I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it.’
— Rosa Parks
In 1955, the same year Emmett Till two other blacks were lynched, Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks decided, separately, they would not take racism sitting down. Others followed their lead, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was born. At great cost, black working- and middle-class families said enough was enough, and their efforts, aimed at white supremacy’s bottom line, paid off.
Fast forward 63 years. The strange fruit of American racism once again dangles before us, captured courtesy of ubiquitous cell phones and body cams that almost daily reveal the harsh reality of state-sponsored brutalization and torture. While these images have spurred a “national conversation” about racism, they have done little to change its fatal calculus.
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick took a knee, sparking a nation-wide movement – and another “conversation.” Still, as Malcolm Jenkins recently reminded us, the conversation has been decidedly one-sided: no matter how many knees are taken, the powers-that-be “aren’t listening” and show no intention of doing so. In fact, rather than bend an ear, the NFL has chosen to bend the rules. To protect its bottom line, it has decided to ban players from protesting in public, forcing them to confine their actions off-field to the locker room.
The last half decade has witnessed organized protests aimed at raising awareness of police brutality. The problem, however, is not lack of awareness but of agape. Unless one is living in an alt(ernate) America, it is impossible in our panopticonic digital surveillance state to remain unaware of incidents of police brutality. Yet, no amount of go-to-the-video “proof” convinces the deniers. In those rare instances when the abusers are charged, they are seldom held accountable. To some this is a symptom of the system’s failure; to others, a measure of its success.
The disheartening truth is many Americans simply don’t care and never have, since acknowledging these abuses would shatter not only the myth of American social justice but also require them to recognize that people of color are human beings no different from themselves. Here the question is not how to make them care – for some never will – but how to create conditions that boldly defy their entrenched indifference and compel tangible social change.
What is needed is a general strike along the line of that described by W. E. B. Du Bois, during which slaves in the Civil War south left plantations in droves, arriving at Union encampments to set into motion their own emancipation and the groundwork for Reconstruction.
The objection will be made that professional black athletes are well-paid workers not slaves. However, as workers their labors fill corporate coffers, their (often) high salaries sustaining the myth of colorblind capitalism. Consequently, the aim of this twenty-first century general strike would not be their “emancipation” but to end state-sponsored violence.
The NFL and other corporations only support change when it serves their bottom line. After all, ABC did not cancel Roseanne because its star’s statements conflicted with its moral compass, for had that been the case, the network would not have hired Barr, with her history of racist tweets, in the first place. Even FOX, whose moral North Star shines somewhere south of Hades, temporarily sanctions its rabid pundits when their public statements and actions repel corporate sponsors. In all these cases, it is not black lives but bottom lines that matter. Thus, one strategy for bringing the system to its knees may not be taking a knee on the playing field – but leaving it, and not, as the league would prefer, by confining the protest to the locker-room.
This general strike borrows a page from Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 play Day of Absence, but here the disappearance of blacks is not a mysterious event but a politically willed one. For it to be effective, the strike must neither begin nor end with the NFL. Blacks from all fields – not just sports – that fuel the juggernaut of America’s numerous national pastimes and its popular culture – must take part for it to be effective. Moreover, to accomplish its goal, it is more likely to require months if not years in absentia. The mobilization of black bodies en massein organized local demonstrations of presence has not worked; organized national absence might.
Ironically, one effect of the general strike would be to realize the kind of America white supremacists dream of: one without blacks. But it would also remind them that an America without blacks – without LeBron James, Denzel Washington, Serena Williams, Beyoncé, Oprah, Kendrick Lamar, and Neil de Grasse Tyson, et al.— is a culturally desolate America bereft of its Americanness. It would also remind corporatists that such an America would be a less profitable one, since its domestic and global revenues would be dramatically – and traumatically – reduced. It is this loss of revenue – not an appeal to conscience – that hopefully will trigger change.
Naturally, there will be a backlash: Kaepernick is still paying the price of conscience. There may also be violence. But the question is whether that violence would be any worse than that currently being inflicted.
We celebrate the multi-billion-dollar blockbuster Black Panther,whose militant villain’sunrepentant “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, because they knew death was better than bondage”moved some audiences to tears. But the spirit of defiance the film cathartically celebrates has yet to be mobilized toward an equally dramatic, real-world praxis. This must change. Not only to honor the memory of those whose lives have already been taken but also to guarantee that others will be spared their fate.