Candidate is “Looking at” Genocide Option, Others Basically Okay With That

The leading conservative politician of  a major politic party is taking questions at a rally.

“We have a problem in this country, it’s called Jews…our current president is one,” states the first questioner.  “[W]hen can we get rid of ’em?”

The politician does not challenge the question.  He vaguely validates it, says, “We’re going to be looking at that.”

The media does not take offense either.  They only criticize the politician for not defending the president against the slur of being called a “Jew.” No other politicians take a firm stand against the statement.

Though this may sound like a scene from Germany circa 1939, switch “Jews” for “Muslims” and what you have is an exchange last Thursday between Donald Trump and a questioner at a New Hampshire rally and Friday when the media was totally unbothered by the suggestion of a Muslim genocide.  Instead the media were bothered that President Obama was being called a Muslim, in effect acknowledging that being called a Muslim is an insult.

How can it be okay in America in 2015 for any mainstream politician to consider the suggestion of genocide? How can this level of hatred be so normal that even in reporting the story, the media does not find this request – getting “rid of” Muslims – alarming?

Have we learned nothing from history?  

America was founded by refugees of religious persecution.

Sixty years ago we fought the Second World War against an evil regime which carried out massive religious genocide.

And now, in 2015, the suggestion of perpetrating genocide against a religious minority seems normal enough that a mainstream politician and the media are both completely unphased.

What kind of America are we building?

What kind of America have we already created?


7 Ways #BlackLivesMatter Improves on the Civil Rights Movement

“This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”

Tef Poe was right.  In fact, it’s better.  Here are seven ways that Black Lives Matter (BLM) improves on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

1) Women to the Front

There were important female activists in the civil rights movements of the 1960’s – Fannie Lou Hamer, Amelia Boynton Robinson, and Mamie Till are just a few – but those standing out front were men.  Not only Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, but also were their mentors, and lieutenants, an closest advisors were men.

By contrast, Black Lives Matter was founded by three women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.   Two women, Mara Willaford and Marissa Johnson, stormed Bernie Sanders’ podium last month.  Another woman, Tia Oso, carried out a similar action in July at the Netroots Nation conference.  When delegates from BLM met with  Hillary Clinton in August, Daunasia Yancey was the first to speak to her.

Women have not just gained parity within BLM, they are leaders at ever level of the movement.  There is no other major American organization – inside or outside of activism – that can claim such a record.

2) Queer Leaders

Not only was the civil rights movement of the 1960’s led by men, it was led by straight men.  Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin were the exceptions, not the rule.

The exact opposite is true of BLM.  Two of the three BLM cofounders - Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors – identify as queer. DeRay McKesson, who  has become the mainstream media’s preferred BLM spokesperson, is gay.  All three founders of Ferguson-based collective Millennial Activists United are queer – and two of them are married to eachother!

3) The Radicalism of Love

Empowerment of women and LGBTQ people is only the beginning of the radically inclusive ethos of BLM, which explicitly seeks to right the injustices of past black movements.

Co-founder Alicia Garza writes:

“It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call[s] on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all.  Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.  It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.”

Being inclusive is not only morally right, it is strategic. Inclusion means BLM has widened their base.  It means they are not putting up artificial barriers to talented and passionate people who can help their movement grow and succeed.  It means that they are powering their movement on collective love, a far more solid and durable motivator than the toxic intolerance that is motivating much of mainstream politics.

BLM was founded on the value of love.  The phrase itself was born within a post Garza made on Facebook, “a love note to black people.” It ended, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”  The Assata chant, which is often intoned at protests, also embodies this ethos of collective black love:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

5) Fuck Your Respectability Politics

Inclusion goes to the heart of BLM’s rejection of the respectability politics that were so critical to the rhetorics and aesthetics of the 1960’s civil rights movement.


Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (1964)

We all  have those images of college students pristinely dressed in blazers, skirts, and heels, of both Martin and Malcolm in their plain black suits, white collared shirts, and skinny ties.  Their authority also came from formal religious affiliations, Dr. King with Christianity and Malcolm X with Islam.

