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Bloodless Lies

The New Inquiry

November 2, 2016

By Lorenzo Raymond

56bloodless-social

This is an Uprising, a widely celebrated new book about how social movements change history, distorts their histories to celebrate non-violence

The black revolt of 2014 was a turning point in how Americans discussed the use of force in social movements. In the pages of the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates acknowledged that “violence works.” Rolling Stone and the Huffington Post echoed much the same sentiment. Laci Green–a YouTube star and one of the “30 most influential people on the Internet,” according to Time–posted a popular video drawing favorable comparisons between the Ferguson riots and the revolution depicted in The Hunger Games. This sea change was led by the movement itself as African American youth in Ferguson rejected Al Sharpton and other older leaders, partly due to disagreement on strict nonviolence.

this-is-an-uprising
Mark Engler and Paul Engler, This Is an Uprising. Nation Books. 2016. 368 pages.
The notable exceptions to this trend were those who spoke for the state. These parties advocated for nonviolent action in a most conspicuous way. On the eve on the announcement of the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson, the killer of Mike Brown, Attorney General Eric Holder solemnly intoned that “history has shown us that the most successful and enduring movements for change are those that adhere to non-aggression and nonviolence.” In an ABC interview on the same day, President Obama urged that the “first and foremost” responsibility for Americans reacting to the verdict was to “keep protests peaceful.”

It shouldn’t be necessary to remind people of major public discussions from two years ago, but America is a notoriously forgetful nation. And when it comes to matters of protest, politics, reform, and revolt, many people are invested in this kind of forgetting. The stated purpose of Mark and Paul Engler’s new book This Is an Uprising (2015) is to work against this historical amnesia. The Engler brothers profess to build “a healthy movement ecology [which] preserves the memory of how past transformations in society have been achieved.” This is a worthy goal, and the brothers appear well-placed to realize it: one is a professional community organizer while the other is a fixture of progressive publications including Dissent and Yes! Magazine. The book has been praised effusively by lefty celebrities, including Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, as the new authoritative text for mass civil disobedience. Yet rather than building on the nuanced understanding of street tactics that developed in the wake of Ferguson, the Englers selectively distort social movement history in a blind commitment to a particular kind of direct action.

The opening chapters are an introduction to the modern history of tactical pacifism as embodied in the practice of Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign and, later in the 1960s, by the theories of political scientist Gene Sharp. The authors contend that both these figures abandoned religious nonviolence to develop a rational, realist praxis known as “civil resistance,” not “pacifism.” The principle reason for this name change is that Gene Sharp rejected the P-word, arguing that the term only applied to private individuals operating from spiritual inspiration. The Englers affirm that Sharp’s “politics of nonviolent action” are distinct from pacifism because the latter is essentially apolitical.

What the Englers fail to acknowledge, however, is that virtually all the 20th century activists whom Sharp and his school hold up as role models did call themselves pacifists. A.J. Muste, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, and even Daniel Berrigan (who for a time defied strict Gandhism by fleeing imprisonment after an act of property destruction) all called themselves pacifists. When scrutinized, the switch from “pacifism” to “nonviolent action” appears to be a case of re-branding in response to the poor reputation pacifism had among young people by the end of the 1960s. This was hardly the first time pacifism was renamed rather than critically challenged: Leo Tolstoy referred to the use of civil disobedience without violence as “non-resistance.” Gandhi rejected that name, but employed essentially the same strategy; Tolstoy and Gandhi exchanged correspondence and agreed on practically all points.

In the 21st century, the term du jour is “civil resistance” and sometimes “people power,” yet the method’s founding father is still considered to be Gandhi. It also seems significant that in spite of “breaking from the earlier traditions of moral pacifism,” as the Englers put it, many of the major proponents of civil resistance, from Gene Sharp to George Lakey to Bill Moyer to Chris Hedges, come from highly religious backgrounds.

In addition to a re-branding, “civil resistance” is also a misbranding. The term is adopted from Thoreau’s 1849 essay “On Resistance to Civil Government,” but his use of “civil” referred to the type of domestic government being resisted, not to the method of civility deployed. Thoreau himself later said that John Brown’s violent lack of civility was the best thing that ever happened to the abolitionist movement.

These contradictions aside, the Englers trace how “civil resistance” has become increasingly accepted in mainstream political science. To demonstrate this, they introduce us to Erica Chenoweth, now one of the most celebrated social movement theorists working in the field. Chenoweth got her start producing the widely cited study Why Civil Resistance Works (2011) in collaboration with Maria J. Stephan of the U.S. State Department. According to the Englers, the study proved that “nonviolent movements worldwide were twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.” But the sample size of the study is far too narrow to prove such a sweeping claim. There are no civil rights or labor struggles included in the Chenoweth data set, which is focused exclusively on regime change. And, as Peter Gelderloos pointed out in his book The Failure of Nonviolence (2013), the outcomes of the nonviolent revolutions cited by Chenoweth have little to do with social justice or liberation. At best they replace one oligarchy with another, with no radical change in social relations or even net gains in quality of life.

At one point, the Englers note that the same political science prize that Chenoweth won–the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award–was previously bestowed on Henry Kissinger. This, for them, is the height of irony: Chenoweth is, after all, the opposite of the Kissingers of the world. But while they may represent different sides of the aisle in terms of American political divisions, Chenoweth’s work is, in many ways, just as useful to the U.S. empire.

At the height of the Cold War, the government used Kissinger’s work to justify the “hard power” of the arms race and violent intervention against communist regimes. Today Chenoweth’s work helps to justify–and in this case, mystify–Obama’s “soft power” agenda of “democracy promotion” exercised through seemingly benign agencies like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP)–the former organization was recently caught covertly organizing against the Castro government in Cuba. And while direct U.S. government involvement with pacifist academics is a relatively new development–emerging in the mid-2000s, around the same time that Gelderloos first observed that “nonviolence protects the state”–their financial relationship goes back at least to Gene Sharp’s first doctoral work in the late 1960s, which was funded by the Department of Defense.

But if the American empire promotes strictly nonviolent movement-building to overthrow its enemies, wouldn’t that demonstrate that it’s as powerful a method as its proponents say it is? The short answer is no. When civil resistance works–and when the U.S. government deploys it abroad–it’s almost always in combination with more violent forms of pressure. To illustrate this, one need look no further than the Yugoslav movement to unseat President Slobodan Miloševi?, which figures prominently in Chenoweth’s famous study and takes up more than thirty pages in This Is an Uprising. In the Englers’ version, this regime change is primarily attributable to Otpor, a “leaderless” student group from Serbia. Otpor promoted nonviolence in the Sharpian model, with an official policy to submit to arrest and abjure any kind of self-defense, even when the police physically abused them. In this way, they won the sympathy of the public and even the Serbian establishment.

But Otpor didn’t operate in a vacuum. Not only did they overthrow Miloševi? in the period when he had just lost a war with NATO, but also, in the midst of Otpor’s campaign, Miloševi? was being challenged by the armed insurgency of the UÇPMB (successor group to the Kosovo Liberation Army). On top of this, militant groups in Montenegro threatened to secede if he was re-elected. The Englers quote Otpor veterans’ claims that the NATO raids undermined the opposition and strengthened the regime, but the record shows that Otpor prospered in the aftermath of the bombing. One prominent civil resistance study acknowledges that “a number of middle and higher-ranking police and army officers made secret pacts with the democratic opposition and helped the movement forward.” Furthermore, Otpor’s victory was not strictly nonviolent: Anti-Miloševi? protesters rioted in October 2000 when the president refused to concede the election. The Englers admit, in passing, that things “got a little out of hand,” but they fail to describe the full extent of the insurrection: not only was there arson and other property destruction in Belgrade, but also the fact that an Otpor supporter killed a civilian by driving over him with a bulldozer.

This cherry-picked example of civil resistance winning its demands occurred in a context where both NATO and an armed guerilla group simultaneously made the same demand. And yet, under today’s political science taxonomy, this is what’s considered a nonviolent victory. Such dubious classification is common in the civil resistance world: Peter Ackerman, the venture capitalist who has funded much of Gene Sharp’s work, once claimed that Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement should be considered nonviolent because only a minority of the protesters threw firebombs and brandished guns.

A good faith argument for pacifist success in such cases would credit the intervening factors as a diversity of tactics supporting a nonviolent core, or attribute it to what is known in social movement theory as the “radical flank effect,” which argues that the presence of radical militants in a social movement helps make the less militant actors seem reasonable and worthy of having their demands met. Yet not only do the Englers undervalue such phenomena, they actively denounce them.

In spite of primarily advocating for nonviolent direct action, the Englers express support for electioneering, stating that while it is a separate tactic, it can complement civil resistance. If they are genuinely non-ideological strategists, they should take the same position towards guerilla activity. But, while the Englers repeatedly speak of the need for movements to “escalate,” they jerk back from any overlap with property destruction. This flinching is excused with a fable of the radical environmental advocacy movement Earth First! in the 1990s. The Englers paint the picture of a movement with a macho fetish for violence that was set right by the influence of the more moderate feminist Judi Bari, who enforced nonviolence and built the populist Redwood Summer campaign of 1990, winning political victories against logging in the Pacific Northwest. This success, the Englers claim, was in marked contrast with the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the monkeywrenching eco-saboteurs who left defected from Earth First! after the rise of Bari.

The ELF is portrayed as a gang of clowns who accomplished nothing besides getting themselves imprisoned. Yet the Englers also tell us that “in the end, Redwood Summer did not produce immediate legislative gains.” The best they can claim for the nonviolent campaign is “a 78 percent drop in logging in national forests.” The ELF began carrying out its arson and sabotage attacks on the logging and tourism industries in the Pacific Northwest in 1996; these years of victory were among ELF’s peak years of activity, when it was clearly functioning as the radical flank of Earth First! But the Englers’ attitude towards militants is eliminationist, not just separatist: the ELF shouldn’t have just left Earth First!, they should have ceased to exist at all. Such absolutism is completely contrary to Bari’s actual policy: “Earth First!, the public group, has a nonviolence code,” she wrote in 1994, “monkeywrenching is done by [the] Earth Liberation Front […] Civil disobedience and sabotage are both powerful tactics in our movement.”

The double standards that the authors apply between violent and nonviolent actors undermine their claims of unbiased pragmatism. When pacifist organizers provoke violent repression, the Englers regard it as a necessary cost of the campaign–“leading proponents of civil resistance emphasize that strategic nonviolent action […] may result in serious injuries and even casualties”–but when black blocs draw repression, it’s completely unacceptable. ACT UP are praised as “desperate, aggressive, and often exceptional young men,” who had the courage to risk “potentially alienating the very people that advocates want to win over.” The ELF, on the other hand, are pictured as fanatics with no strategy. When the civil rights movement employed “often unpopular” tactics, generating “overwhelmingly negative” reaction in public opinion polls, this was admirable; when the Weather Underground and other Vietnam-era militants defied public opinion, they were simply out-of-touch adventurists (even though the latter’s action led to massive troop withdrawals and a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age).

The Englers, it must be noted, have attempted to apply their precepts, not merely theorize them. In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, they helped organize the 99% Spring campaign, a coalition dominated by Moveon.org that aimed to put “hundreds of thousands” of people in the streets to change foreclosure policy. Coalition spokesman and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) executive Stephen Lerner promised to “engage the millions of people we need to do [sic] to build the kind of movement we need at this time in history.” According to him, this was a job that Occupy was not capable of doing without their guidance. In the end, the 99% Spring mobilized a few thousand people–far less than Occupy did nationwide–and had no impact on banking foreclosure policies, which remained abysmal. More recently, the brothers were involved with a nearly identical coalition–Democracy Spring/Democracy Awakening–based around campaign-finance reform. Initially, Democracy Spring seemed more tactically ambitious with a program of organizing mass civil disobedience at the Capitol Building. However, press coverage of the arrests turned out to be so meager that most of the campaign’s supporters were left distraught.

As historians and theorists of social movement, the Englers might have been able to see this failure coming, since they actually describe a precedent for their ineffectual campaigns in This Is an Uprising. In his 1962 project in Albany, Georgia, Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) left a yearlong campaign with no tangible civil rights advances achieved. King had been thwarted by Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett, who capitalized on SCLC’s nonviolent strategy by avoiding any appearance of brutality and de-escalating conflict between police and protesters, thereby pre-empting any dramatic scenes that could draw national attention. King’s reputation within the movement declined until the spectacular victory of the following year’s Birmingham campaign. The Englers spend over twenty pages on Birmingham, promising to demonstrate just why it succeeded while Albany failed, but they never do.

