening.
Another thing I noted as I went further back into the rally was the behavior of a number of white people in the crowd. These folks (all of whom that I saw were white with bandanas over their faces) were pushing over trash cans, taunting police officers in their cars as we passed them, spray painting public property and releasing colored gas canisters (as shown in this video of the march. A friend of mine told me after the march that he had seen one such white person throw themselves full force against a police car and there were outside reports that a window had been broken).
Left Photo: Yellow gas canister goes off during march, Photo Source Twitter: @what__bruh
Right Photo: Graffiti found after march, Photo Source Twitter: @what__bruh
This is when I got mad. How dare these white folks come ‘take part’ in this march by bringing unnecessary violence into a demonstration about unnecessary violence? We were already taking a risk by leading an unregistered rally in order to make a statement on injustice, and now it was being co-opted by the group of people least likely to face any consequences. Had the police reacted to the rally or the violence of these provocateurs, they would have been more likely to arrest myself or other Black people peacefully leading the march, not the white people actually causing the trouble. Later, it was revealed that this group of white folks was part of a local (white) anarchist group that was essentially taking advantage of the energy and numbers of the march to bring about their own agenda, mirroring claims of the same escalation tactics used by outsiders in Ferguson.
All of this backstory finally leads us to the title of the piece, White People, Solidarity & Why I Didn’t March for Mike Brown
Recognizing that the spontaneous rally in the business & tourist sectors of New Orleans did not reach most of the city’s black population who are most likely to be impacted by police violence, there were plans to organize a follow up march that would be more intentional about including this population. A friend of mine attended the organizers meeting for this next event where attendees discussed the route that should be taken, what to do about provocateurs and where/when the event should take place (the meeting was described to me by a white attendee as having “a few poc with a definite majority of white anarchists who identified as occupiers [who] spent most of the time talking”). . At sometime during this meeting, it was revealed that one of the pseudo-national events that was originally announced at the vigil was already in the stages of being planned by a local (white) Anarchist group who would eventually make (and later delete) the Facebook page for the event. I showed up to the rally at Washington Square Park to support a black woman friend of mine who had posted that she was one of the organizers online, and this is what I saw:
There were literally more bikes than black people. After finding my friend, she took one look at me and said, “So you probably won’t be marching today huh?” I told her I probably wouldn’t, but stuck around to see if there was going to be any dialogue about this particular gathering for Mike Brown. There wasn’t. After the organizers met and decided on an acceptable route given the make up of those in attendance, they led the 90-95% white crowd out of the park with their hands up chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”. I turned and walked in the opposite direction with the four other black women I came with and we sat on a playground expressing our frustration about the strange energy of this almost all white group going through the streets of this ‘chocolate city’ chanting ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’.
I want to think that white people care about systemic racism. I want to think they are outraged by Mike Brown’s murder, that they are bursting with righteous anger and that they want to riot because the state of our country’s “criminal justice” system is unacceptable. I want to think that. But when I see white people smiling for pictures at protests, carrying the biggest sign that takes up the most space, bringing in unnecessary violence, and talking about how ‘we are all victims and all just need to get along’ during demonstrations about the targeting of black people…I can’t help but think that maybe they’re just here to make themselves feel better about their own prejudice and advance their own agendas because of how so many choose to participate. I’m not saying don’t support and/or participate , I’m saying make sure how you do so makes sense for you as a white person and doesn’t harm the cause you claim to support.
On Thursday I attended an event featuring Kalamu ya Salaam where a friend and myself expressed our frustration about the derailment of the first rally by white participants. A few elders in the audience reminded us that these tactics were not new, that they themselves had to deal with provocateurs and other tactics during the Civil Rights Movement. One in particular told us that when white people were using your issues to fight their own battles and doing so at your expense, then it was your responsibility to call them out before they do you more harm. So white people, this is me calling you out. Solidarity is not meant to be comfortable. It is not shining light on yourself as ally at the expense of the oppressed who are demanding their counternarratives be centralized. It is understanding that your whiteness protects you from certain things which in turn prohibits you from participation in others, because at the end of the day, when you get tired of marching and chanting, you can put your hands down and feel confident that the police won’t see you as a threat.
Some of us simply don’t have that luxury.