The Beginning Is Near: Politics & Society in an Era of Social Movements

“How much time do you want for your ‘progress’?”

James Baldwin

The murder of Emmett Till taught Anne Moody several things. Its first lesson was that white people might kill her. “Before Emmett Till’s murder,” she wrote in her memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, “I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me – the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears,” she said. “I didn’t know what one had to do or not do as a Negro not to be killed. Probably just being a Negro period was enough.” A second lesson of Till’s death was that she couldn’t trust the wisdom of previous generations of Black people. “Just do your work like you don’t know nothing,” was what her mother told her, sending her off to labor in a white woman’s house for a dollar a day. But after Till’s death, that advice was no longer good enough. “I was fifteen years old when I began to hate people,” she wrote in her memoir. Moody hated the white men who murdered Emmett Till, to be sure, and the white people responsible for all the other murders she had heard about or remembered during her childhood. But after Till’s death, Moody recalled, “I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders.” In fact, she claimed, “I think I had a stronger resentment to­ward Negroes for letting the whites kill them than toward the whites.” She was sick, “of selling my feelings for a dollar a day.” After Emmett Till’s death, Anne Moody refused to live in the future she was poised to inherit from the past.

Anne Moody’s experience was her own, but the murder of Emmett Till similarly galvanized an entire generation of young Black people. In countless recollections from veterans of the classical phase of the black freedom struggle, Till’s death signals a turning point. “I was shaken to the core by the killing of Emmett Till,” John Lewis wrote in Walking with the Wind. “I was fifteen, black, at the edge of my own manhood, just like him. He could have been me.” Like Moody, Till’s murder inspired in Lewis a similar rejection of the past. “I loved my parents mightily,” he writes, “but I could not live the way they did.” And in Ready for Revolution, Stokely Carmichael remembered a vow he’d made to himself and “Bro Emmett Till” as he prepared to take part in the Greenwood voter registration project in 1965: “One day we gonna open you up.” The Emmett Till generation rejected the vision of the future foreclosed to it by previous generations and chose to act in the present to forge a different future.

“Time’s Up!”: Social Movements Create New Horizons of Being

A similar development is underway in the current moment. Social movements from Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter to #metoo have through their activism rejected the inheritances of the past and created new ways of understanding our contemporary world and acting in the present. How we understand policing and its role in society is one example of this. Over the course of successive waves of movements, knowledge about policing has transformed. While the Occupy movement highlighted economic inequality and renewed a longstanding left-wing desire for the democratic organization of society, its criticism of policing remained tepid and abstract. No mention of police or policing practices appears in either the Principles of Solidarity or the Statement of Autonomy approved by the NYC General Assembly. Only in the Declaration of the Occupation of NYC does a critique of policing appear, arguing that “they” – meaning corporations – “have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.” As Black Lives Matter demonstrated, these concerns were by no means the most pressing for people most directly subject to police abuses.

The Black Lives Matter movement began with a hashtag, shortly after Trayvon Martin’s murderer was acquitted in 2013. Its critique of policing gained force following a series of deaths at the hands of police soon after:

  • Yvette Smith (2/16/14), shot to death as she exited a house unarmed.
  • Eric Garner (7/17/14), choked to death while selling loose cigarettes.
  • Michael Brown (8/9/14), killed after an altercation in a convenience store.
  • Aura Rosser (11/10/14), an artist and mother of three killed by police in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  • Tanisha Anderson (11/13/14), dead following police restraint.
  • Tamir Rice (11/23/14), a 12-year-old child killed by Cleveland Police.
  • Freddie Gray (4/12/15), spine severed, dead after a “rough ride” from the Baltimore PD.
  • Sandra Bland (7/13/15), dead in a jail cell after an arrest at a traffic stop.
  • Korryn Gaines (8/1/16), dead after a shootout with police attempting to serve her a warrant stemming from a traffic violation.

With each death, the condemnation of how this society polices Black bodies grew louder and more insistent: an end to misdemeanor, “order maintenance” policing; no summary executions on the streets and without trial; surviving police custody; the abolition of revenue retrieving through traffic stops. By the time the Women’s March published its Unity Principles in the run-up to the national march on January 21, 2017, police brutality, racial profiling, and a blanket “end to police and state violence” had become indispensable to any movement seeking a serious hearing among newly active people, and figured prominently among the march’s Unity Principles.

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter resonates so powerfully with people, and became the focal point around which a movement cohered, in part because it imagines a future in which Black people’s daily interactions with police cease to be how they are today. In contrast to how Occupy Wall Street imagined police reform, the Platform of the Black Lives Matter movement, was concrete and specific in its demands, including, among many others, an end to money bail and an end to capital punishment.

