Casey Aldridge

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Junior and Levine Scholar at UNC Charlotte, triple majoring in Religious Studies, History, and Political Science with a minor in Africana Studies. Future Presbyterian seminarian; current Marxist student organizer. Enjoys long-distance running, listening to '70s-era punk rock and '80s new wave, traveling, movement-building, reading Kurt Vonnegut, and watching Doctor Who.

Op-Ed: Heroes who die

This editorial may contain spoilers for readers who have yet to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Marvel’s Logan. It also contains potential spoilers for readers unfamiliar with Schindler’s List, The Dark Knight Rises, and Marvel’s The Avengers.

Our class on the problems of the Holocaust representation in art and memory was critically analyzing the films of Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful. Our discussion eventually turned—as it seems all film criticism must—to the Christ-figure in contemporary and specifically American media. The story and figure of Christ undoubtedly features prominently in the literature of the West: Alistair McGrath has written extensively on Christian imagery and archetypes in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and much has been made of the parallels to Christ in The Matrix, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Star Wars.

I think, however, that the immediate equation of any character who sacrifices of their own self as a “Christ-figure” is too simple, too lazy. Our class discussion on Holocaust representation overwhelmingly agreed on the fact that strong Christian themes in Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful are thematically disingenuous—even dangerous—when we consider that in the 1930’s and 1940’s the Church all too often made peace with Nazism at the expense of Europe’s Jewish communities. But our class also came to the conclusion that Oskar Schindler, at least, is less a “Christ-figure” than he is a Christian saint. The innocent victim—the proper “Christ-figure”—of Schindler’s List is not Schindler, but rather the little Jewish girl in the red coat in Kraków Ghetto, whose death seems to “convert” Schindler.

Schindler sacrifices his fortune to save hundreds of lives, but his sacrifice is more akin to a Christian saint, convert, or martyr than to Christ himself. Why is the distinction important? Because a quick reduction of all heroes and heroines in American cinema to “Christ-figures” ignores the elephant in the room: America’s preferred hero, more often than not, comes closer to a Nietzschean übermensch (meaning “Superman”) than it does to Christ.

The progressive Christian magazine Sojourners published an article last week by Adam Erickson, who argued that “while many Christians demonize Nietzsche with their words, they actually agree with him with their actions.” Erickson suggested that Nietzsche understood but consciously rejected Christ; on the contrary, according to Erickson, “while [today’s Christians] profess Christ, they actually believe in Dionysus; they actually believe in a god who justifies their violence rather than leads them in the way of forgive.”

Hollywood undeniably makes use of Christ-figures regularly. And yet the Christ-figure, who was crucified and killed by the state without glory or honor, is in direct tension with the quintessentially American fascination with indestructible, unstoppable supermen. Part of this is cultural and part of it is economic. Take Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises for example. At its conclusion, Batman pilots his Batplane into the sunset, carrying with him a nuclear bomb that was set to destroy Gotham City. At first, we are led to assume Batman has become a Christ-figure, giving his own life so that others in Gotham may continue to live, even if corruption and vice has dominated Gotham at every turn. But Nolan can’t kill off his hero; instead, Alfred the Butler sees Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne wining-and-dining on vacation with Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman.

Christian Bale stars as Batman in the Warner Bros. Picture’s action adventure “Batman Begins.” Photo via Tribune News Service.

It’s a nice ending, but the emotional impact of Batman’s sacrifice is considerably dulled. A remarkably similar scenario occurs in Marvel’s first Avengers film, when Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man intercepts a nuclear missile headed for New York City. Taking it to a portal in the heavens, Captain America warns him he’s taking “a one-way trip.” But on what ought to surely be a fatal fall from the sky, the Hulk catches him, breaking his fall. Iron Man nevertheless lands hard and for a solemn moment we are led to think he is dead. However, Iron Man wakes up at the sound of the Hulk’s roar, frantically asking: “What just happened? Please tell me nobody kissed me.”

Iron Man’s willingness to sacrifice himself is not interrupted by this chain of events and yet the impact of his heroism is trivialized by them. We are spared the image of Iron Man’s broken, Christ-like body and instead given a hero who has somehow survived all and remained intact. Death cannot touch him and moments later he’s asking his comrades about shawarma.

There’s an economic impetus for this new kind of hero. Specifically, refusing to kill Iron Man off allows Iron Man to continue to function at the center of future Avengers films. Iron Man is popular and so Marvel has millions of dollars invested in his endurance. But there is also a cultural parallel to be made. The spirit of American capitalism is the spirit of empire—it asserts that the exceptional will always come out on top. This hero endorses capitalist meritocracy at home and U.S. military interventionism abroad by suggesting, like Nietzsche, the strong should pursue their own interests, rather than the interests of the weak.

The Roman empire two thousand years ago and the American empire of the last century both believe in Dionysus, according to Erickson’s article in Sojourners. Preference manifests in the way Rome and America think about heroism as mighty and impenetrable. The hero of empire is exactly the opposite of the hero of Christianity (at least at its foundation), which emphasizes meekness, forgiveness and resurrection that only comes after an inglorious death.

Christ-figures exist in American media, but perhaps not as dominantly as some would suggest. And, where Christ-figures do exist, they often undermine the basic assumptions of American imperialism and exceptionalism. On the other hand, across from Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, is another superhero film: Logan.

Like with Schindler, it is hard to make the case that Logan is a re-imagined Jesus of Nazareth. Like with Schindler, we’re closer if we think of Wolverine as a Christian martyr, convert or saint. His general disposition is not one of charity or love; rather, he comes to sacrifice himself out of love only after he has been converted by the love of another: his daughter. In perhaps our most stark distinction between Logan and the other films, our hero dies fighting for others.

Our hero dies.

There won’t be another Wolverine film, at least not with Hugh Jackman. His story ends with his death. That’s not really remarkable; all of our stories end with our death. But that’s exactly why Logan carries an emotional and spiritual weight that the other two films lack.

Meanwhile, John McDowell has argued in the Star Wars saga there are several Christ-figures, rather than one messiah-figure rising above the rest of the cast. But the original films still seem dominated more often than not by supermen (Jedi) with super abilities (the Force), detached from the masses living under the Empire. Though he wrote it to reject American imperialism in Vietnam, George Lucas’ Star Wars stories ironically told a narrative that had both Christian and American-Nietzschean themes.

The most recent installment of the Star Wars saga, Rogue One, does something quite different. Rogue One gives us a glimpse at the heroics of a small band of rebels (even terrorists, one might say) who give their lives one-by-one to get the Death Star plans into the hands of the Rebel Alliance. I remember watching Rogue One in theaters and noting the reactions of the children around me, who could not understand why Jyn and Cassian and nearly every other character in Rogue One ends up dying. The Rogue One crew ends up successful in bring “hope” to the rebel cause, but it is a hope they’ll never see and hope that costs them their lives in painful, unglorified moments of death. And it is no coincidence that the anti-imperialist political content of Star Wars is stronger in Rogue One than it ever was in the original saga, precisely because it lets go of Nietzsche’s invincible übermensch and opts for the heroes who die.

The American hero of The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers is one of empire. It denies or disregards death, as opposed to the Christ-figure who only emerges victorious in myth after fully entering into death. Batman and Iron Man, in their invincibility, ultimately uphold death’s power and in doing so justify the power of empire. Only through embracing death, and facing it head on, are the heroes of Logan and Rogue One able to conquer fear, death and empire. There’s nothing heroic about death or dying, but death cannot be effectively fought if our heroes pretend it doesn’t exist.

