All that’s left is this strange, middling part of the population, the curious and powerless aggregate of those who take no sides: the petty bourgeoisie. They have always pretended to believe that the economy is a reality–because their neutrality is safe there. Small business owners, small bosses, minor bureaucrats, professors, journalists, middlemen of every sort make up this non-class…this social gelatin composed of the mass of all those who just want to live their little private lives at a distance from history and its tumults.–The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection
Originally published by Irruptions.
In this essay, we aim to analyze the protests that occurred between August 24th and 30th, 2021, in so-called Lincoln, Nebraska, in order to elucidate the specific effects of Lincoln-based counterinsurgency tactics in weakening working-class power and solidarity across class lines. Although this piece focuses on geopolitically specific events, we hope it contains valuable analysis for understanding future eruptions of struggle globally.
What we witnessed in Lincoln was the fleeting convergence of the interests of white, petty bourgeois university students engaged in self-defense against rapists with the interests of black proletarians defending themselves against the police, a convergence resembling the organic solidarities established during the George Floyd Rebellion in May and June of 2020. Similarly to the Rebellion, these solidarities were stamped out.
In pursuit of further analyzing this trend, our intent across Part One and Two of this analysis is to demonstrate the following theses:
1) Many people in Lincoln wish to do more than submit themselves to institutional reformism in response to violence, but they are always already countered by an entrenched counterinsurgency in the form of a clique of middle-class activists.
2) Lincoln’s middle-class activists alienate more militant elements from protests by cultivating atmospheres of suspicion and distrust, thereby discouraging direct action.
3) Speech-giving, petitioning, scheduling meetings with people in power, and “calling your friends out” (these being the endlessly recycled tactics deployed by the middle-class activist clique) ultimately alienate protest attendees and are the primary reason for the chronic dwindling of every movement in Lincoln.
4) The various police agencies in Lincoln rely on middle-class activism as part of their highly effective “get scarce” approach to counterinsurgency.
In Part One, we defined middle-class activism as “a political disposition which emphasizes institutional power as the exclusive means by which to create social change,“ drawing attention to how this activism can be deployed by individuals from various backgrounds and across class lines, so long as the attitudes and strategies towards social change reflect petty bourgeois interests.
Because we are performing a material analysis, we must narrate and critique the actions of specific people. However, being as the object of our critique is a middle-class political orientation rather than any specific individual, we do not use names in either essay and we redact usernames from images below. We wish to be clear that our aim is to critique a set of tactics with clear detrimental effects on Lincoln movements, not to start an online brigade. To ascribe the problems in Lincoln protests to any one person would leave room for new people to deploy the same tactics in the future. We hope, instead, that everyone (including the local activists) can begin thinking about and studying power and protest more from a new standpoint and thereby become more effective in their struggles for liberation.
In this essay, we will expand upon specific events that happened within the short-lived anti-FIJI movement in Lincoln, which we covered at a high level in the previous part. For a higher-view summary and analysis of events between August 24th and August 30th, please refer to Part One.
The Struggle for the Megaphone
The crowd of the first night (August 24th) included a wide array of people who congregated with no unified ideological line besides the common refusal to tolerate sexual violence any longer. However, it must be noted that the protest’s proximity to the university skewed the demographics toward a predominantly white, petty bourgeois inflection. Significantly, a large portion of the crowd was associated with “Greek life” (i.e., fraternity/sorority members and the social spheres surrounding these institutions). We propose that these latter factors made the crowd more likely to identify with institutional power structures than the more proletarian crowds that assembled during the George Floyd Rebellion.
Despite the seemingly counterinsurgent predisposition of the crowd, fury was the primary emotion, and the protest outside FIJI was highly decentralized and autonomous. As we noted in Part One:
Objects were thrown at the house, and the police perimeter was violated. These actions were met with mixed responses from the crowd, divided between encouragement and remonstrations to “be peaceful.” When the perimeter of the lawn was breached by a protestor, they were ejected from the area by police, but not arrested.
When middle-class activists arrived on the scene, a battle of wills emerged between the activists and more “unruly” elements of the crowd. A stream from that night picked up comments from crowd members questioning the activists’ right to take control and commenting that “this isn’t about you,” referring specifically to the prominent Black Leaders’ Movement (BLM) activist discussed in Part One, who had assumed leadership. [Facebook Video]
We wish, here, to consider a specific incident within this takeover period: As this first protest stretched into the night, a black man took the megaphone from the BLM activist’s hands. The crowd did not like what this man had to say, and he was overwhelmingly booed. There was good reason to shout down the misogynistic comments he made, but the trajectory of this conflict reveals a highly disturbing theme within the activist-led anti-FIJI protests.
