White Shields

Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini

At a protest in Louisville, Kentucky, last month – the city where Breonna Taylor was murdered by police on 13 March – Chanelle Helm, a leading organiser in the local Black Lives Matter group, turned to the white protesters with a loudhailer. ‘If you are going to be here,’ she said, ‘you should defend this space.’

The white protesters – most of them women – linked arms and formed a line between the black protestors and the police. Tim Druck, a local photographer, took a picture. It went viral after the Kentucky National Organisation for Women and other groups shared it on social media.

Human shield in Louisville

Another tweet that went viral at the end of May was by Virgil Cent:

I think the craziest thing I witnessed today on the frontlines was Black People yelling ‘White Shield’ when the police were blocking and pushing us back

The white people moved to the front and protected us + the cops became less violent like wow wtf

Human shields used to be known as ‘human screens’, and they are screens in a double sense: not only a form of protection, but a surface on which something can be projected and made visible. The appearance of human shields can help to illuminate the political and legal order – and thus the inequities – of any society.

But strategies of resistance can, at times, reinforce the structures they are fighting to dismantle. Focusing on human shielding may deflect attention from the work and suffer­ing of marginalised activists and even, as Banu Bargu argued in Contemporary Political Theory in 2013, ‘from the deaths of the populations that human shields ultimately seek to protect’.

One cannot simply dismantle this paradox in a single act; it is something white people need to work through systematically. A first, indispensable step is to recognise our privilege. But privilege is not an attribute that one has and can simply give up. The operations of privilege are complex, and since it is an effect of existing social relations, it can only be disassembled as part of substantive change to those relations. Being able to serve as a voluntary human shield is a privilege that whites enjoy because of their position in white supremacist societies, where white bodies deter police violence in a way that black bodies do not.

Yet this is one privilege that whites need to mobilise at the moment. We need to acknowledge it, while simultaneously aspiring to dismantle it; and we need to do so without seeing ourselves as ‘saving’ black people. This can perhaps be achieved if human shielding becomes a tool for educating the privileged masses how to confront racial violence directly.

On 31 May, the NBC reporter Shomari Stone tweeted a clip showing a white teenage girl following her black friend as he jumped over the barrier in Lafayette Park near the White House, and knelt in front him as a row of police officers advanced towards them.

‘When White people ask what they should say to black people show them this video,’ Michelle Bhashin wrote, retweeting the clip. ‘The answer is simple. Keep your eye on this White girl in the front who uses her privilege to prevent violence. Be that girl. Raise that girl.’

Still from Shomari Stone’s video