Interview with Abdul, Baaseiah, and Nayef of the Wyldfire! Collective, 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 following is a dialogue between “Abdul,” “Baaseiah,” and “Nayef,” all mid-20/30-something, African American/Middle Eastern descent/mixed-race, well-travelled artists and experienced activists in/around the Saint Louis City/County area (Ferguson is part of Saint Louis County). This dialogue is a condensed version of a broader discussion between participants in the Saint Louis-area WyldFire! Collective of the questions/prompts provided by Viewpoint’s inquiry. Names have been changed to protect our friends.
A: I’m not quite sure how to answer this…
B: Well, “we” are not really a group, exactly.
A: Right. I think of us and our friends as a group of Midwest radicals who started working together in the streets of Ferguson after Mike Brown got shot. And when we work together, it’s because we have similar feelings toward what’s happening in the world around us and in our lives.
B: I guess we outta admit a few of us already knew each other before Mike Brown was murdered.
A: Right, some of us met at the rally and pissed off street demo in StL that turned into a small riot when the George Zimmerman verdict came back “not guilty.”
B: Those were good times. Also some of our friends did Food Not Bombs stuff. They met back at Saint Louis’ Occupy. Some of us also just knew each other from around town. Saint Louis really is a small town pretending to be a big city.
A: I feel like what our friends had in common when we came together wasn’t so much political or ideological, not in an organized or a theoretical way, so much as we had some common feelings toward what we were experiencing, in life and in those moments in the streets.
B: Right, we came together basically because we recognized each other in the streets from past stuff, and we were doing a lot of the same sort of stuff out there – tagging slogans on the walls, handing out bandanas and advising some of the folks out there at night to mask-up or take out the cameras, or treating people who’d been teargassed, stuff like that. Yeah, it was less political, and more emotional and practical; about keeping safe together and about how we felt.
A: Well, what about the second part of that question?
B: About the actions we organized? Well, aside from what we already talked about, we did some cooking and food distro with some of our friends in a local Food Not Bombs group under the burnt-out QuickTrip overhang a few nights after Mike Brown got shot. They were there two nights in a row, but the second night we had a table on one side handing out fresh food, and they were barbecuing on the other side and we shared food and war stories and celebrated till the QT parking lot got teargassed later that night.
A: Yeah, that was fun. It was like, some sort of celebration that evening; like a parade of resistance.
B: There were floats, literally, small floats built out of paper mache and whatever else people could get ahold of, mounted on top of cars and in truck beds.
A: And that Thomas the Train thing…
B: “The Peace Train,” that was great!
A: Our actions, aside from the one we coordinated with Food Not Bombs that evening, were not so much “organized” as they were spontaneous convergences of opportunity, need, proximity and happenstance.
B: That’s an overly-complicated way of saying we flash-mobbed. Mass texts to a few dozen friends when the shit goes down!
A: What about “our” future?
B: Do “we” have a future, exactly? I mean, we’re probably gonna keep on doing what we gonna do, just like each of us did before we came together around Mike Brown’s murder.
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-opting be avoided? How can radicals develop the same bases of support that many nonprofits enjoy?
B: I don’t know if we should be looking to get a “support base” like the nonprofits have, acting like them or trying to become them or become like them; I’m very uncomfortable with that.
A: I feel like trying to imitate the nonprofits, or trying to replicate their successes, basically risks becoming them, perpetuating a sort of cycle of recuperation, settling in, professionalism, selling out and treating other people in the struggle as instrumental – like tools to be used by a vanguard who presume they know better.
B: Yeah, and I’m not sure that the bases of support those nonprofit types have even is social, so much as it’s political; it’s professional, like, a service-provider sort of relationship, outsourcing our agency and submitting it to their leadership, and substituting genuine social relations between human beings with organizational, almost military command culture.
A: So the solution lies somewhere in escaping that cycle of institutional violence and focusing on actual social relations between individuals in the context of their communities?
B: That, and more. I think a solution might be something like focusing on the social relations between people as we are now, and on our aspirations, our dreams; how we wish to be. We need to do the long, hard work of finding new ways to resist the violence of representation and carve out spaces for ourselves and each other to take direct, effective action in our own lives and social space.
