THE “TYRANNY OF CIVILITY”: Part Four in A Four-Part Series
NOTE: This series of essays are focused primarily on the use of “civility” as a social/cultural norm in the context of nonviolent revolutionary struggles in the U.S. I’m not interested in discussing the “merits” of revolutionary nonviolence vs. other forms of struggle for liberation and survival that might not easily wear that label in this series, but specifically in how “civility” is used by those with more social power to characterize some forms of nonviolent struggle and resistance to oppression by folks with less social power in U.S. society as “divisive,” “counterproductive,” and even most ironically, “racist.” Such characterizations, I’ll argue, serve to only further silence and marginalize oppressed folks in radical communities and maintain systems of privilege and power, while claiming to create a more “neutral” and equal space for all.
SOME PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE ON THE “TYRANNY OF CIVILITY”
SNOW: A CASE STUDY IN “REASONABLE DISSENT”
In early 2003, I was living in Seattle. I’d arrived there a few years earlier, towards the end of the summer of 1999, shortly before the WTO protests. As George W. Bush and Company worked to move the country towards war in Iraq (following the Afghanistan war, already in full swing), folks from the Pacific Northwest joined millions across the world to voice their opposition, most visibly in the streets.
While there were many different groups of people active in the Seattle area, there were three main organizations that claimed leadership roles in the community and coordinated the majority of the protests: Sound Nonviolent Opponents of War (or SNOW, an appropriate name for a fairly middle-class white liberal-dominated group); Not in Our Name-Seattle (aka NION, an anti-war campaign project of the Revolutionary Communist Party, only slightly less white); and the Seattle chapter of Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (aka ANSWER, a project of the Workers World Party). Like many folks (especially folks of color), I didn’t affiliate myself formally with any of these groups, each of which had their own analyses and flavors, though I did hang around with a few NION folks here and there, and liked the somewhat browner, more anti-imperialist bent I saw in ANSWER. There were also many other groups led by and made up of people of color, but none of them asserted such dominant roles in the community.
These three groups seemingly rotated organizing responsibilities for large action/protest days, where one week it would be a SNOW march, the next a NION march, and so on. (I don’t mean to suggest that this occurred through any sort of coordination, as the groups’ ideological differences made this highly unlikely; instead of striving towards a cooperative spirit, each of them appeared to me to be constantly jockeying for the title of Seattle’s main anti-war organization in some way.) These three groups – along with many other smaller, diversely focused ones – participated as contingents in each other’s marches, and usually allowed each other some time to speak at the inevitable end rally.
However, as Bush continued to push for war over the opposition of millions, the need to move beyond the tactics of simple marches grew more and more urgent. And a clear distinction developed over time between SNOW and the other two groups around such tactics, a distinction that increasingly centered around the norm of “civility.”
The big issue with this was that SNOW was the most well-financed and resourced, the group with the most social power and clout (which all makes sense, again noting them as a middle-class white liberal-dominated group). But the organization rejected civil disobedience and disruptive direct action tactics, and distanced themselves from any actions that might involve these tactics, as well as any community member that might engage in them. There was an understanding, which became more and more explicit over time, that any action that could be perceived as “confrontational” (either by police, public officials, or other folks in the community), could create a negative image in the media, or that challenged the authority of SNOW organizers at SNOW actions was unwelcome at their events. Through this approach, SNOW prioritized appearing what could be call “agreeably disagreeable” (can’t hurt the message!) over bringing its numbers, resources and privilege to bear in working towards substantive, creative ways of heading off an imminent, ugly war.
The notion that this visible “civility” made manifest in the form of marches and rallies would yield more results than nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience was promoted as an unquestioned norm. Anyone attending a SNOW action/event that didn’t stick to their script was disavowed, with folks detained or seized by police during marches or rallies sometimes abandoned to whatever treatment they might receive. (I myself saw this happen several times; for example, towards the end of a march leading through downtown out to a large pier on Seattle’s waterfront, several folks from the march intentionally decided to block the sidewalk and street next to the pier as an act of disruption. SNOW organizers pressed folks to walk past them and continue on to the march’s end point, even as police approached and arrested the folks.)
