The most memorable footage of the Black Lives Matter protests, and perhaps the creepiest, doesn’t capture any acts of violence, any looting, any chanting of slogans or — so far as I can make out — any black faces.
Instead, we see hundreds of mostly young people sitting in the parking lot of a public library in Bethesda, Maryland, raising both pasty-white arms in a gesture that suggests both surrender and worship.
An invisible speaker is reciting a list of promises that the crowd repeats. This is what we hear:
Speaker: ‘… about racism, anti-blackness or violence.’
Crowd: ‘… about racism, anti-blackness or violence.’
S: ‘I will use my voice in the most uplifting way possible,’
C: ‘I will use my voice in the most uplifting way possible,’
S: ‘… and do everything in my power to educate my community.’
C: ‘… and do everything in my power to educate my community.’
S: ‘I will love my black neighbors the same as my white ones.’
C: ‘I will love my black neighbors the same as my white ones.’
The words are cringe-making. You feel sorry for anyone in the community who doesn’t fancy being ‘educated’ in racism awareness by millennials — but this is uber-liberal Bethesda, so they’re probably used to it.
It’s the surrender-worship posture that comes across as creepy, to say nothing of the flat, robotic tones in which the promises are repeated.
When the film was posted on conservative sites, right-wing commentators made cracks about the People’s Temple in Jonestown. These kids are ready to drink the Kool-Aid, they said.
Interestingly, one of the first politicians to use ‘Kool-Aid’ as rhetoric was the black conservative Clarence Pendleton Jr, who in 1984 accused America’s black leadership of leading his community into a ‘political Jonestown… No more Kool-Aid, Jesse.’ This tasteless appeal fell on deaf ears: this week Jesse Jackson described George Floyd’s killing as a ‘lynching’.
In his heyday, Jackson was accused of leading a ‘cult’ and now the Bethesda chanting has reinforced claims that Black Lives Matter is also a cult. They’re not convincing. There are many competing definitions of cult. BLM doesn’t fit comfortably into any on them.
Its three female founders — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — have been showered with awards, but don’t cultivate the charismatic image associated with cult leaders. Most protesters would be hard-pressed to name any of them. And although Black Lives Matter sponsors local ‘chapters’, Garza says the network isn’t interested in ‘policing who is and who is not part of the movement’. That makes sense, given that it started life as the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, coined by Cullors in response to a Facebook post by Garza in which she used the phrase ‘Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter’.
What BLM does do, with formidable efficiency, is organize protests — hundreds of them since 2014. And here, too, the no-policing rule applies: if the hardline Marxist-Anarchist antifa movement wants to pitch in, then it’s welcome, and few questions are asked about the looting it provokes.
But it’s hard to imagine the millennials outside the Bethesda library looting anything (though one or two might have been tempted if the local Apple store hadn’t boarded up). And although their chanting did sound a bit cult-like, it’s hard not to slip into robot-speak when you have repeat lines fed to you by a speaker.
It reminded me of something from my Catholic childhood: the Divine Praises, which begin ‘Blessed be God’ (congregation: ‘Blessed be God’), ‘Blessed be his Holy Name’ (‘Blessed be His Holy Name’), and so on through ‘the Most Sacred Heart’, ‘Mary most Holy’, ‘St Joseph, her spouse most chaste’, and could be infinitely extended by a zealous parish priest.
I’m not equating the Divine Praises with the meaningless sanctimony from Bethesda. But the similarities suggest that, for white millennials, Black Lives Matter protests are indeed a form of displaced religious activity.
We’re talking about young white people, note, not young black people. If the rituals at the protests express a religious impulse, it certainly doesn’t have any connection with the exuberant Protestant revivalism of the African American community.
This is in sharp contrast with the Civil Rights movement, which drew heavily on actual black Christianity. Even the most extreme leader to emerge from the 1960s protests, the race-baiter Al Sharpton, leads services that are unmistakably black Pentecostal. (Sharpton was admittedly only 10 years old in 1964, but already an ordained minister.)
Garza, Cullors and Tometi insist on an unbroken continuity between Martin Luther King’s movement and Black Lives Matter. But this continuity exists mainly in the imaginations of BLM leaders.
The spirituality of Black Lives Matter, like its ideology, is difficult to pin down. BLM’s three founders are all graduates in the humanities or social sciences; Cullors was a Fulbright scholar.
Their lingua franca is the postmodern jargon of Queer postmodernism, which isn’t big in African American circles. They have used it to evolve a concept of ‘Black’, always with a capital B, which is at the same time mystical, slippery and separatist. You can hear traces of it in the Bethesda Promises, which refer to ‘racism’ and ‘anti-blackness’ as different things.
I’m not suggesting that Black Lives Matter doesn’t enjoy the support of the black community. But to grasp its essence you really need to be familiar with the theoretical underpinnings of identity politics — an inescapable ordeal for millions of young American whites, but not so much for young blacks. As a general rule, the more elite the university, the more fanatical the support of its student body for BLM.
Not coincidentally, these are also the universities in which identity politics most closely resembles what Alexandra DeSanctis, writing in National Review, describes as ‘a creed for the godless’ that takes special relish in excommunication. Hence the appeal of ritual promises.
I think we can trust the Maryland protesters to stay true to their word. They know the score. Three-quarters of Bethesda’s residents have college degrees; half have graduate degrees. The only problem is that less than three percent of them are African Americans. Where are they going to find those black neighbors to love?