‘Be of service in these moments': What black organisers want white protesters to be doing right now

'Look at the institutions you're a part of — organisations, places of employment — and interrogate how, not if, anti-blackness is showing up'

Alex Woodward
New York
Thursday 04 June 2020 23:44
Black Lives Matter protesters stage marches around the world

In images from protests across the US, black activists and organisers have stopped white protesters from escalating demonstrations that provoke police into potentially lethal scenes.

Meanwhile, white protesters have also been accused of "hijacking" protests by the same law enforcement that demonstrators have railed against, as police lay the blame for incendiary protests and riots on "outside agitators" in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day.

But organisers fear that accusations from law enforcement and the White House are only intended to distract from the police violence that has compelled the protests in the first place.

As protests continue nightly throughout the US, often as a response to the brutality experienced on the night before, organisers say the challenges ahead are not just "solidarity" in the streets but fighting for black Americans in their communities.

Videos shared widely on social media captured white men smashing business windows with skateboards, while black demonstrators have put out fires ignited by white men.

In Denver, organiser Tay Anderson stopped a white protester from spray-painting at the site of one rally.

"Stop," he cried out. "This is not what we wanted."

Two people spray-painting Black Lives Matter outside a Starbucks in Los Angeles were stopped by black demonstrators who captured them on film: "Y'all are doing that for us and we didn't ask for you to do that. Don't spray stuff on there when they're going to blame black people for that."

Demonstrators in Washington DC were seen tackling a white protester chipping out concrete from a sidewalk, then dragging him into police custody.

In a social media post showing UFC fighter Jon Jones taking a can of spray paint away from a young white protester, he wrote: "As a young black man, trust me, I am frustrated as well, but this is not the way, we are starting to make a bad situation worse."

Houston police chief Art Acevedo told protesters said he would march alongside them "until I can't stand no more".

"But I will not allow anyone to tear down this city, because this is our city," he told them. "Pay close attention. Because these little white guys with their skateboards are the ones starting all this s***, knowing full well that black people and brown people are angry ... and if they start it we will follow. Don't follow that bull****. It's the devil's work."

Activists also fear that 2020's demonstrations will mirror the aftermath of Ferguson, Missouri, following the police killing of Michael Brown, when law enforcement similarly blamed outside groups for rioting while arrests and convictions largely impacted black people from nearby neighbourhoods, repeating a cycle of destruction within black communities — all while media images focus on property damage, not the police killings that inspired it.

"The reality is we can't get caught in this trope of good protester versus bad protester," Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza told MSNBC. "Somehow we have gotten away from this conversation of how we got here."

Wesley Lowery, who covered protests in the wake of Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson, Missouri, wrote: "As always, everything can be true ... The violence can be the result of black residents, and also white anarchists and antifascists, and also white supremacists and other subversive agents ... We often foolishly craft simple narratives to explain complicated realities. Referring here to the property destruction. Always important to note that the first violence here was committed by the police when they killed George Floyd, and we've watched other clear acts of violence by officers during these nights of demonstrations."

In a Twitter thread, Garza wrote: "Protest for too many is a performance for someone else's benefit — rest assured people are not facing tear gas to perform for you. They are sick and tired of being stripped of humanity and no one doing anything."

She added: "Ending police violence is a long game. It takes organising. Protest to up the ante. Public and private pressure. Electoral organising strategies. Telling new stories about us and what we are fighting for. Imagine holding all that and watching as time and time again a black life is extinguished before our eyes, and the laws protect the killers."

Black organisers across the US now have several years' of experience facing modern policing through peaceful protests, relying on organised systems of mutual aid networks, legal aid, street medics and peacekeepers to deescalate scenes, amplifying the voices of women and older demonstrators, and forcing the point that it's the police, not them, that has introduced violence.

In the streets and at other demonstrations, including vigils, white Americans should not only show up but also bring others, including their families, and "bring supplies, bring hand sanitiser, bring masks -- be of service in these moments," says Charlene Carruthers, a founding director of Black Youth Project 100. "Do some of the work of de-escalating white folks that actually put black lives in danger."

White protesters can exert their privilege by putting themselves between police and black demonstrators, organisers say. But demonstrations should transcend "allyship" to build community and camaraderie, Carruthers says. That includes supporting bail funds to holding elected officials accountable to de-fund police departments and send those millions of taxpayer dollars into black communities.

"Everyone can get behind that demand," she says. "We're going to value our schools, our mental health care, quality housing for all."