In truth, the Birmingham campaign benefitted from having both a police force and a protest movement that was markedly less peaceful than in Albany. King wasn’t able to get consistent media coverage until after protests became, as Taylor Branch put it, “a duel of rocks and fire hoses.” One of King’s aides, Vincent Harding, later acknowledged that the black youth who came to dominate the campaign’s street action were “the children of Malcom X” and that their escalation to “a burning, car-smashing, police-battling response” marked Birmingham as “the first of the period’s urban rebellions.” Historian Glenn Eskew wrote that “the aftermath of national protest, international pressure, and inner-city riot convinced a reluctant Kennedy administration to propose sweeping legislation that, once passed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, marked a watershed in race relations.”

Yet these events of the Birmingham campaign are never mentioned in the Englers’ book in any form. It is here that the brothers step into outright dishonesty: they know very well that the scholarly consensus on Birmingham is that the violent protesters made an invaluable contribution (Eskew’s book is one of their sources). Yet in spite of spending a tenth of their book’s text on Birmingham, they refuse to even acknowledge the violent protesters’ existence.

Such historical censorship rationalizes the choreographed civil disobedience that the Englers help organize today, which quarantines “good protesters” from “bad protesters.” This, in turn, enables the same counter-strategy that Laurie Pritchett employed so effectively against King in Albany. What the Englers call “discipline” is actually de-escalation that facilitates police crowd control. Indeed, there is now a fully developed police doctrine known as “negotiated management” based on the avoidance of direct conflict with protesters. The National Lawyers’ Guild official, Traci Yoder, has written that negotiated management “is in many ways more effective […] in neutralizing social justice movements” than overt state repression.

But while the brothers focus on the SCLC at length, they fail to discuss the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who, the brothers passingly admit, pushed SCLC into its most productively confrontational actions. This is not only because the history of SNCC began with Gandhian practice, but also because it rapidly progressed beyond it. Although its militancy is sometimes attributed to Black Power-era missteps, SNCC’s commitment to a genuinely grassroots politics led it to work with openly armed African Americans as early as 1961 in Monroe, North Carolina, as well as with more discreetly armed black peoples all over the South. By spring 1964, SNCC associates in Cambridge, Maryland were having gunfights with the National Guard and one of the group’s advisers, Howard Zinn, noted that the movement had reached “the limits of nonviolence.” But it was crucial that those limits were reached, or there wouldn’t have been a Civil Rights Act.

In spite of its name, SNCC’s principles always had less to do with nonviolence than with organizing from the bottom-up. The group’s guiding light was Ella Baker, arguably the most important African American leader of the 20th century. As many have noted, Baker preached neither strategic nonviolence nor strategic violence. Drawing from her decades of experience, Baker counseled SNCC organizers to distance themselves from institutional power; they might maintain dialogue with the establishment left–trade unions and NGOs tied into what she called “the foundation complex”–but they should be wary of entering into partnerships with them. Instead they should follow the lead of working-class communities on the ground. This repeatedly led SNCC organizers away from nonviolence. Then as now, serious movements make serious enemies (think of the shootings last year in Charleston and Minneapolis) and self-defense quickly becomes paramount for frontline activists. Baker’s longtime friend and biographer Joanne Grant recounted that as pacifism faded away in SNCC, Baker “turned a blind eye to the prevalence of weapons. While she herself would rely on her fists […] she had no qualms about target practice.” At the same time, the failure of peaceful reform logically led oppressed communities towards insurrection.

It is often said that without the guidance of an anti-authoritarian and non-ideological figure like Ella Baker, the Black Power militants of SNCC began to lose perspective. Yet it can equally be said that the pacifists lost their way as well. The cause of social justice in America has been suffering from believing the former but not reckoning with the latter for the past forty years.

 

[Lorenzo Raymond is an independent historian and educator living in New York City. Lorenzo blogs at Diversityoftactics.org]

 

The Strategy of Malcolm X

Tactical Diversity

June 1, 2015

by Lorenzo Raymond

 

Malcolm X in Smethwick

 

Last month many of us celebrated the 90th birthday of the one of America’s greatest revolutionaries, El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, also known as Malcolm X.  That his birthday follows his assassination date (February 21) on the calendar seems appropriate this year, as Malcolm could be said to be resurrected these days:  from condemnations of US racism at the United Nations, to self-defense against cops in NYC, to Black rifle clubs in Texas, to mass rebellion in Baltimore, to a growing disillusionment with the two-party system and doctrinaire nonviolence in America, he has seldom seemed more relevant.

This is all the more remarkable given that the representation of Malcolm in popular media is more distorted than ever.  2015 opened with the Martin Luther King biopic Selma giving us the most forgettable (perhaps the only forgettable) portrayal of Malcolm X in cinema history.  In some ways, the muting of Malcolm was inevitable; an accurate depiction of the Muslim leader presented a danger of upstaging King in the movie the same way that he often upstaged King in real life.  But that isn’t any excuse for the distortion of Malcolm X’s politics and the role he played in the Black freedom struggle.

In the short scene in which he appears, Malcolm comes literally hat in hand to Coretta Scott King begging to address the protesters and be a part of the movement.  He appears to have arrived uninvited, crashing a party he has no real place in.  As he offers to scare the segregationists with an “alternative” to MLK’s nonviolence, he hints that this is actually just a bluff because his “eyes see in a new way.”  Everything about this scene is fundamentally wrong: Malcolm explained himself to Mrs. King after, not before, he gave his speech—a speech which he was invited to give by the director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Selma Project.1  And when Malcolm spoke of offering an alternative to King’s pacifism, it was anything but a bluff.

Black Revolution, Whitewashed

The lodestar for recent portrayals of Malcolm is Manning Marable’s book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.  While universally lauded by mainstream white critics, most responses from the Black Left were derisive.  This must be the only historical book of recent years to inspire not one, but two entire anthologies of hostile rebuttal: A Lie of Reinvention, edited by Jared Ball, and By Any Means Necessary, edited by a collective headed by Herb Boyd .  Some academic assessments were skeptical as well.  Joe Street observed in The Journal of American Studies that Marable’s version of Malcolm was “a more centrist, liberal figure” than had ever been depicted before, acting out the “palliative theme” of a Black nationalist who moved “beyond race,” and also beyond militancy.  Street noted that Marable was oddly “content to position Malcolm X as a far less revolutionary figure than his reputation might suggest.” 2

Ever since his death, liberals have attempted portray Malcolm as an ineffectual figure in the Black Freedom Movement.  In his 1965 review of The Autobiography of Malcom X, Bayard Rustin (once a radical, but by that time a Democratic Party operative), wrote that Malcolm was of primary interest as a “tragic victim of the ghetto,” who made for an inspiring study in self-improvement, yet  “had no program for attacking” racism.3  More recently this line manifests with Reverend James Cone who says that while “[Dr.] King was a political revolutionary…Malcolm was a cultural revolutionary. He did not change the social or political structures, but he changed how black people thought about themselves.” 4

As Angela Davis has noted, the ruling class could never hope to completely suppress Black nationalism in America, so it has settled for accepting cultural consciousness while burying revolutionary nationalism.   By the same token, accomodationists will celebrate Shabazz as a purely cultural figure, while marginalizing him as a political one.  In reality, Malcolm X was one of the most influential and effective political activists in US history.  The strategy of “by any means necessary” transcended the crude categories of nonviolence and violence, integration and separatism, pragmatism and revolution.  Considering that this paradigm was subsequently applied by the American Indian Movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the early LGBT movement, it should be acknowledged that Malcolm X popularized the strategy by which most American liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s advanced themselves.

Grassroots to the Messenger

One of the most bizarre charges leveled against Malcolm–repeated yet again in the Selma film–is that he never organized anything.  The Nation of Islam has many faults, but being disorganized isn’t one of them.  Even Marable’s biography of Malcolm acknowledges that he was largely responsible for the unprecedented (“more than tenfold”) growth of the NOI in the 1950s.  Marable also acknowledges that “Malcolm’s career as a national civil rights leader began late on the afternoon of April 26, 1957” when he led thousands of Harlemites to the 28th police precinct house to obtain medical treatment for a member of the NOI who’d been clubbed unconscious by officers.  It had been years since any black organization had the audacity to lead major protests against police brutality, and the Muslim leader immediately captured the imagination of African-Americans throughout the country.  5 He swiftly paid a personal price: less than a year later, while Malcolm was out of town, the NYPD attempted to invade his Queens residence under dubious pretenses.  One of the building’s occupants (it isn’t known who) injured a detective with a thrown bottle, and Betty Shabazz, along with several others, was charged with assaulting an officer.  Malcolm proceeded to coordinate a defiant and publicity-savvy legal defense that lead to the longest trial in Queens history, and saw his wife and neighbors exonerated.  Moments after the acquittal he stood on the courthouse steps and told his followers that “Any policeman who abuses you belongs in the cemetery.” 6

Before the 1960s had even arrived, Malcolm X’s militant stance was beginning to have a profound impact on the civil rights movement.  “King’s philosophy of non-violence in the cause of a largely undefined integrated society was being seriously challenged,” recalled one of MLK’s own advisors, Vincent Harding.  “In the north the deepest, broadest questions seemed to be coming from…the growing Nation of Islam and in its increasingly popular national representative, Malcolm X.  In the south, the message of non-violent resistance was challenged by the action of Robert F. Williams and his armed self-defense group in Monroe, North Carolina in 1959.” 7

In the wake of Selma there’s been a popular trend of praising King as a strategist, a characterization that calls for serious qualification; King consolidated the efforts of a network of activists that ranged from bold direct actionists such as James Bevel, Diane Nash and John Lewis (all recruited from the pacifist wing of SNCC), to cool-headed managers like Bayard Rustin; it was these people who drafted and initiated what is now marketed as Kingian strategy.  Likewise, Malcolm X’s political significance was to consolidate another spectrum of more militant grassroots organizers burning across the country in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  These included Mae Mallory, Robert F. Williams, Albert Cleage, Ethel Azalea Johnson, and a nationwide network of students known as the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM).

Even as Marable belittled Malcolm’s strategic contributions in his book, he acknowledged that “[Robert F.] Williams and other militants pushed organizations like the NAACP toward greater activism, pressuring both major political parties to adopt new legislation.”  Marable doesn’t tell us what Rob Williams’ biographer, Timothy Tyson does: Williams was dependent on support provided by Black radicals centered in Harlem, and “the most notable of Williams’ contacts among the Harlem nationalists was Malcolm X.” Malcolm featured the visiting Monroe leader regularly at his mosque, telling his congregation that “our brother here…is the only fighting man that we got and we have to help him.” This wasn’t just moral support:  Malcolm raised “money to buy military carbines, machine guns, and dynamite for the Monroe NAACP.”  8

Another organizer who inspired and collaborated in Malcolm’s strategy was Mae Mallory, a single mother who protested the de facto segregation of New York City public schools.  In 1958, she led Harlemites in a 162-day school boycott involving 10,000 parents, and won an open transfer program. An avowed revolutionary, Mallory visited Monroe to assist Rob Williams in defending a SNCC freedom ride, and wound up involved in an armed conflict with the Ku Klux Klan and local police. Framed on kidnapping charges after this incident, Mallory was in prison during 1964, when another school boycott took place in New York City; Malcolm took up her mantle by acting as a spokesperson for the walk-out (Mallory was later exonerated of the kidnapping). 9

 

Malcolm at NYC school boycott, 1964 

The first major Black Christian leader to partner with Malcolm X was the Congregationalist Reverend Albert Cleage. In the aftermath of the Birmingham campaign, Cleage helped organize Detroit’s Great Walk to Freedom—the largest civil rights demonstration prior to the March on Washington. But as historian Thomas Sugrue notes, after the spectacle of such marches was shattered by the massacring of four Black girls in Birmingham in September 1963, “Cleage came out forcefully against what he considered the polite and ultimately ineffective nonviolent tactics of civil rights protest.”  At an October 1963 meeting he denounced moral suasion and called for a “strategy of chaos” which would include acts of retaliation if necessary.  Soon Cleage organized pickets demanding inclusion of Blacks in apprentice training programs, where protesters carried signs reading “SCHOOL FOR ALL OR SCHOOL FOR NONE” and “EQUALITY OR CHAOS.” Cleage also planned a national conference of Black militants for that November and invited Malcolm to give the keynote address—the speech now known as “Message to the Grassroots.” 10

Cleage’s “strategy of chaos” (“We’ll get what we’re after or we’ll tear it up!”) was partly inspired by the escalation of the Birmingham campaign, which in turn was partly inspired by Malcolm X. MLK confidant Vincent Harding recalled that the lifeblood of the spring campaign was

young men and women who had heard the powerful voice and seen the piercing eyes of Malcolm X on their television screens…[Dr. King] realized that now they were at least potentially the children of Malcolm as well…they taunted the police, they broke out of the marching lines when faced with barricades of police and firemen; they did their own speedy end runs downtown…

By mid-May, white repression had “goaded an enraged group of blacks into a burning, car-smashing, police-battling response. In a sense,” Harding tells us, “this was the first of the period’s urban rebellions.” Rather than this deviation from nonviolence being a setback to the movement, it was the greatest breakthrough since the Montgomery Bus Boycott seven years earlier.

