Nearly fifty years after the dramatic upsurge of wars of national liberation fought over the terrain of what used to be called the “Third World,” there are few political tools for confronting emerging local and global racisms between nonwhite communities, and the persecution of ethnic minorities in former colonies by native, nonwhite elites. In the US, this has taken the form of increasing antiblack, Islamophobic, and anti-immigrant racism within “communities of color” and increasing class divisions within nonwhite demographic categories.
National elites in decolonizing countries have frequently appealed to idealized ethnic traditions and histories in order to cement social cohesion and hierarchies of domination within dictatorial one-party states. Appeals to a kind of authoritarian traditionalism often mobilize components of indigenous traditions which justify caste or caste-like social divisions. No longer requiring the force of occupying armies, formal decolonization in newly “independent” countries from Senegal to Vietnam has given way to neocolonial austerity, structural adjustment, and debt imposed by the global north and administered by those who Frantz Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth, famously called the native “national bourgeoisie.”
As Maia Ramnath observes about the actually-existing history of formal decolonization,
“In seeking to replicate the techniques of colonial rule by institutionalizing states rather than abolishing them, the nationalist goal diverged from that of substantive decolonization. If the colonial regime’s structures of oppression were not simply to be reopened for business under new local management, yielding a new generation of authoritarian dictatorships and cultural chauvinists, a different logic of anticolonial struggle was imperative.
…[T]he specter of stateness–the pressure to establish your own, or to resist the aggression of someone else’s…calls forth the enforcement of internal conformity, elimination of elements who fail or refuse to conform, and relentless policing of boundaries, including those of hereditary membership, for which task the control of female bodies, sexuality, and reproduction is essential.”
The belief that communities of color in the US to represent coherent, bounded internal colonies or “nations” working for self-determination has been stretched to the breaking point by class divisions within these communities. To be clear: we believe that wealth can only buy limited protection against worsening racism, sexism, and homophobia. We desire radical liberation, from what theorists have called the “coloniality of power” and the institutions – the borders, the nation-form, the churches, the prisons, the police, and the military – which continue to materially reproduce racial, gender, class, and sexual hierarchies on a global scale. And yet we believe that the political content of contemporary decolonial struggles cannot be assumed in advance.
21st century decolonization in the US would be unrecognizable to the individuals who have fought for liberation under the banner of anticolonial struggle in the past—a tradition which includes Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Lucy Parsons, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Robert F. Williams, Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, the Third World Women’s Alliance, CONAIE, the indigenous militants of Bolivia in 1990, the militants of Oaxaca in 2006, the Mohawk people in the Municipality of Oka, Tupac Katari, Chris Hani, Nelson Mandela (who led the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe), Emiliano Zapata, Juan “Cheno” Cortina, Jose Rizal, Bhagat Singh, Yuri Kochiyama, Kuwasi Balagoon, DRUM, Assata Shakur, and countless others.
Anticolonial struggles were violent, disruptive, and radically unsafe for individuals who fought and died for self-determination. One cannot be a pacifist and believe in decolonization. One cannot be horrified at the burning of an American flag and claim to support decolonization. And one cannot guarantee the safety of anyone who is committed to the substantive decolonization of white supremacist institutions. The fact that decolonial struggle has been reduced to state-sanctioned rituals of cultural affirmation, and appeals to white radicals to stop putting the “vulnerable” in harm’s way, reveals the extent to which contemporary privilege politics has appropriated the radical movements of the past and remade them in its own image.
We are told that the victims of oppression must lead political struggles against material structures of domination by those who oppose every means by which the “victims” could actually overthrow these structures. We are told that resistance lies in “speaking truth to power” rather than attacking power materially. We are told by an array of highly trained “white allies” that the very things we need to do in order to free ourselves from domination cannot be done by us because we’re simply too vulnerable to state repression. At mass rallies, we’re replayed endless empty calls for revolution and militancy from a bygone era while in practice being forced to fetishize our spiritual powerlessness.
In a country where the last eruption of widespread political unrest was nearly forty years when the police go to war and it is called “force.” When business as usual is disrupted in any way, even by shouting, it is labeled “violent.” In this upside down world militant protests across the globe are characterized as heroic struggles for freedom while in the US SWAT teams are deployed to clear reproductive rights rallies. As an October 24th, 2011 letter from “Comrades in Cairo” published in The Guardian puts it,
“In our ownoccupations of Tahrir, we encountered people entering the square every day in tears because it was the first time they had walked through those streets and spaces without being harassed by police; it is not just the ideas that are important, these spaces are fundamental to the possibility of a new world. These are public spaces. Spaces for gathering, leisure, meeting and interacting – these spaces should be the reason we live in cities. Where the state and the interests of owners have made them inaccessible, exclusive or dangerous, it is up to us to make sure that they are safe, inclusive and just. We have and must continue to open them to anyone that wants to build a better world, particularly for the marginalised, the excluded and those groups who have suffered the worst.
Those who said that the Egyptian revolution was peaceful did not see the horrors that police visited upon us, nor did they see the resistance and even force that revolutionaries used against the police to defend their tentative occupations and spaces: by the government’s own admission, 99 police stations were put to the torch, thousands of police cars were destroyed and all of the ruling party’s offices around Egypt were burned down. Barricades were erected, officers were beaten back and pelted with rocks even as they fired tear gas and live ammunition on us. But at the end of the day on 28 January they retreated, and we had won our cities.
It is not our desire to participate in violence, but it is even less our desire to lose. If we do not resist, actively, when they come to take what we have won back, then we will surely lose. Do not confuse the tactics that we used when we shouted ‘peaceful’ with fetishising nonviolence; if the state had given up immediately we would have been overjoyed, but as they sought to abuse us, beat us, kill us, we knew that there was no other option than to fight back. Had we laid down and allowed ourselves to be arrested, tortured and martyred to ‘make a point,’ we would be no less bloodied, beaten and dead. Be prepared to defend these things you have occupied, that you are building, because, after everything else has been taken from us, these reclaimed spaces are so very precious.”1