Locating the Floyd Protests in a Larger International Struggle Against Oppression
When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the voting rights bill in 1965, he proudly declaimed, "they came in darkness and they came in chains. And today we strike away the last major shackles of those fierce and ancient bonds." But shackles remained.
Back to the Street
Large-scale anti-racial discrimination protests in the United States further spread to other countries around the world in June, with an increasing wave of condemnation of racial discrimination and oppression. Just as any social movement that has happened in recent years, the violent part of it has received the most attention and is described as the “stains” of the whole movement.
However, people tolerate violence and have always tolerated it -- otherwise, how can they tolerate their state apparatus and the whole process of modernization? The expression "zero tolerance for violence" therefore seems oversimplified. Without the armed revolution against the nationalist party, today there won’t be the People's Republic of China; The United Kingdom is known for its "Glorious Revolution", but the word "glorious" is chosen by comparing its path with its neighbours’ across the North Sea, inside the United Kingdom itself, the wind of social movement from labour to gender equality, continued until the late 1980s. Needless to say the history of Latin America and Africa. Without radicalism, there is no modernization.
It's not a question whether to tolerate violence or not, but when and what kind of violence should be tolerated. At least two concepts could be developed: whether they're "justifiable", and whether they're "excusable". Specific factors need to be considered: Is the protester "injuring" others (such as hurting passers-by, looting property), or just "creating trouble" (jamming roads, destructing public facilities, and burning unmanned police vehicles); if there is looting against businesses, whether the victim is a small business with weak risk tolerance or it's a chain company with strong tolerance, whether these companies have actively participated in past oppressions, how deep the grievances are behind the violent protest, whether the violence is in proportion to the oppression, etc. Now that this mass protest movement aims at deep-rooted and severe oppressions, such as the institutional arrangement of systematic racial discrimination, the vicious circle of extreme poverty, large-scale imprisonment, and police violence, even if smashing and robbing against ordinary small businesses cannot be justified, they could be excused.
People tend to set high morality standards for massive protests. In his death, the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. is presented as a model of socially acceptable protest by opponents of current movements. However, in life, he was not seen as such, he was spied on and blackmailed by the federal government, arrested roughly 30 times, beaten, stalked and assassinated, and died one of the most disliked people in America. Similar examples include the suffragists' movement at the beginning of the 20th century. People’s evaluation and even actual memories of a certain social movement keep changing over time, to quit unnecessary moral mysophobia towards a movement, such a "stained" history should not be forgotten, demonstrating that there has never been a “perfect” way to protest.
If we look into more details of the protests on the streets, many would compare those in the U.S. with those in Hong Kong. The tactics Hong Kongers have been using could be summarized by their slogan "be water" (emphasizing its fluidity and flexibility), and the trend of de-organization and individualization in protests is also evident in this wave of protests in the U.S. Looking around in the crowd of a protest, you won't be likely to find any sign with a social organization logo. Almost all placards are hand-made, and there is no uniform style specification. Some protesters used packaging boxes or even baking trays and skateboards as raw materials. This de-organization model does bring about visible problems. There is a lack of consensus and communication between the front and other parts of the parade, the cost of information transmission becomes higher, and the uncertainty of the interaction between the protesters and the police has also increased. The inexperienced protesters are more likely to be divided into different blocks and to be arrested by the police afterwards, just as what had happened in Hong Kong.
Some other technical strategies could also be learned from Hong Kongers' experiences, such as anti-surveillance techniques. Encrypted communication apps such as Telegram plays a vital role in their protests, information transmission, extensive discussions and online voting are all happening there. In comparison, in the U.S., information regarding the organization of protests, answering patterns to political queries, and other practical issues such as how to protect oneself from tear gas… they are scattering everywhere, Facebook groups, Instagram stories, etc. Other strategies like anti-facial recognition, anti-telegram penetration, the use of sign language and voice-altering devices, could also be useful resources for resistance in the U.S., but this mode of anti-censorship and encryption did not seem to play a part in the current movement.
Among the protests, some historical figures who were once regarded as heroes are now accused of being racists, and their statues have been successively damaged by graffiti, toppling and burning. On June 10th, a statue of Columbus in downtown Boston was "beheaded". The Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi called for the removal of the Confederate statues in the Capitol, calling them "pay homage to hate, not heritage." In London, a bronze statue of Prime Minister Churchill was painted with the words "was a racist". (Churchill denied that American Indians and black Australians had been badly treated, and later said that the British were a better race.).