Young activists weren’t just listening to Malcolm X in the early sixties; some were also coordinating with him. Max Stanford, a student militant associated with SNCC and SDS, met with Malcolm in 1962 and asked him if he should join the NOI.  The Muslim leader was already privately frustrated with the conservatism of the sect and told Stanford he could do more for Black nationalism by organizing outside the Nation. Stanford joined with fellow students Wanda Marshall and Donald Freeman, as well as veteran organizer Ethel Azalea Johnson (a close comrade of Robert F. Williams) to form the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM).  While the group involved itself in reform movements, Stanford states that “RAM as an organization advocated guerilla warfare, mass rebellion and national black strikes…to create an independent black republic through socialist revolution.”  By the time of the Birmingham breakthrough, RAM had developed a partnership with maverick NAACP leader Cecil Moore and helped organize protests in North Philadelphia for African-American job opportunities. “RAM members circulated throughout the community with leaflets and bull horns, going door to door, talking to street gangs,” Stanford recalled. At a May 1963 protest against racial discrimination in the building trade sponsored by the Philadelphia NAACP, Stanford and RAM leader Stan Daniels organized militant pickets, which

blocked the workers, all whites, from entering the construction site. Within minutes the Philadelphia police formed a flying wedge and attacked the picket line. Singling out Daniels and Stanford, twenty police jumped them and they fought back until [beaten] unconscious.

Arrested for incitement to riot, Stanford called Malcolm for help.  The Muslim leader immediately began mobilizing people down the entire Northeast to support the Philadelphia movement “Within a week, 50,000 to 100,000 people participated in demonstrations that often turned into violent clashes between the masses and the police,” recalled Stanford. 11  On June 22, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 11114 mandating affirmative action in federally-funded construction projects.  White House sources admitted to the press that the president’s initiative was “partly in response to violence in Philadelphia.” Kennedy’s order was the prototype of the “Philadelphia Plan” which in turn became the foundation of all federal affirmative action on employment. 12

Free At Last

In March of 1964, Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam and publicly expressed his solidarity with the general goals of the civil rights movement.  This was a pivotal moment in his life, and arguably, a pivotal moment in the history of the United States.  Discussing this “reinvention,” Manning Marable focuses on Malcolm’s desperation to obtain allies to protect himself from Elijah Muhammed, as well as Malcolm’s yearning to participate in a movement which he was supposedly estranged from. But Marable fails to acknowledge the yearnings which the movement felt for Malcolm X, as well as its increasing disillusionment—even in 1963—with Kingian nonviolence and liberalism.  In July of that year, Martin Luther King was bombarded with eggs in Harlem; King blamed the attack on Malcolm, but it was later revealed to have been organized by Black Christians outraged by King’s sacrifice of children’s safety in Birmingham.13  In November 1963, the rank-and-file of SNCC voted down a proposal to hold a memorial vigil for the assassinated President Kennedy, noting that JFK was not a genuine friend to the movement—a position echoing Malcolm’s argument that Kennedy’s neglect of human rights in the US contributed to an atmosphere of terror that led to his own death.  14  Perhaps most significantly, in February of 1964, Medgar Evers’ brother, Charles, took over the slain leader’s position as field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP, and made some of the most inflammatory declarations ever heard from a mainstream Black leader.  In a speech before an NAACP Freedom Fund banquet in Nashville, Evers went beyond self-defense to retaliatory violence:

I have the greatest respect for Martin Luther King, but non-violence won’t work in Mississippi…we made up our minds…that if a white man shoots at a Negro in Mississippi, we will shoot back…If they bomb a Negro church and kill our children, then we are going to bomb a white church and kill some of their children.  We have served notice in Mississippi…that before we’ll be slaves anymore we’ll die and go to our graves. 15

Journalist Charles Silberman wrote at the time: “the widespread admiration for Dr. King is mixed…with a good deal of resentment.  Lower-class Negroes do not want to be represented to the whites as nonviolent.”  Silberman also noted that Malcolm X’s popularity was growing, yet was ultimately “limited by the cultish restraints of the Black Muslim religion: Many Negroes who agreed with Malcolm’s attacks on whites were unwilling to join the Muslims.”  16 Malik el-Shabazz made his move toward the civil rights mainstream not out of crude desperation, but because he knew that Black America was ready for him. (There is evidence that much of the white Left was ready for him too: In December 1963, Bob Dylan publicly praised the militant wing of SNCC, contrasting them with the “respectable Negroes” who dominated the March on Washington.  Dylan then said—in his own version of Malcolm’s “chickens coming home to roost” remarks—that he could understand why a leftist would want to shoot President Kennedy. 17  Immediately after Malcolm’s death in 1965, another white protest singer, Phil Ochs, wrote the satire “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” where he chided moderates for not recognizing Malcolm’s heroism).  Two weeks after his transition out of the NOI, Malcolm staged his famous handshake with Martin Luther King.  This photo is sometimes presented as evidence of Malcolm capitulating to King’s nonviolent and (at the time) assimilationist path; in reality, it showed King, who had previously spurned the Muslim minister, being forced to accept Malcolm’s growing stature in the movement.

“Strategy of Chaos”

There is, needless to say, much that could be said about Malcolm X’s strategy in the final year of his life—his efforts toward a pan-African network, his proposals for the UN, his embrace of anti-capitalism, his dialogue with white radicals—but here we will focus on the three most misunderstood aspects: his attitude towards electoral politics, his attitude towards collective self-defense (“violence”), and his strategy towards other leaders in the freedom movement.

Marable’s book repeatedly claimed that “Malcolm came to believe that blacks could work within the system to improve their lives” He based this argument upon the way in which the older Malcolm would closely observe government events, as well as the support he lent to the struggle for the vote in the South.  But the younger Malcolm, who edited the NOI’s newspaper, had also closely observed American political events for years, and had been friendly with select Black politicians—even as he was advocating that Blacks permanently separate from the United States.  On the matter of voting rights, Malcolm made clear that this was a strategy of involving himself in reform only in order to raise Black people’s awareness of the system’s failures—not because he thought the system was particularly redeemable.  Indeed, Malcolm stated in March 1964 that he only supported reform because “every campaign for specific objectives can only heighten the political consciousness of the Negroes and intensify their identification against white society.” [emphasis added]  18  Supporting people’s right to vote is similar to supporting people’s right to eat greasy lunch counter food—it doesn’t mean you think it’s a good idea, much less the path to liberation.   Just as Ella Baker noted that her support of luncheonette sit-ins was about “more than a hamburger,” Malcolm’s support of ballot access was about much more than elections.  “Your dumb vote, your ignorant vote, your wasted vote,” Malcolm seethed in “The Ballot or the Bullet,” (the very speech Marable and co. claim shows el-Shabazz as an electioneer) –

Don’t be throwing out any ballots…keep your ballot in your pocket…always remember, if it doesn’t take senators and congressmen and presidential proclamations to give freedom to the white man, it is not necessary for legislation or proclamation or Supreme Court decisions to give freedom to the Black man.

Malcolm’s heart never changed on that issue; he wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that two years after his death, his one friend in the federal system, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., would be unconstitutionally stripped of his Congressional seat just at the point when he was in a position to initiate radical reform.  And though LBJ helped push the Civil Rights Act through three months after “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm still declined to encourage Blacks to vote in 1964 because he didn’t see any consistent enforcement of the new law. 19 While Malcolm saw symbolic and contingent value in the franchise, he had no illusions that there was anything worth voting for.  Indeed, this is the major point about the ballot made in the speech—which left the bullet, by default, as the primary tactic.  (Harold Cruse, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1969, noted that the true heir to Malcolm’s finalized strategy was Eldridge Cleaver, who was then openly supporting armed insurrection yet also keeping one foot in independent electoral politics, running as a protest candidate with the Peace and Freedom Party). 20

 

Malcolm’s agenda for 1964

Similar games are played when Marable and other liberals talk of Malcolm’s changing attitude toward armed resistance.  Once again, a selective reading of “The Ballot and the Bullet” is used, noting that Shabazz backs away from earlier remarks which seemed to imply that Blacks should form rifle clubs to seek retaliation against random whites.  But in the same speech, Malcolm also gives Blacks “a little briefing on guerrilla warfare because, before you know it” that strategy may have to be exercised against the government.  Malcolm believed the Black rebellions of 1964 might foreshadow such a war:

There’s new strategy coming in. It’ll be Molotov cocktails this month, hand grenades next month, and something else next month. It’ll be ballots, or it’ll be bullets. It’ll be liberty, or it will be death.

This wasn’t mere sound and fury, it was conscious political pressure.  In this passage, Malcolm is referring specifically to a Black riot in Jacksonville, Florida which erupted out of the violent white repression of a sit-in campaign in March 1964.  That uprising, where the freedom movement did indeed first use Molotov cocktails, is known to have captured the White House’s attention at a time when the civil rights bill was facing the largest filibuster in US history.  Malcolm concludes the speech with an armed demand for reform:

You talk about a march on Washington in 1963, you haven’t seen anything. There’s some more going down in ’64. And this time they’re not going like they went last year…They’re not going with round-trip tickets. They’re going with one way tickets. And if they don’t want that non-nonviolent army going down there, tell them to bring the filibuster to a halt.

Tellingly, Martin Luther King began to faintly echo Malcolm’s rhetoric that spring.  Visions of violence now arose whenever King spoke of failure to enact the civil rights bill; If the legislation did not pass, King said in a Detroit speech, “I’m afraid our many pleas of nonviolence in fighting segregation will fall on deaf ears.”  Speaking during the filibuster, King warned that should the bill die, America would see a “dark night of social disruption.”  21

Mainstream scholars often try to paint Malcolm as a paper tiger in regards to the guerilla warfare proposal—a general without an army.  But in 1964 Malcolm quietly accepted the position of International Spokesperson in the Revolutionary Action Movement.  Robin DG Kelly notes that in this same year RAM established its definitive militant program:

The twelve-point program created by RAM called for the development of freedom schools…rifle clubs, black farmer cooperatives (not just for economic development but to keep “community and guerrilla forces going for a while”), and a liberation guerrilla army made up of youth and the unemployed. 22

RAM began implementing its program by actively promoting armed resistance within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  As Malcolm was delivering “The Ballot or the Bullet,” in Northern cities, Max Stanford and others in RAM headed to Greenwood, Mississippi to join the preparations for Freedom Summer.  RAM members taught African history in freedom schools and helped organize voter registration, but their main goal was, in the words of Georgia State University historian Akinyele Umoja, “to wage ideological struggle within the ranks of the SNCC field staff.”  In this mission, they were essentially coming to support working-class Southern Blacks of SNCC’s rank-and-file who were already beginning to organize an armed self-defense system for the Freedom Houses.  As Mississippi-born SNCC activist MacArthur Cotton recalled, ‘‘the majority of the local SNCC people didn’t have a problem with RAM,” adding that most of them believed ‘‘that other philosophy [nonviolence] was foreign.’’

Pacifists in SNCC eventually succeeded in purging the Malcolmites from the Mississippi project before the summer began, but the damage was done: the seeds of revolutionary armed defense and Black nationalism were planted in the organization.  In the face of right-wing terror and liberal inaction, the pragmatism of Malcolm and RAM’s strategy grew increasingly clear and kept many armed activists alive during Freedom Summer (in contrast to the murdered pacifists James Chaney, Andrew Goodwin, Michael Schwermer). 23 When the campaign ended and the Democratic National Convention continued to appease the Jim Crow delegation from Mississippi, making a mockery of the progressive SNCC delegates, few field workers saw any value in nonviolent martyrdom and liberal compromise at all.  By the fall, SNCC leaders were collaborating with Malcolm X on fundraising events, and cheering as he called for an American equivalent to the fearsome “Mau Mau” guerilla fighters of Kenya.24

 

Malcolm X addressing SNCC and the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party- December 24, 1964

Meanwhile, RAM continued to quietly work with street gangs across the country.  Years before the Black Panther Party emerged, RAM promoted the idea of Black youth as the “potential warriors of Black America.”  Working from a detailed strategy by Robert F. Williams, RAM considered the cities “ripe for sabotage.”  Max Stanford (known today as Muhammed Ahmed) recounted:

While Malcolm was in Africa, Harlem exploded. The para-military in Malcolm’s organization decided to join the rebellion and participated in armed self-defense actions against racist oppressive forces.  Masses of our people exploded in Rochester, New York.  The revolutionary Muslims (Malcolmites) engaged in armed struggle against the repressive forces there. Brooklyn CORE held a demonstration to protest police brutality. The demonstration precipitated a mass rebellion.  The Brooklyn RAM cadre went into revolutionary action.

