Interview with #ItsBiggerThanYou

Interview with #ItsBiggerThanYou

What is the history of your group? What actions have you organized, how has your group changed, and what are your plans for the future?

#itsbiggerthanyou was formed in the wake of the execution of Michael Brown and the unrest in Ferguson. We’re a grassroots organization, comprised of activists from other Atlanta based groups, most notably in coalition with folks from the three local HBCU’s. Our group involves a large number of students, as well as other young adults, young entrepreneurs, and organizers. We mobilized over 5,000 people in Atlanta to protest in resistance to police abuse and the criminalization of black people. We have organized dozens of protests, including a highway shut-down and a conference dedicated to action-based learning around reforming policing.

What are we pushing for? We’re behind the demands: disempower, disarm, and disband. We’ve been quite public about our position, but we’re trying to figure out how to realize it. In some ways, taking up those particular demands has been put on the backburner while we do research, but in the meantime we’ve been exploring and experimenting with cameras on cops initiatives, and calling for a slew of other demands. We’re for giving more power to community accountability boards, providing them with some leverage against police, so that they’re not just a forum for speaking their mind, but as bodies that could call for an investigation and indict cops.

Since the uprising in Ferguson, we’ve seen racist, right-wing terrorism flare up with the bombing of an NAACP office in Colorado and the tragic and murderous attack on a historic Black Church in South Carolina. The shooting of two police officers in New York seems to have encouraged NYPD members to openly defy the city’s mayor, hamstringing his own agenda. And elsewhere, politicians and police have started to use the specter of Ferguson and Baltimore to justify preemptive police repression and mobilize support for curfews. Might these movements and uprisings provoke a right-wing resurgence? Do you see examples of this happening where you organize? What can we do to rout these efforts?

I think many of us were taken by surprise by the response from the right-wing, as well as the repression from the state. There was this sense that if we exposed white supremacy – initiating these tough conversations and promoting the right legislation – the veil of colorblindness would fall off. We’re learning now how important it is to not underestimate white supremacy.

Within our group, there has already been a huge flux in membership and participation, in part because of a group split that divided our numbers after it was discovered that our group was susceptible to surveillance. There were some ideological differences from the get go, both in terms of big picture stuff, like how we were imagining liberation, but also differences in how we should relate to the media. Even though talking with elders from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement was essential in working through some of those gaps, the stresses amplified by repression made the split inevitable. The blowback from our work on college campuses and off led to police following many of us, often pulled over without a reason, with the officer using your first name. With such intense repression taking place, it became difficult to come to a consensus around such divergent politics.

Repression led to a major recalibration of where people stood around militant action. For many, it was an emotionally draining experience. But when people step back, it becomes easier to isolate the remaining leadership. I believe I was targeted for those reasons, kidnapped by police for ten hours when our work was just getting started. I’m the co-founder of our organization, and for a long time was the only spokesperson, and that concentration of authority ran some obvious risks. We need to move in the direction of group-centered leadership, to make visible the wide array of black identities. This meant accounting for ideological differences, too.

Beyond collectivizing leadership, our best bet is to double down on commitments to transparency. There’s a lot of miscommunication between “the movement,” between mass media, and different sectors of society. Black Lives Matter is simultaneously a movement, an organization, and a battle cry on the streets of Ferguson, but that kind of fuzziness causes distrust, creates fraction, divides and sections off our power. And as any organizer knows, the same kinds of tensions and impasses happen in small, local organizing circles, too. These kinds of divisions are what repression aims to produce, and they make further repression possible. We look at the Black Panther Party and what a point of inspiration it is for us today. But even it ended with an extreme level of distrust. That’s why it’s critical for us to be brutally and radically honest with each other, to make space for disagreement and debate. It’s saving us in Atlanta. It takes all the guesswork out of organizing, and helps minimize the effects of repression and the attacks from the right-wing.

