This one time I got to meet Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Choir. They’re fun people with a knack for spectacle. The Reverend dresses up in all white to match his brilliant, platinum pompadour, and leads people into a mall or a busy street corner to preach and sing about the evils of consumer society. A small group of us exorcised a Bank of America ATM which was a great diversion for reaching around and unplugging it. All in all it was a lovely afternoon but today I’m nervous about the way people who look like me (white) are organizing around this topic. Given that it is prime time for shopping, it also means it is an excellent opportunity to protest the intricate tapestry of social norms and institutions that make up present-day consumerism. It is certainly true that lots of people should probably consume less than they do, but the activism around consumerism is often tin-eared and tone deaf when it comes to issues of class and, as we are seeing this year, race.
The waste associated with consumer capitalism is probably as overdetermined as anything gets: activists have the unenviable task of intervening and disrupting an intricate and contradictory system that is responsible for supplying most people’s daily needs and suffering. Describing exactly how this happens could fill volumes but for now let’s leave it at this: lots of stuff sold at Wal-Mart is awesome but it is also the product of incomprehensible suffering and waste. The latter does not negate the former for most people, and a great deal of activism seeks to convince those people otherwise through a diversity of tactics and arguments.
Some activists keep focus on the fact that over-consumption is fed by oppressive forces that subjugate and marginalize many non-white people. Others might romanticize handicrafts and ask that shoppers engage in a kinder, gentler capitalism made up of expensive local boutiques instead of discount stores. Sometimes anti-consumerism can be the basis for a broad coalition, other times it can be a trojan horse that lets well-meaning but un-self aware white protestors take over a movement.
Enter #notonedime: A campaign coming from a coalition of black-led organizations like the New Black Panther Party and the Michael Brown Leadership Coalition calling for a boycott of major retailers, in favor of black-owned businesses, to last from Thanksgiving to December 2nd. It is a tried-and true tactic of civil rights organizations that, in the words of Aya de Leon, “reach[es] into our legacies of using our economic power: the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the Civil Rights Movement, the grapes boycott of the United Farm Workers, and other historical boycotts.”
Last Friday there were many successful actions in malls all across America. Just a quick search of my Twitter feed tells me that the Galleria Mall in St. Louis got shut down, as did a Wal-Mart in Chicago. There are too many simultaneous events with too many actors to characterize all the actions that happened over the weekend, but I think it is fair to assume that some white liberals gave the kind of quiet support that my fellow editor Jenny Davis called for last friday, but I also can’t shake the feeling that there are lots of liberals out there acting in bad faith. White activists must support this movement, but we should be cognizant of what our participation can do and has done to similar movements in the past. Anti-consumerist activism comes in many flavors but, if the past is any indicator of the future, there’s a very real danger that well-meaning progressives will quickly slip into condescending elitism.
“Much of liberal activism” Hari Ziyad points out, “is about silencing difference and promoting assimilation under the premise of equality.” It is the kind of one-issue politics that, just to take another example in the news right now, has no problem with naming Monsanto the “best place to work for LGBT Equality.” The mainstream left is willfully blind to the different needs, wants, and desires of all people and is at cross-purposes with broad coalition-building. Appeals to equality ––instead of justice or reparations–– ignores that violence in society has always already been unequally meted out.
It is also telling how this campaign is talked about on social media. Lots of black protestors seem to use the hashtags #blacklivesmatter, #notonedime, #blackoutblackfriday, and simply #Ferguson. Meanwhile white-presenting activists like the one at the top of this post seem to use #handsupdontshop or #handsupdontspend. This is definitely not a clear-cut difference, but it is noticeable. A St. Louis Fox affiliate for example, collected several prominent tweets during the weekend’s actions and as of this writing not one of them uses #handsupdontshop or #handsupdontspend. I do not know what is in the hearts and minds of all activists but the replacing of “shoot” with “shop” does not appear to be universally acceptable.
The racist history of police violence has direct ramifications on how white people participate in, or even chant the name of, campaigns like “hands up, don’t spend.” Even if you are a white person who recognizes who has what skin in the game, and you are chanting “hands up, don’t shop” in a diverse crowd, think for a moment about what that means coming from your mouth, instead of the mouths of those who are routinely searched, intimidated, and shot by police. Think about how many times you have had to put your hands up because you were assumed to be dangerous, and how likely it was that you would be shot anyway. “Hands up, don’t shop” can be a call to solidarity or a condescending demand depending on who it is from and the context it is uttered.
