An interview with Unity & 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?
Unity and Struggle is a small communist collective, primarily located in Atlanta, Houston, and New York City. We have reformed and reshaped our grouping many times over the years, though our lineage goes back to Love and Rage Anarchist Federation in the 1990s. Our group has shifted most sharply around Marx’s ideas; we spent the last several years grounding ourselves in a Marxist framework. Unity and Struggle is primarily a propaganda circle, but it is expected that our members engage in organizing projects and study. We’ve been involved in a wide variety of projects over the years, including student struggles around Palestine solidarity, anti-austerity, and worker/student campaigns; queer liberation struggles; antifascist organizing; immigrant organizing; and tenant, neighborhood and workplace organizing.
Most recently, we participated in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) wave, starting with Trayvon Martin but really gearing up during Ferguson. On the local level, we’re working to transition the initial crest in BLM activity into sustained organizing in different cities, in whatever form(s) that may take. Our members are currently helping to build small fighting organizations that challenge policing in our neighborhoods by building milieus, hosting Know Your Rights trainings and anti-police educational events, developing solidarity networks, etc. We have discussed the possibility of organizing around the demand to “Disempower, Disarm and Disband” police everywhere. Nationally, we will be connecting with others involved in BLM through writing projects, coordinating events, traveling to cities with new radicalizing layers and coordinating organizing projects regionally and nationally.
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?
These are always guesses, but many of us have a sense that anti-police work is strategic because (1) police brutality is a site of class struggle that is shared across a growing swath of the working class, and (2) police brutality is a mechanism the system cannot help but continue to employ for the foreseeable future, thus trapping itself between a rock and a hard place.
In the first place, the historical origins of the police as slave catchers and strike breakers indicates their ongoing role in capitalist accumulation. The police have been the means to attack and discipline the social and political power of the proletariat and oppressed people, and ultimately, determine the overall conditions of labor. In our current moment, the economic crisis is forcing ever greater numbers of us into potential conflict with the cops, which thus appears as the first sign of the objective power of capital over our lives. The police have been the blunt end of the shift toward precarity as a universal social condition. Of course cops have been there for at least a century, backing up the manager and the boss. But to the degree deepening inequality and class antagonism are accompanied by widespread precarity, lumpenization (hustling on the side to survive), and “team management” bullshit in many workplaces, police may become the most explicit form of appearance of the capital relation.
The police are therefore something widely encountered across the proletariat, the key mechanism that ensures the reproduction of class relations by force. Here we vibe a bit with Théorie Communiste, when they say “the police is the force which, in the last instance, is our own existence as a class as limit.” Police prevent us from simply taking the means of subsistence and production we need to survive, and thereby abolishing ourselves as a class. Of course this is not the only way class struggle is expressed in our moment – there are mass strike waves happening in East and Southeast Asia, sparked by confrontations with employers – but it is a major dimension of the proletarian experience right now from Rio to Cape Town to Mumbai.
Secondly, the U.S. ruling class will have a hell of a time reforming the police in a manner sufficient to contain the unrest. True, there is a “decarceration” tendency in the progressive ruling class, which aims to lower the prison population and shift funding toward alternatives to incarceration, compulsory job and housing placements, and individualized monitoring and surveillance. This program could conceivably synch up with “community policing” reforms, and dampen the revolt against police violence and mass incarceration. But realizing this tendency would require a huge overhaul of police, penal, and welfare agencies, and it might introduce more social instability in the process. Also, at least for the black struggle, there exists no adequate “patronage system” to broker such a transition. The old civil rights leadership is aging out, and the new black petit-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie is separated geographically, culturally, and institutionally from the black proletariat, leaving in their wake a gaping crisis of legitimacy.
Of course, anti-police work contains its own limits – this connects to the question about linking up different movements. For most of Unity and Struggle, connecting movements is not only about relating to them rhetorically (“cops taze people on the street, and students get tazed on campus”) or analytically (“the surplus value workers make in factories is tapped by merchants in sales and landlords in rent”), though these are important. It is also very practical and relational: how do we weave together the milieus that develop around our different areas of work? How do we connect people who have radicalized in one context – say, BLM protests – and introduce them to new and different kinds of activity, as things pop off in different areas and around different issues? Unity and Struggle members generally believe “activity precedes consciousness”: our sense of ourselves as members of a global working class is shaped through practical experiences of collective coordination and power, and not simply through reasoned argumentation or propaganda. So cultivating collaboration between, say, people fighting police violence and people fighting slumlords – and through it imagining how these struggles might influence one another materially – is one way to lay the seeds for class unity to emerge in the future.
