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White Allies and Social Movements in Grand Rapids

September 12, 2021

“The risks of an ally who provides support or solidarity (usually on a temporary basis) in a fight are much different than that of an accomplice. When we fight back or forward, together, becoming complicit in a struggle towards liberation, we are accomplices.”

This observation was written by an Indigenous activist and is taken from a zine entitled,  Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex. 

Too often for those of use who carry lots of privilege – race, class, ability or citizenship status privilege – we fail to act or to stand in solidarity with those who are being targeted by systems of oppression. Or, if we do act, the tendency is to engage as white saviors, which ultimately makes it about us instead of the people we claim to be in solidarity with.

As white people, it is understandable that we often struggle with how to act or when to be involved in social movements, particularly movements that are led by Black, Indigenous, Latinx or other communities that are marginalized by systems of power and oppression. Good intentions aren’t enough, and what is worse is performative politics. Performative politics is often where those of us with privilege show up to struggles that are led by others, and we still make it about us. We take selfies and we post on social media platforms, as if to say, “see, I showed up. I took risks.” However, such self-congratulatory displays are not only hollow, they demonstrate that we are not centering those most affected by White Supremacy, patriarchy, ablism or class oppression. 

In addition, those of us who claim to be allies too often don’t pay attention to what Black and Brown-led social movements are saying. For example, in the summer of 2020, when Black-led resistance to policing was happening all across the country, demanding that police departments be defunded, white allies too often would re-interpret the demand to defund the police. White allies would say, “it doesn’t mean we don’t want police, we just want them to be nicer, get better training or incorporate social workers into their plans.” However, if we actually were paying attention, we would know that the push to defund the police had emerged out of decades of a Black Freedom Struggle that was embracing an abolitionist framework. Ask yourself, how many white friends and white allies had actually read the Movement for Black Lives toolkit on Defunding the Police?

Another example of how White allies more often than not fail to practice real solidarity with Black and Brown-led movements, is how many of us have acted since the 2020 Election. Since the Trump Administration was defeated, there has been a sense that things are better in the country. This may be true for those of us who carry lots of privilege, but it is not the case for Black people, immigrants, queer and trans people and marginalized communities. 

I have seen this dynamic happen since the 1980s, when I first became politically active. When Democrats are in the White House, the level of involvement by white allies often decreases. This was the case when the Clinton Administration came in to power, when the Obama administration came into power, and now the Biden Administration. White allies want to relax, because they think things are better now or they re-direct their energy to obsessing over things like the January 6th fiasco in Washington, DC. 

What we often fail to recognize is that the condition of those most affected by systems of oppression have not improved in a meaningful way, regardless of who sits in the White House. Think about the fact that mass incarceration and the wealth gap grew dramatically during the Clinton years, leading to the anti-Globalization movement and the WTO action in Seattle. The Obama administration gave birth to the Occupy Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement, yet we have somehow convinced ourselves that the oppression these movements have confronted were primarily the fault of Republicans.

Black, Indigenous and other communities that are deeply affected by systems of oppression have disproportionately experienced even more harm since the beginning of the pandemic. This is definitely the case here in Grand Rapids, which is why the Grand Rapids Area Mutual Aid Network was created and that gives priority to Black, Indigenous and latinx families. 

So, how can we show up for those most affected by systems of oppression? Again, I want to reference the indigenous zine mentioned above, which states:

Don’t wait around for anyone to proclaim you to be an accomplice, you certainly cannot proclaim it yourself. You just are or you are not. The lines of oppression are already drawn. Direct action is really the best and may be the only way to learn what it is to be an accomplice. We’re in a fight, so be ready for confrontation and consequence.

Part of being an accomplice is having mutually respectful relationships with oppressed communities. However, as the above comment makes clear, we must engage in direct action to demonstrate that we are an accomplice in the struggle for liberation.

Now Direct Action can take on many forms, but when it comes to being part of social movements that are led by Black and other marginalized communities, direct action is often determined by those movements and not just what those of us who are white are comfortable with. When Black people are being targeted by cops, we need to step up and do whatever is needed to reduced the ways that cops repress Black people. If immigrants are being harassed and live in constant fear of detention and deportation, then we need to engage in forms of direct action that minimize that kind of state-sponsored violence. Therefore, what white accomplices need to do is to leverage their privilege in service to the social movements that are being led by Black, Indigenous and other communities that are affected by systems of power and oppression.

In this community, there are numerous opportunities to be involved in solidarity work as accomplices. Those of us who identify as white can be part of Justice For Black Lives, Defund the GRPD, Movimiento Cosecha GR, GR Rapid Response to ICE, the Grand Rapids Area Mutual Aid Network and the Grand Rapids Area Tenant Union, as some examples. These groups, which are part of larger movements, when they are immigrant justice, housing justice or the abolition of police movements, will all tell you that the condition of Black people, immigrants, renters, workers, etc., has not improved because of the 2020 election outcome. These communities have not been able to relax, catch their breath or feel less oppressed, since last November. Being an accomplice in these movements requires those of us who are white to not only recognize that, but to participate in various forms of Direct Action that can chip away at the systems of power and oppression that plague the lives of Black, Indigenous, immigrant, queer, Trans, and other affected communities.

As the old movement song says, “which side are you on my people, which side are you on?” Are we on the freedom side or the side of oppressors? There is no middle ground.

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