Along with other events such as the temporary removal of Gone with the Wind from HBO's library of films, people start to query those "overreactions" towards cultural heritage, and some are comparing them to the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution in China. Such opinions could be explained as a post-traumatic stress reaction in local history. However, in reality, it has been a long time that there is no interaction and mutual promotion in the gaming between the street and parliament, between direct and representative democracy— the direct result is that people fail to recognize those unignorable differences between today's movement, which starts from the grassroots, and the Cultural Revolution, which was used by the governing class as a political tool. It's not the right time to scold or to reflect on a historical event by targeting another distinct movement.
Statues can't talk, their meaning, their significance is vested by the history they live through. When we discuss whether the statues of the Columbus should be destroyed, we should first realize that a considerable portion of the “Confederate heroes"’ statues was built in the decades from the beginning of the 20th century to today, synchronized with the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, and white supremacy, these statues have been totemized by the white supremacy movement, and it's questionable how much of them are still related to the historical figures themselves. In the same time, now that a statue bears the great achievements of a celebrity, why shouldn't it bear the task of overthrowing him in the history of the modern era? Every statue's crashing to the ground is reminding people that some historical limitation has been existing in this society for too long. Many of those statues would be re-established, but I hope the world can remember: this guy was pushed down once because of the limitation that still exists.
Also, let's not forget: the winner gains everything, including the power to rewrite history. How many generations of tragic civilians have been bled by the royal family, to create a weak and pure beauty in the dynasty's last days? A common form of rewriting history uses the power of language to make real history look pale, ridiculous, dull, and let the whitewashed become glorious, romantic and plump. Here's an example: Roosevelt's grandfather made his fortune by selling opium in China. When he returned to the United States at the age of 33, he was already wealthy, and he married the daughter of a judge. After his marriage, he took his wife back to China to continue selling opium. After making enough money, they returned to their mansion in New York. When he was 48, he had financial problems and immediately returned to China to resume his old business and continue to sell opium. Opium trafficking is evil, but how does the English narrative beautify it as a great embodiment of heroic adventurism and entrepreneurship? "His (Roosevelt's Grandfather) ‘greatest achievement’ was the expansion of Russell & Company’s trade in opium"; "opium trade proved a ‘complicated’ matter... the Chinese government has made it illegal"; “when many people think that the opium trade has not made money, his ‘experience’ and ‘confidence’ brought him back to China.” (See: Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum https://omeka.hrvh.org/exhibits/show/fdr-family-history/warren-delano).
It is not known how many ordinary Chinese families were directly or indirectly destroyed by the Russell Company's opium trade, but the wealth and status gained from this trade are preserved in historical narrative, in the form of "shoulder-length blonde hair" and "elegant Scottish highland style hats". Under the existing discourse system, even if the narratives of the insulted and the injured are written, few people listen to it. This kind of truth is universal. (For re-examining the legacy of slavery in the United States' history, readers may refer to the 1619 Project developed by the New York Times).
On the other hand, I feel tired of the discussion around removing sculptures, annotating movies and artworks. It's far from overreaction since the other party would not just make a concession, Trump is still rejecting renaming military bases named after confederate generals to dog-whistle the red states, even though it’s only a matter of several hundred bucks to replace those doorplates. Also, in a broader background of racial issues, these are indeed trivial details, the energy consumed on these superficial issues are masking those more in-depth discussions and reforms calling for institutional changes, and it gives people an illusion of social progress. These superficial issues have received much attention because it is easy to talk about, just like posting a black square, not needing the slightest effort. When it's over, everyone feels better, returning home and falling asleep in peace, while the world is still slowly burning. Small advancements that were finally won could easily be all gone, such as the protection of LGBTQ groups in medical insurances, and we're still arguing about whether to add annotations to a movie? It's time to talk about real reform, not sugarcoating.
It's sad to admit that Asians are more reluctant to be involved in this worldwide wave. It could be excused, especially in mainland China, that massive manifestations are not allowed, people are not able to use the street as a platform to show their support as they could in the U.S. However, in Chinese social media, or even among those who currently live inside the U.S., they're observing things happening from a safe distance, with a mixed attitude of satire (about political correctness), incomprehension (of why people are risking their lives during the pandemic), and anxiety (about their peaceful life being interrupted).
The reasons are multi-layered. Their indifference (even liberal-minded) to racial issues seems to primarily stem from the belief in meritocracy, which is even more absolute than that of most white Americans. They believe in the Order, and would spontaneously support those who maintain it. Protests, in the form of deviating people from normal life, are not recognized as a proper way to participate in social affairs.
