Abolish the (Tone) Police
May and June have seen a surge in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and most famously George Floyd. People are fed up. Systematic Racism, America’s original sin and most persistent disease, claimed too many lives to count. Even companies are on board with #BlackLivesMatter…although I am sure that their intentions are more for the green lives that matter to them. After throngs of supporters took to the streets, people bore witness to police attacking those erstwhile peaceful movements, inciting the violence that marred what were originally energizing positive days. Even the president tear gassing peaceful civilians so that he could take a picture in front of a church. All of these events led to where we are now. If you have just gotten used to saying #BlackLivesMatter, and you wish to be an ally for justice, then welcome. We are open to your support and some fresh ideas to get our goals achieved. However, those of us who have been IN this fight for years will not tolerate tone policing.
Tone policing is lazy form of trolling that admonishes someone for showing emotion while expressing themselves. It takes the focus away from the message at hand and homes in on the messenger’s “attitude” or “anger”. It does nothing but stall or abate progress. Imagine that your house is on fire, and you frantically bang on your neighbor’s door and ask that they call the fire department, but your neighbor instead admonishes you for yelling at them and shuts the door. Your house is still on fire, and it is getting worse. For the new ally, you have no business admonishing people for how they demonstrate. At least for me, I have only been to demonstrations where the intention was always to be peaceful and speak to power. And if the demonstration descended into violence, it was not us who cast the first tear gas grenade. I neither encourage or rebuke riots that occur during a peaceful rally for civil rights. Most of the people who were protesting have been ignored and felt powerless for so long that they cannot take it any longer. Whether it was a protester or an “outside agitator” igniting a police car doesn’t matter. You have no business scolding people and accusing them of destroying their own neighborhoods. Look at what they destroy: properties that they do not own. Corporations that take advantage of the deliberately low-price real estate to set up shops that leech money out of the community that is struggling to hang on week-by-week. Again, I don’t participate or condone destruction of a store, but if your concern is how a Target or Wendy’s will rebuild over the thousands of people who died at the hands of people charged with serving them, then I question your allyship. Are you jumping on the fad or are you here for change? Because the process of making sausage is not going to be pretty…although I will say that defacing confederate monuments and tributes to slavers is quite enjoyable to watch.
Tone policing is also applied to slogans that arise from the ongoing movement. The latest target is #DefundThePolice. There is plenty of well thought-out and elaborated literature that explains exactly what #DefundThePolice means. There examples in practicum of how the theory might look for a community. Yet instead of doing the modicum of work to look for and read, new “allies” in my circle have only suggested changing the expression, because it doesn’t make them or the other side “feel good”. This, of course, leads to frustration and anger among those who have been working at reform for years, and when we express our frustration, we are tone policed again for our frustration. None of this helps anything.
“Are you jumping on the fad or are you here for change”
The key thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter what phrasing we use. The opposition WILL distort perception and apply whatever disingenuous meaning they want to it. Before #DefundThePolice was the main target, #BlackLivesMatter was it. Opposers saw the phrase and were trained to think that it meant “white lives don’t matter”. #BLM has been equated with a terrorist group. #alllivesmatter started trending. No one in #BlackLivesMatter EVER said that all lives or white lives DON’T matter. Back then, “new” allies would suggest we change it to #BlackLivesMatterToo, as if that would make a difference. We can go back to the 1950s-1970s Civil Rights Movement and see that slogans that arose like “Black Power” and “Black Pride” and “Black Is Beautiful” were met with the similar backlash and retaliatory arguments. David Duke even made vapid yet charming arguments to make the mainstream better consume the opposing rhetoric, and it worked. Don Black followed a similar pattern. There is barely a day that goes by when someone thinks that “white power”, a phrase steeped in violent white supremacy, has as much validity as “Black Power”, a phrase that simply affirms the humanity and strength of Black folks. This is how terms like “reverse racism” arise, through racist “whataboutism” and falsely claiming that “Black Power” and “White Power” are two sides of the same coin. They are two completely different currencies, and the latter requires a blood sacrifice. We just want to live. Even before David Duke and his sugar coating of racist ideation, we can go back to the late 19th Century, when Frederick Douglass addressed the hyperbolic fear that Black suffrage would lead to the mass death of white people. Imagine thinking that the allowance of 10% of the population to simply cast a ballot would end in the genocide of 80% of people in the nation. So it truly does not matter what we say or how we say it, and we have no time or patience to ad saccharin to everything to appease feelings. People are still dying needlessly.
When I was younger, I would claim to be an ally to women’s rights, but I would get indignant when a woman said, “Men are trash”, or something similar. I would think I’m still for women’s rights, but saying things like this is bad for the movement. I was oblivious to the fact that women who express this type of sentiment are fed up with the daily street harassment, the attacks on their basic rights to health care, the justice system that lets their attackers go while it demonizes them and blames them for being attacked. They are sick of the flowery language companies use to pander to them while simultaneously ignoring their needs. They are tired of second guessing if they got a position because they rightfully earned it, or if, even though they are more than qualified, they were only chosen to be a placeholder on a company’s brochure to showcase their “diversity”. Perhaps they should change their phrasing. I’m not like those other men, I would think. Imagine the irony of me policing their rightful rage, all while something similar was happening to me and my black body every day, just in a different context.
This is why, as new “ally” to any movement, caressing your bruised feelings is not anyone’s priority. Our Black lives matter more than your ego.
About Chris Thompson
(he/his/him) Chris Thompson is an engineer, writer, comedian, and activist who made Rochester, New York his home in 2008. In addition to his role as Contributor for 540Blog he currently writes and regularly posts on his own on Instagram and Twitter at @ChronsOfNon. Chris is also a regular contributor for Rochester City Newspaper. His blog is www.chroniclesofnonesense.com
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