Category Archives: Black lives matter
In “Stopping Fascism,” his most recent podcast on “Alternative Radio,” writer and social critic Chris Hedges compares the declining Roman Empire with the US in 2017 – both “dominated by a bloated military and corrupt oligarchy.” He adds that just as getting rid of the vain and incompetent Emperor Commodus in 192 AD didn’t stop Rome’s decline, getting rid of Donald Trump won’t stop ours. “The choice is between inept fascists like Trump and competent fascists like Pence. Our republic and our democracy are dead,” as the result of a four-decade takeover by the conservative elite and the corporate state. Hedges goes on to describe what’s happening and detail the only way he sees to counter it.
“Idiots, seeing in such decay the chance for personal advancement and/or profit, take over in the final days of crumbling civilizations. Idiot generals wage endless unwinnable wars that bankrupt the nation. Idiot economists call for reducing taxes for the rich and cutting social service programs for the poor and falsely project economic growth. Idiot industrialists poison the water, the soil, and the air, slash jobs, and depress wages. Idiot bankers gamble on self-created financial bubbles and impose crippling debt peonage on citizens. Idiot journalists and public intellectuals pretend despotism is democracy. Idiot intelligence operatives orchestrate the overthrowing of foreign governments to create lawless enclaves that give rise to enraged fanatics. And idiot professors, experts, and specialists busy themselves with unintelligible jargon and arcane theory that buttress the policies of the rulers. Idiot entertainers and producers create lurid spectacles of sex, gore, and fantasy.
There’s a familiar checklist for extinction, and we’re ticking off every item on it. The idiots know only one word: ‘more.’ They’re unencumbered by common sense. They hoard wealth and resources until workers can’t make a living and the infrastructure collapses. They live in privileged compounds where they eat chocolate cake and order missile strikes. They see the state as a projection of their own vanity. The Roman, Mayan, French, Hapsburg, Ottoman, Romanoff, Wilhelmine, Pahlavi, and Soviet dynasties crumbled because the whims and obsessions of ruling idiots were law.
Trump is the face of our collective idiocy. He is what lies behind the mask of our professed civility and rationality, a sputtering, narcissistic, bloodthirsty megalomaniac. This face in the past was hidden, at least to most white Americans, but with the destruction of democratic institutions and the disempowerment of the citizen, the oligarchs and the kleptocrats have become brazen. They no longer need to pretend. They steal and lie openly. They wield armies and fleets against the wretched of the earth, blithely ignore the looming catastrophe caused by global warming, and cannibalizing the nation. Forget the paralysis in Congress and the inanity of a press that covers our descent into tyranny as if it were a sports contest between corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats or a reality show starring our maniacal president. The crisis we face isn’t embodied in the public images of the politicians that run our dysfunctional government. It’s a four-decade-long slow-motion corporate coup d’état that’s left corporations and the war machine omnipotent, turned our electoral system into legalized bribery, and elevated public figures who master the arts of entertainment and artifice. Trump is the symptom; he is not the disease.
Our descent into despotism began with the pardoning of Richard Nixon, all of whose impeachable crimes are now legal, and the extrajudicial assault, including targeted assassinations and imprisonment, carried out on dissidents and radicals, especially black radicals. This assault, done in the name of law and order, put the organs of internal security, from the FBI to Homeland Security, beyond the reach of the law. It began with the creation of corporate- funded foundations and organizations that took control of the press, the courts, the universities, scientific research, and the two major political parties. It began with empowering militarized police to kill unarmed citizens and the spread of a horrendous system of mass incarceration and the death penalty. It began with the stripping away of our most basic constitutional rights: privacy, due process, habeas corpus, fair elections, and dissent. It began when big money was employed by political operatives such as Roger Stone, a close adviser to Trump, who spread malicious gossip and false narratives, eagerly amplified by a media devoted to profits and ratings rather than truth, until political debate became burlesque.
