White Privilege and Nonviolence, Or: How I Learned to Stop Riot Shaming and Hate the Police

London, December 9, 2010. I am looking into the eyes of an officer as she holds a truncheon in prime position over my skull, watching her hesitate, debate with herself, and ultimately decide to not strike me as I slip past the police line through an alcove in the wall, holding hands with two female friends, and escape.

What made her decide not to hit me? Was it my gender, my whiteness, my equally white, cisgender, and female-presenting friends? Was it doubt? Gender conditioning that encourages women to be “soft” and conciliatory? Some of her male colleagues on the line didn’t refrain from beating others who begged to be let out. Elsewhere at the same protest, Alfie Meadows, a young white man, was truncheoned by a cop, resulting in a severe brain injury that very nearly killed him. Many of my friends were also beaten.

Riot cops are scary as hell, and I’ve seen them do awful things to peaceful crowds. Riot cops aren’t there to stop a riot – they’re there to stop protesters of any kind from entering into space that they’ve been ordered to “protect”. Step out of line, and you get a truncheon in your face. Their orders are to defend the space by any means necessary, not just from angry young men but also from children, expectant mothers, pensioners, and disabled protesters. Many remove their name badges (which is illegal) to avoid accountability.

At some of the London demonstrations I went to during the peak protest moments of 2010-2011, black bloc types formed a front line at the crowd, exchanging blows with police officers. Some would call this violent and dangerous – but to me, as I stood there on the ground, I saw how these tactics allowed the crowd to move forward, and how they protected myself and others from being batoned or charged at by police on horseback (mounted police pull back in response to these altercations). I personally would never commit an act of violence against a person, and I don’t have any intention to damage property, because it’s not my thing. But it would be foolish to not acknowledge that these tactics allowed me to be nonviolent. Others had taken up the cause of self-defense: I could just stand there and shout.

My whiteness, my femaleness, my skinny figure and bony arms, my class background, and I daresay my looks as well – all these things make it relatively easy for me to present as a non-threatening, nonviolent protester. I recall a group of high school girls in their uniforms who had cut class to attend the December 9 protest, holding hands in a circle around a police van to “protect” it from violence. Images of their virginal defiance were praised throughout the liberal media, where the girls talked about “sending the right kind of message”, distinguishing an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy of “good” and “bad” protesters.

I can sympathize with them a little bit, in that the police containment did bring out a Lord of the Flies-esque response from some groups of youths inside the kettle.  But they were na├»ve in blaming protesters for this instead of calling out the police for the psychological torture that kettling imposes on people. Containing thousands of angry young people in the cold for hours (and then subsequently cramping them onto a bridge so tightly that people could hardly breathe) in order to provoke them to incite the violence that justifies police heavy-handedness is a deliberate tactic that is used by police forces all over the world in order to discredit protest movements through negative media coverage. That's why they call this tactic a "kettle": eventually, the crowd boils over. Many people later said that the police van that the school girls unsuccessfully attempted to protect had been left there on purpose. And I didn’t mind people in Parliament Square setting fire to placards and to the single portapotty they’d been given to accommodate several thousand people, because it was fucking freezing, my feet were numb from the cold, and we weren’t allowed to leave.

I noticed on December 9, one of the most racially diverse large-scale protests I’ve ever attended, that among the people throwing placards at police, young working class men and men of color were more likely to do this without concealing their faces or wearing nondescript clothing. The self-organization of university students (mostly white and middle class) ensured that they knew about police surveillance, they knew that a CCTV image of your face and an identifiable item of clothing are all that’s needed for the police to come around to your home later and arrest you. Towards the end of the student movement, a lot (but not enough) of activists criticized self-appointed leaders for continuing to organize large-scale protests, because they so often ended up with young men of color having to deal with criminal convictions. I recall a young black man who showed up at the student occupation of UCL (where I was studying at the time) later that night and asked for advice on a citation he'd been given for throwing a brick at the police. Everyone ignored him and we pretended he wasn't there. 

(Sidenote: I’m pretty wary of police body cameras as a preventative tactic for police violence. The omnipresence of CCTV, smartphones, and media cameras hasn’t stopped it from happening in the UK, and this data is now used to track everyone who attends a protest and to build a file to be used in the event of any criminal charges. Like CCTV, body cameras are also potential surveillance tools in the tracking of the every day movements of Muslim Americans. It’s what advocates for police accountability processes from affected communities in Baltimore are asking for though, and there seems to be a link between their use and decreased police violence, so I’ll support it, but it’s with a heavy heart).