But the Black Lives Matter movement, too, was in conversation with previous movements. Its demand for “direct democratic community control of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies,” and for “communities most harmed by destructive policing” to “have the power to hire and fire officers, determine disciplinary action, control budgets and policies, and subpoena relevant agency information” suggest that activists involved in the Black Lives Matter movement incorporated the direct democratic language of OWS into their own program for police reform. Just as their platform contains a series of clear and democratic demands for police reform, it also contains a much more pointed critique of policing. It could hardly be otherwise. The Black Lives Matter movement developed out of the knowledge among Black people that Black lives do not matter to police. After the Black Lives Matter movement, it has become impossible for society to think about what it means to police Black life in the same way as before.

This transformation of how society understands policing and Black life under capitalism has had implications well beyond the organization of state power today. Each successive movement has built upon the insights of those that preceded it, incorporating earlier insights even as activists craft ever more sophisticated visions of the future. What started with Occupy Wall Street as a critique of economic orthodoxy (“We are the 99%”) — and a proposal for a new approach to social organization (direct democracy) — has by now, via ever new waves of social movements, posed challenges to a series of calcified orthodoxies, including the hierarchies of gender and sexuality. For the old world, time’s up.

Being in Public Today

Power hides in hierarchy. In the Harvey Weinstein case, in the serial sexual assault at Michigan State University, or in any of a number of recent examples, the #metoo movement has taught the world this crucial lesson. It’s a lesson that challenges not only the big orthodoxies structuring our world, but also social relationships on a very personal level. Social movements introduce powerful changes in how people imagine themselves interacting with other people, in how we express ourselves, in whether we are capable of being ourselves in public. Hence, even as social movements pose (and demand) sweeping policy changes, they also enact a transformation of daily life just as far-reaching.

Poster created by Georgia Paige Welch and Sarah Dawson for the HKonJ (Historic Thousands on Jones Street) People’s Assembly Coalition 11th Annual Moral March on Raleigh, February 11, 2017

This should come as no big surprise. The power of any social movement derives from its resonance in the daily lives of ordinary people. Social movements become meaningful as they propose new ways of being in public that transform what people imagine is possible in the future.

To illustrate just how significantly social movements have transformed daily life, it’s worth examining the recent controversy surrounding the song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Just as Christmas music was returning to the radio waves in December season, a radio station in Cleveland, responding to listener complaints, decided to stop playing the song. Rebukes and rebuttals followed from across the political spectrum. But just as it appeared that #metoo and the forces of “political correctness” had won the day, a defense of the song that first appeared on Tumblr in 2016 injected historical context into the debate. At the time it appeared in 1944, the post argues, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” represented an attempt by the female character in the song to negotiate her sexual agency within the patriarchal constraints of her contemporary world. This argument re-reads lines like “there’s bound to be talk tomorrow” not as attempts to elude the escalating demands of her male suitor to have another drink and stick around, but instead as attempts on her part to excuse her own sexual desire by blaming it on “what’s in this drink.” The author of the post even recasts that allusion to date rape drugs by claiming that its purpose is to create plausible deniability in the aftermath of a consensual sexual encounter.

But even if the people objecting to the song were technically wrong about its meaning once the lyrics were placed back in their historical context, people who object to the song’s lyrics are not making a historical argument — but, rather, an argument about the future. And in that future, they would prefer something like “enthusiastic consent” to replace the kind of lawyerly cross-examination the song performs, the logic of which, to contemporary ears, sounds uncomfortably like, “If the witness impeaches herself, she’ll be required to sleep with the prosecution.” It’s a sexual encounter staged as a legalistic argument. People simply don’t want to live in that world anymore (if they ever did).

The confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh illustrate how the insights of the #metoo movement are now churning through our society, and how it is becoming impossible to escape the consequences. A comment in Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook about being a Renate alumnus” dogged those hearings. Many wondered about the value of dragging up these kinds of incidents from the past.

The controversy lingered in spite of these complaints, though, because it resonated with similar recent insights into old movies like Revenge of the Nerds. In one pivotal scene of that movie, one of the “nerds” disguises himself as a “jock” in order to sleep with the jock’s girlfriend under false pretenses. In other words, to rape her. This was supposed to be funny when it was made, in 1984, a year after Kavanaugh’s yearbook recorded him as a “Renate alumnus.” And, indeed, in the movie, after the encounter, the young woman isn’t horrified but asks the nerd what he’s doing later. Just as the Black Lives Matter movement made the experiences of black people with the police central to how our society understands the function of policing, confrontations like those that surrounded the Kavanaugh hearings have prompted millions of people to re-evaluate their own personal and gendered interactions based on how women have long understood their interactions with men. At the same time, these national moments have turned up the volume on critiques that previously took place at lower frequencies, among particular groups of people.