As more white people, along with their professional single-issue political organizations, feed the momentum of this black-led movement there is a growing danger that the anti-consumerist message will drift away from calls to upend racist capitalism, and instead settle firmly in the bougie rhetoric of Small Business Saturday. This is doubly likely given that many white people will inevitably fail to see the difference between calling for the patronage of black-owned businesses and local business in general.
And while it is easy to find images of white people participating in die-ins and marches, I don’t see evidence of them moving their money to black-owned businesses. I’ll concede however, that the public rarely sees the “opposite” side of boycotts: History remembers the Montgomery Bus Boycott, not the Montgomery Carpooling Campaign. One cannot exist without the other but, for better or worse, mutual aid rarely makes headlines.
What does make headlines is conflict, and white activists must be especially cognizant of how their bodies are treated by the police. In the heyday of Occupy the often-heard refrain was “don’t make it about the cops.” The reasoning was that the central message about inequality would be over-shadowed by the spectacle of clashes with the police. What was often missed by the media and Occupiers alike, was that the police are the guardians of inequality. Making “it” about the police is to talk about inequality in its rawest form.
But it isn’t as simple as “look at the terrible things police do to innocent people.” The real inequality is found in the distinctions between who is assumed to be innocent and who is routinely murdered by police. The outrage over police violence in Occupy was largely spurred by seeing white bodies, just for an instant, being treated with the kind of disregard that has been the norm for people of color for centuries. But it was an outrage that, ultimately, ran shallow because it could be quelled by demanding a return to a time where police regularly gave deference to protesting white bodies. This time a more fundamental kind of change is being demanded. One that calls into question the purpose of police departments and what exactly they are serving and protecting.
#Handsupdontspend is a boycott, but white activists must not forget that it is in service of a larger rebellion against a system that corporations benefit from and cops defend. The white anti-consumerism activist that insists that people exchange hand-made gifts instead of spending money on a new smartphone needs to take a back seat for now. Americans buys more than its fair share of phones, but pronouncements about the meaning of phones-as-gifts usually hides the fact that Americans’ needs are vastly different. Smartphones might be luxury items to some people, but can be essential lifelines to people who actually accrue savings from wrapping up phone, computer, and their attendant monthly charges into one pre-paid bill. Of course, even if that wasn’t the case, there is never a need (and especially not now) for a white person to condescend to people of color about when one has earned the enjoyment of a new iPhone. Concerns over what makes a meaningful gift should not be confused with a tactic meant to illustrate the systemic devaluing of black life.
As Blake O’Neil writes in the Washington Post, “We’ve been bombarded with [Black Friday ads] for weeks now, from corporations eager to entice shoppers with so-called “door-buster” deals. And then, once the shopping public falls for them, a privileged segment of the population sits back and dehumanizes them for its collective amusement.” He also reminds us that many Black Friday shoppers are single mothers of color, which begs the question: How many white, middle-class liberals wouldn’t have thought twice before protesting in front of a Wal-Mart in Ferguson or some other predominantly black neighborhood last year, but proudly yell “hands up, don’t shop” this year? Those people are still around, and it is crucial that their bad faith be called out as soon as it rears its ugly head.
Perhaps that is one of the best contributions white activists can make in the next few weeks: confront and call out fellow white activists who are ––unknowingly or otherwise–– hijacking a rebellion to further their own ultimately racist cause. Lend quiet support, but don’t be quiet in the face of liberal racism. Above all, do as organizers ask, and make sure you’ve lent your voice and body to organizers that understand the stakes and not the rich NGOs that want to usurp another movement.
I don’t regret exorcising that ATM because I wasn’t taking attention away from another movement. It was the right place and time and with the right people. Reverend Billy appears to have been in Ferguson since Thanksgiving and as I had hoped, the actions appear to be respectful and give deference to the people of Ferguson. The Reverend doesn’t even seem to be leading much of the singing and marching. If a man who has made it his life’s work to lead 100-person choirs into malls can step back, you can too.