An interview with Ralikh Hayes of the Baltimore Bloc, from Viewpoint Magazine's "Strategy After Ferguson" collection.
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?
Baltimore Bloc is a fairly new organization, who in the wake of the Mike Brown verdict, decided to come together as a more formal collective. We had a prior history as a looser group of likeminded individuals, who shared outrage with how the police treated people, and provided information about that kind of terror. We informally did stuff like watching the police, and providing information to the public. We interviewed the families immediately affected by this kind of violence and started to build relationships with them.
There are a few things that make us unique in Baltimore. While there are many groups promoting and planning protest activity, we’re the only one following the spirit of Students for Nonviolence Coordinating Committee and Ella Baker. We’re still in the process of group formation, so as we try to achieve consensus on these organizational questions, I’ll describe a bit more of what our group does. Right now, we’re a small group of people, trying to be in community with people, to organize themselves with the tools we have experience in. Primarily, our aim is to support the families of the victims of police brutality. With the new following that we have in Baltimore following the uprising, we’ve worked as a source of media for some, and a platform for others to get their stories out. We also aim to get others involved in these struggles, to provide both knowledge and resources to the people.
We’ve worked closely with many families, including the family of Freddie Grey. We’re proud to have been organizing with Tawanda Jones and the West family, following the murder of Tyrone West. We’ve been helping organize protests and speak outs every Wednesday, but really, we support however we can, on a case by case basis. So if a family decides they want to host a fundraiser, we’re right alongside them. If they want to plan a protest, we do that. We’re trying to build up a community of activists and organizers, by spreading the knowledge and skills we have, developing our collective capacity together.
Already, we’ve participated in and planned over a 100 demonstrations in Baltimore city, repeatedly taking the streets and the highway. We’ve seen the people of this city prevent multiple arrests in the last few months, but we’re willing to use arrestable actions to advance our cause. But now there’s a new police commissioner, who seems harsher, and it looks like we may have a new mayor soon, too. Despite these changes, in the future we will continue to fight against the systematic oppression that Black and Brown people face.
An important turning point for the black freedom struggle in the 1960s were the urban rebellions in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and dozens of other cities, which involved a great deal of property destruction and looting. Much has changed since then, but the political economy of urban development is still a central dynamic of racial inequality in places like Baltimore, Oakland and Ferguson. Are riots also still politically relevant, or has their meaning changed? And what about those places with similar conditions where major riots have not happened, like New York or Philadelphia? What other metrics might we use to measure the development of struggle beyond street militancy?
As a starting point, we need to recognize that the Civil Rights Movement and all those organizing for Black liberation never actually stopped, even as the 1960s winded down. The most prominent organizations might have collapsed due to state repression, but this is a long struggle that was submerged beneath the surface for the last few decades, only emerging as a mass movement again recently. Then, as now, street militancy is a good indicator of where the movement in a particular city is at. It’s often a sure sign of how developed the local struggles are.
Those uprisings were very important in the 1960s, and then, they were more widespread than they are today. This isn’t to say that there aren’t similar instances now, but I don’t think we’ve hit that threshold. For instance, even in Baltimore, the level of property damage was pretty minimal. So, at times, I’m even hesitant to call it a riot. There was certainly an outpouring of emotion, but state repression stopped it pretty quick.
Still, it was pretty effective response to the hyper-militarized actions of the state. The people were merely responding in kind. In previous protests, one could detect the level of militancy and courage in people’s movements, and they weren’t moving too aggressively. But something changed last spring, where, just as it happened in Ferguson, we were like a tiger, provoked and cornered.
I remember thinking that the mobilizations following the murder of Trayvon Martin would be that kind of moment. There was a massive rally, and it was one of the biggest I had seen in ten years, but it didn’t develop into what we had expected. Still, I believe it was preparing us for Mike Brown. And then with the circulation of video footage of police brutality and murder confirming how rapidly this kind of violence was occurring, was another kind of development that prepared us for the uprising. It’s not just something that happened by chance – it was a result of the deep resonance of those kinds of tactics from the community itself, when they choose to take part in much greater numbers than anything we’ve seen here in decades.
