Don’t kneel during the national anthem, that’s disrespectful! Don’t block traffic, I need to get to work! Don’t break that window, you’re only damaging your own community! Why don’t you just vote if you don’t like it? For supporters of the capitalist status quo, there will never be a right way to protest. Perhaps it’s too violent, too divisive or too inconvenient. Maybe it’s just not the right time and place to talk about it. Maybe there is never a right time and place.
When US football star Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem, he was blackballed from the NFL. When other athletes, such as basketball player LeBron James, wore protest t-shirts during their warm-up, many US sports commentators and fans demanded “no politics in sports”. When US vice-president Mike Pence attended a play about immigrants and the actors read out a protest, he walked out. Not even the politest, most peaceful forms of protest are legitimate to these people.
Even among liberals who nominally support the protests today, there are many who have condemned the violence within them. Their ideal form of protest is one that’s as placid as a lake on a still summer day, one without any of the dangers inherent to a genuine confrontation with authority. They hope that respectability will win over conservatives and lead to change, ignoring the fact that – from the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s to the struggle for action on climate change today – the powers that be have never budged an inch without a fight.
Moderates of all kinds condemn those who rage against injustice by damaging property or looting businesses in their own neighbourhoods. Tomorrow, the same people will cheer on the gentrification of those neighbourhoods and the replacement of local businesses with chain franchises. Satirical news site the Onion summed it up with their headline: “Protestors criticized for looting businesses without forming private equity firm first”.
These liberal “progressives” aren’t genuine supporters of change. They may profess a belief in the need to tackle various injustices, but, at every point in the struggle, their main concern is to tell those prepared to take up the fight that they need, above all, to be patient.
It was to such people that the writer James Baldwin famously responded, in a 1989 interview: “What is it that you want me to reconcile myself to? I was born here more than 60 years ago. I’m not going to live another 60 years. You always told me it takes time. It has taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncles’ time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time, my nieces’ and my nephews’ time – how much time do you want, for your progress?”
Moderates were quick to celebrate the scenes of police kneeling and hugging protesters in cities across the US. They took this as a sign that the changes they hoped for were already on their way, a delusion flowing from their view of capitalism as a system in which racism and injustice can be peacefully reformed away. Within an hour, of course, police were back to beating, maiming, blinding and driving through crowds of the same protesters.
As Trump calls for martial law and more state violence, former president and king of the liberals, Barack Obama, has also emerged to condemn the violence of protesters. In an article published at medium.com, he said violent protesters were “putting innocent people at risk”. He recounted seeing an interview with “an elderly black woman … in tears because the only grocery store in her neighbourhood had been trashed. If history is any guide, that store may take years to come back. So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it”.
The underlying message here is one of resignation: accept what you’ve got, or things will get even worse. Don’t trash that grocery store, because no-one is going to rebuild it. Don’t fight back against the system responsible for the slow decay of your communities, the lack of access to healthy food, education, and so on, because if you do you will be punished even more. The best you can hope for, if Democratic Party moderates like Obama are to be believed, is to vote for Joe “shoot ‘em in the foot” Biden for president in November.
It would be laughable if the real world consequences, for Black Americans, weren’t so devastating. The entrenched racism and brutality of the US state won’t be changed via a switch in the personnel sitting in the White House or Congress. The establishment have made clear their opposition to change. The time for worrying about their denunciations of “violence” is long gone. The spirit of the current rebellion is that of the slogan made famous by Malcolm X, of freedom “by any means necessary”. This is something to be celebrated.