Outsiders and Insiders: Reinventing Solidarity in the Baltimore Uprising

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For a few weeks, all eyes were on Bal­ti­more. For some, the gaze of fas­ci­na­tion even trans­formed into a com­mit­ment to come act. Activists, medics, and lawyers from far-away places crowd­ed the city, want­i­ng, sim­ply, hun­gri­ly to help. At Red Emma’s, the book­store-café where I am a work­er-own­er, the phone lines were flood­ed with calls from peo­ple want­i­ng to donate to some­thing, someone—to the store itself, even. The store was packed with out-of-town­ers and well-inten­tioned folks, often white Bal­ti­more res­i­dents, bear­ing bag upon bag of food dona­tions and med­ical sup­plies.

Although Red Emma’s has worked to redi­rect callers to legal defense funds and orga­nize and re-dis­trib­ute dona­tions to cen­ters in West Bal­ti­more, and though we have been a space for black orga­niz­ers and youth to uti­lize, these moments have giv­en me pause. Although a decade of tire­less work has made Red Emma’s a place that the city (and beyond) looks to for lead­er­ship, it has been dis­ori­ent­ing, to say the least, to be cast into a role of author­i­ty because of my rel­a­tive­ly new pres­ence in a rad­i­cal space, par­tic­u­lar­ly as a white per­son who has only lived in Bal­ti­more for two years, and is so clear­ly not from West Bal­ti­more. In these moments, I am struck by the com­plex, con­tentious role of out­siders, both polit­i­cal­ly and per­son­al­ly, and ques­tion of when, and how, it is appro­pri­ate to act.

Among oth­er things, the Bal­ti­more upris­ing has forced all of us to reex­am­ine urgent strate­gic ques­tions about sol­i­dar­i­ty. What does it mean to con­sid­er white peo­ple as par­tic­i­pants in, and not just bystanders to or tar­gets of, a black-led polit­i­cal move­ment? How do we main­tain both the speci­fici­ty of – and res­o­nance between – dif­fer­ent strug­gles? The move­ments against police bru­tal­i­ty and the per­sis­tence of racist state prac­tices in the past year have forced us to reflect on how the ide­o­log­i­cal com­mit­ments of out­siders (whether because they are white or because they are not from the com­mu­ni­ty from which strug­gle has emerged) have been trans­lat­ed into prac­tice. While at times the tac­tics and inclu­sion of out­siders has been pro­duc­tive, the involve­ment of out­siders often risks lim­it­ing the move­ment, or worse, serves as a form of co-opta­tion. In this con­text one won­ders whether the out­stand­ing moti­va­tions for the refusal of black orga­ni­za­tions dur­ing the Black Pow­er strug­gles of the 1960s and 1970s to enter into coali­tions with white co-actors per­sist. This pos­es the ques­tion: what is and isn’t nov­el about the sol­i­dar­i­ty work tak­ing place in Bal­ti­more today? And what can we learn from it?

Black Lives Matter

In Bal­ti­more, the cam­eras only came out when the fires were burn­ing, the win­dows of police cars were shat­tered, and cops were injured. They did not come out for the count­less peace­ful protests and calls for social change that have gone unan­swered. They didn’t cap­ture the mun­dane, quo­tid­i­an strug­gle to sur­vive on the West and East sides, where pover­ty is report­ed to be worse than in some third-world coun­tries. They come out for the spec­ta­cle. Only this time, there was push­back; they were told to get out and go home. Take, for exam­ple, the video of a West Bal­ti­more man con­fronting Fox News reporter Ger­al­do Rivera.

“I want you and Fox News to get out of Bal­ti­more City,” the man said.

It’s not just the media whose pres­ence has been called into ques­tion. The No Bound­aries Coali­tion, made up of res­i­dents of Sand­town (where Fred­die Gray was mur­dered), put out a call for out­siders not from Bal­ti­more and white folks, includ­ing those from Bal­ti­more, to work with the black com­mu­ni­ty not for it.