Stanford wrote that by the time of the Watts Rebellion, “the theory of Robert F. Williams and Malcolm X had become materialist reality.” Malcolm was the spokesperson for a very real force of insurrection, not a paper tiger.  Indeed, its momentum was so unstoppable that even his assassination couldn’t slow it down. 25

No Sell Out

Finally, the relationships Malcolm sought with moderate civil rights organizations at the end of his life need to be clarified.  While Malcolm backed away from his previous habit of naming King and other mainstream leaders personally as Uncle Toms, tempering his critique with diplomacy, he still drew sharp lines between them and himself.  “[Martin Luther King, Jr.] is the foremost exponent of love who gets his head bashed in while he is preaching brotherhood,” he said in his last speech, “I go for that retaliation type of brotherhood.” 26  Sometimes if pushed a bit he would lose his decorum:  heckled by a pacifist in 1965, Malcolm at first said, “I’m not criticizing you or condemning you, but I’m questioning your tactics.”  But as the heckler turned nasty, Malcolm said what he really thought: “I think people who tell our people to be nonviolent are almost agents of the Ku Klux Klan.” 27 

Whenever Malcolm engaged with moderates, he let it be understood that his militancy was non-negotiable.  Contrary to Manning Marable’s characterization, Malcolm did not praise nonviolence in his speech at Selma, but instead ridiculed passive “house negroes” who were bought off by white favors.  In a contemporaneous interview, the Muslim leader elaborated “I don’t go for any organization — be it civil-rights or any other kind — that has to compromise with the power structure and has to rely on certain elements within the power structure for their financing, which puts them in a position to be influenced and controlled all over again by the power structure itself.”  28 This seemed to be a stab at, among others, Dr. King’s organizations, which were financed by foundations overseen by the Rockefeller, Ford, and RJ Reynolds families.   29

 

Malcolm in Selma, Feb 4, 1964

Malcolm’s call for a “Black united front” was a call for militants to unite together on militant terms, not to compromise unconditionally with moderates.  It was also an effort to establish a permanent peace among armed Black groups, and thereby prevent the kind of fratricidal warfare which, with the help of the FBI, contributed to his assassination (as well as to the ultimate dissolution of the Black Power movement in the early 1970s).  Manning Marable’s book wove a bizarre and Orientalist theory that Malcolm told his guards to stand down on the day of his murder because he had a death wish inspired by the martyrdom of the Shi’ite imam, Husayn ibn Ali, in 680. 30 But Malcolm’s aide Earl Grant spelled out years ago that the minister disarmed his bodyguards because he did not want “Black people killing Black people.”  31 Black people criticizing certain Black people, however, along with anyone else who held them back, was always a key part of Malcolm X’s strategy.

 

Malcolm X, c. 1964 “Anyone who stands in the way of your freedom is your enemy”

 

Notes:

  1. Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965, p. 578-579
  2. “Roundtable: Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” Journal of American Studies / Volume 47 / Issue 01 / February 2013, pp 23-47 (Cambridge University Press 2013) – http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0021875812002605
  3. George Breitman, The Last Year of Malcolm X, p. 83-91
  4. Chris Hedges “Turning King’s Dream Into a Nightmare” – http://www.truthdig.com/report/page2/turning_kings_dream_into_a_nightmare_20100117
  5. Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, p. 123-128
  6. Marable, A Life of Reinvention, p. 150-153
  7. Vincent Harding, “So Much History, So Much Future: Martin Luther King and the Second Coming of America” – https://is.cuni.cz/studium/predmety/index.php?do=download&did=77732&kod=JMM606
  8. Timothy Tyson, Radio Free Dixie, p. 145 – https://books.google.com/books?id=kg_DEcj04ycC&q=malcolm+x#v=snippet&q=malcolm%20x&f=false
  9. Melissa F. Weiner, Power, Protest, and the Public Schools: Jewish and African American Struggles in New York City (Rutgers University Press, 2010) p. 51-66
  10. Thomas Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Civil Rights Movement in the North, p. 299-302
  11. Maxell C. Stanford, “Revolutionary Action Movement: A Case Study of an Urban Revolutionary Movement in Western Capitalist Society” (A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Atlanta University, May, 1986) – http://www.ulib.csuohio.edu/research/portals/blackpower/stanford.pdf
  12. Thomas J. Sugrue “Affirmative Action from Below: Civil Rights, the Building Trades, and the Politics of Inequality in the Urban North 1945-1969” Journal of American History, Vol. 91, No. 1, Jun., 2004 – http://africanamericanhistorysp2014.voices.wooster.edu/files/2014/03/Thomas_Sugrue_Affirmative_Action_from_Below.pdf
  13. Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire, p. 115
  14. Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire, p. 179
  15. Akinyele Umoja, We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013), 126
  16. Charles E. Silberman, Crisis in Black and White (Random House, 1964), p. 160
  17. http://folkmusic.about.com/od/bobdylan/a/Bob-Dylan-Quits-Politics.htm
  18. William W. Sale, From Civil Rights to Black Liberation (South End Press, 1994), p. 81
  19. http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/speeches/malcolm_x_ballot.html
  20. Harold Cruse, “The Fire This Time?” NYRB, May 8, 1969
  21. Nick Kotz, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., And the Laws That Changed America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), 126-130
  22. Robin DG Kelly and Betsy Esche, “Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution” Souls Vol. 1 #4 – http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ccbh/souls/vol1no4/vol1num4art1.pdf
  23. Akinyele Umoja, “From One Generation to the Next: Armed Self-Defense, Revolutionary Nationalism, and the Southern Black Freedom Struggle” Souls, Volume 15, Issue 3, 2013 – http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10999949.2013.838857#.VVtNZvlViko
  24. George Breitman, ed., Malcolm X Speaks; Selected Speeches and Statements, p. 107.
  25. Maxwell C. Stanford, “Revolutionary Action Movement: A Case Study of an Urban Revolutionary Movement in Western Capitalist Society” (A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Atlanta University, May, 1986) – http://www.ulib.csuohio.edu/research/portals/blackpower/stanford.pdf
  26. Barnard Bulletin, Feb 25, 1965 – https://digitalcollections.barnard.edu/object/bulletin-19650225/barnard-bulletin-february-25-1965
  27. George Breitman, ed., Malcolm X Speaks; Selected Speeches and Statements, p. 209
  28. Breitman, Malcolm X Speaks, p. 222
  29.  MLK was friends not only with Rockefeller, but with Libby Holman, heiress to the RJ Reynolds fortune.  Holman financed King’s first trip to India to study nonviolence in 1959 – https://swap.stanford.edu/20141218225538/http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol5/10Mar1959_JamesE.BristolToCorinneB.Johnson.pdf
  30. “Roundtable: Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” Journal of American Studies / Volume 47 / Issue 01 / February 2013, pp 23-47 (Cambridge University Press 2013) – http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0021875812002605
  31. “The Covert War on Malcolm X” An episode of Like It Is with Gil Noble – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExQjM82uMiU

Movement Ferguson, Beware the Nonprofit Industrial Complex

Black Agenda Report (Image & Video courtesy of Libya360)

January 21, 2015

by

Reuters/Stephen Lam

“As our movement evolves and we remain dependent on major donors and foundations instead of building grassroots funding, we will always be hindered and misdirected away from the trek toward fundamental systemic change.”

An article in London’s DailyMail.com about the funding that Billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Foundation is giving to organizations in the Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter movement has sparked defense of Soros on social media and speculation that the article is part of an extreme right agenda or mentality to belittle the movement and discredit “funders committed to racial justice.” For sure, a quick web search shows there is hardly a shortage of rightwing extremists disparaging Soros’ bankrolling of liberally progressive organizations and programs.

But applying a more left than liberal analysis to the article and to Soros reveals there is a deeper, dare one say, warning for the left. The DailyMail.com isn’t right wing by any U.S. corporate press standard. More revealing and to the point is that the history of his Open Society funding in all sorts of social justice efforts nationally and internationally (not just Ferguson) can be compared to the strategy used by formations like Stephen Currier’s Council for United Civil Rights Leadership that sterilized the Civil Rights Movement of its Black Power and other more radical elements that were legitimately elevating the struggle for civil rights to a struggle for human rights.

In Malcolm X’s eloquent fashion, he described how white philanthropy and white leadership influenced civil rights organizations at the time of the March on Washington:

“They had a meeting at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City. The Carlyle Hotel is owned by the Kennedy family; that’s the hotel Kennedy spent the night at, two nights ago; it belongs to his family. A philanthropic society headed by a white man named Stephen Currier called all the top civil-rights leaders together at the Carlyle Hotel. And he told them, ‘By you all fighting each other, you are destroying the civil-rights movement. And since you’re fighting over money from white liberals, let us set up what is known as the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. Let’s form this council, and all the civil-rights organizations will belong to it, and we’ll use it for fund-raising purposes.’ Let me show you how tricky the white man is. As soon as they got it formed, they elected Whitney Young as its chairman, and who do you think became the co-chairman? Stephen Currier, the white man, a millionaire. Powell was talking about it down at Cobo Hall today. This is what he was talking about. Powell knows it happened. Randolph knows it happened. Wilkins knows it happened. King knows it happened. Every one of that so-called Big Six–they know what happened!

“Once they formed it, with the white man over it, he promised them and gave them $800,000 to split up between the Big Six; and told them that after the march was over they’d give them $700,000 more. A million and a half dollars–split up between leaders that you have been following, going to jail for, crying crocodile tears for. And they’re nothing but Frank James and Jesse James and the what-do-you-call-’em brothers.”

“We know in our organizations we have conversations and make decisions about the best ways to make ourselves more ‘attractive’ to funders.”

The Council for United Civil Rights Leadership also advanced the confining and prohibitive nature of to the Non-profit Industrial Complex as we know it today by centralizing donations and then discouraging tendencies toward building independent grassroots funding bases. The Counsel worked to oppose tactics like civil disobedience and boycotts by controlling distribution of funds and using connections to corporate media establishment.

Out of necessity Soros has obviously taken this strategy to a new level to be make it commensurate with today’s evolved political and ideological movement. While, of course, few if anyone may be “getting rich,” no one – particularly those of us working in the non-profit industry – can deny the influence funders have on what not-for-profit formations do or won’t do, what political positions they take or don’t take, etc. Even if, as the director of Soros’s fund disclaims “they have no ‘direct’ control over the groups they give to, and said they are all trying to improve accountability.” “Direct” is the operative word.

If we think of this as funders literally dictating to organizations we will miss how this works. An organization or individual doesn’t have to be told anything directly. Those who do foundation fundraising know the first level of control is “fitting” within funders’ guidelines just to apply. The next level is how radical an organization will dare go after receiving money when they know (no matter if it’s a person who is a major donor or a foundation) funders are generally more politically conservative than those applying for funds and that they will invariably need refunding. We know in our organizations we have conversations and make decisions about the best ways to make ourselves more “attractive” to funders. These are just two ways funders can control social movements.

There is a radical element to the Ferguson movement that realizes the police and the whole judicial system are agents of the state and the power elite, corporate class. They realize this is not merely an issue of “accountability,” as framed by the Open Society Director in the DailyMail.com article. These radical and more politically clear elements see that this is about more than isolated incidents like that of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin. They are calling and working for human rights, peoples’ empowerment which would ultimately threaten the status quo to which funders like Soros belong.

“This is not merely an issue of “accountability.”

Together with historical and political context, the DailyMail.com article affords us an opportunity to more critically analyze the role and influences of the non-profit industrial complex. For example, the article reports that, “One recipient of his funding is the Organization for Black Struggle, which in turned established a group called the Hands Up Coalition, that has helped make ubiquitous the ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ slogan.” However, without disapproving of the slogan, the tactic of non-violent civil disobedience, or the Hands Up Coalition, there are also those in this national movement looking at the legitimacy of self-defense as was done in the 50s and 60s. They’ve questioned the “hands up, don’t shoot” slogan and offered an alternative, “fists up, fight back.” While the politically faint of heart may want to reduce such a slogan as foolhardy and irresponsible, they would be reminiscent of those during the Civil Rights movement who denounced, criticized, and mischaracterized armed self-defense as well as the Black Power movement; of those who misrepresented or misunderstood the essence of what was at stake. Many of them today attempt to rewrite that history and sterilize it of its progressive examples and effectiveness of armed self-defense.

It would be naive to think the likes of Soros and his Open Society Foundation/Institute would ever fund an organization like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement that pulled the covers off of the national epidemic of impunity for police murders with its 2012 report, “Trayvon Martin is All of Us,” showing that every 28 hours a Black person is murdered in the U.S. by agents of the corporate controlled U.S. government and those agents given impunity. We should likewise doubt Soros’ OS would support their follow up resource, “Let Your Motto Be Resistance: A Handbook on Organizing New Afrikan and Oppressed Communities for Self-Defense.

The big picture to see are the broad and long term effects of rich people and all those with vested interest in the nonprofit industrial complex controlling the purse strings of our movement. As our movement evolves and we remain dependent on major donors and foundations instead of building grassroots funding, we will always be hindered and misdirected away from the trek toward fundamental systemic change.

Many of us recognize the easier said than done lessons from the Church about building a grassroots funding base. For centuries the Church has done this very well.

