Back-seat activism and #BlackLivesMatter – from Ferguson to Seattle, dealing with persistent criticism of the movement’s tactics

We’re now living in the high age of Internet slacktivism, an era when, in many minds, sharing articles on social media and “raising awareness” are activities of paramount importance in terms of making the world a better place.

Let me be clear – I’m guilty of this myself. Probably more than most people I know. I’m so immersed in reading about politics and activism that it’s easy to do. Hell, I’m so immersed in that world that since the election started, I’ve even started talking more like Stephen Harper. And let me be clear – I’m not happy about it.

Slacktivists get a lot of hate, much of it undeserved. A lot of it comes from folks who aren’t exactly busting their asses organizing for any kind of cause, and in my mind, this is far worse than only making awareness-raising and conversation-starting efforts among your network of friends and family.

I call this back-seat activism. These are the folks who are only too happy to tell you that you should’ve taken a left after that last election, or that your blocking of traffic is only damaging your cause. The folks who will gleefully say that while they support your goals, they just can’t get behind your methods – and then expect you to do something about it to win them over, while they go back to talking about sports.

For these folks, so-called slacktivists like me who read and share and write about things that I think are wrong with the world are unmotivated and lazy; if what we’re ranting about online is so important, then why don’t we get off our asses and get out there and do something about it?

But these are the same folks who stand ready to tell a movement that it’s gone too far, or in the wrong direction, at the drop of a hat.

Activists of colour face this dynamic constantly, and for the past year the #BlackLivesMatter movement has dealt with resistance and pushback from all sides. They’re too militant; they’re too angry; they’re not militant enough; their peaceful protests are getting drowned out by the violence of a small criminal element; their peaceful protests are too disruptive; they’re too close to mainstream politicians; they’re not making enough of an effort to engage in mainstream politics; they don’t have any goals; their goals are impractical…and on and on and on.

For me, these are all totally valid criticisms to make – if you’re an active member of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, you’re acting in good faith, and you’re focussed on improving the movement’s strategies and setting it up for future successes.

If that’s not you, you’re being a back-seat activist. You’re telling other people how to advocate for their freedom from police brutality and state-sanctioned murder, because you think they’re doing it wrong. You probably aren’t nearly as aware of the urgency of the cause, nor the nuances of the situation on the ground in various cities, nor the personalities involved in organizing the actions, nor the histories of struggle the organizers are bringing to the table, nor whether or not your idea of how they could do better has already been considered, attempted, and discarded as impractical.

And just to be explicit, I’m not in a place to critique the tactics of the #BLM movement. I’m a white man and a Canadian, a total outsider to the struggles of the African-American community. I’ve been watching the movement with admiration since it took off last summer, and I’m supportive of its goals and its tactics, but I don’t think for one second that #BlackLivesMatter needs my support, or the support of people like me, to validate its existence or its approach. They certainly don’t need me to tell them how they could be better at accomplishing their goals. My purpose in writing about the movement and its critics here is not to offer my own criticism, but instead to make a point about how back-seat activism is counterproductive, uninformed, and often a deceitful way for people to hide the true reasons for their opposition to a movement.

In the past few weeks, following a shutdown of a Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle and renewed street demonstrations in Ferguson marking the one-year anniversary of Mike Brown’s murder, #BlackLivesMatter has faced a renewed and relentless barrage of criticism for their tactics, criticism that has largely drowned out any discussion of the serious issues these activists are trying to raise.

Like for instance, Charles Pierce over at Esquire makes the pretty typical white liberal argument, that #BLM shut down Bernie’s rally largely because he was an easy target. Why not pick on someone like Scott Walker, whose platform would be far worse for the black community? Except, of course, he didn’t put it that nicely:

What happened in Seattle was an embarrassment to the tradition of public protest.  It was a hysterical piece of performance art that accomplished absolutely nothing toward whatever goals its performers sought to achieve. Rage is not an excuse. Frustration is not an excuse. This was a simple act of public vandalism, aimed (again) at the wrong target…

This is taking advantage of the openness of a campaign that is overwhelmingly sympathetic to your goals, instead of bringing your fight to the politicians who actively oppose you, because it’s easier to do. Consider me unimpressed by the courage involved. I feel absolutely no compunction about saying that this “action” was stupid and counterproductive. It was loud and spectacular and it accomplished nothing good…

Shouting down Bernie Sanders does nothing to solve any problem worth fighting against. It just doesn’t.

An embarrassment to the tradition of public protest? Really? Jesus Christ that’s harsh!

Or consider some criticism from within the Black community. Glen Ford and Bruce Dixon, from the radical news site Black Agenda Report, recently gave an interview with Real News Network in which they opined that #BlackLivesMatter was in danger of being co-opted by the Democratic Party apparatus. Ford, whocoined the term “black misleadership class” to describe a co-opted black political, business, and religious elite who actively work against the interests of the black community (think Al Sharpton), was concerned that too much attention was being given to politicans:

In terms of the Black Lives Matter shutting down these candidates, I’m totally with that. I wish they would shut all of them down. But I get a little bit confused. If our only demand is that these Democratic, and I guess Republican, candidates for president declare and recognize that black lives matter, so what if they do? What after that? What is the real demand? Are you then going to vote for these same criminals just because they said the magic words, yes, black lives matter?

And Dixon, an editor at the site, questioned organizers’ political awareness:

It’s worth noting, too, that Marissa Janae [Johnson], one of the two women in Seattle who disrupted the Bernie Sanders thing, in her Facebook page the day after she said she did it because Bernie had neither offered an apology for his previous conduct, nor had he put forward a program of criminal justice reform like President Obama. Who in fact, of course, has been the very opposite of a reformer on criminal justice and police violence. So apparently there are leadership people in Black Lives Matter who think that President Obama is the example of what we should want in terms of criminal justice reform.