This call came a day after a peace­ful stu­dent-led protest, which brought approx­i­mate­ly 5,000 peo­ple out on April 29th to march from Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty down­town to city hall. Sev­er­al groups of black stu­dents were at the head of the march, their fists raised to the air. But at Penn Sta­tion, a group of over­whelm­ing white, young peo­ple with flow­ers in their hair, and hip­pie attire joined the march. Their signs read: All Lives Mat­ter, Love is Col­or­blind, and Bmore Peace. One sign even read: Weird lives mat­ter!

It is one thing for All Lives Mat­ter chants to come from black folks. But it is quite anoth­er when a group of white peo­ple chants All Lives Mat­ter. This not only ren­ders race and racism invis­i­ble; it dis­torts and dilutes the spe­cif­ic strug­gle of black com­mu­ni­ties seek­ing jus­tice into an emp­ty, lib­er­al cry for empa­thy and recog­ni­tion. In this con­text, it is a slo­gan that erro­neous­ly attempts to re-cen­ter a move­ment that is not about jus­tice for white folks back onto their lives, open­ing up the strug­gle for Black Lives Mat­ter to the dan­ger­ous ter­ri­to­ry of out­side demands: in this case, the demand to be includ­ed in and rec­og­nized as part of the move­ment, with­out con­sid­er­a­tion for how “equal” inclu­sion might ham­per the mes­sage of that very same strug­gle. Once this lev­el of equal inclu­sion and com­par­i­son of injus­tices enters the dis­course, false and depoliti­ciz­ing impres­sions fol­low. Sim­ply put, the real­i­ties of state repres­sion and police bru­tal­i­ty with­in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or are obscured and deem­pha­sized.

This has real effects in terms of invert­ing and dimin­ish­ing the cen­tral strate­gic aims and demands of the move­ment. Think of the prob­lem­at­ic ways in which the main­stream media and elect­ed offi­cials (includ­ing May­or Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake) spoke of vio­lence as a moral­is­tic fail­ure on the part of black com­mu­ni­ties riot­ing in Bal­ti­more (as opposed to a polit­i­cal tac­tic embed­ded in the vio­lence at hand, whether of the police or pover­ty itself). In this way, the media and gov­ern­ment effec­tive­ly par­dons the vio­lence of cops and white vig­i­lantes. As Ta-Nehisi Coates observed in a relat­able idiom that effec­tive­ly reveals this incon­gruity: “Some humans riot because their school lost the big game. Oth­ers because the state can’t stop killing them.”

Lat­er in the stu­dent march in which All Lives Mat­ters made its entrance, I noticed a young white man with bleach-blonde hair flip­ping his mid­dle fin­ger off at a huge army tank. My part­ner, who is black, peeled off from the march and walked towards this man, afraid, he lat­er told me, that he would incite vio­lence. I was remind­ed that one of my friends wit­nessed, in an ear­li­er march, a few young white pro­test­ers start­ing throw bot­tles at the police and oth­er­wise agi­tate the crowd. Since then she watched them very close­ly, ready, she said, to ask them to stop should they do these same things again. She asked me, and some of our oth­er white friends in the march, to do the same.

In both of these cas­es, the under­stand­ing was that the strate­gic, and polit­i­cal choice of whether or not to pro­voke the police should be left to that of black pro­test­ers, for whom police repres­sion is far worse than that of out­siders. In this instance, it is evi­dent that cer­tain types of agi­ta­tion from out­siders – agi­ta­tion that fails to con­sid­er the input of peo­ple of col­or, the poten­tial­ly neg­a­tive reper­cus­sions towards peo­ple of col­or of such agi­ta­tion, such as arrest, and the image evoked by such agi­ta­tion –threat­ens to dis­tract, and at times deem irrel­e­vant, the strug­gle at hand. Fur­ther­more, the act of defer­ring to black lead­er­ship, how­ev­er var­ied black lead­er­ship might be, is in fact an essen­tial sol­i­dar­i­ty prac­tice. Defer­ring allows for the black com­mu­ni­ties to autonomous­ly make polit­i­cal choic­es, choic­es which have his­tor­i­cal­ly been char­ac­ter­ized by the state as ter­ror­ist, as made clear by COINTELPRO, the FBI project designed to infil­trate and destroy the Black Pan­thers dur­ing the 60s and 70s. If we are to take seri­ous­ly that Black Lives Mat­ter, and not suc­cumb to the lib­er­al coun­ter­part of All Lives Mat­ters, we must active­ly work to ampli­fy the voic­es of the black com­mu­ni­ty, and con­tin­u­al­ly assert that the acts of dis­sent pro­voked by black lead­ers are polit­i­cal and, in fact, nec­es­sary tac­tics with­in a strug­gle for jus­tice.

