I Am Critiquing Your Protesting Because I Don’t Want You To Burn Out

Critiques from marginalized people brought me back from burnout, because it helped me figure out what the hell is actually going on.

O n the day of the Women’s Marches I was sick in bed. All around me in the UK, the country was campaigning, on Trump and other issues; my party—Labour—held street stalls and knocked on doors across the country in defense of our National Health Service, calling on everyone to #careforthenhs as even the Red Cross says it is in crisis, after years of systematic privatization and funding cuts.

London’s Women’s March reached 100,000, and cities all over the country held marches and rallies against Trump—including here in Plymouth.

From my bed I watched videos and read reports of the marches on Facebook. They inspired me and lifted my spirits after they were devastated by Trump’s speech, co-written by white supremacist Steven Bannon and laced with terrifying racist and fascist dog whistles. I relished the joy of my friends in the US and the UK, marching with their children and feeling the uplifting atmosphere of so many people coming together against Trump.

But much of the commentary around the marches from some white women, largely new to protest, has troubled me. There they are handing out treats to police, thanking them. They’re taking selfies and putting them up on Instagram for everyone to see, blissfully unaware that police and militant fascists both scan the pictures for targets — and that the most marginalized and militant people who appear in the background of a chic pussy hat selfie are the ones at most risk.

The most marginalized and militant people who appear in the background of a chic pussy hat selfie are the ones at most risk.

Tech entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar brilliantly contrasted these women with more experienced and less privileged marchers in a public Facebook post:

LOOK AT THE PHOTOS FROM DIFFERENT MARCHES.
NOTICE HOW MANY WHITE PEOPLE ARE TAKING MEMENTOS. SELFIES. GROUP PHOTOS. SMILING FACES AS EVIDENCE OF THEIR CERTIFICATE OF GOODNESS AND HAVING-DONE-A-SOMETHING
CONTRAST THAT WITH WHAT BLACK AND BROWN PEOPLE READY THEMSELVES FOR WHEN WE PROTEST. RUBBER BULLETS. TEAR GAS. TASING. PEPPER SPRAY. MASS ARRESTS.
THIS DISSONANCE IS EXHAUSTING AF Y’ALL. FML.

From my nest of blankets, I shared posts like this and pictures like this one, of three white women in pussy hats and a black woman holding a sign saying that white women voted for Trump. On my social media timeline and others, people have complained that such critiques could disrupt the unity of the protests or could dishearten new marchers. But that’s the last thing I want to do.

I’m posting critiques of the marches not because I want to excoriate a certain sort of white women who attended them in a kind of self congratulatory way, new to protests, thanking cops, wearing pussy hats, thinking they’re the second coming. I’m posting them not because I want these women to go away or to burn out.

I’m posting critiques because if these women don’t learn the nature of protest, it will make them burn out.

I’m posting critiques because if these women don’t learn the nature of protest, the nature of challenging the state, the nature of white supremacy, and a radical class analysis, THAT is what will make them burn out.

It made me burn out. I had come from a socialist background and was tired of A To B marches. I wanted to actually fix things. Marches to resolve a particular issue didn’t actually do that, and without a broader analysis of the reasons people march, attending demonstrations that liberals promised would open our borders, or grant abortion rights—but never did—sapped my energy.

I wanted to actually dismantle oppressive systems, and the liberal narrative, by focusing on a march, or an election campaign, and promising me success, wasn’t giving me a route to do it. For me, critiques from marginalized people and people on the left brought me back out of burnout, because it helped me figure out what the heck is going on and where we go from here.

The critiques made me realize that I was part of a historical chain of struggle, part of a series of successes and defeats. I was once someone who thought it was all on me and people like me, and critiques made me realize that that was a privileged, white savior mentality. It was both humbling and liberating to learn that it wasn’t all on me; not only am I not required to lead the movement, it is not my place to do so. I learned that if we lose, we mourn, heal, get back up and keep trying. This context gives me the resilience for sustained struggle.

I learned that if we lose, we mourn, heal, get back up and keep trying.

Critiques connected me with history — everything from the Russian Revolution whose centenary is this year to the civil rights movement — and reminded me that struggle is not safe, it’s not pretty, and it’s not a hobby. Struggle changes your life, and it’s every bit worth it.

A radical critique of the capitalist system puts the actions that each of us take in context. Each march or rally or demonstration, each retweet of left or anti-racist content, each sit in at a lawmaker’s office, each article we write is not simply an individual act thrown into the ether — it’s part of a great living web of struggle that goes back centuries. This type of protest can be sustainable over a lifetime — but in order for it to be so, it must come from an understanding that each act is part of the broad resistance to white supremacy, misogyny, and capitalism.

Through these acts of resistance we make concrete connections, we raise our awareness, and we bind ourselves more tightly in community with our fellows in struggle. We become a coherent group with its own culture, history, and purpose. That binding in community with each other prevents burnout — and critique is a part of it. When I am critiqued it sometimes stings, but that’s trauma talking — and the fact that our social order wants nothing more than for us to blame ourselves when we make mistakes, and to drift away. I have learned to see the critique as what it is — valuable nurture, precious emotional labour given in hope and trust. Now it’s time for people new to protest, frightened and enraged by Trump, wearing their pussy hats, to learn the same lesson — and to draw strength from critique.

John Berger, a Marxist scholar, wrote about these matters in 1968, a year of global struggle and resistance against racism, capitalism and war:

A mass demonstration distinguishes itself from other mass crowds because it congregates in public to create its function, instead of forming in response to one: in this, it differs from any assembly of workers within their place of work — even when strike action is involved — or from any crowd of spectators. It is an assembly which challenges what is given by the mere fact of its coming together.
State authorities usually lie about the number of demonstrators involved. The lie, however, makes little difference. (It would only make a significant difference if demonstrations really were an appeal to the democratic conscience of the State.) The importance of the numbers involved is to be found in the direct experience of those taking part in or sympathetically witnessing the demonstration. For them the numbers cease to be numbers and become the evidence of their senses, the conclusions of their imagination. The larger the demonstration, the more powerful and immediate (visible, audible, tangible) a metaphor it becomes for their total collective strength.
I say metaphor because the strength thus grasped transcends the potential strength of those present, and certainly their actual strength as deployed in a demonstration. The more people there are there, the more forcibly they represent to each other and to themselves those who are absent. In this way a mass demonstration simultaneously extends and gives body to an abstraction. Those who take part become more positively aware of how they belong to a class. Belonging to that class ceases to imply a common fate, and implies a common opportunity. They begin to recognize that the function of their class need no longer be limited: that it, too, like the demonstrations itself, can create its own function.
It’s time for people new to protest, frightened and enraged by Trump, wearing their pussy hats, to learn the same lesson — and to draw strength from critique.

The powers that be would love nothing more than for the pussy hat vision of these marches to be the one that goes down in history. But the critiques remind us that that is only part of the story. The marches are a first step for many women — and they are not the leaders, they are followers of groups like Black Lives Matter that have been in the streets all along. And they need to learn to follow, and to use their privilege to protect and strengthen the movements that directly challenge the brutal order, not to push them out of the way.

The marches are a first step for many women — and they are not the leaders, they are followers of groups like Black Lives Matter that have been in the streets all along.

Only in this way can the white women in pussy hats, new to protests, begin to become part of the whole, part of the self-realized class of resisters that Berger talks about. It is good to learn; it is the only way we can win.

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