In Houston, this has involved inviting folks we met in the streets during the Ferguson protests to accompany us when we visited pickets during the February oil strike, and to get involved in a local solidarity network that can pivot between anti-boss, -landlord, and -cop organizing. The goal remains to develop continuity between waves of struggle by connecting organic militants we meet in struggles and developing ties across different sectors. The older syndicalist, socialist and communist tradition had its set of organizational forms to do this, and we need new forms to do so across struggles at different points of production and reproduction. We are playing with S. Nappolos’ “intermediate organization” idea to help us think through doing this today. “Intermediate” groups bring together committed revolutionaries and working class militants beyond the single-issue or single-sector focus of mass organizations, like trade unions or activist coalitions. They may operate within existing mass groups (like independent workplace committees within a union) or on their own as independent collectives. In an era where union density is declining, while small autonomous groups are able to initiate and drive activity using the internet, we can explore “intermediate” groups as a type of organization with their own potentials.
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?
Most of us have partial agreement with Blaumachen’s “Era of Riots” thesis, in the sense that urban riots are a major dimension of class struggle in the current period (taking into account the varying development and class composition around the globe, and their different tactical repertoires). We think these riots are politically relevant in the U.S. because they send shockwaves across the society; they fracture dominant ideology, and spark mass questioning of the system beyond their immediate social base; they expose internal divisions within the class, and point to their possible resolution. Of course riots do not immediately produce class unity – depending on the staying power of (white) workers’ reformism, internal divisions could even deepen. But they establish the conditions for a higher unity to emerge, and for class recomposition to occur. We agree with C.L.R. James that autonomous black struggle has the potential to “bring the proletariat on the scene.”
Still, riots only create openings. People have to build around that opening and develop the ability for struggles to deepen and broaden. We don’t mean this just in a military sense, in terms of what tactics we use in the streets, but also in a political sense. To prevent the class base that launched a riot from being outright repressed, or simply contained, exhausted and co-opted, we need to help riots sustain in time, leap across sectors (like when the urban rebellions of the late 1960s fueled the wildcat strike waves of 1970 and 1974), and take on a “combined and uneven” character of riots, strikes, occupations at once. This involves all kinds of organizational, strategic and tactical challenges, but also political ones. How do we seed the kind of class consciousness that will facilitate these leaps when they are possible, and unveil the ways our lives are bound together under the forms of appearance imposed on us by capital?
In terms of the political economy of urban development, there have been some good posts on this. We’ve seen flashpoints in “weak links” like Ferguson, and suburbs like McKinney or where Trayvon was killed. All these were racial border zones outside the urban cores, which brought white security forces into contact with the black proletariat and petit-bourgeoisie in new ways. Similar things could happen in sprawl cities like Houston, where the development of the black political elite has not kept up with the growth of the city. Existing patronage networks there are fixed to historically black neighborhoods, whose proletarian black population is being pushed into other areas, such as southwest Houston. This creates potential openings for struggle that can’t be immediately subsumed by the black political elite.
In Baltimore by contrast, rioting broke out in a black urban center – one of the most immiserated on the East Coast – but it was contained by black middle class leadership (the Nation of Islam, black politicians, the young black state prosecutor who brought charges against the cop, with whom many people sympathized). Places like New York City haven’t even seen that much, because while you have a brutal police-army, you also have a robust NGO complex with a still hegemonic petit-bourgeois left, and a “progressive” multi-racial city bureaucracy with its patronage systems still fairly intact. The social decay is more contained in there, despite flashpoints like the 2013 Flatbush riot. In Atlanta, black respectability politics still dominates much of the discourse of the media and political elite. Although this is being challenged by an increasingly radicalized BLM movement, there is a strong precedent of respectable protesting and “shouting truth to power.” Similarly in Philly you have a very long-established black political elite, and a police chief (Ramsey) renowned as a velvet glove specialist – though Philly is crazy immiserated, so a Baltimore scenario could be possible there too.
Regarding metrics for struggle, most of us would agree you have to measure movements by more than their street militancy. We would say you also have to look beyond the numbers of members in established left organizations. Some criteria for a growing movement might be the amount of independent organization and class consciousness it’s leaving in its wake: how many new grouplets mushroomed up in the course of the wave? How many have persisted? How profound is the sense that “something is wrong with this society,” and how deeply are people searching for political answers? How much did people develop a sense that, collectively, we can drive the course of history?
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?
New kinds of organization inevitably emerge in a mass movement, although, given the recent lull in activity, the trajectories of the new groups formed out of BLM aren’t entirely clear. To make our best guess at where things will head, we have to be attuned to the objective basis of these new forms of organization, and understand how their development unfolds in different conditions than the 1960s and 1970s.