The difficult part of creating a grassroots funding base for politically radical action is raising the level of political consciousness among the Black masses such that we embrace the indispensability of funding our own work to realize true empowerment and self-reliance. Too many Black organizers think we need the Black elite but the masses outnumber the elite class by so much that it’s not unreasonable to envision 200 thousand people contributing and average of 5 dollars a year with which we could fund some independent and radical programs to the tune of millions.

This will require revolutionary organization and revolutionary consciousness. Sekou Ture of Guinea taught us, “Without revolutionary consciousness there can be no revolution. Without political education and revolutionary practice there can be no revolutionary consciousness.”

Dependence on the philanthropy of capitalists can never be revolutionary.

 

[Netfa Freeman is a long time Pan-Africanist, human rights activists based in DC and a co-host/producer for Voices With Vision on WPFW 89.3 FM.]

What’s Worked in the Past Learning From Ferguson [Part II]

Counterpunch

December 19

by Peter Gelderloos

michael_brown_2-shirin-barghi-e1408343220377

The officer demanded that the two “get the f—k on the sidewalk, Johnson says. “His exact words were get the f—k on the sidewalk.” -gawker.com  

 

The announcement of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson caught me on the road, traveling to visit family for the Thanksgiving holiday. The next day I found myself in a protest, one of over a hundred occurring across the country. There I witnessed a scene that has played out many times before, and was probably being repeated at that exact moment in other cities.

A few protesters had just vandalized a yuppie restaurant on a strip targeted for heavy gentrification in that particular city. The windows were spraypainted with a slogan related to the murder of Michael Brown, and the restaurant’s sandwich board was stolen and pulled into the streets.

“What are you doing?” a young white person complained, looking on with a combination of shock and disgust. “We’re here to protest for Michael Brown!”

One of the offenders, identity obscured by a black mask, looked over at their interlocutor and laughed sardonically, “Oh yeah, gentrification and police violence have nothing to do with each other!”

“We have to do this peacefully!” the other marcher persisted.

“When has that ever worked?” the black clad anarchist scoffed.

“Um, hello? Martin Luther King!” She rolled her eyes as though she were stating the most obvious, self-evident fact in the world.

“Martin Luther King had armed bodyguards at his events, learn history!” the would-be rioter shot back.

The crowd was racially diverse. I wasn’t counting, and the makeup of the protest was constantly shifting, but at times a majority were people of color. Yet the three times that I saw people object to “violence” (the use of fireworks, the vandalizing of the restaurant, and the dragging of a reflective barrier into the road as the march took to a highway, rather a safety oriented action if you ask me, given that it was dark and the protesters needed to warn off the oncoming traffic), the peace police were white. Meanwhile, the people who could be seen shooting fireworks at cops, dragging obstacles into the streets, insulting the cops, and yelling things like “burn it all down,” or applauding any of these actions, were black, latino, and white.

While I did not see any white people lecture any people of color that they should be peaceful because “Martin Luther King,” it is something I have seen happen elsewhere, and it is a message that constantly gets reinforced subtextually.

There is a very real debate to be had about tactics and strategies when we take to the streets in response to police killings. As I argued in Part I of this essay, that debate is largely shut down by those who seek to regenerate the police by reforming, rather than talking about abolishing the police; such reformers have the habit of vituperatively attacking others who raise that question.

It was dealt with more honestly in the streets of Ferguson, though. According to one participant’s account:

“anytime I heard someone say we shouldn’t throw things at the police (not because it was wrong, but out of fear they’d shoot us) I was able to have good conversations—saying it’s a way we take power from them and give it to ourselves. Even when people were super upset, by the end of the conversation even if we still didn’t agree it was clear we respected each other.”

Wherever order reigns, however, the non-debate plays out as I have described above. There is a widely held belief, among white people anyways, that history has already spoken, and that the only effective and ethical response to systemic injustice, and especially racism, is meek nonviolence, because, well, you know, “Martin Luther King.”

Beyond this discursive chokehold lies a very complex history that has been, in large part, falsified, and a problematic relationship between white people and people of color that seems to be repeating itself, revealing tragic parallels between white people’s involvement in the Civil Rights struggle and white people’s involvement in the unfolding movement against police violence today, even as many of those same white people cite a distorted version of the earlier struggle’s history, stripped down to exclude all the failings and all the lessons that might be learned.

I could start by pointing out how the form of nonviolence that is pedaled by the mostly white progressive Left today is a pathetically watered-down, superficial, meek comfort-zone politics compared to what was being used during the Civil Rights movement, but I will leave that to the pacifists. It’s not my responsibility to get nonviolence back into fighting shape, since I don’t believe in it anyways, given that it has always been complicit with state power, it has always been parasitical and authoritarian towards other currents in the social movements it joins, and it has always tended to water itself down over time.

Instead I will start with the argument made by the protester in black, that “Martin Luther King had armed bodyguards at his events.” Such a comment will be perplexing to most white people, but in fact it is historically accurate. Coincidentally, it has only been in the past year that a certain fact has been rescued from the memory hole: that the Civil Rights movement was an armed movement and that nonviolence was a minoritarian exception—some might say aberration—within that movement, as well as in the lineage of movements against slavery and white supremacy going back centuries. Previously, only radical historians, ex-Panthers, anarchists, and followers of C.L.R. James dealt with those forgotten episodes of history, but recently the memo has even gotten to NPR with the publication of books like This Nonviolence Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible, by Charles E. Cobb, Jr. or the forthcoming Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South.

In a summary of the former, we can read: “Visiting Martin Luther King Jr. at the peak of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, journalist William Worthy almost sat on a loaded pistol. “Just for self defense,” King assured him. It was not the only weapon King kept for such a purpose; one of his advisors remembered the reverend’s Montgomery, Alabama home as “an arsenal.” ”

For a long time these have been forbidden histories, and I believe they were intentionally silenced, and largely by white people. Not only those working for the same power structures that have been trying to disarm people of color for centuries, but also those who hold power in social movements, who since the repression and the defeats of the ’60s have preferred a progressively more comfortable vision of “change”. It is unfortunate for the authorities that these forbidden histories are being resuscitated now, just in time for a post-Ferguson society, but we still face an uphill battle to return this historical memory to the collective consciousness. (Most protesters in the streets, for example, are still unaware). And one of the chief obstacles—perhaps executioner would be a more accurate term, since they hardly play a passive role—to the dissemination of this knowledge are the same progressive whites who are always ready to whip out a pithy “Martin Luther King!” faster than a cop can draw his handgun.

So far, the histories that have hit the mainstream still maintain the myth of the dominant character of nonviolence in the movements of yesteryear. In Cobb’s book, valuable as it is, armed self-defense is still auxiliary to a movement of civil disobedience. And while proponents of nonviolence should know that civil disobedience has never worked against a murderous enemy—like the Klan or the cops—without making recourse to armed self-defense or falling into a symbiotic relationship with a combative wing of the same movement, that is ultimately their problem. I would not be worried about nonviolence having fallen to such an absurd level of patent ineffectiveness if they didn’t try to extinguish the struggles of people who actually believe in fighting back against oppression, rather than negotiating with it. Or staging ritualistic die-ins in front of it, or better yet, working for it (see the relationship between Gene Sharp‘s protégé Otpor and global intelligence company Stratfor).

There was an underlying tension throughout the Civil Rights movement between nonviolence (albeit an armed nonviolence) and paths of struggle that foregrounded self-defense and did not seek compromise with the existing power structures. After all, the nonviolent practice that emerged in the movement at the end of the 50s and early 60s was largely imposed by the SCLC, the SNCC (in its first incarnation), and the white New England liberals who provided most of their funding.

Beyond the Deacons of Defense, who organized armed protection to many desegregation campaigns throughout the South in the 1960s, there is the example of Robert F. Williams, president of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter of the NAACP, one of the few chapters of the national organization that was predominantly working class. Having fought in World War II, Williams led his local chapter in advocating armed self-defense after a nonviolent campaign for local desegregation failed. In his book, Negroes With Guns, he describes one occasion when he had to protect himself from a lynch mob.

As the mob is shouting for gasoline to be poured on Williams and his friends, and begins to throw stones, Williams steps out of the car with an Italian carbine in hand.

“All this time three policemen had been standing about fifty feet away from us while we kept waiting in the car for them to come and rescue us. Then when they saw that we were armed and the mob couldn’t take us, two of the policemen started running. One ran straight to me, grabbed me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Surrender your weapon! Surrender your weapon!’ I struck him in the face and knocked him back away from the car and put my carbine in his face, and told him that we didn’t intend to be lynched. The other policeman who had run around the side of the car started to draw his revolver out of the holster. He was hoping to shoot me in the back. They didn’t know that we had more than one gun. One of the students (who was seventeen years old) put a .45 in the policeman’s face and told him that if he pulled out his pistol he would kill him. The policeman started putting his gun back in the holster and backing away from the car, and he fell into the ditch.

   “There was a very old man, an old white man out in the crowd, and he started screaming and crying like a baby, and he kept crying, and he said, ‘God damn, God damn, what is this God damn country coming to that the n*****s have got guns, the n*****s are armed and the police can’t even arrest them!’ He kept crying and somebody led him away through the crowd.”

When Williams was expelled from the NAACP for his militant views, the local chapter simply elected Mabel Williams as their new president, and continued their practice of armed self-defense. Highlighting the importance of economic injustice, both Williams developed a socialist politics and lived in exile in Cuba after fleeing the country to evade trumped up kidnapping charges.

The Black Panther Party, which was demonized in the media at the time of its existence, is obviously well known, for it plays a different function within the process of historical amnesia. The BPP has become a symbol for all forms of black militancy in the ’60s, even though there were hundreds of different strains and currents of revolutionary thought and practice in the movement. And what is remembered about the Panthers is little more than their style. Their program, their splits and conflicts, their relations with other groups and movements at the time, their eventual evolution into the Black Liberation Army, and all the lessons that can be gleaned from this knowledge, has been consigned to the memory hole. They were merely the ones with the afros, the berets, and the rifles, who met with a tragic end, reconfirming the pacifist contention about the futility of violence.

The Panthers are either romanticized or vilified. To me, they were an authoritarian and macho organization (though no more authoritarian and macho than King’s SCLC) composed of many intelligent, brave, radical individuals trying to take an important step forward in the struggle, achieving some accomplishments and committing some errors.

More interesting to me are the nameless ones, the people who did not participate in any formal organization, yet who played a critical role in the few gains the Civil Rights movement achieved. More disparaged even than the BPP, these individuals have been consigned by the dominant historiography to the mob. Just like the rioters of Ferguson, whom we all have to thank for keeping Michael Brown’s memory alive, without whom this conversation would not even be possible, those who were assigned mob-status in what are portrayed as the darker moments of the Civil Rights movement are presented as cruel, unthinking, self-destructive, and demonic.

In fact, the mob member is nothing more and nothing less than the archetype for a person of color, in the white supremacist imagination. It was this same archetype that was drawn on to create the concept of race, primarily in the Virginia colony, as transplanted aristocrats had to divide and conquer an unruly labor force of exiled Irish, kidnapped poor from the English cities, Africans stolen from their homes, and enslaved Natives. In the early years, these enslaved underclasses often ran away together to the mountains or the swamps, and from time to time they rebelled together, killing their masters and breaking their chains. It is this image that is preserved in the figure of the mob, and this elite fear that we reproduce when we also spurn, disparage, or avoid such a formation.

I do not believe that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, but I do believe that my enemy’s nightmare can serve as a figure of hope or beauty. Colonial society’s obsession with law and order, its fear of the dark Other, which coalesce in its absolute condemnation of the mob, illuminate another way forward.

In the Civil Rights movement, the story of Birmingham provides a perfect example of the intelligence and effectiveness of this acephalous, decentralized formation of resistance, a true hydra, to refer to the writings of ex-Panther and prisoner Russell “Maroon” Shoatz or historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker.

Most people only know half the story. In 1963, a civil disobedience campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, the bastion of segregation in the South, forced the desegregation of the city and paved the way for the Civil Rights Act, which was the major victory of the Civil Rights movement, as far as legislation is concerned.

What fewer people know is that the Birmingham campaign was a repeat of SCLC’s 1961 campaign in Albany, Georgia, which turned out a complete failure. King was banking on being able to fill up the jails and still have recruits willing to engage in civil disobedience, shutting the system down, but the authorities simply made their jails “bottomless” by shipping detainees elsewhere. A couple years later, black residents of Albany rioted, suggesting what they thought about their experience with nonviolence (these riots are not mentioned in most chronologies of the movement).

