If you are fighting against systemic racism in white America, you must always remember that “there are no new pains.” Otherwise, you’ll be discouraged when you needn’t be.
After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, we saw the emergence of “Defund the Police” as the Black Lives Matter movement (not the organization) became arguably, the largest civil rights movement in American history and abolition came to the main stage. For months, people protested daily in over 550 locations across the country, demanding “justice” and an end to police brutality.
Despite repeatedly chanting “the system is not broken, it’s working as intended,” in the time since, we’ve seen fierce resistance to any substantive attempt to take any power or money away from the police. Not just from republicans, but from the very people who adopted that language to appeal to voters, who identify themselves as allies, liberals, progressives, and democrats.
In fact, democrats and the media have made a concerted effort to dismiss abolition altogether, attack Defund the Police and anyone they perceive as a proponent of the policy demand. They’ve insisted that it’s a bad slogan, it cannot be understood, it’s impractical, or inconsistent with public safety; and waged war on even bare minimum bail reform and other reform efforts.
Then, those “allies” cite that resistance as cause to abandon our efforts and drop our demands, as police continue to murder Black people, they give more money to the police, recall progressive DAs, attack reform efforts, use cash-bail to incarcerate poor people for crimes they haven’t been convicted of, vote in carceral clowns like Eric Adams, corporations all but abandon their 2020 pledges to racial equity, and President Joe Biden calls to “fund the police” who were never defunded.
But resistance—backlash—is to be expected because as George Jackson taught, power cannot be seriously challenged without a response, and that response is to repress the movement.
In 1965 Selma, Alabama, Black people peacefully protested for voting rights and for that, the sheriff and police beat and teargassed them to the ground and the nation was horrified by what they witnessed. In response, fifty thousand Black and white people marched fifty miles through Alabama to protest. As a result, President Johnson stood in the President’s room of the Capitol, where he was surrounded by Black and white people who had come to see him sign The Voting Rights Bill of 1965. He announced that it was a “triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that’s ever been won on any battlefield…today we strike away the last major shackles of…fierce and ancient bonds.”
Then, as Martin Luther King Jr. stated:
A year later, some of the Negro leaders who had been present in Selma and at the Capitol ceremonies no longer held office in their organizations. They had been discarded to symbolize a radical change of tactics. A year later, the white backlash had become an emotional electoral issue…men long regarded as political clowns had become governors or only narrowly missed elections, their magic achieved with a “witches” brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths and whole lies.
Racism is and has always been, the status quo in America. Nothing becomes the status quo because a majority aren’t invested in maintaining and defending it.
At every juncture in American history, there have been institutions created with the sole intention of controlling and abusing Black people for the benefit of white people. Whether it be slavery, slave patrols, Jim Crow, lynch mobs, the KKK, police or prisons. In kind, there have always been both Black people and non-Black allies who oppose those institutions and fight to end them, and they have always met fierce resistance after any appearance of a swell of support. Yesterday’s abolitionists fought to end slavery just as today’s abolitionists fight to end the prison industrial complex.
If you think of the fight against systemic racism and police brutality as beginning in the summer of 2020, then perhaps you’d be discouraged. Perhaps you wouldn’t see the strides we’ve made to even be discussing defunding the police and abolition on the country’s mainstage. But there are no new pains.
Every generation of Black people in this country have known their George Floyds, their Trayvon Martins, their Clifford Glovers, their John Smiths. Black people have always been murdered by the state. We have been protesting police brutality since policing’s inception and we have always been met with resistance and backlash. Instead of being discouraged, we need to explore (1) why we’re being met with that resistance from our perceived allies and (2) what we do about it.
Martin Luther King Jr. asked:
Why was widespread sympathy with the Negro revolution abruptly submerged in indifference in some quarters or banished by outright hostility in others? Why was there ideological disarray?
For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade—the first phase—had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination. The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from Southern sheriffs and forbade them from cruelties. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor. It appeared that the white segregationist and the ordinary white citizen had more in common with one another than either had with the Negro.
If you’re fighting for something and need to know whether another person is truly with you in that fight, you must first determine whether what you’re fighting for runs contrary to what they believe is in their best interest because as Audre Lorde put it, “you do not get people to work against what they’ve identified as their basic self-interest.”
