Identifying and Including Your Allies

A person who has not experienced injustice in their life can not understand how it feels, nor should they be at the front lines of the fight for justice. Instead, they can be pivotal allies to ensure that the battle fought by those seeking justice is not only heard but won. Justice activists are constantly dealing with the issue of where and how allies belong in the struggle for equality. There is a thin line between allowing allies to join the fight and the colonization of a struggle.

On the Standing Rock Reservation thousands of allies arrived to support the tribe protecting its source of water and treaty land. The tribe’s native community welcomed allies, but with strict parameters for participation. While native resilience and self determination is in the foreground, thousands of trusted allies supported their fight in social media, with financial contributions and throughout the media. As the conflict at Standing Rock continues the organizers understand how important it is to include allies to extend their message and ultimately reach their goals.

We saw similar inclusion take place in the 1968 Olympics as John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Peter Norman stood on the medal podium for placing in the 200 meters. Smith and Carlos, barefoot and wearing black gloves, raised their fists as the Star Spangled Banner played. This powerful gesture demonstrated the men’s fight for human rights and the plight for African Americans facing racism and segregation in the U.S. Peter Norman at that time almost seemed non-existent. He was conducting himself in a way in which allies should conduct themselves to create spaces for those experiencing and or fighting oppression.

The example of Carlos and Smith gives us insight into the moments leading up to their stand on the podium in an interview. Carlos and Smith briefed Norman on their planned statement once they got to the podium. The two Americans asked Norman if he believed in human rights, and Norman coming from a racially segregated Australian community, understood the nature of their oppression. Carlos and Smith were caught off guard, thinking Norman would object to their plan, or want nothing to do with it. Norman responded explaining he believed in what they were doing and wanted to support in solidarity on the podium by wearing an Olympic Project For Human Rights badge. Norman did not offer an alternative plan, nor ask to be barefoot, or wear a glove. His silence and wearing of the international allied Olympic Project For Human Rights badge was his place. He understood not to take a lead role. He stood quietly to create an amplified space for Carlos and Smith’s message. Allies create space.

By creating a safe space for people who are experiencing oppression to commune and organize, allies become an integral part of the battle for social justice and change. As protectors of safe spaces they are using their privilege and power for the good of any movement. Norman stood in respect for human rights in spite of the repercussions. In 1968 Australians were living in an apartheid government. Upon returning to his country, Norman was brought before the Australian people as a racial activist. He was requested to denounce the actions of Smith and Carlos to absolve himself of ridicule. He defied to ever denounce the actions of Carlos and Smith. After coming off that podium Norman was outcast by his sport and country. Peter Norman passed in 2006, John Carlos and Tommie Smith carried the casket of their friend and ally the day of his funeral. Carlos shared,

“Peter was a lone soldier. He consciously chose to be a sacrificial lamb in the name of human rights. There’s no one more than him that Australia should honor, recognize and appreciate.”

Tommie Smith and John Carlos pallbearers for their friend and ally Peter Norman.

The Filipina poet Mila D. Aguilar writes in her poem “A Social Democrat”,

Have you ever been with the people?… How can you despise the bourgeoisie? If you cannot despise the bourgeoisie, how can you fight against their underhandedness, which at sometimes is virtually your own?

How can you contribute in a fight against oppression, when you have never been subject to such oppression, or if you are a part of the oppression? After examining the actions of Peter Norman and the allies of the Standing Rock tribe, I see now that someone who has not experienced injustice in their life can not claim to understand how it feels, nor should they lead the front lines of the fight for justice; however they can be pivotal to ensure that the battle fought by those seeking justice is not only heard but won. We can not do anything alone. As humans we depend heavily on sympathy for the collective well-being of humanity. This complex human emotion is responsible for our need to care, nurture and take care of each other. To say that allies are incapable of fighting on behalf of an oppressed group is to deny one of the very basic emotions that makes us human. While allies need to understand their role and avoid colonization of a movement, we must also understand their worth. The power of an ally is undeniably important in the fight for human rights. Allies should be educated and brought into the conversation so they can leverage their power in the direction of social change.

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