In Birmingham, the 1963 campaign was unfolding the same way, and King was running out of recruits willing to offer themselves up for arrest. Then the riots started. Thousands of locals fought with police, injuring many of them, burned the very white businesses that were refusing to desegregate, and took over a large part of downtown, holding it for days. By fighting back directly, they instantly made a desegregated, cop-free zone in the center of their city. Anxious to keep other people from learning the same lesson, Birmingham business leaders and politicians immediately agreed to legislate the desegregation that rioters had already accomplished (in fact they had won something even more potent: not only could blacks enter white businesses, but they didn’t have to pay for anything). President Kennedy finally started paying attention and urged Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. It was the rioters who won civil rights.

Some veterans of the SNCC write about the decreasing effectiveness of civil disobedience in those years:

“The philosophy of nonviolence hit shakier ground when SNCC began its period of community organization in the South, having to face continual threats of perhaps deadly violence from whites. [… ]As a result, once strict guidelines of nonviolence were relaxed and members were unofficially permitted to carry guns for self defense. […] Eventually whites began to understand the tactic, and nonviolence became less powerful. […] If there was no more public violence for SNCC to rise above, SNCC’s message would be weakened. Thus, protesters were no longer beaten publicly. Instead they were attacked and beaten behind closed doors where newspaper reporters and television cameras could not reach. As southern whites intended, discrete violent oppression began to destroy the image of martyr that SNCC had carefully constructed through nonviolent protest. […] Soon after, the Harlem Riots took place. It was the first urban race riot, and brought the topic of black-initiated violence into public debate. Such actions were no longer assumed to be counter productive. This event, and eventually the rise of black power, led to the fall of nonviolence in SNCC.”

So whenever somebody says “Martin Luther King,” the message should be, “We know, we know, nonviolence doesn’t work.” Even King was moving away from a strict attachment to nonviolence, speaking in favor of rioters and the armed Vietnamese, before they killed him. This was after 1963, years in which he doesn’t appear in the official histories, when he was doing things and saying things that white progressives never refer to.

For example, King told Alex Haley in 1965: “Over the past several years, I must say, I have been gravely disappointed with such white “moderates” [those who consider themselves “enlightened” and “sympathize with our goals but cannot condone our methods of direct action”]. I am often inclined to think that they are more of a stumbling block to the Negro’s progress than the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner.”

This quote raises an interesting question. What was the role of white people in the Civil Rights movement? They seem to be absent from the stories above, as well as the best known episodes of the movement. The only real exceptions are Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two white New Yorkers killed in Mississippi alongside James Chaney.

In fact, a large number of white people participated in the movement, working alongside King in the SCLC, taking part in other organizations like CORE, going on Freedom Rides, and above all, helping fund the movement and putting pressure on media and politicians. There were also mostly white organizations like SDS and Weatherman that formed a part of the larger constellation of social struggles that were influenced by the Civil Rights movement and fed back into the continuing battle against racial oppression. Weatherman, for example, maintained ties with the Black Panthers.

And though many white people did go to prison, only a few faced the level of repression the FBI brought down on the black liberation movement (and usually it was white people who had engaged in armed struggle, like David Gilbert or Harold Thompson). In other words, many more white people survived the struggle intact; what’s more, they were able to become influential academics, politicians, or business leaders. The implication is that they are the ones, above all, who have written the official history of that era, a history that has been amputated, distorted, and falsified. And while they may have been radicals in their youth, they and the generations they have influenced have become increasingly like the “enlightened” moderates King warned about.

Mumia abu-Jamal writes about how Dr. King was “calming” for the white pysche, whereas the Panthers were frightening. And in many ways, the white middle class was the audience that a large part of the movement was performing for. They constituted, and they still constitute today, a virtual public, mobilized by the media, that lays down the norms for acceptable civic behavior. They determine whether a dissident social group is granted some legitimacy, or whether the police will be justified in annihilating them.

The same dynamic is reproduced today as white progressives essentially audit the rebellions that are sparked by the inevitable casualties of heavyhanded policing in poor neighborhoods primarily inhabited by people of color. They can refuse to see those rebellions as acts of resistance, instead fearfully dismissing them as senseless race riots, as was generally the case with the L.A. Riots of 1992. Or they can participate, in order to tame them, to make them more comfortable for the typical white person who does not have to put up with daily police violence.

I am absolutely not saying that nonviolence is a white thing and violence is what people of color use. I don’t believe that race predetermines people’s opinions or experiences, though it does generate patterns in terms of what people are subjected to by a racialized society. I know that within black communities of resistance, to name one example, there are still debates on what lessons to draw from the Civil Rights and black liberation movement. I personally take inspiration from the thinking of certain ex-Panthers, like Ashanti Alston, Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, and Lorenzo Komboa Ervin. There are also veterans of the more militant wing of the struggle who still believe in a hierarchical, Maoist-inspired method, and there are still those who believe in nonviolence.

While I do think that an honest reading of history disproves the commonplace that “nonviolence worked,” which is basically what white people mean when they exclaim, “Martin Luther King!”, I don’t think that history is univocal, that it leads to any single, correct answers regarding how to create a better world. What’s more, how could there be one answer? Every individual and every community has different needs, and everyone faces different consequences when they go up against this system.

A person of color is going to face a higher risk of injury or imprisonment if they fight back than I would. This means that I cannot make tactical decisions for anyone else. But in the hands of many white progressives, this fact turns into the argument that fighting back is “privileged,” something only white people can do. This assertion is as patronizing as it is inaccurate. While the “Black Bloc” method of rioting is still carried out mostly by white people—after all, it was imported from Germany—this is only one of many ways that people choose to fight back. In fact, a politics of comfort, the ability to dissent without being punished, is one of the defining privileges of whiteness, though white people have to play by certain rules to enjoy it. And peacefulness is chief among those rules.

When something like Ferguson happens, people of color will suddenly appear in the media in greater quantity, urging nonviolence. White progressives take this as confirmation that their stance is not inflected by race, and in fact their comfort politics is just a way for them to be good allies following the leadership of people of color. But that is exactly how they are supposed to react. The legitimization of nonviolence is nothing but a spectacle, and they are the intended audience.

I don’t know if the activists, ministers, and scholars cast in the role of “community leaders” by the media engage in fair debates within their communities, if they’re making good tactical decisions in their circumstances, or if they even believe what they are saying. It isn’t my place to say. Regardless, they are used as figureheads by white media to deliver a reassuring message to a white audience. The same activists, with the same credentials, would not be given any air time by the big media corporations or the big NGOs and protest organizations, mostly reliant on white philanthropy, if they questioned the validity of nonviolence. Like consumers with a big budget, white progressives are determining the kind of products that are being sold to them without ever being aware of the marketing. Whether it’s designer shoes or protest strategies, the dynamics are the same, and above all they reinforce the worldview where buying and selling are normal activities and the market is understood as a natural force.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to view these opinions as products, at least when they are being packaged by the media. At every level of the spectacular treatment of this conflict, property relations are asserting themselves over and against human life. When kids are getting shot down in the streets, some vigilantes are taking up arms not against the police but against the looters, to defend “property rights”. By other means, proponents of nonviolence are doing the same thing, since a condemnation of the riots is above all support for the sanctity of property over life.

I think it can be a good thing that more white people are finally reacting to police violence and taking to the streets, but not if they participate in the unfolding movement in the same way as they participated in the Civil Rights movement.

After all, the current movement is in many ways a continuation of Civil Rights. And the latter was just one manifestation of the centuries-old fight against oppression and domination, which in this country has largely been about race, due to the way North America was colonized. There is a strong argument for the assertion that the Civil Rights movement neither won nor ended. If the shared goal of the movement was to end racial inequality and oppression, it was principally the legal-minded, college-educated portions of the movement who were asserting that the focus of that goal should be change at an institutional, legislative level. Their assertions have proven false. Perhaps the only concrete victories of the movement were to end Jim Crow segregation, institute a legal basis for racial equality, and substantially increase the percentage of registered black voters. At least as far as statistical evidence is concerned, these changes have not been accompanied by an increase in the quality of life for black people and other people of color, nor a substantial decrease in the disproportions between white people and people of color in any significant criterion from income to incarceration and police killings.

Jim Crow segregation is over, but a subtler form of segregation that had already been developed in northern cities from New York to Chicago by the time of the Civil Rights movement is the law of the land. As city administrators smelled the changing winds in the ’50s and ’60s, they applied for federal “urban renewal” grants and demolished thriving black neighborhoods across the South, from places like small, rural Harrisonburg, where I used to live, to southern Harlems, cultural centers like Richmond and Miami. In their places they built highways and incinerators, or they constructed new buildings for white businesses, and located new housing projects for the displaced black residents in less desirable neighborhoods. Housing and Urban Development proved to be a much more potent weapon than the Ku Klux Klan for the maintenance of a white supremacist system. And who needs the Ku Klux Klan when you have Google? Even more efficient than a powerful government bureaucracy, tech companies like Google or Microsoft are rapidly gentrifying historically black and latino neighborhoods from San Francisco to Seattle.

If you consider that the outer boundary of San Francisco’s gentrification is Oakland, these two beachheads of the new style of gentrification line up with sites of some of the fiercer and more innovative battles against police killings in the last five years: the cases of Oscar Grant and John T. Williams.

This is not a coincidence. Policing is crucial to the gentrification of a neighborhood, as well as to the maintenance of slum status in poor neighborhoods like Ferguson that the system intentionally neglects. And while many aspects of police strategies in these two kinds of neighborhoods differ—“broken windows” theory and hyperaggressive policing against quality of life offenses in the former, military-style operations, denial of services, and even complicity in the drug trade in the latter—both strategies result in the killings of people of color.

Though the media and the other institutions that educate us have cut us off from our histories and achieved a widespread social amnesia, we are affected by the past, and we continue to play out dynamics that began a long time ago. Whether we reference dominant histories or subversive histories—people’s histories—determines whether we learn from past mistakes or repeat them.

Nonviolence has the dubious honor of narrating people’s histories that are almost identical to the official history. Nonviolence worked, the Civil Rights movement won, and so on. In the Ferguson solidarity protest I attended, a young black person, before urging us to “burn everything,” said “this has been going on since Emmett Till.” He was referencing a much different history than the white person who tried to stop a few vandals by spouting “Martin Luther King!”

Many people in Ferguson and greater St. Louis have decided to take up arms against the police, first in August after Michael Brown was killed, and again in November after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson was announced. Both the proponents of nonviolence and the media have been downplaying the use of weapons by protesters, but the gunfire, aimed in the air or directly at police, has been a transformative characteristic, setting Ferguson apart from previous responses to police killings, and presenting a real danger, and therefore a limit, for the cops, as well as a danger for the protesters (several of whom were injured by friendly fire). Rather than shy away from the danger, shouldn’t we at least be talking about whether it is preferable to the one-sided war that police, in times of social peace, are continously waging against some of us?

Leave it to Fox News to denounce those who take up weapons as mindless thugs or demons. I think people who live on the frontline of the war being waged by police know exactly what they’re about. I also think we should grant them the respect of placing them in the same tradition as Robert Williams and the Monroe NAACP, the Panthers, and militias of freed slaves a century before that.

There are also plenty of black people in Ferguson or beyond who have chosen to respond peacefully. Some have the very real fear of being shot by police. Others are careerists, or belong to vanguardist organizations like the New Black Panther Party (pretty uniformly denounced by members of the original Panthers). Some want to make a nonviolent strategy work in the present circumstances. Others wanted to give the courts a chance to right the wrong of Michael Brown’s murder, and have since given up on a peaceful response.

As a white person, I have to ask myself how to relate to this struggle. White proponents of nonviolence will typically try to cast other whites who engage in riskier and more combative tactics as privileged and racist, while they cast themselves as “allies” following the lead of people of color. However, those they tokenistically claim to follow are the ones the media have given the loudest voice, and those who are preaching the exact form of peaceful protest they already have a preference for, that won’t require them to go out of their comfort zone or face a level of confrontation with police that their privilege usually protects them from.

Clearly, people on the ground in Ferguson have responded with a variety of forms of resistance. It turns my stomach when outsiders basically go shopping and choose the form that fits their preconceived preferences and notions of resistance, and then claim they’re in solidarity with “Ferguson,” as though that were some homogenous body.

I think true solidarity can only exist between people or groups that have their own autonomous struggles. And while white people will never know what it is like for people of color in this society, I don’t think I can trust a white person who does not have their own reasons for hating police. If they make all the right choices that white people are taught to make—go to university, get a high-paying job, be a good citizen, and if you must protest, do it peacefully, if you must riot, do it at a sports match—they may not have had any experience with a cop worse than an argument over a speeding ticket (although I think a certain dogmatic view of white privilege erases the experiences of poor whites or whites with mental health problems, who often have demeaning run-ins with cops, and who are frequently attracted by right-wing discourses, perhaps because only the Right will grant them victim status).

But if they do not make the normalized choices, if they do not accept the limits of what is supposed to pass for freedom under democratic capitalism, they will learn firsthand, either in their own bodies or watching it happen to loved ones, about prison, police torture and beatings, surveillance, repression, and the presumption of guilt. In other words, they will learn the nature of police.