Right now we have a President who professes a faith in Christ while acting as a Pontius Pilate, dropping the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, striking Syria and threatening North Korea. Trump’s insistence on military might rests on the assumptions that heroism looks like force and that the possession of power automatically justifies the use of force. But when we see the Christ of the right-wing acting like Superman, we can assume it’s not Christ, but rather an American trope masquerading as Christ.

The Christ-figure is that of a hero who died to set others free, or so the story goes. The Christ-figure doesn’t deny or evade death, but rather goes into it and comes out of it. The atheist and Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, in his book on Hope without Optimism, wrote that: “The singer Sinead O’Connor once remarked in the course of a television interview that she found the resurrection so much more joyful than the crucifixion, as though, like choosing a color scarf, one could plump for the one or the other option depending on one’s temperament. It is the quintessence of optimism. She did not see that the resurrection is hopeful precisely because what it redeems is the agony and desolation of the cross.”

Christians just finished celebrating Easter, the holiday marking Jesus’ resurrection. But the idea of resurrection, which embraces death to overcome death, is not unique to Christianity. Resurrection has existed in human philosophies and religions in any number of contexts and though it has not always been put to use for subversive means, it has implications and prospects for rejecting the narratives of empires and of people in power. Like Eagleton, we don’t need to be Christian to understand that this hero-myth is much richer and than the flat hero-myth of America, where supermen always saves the day and never dies.

Op-Ed: A Shared Objective

On March 19, Peter Maass wrote in The Intercept that “for Donald Trump, a terror attack will be an opportunity not a curse.” Maass is right on the most basic level, and it’s quite extraordinary that the point is not being made by more voices in the media. It speaks to the fact that–even though President Trump and the mainstream media are not on good terms with one another, the mainstream media is not a source of critical or independent journalism. Rather, the mainstream media remains the press corps of the state and its perpetual war on terror and is merely going through a rough patch with the executive branch it ultimately remains loyal to.

Maass suggests that “a terror attack on U.S. soil will be used by the White House as an excuse for implementing an extra-legal agenda that could only be pushed through in a time of crisis.”  Maass then shows precedence for the way the United States used September 11 to justify the unrelated invasion of Iraq. Maass also mentions the Reichstag–which featured prominently in my op-ed from two weeks ago–and how the fire at the Reichstag was used as a pretext for the escalation of the Nazi agenda in Germany.

On Feb. 11, Murtaza Hussain made a similar point, also writing for The Intercept. According to Hussain, Steve Bannon and ISIS share a “common goal: civilizational war.” As Hussain demonstrates, the fact that ISIS has celebrated Trump’s immigration order reveals escalating threats of ISIS actually help the Trump Administration and anti-Muslim actions by the Trump Administration encourage and provide ammunition to ISIS itself.

I’m not going to merely regurgitate their theses. Rather, I want to put forth the idea that the media, despite its public disputes with Trump’s brashness, is poised to back him almost unilaterally in the event that a terrorist attack on U.S. soil were exploited by the Trump Administration’s war machine. The Intercept, which openly expresses its commitment to “fearless, adversarial journalism,” seems almost uniquely poised as a voice against media equivocation.

Just days after Maass’ article, Khalid Masood was shot and killed at Westminster in London, after killing four and injuring another fifty in an attack that lasted 82 seconds, according to the BBC. Immediately the speculative frenzy mobilized. Though no direct link between Masood and ISIS, that didn’t stop the media from jumping to whatever conclusion could make a headline. Ironically enough, the very kind of media speculation that Sean Spicer makes a point to ridicule when it serves his interests or Trump’s is closely related to Trump and Bannon’s objectives. They’ll note media speculation when it serves their aims, but also media speculation when politically convenient.

The same thing happened last June when Omar Mateen killed 49 and wounded over 50 in a shooting spree at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. The following day, then-candidate Trump tweeted: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance.” At the time, Trump was called out by celebrities and the media for being tactless and exploiting tragedy.

He was not, however, refuted. The media fed fears of Mateen’s radicalization and drew upon the disingenuous and colonialist binary between “Islam and LGBT rights.” In doing so, the media didn’t necessarily like Trump, but they fed his political vision anyway, affirming his warped view of civilizational war and providing him with the ammunition of espousing gay rights to advance a war on Muslims.

If we are to oppose Trump, it will require that we don’t pretend to have a friend in the mainstream media that doesn’t exist. Ten times out of ten, the big news sources are going to bat for empire, even if they don’t care for Trump’s tone.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer holds a news briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 20, 2017. (Chris Kleponis/CNP/Abaca Press/TNS)

Op-Ed: Superstion, Positivity, & Power

I attended a retreat with my scholarship program this weekend, which concluded on Sunday with a speaker who came to talk to us about “positive psychology.” The speaker was exceedingly friendly and energetic and cared deeply about the “good news” that he carried with him, but I’m afraid he will not be able to count on me as among his converts.

Positive psychology emphasizes the ability of individuals to re-frame the world around them and more or less recreate their reality. The lecturer noted that positive psychology doesn’t pretend to give the individual absolute power over the universe; rather, it suggests that we can overcome the problems that exist within our control, so that we can turn to address those problems outside of our control.

But reality is that things simply don’t exist within our control. At best, positive psychology might entail a reconsideration of the hand we are dealt. It sometimes gets bound up with “mindfulness,” which isn’t harmful in itself. But positive psychology, at its worst, puts the responsibility for one’s well-being on the individual in a radically broken society. It victim blames, and it lacks any analysis of power.

During that session, a “wish bracelet” that I’ve been wearing on my right wrist since November finally snapped. Mere superstition, the bracelet had promised to make a wish come true when it finally came off. Its talk was bigger than its walk, however, and the wish I made at the time never occurred. After a couple of hard weeks, that wasn’t ideal, but it was alright. The wish bracelet lets me move on–I tried to employ the resources available to me, but my shortcoming is not a testament to my inadequacy.

This time of year I also struggle a bit with seasonal effective disorder, a depression related to the changing of seasons that affects me particularly in the early spring and early fall. My depression does not occur because I don’t have the right things in my life–biologically speaking, it occurs because of changes in natural light patterns. I’m able to handle my seasonal depression rather well, because I’m able to keep exacerbatory factors to a minimum, and because I know that it will pass in a few weeks. But no amount of “positive thinking” can take away pain when it is present.

People struggle with depression that doesn’t have such a limited scope as mine. People also struggle with hunger, homelessness, police harassment, sexism, racism, ableism, Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia. Each of these social marginalizations entail material as well as psychological costs. Asking the people who are systematically marginalized and excluded to change their mentality wrongly suggests that they can “opt out” of the oppression they face. Re-framing doesn’t put food on the table or a roof overhead and it doesn’t heal the heart. If we genuinely want a psychology that empowers us to create the world we want, then we’ll need a psychology that rejects the systems of power that impose unbearable conditions upon the people and then blames them for their oppression.

Researchers from the University of Oregon in Eugene have found that mice that “meditate” are more relaxed and less stressed. (Alessandro Di Ciommo/Zuma Press/TNS)

Op-Ed: Six Months is a Lifetime

Protesters and police at Old Concord Road last September, after the police shooting of Keith Scott. Photo by Pooja Pasupula.

It has been six months — half a year — since Keith Lamont Scott was shot and killed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.

