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Under threat of violence

By - 28.01.2021

A reflection on protests and liberalism in the United States.

On November 4, 2020, the day after the American presidential election, I stood on a narrow stretch of median off an interstate exit struggling to pull on my thin flannel shirt in the cold. 

“Should I get on the mic and warn people that the LRAD is out?” I asked a fellow organizer. “I don’t have ear plugs. Who the hell is gonna have ear plugs on them?” 

An LRAD is a sonic weapon that emits high frequency noise that is extremely painful and debilitating. It’s used for crowd control, even though it is illegal in many countries.

We stand staring at the tank with its odd speaker-like attachment on the top, a weapon we have been lucky enough to see deployed only a handful of times since the summer. “No,” she said. “People will just panic. Besides, I doubt they’ll really use it. They figure the threat is enough.”

That night, nearly a thousand people from the Twin Cities [Minneapolis and St. Paul] metro area gathered to march as ballots were still being counted across the country. Organizers from the anti-war, labor, and anti-police brutality movements planned the demonstration as part of a national day of protest called by the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, regardless of who won the election. 

Hopes and dreams

Though we obviously hoped Trump would be defeated, most of us had little love for Biden or his faux progressive politics; the oft repeated story of the FBI raids on members of the Minneapolis anti-war movement under Obama sounded like something his vice president would happily repeat. 

And I, remembering the unsettling reports of National Guard whisking people away in unmarked vans over the summer, would joke at planning meetings that under Biden at least they’d ask for our preferred pronouns before the illegal interrogations.

For many of the liberals in our country, that’s progress. 

Prior to election night, calls for unity among “leftists” abounded, as did much revisionism of both Biden and Kamala Harris’s careers. Biden was no longer a symbol of Democrat conservatism but instead a beacon of civility and a welcome return to “decorum.” My social media feed was full of praise after the debates about how nice it was to have someone who could talk “like a presidential candidate should.” 

As a Black voter, I was given the message that I should be grateful to have representation at last.

Few people in the general public seemed to know about his long career as an engineer of the deeply racist “war on drugs” or his votes to continue U.S. imperialism in Iraq, Libya and Syria. 

Suddenly, bringing up Tara Reade, who had accused Biden of sexual assault, or the numerous women who had brought forth allegations against him of sexual misconduct made you “divisive.” 

As a Black voter, I was given the message that I should be grateful to have representation at last, “Kamala Harris shows young girls, especially Black girls, that they can do anything,” a friend told me. “I think a lot of the critiques she’s getting aren’t fair.” 

I wondered aloud whether the Black children whose parents she’d jailed for marijuana possession and truancy would agree. “Perhaps,” I added bitterly, “All those trans women she forced into men’s prisons and denied gender affirmative care would object to this whole ‘girl power’ narrative.” 

As my friend suggested at the end of our conversation, perhaps my standards are too high. Or, maybe my real objections have little to do with Biden and Harris as individual political actors but reflect a tiredness of liberalism and centrist ideology being touted as “leftist.” 

What does it matter if the cabinet member who votes to authorize yet another drone strike is a woman? Does tear gas sting less when it’s fired by a Black police officer? Do the dead care whether their killers look like them?

We organized this march to say that we are not satisfied with identity politics and virtue signaling. We had, against all better judgment, once again voted for a “lesser of two evils”; the least the evil could do was substantially deviate from the outrageous policies of its predecessor. 

Planning protests

On the night of our protest, Minnesota was projected to once again turn blue but a summer of 8 p.m. curfews and facing down the barrels of rifles held by white men fresh off their high school wrestling teams made us wary. Though we had marched on the highway many times throughout the years, we knew it was not without its risks; there had been an attempt, albeit an unsuccessful one, to stop a highway protest we’d organized weeks earlier for the murder of Breonna Taylor.

White supremacists (often including off duty cops) had also made numerous appearances at our events; that summer many of us had watched in horror as a semi-tanker truck barreled through one of the early demonstrations following George Floyd’s murder (the driver was not charged until months later). So we planned extra security, exit routes, and made sure we would have the numbers to take the four lane interstate.

We were told over loudspeaker to get down on the ground and prepare to be arrested.

What we did not anticipate was a sudden crackdown by our Democrat governor on highway protests, citing the need to “teach us a lesson” about acceptable demonstration techniques. 

Moments before we were to exit the highway, police surrounded the 646 protesters, trapping us between the wall of the exit ramp and a barricade of cops several people thick. Every single one was armed with live ammo, and we could catch glimpses of military fatigues behind them. We were told over loudspeaker to get down on the ground and prepare to be arrested. Observers in the apartments that heard our cries to anyone with a camera to record came out only to be beaten back by cops on horseback wielding tear gas. Someone started chanting: “Get those animals off those horses!” 

From the ground, chants were all we could offer. I have vivid memories of a moment when the press were invited to leave the highway over the loudspeaker and I looked up at the wall of armed police casually holding semi automatics as they stared impassively down at us. I turned off the mic. “If the press leave,” I whispered to another organizer, “how many of us do you think will make it off this highway?”

There is a narrative among liberal Americans, especially white folks, that prizes non-violent demonstrations like ours. They quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and proselytize to us about “changing hearts and minds” and “promoting dialogue between us and police.” In the 5 hours we spent on that highway dancing to Beyoncé and Donna Summer to keep both cold and panic from overwhelming us, not once did the police have anything to say other than commands. 

We were armed with nothing but picket signs and microphones. We were children, students, elders, teachers, laborers. And I firmly believe if the cameras had stopped rolling, there would have been casualties that night. What is my life to the empire compared to its buildings, its roads? What kind of ethos is strict nonviolence when more resources were mobilized for an unprecedented mass arrest in our state than has ever been allocated to housing the unhoused? 

If I learned any lessons from Democrat leadership in those moments it was not the one they intended. Instead I brought home another cinder of rage to stoke my conviction that this system predicated on disregard for Black life, my life, needs to be destroyed and that capitalism wrapped in progressive language is the major stumbling block to that goal. 

I remind my white friend that King said as much in Letter from Birmingham Jail. I remind her that raised hands do not stop a bullet. 

Illustration: Atdhe Mula / K2.0.

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