Once I understand the nature of the police, it makes sense to me to respond every time the cops kill someone. Solidarity means that I seek out others who are facing the same problem, albeit inevitably from a different perspective. Naturally, those who prefer peaceful methods will link up with others with the same preferences, just as those who prefer combative methods will find each other. It makes for a more robust struggle if people with different methods also form relationships and learn how to complement rather than denounce one another; however the historical lesson that reformists and those who seek institutional dialogue and advancement will inevitably sell out the grassroots and the more radical currents, could help avoid major betrayals during the process of forming relationships across difference.

At a minimum, solidarity in this current struggle dictates that we do not constrain the choices of those who are most affected by police killings (though I think the label of “most affected” in this case excludes not only whites but also economically mobile activists of color who fly in from across the country). One way that white people might fail at that is by starting a riot every time locals were trying to organize a vigil. That didn’t happen in Ferguson. What did happen was that progressive whites, together with professional activists of various races, tried to criminalize and prevent non-peaceful responses. They faced an uphill battle in Ferguson, but they succeeded in pacifying solidarity events around the country, preventing protesters from taking the lead of folks in Ferguson, experiencing rage at the same level, or engaging in the same bold process of taking over space and learning how to fight back.

It’s a shame that this happened, because a multiracial crowd can accomplish things that other crowds cannot. I have mentioned how police in Ferguson and St. Louis were uncharacteristically restrained, and did not open fire on rioters and looters the way they did in L.A. in ’92 or New Orleans in ’05.  Perhaps they held back this time because there were more white people in the streets, or because they feared a wider insurrection, or both. In any case, if more white people took part in fierce, combative responses to police killings rather than constraining those responses, the State would either have to step back as crowds pushed cops out of entire neighborhoods, allowing communities to experiment with police-free zones and other forms of autonomy, or they would have to start shooting more white people, which would drastically undermine one of the most important hierarchies for upholding State power in this country.

An honest conversation about tactics and strategies in the streets is sorely needed, and at a broader scale than has happened in the past. A long list of manipulations and clichés makes that conversation impossible, aided by the fact that many people still trust the media as a forum for a social conversation, or they don’t notice when discourses crafted in and for the media (often by academics and NGO activists who are seduced by the power of a sound byte) infiltrate their own thinking. The media weigh in heavily on the side of nonviolence, finding purchase in the common misconception that nonviolence has worked in the past.

If we can resurrect subversive, or even just factually vigorous, histories of the Civil Rights movement and other struggles, and rediscover the thread of continuity from those times to the ones we currently inhabit, we can lay the groundwork for a much more intelligent discussion of how to move forward.

But moving forward requires us to think about where we are going, and the artificial consensus on nonviolence pales in comparison to the consensus that has been manufactured around the police; good or bad, they are necessary, and at the very most they must be reformed.

The rocks on which the present movement will founder and break apart, or which it will climb to finally leave behind the cesspool of problems that have cycled and recycled for centuries, is the question of a world without police.

If we can effectively engage with this question, we might be able to surpass the miseries of reformism that devoured the Civil Rights movement and left us with the problem of police killings that haunts us today.

 

[Peter Gelderloos has participated in various initiatives to support prisoners and push the police out of our neighborhoods. He is the author of several books, including The Failure of Nonviolence.]

 

 

 

Learning From Ferguson: The Nature of Police, the Role of the Left [Part I]

Counterpunch

December 9, 2014

by Peter Gelderloos

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David Carson—St Louis Post-Dispatch/Polaris

A young black person was killed, many people brave enough to take to the streets in the aftermath were injured and arrested, and the only real consequences the police will face will be changes designed to increase their efficiency at spinning the news or handling the crowds, the next time they kill someone. Because amidst all the inane controversies, that is one fact that no one can dispute: the police will kill again, and again, and again. A disproportionate number of their targets will be young people of color and transgender people, but they have also killed older people, like John T. Williams, Bernard Monroe, and John Adams, and white people too. The Right has seized on a couple cases of white youth being killed by cops, like Dillon Taylor or Joseph Jennings, throwing questions of proportion out the window in a crass attempt to claim the police are not racist.

Essentially, the point being made by right-wing pundits is that the cops are killing everybody, so it’s not a problem. The fact that they can make this argument and still retain credibility with a large sector of the population shows how normalized the role of the police is in our society. The true meaning of the evidence used manipulatively by the Right is that the police are a danger to anyone not wearing a business suit.

In a serious debate, however, it would be hard to deny that the police are a racist institution par excellence. They kill young black, latino, and Native people at a disproportionately higher rate than white youth, and the institution itself descended from the patrols created to capture fugitive slaves in the South and police urban immigrants in the North, as masterfully documented in Kristian Williams‘ landmark book, Our Enemies in Blue. What’s more, the criminal justice system that the police play an integral role in, both feeding and defending the prison-industrial complex, grew directly out of the 13th Amendment’s approval of slavery in the case of imprisonment, illuminating the path by which the United States’ advancing economy could leave plantation slavery behind, first with the pairing of sharecropping and chain gangs, and more recently with the pairing of a precarious labor market on the outside and booming prison industries on the inside.

However, though the police do not affect everyone equally, they do affect all of us. Everyone who is not wealthy can be a target for police violence, and anyone who fights for a freer, fairer world puts themselves directly into the cops’ crosshairs. During the Oscar Grant riots in Oakland or the John T. Williams protests in Seattle, many journalists, closely echoed by progressive spokespersons, denounced the white people who took to the streets angered by police killings. With an underhanded racism, they cast “white anarchists” as the ringleaders of the mayhem, silencing the anarchists of color as well as the many young people of color without any visible ideology who were often the most active at taking over the streets or fighting back against the police. If they really cared about racism and police violence, wouldn’t they have portrayed the young people of color as protagonists, rather than mindless stooges of “white anarchists,” or simply erasing their participation entirely? Instead of discrediting the relatively few white people who did take to the streets, shouldn’t the criticisms have been directed at all the white people who stayed home?

However, with the protests after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, certain entrenched dynamics have started to change. True, the response to the killing of Oscar Grant did spread to other parts of the West Coast, and it was not successfully spun as an issue only affecting black people; but to a far greater degree, the response to the official announcement that the government approved of Michael Brown’s murder spread across the country and included people of all races.

This is a good thing: more people are taking the problem of the police seriously, realizing they need to react, and exploring actions that they can take that will make a difference. The circumstances that forced this necessary step forward are tragic, but they are hardly a surprise to anyone with the slightest sense of history. Police killings and unwavering government support for the cops are an integral part of our society. They are not going away any time soon.

Logically, people would debate: what is to be done? However, this is a debate that mainstream journalists, progressive journalists, protest organizations, and left-wing figureheads have all studiously avoided, maintaining not so much a conspiracy of silence as one of vitriol and marginalization against anyone who challenges their unspoken tenets.

Those tenets are simple: all responses must be peaceful; and the only conceivable goal is piecemeal reform. Within this artificially fixed arena, we are allowed to squabble over all the details we want, from cop-cameras to citizen review boards, but we are never allowed to entertain opinions that transgress those limits. Those who use a wider lens to understand where police violence comes from and what role it plays in our society are ignored. If they are employed as journalists or academics, they have just made a poor career move, and they will quickly be drowned out by the ladder-climbing, cynical hacks who cover up this ongoing tragedy with banal and myopic observations. Those who actually attempt to explore other paths of action and change will be denounced as “thugs,” “criminals,” and “agitators,” FOX and NPR will speak about them in the same terms, police and protest leaders will unite to suppress them.

That is how free speech works in a democracy. Fix the terms of the debate, distract the masses with fierce polemics between two acceptable “opposites” that are so close they are almost touching, encourage them to take part, and either ignore or criminalize anyone who stakes an independent position, especially one that throws into question the fundamental tenets that are naturalized and reinforced by both sides in the official debate. Noam Chomsky was one of several dissidents to reveal this dynamic during the Vietnam War and demonstrate the unanimity of hawk and dove positions in media debates. The media follow the same rules today. In that earlier crisis, the fundamental tenet was that the US government has the right to project its power, militarily or otherwise, across the entire planet. In the current crisis, the unquestionable dogma is that the police have a right to exist, that the police as an institution are an apt instrument to protect us and serve us, and therefore they are a legitimate presence on our streets and in our neighborhoods.

In this debate, the Right claim that the police are working just fine, while the Left claim that changes are needed to get them working better. Both of them are united in preserving the role of police and keeping real people—neighborhoods, communities, and all the individuals affected by police—from becoming the protagonists in the conflicts that affect us. Similarly, we frequently hear leftists claim that “the prisons aren’t working,” exhibiting a willful ignorance as to the actual purpose of prisons. Sadly, for all their distortions and manipulations, the Right is being more honest. The police and the prisons both are working just fine. As per their design, they are working against us.

On the Left, we find a tragic mixture of the unconscionably cynical with the hopelessly naïve. No serious person can claim that any of their proposed reforms will make a real difference; and in fact most have already been tried. Racial sensitivity training only makes the cops better at hiding their racism. It certainly doesn’t touch the underlying hierarchies that police serve to protect. Civilian oversight, at the very best, can lead to a few “bad apples” being forced to resign, and they have rarely even reached that level of potency. No matter; bureaucracies have always know how to make individual personnel expendable so as to protect the greater power structure, and no government in the world has given oversight boards more power than the institutions they are supposed to monitor, not when those institutions are vital to the smooth functioning of authority.

As for cameras, they would only increase the power of police by augmenting the intrusion of government surveillance into our lives. The murders of Eric Garner and Oscar Grant were caught on tape, and nothing changed. The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of murders carried out by cops are perfectly legal. How can this come as a surprise? The same people who benefit from police violence are the ones writing the laws or getting the lawmakers elected. The only real victim of cop-cameras would be people who choose to defend themselves against cops, an action that, no matter how justified, is never legal. If the cops wore cameras, anyone who raised their hand against them would be caught on tape. But the reformers aren’t thinking about self-defense, are they?

And this is the crux of the issue. The question of self-defense against the police is one that we are not allowed to consider, yet it is the only one that makes sense. The police do not exist to protect society from generalized cannibalism and mayhem, as in some paranoid Batman fantasy. They exist to protect the haves from the have-nots, to maintain the State’s monopoly on violence, and to make up for our atrophied capacity for conflict resolution, another of the many prerogatives the State has stolen from us (whether it’s a lack of the ability to knock on our neighbor’s door when they play their music too loud or to draw on a wider network of family and community ties to deal with an abusive relationship).

We can ignore the antagonistic relationship that the police have with anyone who is not trying or not able to make it to the highest tiers of society, but what we cannot do is reform that relationship away. This is why it is necessary to talk about self-defense against the police.

But we are not dealing with a open debate between two equal positions, reform or fight back. First of all, this is because the reformers consistently join in with all the dominant institutions, including the bloody-handed cops they claim to oppose, to silence, marginalize, criminalize, or demonize anyone who chooses to fight back against the police. They do not engage in debate because they could only lose; instead they make use of all the lies, distortions, and the generalized amnesia perpetuated by the media specifically to avoid a debate.

Secondly, the reformers are parasites. They would not exist without those who fight back. No one outside their respective communities would ever have heard about Oscar Grant or Michael Brown were it not for the rioters. The recent nationwide protests were only possible because folks in Ferguson were setting fires, looting, throwing rocks and molotovs, and shooting at cops for ten days in August.

If the reformers were sincere, they would thank those who took to the streets for bringing the problem to the country’s attention, then respectfully differ on the chosen tactics and goals, laying out a historical case for why peaceful tactics and reformist goals are better suited for achieving a real change. But this couldn’t be further from their actual M.O. From parasitic celebrities like Jesse Jackson to an alphabet soup of NGOs, the leftists fly in, put themselves at the head of something they did not start, and work hand in hand with the police to try and calm things down. These professional activists don’t have a program of their own; they are just professional fire extinguishers. And in the case of Ferguson, they are the government’s most valuable tool. Because it wasn’t the police or even the National Guard who succeeded in putting an end to the rioting, but these professional activists.

Their cynicism goes beyond the parasitical, backstabbing relationship they have with those who actually risk themselves fighting to eject police from their neighborhoods, and beyond their racist portrayal of local people of color who are at the frontlines of the fight as either “thugs” or the unwitting pawns of outside agitators. They will even go so far as to use the families of those murdered by police; in fact at this point it seems to be part of their playbook.

If the family calls for peaceful protest, as did the families of John T. Williams or Michael Brown, they lay it down like the law, and marginalize anyone who tries to respond in a more combative manner, maligning them as being disrespectful to the victim, heartless agitators who are taking advantage of tragedy in order to sow chaos. Yet families are not the only ones with a right to respond to police murders. How many of us would want our parents to write our epitaph? How many of us would trust our friends more than our families to know what we would have wanted, if we were killed? Though friendship is not a relationship recognized by law, the friends of a victim have also been directly affected, and they should have a say in what’s the appropriate response. In fact, friends and peers have played an important role in many of the anti-police riots in the last few years, though their participation has been largely hidden by the media and the pacifists alike.

