How to make minorities feel unwelcome at your event: A fellow worker writes about their experiences communicating with organisers of a local protest

I was recently speaking to a Fellow Worker (another member of the union) about the events in the US and how we can best be supportive. The FW asked me if I’ll be attending any of the protest being held in support of the uprising. I explained that I live in a small town in the south of Scotland and I highly doubt that any would be organized. Suddenly, Lo and behold! I came across an FB event calling for exactly that, a solidarity protest in our small-town centre! I was excited, happy that I would be able to express my support.

Taking a quick look at the organizers, I realized they were all white.

I thought to myself, that’s fine, it’s a small town, white majority (a massive understatement), so I was happy that someone was taking the initiative to organize this and invited some friends to tag along. The event description also mentioned that they are open for suggestions and input, so it seemed that they were willing to listen to actual people of colour and provide them a safe space to express themselves.

What followed, however, and unfortunately, was a series of perfect examples of how not to organize a solidarity event or deal with feedback from minorities.

Out of the blue, one of the organizers posted in the event saying that not only have they reached out to the cops to let them know about the event, but that the organizers themselves will be policing the space by having place markers on the floor to ensure social distancing under the threat of being fined by the police.

In other words, at an event aimed at protesting police brutality and the over-policing of minorities, the organizers have chosen to invite the brutalizer and take it upon themselves to become surrogates of the police by policing the space themselves and dictating how minorities in attendance should express themselves.

I confirmed whether or not the police got in touch with the organizers or the organizers had intentionally reached out. The response I received was that the police were contacted “out of courtesy” and that they will be there to “keep everything in check”.
Obviously, at this point I chose to no longer attend the event as it became clear that this will not be a safe space for self-expression and genuine solidarity but a place to perform solidarity. I was speaking to some FWs at this stage about my disappointment and frustration, but also about how unfortunately predictable this was. They suggested that I make my thoughts known in the event which I thought would be a good idea, perhaps the organisers can actually take something from it, after all, they did ask for input. After writing the post below I was met with the next, and not final, slap in the face.

“I was really happy when I heard of this event and grateful that the organizers took the initiative to put this together. However, I really don’t understand how, at a protest against police brutality and the to over policing of minorities, the organizers thought it OK to not only actively inform the police, but to also choose to police the event themselves by dictating where participants, who might very well be POC, such as myself, should stand. I really don’t feel welcome at this event as these steps have made it clear that this will not be a safe space for self expression and solidarity but just another policed space by both actual cops and the organizers. I can’t help but feel that this event is very performative even if it is being organized, as I am sure it is, with good intentions. Based on this I won’t be participating in this event.”

The event discussion itself was being policed and my post was sent to be approved by the organizers.

At that stage I understood that the organizers obviously had no interest in making this a space for minorities and it was indeed a space for them to perform their act of solidarity. I informed the FWs I was speaking to about what happened and told them that at this stage, the organizers will either ignore my post, or reach out to me privately to justify censoring me with excuses and apologies to placate me. And, guess what? that’s exactly what happened. Below, is the conversation that followed. I chose to write this post so I can highlight how the behaviour of the organizers were problematic and so that it can be an example for other organizers on how not to organize a solidarity event or handle feedback. All information has been anonymized for security and privacy reasons, which I guess is a good first lesson, use alias profiles when organizing against the state.

“Hi [name]! I am one of the organisers of the BLM solidarity protest in [location] and I have just seen your comment on our event. I really want to apologise and just let you know why police were initially notified. We initially were not sure whether this was going to be a stationary protest or a march, we would have much preferred to do a march. However marches legally require the police to be notified beforehand, as it turned out we were too late to organise a march unfortunately as they informed us we had to give a weeks notice incase roads etc had to be closed. The main organiser of the event has also had a lot of backlash and abuse from people who disagree with the BLM protest and so overall we do think it will be beneficial that the police are aware of the protest incase of any counter protests. We want this protest to be entirely peaceful. With regards to us, we can only advise that people adhere to social distancing particularly due to the fact people of colour are 2 times more likely to die from coronavirus, we do believe this is the right thing to do. We are providing face coverings to help prevent any spread and we are marking the street to ensure people can protest safely distancing from others. We do not want there to be any fear that protestors are spreading or catching the virus, that is very important to us all. Police have the power to fine anyone who breaks social distancing rules anywhere in the UK and so we just wanted to make sure people knew this could happen also.

Again I just want to offer my apologies to yourself for this and not having made this clear beforehand, and I hope you will still join us in the protest on Sunday. Please let me know if there is anything you would like to suggest that would make you feel more comfortable or if you have any questions. [name]”

The first thing I want to note about this response is the sheer length of it! I mean that alone makes it clear that this is nothing but an excuse response and has nothing to do with actually finding a resolution to my complaint or taking the feedback onboard. Instead of making space for me to elaborate on the points, the organizer would obviously prefer to burry me with this ‘explanation’. I also want to add that at this point, without approving my post, the reorganizer re-purposed her reply to me and posted it on the event itself.

That made it clear that they were attempting to pre-empt and silence other people from raising the same points I have. 