At the same time, how­ev­er, we need to be cau­tious. Often, we speak as if com­mu­ni­ty is a mono­lith or homo­ge­neous bloc. The black com­mu­ni­ty. The white com­mu­ni­ty. The West Bal­ti­more com­mu­ni­ty. But when we speak of com­mu­ni­ty as if it is just one, neat­ly cat­e­go­riz­able enti­ty, we ignore the way in which com­mu­ni­ty itself is var­ied. Any so-called com­mu­ni­ty con­tains mul­ti­tudes: of peo­ple, his­to­ries, pol­i­tics. While a com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple may be bound by some or many sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences, it is dan­ger­ous to speak of com­mu­ni­ty as if it is unequiv­o­cal and con­stant.

The slip­per­i­ness of the notion of com­mu­ni­ty has been revealed in some of the lan­guage used to talk about the Bal­ti­more Upris­ing. For instance, pro­test­ers in Bal­ti­more often speak of defer­ring to the black com­mu­ni­ty. While defer­ring to black lead­er­ship is, as not­ed ear­li­er, an impor­tant pre­con­di­tion for sol­i­dar­i­ty, we must not lose sight of the fact that the black com­mu­ni­ty is diverse and at times diver­gent in its demands and tac­tics. Some black com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions in Bal­ti­more are ask­ing for spe­cif­ic pol­i­cy and legal changes to hold cops account­able. Oth­ers are speak­ing of sys­temic changes – com­mu­ni­ty-con­trol to replace polic­ing in poor neigh­bor­hoods, and an end to the pover­ty that under­cuts black com­mu­ni­ties.

It rapid­ly became clear that there is no sin­gle black leader in Bal­ti­more, and as many black pro­test­ers have point­ed out, even with­in the black com­mu­ni­ty the lives of black and trans women killed by police are often effaced, despite the fact that the Black Lives Mat­ter hash­tag was cre­at­ed by a group of queer black women. Only two weeks before the mur­der of Fred­die Gray, the life of a black trans woman, Mya Hall, was tak­en by secu­ri­ty forces at the NSA head­quar­ters in Fort Meade, MD, after she made a wrong turn onto a restrict­ed-access park­way. The dis­par­i­ty in the out­rage her death moti­vat­ed com­pared to Gray’s trag­i­cal­ly reminds us that, beneath every rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a uni­form col­lec­tiv­i­ty, there exists a whole series of sub­or­di­nat­ed inter­ests. It becomes cru­cial, then, for out­siders to rec­og­nize cleav­ages and con­tra­dic­tions with­in “com­mu­ni­ties” as they move with them in sol­i­dar­i­ty. It is not pos­si­ble to sus­pend our pol­i­tics here, as there is often a stark choice between the tac­tics and aspi­ra­tions demon­strat­ed from below, from Baltimore’s crim­i­nal­ized black youth, and admo­ni­tions from above.

Comrades, not Allies

At the last march I attend­ed, on May 1st, the day the state pros­e­cu­tor announced charges of manslaugh­ter and mis­con­duct against the six offi­cers involved in Fred­die Gray’s death, I polite­ly asked a white man to give up his mega­phone.