So there really needs to be some internal discussion that’s public among the members and leading people of Black Lives Matter so that they can kind of straighten that out.

Now, as for the substance of these criticisms – on the face of it, Ford and Dixon and Pierce may be right about some things. Or they may be wrong. It’s difficult to say just by reading what they have to say, because none of them was involved in organizing #BLM actions, either in Ferguson or Seattle.

When we look into what actually happened, and what was actually intended, we can see that these critics show a pretty profound disconnect from activists’ own accounts of their actions.

Let’s see what happened in Seattle, in the words of Marissa Janae Johnson, one of the women who took the stage:

Going after Sanders is super, super important because Sanders is supposed to be as far left and as progressive as we can possibly get, right? … [In Seattle] we have hordes and hordes of white liberals and white progressives and yet we still have all the same racial problems. So for us, locally in our context, confronting Sanders was the equivalent of confronting the large, white, liberal Democrat, leftist contingent that we have here in Seattle who not only have not supported BLM in measurable ways but is often very harmful and is also upholding the white supremacist society that we live in locally… What we didn’t know was that that idea—of the white liberal, the white moderate who’s complicit in white supremacy—that that idea would resonate with people nationally and internationally and spur into this larger conversation

Everybody keeps saying that black people need to be respectable, that they need to ask permission, that they need to work with the timetable that’s been given to them. And I absolutely just rebuke and deny all of that… The un-respectability, and the tactic, the way we went about it—every single part of it was very intentional…Black people don’t need to be respectable, black people don’t need to go on your timetable, black people don’t need to reach out to Bernie Sanders. If anything, Bernie Sanders should have been courting—before he went to any other major city—he should have been courting BLM. And even at that point, I haven’t seen any politician that’s done anything for black lives. I don’t have any need to meet with them, period. I haven’t seen anybody really willing to step it up. So, there’s a lot of ways that politicians are trying to get activists swept up in rhetoric, and sitting around the table, sitting around the table to do nothing but repress movements, and so the work that I do in particular is agitational work. Is agitating the political scene, so that people are having these conversations and politicians are forced to do their own work, and do their own reforms, because of work that I’ve done on the ground…

I don’t have faith in politicians. I don’t have faith in the electoral process. It’s well documented that that doesn’t work for us. No matter who you are. So my gaze is not toward politicians and getting them to do something in particular. I think they will change what they do based off of what I do, but that’s not my center. My center is using electoral politics as a platform but also agitating so much that people continue to question the system they’re in as they’re doing it, and that we start to dismantle it. Because I refuse to believe that the system that we’re in is the only option that we have. And so we hear people saying—Bernie supporters—”Well, he’s your best option.” It’s like, If he’s our best option then I’m burning this down. I think it’s literally blowing up—this is why the respectability thing is so important—is that you blow it up so big, and so unrespectably, that you can show people the possibilities outside of the system that they’re stuck in. And so that’s why I do agitation work.

So I’m not for any politician. But I’m definitely for anything that pulls people further left, anything that gets people asking more questions, and gets us closer to actually dismantling the system that has never, ever, ever, ever done anything for black people and never will. So I’m really trying to see my people get free by any means possible. [my bold]

All of which reveals that Johnson had entirely different priorities and goals in mind than, for instance, Pierce was advocating. His back-seat activism presupposes an entirely different aim of these interventions than #BLM activists have decided is useful and purposeful. And indeed, his faith in the electoral process could be critiqued as emerging from the fact that as a well-off white dude, the system works just fine for him, and he’s blind to the fact that it doesn’t work for others. Which is to say, his back-seat activism is unconsciously coming from a place of privilege – his particular experience blinded him to the very reasons that Johnson and her fellow activists chose those particular tactics. (And his level of pique about the whole this is an indication that he doesn’t much like being reminded of his privilege!)

As for Dixon, he just looks ill-informed. Before he called out Johnson for admiring Obama, he might have wanted to take a closer look at what her actual positions were.

And as for Ford, he’s a great journalist, but the story he’s telling just doesn’t fit the reality on the ground. He’s concerned that #BLM will become a kind of gatekeeper organization, providing a stamp of approval to certain candidates, and thereby become co-opted. But as Johnson explicitly says, she doesn’t have faith in politicians. She’s not doing this to try to win over politicians. She’s doing this for the platform it provides.  She’s doing this to agitate against the political scene, against the co-option of movements. She’s doing this to push back against a white liberal establishment that’s persistently ignoring the struggle for black lives.

And when you look at it with that specific goal in mind, the action suddenly looks like an incredible success. It stirred up a huge debate within the left about racism. It drew out racist vitriol from a lot of white liberals like Pierce, made them reveal their true colours. It demonstrated starkly the seething fault line between white liberals and black progressives, it dramatized the central tension on the left in American politics. It was a remarkable action, viewed in its own terms.

What the back-seat activism and the Monday-morning quarterbacking attempts to do is to recast the action in somebody else’s terms, with different aims in mind, and then find it wanting. This type of critique can only undermine the goals of an action. There is no way that “advice” or “criticism” delivered in this manner can be helpful to a movement, because it a priori assumes that the movement’s goals and aims are misplaced, which is a hell of an assumption for an outsider to make. It also mainly serves to distract from the actual aims and grievances that a movement is trying to draw attention to. Back-seat activism, in other words, is intrinsically anti-activist.

If you agree with the goals of a movement but disagree with its tactics, then organize your own actions instead of tearing down the ones that the movement is already organizing.

If you think you could do a better job at achieving a goal, then get involved and find out.

But lazily opining that the way you’re doing it is wrong, and so are your goals, is only bad for whatever movement you’re putatively trying to “help” with your criticism.

Save your attacks for people who deserve them.

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