August 4, 2021

while everyone’s watching

rows of yellow tulips in a field
photo caption: yellow tulips in bloom extend in rows all the way to the horizon. a stand of trees is off to the right, and another stand is barely visible in the distance to the left. you might believe that the tulips in this field seem inescapable. but then, so did the divine right of kings.

These past few years have brought strong activism and support for marginalized communities. But the change we need isn’t finished yet. It may not have even started yet⏤sometimes it’s hard to tell. This past week, another police officer murdered Daunte Wright, another unarmed Black man. The murder occurred a few miles away from the courthouse where Derek Chauvin is on trial for killing George Floyd. After each of these killings, a segment of the population says “never again.” They choose to join the people who are already fighting for justice.

These new infusions of support are welcome, without a doubt. Organizers and movement-builders know that we all have to work as a collective to reach our destination. But there’s a sort of scope creep that happens when more and more people join together. These ideas sometimes miss the point of the issue, or they may perpetuate racist and capitalist norms. If we are not vigilant, we will bring our old baggage into a new future.

So how can we tell? What criteria do we look for when we appraise the ideas that people bring with them? How can we apply what we know about racial equity to carefully examine a new project? I’m going to use a couple of recent movements to explain my points.

Little Free Pantries started in Arkansas in 2016. The idea spread to both coasts and cities between. The pantries work exactly the same way as Little Free Libraries, only with food instead of books. The little kiosks often look like a big birdhouse: a small wooden box with a glass window so people can see inside. The pantries sit at the edge of a person’s yard, or another ideal spot near the street that people can access. Volunteers, usually a family that owns the house or a group of neighbors, keep the pantry stocked. Anyone is free to take an item that they need, or leave an item they don’t.

I first learned about Campaign Zero on Instagram. A friend shared a colorful infographic explaining what people call their “common-sense reforms.” Campaign Zero is a national organization founded in 2015. It is an offshoot of the fight for Black lives, which itself gained steam during the 2010s. Some of the people associated with Campaign Zero became well-known after Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, MO. The campaign promotes ten reforms as the key to ending police violence nationwide. Some of their policy proposals are already in effect in cities across the country. These ideas include community oversight of the police, requiring body cameras, and more.

ideas can come from anywhere

I’m not surprised that both of these organizations began during Donald Trump’s presidency. Their proposals are tantalizing, they feel so doable. So achievable against the backdrop of vocal white supremacists. They’re the one weird trick, the easy solution to problems that lurk in the marrow of this country.

When I’m assessing an idea, I look for clues in what people are trying to sell me. Reading between the lines sometimes helps, but if you take notice, people will often show you outright who they are. Many of these questions come from my own experience, others from using a racial equity filter. People use those tools to ask themselves questions about an idea, its motive, and its audience. Here are some of the things I’m thinking about when I examine an idea or proposal.

looking for the designer

Who built this idea, and why? What are they trying to solve?
Who did they build it for? Themselves, their community, or someone else?
Who did they consult? Who did they leave out?

Ideas can come from anywhere. But let’s be specific about who has the access, the funding, the network, the time to market those ideas. Why is this person or people leading this activity? What is their relation to the problem? Is their experience lived, historic, or second-hand? Having historic or second-hand experience is not a dealbreaker for me. But it means I need to know more about how they stay informed and aware.

Well-connected activists created Campaign Zero. They adopted many of the same messages as the Black Lives Matter movement. As a decentralized community of activists, BLM started as a hashtag that grew over time. Campaign Zero began fully-formed with their ten policy solutions for police reform.

The Little Free Pantry pantries receive most of their food from wealthy families. They also invite people who use the pantries to donate their own food as well. But the level of interaction within these pantries is minimal. It’s the “take a penny, leave a penny” approach. Their shared use of the handle on the little door is the extent to which donors and users of the pantry interact.

looking for the context

Where do we locate this problem in the big picture?
How does it reverse inequity? How does it transfer power?
How does it enrich the community or people?

