Tuesday, December 9, 2014

When a movement grows organically: Why #CrimingWhileWhite complaints waste time

A friend of mine on Facebook asked me what I thought of this article by Kara Brown at Jezebel, "The Problem With #CrimingWhileWhite." And here is what I said with some additional information added to the post today:

I saw arguments like Brown's the same night I posted on this #CrimingWhileWhite after I saw it on Twitter. I think she's wrong.

Sometimes black people sound like they live in bubbles as much as some white people do. I'm not saying Brown's in a bubble, but she does seem to assume a lot, such as everybody sees what she sees when she says people in general don't need it "spelled out" that black people are treated differently from white people by the police. She says this is so because we're "literally watching it happen in real time."

Oh, yeah? Tell that to the Grand Jury in Staten Island. It's not like there weren't examples of disparity in treatment before the Eric Garner decision. Unfortunately, I don't have time to list in this post all other incidents that have been caught on tape and reported that did not result in death but remains evidence of different treatment. I'm including these three, though: one from 2009, "Choked for Challenging," another from last year, "NOPD officers shoot man to death in bed," and another, "CHP officer beats black homeless woman on side of road."

Following these incidents police and their apologists used everything from declaring the person "was a threat" over to "the particular officer involved is a bad apple" in order to get people to look the other way.

A pivotal talking points for people who agree with the decision of the Grand Jury in Eric Garner's case is, "This wasn't about race." The family of Eric Garner is also saying his treatment and killing had nothing to do with race. People declare it's not about race because they either don't want to see race as an issue ever or because they do not understand what people mean when they say "systemic racism." They look at individual cases. No forest because eyes on trees.

This myopic view is why Rep. Peter King, NY Republican, can state vehemently the officers' take down of Eric Garner was a race-neutral event and have some other white people nod their heads. They deny the entire American justice system and a multitude of other policies are skewed to favor white people. Their definition of racism is based on overt actions only such as burning a cross on someone's lawn or someone openly stating, "I hate black people and I don't want them to get ahead."

On Twitter, you'll discover a helluva lot of white people who still do not believe black people are being treated THAT differently by the police. You know the kinds I mean. After we say black people are being mistreated by the police they say something like, "Well, my friend's brother's nephew was arrested last week for not showing his license and he's white," or they declare, "That's because black people commit more crimes." Then you rattle off statistics support the assertion of discriminatory practices, and they stick their finger in their ears and shout, "Nah-nah-nah-nah-I-can't-hear-you!"

There are even some black people making simplistic statements like "Mike Brown shouldn't have taken those cigarillos," or "Eric Garner should not have been selling loose cigarettes, and he should have done what the police said." Such people are not thinking or asking questions things like, "Why are the police harassing black people for even little things constantly for even little things like walking down the street? Are these police actions legal? Should asking police questions result in your being taking down like a wild animal and choked and crush to death?"

I think that these people are the same ones watching the TV and social media about these issues and soothing themselves with either "I'm not black, so this issue doesn't concern me," or "I behave myself and so do my children, so this is not my issue."

A big flaw I see in Brown's argument is that she seems to assume the tweets for #CrimingWhileWhite are directed at a black audience. She seems to think that these stories have been tweeted only as a show of solidarity with black people, when she writes,
Who is this helping? How is this helping? These are questions that all allies should be asking themselves. Because really, what are black people supposed to do with these stories? They don't really make us feel better. They don't embolden us with knowledge or tactics that we can use to fight the system. And they simply confirm what we already know: white privilege is fucking amazing.

Effective white allies, however, are not allies who simply put on shows for black people. Nor should they be expected to only speak after some random group of black people gives them permission to speak. Unless white allies are involved with an organized campaign run by a black activist group, such as the BYP100's organizing die-ins, and if they are not calling press conferences claiming to speak for black people, then they are not falling into a typical "white savior" pattern simply by speaking up.

Yes, it would be smart of white activists who want to help to run their plans by a few black activists, which acknowledges that as a white person they may not recognize that they've planned something black people will find offensive. But I hope they ask more than one black activists. Black people don't all see things the same way.

Importantly, speaking out on Twitter is not like calling a press conference, nor was #CrimingWhileWhite a campaign started by black activists and white people tried to take it over, nor were the white people participating in it claim to be speaking on behalf of black people about what black people experience. The #hashtag was just white people sharing their own stories about their interactions with the police while white. And just as black people can assert their right to tell their own stories, white people can speak up about what happens to white people.

Naturally a few idiots showed up and said stupid things not in line with the spirit of the hashtag, tweets that sought to impose respectability politics on black people such as, "I was stopped by the police and asked for my ID. I complied and went home with no problem. #CrimingWhileWhite." But trolls butting in and attempting to hijack a #hashtag trend is just Twitter.

Twitter is not broadcast journalism. No one person can force people on Twitter to listen only to them. Twitter #hashtag participation, even when begun via formalized campaigns, grow organically. Once that happens, the most you can hope to do is prune threads, not uproot them.

Anyway, effective white allies focus on getting through to other white people and on being a buffer between black black people and police actions and other white people who want to silence black voices or spread racist rhetoric. One of the ways to deal with racist rhetoric is to tell some true stories that contradict the hate speech. When white allies do this, black people should probably let them do it and not try to control it. Part of leading well is knowing when to not interrupt.

