By Ayomide Fatunde
Ayomide Fatunde is an MIT-trained chemical engineer who was born in Lagos, Nigeria and grew up in Miami, Florida. She is currently based in Stuttgart, Germany where she’s been working for Daimler AG since November 2019 as part of their rotational leadership development program. Her projects centre on the company’s CO2 strategy and leverage the knowledge of power and energy systems that she picked up while working as an Engineering and Business Development Associate for PowerGen Renewable Energy (a leading microgrid developer) in Kenya. Ayo is also an amateur playwright, choreographer, poet, actress, and blogger. Most notably, her play ANTS, a one-act science fiction allegory of the modern-day Libyan slave crisis, was featured in a staged reading festival held in Boston in 2018. She also runs the blog toxicallyfeminine.com, where she does her best to remind woman that they are allowed to take up space while offering well researched perspectives on some of the most pressing issues of our society
WEAll is grateful to Ayo for sharing her personal perspective on current events in the US and beyond in this powerful piece.
America is tearing itself apart. It’s been doing so for decades. But it feels like 2020 will be the year it finally succeeds. Watching the news over the past few weeks has been an exercise in trauma for so many of us. I applaud those who are still actively engaging with all this, still protesting, still educating themselves, and still forcing this moment to be more than a hashtag. However, today I’d like to address the people who are doing all those things while still sharing memes like this:
This meme, as well as the fact that our President threatened civilians with military force, upsets me deeply. Many, including Minnesota governor Tim Walz and Attorney General Bill Barr, have said that the violence during protests was largely caused by radical leftist group ANTIFA and other professional instigators. Walz and some other Minnesota mayors recently walked back their statements as they realized that the rage they were witnessing in their state was very much homegrown. As this theory of violence fell through, many people began pointing out the inflammatory tactics of police departments who have planted undercover cops as instigators, left piles of bricks lying around to taunt demonstrators, driven through crowds of protesters, and pepper sprayed / tear gassed a number of state legislators for no apparent reason.
However, it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the source of violence in a protest, to rewind and pause at minute 42 and say: “see right there that was what started it all.” One common theory is that there is a two-way dependency of expectations. As in, when police arrive in riot gear expecting a fight, they generally get one. That or they end up looking like overzealous, trigger-happy cowards. Looking at some of the videos in this article by Slate magazine I’ve just linked, it’s easy to see how that could be the case. It’s also easy to see a reality in which the Boston Police Department would tell people to disperse and then shut down the 3 main train lines that people would have taken to get home. Purposefully fueling chaos so that they would be able to say: “See, we told you we needed to come with rubber bullets and tear gas. These people are dangerous. We didn’t overreact.”
All these things are very real, and we must all accept that they all took place. Yet, we must also contend with the fact that in many of the 140 cities in which protests erupted this past week, the violence was born out of pure black anger. A frustration born from the simple fact that racism is still alive and well, and in ways that are so much less in our face than police brutality. It’s always so amusing to me when young white liberals look at me in shock when I say that. But the fact of the matter is that many American cities and schools are now more segregated than they were in the 1960s. Mass incarceration means that one in thirteen African Americans were disenfranchised during the 2016 elections. And the racial wealth gap has literally been consistently gigantic for the past 50 years. (If you get stopped by the Washington Post paywall in that last link, you can also check out this episode, free on Youtube, of the Netflix show Explained.)
And once we’re all on the same page about this very righteous anger, we must then also contend with the fact that violence is a tool.
It is naive to buy into the narrative that the American Civil Rights Movement was successful because it was nonviolent. This manufactured view is the product of the way our textbooks and museums portray black rioting and militancy as counterproductive to the movement, when in fact it can be argued that there was a certain level of codependence between violence and nonviolence during the 1960s.
Prior to the spring/summer of 1963, JFK was mostly silent on the issue of civil rights. He didn’t have the political capital to alienate Southern Congressmen and still push through his New Frontier domestic policies. MLK literally sent him letters expressing how disappointed he was in the Kennedy administration. Then, Birmingham happened, and the world watched as dogs and firehoses mutilated schoolchildren. The headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were bombed. A 14-year old boy in Chicago was shot by the police. A sit-in in North Carolina was overrun by a thousand angry white people. And black people got aaangggryyy. “All of sudden”, almost every major American city was engulfed in riots. Maryland was under martial law. The peaceful protests that had been going on since the Brown v. Board ruling in 1954 became decidedly not peaceful.
It was then, and only then, that John F. Kennedy delivered his Report to the American People on Civil Rights. This speech became the foundation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the cornerstone of Kennedy’s legacy as a key force in the movement. It was the first time white America heard one of their leaders admonish racism as morally wrong. And it happened BECAUSE, not in spite, of the rising tide of violence in the nation. His administration did not want America to be seen internationally as the country that would let itself burn to the ground before granting rights to people who had been begging for it for generations.