Historically, like all mass movements in capitalist society, the black struggle has had contradictory expressions. On the one hand, black movements have been struggles for entry into the wage relation, the labor market, and civil society. On the other hand, they have revealed the arbitrary and historical character of race and the social and political institutions that reproduce it, and so have drawn modern capitalist society into question. In each period of black struggle, from the slave revolts, to Reconstruction, to the Great Migration, to Civil Rights, these contradictory potentials have been continually re-presented.
We’ve written a bit elsewhere about the dual character of the black movement from the 50s-70s, and how it played out. Suffice it to say, this movement destroyed Jim Crow, and gave rise to the so-called “post-racial” situation we have today. This new era was characterized by the haphazard entry of some blacks into factory, public sector, and white collar jobs, followed by downsizing; the breakout of black capitalists into integrated markets; and the formal acceptance of black politicians into the political system. In the process, the old black community, shaped by decades of legal and de facto segregation, was riven with growing class antagonism. Some people moved on up, while the black working class endured deindustrialization, white flight, the drug war, mass incarceration, and resurgent precarity.
Today a reinvented “colorblind racist” discourse surrounds the black working class, whose class position is rationalized as a result of their nature as inherently criminal, unemployable, shiftless, incapable of maintaining nuclear families, etc. The black upper-middle class and bourgeoisie encounter prejudice in the integrated universities, professions, and neighborhoods they have gained access to. They occasionally catch shit from institutions geared toward repressing the black proletariat (for example, when New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s son, a student at Yale, was stopped by campus security with guns drawn). The universities and NGOs bring these layers together, in different combinations.
There are many small groupings developing out of the BLM movement, and all of them are shaped by these conditions, and express their contradictions. That said, the movement is still unfolding and its trajectory is open. No single political perspective or class fraction holds hegemony. While young middle-class people are shaping the movement’s direction nationally (outside moments of rioting), this layer itself is internally contradictory, and pulls in different directions.
Some of the new groups are more working class or lumpen in character (say, Lost Voices in Ferguson), while some are more middle class in character (some of the “official” #BLM groups, it seems to us, are comprised of grad/students or people with some connection to nonprofit staff). Some are exclusively black, while others are multiracial in composition, if usually majority non-white. Across the board, the new groups are autonomous from the old black patronage system forged out of Civil Rights, and rely on their disruptive potential in the streets for political leverage, rather than the city, state, or federal political connections employed by the old guard. They have been acting as “networked Leninists” (see Rodrigo Nuñes 1, 2) by jump-starting mass protests through loose networks, and driving popular discussion.
Progressive capitalists have already made overtures to draw these new groups into the fold: Soros donated $33 million to BLM groups last year, for example. So far their control is weak, and the recent statement repudiating the Democratic Party is a good sign. Nevertheless, we find many BLM groups operating outside the nonprofits still reproduce their logic in rhetoric and strategy. For example, many new groups are doing direct actions, but remain stuck in a moral critique of racism and capitalism that leaves room for the parties and NGOs to step in with “real” solutions. We saw this in the backstage discussion with Hillary.
So young people have leapt beyond the parties and NGOs in the streets, but they don’t yet have a revolutionary analysis of society to definitively separate themselves from the latter, and they aren’t yet able to consolidate their own fighting organizations. In the vacuum, possible political differences continue to emerge. One emerging divide is a between black feminist, queer and trans politics on the one side, and a kind of pseudo-black nationalist patriarchal politics on the other. We saw this play out in the #SayHerName protests, especially in Philly, and in the critique of hotep dudes online.
Unity and Struggle is trying to keep track of this dizzying and uneven development across the country, and highlight any lines of coherence that tend in a revolutionary direction. We have been working with the “Disempower, Disarm and Disband” slogan as one way to encapsulate the revolutionary perspective that is out there right now, but has yet to cohere in a distinct pole. Of course, disarming and disbanding the police is a long-term goal (while we could see de-militarization, and the disbanding of particular units, sooner). But “disempowering” the police is already happening on a mass level, for example in the video of the women in New York City preventing a young girl from being arrested. And this emerging militancy is reflected in the “official” BLM movement too, for example in the de-arrest that happened at their conference in Cleveland. We can help this activity spread and formalize.
Generally, we see the role of revolutionaries being to recognize this pole in formation, and help it cohere politically and organizationally across the country. Our hunch is, the contours of this pole include some kind of anti-capitalism, a rejection of bourgeois parties, and an attempt to grapple with race and white supremacy as a system endemic to capitalism.
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?
Polarization is definitely part of the dynamic right now, with resurgent black and left-wing movements prompting a right-wing response in turn. It has a contrapuntal character: the BLM movement crests and begins to fall, and then a conservative reaction happens. At times the reaction is premised on individuals who haul off and shoot cops for a variety of reasons, maybe related to mass frustration at the inability of the movement to achieve deep gains (cop shootings like this happened after the BLM crest in NYC, but also LA and recently Texas).
