What I wanted when I called for a Strike for Black Lives
A personal view on #Strike4BlackLives/#StrikeforBlackLives and #ShutdownSTEM
note: This is my perspective on this, and it should not be interpreted as speaking on behalf of any other author whose name appears on the Particles for Justice website. If you haven’t heard about this action that took place last Wednesday, please see our press page.
I haven’t sat down and read a book all the way through in a while. During the first month and a half of the pandemic, I was actually doing pretty well at keeping up with my scholarship, both in physics and feminist science, technology and society studies. Then the re-opening announcements, including from the University of New Hampshire, came. By then the stories of excessive, unnecessary Black deaths from COVID-19 were everywhere. I saw a quantification somewhere, that without structural racism something on the order of ten thousand Black people would still be alive. Of course, the wide spread of COVID-19 wasn’t a given, but a political decision. And when you decide to let people die in America, that means Black people will be among those hit the hardest, along with our non-Black Indigenous kin.
Back in February when I unfortunately correctly used my “Fermi problem” solving skills to accurately guess the order of magnitude of people who would die, I worried over how to protest the Trump administration’s murderous policies. Folks needed to go out into the streets, but also going out into the streets was exactly what I didn’t want people doing while a highly contagious plague that we have no cure for spread like wildfire among the population. Activists were creative in the face of this, organizing small protests from their cars.
But eventually the people were forced into the streets. A protest for Black lives is always a matter of risking your life because of how police and vigilantes are known to respond, but never in my lifetime has it been so dangerous. Yet it remains painfully necessary. The protests have made some of our dead household names: Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Regis Korchinksi-Paquet. Regis, who was both Black and Indigenous, was murdered next door to the building where I lived some of my happiest moments in grad school. That High Park apartment is where I also once had a traumatizing interaction with what I will politely describe as two extremely cruel Toronto police officers who were the only respondents sent to what was ostensibly a medical emergency. Regis could have been me 11 years ago.
On Monday June 1, 2020 when I first began formulating the Strike for Black Lives idea with fellow Black physicist Brian Nord, what I had in mind was a combination of things. I had heard from Brittany Kamai about her #ShutdownSTEM idea, and I was discussing with Brian an idea he had of his own. I come from a labor family. I am the granddaughter of Selma James, founder of the Global Women’s Strike (GWS), which was launched by the International Wages for Housework Campaign on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2000 and has happened annually around parts of the US, Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and Asia since then. My mother, Margaret Prescod, is one of the two US coordinators of the GWS.
March 8 is not a day of rest for the women and others who participate. Just like the union strikes that my father helped organize when I was a child, the GWS involves a lot of work. A lack of work is not what distinguishes that day. Rather what makes the day different is that it is a refusal to do business as usual.
Brian and I had this discussion not privately between the two of us but in a space that we share with colleagues in Particles for Justice. And that was purposeful — I was thinking out loud in a community that I would want to join me in whatever work I was thinking about doing. And I was thinking it was time for the particle physics community to be dragged into the 21st century. While we may be on the leading edge of asking and answering questions about fundamental physics, the particle physics community remains intensely white and male, not just demographically but also culturally. I mean that unstated expectations of how we will behave — the ways we are expected to act and speak — conform to whiteness. I mean that aggressive, masculinist behavior in discussions is rewarded, particularly among theoretical physicists.
I also mean that there are things that people expect you to be passionate about if you are a particle physicist, and there are a range of hobbies that people typically have. Many of them are nerdy and/or physical activities. Like hiking, that seems to be a big one. As a disabled person, I often feel left behind during workshops at the Aspen Center for Physics because there’s nothing else to do in Aspen but hike, ski, and drink. But I digress. The point is that I learned early as a graduate student that caring about social justice is something that is alright, as long as people don’t see you devoting a lot of time to it. Also, it’s discussed like a hobby, like going rock climbing.
Importantly the movement for Black lives isn’t a hobby. It’s a movement to save my life, my mom’s life, my cousins’ lives, the lives of beloved friends and chosen kin, and the lives of all Black people, including all Black scientists and Black science students. It is not something that people should feel morally justified in opting out of. The movement for Black lives is a human rights movement, and it is a movement against genocidal structures and tactics.
This is what I was thinking when I named the Strike for Black Lives. I was thinking that business as usual in America means death, mass incarceration, and living, constantly, under totally fearful conditions — if you’re Black. If you’re not Black it means choosing whether to care about the fact that we, Black people in America, live under these terrorizing conditions. I was thinking that business as usual needs to stop, so that we can reconfigure the material conditions under which Black lives are lived. And I was thinking, my beloved community of warriors and survivors needs a break. A long, long vacation.