It has been six months — half a year — since protesters shut down Old Concord Road, a stone’s throw from our University. The massive and impassioned protests that followed shook Charlotte’s establishment to its core and arguably changed the Queen City forever.

And yet Charlotte seems to have moved on, by and large. The Levine Museum of the New South’s KNOW JUSTICE, KNOW PEACE exhibit, currently on display in Uptown, serves to keep the Uprising in view and in conversation. But the Levine Museum’s exhibit runs against the grain in Uptown, where business and city hall stress a return to normalcy.

Normalcy makes capitalism run more effectively and more smoothly. Normalcy says things are okay as they are. Normalcy insists the system we have is a system that works, even if that is demonstrably untrue.

When the system is normalized, it continues to take the lives of people of color, including Josue Javier Diaz, killed by a CMPD officer in late January under disputed circumstances. On the days when the system doesn’t kill directly, it kills indirectly. Capitalism, the economic system that law enforcement exists to protect, is a system of exploitation that exploits the labor power of the working class every single day. The working class is disproportionately women, immigrants, youth, LGBTQ and people of color, the beneficiaries of that exploitation are overwhelmingly old, white, wealthy men.

Through a concerted effort of normalization, Charlotte gives the impression that it has moved on from the protests. Even if we don’t accept the dominant narrative of normalization, there is an undeniable continuity between police racism and repression in Charlotte before and after the Uprising. Law enforcement in this city still polices Black and Brown communities with impunity.

Just as undeniable, however, is a break, a disconnect. Charlotte continues to move on, but Charlotte will never be the same. I could make that argument — of Charlotte’s discontinuity — in political terms, but I think it exists on a much deeper level: family.

Anyone who has ever lost someone they loved knows that, after loss, time moves agonizingly slow. Six month without someone you love is a lifetime. Taking life is one kind of violence. Being forced to live after someone you love has been killed is quite another kind of violence.

Scott had seven children. Seven children had  Scott as their father. Diaz had a family, too. It’s important to note that Charlotte has lapsed into complacency and its own destructive normalcy. But we must never forget those who loved Scott or Diaz are victims of an ongoing and permanent kind of theft, one that makes time grind to a halt.

Op-Ed: Dubya & the Reichstag

Over spring break I traveled with a group of friends to Milan, Berlin, and Paris. Among the many things we set out to see in our limited time in Europe was the German Reichstag in Berlin. The Reichstag is the seat of power in Germany, within which the Bundestag (or Parliament) meets for official legislative proceedings.

Visitors to the Reichstag are allowed access to the glass dome above the building. Accompanied by an audioguide, we ascended and descended the dome with spectacular views over Berlin. The audioguide contextualized what we were seeing: train stations, music halls, embassies, museums, Brandenburg Gate, the Fernsehturm (Television Tower), etc.

Right next to Brandenburg Gate, however, it seemed as if the audioguide paused, unsure of what to say as the visitor’s attention naturally turned to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A genuine concrete jungle, the memorial is hard to miss, and ostensibly on the list of sites most tourists end up frequenting, along with the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. But the audioguide reduced its presence to a single fleeting sentence, telling us that the memorial commemorated the “some six million Jews killed when Germany was oppressed by National Social tyranny.”

The audioguide seemed, perhaps appropriately, uncomfortable. But by depicting “National Social tyranny” as something external to the Reichstag, it effectively excuses Germany and the Reichstag itself of its role in the Holocaust.

The Reichstag, admittedly, was not where the Nazi goverment conducted business, and yet it still proved a useful entity for Nazi rule. When the Reichstag caught on fire in 1933, the Nazis used the alleged arson to justify further political restrictions on communists. The Reichstag fire gave the Nazi government a useful propaganda tool for consolidating power, scapegoating its opponents, and accelerating its genocidal ambitions, with Dachau concentration camp opening in the months that followed.

Not only was the Reichstag building useful for the Nazis, but there is no decisive rupture between German government before Nazism or after, as the audioguide would like us to believe. The audioguide suggests that Nazi rule was an anomaly, a glitch in an otherwise sound political system of democracy and capitalism. But this idea, of Nazism independent of or divorced from the Reichstag’s history is a fiction. Hitler came to power because of the crises and contradictions wrought by German liberal democracy and capitalism.

I’m at this point compelled to raise the more recent and contextually relevant example of former President George W. Bush. At the end of February, Bush addressed the new Trump Administration by telling the press that: “I don’t like the racism and I don’t like the name-calling and I don’t like people feeling alienated. Nobody likes that.”

For some on the (liberal) left, Bush’s words have redeemed him, at least to a degree. But the President who Kanye noted “doesn’t care about Black people” should not be let off so easily. As observed by Branko Marcetic in his article in Jacobin, almost everything those liberals hate about Trump owe themselves, at least in part, to the second Bush Administration: torture at Guantanamo Bay, deportations, the targeting of Muslims, the enlargement of the surveillance state, and use of alternative facts to encourage war (anyone remember Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMDs?).

Bush also spoke positively of an open and independent media, at a time where the Trump Administration has made the media its primary adversary. But that doesn’t make him heroic — it means only that he adheres to the baseline of presidential precedent in a way that Donald Trump does not care to do. And anyway, Bush was no friend of the press when he was in office, repressing Al Jazeera journalists in particular on several occasions.

Inside the dome above the German Reichstag in Berlin. Photo by Casey Aldridge.

In the center of the Reichstag is a tower of mirrors, facing outwards. These mirrors distract and deflect; they are beautiful, and at the same time move one’s attention away from its center, located directly above the German Parliament. When the audioguide at the Reichstag talks about National Social tyranny as something foreign and external, rather than something integral to the Reichstag’s own history, it distorts history and deflects responsibility. George W. Bush’s tepid but nice words do the same; Bush’s words seek only to whitewash their speaker, making a hero out of a war criminal and deflecting the responsibility for Trump on the errors of past administrations — Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama together. We can’t let him get away with that.

Op-Ed: Resisting the Right

I spent the weekend in Washington, D.C. with hundreds of thousands of friends, family and comrades. We weren’t there to celebrate the inauguration of the 45 President of the United States; instead, we were there to kick off four years of righteous defiance and resistance. Friday saw angry and militant protests in D.C., where protesters were tear gassed and arrested en masse by capitol police. Saturday saw half a million or more attend the Women’s March on Washington and millions more marching across the United States and around the world. Both were inspiring shows of different kinds of force, but the resistance to Donald Trump’s administration faces a few key orders of business if it is to become a powerful movement of dissent. In this piece, I hope to briefly outline the tasks before us and humbly suggest how we might best respond to them.

1. The trap of liberalism and the Democratic Party. The size of the Women’s Marches across the United States and beyond was staggering. The march on Washington was three times the size of the Inaugural crowd. Between 10 and 25 thousand marched in Charlotte, over 250,000 in Chicago and upwards of 750,000 in Los Angeles. Trump’s approval ratings are low, at 37 percent on Inauguration Day itself. Not only is his approval low, but the active disapproval and outright contempt directed towards him is unprecedented. This has been read by some as a sign of a reawakened Democratic giant. That’s dangerous. As unpopular as Trump was, even during his campaign, the Democrats still lost on election day. They nominated Clinton, making the two candidates the two least popular in US history. Channeling this kind of energy into the Democrats is what they want, but a terrible strategy for the rest of us. The Democratic Party, the party of “America is already great,” is no acceptable counter to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” If we’re serious about women’s rights, the movement for Black lives, and movements for LGBT liberation and environmental protection, then our aim lies neither in America’s past nor its present. The Democrats are not an answer to Trump–they are another wing of the capitalist state he now leads. They are not an alternative; the Clinton and Obama administrations have been major proponents of the processes of neoliberalism that created Trump’s movement and base. The Democrats want to remain relevant, but their establishment, capitalist politics can only feed into Trump’s racist, nativist capitalism.