I say all this because it seems that we, as a collective society, have forgotten. We’ve forgotten that protests transact in the currency of attention. Forgotten that civil rights leaders chose to focus on Birmingham because they viewed Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor as one of the most violent police chiefs in the nation. In an interview with the New Yorker, Omar Wasow, a professor of politics at Princeton, discusses this strategy of gaining sympathetic press by positioning nonviolence against the backdrop of state-sanctioned hyperviolence.
A similar narrative played out in South Africa during the Soweto uprising of 1976. The world watched as hundreds of school children were slaughtered by police simply for wanting to use their indigenous languages in schools, as opposed to Afrikaans (the language of their oppressors). The following year the UN Resolution that passed in 1963 and asked all states to cease the sale and shipment of all ammunition and military vehicles to South Africa was finally made mandatory. Yes, it took 14 years. But the spectacle of peaceful black bodies being mutilated by militarized white forces finally made the international community care.
The goal of any protest is to garner media attention on a mass scale because protests that do not gain attention, generally, do not achieve anything. Thus, we have to ask ourselves: would this moment in America be receiving all the attention it is receiving if the past week had seen only peaceful demonstrations?
I don’t really have an answer to that question. But I do think it’s important to firmly distinguish between types of violence. The instances in Birmingham and Soweto largely collected sympathy from the majority because protestors were the object of violence. When protesters are the perpetrators of violence, they are using the currency of fear for attention. And, well, if unarmed dead black boys have taught us anything at all, it is that white fear is powerful.
I see a lot of people saying: “hey, look, if we’re violent we’re going to alienate the people who are sympathetic to our cause.” But please ask yourself, what has their sympathy brought us? And if this is all it took to alienate them, were they ever truly allied with our cause? On a recent episode of the NYTimes podcast The Daily, my queen Nikole Hannah-Jones added this really poignant statement to the conversation:
“Black people have protested peacefully and black people have burned it down. And in the end the cycle of police violence remains largely unchanged”
So please, please, get off your high horse if you are someone judging others for wanting to transact in fear instead of sympathy.
Every once in a while, I google “Hong Kong protests” just to see if they are still going on. They are… but they are very much no longer a part of our regular news cycle. I think often about the militancy and urgency of this movement. The protective gear and riot training each protester receives. Most importantly, I think about their principle of 不割席 (“do not split”). This expression represents their commitment to never obstruct the tactics of fellow protestors, even if they disagree with these tactics. This obviously comes most into play with the question of violence. While “moderate” protesters have boycotted pro-Beijing shops, more “radical” activists have vandalized and/or burned down these shops. There are hunger strikes as well as petrol bombs. I put moderate and radical in quotes here because I’ve recently come to the conclusion that this distinction is silly.
The idea that there are good protesters and bad protesters is a false moral equivalency that leans heavily on respectability politics and says, “if you would only ask nicely, then…” Protesting is an act of civil disobedience, and we have long defined disobedience as something that is bad. That badness is the point. Trevor Noah echoes this sentiment in a recent video he posted on facebook. Protesting is meant to signal that citizens no longer feel obliged to obey the civil contract because the civil society has failed them.
That is why I find the denouncement of the looters in this week’s protests rather interesting. Like, yes, there are people taking advantage. There are people using this as an opportunity to redecorate their homes and people operating purely from greed. There are people callously attacking small businesses with minimal insurance schemes and those people make me very sad. And there was a moment earlier in June when it did seem like these people represented the majority of looters. However, looting, in and of itself, is a magnificent form of protest. In 2014, when we were all in the middle of the Ferguson protests and riots, Vicky Osterweil penned this brilliant piece called In Defense of Looting where she explains how looting reveals that “the idea of private property is just that: an idea”. She also adds that while looters simply reduce some profit margins, the shareholders of companies like Target “steal forty hours every week from thousands of employees who in return get the privilege of not dying for another seven days.”
Now, I don’t have the time or energy to turn this post into a giant critique of capitalism, but if you’re interested in diving further Jacobin Magazine would be a great place to start. The main gist is our system currently values property over human life.
But aside from capitalism just being kind of gross, there is also just the new rallying cry of: to be black in America is to be constantly looted. I can’t attribute this to a specific source because I don’t know who said it first but it’s worth repeating. It’s also worth repeating Osterweil’s quote that “the specter of slaves freeing themselves could be seen as American history’s first image of black looters.” Like, can we all just sit with that for a second? I really need everyone to internalize the fact that for so long the black identity was not one of personhood, but rather one of property. So when the president comes to the defense of property and law-and-order much quicker than he ever came to the defense of our lives, when we watch tanks roll through our streets while healthcare workers wear trash bags as DIY personal protective equipment, it feels like a slap in the face — an insult of the highest order.
