Guest columnist Mara Conolly: The racism of liberal civility politics


Published: 6/30/2021 9:05:33 PM

On Tuesday, June 15, a few dozen protesters marched through the streets of downtown Northampton and blocked traffic at the main square for under an hour. The messaging for the protest read in part, before the Facebook post was taken down:

“1 year after the broad-daylight police lynching of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the powerful resurgence of Black Rebellion against the violence of the white supremacist US state, and while police throughout the US have nonetheless continued to murder, assault, and incarcerate Black people on a daily basis, Northampton mayor Narkewicz and the City Council are backing away from their commitments to make change.

“The Police Review Commission that they appointed to study the issue ... has strongly recommended that funds be immediately transferred from the Northampton police budget to a new Department of Community Care...

“But the mayor’s proposed budget for 2022 egregiously underfunds the new Department of Community Care and, even worse, level-funds the police budget resulting in an increase of 3%. And currently only one City Councilor, Rachel Maiore, is committed to vote “no” against the proposed budget at the final budget vote on Thursday, June 17...”

In an unprecedented display of public conviction, hundreds of current and former Northampton residents and workers had been lobbying the City Council all year to defund the police department and move those funds to a nonviolent alternative to policing. A majority of the Police Review Commission, whose members the council and the mayor appointed, agreed with this solution and proposed specifics on how to make it happen.

But, as the messaging for the protest spoke to, the mayor and the council remained largely unmoved. With only two days left before the “second reading” i.e. final vote on the budget, Tuesday’s protest was clearly born out of a political emergency.

But many Tuesday drivers stuck at the main square for a short time did not share the protesters’ sense of urgency. There were the typical angry white men who got out of their cars to scream abuse at the protesters and others who honked their horns repeatedly. But there were also liberals, no doubt many of whom consider themselves supporters of Black Lives Matter, who quietly scorned the protesters, viewing them as extremist defects in an otherwise respectable movement. The kind of liberals who value “civility” above all else and view any dissent outside of “the proper channels” as invalid.

For example, among the letters to the editor in the June 18 Gazette was one against the Tuesday protest. The author asserted that protesters “displayed just the type of authoritarianism they were protesting.”

I would like to offer a reality check, so that other liberals who are inclined to agree with such calls for civility might reconsider:

No one was killed, assaulted, imprisoned, or deported by these protesters. The protesters did not surveil people by drone for exercising their First Amendment rights. They did not brutalize, rape, or execute people and then laugh about it, as it is well-documented that police, prison guards, and border patrol agents do frequently and nearly always with impunity. There is no comparison between grassroots activists blocking traffic and the daily activities of the domestic armed forces of the state, never mind the unfathomable violence of the US military. Clearly the Friday author’s definition of “authoritarianism” needs some nuance.

Would the Friday author, and many other drivers, have been so upset if it was police blocking the intersection? Of course not. Because police, unlike grassroots activists, have ample means to provide signage explaining the situation and offering detours; and, more importantly, because liberals like the Friday author view police as neutral, even benevolent, authorities to be obeyed without question.

Blocking traffic has been a common tactic throughout the Black Lives Matter movement because: it is accessible to working-class and young people to organize and participate in, as it doesn’t take the level of planning and resources that, for example, lobbying efforts take; it dramatically calls attention to an issue that is being neglected; and it symbolizes the kinds of major disruptions to the status quo that real social progress requires, e.g. the dismantling and replacement of institutions like the police that are designed to destroy Black lives. Changing the world is an uncomfortable process, to which “Black Lives Matter” lawn signs and the Friday author’s recommendation of “nuanced debate” contribute very little. Nuanced debate has never gotten a killer cop convicted of murder, let alone brought down oppressive laws and institutions that enable and encourage violence in the first place; the only thing that has ever accomplished this is massively disruptive action.

Imagine if George Floyd had been murdered three weeks ago — actually, we don’t have to imagine it because another Black man in Minneapolis, Winston Smith Jr., was killed by police three weeks ago. Some still feel fresh rage against this injustice and want to continue flooding the streets and raising hell, because it happens every day in America while city governments avoid taking decisive action.

In the current political climate, to block traffic is to put one’s life on the line: since George Floyd’s murder over 100 protesters have been hit by cars, mostly by right wing copycats of Heather Heyer’s murderer. But some people, including a few dozen courageous young people in Northampton, are still willing to take that risk, to put their lives on the line to confront police and those who continue to support the police. Others have long forgotten the immediacy of injustice and moved on with the news cycle, because continuing to take disruptive action now that the political winds are against the movement would be too much of an inconvenience.

Mara Conolly is a resident of so-called Northampton on colonized Nipmuc and Pocumtuc land.

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