It was an unseasonably warm December evening when around 60 of South Bend’s Black citizens, council representatives, city employees, clergy, and their family members, gathered to express their support for then Presidential candidate, and now former mayor, Pete Buttigieg. Lining the back of the room, however, stood a group of around 25 protesters wearing Black Lives Matter shirts and stern facial expressions, while holding posters questioning the mayor’s concern for the homeless. This collective of protesters, myself among them, flanked a large Black Lives Matter banner. A host approached the podium at the front corner of the room, looked at the crowd and then at the group of protesters in the back, and offered a warm welcome. She asked that people respect the speakers. Recognizing tension in the room, she clearly wanted to respect free speech while still having an orderly meeting. The event, not surprisingly, did not proceed the way the host had planned.
The program began with a lineup of speakers and it didn’t take long before the activists grew restless. It started with soft comments like “this is bullshit.” The volume rose: “What about the homeless?” “What about Eric Logan [a man shot by police the prior summer]?”
Meanwhile, a Black Lives Matter activist inched his way toward the front podium. He would later say that he “really just wanted to get a better view” (Fieldnotes 12_8_20). Standing on the side against the wall about 15 feet away from the podium, he joined in the chorus of protests now coming from the back of the room. Without premeditation, he crashed the party. In long drawn out questions, he asked “Who…are…these…Black…leaders?” “Who chose these Black leaders?” Realizing that all eyes were on him, he faced the crowd with waving hands: “There’s a police crisis [in South Bend] and these people want to talk about Pete Buttigieg!” Many in the crowd, visibly uncomfortable, yelled at him to sit down. Yet he kept talking, prompting a small elderly woman to stand up and raise her cane with intent to swing it at the protester’s head. Ironically, the event hosts found themselves frantically taking action to protect a Black Lives Matter activist from being taken out. In the midst of this mayhem, the activist snatched the microphone from the podium, amplifying his voice as he questioned the legitimacy of the gathering. The hosts quickly turned their attention to the activist, and after about a 15-second struggle, managed to pry the microphone from his hands.
As chaotic as this incident was, it raises important questions about Black activism in the 2020s. Who constitutes Black leadership in today’s society? What is the role of activism in defining Black leadership? Inequality and division in the Black community are not new developments. Under slavery, experiences of “house” and “field” slaves were distinct. Black Americans have had to navigate differential treatment and different access to resources based on skin tone and social class. Yet today we see a new cleavage that plays out culturally as well as politically. The Black Lives Matter movement highlights the intersection of race and age (or the projection of age) and how that maps onto class and understandings of leadership. What remains the same, however, is the way that white supremacy structures intersectional contention in Black spaces.
The Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013 when three queer women of color in their late 20’s and early 30’s mourned the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The movement became rooted in the national consciousness in 2014, after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Young people across the nation and on college campuses flooded social media and protested while many clergy, Civil Rights activists, and older Black citizens initially rejected the movement, dismissing it as being disrespectful. Some Black Lives Matter protesters asserted that an “old guard” of black leaders capitulate to local political elites to secure personal and political advantages. As in the case of South Bend, Black Lives Matter activists criticized older local Black leaders for trying to capitalize on Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. Many activists indicated that the old guard’s call for incremental respectability politics is antithetical to the Civil Rights Movement’s legacy of using disruptive tactics to achieve liberation and represents an erasure of the many ways in which black Americans had to contend with racial hostility on a daily basis South Bend.
I observed a conversation between an activist and a middle-aged Black host after the event that illustrates this dynamic. One host approached a Black Lives Matter activist to express support in private. Standing a few inches from the activist’s face, the older host added that the activists should let the old guard “get theirs first” and “there will be time afterward for the activists “to get theirs.” The activist maintained a firm stance not breaking eye contact while her much-taller adult son hovered over her in support. She asked, “You say you are with us, then why are you wearing that pin?” She was pointing to the “Pete” lapel pin the host was wearing. “You talk bad about us in public, and then want to come over here and say you with us?” The host paused, took a step back with a knowing smile on his face, wished her a good evening, and left the conversation.
Although this incident involved interaction between Black South Bend citizens, more broadly, it showcases the centrality of racial domination and white supremacy in structuring Black intersectional social hierarchies and intergenerational interactions. Candidate Buttigieg overtly rejected white supremacy; however, in this event, he tacitly structured it by defining Black leadership. A few activists reflected on this event, comparing it to the antebellum era when masters defined “house” and “field” slaves that created unequal statuses for Black people. Selecting leadership based on age, government positions, and perceived “experience” uses time as a qualifier in defining legitimate Black leadership. The central figure in the drama that played out in this meeting demanded to know, “who are these black leaders?” This question contained an indictment–many diverse, intergenerational, Black leaders were not represented at the event. Other Black Lives Matter members concluded that the confrontation was, at heart, “an argument over the slave master.” In sum white supremacy, not Black leadership, was the true winner that night. Candidate Buttigieg not only benefitted from his overt rejection of white supremacy, but also from his covert reproduction of it.
Reflecting back on this event, the irony unapparent at the time is that it took place at a Youth Center. A center charged with a commitment to the education of, and advocacy for, children. Unfortunately, on an unseasonably warm evening in December, this space transformed into a stage for generation division and ultimately a space for reinforcing white supremacy and racial domination.