To be black in America is to be constantly looted
The last time I posted on social media about police brutality, it was 2014. It was my first semester of university, we’d lost Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford… and my little brother had just turned 5 years old. I wondered then which birthday would mark his rite of passage into a bonafide black American threat.
And so this year, when cries of “I can’t breathe” started ringing again, I was brought right back to this trauma. I cried non-judiciously at various points during the last week. All the studies and histories and academic vitriol that I’ve filled this essay with only serve to help me impersonalize something that is so viscerally personal.
That same something filled me with a deep sense of joy when I saw the video of the Minneapolis Police Department burning to the ground last week. I sat there and thought, “Yes. Finally. Burn it ALL down.” And I’m not ashamed of that. And listen, I am not saying that I have a hit-for-hire ad out for all cops. I’m not saying that your father, who is a police officer, is a bad person. There is a very important distinction to be made between anger at a system and anger at the individuals that comprise that system.
When people say “F**K THE POLICE” or “Defund the police”, what they are really saying is “I have never felt protected by the police, only persecuted”. They are trying to remind America that there was once a time when Northern police officers would join white mobs to attack black families trying to move into white neighborhoods. Remind us that there was once a time in the South when Ku Klux Klan members were indistinguishable from law enforcement. And that this history has created a system whereby police patrol predominantly black neighborhoods waiting for a crime to happen, while “serving” white communities. I urge you to watch John Oliver’s most recent episode of Last Week Tonight where he explains how police forces were created as a way to keep firm control over post-abolition black lives (seriously, if you’re in a rush for time and can only look into one of the many links in this essay, I heavily recommend starting with this John Oliver video since he also directly explains what defunding the police would look like in our cities). We got here “on purpose” and this story by Nikole Hannah-Jones is a great example of what it looks like for even the most law-abiding of black citizens to be socialized to not trust the police. But also, (if they are willing and able to relive their trauma) you should speak to your black and brown friends about the personal discrimination they have faced at the hands of the police.
When people say “F**K THE POLICE” or “Defund the Police”, what they are really saying is “I have never felt protected by the police, only persecuted”.
In my mind, the police burned our communities down long before we ever even touched their station with a match. And when I say burned, I mean that literally. I mean Tulsa and the destruction in 1921 of Black Wall Street and the massacre of 300 black people who were minding their business and literally just trying to achieve the American dream. This story, though often swept under the rug by American historians, is imprinted on my brain. So, I’m not ashamed of my glee. But I am scared about what this says about the depth of hopelessness that I feel.
There’s this interview with Nina Simone where she’s asked what freedom means to her. It was 1968, MLK had just died, and Nina was touring the country singing I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, one of many songs she wrote for the civil rights movement. She takes a while to answer but eventually she says it means to be without fear.
And I keep asking myself, what do we have to do to create a world in which black people finally live without fear? We had this very same conversation in 2015, and again in 1992 with the Rodney King riots, and in 1965, and in 1943… I’m feeling powerless and a part of me just wants to watch the world burn. And I think that’s how a lot of people are feeling. Because a lot of people just want to live, for once, without fear. But they can’t. So now, they’ve become agents of fear. I’m not going to condemn them for that. And I don’t think you should either.
So, I hope the protests go on for weeks. And also stay in the international spotlight for weeks. But more importantly, I hope that non-black America takes a hard look at itself and figures out what to do about this disease called hate. I hope they fear our anger while also sympathizing with our cause. I hope people stay in the streets until Chauvin’s charge is changed to first degree instead of second degree murder. I’m glad to see that the other three officers have been charged but I’m still waiting for the arrest of Breonna Taylor’s murderer. It was cute when some cops took a knee with protesters but I want to see police units nationwide march with us in solidarity and not just for the photo op.
I want to see citizen arrest and stop-and-frisk policies revoked. I want all police departments to be demilitarized. I want all police union contracts renegotiated for increased accountability. And I want education investment to increase in our neighborhoods that have been labeled “high crime”. It’s amazing to see the Minneapolis City Council already make great strides in this direction. They have committed to dismantling the city’s police department and working towards community-led public safety. But frankly, it’s not enough.
I want America to spend weeks thinking about its centuries of looting the black body. Because the thing is, any system that perpetuates fear is violence and black American life is drenched in violence. Generational poverty is violence. Living paycheck to paycheck is violence. Stop and frisk is violence. Respectability politics are violence. The prison industrial complex is violence. Under-insurance is violence. Racial profiling is violence. Housing discrimination is violence.
We need legislative change AND a national moral reckoning. So, I’ll close with this quote from Toni Morrison (may she rest in peace).
“If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. It is my feeling that white people have a very very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it.”
If you’re looking for ways to help and places to donate, this google sheet is a great resource. And this one has some great introductory material on racial discourse. And this article by Variety magazine lists some social media accounts with fantastic anti-racist content.