Allyship, safety and the Activist-Industrial-Complex

Interrogating allyship and the current bureaucracies in social movements.

Art by Pratha Nagpal.

Following the explosive resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in Minneapolis, “professional” radicals and clout-seekers alike took to the annals of Twitter and Instagram. These activists extended solidarity, symbolic protest and a discourse aimed at challenging anti-Blackness. One prominent anti-racist weapon in the arsenal of every experienced WokePoster™ is the notion of allyship. To be an ally, particularly a white ally, requires one to acknowledge their privilege in being recognised by major cultural and political institutions. It is argued that this privilege is one which Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour (BIPOC) lack. Rather, BIPOC are subject to violence and control by a hostile state apparatus. Their voices of resistance are drowned out by underrepresentation in dominant institutions of bourgeois society — both repressive and ideological. To overcome this structural imbalance, the ally must follow BIPOC leadership within the culture industry, the corridors of government, and corporate boardrooms.  The President of the Portland-branch of the NAACP, pastor E.D. Mondaine echoed such a sentiment, urging white people to “be with us in the classrooms and the boardrooms [and] in the halls of justice”.

Allyship can only challenge the status quo when deemed appropriate, with Modaine denouncing the supposed “white spectacle” of the anti-carceral insurgency in Portland. As such, the white ally must forgo their role as an independent political actor and elevate the voices of leaders of oppressed groups. Since white people have the privilege to engage in riskier political actions with less repercussions, they are expected to. By doing so, they safeguard “vulnerable” BIPOC from being targeted by police repression and entering the prison system. Resources detailing allyship politics are often shared with good intentions: white supporters of anti-racist movements have, in my experience, acted with an arrogance and condescension not conducive to productive organisation. Nevertheless, this framework remains fundamentally flawed. 

The notion that there is one Black or POC voice that allies can elevate is, to borrow a term from this discourse, problematic as it obfuscates power differentials within communities of colour. Black and brown communities are not a singular bloc with a unified political worldview. The seminal sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, for example,  forcefully argued that class divisions within the Black community were a crucial part of racialised capitalism. For the Black bourgeoisie to maintain a hold on their precarious class position, they were compelled to distance themselves from the rest of the Black community: those toiling in sharecropping, performing drudgery in industrial worksites or being brutalised in urban ghettos. Rather, they had to communicate to their white class allies that they had had no sympathy for black criminality, emphasising their status above the Black working and middle classes in the socio-racial hierarchy.

Such power differentials are not remnants of the 20th century. Today, a new aristocracy of media personalities, politicians, and financiers claim to represent the interests of Black people as a whole, while functionally demobilising and depoliticising the poor and working-class. In effect, this political-economic elite maintains bureaucratic control over NGOs and activist groups through a network of financial flows, interpersonal relationships and political campaigns. In their analysis of the class composition of the early BLM movement, the radical journal Endnotes argues that the “Civil Rights legacies [of the 60s] perform important social and ideological functions” for this elite. Many civil rights veterans like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who played a prominent role in organising “civil resistance” following the murder of Trayvon Martin, occupy central positions in this political class, garbing themselves in the cloak of 60s radicalism while having the ear of media and political elites. Thus, Endnotes concludes that racial struggle in America is vertically mediated: these movements are hierarchically composed with actors in NGOs, municipal governments all the way through to upper state institutions and political parties. While these “race leaders” can build momentum for campaigns, when crowds pose a sufficient threat to the state and private property they will often use their influence to control and discipline spontaneous action. 

Following the murder of 16 year-old Kimani Gray by plainclothes police in 2013, a spontaneous wave of action spread throughout New York City under the Twitter hashtag #BrooklynRiot. Endnotes observes that this incident led to an early instance of Black leadership repressing struggle in the first waves of the BLM movement. Councilman Jumaane Williams brought in riot police on behalf of the “community”, claiming that outside agitators from Occupy had escalated peaceful struggle into unnecessary rioting. Given his precarious position in a hostile political environment, it is easy to see why Williams would opt for such a tactic as the legitimacy of his campaign rested on “[his] ability to rein in the violence.” The outsider agitator narrative was even more prevalent during the 2020 uprisings, where “white anarchists” were accused by bureaucrats at all levels of government of inflaming what to the white imaginary were respectful, non-violent civil protests. This discourse reached its crescendo when Twitter influencers called out the “Karen” who had allegedly been responsible for the burning of the Wendy’s following the murder of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. 

