Please Put Down Your Sledgehammers: On the Parkland Students, Left Reductionism, and Aversion to Strategic Alliance

By William J. Weikart

When I Facebook reposted a .gif rendering of Emma González that said “I Stand With Her”, I was feeling her emotional courage, and inspired at the fact that high school students seemed, at least for the moment, to be leading something…what might be the start of a movement…a budding social movement for more or less common sense steps to regulating guns and gun augmentations (manufacture, access); reigning in the excessive influence of the NRA; increasing access to (not imposition of) mental health care; and for finding ways to make school children – ANY and ALL school children, but really, all people – less endangered by mass shootings and wanton violence.

A recent Facebook post, that has, if not gone viral, certainly generated a lot of heated controversy and discussion, [1] has alleged “white supremacist roots” of the March for Our Lives “movement.” [2]  This is an irresponsible overstatement (which is perhaps itself an understatement). The seemingly deliberate and hyperbolic conceptual slippage/obfuscation – gun control advocates are white supremacists, regardless of their claims and allegiances – and the radical reductionism, of nuanced difference and political identification on the left, and even amongst liberals, therein, points to a number of lessons the left can potentially learn from — or, more modestly, to problems I have seen, first-hand, that dog the US left at least since the late 90s and the so-called anti-globalization protest mobilizations, if not since well before (perhaps going back to Hegel).  I have many problems with the piece:

1. The overstated need for attention to Hogg and González’ backgrounds.  Reducing them to their class backgrounds is quite simply an example of what Marx called ‘vulgar materialism’, and in many ways is partly to blame for the excesses and distortions of many of the well-intended but ultimately horrible (and failed) outcomes of the 20c experiments in applying Marxism (China and USSR, even Pol Pot in Cambodia).  You come from bourgeoisie, you ARE bourgeoisie.  Don’t get any on you.  Of course we know many revolutionaries in history have come from relative privilege.  Here, class functions very much like race does in racist discourse.  The two converge in a kind of paranoid, zero-sum biopolitics: They must die so that we might live.  Know backgrounds, but know that they also do not determine absolutely and mechanistically.

2. The problematic claim that most of the Manifesto items are unanimously calling for more policing in a traditional sense – ie, more police officers. Item 9 – “increase funding for school security” – does call for more armed school officers (which may technically be distinct from police) and this represents the most overt call in the Manifesto for policing.  There is a lot to discuss (out of my purview) as far as how armed personnel (not the teachers!) in schools could/would (mal)function on a day to day basis, and this is not the place.  I’d certainly improve the Manifesto here by calling for increased school funding but have it be applied to things like infrastructural safety (metal detectors, locking doors, bullet proof materials, and education/drills), even though these are expensive.  This may indeed be the most problematic part of the Manifesto, and it is right to call it out…maybe just leave it out, this item.  May I start by suggesting the books/research of Alex Vitale on policing in NYC.

3. While Bloomberg, who certainly presided over a racist (in its implementation) policy in ‘stop and frisk’, put money towards the March, it does not necessarily follow that he is somehow successfully attaching a stop and frisk agenda to that money.  He may or may not be trying to.  In his influential work, The Practice of Everyday Life (1980; English ed. 1984),  Michel de Certeau shows us how consumption is not merely passive, and how consumers of mass culture alter and subvert not only those objects and their proscribed uses, but the intended (ideological) meanings of said objects.  The left can learn a lot from this, by extending it to money itself.  There is no ‘clean’ money, but also, money is not a perfect, closed circuit which perfectly transmits ideology in a 1:1 fashion.  Instead of assuming that general money corrupts absolutely, and/or that particular money transmits perfectly, learn from the rock group Royal Trux, who used their savviness to legally get millions from Virgin in the late 90s, and channeled that into their own semi-autonomous activity, such as building a recording studio (a petit means of production) – money that went back into the musical undercommons, as it were.  Bloomy may want to support the cause but perhaps we can take his money without strings…or cut them.  These situations are to be approached carefully, and taken very much on a case by case basis.  Stepping back, what is important is that the Parkland Manifesto I see on The Guardian’s website says nothing of reinstalling stop and frisk, or similar.  It does not seem to be calling for measures that, at first glance, would prioritize urban, versus suburban or rural enforcement; or target particular racial or economic groups.  This is the “slippage” I speak of; really just a rhetorical sleight of hand.