The fate of the kind of politics we’re practicing do rely on how quickly people cling to the question of power as Black people. And often, rage in all of its tactical expressions, become an easy entrance to that politics, and present it with a chance of leaping forward in its development. But that doesn’t discount the fact that there were plenty of people who have been organizing before this year, and that they were the ones laying the groundwork for the uprising to take place at the scale that it did. That’s why it’s important to acknowledge the deep continuity with earlier cycles of struggle, because they continue to provide the conditions of possibility for the work we do today.
The movements of the 1960s and 1970s against racism and police violence led to the emergence of new kinds of organizations – including, just to name a few, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Black Panther Party, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Third World Women’s Alliance, and, for white radicals, the Students for a Democratic Society. In the 1970s these groups transformed into new revolutionary organizations, which were often multi-racial alliances between black, Chican@, Puerto Rican, and Asian groups. Do you see new organizations emerging today, and if so, what is their relationship to the broader Black Lives Matter movement?
While there are certainly new groups forming across the country, most are not “mass” organizations yet. From my vantage point, these are groups are primarily forming as a reaction to crisis situations that have erupted across the nation in the last few years. They often exist without an infrastructure typical of an organizing body, but are bound together instead by some shared politics and projects.
This is the case for Baltimore Bloc. When the uprising first began, we were simply not ready for it. In fact, when it had started, we were in the middle of our monthly meeting and we got a call from one of our members who was with the family of Freddie Grey, who asked us to come out and support this kind of spontaneous gathering. It snowballed quickly after that. We didn’t have time to develop a plan on how to get people engaged in longer term organizing projects. With limited resources or preparation, we were asking: how do we keep people safe so that they can continue to lead this resistance?
When turning back to the history of our movements, we must remember that they were not monolithic, but comprised of these small, but absolutely essential organizations. While we’re all organizing for Black liberation, there are differences in how people strategically pursue that, making decisions on the basis of their own lived experience. To be sure, there are times when it will be necessary to mount larger-scale collective action, and we will need to hammer out a shared analysis to unite these different tendencies within the movement. And while the nationwide convergences and conference calls are certainly aiding those efforts, the real point of unity for us, across the differences between smaller, local organizations is our relationship to the people in the streets. That’s what propels us to come to Ferguson, Florida, Baltimore, and Cleveland.
But it must be emphasized that this is not one centralized movement, with a single figure head, but a multitude of collective and independent organizations based in our own communities. Because while we are motivated by shared conditions, those conditions manifest themselves differently within specific locales. Laws and history of cities changes the field of action, the needs of community, the tactics appropriate. Our first job is to respond to those local conditions.
I believe that this “decentralized” style of organization is a positive thing, as we don’t know exactly what black liberation or the liberation of people of color exactly looks like just yet. We need to continue to dream, hope, and discuss with one another, but ultimately, people will find their own way. There is no “correct” way to organize – everyone can be their own leader. We’ll have to craft our own pathways to self-determination.
And that’s why you see such a variety in tactics used across the country, as different groupings of organizers are testing out new forms of disruption specific to their cities. Sometimes, when it seems like tactics have some utility elsewhere, they’re taken up and shared. And so you see there’s still some collectivity in this, as tactics circulate, even if there are lots of independent organizations. Black Brunches in the Bay Area are a good example of this. They’ve spread across the country, pretty autonomously, because it’s an attempt to adapt to the contemporary conditions we live under that resonated with a lot of people.
We cannot use the same tactics as the older generation. Yes, they had their victories, but we are still not free.This last year was a major turning point. As we continue to seek out the elders and learn our history, we must also dream and rethink a liberatory strategy in new ways. What of the old can we retain? What must we invent for ourselves? That’s why the multiplication of smaller organizations is important.
