September 21, 2021
From It's Going Down
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Content Warning: This essay focuses on a social justice movement and therefore discusses police violence against black people, sexual assault, and self-defense against the police in the context of protests.

This essay is part one of two pieces Irruptions will be releasing regarding the Fall 2021 anti-FIJI protests in Lincoln, Nebraska. This is a continuation of our work from the Summer of 2020, in which we examined the correlation between the arrival of activist leadership onto protest scenes and the subsequent dissipation of political energy within those protests. This pattern has now repeated itself on UNL’s campus in the wake of what appears to be another successfully defeated movement. Emphasizing the importance of study for those engaged in political action, we aim to offer a lens by which to understand this cycle of defeat in which people in Lincoln are trapped.

Here in Part One, we record the trajectory of the anti-FIJI protests that occurred in Lincoln and draw a few conclusions with the goal of challenging the hegemony of middle-class activism in this city. In Part Two, we will further develop aspects of the following analysis to explore the interactions of class, race, and gender within the crowds throughout the protests. Importantly, some vital events are being elided in Part One because they require deeper analysis in Part Two.

Across both parts, we aim to demonstrate the following theses:

1) Many people in Lincoln wish to do more than submit themselves to institutional reformism in response to violence, but they are always already countered by an entrenched counterinsurgency in the form of a clique of middle-class activists.

2) Lincoln’s middle-class activists alienate more militant elements from protests by cultivating atmospheres of suspicion and distrust, thereby discouraging direct action.

3) Speech-giving, petitioning, scheduling meetings with people in power, and “calling your friends out” (these being the endlessly recycled tactics deployed by the middle-class activist clique) ultimately alienate protest attendees and are the primary reason for the chronic dwindling of every movement in Lincoln.

4) The various police agencies in Lincoln rely on middle-class activism as part of their highly effective “get scarce” approach to counterinsurgency.

What follows is a synthesis of, on the one hand, a timeline of events that occurred in Lincoln and, on the other, our analysis of the forces at play in line with the above theses. But first, we must clarify one of our terms.

What Is Middle-Class Activism?

What we lay out in this section considers events through a primarily class-based lens, though the broader analysis will also consider the operations of other identity categories in the dynamics of the anti-FIJI protests (particularly in Part Two). We adopt this class-based lens because we believe that class allegiances and property relations are a primary force at play in the disarticulation of movements in Lincoln.

For the purpose of this essay, we define middle-class activism as follows: A political disposition which emphasizes institutional power as the exclusive means by which to create social change. Middle-class activism can be wielded by people from a variety of social backgrounds, including working-class ones. A person participates in middle-class activism when their attitudes and strategies regarding social change reflect a petty-bourgeois class interest.

Middle-class activism protects the interests and property of the powerful. This effect derives from its core assumptions: 1) that corporate and state institutions are capable of rendering “justice” if the oppressed can obtain a voice in the halls of power, and 2) that any direct attacks on corporate and state institutions will make these entities less likely to listen to the demands of the oppressed or admit them into positions of power. At its core, therefore, the logic of middle-class activism rests on the hope that the oppressed can gain entry into the system as it currently exists. Of course, middle-class activists tend to think they are the best candidates for this elevation to power. Therefore, they defend the existing property relations from which they hope to benefit.

These assumptions come into conflict with the historied proletarian impulse toward property destruction. Those who have no hope of and/or do not aspire to join the mythical, propertied middle-class feel no qualms about breaking a window or two if it strikes enough fear in the hearts of landowners to improve the conditions of life. Because many people (whatever their class position) understand that oppression itself is rooted in the present social conditions, they do not see these conditions as aspirations to be guarded, but rather as the very vehicles of their oppression.

This contradiction between middle-class activism and proletarian liberation continually arises within social movements both in Lincoln and abroad.

Night One: Autonomous Action in Lincoln, Nebraska

On Tuesday, August 24th, the University of Nebraska—Lincoln (UNL) was entering its second day of classes. Throughout the day, allegations spread that a female undergraduate student had been violently raped the night before at the Phi Gamma Delta (colloquially known as “FIJI”) fraternity house on campus. FIJI was already considered by students to be a bastion of rapists among the Greek houses. A brief history of FIJI includes more than fourteen allegations of rape on the property since 2017, repeated suspensions and probations by the university, and a vocal right-wing political orientation.

