What Should I Have Done?
by Noel Ignatiev, Boston


I recently spoke at a local state university as part of a symposium called Days Without Violence. It was sponsored by the Peace and Conflict Institute. There were about one hundred people present, mostly students. I was the keynote speaker and my assigned topic was "The Privilege of Being White." I arrived at the Symposium as the previous panel was winding up. The captain of the campus police said a few words about "hate crimes" on campus and sat down. He was followed by a member of the local city police force who answered questions about the recent police killings in New York City and the racial composition of the local force of which he was a member. He was a black man, a representative of the new "kinder, gentler" police, and he fielded the questions well.

I could not see clearly from where I sat, and I asked him if he was carrying a weapon at that moment. He replied that he was. So was the campus policeman. My question was the last before lunch.

There was a bit of discussion over lunch and when the meeting reconvened I began my remarks by explaining why I had asked the question. I pointed out that if I had come up on the platform carrying a firearm on my hip, that would be considered violent and I would be removed by force. Yet apparently no one considered it out of place to have armed men taking part in a discussion of "days without violence." I said I had no objection to representatives of the police force taking part in a discussion, but I didn't see why they could be armed when I couldn't be. I reported that at lunch someone had informed me that police were required to be armed at all times, and that I, as a private citizen, was prohibited from carrying weapons on to state property. I said I didn't see what difference that made, and that if the only way the police could present their point of view was with a firearm on their hip, then that seemed to me a good reason not to invite them in the future. I said I hoped the students and faculty members who sponsored the event would consider the point for next year.

I then made the connection with my topic by pointing out that I regarded white supremacy as a perpetual war of one part of the population against another, and that I thought that the police were an armed force on one side of that war. I spoke about how they upheld white supremacy not because they are "racists"-although there are certainly plenty of race haters on the police department-but because they uphold the law which is white supremacist in its effect. For example, it was well known that black people were denied housing in the past because of neighborhood redlining and discrimination in loans. Yet if a homeless black person tried to move into a house "owned" by someone who had made millions from real estate speculation, the police would come and throw that black person out and put him in prison, because that is the Law. I called for a challenge to the institutions of the society that upheld white supremacy, including job reference networks, standardized admissions tests, and of course the police, and that any serious movement would have to understand that it would be necessary under certain circumstances to break the law.

The two most interesting questions that came from the audience were one from a young man who wanted to know why he should challenge the institutions that delivered the small advantages that he, as a white man, depended on. I answered that he might gain more than he lost, but that he had to decide. The other was from a young white woman who said she agreed entirely with what I had said but was worried that taking action along the lines I advocated might cause her to lose her job as a teacher. I replied that I hoped she would not be foolish, but that, yes, any serious struggle against white supremacy would necessarily involve sacrifice.

My question for readers is: Did I do the right thing in going ahead with my talk in spite of the presence of two armed men in the audience? Should I have asked them to check their weapons outside? Should I have refused to speak unless they did so? Which do readers think was the more powerful statement, going ahead with my talk, addressing the problem of police and violence, or refusing to speak? In responding, please consider that I was being paid by the college to speak, and that all the money I got went to help pay for this paper you are now reading.

new abolitionist society
copyright 1999