Why Social Justice Requires a Universal Goal

By Javin Dana '17

While conducting research for this piece, I investigated recent stories and discussions regarding social justice across the board. In doing so, I noticed a single pervasive trend: misunderstanding. Whether the issue concerns race, gender identity, or economic inequality, such a theme remains.  Not a quest for solidarity, nor motivation to pursue equality among the people, which is the ostensible goal of social justice and activism, but a state of miscommunication and a distinct lack of empathy between social justice groups.

On Aug. 10, Senator and Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders intended to hold a rally in Seattle discussing Social Security. Just moments after he took the stage a number of protesters allegedly representing the Seattle “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) chapter approached him and took the microphone directly from his hands. This was one of the more radical approaches utilized throughout the movement.

Bernie Sanders fell under fire for his allegedly defensive comments in response to the events at his rally. As of now, he has reconciled with the members of Black Lives Matter (Photo: Flikr/Michael Vadon).

Bernie Sanders fell under fire for his allegedly defensive comments in response to the events at his rally. As of now, he has reconciled with the members of Black Lives Matter (Photo: Flikr/Michael Vadon).

My name is Marissa Janae Johnson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Seattle,” one of the protesters stated. “I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives, but you already did it for me.”

Sanders, a presidential nominee well-left of center, could not complete his rally, because of this interruption by civil rights activists. Following the event, mass media uproar surfaced regarding both the ethicality and efficacy of these specific activists’ actions, and their bearing on “Black Lives Matter” as a whole.

Almost immediately, at least three left-leaning, progressive communities were divided: those that supported Sanders, those that supported the radical activists, and their upheaval of his performance, and those that supported BLM, but disagreed with the actions of these specific demonstrators. This is unfortunate, specifically because none of these related groups should have been at odds with one-another in the first place.

In the weeks following the event in Seattle, details surrounding the identities of the two female activists, and their relationship to “Black Lives Matter” were uncovered. Johnson and Willaford had previously led a group by the name of “Outside Agitators 206,” based in Seattle.

OA 206, a radical organization noted for their motto “F___ the police”, and entirely unaffiliated with “Black Lives Matter,” was quickly conflated with other similar groups in the Seattle area. Their web pages and blog posts quickly picked up traction–far more than the preexisting Seattle chapter ever had–simply because of the divisive and abrasive manner in which they introduced themselves on the national stage. Rapidly, the line differentiating the two groups faded in many people’s eyes, and little distinction could be drawn between those in support of Black Lives Matter, and those using a radical platform to attack political and social institutions in the U.S.

Which begs the question: who represents “Black Lives Matter,” an organization with both formal and informal followings?

Many would argue that Johnson and Willaford do not represent the movement at all, and that they have little to no authority on the matter. On the contrary, a number of individuals levied arguments, asserting that Sanders, whose rally was interrupted, truly has no authority in discussions of race, being an older, white man. Some further argued that this kind of radicalism is necessary to change America’s perspective.

All three groups claimed ownership over discussions surrounding social equity and race, but refused to take responsibility for the confusion in the aftermath of Sanders’ rally. Sanders, feeling wrongly singled out in the scenario, noted, “I have spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights.”

“I didn’t [partake in the disruption]. My chapter did,” stated Patrisse Cullors, one of the three individuals noted for starting and spreading the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag that initiated the rapidly growing national movement. She continued in this interview with The Daily Beast, “[Johnson and Willaford’s] chapter did all the work. And we supported it by ensuring they were a part of the chapter,” stated Cullors. “It’s very rare there’s a national directive for people to do things. We amplify and support.”

The fallout caused by these events served to exacerbate an already-prevalent divide between varying groups of civil-rights activists, ironically, based primarily on their wealth and the color of their skin. The primarily white-liberal supporters of Sanders and the African-American liberal populace represented by the Seattle chapter of BLM ended up at odds with one-another. And the persistent strife brought on in the wake of these events has been entirely ineffective at repairing the fundamental inequalities and socioeconomic problems relevant to marginalized individuals.