The Kavanaugh hearings culminated in the “elevator moment,” a confrontation between sexual assault survivors and Senator Jeff Flake, who had the power to order an investigation of Kavanaugh’s past. The elevator confrontation was significant in part because it suggested that, in the future, there would be significant consequences for being a representative of certain government policies in public. Moreover, it suggested that the direct action tactics popularized by Occupy Wall Street, too, had moved to the center of a repertoire of tactics deployed by social movements.

That “elevator moment” itself had a history traceable to the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision the previous June. That decision ruled in favor of the right of a bakery owner in Colorado to refuse service to a gay couple seeking to purchase a wedding cake on religious grounds. The Court drew on First Amendment protections of freedom of speech and religion in justifying its decision. But the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision represented a significant milestone in the federal government’s enforcement of anti-discrimination protections in public accomodations, reversing the protections established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act, in turn, was an attempt to abolish the regime of Jim Crow laws that had emerged across the South after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision made legal “separate but equal” segregated public facilities. The Plessy decision made it impossible for Black people to legally access the protections of birthright citizenship. Back and forth, then, the legal context for Black social and political equality in American society has shifted.

But just as the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision appeared to signal a federal retreat from the protection of queer people’s access to public accommodations, a strange thing happened: resistance percolated from below. Rather than posing a risk to queer people, or black people, or women, or transpeople, in the immediate aftermath of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, it was the identity of those people who represented conservative politics in public that was threatened. Since the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, official representatives of contemporary public policy have been plagued by confrontation. Fifteen days after the decision, Kristjen Nielsen, current director of the Department of Homeland Security, and responsible for implementing the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the US-Mexico border, was confronted by protesters shouting “Shame!” as she ate at a Mexican restaurant. Three days later, Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia by its owner, just days after Sanders had defended Trump’s proposed ban on transgender people serving in the military publicly, a decisive factor in the owner of the Red Hen, a restaurant staffed by numerous queer-identified people and allies, asking her to leave.

After these incidents, the refusal to provide service to public officials associated with the state’s penal apparatus proliferated. Far from the Beltway, a taco truck in Detroit refused to serve any law enforcement officials, including municipal police officers, ICE officials, and representatives of the Department of Homeland Security. In San Francisco, District Attorney George Gascon announced his retirement in October, following a lengthy campaign of harassment against him at his personal residence after he refused to prosecute police officers involved in deadly shootings in the city. That same month, Mitch McConnell, too, was confronted by protesters while eating dinner at a restaurant. In a statement, McConnell’s office referred to the incident as a “far-left tantrum” and emphasized the senator’s refusal to be intimidated by these types of tactics. McConnell’s emphasis on “far-left” protesters may or may not be wishful thinking. But in an era marked by a widespread deterioration of public infrastructure, such as New York City’s ongoing subway crisis or the poisoning of the water in Flint, it has become more difficult to be a representative of these policies in public, and more normal to directly confront the very powerful.

These confrontations signal a significant breakthrough for contemporary social movements. With them, the direct action tactics of Occupy, rooted in confrontational anarchist practice from the 1980s and ’90s, have manifested directly in the inner reaches of power in the United States. Popular movements, in the United States at least, rarely imagine their power as deriving from the occupation of the physical spaces from which power is enacted. The hierarchies of power that exist in our society mostly insulate the most powerful people in the world from this kind of direct confrontation with popular anger.

But with the occupation of the Wisconsin state legislature in 2011, and the many examples of similar occupations throughout the Mediterranean during the Arab Spring, and these ongoing confrontations in the US between public officials and the public in whose name they govern, precisely this question has been posed: how might popular movements transform power and exercise it in a way consistent with their principles? Answering this question has profound implications for how our society will be structured in the future.

The Project of Whiteness

Alongside Rep. King’s admissions and ongoing assaults on democratic political expression such as gerrymandering, voter suppression, and lame-duck legislation enacted by Republicans in Michigan and Wisconsin, white people at the grassroots have begun sensing an end to the project of whiteness in the United States. In a series of interviews with “Americans who identify as white or partially white” called “The Whiteness Project,” millennials in Dallas and Buffalo discuss how they “understand and experience” race. Makenna denies the place of privilege in her life: “Any benefit I’ve got is because I’ve worked hard for it.” Nathan resents disruptive black kids in his high school because he fears it will undermine his ability to get an education and climb the social ladder. Several young people express discomfort with interactions with black people. Claudia, soda cans entwined in her hair, claims “You don’t know just where the line is.”

