On Monday, June 8, a couple dozen congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, attempted to honor the memory of George Floyd by kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall; they were all wearing stoles of kente cloth. It made for a marvelously cringey spectacle, though an apt one.
All around the country, hundreds of thousands of protesters have risked coronavirus infection and escalating police brutality by taking to the streets, successfully building on decades of abolitionist organizing to dramatically shift the Overton window on the idea of defunding and demilitarizing police departments across the United States. Meanwhile, these lawmakers — as they announced a police reform bill that activists are calling woefully insufficient, and just a few days before Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden proposed spending $300 million to “reinvigorate community policing” — decided to stop short at using African cloth as a political prop to demonstrate their commitment to the cause.
This well-intentioned stunt, an idea that originated from the Congressional Black Caucus, was appreciated by some of its audience but widely flamed on Twitter as a parody of congressional showmanship and ineptitude — something that could have been dreamed up in the Veep writers room. Ultimately, it reads as just the latest bit of performative absurdity from powerful people who’ve long avoided real accountability for causing or excusing Black suffering.
For many, it is no longer enough for those in power to make mere gestures of solidarity with Black people without also doing the work.
Sometimes — a lot of the time, really — these performances work. For most (white) Americans, or at least those who aren’t activists or organizers or obsessive politicos, it’s often enough for leaders to at least look like they’re doing or saying the right things. Democrats and Republicans alike who find themselves longing for the guidance of presidents past — who still think there’s a world in which we could conceivably “go back to normal” — aren’t so much hungering for better policies, but for better optics. Trump, though he’s finally lost the support of some Republican leaders who say they won’t back his reelection, has nonetheless faithfully (if oafishly) executed much of the Republican agenda, from rollbacks of LGBTQ rights and environmental protections to flooding the courts with conservatives. Meanwhile, the liberals who wish Obama were still in power are banking on the symbolic promise of our first Black president, even though, as Cornel West put it to Anderson Cooper in a recent viral CNN clip, “the Black Lives Matter movement emerged under a Black president and a Black attorney general … and they still couldn’t deliver.
So why all this nostalgia? Why are people like Katie Couric longing for Obama and George W. Bush to jointly address the nation as if the problems we’re facing today — born from systemic racism and unchecked corporate greed — didn’t flourish under both of their tenures? Why has Biden been able to run a successful campaign practically fueled by Obama-era reminiscence? It’s nostalgia not for policy so much as performance — for men who were more “presidential” and respectable than Trump, with his openly racist clownery, and for leaders who knew better than to say the quiet parts out loud.
Identity representation politics and gestures of symbolic support for Black lives (and queer lives, and poor lives) aren’t going to cut it; they never did to begin with. But Democrats are still trying to win their battle against Trump by playing his games. The kente cloth debacle isn’t so different, after all, from the president’s Bible-wielding photo op in front of a DC church — though to their credit, Pelosi and co. didn’t teargas a bunch of peaceful protesters to make it happen.
Puke if you must
This bloodsoaked monster is probably the most evil person on planet earth https://t.co/nGq2H1EPHt
— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) April 9, 2020
^3000US citizens have no real political representation.
We don't live in a democracy. And our freedom is disappearing fast.
I don't want to be ruled by hypocrites, whores, and war criminals.
What about you? Time to push back against the corporate oligarchy.
And its multitude of minions and lackeys.
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