It’s one thing to have disagreements around tactics and strategy in fighting for change, or even different analyses around issues of oppression and social/political violence. I have my own particular opinions around what I think are useful tools and strategies and what I think is less so. And I think even the most anti-authoritarian person would place some sort of philosophical or ideological limit on unconditional respect for what’s called “diversity of tactics”1, depending on how a given tactic fits into their particular analysis of how to engage in struggles against oppression and create change. But SNOW’s operational vision of nonviolent resistance to the war supported and promoted a reframing of even some versions of nonviolent struggle as “violent” – a reactionary reframing that has served various power structures in this country well for many, many decades. By imposing it so forcefully around their actions and in the Seattle community in general, the group degraded the disruptive potential of many folks engaged in anti-war efforts in Seattle. SNOW thus legitimized both the labelling of civil disobedience as outside acceptable norms, effectively as criminal, and also perpetuated the narrative that folks targeted by police are usually to blame for this targeting and should not be defended – no matter what particular circumstances might have led to the situation.2
There was never a recognition by SNOW of how “civility” as a norm operates differently for different people, based directly upon racial, gender and other social hierarchies. Or how oppressive biases are built into the framing of particular behavior as “uncivil” by folks with power: for example, how police tend to characterize an action by a person of color (such as marching alongside a police bike line while chanting forcefully during a march) as more confrontational or provocative than if a white person is doing the same action. Or of how catering to media by presenting a visible, but not “too scary” spectacle actually worked to make protests less newsworthy over time.3 (This may have protected “the message,” but it made it less likely the message would be heard.) Or of whether or not anti-war actions based in being media-friendly over substantive would be welcoming to victims of war – mostly folks of color – who wished to bring their anger, hurt, outrage, their full selves to the struggle to end this new war, only to be told their expressions of their pain were too much.
After several months of attending various protests (during which the 2003 war began), I started avoiding any anti-war actions that I didn’t think would intentionally center folks of color’s voices (usually the ones organized by SNOW), or that didn’t offer any forms of action beyond the basic rally-march-rally formula. I get that there are lots of different ways for folks to participate in struggles, and that for some, this is the most they can do, and maybe even beyond their capacity. But I found these events increasingly alienating and continually questioned their effectiveness in providing any challenge to U.S militarism. Instead, I began working with folks in a collective focused on pushing for accountability for police violence in Seattle, as well as a small anti-war affinity group; I also began connecting up with POC-led groups and folks engaging in more direct forms of action – such as those doing physical blockades at the Port of Tacoma, to keep equipment such as Stryker vehicles from nearby Fort Lewis from being shipped to Iraq. The emergence of the Anarchist People of Color (APOC) network further shaped my developing critiques of white supremacy, capitalism, and the rally-march-rally approach to change.4
My experiences in actions led by SNOW and similar organizations during this time did lead to something I found to be lasting value, though: questions about the oppressive potential of “civility” as a norm in struggles against oppression and for justice and liberation. I hadn’t yet heard of respectability politics or tone-policing, so developing my own term – the “tyranny of civility” – helped me understand the alienation and indignation I’d been feeling, and provided a starting point to examine its alignment with whiteness and other forms of social hierarchy.5 Once I started naming this phenomenon, I began seeing it play out in all sorts of community struggles against oppressive power.
I’ve come to see 2003 and the few years directly following as a tragically missed opportunity to disrupt the U.S.’s ongoing militaristic project to dominate brown folks across the world. It’s impossible to say exactly what actions could have stopped W’s war in Iraq, but I definitely think that this narrowing of the definition of revolutionary nonviolence and tone-policing by SNOW and similar anti-war organizations that came to power (I use that word intentionally) at the same time across the U.S. diminished the potential of anti-war movements (which encompassed millions of people in this country) to stop it before it started, or end it earlier once it began.