Others are more sensitive. Wade mentions that he dresses in an alternative way, with dreadlocks and ear plugs, because he doesn’t want to be mistaken by black people as a typical, racist, white person. Audrey has felt pressure from her family not to date black men, as when her father told her “I do not want mixed grandchildren.” Haunting these conversations is an analysis of race, capitalism, and the American Dream embodied by Carson, who says, “It’s hard to know that I’ll be given more because of who I am.” This comment reads as the mirror image of the cautious denials of the “wages” of whiteness that Makenna and Nathan suggest. Carson doesn’t deny that his race has accorded him a measure of privilege in this society. He says it is hard to know that he will be given more on that basis.

While not exactly a heavy burden to bear, Carson’s comment reveals that white people have clearly read the implications in the demand for social and political equality in the current movements. They have begun to recognize, particularly young people, that the ability of white people to achieve social mobility has long been predicated on white supremacy, that it is less hard work or “grit” or merit that predicts success in this country, and instead and to a powerful degree, race. They seem also to sense that the end of white supremacy signals an end to their ability to access the American Dream.

If an analysis of social movements reveals a powerful critique of policing, of gendered social relations, and of how capitalism structures inequality, an analysis of the social practice of white people reveals another important dynamic in contemporary American political life: on an unprecedented scale, white people are doing heroin. Recently, deaths by opioid overdose surpassed deaths by car accident for the first time in American history. It is an epidemic overwhelmingly concentrated among white people. Indeed, fewer and fewer white people do not know someone caught in the grips of opioid abuse. In a parallel with Occupy Wall Street’s demand for an alternative to capitalism, pharmaceutical companies created this public health crisis and have continued to profit off it.

Rather than focusing criticism on capitalism and the inequalities it generates, some white people have responded to these developments by doubling down on white supremacy. In 2015, a white supremacist murdered nine African Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. That incident inaugurated a movement to rethink the meaning of Confederate statues in public spaces that reached its apex two years later. In August 2017, the nation’s most prominent white supremacists hosted a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the renaming of a local park in an attempt to distance the city from earlier efforts to inscribe the Confederate past on the social landscape. Against the unwillingness of elected officials to directly engage with the white supremacists that descended on the city, anti-fascists showed up in the city to directly confront the rally. Street fights broke out repeatedly, and violence culminated when another white supremacist rammed a car into a column of protesters, killing Heather Heyer, a 32 year-old white woman committed to a future different from the past.

Far from a distraction, however, the controversy surrounding these Confederate statues strikes at the core of the nation’s racial identity. Monument-building accompanied war-making as dual components of national reunification following the Civil War. The grounds of the South Carolina state legislature attest to this. One monument valorizes an anonymous soldier of the Confederate army that fought against the Union in the Civil War. It was erected in 1878, soon after the “compromise” of 1877 that gave the contested 1876 presidential election to Republicans in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the military occupation of the South introduced during radical Reconstruction. It represents an early entry in the monument-building movement in the South that peaked between the Plessy decision in 1896 and US entry into WWI. The vast majority of those monuments to Confederate white supremacy were erected in front of courthouses or state legislatures, serving as rebukes to the experiment in racial democracy that constituted Black Reconstruction.

A second statue on the site honors South Carolina troops that fought to establish American overseas empire in the so-called “Spanish American War,” a war fought on Cuban soil. With military success in that conflict, the US bought the Philippines from Spain, thwarted Cuban independence and gained significant influence in that nation’s internal affairs, and also acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. It was a nation-building project that was also a race-making project. That monument was dedicated on October 22, 1941, just over a month before American entry into WWII, amid the wartime mobilization that supplied Britain with materiel to fight Nazi Germany.

Other monuments on the grounds pay tribute to Benjamin Tillman, a white supremacist and slave owner who was actively involved in overthrowing the Reconstruction government in South Carolina after the Civil War. During the effort to overthrow black-led Reconstruction, Tillman killed black people who considered themselves the equals of whites. So did Wade Hampton, to whom another monument is erected. Hampton also owned Black people as property, and served in the Confederate Army as one of its most prominent officers. Hampton, too, occupies a prominent position on the legislative grounds, as does a monument to Strom Thurmond (pic 5), whose African American daughter was initially excluded from a list of his children appearing on the monument, and the SC “women of the Confederacy,” and J. Marion Sims, who perfected the surgical procedures that came to define the practice of gynecology on enslaved women before attempting them on whites. Toppling monuments like these, as in Durham or at the University of North Carolina ordinary people (not elected officials) have sparked a national conversation about the meaning of the past in the present.