As the well-deserved booing continued, the BLM activist attempted to grab the megaphone back from the man. A struggle ensued, during which the man was pushed off the wall and onto the lawn. The police immediately took custody of him and marched him around the corner of the house. The activists then began to cheer at the detainment of this black man by police, and the crowd largely joined. After the cops detained the man, they escorted the megaphone back to the BLM activist, directly handing the item to them. Newly coronated by the police themselves, these leaders—which included the BLM activist and several sorority members—thanked the officers for their intervention and more cheering ensued.
We find this a curious course of action for a so-called abolitionist. The aforementioned BLM activist got their start by coopting the Lincoln expression of the George Floyd Rebellion, yet here they unreservedly allow a black man to be detained by campus police. No effort by any of the activist-leaders was made to stop the police or even to say, “We do not want this man to spew his misogyny, but we also do not want to hand over a black man to cops.” Rather, the easy relationship between activists and police revealed itself. A deal with the devil, the police protect the activists’ privileged position at the head of protests, and the activists stifle any opportunities for direct action.
From all this, we observe that, while there were militant elements in the crowd the first night, the petty bourgeois tendency of the crowd made it easy for a counterinsurgent voice to orient the crowd toward middle-class leaders and their “legitimate” institutions, thereby defeating the possibility of direct conflict. As theorists Shemon and Arturo note in “The Return of John Brown,” “there is nothing more dangerous to the class struggle in the US than the treachery of the white proletariat, which, over the course of its history, has forged an alliance with capital and the state,” and we insist that this is twice as true for the petty bourgeois, white members of the anti-FIJI movement who foreswore their anger in favor of being led into the institutional black hole.
Middle-class activism is a tool that was deployed most recently in the wake of the George Floyd Rebellion to restrain petty bourgeois and white demographics from betraying their race and class positions. And this activism legitimates itself under the guise of “effective action.” In the BLM activist’s own words (from Facebook):
I did not start nor organize that protest, but I did start to lead the people toward the end. It was other women around me who used my mega phone to tell the crowd that we will be back everyday at 10pm until FIJI is blacklisted and banned from campus- to which I offered to organize this protest so that we can actually have direct action that is impactful and not unorganized and erratic.
This claim upon “direct action that is impactful” does not reflect the course of events under this activist’s leadership. FIJI was neither blacklisted nor banned from campus, merely temporarily suspended. On September 23rd (over three weeks after the final protest), a post emerged on an anti-sexual assault organizing page on Instagram stating that:
FIJI AND UNL HAVE NOT ANSWERED TO THE PEOPLE. JUSTICE HAS YET TO BE SERVED.
We are not aware of anything coming of this call to action.
Thus, it seems that the exact opposite of impactful action occurred, and yet the activists continue to call for the same defeated form of “peaceful protest.” And they continue to do so under the direct supervision of police. This begs the question of what movement these activists are actually building, and whose interests their organizing ultimately benefits. To be clear, we make no claim on the intentions of the activists, as we cannot know that. We look, instead, to the effects of their leadership. Based on these outcomes, can we say that the movement for universal emancipation from violence was served? Or was it the movement to subject people to quiet institutional reformism in the face of the many violences of this culture?
Escaping the Enclosure
We transition, now, to a second incident (related to the first) which further reveals the antagonistic position of middle-class activism towards a diversity of tactics in protests.
Toward the end of Night Four (August 27th), on O Street—a major street near the University of Nebraska—Lincoln’s (UNL’s) campus—Lincoln Police performed a traffic stop on a black man for allegedly violating a traffic signal. At the time of the stop, the man’s family and young children were in the vehicle. In the course of the stop, the police attempted to remove the man from his vehicle and a struggle ensued. The police assaulted and tazed the man.
As this was happening, passersby began to shout at the police for their assault on the man. Members of the nearby anti-FIJI protest at UNL were not aware of this altercation at this point. A crowd gathered, and they immediately began chanting, “No Justice, No Peace.” It is notable that the majority of people who initially chose to yell at the cops were working-class black people. Subsequently, word of the police assault soon reached the demonstration a few blocks north. The anti-FIJI demonstrators began marching toward the traffic stop on O Street.
