A radical black professor’s vision of the BLM movement
Believing that Trump chose Tulsa, OK and 6-19-20 as the place and time to kick off his 2020 presidential campaign deliberately, Robin D. G. Kelley, professor of American history at UCLA, described it in a 6-24-20 interview on The Intercept podcast as a “white rally,” opposing black emancipation, celebrated on Juneteenth, and mocking the killing of over 300 black Tulsans in “the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. Choosing Tulsa wasn’t an accident. Just like choosing Juneteenth, June 19th, as the original date for this event wasn’t an accident. Tulsa has a very interesting story, not because of what we typically talk about – the destruction of the Greenwood community in 1921, which was a Black community often called Black Wall Street. After destroying this community, including hospitals, libraries, and churches, with the support of the police and deputized white men, the city interned 7,000 Black people in camps and held them there through the winter of 1921-1922. So imagine you’re rendered homeless and you’re forced into internment camps for the crime was being Black. Trump’s choice of Tulsa is a slap in the face to that history.
Juneteenth also represents emancipation as the date, June 19, 1865, when Galveston, Texas was occupied by the Union army and there was a declaration that slavery had come to an end. Juneteenth is a day of celebration of abolition, but also, historically, at least for the last century and a half, a day of reflection and organizing on the part of Black communities. There’s a long history of Juneteenth representing the opposite of what Trump tried to claim, and his trying to turn that date into a reassertion of his authoritarian rule.
Oklahoma as a whole is an interesting place for another reason, which is that the Homestead Act of 1862, a means of dispossessing Indigenous peoples, also created an opportunity to have all-Black towns, and Oklahoma had more all Black towns than any other state in the Union. Many of these towns were, like the Greenwood district, places of Black autonomy and economic independence, and they were subject to racial pogroms and violence. Many of them were razed, destroyed. So, in some respects, Oklahoma has been a battleground state between Black freedom and white supremacy for a long time. During the late 19thand early 10th century period of Black disfranchisement, Oklahoma was also one of those places where many poor whites were disfranchised. That’s something that few of the 6,000 people at Trump’s rally have an understanding of – that even in the framework of white supremacy, class rule can lead to the disfranchisement of poor white people.”
Scahill added that “at that same rally in Tulsa, Trump claimed that Democrats want ‘rioters and looters’ to have ‘more rights than law-abiding citizens.’ How is Donald Trump using that word ‘looters’ in this instance? Set it in the historical context of this country.”
“The tradition in this country has been to identify looting as criminal behavior, which justifies the state’s relentless use of lethal violence against episodic political violence by people trying to fight back or take advantage of a temporary crisis to try to get commodities. In 2020 this is happening in a context where over 40 million people have applied for unemployment. In the 1960s, the same question was posed. Why do people loot? The answer’s always wide-ranging: it’s economic, political, criminal, senseless, normative, deviant, all these things. But one thing that came out of the ‘60s articles on the subject became the prevailing theory of law enforcement. Looters were identified as hard-core criminals, thugs who just hadn’t been caught yet – an expression of latent criminal tendencies in Black communities rather than people acting during a lack of restraint or responding to a crisis. This became the basis of the broken windows theory, now repudiated, that ignored the structural racism creating horrific conditions in these communities, suppressing home values, and the divestment of services for working people, people of color, and the poor in urban communities. In some ways, it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You create policies that quite literally kill people, deny them basic goods and services, deny them employment, deny them a livelihood, and then you police them at that level of desperation with a fascist structure of violence, rendition, and torture. You’re criminalizing a community rather than dealing with crime, allowing the police to function with almost no boundaries on the basis of a racist untruth. To me, that’s part of the story of looting. Another part is to flip the question of ‘What’s a looter? Who’s doing the looting?’ And what we’ve seen, often, is that it’s the system of racial capitalism.”
Scahill’s asked him to explain that term, and Kelley said, “Racial capitalism is the idea that capitalism isn’t distinct from racism, that racism is a by-product of capitalism, a way to divide workers. It’s a way to extract greater value from, say, enslaved people, Indigenous people, etc. But Cedric Robinson argued that the ground of the civilization in which capitalism emerges is already based on racial hierarchy. If you think of race as assigning meaning to whole groups of people, ideologically convincing others that some people are inferior to others, that some people are designed as beasts of burden, what you end up getting is a system of extraction that allows for a kind of super-exploitation of Black and brown people. Racial capitalism also relies on an ideology or racial regime that convinces a lot of white people, who may get the crumbs of this extraction, to support or shore it up, even though their own share of the spoils is minuscule.