The winter of 2010-11 showed me why my more experienced activist friends, including those with an expressed commitment to nonviolent protest, always refrained from criticizing acts of property damage, or even violence against police officers. I’d already heard of many instances of baton charges and vicious dogs let off the leash into crowds of 100% peaceful protesters. I’d then seen the media aftermath, the regurgitation of police press releases that always blamed “rogue elements” for becoming violent and endangering the lives of police officers. Because the presence of riot police at any protest means that the state has already judged you as a violent force, no matter what you do. And the purpose of the police containment that I managed to escape on that cold December night was to make everyone exit through a bottleneck, so that they could photograph and ID every single person present.

When the London riots happened, a handful of friends who volunteer for the Green and Black Cross, which provides legal support to London-based protests, immediately went to the scene as legal observers, handing out “know your rights” cards to young people as they took to the streets after the murder of Mark Duggan, a black man, by a police officer. The people of Tottenham were less organized than the Ferguson protesters, who managed over a longer period of time to create a new social movement that channeled collective anger at police violence into (mostly) peaceful protest. The impressive scale of organization and training in Ferguson doesn’t make the response in Tottenham that spilled out across race and class lines into other communities in the UK any less valid. Ferguson could count on the support of white social justice organizations, of progressive black organizations, even from the US climate movement. In London, it was just a small handful of individuals showing up uninvited to very risky environments to act as legal observers, and attending the trials of numerous “rioters” in the aftermath of the witch-hunt (around 2,000 convictions) that followed.

This tweet has been making its rounds on social media (I’m unsure of its origin): “White privilege is the ability to be outraged by the Ferguson decision rather than terrified by it.” White privilege is also the expectation that you can protest something and not get the shit kicked out of you by police. Not that this doesn’t happen to white people (it does), but most white people don’t carry that expectation because we are less likely to know someone who’s been through that experience. White privilege is the expectation that police act as protectors of the community rather than the violent arm of a repressive state. White privilege is the resolve to respond to a crisis like this by voting the correct people into office. These expectations spill over into the respectability politics of the black middle class, people like Alderman French, and organizations like the NAACP, but they are rooted in white supremacy – because white people are more likely to see the police performing the job they are supposed to do, and that is the environment that respectability politics aspires to.

I only went to one or two other confrontational protests after December 9, 2011. Watching your friends get beaten up again and again is pretty upsetting. The court cases that follow (especially if you view the riots as a release of unresolved tension from that winter – as I do) are even more demoralizing, and I’m ashamed that I spent that August and September eating beans and toast and writing my Master’s dissertation (focusing on effective tactics in a US protest movement, ironically) instead of going to the courts to relieve my sleep-deprived friends who had practically taken up residence there.

Privilege is what allows people like me to step away from danger when things get messy. It encourages us to decide that comparatively meaningless things in our lives – like meeting an academic deadline, or even just doing nothing at all – is more important than making an effort to show solidarity at the time when it is needed most. Privilege is congratulating a private school and Ivy-educated white female CEO for smashing the glass ceiling, while sitting on your butt and condemning the oppressed for smashing windows. Privilege is seeing a riot as an ungracious act by poisonous individuals, rather than a patterned response to systemic oppression. Privilege is never ever feeling unsafe in the presence of a police officer.

In the wake of the Grand Jury decision, white friends of mine are reflecting on their own privilege. Many are asking what they can possibly do to help. Clearly, there’s a lot to do, and there are going to be many suggestions, some from voices that are more worthy than my own. Challenging the orthodoxy that any spark of violence or disorder in a social movement is a justification for the collective punishment of entire communities is on my list. The idea that the oppressed only deserve your solidarity if they act “civilized” is a racist and bullshit perspective. I keep hearing white people say things like “violence alienates people”. No. The problem isn’t when the oppressed get violent. The problem is the movement policing of white liberals who quote MLK but ignore the words of Malcolm X and Angela Davis (let alone Frantz Fanon) when advising black people on how to react to systemic racism.

State-sanctioned violence is extremely effective at putting people – entire populations – into shock and submission. Legal support for ALL protesters, including for individuals who face charges of violent disorder (EVERYONE deserves representation and legal advice), is the most pressing need that I can think of. Ferguson’s legal support network is a collectively built substitute to for our broken criminal justice system, and it is going to need a lot of money in order to perform to its full potential.


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