Protest 2020: Dangerous Undertow

Rosemary Hennessy, Department of English

I started thinking recently about the double inflection of “protest.” Protest as noun with the accent on the first syllable is a collective coming together to confront a power—the king of the hill, the president of the United States, violence by a specific or a nebulous authority, by white supremacists, the corporate state, its police…. And pro-test, the verb with the accent on the second syllable, as in “I protest.” The difference between the two seemed striking to me. The subject of the second, the verb, is usually an individual and the scope of its action narrow. The noun is a group undertaking. Its objective can be pointed and effective or it can be diffused and diluted despite the powerful display of collective will it can perform.

The noun “protest” has been on our lips a lot as the Black Lives Matter uprisings sparked by the murder of George Floyd have insisted on collective participation, attention, and conversation. Like an undertow or a rip current, the protests against police violence and racism have pulled me, at times even against my will, off course into tumbling depths and toward altered horizons. I set out this spring to pursue a book project and in the wake of this world-wide uprising, I can feel it becoming irrevocably altered.

I am reading now about the early decades of the 20th century culminating in the Red Summer of 1919, when strikes and lynchings irrupted across the United States. Almost a century ago, it was a time that uncannily echoes the protests of today. These uprisings killed over 250 black people but also targeted racial injustice and brought hundreds, at times thousands, of people into the streets to confront factory owners, the state, or the police and vigilantes. This is also a history of the Left, named variously Socialist or Communist, Black or Red, when organizations like the International Workers of the World or the Communist Party USA organized to fight racism as a powerful mechanism of control in class struggle. In some of these actions, white people stood as allies with black men and women. In Bogalusa, Louisiana, some even died defending them.

On the left a black and white photo of three men, the gunmen of the Great Southern Lumber Company. On the right, a newspaper from the day after the killings, with the headline "Loyalty Leaguers Kill Three Union Men."
Above left: gunmen of the Great Southern Lumber Company. Right: New York Times (23 November 1919) report the day after killings.

We might well ask why this radical political will did not survive. When it seemed that white people were willing to die to defend their black co-workers, and when anti-racism was front and center in the Left’s efforts to confront capitalism, what happened–why was that radical politics not sustained? What can we learn from that downturn as we assess the protests of Spring 2020 and try to keep its radical core from going quiet or being absorbed into a new post-racial mainstream? Events that unfolded in “Bloody Bogalusa” hold some answers. 
In her reading of the history of Bogalusa, Barbara Foley considers the forces that conditioned the muting of the Left’s analysis of race and class and the disappearance of alliances between black and white workers.

Nationalism is one agent of the forgetting she identifies. Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, nationalism was a powerful weapon of assimilation, which is to say a soft weapon. Accompanying violent state suppression, incitements to identify with “100 percent American” directed anti-racism alliances away from collectives that targeted the state as the agent of ruling-class interests. The shift was fortified by a Great Depression, discriminatory New Deal relief programs, and the rise of fascism in Europe. The failure to understand race not as biology but as ideology—that is, as a way of thinking that bolsters capital accumulation—is another limit Foley points to. A third is the Left’s approach to labor. Rather than seeing class as a social relation between workers and owners of big capital who control the state and use race ideology to their advantage, the Left organized labor campaigns solely in terms of demands for wage increases. The understanding of racism as integral to capitalism that had once guided protests against lynching, exploited labor, and wide-ranging unmet needs began to fade. While the state and its agents certainly did violently suppress alliances between white and black workers, these alliances were also eroded by the Left’s adoption of discourses that led to much narrower political paths.

One of the most notable features of the 2020 protests against state policing is the broad reach of the analyses it has provoked, disclosing racism as embedded in the capitalist economy, in the founding of the US state, its culture and consciousness. Even when this structural history is there in plain sight, the relation of what Barbara Fields calls “racecrafting” to the intimate and individual dimensions of every day life linger elusively. I am not at all sure that the disclosure of structural racist violence translates into a reckoning with the racism that seeps into life as it is lived, no less protested, by individuals. This is surely one of the dilemmas that defines and perhaps defies the national discussions of 2020. “White privilege” is often the phrase that is used to identify the problem, but it actually does not explain very much.

I think of my former husband, Fred, and his wife Chris, both now part of my extended family, who took on the challenge of protesting white privilege by adopting three African American siblings. They saw their commitment to become foster parents and then to adopt these three kids as an intentional effort to refuse their white privilege. Now 15 years later they see it as in part a failed undertaking. If it was one doomed to offer tough lessons, I wonder how these lessons align with any assessment of the Left’s failures to sustain black-white alliances.
This individual family choice as an example of personal protest is undoubtedly over simplified. It can suggest a white rescue effort that is not true to the series of complex decisions Fred and Chris made and the consequences that unfolded for Dorthy, Michael, and Tanika, as well as for Fred’s two white daughters, Molly and Kate, and Chris’s white son, Nathan. And somewhere in there maybe for me, too. As an example, it leaves unmentioned all of the grey areas that constitute the lived experience of black lives or “white privilege” that punctuate the daily events of childhood, parenthood, neighborhood, and beyond.

Experienced as individuals, but surely not ever just that, the grey area of the everyday harbors the mostly unconscious acts of conditioned blindness or resentment, of individual learning and protest that people enact across the uneven playing fields of racialized life. These acts accrue unaccountable resources and debts, leverage and longings that haunt the historical record, bleed into the present, and surely shape the future.

Not least of all, the example of one interracial family and the seemingly trivial activities of most white people’s everyday easy living leave unanswered the question of how individual decisions to protest as well as collective protests translate into real substantive change. Is protesting through individual actions only significant if it is a continual commitment to protest that calls for structural change? If it does not, and perhaps should not, entail adopting black kids, then what should it involve? Individual acts in everyday activities may barely amount to protest, but surely they, too, are necessary for structural change. Is collective protest in the streets not the opposite of individual protesting, then, but rather its dialectical companion?

I want to think that the protests of spring 2020 have summoned white people to sit with hard questions and to recognize that answering them depends on a total reckoning—with the scale and scope of history and loss and maybe even of love—a profound and disturbing disenchantment. I am starting to think that this reckoning is the undertow of history, the dialectical material energy of protest that I feel pulling me now. It draws me, and perhaps you, too, off course into the dangerous rip currents of a powerful history that refuses to rest. I realize that if I am not terrified, then I am probably not sufficiently attuned to the reckoning it summons, not yet in it.

I want to say: take my hand. Maybe if we both let go and plunge in to the making of new historical currents, we might indeed find ourselves elsewhere.