The Memorial Gate-Crashed: On uses of the word ‘we’ and acts of political solidarity

On August 14th 2014, less than a month after the choking death of Eric Garner in police custody and just a few days following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, there was a National Moment of Silence to commemorate the fatal victims of police shootings and police brutality across the United States.

Among the thousands that took part in the event, an organiser named Chanelle Batiste arranged for a vigil to take place in the majority black city of New Orleans at Lafayette Square, where she projected her voice to a crowd of over one hundred people gathered in memory of local names such as Robert Davis and Henry Glover. As she raised both hands in the air, she asked attendees to take part in performing the “Don’t Shoot” pose – a gesture that had become symbolic of Michael Brown’s plea for mercy just moments before he was fatally shot on suspicion of stealing cigarillos.[1]

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National Moment of Silence event in New Orleans – nefer | media

Commenting on the proceedings of the Lafayette vigil, Mwende Katwiwa of the antiracist activism blog FreeQuency wrote an article taking issue with the disproportionate number of white participants attending the event, among which many she argued joined in on the act of raising their hands unsolicited.[2] She wrote of how she “watched white person after white person march past […] with their hands up chanting ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!’ as if they would be criminalized and targeted by police because of the color of their skin”.[3]

Not only were these participants engaged in an act of symbolic misappropriation, she added, but a number of individuals from a majority-white anarchist group were also found responsible for the destruction and defacement of public property, as well as the taunting of police officers from their cars and the dispersal of coloured gas canisters – acts, she noted, that bore no threat to their own livelihoods but which further endangered the lives of those more likely to face the consequences.[4]

A similar yet unconnected incident: On May 06th 2013, the radical feminist writer and contributor to the RadFem2013 conference Cathy Brennan angered transgender advocates and activists by setting up a WordPress blog entitled “The Transgender Day of Remembrance”, ostensibly named after the annual event memorialising fatal victims of transphobia worldwide.[5]

On its surface, the site seemed to have been put together to document and catalogue the murders of transgender people from across the globe as reported in various local and mainstream news media. Accompanying each of these entries, however, Brennan had included a blurb naming the perpetrator involved in each killing, along with a sub-link to a sister site entitled “Name the Problem”. Explaining this course of action in her “About” page, she wrote that it was not transphobia that was to blame for the deaths of the victims, but that it was “overwhelmingly male violence”, suggesting there was no discrimination involved in homicide cases between cisgender and transgender women.[6]

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“This is Not the Transgender Day of Remembrance” – Cathy Brennan

“This is a missed opportunity for solidarity around the issue of Male Violence,” she argued in a piece entitled “Missing the Boat on Naming the Problem”, further condemning trans advocates for framing “the issue of Male Violence against Trans people as something wholly different from Male Violence against Women.” Responding to Brennan’s blaming of the transgender community for a lack of solidarity, as well has her appropriation of the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, the trans activism site The TERFs accused Brennan of having “sunk to a new low.”[7]

Trans historian Cristan Williams argued she was now “trying to exploit the death of our sisters […] to further her justification of transphobia”, and made the case that “while it is true that the majority of murderers are male, transphobia is the cause of the high death rate”. Despite repeated requests from several trans activists for Brennan to take the site down, including a demand by Gwendolyn Ann Smith of the Remembering our Dead Web Project to remove plagiarised material, the “Transgender Day of Remembrance” web page has since remained active at least as far ahead as March 2015.[8]

In drawing attention to these two examples, I wanted to expound on some of the issues facing the uses and meanings of the word “solidarity” today. Particularly, I wanted to begin to formulate a problem for academics and activists on the Left for writing and using solidarity as a practical concept.

One of the obvious connections between the Lafayette vigil and “The Transgender Day of Remembrance” is the enforcement and enframing of solidarity as part of a communal project of grief. This is an important factor to keep in mind: Mourning in the context of a community carves out a space for shared experiences and memories, but it also creates a necessary rift in the defining and significance of these events. Not everybody mourns for the same reason.