I’ve also come to understand this as a natural end-result of the imposition of a vision of revolutionary nonviolent resistance rooted on the premise that engaging in reasonable forms of engagement with systems of power will yield in substantial results in your favor. This vision – and the relentless efforts by folks with more social power to get oppressed folks to adhere to it – is underneath many of the issues I’ve discussed throughout this series. It’s a vision that speaks towards pushing for change, but only in ways that appear “non-threatening” or “non-disruptive,” and thus, pressures oppressed folks to prioritize the comfort of folks with greater social power over the assertion of their own humanity. It’s also based in an assumption rooted in privilege, where if you do things the “right way,” you are entitled to a particular benefit; there is no room within this assumption for acknowledgment of the fact that practices of oppression work precisely by providing social benefits differently to people engaging in similar activities, based on their position in a given hierarchy.
I also see a few other factors as contributing to this vision that led to the particular formation of groups like SNOW and the dominance of this vision of nonviolent activism. Specific to Seattle is the legacy of the 1999 WTO protests, where disruptive nonviolent action was used as a tactic in a diverse range of ways, and to great effectiveness (though these were not the only acts of resistance that created that historic moment6). Property destruction – caused by some protestors, as well as some police officers lobbing all matter of “non-lethal” materials such as flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets and some outright opportunists not engaged in the protests at all – was seized upon by public and police officials and members of the media as a way to discredit the protests, and delegitimize the substantive critiques of corporate-dominated globalization underlying them. These acts were quickly used to justify increasingly repressive efforts to control all manner of nonviolent civil disobedience and activism in Seattle, and later, in other cities and towns where large gatherings (the World Bank, the G8, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, etc.) occurred over the following years.
This reactionary response was directly tied to fear of the disruptive potential of forms of nonviolent direct action that operated outside of the norm of civility, and it manifested itself in the form of the reasonable, non-disruptive nonviolent orientation of many anti-war groups and other groups pushing for social change promoted after 1999. In Seattle, many segments of the left fed into the creation of this increasingly narrow definition of nonviolence activism by distancing themselves from other groups more comfortable with disruption, and in some cases, working to undermine the credibility of and support for these other groups in the community.
While this post-WTO response wasn’t limited to Seattle (as large-scale, repressive police responses to mass actions became the norm through the early 2000s, up to present day), a shared animosity towards folks fighting for social change by the powers that be in the city – SPD, the Mayor and other public officials, the media itself – became even more apparent, even more visible (though it was likely even more visceral and real in the 1960s and 1970s).7 In my view, this grew out of these folks’ sense of having been humiliated by the protests in 1999, of having had their control and power disrupted, however briefly. SNOW was formed in this environment a few years afterward, and I believe this fresh animosity, coupled with the overwhelming whiteness of the group, directly impacted the organization’s choice to narrowly define what constituted “acceptable” activism and resistance against war.
Another factor I see as underlying the emphasis on non-disruptive action is the ever-expanding dominance of the nonprofit industrial complex mode of activism, where organizations increasingly define their mission and vision not around necessarily creating deep, transformational change, but more moderate forms of change. This reformist approach is less likely to feel threatening to those in power, and thus, carries less risk regarding the organization’s continued existence. I see this mode of thinking about change as primarily aligned with whiteness, but it also tends to be the default of many of those with social power along different dimensions of oppression, frequently serving as a tactic to deflect or derail efforts by oppressed folks to radically transform social reality on their way towards ending their oppression.
REDEFINING DISRUPTION AND CONFRONTATION AS “VIOLENCE”
It’s not only through the rejection of disruptive forms of revolutionary nonviolence that I believe SNOW and other similar (primarily white-dominated) organizations across the U.S. blunted the potential of anti-war struggles across the country, as well as other struggles. As I noted earlier, I also believe that many of these organizations have contributed – and continue to contribute – to the reframing of many forms of confrontational yet nonviolent activism and civil disobedience as forms of “violence.”8
This reframing – usually done primarily by folks in power and the media – serves to characterize many nonviolent expressions of dissent and challenges to existing social hierarchies as universal social threats, when the truth is they are only threats to those with greater social power and the systems that provide them with that power. The purpose is clear: to label some forms of protest and struggle as legitimate (socially acceptable), and others not. Those in power – politicians, police, corporate leaders, even community members – are then seen as justified in suppressing whatever modes of protest and struggle are deemed illegitimate and most pointedly, those folks engaging in them, all in the interests of maintaining the existing social order (and the hierarchies upon which it is built).
