(Originally published January 5, 2017 in Atlanta Black Star) The NAACP staged a sit-in Tuesday, Jan. 3, in the Mobile, Alabama, office of Jeff Sessions, Attorney General nominee and U.S. Senator. After a few hours, the group of six was arrested, including national NAACP President Cornell W. Brooks, and now faces charges of criminal trespass in the second degree. The stated goal of the sit-in was to force the senator to be withdrawn as the nominee for Attorney General, the confirmation hearings have been scheduled for January 10-11. There is absolutely no expectation that this action will in any way delay those proceedings.
The expression “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight” may be appropriate to describe the NAACP sit-in at Sessions’ office. As we enter the dawn of an extreme right-wing proto-fascist era in our government, it must be asked if these are still our best tactics in a war against those desirous of oppressing Black people. Showing moral outrage in hopes of winning change from a government apparatus that was elected to take back “their” country may expose us further as a powerless people.
The poignancy of nonviolent civil disobedience, with choreographed arrests, have been a part of the arsenal of social justice and liberation movements probably since the inception of resistance movements. Within the history of Black oppression in the United States, shaming one’s enemy has been a somewhat viable tactic from the ’60s Civil Rights Movement, employed particularly by Dr. King and others during a time when television was a breakthrough medium that thrived on visual images. It was the social media of its day, transporting pictures around the world of America’s brutality toward its so-called “Negro citizens,” even while claiming to be the standard bearer of human rights and democratic governance.
This cognitive dissonance could not easily be explained to the rest of the world, particularly when there were other spheres of influence or alternative narratives of what made up a fair and equal society. The fear of losing access to markets, resources and power caused a slight shift in the U.S. in how to enforce its hegemonic aspirations. A battle of elites took place, much like the civil war, where retaining overall power meant losing overt signs of discrimination. This tactic of civil disobedience worked in winning some capitulation of the most obvious symbols of white supremacy. Overt laws that discriminated were stricken down over time.
The tactic is strongest when one’s enemy believes it has something to lose. In today’s uni-multipolar system, there is no great alternative external power base that challenges the U.S.’s ideological dominance. China may be a strategic economic enemy at times, but it no longer is a philosophical one because of its practical embrace of capitalist economics. With the ongoing rightward shift of the western European world, including the U.S., attempting to lock down its borders from immigrants and the demographic downsizing of white populations, there is little need for right-wing U.S. elites to feel pressure from an internal Black minority, which sits down to make demands.
The right-wing powers are not currently being shamed when it comes to anti-Black tactics or rhetoric. Trump, the president-elect, has used his twitter account to re-tweet known white nationalists at least 75 times during the campaign, including false statistics on so-called Black-on-Black crime where he cites the crime statistics bureau of San Francisco — an organization that does not exist. Sessions himself was once denied appointment as a federal district court judge by Ronald Reagan in 1986 because of racist remarks he made. He denied some of the allegations and said he was just joking about others, including his reference to the Ku Klux Klan as nice guys before he found out they smoked pot. What was once enough to exclude him from a federal judgeship seemed to be either overlooked as trivial or considered the right kind of politics to be the Attorney General of the United States, charged to enforce civil and voting rights laws.
Clearly, shaming this administration and its appointees will not be enough. These days, the NAACP, outside of the North Carolina-based Moral Mondays protest, is having trouble moving its membership base. That’s why the picture of several committed activists, but not several hundred, looked a little sad. During this time period, can the NAACP — or any other group, for that matter — shift focus and mobilize its membership base for mass civil disobedience or mobilize its funding base to create alternative institutions that are Black controlled and financed to provide a model for others to follow?
There clearly is some value in calling attention to the fact that Jeff Sessions is a racist and hoping that a media backlash will scare his fellow senators into not confirming him. But there seemingly would be greater value in developing alternative institutions like new schools or private arbitration courts, controlled by Black people, that lead to new ways of confronting old enemies.