A: When we are talking about movement, though, does that mean blowing up what you just described to a larger scale?
B: I think it means not being afraid to call out those who would destroy our uprisings by their attempts to control them. There’s nothing to be gained from arbitrary “unity” with those who’ll destroy us if they’re allowed to. They’re as much an enemy as the police, the institutions they serve (often the same institutions the NGO types get their money from), and the ideologies of those individuals and institutions, like racism and misogyny.
N: We don’t play the numbers game, or subscribe to a theory whereby you need a “mass movement,” that with enough numbers, will shift society in a meaningful way. We’re not anti-organizational, we’re just not in the business of recruitment. Our efforts are instead directed towards the creation of spaces or situations, within insurrections, uprisings, or the quiet that sometimes comes after, to expand the possibilities that people consider legitimate forms of resistance, and to let people know that there are others who think differently than the NGOs. We don’t have too much of a desire to live outside these moments of necessity.
A: We do have our own programs, not under this collective name, but through various other groups. Food Not Bombs collective and Saint Louis Solidarity Network are both important, and though they have little digital presence, they are a strong, familiar presence on the ground for working class people. Sometimes we show up to big demonstrations and give away food, water, and political literature. These efforts can be easy to set up, but they can keep people energized for a demonstration as it runs late into the evening. Scaling up, these groups run monthly mutual aid event, collecting spoilage donations and seasonal clothes. Together, these programs fulfill people’s immediate needs, while also using the space to share ideas and politics. At the distribution, we often try to have talks – about rape culture, the protests, whatever. The emphasis for these events is not so much gaining numbers around our banner or ideology, but using these as opportunities to meet co-conspirators, and to change ideas about what acceptable resistance looks like, and the scope of what we’re fighting against.
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?
B: Yes, riots do work – as history shows – and are absolutely necessary if we’re to move past tired old tactics that never worked. Rather than asking whether or not rioting works, I think the real question needs to be why it is that we get herded into worthless peace-policed and permitted protests on the sidewalks? The point of protest outa be to threaten, a last warning to those in authority before we end them. If we’ve got no teeth and no backbone, I don’t see the point. Street militancy shows we’ve got backbone, and riots show we’ve got teeth.
A: Yeah, militancy is effective. I look at it in terms of the QT that was burned to the ground. Before that happened, Mike Brown was any other Black teen slain by the police. But people did something that the media, police, and many local people didn’t expect, and I’ve met some young people who carried out those actions who seemed surprised by their own actions. It generated a lot of media attention, and changed the way people respond to these murders.
N: Right, but how do we measure effectiveness? I’ve been wondering if something that was effective earlier will always be effective later. Capitalism and the state shift and change as we throw ourselves against it, responding to us. It’s a many headed hydra, with each head looking different from the last. It seems that after awhile it becomes inoculated against certain tactics and strategies. I mean, as powerful as the riots were, they’re worth thinking about this way, too. They beat us and fired tear gas at us, though we gave them a good run, as well. But the next day, our muscles hurt, we’re sore, and some friends are behind bars, but the institutions are still in place. And in four weeks, our efforts are completely exhausted, and those institutions show no signs of dissipating. In the long run, we’re not sure what’s going to work.
B: One concept that some of us were toying with before all of this kicked off in Ferguson was “community unionism.” We were kind of grasping for straws, but thought that maybe an answer to the increasing precarity of workers, and the epic failure of trade or labor unionism to revitalize itself, would be a kind of community based organization. We had this idea that, instead of going to workers at the point of production, we could go to where they live. By organizing at the neighborhood level, people can choose to focus on issues of racism, of cultural problems, and have an explicit focus on what’s left outside of mainstream politics. The goal wouldn’t be to pass some new kind of laws, but to bring people together, to change our own hearts. As the pitched street battles fade, we are thinking of turning back to community unionism.
The movements of the 1960s and 1970s against racism and police violence led to the emergence of new kinds of organization – 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?
