With all due respect to the intentions behind #blackouttuesday and other online hashtag campaigns, a lot of online activism is most effective at making people feel good for participating, and showing “solidarity.” It’s low in cost (of time and effort) to post a black screen on Instagram, or copy a hashtag or slogan, or even mimic activist-talk about representation or voices.
All of that appeals to both those people who want to show off their participation (virtue signaling), and people who genuinely care, and don’t want to make this about themselves, but don’t know how to do better. In a way it doesn’t matter how much we really care, or are showy moral narcissists. Results obtained can completely diverge from either intentions or emotional investment.
It’s just not enough to care about the problem—no matter how much! We have to know what we’re talking about. That is, if we really want to change things. Others can ride along and wave, in the confidence that things are changing, and they are on board. I believe that is naive; I do not believe it will be enough.
First we have to correctly identify the problem, and then, correctly identify how to solve it. There’s no more room for ignorance, or for making errors in this diagnosis. No amount of sympathy, righteous anger, or passion behind a blank black screen makes up for the fact that—it’s blank. Slogans of sympathy and solidarity are simple—too simple. Information-free, low-cost activism is just not as good as spending a bit of time on understanding
- the extent of the problem, and
- what *specifically* has to change, so that the protest isn’t vague, it has actionable demands. Abstractions and generalities aren’t enough to be practical, when specific principles, laws, organizations, and institutions are at fault, as well as individual people in official positions who can be forced out, only to be replaced.
Sharing information could be a lot more effective for making a difference than Showing We Care—but only if it’s information worth sharing. It’s better to share information, but not if it’s misinformation, or too simplistic to change anything, or just copied thoughtlessly from the usual media or activist discourses about race, hate, and division.
If this sounds a lot more difficult than low-content activism, or sharing information without learning, that’s because it is. It requires your attention. But as it seems that current events in large American cities have your attention and worry preoccupied anyway, there’s no better time.
The amount I can write in one blog post is a sketch, an impression based upon a couple of decades of interest, research, and writing as a dissident. I hope you find the context useful, especially if you have little experience with critical history and alternative political science, or grew up outside the United States. I urge you to read as far as I will write here, and then to follow up more. Look into what I’m about to say, and think for yourself, but then share it. I have no fear at all that the details of the argument can’t bear up under scrutiny, exploration by research, and open-minded thought.
In fact, disgraceful dehumanization only goes on for as long as it does in the world because people aren’t looking, really looking into why—even less than they are paying attention in-between those horrible, singular events that grab their attention, which are not singular at all.
Twin Stories to Tell: Power and Racism in America
A lot of people of all backgrounds are coming to understand that America has a problem with systemic racism. This is reflected in multiple practices of the injustice system. (This should be uncontroversial to those of us who are schooled in civil liberties, while possibly being a revelation to others.) Some are left over from the segregationist era, from unfair enforcement to predatory prosecution and inadequate defense, to unfair sentencing. Some are more recent, like mandatory federal sentencing for drug offenses, which have been used disproportionately to incarcerate unconnected black men. (Especially in major cities, where career-minded prosecutors—future politicians—have interests to work together with police to increase conviction numbers.)
But it’s a mistake to think that a divide over race is The Story to tell in answer to the great question, What’s Wrong With America? which is even asked quite frequently overseas.
The other story, which I predict will largely control what happens with that story, is America’s long descent into fascism and empire. America has a problem with Power.
Fascism often involves racism, and racial and/or national supremacy, but the essence of the system was, and is, the combination of the economic system called corporatism—which prioritizes certain financial interests that are well-connected to politicians and policy (like banking, arms dealing, and selling propaganda)—with authoritarianism. In powerful countries like prosperous America (as opposed to, say, fascist Austria), this was, and is, coupled with the desire for a foreign empire.
(Fascism was nothing unique or even new when Mussolini showed up with his one-party popularization of the term. In substance, he just borrowed from older ideas, like mercantilism, and radicalized them. It’s the modern version of colonial imperialism that Britain had, in which colonies were organized to serve mercantile interests which were indistinguishable from the state, like the British East India Company.)
The American descent into an authoritarian system, with its bully mentality towards stubborn individuals and populations both domestically, and worldwide, happened throughout the same period of time as institutional racism. That is, America has descended into fascism and empire ever since post- Civil War Reconstruction-era reforms and migrations mixed other people with the populations who were once enslaved or occupied.
America has become an Empire occupied and controlled by the military and (later) spy bureaucracies, ever since the government sent the Army occupying the South to take the West from natives after the Civil War, and then conquered the remnants of the Spanish Empire before WWI, and finally inherited the British Empire’s world position after WWII, followed by immense Cold War spending on the military-industrial complex. The politics of US Empire, and its worldwide bases, colonies, and alliances with proxy governments, has been dominated by the interest of funding the military, such as war-mongering, especially where it aligns with well-connected corporate interests. (Not all of the rich people in the country, the so-called 1%, most of whom actually lose relative power under a corporatist system, unless they join it.)