City, state and federal level budgets are a reflection of morals and send "very clear signals about what's important", she says, pointing to the scramble for personal protective equipment among health workers during the Covid-19 crisis while local police are outfitted in military gear.

White allies must "look at the institutions they're a part of — organisations, places of employment — and interrogate how, not if, anti-blackness is showing up" and "create a culture that dismantles" it, she says.

In TIME, Savala Trepczysnki, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law, says white people "are responsible for what happens now".

"Either they accept that they have inherited this house of white supremacy, built by their forebears and willed to them, and they are now responsible for paying the taxes on that inheritance, or the status quo continues," she says. "I hope they will become radicalised by this moment and begin to fight fiercely for racial justice; but more than that, I hope they start at home, in their own minds and hearts."

The "outside agitator" trope has been used by law enforcement to undermine demonstrations for decades, used by police against Martin Luther King Jr during the Civil Rights movement to dismiss the righteous anger of black protesters within their community, without answering for the reasons for their demonstrations.

Minnesota officials initially announced that a majority of people arrested at demonstrations were from outside of the state. The opposite appeared to be true — arrest records found that more than 80 per cent of people in custody had a Minnesota address.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey initially said that protesters "are coming in largely from outside of the city, from outside of the region, to prey on everything we have built over the last several decades."

St Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said: "Every single person we arrested last night, I'm told, was from out of state."

Even if that were the case, the protests have now appeared in all 50 states and around the world.

In his letter from a Birmingham jail following his arrest for participating in a nonviolent protest, King — addressing his "outsider" status said: "I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

While he preached nonviolence, he also warned against dismissing the underlying causes that lead to rioting: "Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots ... A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?"

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that mayors are "all experiencing the exact same thing: people coming in from outside, a lot of them are purporting to speak about issues pertaining to communities of colour, but they're not from communities of colour."

Demonstrations that reflect a diversity in races, ages and backgrounds is precisely the point, organisers argue. The murky pool of ideologies among protesters all have at least one goal: dismantling police violence.

But there persist looming fears among demonstrations that police are using undercover operatives to incite riots or that white supremacists are infiltrating protests for their own terrorism, all to provoke more violence and give police justification for more force.

Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr meanwhile have blamed the protests on "antifa" and "far left extremists" without condemning brutal police tactics against protesters and members of the press, shared widely on social media.

The president — who also claimed without evidence that protests are "professionally managed" and that people are paid to protest — has said that rioting disregards "the memory" of Mr Floyd, while threatening to send US military into American cities already experiencing a surge in militarised police.

On Wednesday, White House officials circulated a video spreading a conspiracy that palettes of bricks have been placed in cities by antifascist activists to incite violence. The video was later deleted.

The video includes stacks of bricks on a sidewalk in Sherman Oaks — placed there as a security barrier by a local synagogue to prevent cars from driving into it. In a statement, Chabad of Sherman Oaks wrote: "To all our concerned neighbours and friends, there were false pictures and videos going around today, claiming some bricks or rocks were placed at our centre. Here is the truth: THESE ARE SECURITY BARRIERS and have been here for almost a year!"

Its statement was released two days before the White House included the footage in its video.

New York Police Department Commissioner Dermot Shea also posted a video showing officers packing up blue boxes of bricks, which he claimed were placed there by "organised looters" — but the "caches" were near an active construction site in a Brooklyn neighbourhood nearly 10 miles from protests.

Fox News host Sean Hannity has also claimed that Black Lives Matter demonstrators planned a "war on police" while federal prosecutors in Las Vegas announced the arrests of three white men with ties to right-wing extremist groups using recent protests to ignite a "civil war".

As protests continue into a second week following Mr Floyd's killing, vigils and memorials are planned, prayers have been offered, and peaceful demonstrations have taken place in hundreds of cities across the US.

In his pastoral letter to the nation, Poor People's Campaign chair Rev William J Barber said: "To those who look at the fires in Minneapolis and say, 'There must be a better way,' I must say that no one wants to see their community burn. But they have also shared how their non-violent pleas and protests have gone unnoticed for years as the situation has gotten out of hand. No one knows who and what is behind the violence, but we do know that countless activists, grassroots leaders, and preachers were screaming non-violently long before now."

He continued: "Many Americans struggle to imagine that our government's policies and its long train of abuses demand radical transformation. Too many want to believe racism is merely caused by a few bad actors. We often turn racism into a spectacle, only considering the cruel legacy of racism when an egregious action escalates outrage to this level."

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