Today was the 50th anniversary of the iconic March on Washington (an event, by the way, which coincided with the anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder). Naturally, there was a large memorial event, which featured former and current presidents. There’s a sense of destiny in the fact that this 50th anniversary was observed by our nation’s first black President. Whether or not I agree with his policies, I can acknowledge that that’s pretty cool.
What isn’t cool is how a bunch of people on Twitter decided to hijack the occasion. Some people invented the hashtag #IHaveADrone. A few people took the occasion to criticize NSA surveillance alone, and no other government policy.
If you’re commemorating the Civil Rights movement, you should probably be talking about the struggles facing people of color in America today. You could for instance discuss voting rights, or mass incarceration, or stop and frisk. You could even discuss what a shame it is that we’re contemplating military action in Syria which is pretty antithetical to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Dream.” If you wanted to, you could talk about how the government honors the grassroots activists who organized the Civil Rights movement fifty years ago while they continue to harass and spy on activists today. You could possibly even go so far as to discuss how the surveillance state has always targeted minorities to a greater extent than white people.
Actually, Martin Luther King, Jr. (along with other Civil Rights activists) was very anti-war. It would be completely possible to discuss the inappropriateness of current American military interventionism (drones, our impending bombing of Syria, and so forth) in a way that tied back to the Civil Rights movement. It would be completely possible to express concern for all the people of color who are disproportionately harmed by current government policies, whether our fellow citizens, undocumented immigrants, or people living in the Middle East. What isn’t okay is co-opting the most famous, inspirational phrase to come out of the Civil Rights Movement to create a flippant hashtag. I’m not the only one saying this; every single black person I saw comment on Twitter was outraged.
As for the people up in arms about NSA surveillance: yes, it’s immoral and illegal. But if that’s your single issue, you really haven’t grasped the necessity of intersectionality, you haven’t expanded your horizons to care about people other than yourself. I see something among white people which unsettles me. Many of us are unwilling to ever divest ourselves of privilege, to ever stand beside marginalized people of any type, to ever push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. Instead, we remain oblivious to activism and politics until something comes along that affects us directly. Then, we are all over that shit. We interject it into every conversation. We pat ourselves on the back for being so socially aware. And the moment that issue is resolved, we return to being oblivious in our safe little bubble. There’s a difference between an issue turning you on to activism and being a single-issue activist. The latter is destructive, tends to tempt you to make everything all about yourself, and turns off a lot of real activists to your particular cause.
When we speak about issues we care about, we must never be blind to how our way of speaking might affect others, especially those we might want to be allies to. And when we use a certain event or person as our jumping-off point for conversation, we must especially be historically and culturally sensitive. A little information, a little intersectionality, and a little sitting back and listening to others before speaking goes a long way. You can be offensive to those in power. You can punch upward, always. But when you’re outraging your fellow freedom fighters, running roughshod over the important issues of their lives to promote your single issue, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate your approach.
And I need to evaluate my approach too. Earlier today, I threw out some tweets on this topic which overstated my case, making it sound like I thought everyone should just shut up about drones altogether. I was called out on it by someone who does a great job of addressing important issues in a really intersectional way, prompting me to write this blogpost more fully explaining my thought process.
One more time: I don’t like drones. I don’t like NSA surveillance. I think many of the Obama administration’s policies are deeply fucked up. But there are always better and worse ways of communicating these ideas. All of us need to think before we speak, and we need to make sure we’re speaking from a truly broad and deep field of knowledge and concern rather than sounding the same tin trumpet over and over.