If you think of capitalism as racial capitalism, you realize that you can’t eliminate or overthrow it without the complete destruction of white supremacy. The main function of the police is to protect capital, property of all kinds, including slaves. The whole system of policing is organized around property, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the violent acts of the police are supported by capital, which needs force to terrify people. When we look at the relationship between the cost of police, police budgets, and the amount of money being shelled out to settle police misconduct cases, we’re talking about billions. In my city, Los Angeles, $880 million was shelled out between 2005 and 2018 over police misconduct suits, wrongful death suits, these kinds of things. Why do we let that happen? Companies like Target and Walmart give money to police foundations to make sure the police are operable. Wall Street benefits from police violence. You’d think that capitalists trying to be as efficient as possible would say this has to stop. But imagine if you have a police force that’s not a terror force. A police force that says, ‘of course, labor has a right to strike and to occupy a workplace. Of course, people have a right to protest and to protest freely and engage in forms of civil disobedience that disrupts business as usual.’ That’s not going to work. And we allow ourselves to be mentally deputized, brainwashed into calling the police whenever we think something, however minor, is amiss. And, too often this results in police killing someone, most often a Black man. Part of defunding the police is a recognition that the police, as constituted, make life more dangerous for vulnerable populations even as it creates a false sense of safety for white people. Part of what we have to think about is, how do we get out of the habit, or the reflex, of calling the police to solve issues that should have evoked simple compassion, neighborliness, and other thoughtful responses. Unless we learn how to care for one another, we’re going to continue to have this situation where we call the police and the police continue to kill us.”
Scahill mentioned Kelley’s new book, Black Bodies Swinging, in which he wrote, “‘Reverend William Barber [one of the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign] is right – we’re living through a third Reconstruction, and the great rebellion of the summer of 2020 marks a moment of reckoning between real freedom and fascism.’ Can you expand on that?”
“There are two things I’m trying to deal with in this book. One is to amplify the fact that this generation of abolitionists have the most visionary conception of abolition in history. The first Reconstruction in the 1860s, an effort to expand social democracy to include everyone, faced a backlash, and was crushed under the weight of racial terror, Jim Crow, and disfranchisement. The second Reconstruction, responding to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, an attempt to expand the democracy we had to include all people, and deal with some of the social justice issues of housing and police violence, was based on the idea that the constitutional basis of our system was sound; we just had to tweak it to include everyone. This generation is saying it’s not sound and never has been. It’s been based on dispossession, white supremacy, and gender violence. This vision of abolition isn’t better jails, better police, and better training. It’s no police, no jails, and no prisons. It’s creating a new means of justice based not on criminalization, but affirmation and reparation – trying to repair relationships that have been damaged and destroyed as a result of five centuries of warfare against Indigenous peoples, Africans, poor white people, Asian-Pacific Americans, and Latinx populations. It’s an opportunity to transform not just the nation, but the entire world.
In the 1970s, after the second Reconstruction, the Klan was resurrected and the prison-industrial complex expanded – another backlash and retrenchment. After 2020, we’ll see either more fascism or true abolition. This is a very exciting time, and what the book tries to do isn’t so much predict what’s going to happen, but understand that 500-year history through the stories of particular individuals who have died over the last few years and recognizing what’s unique about the generation that’s emerged since the late 1990s.”
Scahill asked for Kelley’s “big picture thoughts on what that says about our society that Trump and Biden are the two major-party candidates at this moment in history.”
“It says something about the failure of electoral politics to solve this problem. Because, imagine a political conundrum that leaves us with the choice of going back to Clinton-era policies that stripped us of the protections of Glass-Steagall, expanded the prison-industrial complex, and criminalized immigration even further than before. Biden represents that, and if we see this as ‘elect Biden by any means necessary,’ I think we’ve lost. A continued Trump White House, with the backing of the apparatus of state violence, is a much more difficult place to fight these fights, but at the same time, I think that this radical generation sees that no matter who is elected, the fight has to continue because it isn’t just a fight to restore an old democracy, but to create a new one. We can’t silence the critique of Biden and the Clintons and Obama or continue to have a foreign policy built on war and drone strikes, the same kind of violence that’s replicated in the cities of the United States, in the Arab world, and elsewhere.”
