Interview with George Ciccariello-Maher, of the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee/Action Against Black Genocide, 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?
As the energy sparked nationwide by the Ferguson rebellion wound down, Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee / Action Against Black Genocide (TMOC/AABG) coalesced as a radical pole organizing against the police, and in particular around the murder of Brandon Tate-Brown by Philadelphia Police in December 2014. Since then, the group has repeatedly antagonized Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and helped spearhead a militant march in solidarity with the Baltimore Rebellion (two of our comrades had been arrested in Baltimore, and one is still facing charges).
Despite Police Commissioner Ramsey’s efforts to paint himself as a representative of a gentler form of hands-off, “21st-Century policing” to curry favor with Obama, we have used direct actions to shatter that image and reveal just the same old brutal, white supremacist policing in Philadelphia. When our comrades got in Ramsey’s face at a town hall in the Lawncrest neighborhood, his thugs arrested ten but we eventually beat the charges in court. At this point, we’re like a bad dream Ramsey can’t wake up from: he can’t hold a public event without us putting him on blast. As a result, he has repeatedly caved to our demands, albeit without ever giving us credit: he released the names of the murderous cops who killed Brandon Tate-Brown, he released the video of the murder, and he promised that the names of police who kill will be released within 48 hours.
Momentary confrontations and direct actions are only one part of the equation, however, and we are also beginning to lay the groundwork for a text-based police brutality rapid response network in the city that we hope will provide a more durable form of participatory community self-defense – think a more generalized form of Copwatch without the specialized teams of observers – and eventually even an alternative to calling the police in the first place.
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?
While clashes like the one that occurred at the Millions March indeed look like generational clashes, they are in fact political clashes. After all, there are many older militants from the revolutionary Black freedom struggle around, and their age doesn’t negate their militancy in the least. What we are instead confronting today is the incorporation of certain sectors of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s into the political institutions of the United States, and these sectors are tasked with controlling the militancy of the grassroots and upholding a false narrative of social change. The historical narrative and containment function are tightly intertwined.
The historical narrative of the civil rights movement is often a sanitized and whitewashed caricature of the Black freedom struggle, which is cast as a polite affair carried out by well-behaved leaders – often religious and almost always men – who ask nicely, make rational arguments, and patiently await the (white) nation’s conscience from within. The reality was far different: messy, violent, impolite, often sustained by women and those unrecognized organizers that Malcolm X called the “small people” who “haven’t got anything to lose.”
It was not only or even mostly a movement of leaders but one of masses in the streets: rioting, rebelling, and organizing. It was grounded not in rational argumentation – the idea that somehow you could convince white supremacy of its own illogic – but instead found sustenance in Frederick Douglass’ insistence that “it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” You can’t argue with white supremacy, just as you can’t guilt it into submission, and so the Black freedom struggle was not centrally an appeal to the guilty conscience of white America. This explains too why it was not strictly nonviolent: as Stokely Carmichael insisted, “in order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience – the United States has none.”
This sanitized history served not only to save the wounded pride of a white supremacist nation, but worse, to undercut the revolutionary impulse and demands of the concrete struggles in the streets. The same Martin Luther King Jr. who had been denounced by the FBI as a communist was – in light of the growing threat of Black revolutionaries – quickly embraced and exalted. And when he took more openly radical positions, he was executed by the same system that would then christen him a national hero.
What did those struggling in the streets want? To fulfill the program of Radical Reconstruction, then already a century overdue, without which no substantive freedom would be possible. For W.E.B. Du Bois, this meant far more than political equality, which after all had been briefly granted after the Civil War. It meant something fuller and more complete that he – writing at the height of Jim Crow – was pessimistic would ever be accomplished: “the rebuilding, whether it comes now or a century later, will and must go back to the basic principles of Reconstruction in the United States during 1867-1876 – Land, Light and Leading for slaves black, brown, yellow and white, under a dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Here we are, nearly a century and a half later, and Du Bois’ words ring truer than true: formal political equality (Leading) is nothing without economic equality (Land) and education (Light). Moreover, both the formal political equality of the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the formal school desegregation promised in Brown v. Board (1954) have since been gutted and reversed by a string of judicial decisions. “Material force must be overthrown by material force,” and just as Radical Reconstruction itself only existed under the dictatorship of Federal armies, without which it was beaten back by white terror, so too with many advances of the 1960s.
