Then as Farce: the Commodification of Black Lives Matter

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Martin Luther King was arrested in April 1963 for publicly protesting, an act deemed illegal in Alabama at the time. While in jail, eight white clergy figures publicly admonished King, judging his actions “unwise and untimely”. It was this which prompted King to respond with his little-shared letter about the “white moderate”, a comment that is most often elided whenever progressive liberals feel the need to throw out some a cute meme on an auspicious “I’m not a Racist” occasion, like MLK Day.

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice […]

As black authors dominate the bestseller lists, Etsy and Postmates feature a “black owned business” section on their sites, the enrollment numbers of White People 4 Black SURJ and other national and state level anti-racist organizations soar, as we enter week 4 of Black Lives Matter protests, all I can think is – My God. Progressive Liberals have managed to commodify anti-racism.

In First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Zizek deftly outlines the absurd cycle between Capitalism’s casualties (poverty, war, the ‘third world’, colonialism etc) and Capitalism’s desire to redeem itself by participating in a logic where “the very act of of egotist consumption already includes the price of its opposite”. By purchasing the books we will never read (excepting White Fragility, which is this month’s pick at Book Club and thankfully on Audible), the hoodie we will never wear, the meal from a restaurant we will soon forget, the selfie at a BLM march, white liberals are participating in the erasure of their own guilt and complicity. They are offering a comfortable alternative to the destruction of systemic racism, an alternative which posits that the system can still exist in the same form if we just be a bit kinder, a bit nicer, a bit more inclusive, a bit more ‘woke’.

Videos of police brutality have been around for years, though it was the particular brutality of George Floyd’s murder which seemed to catalyze the public into action behind Black Lives Matter, who have been toiling away doggedly for years with only brief periods of public support. They have certainly propelled the issue to the forefront of the national consciousness, though I wonder if the current level of attention would be so focused if we didn’t have a worldwide pandemic inciting fear, outrage, frustration and anger in the majority of the world’s population. Floyd’s death, it seems, provided a necessary distraction for many apolitical folk and an outlet for the seething unrest which is bubbling just beneath the surface of a lockdown world.

But with that distraction has come the price of its opposite. I recently attended a White People 4 Black Lives meeting – the LA based branch of AWARE, part of a national collective of antiracist groups under Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ). Around 500 white people attended, the majority of whom had not been politically active before the most recent Black Lives Matter marches. When the organizers asked them what “Defund the Police” meant to them, the answers were optimistically reformist: “Divert money from the police budget to other services”, “reform the police department”, “raise awareness”. With admirable restraint, WP4BL delicately posited the idea that Black Lives Matter is actually calling for complete divestment of the police from society, and then sensing, perhaps, that they were about to lose the audience, moved on to talk about things white people enjoy: how to use their privilege to do good, like anti-racist white superheroes, complete with black-owned business bought t-shirts bearing logos such as ‘White Silence is Violence’.

Liberals “support Black Lives” and calls to “defund the police” but “defund the police” doesn’t actually mean defund the police completely, it just means divert some of their funding to social services and anti-racism training, and really “Defund the Police” is kind of a crappy slogan, BLM should have come up with something better like “Partially Defund the Police” or “Lower the Budget for the Police”, or maybe rename them. Just have police but rename them! That would be a fabulous idea. And the violence. Well, Martin Luther King was very against violence. Blowing up police cars, trashcans and looting stores – that’s not something Liberals can get behind. Sure, it drew laser sharp focus to the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement and some very rapid responses from city officials hastily redrawing budgets, but it’s much better now the protests are peaceful and family-friendly and mainly focused around petitions circulating on change.org and attractive people wearing all-white and bringing flowers to the beach. Those petitions are truly the litmus test for a true democratic society and are often very effective at “raising awareness”, which as we all now, precedes every broken systems failure.

“The white man will try to satisfy us with symbolic victories rather than economic equity and real justice” said Malcolm X, clearly well acquainted with the white liberal love of Book Club and change.org petitions. I’ve written previously for CounterPunch on the persistent trend of progressive liberals to appropriate, domesticate and commodify and its devastating effect in maintaining a system which is clearly broken. They do this to black bodies, to revolution, to justified outrage, and they are doing it now.