The ruling elites, terrified by the mobilization of the left in the 1960s, built counter-institutions to delegitimize and marginalize critics of corporate capitalism and imperialism. They bought the allegiances of the two main political parties, and imposed obedience to the neoliberal ideology within academia and the press. This campaign, laid out by Lewis Powell in his 1971 memorandum titled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” was the blueprint for the creeping coup d’état that 45 years later is complete.
Our failure to defend the rights of those who are demonized and persecuted leaves us all demonized and persecuted, and now we’re paying for our complacency, trapped like rats in a cage. A con artist may be turning the electric shocks on and off, but the problem is the corporate state. Until we dismantle that, we’re doomed.
Racist, violent, and despotic forces have always been part of the American landscape. They have often been tolerated and empowered by the state to persecute poor people of color and dissidents. These forces are denied absolute power as long as a majority of citizens have a say in their own governance. But once citizens are locked out of government and denied a voice, power shifts into the hands of the enemies of the open society. When democratic institutions cease to function, when the consent of the governed becomes a joke, despots fill the political void. They give vent to popular anger and frustration while arming the state to do to the majority what it has long done to the minority.
This tale is as old as civilization. It was played out in ancient Greece and Rome, the Soviet Union, fascist Germany, fascist Italy, and the former Yugoslavia. Once a tiny cabal seizes power – monarchist, Communist, fascist, or corporate – it creates a Mafia economy and a Mafia state.
Corporations are legally empowered to exploit and loot, and it’s impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or Exxon Mobil. The pharmaceutical and insurance industries are legally empowered to hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons or daughters. Banks are legally empowered to burden people with student loans that can’t be forgiven by declaring bankruptcy. The animal agriculture industry is legally empowered in many states to charge those who attempt to publicize the conditions in the vast factory farms, where diseased animals are warehoused for slaughter, with a criminal offense. Corporations are legally empowered to carry out tax boycotts. Free-trade deals legally empower global corporations to destroy small farmers and businesses and deindustrialize the country. Government agencies designed to protect the public from contaminated air, water, and food and usurious creditors and lenders have been gutted. The Supreme Court, in an inversion of rights worthy of George Orwell, defines unlimited corporate contributions to electoral campaigns as the right to petition the government and a form of free speech. The press, owned by corporations, is an echo chamber for the elites. State and city enterprises and utilities are sold off to corporations that hike rates and deny services. The educational system is being privatized and turned into a species of rote vocational training. Wages are stagnant or have declined. Unemployment and underemployment, masked by falsified statistics, have thrust half the country into chronic poverty. Social services are abolished in the name of austerity. The infrastructure, neglected and underfunded, is collapsing. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, food shortages, and untreated illnesses that lead to early death plague a harried underclass. The state, rather than address the economic misery, militarizes police departments and empowers them to use lethal force against unarmed citizens. It fills the prisons with 2.3 million people, few of whom ever got a trial. And a million prisoners now work for corporations inside prisons as modern-day slaves paid pennies on the dollar without any rights or protection.
The amendments to the Constitution, designed to protect the citizen from tyranny, are meaningless. The Fourth Amendment, for example, reads, ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’ The reality is that our telephone calls, emails, texts, and financial, judicial, and medical records, along with every website we visit and our physical travels, are tracked, recorded, and stored in perpetuity in government computer banks. The executive branch of government is empowered to assassinate U.S. citizens. It can call the army into the streets to quell civil unrest under Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, overturning the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibited the military from acting as a domestic police force. The executive branch can order the military to seize US citizens deemed to be terrorists or associated with terrorists in a process called extraordinary rendition. Those seized can be denied due process and habeas corpus and held indefinitely in military facilities. Constitutionally protected statements, beliefs, and associations are now criminalized. The state can detain and prosecute people not for what they have done, or even for what they are planning to do, but for holding religious or political beliefs that the state deems seditious. The first of those targeted have been observant Muslims, but they will not be the last. The outward forms of democratic participation – voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight, and legislation – are meaningless theater. No one who lives under constant surveillance, who is subject to detention anywhere, at any time, who can’t protect themselves from corporate exploitation, can be described as free. The relationship between the state and the citizen is one of master and slave, and the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.