Activists and influencers reduced the Atlanta revolt against police repression to the actions of a white outside agitator, leading civil protests astray by a single act of property destruction. Beyond its absurdity, these cases elucidate the crisis that Black leaders working within the state-NGO apparatus face. To retain their access to funding, prestige and a media spotlight, organisers must regiment the organic mobilisation of those affected the most by police brutality.  The cruel irony here is that this “Karen” is in fact Brooks’ girlfriend, Natalie White, whom he mentions in the bodycam footage before his death: “You know, Natalie White, she’s my girlfriend. She left. I said, ‘Baby, I’ll get Wendy’s and then I’ll go back …’” When white allies are told to promote Black leadership, they are drawn to the voices with the most power, prestige and name recognition. This in turn reinforces hierarchical relations within the Black community that are structurally opposed to interests of the urban poor and marginalised, whose voices, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., are unsilenced through the language of riots. 

White allies drift toward representatives and leaders whose politics are closest to their own. In Australia, the racial discrimination Adam Goodes faced within the AFL has become a symbol of liberal-progressive outrage at the backwardness of Australian race-relations. Yet, in the well-intentioned elevation of  Goodes as a symbol of Indigenous leadership, allies obfuscate that his class position (an estimated net worth of $5 million AUD) is incongruent with the abject poverty many First Nations communities face. Further, Goodes is enmeshed with the very state apparatus that disproportionately carries out heinous police and military violence against Indigenous people. In 2017, Goodes became the CEO of the Indigenous Defense Consortium, a subsidiary of the UK weapons-manufacturing giant BAE systems. In 2020, BAE systems was revealed to have sold $27 billion AUD worth of weapons to Saudia Arabia in their genocidal war against Yemen’s civilian population. One wonders how Goodes, entangled in the Australian military-industrial complex, could advocate for Indigenous campaigns such as Stop Deaths In Custody, Black Lives Matter, or a spokesperson for those who faced military repression during the Intervention. 

Similarly, one wonders how white support for Black small businesses as espoused by POC influencers in the Twittersphere is conducive with solidarity towards the disenfranchised who face police violence, structural unemployment and general immiseration. The anarchist polemic emerging from the first wave of BLM, Ain’t No PC Gonna Fix It, Baby, put it poignantly when they noted that the white ally is repositioned to “to wield the power of determining who are the most representative and appropriate black and brown voices,” asking, “who white allies [are] to determine who is the most appropriate anything?” 

In this understanding, allyship does little to offer genuine solidarity. Rather, it functions to reinforce the vertical mediations within the socio-racial hierarchy. This structure, I claim, is best understood as the activist-industrial complex (perhaps activist-NGO-municipal-state-industrial  complex is more appropriate but for brevity I shall henceforth refer to it as the AIC). The AIC is comprised of a network of activist groups, NGOs and community organisations interlinked with the government at the municipal, federal and state levels. This network is “industrial” inasmuch as these political organs receive funding from an elite donor class and philanthropists looking to recycle their money in “woke” NGOs. In place of traditional support from large public-relations firms, the AIC operates more decentrally, receiving its prestige from influencers and WokePosters on Instagram and Twitter. 

Due to this lack of centralised coordination, allies need not even look up to the powerful and prestigious names in POC leadership — just a brand name. During the post-Minneapolis uprising, many white anti-racist protestors were led by the officiated Black Lives Matter activists who called on white people to use their privilege to “fight the status quo” while pacifying protests, negotiating with cops and disciplining protestors deemed unruly. 

