Interview with Ann Arbor Movement for Black Lives

Submitted by R Totale on February 24, 2018

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?

The Ann Arbor Alliance for Black Lives (AAA4BL), formerly Ann Arbor to Ferguson (AA2F), came together after the killing of a 40 year-old black woman named Aura Rosser by Ann Arbor Police on November 9, 2014. At the time, there were no organizations in the area that were actively working on the issue of policing. Even after the killing of Mike Brown, the residents of this mostly white, liberal/progressive college town tended to see of themselves as separate from or even in opposition to the problem of racist policing in cities like Ferguson. The first demonstration against Aura Rosser’s murder wasn’t even held in Ann Arbor at all but in Ypsilanti, the next city over. It was only with the national call for actions in the wake of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson that things started to come together. A small group of student and faculty organizers decided to put together an action but had very low expectations, hoping that maybe 40 people would come out for a vigil. But with the national context giving the call visibility and urgency, a thousand people ended up coming out and the demo was far more successful – and confrontational – than we could have hoped.

Since there was still no organizing platform, a follow-up assembly was announced for the following week. A couple hundred people came out and were able to reach consensus around two projects: to do another street march to a city council meeting in the following weeks and also to hold a fundraiser for Aura Rosser’s three children. Interested folks were also able to sign up to start coming to organizing meetings. Since then, AAA4BL has had organizing meetings nearly every week. We’ve done four more pretty raucous street marches (illegal marches and street blockades are pretty much unheard of here), shut down city council meetings, raised over $3,000 for Aura’s children, and produced some valuable documentation, including a meticulous critique of the official version of Aura’s killing.

AAA4BL is a group whose core organizers include students and faculty at the University of Michigan as well as community members from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Over time the number of people attending organizing meetings has decreased but there has also been a useful if limited process of radicalization. Ideologically, the group is very diverse. Early on there were a lot of calls to draft a mission statement but it was hard to come to consensus on these questions when some folks are calling for body cameras or review boards and others are calling for police and prison abolition. It worked better for us to focus on tactics rather than strategy, to come together around specific actions or projects, and to try to keep ideological debates to a minimum. However, in the last few months we have crafted a platform centered upon locally demanding the reforms advocated in Campaign Zero, put together by BLM activists such as Netta Elzie and Deray McKesson, so that we prevent more Black lives from being taken. As well, we continue to demand that the officer who killed Aura Rosser and the Prosecutor who did not bring charges against him be fired, that racial profiling end, and that Huron Valley Women’s State Prison improve the conditions of its overwhelmingly Black inmates, etc.

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?

Specifically, focusing our organizing on the police in a college town like Ann Arbor has been useful for three main reasons. First, it creates an opening for a politics beyond the state. Most of the political work that happens in Ann Arbor is premised on the assumption that the city is both exceptional and accountable, that is, disconnected from structures of violence and exploitation and at the same time responsive to demands from below. But the police are neither, as the murder of Aura Rosser and local politicians’ refusal to indict or even criticize them have made clear. As a result, activists who have tended to rely on circulating petitions and attending city council meetings have been pushed to broaden their repertoire to include more antagonistic tactics and to see local politics as tied to structural forces. Second, doing political work here has forced us to consider how to frame demands in ways that force people to think in both material and structural terms. Drawing on the work of Chicago-based abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba, we have begun to track the flows of resources into repression at both city and county levels. In Ann Arbor, for example, the police budget now eats up 25% of the city budget, far and away the single largest expenditure (number two on the list is the fire department, which comes in at 14%). This makes policing an especially good target because it invites reflection on the many other things that money could be used for. Third, it goes without saying that policing is structurally racist, its violence disproportionately exercised against people of color and especially black folks. Focusing on the police in our organizing has helped to decenter the white liberal/progressive/socialist tendencies that more or less dominate political activity in the city (though not necessarily on campus). These activists have found that their “color-blind” pet agendas do not resonate in a space where black organizers have been able to take the lead and have worked hard to keep the specificity of racial domination at the center of our actions and conversations. This is not to say that tensions have not emerged – in our meetings, we’ve seen everything from predictable white dudes insisting on printing “all lives matter” t-shirts to white socialists reading pre-written manifestos denouncing “privilege theory” – but for the most part these people have ended up either leaving AAA4BL or stepping back.

