Interview with Waylon McDonald, of the Organization for Black Struggle, 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?
The Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) was founded in 1980 as a group of veteran activists, students, union organizers, and community members in St. Louis that were seeking to address the needs and issues of the Black working-class.
In the 60s and 70s, The FBI’s CounterIntelligence Program, also known as COINTELPRO, wreaked havoc on the leaders and organizations of the Black Liberation Movement. COINTELPRO involved aggressive government tactics that decimated both national groups, like the Black Panther Party, and local groups such as Zulu 1200. More moderate groups, like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and non-violent civil rights activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also did not escape the wrath of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. By 1980, the right was beginning to consolidate its power politically, with a conservative in the White House for the next 12 years. Economically, the country was struggling to get out of a recession. There was a vacuum in black radical leadership that could act unencumbered by government or corporate structures. it was out of this abyss that OBS was born.
Over the years OBS has been involved in an extraordinary number of local, national and international movements, campaigns and initiatives including (but not limited to): the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the National Black Political Assembly, Justice for Frances Beasley, the Atlanta Missing and Murdered Children’s Committee, St. Louis Black United Front, National Campaign Against Racist Genocide, Wrightsville March Against the Klan, Ellen Reasonover Support Committee, the Black Radical Congress (BRC), Freeman Bosley’s Mayoral Campaign, National Black United Front, Show Me $15 Campaign, Coalition Against Police Crime and Repression (CAPCR), the fight for Local Control of the St. Louis Police Department and most recently the fight for justice for Mike Brown, the Don’t Shoot Coalition, Ferguson October and Ferguson Action. In more recent years, we have forged solidarities with millennial organizations across the country around issues of police crime and repression, including the Dream Defenders, #BlackLivesMatter, the Ohio Student Association, and the Black Youth Project 100.
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?
We’ve continuously linked the demand for police accountability and reform to other struggles. Police violence is only an entry point that opens to other issues of state violence. State violence includes poverty wages, corporate welfare, the prison industrial complex, xenophobic immigration policies, gentrification, and the waging of unauthorized wars. In the city of St. Louis, local government spends 55% of its budget on public safety. Schools, hospitals and all other public services split the remaining 45%. There’s no greater evidence for backwards priorities and glaring state violence than this. It’s clear to us, as we say in Ferguson, “The Whole Damn System is Guilty as Hell.”
Police violence is an entry point to other struggles, since it has strong intersections with other oppressive institutions and relationships. It ties together housing, schools, political empowerment, and unemployment. People that you see in the streets are not only outraged by the actions of police, but because they are impoverished, unemployed persons or low wage workers. When the state targets a black person, it is often because they are working class people, who lack access to lawyers or a recourse to file a complaint against them. That’s why we stand in strong solidarity with fight for 15 in StL. You can’t advocate for black lives, without addressing poverty wages and extreme exploitation. We were there when the city ordinance passed to raise the minimum wage.
We’ve been apart of linking struggles together, with Palestine most notably. We count the Palestinian Solidarity Committee as one of our closest friends in struggle, noting the similarity between forms of state terror that both communities face. Palestine is a point of inspiration for us, an example of how we can build up and sustain resistance under impossible conditions. Last year, when the caravan from Ayotzinapa came through, we discussed state violence with them as well. This is only the beginning, but international connections with other movements are happening.
More locally, the affirmation that Black Lives Matter has opened the door to organizers working on a number of other issues. Activists have spilled over into fights for quality education in schools, for neighborhoods unblighted, and for fair transportation in between all these spaces. We’re seen folks diving into the fight against stark contrasts in income. It’s about creating a democracy, from voters rights to new organizations of participatory democracy, that allows community to have an accountable relationship to the people that serve them, and their own forms of power at the grassroots.
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, [email protected], 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?
Since August 9th, we have witnessed the birth of new organizations that are organizing black workers, black queer people, and students. We have also witnessed other organizations whose mission is not directly related to racial justice and anti-Black racism, but have shown strong solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives. We’ve linked arms with families from Ayotzinapa, Asian Pacific Islanders, Fast Food Workers, Palestinians, Veterans for Peace, Jewish Voices for Peace and students of all races, all of whom have stood up and condemned police for their constant assault on Black lives.