We were march­ing through West Bal­ti­more, yet again. A white friend of mine was dis­trib­ut­ing a fli­er he had put togeth­er, titled: “How to Be a White Per­son in Sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Bal­ti­more Upris­ing.” Points includ­ed: 1. Under­stand Your White Priv­i­lege. 2. Stop Using #All­Lives­Mat­ter. 3. Speak With, Not Over. 4. Do Jail and Legal Sup­port. 5. Talk to Oth­er White Peo­ple. I lat­er brought the fli­er to Red Emma’s, feel­ing that this small piece of paper with clear, digestible bul­let points might be of use to the white peo­ple so hun­gry to help. Copies were put in the vestibule (a space open to, and over­flow­ing with, pub­lic fliers). A friend of col­or lat­er told me about her expe­ri­ence hand­ing this same fli­er out to peo­ple at a ral­ly. She recalled the shifty-eyed looks of the white peo­ple she hand­ed the fli­er to, not­ing the com­par­a­tive friend­li­ness of the white folks receiv­ing the fliers from our white friend. The sug­ges­tion being that per­haps a sixth bul­let-point is need­ed: Lis­ten active­ly and open­ly when peo­ple of col­or engage you about race.

The notion of an ally is not new. Nor is the request from peo­ple of col­or for allies to be good allies. What feels new is the way in which ally-ship is being inter­ro­gat­ed, and the desire for some­thing more con­crete, sub­stan­tive, and polit­i­cal­ly mean­ing­ful than just allies. What of com­rades? Co-con­spir­a­tors? These are terms I’ve heard used as less-ambigu­ous step-ups to ally-ship. As Rev­erend Osagye­fo Uhu­ru Sak­ou reflects: “What we need from white peo­ple is not be allies but free­dom-fight­ers.” Or as Robin D.G. Kel­ley has put it, “We don’t need allies; we want com­rades.”

When call­ing-out the white man with the mega­phone, I was fol­low­ing my friend’s fli­er, believ­ing that talk­ing to oth­er white peo­ple is a cru­cial aspect of sol­i­dar­i­ty work today, but I fear this call­ing-out risked cre­at­ing a dan­ger­ous dynam­ic of good ver­sus bad white per­son. We have to avoid this call-out cul­ture of white folks polic­ing white folks, which can often look like a com­pe­ti­tion to assert one­self as the best, “most-good,” white per­son.

Fur­ther, how can we move beyond call-out cul­ture to devel­op sol­i­dar­i­ty prac­tices that do more than mere­ly present a spec­ta­cle? As Asam Ahmad points out: “Indeed, some­times it can feel like the per­for­mance itself is more sig­nif­i­cant than the con­tent of the call-out.” Ahmad fur­ther warns: “Call-out cul­ture can end up mir­ror­ing what the prison indus­tri­al com­plex teach­es us about crime and pun­ish­ment: to ban­ish and dis­pose of indi­vid­u­als rather than to engage with them as peo­ple with com­pli­cat­ed sto­ries and his­to­ries.”

The night before the may­or lift­ed the 10 p.m. cur­few, a group of pre­dom­i­nant­ly white peo­ple gath­ered in Ham­p­den, a most­ly white neigh­bor­hood, to silent­ly break cur­few. Their objec­tive, as artic­u­lat­ed in their Face­book event, was to reveal how stark­ly racism was impact­ing the police’s imple­men­ta­tion of the cur­few. Down at cen­tral book­ings, jail sup­port crews were busy sup­port­ing the many most­ly young black men who had been arrest­ed in poor Bal­ti­more neigh­bor­hoods for break­ing cur­few by some­times as lit­tle as ten min­utes. Many were being released past cur­few with no means of get­ting home, putting them at risk, once again, for arrest. One woman, I heard, had left her home to get tam­pons after cur­few. When she left cen­tral book­ings her one request was a tam­pon because, one long night lat­er locked up, she still hadn’t been giv­en one.

The silent cur­few played out as expect­ed. A group of cops came and spoke very nice­ly to the pro­test­ers: “We respect why you are here and under­stand what you are doing. Please don’t make us arrest you. This is your first warn­ing…”

And the warn­ings went on. Two, three, four. Report­ed­ly, some cops even offered to help folks get home. The police stat­ed that they would arrest indi­vid­u­als if they did not dis­perse with­in five min­utes. But after five min­utes, the cops mere­ly came back to make fur­ther warn­ings, and still did not arrest any­one. By 10:15 p.m. the pro­test­ers had dis­persed, all safe­ly, and freely, head­ed to their homes.