During the Millions March in Washington DC, many of the young grassroots organizers who have driven the direct actions against police violence were prevented from speaking by the older leadership. This pattern has continued. What are the politics behind this clash – why is the older, local black political and clerical leadership trying to keep protests contained and controlled, and what kind of alternative strategies can younger militants put forward?

As an organization, we don’t collaborate with the older, established civil rights leadership, though we work closely with those we consider to be our elders. In Atlanta, there’s a thick legacy of the civil rights movement, whose veterans and memory that try to dictate the actions of this movement. We have to be steadfast in our criticism, though, and vigilant about how power has afflicted our willingness to sacrifice for liberation work. Many civil rights organizers and leaders were put into positions of power after after the 1960s, and the possibility of negotiation with white supremacy is clearly seductive. That’s why you see older folks prescribing acceptable decorum for black organizers, upholding the politics of respectability, and distancing themselves from actions on the streets.

This older leadership class is clearly invested in the power they’ve obtained for themselves with a seat at the table, and they mistake that seat as real liberation for Black people. So when we’re resisting in the streets, that’s jeopardizing their strategy. We’re risking what that power did for them, rather than what that power actually did for the Black community. Since the 1970s, there’s been no accountability of Black leadership to the community they claim to represent, and those legacies of protest and movement building weren’t passed down, but were forgotten.

When they do engage with the movement, or try to show support, they ask us to mimic their tactics. That’s just a silly request that can’t be honored, and our elders and mentors, apart from that leadership class, truly understand that. Our new movement is learning how to jeopardize commerce, to threaten the mutually reinforcing systems of capitalism and white supremacy. We saw how quickly things moved once we started threatening commerce. Black Friday actions back in the Fall of 2014 contributed to a ten percent drop in sales from the trends of the last ten years! That’s the kind of power we’re looking to build.

On September 25, 2013, a 12 year old black girl named Laporshia Massey died of asthma in a Philadelphia school, since there was no nurse there to treat her. She died saying “I can’t breathe.” She was only one of several children in Philadelphia who have died as a result of systematic, racialized poverty and the city budget cuts that have recently deepened it. This is a kind of murder by poverty and urban segregation; it hasn’t received as much attention in the national media as the recent police murders, but it’s a fundamental and ongoing element of American racism. What is the strategic value of centering antagonism towards the police? How have you been able to link up this movement against the police to other related struggles, such as the Fight for $15, anti-gentrification, anti-austerity, and prison abolition work?

Police brutality is a perfect storm in that it is a physically apparent, emotionally and socially confrontational issue rooted in racism and white supremacy. In a world where organizers fight against the rhetoric that the very idea of racism doesn’t exist, police brutality offers a clear view into the world of anti-black violence. This paves the way for conversations, policy changes, and legislation shifts. We know that white supremacy is an anti-black, violent belief system that works its way through the many systems that work in tandem with it. Capitalism, patriarchy, and racism each feed off of the marginalization of poor black folks, black working mothers, and the black community. These systems work alongside mass incarceration, since high poverty areas usually suffer from higher desperation-driven crime (drug sales, theft, assault, etc). So in a way, targeting one, is targeting all, so long as it doesn’t stop there.

And our work often doesn’t. Yes, police brutality is often deployed as a metaphor for all kinds of racist state violence. When you try to talk about how the state oppresses black folks, it is most easily perceived through the videos of police terror. We live in such a sensationalized culture, and economic exploitation or redlining don’t have the same visual expressions that these videos do. Instead, they’re difficult and complicated issues to talk about. Even mass incarceration and the school to prison pipeline can be difficult to represent and break down in conversation, since the pathways to it can be so incremental. But the physical violence of police often happens in a matter of seconds. They are aggravating and difficult to stomach, and when you show it to someone who is doubting the scope of racism in America, I’ve found that it’s often easier for them to understand the scope white supremacy through those brutal clips.

I think the success of this strategy is what unpins the dramatic raising of consciousness we’ve seen in the last year. I think that it’s responsible for the huge leaps we’ve made in the fight for 15 movement, the significant shifts we’ve seen in corporate policies around race in workplaces, and the sizable changes within the LGBTQ movement. These effects rippled from the Black Lives Matter movement pushing this specific bit with the justice system.