Within hours of the allegations spreading among undergraduate students, calls were circulating within local social media ecosystems for both the alleged rapist and the house itself to be expelled from UNL.

On the same night as the allegations had proliferated, a demonstration was called outside the fraternity house. No clear leaders emerged in the run-up to the protest, and, as the night set, a crowd of approximately one thousand assembled.

At first, the protest was highly decentralized and autonomous. The crowd positioned itself directly in front of the FIJI house, with those leading chants rotating in and out from the front. Whoever was leading chants at a given point stood on a stout wall that bordered the fraternity’s lawn, in close proximity to the line of half a dozen UNL police guarding the fraternity house just beyond the wall.

Objects were thrown at the house, and the police perimeter was violated. These actions were met with mixed responses from the crowd, divided between encouragement and remonstrations to “be peaceful.” When the perimeter of the lawn was breached by a protestor, they were ejected from the area by police, but not arrested.

At some point, a megaphone appeared. This changed the tenor of the demonstration, immediately drawing the focus of the crowd to individual speakers on the wall. Convergent with this development, a prominent Lincoln activist who leads the Black Leaders Movement (hereafter referred to as BLM, not to be confused with “Black Lives Matter”) arrived and became the primary possessor of the megaphone. This particular activist appeared repeatedly as a counter-insurgent force last year and has been previously mentioned in our analyses of the George Floyd Rebellion and its subsequent disarticulation. Immediately upon the arrival of this BLM activist, the autonomy of the crowd became overshadowed by peace-policing as the megaphone began to dictate the necessity of a “peaceful protest.”

Analysis of Night One

Just as the George Floyd Rebellion revealed, the unfolding of the first night of anti-FIJI protests demonstrates that, when people feel empowered to respond to structural violence in their communities, they do so. The inclination of many in the crowd on August 24th was to attack the house. They expressed this by lobbing projectiles toward the structure where the alleged rapist had been harbored. Moreover, they demonstrated courage in the face of police repression, openly defying the cops’ attempts to keep them off the lawn. At this point, the crowd was testing the waters, building their courage, seeing how far they could push things. What would they have accomplished if they had been allowed to continue along this course?

An approximate answer may have played out in nearby Iowa City, where, on August 31st, thousands got into the streets to protest an alleged rape at another FIJI fraternity on the University of Iowa campus. The FIJI house was graffitied with prominent tags of “RAPISTS” on the front of the house. Windows were shattered, and several cars were overturned and damaged by the crowd. Additionally, it is our understanding that an entrance to the house was breached by individuals and the interior was damaged.

The difference between Lincoln and Iowa City is that the apparatuses of liberal, middle-class activism were slower to activate in the latter city. This tells us that middle-class activism here in Lincoln is always at the ready to quell unrest. As such, the forces of middle-class activism are the frontline of counterinsurgency, which people must find ways to preemptively circumvent if they wish to exercise their autonomy.

As a postscript to this section, we will mention that a struggle over the megaphone occurred between the activists and a black man from the crowd, which concluded with the man being arrested by the police to the cheers of the activists. We find this incident to be highly disturbing as well as indicative of the relationship between middle-class activism and the police. We will explore this relationship more fully in Part Two.

Nights Two and Three: Passivity Takes the Reins

Going into the second night of protests (Wednesday, August 25th), the middle-class activists had solidified their control. The process resembled the well-oiled machine that was witnessed during the previous summer: a demonstration was called; a peaceful, police-escorted march of pre-determined chants on silent, traffic-free campus streets ensued; more chants were performed outside the fraternity house; and roughly two hours of aimless speaking by the self-proclaimed “revolutionary” BLM activist were delivered through the megaphone.

Unapproved displays of frustration, even those as simple as chucking a water bottle towards the FIJI house, were now met with the swift movement of police towards the point of origin and immediate disapproval from the activists who demanded “respect for the survivor”—according to their definition of “respectful behavior,” of course.