2. The trap of self-imposed counter-culturalism and anti-politics. For a long time, the left was hunted in this country. McCarthyism and the targeting of the Black Panther Party in particular illustrate this historical trend. When the left has grown strong, the American state has worked swiftly to suppress it. It is out of this legacy and out of a need to preserve the self that another unfortunate tendency has emerged. Quite apart from the previous trap of the Democratic Party, this self-imposed counter-culturalism is resists organization altogether. It that resists the dirty work of coalition-building. This politics bases its identity on its marginal social position rather than on resisting models of exploitation like racism, sexism and capitalism. Pettiness replaces solidarity and gets called radicalism; individual identity replaces collective revolution. In its embrace of individuality, it is another wing of liberalism, not the same as but also not divorced from the liberalism upholding the Democratic Party. One particular manifestation of this tendency was a viral photo taken from the Women’s March on Washington, in which a sign read: “Don’t forget: White women voted for Trump.” The sign isn’t wrong–53 percent of white women who voted voted for Trump. And the poster brings up important questions about who has been contributing to the work of resistance, long before November’s election. This kind of criticism is absolutely crucial to our movements, but criticism must orient itself towards an end of liberation. Ultimately, that kind of petty politics on its own is no problem, and even potentially beneficial, allowing people who have been marginalized to heal on their own terms in their own way. While we cannot tell someone how to heal, and have no right to police emotional responses, we must nevertheless recognize that from the perspective strategy, such tactics are no substitute for organizing. Petty politics become anti-politics, and ultimately neoliberal, when they effectively encourage demobilization and moralizing indictments of demographics. It looks like radicalism, but it actually consists of guilt, shame, essentialism, and an active effort to resist solidarity. For many, the Women’s March was their first protest. If the resistance wants to succeed, it should not close its doors to those folks but work to bring them in. As Malcolm X put it, “Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

3. The trap of marching. If a march is a photo opportunity that has a start and an end and isn’t carried back into our communities to organize and mobilize power, then it is doomed from the start. Movements aren’t about creating dialogue, they are about political power and an over-emphasis on marching replaces power with idealistic notions of “visibility” and “appeal.” Marching as an only tactic is a surefire way to fail, because it doesn’t in-and-of-itself challenge the status quo. When protests become parades, they lose the combativeness necessary to create real social and political change. During the Charlotte uprising, for example, after three nights of tumultuous protests, police backed off and allowed marches to proceed, because they wanted people to march. Marching could be contained, directed, and pacified. To win, we will need a diversity of tactics, not just triumphant marches that prioritize spectacle over movement. We need the Women’s March and the more radical, passionate protests of the day before.

4. The trap of not marching. I have been particularly susceptible to this final trap in recent months and it is something I’m challenging myself on. Marching takes a lot of energy—more emotional than physical—for little or no return. And yet the massive numbers in D.C. and everywhere else reminded us that “we are many, they are few.” When we take to the streets, we can close their shops, obstruct their traffic, and control space. I was first brought into politics during the 2011 Arab Spring, witnessing from afar the power of protesters in North Africa and the Middle East. There is power in protest, especially in mass mobilization that has the ability to paralyze streets and cities. Marches and mobilizations are not the totality of revolution, but they are a tool that should not be dismissed. Yesterday, at the very least, cut through some of the paralyzing feeling of isolation many had felt since the election. It furthermore humiliated the Trump administration, with his new Press Secretary taking the podium to downplay the size of the Women’s March and inflate the turnout to his Inauguration. Millions protesting across the United States didn’t topple Trump, but it did produce real results, if marginal. And they are a glimpse of what we can do when we continue to grow and continue to develop a political program based around an incisive critique of capitalism and its functionaries: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-immigrant Nativism, anti-Native settler-colonialism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism.

A Facebook friend of mine posted on Saturday that “Today’s actions, today’s numbers, were monumental. If the movement isn’t radical enough for you, then get out there and radicalize it! If it isn’t organized enough for you, then get out there and organize it! Pooh poohing this level of popular participation doesn’t serve the goals you’re trying to accomplish in the slightest.” Let’s radicalize the liberals and organize the radicals. When we integrate the broad appeal and mass scale of the Women’s March with the ferocity and militancy of the anti-Inauguration demonstrations, we will have the power to defeat both Trump’s right-wing agenda and the capitalist order that created him.

Photo of just a fraction of the crowd at the Women's March on Washington on Saturday, January 21, 2017. Photo by Casey Aldridge.
Photo of just a fraction of the crowd at the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday, January 21, 2017. Photo by Casey Aldridge.

Op-Ed: Lessons in Hope

On Jan. 13, 2016, I penned an opinion-editorial for this newspaper on New Year’s resolutions and the need to do away with them entirely. In that piece I lamented that 2015 had been “an awful year for the world.” I wrote that “at the beginning of 2015 I held so much hope for the year and it turned out that much of my hope was misplaced. Jan. 1, 2015 did not mark a new era of compassion or justice, it was a mere continuation of the broken world it inherited from Dec. 31, 2014.”

Little did I know just how shitty 2016 was going to turn out.

Like 2015, 2016 wasn’t without its high points. I was able to travel to Palestine in May and return to Scotland in September. I grew as a scholar and got accepted to a strong M.Div. program that I’ll enroll in next fall. There was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, there was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and there was Stranger Things. There were some good times with friends and family through it all.

But on the whole, I shouldn’t need to convince you just how shitty 2016 was. Cops escalated the war on Black people and it returned to our own backyard with the killing of Keith Lamont Scott. We lost Bowie, Prince, Cohen, Rickman and so many other favorites. Flint still doesn’t have clean water. There was a weird thing with clowns for a bit. A bigot won the longest, most insufferable presidential campaign in history between the two least popular major nominees ever. Since then, there has been an unprecedented surge in hate crimes against LGBTQ people, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, Latinos and Black folks, and there has been an unprecedented surge in public and visible Nazism, often coded as the alt-right.

There’s no reason at all to believe 2017 will be anything better. In my previous article, I quoted Antonio Gramsci:

“That’s why I hate these New Years that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions and you regret your irresolution and so on and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates…I want every morning to be a new year’s for me. Every day I want to reckon with myself and every day I want to renew myself. No day set aside for rest. I choose my pauses myself, when I feel drunk with the intensity of life and I want to plunge into animality to draw from it new vigor.”

Following Gramsci’s poetic argument, there’s no reason to believe 2017 will be anything better, but there is ample reason to believe that 2017 can be something different, something new.

Last week I wrote about Standing Rock and how the Army Corps planned to clear the protest site to resume construction by Dec. 5. At the time of writing this article, on Dec. 4, the Army Corps has just announced the permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline current route (which would have infringed upon indigenous sacred burial sites and threatened water supplies) will be denied. In one week, the protesters went from being attacked and nearly expelled to winning.