The coup destroyed the two-party system, labor unions, education, the judiciary, the press, academia, consumer and environmental protection, our industrial base, communities and cities, and the lives of tens of millions of Americans no longer able to find work that provides a living wage, cursed to live in chronic poverty or locked in cages. Perhaps even more ominously, this coup destroyed the credibility of liberal democracy itself. Self-identified liberals such as the Clintons and Barack Obama mouthed the words of liberal democratic values while making war on these values in the service of corporate power, thus rendering these values meaningless.
The acceleration of deindustrialization by the 1970s created a crisis that forced the ruling elites to adopt a new ideology, telling undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from corporate greed but from a threat to national integrity. The old consensus that buttressed the programs of the New Deal and the welfare state was discredited as enabling criminal black youth, welfare queens, and social parasites, opening the door to an authoritarian populism begun by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which supposedly championed family values, traditional morality, individual autonomy, law and order, the Christian faith, and the return of a mythical past. It turns out, 45 years later, that those who truly hate us for our freedoms are not the array of dehumanized enemies cooked up by the war machine: the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, even the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or ISIS. They are the financiers, bankers, politicians, public intellectuals and pundits, lawyers, journalists, and business people cultivated in the elite universities and business schools who sold us the utopian dream of neoliberalism.
We are entering the twilight phase of capitalism. Capitalists, unable to generate profits by expanding markets, have, as Karl Marx predicted, begun to cannibalize the state like ravenous parasites. Wealth is no longer created by producing or manufacturing, but by manipulating the prices of stocks and commodities and imposing a crippling debt peonage on the public. This casino capitalism is designed to prey on the desperate young men and women burdened by student loans, underpaid workers burdened by credit-card debt and mortgages, and towns and cities forced to borrow to maintain municipal services.
This seminal moment in human history marks the end of a long, tragic tale of plunder and murder by the white race. Europeans and Americans have spent five centuries conquering, plundering, exploiting, and polluting the earth in the name of civilization and human progress. They used their technological superiority to create the most efficient killing machines on the planet, directed against anyone or anything, especially indigenous cultures, that stood in their way. They stole and hoarded the planet’s wealth and resources, and believed their orgy of blood and gold would never end. Even now, as we stand on the cusp of extinction, we lack the ability to free ourselves from this myth of human progress. The taxes of corporations and the rich are cut, and public lands are opened up to the oil and gas industry.
The merging of the self with a capitalist collective has robbed us of our agency, creativity, capacity for self- reflection, and moral autonomy. We define our worth not by our independence or our character, but by the material standards set by capitalism: wealth, brands, status, and career advancement. We’ve been molded into a compliant and repressed collective, a conformity characteristic of totalitarian states. And when magical thinking doesn’t work, we’re told and often accept that we are the problem. We must have more faith, we must try harder.
What does resistance look like now? It won’t come by investing hope in the Democratic Party, which didn’t lose the election because of Comey or the Russians, but because it betrayed working men and women on behalf of corporate power and used its machinery to deny the one candidate, Bernie Sanders, who could have defeated Trump, from getting the nomination. Resistance will entail a personal commitment to refuse to cooperate in large and small ways with the machinery of corporate power.
In the conflicts I covered as a reporter in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans, I encountered singular individuals of varying creeds, religions, races, and nationalities who majestically rose up to defy the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Some of them are dead, some are forgotten, most are unknown. These individuals, despite their vast cultural differences, had common traits: a profound commitment to the truth, incorruptibility, courage, a distrust of power, a hatred of violence, and a deep empathy that was extended to people different from them, even to people defined by the dominant culture as the enemy. They are the most remarkable men and women I met in my 20 years as a foreign correspondent, and to this day I set my life by the standards they set.
You have heard of some, such as Václav Havel, whom I and other foreign reporters met during the Velvet Revolution in Prague in 1989. Others no less great you may not know, such as the Jesuit priest, Ignacio Ellacuría, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1989. And then there are those ordinary people – although, as the writer V.S. Pritchett said, ‘No people are ordinary’ – who risked their lives in wartime to shelter and protect those of an opposing religion or ethnicity who were being persecuted and hunted. To some of these ordinary people I owe my life.
