Black Lives Matter (at work)

Black Lives Matter (at work)

A couple members of the Twin Cities Industrial Workers of the World talk about the conversations that have been happening at work about the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the months since the many protests of Black Lives Matter, there has been a society-wide discussion about the issues BLM has raised. This discussion has happened, most visibly, on television, and the comment sections of news sites or Facebook. But they have also been happening at work. The Organizer asked members of the Twin Cities IWW about what kind of conversations have come up at work, and here are a couple responses.

Aaron, call center worker

Black Lives Matter, but maybe not so much to my weight-lifting, protein-shake consuming coworker. We work together in a call center, and now that we’ve escaped from our busy season, we have a lot of downtime. Most of my conversations with this well-meaning guy, whom I’ll call Andrew, center around sports, particularly the inadequacies of all of Minnesota’s various teams. The day after a grand jury in Missouri failed to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, however, our lighthearted banter took on a decidedly more serious tone.

Andrew is the epitome of a suburban guy: polos and khakis are his fashion, clean shaven and well groomed is his face, and simple are his thoughts. Andrew doesn’t like talking about politics or current events and finds reading the news depressing. So it was very out of the ordinary to hear him talk about something like the Michael Brown case. Predictably, his argument went along the lines of “Michael Brown committed a crime, police have to do their jobs, Michael Brown shouldn’t have run at Darren Wilson, Michael Brown’s race is totally unrelated to this shooting.” I’m a Wobbly in secret at my job, so I tried to keep my arguments about systemic racism and classism to a minimum. Instead, I asked Andrew questions. Would Michael Brown be dead if he were white? Would Darren Wilson have been indicted if he were black?

My asking him questions didn’t radically change his opinion, but he did become noticeably quieter and more contemplative after. The talk of sports dropped off for a time, and he was bringing up the issue of racist policing regularly. I think forcing Andrew to really examine his reaction to the case, to come up with actual reasons for why he supported Wilson and labeled Brown as nothing but a dead criminal, was a small victory. He might be a meathead, but at least he’s one who reconsidering his complacency with a system that so completely devalues the lives of people of color.

Juan, warehouse worker

When the BLM stuff first started getting coverage, especially locally, people in general took a cautious approach conversationally at my work. As the protests became more disruptive, people’s opinions became more obvious. Not a huge surprise, but there were major racial differences when it came to how BLM has been viewed. White coworkers were some of the most vocal and scathing critics, saying a lot of what we’re familiar with by now. More than one of them claimed they would run down protesters in their car if they personally came across them, blocking the street. One of my white coworkers repeated this even though I told him that I and many people I know have been going to the rallies. We got into a pretty heated argument which ended with me threatening to snatch him out of his minivan if I saw him creeping up behind a BLM rally. This may seem harsh, but multiple people have attempted to ram their vehicles through marches here and I think expressing an intent to do so is a death threat.

Although many of my white coworkers were anti-BLM, I was pleasantly surprised by one older guy who is part of my social circle at work. He drives a Harley, lives in a trailer park and used to live a pretty rough life. Assumptions might tell you that he would be the type who is most against a movement like BLM. But to the contrary, he always asked me about the marches and rallies and was excited to hear that people were willing to stand up to police brutality.

My black coworkers have been almost all passively or vocally supportive. They talk about the marches positively and don’t let the disruptive nature of them get in the way of that support, unlike many of the whites. One black coworker even went to the Mall of America rally, and was excited and enthusiastic to tell me about it. He was one of the few people I told about the rallies and marches beforehand, and then described them the next day. Interestingly, he cites my example of attending this stuff as motivation for him volunteering in the search for Barway Collins, a young black kid who had gone missing. I didn’t immediately get the connection, but it does make sense. To him, the BLM movement isn’t just about police brutality, it is about the affirmation of young black lives, no different than volunteering in a community wide effort to locate a missing child. I think this unintentional lesson I learned from my coworker was important and humbling.

Originally posted: July 11, 2015 at The Organizer


Jul 16 2015 10:53

I'm surprised to read such prejudices in an IWW publication. Both accounts rely on a assuming politics and personality from fashion/lifestyle. This might pass in a high school conversation where subcultures are everything but in this context? WTF!