There is a long history of solidarity between radical black movements in the United States and anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles abroad, including Algeria, Cuba, China, and Vietnam. Members of the Detroit-based League of Revolutionary Black Workers were in contact with Palestinian guerrillas in the early 1970s. The Black Panther Party had an international office in Algeria. How does international solidarity figure in the movement today? Beyond the rhetoric of a shared struggle, what could material support across borders between movements look like? And most specifically, how does today’s movement connect with the struggle in Palestine?
We agree that internationalism is an essential perspective to maintain in this struggle, but there are two things we need to understand. First, this movement is always most effectively led by young people, even though they are still learning this history of internationalism, and the global visions that those politics had. They shouldn’t be punished for this learning. After all, with the issues in their own “backyard,” with their communities being destroyed, it makes sense that their own neighborhoods should come first. But secondly, even in these earlier waves of action, the many elders in the movement barely scratched the surface of international solidarity.
What’s important is that capitalism causes oppression all over the world, and US imperialism is a driver of those dynamics. We saw this clearly when Mike Brown died, and there were people in Palestine tweeting about how to deal with tear gas. They’ve experienced a level of oppression that at times is more poignant than ours. There is racial oppression in this country, but it’s not the same as the state regularly shooting whole groups of protesters, or authorizing lethal bombings regularly, or censuring media. Yes, we’ve seen examples of that kind of violence, with the case of Minneapolis, being the most recent, and elsewhere we have actually seen similar behavior by local racists, but that kind of violence doesn’t happen to the same extent in the US. And I think that implies that we’ve got to figure out how else we can help other people in other countries. There’s a lot to learn and grow as we build with people internationally.
There’s a rush to figure out all of these strategic questions immediately. The fact that there were people doing this work before, prepared us for where we are now in Baltimore. If we hadn’t had some experience and connections with allies nationally, for instance, we couldn’t have created the infrastructure we did to help with the uprising. Effective struggle requires, masses, and passion, and a commitment to shared principles but there are few people with that kind of expertise. Often, you have ten or so people trying to direct things for a whole city, and so organizing becomes difficult. Some months after the uprising, we’ve got some more people ready, now. I don’t believe Baltimore is the last uprising we’re going to see, not even within our own city, as this movement continues to grow stronger. But in many places, there’s very little infrastructure in place. What does it look like to create information for jail support or to train street medics when there isn’t a strong movement culture? We’ve got to develop those capacities pretty rapidly, and we have in response to recent actions. But when we think of these questions of international solidarity, the local stuff has to be in mind as well.
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?
I think it’s understanding that race is an important social construct, and that class is important as well. At the end of the day, there are levels of privilege amongst the people. And it’s about understanding how your privilege and your social location fits into the spectrum of other people. For instance, I’m a cis black male, so I have cis-male privilege. There are a lot of brilliant black women in the BLOC, and 9 times out of 10, even if I’m not the leader that day, people will come to me for decisions. This happens even if they don’t know me! But the same things happening now have happened in other movements, as well.
Non-black people should relate to the issues addressed by the movement on the basis of their own experience. How does your privilege, your oppression, and your leadership relate to the overall movement. People truly are oppressed all over the world: where are you situated within that? We can understand and be in solidarity with other struggles, but you can only lead movements based on your own experience. In the BLOC, we try to make space to think and talk about this question. This is about the political development of our members on the leadership question, and it’s important.
The BLOC is a Black-led organization or POC-led organization, and we start from the position that our interests are all interconnected. We’re not going to turn down your membership in the organization because of your race. It’s about sharing in the work that we’re all committed to. White members know that it’s not their place within this movement to direct the struggle. They have leadership roles within the organization, but that’s different from leading the movement. It’s not like being white means you can’t conduct an interview on behalf of the organization, or something like that. That’s not something we would do, because we think this work should be shared.
While every struggle is important, right now, we’re trying to put those of Black people at the forefront. And it’s not a monolithic blackness but all black people no matter how they identify, but one that can understand all of the other struggles from the viewpoint of the most oppressed group in the United States. Whatever work you’re doing, on whatever terrain, you make your strategic focus the most oppressed people, so that you might uplift everyone else in the process. That’s why you see nonblack people supporting this movement, because their own liberation is at stake.