In light of these reversals, what was once a shield for bruised white egos has since come to uphold the misleading idea of a “civil rights generation,” and a cover for new forms of domination. This is a spectrum: on the one hand are well-meaning participants in the Civil Rights Movement who wrongly believed formal political rights would be enough. For some, the struggle came to an end in 1965, and those who continue to complain are ungrateful for sacrifices past. On the other extreme are those who have assumed power directly over the mechanisms for oppressing the Black community. If Ferguson looked a lot like old-school, pre-1965 white supremacy, Baltimore – with its Black mayor and former Black police commissioner – represents this newer, post-1965 form.
But despite the efforts of some more conservative sectors of Black elites to uphold a clean historical division at 1965, it’s also worth remembering that the contemporary struggle between the youth in the streets and the entrenched leadership is itself a repetition of the very conflict that Malcolm X identified in 1964. When Black youth of a previous generation slipped the yoke of the established, nonviolent political leadership, they set into motion the combative dialectic that forced formal equality into the law, and therein lay the hope for today as well.
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?
Policing is and has been the central mechanism for upholding white supremacy in the United States since before the Civil War. But this is only because, as a process, policing has never been carried out solely by “our enemies in blue,” to borrow a phrase from Kristian Williams. Instead, white supremacy and policing have been nearly indistinguishable since slavery.
In the United States, police were basically invented to patrol Black people, and their centrality increased after slavery was formally abolished, because they took on the task of disarming and controlling the movement of the ostensibly free former slaves by enforcing vagrancy laws. Every white person, according to Du Bois, was effectively a member of the police, making the South “an armed camp for intimidating black folk.” Inversely, to police was to be white, since policing was a concrete mechanism in both the material and psychological “wages of whiteness,” providing and income to some poor whites, but a feeling of superiority to all.
As a result, to struggle against white supremacy is to struggle against the police, and vice versa. This is not an abstract truism, as recent years have reminded us: nearly every major insurrection in the United States has been a response to police violence against Black people. Moreover, given the unfulfilled aspirations of Radical Reconstruction, these struggles are always concretely unified as well: labor struggles are nothing if they neglect those who are massively unemployed and warehoused in the prisons, and struggles for education cannot confront a militarization of schools that seeks to cut the “schools” out of the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Struggles against gentrification, moreover, are but the Janus face of struggles against mass incarceration: each confronting a complicit element in the simultaneous containment-displacement of Black Americans.
The necessary unity of these struggles is easier to express in theory than to build in practice, however. Inmate organizing faces nearly insurmountable barriers, although connections are slowly developing. From the California hunger strikes originating in Pelican Bay to more apparently spontaneous outbreaks from Georgia to Pennsylvania, the prison is imposing itself as a locus of struggle. It would be an error to insist that unity is an additive relation, however: while it’s important to do as much as possible to link concrete struggles around, for example, labor and prisons and schools, it is arguably more important to recognize that struggles against prisons and police are labor struggles and are education struggles.
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?
Riots are more relevant than ever, and not only here: from housing estates in London to the Parisian banlieues, from Oakland to Ferguson and Baltimore, to Turkey, Venezuela and beyond. Structural conditions previously reserved for colonized and racialized people are in some ways coming to dominate the landscape as surplus populations expand, geography is carved up in new ways, and our world moves increasingly toward Mike Davis’ apt description: a “planet of slums,” in which the street– not the point of production– tends to serve as the preferred locus of radical action. But alongside these objective conditions, subjective conditions lope forward unpredictably – propelled by and propelling in turn political events: just as rebellions grow out of existing conditions, they transform what we see as the horizon of the possible.