Part of the reaction comes from within the state itself, with politicians calling for the movement to discipline itself under respectable leadership, and police agencies rolling out new surveillance programs. But part of it also emerges “from below” and is semi-autonomous from the state. This includes the rank-and-file rebellion within the police unions, isolated fascist shooters like Dylan Roof, organized fascist activity like the Nazis in Olympia or the Klan in Charleston, and broader right-populist mobilizations like the Oath Keepers going to Ferguson.
In this area, we are still establishing a common framework to discuss the questions at hand, and comparing conclusions from practice and study. One line of discussion we are having relates to the concept of the “united front,” and another relates to the political dynamics of right-populism.
The “united front” discussion is about how to smash the far right, without being isolated and targeted by the state, nor being absorbed by the liberal response to the right. This includes strategic and tactical questions like: what is the best balance between smashing fascists militarily vs. out-organizing their base? How to avoid state repression of revolutionary antifascism? When and how to cohere a broad front against right-wing attacks, including liberals? How to pivot from defensive moments, where we are fending off right wing attacks, to offensive moments, where we emerge as a strengthened, independent revolutionary pole? We haven’t come to a common position on these questions yet. But we are learning in practice through successive moments of right-wing reaction, and through historical study of “united fronts” in the communist and anarchist traditions.
Another discussion is about how we should understand the populist right, particularly the broad Patriot movement. One perspective says the Patriot movement is more dangerous than the ideologically committed fascists, because of their broader political legitimacy, and their open use of arms in the streets. On top of this, we are also weighing the significance of the internal contradictions within the Patriot movement, and whether any fragments of it could potentially swing to the left – and if so, how we should then confront Patriots in the streets. Finally, we are wondering if there is a possibility of an alliance between elements of the Patriot movement and conservative black groups like the New Black Panther Party or Detroit 300, like a contemporary mutation of the historical talks between Garvey and the Klan. We’re paying close attention to developments like the recent split in the Oath Keepers over the proposed black open carry protest in Ferguson, and listening to what the rest of the revolutionary antifascist left is saying. We don’t have a common position on these questions yet, either.
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?
Most of Unity and Struggle agrees there are differences of power within the working class, with some sections (men, whites, citizens, etc.) able to gain benefits at the expense of other sections, but at the cost of class solidarity and posing a challenge to capitalism as a whole. The autonomous movement of black proletarians, even as it prompts the black bourgeoisie and political elite to make their own moves, also challenges these internal divisions within the class, and so lays the groundwork for a renewed struggle against both race and capital.
Non-black working class people thus have reason to support and participate in black struggles – not only from an ethical perspective, but also in order to realize their class interests, which requires abolishing race as we have known it. We vibe with Sojourner Truth Organization’s ideas from back in the day: rather than calling for “black and white, unite and fight” as if both sides were equal players in a given whole, we say the specific struggles of black proletarians are in all of our interests, and make it possible for us to win together, and we relate to them as such.
Our take on non-black participation in the BLM movement jumps off from this perspective. If the BLM movement inspires non-black people to participate, they can and should do so, while highlighting how the success or failure of the black struggle bears on their own liberation. They can and should discuss any disagreements they have, if they believe these ideas undermine the self-movement of the black proletariat, and therefore, the class struggle. They can and should connect the black movement (rhetorically, analytically, practically) to other areas of organizing, while confronting any developments that would undercut the black movement in turn.
Most of us think “ally” politics is too limited to capture this: it assumes a liberal horizon of rights and inclusion, reifies racial categories, and lends legitimacy to black bourgeois forces. From this perspective, black groups calling for black-owned businesses ought to be supported unquestioningly by white allies. Non-black militants supporting black youth in the streets against NGOs should be “called out” for endangering the directly affected. All of us should “stay in our lane” based on our identity category, with a fixed tactical playbook assigned accordingly.
We generally support autonomous organization based on shared experience, as a way to develop new theory and practice that the broader movement has undermined. At the same time, we hold up the usefulness of multi-racial, multi-gender organization as a venue to synthesize autonomous experiences. These are moments that move back and forth, dynamically and historically. There will be periods of discontinuity and tension between black and non-black militants, so long as the real differences between us aren’t yet undermined in practice and struggle. But there will also be times when unified action, or the initiatives and ideas of non-black people, will be useful for the black movement.
There is no “one size fits all” way white people should relate to black struggles, or vice versa. As Selma James described very well, there is instead a continual process of development, that creates the possibility for ever higher levels of unity and struggle.