To resist radical evil is to endure a life that by the standards of the wider society is a failure. It’s defying injustice at the cost of your career, your reputation, your financial solvency, and at times your life. It’s being a lifelong heretic, accepting that the dominant culture and perhaps, and maybe even especially, the liberal elites will push you to the margins and attempt to discredit not only what you do but your character. When I returned to the newsroom at the New York Times in 2003, after denouncing the invasion of Iraq and being publicly reprimanded for my stance against the war, reporters and editors I’d known and worked with for 15 years lowered their heads or turned away when I was nearby.
Ruling institutions – the state, the press, the church, the courts, and academia – mouth the language of morality, but they serve the structures of power, which provide them with money, status, and authority. Individuals who defy these institutions, as we saw with the thousands of academics who were fired from their jobs and blacklisted during the McCarthy era, are purged and turned into pariahs. All institutions, including the church, as Paul Tillich wrote, are inherently demonic. A life dedicated to resistance has to accept that a relationship with any institution is temporary, because sooner or later that institution is going to demand acts of silence or obedience your conscience won’t allow you to make. Reinhold Niebuhr labeled this capacity to defy the forces of repression ‘a sublime madness in the soul,’ and wrote that ‘nothing but madness will do battle with malignant power and spiritual wickedness in high places.’ This ‘sublime madness’ is the essential quality for a life of resistance. As Daniel Berrigan said, ‘We are called to do the good, insofar as we can determine it, and then let it go.’ As Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘The only morally reliable people are not those who say “This is wrong” or “This should not be done,” but those who say “I can’t.”’ They know that, as Immanuel Kant wrote, ‘If justice perishes, human life has lost its meaning.’ This means that, like Socrates, we must come to a place where it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. We must at once see and act. And given what it means to see, this will require the surmounting of despair, not by reason but by faith.
I saw in the conflicts I covered the power of this faith that lies outside of any religious or philosophical creed – what Havel called ‘living in the truth,’ exposing the corruption, lies, and deceit of the state. It’s a refusal to be part of the charade. And it has a cost. ‘You do not become a dissident just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,’ Havel wrote. ‘You’re thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You’re cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well and ends with being branded an enemy of society.’
The dissident doesn’t operate in the realm of power. He or she has no desire for office and doesn’t try to charm the public. His or her actions simply articulate their dignity as a citizen regardless of the cost.
The long, long road of sacrifice and defiance that led to the collapse of the Communist regime stretched back decades. Those who made change possible were those who had discarded all notions of the practical. They didn’t try to reform the Communist Party or work within the system; they didn’t even know what, if anything, their tiny protests, ignored by the state-controlled media, would accomplish. But through it all they held fast to moral imperatives, because these values were right and just. They expected no reward for their virtue, and they got none. They were marginalized and persecuted. And yet these rebels – the poets, playwrights, actors, singers, and writers – ultimately triumphed over state and military power, because, however cowed and broken the people around them appeared, their message did not go unheard or unseen.
We may feel powerless, but we are not. We have a power that terrifies the corporate state. Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up or how heavily it is censored, chips away at corporate power. Any act of rebellion keeps alive the embers for larger movements to follow. It passes on another narrative. And it will, as the state consumes itself, attract wider and wider numbers. Perhaps this will not happen in our lifetimes, but if we persist, we keep this possibility alive.
Dr. Rieux, in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, isn’t driven by ideology, but by empathy – the duty to minister to the suffering of others no matter the cost. Empathy for human beings locked in cages, for undocumented mothers and fathers being torn from their children on the streets of our cities, for Muslims demonized and banned from our shores as they try to flee the wars and terror we created, for poor people of color gunned down by police in our streets, for girls and women trafficked into prostitution, and for the earth, which gives us life and which is being destroyed, is viewed as seditious by despots.
Accept sorrow, for who cannot be profoundly sorrowful at the state of our nation and world? But know that in resistance there is a balm that leads to wisdom, and if not joy, a strange transcendent happiness. Because as long as we resist, we keep hope alive.