Upon the arrival of these reinforcements (numbering a couple hundred), the police immediately attempted to leave the scene. As the six cruisers present at the stop began to evacuate, several working-class black women ran into the street to block the cruisers and called on everyone else to join them. Several cops then attempted to create a perimeter around the vehicles. The crowd would not let them, however, and surrounded the cars as they attempted to retreat to the west. Amid the flurry of anger, the activists lost control of the crowd’s actions.
This confluence of the traffic stop on O Street with the anti-FIJI protest made possible a spontaneous eruption of activity—the first unplanned and unmanaged moment since the beginning of the protests. The crowd autonomously moved towards the site of police violence and made the decision to get into the street, directly confronting the polices’ abuse of force and helping to physically block their vehicles from leaving the scene. This action represented a critical moment of shared struggle: the predominantly white, petty bourgeois crowd fighting sexual assault on UNL’s campus identified the abuse of power by police and fought back in solidarity with the predominantly working-class black folks that first took the streets to confront the abuse.
Police reinforcements soon arrived and tried to form a loose riot line around a cruiser that had been surrounded by the crowd. They were extremely fearful in the face of a crowd unfazed by officers’ commands to move back. People began penetrating the riot line, and, when cops pushed people, some placed their hands on the cops to fight back. A young black woman was assaulted by an officer and thrown out of the path of the cruiser. This surrounded cruiser eventually found a path out of the crowd and escaped. When this happened, much of the crowd ran to confront a set of other cop cars parked down the street. Several projectiles were thrown at the cars by the crowd.
According to the Twitter feed of the local bail fund, police were heard on the scanner during this period saying the following:
- “If we leave, they’ll leave.”
- “Just get out of there, leave your cruisers if you have to.”
- “If you’re leaving, turn off your lights. They’re attracted to the lights.”
- “Everyone on O Street, get in your cruiser and get out.”
- “Clear the downtown area. Stay three or four blocks back.”
This chatter reveals what we call LPD’s “get scarce” approach to counterinsurgency. Their primary tactic is to avoid giving protestors a force against which to assemble themselves. This tactic, like with the defeat of the summer’s rebellion, again proved effective in concert with the presence of middle-class activists. After forcing the cops into retreat, many protestors stayed in the street, overwhelmed by what had happened. At this point, several activists, including the BLM activist who had taken control of the protest during the first night, ordered the crowd onto the sidewalk. Shouts of dissent rang out from the crowd (largely from working-class black folks unaffiliated with the anti-FIJI demonstrations). In contrast, the white, petty bourgeois college students from the anti-FIJI demonstration (who now made up most of the crowd) followed the activists’ commands.
The tactical position in the street was abandoned. Later, in defense of this choice, the BLM activist defended themself on social media:
I would be a bad leader if people got kettled, arrested, tear gassed, and shot at with no preparation or regard for their life.
And if anyone got arrested, they would have been in jail until Monday. Not everyone can handle that mentally.
in addition, as an organizer, we know exactly how these situations play out. The people will blindly cause themselves harm.
As a rebuttal, we contend that the activists did not bring those people there. People came by virtue of their own autonomy, rather than out of some paternalistic notion of “blind self-harm.” The crowd acted knowing full well the consequences of their actions; one does not jump in front of a police cruiser without understanding that the police may retaliate violently, particularly after the cops had tazed somebody immediately prior. Moreover, the police were not in a position to kettle anyone; in fact, they did not manage (or even attempt) to make a single arrest. In short, the crowd had won. And yet the activists—demonstrating little to no tactical awareness or understanding of the stakes of abolitionist struggle—adopted a defensive posture.
Instead of building upon the defeat of LPD and using it to gain momentum against both the police and the fraternity, however, the activists re-pacified the crowd, stripping people of their autonomy and reimposing the bureaucratic frustration of emails and petitions. The night ended with the activists leading the protestors back to campus via the sidewalk and telling everyone to go home.
Again commenting on the eruption of the George Floyd Rebellion, Shemon and Arturo write: “Hearing the battle cry of Black Lives Matter, a significant number of poor and working class whites joined the rebellions,” and “[t]here is nothing more dangerous to the American bourgeoisie than a multi-racial class struggle.” When people take the streets together, really take the streets, the ruling class feels threatened. As such, it cannot be allowed to occur. And, as such, a diffuse array of systems of cultural and physical repression come into play, one of which is middle-class activism and its hollowing effect on revolt.