In the most prominent criticism of BLM, civil rights activist Barbara Reynolds writes in The Washington Post that:

“The 1960s movement also had an innate respectability because our leaders often were heads of the black church, as well. Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter…The demonstrations are peppered with… profanity, and guys with sagging pants that show their underwear. “


DeRay McKesson & vest (2015)

While Reynolds is arguing for respectability politics because she found it effective, by arguing that sagging pants are inappropriate attire for a protest she is buying into white racism, the idea that black people must demonstrate their value by assimilating the respectability norms of the white bourgeoisie.

This is position is anathema to BLM.  According to co-founder Opal Tometi:

“[w]hen we say #blacklivesmatter – we mean all Black lives matter – regardless of gender or sexual orientation, immigration status, physical disability, income level, criminal record, etc.”

While both Martin and Malcolm’s signature outfit was a conservative suit, DeRay McKesson’s signature outfit is a blue vest so famous that is has its own Twitter account.   When BLM activists engage in actions – even when they meet with presidential candidates – They opt for a simple black t-shirt, often with the word “bulletproof” on it.

6) Social Media Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Black leaders of the 1960’s were constrained in their sartorial aesthetics by the fact that they could not engage in mass self-broadcast.  They needed to appeal to the prejudices of the white liberal bourgeois media in order to get coverage for their struggle.  They lacked the self-broadcast mechanisms of Twitter, Facebook, and cell phone video that have been so critical to BLM.

As an example, the photo above of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X was taken by Marion Trikosko of U.S. News & World Report magazine.  The photo of DeRay McKesson was taken by McKesson himself using his smartphone and was published via his own Twitter account, @deray, which has 228,000 followers.

BLM activists do not need to accommodate white prejudice to gain a wider audience for their ideas, and they are refusing to do so.

7) Leaderful Means Unbreakable

Finally – and most crucially – BLM improves on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s by being leaderful.  This means, according to Purvi Shah:

  • Being “high impact, low ego
  • Being “brilliant, humble and thoughtful”
  • Struggl[ing] with love,” despite internal and external stressors

It also means that while not everyone will be a leader, a leader in BLM could be anyone.  Though DeRay McKesson and the founders of BLM are visible, they do not control or dictate the actions of the BLM activists.  The 26 chapters of BLM are largely autonomous.

As outlined in The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman, flat and leaderful organizations are more adaptive and harder to defeat than hierarchical organizations with one leader at the top directing the movement and being a sole focus on media attention and public trust.  This is because any one leader is not critical to the operation of a leaderful organization.

Leaders who personify the movements they lead endanger themselves and their movements.  This is why the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were so catastrophic.  They were so loved, so revered, had such unparalleled capacity to push the movement’s goals, that when they were killed no one else was able to take their places.

Though BLM will hopefully never experience the assassinations of fifty years ago, their structure of leaderful decentralization makes them more resilient and harder to defeat.

Proving the Skeptics Wrong

In his influential 2010 work of cyber-pessimism, Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker compared the civil rights movement to contemporary digital activists and found contemporary activists wanting because of the supposed weak ties inherent to social media use.  He famously intoned that “the revolution will not be tweeted.”  History has proven him quite wrong.

BLM is innovating on the civil rights movement not only in the technology they use, but in their ethics, in their aesthetics, in the composition of their movement.  Theirs is not just a new civil rights movement, but a better one, stronger, more inclusive, more radical.  If you can’t get with it, get out of the way.


Header Images (l to r): Julian Bond and SNCC’s Atlanta staff in 1963 (by Richard Avedon), Alicia Garza and fellow Oakland activists in 2015 (Kristin Little)

Body Images: King and X (Wikipedia), Deray McKesson (@deray)

Seeing the Good in People

The Lesson Was Your Reaction

There was wine.  There was a train.  There was laughing, potentially loud laughing.  And then the laughing stopped.  Then there was a hashtag and talk of a boycott and a 100% apology.  I think we all know the public details of the encounter between the Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club and the Napa Valley Wine Train.