The days ahead will be dark and frightening, but we must fight for the sacred, we must fight for life, we must fight the forces of death. We fight not only for ourselves, but for those who will come after us – our children. We must not be complicit. We must live in truth. The moment we defy power in any form, we are victorious – when we stand with the oppressed and accept being treated like the oppressed, when we hold up a flickering light in the darkness for others to see, when we thwart the building of a pipeline or a fracking site, when we keep a mother faced with deportation with her children, and when we mass in the streets to defy police violence. We must turn the tide of fear. We must, by taking the streets, make the ruling elites frightened of us.
To sit idle, to refuse to defy these forces, to be complicit will atrophy and wither our souls. This is not only a fight for life – it’s a fight that gives life. It’s the supreme expression of faith: the belief that no matter how great the power of evil, the power of love is greater. I do not, in the end, fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists. Thank you.”
I highly recommend that you subscribe to the Alternative Radio podcast and look back in your feed so that you can listen to this incredibly eloquent speech. You can also get a CD, an MP3, or a transcript on www.alternativeradio.org.
I like Joanna Bock’s take on the #MeToo phenomenon, published October 19th in Yes! Magazine, except that she calls it a “movement,” which I think is a much bigger thing than just a Facebook/Twitter hashtag. Here are the main points in the article with which I agree:
“Movements like #MeToo can be powerful in many ways. But we limit their potential and pervert them when we insist that everyone get in a box and become one of three things: perpetrators, victims, or allies. How many of us don’t neatly fit any of those categories? How many of us are weakened by the divisions?Something similar happens when we talk about race and racism. People of color are the victims. Outright bigots are the villains. And among the rest of us, we make a mad dash to position ourselves as allies. To be allies, we have to publicly condemn the racist ‘other.’ [Or his/her behavior…]
#MeToo has given voice to the rage many female friends of mine feel at specific perpetrators of harassment and violence in their own lives. But the truth is that no one human being is to blame for this sickness of the culture we’re a part of. And our scramble to crucify the Harvey Weinsteins and Donald Trumps of the world only obfuscates the issue, just as our scramble to line up simply as victims does.
In this oppressive system – where women’s bodies are not safe, where people of color’s bodies are not safe, and where women of color’s bodies are unspeakably violated terrain – we are all suffering. And in this system, where men’s internal and emotional landscapes have been violated from birth, as well as the bodies [and minds] of women, we are all victims – playing out our roles or resisting them when and where we can. We’re enormously alienated from one other. Our most radical option is to undo that alienation, but easy labels and unjust oversimplifications deepen it. We’re all responsible for saving each other.”
I agree with the gist of Bock’s message, but want to say that I Facebook-posted “Me too” to help show the extent of the problem and to show solidarity with other women similarly violated – not to express anger at my rapist, though I don’t go so far as to feel empathy with him. I don’t feel anger at men in general either, and deplore the boxes our society tries to put them in. My main concern is that we all recognize the extent of our sexist, racist, and violent, war-mongering culture as a necessary prelude to changing it for the better. It seems kind of ironic to say this while we have a racist, sexist, war-mongering president, proud of his selfishness and sexual predation, but maybe that’s what’s opened up the wounds – and the necessary conversations.
Let’s use empathy in those conversations – really listening to what others need to express. Some of it may be ugly, even poisonous. But feelings are never wrong – only behavior can be – and the poison needs to be exposed and transformed, however gradually, in love and acceptance. We’re challenged as speakers to be that trusting and honest and as listeners to be that compassionate. Alienation can become connection and caring community, but we can’t skip any of steps.
William C. Anderson and Zoé Samudzi have an incisive article “The Anarchism of Blackness” in the current issue of “Roar” magazine (roarmag.org), headlined: “The Democratic Party has led Black America down a dead end. The sooner we begin to understand that, the more realistically we’ll be able to organize against fascism.” The authors believe that “in the coming months and years, left and left-leaning constituencies in the United States will need to make clear distinctions between actual and potentially counterproductive symbolic progress.” They also think the Black liberation struggle has and will provide “a blueprint for transformative social change,” thanks to “its positioning as an inherently radical social formation.”
