How close should allies be standing to the Black Lives Matter movement? And who gets to decide who they are and how close they stand, anyway?
I’ve been asking myself that question for a few months, and I don’t have a definite answer. But I don’t really like the answers that I’ve seen others come up with, either. Some of the answers I’ve heard have been based upon shouting others down and shutting others out.
The young, new wave of black activists in Chicago should be commended for keeping the pressure on City Hall regarding Laquan McDonald scandal and the continuing series of questionable police shootings. But a recent Chicago Tribune article discussed the propensity of the young black leaders for shutting out white allies during key moments of actions like the now-famous shutdown of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile shopping district on Black Friday of last year. In their world view, creating a safe space for black citizens meant excluding white ones. Beginning on Black Friday, Chicago’s new young black vanguard also began taking the opportunity to publicly shout down the city’s older, longstanding black activists and political leaders.
Last summer, before the Laquan McDonald scandal became the municipally shameful international news item that it is, I witnessed a white colleague of mine spend an amazing amount of time—and waste an amazing amount of personal and professional capital—angrily shouting down members of their social media networks regarding racial justice. They were dissatisfied with non-blacks not being allies to the movement. But more than that, they berated their non-blacks friends and followers for not remaining silent and simply supporting the words and actions of any and all black activists and leaders—and only black activists and leaders—in the racial-justice movement. Rightly motivated by the desire to heal the world in terms of racial justice, my colleague very wrongly decided that meant allies deserved no input whatsoever.
Their well of anger was in response to the controversy surrounding the former block lives matter splinter group, Outside Agitators 206, rushing the stage and interrupting Bernie Sanders at a presidential campaign stop last August in Seattle. At the time, many people of all colors suggested that shouting down real or potential allies—and in the case of Outside Agitators 206, falsely masquerading as movement leadership—might not be the best way to garner popular support. For my colleague, I suspect the irony that they supported an action to shout down potential allies by shouting down their own was lost on them.
All of this has had me wondering for several months, how come shouting down and shutting down allies keeps surfacing and being supported as a worthy or equitable Black Lives Matter tactic? Shouting down the older black establishment might make the young black vanguard feel empowered, and it certainly sends a signal about who will be leading the racial-justice movement in the future. But it also exhibits a deep disrespect for those who have come before, and who at great personal and professional cost created the social and political space allowing the new vanguard the ability to have a voice at all.
The concept that safe space for black citizens by definition excludes anyone else of a different skin color willfully ignores the rainbow of colors of the modern American family. I have a multiracial family. Hundreds of thousands of people have multiracial families in the America of 2016. Those of us who are a different skin color than our black sisters and fathers and nieces and uncles, where should we be standing? Inside the circle, as we are in our families? Or at an artificial distance, because some movement leader decided that when we’re marching down the street we should segregate ourselves from our loved ones in ways that are alien to us in our own families?
Anger always makes you want to close the ranks. It’s completely natural. But for Black Lives Matter and the broader racial-justice movement to be successful, it’s important to remember that in the 1960s, it was people of all colors and all faiths marching together. In 2016, how many more people are willing to become a part of those diverse marching ranks? Pushed away needlessly, how many of them will decide to remain allies—and how many will simply walk away?
Discussing the LGBTQ rights movement with my mother in the late 80s and early 90s, she always used to say that the boat floats only when everybody’s in it. It worked that way with civil rights. It worked that way with marriage equality. And it won’t work any other way with Black Lives Matter, either. My fear for the movement is that its leaders are going to learn that lesson the hard way.
And then we will all be right back where we started.