There is nothing about that six second video that is not wonderful and beautiful. A diverse crowd of anti-racists – Black Lives Matter of course, but also supporters of Bernie Sanders, immigrant rights and anti-Islamophobia activists – jumping up and down and shouting Kendrick Lamar lyrics in celebration: they just shut down Donald Trump.
Trump supporters and other conservatives – as well as Trump himself – are now whining about “thugs,” and threatening to show up at Sanders’ rallies. Centrists and a great many liberals are wringing their hands about whether Trump’s “free speech” has been violated – as if Trump or his supporters have ever shown such regard for our right to express ourselves. But a billionaire demagogue who has been surging in the polls over the past several months, who has presented himself as “above influence” because of his money and unchecked power, has been revealed as mortal and stoppable.
Campaign rallies are aesthetic affairs, designed to transmit and ingratiate ideas in the way that simply reading someone’s platform can’t. Trump, as I have argued before, understands this; an understanding he gained through decades spent cultivating a media persona. And that skillfully crafted aura has allowed him to get away with some truly horrifying things. His supporters have deliberately carried out violence against everyone from Black counter-protesters to homeless bystanders. There are white nationalists and outright Nazis endorsing and supporting him. Postures such as his are designed to whip the dregs into a zealous frenzy.
Contrast this with the way that a movement Black Lives Matter has presented and organized itself. Militant tactics like shutting down highways and occupying spaces where business as usual is conducted draws attention to the fact that “business as usual” includes the systematic disenfranchisement of people of color and state violence conducted against them. Disruption of this business means exposing the deeper machinations beneath it. It is one of the reasons that the movement has related to and interacted with culture in a way that goes beyond the regular mundane labels of “political music.”
Contrast these two diametrically opposed approaches: one that is meant to run roughshod over facts for sake of bluster and over-confidence, a cult of macho personality, and one that slows down the static of everyday life to reveal the deep rot of history unchecked. Now drop them both onto the main campus of the University of Illinois Chicago: a working class state school, disproportionately attended by people of color, in a city that has been very recently shaken by protests around the death of Laquan McDonald and whose institutions of public education are facing drastic cuts.
Why would Donald Trump actually think he would be welcome on this campus? Because his campaign is designed to shore up the support of white reactionaries with an air of invincibility. Because why wouldn’t he be able to spread his violent, bellicose rhetoric into the home turf of “the enemy”?
We’ve seen why. At long last. And it’s a relief, as well as a confidence boost. It has shown, in a very significant way, that the political culture of the United States is, in actuality, much more pliable to the actions of ordinary people than we are led to believe – provided the right amount of time and effort are put into the organizational infrastructures. And that certainly is a cause for celebration, for claiming the surrounding air and space definitively ours, as the group of protesters did after Trump’s people announced he would not be attending. Hence “Alright.”
This isn’t the first time in recent memory that Kendrick Lamar’s song has shown up in the context of street-level Black resistance. This past August saw attendees at the Black Lives Matter conference in Cleveland react to police repression against their gathering in much the same way. As I wrote then:
When police bore down on attendees in response to an alleged incident of public intoxication with pepper spray and handcuffs, demonstrators chanted back the refrain of the most recent single from Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly: “We gon’ be alright! We gon’ be alright!”
The incident was more than a simple act of defiance. “Alright” is something of a keystone on To Pimp, bringing together the album’s tropes – the pain, inner turmoil and rage of American racism – and inverting them into a declaration of uncertain hope. The surreal video follows suit: Lamar and his friends in a car carried by LAPD officers in place of wheels, the artist balancing atop a streetlight before being shot down by a surly cop.
The performance of the single at the BET Awards pushed further in that same direction, with Lamar performing in front of Jumbotron footage of a waving American flag while stomping on a graffitoed police car. On Fox News, Geraldo Rivera was characteristically quick to raise the alarm, claiming that the performance “incited violence.” Lamar replied, “How can you take a song that's about hope and turn it into hatred?”
What happened in Cleveland brought Rivera’s worst fears to life. Here was a contingent of militant Africans and African Americans, as confident as they were angry, declaring defiantly against state repression that they will be “alright” – surely enough to make any Fox News anchor squirm in their seat.
Friday’s use of the song was in something of a different arrangement. The defiance was certainly there, but it wasn’t just that. The refrain of being “alright” wasn’t something to throw back in the cops’ face but a declaration from on top of a mountain, an expression of the kind of elation and hope that comes from a clear-cut victory. Same song, same basic meaning, but shifted slightly in context and conversation.
This conversation is markedly different from the kind of “conversation” now being hawked by the likes of Hillary Clinton:
This, on top of the several previous days, have given us a rather telling glimpse into Clinton’s views on how history is made. How often has she used “conversation” this past week? Nancy Reagan “started a conversation around AIDS” (presumably by not talking about it publicly for years on end while thousands of gay men and women died). Civil conversations in the wake of the Charleston shootings brought the Confederate flag down – not militant activism and protest that included scaling the flagpole in front of the city’s State House. And a nice, friendly chat with Trump and his seig-heiling supporters will be enough to de-fang them and stop them from assaulting people of color.
Prisons – both more traditional and the open-air variety – can accommodate “conversation.” Mostly because unless they’re backed by material forces, words rarely threaten those who built the prison in the first place. Trump understands this, apparently a few shades better than Clinton.
Which brings us back to why what went down at UIC is so significant. Trump has spent the past several months positioning himself as some kind of self-appointed gatekeeper and wall-builder; if Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans and the like want a decent life in the United States then they would have to “go through him.” Friday showed that there is the potential for a different script; if racists want to shill their wares and flagrantly encourage violence against people of color and the left then they will have to ask us for permission (permission denied…) because the space is controlled from the bottom up.