Interview with Mike Siviwe Elliott, of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression, 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?
Our organization was founded in 1973 by Angela Davis, Choline Michel, and several other activists. We were initially brought together by the Davis trial, but developed into an organization as we were committed to continuing to address the issues of political prisoners and police repression. Given what Davis and Michel had experienced under COINTELPRO, and the rise of mass incarceration and prison expansion, this work seemed all the more pressing.
We have stuck to those tasks throughout the years and have organized a range of actions for them. In recent years, we have been focusing on establishing an elected civilian police accountability council. Currently, Chicago has an independent police review authority that investigates all incidents of police misconduct and shootings, but it is overseen by the police board and internal review department, and most importantly, all members are handpicked by the major and are affiliated with law enforcement.
Our organization is at the forefront of advancing a concrete alternative: the Citizens’ Police Accountability Council (CPAC). We believe that such an institution would empower people in the community to control how their neighborhoods are policed, by granting them powers to rewrite the rules of conduct, powers to appoint or fire the police superintendent, the power to call for a federal indictment of officer, and the power to bypasses the county prosecutor, who is notoriously on the side of the police throughout Chicago’s history.
Towards that end, we’ve just organized a big march on August 29th, where between 2,500 and 3,000 people disrupted traffic and marched on city hall, demanding a Civilian police accountability council. What was most hopeful was the diversity of participants: there was a very strong contingents of neighborhood organizations, the Palestinian, the Filipino and Latin@ communities, young white activists, churches and community groups, the Black Lives Matter movement, along with a lot of support from labor. I believe this displays the power of our demand.
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?
Why is the older black leadership acting in this fashion? First, I think that they’ve forgotten that civil disobedience and other forms of disruption is an effective way advance our interests and have our issues addressed. This older generation of Civil Rights types – the Al Sharpton’s – have gotten comfortable as they’ve settled into the institutions we should be disrupting. But our alliances are always ready to move in a more revolutionary fashion, in a more creative way.
I believed that they’re threatened by this approach, and so they stress the development of movement icons and individual leaders. What they can’t grasp – and what a lot of older or more conservative black folks more generally don’t grasp – is that this movement is led by black women across the board. Not only that, this movement doesn’t have an icon as a leader, but has deep collective leadership. To take us as just one example, almost everyone in our organization can articulate the purpose of their protest, and the direction of the movement. Rather than centralizing the leadership, we see a more collective kind of practice.
We’re a multigenerational group, and I think this is incredibly important for organizations today. So, we definitely don’t approach this like many of the older organizations. Even if some of us are of the same age as the established black leadership, we aren’t of the same mentality. We welcome and value the creative input of younger activists, we honor their leadership. That’s why they respect us! We have young folks on our board and within our organization who are members of the Black Lives Matter Movement. The youth have taught us how to tweet, how to use new tactics, and of course we’ve taught them a lot, too. As more veteran organizers, we always let them know how much we’re learning from them, and the impact that they’re having on us, at the same time that we’re relaying lessons from our history.
A multigenerational movement is being built in Chicago, and our organization has been leading that effort. We’ve been welcomed and earned the trust of younger activists, without question.
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?
The police are just one front of the attack on poor and working people, alongside the other issues that you mention. We fight there because it’s an important part of this larger fight, one that speaks immediately to the needs and interests of those in oppressed communities. But even our strategy to build up this particular fight around community control of the police is based on participating in and supporting other struggles in housing, schools, and workplaces, against austerity, and against exploitation. It’s these efforts of linking up with other struggles, building coalitions across the board, that help us grow our movement. That’s what produces the turnout we saw on August 29th.
And we’ve been very successful with that. Perhaps the best example is the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), who we’ve had great support from. Part of building up this alliance involved publishing articles linking issues of labor and education together around the issue of policing and prisons. The teachers have been very clear about how this all relates to the school to prison pipeline and the really vicious budget cuts school workers and young people have to face. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been cutting precisely the type of health professional you mention in your question! At least in predominantly Black and Latino schools, though not in the white communities. And it’s not just the physical health of these students, but their emotional health as well, as they’re laying off counselors and social workers. Those people that did social work are no longer going to be available to the kids. You can see right here, in the direct relationship between prisons and budget cuts, their strategy of making conditions more difficult for poor and working people to live and organize.
We’ve also linked up to the anti-eviction campaign, because we know that this issue also means violence against our community. And the Fight for $15 is a major partner of ours. Those fast food workers are from the same oppressed communities dealing with the police! They can relate to what we’re calling for, and they can see how it’s going to benefit their lives.
Ultimately, we view the whole system was one that puts profit over people, and that all of the aspects we are fight are part of this bigger system that doesn’t give a damn about the lives of poor and working people. To fight back, we’ve got to have all the bases covered.
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?
Well, I can say that our organization is very much intimately a part of that history you’ve just described. Our organization represents that multi-racial merger today. Our organization is diverse, both racially and culturally, but it’s led principally by black folks. Though we come from many different racial and ethnic groups, we all respect what we do, with an understanding that the people most impacted are black people and latin@ people. So everyone respects us as leaders and defends us when that’s challenged.
We feel very strongly that the Black Lives Matter movement is the major social justice struggle in this nation today. We’re proud to be an active part of this movement. And we make sure that we are clear in saying we’re apart of this movement, even though we’ve been doing this work long before that term was ever developed, in a different political context of the Black Power movement.
And so, we’ve been thrilled to see the emergence of this new cycle, this new movement. It has elevated the level of involvement of black youth in fighting against oppression. It’s been a resource to mobilizing lots of folks onto the streets and to educate them about the power that we have as people. As a result, a lot of young people now know now to navigate police harassment more than they did before, which is important when you consider how frequently some are stopped on the street.
The coalition work that we’re involved in, and our demands around the Citizen’s Police Accountability Council represent a big part of our efforts in the movement. But we also have been building with other partners and organizations who contribute in their own way. For instance, First Defense Legal Aid is the only group in the nation that will legally represent you for the first 48 hours after your arrest. They’ll come to the police station at 4 in the morning if you call them. They check in you, they get information from the cops, and put the police back on their heels. As a result, you’re treated very differently in jail, so they’re very effective. This group is deeply involved in our coalition, and it provides a concrete example of ways that our organizations have related not only to the movement in the streets, but also in the daily lives of people who are struggling.
What’s really exciting about this period, is that we’re taking a base organization and building larger coalitions that aren’t just city-wide and national in its connections, but even international. In the week leading up to our action on August 29, we hosted organizers from California, Florida, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in our houses, and they helped us turn out support for the demonstration and get out the information. We even have black activists from Paris out here. We’ve been building a lot of good relationships that will be necessary to develop our power.
We understand that our next steps have to never take any of these relationships for granted. And so we stay very vigilant about constantly reinforcing our alliances. And this doesn’t just happen formally, but often interpersonally. We’re not just partners in organizing, because in many cases we become close friends and even family with these people. In fact, a lot of people in the movement are my personal friends. We socialize together, we strengthen our bonds with one another, and it’s important to do that as a part of our strategy. I think you see that reflected in our organization.