The texts are worthwhile but someone should have edited the silly judgements out. This passing suggests Twin Cities IWW is a subcultural ghetto. I'm not concerned with offended khaki wearers or harley drivers but I can't see them joining IWW with this stuff online.

Them having better than expected views doesn't matter. For the record I don't live in a trailer nor do I wear polos.

fingers malone
Jul 16 2015 11:22

'Assumptions might tell you' doesn't mean the writer agrees with those assumptions or thinks people should make those kind of assumptions. He also said he was talking with this co worker and engaging with him and the guy was supportive of the protests. Talking to workmates about these kinds of issues is difficult. I think this is a really good article.

Juan Conatz
Jul 16 2015 12:01

Yeah, I don't think making assumptions based on how people present themselves is 'subcultural'. I think its pretty much a normal thing most people do. The point here though is that they are not completely adequate indicators, but if that didn't come across well, that's my fault as the editor and the criticism is noted.

Jul 16 2015 12:48

Agree it's a worthwhile text. It does however suggest that the expected audience is free from suburban musclemen in polos and people who park their harley by their trailer. This is probably an accurate assessment but writing like this ensures the situation stays like that.

fingers malone wrote:
'Assumptions might tell you' doesn't mean the writer agrees with those assumptions or thinks people should make those kind of assumptions.

No but it assumes that the people reading the text makes those assumptions. This narrows down the audience quite a bit.

Juan Conatz wrote:
I don't think making assumptions based on how people present themselves is 'subcultural'

It's a different thing doing it in a publication for an organisation that I presume want to welcome people regardless of fashion choices. It also makes sense for grown ups to keep thoughts like that in check.

I see how it works well for telling the story I just think it's unfortunate.

Well that's enough of that I don't want to distract to much from the rest of the content.

fingers malone
Jul 16 2015 13:04

Hey I was actually noticing the bit about the Harley and not really noticing the bit about the trailer park.

Jul 16 2015 13:47

One rides rather than drives a Harley.

Juan Conatz
Jul 16 2015 14:33

I just don't agree, sorry. There are certain assumptions when it comes to race relations that people have and I don't think acting like they don't exist contributes to anything. If this was about workplace organzing it would be a different story, because assumptions based on appearance or culture are not all reflective of whether people have grievances, but when it comes to race relations they are a much more accurate indicator, although they have to be broken and challenged in order to get through to people.

fingers malone
Jul 16 2015 14:52

It is a genuine problem that subcultural issues can make it more difficult when we are trying to connect with workmates, and I think it's good to talk openly about that. I appreciate the point that cooked is making that there can be a problem if you discuss that in your organisation's magazine in a way that sounds like you are assuming a certain particular audience.
There were a lot of other more interesting things in the article, such as how you would deal with a co worker saying he would run protesters over and how I would feel if I had to go to work the next day with someone who had basically said he would like to run me over.

Jul 16 2015 15:22
fingers malone wrote:
how I would feel if I had to go to work the next day with someone who had basically said he would like to run me over.

I had similar interactions with coworkers during the Freddie Gray protests. We closed early for a few days during the uprising, so it became the main topic of conversation. Other white people were generally frightened and a lot of them made macho comments like "I would shoot those rioters if they came to my street". At one point a black manager got irritated and started yelling "black lives matter" at white's weird finding yourself on the boss's side of an argument.

I have a lot of black coworkers who live in West Baltimore, and their reactions were more interesting. One young woman told me she was scared of her neighborhood turning into a warzone, but she supported the protests anyway. Another woman tut-tutted about how the looting was terrible...and then confided that she'd got herself a new pair of shoes. One guy would try to cautiously feel people out by talking about what a shame the riots were. If he got a positive reaction (I said something like "I dunno man, let's keep things in perspective, the cops are the ones who killed that kid"), he would do a 180 and talk about how police are the biggest gang, it's about time people rise up, etc.

