“If I could get ‘biblical’ for a second, ‘having blood on one’s hands’ is not just about being the individual that caused direct harm in this situation, it is about collective sin & responsibility. By taking the helm of this system [as sherriff], you are entangled in and accountable for its systemic violence. Even by virtue of being taxpayers, to a certain degree, U.S. citizens have the blood of innocent people who this nation drops bombs on overseas on their hands.”
“The white man will try to satisfy us with symbolic victories rather than economic [redistribution] and real justice.”
“If capital is funding our freedom movements, they are not freedom movements.”
The Farce On U.S.A.: The Emptiness of the Ruling Elite’s Response to Summer 2020 Uprisings
When it was all said and done, Winston-Salem became a tragic microcosm of what happened on the national level. Nationally, the call to “defund the police” was REJECTED and scapegoated. This demand originated amongst Black abolitionist organizers and was taken up in both tactically weak and sound ways by an ideologically diverse group of formations. No one expected the Republicans to be on board, but there were those who held out hope that the Democrats would be responsive to the estimated 26 million people in the U.S. that participated in protests that summer. Instead, Democrats largely chose to play the game of symbolism. They appropriated movement language, virtue signaled, and staged cringe-worthy performative gestures like wearing kente cloth and taking the knee. We saw protests and boycotts that had tons of potential co-opted by ruling misdirection-ists and whisperer-careerists. One of the saddest instances was when former President Barack Obama talked Lebron James and striking NBA players off the ledge of their strike, and back onto the court in exchange for mostly symbolic concessions. In the words of ancestor Fannie Lou Hamer, “[We] are sick of symbolic things. We are fighting for our lives!”
Wall Street and corporate powers, who have profited from the violence of policing, waved the Black Lives Matter banner while continuing to exploit Black workers through wage theft. A recent in-depth study of corporate sponsorship of “racial justice causes” revealed the futility and severe limitations of said entities in addressing race/ism. In fact, over 90% of the corporate dollar pledges to the movement “[were] allocated as loans or investments they could stand to profit from.” As Joy James put it, “if capital is funding our freedom movements, they are not freedom movements.” Despite all the pearl-clutching done by neoliberal centrists and conservatives around the slogan “Defund the Police,” the police were NOT defunded in the overwhelming majority of cities. Rather, people were herded to the polls to vote for one of the most carceral presidential tickets ever: a chief architect of the infamous 94 crime bill, and a self-proclaimed “top-cop.” During the campaign trail, both Biden and Harris spoke of the ills of systemic racism and the need for policing and prison reform. However, I argue that their rhetoric was not the fruit of genuine repentance (turning from their carceral ways.) Instead, it was a politically expedient act of rebranding. This rebranding allowed a presidential ticket that was basically a “middle finger” to the movement, to be seen by some as a “peace sign.” As a battered and concussed electorate, perhaps the masses were “seeing double” in their desperation for the Chirstofascist Trump era to end. No matter where one may fall in terms of electoral politics and strategies, it must be constantly named that the so-called “lesser of two evils” is still evil.
Under the Biden administration, “The George Floyd Act” police reform bill passed in the House. However, as Black abolitionist Dereka Purnell has pointed out, the tragic irony is that the bill bearing his name, would not have actually saved George Floyd’s life. The bill — which would give 750 million dollars towards policing — was not strong enough to begin with, and most recently, crumbled on the Senate floor. Meanwhile, a republican initiated budget resolution amendment, that would essentially “defund cities” that choose to defund the police, was passed unanimously. Equally egregious is the reality that President Biden reneged on his campaign promise to decrease the militarization of the police via an Executive Order. To his credit, however, the 46th “imperialist in chief” did follow through on his promise to end the federal use of private prisons. This was reported and received as a giant step towards reform, nevertheless, a close look at the impact demonstrates it was a baby step at best. Not a single soul locked in a cage – during a deadly pandemic – was freed by the order. It ended a total of just 3 contracts that the Department of Justice had with private prisons. ICE detentions centers were not within its purview. Additionally, it bolstered the false dichotomy between private and public prisons. The reality is that every one of these rotten vestiges of chattel slavery makes profits for private companies. Yet, the executive order had just enough (fatty) meat on its bones for the masses to mistake it as substantial. The lack of substance so far in the Biden presidency should not have been a surprise to anyone. A man who tells corporate donors who depend on the violence of policing that “nothing will fundamentally change” is highly unlikely to do anything to substantially decrease the power and plunder of the carceral state. Even if one did not understand the relationship between capitalism and policing, Biden explicitly said in an exclusive ABC interview:
“I don’t want to defund police departments. I think they need more help, they need more assistance, but that, look, there are unethical senators, there are unethical presidents, there are unethical doctors, unethical lawyers, unethical prosecutors, there are unethical cops. They should be rooted out.”