Schahill then brought up Kelley’s “book from a couple decades ago, Hammer and Hoe, which tells the story of how in the 1930s and ‘40s, coming out of the Great Depression, Communists took on Alabama’s repressive, racist police state, and engaged in a battle not so different from the analysis that you’re offering now from this newer generation of radical abolitionists. I’m wondering if you could share with people an overview of that book, and share some of the stories that you researched and brought to life in it.”
“That book told the story of a party made up of overwhelmingly Black working people in rural areas, as well as in cities like Birmingham and Montgomery, who fought for the right to organize, for relief for the unemployed, against home eviction, and ultimately for democracy in the South and throughout the country. It preceded the civil rights movement and it had a vision of social democracy that even the civil rights movement didn’t. The Communist Party in Alabama had some white membership, and organized white working people. It actually tried to organize former Klansmen into the organization and got some in there. They saw themselves as a multiracial movement that could create a democratic, anti-capitalist society – true abolition for the entire United States, in solidarity with what they saw as a worldwide movement.
One of the things that made the Communist Party in Alabama different than, say, other movements was the confidence that they had that they were part of a global insurgency. I interviewed people, like a man named Lemon Johnson. When cotton pickers went on strike in 1935, he believed that any significant violence from the planter class would be met with the possibility of Stalin sending troops through Mobile, Alabama to protect them, to engage in class warfare against the planter class.
There are many lessons to be learned from the Communist Party of Alabama, but there’s also a lesson about how movements can be wiped out, and how their history can be destroyed, because by the Cold War, by 1948, though individual communists continued to do their work, the party wasn’t simply outlawed – it was crushed under the pressure of Bull Connor and his regime. We need to come to terms with that history, because I think that the best of this generation is an echo of that moment, and it proves to me, and this is a really important lesson, that anti-racism and class solidarity are not mutually exclusive. It shows the importance of fighting all forms of oppression – not just race and class, but gender oppression, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and ableism – that none of these things can be separated off and left to the side, that a truly, fundamental abolitionist future requires that they all be held together. And the Communist Party of Alabama shows that that actually could happen.”
Scahill: “Arundhati Roy, the great Indian writer, described coronavirus as a portal, and I’m wondering what your assessment is of the racial capitalist system at this moment in an election year with this rebellion that shows no signs of ceasing, with Trump in power and with so many people having their lives and their livelihoods put in the sniper scope of the government and the pandemic.”
“The pandemic is a portal. And as a portal, it’s just an opening. And as an opening, nothing’s guaranteed, but it’s an opening because it exposed the structure of racial and gendered capitalism and the violence meted out to the people who are most vulnerable. The fact that people are already dying from Covid-19 and then dying from state violence, with the video of Ahmaud Arbery, for example, the killing of Breonna Taylor, that these kinds of things exposed both the underside of the health crisis, but also the top side of it – the continuation of racial violence, state-sanctioned violence. So when folks carry the sign around a protest saying “Stop killing us,” that’s a slogan we’ve been carrying for centuries. In some ways, it’s aimed at ending state-sanctioned racist violence, but also ending the violence of poverty, the violence of an unequal health care system, the violence of dilapidated housing, and the violence of economic strangulation. It’s not an accident that these things converge. The question is: What are we going to do in this portal? Do we have the political will to basically recognize the fact that all these conditions are inseparable, that with all these conditions, you can’t simply reform your way out of it? They have to be destroyed and a humane society created that cares about human beings and life itself, over wealth accumulation and property. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen. But I don’t think many portals open up. And this particular portal wasn’t simply rendered open by Covid-19. It was rendered open by what Covid-19 revealed in terms of the contradictions of society that claims to be a democracy and claims to care about people, but actually cares more about property and wealth accumulation than the lives of the most vulnerable. Inequality was foundational to capitalism, and as long as we hold onto those ideas and as long as capitalism exists as a means of accumulating wealth through exploitation, those ideas aren’t going to go away. To me, this is not a matter of a kind of slight redistribution, like let’s give more crumbs to the poor. Nor is it about just ending poverty as we know it. It is about creating a structure of caring and repair in which we can all benefit from our labor and our kind of collective generosity and create a whole new ethos, not just for the United States but for the world.”