So, what’s the broader lesson?  The lesson is your reaction.   There were conflicting accounts about the behavior of the women on the train.  In the absence of proof, who did you side with?  Who did you see as the offending party?  Who did you leap to defend in conversations at work or on social media?

Be Aware of Power in Social Conflict

On Facebook (yes, I too debate people on Facebook) someone said he preferred to “see the good” in the employees of the train.  He preferred to assume they weren’t racist.  I found the women’s story to be more credible.  

In truth, we were both seeing the good in people, we are just seeing it in different people.  I was assuming the best of the women kicked off the train.  He was assuming the best of those who kicked them off.

In so many of today’s social conflicts there is a conflict of interpretation between people of differing levels of power:  union workers and corporate bosses, undocumented people and conservative politicians, women who call men out for sexism and men who claim sexism doesn’t exist.

Challenge Your Defenses of Those in Power

If we defend the side in power we are defending the status quo, whether or not it benefits us.  We are siding with the big guy against the little guy.  There’s nothing noble in that.

Sometime those in power will, in fact, be right.  Often, they won’t.  But if your default position is to defend those in power, check yourself and reassess.   Look at the conflict from the position of the alleged victim instead of the alleged perpetrator.  Listen to what the person with less power has to say.  And then make up your mind.


Image: Book club members outside the wine train earlier in the day (source: CBS This Morning)



What Kind of Revolution are Progressives Making?

1920: A Challenge to The Left

If you do not condemn colonialism, if you do not side with the colonial people, what kind of revolution are you making?

– Nguyá»…n Tất Thành (1920)*

One objective brought Nguyễn Tất Thành to the Congress of Tour in 1920.  He wanted French support for Vietnamese independence.  Socialism was the most left-leaning political faction in France at the time.  Though Vietnam was a French colony, Nguyễn thought he has a good chance of gaining Socialist support.

“If you do not condemn colonialism,” he intoned at the Congress, “what kind of revolution are you making?”  Yet the French Socialists were not persuaded.  They declined to take an anti-colonial stance and Nguyá»…n decided the join the newly-formed Communists, who would.   Twenty years later Nguyá»…n took a new name, Hồ Chí Minh, meaning “one who has been enlightened,” and became a revolutionary leader.

2015: History Repeating

This past Saturday two black women, Marissa Janae Johnson and Mara Jacqeline Willaford, interrupted a stump speech by Bernie Sanders in Seattle.  The resounding response was angry boo’s.  According to Johnson, some present suggested she be tazed and a water bottle was thrown at her while she was on stage.   The video of her speech has received a 90% thumbs-down rating.  The comments section is overwhelmed by unabashed racism and hate.

Yet the Seattle action was not a black failure, but a white one.  Bernier Sanders is not just the most progressive candidate in the 2016 race.  He is the most progressive mainstream candidate in recent memory.  Seattle is not just a progressive city.  It is a famously progressive city, which recently raised the minimum wage and led the fight behind Washington state’s legalization of gay marriage and marijuana.

As Sanders himself said before the protesters took the stage, “Thank you, Seattle, for being one of the most progressive cities in the United States of America.”  Yet while the black activists spoke, Sanders checked his watch.  Afterwards he expressed his official disappointment.  During their speech, the audience booed.  This is Sanders’ failure.  This is white America’s failure.  This is not the progressivism that I signed up for.

Black Lives Matter is Not Radical

The fundamental demand of Black Lives Matter is not a radical one.  Black people are asking not to be murdered.  They are asking not to be summarily executed in the street.  This is the barest foundation for a civilized society.

Yet in America, in 2015, this request is so far outside the mainstream of political discourse that the most left-leaning presidential candidate countenances the demand with irritation.  In America, in 2015, the citizens of one of the most progressive cities in the country, respond to the demand with unfiltered hostility.

