On September 16, 2017, pro-Trumpers, anti-Trumpers, Juggalos, and Black Lives Matters protesters all gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. At one point during the pro-Trump “Mother of All rallies”, organizer Tommy Gunn, whose real name is Tommy E. Hodges Jr., invited BLM protesters onstage.
I’m going to invite Black Lives Matter up here, while I show them what patriotism is all about, all right? It’s about freedom of speech. It’s about celebration. So what we are going to do is something you’re not used to, and we’re going to give you two minutes of our platform to put your message out. Now, whether they disagree or agree with your message is irrelevant. It’s the fact that you have the right to have the message.
Hawk Newsome, president of the unaffiliated Greater New York chapter of BLM gave a short speech. Videos of the “unexpected” moment have been making the rounds online. Folks are praising Newsome and Gunn, insisting that this is how we make progress. I had the misfortune of encountering a Now This video of the moment and the we-are-the-world reactions to it this morning.
I will state first that there is nothing surprising or unexpected about Gunn inviting Newsome onstage. Some folks might see it as an act of goodwill. What I see is a supporter of a bigot attempting to make himself look good. By entertaining BLM protesters he is humanizing himself. He is also proving a point: I am a patriot. “Look how American I am by allowing these people to share their platform! Freedom of speech! I’m not a hypocrite!” Inviting Newsome onstage was an opportunity for Gunn to create a larger platform for himself and other Trump supporters.
Newsome’s first words upon taking to the stage to speak: “I am an American.” He went on to explain what his branch of BLM stands for. He insisted on his love of America and that “we” are not anti-cop but anti-bad cop.
At this point in his speech, I had to take pause…
I am not sure what “we” Newsome is referring to. Black Lives Matter? His unaffiliated chapter, which does not speak on behalf of Black Lives Matter as an organization? Black people as a whole? I don’t know what kind of justice he thinks he is fighting for, but in reality, yes, many of us are anti-cop and for good reason. Anti-an inherently racist and misogynistic institution rooted in slave patrols? Hell fucking yeah, I’m anti-cop. What people like Newsome do not realize is that this “not all cops” message is making the fight for justice harder. Sure, not all cops are abusing their power and killing Black and brown folks in the streets, but not all cops are actively working to dismantle the systems of injustice that allow such practices to continue, either. By insisting “we” are specifically anti-bad cop, he is suggesting that the problem is an individual one rather than what it actually is, a systemic one. One for which every cop needs to be held accountable.
Newsome ended his speech by stating, “If we really want to make America great, we do it together.”
The speech was largely met with cheers. He stated in a post-speech interview that his “faith in some of those people” was restored because “when I spoke truths, they agreed.” The problem is that the truths he spoke were a watered down version of BLM’s platform altered to make the message more palatable to white audiences. He emphasized Americanness to folks chanting “Make America Great Again.” Of course they were going to agree. Sure, only so much can be said in a two-minute speech, but if you are not going to address the issue at the heart of the matter (i.e. systematic racism) do not speak at all.
Newsome later shook hands and took photos with Trump supporters, including the leader of a militia and one of the heads of Bikers for Trump. He even held the biker’s son, “a little blonde-haired kid named Jacob.” Newsome states,
I really feel like we made progress. . . . If not on a grander level, but just person to person, I think we really made some substantial steps without either side yielding anything.
Without either side yielding anything.
Without either side yielding anything.
Without political supporters of a known bigot yielding anything.
Without racists yielding anything.
Without white supremacists yielding anything.
This is Newsome’s progress.
Newsome goes on to emphasize that he is Christian and educated, as if those things matter. As if they should matter. As if Muslims or college drop-outs or atheists or those with only a middle school education have voices less worthy of being heard. He is emphasizing his likeness to white supremacists in order to be taken seriously by them, when what we need is acknowledgement and acceptance of our differences. He states that he was happy not to have to chant, demonstrate, or “stand here with my fist in the air in a very militant way.” This from a man who just shook hands with a leader of a 4,000 person militia donning full army fatigues.
Years ago, a “friend” told me he hated Black people. Thinking he was joking, I simply responded “you hate me?” In earnest, he replied, “I don’t hate you. I just hate your people.”
With his speech, Newsome managed to humanize himself to a handful of white supremacists. “I don’t hate you.” That does not mean that they will afford others the same respect they claim to have suddenly gained for him. “I just hate your people.” And no, this moment is not a reason for hope. It is naive to believe so.
Shaking hands and having photo ops with white supremacists is not progress. Nor is being their friends, or family, or lovers. Racists will always find exceptional Negroes. Being one gets you nowhere. It gets our people nowhere. What is worse, this type of pandering plays directly into respectability politics. It furthers the flawed notion that in order to gain respect and just treatment from our oppressors that we simply have to be nice and talk to them. It allows our oppressors another tool to use against us. “If only these non-Christian, uneducated, militant, criminal Black people could only behave,” knowing full well our behavior makes no difference.
Superficial conversations about injustice is not progress. They do nothing but create a false sense of achievement and make folks feel good about themselves. We do not achieve justice by pandering. Nor by assuaging white guilt or putting racists’ fears of Black and brown people to rest. It is not the responsibility of the oppressed to convince our oppressors of our humanity. We have no obligation to be nice, to speak politely, to educate, to have an education. The message that Newsome is spreading is dangerous. Newsome’s respectability politics and general backhanded shade are doing nothing but undermining the work of other activists. Let’s just hope his actions haven’t set us back too far.
This post was updated on September 21, 2017.