McCarthy: How to be white and protest

What’s the best way to show up and help out, without stealing focus?

Kate McCarthy

Last week, far-right political activist Lauren Southern visited the University of Minnesota, but not without resistance. Protesters gathered outside Anderson Hall on West Bank on the evening of Oct. 25, in solidarity for a hate-free campus. Standing in the crowd as a white person, alongside my equally white boyfriend, I rehashed a question that always comes up in these protest or rally spaces: how does a white person best conduct themselves?

I remember back in high school, when a nascent sense of social justice and more active political engagement began to appear on my horizon, when social issues began to reach a point in the zeitgeist that names like Michael Brown finally began appearing around my family’s dinner table. Around this time, I began to come across articles about protest/rally/demonstration etiquette, many of which agreed upon one thing: white people — stand down. Your presence at these events is appreciated and encouraged, but it’s not the moment to take focus. I particularly remember one article speaking specifically about white protesters being asked for comment; depending on the circumstance, rather than speaking out yourself you can say, “I’m here to support, but you should speak to my friend over here.” Pass on the platform, redirect the focus. I’ve kept points like this in mind over the years whenever I joined a resistance effort, but feel that it’s time for a re-examination with newly scrutinized elements like Antifa groups. 

I don’t feel qualified to comment definitively on the Antifa presence and their tactics, so I won’t make any proclamations or sweeping judgments. But I can relay what I observed and what may perhaps be an overwhelming sentiment among those foraying into increased active, progressive political engagement. 

Walking up to the gathering on West Bank, I saw that the front-most group was those foreboding white men sporting black bandanas over their faces, heavy boots and sometimes camouflage pants. I always undergo the same mental readjustment: “Right, these guys look like the bad guys, but they’re actually the good guys!” A real simpleton moment. I understand that these people are upholding justice to the highest degree, to a militant extent, but I wonder about the effect it has on the larger effort. 

The loudest voices were white men. The fights that broke out with insipid anti-protesters sprinkled in the crowd, there explicitly to kick up dust, were with white men. Perhaps the righteous presence that a lot of these guys have is entirely earned and positive, but I can’t help but wonder how performative and ultimately detrimental it is. True, white silence is violence, but white cacophony might just contribute more noise. 

Deeper into the protest, the hopped-up, mirrored glasses-wearing gentlemen were relegated to growling in the background, as a ceaselessly energetic woman of color led call and response chants. The staunchly protective Antifa presence was still appreciated, I’m sure. Every voice should be present and accounted for, but I’d like to see a shift in which other voices are given the chance to speak loudest.