It was the best of scenes. It was the worst of scenes.
The NYC protest scene is dividing into two factions: One on the surface which features a slew of camera-happy groups and individuals looking to cash in. The other, a burgeoning underground of people sick to death of the scene’s dominant faces.
Before diving into the two factions that have begun formulating, I want first to discuss the perspectives held by people entering the scene.
There are at least three dominant ‘topics’ that draw people into the protest space:
3. Anti-bigotry (this one is a huge category covering queer, disabled, feminist issues)
The Black Lives Matter movement is inherently and explicitly an anti-racist movement. White supremacy is baked into capitalism and capitalism relies on the machinations of white supremacy to maintain its oppressive hold on all of us. Opinions on how we get to the point of abolishing white supremacy vary based on what is being prioritized in individual actions. For example, a small business owner might decide to make their cafe bathroom open to all protestors without needing to purchase anything. An organizer might prioritize centering queer voices in all their actions. A reporter might focus on the ties between Democratic mayors and the police forces they oversee. Whatever the mode, the end-goal remains the same. The difference is simply a matter of deciding how you want to get there. This is why I previously wrote that the protest space depends on what you’re looking for in the scene.
In Portland, the Wall Of Moms faced backlash after the ‘leader’ decided to make the group a 501c3 non-profit, silencing Black voices in an effort to pivot the group into a broader, more lib-friendly entity. In LA, so-called ‘leaders’ have been attempting to instigate situations that are good photo ops. In NYC, megaphones have become synonymous with clout-chasing hacks who show up to actions solely to yell at police from the safety of a barricade so they can post cool photos of themselves on Instagram looking tough. I can only speak to the NYC scene, since that’s where I’ve embedded, but suffice to say there is a chronic issue with clout-chasers in any protest scene. The difference is NYC has been dominated by the clout more than anything else.
There’s a lot of questions floating around behind closed doors as to why we haven’t seen action on the level of LA or PDX. My read on the situation is that so many people flooded the scene looking to make a name for themselves that they are now locked in a tricky situation: Anyone in the scene who spent the last few months building their Instagram following has been tracked, targeted, and likely harassed by police. They’ve shown their faces and happily let themselves be photographed at every turn. As a result, they can’t lead anything besides nonviolent marches full of ‘protest police’ who do the cops’ jobs for them.
Organizers for an action I covered earlier this week were ‘amazed’ they didn’t encounter much of a police presence. They didn’t seem to realize it’s because the NYPD knows nothing will happen: People walk a lot, maybe they yell at some cops from behind a barricade, get tired because they just walked over a whole fucking bridge, and then go home. Of course the NYPD isn’t bothering to gear up and tamp down on these actions. It’s not disrupting anything. Why waste the energy when they could just cruise behind the protest in their air-conditioned cars watching Netflix?
At that action, protest police harassed me as I was attempting to film from a three foot tall cement block despite my repeat insistence I was fine and safe. Also at that action, the crowd numbered at least 600 yet protest police insisted everyone take only one side of the street — actively avoiding even the hint of disruption.
I’d again like to highlight that because many organizers rushed to the scene hoping to get their picture on the front page of a paper, they’re inherently incapable of leading anything but nonviolent protests with a boatload of internal policing. The scene here is rife with long walks glorified as activism, tricking people into thinking their tired feet are proof of Doing The Work. Organizers of these actions either don’t realize or deliberately ignore the reality that if walking around a lot did anything but burn calories, we wouldn’t still be doing it fifty-seven years after the first March on Washington.
The Enemy of Your Enemy is Not Always Your Friend
The NYC protest scene is effectively being suffocated by the number of people and groups desperate to cash in on a movement, centering what should be a push for radical change on gaining Instagram followers.
Seemingly endless focus on long walks advertised as something radical.
Clout-chasers instigating without any tactical fallback plan to boost their own profile and gain ‘bragging rights’ over how many times they’ve been arrested.