That said, we’ve been experimenting with developing coalitions with other movements. Black Friday was one opportunity for that. The way that black folks are policed in retail environments, with mall cops and security harassing and harming black people, can link up in a tangible way to the fight for better wages and working conditions being undertaken by retain workers, many of whom are black. These kinds of alliances can amplify and expand efforts to raise the minimum wage, win support for our demands around police violence, and help us think systemically about how these issues relate. It’s our lack of economic security that often makes police violence possible, and the work of the police to demonize and harass us also makes it more difficult to come up on a living wage. So, these elements work together to produce highly exploited black communities. We’ve got to confront these intersections intentionally.

Alongside repression, the Black Panther Party’s handling of gender and sexuality is often named as one of the central reasons for their decline. In fact, it’s one of the few arguments that different factions of the Panthers can agree upon – Elaine Brown and Assata Shakur have made remarkably similar observations about patriarchy in the party. Some have even drawn a causal link between the force of repression and the dangerous practice of patriarchy that was active in some quarters, showing how “misogynists make great informants.” And yet, recent scholarship has shown that the revolutionary activism carried out by so many rank and file women Party members made the survival programs possible. Women’s political work and leadership around issues of housing rights, health care access, education, and other community services transported the struggle for black liberation onto a much broader terrain. It’s often noted today that Black Lives Matter is largely not led by cis men but by black women, trans* women and men and queer organizers); if this is the case, what’s the significance of this leadership? Does this leadership signal a potential change in the content and direction of this movement?

Young people, black liberation organizers, have realized that a cis-gendered male dominated movement cripples the impact of work, because it supports (uplifts, even) white supremacist, cis-hetero patriarchy that has enacted violence against us for centuries. Liberation must be intersectional. If we are not centering women, black trans women, and queer folks in our work, we are doomed to build a legacy that will surely crumble beneath us. The “least of us,” those who have been forgotten, neglected, and marginalized, are often the ones most willing to put their bodies and lives on the line to gain freedom. Allowing them to participate in that sacrifice, without demanding their liberation inside of our black struggle, creates a cycle of violence and regression that won’t end until we enforce intersectionality.

The Black Panther Party is often called one of the most misogynistic organizations from their period, but they also boasted the leadership of badass women who weren’t taking no shit. Compare that to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who upheld patriarchal leadership in a way that didn’t allow for women’s voices, or queer voices, to be uplifted, supported, or amplified. This shift, made possible by Panther women, can be seen all over this time around. We also owe a lot to women, queer, and trans people who have be doing work since the Panthers. The people at Southerners on New Ground have been doing this kind of essential organizing for decades, and that’s reflected in the leadership of much of the movement today.

I came out as queer last November, three months into our organizing with #itsbiggerthanyou. I came out because I saw how older patterns of organizing and leadership were excluding voices that needed to be heard as a part of this movement. After all, queer folks come out to every protests, and it’s important for them to be visible and reflected in the work we do. If we don’t actively promote that kind of leadership, we’ll be building a movement that will be ineffectual to many black people. If we were just organizing for black men, we’d do a disservice for all black folks – including those men – since our movement wouldn’t be as strong, or as deep as it would need to be. Just as the struggle against anti-blackness is in the interests of all folks of color, our movement against white supremacy must have a stake in confronting misogynoir, transphobia, and patriarchy.

These systems of power are working in tandem, so we need to be mindful of how there are relationships of privilege and power, even within our communities. Our movement will have to continue to do work in this areas, to ensure that trans people are not a cliff note in the black community, but as a central part of our blackness. We need space for black folks across the spectrum of gender, and this has been a challenge for us in Atlanta as well as nationwide. We will need to push our struggle into feminized workplaces, or into the fight for reproductive justice. There are many elements that we need to consider, many fronts for us to launch, when we consider all the different sectors of oppressed people in the US.

All Black Lives Matter. We subscribe to that.