ON NOT “TAKING THE BAIT”

This piece was written around the recent community counter-protest against the KKK in my current hometown of Charlottesville, VA. For a little more context, see the links below. (Photos by Ézé Amos)

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Several folks are noting the questionable allegations several City officials are making to justify the police’s violence towards a massive nonviolent community protest against the Klan on July 8th here in Charlottesville (see linked statement by the Mayor, Mike Signer, below).

But honestly the most infuriating elements of Mayor Mike Signer’s statement following this event are that he and other city officials A) want to take credit for the work towards “finally tell[ing] the truth about race in our City,” when that only came about through the efforts of many of the very protestors that were attacked defending our supposedly progressive “Capital of the Resistance” (Signer’s own branding in response to Trump) from the KKK, and B) it repeats the incredibly condescending narrative of “taking the bait” that several City officials pushed as part of their attempts to get people not to counter-protest. Some thoughts on that follow:

On June 13th, I attended a community meeting where many folks – city officials, clergy, the police chief, and community members – discussed upcoming rallies by the KKK and white nationalists here in Charlottesville, and how we as a city should address it, including whether or not there should be counter-protests of some kind. Several different perspectives were represented (most roundly by long-time community members of color), including some folks noting this moment as just being one in a history of racial terrorism in this city, to others (all black folks) noting the need for them to avoid the KKK rally in the interests of their own emotional/psychological health (understandable) as well as fears that black folks expressing anger would be disproportionately targeted by law enforcement (as pretty much played out). There were also announcements of various events planned by various segments of CVille community and intended as an alternative to a direct counter-protest.

I totally respect the feelings and choices of those folks of color who chose not to be at this counter-protest, as I see mental/emotional/psychological self-care as a totally understandable priority; it could even be said that taking care of themselves was the best way for them to resist white supremacy that day. But there were many other folks (including many folks of color) who wanted to directly confront the Klan, as a way of specifically countering their efforts to make Charlottesville a rallying point for white supremacy. And over and over and over again, these folks’ desire to use their own freedom of speech to nonviolently counter the Klan was characterized by the city and others as a potential problem, as a disruptive force in our community. The notion that the KKK and other racists simply want attention, and that denying it to them is enough to challenge their power, was floated repeatedly, with the underlying assertion that anyone who actually does anything other than ignore them is basically stupid, or naïve.

This latter framing insults the intelligence and experiences of many who experience racism/white supremacy and haven’t seen much progress in ending it through simply ignoring it. Further, the problem with this logic in the particular case of Charlottesville is that it doesn’t make basic sense. For those who believe that simply ignoring the Klan or other white nationalists is the road to victory, I’d ask, if the moment to confront them isn’t now, when is the time? If the KKK are allowed to rally unchallenged this time, what’s to prevent them from feeling emboldened to come back next month (as other white supremacists/nationalists are planning to do on August 12th), or next week, or tomorrow? And what does being the “Capital of the Resistance” mean, what does being a “progressive” city mean, if you’re willing to prioritize the rights of those who stand against progressive values over those who stand up for them? And why do you think it’s okay to define for other folks how harmed they are by the presence of racial terrorists in their town?

At the community meeting attended by several of these officials on June 13th, CPD Police Chief Thomas made it clear that the focus of police attention was not going to be on the Klan, but on counter-protestors. (This was further underlined by reported visits by police for “informational visits” to the home of well-known activists around town in the weeks leading up to July 8th). This sets up a false narrative where people defending their own town (including the supposed progressive values of inclusion, diversity, and anti-discrimination) from racial terrorists from another state are seen as the threat to their own community. And furthers the additional narrative of criminalizing any disruptive protest, no matter how nonviolent (blocking streets, for example) in many folks’ minds as the equivalent of violence. These twin narratives have been historically been weaponized against black folks and other oppressed peoples to justify police/state/reactionary violence, including against Martin Luther King, Jr, unquestionably a black hero to many white liberals. The intent behind this is clear: to justify whatever police force is brought to bear to quell the protest. And the message is clear: if you “take the bait” (however that is defined by the City), you are fair game. It’s dangerous, reactionary, and serves the interest of white comfort/supremacy and capital over justice and transformative change.

Mayor Signer, Chief Thomas, and other city officials have frequently said that the Klan and everything they stand for are offensive, both to them personally, and to the values of our City, but that they had to put their feelings aside in service to the First Amendment. If they aren’t willing to actually protect that principle for those community members who don’t agree with them, however, they are choosing to use their power to favor certain voices over others. The fact that in this case, the voice they are allowing to be amplified is that of white supremacy renders all their anti-racist/progressive rhetoric suspect. Their push to lecture (particularly) folks of color on why they shouldn’t directly counter such voices while they are be given space is an imposition of what I call the “tyranny of civility,” a practice/norm centered around maintaining white comfort over racial liberation. Or as MLK, Jr., the black freedom fighter I’m sure all city officials would claim to respect and admire wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” they are showing a clear preference for a “negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Folks committed to ending white supremacy and other forms of oppression here in CVille and beyond SHOULD refuse the “bait,” in this case the form of narratives and norms that work to frame nonviolent forms of struggle against hate and oppressive power as the problem, justify police violence against those they are supposed to serve, and allow politicians and others in positions of social power to define for them the possibilities for change and liberation in their communities. More MLK, Jr: “Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

A commitment to struggle through this tension is the only way to move from a negative peace to a positive one. We can’t simply make claims to be different, better, through slogans or brands or community events; we have to do the work. Some of that can look like engaging in city commissions and other elements of the city/local power structure, but some of it is going to involve being in the streets, opposing the efforts of those very same structures to maintain the negative peace known as the status quo, the “bait” those in power would prefer us to take. But a positive peace, a freer and more human world is out there. Let’s rest up, get organized, and work to make it real.

Solidarity CVille statement – http://solidaritycville.com/2017/07/08/Charlottesville-confronts-Klan-Police-respond-with-brutality/index.html

Richmond Times-Dispatch (best news outlet account of this event in my opinion as an attendee) – http://www.richmond.com/news/virginia/arrested-tear-gas-deployed-as-ku-klux-klan-rallies-in/article_492f46e8-f9c8-5db7-ad86-0c817b28ae13.html

Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer’s statement – https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10155449989175629&id=51200715628