Forum — From the February 2018 issue

The Minds of Others

The art of persuasion in the age of Trump

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No Justice, No Peace

By Mychal Denzel Smith

In 1829, David Walker, a free black man and abolitionist in Boston, published Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, a pamphlet that called for enslaved blacks to rise up violently against the institution of slavery. Walker enlisted black seamen to distribute the pamphlet, and within a year it was being read across the South. The Appeal was considered so dangerous that, in Georgia, a $10,000 bounty was placed on Walker’s head, and the mayor of Savannah asked his counterpart in Boston to prevent the publication of a third edition. They were unsuccessful, and Walker even added a new introduction denouncing the hypocrisy of those white Americans who professed to be Christlike while tormenting their fellow citizens. “All I ask,” he wrote,

is that the world may see that we, the Blacks or Coloured People, are treated more cruel by the white Christians of America, than devils themselves ever treated a set of men, women and children on this earth.

And Walker went further, reprinting the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence and writing, “See your Declaration Americans!!! Do you understand your own language?” In doing so, he created a compelling template for black political protest in the United States. The invocation of American ideals, particularly those set forth in the country’s founding documents, has been a tactic used by black intellectuals and activists from Anna Julia Cooper to Martin Luther King Jr., who made music from the words “all men are created equal.” They spoke of black liberation in American terms — asking their countrymen not to change their fundamental principles but simply to start living by them.

Colin Kaepernick’s protest continues this tradition. During the 2016 NFL preseason, Kaepernick, who was then the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, took to sitting on the bench and, later, kneeling on the field while the national anthem was played. Events of the past few years, in particular the killing of hundreds of unarmed black people by the police, had caused a political awakening in Kaepernick. When asked why he would not rise for the anthem, he replied, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Consciously or not, Kaepernick was reprising the argument made by Ralph Ellison in his 1953 essay “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity”:

By excluding our largest minority from the democratic process the United States weakened all national symbols and rendered sweeping public rituals which would dramatize the American dream impossible.

And by kneeling during the anthem, Kaepernick exposed once again the tension between those symbols and the black experience of state violence.

The American delusion of equality, however, prevents us from seeing this unsettling truth. Despite empirical evidence of persistent racism within education, housing, criminal justice, government — within every institution in this country — Americans choose to ignore its continued influence. Anyone who dares to point it out faces a penalty: Kaepernick was cast as a spoiled, millionaire athlete with no real grievances, an ungrateful civilian who abused the flag that American troops had died to protect. Then he lost his job.

Sports pundits often say that before the next draft, Kaepernick needs to convince one of the thirty-two NFL teams that he is committed to football — that he would not be a “distraction” on the field. I have not heard anyone suggest that the United States needs to convince Kaepernick that his protest has been seriously considered. In America, it is the job of the powerless to show the powerful that their moral authority is an illusion. Labor must persuade management to value its work; women must persuade men to stop their abusive behavior. Black people have spent our entire history attempting to convince white people — first of our humanity, then of our right to revel in it fully.

In September, President Trump tweeted that the few NFL players kneeling in solidarity with Kaepernick should be fired. With a single tweet, he lent the voice of government to those opposing the protests, not unlike the mayor of Savannah who sought to halt the publication of Walker’s Appeal. “The very support which they draw from government,” Walker wrote, “aids [slave owners] in perpetrating such enormities. . . . And yet they are calling for Peace! — Peace!! Will any peace be given unto them?”

There are calls for peace and solidarity almost as soon as a protest begins. Order is valued over justice, and pressure mounts for protesters to be reasonable, to organize their protest in a way that does not shock white people or cause them to recoil. But solidarity is impossible under unequal conditions. Peace is not the concern of the agitator. There is a difference between marching in an orderly fashion along a predetermined route with a lawfully obtained permit and chaining your body to the doors of a police precinct. Each may serve the struggle in some way, but only one is a direct attack on power.

Kaepernick’s protest was not Walker’s violent uprising. But it was far bolder than the facile act of standing together with locked arms — a compromise gesture adopted by some NFL players to support him while maintaining their good standing among fans and owners.

The proper role of protest is to dramatize the unequal distribution of power. What protests are not charged with is upholding reverence for the institutions that make them necessary. A brutal system of police, prosecutors, and politicians has rendered American symbols meaningless, and the onus is on the US government to restore their meaning — to convince the marchers and kneelers and petitioners and organizers of its commitment to progress. We achieve peace not by demanding that those who expose our contradictions be silent but by pressuring the powerful to convince the rest of us that there is no reason to shout.

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