Testimony became the primary mode of protest at this point. Survivors (pre-selected by the activists) stepped up to recount their traumas for the crowd and demand that something be done by university administration. During intermissions in the speeches, the activist-leaders would address the crowd (who had just born witness to some of the worst violences inflicted upon their peers), and tell people that the solutions were petitions, emails, and adding one another on Snapchat to build the movement.

More of the same (though without even so much as a police-escorted march this time) followed on the third night (Thursday, August 26th).

Analysis of Nights Two and Three

Truly, we were shocked by the rapidity with which the middle-class activists stifled the anti-FIJI uprising. The past year and a half had been practice. Every time a movement popped up, middle-class activists—most prolifically the aforementioned BLM founder—would show up and take control. The assumption of control by any member of the middle-class activist clique was inevitably accompanied by the reign of megaphones and police escorts. Wherever they appeared, protestors were told to look out for “outside agitators” and “clout-chasers,” so that suspicious eyes were suddenly upon anyone who looked as though they were about to do anything at all.

The pestilential atmosphere enforced by these activists negated any potential for camaraderie within the crowd. Like cult leaders, the activists positioned themselves as the only ones you can trust, the only ones who are looking out for you, warning the crowd to beware the evil “agitators” who “want to lead you astray.”

The equivocation between, on the one hand, attempts by the crowd to damage the alleged rapist’s property and, on the other, disrespect to the person who was violated at this same property underscores that these activists are coercing crowds into institutional reform as the be-all, end-all. Not even the hackneyed “diversity of tactics” compromise (which operates mostly as an excuse for those who do not want to risk anything to avoid doing so) can be reached when the activists unilaterally ensnare any potential action in these institutional binds.

We propose that, in these so-called safe spaces of civility and high-roadism, where people’s traumas are trotted out like a list of dangers from which the activists “are here to save you,” many felt alienated, disengaged, and alone. Many felt crushed by the weight of the violence of this world and the seeming impossibility of doing anything more than petitioning the powerful to please stop.

Perhaps, this is a better explanation for why these protests repeatedly fizzle out and die. This opposed to the tired script produced by the activists that “people just aren’t committed enough.”

Night Four: The Activists Protect the Police

Night four (Friday, August 27th) was marked by more pacified liberal “action,” now on the steps of the Student Union and away from the fraternity. The crowd had dwindled. The old pattern was strictly maintained: There were calls for officials to be held accountable, organized speeches, calls for petition-signing, and no action by the crowd allowed other than the repetitious chants doled out by the activists.

Toward the end of the night, on O Street (a major street near UNL’s campus), Lincoln Police performed a traffic stop on a black man for allegedly violating a traffic signal. As the stop unfolded, he was tazed by the police. A crowd of passersby formed, and the nearby UNL protestors were alerted to the tazing. Not long after the UNL protestors arrived, people were in the streets, blocking cop cars from leaving and bringing their anger to bear against the police. Eventually, the police retreated in the face of the crowd’s anger, at which point the middle-class activists ordered everyone back onto the sidewalk with their megaphone and, eventually, made everyone go home.

Analysis of Night Four

This is another incident which we must elide in Part One so that we can attend to it more fully in Part Two. For now, let it be said that this eruption was the revival of spontaneous crowd solidarity, which, as will be shown below, was swiftly tamped down. Keep an eye on our blog for the more detailed analysis of this incident in Part Two.

Beyond Night Four: The Movement Defeated

Following the confrontation with police on O Street, the activists barely acknowledged the event. The activists, instead, resumed calling for the same type of actions as before, i.e., inaction. The crowd dwindled each subsequent night.

On Sunday, August 29th, news broke that a separate UNL fraternity, Sigma Chi, was placing itself on suspension for a rape that was reported internally. Regardless, the demonstration of Monday, August 30th, was the smallest yet, numbering barely one hundred. The protesters no longer gathered in front of the FIJI house. They were, instead, moved to the other side of the Student Union, entirely out of sight of the fraternity. The demonstration consisted of a candlelight vigil, with more speeches from activists and survivors, followed by a silent march on the traffic-less streets of the campus. The frustration and fatigue of many protestors was palpable, even during the silent march, and several groups did not bother to return to the Union. It should be noted that several of the speech-givers and activists also did not participate in the march, but instead waited at the Union, prepared with their megaphone to funnel the crowd back into repeating the same-old set of chants when they returned.

