Reaction in a Time of Protest: Black Lives Matter and Its Critics

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

As a general rule, in times of social unrest the basest reserves of reaction quickly boil to the surface. These always take forms that are quite predictable. Thus, the moment that George Floyd’s life expired with Officer Chauvin’s knee on his neck it was clear that his life and character would be dragged through the mud. As would the poor black community as a whole.

The head of the Minneapolis police union Lt. Bob Knoll labeled Floyd a ‘violent criminal.’ Professional poseur Candace Owens was trending last week with a video, that while not explicitly defending the police in question, gave a detailed summary of Floyd’s past misdeeds, declaring Floyd was no ‘martyr.’ Economist Thomas Sewell, a sort of elderly dean to this school, retweeted an article he wrote a few years ago titled ‘The War on Cops’ where he included a defense of the cops who beat Rodney King.

Obviously, a martyr is a person who willing gives their life for a greater cause. George Floyd was desperately begging for his life, the opposite of martyrdom and the perfect definition of a victim. If Black Lives Matter represents warfare on the police, it is one the police are winning with ease as almost all the high-profile incidents that have drawn BLM’s attention have ended with the police in question getting off largely scot-free. Smart money would back the four police officers in this case finding a sympathetic grand jury, a one-sided trial, and if all else fails a friendly judge to water down any conviction.

Tropes about Black-on-Black crime always appear whenever another episode of police brutality gets caught on camera. Not a word from these hawkers of ‘self-reliance’ about the billions worth of military weaponry transferred to police departments, nor the increased use of SWAT teams and no-knock warrants like the one that killed Breanna Taylor. Arguments about policing in black communities tend to instantly transform into arguments about black poverty and its pathologies. The unspoken assumption of that is somehow that there is no white poverty. In fact, it is working class whites who have stalled life expectancy numbers in recent years by dying of opioids, alcoholism, and suicide.

Boil this down to one word and it would be ‘class.’ Of course, class has multiple definitions. One is ‘a social division based on social or economic status.’ Another version is defined as ‘impressive stylishness in appearance or behavior.’ It is in the latter definition where a status of ‘low class’ has little to do with the amount of income a person has, where ‘personal responsibility’ can be brandied about as if it exists in a kind of Platonic ideal divorced from any material conditions. Conservatives are often devoted this definition while pretending the former definition doesn’t exist.

Much is made of the amount single parents in the black community. On the June 2nd edition of The Charlie Kirk show, textbook reactionary Heather MacDonald, a writer for the conservative City Journal and author of the book The War on Cops, who seemingly never met a ‘war’ she wouldn’t fall in love with- MacDonald is still all in for the ‘War on Drugs’ and ‘Stop and Frisk’ (in New York the practice was overwhelming performed in communities of color), declared ‘But the reason they’re in those communities is to save Black lives. They’re not the best solution to Black-on-Black crime. The best solution is to reconstruct the Black family so that these kids are civilized, so that they learn to defer gratification and control their impulses rather than being completely unrestrained, uninhibited, and quick to resort to violence when they feel disrespected.’

Missing from that screed is that the number of single parents has skyrocketed in the white community. It is the working-class family in general that is in shambles. What cosmic force seems to forever keep these parts of the working class politically apart despite them sharing the same afflictions of low wages and capital flight? There are a range of forces. The working-class tag is largely reserved for white people (how common are the words ‘Latinx working-class’), as if only white people could be sympathetic victims of those processes. This is explained in part by traditional white racism, after all white poverty must be caused by real economic injustice, not cultural inferiority like brown skinned poverty. In fact, white cultural decline can even be romanticized.

Conservative attempts at populism along these lines veer to outright nihilism. Writing back in 1995, Christopher Lasch in his book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy proclaimed ‘While young professionals subject themselves to an arduous schedule of physical exercise and dietary controls designed to keep death at bay…ordinary people, on the other hand, accept the body’s decay as something against which it is more or less useful to struggle.’ More recently in Death of a Nation: Plantation Politics and the Making of the Democratic Party, Dinesh D’Souza writes ‘There is one group the Democrats have not managed to enslave: working class whites…The white working class remains as ornery, rebellious and independent-minded as it always was….are down, but they are not out. They may not have jobs but they still have work ethic…even whites undergoing economic hardship and plagued by cultural dysfunction – have so far resisted succumbing to the lure of the Democratic plantation.’

Yet liberals and some black intellectuals deserve to shoulder a portion of the blame, a point well made by Touré Reed in Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism. The idea of seeing black poverty as a completely separate, unique phenomenon goes back decades right through to the present shouts of ‘white privilege.’ As Reed explains ‘racial reductionist explanations for mass incarceration, poverty, the wealth gap or even the 2016 presidential election shift attention from the political-economic underpinnings of inequality to frameworks centered on innate attitudes, disembodied identities and notions of privilege that are determined by skin color rather than wealth- the actual basis of power in a capitalist system.’ Casting black poverty as totally unique allows conservatives of all types to do the same and blame the victims for their alleged unique cultural inadequacies. Such thinking inevitably leads to dead-end policies like reparations and ultimately ends up reinforcing the very neoliberal framework that has created the ocean of inequality that engulfs us today.

The very point of Black Lives Matter is that all lives matter. The results of the recent protests are already trickling in: the city of Louisville has banned no-knock warrants. New York State passed a long overdue ban on police chokeholds and repealed the 50-a law that used by police departments to shield their disciplinary records. Demilitarizing the police would be good a universal good. Alas, so would a finally united, assertive working class.


Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).