Practically speaking a one day Strike/Shutdown will not achieve these goals. But I knew that realistically I couldn’t call for an indefinite permanent strike and have many people, much less physicists who tend to be conservative about taking social action, heed the call. And I also knew that something is better than nothing. A day where white people and non-Black people of color took up the work of anti-racist action meant that the playing field might be slightly more level for a day and Black people could feel more comfortable taking the day off from being productive or trying to be productive. And if even 5% of the people who take up that work stick with it, then I will feel like we have advanced the cause, which would be a small but real victory, and I will take my victories as I can get them.
We wanted action, not another book club.
All of the people who put their name to the Strike call contributed to the document somehow. Yes, I played a big role in writing it — I’m both the only critical race studies scholar in the group and the only one with a book deal. That doesn’t mean I was the sole mastermind. This was a truly collective effort. I point this out because I want to make a comment about how our strike call, which went live with about 120 pledges from colleagues on June 5, ended:
Importantly, we are not calling for more diversity and inclusion talks and seminars. We are not asking people to sit through another training about implicit bias. We are calling for every member of the community to commit to taking actions that will change the material circumstances of how Black lives are lived — to work toward ending the white supremacy that not only snuffs out Black physicist dreams but destroys whole Black lives. In calling for a strike, we call on people who are not Black to spend a day undertaking discussion and action that furthers this work, while providing Black scientists with a day of rest. Every single institution around the world can and should get involved in this work, and the strike marks an opportunity to recommit to the humanist values which should underpin academic work, including the belief that Black Lives Matter.
In my view, we were articulating a two-pronged desire: a day of rest for Black folks and again, a day where everyone else went on strike from business as usual. What we didn’t want was for everyone else to do what academics always do when talking about racism: hire some professional diversity experts to give some talks, read some books, say they’ll treat Black students better, and call it a day.
We tried to hit this home in our Strike Details where we said:
The strike is not a “day off” for non-Black scientists, but a day to engage in academia’s core mission to build a better society for everyone; see below for suggested actions that participants can take on strike day to educate themselves and advocate for change in their communities. Those of us who are Black academics should take the day to do whatever nourishes their hearts, whether that’s protesting, organizing, or watching “Astronomy Club” . . . Our usual academic responsibilities will be replaced by actions that center Black lives and agitate for change in our communities.
After that last sentence, we listed some examples, and it was purposeful that the first action we proposed was this, “Participate in a protest. If there are none local to you, organize one. Any number of people can form a protest together.” As an intellectual, of course I believe that reading and studying is important. But as a physicist, I know that my own problem-solving activity, “research,” only moves forward when I take action. It is not enough to passively read the textbook, we tell our students. You must work through the equations line by line and then solve problems. A paper does not write itself. First calculations are done, experiments run.
Ultimately what I wanted people to do on the Strike day was show competency in active problem solving and develop a long term commitment to sticking with the problem until it is solved. And for me, it was not just about Black physicists. Yes, we need better learning and working conditions. The bias and loneliness we face is extensive and heavy. I have only been the only Black professor in my department for 18 months, and I am already over it — and I like my department a lot, actually. That’s when we’re allowed through the door and still the barriers to entry are enormous and often totally unyielding.
But my ability to derive the non-linear Schrödinger equation from a minimally coupled action for a scalar field will not protect me from the police. The fact that I might become a person who could learn such a skill did not stop Los Angeles county from allowing a battery factory to poison the ground water that my mother bathed in and likely drank while she was pregnant with me. I found out recently that I, like all kids who were gestated in my neighborhood of east Los Angeles, were exposed to lead in utero. My future as a theoretical physicist didn’t stop my fourth grade teacher from telling all the Black students in the class, when our school reopened after the 1992 uprising, “if you don’t like it here, go back to Africa.” As if my family left Africa voluntarily.
And importantly, my future as a physicist shouldn’t protect me. What should protect me is my humanity, my human rights. No one should have to earn their human rights, but often that is what Black people feel forced to do.
I want Black children to grow up free, knowing the night sky, knowing that it belongs to them too. I want Black people to live good long lives, free of fear of police and vigilante violence. We cannot do this until we confront and end white supremacy and anti-Blackness.
When I called for the strike what I wanted was for particle physicists and academics at large to understand that and to take action in response to it. I understand that this will require spending some time learning. It will also involve making mistakes and having to hear about how you made a mistake. It’s not that different from being a physicist, really. Except in this case, lives depend on your willingness to make the effort.
So if on Wednesday, June 10, 2020 you and colleagues and friends spent the day in meetings, discussions, and listening to speakers — make sure that this is translating into material action that is long term and sustained. Make the effort like Black lives matter, because they do.