According to new findings from Black Youth Project’s GenForward study, 66 percent of white people age 18-30 believe the rhetoric of the Movement for Black Lives encourages violence against police. Only 19 percent of Black respondents said the same.
GenForward is a monthly survey of the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago with the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The poll also showed majorities of all racial groups surveyed think violence against police is an extremely or very serious problem.
These responses follow a bloody summer of retaliation against police for their well-documented role in the seemingly unending systematic oppression of Black communities. In the most notable cases of shootings in Dallas by Micah Johnson and Baton Rouge by Gavin Long, the attacks were carried out by lone wolves who claimed no connection to the Black Lives Matter organization, but sympathized with the movement. In one of his final YouTube videos, Long called for “fighting back” against the violence of anti-Black oppression the movement has long recognized as real.
After Dallas, the Black Lives Matter organization quickly released a statement distancing themselves from the incident, stating, “Black activists have raised a call for an end to violence, not an escalation of it. Yesterday’s attack was the result of a lone gunman.” Later that day, co-founder Alicia Garza would tell MSNBC, “We are not anti-police, we are anti-‘our people being murdered in the streets.’”
What the organization made clear was that they wanted no association with retaliatory violence, even as the violence they were founded to address continues to rain down unabated.
If the white survey respondents were referring to the national BLM organization, they could not be more wrong. Those who take up arms against police have no place there, and the national organization not only does not encourage such acts, it rebukes them.
But leadership of the national network is not the movement, nor should it be conceived as such. Within the movement, there are different and sometimes conflicting ideas of what revolution might look like, and this is a good thing. Some people do embrace fighting back using a variety of methods, including violence, believing Black freedom is worthy of any means necessary.
Though others who also belong to the movement may disagree with their methods, it is more important than ever that we all recognize even those who think violence necessary can contribute something of worth to the conversation and to our communities. Even the Black lives who take up arms and die for us, misguided or not, matter too.
Though obviously the end goal of any movement dedicated to black lives is not just a commitment to violence but to freedom, freedom and violence are not incompatible. If we are to be honest, we must admit that in this case, white folks might not be completely wrong about who we are. Some of us encourage fighting back if we must, and we cannot invalidate their role just because we disagree with their methods. As Wilbert Cordel Kizer Moore wrote, “we can’t all be radicals, but we should all support them.”
Assata Shakur, whom even many who condemn violence look up to as a movement leader, once said: “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” Her legacy is marked if not defined by a violent interaction with police. For the alleged act of killing an officer, she was imprisoned for six years before escaping, and to this day remains in hiding.
Shakur’s claim of being framed differentiates her from Micah Johnson or Gavin Long, as does the fact that her comrades who were also involved in the shooting could argue self-defense after clearly being targeted. But was Long outrageous to argue that the Black community is constantly targeted, under attack and in need of defense? Is consistent racialized terror really that different from consistent physical blows? Is the threat of abuse with no redress, the constant murder of Black children with no consequences not worth fighting back? Is social death any less destructive than a physical one?
Even if we don’t assume to know the answers to any of those questions, we should recognize that they are valid ones to ask. We should allow ourselves to understand that the idea of embracing violence in self-defense, even against police, is not outrageous. We owe it to ourselves to extend that understanding because there are people who would give and have given up their lives enacting violence for us and our communities. They are part of this movement as much as we are.
The ruin of many Black liberation movements was a direct byproduct of our over-willingness to distance ourselves from those who would take up arms on our behalves. We mustn’t forget, in our tendency to view history through rose-colored lenses, how Assata’s Black Panther Party and later Black Liberation Army were dedicating themselves to violently defend their communities if necessary. We must also understand how many Black elites and those fearful of embracing these tactics participated in their downfall (though we also mustn’t view them as an angelic band of heroes and forget their own organizational problems and ideological shortcomings).
COINTELPRO, the government program that covertly targeted and destroyed Black liberation movements, fed our fear of violence and utilized it to turn us on one another. The problem is not that young white people think our movement encourages violence against police. It’s that not enough people in this movement encourage the idea that there is no alternatives to the end of policing as is, because policing relies upon the oppression of Black people and Black communities. The problem is that large majorities of us think violence against police is an extremely or very serious problem, but only 43 percent of young white adults think violence against Black people is extremely or very serious.
Zoe Samudzi writes, “’Justice or else!’ was this past October’s quasi-ultimatum rallying cry for the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March. … I think we come closer to a conception of justice when we begin to investigate the potentiality of ‘or else’.” Perhaps those we condemn for wrestling with questions of violence are simply investigating that potentiality. Maybe, just maybe, they can help us closer to a conception of justice. But we have to help them in return by recognizing their place in this movement.
Photo: Wiki Commons