The Dakota Access Pipeline and its backers will try to reroute and when they do they must be met with ensued protest. Oil pipelines, often ominously called “the black snake” threaten indigenous communities with pollution and catastrophe and must be fought at every turn. The war against the oil companies and their financiers and the police state is not over. But ask any of the water protectors on the ground in Standing Rock, N.D. right now and they will tell you that this is a victory. This is a victory won by months of relentless protests, by the courage of the indigenous water protectors and incredible solidarity from veterans and others. Hundreds of tribes joined forces at Standing Rock, along with supporters, in a camp that reached up to 15,000. The decision from the Army Corps and Obama Administration was not charity; they were forced to act by the power of the people.

I have friends of mine at Standing Rock who I saw crying tears of joy in response to the news. In the eleventh hour, right before threatened eviction, the opposition caved and the water protectors won a (limited, temporary, but no less real) victory.

For me, in the eleventh hour of 2016, the victory at Standing Rock is a beautiful reminder that our movements – in support of Black Lives Matter, Palestine, the Fight for $15, against sexism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism – can in fact win. Where there is solidarity and courage, there can be a better world. For those celebrating Christmas this month, the idea of a light coming into the world, just in time, is a familiar one. When people celebrate advent, they celebrate the fact that the future can be something new and beautiful and in fact will be something new and beautiful. There is no guarantee of when things will change or how, but there is the historical fact that there is always change and that the change we seek can be just around the corner. 2017, in all likelihood, will be brutal; after all, that racist we elected this year will be officially sworn in as President of the United States. 2017 will inherit the broken world of 2016, but there is hope in the fact that 2017 doesn’t have to be another 2016. The world doesn’t have to remain broken, just because it is today. In the meantime, it is our obligation to keep on seeking justice and loving one another through the storms to come.

A wristband reading 'Hope' left at a vigil at the spot of the police shooting of Keith Scott. Photo by Pooja Pasupula.
A wristband reading ‘Hope’ left at a vigil at the spot of the police shooting of Keith Scott. Photo by Pooja Pasupula.

Op-Ed: Standing Rock’s Stand

Police from six states have been marshalled by the state of North Dakota to attempt to shut down protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline by tribal members from across the country and their supporters. The pipeline is planned to cross the Missouri within a half mile of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The developer of the $3.8 billion pipeline is Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas (Morton County Sheriff’s Office/TNS)
Police from six states have been marshalled by the state of North Dakota to attempt to shut down protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline by tribal members from across the country and their supporters. The pipeline is planned to cross the Missouri within a half mile of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The developer of the $3.8 billion pipeline is Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas (Morton County Sheriff’s Office/TNS)

Thanksgiving might be my favorite holiday. It is certainly my favorite secular holiday, though not at all because of the mythology and imagery around it. I love Thanksgiving in spite of its story, which attempts to normalize the colonization of this continent and genocidal actions towards the indigenous peoples of this land. I love every year we travel to spend time with the extended family of my maternal grandmother and her siblings: the Kikers.

Thanksgiving dances between religious, cultural and secular influences, but Thanksgiving as we celebrate it today is a manufactured holiday. While harvest feasts are nothing new, Thanksgiving as an official institution with a fixed date began with Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, during the Civil War, Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, to occur on the final Thursday of November.  It’s story, of puritan settlers and Native Americans sharing a feast together, was a story designed – at least in its present iteration – to encourage a spirit of reconciliation between the North and South.

The myth sounds harmless, even beautiful. But there is a veiled subtext to it: the reason a shared feast between settlers and indigenous people was so incredible is because the two groups, like North and South during the Civil War, were in conflict. Whether or not any such feast ever actually occurred is beside the point; there is a power imbalance at the heart of the Thanksgiving myth. What gets packaged as “people putting aside differences” is in fact a far more sinister process of oppressor expecting the oppressed to just get along and play nicely. By selling a story of Native Americans playing by the rules acquiescing to settler-colonialism, the Thanksgiving story delegitimizes Native American objections to the settler-colonial project.

Hundreds of years later, we’re still celebrating Thanksgiving in a way that perpetuates antiquated and problematic myths. And hundreds of years later, actual indigenous people are still fighting settler-colonialism. Most recently and most visibly, the struggle has taken the form of the protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has spearheaded one of the largest multi-tribe actions of indigenous resistance in American history, in order to block the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The oil pipeline would cross treaty lands and threaten indigenous water reserves.

Extreme police force has been used against indigenous protesters and their supporters, with almost no media coverage. Water cannons have been fired on protesters in temperatures that are below freezing, putting health and lives at risk. Now, the Army Corps has given a date – December 5 – as the day they intend to clear all protesters from the pipeline route. Protesters have vowed to remain, as is their right, but based on how the United States traditionally has treated Native Americans, based on police tactics so far, and based on the lack of media attention, the Army Corps’ threat presents a real danger to life.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating harvest with friends and family. But the myth at the core of Thanksgiving conceals a terrible reality that to this very day is violent towards Native Americans. Centuries of settler-colonialism and repression have not translated into better lives for indigenous people; quite the contrary, lands reserved for Native Americans have dwindled all the time and Native Americans face some of the most brutal policing patterns and systemic poverty. The point is not to reject family gatherings and feasts, but to reject the story that makes reconciliation the responsibility of the oppressed. Reconciliation – if we want it – is the job of the oppressor  and in the context of Standing Rock the white settler is the oppressor. The responsibility is on white settlers to donate monetarily to Standing Rock, to call legislators and policymakers and to raise the voice of those on the ground at Standing Rock. We need a new story of Thanksgiving: one that doesn’t conceal imbalances of power but exposes them, one that situates reconciliation in solidarity, rather than assimilation.

Op-Ed: Marxism for Mary

In the week since the election, Hillary Clinton has said “we owe [Donald Trump] an open mind and a chance to lead.” President Barack Obama said that “we are now all wishing for [Trump’s] success in uniting and leading the country.” Even the AFL-CIO has come out and said that “if he is willing to work with us, consistent with our values, we are ready to work with him.” This is a candidate who has threatened to register all Muslims living in the United States. He’s threatened to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and accelerate deportations, tearing families and communities apart. He’s unashamed of sexual assault and has been accused of rape. He’ll be on trial next month for fraud. His victory has been publicly celebrated by the KKK here in North Carolina. Nor is his economic policy progressive: it supports tax cuts for the rich and cuts in services for the poor and entails massive deregulation of the private sector. Still, the Democrats have pivoted from calling Trump as the greatest threat to democracy in history to a sudden willingness to work with him. This pivot is possible precisely because the dichotomy between Trump and Clinton – between a far-right GOP and centre-right Democratic Party – is a false one. There is a direct relationship between the two. The vocal racism and sexism of Trump was thought to have paved the road for a Clinton coronation, but in fact just the reverse occurred: Clinton and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the status quo that they represent, set up and are directly responsible for a Trump presidency.

I made a chart showing the popular vote turnout in 2008, 2012 and 2016.

Much has been made of the “revolt of the white working class” at the heart of Trump’s electoral success. Election returns demonstrate the undoubtedly white, male and rural base of Trump’s support. What returns far less often show is that Trump received less support – in terms of raw votes – than Mitt Romney in 2012. In 2008, Barack Obama received 69, 498, 516 to McCain’s 59,948,323. In 2012, the gap narrowed, with Obama’s support dropping to 65,915,795 to Romney’s 60,933,504. In 2016, Trump clinched the support of the Electoral College system but actually lost the popular vote to Clinton, 60,839,922 to 60,265,858 (as of Sunday, Nov. 13). Trump’s support was loud and vocal and dominant in rural America, but came in at just a 317,000 votes above McCain and 568,000 votes beneath Romney. The significant thing to note is the collapse in Democratic support since 2008. Obama received approximately 400,000 fewer votes in 2012 and Clinton lost another 500,000. Clinton support collapsed, especially in her “blue wall”: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania. Most of the low-income whites and union whites who voted actually broke for Clinton. If there’s a revolt of the working class at play, it’s that people just didn’t vote for Clinton. That base didn’t support Trump; it deserted Clinton. The DNC deserves all of the blame for Tuesday night; their answer to a racist, sexist, billionaire fascist, was the incarnation of a status quo that was and is killing people.