This isn’t just about political tactics in the streets, however. This equation of disruption with violence also happens through the use of respectability politics and tone-policing (as discussed in Part Two of this series) alongside gaslighting9 and other similar tactics. These tactics are used by those with greater social power to control the emotional autonomy of oppressed folks engaged in struggles against their oppression, usually by labeling their expressions of anger growing out of their oppression as invalid, unreasonable, uncivil.
Instead of being seen as legitimate, socially valuable attempts by oppressed folks to speak and act based on the truth of their oppressive experiences and their desire to end them (which may not be relatable to those not sharing it), actions that trouble the comfort of those at the top of social hierarchies are coded as a danger to community stability, as a larger social threat. Under white supremacy, this coding aligns with racist stereotyping and profiling.
Even if such “comfort-troubling” actions hold constructive or transformative potential, their challenge to existing social power – even in radical communities/spaces supposedly focused on ending hierarchies – usually leads to all manner of deflection, criticism, and calls for adherence to a seemingly neutral “civility” that rejects such actions. Examples of the actions I’m talking about can include the following: calling out oppressive behaviors in organizing meetings or during actions; disrupting the shopping day inside a shopping mall with a sit-in; breaking off from a permitted march or even carrying out an unpermitted march; shouting at a police officer (usually for past violence) or political figure during a rally; shutting down a street or highway; and even some acts of property destruction10, among others. As different as these may appear, a common thread running through them is that they are all generally based in a rejection of the norm of “civility.” By this, I mean they are disruptive of the everyday scripts that support comfort of those with social power – whether within groups or communities pushing for change, or in larger society.
Criticism of any of these may be totally valid on political, ideological, strategic, even emotional grounds (as oppressive experiences include an emotional dimension, and this emotional dimension carries information within it crucial to dismantling oppression, as certain as any study). I believe that you can critique others’ tactics/analyses while still displaying some level of respect for “diversity of tactics” as a basic principle; otherwise, there is no way to push for accountability and change when oppressive dynamics and actions come into play, even in the most radical, anti-authoritarian-inclined spaces. Some potentially helpful criteria (as suggested by MLK in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”) might include thinking about whether such discussions prioritize comfort for those with more social power over freedom for oppressed folks, and serve to perpetuate social norms centered around “civility,” or trouble them.
But those seeking to critique “uncivil” actions should always acknowledge that what is usually labeled “civility” is bound up in social power, and examine their place within that system of power. They should also ask themselves whether they are prioritizing their own comfort (or that of other folks with more social power) at the expense of potentially transformative change that could create greater freedom from oppression for oppressed folks towards their liberation.
They should recognize how oppressed folks’ experiences, lives, their very selves, are labeled as non-normative, not only through their resistance, but simply through their existence in relation to others above them in a given social hierarchy. And they should also recognize that what may look “uncivil” to them – particularly in the case of anger – may look like survival to so many others.
AUDRE LORDE’S “THE USES OF ANGER”: REPRISE
I discussed black anger a bit in Part Two of this series, specifically on the transformative and constructive power of anger as voiced by Audre Lorde in her speech,“The Uses of Anger.” Lorde asserts that the anger of oppressed folks towards their oppression and folks who benefit from that oppression is an entirely reasonable and valid reaction.11 She also states that this anger and the discomfort it causes when voiced creates useful, constructive openings for transformative change in social reality. She then presents those who claim to oppose systems of oppression (in this specific case, her audience of white feminists who claim to oppose racism) with a choice: they can let themselves become stalled by guilt and inaction, or they can work through their discomfort at being beneficiaries of white supremacy, and work with women of color to end it. But Lorde makes one thing perfectly clear: she will no longer allow her anger to be silenced. And she will resist any attempts to erase or suppress her struggle as a black woman against racism, or any suggestion that it is less urgent than ending the oppression of women. As such, Lorde stakes a definitive claim to the full scope of her humanity, and provides an invaluable vision for struggle for oppressed folks.
