Get Off the Activism Sidelines

Personal reflections on supporting the Injustice Boycott led by Shaun King

I joined Shaun King’s Injustice Boycott when it was first announced because I believe in its goal: to take an organized stand against racial injustice and police brutality in the United States of America.

Monday, King launched the boycott with an email to those of us who had signed up, describing the five-week roadmap to the boycott’s first milestone. Aimed at Standing Rock, San Francisco and New York City, the boycott asks — at this stage — for its supporters to take small, definite actions each day. He writes:

“It’s an organized resistance, driven by local people and activists, supported by passionate believers all over the country and around the world. Just as the Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted for 381 days, we are prepared for this boycott to last as it takes to make change happen. Indeed, we won’t stop until it does. This boycott will not weaken, but will grow in size, strength, reach, and power every single day.”

Yesterday was the first action: tweet NYC mayor Bill de Blasio, and demand the firing of the NYPD officer who was videotaped killing Eric Garner.

And yet, it gave me pause. To move from a passive statement of solidarity to tweeting the mayor of NYC to demand a man’s firing seemed somehow extreme (which — what?!). I never thought this was going to be more than an economic opt-out. The cop was never charged. Innocent till proven guilty. So many rationalizations. As I examined my discomfort I was appalled at how easily we look for reasons to believe in the system we assume is designed to protect us.

Eric Garner’s death was ruled a homicide. It is a homicide caught on video. A grand jury refused to indict the man who committed that homicide. He is still working for the NYPD. My taxes are still paying his salary. My friends are still unsafe because of the systemic, racial brutality that allows this. I am the beneficiary of a racially privileged system. And now, I’m signed up to act in solidarity with others who want our legal justice system to stop reinforcing white supremacy through systemically racist policies.

King has been the source of his share of controversy, but I believe in his message and have seen him push back against racial injustice in his writing for months, if not years. Why, then, is the simple request to send a tweet something I find so strangely fraught with insecurity? Some of that can be explained by how fake “facts” and twisted meanings have become de rigeur in today’s political discourse. Verifying information fed to you by someone else is both necessary and responsible.

But some of it comes down to fear of challenging an established social and political order, publicly and repeatedly, and that is a personal challenge I have to overcome. My gut reaction, “I don’t want to start a witch hunt,” is quickly followed by the realization, “THERE IS VIDEO OF THIS OFFICER KILLING A MAN”.

Doing the work of an ally means putting aside your fear and helping boost the signals of the people you’ve agreed to stand in solidarity with. This means reexamining discomfort and, when something inside you challenges what you know is moral and right, challenging it right back. Interrogate the privilege that gives you pause. Don’t follow your first instinct without questioning.

As I once read on reddit: your first thought shows how you were raised; it is the result of years of experience and participation in a dominant culture. Your second thought (and by extension, the actions that follow) is the one that shows who you are. In this case, my first thoughts — hesitancy to participate in what could be seen as a witch hunt (despite the facts of the case clearly showing the contrary) and a resistance to the idea that this was not just a financial boycott — needed to be interrogated and understood, rather than either blindly accepted or dismissed.

Why? Because doing the work of an ally means taking ownership of that second thought. It also means that when you declare support for a cause, you do what marginalized populations ask of you. In Standing Rock’s #NoDAPL effort, for example, water protectors asked for donations of supplies, but asked non-Native supporters to refrain from coming unless they were able to bring those supplies and truly show up to help — rather than treating the water protectors as a curiosity or a stand-in for a music festival. Even though the denial of the easement for the pipeline construction soon followed the announcement that 2,000 US Veterans were self-deploying to help defend the water protectors, it is undeniable that the months of Native organizing, protesting, occupying, and enduring of brutal treatment by a militarized police force were the driving force behind this (temporary) victory.

Standing Rock was an action by Native Americans — their largest national scale gathering in over a hundred years, and it opened a door for an increase in solidarity actions across activist groups. The same is true for the Injustice Boycott. My role is to offer my voice and my support, and not to challenge it because I think I might know better.

There is no defense for the continued abuse of my fellow citizens by police departments and government institutions. It is not acceptable. Police should not have the ability to carry out summary executions of American citizens. When this happens, they must be held accountable. Participating in the Injustice Boycott, which is modeled on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, is a moral imperative. This peaceful, coordinated effort must be noticed and respected by our elected officials.

And that’s not going to happen if those of us who signed up hesitate to perform the peaceful actions requested of us.

And with that, I resolve to Do Better.