Part of the power of the growing tide of #BlackLivesMatter actions has been the persistence with which black vitality is asserted where the white-dominated public would prefer to ignore it. The names of black people slain by police, read during Sunday brunch in midtown Manhattan; a requiem for Mike Brown, the unannounced opening act to a concert by the St. Louis Symphony. On January 5th, the disruption of business as usual was extended to Oakland, California’s Paramount Theatre, where demonstrators interrupted the inauguration of Oakland’s new mayor, Libby Schaaf, to sing “Which Side Are You On?” in honor and defense of black life.
As the Alan Blueford Center for Justice (Blueford’s murder by an Oakland cop went unaddressed by Schaaf when she was a city councilmember) reminded us, if a revolutionary movement “has caught hold of the imagination of the masses, they will seek a vent in song for the aspirations, fears, and hopes the loves and hatreds engendered by the struggle.” But the poetic injustice of the moment was in the response of the state, which was to drown out the protesters’ song with the national anthem. It is difficult to draw a clearer line than the use of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the flagship hymn of modern white empire, to silence those protesting in the name of empire’s victims. For a few minutes, one of the foundational conflicts of the country was brought into stark relief: to pledge allegiance to the flag of the united states of america was to literally turn one’s back on those demanding an end to state-sanctioned murder of black people.