My small city of Troy, New York is drawing up a new comprehensive plan. Lots of towns and even universities do this from time to time as a way of coordinating and re-aligning the institutions and organizations into some kind of general direction. These sorts of moments encourage individuals to be reflective as well as divisive. There’s a lot at stake (or at least it feels that way) and people feel the need to protect what they see as threatened by change, or go on the offensive and try to root out what they see as a long-standing problem. More than anything, these sorts of comprehensive planning efforts force us to confront our everyday lives as a set of conditions and decisions that exist outside of our control but are ultimately steerable if enough political will can be leveraged, if enough organizing around a particular issue gets done. Last night, a wide variety of people came together to discuss what they thought was working and what was needed attention in our city.
The person that led this meeting was cordial, professional, and did as good a job as can be expected in her position. There was, however, a moment where a huge oversight felt like it was being brushed under the rug. A friend of mine (who just started this great project) brought up a procedural problem that, from my own experience in urban planning, is pretty common: the team that was putting together the comprehensive plan had lots of plans to meet with established organizations and institutions but had no plan to reach out to unorganized people. That is, those people who are systematically and continually denied access to the time, resources, or cultural capital necessary to form or join organizations. People who are too busy making ends meet, or are overlooked by the majority of their fellow citizens are (unfortunately) in the optimal position to tell planners what the city has over-looked and even what needs to be done to fix what are certainly systemic problems. The meeting facilitator had nothing to say, except that people should encourage friends to attend the scheduled meetings.
This interaction left a really bad taste in my mouth and I don’t think I was alone in that sentiment. This morning, when I read that three young Muslim students were killed (they were so much more than that label, but we also can’t forget that it was that label that led to their killing) by a 40-something white atheist, I couldn’t help but see a distant but deep connection between the deafening silence in the national media, and that meeting facilitator. This silence, the illegibility of the pain and suffering of the disenfranchised, on the part of decision makers and media gatekeepers, creates and sustains injustice.
In comparison to shootings that leave white bodies on the ground, there was a palpable silence in social and print media about the tragic events in Chapel Hill. As I write this there is no #Iam hashtag, no national conversation. It is a blackout with a familiar form; a far too predictable collection of mumbles and qualifications that turn a definitive and calculated hate crime into senseless violence.
Last month Sarah Wanenchak explained,
the problem with Je suis Charlie is that I’m not, and to use that slogan – and to go no further with the conversation – obscures at least some of the extremely problematic and troubling things that accompany any ideals of free speech in a world in which some people are simply not free, and in which the speech of others produces and reproduces the cultures that keep them that way.
Today we are experiencing the inverse of this argument. Twitter’s trending hashtags suggests that Americans can bring themselves to talk about the #ChapelHIllShooting but they can’t utter their names. They can’t be these people. While it is clear that we don’t need another parade of hoodie-clad white people claiming #IamTrayvon it is striking that there isn’t even an attempt to do so. White America can immediately identify with a racist French satire magazine they’ve never heard of, but can’t possibly stand in solidarity with fellow Americans that also happen to be Muslim.
The straight-forward narrative that makes #JeSuisCharlie so legible to so many people is inaccessible to the marginal. The causes of violence perpetrated by white men is exploded by white supremacist patriarchy’s insistence that each instance of white terror is actually the confluence of psychological illness, the availability of guns, video games, or anything else that doesn’t threaten the racial order or patriarchy head-on.
When uprisings occur, when people that are systematically denied the preconditions of solidarity ––the ability to continually meet each-other unharassed, a common language, the material support to mobilize against one’s oppressors–– find them through perseverance and creativity, the invisible background radiation that maintains their oppression suddenly becomes opaque and solid. The sustained and largely invisible strategies of hegemony are temporarily traded in for the tactics of swift and immediate police violence. To those not paying attention it might seem to come out of nowhere, but for everyone else it is utterly predictable.
Hashtags, civil society organizations, third places, and all the other intangibles that make up a “community” are privileges for the disenfranchised. We typically think of the local bar or a knitting circle as places of repose and entertainment but they are actually deeply important organizational forces that connect individuals to mechanisms of power. They are the places where shared challenges are identified, and proposed solutions are crafted. They also provide space for mental health and stability. Even the most dedicated and vigilant activist needs a home to come back to, a place where they don’t need to defend their beliefs or even their own identity.
How is it anything more than laughable that an otherwise reasonable person could believe that this shooting had more to do with a parking space than skin color and religion? How could it be that there is not only silence but active efforts to complicate and explain away something as utterly predictable as white man plays God? Any single instance of white supremacy, whether it is this shooting or the maintenance of de facto segregation in my city, is over-determined. There are dozens of “just so” arguments that stand ready to supplant a direct identification of racial violence at work. White supremacy itself is a coward who hides behind historic contingencies.
Confronting hegemonic violence requires organizing and broad-based solidarity. That seems beyond debate, but what that looks like and how it behaves is still unclear. We are going to have more of the awkward, infuriating, and contentious problems like the ones Jenny Davis experienced on her own campus last week. Attention needs to be paid to who is speaking, what their standpoint is, and whether or not the same old people are looking for attention or if they are willing to step back and let others take the stage. How do movements negotiate uneasy alliances like the ones forged last December between liberal anti-consumerist activists and the more radical #BlackLivesMatter insurgents. How do social media actors like livestreamers scale up and navigate attention topographies without inadvertently stealing the spotlight? For now it is enough to keep these questions and concerns in the back of our minds but the answers need to come sooner rather than later.
David is on Twitter