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Hey, Black America: No One In “The Room” Will Save You. So Keep Yelling.

President Barack Obama sits next to House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, left, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Saturday, July 23, 2011, in Washington, as they meet to discuss the debt. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Photo by Adam Kiefaber. Creative Commons license.

Over the weekend, Barack Obama told a group of young people during a town hall meeting in London that the only thing the Black Lives Matter movement has done since settling into the activist scene is “yell.”

The NY Daily News calls Obama’s remarks “tough love.” I don’t know what The NY Daily News is smoking. It must be that good shit.

The NY Daily News is wrong. And so is Obama.

This isn’t the first time Obama has “scolded” Black people for their own condition. Preoccupied with symbolic change and tedious moralizing, Obama has spent his entire presidency disparaging black fatherhood and black parenting habits. Now, he aims to berate Black activists for not “taking advantage” of their invitations to sit with the lords and masters assembled in the rooms and halls of the political establishment. Heaven forbid “elected officials,” people in the air, be obligated to meet with folks on the ground, i.e. the people — especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged — oppressed — of those people — who voted their asses into their plush seats of power.

Take a look at the phraseology of this comment from Obama:

“And you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position. The value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room.”

What *expletive* gumption and nerve! This statement reeks of privilege. It’s consequence of what happens when you’ve spent a lifetime wearing “the white gaze.”

What he essentially implies is that as an ELECTED official, in the position of power which you, Black people, have afforded me by your vote, I’m not obligated — technically — to meet with any of you. In fact, no ELECTED official is obligated to meet with you. Hell, you’re lucky to be invited into the room. I have better, more pressing things to do, like host heads of state of foreign countries, vacation in Martha’s vineyard or wax poetic about the unproven glories of bipartisanship.

Coming from someone who, time after time, highlighted their “community organizing days” working in hard-pressed Black communities on the Southside of Chicago; coming from someone who was, as he claimed, “inspired” into public service by the civil rights movement, this sort of “tone policing,” as one writer puts it, strikes a painful, deep and ironic chord.

Then again, what more can one expect from someone who will greenlight drone strikes in Afghanistan in one moment and castigate the violent outrage of Black people in Ferguson toward police killings the next.

Black Lives Matter has done more to highlight and popularize the major issues and concerns of the black community — the school-to-prison pipeline, racial health disparities, mass incarceration, Black under and unemployment, the race wealth gap, state violence, on and on and on — than the nation’s first, and quite possibly last, Black president, who has stuck to his script of insisting that he’s president of the United States of America.

But being president means also acknowledging that he presides over one of the foremost white-supremacist, imperialist nations on Earth; that, for the past eight years, he has been the primary symbol of the entire tortuous history of this country. And, as such, he is subject to the same criticisms as any of the former white presidents.

As The Roots senior writer Kirsten West Savali said in a Facebook post:

“The value of getting into the room when the room is still owned by oppressive institutions is often overrated. It doesn’t matter how many ‘exceptional’ people you cram into the room, there are still going to be people in the streets pathologized by those in the room.”

Quoting from a conversation between Martin Luther King and Harry Belafonte, where King called America “a burning house,” Savali adds that the “burning house” is “the room.”

In our era, Black Lives Matter has been the very force working to douse the flames. And, contrary to Obama’s estimation, its sneering, its tactics, its “yelling,” has seen results.

It was Black Lives Matter that pushed every liberal andleft-leaningg candidate to address the racism and failures of the country’s criminal justice system in a way that, for all intents and purposes, they would not have otherwise done.

It was Black Lives Matter who forced Vermont Senator and democratic socialist Bernie Sanders to alter his platform to include a racial justice agenda. It was Black Lives Matter that laid bare the hypocrisy of the Clinton legacy before the nation and helped draw attention to the bourgeois proclivities of her “feminism.”

It was Black Lives Matter that created the necessary social climate to oust Anita Alvarez and Tim McGinty from office in Chicago.

But the substance of the impact of Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t stop there.

Mic published a rundown:

Movement members have launched multiple Black Lives Matter political action committees to support political candidates who take up their banner (although they’ve had a slow start). And some activists met with liberal megadonors at the Democracy Alliance’s annual gathering in November.

Activist meetings with political movers and shakers have entailed the discussion of a wide range of issues, but there’s evidence that they’ve had a real focus. Campaign Zero, which has figured prominently in high-level discussions, has laid out a very specific vision of police reforms required to reverse trends of police violence and overzealous arrest rates in communities of color. And when Democrats have discussed things like a “new New Deal” that invests funds in low-resource minority neighborhoods, it’s precisely because activists have pushed them to use that language.

But no. Black Lives Matters activists are too busy “yelling” to do any substantive work.

Look, y’all, the value of social movements far exceeds its ability to get a seat at the table or secure admission into the room. Social movements do not beg or plead with power for anything, especially when that power, in theory, is nothing more than a representation of the people. Social movements are a power unto themselves and signify a people’s coming of age.

Social movements understand that elected officials are not monarchs, lords, masters, gods or warlocks, and that ordinary women and men need not bow or curtsy in their presence; that democracy, at its essence, is a composition of citizens, not subjects. Social movements know in their bones that power grows from, and belongs to, the plains, not the mountaintops — that movements from below have been the real agents of change in human history.

It was the abolitionist movement that ended slavery, not Abraham Lincoln or Thaddeus Stevens. It was the black freedom struggles that ended Jim Crow, not John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson. It was the suffragette movement that ended political disfranchisement for white women, not any of the first ladies.

And it is Black Lives Matter that will put an end, once and for all, to America’s racist criminal injustice system and every other form of racial disparity, not Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Not anyone in the room. And definitely not the outgoing 44th president of these “United States.” #KeepYelling


Antwan is an educator, cultural critic, actor, and writer for Wear Your Voice Mag (WYV), where he focuses on the dynamics of class, race, gender, politics, and pop culture. Prior to joining the team at WYV, he was an adjunct professor in the African American Studies Department at Valdosta State University in southern Georgia, where he taught African American Literature. He has traveled the U.S. and U.K. showcasing a fifty-five minute, one-person play titled Whitewash, which focuses on the state of black men in the post-civil rights era. Antwan received his B.A. in English and Literature from California State University, Dominguez Hills, and M.A. in African American Studies from University of California, Los Angeles. He is a Ronald E. McNair Scholar and NAACP theater nominee.

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