The political cache used to propagate this message is largely drawn from privilege theory. The viral Instagram post, “10 Steps to Non-Optical Allyship”, which made it onto the cover of Vogue magazine, is a case in point. Undoubtedly, many of its proposals are harmless (“Check in on your black friends”). Notably, however, the creator of the post is a public relations consultant and “sensitivity trainer”. This situates projects like these squarely in the AIC, where nonprofit organisations run diversity training courses to help white allies recognise and overcome their racial privilege. Such projects obfuscate the centrality of racist institutions like the judicial and prison system and centres anti-racist organising on white behaviours and privileges that can be “checked” given the right training. Race theorist Noel Ignatiev’s ironic comments on the diversity industry resonates here — “it is fortunate that in the nineteenth century they had abolitionists instead of diversity consultants; if not slavery would still exist, and representatives of slaves and slaveholders would be meeting together — to promote mutual understanding and good feeling”. 

Underlying allyship is an infantilising logic that require BIPOC (a nebulous term in its own right) to have allies defending them from a perceived vulnerability to judicial and financial repression. As Jackie Wang argues in her groundbreaking essay “Against Innocence”, in placing emphasis on safety at all costs, this politics creates a false connection between militancy and whiteness. This further undermines and obfuscates the history of BIPOC militancy in the anti-capitalist, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles of the 20th century. Moreover, it prevents us from imagining what other less alienated forms of relatedness and solidarity would look like, broken free from the shackles of allyship. This renewed understanding of solidarity is the fundamental problem radicals face: given that the subjugated classes are heterogeneous in nature, how can we unite in the face of catastrophe?

The politics espoused by privilege theory is one of passivity and weakness. When the vulnerable are asked not to take risks, Wang impassionately argues that “the only politically correct politics becomes a politics of reformism and retreat, a politics that necessarily capitulates to the status quo while erasing the legacy of Black Power groups like the Black Panthers.” A praxis of non-violence, performative protests, Woke Tweeting and electoralism necessarily follows. Privilege theory is the ideological sheath by which the vertical mediations of the AIC exercises its influence. Community organisers and NGOs take the lead in organising these massive demonstrations. For their hard work, they are rewarded with media attention, online support and new recruits. This supporter base becomes the perfect funnel into electoral campaigns — with officiated sects of BLM having close ties to the Democratic Party at local and federal levels. In Sydney, we see nexus of state, NGO and activist organisations with the NSW Greens and their support for popular social justice measures — #ChangeTheDate, an Australian Green New Deal etc. 

The intermeshing of activism and bureaucracy can be seen at every level of political organisation, even on campus. It’s no secret that the progressive wing of student politics — Socialist Alternative, Labor Left (NLS), Solidarity and Switchroots — use activist campaigns as a massive recruiting pool, directing starry-eyed inductees to get involved with the latest SRC or USU campaign. This venture into electoralism is justified on the basis that it provides access to financial and organisational support for activist campaigns, facilitating a rapid expansion of consciousness and radical action. However, it seems that the opposite is true — certain avenues of praxis, particularly those popular with the university students — are chosen precisely because it leads to the reproduction and expansion of power blocs within these bureaucracies. The focus on formal political battlegrounds both diverts energy away from praxis while exerting a mediating, disciplinary effect on what forms of activity are viable. For example, if recruitment and media-friendly visibility are priorities for a particular faction, activism becomes a means to reach these goals. Organisers often tone down their content to have a wider appeal, materialised in the appeal to notions in the liberal-progressive imaginary such as human rights and state entitlements. Moreover, they will set a particular level of ‘intensity’ for the demonstration to attract particular types of participants; the goldilocks mean between overt passivity and combative struggle. 