That’s why a moral appeal to America’s conscience is at best, limited, and at worst, foolhardy. If you teach someone racism is wrong because of how other people suffer, you’re either speaking to racism’s all-too willing participants, at which point you’re wasting your breath. Or, if you’re lucky, maybe they’ll care enough about how other people suffer that they’ll stand with you, insofar as their perceived benefits of that racist society aren’t materially threatened.
The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. Overwhelmingly America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions. It has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming some change. But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are to be taken. Laws are passed in a crisis mood in Birmingham or a Selma, but no substantial fervor survives the formal signing of legislation. The recording of the law in itself is treated as the reality of the reform.
If we teach people that the criminal system is synonymous with justice, that police are ultimately good, that the system is designed to produce just outcomes, that prisons are necessary, that people who find themselves in the criminal system are bad or have themselves to blame; when you show them a video of a police officer killing a Black person, and they march with you because they oppose that, but they don’t also unlearn everything else they believed, they will oppose the killing of that Black person and support bringing criminal charges against the individual cops responsible, but that’s where the support ends. They will continue to support all the things that make incidents of police brutality possible because ultimately, they revere the system and its actors. That’s the danger of treating “justice” as whether charges are brought and convictions are secured, rather than what’s done to prevent the tragedies from reoccurring in the first place.
That’s why to create the true racial solidarity and shared consciousness necessary to stop investing in systems that produce police brutality and mass incarceration, we must stop making moral appeals to non-Black people to protest with us, and we must instead teach them how racism and racist structures harm them too. We must appeal to their self-interests and stop presenting being an ally as doing us a favor, but instead, for their own survival and benefit of being free from the ways systemic racism threatens and constrains us all.
Not everyone is your ally, even when they believe they are. You may stand next to them at a protest demanding justice, but that doesn’t mean you have the same understandings of justice.
It’s a mistake to assume anger means opposition. Many people are angry with the system and criticize the system, but they do not oppose it. Many people’s issue with the system is not that it marginalizes, but who it chooses to marginalize. Some people do not wish to change or destroy the system, they seek to be included. A person who reveres the system and its actors, will never help you dismantle it.
Wonderfully stated. It's no surprise that we see an uptick in entire police departments resigning when faced with a focused and new POC leader. This is a clear sign that both defunding and dismantling in some form are severely needed. It's particularly stinging to witness other culture's police forces such as the UK's behave in such a way that they appear to almost fear their citizenry, act as if they truly work for them, and wear those bright vests to symbolize the true servants they are to the people. Our cops are out of control and their protection from accountability shoots all the way to the supreme court. The fact that they can simultaneously legally lie to civilians while not being legally obligated to know the actual laws they are arresting someone for, is beyond preposterous and insulting. Because the corruption is so dangerously endemic, I feel that defunding in some capacity is the only way to make the kind of statement needed to make real change. Allies are not true allies if they aren't willing to upend or disrupt. They need to be "More Than A Marcher". They should be able to imagine a future with electric cars, bullet trains, trips to Mars and universal, federal laws that forces all local police departments to abide by the same policies that prevent them from murdering unarmed Americans... with severe repercussions when they do. Your and my Ally should welcome a new and improved hybrid form of policing that removes incentives to prey on the poor. Bullies don't listen to reason. They never have. They DO pay attention when you start to reduce their Power. "Bad Apple Retraining" has disastrously failed.
Great read. However, I read it and I'm still discouraged. It's a tall order to get so-called allies to see that systemic racism really is not in their best interests. The system -- white supremacy -- was designed solely in their best interests. No one wants to be on the bottom of such a system so other groups clamour to be white adjacent. As I see the demographics of my community and country (Canada) change, the one thing these disparate group seem to be in agreement on is that Blacks are on the bottom of the hierarchy. I believe in equality but I am tired of trying to convince others that I am equal. I continue to educate myself. (e.g. George Jackson; thanks for the rec). "There are no new pains" . My ancestors .didn't lose hope so how can I? Thank you Ms. Olurin for writing such a thought-provoking piece and for not giving up the fight.