“We believe that current moderates sincerely want to condemn racism and to see an end to its effects. The problem is that this desire is outweighed by the comfort of their current circumstances and a perception of themselves as above some of the messy implications of fighting for liberation.” wrote four pastors in a New York Times Op-Ed back in 2015. These pastors, including Michael McBride, Traci Blackman, Frank Reid and Barbara Williams Skinner, ended their piece with a plea for Progressive Liberals, or “moderates”, to abandon their ideas of what a “perfect protest” should look like, and get into the streets and, simply join the fuck in.

Little did they know that five years later the moderates would do just that, albeit with their usual set of caveats and demands, positing themselves as the experts on issues of systemic racism and debates circulating around abolishing the police as if they, too, had been considering these questions as life-or-death issues their entire lives, rather than just reading a headline on Facebook two hours ago. I recently approached a black writer and producer in my guild with the intent to introduce him to BLD PWR, and get some kind of traction going in an industry which is still dominated by white males, racism and sexism. He listened to me talk for a few minutes, and then broke in. “I just want to say this thing about no police on sets – I don’t agree with that. That’s some white person shit. I’ve been on sets in the Hood and you need police around. It’s just not safe.”

A day later, I posted an article in a WGA group by a prominent black director who was denouncing racism in the industry, while failing to acknowledge his own complicity in it. He was well known for mistreating his employees, in particular black women, and had recently fired every single black woman writer on his upcoming TV series on Black Britain, instead hiring a white male to write four of the episodes. I was shot down and ejected from the group, denounced as racist and ignorant by newly woke people who are more concerned with the concept that order remains, and the right kind of voices are heard. Inevitably the right kind of voices are the voices of the moderates, the respectable BIPOC, the Obamas in our midst. Instead of seeking out justice, we participate in symbolic denouncements of individual acts – the crackhead caught on camera screaming the N word, the woman at the store being belted in the mouth for her racist comments to a Native-American woman she mistook for latinx, the insipid white lady walking her dog in Central Park and hyperventilating down the phone after a run-in with an unbearably righteous bird-watcher. By honing in on these blatant, overt individual acts which we can share, post, repost, comment on, obsess over and follow up on (DID YOU HEAR THAT KAREN GOT THE DOG BACK?!!) we persist in allowing this system, bloated and groaning with hate, to get stoked with the fuel of our rabid outrage, leaving little left to tear this shit down.

We are distracted by the wrong fucking crap.

I still participate in protests. I still persist in sharing information, and encouraging my progressive friends to read books about racism, to shop at black stores, to speak up about inequality, racism, other things. I still do these things because despite everything, I can see some change. In the ten years since I became politicized by a bunch of rag-tag activists on the streets of LA who handed me books by Mike Davis and George Jackson, and hosted debates long into the night in smoke-filled tents slung up on skidrow as we waited for the LAPD to descend, the conversation has shifted. But back then raising awareness wasn’t enough, and it’s not enough now. Black people are still surviving on incremental concessions made to appease white souls, and those concessions are not enough to deny the reality that moderates, progressive liberals and white people do not want to reform the police. They do not want to end systemic racism. Yes, they will now reference racist policing and express the oft-cited statistic that a black male is twice as likely to be shot dead by a cop than his white counterpart, and in this sense, “awareness” – oh Hallelujah! has been “raised”, usually accompanied by a selfie and a cute info-graphic which speaks to our relief that a photo opportunity and some hallmark captions might erase centuries of inequality and murder. Yet the system creaks on, panic mode is over, order is restored, more people are shot, more inequities discovered, more snappy slogans painted on amazon boxes.

I have tried very, very hard, in the last few years, to become a moderate, to talk about safe spaces and act like an appropriate white ally and vote when required, but the truth is, I just want to burn this shit down. And I’m tired of waiting for y’all to finish Book Club.

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Ruth Fowler was born in Wales and lives between Los Angeles and London. You can find out more about her at ruthfowler.net or Venmo her at @ruth-iorio

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