Still, as an organization, we recognize the need to have black only spaces as a crucial point to build community and think strategically about issues specific to us. That doesn’t mean that there cannot be coalition spaces. We’re in those kind of spaces now, struggling for a society free of all oppressions. OBS is the organization that put out the call for the coalition between tons of groups, many of whom didn’t have a history of organizing around racial justice. The coalition works in fights for better healthcare and to transform policing in this country, with attention to how they interact with different communities.
This movement has shown that there are dynamic organizers and organizations doing this work around any and every progressive issue you can think of. And that we are at our strongest when we work together. Solidarity has been crucial and solidarity will be the key moving forward! We have to work hard to unite the many, in order to defeat the few.
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?
Actually these movements aren’t sparking a right-wing resurgence, as much as they are highlighting the constant presence of extreme (and not-so extreme) right wing forces, always present in the U.S.. Black people in this country have never been confused about this. The right wing terrorism and state violence we are witnessing is not new – it’s old and tied to our origins in America. What is new or, better yet, renewed is the pressure that right wing forces are under and the energy of bold resistance that has emerged. They’re motivated by this pressure and polarization to operate more open and publically than they have.
And fortunately this new energy of resistance is also changing the political conversation in this country. For example, when a small ragtag band of neo-Nazi’s came to St. Louis in the wake of Ferguson, it was our white comrades who confronted them and essentially drowned out their small protest action. In Missouri (aka America) these groups aren’t new, they’ve been there. They are a constant. They head the police unions and maintain ties with publicly elected officials. If we are aware of our own history, we know that white nationalism, white vigilante violence & state violence have always worked hand and hand; and all three can be easily manipulated and mobilized in the interests of capital. Here, when it comes to these forces, we lean on our white allies to strategize and directly confront these organizations. This is primarily because we live in a police state, and the optics and political resonance of white folks doing that work is much more powerful.
Our task is to keep the pressure on and provoke a crisis amongst people who otherwise wouldn’t think twice about police murdering black people every 28 hours. The functioning of the police state is owed not only to police and politicians. It’s also white people who quietly consent to the color line. Our focus is not trying to win over the right wing, but focusing on building power within our communities, alongside the majority of Americans who are learning that these kinds of state policies are not in their interests. So while we’re disrupting our enemies, we must, at the same time, organize and build solidarity among and across black, radical, and progressive sectors of the country, without getting bogged down in narrow and reductive identity politics.
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?
It’s important for communities to be involved in their own struggles, to build their own power. We are cautious of the insistence that there is only one struggle. But we also remember the lessons of Audre Lorde, who told us that there’s no such thing as a single issue struggle. We remember that police violence is also gender violence, as Officer Daniel Holtzclaw made clear. We remember that Mike Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, was a worker and a member of a union. We remember that Amadou Diallo was an immigrant, who migrated from a country reeling from IMF debt and structural adjustment. We remember that Black lives are queer & trans and straight. We even remember the fact that the majority of the police in this country are members of the working class, empowered and foolishly emboldened to do the bidding of the rich, even as those very same rich people gamble off police pensions through speculative trading and finance capitalism. If we think this is just about police, we’re missing the mark. We remain conscious of the fact that St. Louis Metro Police, who tear-gassed Ferguson & St. Louis residents, got their training from Zionists in Israel, who have made a science out of brutalizing Palestinians. These same police departments acquired hi-tech weapons through Homeland Security, the Federal 1033 Program, and anti-terrorist programs that wrongfully incarcerated Muslims in the wake of 9/11. Their weapons were produced by private companies like Combined Systems, Inc. and Safariland’s Defense Technology, who have million-dollar contracts at the local and federal levels. So yeah, absolutely, “Black Lives Matter!” And if we dig beyond the surface we’ll see the connections. And as we dig and uncover the connections, we also heed the words of Kwame Toure (aka Stokely Carmichael), “Organize, Organize, ORGANIZE” on every terrain we can, in solidarity with one another.