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To advocate for our humanity is to risk being co-opted by whiteness

(This is part one of a four part series concerning activism in Carbondale, May 2nd, and the activism in SIUC’s Black community)

In late April, I was questioned by SIUC’s Department of Public Safety.

Now, don’t get me wrong: these officers did not haul me down to the DPS office, lock me in a room, and interrogate me for an hour. Instead, we met at a place of my choosing: local coffee shop off campus during peak hours, in full view of patrons and workers. During the interview, I kept my hands in plain sight, fingers laced on the table, while keeping my voice level and making eye contact with each of the officers in turn.

To them, I was a model citizen politely cooperating with a request made by the Department of Public Safety in the interest of protecting all students. To me, I was a young black male performing every lesson I have ever been taught regarding interactions with the police. It did not matter that they were expressing concern, first for all students, and then for black students, nor did it matter that these two gentlemen were extremely polite and expressed sympathy for the climate of fear created by the “White is Right” video, as well as the threat of a riot. What mattered was the fact that they were two white cops and I was a black male activist, outspoken in his criticism of the university.

I share this story, not to speak about the response of the campus police to protests and marches around campus, but to point to the way in which Black students and students of color are “accepted but not welcomed” in some activist spaces. I share this story to demonstrate the consequences of the co-opting of the struggles of oppressed groups by a largely white, activist majority here on campus. I share this story to indicate just how dangerous it can be to people of color and marginalized populations when “activists” seize our demands and bury them under the popular activist rhetoric of the day.

Let me back up for a moment. Prior to the request for an interview, the graduate students in the department of philosophy had been staging sit-ins and demonstrations at the office of the Chancellor with the aim of convincing the administration to release the hold placed on the potential new hire for Africana and African-American philosophy in our department. My role in assisting with the organization of these sit-ins was to not only place my body (and my academic career in some respects) on the line, but to direct the energies of my fellow graduate students in directions that would force the administration to respond, to take seriously our demands.

As part of our attempt to gather support for the hire, we made public our actions and our demands and invited participation from the campus at large so long as they were willing to follow our lead and adhere to the methods that we had selected. We publicly advocated for the hire during the two listening sessions held in the fall, and in closed door meetings with the administration. We made no secret of what we were doing and why we were doing it. More specifically, we made sure that our advocacy was respectful and non-violent, despite the disruption that we were introducing two the day to day operations of the Chancellor’s office.

In fact, we even went so far as to provide the Chancellor and his staff the times and dates of our sit ins. We did all of this to indicate that we were different than the “May 2nd Strike Committee,” which had co-opted and included our demand for the release of the hold on the hire in its list of demands. This is the part that I would like you to be attentive to: through co-opting our demand against our wishes, and without our consent, the May 2nd Committee generated an implied connection between our efforts and their larger, more dangerous attempts at pushing the campus into action. In doing so, they placed the students of color involved in the sit-ins at risk, myself included.

Let me back up even further: before the “White is Right” video, there was the graffiti on Faner Hall. Some of you might have heard about it due to the enlisting of law enforcement to catch those responsible. While most of the graffiti read things like “debt rules everything around me,” and “you are not a loan,” the message that most concerned the administration and the campus was “Riot Proof… We’ll see,” which was taken as an implied threat of violence during the proposed May 2nd strike. This was complicated by the fact that the Committee wasn’t exactly shy about supporting those who made the threat of a riot in their public communications following the graffiti:

“But let’s just say outright: there are absolutely no plans for a riot on May 2. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “riots are the voice of the unheard.” Our plan is to make ourselves hear with our voices, our bodies and our joyous creativity by interrupting the deafening pace of everyday life… A riot isn’t what we have in mind, and we’re not sure exactly what the graffiti writers were thinking. Maybe they were just trying to get your attention. If so, we hope it worked.”

Let me break this down for you: the Committee, while it had no specific plans for a riot, was not directly opposed to the possibility of a riot. Further, they viewed threat of a riot as yet another method through which to gain attention for their planned actions. It was as if the threat of violence, to them, was just another move to get people on board, devoid of any real consequences. Most seriously, they expressed their support of the possibility of a riot through the deployment of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., thereby co-opting a movement whose founding premises sought to avoid the possibility of the very violence they would use to draw attention to their strike.