The fact is America's not going to change its attitude toward race and racism without good percentage of whites opening their eyes, accepting that they and their ancestors have done nothing admirable to earn their privilege, and that it's not right to live contentedly in a country that claims equality and justice for all but doesn't live up to it as best it can. Systemic and institutional racism will not go away unless white people make it go away. And they should do the heavy lifting anyway. Their ancestors created this garbage and if they don't speak up, if they fail to take action, then they're letting that garbage grow and stick more each day.

I believe that black people must be vocal, must exercise their own agency, and must be willing to lay their bodies down in death if necessary to get the full rights of American citizenship due them. But I also believe that white people need to do their own work and pick up after themselves and their granddaddies. I am not the maid!

Also I don't know where some of the people who've been complaining about #CrimingWhileWhite have been hanging out, but I've observed in my lifetime that sometimes white people only believe what other white people say the same way some men only believe what other men say, especially when what the woman is saying accuses them of being sexist. When black people talk about our troubles ourselves, we often hear, "You people are always talking about race. If you'd stop focusing on that, life would be just fine for you."

I'd bet good money that right now a lot of them are on board with how terrible the Eric Garner decision was because he wasn't being aggressive on the cell phone video. That does not mean that they get it. Just like some whites think their smart black friend is the exception to the "ghetto black label," some think "Eric Garner is a special case. To them, those NYC cops were just a small group of bad apples, or humans who made an unfortunate mistake." On the back burner they still think the Ferguson decision was the right decision, broken windows policies are a good thing, and it's too bad Bill de Blasio shut down stop and frisk.

I know some of my people are concerned about white organizers hijacking the message. And I really like what the young people did here in New Orleans with "white allies on the perimeter" because it's true, some white people make whatever we're talking about all about them and their feelings or they imagine themselves to be the Great White Savior." But I don't think the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag is one of those instances. It's about some white people standing up and saying, "I've seen these stories in the news about black people being killed by police. Let me tell you how I know personally that black people are not treated the way we are."

Also, some of the examples are pretty funny, and I believe sometimes humor gets through to people more than lectures and statistics.

But knowing when to let allies be is also smart. Let me just quote a story about one of the first community organizers on the planet as analogy here:

John said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49-50)

If anyone's offended that I quoted the Bible, that's sad. The wisdom in the quote is true even when dealing secular issues because Jesus was also growing a movement.

Intriguingly, Brown also said in her objections:

In response to #CrimingWhileWhite, Ebony.com editor Jamilah Lemieux started the hashtag #AliveWhileBlack for black people to share stories of their interactions with the cops—not while committing crimes, but just while living—where they were treated with violence, carelessness and general inhumanity.
See, now, this is helpful. It amplifies the voices of the exact people being disproportionally [sic] targeted by police. It helps those who might be less familiar understand the breadth of this epidemic, and perhaps some white people will be able to see how many of their blacks friends have personally experienced injustice at the hands of cops.

I agree, Lemieux's hashtag and the accompanying tweets are helpful. But I disagree with the implication that the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag did not also help to "amplify the voices of the exact people being disproportionately targeted by by the police," unless the main goal of the #AliveWhileBlack hashtag campaign was to preach to the choir.

The #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag amplifies the same message the same way that a compare and contrast essay proves one thesis: these two groups are not treated the same. One faces harassment often when its members are minding their own business and doing nothing harmful to society; the other gets let off the hook, even helped, when behaving badly or doing something illegal.

So, again, we're back to what was the target audience of the  #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag? Unless someone's interviewed the person who started it, and the initiator said they only did it to show black people they understand, then maybe Brown's complaint may be well taken. Still, even if that's why the person started the #hashtag, that doesn't mean that there aren't white people reading the "white" hashtag and finally getting the message, "Hey, this is not right."

It would have been beautiful if both #hashtags could have been viewed not as competing with each other but as complementing each other. If they could have had a #AliveWhileBlack vs. #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag whittled down to something like #AWBvsCWW and a web page that explained to the ignorant the purpose of both, the message would have been stronger.

Finally, what's going on right now in America in the wake of the Ferguson and Eric Garner decisions cannot be shrunken to just a black movement. It's already outgrown that as we see by the protests throughout the country being reported on major networks. It's not just black people standing in the streets. And movements that grow organically this way harness power.

If some white people don't parrot, "Only black people are treated this way," because they have trouble seeing that clearly or also think about all the Latino, Mexican, and Native Americans who are also harassed--if the only way some white people can grasp this issue and speak up is to say, "I'm white and I know I'm treated better than people who aren't white, and nobody should be treated differently by the police. We must all be treated equally as citizens under the law," and if they feel most comfortable sharing incidents in which they know they should have faced a penalty but didn't, then so be it. If that message, even though not black-centric, gets people on the fence to pay attention and the police to stop killing us and our children, then I'm fine with it.

[Actually, no one's validated the facts of incidents in either hashtag thread. So, what's been said is generally true, but we don't how many people were trying to be funny or simply piling on with made-up tweets.]

What I see here is that some black people are angry that some white people have real stories to tell that confirm that whites are treated favorably, and these stories are painful to some black people because actual stories are always more real than a page of statistics. This is exactly why #CrimingWhileWhite is a message that supports #AliveWhileBlack. White people who may have tuned out black people may begin to look at themselves and their "get out of jail free" card and not be so resistant to hearing that black people don't have one of those.

Complaining about #CrimingWhileWhite is a fussy waste of time.

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