In further pursuit of demonstrating the emptiness of middle-class activism as compared to multi-racial struggle, we raise two contrasting examples of what it means to “take the streets,” as they played out during the anti-FIJI movement. One version consists of pre-approved, police-escorted demonstrations on the empty streets of a university campus. The latter is a busy downtown intersection on a Friday night, police cruisers hemmed in by a multi-racial, multi-class crowd in direct confrontation with the flows of capital and police brutality. Though they bear the same name, these are two very different modes of action. One creates leverage against those in power, and the other is cultivated by that same powerful class. Here, we also want to point out a clear demarcation in terms of who tends to pursue direct action as a first line of defense: working-class black folks were the first to take the streets, encouraging others to follow suit. Conversely, the self-styled Black Leader who has repeatedly demonstrated petty bourgeois allegiances sought to cut off direct action. Truly, as Idris Robinson writes: “The so-called the Black leadership, therefore, cannot and does not exist. It is a chimera to be found exclusively in the white liberal imagination.” The Black Leaders Movement of Lincoln, Nebraska, and its representatives lead people only to surrender and defeat.
The now-repeated downward trajectory of Lincoln protests demonstrates a curious directionality in relation to the local Summer 2020 uprisings. As we wrote previously, this same activist clique, centered around Lincoln BLM, disarticulated the summer uprising by similar means. In both the George Floyd Rebellion and the anti-FIJI movement, a diverse, spontaneous coalition that crossed identitarian and tactical boundaries emerged. This coalition was then ideologically divided by activist cliques deploying middle-class prohibitions against protestors, while those activists act in visible concert with the police. In both movements, an ungovernable revolutionary potential was stymied and prevented from elaborating itself. This constitutes a repeated interruption of revolutionary potential, which denies the crowd the opportunity to experiment with a true diversity of tactics and articulate its own ideas of what should be done and how. This disruption of the revolutionary trajectory repeatedly leads to the death of any nascent movements with which these activists come into contact. The next uprising is eternally doomed to build momentum once again, from scratch, never having any solid ground on which to stand due to the incessant megaphonic distractions of the activists.
Rather than the activists’ self-serving claim that they are trying to “give voice to people’s anger,” a close study of their actions and the subsequent effects reveals that they are, in fact, the extinguishers of revolution.
Whereas the activists continually bemoan the chronic dissolution of protests in Lincoln, we propose that they are participating in a counterinsurgent interruption of revolutionary potential by forcing movements to enter into conversation with hegemonic institutions. These entities deploy time-tested strategies of attrition (meetings, petitions, committees, listening sessions) which translate fury into disillusionment. Thus, the local contingent of middle-class activists is a key component of Lincoln’s counterinsurgency: the police defend activists’ positions so long as the activists siphon insurrectionary potential into the bureaucratic labyrinths over which the activists hope to preside. It is no surprise, then, that the activists are always keen on meeting with mayors, senators, and chancellors; it is no surprise that they are the executives of their own nonprofits and members of Greek life: their careerist aspirations align them with the existing power structures, and they are loathe to tolerate any attack upon their professional development.
So long as middle-class activism holds the reins of protest in Lincoln, there is no hope for liberation from sexual, police, and other forms of violence. So long as the activists’ professional aspirations are heeded as the beacon which will lead people to freedom, people will instead be continually led to graveyards of possibility.
For those who wish for more than an endless cycle of outrage that only begets further outrage as the institutions (which are designed to deny change) deny change, it is imperative to experiment with strategies for breaking free from this counterinsurgent hegemony. As the Invisible Committee writes, “There’s no ideal form of action. What’s essential is that action assume a certain form, that it give rise to a form instead of having one imposed on” (60). We suggest that readers of this piece look into the essays we have referenced here as well as the broader body of work available through such outlets as Ill Will Editions and It’s Going Down News.
Struggles in Lincoln are linked with a fabric of resistance that spans the globe. People in Lincoln must study what is going on elsewhere and apply what they learn locally. Without this, local movements are doomed to fall prey to ever-evolving strategies of counterinsurgency; and concerned individuals will be thus consigned to do something in the halls of power, though it is never quite clear what.
The momentary overlap between disparate struggles in Lincoln provided a brief potential avenue for the convergence of cross-class and cross-racial solidarity as seen in this case of white, petty bourgouis protestors willing to fight the police in support of black proletarian protestors. This potentiality is ultimate destroyed by the petty bourgouis willingness to submit to middle-class activist leadership. Rather than walk into such traps, we emphasize that those in power are studying how to quell unrest and are using well-intentioned organizers to do so. Those in Lincoln and around the world who feel restless must study how to resist and build power in response.