And that’s ironic considering that Dr. King’s speech, “The Other America,” makes clear that the riot is the language that the “unheard” turn to when the systems of power fail to hear them. It’s further ironic because the “May 2nd Committee,” a group of white individuals, with exception to one woman of color, failed to “hear” the way that their co-opting of the language of Dr. King’s “Other America” made them complicit in the very systems that they were trying to dismantle. More specifically, by twisting King’s words to provide support for a riot, they miss the fact that King was imploring us to look beyond the riot, to look to the conditions that caused it, conditions that the Committee contributed to through their appropriation of King’s words.

The May 2nd Committee’s gleeful co-opting of the language of one of the great figures of African-American liberation in service of promoting the threat of the very violence he sought to avoid should stand as a testament to the kind of activists and activist spaces that have developed in Carbondale: there are individuals on this campus and in this community who would co-opt the language, the movements, and the suffering of the people of color, of the Black students in order to push forwards their own pet ideologies. In exchange for playing at activism, these people put at risk the lives and the livelihood of the people of color, of the Black students, they claim to stand with.

When I say they will co-opt the movements and the suffering of the people of color and Black students in Carbondale, I mean to say that they will take up our demands as their demands, and erase us from the making of the demand. They will take up our movements as their movements, and bury the experience of oppression from which they emerged. When challenged, as they were by the graduate students in the department of philosophy, they will respond as the May 2nd Committee did by stating, “We retain this demand because it is our demand as well,” without recognizing the way in which their reckless brand of “activism” puts at risk the very real goals that these movements seek to accomplish.

Lest you believe that I am focusing exclusively on the actions of my colleagues, the May 2nd Committee also appropriated demands from the “accepted but not welcomed” march that occurred prior to the Committee’s formation, and even tried to lay claim to the Peace Rally that was staged in opposition to the threat of violence against Black students specifically, and students of color in general. Put another way, the May 2nd Committee, and the movement that surrounded them, relied upon the expressing of suffering made throughout the semester to provide energy for a movement of their making, that served their ideology, and had no concrete change as its objective.

All of this is to explain why I was sitting in a coffee shop in late April, having a conversation with two investigators from the Department of Public Safety. It was not because I was identified by some of the faculty in my department as an organizer of the sit-in, nor was it because I had any actual connection to the May 2nd Committee: it was because the appropriation of the actions of the graduate students in the department of philosophy by the May 2nd Committee placed myself, and everyone else with me, at risk by a presumed association. My visibility, my activism, coupled with the implied connection to the Committee’s threat of violence, led the DPS to question me for information.

To be fair, the two men who interviewed me did not believe that I had any desire to do harm to the campus: interviews with faculty conducted before speaking with me had assured them that I had no desire to incite a riot. Further, they cited the way in which the graduate students conducted ourselves, particularly the way in which we informed the affected offices, as an example of how best to engage in protest. We even had a wonderful conversation about the way in which the DPS could work to reassure Black students and students of color that they would not be victimized by the officers and the history of protest on campus.

To make clear the point: I, a Black male graduate student, who could be identified as an activist, was placed at risk through the actions of white (and one woman of color) pseudo-activists who co-opted the messages and the movements of individuals advocating for lasting, concrete change. If I am to be honest, I do believe that were our methods less thorough, were we less diligent in our organizing, were we not conscious of the risks being taken, what I have described as a pleasant meeting might have been a less pleasant interrogation.

Put simply: the co-opting of the struggles of the Black students and the people of color on this campus by white radical activists’ places at risk all the things that we have struggled for and continue to struggle for. More seriously, given the institutional bias against students of color within enforcement agencies, the “radical action” promoted by these activists, and the ensuing punishment, will always fall more harshly upon the Black students and people of color who sign on to these movements. While these “activists” play revolutionary, we are the ones who suffer.

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