How Liberalism Infects Movement Building

It never fails. Every time there is critical resistance, an uprising and continued unrest people get dragged back to compliance (with permits) under the rhetoric of being peaceful or nonviolent. The movement gets dragged out of the street to sit attentively at the feet of the oppressors with speakers that tell us change will come if we are calm (and peaceful).  Nevermind the normalized police escort, or the “security team”. We are just following the rules, nothing to see here.

Rhetoric about resistance and direct action becomes meaningless, lost in the symbolism of marching for civic change, not structure change. Movement managers try to make the movement mainstream-popular, inviting celebrities and business leaders to come forward, while at the same time pushing out radical elements that released pressure valves to begin with. If not directly, through terrible tactical choices that alienate people (like working with the police who are critically engaged in counter insurgency and developing profiles on agitators to undermine the movement).

Never mind that working with the city and police legitimizes them, while making it easier for the police to knowingly divide and attack groups that take nonpermitted action or respond to their conditions without the permission of the state. Is this what solidarity looks like?

Instead of hearing about what groups are doing to sustain themselves or strategies for community support or autonomy during these uprisings, we hear more and more about making demands and appealing to city representatives. For reforms that always come at a cost, like so-marketed police reforms with dangerous baggage like more technology and funding for the police. The movement becomes so pressured by popular media and civic leaders to clarify its goals, policy change becomes a priority before much needed tensions and discussions are addressed. Before policy change can be challenged not as the goal, but a short sighted tactic that gains concessions in the larger fight to abolish the infrastructure that makes racial oppression and hierarchy/abuse relations profitable.

But once the movement is focused on policy change, containment is practically complete. Uprisings get neutralized within 3-4 days on average (in LA), tactics are pacified and organizations absorb people and energy through that process. All the agitators who were able to explore what it means to act autonomously for liberation, who were harassed and attacked by the police, are cast aside as unreasonable. Ungovernable.

Unity becomes language to gather behind and solidarity is reserved for those who will declare their nonviolence or tolerance for police collaboration. Never mind that nonviolence never actually was not violent- it just tolerates violence in the hopes of receiving change. It accepts (the hierarchy of) violence as a means of determining justice- because if someone is constantly violated don’t they deserve to be saved?

The cops and US state are killing people, but pacifism will kill the movement every time. We say “first do no harm” but liberalism does harm to the movement every time. Debate turns to protest, but often doesn’t amount to more than symbolism and an outlet as most folks are quick to comply. People pull permits in the name of pacifism, but invite the police. People fund and support figure heads and institutions instead of building projects and efforts that provide direct support on our own terms.  How does this make sense? 

What is liberalism? There are many ways people might define or apply it. But for now i’ll start with, peace for the sake of appearing peaceful regardless of whether the conditions are peaceful or not. Appealing to and supporting state violence (the government) to restore “peace” whether the conditions are peaceful or not. Working with the enemy to minimize the affects of oppression, while never supporting those looking to prevent or abolish it.

Redirecting the outrage and energy of people away from their own communities and into organizations that work with and support the state (and it’s violence). Taking real anger and pain, and neutralizing it so that it does not actually threaten the economic and social conditions that produced it. Believing that the state is the only way we will be free. Controlling how other actors behave so that the state will make you free. And finally, using peace as a reason to dismiss and silence people seeking critical movement building dialogue to prevent the co-optation of the movement. Demanding peace without first acknowledging the conflict is dismissive and heartbreaking. Same with #notallcops rhetoric.

The popular media finds it much easier to latch onto movement building for reform, because the hierarchical political structure wants people to resign power over to representatives and allow those representatives to determine “clear” goals. And just like that the movement becomes less about supporting action, solidarity, creative resistance and more about appealing to the dominant white (and liberal) gaze for approval

But what if the goals aren’t clear? The imagining of otherways and oldways needs space to breathe and thrive.  What if supporting abolitionist struggle, autonomy, and insurrection means that all of it will have to fall? Especially the privileges and comforts gained by whites and non-black POC under the capitalist system built on genocide and enslavement. And can’t folks consider that their trust in the system that exists is misplaced and comes at too high a cost? 

Liberalism is reliance on the state to manage all social, political, economic relations. This includes the economy of wage exploitation and hierarchy that makes people poor, upholds racism and deprives folks of resources. The system of governance and gender violence that pits community against each other based on sexuality, gender and patriarchy power. The lack of empowerment and shared decision making attacking our autonomy.  The lack of access to resources for those who are disabled by society. 

The political system itself which carries on war after war here and abroad without our consent, and for profit. The way problems are handled, policed and result in mass imprisonment and violence for poor and particularly non-white communities. Yes, all of it must fall.

It’s not simple. But to build this movement we cannot oversimplify it. We cannot ignore that liberalism benefits from seeing movements silenced, neutralized and absorbed into dominant politics. And we can’t pretend that it doesn’t make white (and non white) liberals uncomfortable to think about revolution and liberation. This might be a large reason why people in the movement fall back on learned liberalism. Because people, and particularly people of color, have been taught that to assimilate in Amerikan culture means to behave, which has become synonymous with being “reasonable” or deferring to white models of power. 

But we don’t need to defer, we need to defect from these models of power which are not reasonable.  Co-optation will fail and hierarchical models of power must fall.

[Edited but originally published on]



  1. I don’t believe whiteness owns the concept of goal setting. Repeatedly saying “(it) must fall”, is appallingly vague. What does it mean? The Movement isn’t going anywhere because it is stuck inbetween two worlds: one of calculated action and one of chaotic action. I believe this article (and the sentiment of the author ) represent the latter. Chaotic action is cute for a couple months. What happens when The People need to be governed? If this is supposed to be some kind of case for solidarity, it does a horrid job. It reads more like a venting session to a woke ass homie on the stagnation of The Movement. It is time for a Plan. A real one. One that doesn’t involve silly and elitist views on liberalism or any other “isms” for that matter. Ok, so it “must fall”. Fabulous. What is it falling into? How is it going to be sustained? What does it look like? What do we look like in it? No one is asking the real questions. You can’t look at a race of people tell them: “be ready to die for this”, if we don’t know what “this” is. In every apocalyptic film, the powers-that-be put together the greatest thinkers amongst them to design a plan to save them. Don’t we need to do the same thing?


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