In Pennsylvania, there were low-income, rural, predominantly white counties that voted twice for Obama and this time for Trump. Trump, like Obama before him, doesn’t represent change, but he talks like change. Obama ran a campaign animated by hope in 2008, but most of his promises weren’t enacted: Guantanamo never closed, we’re still at war, and the economic recovery since the recession has overwhelmingly benefited the suburban and urban rich. The great recession is still felt immensely by the urban and rural poor, who have not seen the recovery that the media has praised Obama for. The point is not to say, as many have, that “not all Trump supporters are racist,” or that these Pennsylvania supporters weren’t racist because they voted for Obama before. That’s like saying having a Black friend means you can’t be racist – it’s just not true. In the end, every single Trump supporter, regardless of their personal relationship to white supremacy, voted for and empowered a bigoted white supremacist and fascist. I’m not here to tell you that “not all Trump supporters are racist.” But I am here to argue that Trump is wholly the responsibility of a decadent, elitist and arrogant liberalism that defines the Democratic Party.

Anecdotal support for Trump from white workers should not be overlooked. Dr. Tithi Bhattacharya of Purdue University shared an viral Facebook interview of a worker called “Mary.” Mary, according to Bhattacharya, “works for a housecleaning company… gets paid $12 an hour, no benefits… She has 4 children, one of them disabled. She is white and about 30. She voted Trump.” Bhattacharya quotes Mary directly, saying she “could never vote for Hillary. She sounds like my boss, John. I feel she is lying all the time… No one in my town has jobs… Every house has more unemployed people than ever. The Ford factory near Bloomington was where many of my family members worked… If Trump lowers the taxes, maybe Ford will come back again? All I want is people to have jobs.” Ford won’t come back under Trump. That’s not how our neo-liberal economy works. Trump wants to fix America’s economy with more capitalism, but that won’t help the working class. Trump has misled workers like Mary, tragically. But what does Mary think of Trump’s “comments about women and people of color”? Bhattacharya followed up, and Mary replied: “If I was alone in a room with him, I would hit him. I can’t stand him.”

The attempt by progressive whites to write off people like Mary as racist is a common response. To city liberals, Mary is ignorant white trash, and dismissing her allows those same city liberals to feel satisfaction about how “progressive” and “tolerant” they are. But in America, anti-blackness is so deeply woven into our language, our cultural imagery and mythology and our relationships with one another that I’m unconvinced any white person is capable of transcending racism. That doesn’t mean that racism can’t be fought, or that white supremacy is some immutable fact above time and nature. White supremacy will fall, but only through multiracial struggle.

Trump won plenty of votes because of his racism and sexism. He also won plenty of votes in spite of his racism and sexism. He won plenty of votes out of the desperation of folks like Mary, who would “hit him” if she could. Trump pledged to “Make America Great Again,” and with capitalism, racism, sexism, and homophobia, it’s abundantly clear that he’ll only make America worse. But Clinton’s response to Trump was that “America is already great.” With cops killing Black people like Keith Lamont Scott; with income inequality getting worse all the time and people struggling to make ends meet even when the economy is apparently rolling on all cylinders; with sexual assault, anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate crimes rising, a slogan like “America is already great” is terribly tone-deaf. The working class didn’t carry Trump to victory, they just didn’t vote for Clinton. And they didn’t vote for Clinton or Trump because Clinton champions a bad, unequal and racist status quo, while the Trump calls for a return to a bad, unequal and racist past. Trump is sorely hated, but Clinton embodies the war and corruption and elitism and capitalism of a sorely hated social order.

Democrats like Obama and Clinton are already capitulating, already moving right. Clinton’s campaign refuses to acknowledge just how pissed the electorate was and just how tone-deaf their campaign was for all disaffected Americans. For the rest of us who want to legitimately resist a Trump presidency and the emboldened nationalism of the right, we have to see 2016 as the death of the DNC. The Democratic Party is dead. Those of us who, like Mary, want to hit Trump and can’t stand Trump need Marxism and we need it now. We need a political opposition that doesn’t sound like the arrogant bosses, that doesn’t think America is already great but that knows the whole damn system is guilty as hell.

Scared of The Clown Craze? Meet The CMPD.

Riot police at Old Concord Road on the first night of the Keith Scott protests. Photo via Pooja Pasupula.
Riot police at Old Concord Road on the first night of the Keith Scott protests. Photo via Pooja Pasupula.

There’s been a weird and hard to explain uptick in clown sightings the past few weeks. Late at night, on street corners or in the woods, and calling in threats to schools, a remarkable amount of attention is starting to be given to what the media is calling America’s “clown craze.” Just in time for Halloween, that’s pretty terrifying.

But there’s another menace on the streets you need to be aware of, and I’ve taken it upon myself to make this public service announcement. There’s a group called the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, walking out into the streets of Uptown every night, decked in war gear. They particularly prey upon people of color, queer and transgender youth, and people who march for justice.

They have affiliate groups all around the United States, in almost every city. Clowns are creepy, sure, but these police departments are equipped with military weaponry, and that thanks to your taxes and your government.

CMPD, however, has been especially antagonistic recently. Since they shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott on September 20, they have – according to protesters and clergy on site – killed a protester named Justin Carr with rubber bullets, and framed Raquan Borum for that murder. Other eyewitnesses saw the CMPD run over a protester in an ATV, who they subsequently beat and arrested. They have arrested dozens of peaceful demonstrators, incited riots, and shot tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets at hundreds of people marching for justice.

If a clown attacks you, you can almost certainly bet two things: the attack wasn’t motivated by your skin color, and that clown will be held accountable under the law. But the CMPD is one of just 14 police departments that only killed black people last year. And none of them have been held accountable for it. So this fall, don’t hide from clowns. Get out in the streets and protest, because CMPD is out of control, and Black Lives Matter.

Op-Ed: How could this not happen here?

Two years ago this month, I wrote my first piece with the Niner Times. It ran in print under the headline “Ferguson Here.” That article explored racial re-segregation in Charlotte, and the militarization of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in the wake of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. In it I spelled out just a few of the parallels between Ferguson and Charlotte, ending with a warning:

“If we don’t want the unrest of Ferguson in our streets, we can take a higher road. We can value the lives of black youth like Jonathan Ferrell and Michael Brown and millions more just like them; we can mitigate the systemic aspect of racism by raising the minimum wage, fighting gentrification and displacement and combating poverty; and, finally, we can be honest with ourselves about what the DNC left Charlotte—military-grade weapons—and begin the necessary scaling down of our militarized CMPD.”

Needless to say, Charlotte didn’t listen. I was a sophomore at the time, and it was my first article, so I can’t say that I blame anyone in city government for ignoring the piece. But after a long week of unrest in the Queen City, I think it’s worth revisiting those points.