It doesn’t end there. Neighbors and witnesses are also traumatized by a police murder; they also have an undeniable need to respond to outrage and reassert control over their environment, a control that walking in a peaceful protest flanked by cops cannot give. And if we are not dealing with an isolated murder but a systematic problem, as is the case with police killings, then everyone is affected and everyone has a need to respond.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that this affects all of us. But the pacifying, paralyzing discourse of the reformers specifically breaks down solidarity. Instead of encouraging us all to feel harm done to another as harm done to ourselves, we are all supposed to take a backseat to “what the family wants.” The level of hypocrisy is infuriating when you realize that the peace-preaching professional activists don’t give a shit for the family of Michael Brown or anyone else murdered by the cops. Family members are just pawns in their agendas.

When Durham teenager, Jesus “Chuy” Huerta was shot to death in the back of a police car one year ago, his family rebuffed the police department’s hollow gestures of reconciliation, and they did not denounce the people who fought with cops in anger over the killing. It’s not a coincidence that local leftists were suddenly silent about what the family wanted. And after the non-indictment, when Michael Brown’s stepfather Louis Head urged a crowd to “burn this motherfucker down!”, how many reformers decided to actually follow his lead? Instead, they have all scrambled over themselves to prove he did not mean it, broadcasting an apology he issued about a week later, a reconciliation that might have been aided by the fact that Head was facing a criminal investigation and had already been demonized in the media for a reaction that, in Ferguson at least, was common sense for thousands of people.

This is a fine example of opinions we are not allowed to hold, and how the legal system, the media, and the Left all work together to punish and erase such opinions. It was a triumph for this triumvirate of social control that most of the protests around the country were tame, legal affairs that successfully quenched people’s anger, but fires, riots, and highway blockades from Oakland to Boston indicate that that control is finally starting to slip. For it to fully fall away, we need to understand the true role of the legal system and the media, and realize the full hypocrisy of the Left.

It is an alarming but historical moment when the Right speaks more truthfully than the Left. While the reformers were talking about bad apples and sensitivity training, cops in Missouri hit the nail on the head when they began distributing and wearing bracelets that said, “We Are All Darren Wilson.

Even leftists who did not openly condemn the rioting fell into a tried and true holding pattern. The only way they could make the rioting palatable was to talk about police brutality against protesters. In fact, for much of the riots, police in Ferguson were remarkably restrained. It became commonplace for protesters to shoot at police with handguns, and in November, assault rifles even made an appearance, yet the cops did not shoot back.

This is an important step forward. In the face of a police institution that has carte blanche to kill, people are beginning to value their own lives over the laws of the elite. Yet for the reformers who cannot conceive of fully opposing any of the existing institutions, this narrative makes no sense. Normal people can only be victims, never protagonists. And criticizing the police means not talking about those moments when cops are actually scared for their lives and do not act with total impunity. The lack of strategic thinking is startling.

As far as governments go, the US is infamous for being particularly heavy handed and unrestrained in obliterating resistance. It militarizes its cops, it metes out sentences far longer than what would be considered just in most other countries, and it does not deign to engage in the balances of compromise and social peace like the social democracies do. To surpass the brutality with which the US government liquidated the black and Native liberation movements in the ’60s and ’70s, you’d have to look to Iran or China. Yet now, in Ferguson, and in many other cities this past November, the cops and their masters were scared enough that when people began rioting, looting, taking guns to protests, and shutting down highways, the authorities did not respond with a police riot or a military clampdown. To a great extent, their hands were tied.

Why? What were they afraid of?

It certainly wasn’t a peaceful protest or a little bad media coverage.

Answering this question more fully, and putting the answers into practice, is the second step towards ending police violence once and for all.

 

 

[Peter Gelderloos is a former prisoner who has participated in Copwatch and other initiatives to surveille the police or push them out of our neighborhoods. He is the author of several books, including The Failure of Nonviolence.]

 

‘Organization is the Weapon of the Oppressed’

Ferguson, Mobilization and Organizing the Resistance

Pambazuka

by Ajamu Nangwaya

September 9, 2014

SC

It is impossible to fight capitalist exploitation, police violence, the oppression of women, white supremacy, homophobia and other forms of dehumanization outside of collective action and organised structures – organisations and movements. We must organise – not just mobilise [cc YAE]

“Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.” – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

 

The rebellion in Ferguson, Missouri, against the killing of unarmed Afrikan American teenager Michael Brown has inspired me to reflect on the question of the organizing model versus mobilizing or mobilization model in the struggle for Afrikan liberation in North America as well as the broader humanistic fight for liberation from various forms of oppression. Organizing the oppressed for emancipation is the preferred approach to engaging them in the fight for their liberation as opposed to merely mobilizing them.

The rapid demise of the Occupy Movement and the scattering of the occupiers should be an objective lesson on the need for freedom seekers to become organizationally affiliated. Where are the tens of thousands of people who participated in the occupations in Canada and the United States? If I had to hazard a guess, I would argue that most of them are not in organizations that are committed to liquidating the various systems of oppression. They have gone back to doing the mundane activities of life that are not connected to movement-building. Essentially, they have been demobilized!

When I raised the issue of organizing the oppressed, this project is centrally focused on building the capacity of the people to become central actors on the stage of history or in the drama of emancipation. The socially marginalized are placed in organizational situations where they are equipped with the knowledge, skills and attitude to work for their own freedom and the construction of a transformed social reality.

Under the organizing model the people are the principal participants and decision-makers in the organizations and movements that are working for social change. The people are not seen as entities who are so ideologically underdeveloped that they need a revolutionary vanguard or dictatorship to lead them to the “New Jerusalem.” The supreme organizer and humanist Ella Baker took the position that the masses will figure out the path to freedom in her popular assertion, “Give people light and they will find a way.”

This work of finding ‘a way’ is done in grassroots, participatory-democratic organizations, which are the principal instruments of self-determination for the oppressed. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a student-based civil rights group during the struggle against apartheid in the America South of the 1960s, employed the organizing model. SNCC focused on building local organizations with indigenous leadership that effected the struggle for freedom by, for, and of the people affected by white supremacy and capitalist exploitation.

These student organizers lived among the people and, in effect, committed ‘class suicide’ by their existential unity with the people, as called for by the revolutionary Amilcar Cabral. They weren’t like Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other major civil rights organizations and their leaders who entered a local community for a march or demonstration with the media in tow. At the end of the event, they would leave town with a demobilized population behind them. This is the mobilization model that shall be marked as “Exhibit A.”

The mobilizing or mobilization model of struggle seeks to bring the people out to support political actions that are conceived, planned, and executed by organizational or movement elite. The people are, essentially, extras in the drama of liberation with the leaders as the featured actors. The rank and file members or participants are without substantive voice and initiative. In the mainline trade unions of today as well as in much of the activities of other social movements, mobilization is the weapon of choice.

Included in the mobilization model is the spontaneous reaction of the oppressed to acts of state domination or violence from dominant social actors. For example, in some cases of police violence against Afrikans in Canada and the United States, the community is mobilized to march or demonstrate in protest against the incidents of injustice. There will even be the occasional rebellions or uprisings. But the passion for justice will predictably disappear in short order. The people’s attention will be distracted by routine, everyday activities until the next killing or episode of police brutality.

When organizations and movements favour mobilization, it is all about bringing the rank and file out to mass actions (the spectacles of resistance) such as rallies, demonstrations, pickets, strikes, and voter registration drives. At the end of the event, the masses are sent back home to assume their stance as passive spectators in this elite management approach to liberation. The people’s will is represented by the leaders, because participatory democratic practices are not on the organizational menu.

If the people’s bodies are needed, they will be summoned for the next action. The critical knowledge, skills and attitude that are used to effect resistance reside largely within the leadership. Even when the people are members of organizations, it is usually the elected leadership and a few people around it, and the paid staffers who do the bulk of the strategic and operational activities. They are the brain trust of the movement.

In the 1988 summer issue of the publication Breakthrough: Political Journal of Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, the late Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), who served a term as chairperson of SNCC and a stint as Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party, had this to say about organizing and mobilization:

“There’s a difference between mobilization and organization and this difference must be properly understood. To be an organizer, one must be a mobilizer, but being a mobilizer doesn’t make you an organizer. Martin Luther King was one of the greatest mobilizers this century has seen, but until his death he was short on organizing. He came to double up on it just before his death, but he was very short on organizing. Many today who follow in his footsteps still take this path of mobilization rather than organization. Thus one of the errors of the 60s was the question of mobilization versus the question of organization.”

Invariably the mobilizing or mobilization model comes with the reliance on a supreme leader or a few individuals at the top of the organizational or movement leadership food chain. Ella Baker cautioned us about the will toward the preceding state of affairs:

“I have always felt it was a handicap for oppressed peoples to depend so largely upon a leader, because unfortunately in our culture, the charismatic leader usually becomes a leader because he has found a spot in the public limelight….”

The oppressed and movement organizations cannot keep on executing the same shopworn tactics, while expecting different outcomes.

Many organizations or people are using vigils, marches, rallies and demonstrations as spaces for emotional release. Emotional responses to material forces of oppression are insufficient for the job at hand. We must employ reason and emotion in a methodical, disciplined and planned manner that is backed by a vision in an organizational or social movement context.

We need to create or join organizations that are committed to fighting the systems of oppression that are materially impacting our lives. It is impossible to fight capitalist exploitation, police violence, the oppression of women, white supremacy, homophobia and other forms of dehumanization outside of collective action and organized structures – organizations and movements.

The exploitative systems of domination are structured and institutionalized. The masters or exploiters are very much aware of the value of organizations in maintaining the status quo. The oppressors’ army, police force, state bureaucracy, schools, media, companies, banks and prisons are organizations that are used to keep us in our place as Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” or “the damned.”

Kwame Ture often made the following claim in his public education lectures, “Organization is the weapon of the oppressed. Afrikans are oppressed, because we are disorganized!” Our revolutionary ancestor’s assertion ought to be seen as a self-evident truth.

Let’s use this moment of grief and resistance in Ferguson to build radical or revolutionary organizations that will organize with the people around all of the issues raised below by comrade El Jones, a poet, organizer and educator, in a Facebook status:

“We will be gathering to show solidarity for Mike Brown’s family and the citizens of Ferguson, and to stand against state violence against our communities and people. Stay tuned for details, date and time. We must come together to support each other and our communities against the dehumanization of Black people and the devaluing of our lives. We must stand against the criminalization of our youth, and for our right to exist, to walk on the street, to have futures, to live freely. We must stand against the occupying of our communities, the loss of opportunity, the marginalization and poverty and lack of access that condemn so many to prison, and the suffering of families and communities in a system that does not value Black life. We must organize ourselves in strength, love and solidarity, fight to build strong communities and futures, to support parents, and to protect our children.”

If we are not ready to be in organizations, we are just playing with ourselves (certainly a pleasurable act in the right context). However, in the situation of the quest for freedom and self-determination, self-interested pleasure, acts of petty bourgeois self-indulgence, and splendid isolation are liabilities.

The message within this Ethiopian proverb is timeless and accurate, “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” Let our action speaks louder than words in the call of the disenfranchised for unity, cooperation, and self-determination. Our solidarity in action will emerge from us getting together in groups with a program of liberation.

Young people tend to be at the forefront of rebellions or uprisings. as we are witnessing in Ferguson, or we have observed in the recent mass protest in Egypt that brought down the Hosni Mubarak-led government. However, young people tend to be marginalized in the strategic leadership in organizations and social movements. It is critically important to systemically prepare younger comrades for the role of agents of revolutionary transformation in society.

Afrikan young people will need to become more than the spark and driving force behind spontaneous and short-lived rebellions. They ought to become permanent organizers among the working-class, women and the racially oppressed so as to advance the social revolution. If the youth and the other alienated people of Ferguson and other cities and towns are committed to changing the status quo, they will need to form or join radical organizations and fully adopt the organizing model of resistance.

Afrikan youth in the United States can draw on the legacy of young people-led organizations such as SNCC and the Black Panther Party, if they believe it is best to create their own autonomous revolutionary organizations. The widespread existence of sellout or compromised leadership among the older established leaders might make independent youth-led organizations a compelling option. The youth-led rebellion in Ferguson is not taking direction from the traditional civic leaders who are not seen as legitimate.

It is high time for the resistance to build effective and efficient organizations that are rooted in the needs and aspirations of the oppressed. Organizers ought to learn from the organizational or movement successes and mistakes of the past and the present in doing the monumental work of movement-building and creating the embryonic economic, political and social structures of the free, good, and just society (classless, stateless and self-managed). A prefigurative politics or building the road as we travel needs to be at the centre of social movement organizing in the 21st century.

[Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is an educator and a journalistic activist. He is an organizer with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence and the Network for Pan-Afrikan Solidarity.]

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