This vision is based in an intentional commitment to “incivility,” where the anger of oppressed folks is seen as having a creative (even if disruptive) purpose in ending systems of oppression. It is this vision that oppressed folks and those who want to end systems of oppression that benefit them should embrace. Respectability politics, tone-policing and other tactics through which folks with greater social power attempt to impose the“tyranny of civility” should be rejected as oppressive. All of these prioritize the comfort and experiences of those with greater social power, while denying the fullness and reality of oppressed folks’ humanity, whether through silencing or outright erasure. Further, they help legitimize reactionary forms of violence against marginalized folks, by labeling their legitimate pain and anger at their oppression as a form of larger social threat.
Folks with greater social power who actually want to end racism, gender oppression, and other forms of social violence and domination need to respect the validity of oppressed folks’ experiences and perspectives, and the actions the oppressed may take towards ending systems of power that harm them as result. They need to stop recentering discussions and critiques on how to accomplish this around their own experiences and norms such as “civility.” They need to continually support oppressed folks in bringing their full selves to struggles, and recognize the discomfort that they feel when confronted about their complicity in oppressive systems and privilege as a point of departure towards transformative change. Most importantly, they need to get out of oppressed folks’ way, and stop throwing up obstacles on the path towards their liberation.
Disruption and the creation of crisis and discomfort for those with more social power need to be seen as essential elements in oppressed folks’ struggles for liberation. The “tyranny of civility,” in all its various forms, needs to be jettisoned, in favor of a commitment to challenging oppressive power and norms wherever and whenever they show up – even in communities and movements focused on social change. Oppressed folks need to stake their claim to the fullness of their humanity, through being loud and unapologetic in the dismantling of systems that deny it to them, and unconcerned with the comfort of those with social power, who benefit from those systems. This necessary and intentional “incivility” must become part of our visions for a freer, more fully human world.
After several years of considering all the issues and ideas included in this series, it’s only as I’ve worked on writing these pieces that I’ve really come to ask myself: in what ways I have possibly imposed “civility” on others, or supported others who’ve done so? In what ways have I disrupted this imposition, or supported others in doing so? And in what ways has it been imposed on me, or have I imposed it upon myself?
I’ve come upon a few interesting insights, but I’m still trying to understand them more deeply. I do believe that unpacking them at some future point will provide a useful starting point in further clarifying both my own analyses around power and struggles against oppression, my own location within intersecting dimensions of oppression, and how I’ve internalized norms and ways of thinking that could prioritize the comfort of those with more social power over oppressed folks. I’m considering writing these thoughts up once they become more clear in an unofficial fifth part of this four-part series, but it will likely take a bit of time. Until then…
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS & THANKS
Thanks to numerous co-conspirators and friends with whom I’ve struggled with, discussed some of the issues explored in these essays over the years, and shared some of the experiences leading up to this current point. So many folks have contributed to my ongoing efforts to understand various ideas explored in this series, but I especially want to highlight the role that Sara Brickman has played in expanding my understanding of how gendered hierarchies around knowledge based in patriarchy and misogyny (particularly around how higher value is placed on “objective knowledge” and “logic” as opposed to emotional knowledge) can play out in other oppressions.
I also particularly want to acknowledge both the writings and radio commentaries of the amazing Ijeoma Oluo, who has also discussed some of the ideas examined through this series; her take on the politics of empathy vs. respect for others’ pain and experiences and the mythologizing of MLK by white folks significantly helped in shaping various sections of these essays.
And I also want to acknowledge the efforts of all who have fought and currently fight to end violence against ALL black and brown bodies, but particularly all iterations of Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives. I hold up the work of BLM’s founders – Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors – whose work in this ongoing struggle is frequently obscured, as is the work of so many black women.
Speaking of which, I thank first of all, and last of all, always, my mother, for struggling in so many ways so that my burden might be that much lighter. You raised me to be black and proud in ways I’m only beginning to understand, and for that and so much else, I am forever grateful and indebted.
With love to my father, who I learned passed from this struggle the night I finished the last part of this series.