Riots have come to dominate our theoretical and practical landscape and recent U.S. history has proven this beyond a doubt: the Oscar Grant rebellions in Oakland in January of 2009 radically transformed the city and constituted an opening salvo against the postracial myth fostered by Obama’s inauguration that same month. We don’t know the name Ferguson because Mike Brown was murdered there – we know it because people said enough is enough and stood up. And just when it seemed that Ferguson would be the central reference-point of our moment, Baltimore followed suit and even upped the ante: a rebellion not against old-style white supremacy but against a more pernicious form of disguised white supremacy overseen by a Black mayor and Black police commissioner. Those who mourn the effectiveness of riots – in frequent pronouncements that it’s only the “negative” and destructive elements that get attention – tacitly attest to this effectiveness, suggesting that popular rebellions are in themselves creative forces, or at the very least a necessary precondition. As I have put it elsewhere, riots work.
Much could be said about where riots have not happened – but this says more about our outdated expectations than anything else. Phil Neel has rightly argued that the Ferguson rebellion reflected a new racial geography and a suburbanization of poverty that has effectively decentered large cities as sites of unrest. As gentrification reclaimed city centers, the poor – especially non-white – have been expelled beyond the city limits, creating new tactical and strategic situations. Tactically, poor suburbs like Ferguson are a very different space than Brooklyn or the Bronx, but more interesting is the strategic implication: the very political institutions and Black leadership and religious structures that emerged strengthened from the 1960s to contain Black rebelliousness tend to be centered in the cities, leaving other geographical spaces more susceptible to rebellion outside the apparatus of hegemonic containment.
While the subsequent riots and rebellions in Baltimore could be seen to disprove Neel’s analysis, I don’t think this is the case: after all, Baltimore isn’t New York or Chicago, West Baltimore is nothing like its gentrifying core, and the utter disregard shown by city leadership undercut even containment efforts. The point is to be aware of a geographical unevenness that points toward future sites of rebellion– to cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, Oakland, and St. Louis, and moreover to their respective suburban peripheries, deep West Baltimore neighborhoods like Mondawmin, Camden, NJ and Delaware County, East Oakland and Richmond, and Ferguson itself.
While political and religious leaders and nonprofits were quick to rush to Ferguson and Baltimore (one Baltimore Sun headline is telling: “City’s nonprofit sector springs into action after rioting”), the political terrain was both resistant (in the well-deserved treatment meted out to Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in Ferguson) and too extensive to possibly control preemptively. Hegemonic control is an expensive endeavor, and as poverty increases and state and nonprofit revenues decline, the forecast will call for ever more explosive responses in the streets. Fleeting and explosive moments are not enough, however: we need to press creatively toward durable forms that can outlive the riot, but without falling – as leftist orthodoxy too often does – into the prison of preexisting forms.
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?
At first glance, our current moment shares little with previous waves of revolutionary struggle: the Black Power movement coincided with a global wave of anti-colonial resistance, with domestic movements simultaneously inspired by and inspiring to revolutionary movements elsewhere. Our present is apparently very different, posing both internal and external barriers to building relationships of international solidarity between Black struggles today and decolonial (not postcolonial) struggles elsewhere.
Externally, it seems difficult to find a revolutionary process to identify with: some latch onto affirmative struggles in Nepal, Kurdistan, or Venezuela, while others – partly due to the hard lessons of the past – are skeptical of a too-easy solidarity model. While there seems to be a universal sympathy with the eternal victims of our time – the Palestinians – most who oppose Israeli genocide can’t seem to stomach active resistance by the wretched of the earth in Gaza or the West Bank. Here, too, the internal barriers rear their head: while many struggling against U.S. white supremacy have built important bridges with the struggle against Israeli apartheid, some, like Frank Wilderson, insist on the specificity of the U.S. Black experience in a way that sets it apart from global decolonial struggles (this argument has taken an even more caricatured form on Twitter).
