Since the mass murder at Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, seven historically black churches have been torched, as have innumerable Confederate flags. Only one of these types of arson, unfortunately, has proven to be an effective political strategy. Historically, Southern churches have been among the most important venues for community organization. Burning a historically Black church in the South is akin to burning a union headquarters or university in the North. These burnings meet both widely used definitions of terrorism. They are politically motivated, violent acts directed at civilians, and are an attempt to provoke fear and submission.
White Terror, however, can backfire, provoking white progressives to join in solidarity with the black community. These rare moments of interest convergence can be transformative, such as during the Emancipation and Civil Rights movements. These opportunities can also be missed if activists focus on removing symbols, rather than institutions, of White Supremacy.
Since the Charleston shootings, progressives of all ethnicities seem less concerned with organizing against and combatting White Terror, and more obsessed with creating and combatting symbols of White Terror. One typical instance involved musical artist Bree Newsome, who scaled a flagpole at the South Carolina capitol building, tore down the Confederate flag, and was subsequently arrested and interviewed. The Confederate flag was immediately replaced.
So here’s my question: Is removing Confederate flags from the public eye part of a well-conceived strategy to demoralize or politically hinder White Supremacists? Or is it merely a well-conceived viral media campaign to maximize views, likes, shares, and follows? The answers lie in the symbolic nature of the act, and in the media’s relationship to social movements.
Symbolism is supposed to work like this: Political actors are supposed to act effectively; the media is supposed to document these acts, then curate them in the manner most likely to evoke emotional reactions; bystanders around the world then see these symbolic images, and join the effective, ongoing political campaign. If the main thrust of the movement, however, is designed to garner media coverage, not political change, it’s not a political movement; it’s a media campaign.
Real mass movements, moreover, typically prompt the government to censor the media altogether. Take, for example, the recent Egyptian revolution of 2011, which took a mere 18 days (the exact number of days, coincidentally, that it took for Nepalis to overthrow their Shah in 2006). In the first days, with the Internet shut down, thousands of students battled the police and held Tahrir Square. That was the victory. The symbol of that victory, however, was of a couple of men tearing down a giant poster of Mubarak. I remember watching that footage over and over again on Al Jazeera, and not thinking much of it, but having the broadcasters repeatedly implore the viewers to understand that something like that could never happen in Egypt unless things were really about to go down. I was skeptical; but by the time I woke up the next morning, Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) headquarters had been torched as well. The images of this were symbolic. The actual burning of the building was not. By hindering the ability of the NDP to organize, it was an effective political act.
One of the main problems I had with Occupy Wall Street was that there was never much talk of effective political strategy. The facilitated discussions always revolved around what symbolic crusade to embark on next. Occupy activists and their media allies celebrated the completely symbolic victories of mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge, and the delay of the New York Stock Exchange’s morning bell by one minute. Nothing Occupy activists did, however, matched the symbolism of their initial act: creating a protest encampment in the economic and cultural capital of the world at a time of rare global unrest.
So what might be an effective political strategy to combat White Supremacy? Maybe a third incarnation of the Civil Rights Act, one that not only addresses discrimination in voting, but in hiring, lending, policing, and incarceration. Or perhaps fundamentally new ways of enforcing laws, voting, working, and exchanging must be debated. Whatever the populace decides upon, substantive change will require—among other things—a mass movement that makes governance impossible unless these demands are met. If White Supremacy can be sufficiently addressed by our current governing institutions, they should be allowed to continue governing. If White Supremacy is inextricable from prevailing governing institutions, new ones need to be put into place.