Under the heading “The Failings of American Liberalism,” the authors write, “The United States’ self-ascribed democratic traits have long been filtered through oppressive forms deemed necessary by the state and a capitalist system benefiting only a few. For many years now, American liberalism has been a bitter disappointment to many who somehow maintained faith in the two-party system. The Democratic Party has seemingly been the only choice for those who consider themselves progressives working for a better society, but the notion that social inequities will be solved through the electoral process was always naïve at best. The entrails of this system are lined with the far-right fascism currently rising and long bubbling under the façade of liberal democracy at the expense of non-whites in a white supremacist society. A system predicated on the over-emphasis of ‘order’ and ‘security’ is primed for authoritarianism.
Over time, the genocide, enslavement, and other forms of violence present at this nation’s birth have been displaced and restructured by more insidious and invisible modalities of community destruction facilitated by liberalism like the reservation, the prison system, and austerity policies. Over the past few decades, the United States has seen a shift in liberal politics leaving the Democratic Party in a completely compromised position. Instead of moving left, the Democratic Party pandered to the right, facilitating a conservative shift. Liberal support for the Iraq War, post-9/11 domestic policy, and the foreign policy extensions of the War on Terror have led to the current administration led by a plutocratic tyrant hell-bent on the destruction of vulnerable populations. Despite the optics of change and the promises of a new day and the moral victories of ‘going high,’ an old sun is rising on a white horizon.
Societal fascism describes the process and political logic of state formation wherein entire populations are either excluded or ejected from the social contract. They’re excluded pre-contractually because they’ve never been part of the social contract and never will be; or they’re ejected from a contract they were previously a part of. Black Americans are the former: residents in a settler colony predicated on the genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans; residents in the United States, as opposed to citizens of. Despite a constitution laden with European Enlightenment values and a document of independence declaring egalitarianism and inalienable rights as the law of the land, Black existence was that of private property. The Black American condition is perpetual relegation to the afterlife of slavery as long as the United States continues to exist as an ongoing settler project. Black exclusion from the social contract is existence within a heavily surveilled and heavily regulated state of subjection.
Whiteness has long sought to grapple with the existential threat posed by Black freedom. Black repatriation to Africa was the solution for slaveholders concerned that the presence of free Blacks would inspire enslaved Blacks to revolt and worried that Black families would burden state welfare systems and that interracial labor competition would ultimately compromise wages for white workers. The ‘Back to Africa’ project was subsequently taken up by Black thinkers like Marcus Garvey in the late-19th and early-20th centuries following the failures of Reconstruction in the South, the first attempt to meaningfully extend citizenship to newly emancipated Blacks and protect them from white supremacist violence, and also the social and political disillusionment of Blacks who had migrated to northern states.
Since then progress has been secured by Black people’s mobilization rather than by any political party. We’re the ones who have achieved much of the progress that’s changed the nation for the better for everyone. Our organization can be as effective now as it has been in the past, serving every locality and community based on their needs and determinations. This can be achieved through disassociating ourselves from party politics that fail to serve us.
While bound to the laws of the land, Black America can be understood as an extra-state entity because of Black exclusion from the liberal social contract. Due to this extra-state location, Blackness is in many ways anarchistic. African-Americans, as an ethno-social identity comprised of descendants from enslaved Africans, have innovated new cultures and social organizations and have engaged in anarchistic resistances since our very arrival in the Americas. From slave ship and plantation rebellions, to the creation of maroon societies in the American South, to Harriet Tubman’s removal of enslaved peoples from the custody of their owners, to post-Emancipation labor and prison camps, to combatting the historic (and present) collusion between state law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan, assertions of Black personhood, humanity and liberation have necessarily called into question both the foundations and legitimacy of the American state.