A recurring theme on this blog is how to look for the problem that surrounds the problem you see. So many issues of injustice live within bigger systems of injustice. We expend limitless energy on solving the problem in front of us while the system goes free. I try to remember that the racist policies of yesterday didn’t feel racist to every person who approved them. The default setting for most solutions is going to have strands of racism woven in. We have to be explicit about our antiracism and how our ideas will combat historic racism. We must hold ourselves and each other accountable when we fail to reach that ideal.

Campaign Zero will feel more palatable to some than the radical approach of Defund the Police. Rather than imagine a world free of an oppressive police force, Campaign Zero wants to tame the ones we live with. But police reform is the focus of their work. Their ten proposals focus on the police but ignore an unjust legal system. They neglect the millions of people already incarcerated. They don’t connect for us all the ways a racist police force has oppressed people. It’s a few years old, but I think of Gregory McKelvey’s experience with a police officer inside his school growing up. Acts of violence and intimidation do not always end in murder. It’s not enough to reform metropolitan police departments and call it good. Indeed, Defund the Police works to solve a crisis where police are only a symptom of the illness. Their proposals transfer police resources to non-violent forms of safety and community support. Their goals include prison abolition and shifting wealth to excluded communities of color. The police receive an overwhelming amount of money compared to actual safety programs.

The Little Free Pantries operate a model with little difference to traditional charity. Dean Spade’s pithy definition of charity is “rich people deciding which poor people deserve some small crumbs.” While pantries exist in lower-income communities, they are rarely maintained by those communities. Their size and limited selection means they must supplement someone’s existing food supply. They don’t help ease poverty conditions. They don’t argue for increased wages or more generous SNAP benefits. And their presence can erode the public’s perception of the problem. Someone might see a fully-stocked pantry as proof that we are meeting everyone’s needs. When support for the pantry ends, the people who really did use it are right back where they started.

looking for the future

What future change does it inspire?
What is this goal a stepping stone to?
Who will maintain this activity and how?

All programs end. They can achieve their goals or they can lose steam. A more popular idea may take root instead, and the old program loses out to the shiny new one. What happens next?

As I’ve said before, Campaign Zero commits itself to their ten proposals for police reform. But they do not mention that many cities already have some version of those proposals in place. Body cameras only lend an audiovisual component to the taking of Black lives. Even when cameras capture proof of a murder, prosecutors rarely hold police accountable. On their website, Campaign Zero takes 75 words to say that 3/10 of their proposals aren’t effective. They don’t replace those proposals with new ones. Instead, they encourage lawmakers to “focus on solutions with the strongest evidence of effectiveness.” This dilutes the power of activist movements that have the same goals but take other paths. People in media feel free to contrast Defund the Police with Campaign Zero and others. They try to simplify the narrative by combining messages in a way that distorts two very different approaches. Or they frame the proposals as a competition between two camps.

Little Free Pantries say they can help “start a conversation” about food insecurity. But what is the content of that conversation? Is it to add more pantries everywhere, or is it to change the system that created this problem? The pantries replicate the same problems that food banks before them exacerbated. A new model might propose community refrigerators as a way to expand their offerings. But those, too, won’t survive forever. Mutual aid as a form of solidarity within community is more enduring. They support not only the food needs of people, but their individual needs as well. I’ve seen mutual aid share diapers, crowdfund a root canal, and house people who are refugees. None of those solutions would fit in a small box on a pole in someone’s yard.


Like so many aspects of our society, we need to rebuild and replace programs, not reform them. Campaign Zero and Little Free Pantries don’t feel like they have much in common. They are both examples of performative activism. In performative activism, the illusion of change gives cover to the status quo. Programs like these can help us feel like we’re part of the solution when everyone is watching. But in reality, these efforts keep us disconnected from our communities and each other.

Alternatives to performance activism show the many faces of the same problem. Societies under capitalism rob communities and defend that theft with force. Redirecting support back to our communities deepens our relationships with each other. It helps make our collective power more durable. It’s up to each of us to discern the ideas that support this goal, and discard the ones that don’t.

josh

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here. say hello: josh[at]bethefuture[dot]space

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