When I heard that, I looked up from cranking open the window of the moving truck. Alex lowered the cell phone to grin at me. When the call ended, someone whispered “Steve doesn’t get lesbian jokes.” We dissolved into peals of laughter, our hair whipping our faces from the breeze.
Steve likes civic actions to be planned down to the detail, so he had called us to ask who was deployed on which tasks. We were on our way to get building supplies. We’d meet him later at the build site at Freedom Square.
Tonight we needed several things from Home Depot: plywood, posts, a mallet. We were planning on putting a 15-foot wall at Freedom Square for artwork and community announcements. Oh, and shielding. The wall would shield performances at Freedom Square from the watchful eyes of the Chicago Police Officers parked across the intersection at Homan Square, a facility the CPD has historically used for torturing detainees before taking them to police stations.
Freedom Square occupies a vacant lot facing the notorious police dark site. For almost a month now, protesters and activists have lived, worked, and slept there. The idea is to build a self-accountable community that does not need police presence. Of course, as the first few people started setting up Freedom Square, police made themselves very present as they tried to shoo the protesters away. Some Chicago police seem to think it within their purview to make things legal or illegal at will. In one shouting match between police and a lawyer at Freedom Square, one officer declared to the lawyer “I don’t have to know the law!” Somehow, it got ingrained in them that they make the law. Luckily, they eventually and begrudgingly acquiesce to lawyers — particularly shouting lawyers who insist that the vacant lot is private land and the owner is allowing the protesters to be there.
The Let Us Breathe Collective that organized Freedom Square has stated that their vacant lot community will stay right where it is until the Blue Lives Matter Ordinance gets removed from the docket in Chicago. The proposed ordinance would categorize any action against police as a hate crime — giving the police much more legal latitude to lash out at civil disobedience. Paradoxically, police themselves are already exempt from prosecution for hate crimes, even if a police officer were to outright admit that their violence were motivated by age or race or gender.
The SURJ group — which stands for Show Up for Racial Justice — organizes white people and non-black people of color to help fight for racial justice. The organization has chapters in most major cities, and volunteers can do things like participate in protests, represent SURJ at meetings held by The Bluest Lie Collaborative and other organizations, and educate other members about how to play a supporting role at public actions.
The Chicago chapter has devoted most of its attention this month to Freedom Square. We go there and bring supplies, man the kitchen, or babysit. When I first arrived on the scene, I had a question. Evidently it’s a question that a lot of new SURJ members have. And when they ask it at the first meeting, it usually sounds something like this:
“So, am I going to…get arrested for this?”
And so, if any of you decide to check out the next SURJ meeting in your area, I figured I’d go ahead and answer this one for you so you don’t feel so worried.
Probably not. And it’s totally in your control.
So, first of all, training people, attending meetings, and representing protest organizations are all perfectly legal activities that usually occur in neighborhoods that look like the ones you’re used to. And all of those are very helpful and necessary activities.
Any risk of arrest is at public actions, like Freedom Square or the NFL Draft protests or any variety of protest that I’m sure you’ve seen in your cities. But the answer is still probably not, and it’s totally in your control.
See, public action organizing is, in fact, unbelievably organized. Organizers have thought through every single detail of the action, who should do what, who ought to speak, and when it should happen. You are not showing up to a mob. There are roles in place, and you get to pick yours.*
Many public actions have even organized these roles into convenient colors for you. But even if they haven’t, it’s a pretty simple taxonomy:
Green Roles: These roles are totally legal and you cannot be arrested for performing them. They include bringing water to protesters, holding signs, and standing around. Could a police officer try to arrest you and make something up later? Theoretically yes, but it’s exceedingly rare at protests because a) you’re surrounded by people with camera phones who could be recording the incident and b) especially if you’re white, the police aren’t likely to come after you.
Which brings me to an important point about the color roles: the danger level associated with them is heavily affected by who is playing them. If you are white, then even when you’re engaging in civil disobedience, police don’t feel ‘threatened’ by you or fundamentally in opposition to you. In fact, they’ll really try to leave you alone because the consequences for them doing something wrong to you are relatively high. The justice system is sympathetic to you. They don’t want to cross you.
Yellow Roles: These roles have a slightly higher risk associated with them. An example: while the Let Us Breathe Collective was setting up Freedom Square, several organizations staged a diversion protest at Homan Square itself, and several SURJ members formed a soft blockade across the exit to the parking lot so the police could not leave to bug Freedom Square. ‘Soft blockade’ means there’s no actual hard thing blocking the exit: just people standing arm in arm to block it. This is technically not exactly legal, but the police are required to give three warnings before arresting anybody doing this. At this protest, police officers elected to mock the soft blockade instead of giving any warnings, so not only did the blockade not get arrested, but they didn’t even have to disperse. An important note: the vast majority of people doing the soft blockade were white. It’s generally accepted that the police reaction would have been different if this were not the case. So take this as an example: white people, you’re extremely helpful in these roles because the likelihood that a protest devolves into arrests is lower if you are playing them.
Red Roles: A red role is ‘I’m volunteering to be arrested today.’ Had the police issued three warnings to the soft blockade and the blockade not moved, the blockade role would have transitioned to a red role. Red roles also include some speaking roles and types of civil disobedience that incense police enough that they don’t bother with the three warnings.
Thing one to know about red roles: even if you do get arrested, it’s extremely unlikely to be fast or violent because a) the people and the camera phones, see above, and b) police and crossing white people, see above. So even if you find yourself under arrest, arrest for you is a procedure, not a bar fight. They’re going to read you your rights. Then they’re going to tell you the allegation. Then they do the handcuffs. Then they take you to the station and charge you. Your physical safety is not in danger — particularly if you’re white.
Thing two about red roles: also as a white person, you aren’t often going to end up in red roles because they are usually central roles in the protest, and you are not there to be central — you are there to support without taking the limelight from leaders for whom racial injustice is their lived experience.
Which brings up another point about being at protests as a supporter with racial privilege: it’s important not to take the mic. It’s not our role to join in on chants that don’t represent our lived experience. It’s not our role to speak to the media in lieu of an organizer with lived experiences of racial injustice. So not only are we not responsible for knowing what to say or do on the spot, we are responsible for handing over ‘the spot’ to someone else — which can be very relieving, because you don’t have to have an eloquent thing to say. You just say ‘Please direct your questions to that person over there.’ And then you shut up.
It’s strange, isn’t it? To be told explicitly “You are not here to be a leader.”
We get the message all our lives that being the leader is a ‘good’ thing to which we should always aspire. Turns out it’s more nuanced than that. The more days I spend on this Earth, the more things that seems to be true about.
But this is a great example of a situation in which supporters are important, and being willing to show up and act as a follower can be useful, too.
*The information in this post is heavily supplemented by writings and lectures from community leaders of the Black Lives Matter Network, the Black Youth Project, the Let Us Breathe Collective, and SURJ.