Over the past year, an ongoing trend in the Black Lives Matter movement has been a tactic called “black brunch,” in which groups of activists enter restaurants in the late morning/early afternoon hours to disrupt people’s meals by reading out names of African Americans slain by white police officers, and shouting slogans such as “white silence is consent.” The protest method reached a crescendo in Chicago this weekend, with at least five eateries visited.
At Dove’s Luncheonette on Chicago’s north side, protesters shouted, “While you are here celebrating over brunch, black families are struggling to keep themselves safe from CPD.” They also chanted, “We refuse to let you celebrate the New Year as black people are being killed by police.” The protest was intended to “intervene on the ‘celebration’ of consumerism, corrupt property zoning/displacement practices, and the retail and service industries’ route collusion with police and state violence,” according to a statement by the organizers.
The protests are ill-advised for a number of reasons, and it’s not clear whether organizers and participants have really thought through the implications of what they are doing. Judging by the reactions of diners and the backlash on Twitter, the consensus of the general public seems to be that these disruptions are not just obnoxious – which civil disobedience tactics often are – but profoundly alienating and therefore ineffective in winning any converts to the cause of the Black Lives Matter movement.
With the Twitter hashtag #BlackBrunch largely hijacked by conservatives and others expressing opposition to the tactic, it was clear by Sunday that there would be no groundswell of awakening this weekend to the protesters’ message of countering white supremacy and privilege by disrupting people’s attempts to eat eggs benedict and drink mimosas in peace.
“Love the guy that doesn’t even stop eating,” remarked one Twitter user in reference to a video of a diner who continued to enjoy his meal while protesters shouted slogans nearby. “Inconceivable,” another Twitter user commented in general exasperation over the protests, while another pointed out that the “black brunch” tactic is “not working for your cause.” Others were less diplomatic. “Total scumbags & racists,” said one, while another wondered, “is this behavior a black thing?”
Black Lives Matter would do well to take a step back and reassess this particular tactic, which is predicated on fundamental assumptions that are misguided at best and borderline racist at worst. One of the assumptions is the rather offensive notion (to people of color as well as whites) that eating a nice meal at a restaurant on a Saturday afternoon is somehow a “white thing.”
Also, by targeting establishments that are frequented by predominantly white patrons (although, it should be said, judging by the Twitter videos, many of the diners being harassed are in fact African Americans), the protesters are making a pretty broad-based assumption that whites in general don’t care about issues of police brutality and racial injustice, which is not only prejudicial and presumptuous but also largely false.
While disparities do exist among blacks and whites in their perceptions of police misconduct, there is fairly wide acknowledgement that police violence is a nationwide problem, that accountability is far too often lacking when police use deadly force, and that more must be done to address racial injustice in a fundamental way.
According to a Pew/USA Today poll conducted in August 2014, Americans of all races collectively “give relatively low marks to police departments around the country for holding officers accountable for misconduct, using the appropriate amount of force, and treating racial and ethnic groups equally.” Just 41% of whites agreed that police generally “use the right amount of force for each situation,” while 55% disagreed.
A more recent Pew survey, issued in August 2015, found that six-in-ten Americans – including 53% of whites – say the country needs to continue making changes to achieve racial equality, while just 32% say the country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites.
In other words, statistically speaking, the odds are that the majority of the white diners attempting to enjoy their brunches were generally in agreement with the cause of Black Lives Matter before their meals were interrupted, and therefore the tactic has probably done more to turn white people against the movement than to support it.
And even if a few people were “reached” or “converted” by this invasive disruption of their meals, what precisely are they supposed to do in that moment of epiphany? Do the black brunch protesters expect – or even provide an opportunity for – white brunchers to put down their forks, get out of their chairs and join the movement for racial justice and police accountability? Have the organizers thought that through? Do they provide appropriate opportunities for people to plug into the movement?
A decade ago, I was heavily involved in the peace and justice movement organizing against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, torture, indefinite detention and other excesses of the so-called “war on terror.” Although in many cases we were working against public opinion, operating in a general culture still in shock over 9/11 and in fear of the terrorist threat, we had some success in winning people to our cause through traditional outreach activities.
I remember participating in efforts such as setting up informational booths near DC metro stations and on college campuses, as well as constant flyering, banner-dropping and traditional media outreach. Although some of our tactics may have been off-putting, including civil disobedience “die-ins” to block traffic and shopping mall demonstrations with chants such as “bombs are dropping while you are shopping,” one thing that we always made a point to do was to provide avenues for interested citizens to join our cause. We would be sure to hand out flyers for example not only with a general political message, but also contact information for those who want to get involved.
While targeting mindless consumerism at shopping malls and attempting to disrupt “business as usual” with downtown traffic blockades, something we would have never considered doing would be to target individual races or ethnic groups in order to shame them into action. Although our predominantly white movement often lamented how few people of color were involved in the cause, it would have been unimaginable to us to enter a restaurant in an African-American part of town and shout slogans such as “black silence is consent.” This would have been justifiably condemned as racist, ignorant and presumptuous, not to mention counterproductive. Yet, that is precisely what Black Lives Matter is doing with its “black brunch” protests.
Besides the divisive effect of this particular tactic, there is also the deeper issue of what message Black Lives Matter is sending by focusing so exclusively on instances of black victims being killed by white police officers. Statistically it is true that the tendency of police to kill civilians is a greater threat to African Americans than it is to any other racial group, but the fact is, police violence is a problem that cuts across racial lines, as the raw numbers make clear.
Filling a notable gap in record-keeping by the United States government, which doesn’t gather data on how many civilians are slain by police in a given year, news organizations including The Washington Post and The Guardian determined that in 2015, between 965 and 1,134 civilians were killed by police, depending on what counting standards are used. (The Post only tracked fatal police shootings, not killings by other forms of force, while The Guardian employed a more inclusive methodology.)
While much of the recent focus has been on the racial component of the nationwide police brutality epidemic, fueled in large part by the agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement and the media’s tendency to devote more attention to cases following an easily digestible racial narrative, the numbers confirm that the rampant police violence impacts communities across the United States, with whites accounting in fact for the most victims. According to the Guardian’s tally, 577 whites were killed by police in 2015, compared to 300 blacks, 193 Latinos, and 64 of other races.
Although blacks were killed at a disproportionate rate, with nearly seven out of a million black people killed by police in America last year and white victims accounting for 2.86 per million, the fact is, even removing African Americans from the equation, U.S. police violence is a serious problem with no parallel among other advanced democracies.
As The Guardian explains, “looking at our data for the US against admittedly less reliable information on police killings elsewhere paints a dramatic portrait … [T]he US is not just some outlier in terms of police violence when compared with countries of similar economic and political standing. America is the outlier – and this is what a crisis looks like.”
Driving this point home, new data shows that just since Christmas, U.S. cops have killed twice as many people as cops in the United Kingdom have in the last five years. In other words, in one week, U.S. officers killed more than double the amount of people as British police have killed since 2011.
Incidentally, at least four of these victims were white and four black.
Clearly, this is not just a racial issue – this is a police brutality and human rights issue that impacts communities of all colors and creeds across the United States. It could also be said that the police killings are part and parcel of living in such a violent, gun-crazed society as the United States. Significantly, while a thousand people may have been shot and killed by police in 2015, this is still only about one-thirtieth of the total number of people killed by guns in America in a given year.
With this in mind, perhaps Black Lives Matter and the wider public would do well in focusing on the deeper issues of violence – whether state-sanctioned or not – that has such a deadly effect on American society. And seriously, give it a rest with the “black brunch” protests.