Let’s look a bit closer at the reply itself. The organiser claims they contacted the police because they wanted to march (which requires permission), obviously this contradict their previous claim that they called out of “courtesy” but also, why on earth would you want to ask permission from the very people you are supposedly protesting against? It’s obvious if your top priority is to get permission from the very force of oppression then your interests are not in amplifying minority voices or confront the issue itself, but to just perform a self-serving feel-good action.

The organizer also says “The main organiser of the event has also had a lot of backlash and abuse from people who disagree with the Black Lives Matter protest and so overall we do think it will be beneficial” so at this stage

the white organizers are also prioritizing their own safety over the safety of minorities who would want to participate. Minorities who are already over ticketed based on social distancing rules.

But the funny thing is that the organizer only chose to elicit minorities when the argument suited their standpoint. When talking about enforcing social distancing they claimed that this is “particularly due to the fact people of colour are 2 times more likely to die from coronavirus, we do believe this is the right thing to do.”. I’m very happy that the organizers were doing what they thought was in the “best interest” of minorities. How very benevolent of them. Ironically, they then proceed to say that “Police have the power to fine anyone who breaks social distancing rules anywhere in the UK and so we just wanted to make sure people knew this could happen also.” So why invite them?

I made all of this known, again in a way that won’t ruffle any feathers. I also asked why my post has not been approved. The reply I got, unsurprisingly, was a further digging in and more justifications for ignoring my concerns. 

Message 2:
“Thanks for your reply, can I firstly just make it clear to yourself that I, nor the other organisers are experienced in organising a protest. We wanted to organise this because we wanted to show support and solidarity for the BLM movement and we never expected this to become as big as it has – three of us are only in our 20s and this has been such a shock to us all (a wonderful shock that we have received so much support)

I completely understand where you are coming from with the issues of informing the police, and in hindsight and if we weren’t considering a March then we likely wouldn’t have contacted the police at all. However they would have likely contacted us anyway as they informed us they had been made aware. The police have expressed to us that they do understand a heavy police presence is not welcome and have stated that they are likely to send a couple of officers purely because that is their legal duty.

I also understand your views on the social distancing recommendations, however as you will know Dumfries is a predominately white town meaning that they will not necessarily know as well as you do the risks to POC when it comes to coronavirus. As I have said this is not something we can enforce but hopefully with having marks there people will be aware of the distance between others and will ensure the safety of us all, so that we can protest safely during this pandemic.

 I have not approved your post in the hopes that this issue can be resolved without effecting the protest going ahead.

Is there anything we can do to make yourself feel more comfortable and welcome at this protest?”

What I find really absurd about this response is that the organizer admits that they have no idea what they are doing, this even with the overwhelming amount of information that has been circulated by members of the black community specifically to avoid these situations. Yet, in spite of this confession of ignorance, the organizers feel not only entitled to organize this event, but to police it and censor minority concerns, even after I made it clear that I myself have experience organizing events. 

There is also further justification on why the police was asked to join. And yes, it is obvious that the police would have known about this event and probably shown up, but that is still no excuse to invite them. The excuse that this is their ‘legal duty’ is also a very weak one. Cops also have a legal duty for care, but this has not stopped countless minorities from dying in their custody. 

On social distancing, there is more paternalism and condescension with “we’re really doing this for you”. This reply proves that the organizes do not really want to engage in the labour of educating attendees but would rather rely on the threat of tickets to enforce their own system of social distancing.

This reply also provides a pure and simple confession, the post wasn’t approved because they fear it will have a negative impact on the event. The organizers are more concerned with safeguarding their event from genuine and valid criticism from a minority individual than having an open and frank discussion about police brutality or the perspective of minorities. Their show of ‘solidarity’ is obviously not meant to create any real critical reflection. 

Finally, a placating question.

What can we do to make you feel more comfortable? Well, how about not censor me?

Also, worth noting again is the length. This is obviously a non-stop attempt at creating excuses and minimize my concerns. How dare I rain on their parade and show of solidarity! 

Again, I made this all known in a respectful manner (I’ve placed all my replies at the bottom on this post). I received another long reply. 

Message 3:

“I sincerely apologise if that is how this has come across to you. 

My intentions in contacting you privately are purely to address your concerns with the event, I did not want for your comment to be ignored. As for your post on the event I feel that the issues you have raised with your post have been addressed and if anyone has any further comments or enquires about that aspect then I would encourage them to speak to us directly about their concerns. 

The protest itself is certainly not intended to be performative, it is intended to be a peaceful protest in solidarity with the BLM movement, to support the POC in our community and to give us all the opportunity to grieve and honour the victims of systemic racism and police brutality. 

I respect your decision not to attend the protest and will absolutely take on board your comments for any future protests, as I have said we are learning as we go along and this protest has already had it’s ups and downs, particularly being difficult to arrange during this pandemic. 

Thank you for your well wishes

At this stage it’s just more or less of the same, excuses and an inversion of responsibility. I’m the one who is misunderstanding their intentions. They’re really just trying to put on a good event. Here’s a paragraph by paragraph decoding:

Their intention in contacting me privately, I am told, is to address my concern. Well then why not do it in a public space where others can benefit from the exchange?