Scuzzy cult-like groups (RefuseFascism which is NYCRevClub which is RevCom which is a literal cult, NYCMarchers) who co-opt and leech off actions in an effort to rake in donations and make bystanders think a march is ‘theirs’ when all they did was show up with a banner and some megaphones.
People in the scene are sick to death of these parasites. Nothing changes, nothing is built or destroyed. One activist I spoke with noted a moment of awakening when they suddenly realized the group they had devoted all of their energy to was not doing work that aligned with the movement. Another activist noted that a formerly ‘trustworthy’ person in the scene had begun aligning himself with RefuseFascism, and he likely did so because RF focuses on getting money over everything else.
They play the same game for every presidency: Under the RevCom banner, this same group opposed Obama. They also opposed Bush. They’re enjoying some popularity as “RefuseFascism” now because everybody actually hates Trump. They speak radical but act based on what will drive funds. The NYC protest scene knows their game and people in the scene hate them. Yet organizers for glorified walks haven’t figured out effective strategies to prevent them from leeching. One option: Use marshals (aka protest police) to surround RF people passing out pamphlets to block them from doing so. Another option: block them from joining a protest with their banner/signs/stickers. These aren’t hard ideas to think of but organizers are so allergic to confrontation, they don’t bother — and RF exploits this just as much as the NYPD.
Be The Change You Want To See In The Scene
I recently created a small group chat where people with different ties to the scene can alert me to actions or updates or explanations on various dynamics. For their safety, I won’t elaborate beyond noting that in this tiny group and from it I have a centralized resource for intel across the entire scene. The people in this chat have no interest in clout-chasing or the money-hungry side of the scene. They all prioritize anonymity, which is crucial for me: I don’t have to worry about someone teasing an action in the hopes of getting free coverage for what is essentially a waste of time. I don’t attend RefuseFascism events because all they want is free promotion for their scuzzy cult. I don’t attend single-organizer actions because they’re just looking to build their platform. And I also no longer bother with actions that tease possibly ‘taking over’ bridges when in reality they’ll just be walking over one side of them with police trailing behind. Because they don’t do anything.
Over on twitter, I analyzed my read on why NYC hasn’t gotten to the level seen elsewhere. It summarizes some of what I’ve touched on above. One crucial aspect in my analysis seemed to be fairly new to many: The people sick of yet another march have all spent the past few months building networks with likeminded people. They have the ability, the anonymity, and the focused strategic knowledge needed to organize. All they have to do is… do it.
In my Source Chat, people were venting their frustrations after a march. I casually dropped my thread and noted it seemed reflective of what they were discussing. It seemed to flip a switch: Since posting my analysis, I’ve seen people in a variety of chats come to the realization that marches aren’t working. Some chats spoke more broadly on “what’s your end goal and how do you get there?” Some focused on nailing down logistics: What protective gear should people bring? How can we improve security? What’s the best platform for assembling a list of discussion topics that can be shared without concern? What does an effective action look like?
The shift in focus seems sudden. In reality, it’s the natural course for a large community of people who are bored of walking over bridges and then patting themselves on the back for it. As I write this, protestors who went to DC have gotten a taste of what type of things they need to be preparing for –– and how their photo op-focused behavior is extremely not the vibe. Spoiled by the inaction of the NYPD, it never occurred to them that more needs to be happening. Now that it’s clicked, they’re suddenly hearing all the things the disenfranchised underground has been saying this whole time.
Creating an anti-racist society doesn’t come from creating a community of people who aren’t racist within that society, but from engaging in actions that fight against the systems that uphold racism. The movement can be anti-racist but the actions of that movement have to prioritize abolishing the things that rely on and feed off white supremacy.
Knowing a march will get leeched and overtaken by groups unwelcome in the scene, knowing a march will be just a long walk with in-group policing, knowing people will show up just to get their picture taken — tons of protestors who’ve been in the action since June know all of this. A growing number of protestors are realizing — some might say way too late — that the tactics being used in the above-ground scene aren’t working. What they do with that knowledge remains to be seen.
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