Last May, we published an analysis of the uprising in Baltimore, focusing in on the dynamics of white solidarity. The essay confronted a tension pervasive throughout the movement, on the simultaneous necessity of strategic alliances between different struggles of oppressed and exploited peoples, and the possibility that including other groups might obviate the specificity of anti-Black racism. As the movement has developed, it’s proven to have strong resonances with non-black people, drawing in participation and support from a range of different sectors and struggles and sometimes offering models for others. How do we maintain the resonance between different struggles with shared antagonisms, without effacing what is specific to this movement?

These tensions are always already present in the context of anti-racist organizing and this is even more the case in a place like Ann Arbor, where white folks are used to being front and center and there is little recent history of cross-race organizing. In grappling not only with the city government but also with ourselves, we’ve learned what it means to tackle these issues at their heart. Black Lives Matter is a black-led movement that mobilizes non-black “allies,” but our experiences in this and other movements have clearly demonstrated to us that the concept of allyship is dead or at least dying. The key is to remember that while we may have similar enemies, we do not have the same reasons for our antagonisms. This is why we’ve found the model of co-conspirators, as proposed by Feminista Jones, more useful.

As co-conspirators, we recognize that we cannot collapse our specific experiences of violence and exploitation or refuse to recognize the nuances that distinguish them. We can’t be the voices in all movements and no one can be everywhere. What we can do is identify shared goals and try to build toward them without losing the specificity of each. Specifically, in AAA4BL we’ve continually had conversations about the positioning of black, brown, yellow, red, and white voices. As a mixed-race grassroots organization, we are challenging ourselves to privilege black experiences and perspectives while navigating how co-conspirators can best lend their support.

That is why we show up when called. For example, when student organizers hosted a caravan of the relatives of disappeared students from Ayotzinapa, Mexico, we were there to join the 7-mile caminata from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti and participate in discussions about the ways in which state repression links us all. We listened to what our Mexican, Chican@, and Latin@ organizers needed from us and followed accordingly. Another potential local site of convergence is the recent killing of 20-year-old black man named Terrance Kellom in Detroit, shot by an ICE agent during a joint operation with DPD. Given that Detroit is a border city, southeast Michigan experiences intensified though unevenly distributed forms of state violence that nevertheless occasionally intersect directly as in this instance. We are beginning to build trust with organizers working on migration and deportation in the region and are hoping to bridge these struggles.

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?

In all cases, we are only as strong as the most vulnerable among us, namely black women, black queer women, and black trans* women. AAA4BL has been one of the few sites of struggle explicitly organizing around the police killing of a black woman, and we cannot afford to let patriarchy and misogyny sneak into our organizing spaces and dynamics. We believe that black women should be at the forefront of every action and should be publicly recognized for the work they do behind the scenes. Although we have not always been able to avoid some of the stubborn dynamics that undermine our organizing, such as unspoken “decisions” to leave certain tasks to women, we are committed to addressing these issues as much as possible. It has not been easy for us to put Aura Rosser’s name on the tips of people’s tongues – even at our actions, it has been easy for activists to slip unintentionally back into foregrounding the killing of “black men” in their language and by doing so erase the specificity of the struggle both in Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti and across the country.

Looking back, it is a commonly held conception that the Black Panther Party and other Black Power organizations, which are so often regarded as role models, fell apart because of the sheer prevalence of patriarchy. But these organizations were no less equipped to handle questions of sexuality and gender than any other organization that has ever existed in the United States. Not only was the Civil Rights Movement equally patriarchal, but there was, if anything, more discussion of gender dynamics during the Black Power Era than there had been during the Black freedom Struggle under King and the SCLC. It is just as important to keep this in mind as it to acknowledge the contradictions that existed amongst of the thousands of individuals and countless organizations that comprised the two movements.

The biggest difference between then and now is that black women have successfully ensured the centering of their narratives and voices. It represents a change in direction for Black liberation movements’ rhetoric, a departure from the past that will hopefully create a precedent. The significance of admitting that this movement could not be run without black trans* women is immense. This prioritization and political orientation has been set from the beginning of this movement. Hopefully, current leadership and priorities will make it impossible for certain black voices to be erased and excluded from media representations and historical memory. A future is being fought for where Black trans* men and women and Black agender and nonbinary people will never have to question if their lives are being revered and protected; a future where separate campaigns will no longer be necessary because we will always, always #SayHerName.