When The Revolution Is Black*: Brooklyn Protests & Revolutionary Privilege

written by Raven Rakia

On Wednesday, March 13, 46 people were arrested in East Flatbush at the Brooklyn Protests that some may call a ‘riot’, others may call ‘violent’, others called the start of a ‘revolution’. During the days to follow, there were plenty of blog posts of the bravery of the local community and their revolutionary behavior. They brushed off the “clowns” (read: community leaders who have done more for that community than all of us who discovered East Flatbush in March 2013) like Jumaane Williams for yelling at the outside instigators for egging on the youth in his neighborhood and condemning the occurrences of Wednesday night.

In an organizing class in college, I remember a guest speaker from ACT-UP speaking about how tear gas and arrests were a type of success from their protests because it meant that there was civil dissent and it was more likely to get media attention. And it’s true, the media loves violence and illegality. The peaceful protests to follow in Brooklyn had dying media attention but have some looting, some thrown objects, some tear gas and/or some arrests and the media will be there in 12 seconds. There’s no doubt that many movements risked arrests as a tactic to show the wrongs of the law - the sit-ins of the civil rights movements are the first to come to mind. okay cool so civil dissent=arrests=revolution, right? Yup, simplified and naive, true liberalartscollegefreshmanism.

When I was studying in Greece during the Arab Spring, my professor said one day, “this won’t last. Revolutions are completed by the privileged. They can’t stay out there forever. Working class people, unfortunately, have to go back to work.” Of course, he was wrong. In that specific case he had underestimating the influence of the high level of unemployment in the Middle East (many of these young people had no work to go back to). but he was right when he said “revolutions are done by the privileged” - OWS is our most recent example of that but check out any college book revolution ever and you might start seeing a pattern. Black Panthers fell just short of a revolution but wait a minute, were the most successful revolutions run by those middle to upper class white guys?

Many of us who don’t live in East Flatbush, ripe for revolution and anarchy, came home Wednesday night and immediately got on our laptops astounded by the “revolution” forming in East Flatbush.

But what I realized, the next day, is that my study and therefore notions of “revolution” comes with privilege. In the days to follow, Jumaane Williams spoke of the already depleted resources when trying to get the arrested youth bailed out and represented. Others spoke about those who were undocumented. After all, when a revolution comes to an Afro-caribbean neighborhood like East Flatbush - what happens to those who don’t hold a green card? Those on probation? Kids with juvenile delinquency charges where another arrest means being taken away from their family? Neighborhoods where individuals would never get a pass with the law but actually the opposite - individuals who are constantly targeted and harassed in the name of keeping “law and order”.

For some reason, it didn’t occur to people (except of course, the community leaders of East Flatbush) that maybe 46 people getting arrested in a community where young people are targeted and arrested to epidemic proportions may not be the most revolutionary thing ever.

And I’m not saying that the youth of East Flatbush that defied the force of the NYPD (the protest grew rowdy and spilled out onto the streets when the police blocked off the sidewalk to try and stop the march) weren’t fearless, weren’t unforgiving, weren’t resistant - on the contrary.

But what does a revolution  - a sudden, complete, unmarked change or radically new and innovative or beyond established procedure - look like in neighborhoods postulated for it’s normalcy of crime, where individuals are vilified as violent before having a chance to speak?

It’s no wonder why those of us coming into the neighborhood didn’t understand why taking photos of the protesters would be a bad idea. After all, if a protest falls in a forest and no one hears it, it never happened. Media attention is good, it’s imperative. Only to have some people in the neighborhood explain that those photos and videos showing people’s identities can and will be used by the police later on. With face identifying software, the NYPD can use those photos to harass and discourage the locals that took part in the protests. There’s nothing revolutionary about an increased police presence and greater police harassment in a community already occupied by the NYPD. And yet, since the beginning of the protests, an already astounding police presence has increased tenfold with groups of police on every corner, watching from rooftops and NYPD helicopters swarming - no doubt the excuse being the activities that occurred on Wednesday.

No, maybe, the revolution in East Flatbush will look very different. And I’m not saying it won’t involve fearless dissent, of course it will, but perhaps in a way we (who studied the protests of the privileged) have never seen before.


*I use the term “black” not in the wholly racial sense (after all, I’m black but I still hold more privilege than many of those who look like me) but as a term that describe many low-income predominantly black, caribbean and/or latino communities that lack basic resources, and the individuals that live in these communities that hold little to no privilege.

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