Black Politics After George FloydHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, African American history, political history, Protest
One night last summer, I saw a police van go up in flames, and I allowed myself to feel hope, something that had become quite foreign to me after the year’s many stupefying months. For a number of us who went out in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the sacking of the third precinct in Minneapolis, it was the first time we had encountered our friends with bigger fears than our breath. “When someone put their arms around me to pull me out of the way of a swinging baton, that still counts as an embrace,” I joked at the beginning of June. The speed and force with which the rebellions multiplied across the country triggered, surprisingly, an outpouring of support. Faced with a recurring display of police repression and lacking leaders to negotiate with, broad swathes of American society fell in line, either joining the protests themselves or, in the case of many corporations, donating large sums to various Black organizations. By July, the marches were still going, but the heat of the uprisings had dissipated. In these days of blacked-out Instagram squares and “Black Lives Matter” painted on city streets, a cry went up—listen to Black people. In most cases I prefer to be heard when I speak, but there are some 47 million of us now. It would have been prudent to specify which ones.
For anyone who cared to look, the last decade’s cycle of uprisings and protests has indexed more than a confrontation with white supremacy; it has been the most explosive articulation of a crisis in Black politics. Representation has become a buzzword, but at the same time that media workers insist upon its necessity, the actual class of Black politicians who are thought to represent Black people politically have found that looking like is no longer sufficient. The integration of municipal, state, and federal governments has not dampened Black rage in the face of police impunity so much as it has illustrated the glaring incapacity of these political bodies to provide redress. A Black protester can now be attacked by Black cops and denounced by Black mayors. All those faces looking down at her were supposed to fulfill the promise of emancipation, but the presumed bond between their own freedom, contested and contingent as it is, with the collective one is splintering. “Go slow now,” William Faulkner once cautioned. “Don’t test us,” Lori Lightfoot once threatened. “Which side are you on, my people?” protesters asked in city after city.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote last year that, mired in a recession and in the wake of the civil rights movement, “black elected officials were seen as managing the crises in black working class communities, instead of leading efforts to root them out.” The marked popularity of President Obama, followed by its inverse with his successor, obscured the fact that in many cities, Black protesters have gone up against a Black political establishment. The day after CNN’s Atlanta headquarters were defaced by a group of protesters, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms tried to bridge the divide. She claimed she understood their widespread pain, because she was a Black mother, but repudiated their tactics: “If you care about this city, then go home and pray that somebody like Reverend Beasley will come and talk to you and give you some instructions on what a protest should look like. And how you effectuate change in America.” The speech caught then-candidate Biden’s attention, and rumors swirled for some time that she might be offered a position as his running-mate or in his Cabinet. Bottoms mentioned George Floyd but had nothing to say about Atlanta’s own history of police brutality and killings, including one during her tenure when a local activist was shot by a cop whose body camera was turned off. She focused squarely on the protesters, telling them, “You’re not honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.” Her final words were simple, “Go home.” Less than two weeks later, an Atlanta police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, a Black man who had fallen asleep in his car in a Wendy’s drive-thru. The protesters did not go home.
The invocation of the civil rights movement has become shorthand for those who wish to denigrate the current movement. Where that one was stately, this one is unruly; where that one had disciplined strategy, this one is violent improvisation; where that one had charismatic leading men, this one does not. It’s a neat fable. Accounts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Birmingham campaign epitomize this genre. This story ends on May 10, 1963, with the city’s agreement to desegregate public spaces. But on May 11, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. had been staying, and the city erupted: Buildings burned, a police officer was stabbed, and when one of King’s assistants addressed the crowd and asked them to stop tossing bricks, the crowd shouted back, “They started it!” All of this must be excised in contemporary retellings. The idea that nonviolence, even in its true practice rather than the benighted passivity many mistake it for, is the only route to emancipation has never fit squarely with the fact that Black Americans’ first brush with freedom en masse came through the conflagration of the nation’s most devastating war. Better, when possible, to pretend that the violence hasn’t happened. The truncated version of the civil rights movement that predominates today sowed the seeds for the careers of many Black elected officials. As the years wore on, these officials benefited from the moral authority bestowed upon them by their participation in the struggle so long as the memory of its methods could be kept pure.
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