It’s a cold, gray morning in April in Lansing, Michigan. The country had been, and still is, in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. The novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, forced America to press a proverbial pause button on almost everything as 1.3 million citizens have tested positive and nearly 78,000 have perished.
Businesses, schools and parks were deemed ‘non-essential’ and subsequently closed, rendering the United States a virtual ghost town.
That morning, though, Michigan’s capital city found itself engulfed in an invasion of its own people; over a thousand irate Caucasian citizens, storming the streets in cars as well as on foot. Michigan was one of many states that implemented shelter-in-place orders to slow the virus’ spread, with strict recommendations on the latest cultural catchphrase: social distancing.
However, on this day, the many who descended on Lansing were certainly not six feet apart from one another. Nary a mask nor pair of latex gloves in the bunch. They did, however, arm themselves with a different kind of personal protective equipment — literally that is.
Around many of their backs were automatic rifles and shotguns. On many of their heads were baseball caps with “Make America Great Again” embroidered across them. Organized by Michigan Conservative Coalition (a.k.a Michigan Trump Republicans), the protesters were rallying against Governor Gretchen Whitmer‘s stay-at-home order to diminish the spread of coronavirus. It’s one of several rallies happening in states like Vermont, Minnesota and Texas as people are fed up with not being able to work.
The righteous indignation reached an apex more than a week later, when the mob stormed the State House, guns and all, demanding to be heard as Whitmer was voting to add more restrictions on the stay-at-home order. Chants of “let us in” reverberated throughout the staircase as police kept the crowd from reaching Whitmer on the legislator floor.
Multiple armed gunmen storm Michigan’s State House, State police are protecting @GovWhitmer and blocking the gunmen from gaining access to the house floor.
This is America in the age of Trump. pic.twitter.com/tLWR2bvjtR
— Rob Gill (@vote4robgill) April 30, 2020
Sure, it’s a shocking sight at first, but after all, Michigan Conservative Coalition’s objective is to “train an army of conservative activists.” Emphasis on the term “army.”
Now, the protesting isn’t the problem, here. The act of protest is the right of every American citizen. Its importance is evident in the first amendment of the constitution: the freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition. The founding of this very country was predicated on protest, via the pre-revolutionary war protests like the 1773 Boston Tea Party, for example. But behind almost all white American protests is the bewildering presence of hypocrisy.
As the founding fathers were fighting for adequate representation and independence from the tyrannical rule of Great Britain, they exacted that same tyranny on African slaves who weren’t even seen as human. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he really meant it when he said “all men are created equal,” not all property and concubines, which is how he saw, and treated, his slaves.
Today, Black people may be recognized as human beings by the letter of the law, but reading isn’t fundamental for many white American politicians and commentators who consider many of us still to be property, concubines, or at best mere characters on TV. Either nameless thugs on the evening news or entertainers whose sole purpose is to dribble a basketball, dance with aerobic abandon, or sing as far as our pretty throats and noses can take us.
Regardless of the intentions of the protesters, their act of protest ultimately represents another link in the chain of historic acts of volatile and myopic entitlement. Whenever Black Americans have dared to protest, it was for basic human rights and protection under the law that they were promised in 1865.
And during said protests, often peaceful and non-violent — Montgomery Bus Boycott, March to Selma, all the way to Black Lives Matter — they were met with both violence from police, ridicule from media outlets and dismissive commentary from politicians.
And yet, an armed mob of angry whites gets supportive rhetoric from the White House and leniency from law enforcement. Had the situation been reversed, and a thousand Black people marched with sniper rifles and camouflage, the National Guard, S.W.A.T. teams among others would neutralize the situation, and people, within moments.
What the hell is going on here pic.twitter.com/szPk0XmsWg
— Adam Parkhomenko (@AdamParkhomenko) May 3, 2020
This, and other examples, shows the universal divide between white Americans and Black Americans; the former has the privilege of worrying about their money and access to the outside being ‘limited,’ while the latter has the burden of worrying about ‘surviving’ from one day to the next simply because the pigment in their skin is darker.
For centuries, white Americans have been adapting its culture based on the progression and inventiveness of Black Americans. Whether it’s music, fashion, or language, Blacks have been at the cutting edge. The everlasting irony of the appropriation of Black lifestyle is that white institutions and individuals who adopt, integrate, or outright steal from Black culture, do so while denigrating the very source from which they are taking. Protesting is just one of the many ways that whites engage in the formulaic, chronological process to condemn, appropriate and claim as their own.
The appropriation of the civil rights movement, and any effective Black-led protest for that matter, is further personified by Stephen Moore‘s statement about the coronavirus protesters. “I call these people modern-day Rosa Parks. They are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties,” Moore said.
If the audacity of white American protesters could be summed up in one statement, then that was it.
A conservative advisor to President Donald Trump evoking a patron matriarch of 20th century civil disobedience, an icon of Black feminine strength of will, to draw parallels to entitled, gun-toting, republicans who are angry that they have to stay inside to save other people. Heaven forbid right-wingers are inconvenienced. Two of the female protesters in Lansing stated that the crux of their injustice stemmed from unwillingly taking unemployment, or not being able to get their hair done.
