Minnesota, Race

Protest, Privilege, and Paying Attention

Black Lives Matter sure knows how to piss people off. Just when Minnesotans had begun to settle down from the highly-publicized 4th Precinct occupation and the highway shutdowns and marches that accompanied it, Black Lives Matter held its second annual MOA invasion, disrupting the days of those last-minute shoppers attempting to put the final checkmarks on their Christmas lists. As if that wasn’t enough to re-rile people up, Black Lives Matter also staged a simultaneous demonstration at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, causing multiple delays for Christmas-time commuters.

The comments section of the Strib editorial linked here illustrates the kind of responses that you would expect. People were not happy, and it’s easy to understand why. Yet, while I believe there are fair criticisms to be levied at these types of inflammatory protests, particularly of their utility in advancing the Black Lives Matter agenda, I also feel that the vast majority of the criticisms that I see and hear fundamentally misunderstand the reason that Black Lives Matter holds these types of protests.

Whether or not you agree with the protest methods of Black Lives Matter, you’ve got to admit that they keep people talking. People say that there are better ways for Black Lives Matter to draw attention to their cause, but the fact is that when BLM isn’t forcing us to talk about their issues, we have proven that we don’t talk about their issues. BLM was the talk of the town during their occupation of the 4th Precinct, but how many Minneapolis-based BLM headlines have you seen since that occupation ended? People also say that these protests just distract from the real issues at hand or that these protests alienate potential supporters, but again, when have you ever heard someone say, “Thank god we finally got rid of those pesky protestors. Now we can finally focus our attention and energy on disassembling the systemic racism that is plaguing our nation!”

It’s not surprising that racial justice is not at the forefront of most people’s minds. If you’re not affected by racial profiling or police brutality, you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about those things. Likewise, if your children don’t attend under-funded schools and your family and friends aren’t packed into over-crowded prisons, you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about those things either. That’s because if you’re not a victim of systemic racism, you don’t need to think about it.

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And that’s another important feat that these protests are meant to accomplish: the interruption of privilege. Ignorance is a form of privilege, and when it comes to the issues for which Black Lives Matter is fighting, ignorance is certainly bliss. But for many Black Americans, ignorance is not an option. They don’t have the privilege of ignoring these issues because they are forced to live them. Their holidays aren’t interrupted once a year by mall marches and airport protests, but are forever interrupted by the multitude of issues disproportionately plaguing Black America—impoverishment, imprisonment, crime and murder. There are many disputable elements when it comes to the questionable case of Jamar Clark, but one thing that is not disputable is that his family is hurting this holiday season.  And his family is far from the only one.

Which is why Black Lives Matter targets places like the Mall of America and the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Not because those people have never experienced disadvantages or discrimination or hard times or loss, but because many of them probably have experienced far less of those things than the people for whom BLM is advocating. Because even though most mall shoppers and airline passengers are likely unprivileged in some aspect of their lives, most are also likely quite privileged in many aspects of their lives. At the very least, they can afford to shop at a nice mall and fly on an airplane.

I saw a story featuring one shop-owner, a self-proclaimed sympathizer of the Black Lives Matter cause, who was frustrated with the protests. She supported the protesters, and agreed that the protests should be carried out, just not at the mall, because retailers and shoppers “didn’t do anything” to deserve to be targeted. I think that she’s right. They didn’t do anything, and that must have really sucked for innocent retailers that lost business or commuters that missed flights.  But I also think that she is making Black Lives Matter’s point for them.

People “not doing anything” is exactly what Black Lives Matter is trying to change. People “not doing anything” is exactly what allows systemic racism to persist. And Black Lives Matter will not win their struggle if “not doing anything” is what people continue to do, and that sucks too.

For as big and powerful a voice as Black Lives Matter has become, they still represent many people whose voices are ignored. What is more, whatever power BLM has accumulated over the past year-and-change pales in comparison to the power held by the various institutions and systems that they are fighting, institutions and systems that in part accumulated their power due to the centuries of racial oppression that they helped to establish and maintain. Black Lives Matter will not win those battles alone. They need the support of everyday mall-goers and airline commuters across the nation if they are ever going to be successful in creating true systemic reform.

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And that’s where I think these protests are worthy of criticism, because I am not sure that they are accomplishing that goal. They do keep people talking, but mostly because people are angry at Black Lives Matter, not angry with them. They do interrupt privilege, but while people are certainly aware of the interruption, I don’t think they are anymore aware of their privilege.  The strategy is sound, but the implementation is failing.

Ultimately, what Black Lives Matter needs is for everyone to think like Mike Griffin from Minneapolis, an airline commuter whose December 23rd flight was delayed due to the protests:

“While I’m delayed an hour and a half to get back to my family for Christmas, I know there are several Black families mourning the loss of innocent Black men. My mom is a little bit annoyed, but she’s going to see me this holiday season.”

But how you get more Minnesotans to think like that, I have no fucking idea…

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