Biden’s primary mandate was/is saving empire and capital, and calming the restless U.S. masses through piecemeal concessions. To that end, it was important that Chauvin (George Floyd’s murderer) be found guilty, “rooted out,” and delivered up as an individual sacrifice in order to save the deadly system, and avoid even larger mass mobilizations.
All of the above national happenings were mirrored in “Winston-Salem, USA.” The entire city council – republican and democrat – explicitly said they were against “defunding.” Despite the swan song over diminishing resources, neither the WSPD nor the FCSO budgets were decreased. As was the case in other cities, they sucked up covid-19 relief funding and secured grants as Winston-Salem residents were put out on the streets due to evictions during a global pandemic. During the heat of the summer and the months that followed, local politicians demonstrated their subservience to law enforcement and veiled apathy towards the people. There were two particular moments that demonstrate this dynamic. First, Black city council member and democrat, James Taylor, appeared to be a step above the rest of his city council colleagues in relation to his responsiveness to the demands coming from the most serious elements within our local protest scene. He attempted to pass a resolution that would purportedly reallocate funds from WSPD’s hiring budget and towards community programs, create a raise in the minimum wage for city jobs, and provide rental assistance for tenants. Yet, like Biden’s executive order ending the federal use of private prisons, a deeper look revealed that it was primarily cosmetic. The “reallocated” funds would not actually impact the WSPD’s budget, hiring, or power at all. Chief Katrina Thomspon approved. Meanwhile, Councilmember Ryan Clark pushed back on the resolution saying:
“It is very easy for the police chief to support your motion, Mr. Taylor, because it doesn’t do anything…I cannot support a sham of a motion that in fact eliminates positions in every department but the police…..”
By no means, was/is republican politician, Ryan Clark a comrade in our struggle. Still, the above quote at least exposed what was truly happening. Taylor’s resolution was not “bad,” it just was not in any way rooted in the anti-carceral logic and substance of movement demands. Yet, he was attempting to frame it in that way, dancing on that non-existent line of being pro-movement and pro-policing. In one city council meeting, Taylor addressed law enforcement with the words, “we love you and we trust you.” These words of carceral affirmation could not have been further from the cries of the streets heard worldwide. They were, in essence, a sad inversion of the chant done nightly at the occupation in front of the detention center to encourage incarcerated neighbors: “we see you, we love you!”
The second occurrence that demonstrated city/county leadership’s veiled apathy towards the people involved democratic city council member James Mundy. Mundy, who is white, was in the streets during the summer protests crying “Black lives matter.” However, when he stepped into power as the new southwest ward city councilmember, the story was different. At one point he likened grassroots organizations like Hate Out of Winston and the FCPARC to “terrorists” and “kidnappers” for their persistence in showing up to voice demands during the public comment section of city meetings. Mundy would eventually issue an apology and update his Facebook profile to a picture of himself protesting in the streets of Winston-Salem during the summer. Again, proving my point in part 1 of this series, that much of the activity of white folks in the summer of 2020 was about absolution.
[Pictured: Top Right – city council member James Taylor & WSPD Chief Katrina Thompson, Top Left -Councilmember James Mundy sworn into office, Bottom Left – Hate Out of Winston lead-organizer Miranda Jones speaks at a demonstratiion calling for reallocatiion of policiing funds, Bottom Right – Brittany Battle moderates an FCPARC “People’s Report” on violence interruption work.]
Now we come to who might be described as the “Camel City Obama”: Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough (who falls under the ruling misdirectionist class as covered in part 1 of this series). Like Obama, Kimbrough is slick with his branding and PR. (Obama was declared the top “brand” in the year 2008.) You could argue that he moves like a hybrid sheriff and social media influencer. He’s charismatic. He knows how to project a sense of “around the way-ness.” He can employ Black preaching cadences with ease. He is skillful at giving people the impression that his positionality at the top of an anti-Black system, does not put him at odds with the best interests of the Black community. However, he missed the mark of Obama-level symbolism and political maneuvering on several occasions. One such occasion felt more in alignment with the likes of Nancy Pelosi, who in addition to that bootleg Colin Kaepernick demonstration, had the unmitigated (white liberal) gall to say “George Floyd gave his life as a sacrifice” after the Chauvin guilty verdict.