Keith Lamont Scott was killed within a stone’s throw of our university on Tuesday, Sept. 20. As had happened in Ferguson a little over two years ago, neighbors and family gathered at the scene of the murder, wanting answers and voicing their frustrations. As the afternoon turned into evening and into night, community members turned out, little by little, until a sizeable crowd had coalesced. Emotions were high, and understandably so. People were grieving and people were angry. But the crowd didn’t have much of an enemy, at least until militarized police showed up in riot gear, and with crowd control weapons.

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Protesters on Old Concord Road chant defiantly on Tuesday, September 20, after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. Photo by Pooja Pasupula.

The point is a simple one. Protestors can’t toe off with a line of police until there is a line of police to toe off with. Protestors can’t kick tear gas canisters back at a line of cops until the line of cops has shot tear gas canisters into the crowd in the first place. Protestors can’t throw rocks at police if there are no police around. The first night of protests, on Old Concord Road, the police progressively moved the crowd towards W.T. Harris Blvd., away from the other end of Old Concord where students were arriving to join in the protest. When the protest became close enough to W.T. Harris, however, that’s when demonstrators were more or less forced to separate. Some remained in confrontation on Old Concord Road, and others marched down W.T. Harris, taking over I-85. That evolution of the protest, where it escalated from high emotions to more direct combat, was entirely instigated by the police.

For much of Black America and Black Charlotte, the police are an occupying army. Black neighborhoods in Charlotte are increasingly either re-segregated and entirely neglected by the city, or they undergo a rapid and destructive process of gentrification, displacing Black citizens and families who have lived in those neighborhoods for decades. When a police officer shows up to College Downs off Old Concord Road, it isn’t because they are there to visit a loved one. They came to College Downs to make an arrest—not of Keith Lamont Scott, but of another suspect. These officers saw themselves as an invasion force with a particular target. So whether he had a gun or a book (and I lean towards the latter, based on holes in the police narrative and on testimony of eyewitnesses and neighbors who said that Scott read at that spot every single day), CMPD viewed Scott as an enemy combatant.

The riots and protests that ensued in the wake of Scott’s execution, however, were not wholly sparked by Scott’s death alone. Re-segregation, displacement, racialized income inequality and opportunity gaps, the legacy of the Jonathan Ferrell case, and H.B. 972—each of these had a hand in Charlotte catching fire. And not only are each of these external and pre-existing factors the fault of city and state officials, but Black people, people of color and poor people in Charlotte have been protesting them for years, completely ignored by the public, media and government.

As UNC Charlotte alum Cameron Joyce posted on Thursday, after the first night of large scale protests in Uptown Charlotte:

“The research showed Charlotte has an economic and educational racial/socioeconomic equity problem. They shrugged.

The research showed there is a racial/socioeconomic displacement because of gentrification. They rolled their eyes.

The research showed there is racial bias in policing and regular use of unnecessary force. They didn’t believe it.

The critics said don’t militarize the cops for the DNC. They said it’s absolutely necessary.

Randall Kerrick went unpunished for murdering Jonathan Ferrell. They said it was justice.

…If you think this protest and riot came out of nowhere it’s because you’re disconnected from oppression and uneducated on the facts of reality of Charlotte.”

Let me be very clear: the police, the city government, the state government, the federal government, the banks, the corporations, the National Guard and the media invent and incite the riots. And calling for calm without first demanding concessions—namely, stop killing Black people—is not motivated by a sense of care for our city but by a desire to control and police Black people. And that’s not going to fly.

In the words of Moral Mondays leader, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber: “To condemn the uprising in Charlotte would be to condemn a man for thrashing when someone is trying to drown him. Whatever righteous indignation the public can muster ought to be directed toward the systems that created a situation where a man can drive to the bus stop to pickup his daughter and end up dead before she gets there.”

Op-Ed: Flush House Bill 2

Front from left, demonstrators Jess Jude, Loan Tran and Noah Rubin-Blose, sit chained together in the middle of the street during a protest against House Bill 2 on Thursday, March 24, 2016, outside of the Governor's Mansion on North Blount Street in downtown Raleigh, N.C. (Jill Knight/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)
Front from left, demonstrators Jess Jude, Loan Tran and Noah Rubin-Blose, sit chained together in the middle of the street during a protest against House Bill 2 on Thursday, March 24, 2016, outside of the Governor’s Mansion on North Blount Street in downtown Raleigh, N.C. (Jill Knight/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

I’ve come across quite a bit on social media over the past few weeks, since House Bill 2 was passed by the State Legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory signed it, where (frequently white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle class) people have called the bathroom statute of the law “a distraction” from the real issues of the bill.

That kind of thinking needs to go.

Yes, it’s true the special session of the legislature rushed through HB 2 had more on their mind than only bathrooms. The law prevents municipalities really quite a bit, including raising the minimum wage and shortens the window for filing discrimination lawsuits against workplaces and landlords. The law is the pipe dream of North Carolina’s far right in more ways than one. But the special session in which it was passed and the specific non-discrimination ordinance it responded too – Charlotte’s – means that the “bathroom issue” has become the main impetus for the law. And if we’re to resist HB 2, we need to keep that in mind and fight alongside our transgender and gender non-conforming neighbors for their rights to pee wherever they feel most comfortable.

Gayle Rubin, in a 1984 essay entitled “Thinking Sex,” talked about what Rubin called “moral panics.” Specifically, Rubin talked about the “white slavery” moral panic of the 1880s, the 1950s targeting of homosexuality and the feminist “porn wars” of the 1980s all as kinds of moral panics. In each, those in power exploited issues that did not necessarily reflect any actual threat, whipping the public into a frenzied fear and, in the process, advancing their own agendas and pursuit of power.

More often than not, the people saying that the bathroom part of HB 2 is a distraction from the “real issues” seem to be saying exactly the opposite: it’s okay to criminalize using a bathroom that doesn’t correspond with your genitalia at birth – which doesn’t even account for intersex students and citizens – as long as the other parts of the bill, specifically the restrictions on lawsuit protections and the minimum wage ban are lifted.

Can we just stop and think about that for one moment? This all too common mentality suggests transgender and gender non-conforming people are expendable and that policing their choice in bathroom facilities is necessary to protect our women and children. This kind of logic legitimizes North Carolina’s preeminent moral panic of 2016: that transgender people are a threat to women and children and must be contended with.

All evidence points to exactly the contrary. Transgender people of color and gender non-conforming people are far more likely to be on the receiving end of assault and violence than they are to perpetrate them. ‘Far more likely,’ actually, doesn’t even begin to convey the reality of it. Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance aimed to provide some kind of protection for transgender and gender non-conforming people so that they could use restroom facilities where they felt less likely to be attacked.

That ordinance, that protection, is important. The General Assembly passed House Bill 2 one day to the year after my friend and UNC Charlotte student, Blake Brockington, took his life by his own hand. Don’t think for a second though, that as a Black transgender man, our racist and transphobic society didn’t force his hand.

If you think the bathroom piece of HB 2 is a distraction from the real issues, then I want nothing with your “movement.” I want the full repeal of HB 2 so that my transgender and gender non-conforming friends might be able to live with dignity. I want our movements to see that the moral panic, not the transgender neighbor in the bathroom, is the enemy that all of us have a role in confronting.