If they’re so eager to go back to work, at the expense of others, perhaps they should take New York Governor Andrew Cuomo‘s advice and “go take a job as an essential worker.” Again, being out of work has affected everyone, and hardship knows no color. However, the methodology of their protest cannot be overstated.
What an appropriate twist of fate that these shelter-in-place protests come shortly after the revelation that Black Americans are disproportionately more vulnerable to coronavirus at rates that quickly became staggering. The virus’ death toll in cities like New York, New Orleans, Detroit and Chicago has further exposed the ways in which Black people have been disenfranchised for generations.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Michigan has had over 47,000 coronavirus cases and 4,584 deaths. African Americans make up 32 percent of the cases, and although the rate for whites is 34 percent, Black communities like Detroit have been hit hardest, with 47 percent of Michigan’s positive tests.
The blatant and intentional lack of healthy foods in Black communities, which are plagued with fast-food restaurants and liquor stores, the impoverished neighborhoods lacking the funds for health care necessities, lifestyles that have led to high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes, obesity have always been internal time bombs that have dialed back the odometer of Black Americans’ life expectancy.
COVID-19’s tendency to viciously attack immune systems compromised with pre-existing conditions has particularly proved deadly to Black communities.
In addition, Blacks and Latinx citizens have been hit the hardest by unemployment since the pandemic hit the country. According to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, Black American unemployment is three times as high today than pre-coronavirus at nearly 17 percent, while Latin-American unemployment has reached an all-time high of 18.9 percent. Unemployment for white Americans has risen to 14 percent. Yet, it interesting that you don’t see hardly any Black people protesting the stay-at-home orders, given these numbers.
At this point, could anyone blame them? The U.S. government has made it quite clear that they have no desire nor incentive to support Black protests, past and present. Just look at the current president. His responses to protests during his administration is a microcosm of how white Americans has failed to relate to the plight of the Black American compared to their own.
When former NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem as a silent protest to police brutality, Trump echoed the throngs of right wing antagonists who called Kaep’s protest unpatriotic, urging NFL owners to “get that son of a bitch out of here,” and remove all flag kneelers from the league, adding “that’s a total disrespect for our heritage, a total disrespect for everything we stand for.”
Meanwhile, when white nationalists protested a Robert E. Lee statue being torn down in Charlottesville, SC, Trump said there were “good people” among them. Good people who arrive with torches and ultimately caused the death of someone by mowing them down in a car, all because they’re mad that a symbol of 19th century antebellum prejudice is being taken off a pedestal.
Kaepernick was echoing the sentiments of the participants of the Black Lives Matter movement, who fought to end the murders of unarmed Black men and women in the country by law enforcement, and to hold said law enforcement accountable for their actions.
Media pundits called them a “terrorist organization,” just like the Nation of Islam circa the 1950s and 1960s were deemed “Black supremacists” because they called white men devils due to 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow, and fought to be self-sufficient in America.
In a 2015 interview with Bill O’Reilly, Trump said this of the Black Lives Matter: “I think they’re trouble. I think they’re looking for trouble.”
Looking for trouble? So, a group of Caucasians with guns barging into a State House aren’t considered looking for trouble? Such is the heavily subliminal cultivation of complexion for the protection. So, a 12-year-old Tamir Rice was more threatening than a mob of folks with guns? Thanks for clearing that up.
Soon, ‘All Lives Matter’ became the counter cry. Followed by ‘Blue Lives Matter,’ following the death of police officers after rallies in Texas. Again, it’s another episode of white people first not reading the fine print, then adapting what was originally a Black rallying cry for their own defensive, insecure psyches. Their insecurity and jealously are earmarks of the appropriation of Black culture.
One of the images of the Lansing protests was a large handwritten banner with the Thomas Jefferson quote, “I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” At this point you should see a photograph of Jefferson whenever you Google the term, “the pot calling the kettle black.” African-Americans have been subjected literally, and today figuratively, to peaceful slavery.
The whites who said Blacks should be grateful for the separate but equal ruling of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 are ancestors of the same whites today who told Black athletes like LeBron James and Kevin Durant they should be grateful for their multi-million dollar contracts and they should to “shut up and dribble.”
White protesters simply don’t see the forest for the trees. Returning to work en mass compromises the progress of limiting the spread of coronavirus. Judging from encouraging tweets from Trump – which undermines the efforts of governors who were trying to protect people — and his urgency to boost the economy by prematurely reopening the country the blinders remain up for white Americans for a fifth century and counting.
I am not sure these “very good people” are ready to talk. The seem ready to liberate. @realDonaldTrump needs to let his supporters know this is appalling behavior in a democracy. https://t.co/LrYskOZ7be pic.twitter.com/MM52pa1Y1o
— Joey Wood (@JosephDWood) May 1, 2020
So, when you see these MAGA hat wearing protesters, remind yourself this: Those hats are red with white letters. The white letters represent the kind of pastime paradise that Trump wants the country to return to; with whites running things, and Blacks being obedient. The red is a metaphor for the spilled blood that white people have had on their hands since the 17th century.
The true source of their protest is the preservation of national entitlement, intimidation and capitalism; that’s what they are fighting for. And the next time you see large groups of Black people protesting, it’s likely for the right to be able to go outside for a jog and not be riddled with bullets.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based TV producer, director and award-winning music journalist. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and .BRIC TV.