Anti-racism activists show the way towards systemic change
For four months in 2016, football player Colin Kaepernick used his star power and the media gaze to take a stand against racist police brutality, or more precisely, he took a knee during the playing of the national anthem before his games to protest the desecration of Black lives in his country. He was roundly vilified by mainstream media, corporate sport executives, and the president of the United States. His contract was not renewed and since January 2017, he has not been allowed to re-enter his profession. All because he peacefully protested against the same ills that have now been ignored for so long as to spark the global uprising against systemic racism in evidence today.
So when Derek Chauvin kneeled for those 8 minutes and 46 seconds on the neck of George Floyd, being knowingly recorded on a cell phone camera, he turned that pose of supplication, proposal, protest, and prayer into a sentence of death. The four policemen appeared on film acting summarily as judges, jury, and executioners. Let us never forget that this heinous crime is the reason for the protests and, yes, the looting that followed. It is not an excuse; it is simply a fact that explains the context and circumstances.
And as far as the range of responses that a justifiably outraged public could have chosen to this and many similar murders and the continued systemic attacks on Black and Indigenous lives, the few burnt buildings and looted stores are a footnote to the larger significant turning point in history unfolding before our eyes.
“Listening to those who are most affected, especially Black and Indigenous feminist activists and their allies, is the best way to learn to recognize and undo racism in its everyday, systemic, and bureaucratic forms.”
There is much more to be said about the kinds of systemic social change that is needed to end all forms of discrimination and their dehumanizing and deadly consequences. Black activists and community members who have been working to uproot racism and police brutality for decades are the experts in the field. Their reasoned, transformational demands are rooted in extensive direct experience, research, and community-based organizing. It is to them that others must look for direction.
Listening to those who are most affected, especially Black and Indigenous feminist activists and their allies, is the best way to learn to recognize and undo racism in its everyday, systemic, and bureaucratic forms (see e.g., Harris 2020, Palmater 2020, Taylor 2020). Only then will we be equipped to recommit to uniting to democratize the cultural, political, and economic relations and institutions that connect us all.
More consequential still is the support given to protesters by retired U.S. Marine Corps General James Mattis, who connected the ongoing protests with the defense of democracy itself, and deeply criticized Donald Trump for his divisive rhetoric and dangerous escalation of the situation:
The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.
… We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.
Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that “The Nazi slogan for destroying us…was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.” We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics (statement reproduced in whole in The Atlantic, see Goldberg 2020).
In the same way that police brutality is an attack on the sanctity of life, looting is an attack on the sanctity of private property. Looting during protests against systemic violence is a way of saying that life is more important than property. But looting is not, and has never been, the main tactic of any protesters anywhere. Rather, it is a cry for justice and a measure of people’s rejection of the regularity and brutality of police desecration of the sanctity of the more important of the two: human life.
Leigh Brownhill is a scholar focused on social movements and popular struggles for decolonization, ‘recommoning,’ and economic, social, and ecological justice. At Athabasca University, she teaches two online courses: SOCI 378/CMNS 385, Rebel with a Cause: Social Movements in History and Popular Culture, and SOCI 450, Environmental Sociology.