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Aug 27, 18

Autonomy is a Dizzying Letting-Go: The Fall of Silent Sam

A personal reflection on the recent toppling of Silent Sam.

Standing next to Silent Sam the first time around, before it got dark, before we glommed up one of Chapel Hill’s night-before-school thoroughfares and before the statue was laid low and illuminated by flares and flashbulbs, an older person approached my affinity group and asked for the person in charge.

“Y’all really want to tear it down? You need someone with some orders.”

We searched for each other beneath our bandanas. One of us spoke up.

“Everyone has autonomy. They’re going to do what feels right for them and the people they’re with.”

A canned response to a canned question: not an uncritical answer to an unexamined subject, but a sort of knee-jerk, this-is-the-way-it-is aphorism to hold us steady in the sort of tenuous posture direct action often dangles us.

The person looked bemused. They’d just passed the megaphone. The calls-and-responses continued around them.

Ok, but who’s going to pull it down?

Who indeed? We talk on the antistate Left about taking matters into our own hands; which might those be? And whose hands are those hands grasping? My partner’s, steady at their first action. A masked comrade’s, tightly, as a cop grabbed them under the arms—and briefly, disquietingly, the pig’s. A friend’s just after we recovered the statue from the cops while, little to our knowledge, someone slipped behind the four-banner act of reclamation and fastened a rope to Sam’s figure.

Who indeed?

Autonomy is a dizzying letting-go. The rote stability of ballot sheets and break room politics is unfastened: or, if you prefer, unhinged. That’s not to say it’s leaderless. I won’t profess to having ever been able to organize in lockstep, or having wanted to. And I won’t say this antiracist action, like many others, was free of the kind of plainclothes, power grabbing whiteness I hold—white dreads reaching for the mic undercuts any claims of widespread white accompliceship.

We might envision instead a direction that emerges without having been directed: that is to say, a fuzzy, unbounded sort of leadership that pings and morphs through a medium of—What?—love, trust, reciprocity, recognition, support, critique, introspection, accountability, some nameless sometimes-category, without someone (or someones) holding and twisting it as an exercise in privilege.

It’s hard not to speak in the negative (anti-, dis-, -less) in this context, but it’s in the negative spaces we find little tatters of anarchy. It’s the tatters we need, not the flag. It was community I felt during the chanting and the marching and the banner-waving, community that passed through and beyond the organizers. Community sprang out of the statue’s creak and the quiet it soon voided. It was uncanny (community within settler colonialism and racial capitalism is always uncanny). But community was real in the cross-section of joy of which I was a part: elation, expanding unrestrained, that cowed the statue and blanketed it in noise.

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