At least one black Bal­ti­more activist, to my knowl­edge, ques­tioned the fact that the pro­test­ers did not con­tin­ue to break cur­few and there­fore force the police to arrest them. This activist crit­i­cized the silent cur­few protest for sim­ply demon­strat­ing what is already evi­dent to black peo­ple every­day. Some pro­test­ers claimed they were actu­al­ly pre­pared and will­ing to be arrest­ed. Some expressed con­cerns about bail – which was set at incred­i­bly high prices dur­ing the state of emer­gency peri­od – in this instance, it could take away bail resources from oth­ers, as white arrestees would like­ly get pushed through cen­tral book­ing first. The same Bal­ti­more activist not­ed, how­ev­er, that silent cur­few pro­test­ers like­ly had more access to funds and resources – a dip into the bail pool might not have been nec­es­sary.

It is impor­tant to use white­ness as a tac­tic to reveal, as in this case, the racism of the state. But how can sol­i­dar­i­ty go fur­ther than per­for­mance? Must there be some greater sac­ri­fice, and how might that sac­ri­fice act as some­thing more sub­stan­tive than mar­tyr­dom? What are out­siders will­ing to sac­ri­fice – and to what end? Though the silent cur­few was orga­nized as a response to calls for sol­i­dar­i­ty actions from sev­er­al black lead­ers, this by no means rep­re­sent­ed the views of all black lead­ers, and the extent to which the silent cur­few built last­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty remains to be seen. Cri­tiques remind us that, while this action did suc­cess­ful­ly deliv­er its goal of reveal­ing the racist cur­few enforce­ment prac­tices of the police, while defer­ring to the polit­i­cal vision of some black lead­ers, it is still nec­es­sary for sol­i­dar­i­ty work to go fur­ther. What would it mean, for exam­ple, for sol­i­dar­i­ty actions to force the state to do pre­cise­ly what it does not want to do? In this case to arrest a group of peo­ple they express­ly do not want to crim­i­nal­ize. And to use the resources endowed by the state to these indi­vid­u­als to sub­vert, at least tem­porar­i­ly, the race and class-based pow­er dynam­ics the state so des­per­ate­ly wants to con­serve.

Uniting the Struggles

In 2011 when I was liv­ing in New York and par­tic­i­pat­ing in Occu­py Wall Street, protest­ing and march­ing often felt like the most impor­tant thing I could, and should, do. In a move­ment that was crit­i­cized for hav­ing no clear demands and a lack of uni­ty, the one thing every­one did agree on was occu­pa­tion, and protest. In fact, Occu­py, with its slo­gan “We are the 99%,” strug­gled to be as inclu­sive as pos­si­ble, cre­at­ing the feel­ing that every­one was an insid­er. Of course, this was not the case, and women, peo­ple of col­or, and many oth­ers crit­i­cal­ly inter­ro­gat­ed this claim to inclu­siv­i­ty. In this con­text, cau­cus­es emerged as a kind of orga­ni­za­tion­al means of help­ing to cre­ate a high­er, more inclu­sive sense of uni­ty.

The scene in Bal­ti­more is quite dif­fer­ent, and the upris­ing showed that we need dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tion­al mod­els, beyond cau­cus­es or gen­er­al assem­blies, to link dis­parate strug­gles. For one, the cat­e­gories of out­sider and insid­er are being spo­ken of much more urgent­ly and overt­ly, per­haps because the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, unlike Occu­py Wall Street, presents more con­crete demands and high­er stakes tied specif­i­cal­ly to racial iden­ti­ty. In Bal­ti­more, there are those stand­ing on the out­side, whether by choice or because they have been asked to. And there are insid­ers, count­less, whom no one can claim. Both sides strug­gle, and their strug­gles, though cer­tain­ly dif­fer­ent, are nev­er­the­less deeply con­nect­ed. The chal­lenge, then, is to hold mul­ti­ple strug­gles at once with­out los­ing focus. Out­siders must find ways to act with­out dis­rupt­ing the integri­ty of the strug­gle of those on the inside, such that dif­fer­ent strug­gles become linked togeth­er with­out eras­ing the real dif­fer­ences inte­gral to those strug­gles.