Alternate Take: Why it matters that black lives matter

A cartoon by Kris Straub at Chainsawsuit.com takes aim at the logic of the phrase "all lives matter."
A cartoon by Kris Straub at Chainsawsuit.com takes aim at the logic of the phrase “all lives matter.” [Image via Kris Straub, Chainsawsuit.com]
John, my co-worker and friend, wrote last week that he’s not a fan of avoidable confrontation and neither am I, really. Confrontation is almost never fun, almost always painful and without exception uncomfortable. But confrontation is necessary for the reconciliation of right and wrong and for the abolition of unjust power imbalances. Sometimes my political positions might make it appear I particularly enjoy marching, rallying and protesting. I can assure you I do not and I’d always much rather be watching Doctor Who. I can’t speak for other activists and organizers, but I don’t think I’m alone in this opinion: people fight oppression because there is oppression, not out of hobby or anything of the sort.

John’s op-ed alleged that “whoever says ‘____ lives matter’ is perpetuating the idea… that some lives do not matter,” and makes the case that the refrain of Black lives matter is a form of discrimination. Unfortunately, this line of logic is a faulty and a tired one that has resurfaced again and again to make the case that Black lives do not in fact matter. I know this is not John’s aim, so that’s why I wanted to take this time and space to explain why saying that “Black lives matter” is so critically important towards a world where all lives actually do matter.

John paraphrased one of Dr. King’s most commonly misinterpreted quotes, that “hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness.” But King continued that same quote by saying “we must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.” Focusing too closely on the end of that sentence misses the conflict King acknowledges: we must meet the forces of hate. We must meet the forces of hate with a power different than hate itself, the power of love. And in the realm of phraseology: “White lives matter” is hate and, tragically, holds power in our society; “all lives matter” conveniently deflects from reality and, whether intentionally or not, enables hate; and “Black lives matter” expresses love.

King has another quote, in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, which says:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Dualism can frequently be an unhelpful, even harmful, way of conceptualizing the world. Dualism creates polar opposites which ‘never the twain shall meet.’ Much natural phenomena, perhaps all moral nuance, escapes such a dichotomy, but dualism is particularly well-suited to make sense of justice and injustice, equality and inequality. To quote King a third time, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Where morality is nuanced and abstract, posited philosophically or theologically, justice and equality are material events. Social relations are either just or unjust, either unequal or equal. There can be no coexistence between injustice and justice.

And so, “all lives matter” occupies a false space. It assumes a neutrality that does not exist. “All lives matter” likes to think of itself as coming from a position of love, where love is non-confrontational, painless and easy. But love hurts, love fights, love grieves, love meets opposition and love struggles. According to Leonard Cohen’s classic: “Love is not a victory march; it’s a cold, and it’s a broken, hallelujah.”  Love says, “Black lives matter,” because it can’t say anything else in the face of deep and real injustice, where love recognizes that it must take a side. There is no apathy, no indifference and no middle ground; “all lives matter” is not an option.

Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, in his When Theology Listens to the Poor, discussed the theological notion of “preferential option for the poor.” To Boff, this preferential option for the poor – that is, prioritizing the needs and will of the poor – was in no way an exclusion of the wealthy; rather, the preferential option was an acknowledgement that any other position would result in an active exclusion of the poor, even if unintentionally. The Church, Boff argued, exists in this world, and as such inherits the same de facto preference for the elite that is characteristic of the world. Only through a preferential option of the poor could the Church atone for the de facto preference for the rich that it had inherited from the world.

John asked why it mattered that we say and affirm that “Black lives matter.” We live and operate in a world dominated by white supremacy. White supremacy – as with sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia and the capitalism that produces and reproduces each of the above – taints every institution in our world and anything less than unequivocal opposition to white supremacy is to validate it’s grip on this world. “All lives matter” occupies a false space and in its unwillingness to resist white supremacy and police violence, it accepts and gives its approval to white supremacy and police violence.

Injustice and inequality don’t allow for a middle ground. They create very real lines in the sand and we all find ourselves on one side or the other. Sometimes we may have a foot on each side, or we may cross from one side to the other. But never can we fall between equality and inequality, or justice and injustice. So we must decide where we fall – either with white supremacy or with “Black lives matter” – knowing that “all lives matter” is not an option in this world. In another perfectly just, perfectly equal world, we’ll say “all lives matter” as fact. But, as the protest chant goes: “all lives matter when Black lives matter.” The language we use needs to “cast down the mighty from their thrones, and exalt the lowly.” Only then, after creating an entirely new world and reality, can “all lives matter” mean anything remotely coherent. Until then, we have to repeat it and repeat it loudly: Black lives matter.

That’s why it matters.


 

See Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter organization, speak at McKnight Hall in the Cone Center next Monday, March 28, at 7 p.m.. Tickets are free for students but must be claimed at the Arena Ticket Office on campus before the event.

Op-Ed: The Walkout

Former President George W. Bush, middle, reacts after former President Bill Clinton, right, cracked a joke as moderator Margaret Spellings, President of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, listens during the Presidential Leadership Scholars Graduation discussion at the Bush Presidential Center in University Park, Texas, on Thursday, July 9, 2015. Sixty scholars participated in the yearlong program where they traveled to each of the presidential libraries. (Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News/TNS)
Former President George W. Bush, middle, reacts after former President Bill Clinton, right, cracked a joke as moderator Margaret Spellings, President of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, listens during the Presidential Leadership Scholars Graduation discussion at the Bush Presidential Center in University Park, Texas, on Thursday, July 9, 2015. Sixty scholars participated in the yearlong program where they traveled to each of the presidential libraries. (Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News/TNS)

If you read the pieces I’ve been writing recently, you’re aware I’m not all that enthused by new university president, Margaret Spellings. There’s something about a right-wing coup d’etat, which promises to negatively impact the school and university system I hold dear, that just doesn’t have me that optimistic.

I’m not the only one, either. Last weekend, the Raleigh News & Observer ran an editorial called: “At UNC, a drift toward University of Inc.” It’s a drift that the author points out “has been going on for years,” well before Spellings. Spellings is merely the most recent and perhaps most telling, chapter in a story of austerity and privatization across the system.

Previous chapters have included tuition and fee hikes, the targeting by the Board of Governors of HBCUs, Gender Studies departments, centers for the study of anything remotely related to matters of importance to social justice. Western Carolina’s campus is creating a “Capital Center for the Study of Free Enterprise” funded by the Koch Brothers, despite faculty protestations that such a center would bully what can or cannot be taught in the economics department, by way of threatening funding.

When the state cuts funding to universities, school institutions have to look other places for that funding. It is groups like the Koch Foundation, or corporations like Bank of America or Duke Energy often fill those funding voids. But the Koch Brothers, or the banks or the energy monoliths never come with funding “just because.” They always come with an agenda of profit, and their funding is always conditional.

When are universities are funded by foundations and corporations, there is no education or academic freedom. There is only a factory of conformity and moneymaking. Considering that the UNC system was once the gold standard of affordable and critical education, this is all the more tragic. Campus workers have hurt, adjuncts and full-time faculty have hurt and students have hurt because of the neoliberal privatization efforts of a right-wing political establishment in North Carolina.

Ned Bartlett, who wrote editorial for the News & Observer, doesn’t blame Spellings for the privatization and austerity already behind us and neither do I. But I don’t have hope she’ll turn things around, either – not while she’s calling students customers, not if she was selected by an extremely political Board of Governors, not while she’s drawing on her experience working with the University of Phoenix and in the Bush Administration. Students, workers, and faculty are going to have to stand up and fight back against the entire scheme of university corporatization and cuts.

And we will, starting with a statewide walkout across campuses in North Carolina today, March 1, at 11p.m. in Belk Plaza.