Interview with Qilombo, from Viewpoint Magazine's "Strategy After Ferguson" feature.
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 Holdout, a project which would later become Qilombo, was started in 2011 by a group of mostly white anarchists as a social space, event space in, bookstore and bike workshop in West Oakland. This initial project was largely unsuccessful at living up to its goal of being a true community center, in that those representing the space could not address or engage with the issues plaguing the largely Black and Brown surrounding community. The tensions between the surrounding community and The Holdout grew, with many people of color feeling unheard and dismissed by the members of the space. These tensions culminated in a callout and community-wide accountability process in which it became clear that the original members of the space were unable to diversify their organizing structure in ways that could address white privilege while also addressing the issues most pertinent and relevant to the local community.
Through many open discussions, a transformation process occurred in which management of the space changed hands from the original organizers of the space to a group of revolutionary people of color. These people reorganized, diversified, and reimagined the space, while maintaining principles of nonhierarchical organizing and decision making. Through this process, our organization reopened its doors as Qilombo. Historically, Qilombos were communities of Afrikans who escaped slavery and formed autonomous settlements in northeastern Brazil. The name represents a new vision for the space a place where Afrikan and Indigenous people can band together, build autonomy and fight for liberation. Qilombo has reorganized itself to address the need for a true community center in West Oakland – one that sees its neighbors, provides nourishment and empowerment, and stands beside them as they face compounding oppressions. Qilombo strives to build Afrikan and Indigenous autonomy, to empower those whose have been marginalized, and to fight back against displacement, colonization, and exploitation.
There are other tendencies that may be in a position to co-opt the movement –it is widely noted that nonprofits play a demobilizing role in social movements, mediating between action in the streets and municipal city governments whose funding they depend on. Because nonprofits have resources that grassroots initiatives often don’t, they position themselves as the leadership, while constituting social bases of support in ways that are more difficult for radicals. How can this co-optation be avoided? How can radicals develop the same bases of support that many nonprofits enjoy?
We know the history of nonprofits and acknowledge that structurally, they evolved from COINTELPRO. Unlike non-profits, we make sure that our organization is tribunal-centered, meaning everyone has a voice. There is no executive board, and you can earn the ability (through hard work and reliability) to help make decisions. It is important to run our space in this manner to make sure the people know that they are at the center of our efforts. At the Qilombo, your “accolades” or decision-making power, can be earned by anyone. We hold community forums and continuously ask for feedback from the community concerning what they would like to see and what we, as a community, can do better. We believe in the power of the people and community building as key to liberation, but we also understand that we are still existing in a capitalist society and need resources in order to be sustainable. We do partner with non-profit organizations that align with our beliefs, including Black Lives Matter, to obtain grants, build support and gain awareness. It’s important to respect an array of tactics, so we cannot question how other black and indigenous folks fight for liberation. As long as we hold the same end goal in mind, negotiations can and need to be made. However, we make sure that the members of our organization are unified to avoid infiltration, and are currently in the process of developing small business to generate our own revenue.
We believe that radicals can enjoy safe flourishing spaces and avoid co-optation by having a strong tribunal-centered community base, that listens to the voices of all, and puts the needs of the community before egos, personal gains and personal political agendas.
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?
We believe in the power of anger and rage, so yes we do think that riots are still politically relevant. It’s not good to be passive, especially living in systems of oppression, the system needs passivity and compliance in order to continue thriving. So rioting is a message, a way to make it known to the powers that be that “we will fight back.” But it’s also good to turn that rage into power, and begin to mobilize the people. You can’t tear down this system of white supremacy with rioting and looting, it’s going to take a variety of tactics. With that being said, it is an organizer, or revolutionary’s job to take great caution to make sure not to police the feelings of the people, but to make sure that they are mobilized afterwards.
A useful metric for struggle is being present and visible in the community, as Qilombo and Afrikatown does, by letting the community know that there are resources, ways to get involved, and ways to channel that rage into something strategic. They know that these doors are always open for Afrikan and Indigenous people, they know we feel their pain, we understand their rage and we are present in this struggle, continuously resisting. Building Afrikatown is our long-term vision and is an idea that derived from realizing that there are places like Chinatown, Japantown and Little Armenia, but no safe and thriving neighborhood for Afrikans in this country. Qilombo resides in Afrikatown (which is currently only a block), but eventually we want to expand it and have a thriving neighborhood by and for Afrikan people.
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?
If there’s anything that past struggles and organizations have taught us, is that there are so many different forms of resistance and that everyone has a part to play in this movement. We definitely see organizations emerging, including the Black Lives Matter movement which is a combination of a variety of organizations, that will help bring about change.
But we also want to be careful not to solely focus our energies on protesting, rallying, and policy change. We are working towards building autonomous economic power, as we do not believe in relying on white people or this government to do what’s necessary for Afrikan liberation. That comes from the people, all power is with the people and we truly live our lives and run our organization with this motto. We want to take it past political actions and policy change, we want to do something more to ensure the self-determination, liberation and economic power of Afrikan people. We want to preserve our culture and remain in our neighborhoods. That comes from grassroots resistance, continuously, and not just taking to the streets. We study our history so that we may learn from past mistakes, learn tactics that work and build from the foundation of bricks that our ancestors laid for us.
Qilombo calls itself an Afrikan and Indigenous space because we realize that Afrikan people were brought by force to Indigenous land. Specifically, the land that the Qilombo sits upon is Ohlone land. In a way, Afrikan people can also be referred to as Indigenous (to the continent of Africa), but without even pushing this theory, we recognize the common struggle of Indigenous people and believe in the power of allyship to steward collective liberation. We also believe that when black people are free, everybody will be free, as anti-blackness is the foundation for both slavery and white supremacy. Indigenous folks who risk their lives as allies recognize that as well.
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?
The unity and mobilization of oppressed black and brown folks across this world is necessary for true liberation. Beyond rhetoric, black and brown folks are the indigenous peoples of most continents, technically are owners and keepers of resources (as you know, most Afrikan countries are plundered because they’re rich in resources) and are not reaping any of the benefits from trade and this global capitalist system. When we, as oppressed peoples, can unify, take back control of our lands, monopolize our resources and take back control of our governments, then you will see true liberation. The struggle in Palestine hits home for a ton of people here, because we see, yet again, Indigenous people being forced from their land by colonial powers. It’s like watching the genocide of Indigenous peoples in real time, in our lifetime. We remember the story of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Afrikans brought across the Atlantic, we see a group of people being forced, to move, to work, and sentenced to death if they don’t comply. This resonates with us and is why we fight to build a place that is black-led, black-centered and a safe haven for Afrikans and Indigenous peoples, because we are the ones that truly have suffered, and continue to suffer, from the consequences of colonialism, imperialism and war.
By building a center for Afrikan resistance we will be able to educate the community about anti-blackness on a global scale and begin to materially support the struggle in Palestine. Currently, most of our communities are brought down by poverty, mental illness and mass incarceration. It’s difficult to rally sick, broken and hopeless people. By building Qilombo and Afrikatown, we can provide a space that gives people resources and hope. When people have these things it’s much easier to mobilize with them, and begin to foster a network of black and brown folks dedicated to dismantling capitalism and anti-blackness.