The psychoanalyst Darian Leader calls this sharing of space an act of “public grief”. He writes that the “public display” is necessary for mourning because we sometimes “need to receive the message that something terrible has happened”.[9] Similarly, the feminist theorist Judith Butler explains that open grieving in political contexts is sometimes “bound up with outrage” because it means “to put together some remnants of a life, to publicly display and avow the loss”.[10]

We can see how these features of community organising and collective outrage function in the vigils and days of remembrance for transgender women and people of colour. For both Katwina and the defenders of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, the embodiment of the public space is far more than just an act of commemoration; it is a way of testifying to the actual existence of lives that have been ignored or otherwise denigrated. Katwina writes that “Black people aren’t demonstrating passive surrender to oppression, they are communicating that they can make all attempts to appear non-threatening, but the historic and contemporary vilification of blackness in America has made the real danger the perception of their blackness as inherently threatening”.[11] On these terms, she means that the act of raising one’s hands tells a story about the body of the person on display – it means that the body shares a communion with the bodies of the deceased; it is similarly affected by the very same violence, and declares itself as a mouthpiece for the body that cannot speak.

For Butler, the grievability of a life is also a “presupposition for the life that matters”.[12] Butler argues that to mourn someone, they must be apprehended as “worth” mourning in the first place, as counting as socially grievable. As such, “grievability is a condition of a life’s emergence and sustenance” – the foundations of its sustainability.[13] Is it any wonder then that one of the defining slogans to come out of the protests resisting police brutality is the rallying mantra “Black Lives Matter”? Similarly, for practitioners of the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, the objective is to make the causes of death apparent, the motives clear. As Gwendolyn Ann Smith writes: “We live in times more sensitive than ever to hatred based violence, especially since the events of September 11th. Yet even now, the deaths of those based on anti-transgender hatred or prejudice are largely ignored. Over the last decade, more than one person per month has died due to transgender-based hate or prejudice, regardless of any other factors in their lives. This trend shows no sign of abating”.[14]

What then counts as an act of solidarity in making these deaths accountable, in restructuring the basis of grievable life? First, the problem might lie in the basic acknowledgment of the idea that “something terrible has happened” – that is to say, that there is a tragedy that can be recognised and avowed as such. As Leader explains:

            …think of the many cases where the only response is denial or blankness. To take one significant example, we probably all know of cases where a miscarriage is passed over in silence. At least 15 per cent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and it is clear that society often gives little space for mourning here. What is a tragedy for the mother and the father may be ignored or denied by others, blocking the designation of the event as a loss.[15]

Is not this “denial” of a loss the very same that erases black and transgender lives? For Brennan, the losses of the transgender community serve as examples of the brutality of men against women, but what she fails to do is register these brutalities as caused by and perpetuated from the very same transphobic attitudes she embraces.[16] In short, the transgender woman’s body for Brennan is an object that ought to be “denied” its own space for mourning. In fact, because it is allied more closely with the perpetrators of homicides against women in general (both equally, in Brennan’s eyes, “male”), it is even less valued than the bodies of the cisgender women she wants to defend. And in the case of the Lafayette vigil, what angered Katwina was the idea that white participants refused to avow the loss of black lives as exceptionally precarious. In this case, the unwarranted participation of white bodies in the act of raising their hands and chanting reflected only the degree to which these participants denied the designation of the event “as a loss”, confronting tragic and overwhelming oppression with little more than the “blankness” of absent-minded involvement.

“Solidarity” then functions in both cases as an anathema that disrupts the practice of collective outrage. “Solidarity” takes the place of an invasive third party, of someone who denies the legitimacy of anger as a form of compassion and empathy beyond their own immediate comfort. This third party is a gatecrasher at the reception of a memorial they have no stake nor investment in. As Katwina so puts it: “[A]t the end of the day, when you get tired of marching and chanting, you can put your hands down and feel confident that the police won’t see you as a threat. Some of us simply don’t have that luxury”.

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nefer | media

Recently, the Black Agenda Report columnist Margaret Kimberly argued that reactions of “love, healing, togetherness” against the backdrop of overwhelming anti-black police brutality are not “worthy […] when rage is justified”. “These otherwise laudatory feelings”, she explains, “are used to silence black anger when it is needed most”.[17] Perhaps the same could be said for practitioners of solidarity as well.

