Guy Fawkes: Good Activists and Social Change

So the first official entry in our Guy Fawkes series is from a great thread on Pharyngula about Beyoncé’s feminism. The whole thread is worth your time, but let’s pick up where beloved commenter chimera mentions

One of my favorite philosophers said something on the radio the other day that struck me. He said his favorite black civil rights leaders of the 60s were The Black Panthers because they had no pretension of being “good” (read: appropriate, upstanding, notable, conforming, respectable, moral, role model for your kids, and all that….). And that a person doesn’t have to be “good” (in that sense) to call for political change.

It could, of course, be left there as simply a maxim: don’t ignore calls for positive change from imperfect messengers. But this is a topic that I myself explored frequently in my anti-violence activism, because we in that movement have long had to struggle against society ignoring all but “perfect” victims. So I thought I would elaborate:

This is absolutely vital for justice. Ophelia [Benson, who was still on FtB at that time -cd] & I (just to pick two people one person who will be known to a lot of Pharyngula readers and one person writing this comment so as to limit the 3rd parties roped in) have actually had pretty serious disagreements at times. Let’s assume one of us is wrong in at least one of those serious disagreements.

Does the party in error on an issue of justice lose the ability to call for political change? I should fucking hope not. That way lies the best insurance policy for which the status quo could ever ask. Because any time the status quo wanted to shut me up, they could quote someone who agrees with whatever position of Ophelia’s was in contention, and whenever they wanted to shut Ophelia up, they could quote someone who agrees with whatever position of mine was in contention (though probably not actually me, as I can’t really see the New Republic successfully demonizing someone on the basis that a random right reverend feminist fucktoy of Death & her handmaiden had chastised that person’s position on the nature or requirements of justice).

BTW: This reminds me of an interview with, IIRC, Eldridge Cleaver. It may not have been with EC, but I think it was. It was played on the occasion of EC’s death in 1998 on the USA’s National Public Radio. Again, it could have been an interview with someone else reflecting on knowing and working with EC, but I think it was a posthumous rebroadcast of an actual EC interview.

The speaker, who must have been Bobby Seale if not EC, talks about researching gun laws in California and the city ordinances of Los Angeles relating to firearms. It was, at the time, entirely legal to carry a loaded shotgun openly in CA and even within the municipal limits of LA. But, either by ordinance or statute, I’m not sure, they were prevented from having a round in the chamber while the weapon was carried in a moving vehicle. BS, EC, and 2 other men [I can’t remember if Newton was one] were described in the interview as patrolling a black neighborhood of LA looking for cops hassling Black folk. They found a couple of white cops out of their car talking to Black someone/s. They parked behind the cops (illegally) & piled out, remaining a sufficient distance away that there could be no doubt that they had left the cops the 30′ free of interference required by CA court precedent.

The cops were, of course, disturbed to have 4 shotgun-armed young, Black men on the sidewalk with them. They gave the Panthers an order to stay back. The Panthers announced their intention to peaceably observe unless and until the cops broke the law themselves. The cops, not entirely sure what to do, turned back to the Black someone/s they had detained. At that point one of the Panthers, even the interviewee couldn’t remember who, recalled that out of the car the restriction on ammo in the chamber no longer applied. One panther jacked in a shell. Then 3 other Panthers in unison.

The cops very courteously warned the Black someone/s about something or other, turned and nodded to the Panthers, got in their car and drove quickly off.

Funnily enough, they did not bother to cite the Panthers for their quite-deserved parking violation.

All this is to say, it’s not nice to put cops in fear for their lives, which I’m quite certain that they did. But the Panthers had quite the point that the cops were putting Black folk in fear of Black lives, which wasn’t any better. If we refuse to listen to the even the most generous, the best, and the most well-reasoned analysis of an Eldridge Cleaver because he once jacked a round into a shotgun chamber in an intimidating manner, we lose a fuckload of contributions to fundamental justice.

One of the reasons I’m willing to entertain what I consider important questions from people who strike me as disingenuous is just this: we can’t ignore calls for community or governmental responses to individual or social needs merely because they come from imperfect people. Now, that doesn’t mean that we will always agree with someone that their analysis is correct or that their proposals should be implemented. I disagreed quite a lot with kathleenzielinski. But what if kathleenzielinski was correct? How would we know if we dismissed them out of hand?

One of my favorite heroes is Dee Farmer, a Black, trans woman who served quite a bit of prison time (mostly, as I understand it, for scams like credit card fraud) where guards deliberately housed her with someone who was known to rape fellow inmates and had already been determined by the prison policy to be ineligible for a cellmate ever again because of the repeated rapes. The guards then ignored her requests for help and laughed through her rapes, making jokes about those rapes frequently when interacting with her. She filed a lawsuit, hand written, with no legal training, that resulted in the SCOTUS decision that said, for the first time ever in the history of the country, that rape is not an acceptable part of someone’s prison sentence and that subjecting a prisoner to rape amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th.

That was 1994.

For 205 years of constitutional rule, we thought rape of prisoners was just fine. And why? Because we weren’t willing to listen to the pleas of people who weren’t “good”.

Justice is for the bad as well as the good, the perverts as well as the respectable.




  1. robert79 says

    “For 205 years of constitutional rule, we thought rape of prisoners was just fine.”

    As well as hurting, maiming, or killing of prisoners (often by a court of law). Probably most Nazi’s thought of what they were doing as “good” as well.

    Most activism, demonstrations, and revolts (and perhaps even some wars — I’d like to give the allies the benefit of the doubt when they defeated Hitler) was basically some group of people saying “your definition of ‘good’ is wrong!” These people will, by definition, be classified as “bad” by the status quo, so the “perfect victim” cannot exist.

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