I acknowledge that it is unfair to compare the dynamics of university politicking with  the repressive function of the AIC seen in the history of BLM. Having participated in a number of university campaigns, it’s clear that many student activists approach protesting with passion, just intentions and a genuine sense of solidarity. However, despite benevolent aspirations, activists often engage in a panoptic self-discipline. Their embeddedness in networks of advocacy organisations with ties to local and state government, unions and NGOs lead to an internalisation of modes of activity that don’t challenge the Australian state or capital. The social consciousness of this activist strata is largely reflective of these institutional arrangements — not vice versa. By virtue of these connections with the State, it is framed as an ally and defender of the oppressed for progressives to rally behind, despite how deeply contradictory this is with the objectives of anti-racist struggle. When activity diverges from the modes of organising allowed by the State, narratives like the outside agitator are brought up and activists will reign in struggle in accordance with a pre-determined itinerary. 

Recently, the most disheartening examples of this are community organisers in the U.S. handing protestors to the police to maintain a level of respectability. However, this self-repression materialises in a multiplicity of forms. In the latest upswing of BLM struggles in Sydney, an activist bureaucracy has been responsible for enforcing a rights-based, state-approved series of peaceful marches with police escorts. This further includes lobbying with, and seeking the validation of NGOs and politicians. Initially, BLM saw a return to spontaneous organising in Sydney, with #RIPGeorgeFloyd vigils and marches being held without the approval of professional anti-racist organisers. The largest protest was held on the 6th of June, when over 10 000 people marched from Town Hall to Belmore Park chanting “I can’t breathe”, remembering the death of both George Floyd and David Dungay. While the rally was led by a myriad of activist groups with a presence from the Greens, on the train there from the Western suburbs I noticed an extemporaneous energy emerging from groups of teenage protestors, self-organising with their circle of mates. During the rally, spontaneous actions by these teenagers were either restrained by rally marshalls or isolated and then repressed by the police. It seemed to me a fundamental violation of the principles of the post-Minneapolis Resurgence to co-operate with the police while organising the vigil. The event thus became an object to be governed, with mandatory social distancing and management by intermediaries between activists and the police. Moreover, it seemed unfair that activist groups, whose members were from diverse but often middle-class backgrounds, could choose whose voices were heard and whose were not. Given that they are part of communities most immediately terrorised by police brutality, why were the Western Sydney youth not given a chance to vent their frustration? 

At a subsequent rally in solidarity with protesters at Sydney’s Long Bay Correctional Centre who faced tear gas attacks by prison guards, the regulatory behaviour of the activist class was farcically visible. Firstly, the rally was held at Town Hall, to attract larger crowds, despite the action being purportedly for Long Bay prisoners. Secondly, the action consisted of walking around the Captain Cook statue in circles for less than an hour — quite a threat to the status quo. Thirdly, rally marshalls, negotiators between the police and protesters, immediately called off the protest at the police’s behest, more effectively and efficiently than the police would have (no doubt they would have faced some resistance). Despite being authentic supporters of BLM, marshalls inexplicably became better cops than the cops present in their ability to quickly break up the crowd. Additionally, marshalls and organisers spent the hours following the end of the rally breaking up independent actions by non-organisers on a purported basis of safety. Many veteran radicals were aghast at the extraordinary power the police had over the crowd when they mediated their demands through the bodies ‘representing’ the voices of the struggle. A key organiser of the Long Bay rally I spoke with urged the Sydney left “to critically examine the ways in which activism can embody carceral logics like marshalling at protests, which functionally becomes a mechanism of policing”. 

A spectre is haunting the world; the spectre of an abolitionist, anti-racist, feminist radicalism actively opposed to the decimation of the planet. For those that wish to see a world beyond capital’s destructive desire for profitability, a world that can facilitate the endless flourishing of human potential, we must exorcise the unholy alliance that activists have formed with the state and NGOs. To avoid becoming our own cops, we need to jettison the platitudes of allyship politics that ask us to look for leaders, abandon a politics of safety that pacifies and divide us, and break free from an AIC that makes our struggle impotent. Jackie Wang, citing Franz Fanon, reminds us that militancy is not just strategically beneficial. Struggle, real struggle, emboldens those involved, transforming their anger into strength, cleansing them of “the core of their despair”.

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