While participating and showing sympathy towards others “less fortunate” is laudable in principle, it becomes destructive when it creates an atmosphere that seeks to disturb the communal place of mourning. This is what “All Lives Matter” and the symbolic act raising of white hands means in the context of almost ubiquitous racist violence in the United States. It is also what Brennan’s token gift of “solidarity” means in the horrifying context of transphobic violence worldwide. What these gestures lack is an informed and avowed deference towards the presence of the body of the deceased – towards its history, its causes, and its effects. What they must seek to reconcile is an understanding of grief that drives one towards anger – of the kind of compassion that can only make you mindful and sensitive.

Along these lines, the second issue to which I want to draw our attention is the use of identification in creating and reinforcing the basis of third party “solidarity”. Take the following paragraph of Katwina’s polemic against white allyship:

            I want to think that white people care about systemic racism. I want to think they are outraged by Mike Brown’s murder, that they are bursting with righteous anger and that they want to riot because the state of our country’s “criminal justice” system is unacceptable. I want to think that. But when I see white people smiling for pictures at protests, carrying the biggest sign that takes up the most space, bringing in unnecessary violence, and talking about how ‘we are all victims and all just need to get along’ during demonstrations about the targeting of black people… I can’t help but think that maybe they’re just here to make themselves feel better about their own prejudice and advance their own agendas because of how so many choose to participate.

The logic here is sound. Once more, we see how the need for participants to be “bursting with righteous anger” is a precondition for their solidarity. But another important factor is the use of the participants’ grammar in creating a language of representation. In particular, Katwina’s denouncement of the collective sloganeering “we are all victims and all just need to get along” points to the fundamental limitation of allyship based on positive recognition.

It is no mistake, I think, that these two major issues are placed side-by-side, that the joyful misappropriation of “smiling for pictures” and “carrying the biggest sign” goes hand-in-hand with the admission of the first-person plural “we”. Cathy Brennan is also a proponent of the collective pronoun “we” in her challenge against “Male Violence”, in which she writes:

Whether male violence is due to masculine gender socialization or male biology, we cannot answer these questions if we continue to avoid this discussion. We cannot fix a problem that we refuse to name.

Here we ought to focus specifically on the ways in which “we” appears as a shibboleth that creates a space for “happy” moments of solidarity. In Brennan’s case, “we” enacts a subtle push towards total compliance with a dominant narrative. It is no mistake that the crux of her argument is a clarion call to “answer these questions” and hence “fix a problem”. The tone is reconciliatory, but it is also intellectually pacifying, emphasising only the degrees to which a problem can be agreed upon and hence resolved in a consensual way. On these same lines, Katwina is absolutely right when she complains that the involvement of “white anarchists” in “solidarity” is a pretence “to make themselves feel better” and “advance their own agendas”. Although one could argue that outbursts of violence and destruction from white participants are testaments to their anger, we should also take to account the effects of these acts, which are on the whole cathartic, but only relieve pent-up tensions at the expense of those more likely to face the consequences.

“We” is the pronoun of the feel-good factor. It is an anaesthetic against outrage. The literary theorist Kate Cummings, writing on the political grammars of the AIDS crisis, decries “we” as a “tyrannical signifier for the humanist subject”. She adds that “in the name of collectivity/universality, it occults material differences between and among historical subjects”.[18]

To be sure, one need only look at the raw data to get an idea of the kinds of “material differences” that are ignored in our uses of the collective pronoun “we”. On average, the United States police forces kill around 1,000 people in fatal shootings every year. About half are white, and about half are minorities. To scale, this means a disproportionately high number of black Americans are killed on a daily basis (at a rate 2.5 times higher than whites), averaging at about three deaths per day. The story is only more drastic for transgender women. As Cristan Williams points, the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that the homicide rates for transgender women in the United States are 1 in 12, whereas for the general population of women in the United States, the rates amount to 8.5 in 100,000.

If there is any hope for solidarity, these figures must not only be acknowledged but made accountable in spaces for public and open grieving. This grief must be specific if not shared, and it must be allowed the time and energy it needs to germinate into anger.

