Last March I did a post about why I don’t use the word “we” when discussing actions of the US government. That “us” vs. “them” issue seems to come up a lot, often in the form of those who think it is terrible that there even is an “us” and a “them.” I’ve heard some state or imply that “polarization” comes from the heads of people who are just feeling confrontational, rather than being a reflection of actual divisions in the real world. In a different way, that “us” vs “them” issue is at the heart of some confusion I’ve noticed recently, especially on Facebook.
Here in Minneapolis, there have been some protests against police murder and terror. There are, of course, the inevitable justifiers–“Why aren’t you talking about what a terrible human being that guy was?” which is simply a way of saying that the police have the right to commit cold-blooded murder as long as the person they’re murdering meets their definition of a bad guy. A more complicated question came up when the protests shut down the Mall of America and one of the airport terminals. This generated howls of outrage about how it interfered with Daddy flying home in time for Christmas or Grandma doing the holiday shopping, and also kindly remonstrances, more in sorrow than in anger, about how those protesters are just doing it wrong.
Were those the best and most effective venues to protest? I don’t know. I know that the issues I have with Black Lives Matter have more to do with whether they are going to turn the whole thing into support for this or that Democratic candidate, and not where the protests take place. I know that when I was at the Fourth Precinct, I saw a lot of appeal to empty reformism, and simultaneously a lot of inspiring commitment and solidarity and genuine outrage at police murder. The entire Black Lives Matter movement is complex and contradictory, but the police crimes that have given it rise are ugly and atrocious and bloody well need to be fought.
But here’s the thing. When you say, “How is protesting at that particular place helping anything?” it doesn’t sound at all like you’re saying, “I am a part of this movement, and I am committed to this fight, and I am criticizing it because I want it to win.” It also doesn’t sound like you’re saying, “I agree with your principles, but your bad tactical decisions about where to protest are keeping me from joining you.” It sounds like you’re saying, “Oh, look at those people doing that thing wrong. They’ll never get anywhere that way. Not that I particularly care if they succeed, except in a sort of, gee, that would be nice sense. But it has nothing to do with me, or with the world I live in.”
Every mass movement in history has offended bourgeois public opinion, and in each one, there have been sections who sat back from the whole thing and said, “Tsk, look at those fools doing it all wrong. I’m not against them, mind you, but I sure wish they’d listen to me about how to go about it. Pass me the sports section, please.”
There was a saying in the labor movement of the 30s and 40s: An injury to one is an injury to all. When the police murder unarmed poor, working class, or minority people, do you feel you’ve been injured? Many of us do, and that is why this movement is “we” not “they.” And, until I become convinced that the Black Lives Matter movement is hopelessly dominated by identity politics, or until a movement emerges that I believe has a better chance of escaping the dead end of capitalist reformism, I will continue to say “we.” Tactics flow from principles, and principles are inseparable from commitment. If you are standing outside of the movement, pretending to give dispassionate advice from on high, do not be surprised if your advice is treated with contempt, and you are looked at with suspicion.