On Monday, August 30th, only a small handful of protesters arrived at the Student Union, and the low turnout motivated the activists to move the event to a discussion on Zoom, the goals and details of which remain unclear.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 1st, the BLM activist who had assumed leadership of the protests posted on Facebook that all scheduled demonstrations were cancelled for the following two weeks (whether protests will resume remains to be seen). The justification given was that the organizers needed to regroup and perform self-care. This has so far been the end of anti-FIJI action in Lincoln. Although some parties attempted to resuscitate the movement following September 1st (using the same top-down, institution-oriented tactics), no significant actions have taken place since that date.

Also on September 1st, a letter surfaced on several social media pages, first appearing (from what we can tell) in a Facebook group for anti-FIJI organizing in Iowa City. This letter purported to be penned by survivors who denounced the cooptation of the Lincoln protests and the silencing of their anger. Although many on the Internet both in Lincoln and Iowa City expressed agreement with the letter’s sentiments, and another middle-class activist (who, previously, had labelled those who attempted to attack the FIJI house “reactionaries”) posted on Facebook an attempt at reflection in their role in stifling the movement, nothing more came of this letter.

Analysis of Night Five and After

The suppression by activists of the anti-police actions of August 27th emphasizes the questionable separation of police from the discussion of sexual violence that occurred on UNL’s campus. Moreover, it is especially confusing considering that the BLM activist who coopted the anti-FIJI movement began their career by imposing themself upon the local expression of the George Floyd Rebellion. Yet, this activist did not once, to our knowledge, mention the countless untested rape kits in police departments around the country. Neither did they draw the clear connection to the staggering rates of rape committed by police officers. No, they were more than happy to have the cops roaming with impunity through a crowd of young women, with no consideration for the fact that, as the protests thinned, the cops would have increasing opportunities to corner these people alone. Women are far from defenseless, but have we not seen what depravity the police are capable of one million times over?

Additionally, it bears mentioning that, despite another rape occurring on UNL’s campus within the same week—an incident that would have instigated full-on rioting in many places—we saw a continued diminishment of protest attendance in Lincoln. Although the middle-class activists continually whine that people are not committed enough to “doing the work,” we think this series of events paints a stark picture of how they are the very problem. Every protest they come to swiftly dies. The fact that they could not mobilize people around a second alleged rape shows, even by their own metrics, that they are not capable of anything other than destroying movements. These activists are the heart of counterinsurgency in Lincoln.

Lastly, we turn our eye to the letter from survivors. Its appearance at the end of the campus’s protests should be taken as a clear diagnosis: Middle-class activism is not the Great Advocate of the Oppressed. Rather, it functions to funnel and silence people’s anger and to annihilate people’s autonomy. Middle-class activism not only implements hierarchical domination of professional activists over lay protestors, and not only does this imposition drive people away in the literal hundreds, but it leaves survivors of sexual assault and other marginalized people more vulnerable to violence because the activists have assured everybody that they are “taking care of it” in the halls of power, where nothing ever changes. Meanwhile, rapists prowl from dozens of fraternities and hundreds of dorm rooms and in every police department. The people who care, the people who are desperate for something, anything, to be done, those who keep coming to the activists because the activists have driven everybody else away—these people walk home from these protests, alone and disempowered, with predators all around them.

People could have built something. But, instead, they were told to sign a petition and go home.

Conclusion

We think the conclusion is clear: Middle-class activism cannot be abided. Any well-meaning liberal in Lincoln and abroad needs to think seriously about what it means to tell people that, when they are attacked, they cannot attack back; that their hurt and anger must be expressed through institutional channels only. Middle-class activism asks that people simply get used to dying while the speech-givers and the influencers jot down on their resumés that they did something, though it is never clear what.

We echo the letter that we published prior to this piece: Go around the forces of middle-class activism. When your autonomy is denied you, experiment with ways to enact it. You do not have to listen to megaphones. You do not have to listen when people tell you your reactions are wrong. The only thing that each of us must do is better equip ourselves to protect one another.

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Source: Itsgoingdown.org