White People and Activism in the Trump Era
In June 2018, Neighborhood Funders Group convened hundreds of local, regional, and national funders for the NFG 2018 National Convening, Raise Up: Moving Money for Justice. Here, Caitlin Duffy, senior associate for learning and engagement at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), reflects on leveraging privilege and dissent in the face of fear.
People in the United States are scared.
Some white people fear the loss of dominant social status, and they worry about the loss of good jobs or falling victim to terrorism and crime.
Donald Trump has spread and leveraged these fears to inch the country closer and closer to an authoritarian state, undermining public faith in and attacking the legitimacy of our electoral and judicial systems, federal agencies and independent media while pandering to white nationalists, endorsing police brutality and cruelly separating migrant families.
In progressive circles like NFG, we have our own brand of fear in the face of this new national reality. We dread the threat of nuclear war and publicly emboldened neo-Nazis, and worry about the coming of another economic recession, the erosion of our civil rights and democracy and how long it will take us to repair the damage.
To cope, we share cute animal pictures à la Vu Le, celebrate victories like that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and take intentional social media breaks to keep ourselves sane amidst the daily news of Trump’s regressive policies and dangerous rhetoric.
For my fellow white folks in this audience: How can we better leverage our fear for the fierce urgency of now?
When I moved from New Jersey to the District of Columbia five years ago, I was uncomfortable with protest and felt out of place when I attended rallies in front of the White House.
Through my political education and learning journey about whiteness, I’ve grappled with what “risk” really means to me and how I can push beyond my discomfort and fear.
And as it did for many of us, it really came to a head after the 2016 presidential election.
In the weeks leading up to inauguration, local organizers offered trainings and orientations on coordinated resistance, nonviolent direct action and our civil rights. Many prepared for arrest – some of us, like me, for the first time.
On inauguration day, I joined a blockade organized by a collective of DC-based activists including our local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), which engages white folks in the movement for racial justice and fosters accountability to local partners like Black Lives Matter DC.
Our group’s goal was to help shut down one of roughly a dozen checkpoints around the National Mall using nonviolent tactics including sitting down in front of a secured entrance, linking arms, singing songs and holding up signs and art.
While participants at our location were not arrested, more than 200 were when the D.C. Metropolitan Police kettled demonstrators, journalists and legal observers while armed with riot gear, flash and smoke grenades, and pepper spray.
The ACLU immediately filed a federal class-action lawsuit for use of excessive force and unconstitutional arrests.
Those arrested faced decades in prison and underwent months of baseless prosecution until the remaining rioting cases were dismissed this month.
This crackdown on dissent is part of a larger trend, as dozens of bills have been introduced across the country to criminalize protest.
At NFG’s national convening, I was reminded of this experience at the film screening of Whose Streets, which documents the Ferguson Uprising in response to the murder of Mike Brown in 2014.
During one scene in which protestors form a human chain to block traffic on a Missouri highway, activist and organizer Brittany Ferrell becomes frustrated with attendees who move off the road, shouting that they knew it would be an arrestable action. I recognized both that frustration and fear.
As white people, putting our bodies on the line in protest is one of our greatest resources. Compared to the state violence directed at Black and brown bodies, our whiteness privileges us to different treatment from police, the media and other white people who might counter us.
Beyond our grant dollars and institutional heft, grassroots leaders of color like Brittany and those who organized inauguration day actions are asking us to do more by helping serve as frontline buffers during civil disobedience. This is a critical opportunity to put our fear aside and our individual power in practice.
This August, white supremacists will march on our capital and cities across the country for the “Unite the Right 2” rally, a sequel to the deadly gathering in Charlottesville last summer.
Seek out trainings for white people that help you understand when and how to make space for the stories, healing and leadership of people of color, while also looking at when and how to effectively exercise our power and privilege in their service.
Now is not a time to “wait and see.” See you in the streets.
Connect with Caitlin at @DuffyInDC.
Follow the NCRP at @NCRP.
Find more posts about the NFG 2018 National Convening on the NFG blog.