Yes, I support Sanders’ progressive agenda: a social safety net, the end of corporate influence in politics, environmental protection, rights for women and queer people.  But who are these benefits for?  If this is not also a progressivism that stands fiercely and unequivocally with oppressed people in our own country, it is not my progressivism.

If we do not condemn racism, if we do not side with black people, what kind of revolution are we progressives making?

No Revolution At All

That is not a rhetorical question.  The answer is that if American progressivism is not also anti-racist, then it is racist.  If it is not dismantling white supremacy, is it maintaining it.  It would be a racially narrow, cowardly, and small-minded revolution.  In short, it would be no revolution at all.

Progressivism needs to be for all Americans.  If it is not, then it does not deserve the name.  Like Nguyễn Tất Thành found almost one hundred years ago and an ocean away, the farthest left of the political mainstream isn’t going nearly far enough.

image: Elaine Thompson/AP

Online and Offline in Ferguson

The screenshot below is a rich commentary on digital activism.

It shows medias blending. A paper sign in Ferguson, depicting a Twitter hashtag, is digitally photographed, posted to Twitter, then posted to Tumblr where additional commentary is made.

It also shows how the barrier between online and offline activism is blurring as digital artifacts of offline tactics become easier to create and share across digital platforms.

The comment below the image is also a reminder that, just like any other kind of activism, digital activism is only necessary when conventional methods of addressing injustice fail. “[I]nternet campaigns calling for justice” are only necessary for those whom the existing system does not serve.

Screen shot 2014-08-16 at 10.12.59 AM

By Any Means Necessary: The Information War in #Ferguson

The current unrest in Ferguson, MO, precipitated by the hot-blooded murder of an innocent black boy by a police officer, is a story whose details have been deliberately hidden, manipulated, and intentionally ignored.  For this reason it is a difficult story to tell with confidence.

The key witness to the shooting was interviewed by Chris Hayes in MSNBC before he was interviewed by the police.  Television and print media presented the protests as riots and the victim as a criminal, leading the the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag, where images are integral.

Protests that are both peaceful and that involve property damage have been met with a military response.  Activists in Gaza are sharing tips on Twitter about how to mitigate the physical effects of a tear gas attack.  Tumblr is being used to share information about an individual’s rights if he or she is stopped by police or told to stop filming.

Professional media have been arrested, intentionally tear-gassed, and told to leave the area.

Platforms like Vine, Twitter, and Tumblr are being used to share images and video from the scene.  A former teacher of the murder victim went on Facebook to share her personal knowledge of the victim.  Platforms are also being used to amplify one another. Tumblr in particular is playing this role. Yet citizen journalists have also been shot and arrested.

tumblr_naa44bwlwu1s6qwzfo1_500Anonymous, a loose online network of nameless activists and pranksters, have come to the fore, much as they did in Syria and in the Rehtaeh Parsons rape case.  Their method has become to independently uncover information being withheld by authorities via hacking and then to announce the imminent or possible release of that information in order to pressure authorities to release the information themselves or to stop an undesirable activity.

When the protests in Ferguson first started, members of Anonymous, who share information via a series of Twitter accounts, promised to release the personal information of police officers if violence against civilians occurred.  Now they have released the name of the police officer who killed Michael Brown, information which has not yet be corroborated.

Another individual, working independently even from Anonymous, located a possible photo of the man.  In posting the uncorroborated photo he writes:

It brings be great pleasure to photo I.D. the “man” believed to be responsible for the death of Mike Brown.  Thanks to Anonymous for revealing his name, I went and did a little digging of my own. Take a look. I could be wrong so God help whoever it is I’m wrong but then again if they can be trigger happy, so can I.

Another individual shared the public contact information of the Ferguson Police Department leadership, encouraging calls and emails.

This is the information situation in Ferguson.   Even as authorities on the ground try to intimate, banish, and silence those who would share information, citizens both on the ground and online are collecting and sharing information “by any means necessary.”

This is an undesirable information ecology, fraught with misinformation and missing information.  In the absence of freedom of information, however, it is the only option.

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