The Pandemic and Political Order
It Takes a State
Last Friday, Donald Trump took the presidential oath of office in front of a crowd of about 160,000 people. The next day, some 470,000 turned out for the Women’s March on Washington. They were joined by hundreds of thousands in other cities around the country and world. They supported a hodgepodge of progressive causes, from reproductive rights to environmentalism to decolonialism to anti-racism.
The marches, which were hailed by elated feminist observers as a representing a surge of the intersectional movement—which focuses on how oppression piles up along cleavages of race, class, gender, and more—saw zero reported arrests in Washington. Soon, social media was flooded by a wave of smug posts on the marchers’ supposedly superior protesting chops.
But weaknesses in the scaffolding of the movement’s big tent quickly become apparent. “When you brag that your protests had no arrests, I wonder what you think that says about you,” mused the writer Ijeoma Oluo, echoing many black activists. “Calling arrests in protests ‘stupid’,” wrote the Chicago activist Mykele Deville, “defecates on the legacy of those who defied law to bring about change through civil disobedience, property damage, and armed direct action.” The writer Eve Ewing remarked on Twitter that “not getting arrested in a march doesn't mean you're better than anybody,” continuing “The police state doesn't deem you a threat. So slow your roll."
Such tensions should not have been surprising. In fact, they were apparent well before the march. On inauguration day, 230 protestors were arrested after setting fire to a limousine, kicking in car windows, and hurling rocks through shop windows. One protestor socked the white supremacist Richard Spencer in the face as he gave a TV interview. The result was to set social networks abuzz as families fretted about taking their families to the march the following day.
In the weeks prior, the march’s National Committee, which at its outset had drawn fire for being made up entirely of white women, had incorporated several women of color as national co-chairs. It laid out a set of guiding principles that were imported from the nonviolent philosophies of the American civil rights movement. Evoking Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent Beloved Community as “the framework for the future,” the committee espoused a policy of turning the other cheek: “Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause,” reads its mission page. “Self-chosen suffering is redemptive and helps the movement grow in a spiritual as well as a humanitarian dimension.”
The explicit and quasi-religious abnegation of the right to violent self-defense put the national committee at odds with one of its key allies during the Saturday march: Black Lives Matter. Although this movement, founded in 2012, focuses on nonviolent civil disobedience, its guiding principles make no prescription for nonviolence. Instead, its website offers an indictment of the structural violence that defines Black Americans’ daily lives: “When we say Black Lives Matter…it is an acknowledgement [that] Black poverty and genocide is state violence.”
Against the backdrop of sociological grievance, Black Lives Matter protests have frequently spun out into violent unrest. The movement’s leadership has been accused of not denouncing its unrulier elements forcefully enough. And potential allies, ranging from conservative publications to former civil rights activists, have been quick to wash their hands of the black activism they view as extremist, disruptive, and unfaithful to the nonviolent traditions of King.
Black Lives Matter defenders, in turn, fire back charges that allies are whitewashing King’s own disruptions, which appalled many white moderates, prompting his famous letter of complaint against them from a Birmingham jail cell. Critics of nonviolence such as the anarchist writer Peter Gelderloos have charged that it protects privilege that is itself based on state violence. “Pacifism assumes that white people who grew up in the suburbs with all their basic needs met can counsel oppressed people, many of whom are people of color, to suffer patiently under an inconceivably greater violence.” The author Flores Alexander Forbes points out in the anthology Police Brutality that, during the civil rights movement, black Americans strongly supported militants like Malcolm X. In 1970, 66 percent of respondents to a Harris Poll said that they felt pride at the activities of the Black Panther Party and 43 percent stated that the Panthers represented the respondent’s own views.
King, widely mythologized today, was viewed unfavorably by more than two-thirds of Americans in 1966. Activists who are unconvinced by nonviolence argue that King’s movement secured strategic successes in part because it mounted pressure in tandem with violent resistance like the Panthers’. Another hero of nonviolence, Mohandas Gandhi, similarly operated simultaneously with freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh and later the Indian National Army. That King and Gandhi have been canonized and their militant contemporaries widely derided or forgotten reveals more, says Gelderloos, about elites’ preference for “the oppressed to be nonviolent” than about the tactical or moral superiority of nonviolence.
For now, tensions in the intersectional movement will simmer. At the march, black activists carried signs bearing slogans such as “I’ll see you nice white ladies at the next Black Lives Matter march, right?” and “Black women tried to save ya’ll! 94%”, referring to the share of the black women’s vote that went to Hillary Clinton. One evocative image that went viral shows black activist Angela Peoples with a sign reading “Don’t Forget: White Women Voted for Trump” (indeed, 53 percent of them did). Peoples’ camo fatigues and “Stop Killing Black People” cap stands in provocative contrast to the three white women in pink “pussy hats” taking selfies directly behind her. After the march, some white protesters took to Facebook to argue that the militancy of the speakers (among them the former communist Angela Davis and the fiery activist Tamika Mallory) had made them look “extreme,” while black women lamented that they still felt marginalized in the movement.
White ladies could get their chance to march with Black Lives Matter soon enough. The movement’s priorities have been subjected to an instant onslaught from the new administration. Trump’s team has announced cuts to the Minority Business Development Agency, the Economic Development Administration, the Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services, the Legal Services Corporation, and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The president has openly hinted at plans for tightening voting regulations due to his belief that between three and five million people illegally voted for his opponent in November. The administration appears set on dismantling parts of the social safety net, and has tweeted threats to “send in the Feds!” to Chicago.
For white people in the intersectional movement, the main advice from veteran activists such as Peoples is to “organize your people,” and to have some faith in the ones who’ve been doing exactly that for decades. “One thing I do know is, black women, we got us,” she told an interviewer after the Washington march. “If you’re a white woman thinking, ‘What’s next? Everything seems insurmountable,’ welcome to the fucking party. Listen to a black woman.”