America has a militarism problem, which doesn’t only affect people elsewhere in the world, millions of whom have suffered or died in US wars (and sponsored interventions), all around the world, for the last century. US police occupy American cities using surplus military gear and imitate combat tactics: in SWAT teams, celebrated in Hollywood, against protests and riots, and in infamous no-knock raids, also used in war zones. Since 9-11, local cops also coordinate with the feds and “Homeland Security”—that creepy name— in ‘fusion’ command centers, like occupational forces. Even before 9-11, intelligence from spy surveillance authorized for terrorism was illegally used to bust domestic drug-dealers. Increasingly, the assets and mentalities used in the Empire abroad come home, and integrate with police. In many cases, the very same police officers that commit violent crimes against citizens, once wore a military uniform.
As the eventual result of mindsets that accept, encourage, even embrace expansive authority, America has a police-state problem, which threatens *everyone* without connections. Regionally, no doubt some of this system was assembled to enforce segregationist laws, or out of fear of colored minorities and immigrants in cities, but even that doesn’t account for so much.
Especially since 1982, the Supreme Court and other courts have upheld the doctrine and precedents of so-called “qualified immunity.” In practice this almost always shields cops from any consequences, even for the most egregious behavior, when coupled with the major influence of police unions, which have the power to bully mayors of cities like New York.
In addition, the historic rollback of Bill of Rights protections under many more court decisions—for example, gutting protections against search and seizure without warrants—negatively affected everyone (or rather anyone without the power of the State on their side). Cases and precedents have been extensively documented by civil liberties defenders and Constitutionalists of many different political subscriptions.
There’s also the incredible accretion of the size and budgets of federal agencies, such as the FBI and ATF, in the name of law and order. Almost any citizen finds themselves powerless against executive branch agencies which are uncritically called part of law enforcement or the justice system. The FBI in particular has an infamous history of surveillance and infiltration against black organizations, but also other domestic dissenters, and it’s not alone.
In short, when an unconnected person is picked on by the state, they have scarcely more recourse than a colonized person had, under laws, policies, and legal precedents that aren’t just unequally enforced, but stacked against them. Racism absolutely makes this predicament worse for black people, but it doesn’t explain why it happens to so many thousands of others, too. Critics, dissidents, activists, journalists and whistleblowers become particular targets of persecution if they call attention to abuses of power, yet a great many “minding their own business” also find themselves in harm’s way, on the wrong end of the law, or law enforcement.
That’s enough background to identify the problem(s) for one blog post. Let’s get practical about how to solve them. Let’s start to identify some actionable demands:
There have been initiatives to curb militarization of cops to support, and a bill was recently proposed to end qualified immunity. Demand that politicians support that bill to end qualified immunity. Make them end that, and other legal and institutional covers for thugs and psychopaths among police. Don’t allow city, state, and national politicians—of both major parties!— to side with police unions. (Don’t vote for them anyway, if they do!)
Now more than 18,000 “law enforcement” organizations lord it over the American public, stealing their salaries from that public’s earnings, padding their budgets with literal highway robbery (“asset forfeiture” and so forth), and usually protected by “qualified immunity” when they kill.—Thomas Knapp
Demand that politicians support decentralizing cops militarized during the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Demand they stop practices like mass surveillance, and combat tactics, which are used against domestic dissent and people without connections, like black people in inner-city communities. Demand an end to perverse financial and career incentives like asset forfeiture, and rewards for padding arrests or convictions. Demand politicians stop rewarding police bureaucracies with bigger budgets, no matter what they do. (Stop voting for former prosecutors!) Demand an end to federal sentencing minimums and criminalization of drugs, which disproportionately incarcerates black men, but also put 1% of America under the penal system. Demand an end to the “drug war” entirely, which empowers and militarizes cops and feds. Demand an end to US wars abroad, which empower the US state apparatus, dehumanize those who are killed and occupied, and send the mentalities of violence manufactured in wartime (even literally, PTSD) back home.
We all have to demand these things together as human beings. Why?
Power thrives by dividing people. In conflict, scared people follow leaders; in war, they obey leaders no matter how much they hate them. People divided against each other (Black against White, Rich against Poor, Americans against Foreigners) are easier to rule.
It’s not one life at risk from the system I’ve described. It’s not one community at risk. It’s not only one race. It’s not only one class. It’s not even one country. It is everyone. We have to learn to criticize that “authority” together, not as sympathetic observers to someone else’s fight. We have to practice civil disobedience against that authority, the police state, and empire, together, as allies who recognize a mutual interest, as well as human empathy.
If we aren’t divided in our response by buying into a racial divide (or a political divide, or a national divide), we can better resist, and so become freer. If we are free, we cannot be forced down—figuratively or literally—by any old bigot or thug who has a scrap of power that grants “immunity,” or for that matter, “presidential authority.”
Realize that in a free world, the existence of bigots need not trouble the rest of us so much. We could go on with our lives, happily making racism and other bigotries more and more irrelevant by associating peacefully with each other personally and professionally, no matter what we look like or where we were born. In this unfree world, bigots with membership in systemic power or connections to systemic power have the legal or official means to bother us, and kill our friends. They used to pass race-mixing laws; they still discourage non-white immigrants. Worse, the bigots with official means still get away with murders, and protecting murderers—whether it’s on the streets of the Middle East, or on the streets of America.
That’s why the Story of Power in America and abroad, and how America deals with its conflicted problem of power, and national mythology surrounding organized violence—in a nutshell, Americans being ruled while wanting to rule the world, and celebrating it with fly-by jets, even boasting about it—will also finish telling that story of How America Deals With Race that you hear so much of in the media and in activism. One story cannot be told without the other.