A: I do see new organizations forming, all across the board, though I don’t know if the organizations are the best place to look to understand the changing dynamics of resistance culture.
B: We’re better off looking to the spontaneous outbursts in the absence of organizational influence or control, and I don’t just mean acts of violence. Like the night after Mike Brown got shot, Ferguson PD came down into the neighborhood and broke up a candlelight vigil using dogs, tear gas, flashbang grenades and riot gear. There was a very diverse crowd present at the candlelight vigil, and in response many very enraged people surged up the street into the Quicktrip and burned it to the ground.
But what was really amazing was seeing what people did in the aftermath, as QT burned. We saw teenagers handing out food and medicine and hygiene supplies to folks in need in the neighborhood, offering looted cigarettes, booze and gum to strangers, spontaneously dancing and embracing in the streets. Back then that’s where we met some of the folks who became the dearest of friends, and a lot of people bonded over that.
A: I don’t know anyone who’s ever told me they bonded over long, arduous meetings or micromanaged protests managed by NGO types.
N: As a result of these experiences, I think we tend to associate organization with the dis-organizing imperative of the NGOs, the clergy, or even the Revolutionary Communist Party, Spartacus League, and the Progressive Labor Party. Whenever there’s a hint of activity in Ferguson, they’re bused in from Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, or who knows where, and they arrive to bicker with each other and local militant youth.
I often hear and recognize someone on the metro from these various events, and we will exchange a look or smile. I think that in a way, I can see how these kind of relationships are a kind of hidden organization, which is different from those who demand that you do work under their own banner before they take you and your ideas seriously.
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?
A: For starters, I don’t think there’s any future for struggle in the ally politic model.
B: Right. That model only reinforces radical other-ing and white liberal guilt/savior complexes. When I think about the future of movement, I think a lot about the accomplices model, where what brings us together is our common interest in resistance, our common insistence on taking direct action toward liberation, ourselves, and the common risk we take as individuals together in our pursuit of liberation.
N: This can be tricky when you’re standing next to someone who might be a liberal or a Garveyite, and they begin to chant something that indicates that they’re not in the same struggle as you are. But when your shoulder to shoulder and up against the wall, it’s hard to refuse their comradeship in that moment. We’ve had to learn a certain kind of ideological fluidity, where we can work with people in some contexts, and have to challenge them or separate ourselves from them in other ones. Unfortunately, while there’s a real need for debate within the movement about tactics, strategy, and larger orientation, these debates unfold in really disruptive ways. These conversations between participants in the movement have been really difficult to have.
A: Some of these problems come from reductionism surrounding “white privilege” analysis. It’s an important dynamic for us to recognize, but line that everyone needs to shut up and follow Black leadership, which has in practice meant follow an established liberal leadership, has its own problems.
N: As an immigrant with brown skin, as a Palestinian, the kind of oppression olympics built into the model of ally politics disturbs me politically. To have a college educated white person shouting at me and my friends because we’re not perceived to be as Black as other people, has meant surrendering all the momentum to liberals. It’s disheartening, because a lot of people are becoming invested in it, including the extreme black-white dichotomies as a way to understand race.
A: Like some of the meanings attached to the old word “comrade,” I think the concept of the accomplice gives us the space we all need for difference, the autonomy to take individual action, and a unity based on the actions we have and will take, not on some arbitrary abstraction or on identity categories – which are far from homogenous or unified in their interests and pursuit of those interests.
B: I remember when Nelly, a rapper who is actually from Saint Louis, came out to speak last fall in Ferguson, at the Camfield apartment complex. He was saying how important it is to go to college, to get a job, to become entrepreneurs, and to infiltrate the police forces by becoming police themselves. As if that’s ever changed their core function! And everyone there was just jeering at him, and so he responded with something like: “you have options.” I remember a woman in the crowd fired back saying, “no, you’re rich, you have options.” I think that kind of exchange was emblematic for what we’ve been dealing with out here; we run up against misleaders and celebrity activists that are brought out to validate the aspiring leadership of locals. Linking up with marginalized and working class people is the best way to fight that dynamic, because it’s those people who are themselves saying ‘to hell with that leadership!’