In doing so, we must ask what the strug­gle for black lives to mat­ter requires us to do, and what it would mean for the black lives of those liv­ing under state repres­sion in West Bal­ti­more and beyond to tru­ly mat­ter. It is the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the out­sider to not only lis­ten to and learn of the many rad­i­cal visions that have been put for­ward (point­ing towards wider strug­gles, per­spec­tives, expe­ri­ences and real­i­ties), but to live out these visions as they relate to the outsider’s posi­tion and strug­gle, with the under­stand­ing that the cat­e­gories of out­sider and insid­er must them­selves be manip­u­lat­ed and dis­rupt­ed. At times, this requires relin­quish­ing pow­er, at oth­er times, direct­ly, and tact­ful­ly, con­fronting it.

Cre­at­ing inter­ra­cial sol­i­dar­i­ty is cen­tral to the strug­gle to help­ing make black lives mat­ter. This was, in fact, a cru­cial aspect of the long tra­di­tion of black rad­i­cal­ism in this coun­try. We would do well to recall, for instance, the famous Chica­go Rain­bow Coali­tion ini­ti­at­ed by the Black Pan­ther Par­ty, the Puer­to Rican Young Lords, the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can Brown Berets, and the Young Patri­ots, a group of poor rev­o­lu­tion­ary white youths, in the sum­mer of 1969. Lat­er expand­ed to include oth­er rad­i­cal social­ist orga­ni­za­tions, the Coali­tion strug­gled against insti­tu­tion­al racism, state ter­ror­ism, and cap­i­tal­ism, as well the racist chau­vin­ism in its own con­stituent par­ties.

In a stir­ring scene cap­tured in the film Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion 2, Black Pan­ther Bob­by Lee explains at a Young Patri­ots meet­ing, “The Pan­thers are here for any­one who lives in uptown, whether he’s brown, green, yel­low, pur­ple, or pink. When I say the Pan­thers are here, you have to tell us what we can do, and what we can do togeth­er.” He went on, “there’s police bru­tal­i­ty, there’s rats and roach­es, there’s pover­ty up here, and that’s the first thing we can unite on.” The poor whites at the meet­ing, some of whom, includ­ing Young Patri­ot leader William Fes­per­man, had moved to Chica­go from Appalachia, shared sim­i­lar con­cerns, com­plain­ing espe­cial­ly of police bru­tal­i­ty – “you call up the police when nothing’s going on, and the police are gonna come make it hap­pen,” or “they try to put your words in your mouth, make you put your­self in jail.”

The fight against racism, pover­ty, poor hous­ing, and even police vio­lence, the Coali­tion argued, could only be based on rev­o­lu­tion­ary inter­ra­cial sol­i­dar­i­ty. As one old­er white man at the meet­ing put it,  “I’ll stick with the Black Pan­thers if they stick with me, and I know they will.” While we can, and must, chan­nel some of these pow­er­ful insights, the spe­cif­ic forms that such sol­i­dar­i­ty will take today remains an open ques­tion. Among oth­er things, the Bal­ti­more Upris­ing and the entire­ty of the cycle of strug­gles around the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment – in Fer­gu­son, New York, oth­er Amer­i­can cities, and even abroad –  has forced us to con­front a pri­ma­ry strate­gic ques­tion: the rein­ven­tion of the very idea of sol­i­dar­i­ty work.

Author of the article

is a writer living and working in Baltimore. She's a worker-owner at Red Emma's bookstore where she makes mega vegan nachos for people, orders feminist fiction, and helps organize the Baltimore Free School. She can be contacted at chelsea.gleason@gmail.com for inquires about her work.