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Racism and confusion

Queens, New York

A poor count by both the police and The New York Times greatly underestimated the “Millions March” that took place in New York on Saturday. At least 50k turned up, although participants who hung around, clapped from the sides, and came out of their houses at night in Brooklyn made even that figure seem too low.

I was there with friends, joining chants and carrying signs. It was almost too peaceful, with the crowd respecting the lame opening up of the streets, one block at a time, as if the protest was less important than Christmas shopping. But the tranquil action was accompanied by the enraged voices of those in the crowd, who didn’t always find catchy ways to express their anger. It wasn’t a poetry contest, it wasn’t a stadium.

image

All came out well and one must expect follow up actions soon, but this is just the backdrop of my reflection here. On the other side of the country, a place that I can claim to know well, something interesting was happening.

In the middle of the UC Berkeley campus, someone hung and displayed effigies of lynched black victims from decades ago with the hashtag #ICantBreathe. At first, passersby were shocked, especially black students, who felt mocked by a disgusting joke. Uninformed observers shouted: “Racism hits one of the liberal capitals of the country!!” as if racism respects zip codes. Others took care of tearing down the effigies and started enquiring about the possible perpetrators.

An art collective came out (without naming names in their flier) and said the action was an artistic, albeit possibly offensive, attempt to link the past and the present, making sure to underline that racism is as systemic now, as it was then.

The identification of the collective as “queer black and POC artists” did not stop critics. “Black and POC have different histories, they can’t claim to have a common history with the slavery era” is the summary of the common reply on twitter. Defining and detailing the identity of those who dared show this “art installation” on academic soil became the pet peeve of observers behind virtual keyboards. They started classifying, cataloguing, and assigning rights of speech. If you’re such-and-such you can say this, otherwise it’s wrong.

I see racism as a political threat, a choice. You’re not born racist, society makes you one (or not, that’s why it’s a choice). Politically it should be countered and called out every time. I agree with the art collective, racism is systemic and knitting past and present together only helps understand the causality and origin of some actions that can be thought of as isolated.

If an art collective of diverse racial background cannot use powerful, borderline-offensive imagery to portray what racism has done and is doing to America, then I shouldn’t have gone to the March. I’m white, why should I hold up a sign that says “Black Lives Matter”? That should be as illogical as a Latino artist hanging up portraits of lynched victims, in the critics’ eye.

Instead, this is ours, of all the people that take a stand. It’s about your political choice, not about your family tree.

Long live Berkeley, where artists are misunderstood and politics are confused.