A Texas race for the 24th Congressional District has flared up and injected itself into the national dialogue surrounding the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and the protests that followed.
It is also in line with a growing criticism from some Black leaders of white “allies,” and their role in the most recent round of protests. These protests have sometimes turned chaotic with vandalism, looting and violence.
Comments made in an online video forum by one Democratic candidate, retired Air Force Colonel Kim Olson, were viewed as incendiary by numerous Republican media figures. But even Democrats and Black activists have begun condemning them. Speaking on the militarization of police, Olson made a comment which has since found its way into numerous blogs, social media posts and news commentaries.
“Even if people loot, so what?” Olson said “Burn it to the ground, you know, if that’s what it’s gonna take to fix our nation. I know people don’t want me to say that, but I’m just saying, you know, what are you gonna do, shoot us as we protest?”
Almost immediately, the conservative blogosphere lit up, and conservative voices were joined by others on the left. Olson’s campaign responded to the criticism with a statement seeking to clarify the remarks, saying the words were taken out of context in the conversation.
“As a combat vet, Colonel Olson knows first hand the human heartbreak of violence,” the statement read. “She knows we cannot use force to fix a systemic problem of undue violence and discrimination perpetrated by those who are sworn to protect and serve. We have to rebuild from the ground up a color-blind public safety institution across America.”
The follow-up statement was not enough for some weighing in on the race.
“Someone seeking to represent such a diverse district should be more responsible with her words,” said Niccara Campbell, political director of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, which is endorsing Olson’s opponent. “Kim Olson trivialized the experiences and activism of Black Americans fighting for justice and encouraged violence instead. Olson’s team response calling for ‘color-blindness’ is tone deaf and silences members of the community she is seeking to represent. This is not solidarity or allyship. It is not even an attempt.”
Olson’s opponent in the runoff for the Democratic, Candace Valenzuela, is both African American and Hispanic, and sharply rebuked the remarks made by Olson, both in the original comment and the clarification.
“Kim Olson has missed the mark by actively encouraging the destruction of our community rather than amplifying the voices of Black people who are fighting for change with empathy and compassion,” Valenzuela said. “She may think comments like that are good for her campaign, but it is a disservice to the movement she is seeking to co-opt. Her campaign followed up by saying we need ‘color-blind’ institutions, a statement that ignores 400 years of our country’s history and is exactly the kind of ignorance we need to call out.”
Actions are louder than words
The war of words between two candidates seeking political office is just one example of what many Black activists see as a negative impact, and it pales in comparison to some reports coming in from street-level sources. The actions of some white protesters have even been suspected of having ulterior motives behind them.
Famously the police precinct in Minneapolis where the officers worked in the Floyd case was overrun and burned by protesters early on in the latest round of protests. But almost immediately video began circulating on social media of a white man dressed in all black, carrying an umbrella, and beginning the destructive process by calmly breaking out windows in the Auto Zone across the street from the police station.
The man was confronted by a Black protester who told him to stop and followed the umbrella-wielding masked man off the property, suggesting he was a police officer acting as an “agent provocateur.” Other theories circulating were that the man might be part of a white supremacist group looking to ratchet up the violence, or a member of Antifa.
Photos also appeared shortly thereafter on Twitter showing a small group of other white protesters throwing what seemed to be some of the first rocks or bricks through the window of the police station.
In Los Angeles, a Black woman confronted two white women on camera who were spray-painting slogans on a Starbucks storefront.
“This is not a Black woman who is putting ‘Black Lives Matter’,” the woman filming the scene said. “I just want you to know that when …. (one of the individuals interrupts her) … Right, but y’all doing that for us and we didn’t ask you to do that. Listen, don’t spray stuff out here when they’re gonna blame Black people for this, and Black people didn’t do it.”
African American UFC fighter Jon Jones also went viral during a similar incident in Albuquerque, N.M. when he confronted and confiscated cans of spray-paint from masked white protesters looking to graffiti buildings in that city.
Another video being widely circulated shows a Black woman confronting white people in a car who allegedly had been driving by protesters and handing out bricks from the vehicle. There are also questions surrounding stacks of bricks left in advance at the scenes of protests in different cities.
Civil rights leaders, especially those who have been in struggle for decades, are undoubtedly pleased to have the level of white involvement in the movement seen on American streets today. But increasingly, organizers have also begun to call for restraint from these same allies. They say rhetoric and real-world actions can tarnish the true intentions of the cause, and even supply ammunition to detractors looking to derail it.
“If police respond with violence and arrests, the people of color in your demonstration will face much harsher repercussions than you will,” Vonn New reminded fellow white protesters in a blog for the American Friends Service Committee. “Putting them at risk is itself a form of privileged violence. Organizers from the Black community need to set the tone of the action.”