This is a dynamic I've observed in organizing campaigns, too: workers will talk shit about the union on the clock, just to measure other people's responses. Sometimes the people who do the most shit-talking are really the most interested people - they're just doing the safe thing to test the waters.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 17 2015 14:33

Good post, F.

That said, I found this article a bit weird as well, especially that first account. It's just the offsetting of the "weight-lifting, protein-shake consuming" co-worker (both of things I do) who likes sports against the clued-up radical.

Just this sentence:

The talk of sports dropped off for a time, and he was bringing up the issue of racist policing regularly.

Why are those two things being placed in contrast with one another? Why should they be?

And I say that as someone who had a chat with one of my co-workers yesterday about why it was inappropriate to say n*gger. These are important and difficult conversations to have and it's worth sharing how we approach them, but I feel like that account in particular does create a bit of a strange dichotomy focused as much around leisure pursuits as the actual prejudices people hold.

Jul 17 2015 17:42

Edited for clarity: Don't alienate bros by calling them bros, bros.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 17 2015 18:40

I'm not sure what that means, Penn. In our organizing we're going to have to learn to work alongside macho dudes who are going to have far from right-on politics. Are we going to write someone off because they talk about or play sports?

Jul 17 2015 18:56

No and the author did not do or suggest that. I think plenty of people are used to being made fun of about their hobbies. Its not sacred. Yeesh. I mean there's nothing wrong with not liking sports and it has no bearing on your class position.

Chilli Sauce
Jul 17 2015 22:58

Penn, probably not worth getting into, but I'm still not sure I understand the point you're making. I was responding to your post about "bros", I'm just not sure what you mean by that?

I'm also not sure anybody's being made fun of here. There's just a tendency for a lot of anti-capitalists (and more anarchists than socialists, in my experience) to dismiss sports as a distraction; that people who like sports are somehow looked down on. I just feel like there's an element in that first article - no wonder my co-worker's a racist, he's a "meathead" who talks about sports.

Jul 18 2015 20:10

I find the tone and assumptions in this article to be a huge turn-off. I could barely finish it. Just my .02

Jul 19 2015 02:54

do you object to Aaron's tone, or Juan's, or both?

Jul 19 2015 10:26

I guess aaron's primarily? I thought that the thing about a Harley guy who had a "hard life" was weird, as I grew up around people like that and they are often likely to know/be related to minorites or at least not trust/hate cops. I wasn't worried about it, though.

Juan Conatz
Feb 13 2016 21:06

Thought I'd come back to this, as it has now been several months.

I think I still maintain my outlook on the assumptions in this piece as fine and pretty accurate. I don't think it reflects any 'leftist sub-cultural' traits because assumptions about people based on their culture is not limited to the minuscule and mostly irrelevant left. Everybody has these assumptions. Maybe such a thing shouldn't have been published on an IWW affiliated website for whatever reason.

I find it a bit odd that a few people seem to have more problems with assumptions being made about white people, than the anti-black stances that white people are described as having in this short piece.

I also find Tarwater's thing about white people who know or are related to people of color as strange. As if that matters at all when it comes to racism and being anti-BLM! I would think the vast majority of white Americans are related to, work with, or are friends with someone who is a person of color. I think the significance of this is limited.

jef costello
Feb 14 2016 09:33

The protein drinking part in the introduction isn't going to open up the text to some people and it might not to others. It depends on what the article is supposed to do. Is it supposed to encourage IWW to talk to people or is it supposed to reach out to non-members. The first one seems more likely.
There's no problem is confronting stereotypes but if you present them like this, especially the contempt in the first part, then you risk insulting people for no good reason before you start and it's also a bit ridiculous to complain about steretypeswhile using them. PErsonally I'd have edited it a bit so it's more like the second part where he mentions that it's his assumption about the guy rather than defining him as 'simple'

Feb 14 2016 21:53

Well, I re-read it and still think it's pretty bad. I'm not in the IWW though and, since this seems like a mostly internal publication, I suppose it doesn't matter much.

Fwiw, the point that I only started to make in my last post (but which I never really followed through on or clarified) was that the authors attempt to continue to rely on stereotypes to flesh out his article was hampered by his ignorance. Sorry that I was unclear.