I do not doubt of course that there is potential in collective political projects. The political philosopher Jodi Dean, for example, argues that the pronoun “we” can be used affirmatively, in favour of collectives that appreciate internal power differentials. Adding to this, she denounces attempts to abandon collective structures as a dead end for Left politics, as she writes: “We-skepticism displaces the performative component of the second-person plural as it treats collectivity with suspicion and privileges a fantasy of individual singularity and autonomy.”[19] For her end, Dean writes that in using “we”, she hopes “to enhance a partisan sense of collectivity”.[20]

And it’s true – when groups come together towards a common end, this foundation can produce a meaningful and effective change. The difficulty, however, is in making certain that the “performative component” of the collective remains accountable – that it can be read and understood as a kind of negotiation between different lived experiences, some of them more precarious or denigrated than others. Here we should reiterate that change can only happen on the basis that systematic power distinctions are recognised and understood.

It is easy to imagine how any and all defences of public mourning can be co-opted by malicious third parties. It is clear that to continue to embrace collective politics is not about making life easier or more comfortable for anyone. At the same time, however, to do so is perhaps necessary if it means allowing grief to be “displayed” and hence “bound up with outrage”. First though, let’s abandon the notion that mourning with others or sharing their space is supposed to be a luxury. As with any loss that makes an impact on our lives, the process is painful and impossible to fully come to terms with. Embrace the absence of easy answers and allow grieving its time to be felt.

 


[1] “Michael Brown Could Have Survived First 5 Shots, Last Shot Killed Him, Autopsy Says.” ABC News. August 18, 2014. http://abcnews.go.com/US/michael-brown-survived-shots-shot-killed/story?id=25017247.

[2] Mwende Katwiwa, “On White People, Solidarity and (Not) Marching for Mike Brown.” FreeQuency. August 23, 2014. http://freeqthamighty.tumblr.com/post/95573664816/on-white-people-solidarity-and-not-marching.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cathy Brennan, This is Not The Transgender Day of Remembrance. March 4, 2015. https://transgenderdayofremembrance.wordpress.com/.

[6] In a separate interview in Planet Transgender, she elaborates: “This whole conversation is necessary, in part, because of the GLBT community’s unwillingness to have an honest conversation about male violence. Transwomen activists do everything in their power to distance themselves from the fact that they are male”. See: http://planettransgender.com/sorry-about-your-dick-an-interview-with-cathy-brennan/

[7] Cristan Williams, “Cathy Brennan – It IS Transphobia That Kills Us.” The TERFs. May 10, 2013. http://theterfs.com/2013/05/10/cathy-brennan-it-is-transphobia-that-kills-us/.

[8] Cathy Brennan, “TDoR: What it is and What it is Not.” This is Not The Transgender Day of Remembrance. March 4, 2015. https://transgenderdayofremembrance.wordpress.com/tdor-what-is-it-what-it-is-not/.

[9] Darian Leader, The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia, and Depression. (London: Penguin Books, 2009), 85.

[10] Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (London: Verso, 2010), 39.

[11] Mwende Katwiwa, “On White People, Solidarity and (Not) Marching for Mike Brown.” http://freeqthamighty.tumblr.com/post/95573664816/on-white-people-solidarity-and-not-marching.

[12] Judith Butler, 14.

[13] Ibid., 15.

[14] Gwendolyn Ann Smith, “About TDOR.” International Transgender Day of Remembrance. https://tdor.info/about-2/

[15] Darian Leader, 85.

[16] The Planet Transgender writer Kelli Busey notes: “A trans woman is slain every 29 hours yet we make up less than 1% of the world’s population. […] It has gotten so bad some publishers like myself have deferred from reporting each and every murder and suicide. Doing so wasn’t a choice it was self-preservation. Crying and mourning every day is just too much to bare”. See: http://planettransgender.com/trans-people-ban-together-and-ask-can-you-stop-killing-us-for-one-week/.

[17] Margaret Kimberly. “Freedom Rider: Why We Need Black Anger.” Black Agenda Report. http://www.blackagendareport.com/we_need_black_anger/.

[18] Kate Cummings, “Reading AIDS.” College Literature 1 (1994): 161.

[19] Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon. (London: Verso, 2012), 12.

[20] Ibid., 13.

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