Commensurately cringeworthy was Sheriff Kimbrough’s suggestion to “honor” John Neville by renaming a wing of the detention center after him. After pushback, he recanted, but the fact that this was ever on the table, reveals the ways that Black faces in high places are not immune to the system’s enchantment. On the contrary, the Black (petite)bourgeois hold the spaces they hold because they have internalized and performed the duties of a “buffer class” that legitimizes racist-patriarchal-colonial systems. And as Miranda Jones of Hate Out of Winston put it during a teach-in at the occupation of Bailey Park, “Having a Black body with a ‘blue mind’ means my people are in trouble!”
Under Kimbrough’s leadership, the sheriff’s department called for residents to join surveillance efforts by linking their house security cams to their system. This would allow law enforcement to access security camera footage at private residences, businesses, etc. To sell this idea they funded a Hollywood movie quality copaganda commercial that gave folks the impression that linking their security cams would prevent a break-in while in progress. They later were forced to clarify that linking a camera to their system would not mean 24-hour security surveillance as the video purported. The WSPD hired a full-time PR person salaried at $60,000. The official title for this position, “civilian information officer,” is another sign of how committed our city is to the tenants of “community policing.” The myths of “community policing”, or more accurately described as CONmunity policing—policing that reifies the very structures they claim to improve— were constantly, cleverly, and forcefully shoved down the throats of Winston-Salem Forsyth County residents. Those who dared to call it into question were demonized. It seemed that at every turn, Kimbrough was committed to using his well-oiled social media presence and charisma to bash, dinegegrate, and mischaracterize the work of grassroots organizations.
This law enforcement PR blitz took place to the backdrop of a 15-year-old black girl being slammed by a musclebound white police officer in her own neighborhood that winter, a Black man being victimized by police at a gas station in East Winston, incarcerated kinfolk having to stage protests in response to being deprived of proper medical attention, water shutoffs, and refusal to give them their mail. As gun violence – too often involving Black and brown teens – escalates, the city that said it was for Black lives continues to block the flow of support for Black & Latinx community-controlled efforts to curtail it. Rather, they are engaging in what I call “disaster carceralism.” As the Drum Majors Alliance and Lit City noted in our statement responding to the deeply tragic shooting that took place on the campus of Mt tabor high school:
“Similar to ‘disaster capitalism’, disaster carceralism is an attempt to seize a moment of tragedy to further the economic drain, strengthen the systemic grip, and boost the public approval of “solving” issues of violence with law enforcement.”
As I wrap this up, it must be said that there can be no analysis of politics in Winston-Salem that does not interrogate the role of the faith community. The urban legend is that Winston-Salem is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most church buildings per capita in the nation. As a member of the local faith community, I must express my deep frustration with our engagement in summer 2020 protests and beyond. To be fair, I have seen glimmers of hope. More church folks took to the streets than they did in 2012, or 2014, or even 2016. Yet, there remains an unfortunate and unacceptable tendency amongst our most prominent clergy, churches, and faith-based non-profit organizations to virtue signal, but ultimately skirt the task of cross-bearing. There is much that could be said, but one haunting moment is emblematic of where too many of those who claim allegiance to Jesus of Nazareth have stood in this struggle. At a multi-racial unity prayer gathering hosted in summer 2020 ON THE VERY SAME GROUNDS AS #OccupyWSNC not so much as an official word of encouragement to protesters or a prayer was offered up for the family of John Neville. What’s more, this prayer gathering – which came together at the suggestion of Sheriff Kimbrough – was hosted by a local white evangelical megachurch pastor who happened to be an avid supporter of Donald Trump. What fellowship do Christofascists have with liberationist people of faith? Is the God of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Martin King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Bree Newsome the same as the God of Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Jerry Falwell Sr., and Franklin Graham?
[Pictured: Pastor J.B. Whitfield, of Agape Faith Church, hosts the “Prayer Gathering of Solidarity for Real Change” at Bailey Park on July 30th, 2020.]
We Charge Farce
In the final analysis, the power structure (and its accomplices in every sector) fought tooth and nail against grassroots organizations. When backed against the wall by the force of our activity, they divvied out “great-value” (diluted) versions of some demands, all while being self-congratulatory.
All that ensued post the summer of 2020, leads me back to the idea that it was “the Farce on Winston”: an empty, absurd, and performative series of events that ultimately upheld the deadly status quo.