However, this world has never been a place where one could easily succeed as long as she has “merits”. The "Law and Order" system of police-prosecutors-judges (as well as the prison system) is also not functioning as one may think. They’re able to set their own legislation and even legislative procedures. For example, U.S. prosecutors and certain judge positions are produced by election, so they would scatter these election dates in off-years without general elections, resulting in meagre turnout, and most of the voters were police themselves and white elderly people who always love the police. They have achieved the maintenance of its own power under the surface of democracy. When police violence happens, they would make an internal investigation to make a conclusion, which is naturally of great benefit to the police. The police who have been brought to justice because of violent acts are literally few in number. A few days after prosecutors in Minneapolis charged an officer with murder in the death of George Floyd, the president of the city's police union denounced political leaders, accusing them of selling out his members and firing four officers without due process.
And are protests effective to change the status quo? You can tell a story about civil rights in which Martin Luther King made an excellent speech and then the government changed — he did make good speeches, and government policies did change, but much other stuff was happening at the same time. According to Daniel Q. Gillion's research (Protest and Congressional Behavior: Assessing Racial and Ethnic Minority Protests in the District) in 2012, where he used protest data and congressional votes from the 87th to the 101st Congress, representatives are attuned to the social conditions of their district and use minority protest as an informative cue that shapes their congressional voting behaviour – it's not only a way to participate and express your attitude, every action taken here could gain congressional support for minority interests.
Another factor is that many Asians are to some extent hostile to the Black. An example is their dissatisfaction with the admission regime of universities, which in their view has been giving the Black unfair priorities and therefore reduces Asians' chances. Let’s get back to the origin of such a regime. Since World War II, in the progress made by the United States in eliminating institutional discrimination, there has still been a gap between procedural and substantive equality, equal opportunities and equal results, legal equality and social equality: the former has basically been achieved, the latter is still far away. In the 1960s, President Kennedy first proposed the concept of "affirmative action". What is "affirming"? Affirming historical bias: black people have been oppressed and discriminated against for a long time, now they are given equal opportunities on the surface, but this is exactly the inequality that has accumulated in history. President Johnson made a metaphor: this is like putting a person who has just been freed from shackles in a 100-meter race to compete "fairly" with other normal players.
Therefore, to be truly fair, it is necessary to prioritize ethnic groups who have been deprived of equal opportunities in history, such as priority admission programs in the universities. Black people have been discriminated against, resulting in bad economic status and education level, which affects their next generation's education. If they are only admitted on an equal basis, black children will not be able to enter a good university for further study, which in turn will affect their children's equal opportunities in the future.
Many misunderstand the system as it reserves a certain quota for the Black. This is not the case. In 1974, white students who applied for the University of California challenged its priority admission plan, believing that it constituted "reverse discrimination" against white people. The Supreme Court ruled that the University of California's practice of reserving places for black students is unconstitutional. So far, the only allowed regime under the quota idea is Texas’ Top 10% Rule, where the top 10% of students in each high school automatically go to college, and the remaining places are divided by other students. Even this law was challenged before the Supreme Court twice, and in the end, it was a close 4-3 verdict shortly after Judge Scalia's death.
To reduce historical discrimination as soon as possible, what the law allows is to take a diverse background, including ethnicity, gender, whether the candidate is the first college student in the family, etc. into considerations to expand the upside of vulnerable groups purposefully. What do the resources accumulated by your ancestors reflect on you? The current regime requires the school to look up at the starting point and measure how far the candidate has run, what qualities she possesses, and how much effort she has made, to judge her.
This is of course still an afterthought remedy, and there are many problems in implementation, but with so many white supremacists oppose it gritting their teeth, to the extent that they need to unite the Asian group to kill it, its role in the system should not be obliterated.
Think about it in another way. If, in the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, black people complain that they get less attention at the moment, would it have any positive effect? Social revolution has always been tortuous and complicated, and it is precisely because of this that the disadvantaged groups should particularly not be stingy about expressing their voices, let alone be jealous of each other. Why can't we think of BLM as the resistance of all people of colour to white supremacy?
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Zhuo holds a bachelor’s degree from Wuhan University in China. She is a recent L.L.M. graduate from the School of Law, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Enchanted by the complexity of our world, she is mindful of illustrating the cause of significant events with expertise. She is interested in issues of human rights, entertainment, and feminism. She aspires to contribute her passion to the process of writing and publishing, and to contribute towards the well-being of the general populace.