On Aug. 28, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was confronted by a peaceful, though admittedly loud and disruptive, group of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters after a speaking event in Washington D.C. He was eventually escorted back to his hotel room by police.
The crowd shouted a lot of things at Sen. Paul that day. He recounted that night in an opinion piece for Fox News that reads, “The mob continued shouting awful death threats. Curses. Shoving. One person in the mob violently slammed into a policeman just behind me.”
But the most interesting thing that protesters said to him was captured on film by a Washington Post reporter. The crowd chanted “Say Her Name”, referring to Breonna Taylor, who had been a constituent of Rand’s.
Now, the interesting thing about that is that Senator Paul has long been an advocate for police reform, police demilitarization and even wrote and sponsored the “Justice for Breonna Taylor Act” that aims to ban the use of no-knock warrants.
He took time to personally meet with Taylor’s family and found a way to take a meaningful action in his role as a senator.
The obvious question is then, why did left wing protesters go after someone who seems to be their ally, at least on the specific policy matter the group claims to be protesting?
The answer seems to be that, at least for some people, being a social justice advocate is more about being part of an edgy counter-culture than it is about any actual demands for justice. I’m looking at you, self-proclaimed White allies.
This strain of performative allyship is incredibly toxic. It allows privileged individuals to wear social justice as a kind of fashion statement through empty virtue signalling.
When you really breakdown the motivations behind these people, it becomes clear that they are concerned with identifying as part of the ingroup more than they are concerned with concrete justice.
These types of self-proclaimed allies seem to devote themselves to this ‘with us or against us’ world view that feels like a strange theological narrative that breaks down the world into two groups: helpless minorities and evil oppressors.
The implicit assumption is obviously problematic. Minorities, especially historically marginalized ones, are more than capable of articulating their point of view. After all, they’re the ones forced to think about issues of justice and human dignity everyday.
The more subtle way this world view is problematic, however, is how it further enforces the idea that social justice advocacy and progressive change is more about being part of the club when it should always be about substantive policy.
Progressives have long had a tendency to eat themselves like a snake, pushing people further and further away from the movement instead of creating a broad political coalition to improve people’s lives and promote justice.
Allow me to return to the example of Sen. Paul. Now, the Senator is a Republican, self-identified libertarian and a White male, so he fits perfectly into the “evil oppressor” category — a cognitive box of problematic people who are our sworn ideological enemies.
But that kind of claim is completely divorced from reality. As I illustrated earlier, the truth is much more nuanced.
Sen. Paul is an ally of those demanding criminal justice and police reform. Even though most social justice advocates from the left would disagree with him on economic policy and his strong isolationist forgein policy stance, the fact remains that progressive have something in common with someone who spoke at the Republican National Convention.
But on Aug. 28, the BLM movement lost an ally in a very privileged political position — an unlikely friendship that could have blossomed into actual change.
That is not to be, however. Paul went to Twitter to use the same fear-mongering language that the Fox News right uses against BLM protestors.
He called them a violent mob, played up a bike that was thrown at a police officer as evidence of widespread lawlessness and insinuated that the actions of a few are representative of the movement as a whole.
So, in all of this, what I would like people to understand is that, for many people, social justice is not a game or a fun subculture; it is an inescapable matter of life and death.