Shutting Down Malls and Airports Not Only Makes Sense, But is Necessary Nonviolent protests are performances. I don’t mean that in a disingenuous way, I mean that in the way that nonviolence requires an audience. Injustice is upheld in equal parts by those enacting immediate violence and discrimination (whether that be interpersonal, ideological, internalized or institutional) and by the silence and averted gaze of the “unaffected” masses. When Black Lives Matter Minneapolis shut down 35W last year after Mike Brown was murdered, there was a chorus of white folks yelling “but why do they have to block traffic?”, “I sympathize, I just don’t understand why they have to inconvenience innocent people”, “I’m sympathetic, but this just isn’t the way to go about it”. First, I hope we can all see the irony of those of the oppressor/dominator class suggesting the oppressed protest in a more convenient way. Second, in the systemic oppression of anyone there are no innocent people. Every day each and every one of us either reinforces or deconstructs systems of oppression by what we say or do not say, what we do or do not do. To voice support followed by “but” is not really voicing support, because the question is most concerned by the moral compass of the dominator than with what is the most effective way to achieve justice. There should always be room for critique, but the majority of folks leveraging critique against BLM aren't leveraging critiques against police violence. If you aren't speaking to and fighting against systems and circumstances of oppression then you don't have a right to complain about the tactics being used to fight back against these systems.
Last Winter, after a slew of extra judicial killings of black and brown folks, and as many grand juries and non indictments, BLM Minneapolis and supports shut down Mall of America. Again, the same chorus of, “but why do you have to ruin people's shopping experiences?” or “this is private property, this isn’t right!” came flooding in through social media and the doldrums of the comment sections. Never mind that taxpayers are responsible for much of the construction of the mega mall, and will be for its proposed addition, and thus the idea of what is or is not private property should be interrogated, as should the idea that our laws are valid, or inherently valid, metrics for mortality-last I checked Slavery, Jim Crow, the internment of the Japanese during WW2, Voter IDs, and the war on drugs, were all technically legal. I digress, let's return to the notion of convenience.
This year, after the murder of Jamar Clark in N. Minneapolis by a historically violent, brutal and racist police force in a state with some of the worst wealth and educational disparities, along racial lines, in the country , BLM Minneapolis took to the Mall of America again as well as the MSP International Airport. Again, the complaints. While it isn’t the focus of this essay, the sheer and astounding narcism and privilege that allows (mostly) white Americans to complain that their commute or their shopping experience was made unpleasant while black and brown folks are killed and brutalized by police at an exponentially greater rate than white folks, is staggering. However, not surprising. The list of young men and womyn of color who will not be celebrating any holiday this season, or any season ever again, is longer than any and all of our collective shopping lists, though apparently not more pressing nor longer than our list of facile complaints. The outrage over inconvenience shows a great lack of empathy and humanity, but also of an understanding of social movements and non-violent protest.
Nonviolence is equal parts performance and spotlight. Privilege is in part defined by our ability to look away, to be silent, to not attend the play without repercussions or interruptions in our lives. Anyone who was at the MOA or MSP or on 35w, or 94w shortly after Jamar was killed, who didn’t know much about police violence inevitably knows more now. If they didn’t know the name of Jamar Clark, they do now. The protests either alienated them or brought them to the light and made them question their roles in systemic oppression, but required them to witness the reality of police militarization for even a brief moment. It made them audience members, it required they look, it required they say something. Anything. Even if what was said was racist, hateful or unproductive, they revealed themselves, they interacted, and they watched, and they witnessed. If nonviolent protests does nothing at all it should reveal just who we are, to ourselves and to those around us. Nonviolent protest must disrupt “business as usual” it must disrupt “status quo”, it must not allow the silent, privileged ignorance and optional gaze of white people to continue while black and brown folks are murdered by police, charged and incarcerated at nearly 8 times the rate of white people for the same crimes (committed at nearly identical rates). While cities continue to close school after school and build prison after prison while the the wealth gaps grow larger, brunch and shopping day cannot and should not be enjoyed in the way that they have been enjoyed.
Shutting down Malls is essential as it disrupts the flow of capital and demands an audience, progress never seems to be made until money gets on the table. The bus boycott worked because it nearly bankrupted the bus company and demanded an audience. Imagine if the MOA was shut down every day, it would take less than a month to entirely re-imagine police forces in Minnesota. Imagine the Vikings went on strike. It would take days before those who don’t support the cause would be demanding justice not in the name of justice, but in the name of their own comfort and wealth. Never underestimate the power of the privileged desire for comfort, for it is always held in higher regard than the livelihood of the oppressed. As Assata Shakur says, "Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them." I’m not sure what world those who “just wish these protesters wouldn’t inconvenience innocent people” believe we live in wherein justice has ever been given by the oppressor, but there are two options for resistance, violence and nonviolence. Inconvenience or blood. Justice is not an option, it is a necessity and a right. Yes it is inconvenient to miss a flight or have your errands for the day messed up, it is inconvenient at worst, the way that taking a wrong turn or hitting traffic is inconvenient. Inconvenience is a reflection of privilege, let’s not forget the privilege of owning a car are having the capital to shop for our loved ones. Or have or loved ones still alive to be shopped for.
Regardless of what you feel, that inconvenience made you say something, it made you look, it made you an audience member in our political theatre wherein some of us have the privilege to opt out of, and some of us are born into. In response to the last 400 years of systemic violence, of slavery and lynchings, and police violence, of redlining, of building power plants in black neighborhoods, of burning black neighborhoods to the ground to make way for parks or malls other measures of white luxury, in response to a history of inequitable access to education and housing, employment and health care, in response to a racist war on drugs and mass incarceration, any action would be justified. With knowledge of history, blowing the Mall of America up would have been justified, and yet the masses are in arms because they were late to work or getting home, because their christmas shopping wasn’t done on time. White folks should consider ourselves lucky that folks of color have never done us like we do them day in and day out.
In the age of distraction, in a country founded upon genocide and our collective, subsequent amnesia, nonviolence demands you look, demands you to be, at the very least, an audience member in the systematic subjugation and murder of black and brown bodies. To be inconvenienced, only, is a privilege, and the anger present in the inconvenienced, is rooted in a lack of understanding of both local and national politics and history. Protests demand of the silent masses that they speak, that they say something, even if it is hateful and awful, even if it is violent, because then it is in the open, then they are participating, they are watching, they are forced to look, they make it clear which side of history they are on and just what those of value justice are up against.
Things often get worse before they get better, but nonviolence, disruption, protest, forces the majority to understand that things are bad now, that they have always been. If the same precinct is shut down and the same street marched, the audience is no longer demanded, the protest is easily silenced, it becomes a part of our convenient, daily lives. Nonviolence must up its stakes, it must shut down the flow of capital, it must inconvenience those who have the privilege to look away. When white folks ask for black folks to be “peaceful” what they really mean is silent, is convenient, is protesting in a way which does not disrupt the luxury of whiteness. Sorry, not sorry. If folks of color can survive white people, I think we can survive missing a flight, a sale at The Gap, or getting home a little late.
Michael Lee is a Norwegian-American writer, performer and educator. He has received grants and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the LOFT Literary Center, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, and Intermedia Arts. He is an Ed.M candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can help support his writing HERE.