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1 “Diversity of Tactics.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Last modified March 8, 2016. Web. Accessed May 26, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diversity_of_tactics
2 NION and ANSWER were definitely more supportive of civil disobedience and disruptive actions. But I also had issues with some of their tactics, strategies and visions, as dictated by their particular political frameworks. NION, it seemed to me, was much more interested in promoting revolutionary communism and the Revolutionary Communist Party as the answer to everything at rallies than working towards specific, concrete actions to end the war. ANSWER appeared to have a more intersectional bent focused on various oppressed peoples around the world, and thus, to have its eyes on the prize a bit more in my opinion, but also seemed mostly to focus on street demonstrations. It was primarily folks unaffiliated with none of these three groups – including folks with anarchist leanings, but who had strong analyses around race, gender and other oppressions – that I tended to see acting to materially disrupt the war, such as physically blockading the Port of Tacoma to stop the shipment of troops and equipment to the Middle East.
3 In addition, the emphasis by many liberal anti-war organizations on keeping everything predictable and formulaic during marches and rallies – gather at point A and listen to speeches, march to point B along permitted route, stop at Point B and listen to speeches, call it a day – not only worked to make many anti-war protests less newsworthy, but also exhausted community morale and energy.
4 APOC released two compilations of articles/essays by people of color entitled Our Culture, Our Resistance (vol 1 and 2) that provided a range of perspectives on race, gender, class and anti-authoritarianism. The second volume included a piece by Shawn McDougal titled “Sheep Dreams and Kitten Memes” that I found provided a really productive critique of the formulaic protest approach I’ve discussed. McDougal pushes for a more substantive and creative vision for mass actions, which move beyond this formula, towards deeper, community-transforming actions; his vision is of a world “where everyone understands that they are creators of social reality, rather than spectators…” I cannot locate any version of Our Culture, Our Resistance online of late, but McDougal’s essay is accessible via LA Indymedia: Shawn McDougal, “Sheep Dreams and Kitten Memes,” LA Indymedia, Posted November 9, 2005, accessible via http://la.indymedia.org/news/2005/11/138997.php. Accessed June 30, 2016.
5 I previously discussed why I think the “tyranny of civility” is a bit more useful than the terms “respectability politics” and/or “tone-policing” in Part Two of this series.
6 The prevailing narrative around the 1999 WTO is that it was the street protests, blockades, and other similar acts of disobedience that resulted in the collapse of the summit, but this is only half of the story. These actions disrupted several crucial meetings, which then caused the major economic superpowers such as the U.S., the U.K. and other rich countries to attempt to craft an agreement without input from developing nations, particularly countries from the Global South. It was the refusal of delegates from many of these countries to serve as tokens in such an undemocratic, rigged negotiation process they were being excluded from that effectively ended any possibility of a final agreement. Thus, a revolt by folks of color within the summit fighting for sustainable development and trade played a role in the “Battle in Seattle” as well. The omission of this fact in most popular accounts of what happened at the 1999 Ministerial Conference has enabled the role that folks from developing nations played in this significant moment of struggle against corporate globalization and neoliberal imperialism to be obscured, while valorizing the white-dominated majority of protestors. For more, see John Vidal, “The real Battle for Seattle,” The Guardian, December 4, 1999, Accessed June 6, 2016. Accessible via https://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/dec/05/wto.globalisation. Also, read the invaluable critique provided by Elizabeth Betita Martinez concerning the racial politics that played out in organizing leading up to the 1999 WTO protests, “Where Was the Color in Seattle?” Colorlines, March, 10, 2000, accessible via http://www.colorlines.com/articles/where-was-color-seattlelooking-reasons-why-great-battle-was-so-white.
7 I’m not saying that the aggressive stance towards struggles for liberation in Seattle by police, political and other powers only began after the 1999 WTO protests – Seattle has had a long, complex and distinguished history of both struggle and repression. But there definitely appeared to be a noticeable shift following WTO, and it was frequently brought up – particularly by the media – in the years directly following, especially as anti-war protests started following the push towards war in Afghanistan and Iraq in fall 2001.