4. If the Parkland Manifesto contains significant racial blind spots, and it well may, they of course can and should be addressed.  This is a work in progress.  It quite remains to be seen if this is indeed a social “movement”, and Hogg and González are so far simply media faces, not leaders.  Leftists in the US (not liberals!) have for years (at least since the late 90s) been calling for the demilitarization of municipal police forces, and sometimes even the disarming of police, as unarmed black youth are killed with impunity, and police have come to increasingly resemble occupying armies, especially at protest rallies – using tear gas, rubber bullets, riot gear, sound cannons, armored vehicles etc.  The Parkland students and others need to, and will, learn about ideas like demilitarization, and I see no reason these ideas can not be integrated in, to strengthen the (tbd) “movement”.  These are high school students getting their feet wet politically, learning to lead.  They of course have a lot to learn.  While I don’t see items on this Manifesto that are blatantly concealing a bias towards enforcement on or in communities of color, the FB post has the merit of being a legit warning of what to be vigilant for – ie, racist implementation.  Original intentions always can and do shift.  But a complete dismissal of Hogg and González, the Parkland Manifesto, and all attempts at common sense gun regulation, would be throwing the baby out with the bath water.  This is simply too much of a media flashpoint/opening.  As I write, it already seems to be losing steam as the media circus shifts to an imminent Mueller firing, and Stormygate. [EDIT: now, Syria.]

5. I’d encourage those interested to probe deeper into the political agenda (found in the post’s myriad sub-threads) that the author is pursuing and prescribing, as I find it rather far-fetched, to say the least — or better, alarming:  wildly anti-democratic; deeply authoritarian; and decidedly quite essentialist.  In sum, it’s a formula for the further reification of “race”, and a dire, cynical will to something like what I think has to be a state of permanent warfare.  I do not want to dismiss the author’s concerns and general trajectory; but it is also important to know, then, where she is coming from, and the proposed “answers” or solutions[3].  The one arrived at is, I would argue, NOT the only “answer” that an anti-racist platform for common sense gun control must arrive at, as she would have it.  While she treats anti-racism and gun control – indeed – as incompatible (which is the crux of what I find so objectionable), it turns out that she actually IS for a kind of gun control, but you’d be forgiven for not guessing its specificity.  By now you may have figured that the author’s invoking of white supremacism conflates it with denial of – or insufficient copping to, ignorance of – white privilege, and hence refers to a very wide swath of people on all over the political spectrum – mainly, people who do not accept her solution(s):  all of liberals, and frankly most of leftists. (Please see point 1.)  How are these sneaky, crypto-“white supremacists” (people calling for gun control – for it identifies them!) any different from Trump or even overt neo-Nazis?  They are not, at least on issues of race (allegedly).  This move is sheer reductio ad absurdum, par excellence.

Of course, Hogg and González – but really, the student co-authors – are not proposing anything outside the realm of mere liberalism – except perhaps when the Manifesto hints at manufacture/sale regulation (which cuts, albeit so gently, against the most crass forms of free market neoliberalism).  The left needs to learn that strategic alliances with liberals (even Democrats) are sometimes desirable or necessary…especially when everything shifts so damn far to the right – and acknowledge when we sometimes have alliable interests.  These alliances will be modular, temporary, highly specific, highly qualified, pragmatic, and flexible.  The FB post represents an extreme example of a nonetheless prevalent left will-to-reduce, and the dogmatic/purist aversion to strategic alliance – indeed, to strategy.  Influence is not necessarily unidirectional.  If constituted power is only destined – mechanistically, fatalistically – to recuperate all movements, gestures and desires towards emancipation, we may as well throw in the towel.  I’m not.[4]

[1] As of today (4/17/18) this Facebook post is public with 6,369 shares and 2.1 thousand comments:

https://www.facebook.com/seraphina.thompson.77/posts/151958892294537?comment_id=1989841677945579&reply_comment_id=236225966925156&notif_id=1523297487811077&notif_t=feed_comment_reply&ref=notif

[2]The Parkland Students’ Manifesto:  https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/commentisfree/2018/mar/23/parkland-students-manifesto-americas-gun-laws

[3] I am basing this claim on the original post, and on my interactions with her re the original post.  I have not read all the proposed links she provided.

[4] A final admission is that I have no idea if this “movement” is “infiltrated by police”, as claimed; I doubt it is by “white supremacists” in any meaningful sense (addressed somewhat here).  Let’s not conflate one protest march with a social movement.  Another left tendency is to become prematurely worried that since a few lefties posted a meme, that all left resources and energy will suddenly be directed/usurped in full to that movement or issue.  It doesn’t negate or preclude the work that is always already in progress.  As the FB post author would seemingly agree, this is NOT a movement (yet?) for the disarming of police.  Only then could I really see police becoming super interested in infiltration, as I think they have bigger fish to fry.  If the author is so against this “movement”, it is unclear how she has the informed perspective that it is indeed ”infiltrated by police”, unless she is also infiltrating it.

Liam Weikart is a recluse living in semi-rural southwest Virginia.

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