In terms of the contexts and subjectivities of the movements involved, moreover, the parallels are important: where Black Americans confront the limitations of a merely formal emancipation, those that Du Bois called the global “dark proletariat” today confront the limitations of a merely formal decolonization. In both cases, the promise of change was betrayed and amputated, a situation that Fanon foresaw on the horizon in 1961: “a few reforms at the top, a flag, and down at the bottom a shapeless, writhing mass, still mired in the Dark Ages.” (As important struggles break out today around the Confederate Flag, these words are worth recalling – a perennial warning about focusing only on the flag, at the expense of the emergence of movements and pressing of other demands).
But both internally and externally, I would argue that the grounds for building international solidarity are as strong as ever. Like the previous moment of upsurge, we are living through a fracturing of the unipolar hegemony of U.S. neoliberalism, and this fracturing of power has opened up a space for popular struggles that have circulated from Latin America through the Arab Spring, before crash landing back in the global core with the riots in London and Paris, the Spanish indignados, Occupy, and the Greek crisis. Building these relationships will take many forms: reviving and transforming a stale solidarity model inherited from Stalinism; insisting on building direct relations between movements, not state-mediated anti-imperialism; and refusing the radical posturing so prevalent today in favor of a revolutionary humility.
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?
The question of Palestine raises this question precisely, because anti-Black racism does have a powerful specificity, especially in the U.S. context, where chattel slavery and the one-drop rule seized upon the anti-Blackness forged in colonial Latin America but took it to radically new levels of absoluteness and Manichaeism. It’s out of this very real history that the permanence of anti-Black racism in the U.S. and the status of Black Americans as the “ultimate exploited” grows. And it is this specificity that must be maintained if this movement – and those that come after it – are to avoid being effectively drained of their historic content and watered-down into oblivion.
This of course raises the specter of #AllLivesMatter, but this is too easy an enemy to waste time on. More complicated are questions historically surrounding the fraught category of “people of color,” which can function to erase that specificity under the heading of unifying the oppressed (and which has led some to formulate the concept of non-Black people of color, NBPOC, in response). And what do we do about the accounts from Oakland of white men in “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts preventing a young Black person in need of medical attention from taking refuge in a store because they were afraid of looting?
In some ways it’s correct to see Black Lives Matter as a response to or a maturation of questions and strategies that emerged in the Occupy Movement. One of the central questions swirling around Occupy was whether or not it had a built-in limitation when it came to the intersection of race and class, whether it was truly as universal as its rhetoric proclaimed or simply a movement mourning the lost privileges of the downwardly-mobile middle class. In practice, Occupy failed miserably – albeit unevenly in different places – to grasp the specificity of anti-Black racism as the foundation of U.S. capitalism, often reacting with hostility to any claims at all that were seen as particular rather than universal (for example, the establishment if POC caucuses). BLM responds to this empty universalism by reasserting the particular as universal: the only way we will all be free is if Black people are free, and we are a long fucking way from Black people being free in this country.
This reverse swing against the universal is not without its own set of risks, however: in particular, the danger that this particularity of Black existence can be easily captured by precisely those forces that today criticize it, that it can be co-opted as a simple demand for recognition as opposed to a radical demand for revolutionary transformation (thus the danger of recent meetings between BLM “leaders” and presidential candidates). Here the danger is built into the name: in a system for which Black lives simply don’t matter, there is a risk that the name could assume the role of comforting incantation for the nation’s guilty conscience instead of symbol of continued struggle.
With the 2016 elections already in swing, the debates around the incorporation of BLM into the political status quo are sharpening. But while we debate whether or not BLM will endorse a candidate, or even who is authorized to speak for so broad a movement in the first place, foundations are pledging hundreds of thousands – soon to be millions – to undercut the dangerous potential this movement contains. If they succeed, divorcing movement leadership from the radical demands of the base and reducing #BlackLivesMatter to a self-righteous hashtag – becoming in the process yet another tragic repetition, another containment apparatus rather than a mechanism of liberation – then the real movement for the abolition of white supremacy may well go underground only to resurface inevitably at some future point.