Direct action makes history. Statues covered in paint are in the process transformed from monuments to a history still active in the present to memorials to a past that no longer holds influence over the future. It’s a practice with deep roots. On June 7, 1919, an article appeared in the Chicago Defender with the title, “Yanks Deface Monument of Confederate Veteran.” It described two white soldiers, one an officer, the second an enlisted man, becoming so enraged at the sight of a monument to Major Henry Wirz, the officer who presided over the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville during the Civil War, that they painted it red, black and yellow, and called it “an insult to the Stars and Stripes.” Under Wirz’s watch at Camp Sumter, twenty-eight percent (28%) of Union P.O.W.’s perished — twelve thousand, nine hundred and twelve soldiers. The colors conjured the German national flag, the nation’s enemy in the bloodiest war the world had until then ever seen, the first war in which chemical weapons had been deployed, during which one million men had been killed or wounded on a single day, and which finally came to a close on November 11, 1918. The action itself suggested that just seven months after the end of overseas hostilities in 1919, Confederate soldiers were painted in the same broad strokes as the inheritors of the German Empire. Like the actions of these soldiers, today’s activists armed with paint make it impossible to look at Confederate statues in the same way as before. Indeed, as court battles between the two sides falter, a little paint would quickly transform the meaning of Confederate statues in public places.

The implications of this movement are profound. In post-WWII Germany, policy makers installed what they called a “Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe” within sight of the Brandenburg Gate, a national symbol that adorns the German version of the Euro. Throughout the nation’s cities, one finds constant reminders to that past. In Munich, bullet damage from street fighting during World War II appears throughout the city, as at the corner of Ludwig and Schelling street in Munich; the Alte Pinakothek museum, bombed during the war, was rebuilt to indicate that damage to the careful observer; and a memorial to the White Rose — lacquered reproductions of a handful of dissident leaflets that constituted a death sentence — embedded in the courtyard of Ludwig Maximilians University.

With these public memorials to the nation’s participation in the Holocaust, Germany signals a political project that is at the same time an historical project: an attempt to consign that history to the past. Contemporary debates over Confederate statues in the United States have similar stakes — will they remain monuments to a living white supremacy or become memorials consigning it to the past? After the 2018 midterm elections, comments from Iowa Representative Steve King reignited this debate. Looking at the remade Democratic Party, King noted that it made him think it was “no country for white men.” He was quickly and forcibly rebuked by his Republican colleagues. Soon after, a bipartisan measure passed the House condemning white supremacy as “contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.”

Of course, this was wildly ahistorical. White supremacy, from the initial settlement of Europeans on expropriated native land, to the introduction and maintenance of slavery, to the long history of racially distinctive governing practices codified by Jim Crow laws and government-sponsored discrimination in housing, schooling, policing, and much else, have formed the foundation of this nation. Despite the historical inaccuracy of the House resolution, though, it indicates a desire to re-interpret this nation’s past in service of a different future. Historians can play a powerful role in this collective political project, as Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have suggested with works like The Many-Headed Hydra. They will be joined by a rising generation of young people, multiracial and majority-minority, dissidents against whiteness all, ready to make, and re-make, history.

To Whom Does the Future Belong?

Social movements have already begun creating a different future than that disclosed by the inheritances of the past. Indications of this change are everywhere. After the Parkland shooting, and the youth-driven movement that followed, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens suggested in the pages of the New York Times that the country should repeal the Second Amendment. In the wake of the Christchurch shooting, politicians in New Zealand have vowed to change that nation’s gun laws. And just this past weekend, high school students around the world walked out of classes to demand action from their entrenched elders on climate change. Before too long, as millennials begin to occupy positions of power and influence, they will bear direct responsibility for addressing these issues. If revolution occurs in the United States as generational conflict, we will soon learn how revolutionary millennials truly are.

For guidance, we might return to history. In the 1962 Port Huron Statement, a generation raised to prepare for its own annihilation through duck-and-cover drills, indicated its mission. Inheriting racial inequality and a Cold War whose weapons threatened to destroy humanity, these young people refused to accept the future that had been disclosed to them. Contemporary social movements suggest that a generation raised on active shooter drills, in the midst of the most powerful series of social movements in half a century, has begun to demand a different future.

Michael Stauch is a historian of policing, politics, and social movements in the United States, with a particular interest in the categories of race, youth and labor. His research examines the emergence of the carceral state from below in Detroit during the 1970s and 1980s, in a manuscript entitled, “Young Detroit: Policing the Community During the War on Crime.” He received his Ph.D. in U.S. history from Duke University in 2015.

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