This kind of dissent—this manner of contentious and seemingly unproductive discourse—is not uncommon or new. When operating within the loose boundaries of informal organizations, social justice movement individuals consistently take it upon themselves to assert ownership and authority over topics of socioeconomic equality, and which groups deserve to be heard. The laden uncertainty regarding such permissions, especially in broader social movements, has led groups across the nation, with invariably the same goal, to alienate one-another.

Last February, the hashtag #TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) – a somewhat pejorative term used to refer to “anti-transgender feminists” began trending on Twitter. Echoing the comments of 1970s feminist icon and author of “The Female Eunuch,” Germaine Greer, many members of this contemporized feminist faction began to ostracize transgender women from rallies and groups. This led to continuous conflicts both online and offline between the groups. 

​Social justice and equality require a level of interpretation to become operative, however their concrete definitions and applicability often lead to misunderstandings (Photo: Filkr/Rikki's Refuge).

​Social justice and equality require a level of interpretation to become operative, however their concrete definitions and applicability often lead to misunderstandings (Photo: Filkr/Rikki’s Refuge).

Greer argues that transgender women are “a ghastly parody” of purportedly “real women,” and that they are “deluded” men with the intent of infiltrating the feminist movement while retaining all of the benefits of privileges of being male. And, that a complete lack of privilege, current or otherwise, is the prerequisite for being accepted as a proper member of the feminist movement.  Similar to the events transpiring between Sander’s and BLM, the feminist community fractured. Rather than focusing on representing all women for the purpose of equality, these related groups perpetuated internal struggles, causing the movement to

Most individuals prescribing to contemporary, progressive social justice movements would be likely to consider Greer and her supporters’ behavior and outlook both aberrant and archaic. Barring transgender women from participating in feminist circles—which are characteristically recognized as open venues of representation for women—seems unthinkable. But what must be considered, especially when evaluating the divides drawn within these movements, is that both those in support of Greer and those starkly against her are inevitably pursuing the same goal.

They are all in pursuit of social equity and equality. Each group merely utilizes the tools at their disposal, conducting rallies and creating venues for dialogue, in an attempt to equalize the genders. This seems to void the purpose and rationale behind this pervasive counter-productivity. Striving for solidarity, unity, and collective authority—equality—on issues of social justice seems intuitive, while alienating and attacking comparable groups and people is the antithesis of social justice movement.

And these issues are not exclusive to movements concerning race and gender. During the 2011 Occupy Portland movement, thousands of protesters crowded Pioneer Square in a demonstration against economic inequality. Over the months of the occupation, many of the primary protesters were replaced by homeless individuals, who utilized the area to both protest and establish an encampment. While one would expect the two groups to work side-by-side (which did occur on a broader scale), many protesters evacuated the Pioneer Courthouse square, or refused to enter in the first place, solely because the larger homeless populace had created an improvised community within the vicinity of the demonstration. The initial premise of the rallies themselves, discussing issues of wealth inequality, was not championed by many of its own supporters, merely out of fear and disdain for the homeless.

The dissent and confusion between social groups with similar goals, to this end, becomes counterintuitive and counterproductive. Even in academia, questions continuously arise regarding who has the authority to teach different subjects in history, literature, language, art, and the like.

Which is not to say that certain groups do not deserve a level of authority, or even security, within society. Especially in regards to marginalized groups, safe-spaces to discuss their specific problems are a necessity. However, once these safe-spaces are established, and these groups gain further capacities to discuss their problems and topics of interest, much of the dialogue can dissolve into contemptuous divisions.

If several progressive, social justice groups and movements remain in conflict, the real issues of social, civil, and economic equality and equity will not be properly covered or resolved. In essence, this is a petition for solidarity. While even similar groups will inherently reach conflicts regarding how to progress, whom to include, and the like, they are not justified in creating absolute stagnancy through enmity and exclusivity.

While it may take another stream of newsworthy events and attacks on certain peoples to galvanize social equality movements to work together, there should be an imperative to retain momentum by working together in unity, rather than dissociating related peoples, and dissolving the social bands holding groups together.  In order to pursue change and progress, the collective people pursuing social equality need to sustain the efficacy of their movements: they need to keep moving forward, and together.