8 I’m finishing this essay in the immediate aftermath of the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter’s disruption of the Toronto Pride Parade. Invited to be an Honoured Group of the event, BLM-Toronto staged a sit-in that shut down the entire parade for 30 minutes and presented Pride Toronto organizers with several demands, including the barring of police floats and booths from future Parades and events, commitments to space for Black queer youth, more support for Black deaf and hearing interpreters at the festival, and “a commitment to increase representation amongst Pride Toronto staffing/hiring, prioritizing Black trans women, Black queer people, Indigenous folk, and others from vulnerable communities,” among others. For the list of demands, see the following link: https://twitter.com/BLM_TO/status/749754649951948800. The demands were signed and agreed to by Pride Toronto’s Executive Director, Mathieu Chantelois, as a condition for ending the sit-in, but Chantelois began backpedaling almost immediately following the parade, particularly on the issues around police inclusion in Toronto’s Pride Festival. In line with the general historical trend I’ve been laying out here and across this series (see my discussion of Black Lives Matter-Seattle folks disrupting a Sanders rally in Part Two), many reports and discussions of this action are focused on whether or not these folks “damaged their message,” or “overplayed their hand,” and BLM-Toronto is dealing with relentless attacks, from the outright racist to many seeking to simultaneously claim to be on their side – and those of other black folks – while basically denying any validity to the urgency of confronting police responsibility for perpetuating the epidemic of black death. And during the sit-in, several whites on Twitter referred to it as a “hostage situation,” effectively equating the action with kidnapping or terrorism. For a fairly typical mainstream take that exemplifies the “civility” narrative, see Mark Gollom, “Black Lives Matter got attention, but did its Pride tactics hurt or help its cause?”, CBC News, July 5, 2016, Accessed July 5, 2016. Accessible via http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/black-lives-matter-toronto-pride-parade-1.3663659. For a take that critiques the “civility” narrative, see Nora Loreto, “Black Lives Matter more than a police float,” Rabble.ca, July 4, 2016. Accessed July 5, 2016. Accessible via http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/nora-loreto/2016/07/black-lives-matter-more-police-float.
9 For more on gaslighting, see Shea Emma Fett, “10 Things I’ve Learned About Gaslighting As An Abuse Tactic,” Everyday Feminism, August 27, 2015. Accessed July 6, 2016. Accessible via web at http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/08/things-wish-known-gaslighting/.
10 Here’s my basic take on property destruction in the context of all this (and likely where I might lose some of you): First, I don’t generally see it as violence. To me, violence is causing harm to other people, and while I can accept that destroying property as part of direct action might affect someone negatively, I simply don’t equate things (windows, cars, buildings) with people. I think that our society works hard to socialize people to treat property as equivalent to human life – and destruction of things as equivalent to hurting people – as part of socializing us into capitalism, as well as white supremacy and other oppressions (so we respect the property of those with more social power). And so I believe that property destruction can be a useful, nonviolent tactic in creating disruption, crisis and change.
But I think property destruction is best practiced strategically, meaning when targeting specific structures, equipment, etc. to disrupt specific oppressive activities and operations. In other words, sabotage, or similar forms of strategic destructive actions. Meaning I generally do not think that more general, less specific property destruction during marches/actions is particularly valuable. But I accept that such a judgment is based around my own definitions of what is strategic and what is not based on my own politics, what I see as “valuable.” And I also accept that I both don’t know everything, nor do I have no right to set absolute limits on other folks’ sense of what transformative social action looks like, or on what their needs around that may be. Sometimes property destruction isn’t about strategy (at least not on its face), but is the clearest expression of anger, frustration and pain for some oppressed folks in a given situation – I refuse to see that as anything other than valid.
There’s so much more I could say on how I feel about this topic…but I’m likely going to take it up at a later time, in another essay.
11 Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger,” keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, Storrs, Connecticut, June 1981. Accessible online at http://www.blackpast.org/1981-audre-lorde-uses-anger-women-responding-racism#sthash.G06FqC9P.dpuf. Please see Part Two of this series for my earlier discussion of this piece.