When stomping nazis, no room for neutral

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By Joseph Phelan, CSS Fellow

When I was growing up I could have been considered a thug. The short of it, I was a teenage punk rocker, I was smart, and I hated authority. And the only thing I hated more than authority were Nazis.

It wasn’t just me, it was the scene. In the 90’s Nazi skinheads were growing in organizational power and form. There was a story that passed around my high school. Once, a New York City hardcore band was playing a show in town. A bunch of Nazi skinheads flooded into the venue with baseball bats, cue balls in socks, and rolls of quarters in their fists, some real medieval stuff. And what did the punk and hardcore kids do? They fought them.

For me, and a bunch of my punk friends, it was a simple politic: Nazis are racist, racists are bad, if we allow racists at our shows then our shows are racist, we all loose (historical supported fact). Therefore you couldn’t sit out, there was one choice: we stomped Nazis.

Then things get complicated
Sometimes I long for those days when it was easy to just point to a skinhead and say, “See that bonehead right there? Let’s stomp ‘em” and know that I was fighting the good fight.

Of course, those days were only easy because my understanding of racism was simple. For my teenage punk rock self, racism was racial prejudice expressed physically or verbally.

But, as Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, there is a “…widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control. The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society.”

Given this understanding of racism as not merely the expression of racial animus by an individual, but baked into the very structure of society, I have amended my youthful politic into a slightly more nuanced one. Now I stomp racism.

The New Normal
On August 9, 2014, Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot and killed Mike Brown, and an un-armed Black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo. Mike Brown’s killing sparked a grassroots movement in Ferguson and nationally that is calling for an end to police killings of young Black people. Protests in the city have been met with heavy police violence.

Shortly after police officials publically identified Darren Wilson as the police officer who shot and killed Mike Brown two GoFundMe pages went up to raise money for his defense (he still hasn’t been charged).

On it’s website GoFundMe describes itself as the World’s #1 fundraising site for personal causes and life-events. It’s own terms of use prohibit “items that promote hate, violence, racial intolerance or the financial exploitation of crime.” Yet when the fundraising pages for Darren Wilson attracted all sorts of racist hate filled vitriol from people who were making donations, GoFundMe allowed the fundraisers to continue.

Here is where the stomping racism part comes in. GoFundMe should have shut it down immediately back in August. And that’s what ColorOfChange.org is calling for.

“We don’t know what minimum standard GoFundMe will settle on in the long run for fundraisers banned from their platform, but the Darren Wilson fundraising campaign clearly and egregiously crossed a line,” Bhavik Lathia a Campaign Manager at ColorofChange.org wrote to me in an email. “From the hateful comments of racially-motivated donors to the person being raised money for. It is verified fact that Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, and that Michael Brown was unarmed. There is no question of that. Whether or not he is charged with a crime by our broken justice system is a different matter altogether. Fundraisers for such a person have no place on the world’s #1 crowdfunding platform.”

When GoFundMe eventually removed some of the racist comments but left the fundraiser up, they defended themselves with, “Much like Facebook and Twitter, GoFundMe is an open technology platform that allows for the exchange of ideas and opinion.

I asked Bhavik about this claim that the technology itself is neutral, and that there is value in that neutrality. He wrote, “There is no such thing as a neutral technology platform. By allowing Darren Wilson supporters to fundraise on their platform, GoFundMe is taking a side. And they are on the wrong side of history.”

As technology and applications continue to integrate into every part of our society there is a tremendous opportunity to challenge long entrenched injustice based on race, gender, country of origin, and associated access to opportunity. The GoFundMe example illustrates that if companies that are shaping our future through laying the foundations for new economies, exchanges of ideas and information, take an ahistorical approach to how they set up their platforms (e.g. assuming that an exchange of ideas and opinions that are racist is totally ok in raising money for a cause), then we will most likely miss this opportunity for deep change.

Or, from the stomping racism perspective GoFundMe will lose out on the opportunity to be a long term player in our future society because we will show them that as long as they perpetuate racism they are not welcome, as ColorOfChange.org has continued to do.

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Bhavik wrote to me, “New tech platforms can either move us toward a more just and inclusive society, or they can support/reinforce the toxic norms of the past. One thing they can’t do is be neutral.”

Talking about race
So there are still ways to nonviolently implement the politic of stomping racism. We can challenge practices that reinforce a status quo based on racial oppression and privilege. Sometimes this means we have to challenge what seems like a claim of race neutral language and politic, and expose  that underneath that neutrality is foundation of systems, practices, and even cultural beliefs that have an entrenched history of racism, that spells violence and oppression for Black people and people of color.

“There’s something insidious at play here. These types of fundraising drives lower the social and financial costs of killing Black men and boys. It sends the message that you will be supported in the aftermath of taking Black life,” Bhavik concluded in his email to me.

In the just and inclusive society I want to live in there is a place for the exchange of ideas and opinions, as GoFundMe says, but that exchange does not come with the price tag on Black lives.