Letter From Huntsville: "Look Out For One Another"
Through an unknown Facebook friend, I was added to a “secret” Facebook group of some 2,000-odd folks in northern Alabama, where I live. You can’t join, you have to be referred and vetted as trustworthy. I can’t call out its colorful name (which loosely translates as “Look Out For One Another [LOFOA],” which is the name I will use for this article) because group members must promise never to post or share information outside the group. I don’t think I’m betraying the secrecy of the group; I’m quite sure LOFOA is actively monitored by the cops, if not actually infiltrated, despite a specific ban on cops joining (another rule is not to post pictures of dead bodies). Out of respect, though, I will be intentionally vague in my descriptions and won’t quote from posts, though quotes with misspellings, shaky grammar, and street slang would give a more vivid and lively picture of the group’s purpose than anything I could write.
LOFOA is nearly completely Black and working-class—I’ve only seen a couple of white faces—and through its prism I see reflected the daily hopes, fears, and joys of Black working class people in the deep South, a perspective rarely shown in the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Touré, or Michael Dyson. Members call one another “family” online, meaning that there’s a shared sense of collective solidarity and mutual aid underpinning how people interact, along with all the personal and quite moving descriptions of the terrors and insecurities of everyday life. In fact, the group strikes me as nothing more than an online, updated version of the traditional street grapevine.
Crime-related topics make up the majority of posts. Shootings in the projects, car break-ins, missing children, thefts and robberies, that sort of thing. Oftentimes, posts are made real-time, with video, making LOFOA more current than the local newscasts—and possibly even Huntsville police dispatchers. Police movements get monitored too; when the police set up speed traps and road blocks for drunk driving, more likely than not the information will be quickly spread with the LOFOA hashtag. One woman posted a picture of her son in the hospital, face swollen, from inmates beating him at the Madison County Detention Center, with a long diatribe against the perpetrators and jail officials. More amusingly, photos of undercover cop cars with visible license plates sometime surface on the list, with the “look out for one another” tag.
A recent post by the moderator called for setting up committees of two “trusted” members in high crime areas like the projects, who would call local meetings to get others to join in intervening directly with youth to settle disputes. As the moderator puts it, “the idea is to get the two ppl to gather and setup a meeting in each area that will be open to all who wish to attend and try to come up with ideas on getting our youth to reconcile and do productive things! . . . I'm ready to help take back over and create some form of peace in our neighborhoods again!!” This is a healthy attempt to self-organize outside official channels and I hope, despite the long odds, it will go somewhere.
But it would be wrong to see “LOFOA” as an anti-cop group. The attitude toward the police is complicated, but boils down to wanting the cops to police fairly. This conflicted stance, where the police are seen as both perpetrators and protectors, shows the ambiguity and silent inner turmoil many Black working-class people feel. Mothers are outraged when their sons are stopped and frisked by the police—but every mother who has lost a child to the streets probably secretly wishes the police had pulled over the killer before they got to their child. This is why the one-sided Black Lives Matter narrative has so little resonance in such areas.
Other posts concern jobs. A recent post asked for workplaces that were “felon friendly” and group members posted dozens of local companies with contact information, surely a more accurate and up-to-date list than any social service agency could supply. Politics surfaces too, as in recent postings of photos of Africans being sold into slavery in Libya and links to a Montgomery TV station story on a Selma activist who is organizing a “Vote or Die” campaign to get out the vote against Roy Moore.
The possible election of Moore was rightly seen as a major step backward and another example of the larger impermanence of daily life, where anything thought solid at any time can collapse into terrifying uncertainty. A stray (or intentional) bullet, a lay-off, an auto accident, the transmission on a car needed for work that suddenly flatlines two weeks before the next paycheck, a heart attack that keeps you from working anymore: anything can come up out of nowhere, shredding what security you flattered yourself in thinking you had. This is the mad scramble for money, the hard-dollar life that warps and pollutes every human relationship, even the closest, that is best captured in Old Left writers such as Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and Theodore Dreiser, whose collective output remains to this day the most cogent diagnosis of the American social soul.
In the absence of any collective movement, retreating into family support and prayer makes intuitive if not logical sense, when you feel pressured and under constant attack. I read recently someone paraphrasing Ernst Bloch, who was one of the few Marxists who saw anything positive in religion, saying that “Religion is communism which doesn’t understand itself,” and I think there’s a certain truth to that observation of religion’s confused but “anticipatory longing for a better future.”
Now that I live in the deep South in a neighborhood officially listed as “deprived,” but full of truck drivers, factory workers, hotel housekeepers, Waffle House waitresses, and starving students—a Southern-fried “La Boheme”—I see this aspect of religion more clearly (even though I have to gingerly sidestep friends’ requests to go to church). It’s one of many reasons why I’ve come to see the South, counter-intuitively as most would have it, as now by far the most progressive part of the country. The rich, multi-textured communal slowness of Southern life nurtures interaction and marinates relationships: the informal networks—on jobs, in neighborhoods, and even online in such groups as “Look Out For One Another”—that will be necessary for any deeper changes in the future, preconditions better rooted in the South than anywhere else.