The organizer feels that my issues have been addressed! Amazing! I’m very happy that you feel that way. All is well in the world now that you feel satisfied. 

More doubling down, the protest is a space for you, but we have gone to lengths to make sure that you are at risk of being arrested or fined even thought we know that as a minority you are at a higher risk.

I will take your feedback on board by completely ignoring them for this event and continuing to not allow you your voice on our event page. Why can’t you recognize that this was really hard for us to organize during a pandemic and just be grateful? 

At this stage I finally came out and bluntly said that the organizers were recreating the systems of oppression they claim to be protesting without even realising it, and that the organizer is using their privilege and position of power to gatekeep and silence minority voices to replace them with theirs ie to speak for the community.

I thought this would be the end of it, but no, the organizer needed to have the final word!

Message 4:

“The event page is purely that, a page for the event where we are posting information about the protest itself and is in no way intended to be a group or platform for open discussions, it does need to be kept to information about the protest itself so avoid any confusion. The protest will be inclusive of POC of course and the protest itself is creating a platform for people of all colours in our community to support and come together, with POC specifically speaking for themselves (I would never suggest I could speak for anyone else). I have done my best to explain the situation to yourself, however I understand that our opinions don’t match and therefore there is not much else I can do.”

I mean… really, I don’t know how much deeper anyone can dig their own hole. Suddenly there is an acknowledgment that the page is exclusively theirs (even though non organizers have been allowed to post before me).

And still complete ignorance of the fact that by inviting the cops and policing the event themselves they have automatically made the space one that presents danger to minorities and is therefore not an inclusive event. 

Finally, “our opinions don’t match, and there is nothing I can really do about this”. “My previous questions of what I can do were indeed to placate you. I have no interest in altering my behaviour or sacrificing my comfort to make this event more accommodating to you and other minorities.” “Please step aside and let us continue in peace with this event that we have organize for you.”

The lessons from this should be easy to extract, but to reiterate them.

If you are organizing against the state, don’t ask for their permission. Odds are, if you have the numbers, and especially in a small town such as this, the cops are more likely to back off than make fools out of themselves.

If cops show up, navigate the situation by hearing what the members of the community would like to do.

If you’re organizing an event on behalf of minorities, make sure that you are elevating and highlighting minority voices, not just doing what you think is the “correct way” of showing solidarity. In that same category, don’t censor concerns and don’t gate keep – I mean really, I can’t believe I need to say this. Protests should be safe spaces for self-expression, so don’t add further levels of control and especially don’t make the claim that you are putting these controls in place for the benefit of the community you are organizing for, that’s just infantilizing and patronizing.

Organizing with aliases on social media is a better way to maintain your safety.

Most basically, do your research before you choose to organize something, reach out to other organizers, the town I’m in has several organizations that would want to participate in something like this, from refugee resettling organizations, trade union councils, and student groups. Choosing to not reach out to other organizations which might very well have members of the community of which you are claiming to organize for is simply another form of gate keeping and erasure. 

Here were my replies. 

Reply to Message 1:

“Hi [name], thanks for the message. I just want to point out a few thigns in your response and I hope you can take them in good faith because thaya how they’re intended. It’s very contradictory to ask for a systems permission to do something when it’s that system you’re protesting. As an organizer and anti fascist activist, there is never a situation that the cops make better. The cops are just as likely to make space for antagonists as they will for you. Advising for social distancing and providing ppe is great, telling participants where to stand and how to express themselves is something else. I am aware of the statistics and how BAME members are adversely effected, I don’t think anyone from that community needs to be told or policed into doing what’s in their ‘best interest’. That’s infantilizing minority communities. We understand the risks, including that of the police, thats why thus while thing is happening. I hope this helps clarify why I find this event and your reply problematic. As I said this is all meant in good faith. I’d like to know if you have any intention of approving my post? And if not, why?”

Reply to message 2:

“Unfortunately, no. I don’t feel like this event is representative of my values or that of the movement. I also find it strange that you chose to censor my post and deal with me privately while still posting your explanation. It makes it feel like the only reason you reached out to me was to mitigate/placate me and silence my concerns and preempt others from raising similar ones instead of letting an open and honest conversation take place in public. This has obviously reaffirmed my initial concern of this being Performative. I want to be clear that my intention is not to harm or to have this event cancled but to help make it more inclusive and representative of the issue at hand. A safe space for a true expression of solidarity. Good luck,”

Reply to message 3:

“Hey [name], I don’t think you have realized how you’ve simply recreated the systems you’re claiming to fight against. And these explanations are only proving how entrenched you are in protecting your own perception (the micro system you’ve created through this event) by gate keeping what and who’s voices are given a platform as opposed to highlighting and raising poc voices. The fact that you feel this has been addressed is exactly the excuse those who are privileged provide to those they oppress. I really hope this gives you enough to reflect about and that next time you do more thorough research before deciding to speak on behalf of and decide what another community needs.”

This post was written by a fellow worker, and does not necessarily represent the views of other IWW members

One response to “How to make minorities feel unwelcome at your event: A fellow worker writes about their experiences communicating with organisers of a local protest”

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