Liberalism can’t defeat fascism; it can only engage it through symbolic political rigmarole. The triteness of electoral politics that’s been superimposed onto Black life in the United States positions Black people as a mule for much of this nation’s social progression. Our hyper-visible struggle is a fight for all people’s freedom, and we die only to realize that everything gained can be reversed with the quick flick of a pen. While liberalism takes up the burden of protecting ‘free speech’ and the rights of those who would annihilate non-whites, Black people and other people of color assume all the risks and harms. The symbolic battles the Democratic Party and its liberal constituents engage in pose direct existential threats to Black people because they protect esteemed ideals of a constitution that has never guaranteed Black people safety or security. The current fascist moment is neither ideologically new nor temporally surprising; it’s an inevitability.
The mechanisms working against us deal death and destruction in countless numbers across the non-Western world while turning domestic Black and Brown neighborhoods into proxies for how to treat sub-citizen ‘others.’ The militarization of police, border regimes, stop-and-frisk, and ICE are clear examples of how the state regards the communities it targets and brutalizes. At the very least, a conversation on self-defense that doesn’t mistreat our survival as a form of violence is sorely needed. It would be even better if the conversation normalized anti-fascist organizing that prepared people for the possibility of a fight, instead of simply hoping that day never comes and respectably tut-tutting about those currently fighting in the streets.
Everyone has a stake in the fight against fascism. It can’t be defeated with bargaining, petitioning, pleading, ‘civilized’ dialogue, or any other mode of response we were taught was best. Fascists have no respect for ‘othered’ humanities. Regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, religion, physical ability, or nationality, there’s a place for each of us in this struggle. We’re always fighting against the odds because there’s no respite in a perpetually abusive state. It can only function through this abuse, so we can only prevail through organizing grounded in radical love and solidarity. This solidarity must prioritize accountability, and it must be authentic. Strategic organizing of this sort, organizing where we understand the inextricable linkedness of our respective struggles, is our means of bolstering the makings of a cohesive left in the United States. We no longer have time to waste on dogma, sectarianism, prejudice, and incoherence.
The sooner Black America in particular begins to understand our position as an inherently anarchistic element of the United States, the more realistically we’ll be able to organize. A better society has to be written through our inalienable self-determinations, and that will only happen when we realize that we are holding the pen.
William C. Anderson is a freelance writer, published by The Guardian, Pitchfork, Truthout, and at the Praxis Center for Kalamazoo College, where he’s a contributing editor covering race, class and immigration.
Zoé Samudzi is a Black feminist writer and PhD student in Medical Sociology at the University of California, San Francisco. Her current research is focused on critical race theory and biomedicalization.
Since today’s the day of the March 8th Women’s Strike and International Women’s Day, it makes sense to consider the thoughts of one of the strike’s organizers, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who was interviewed on 2-28-17 by Truthout’s Sarah Jaffe. As always, I’ve edited the interview for clarity and brevity.
SJ: The call to strike that you coauthored talks about building a feminism for the 99%. Can you talk a little bit about what that means?
K-YT: It’s partly a response to the idea that the last frontier for women to challenge are the glass ceilings blocking the ascension of women in electoral politics and corporate America. That isn’t the last frontier for ordinary and working class women. Feminism for the 99% is about rejecting that idea that women are only or primarily concerned with their role in the elite male world, and emphasizing that there are still basic issues such as wage differentials and access to reproductive health care. Black women make $0.63 for each dollar that white men make, for example. Which, of course, is lower than the usual barometer that people use, the $0.78 to the dollar that white women make.
In a sense almost all issues are women’s issues, as attacks on social programs, public education, and government-funded health care have a severe impact on women’s lives. There is also no publicly funded childcare. On a very basic level, we need a feminist politics that responds to these issues as the most urgent. The outpouring around the January 21st protest showed that there is actually vast support for a resurgent feminist movement on this basis. There’s also an understanding that the problems experienced by women today are rooted in an economic system that privileges the 1% over the 99%, a system that also relies on the free labor of women in the home to reproduce itself. Also, we now have as president a billionaire who’s made his money by exploiting loopholes in the system, a misogynist who’s abused women, so it’s not surprising that the first protests against his administration have been organized by women and mostly attended by women, and that women’s issues have become a focal point of the resistance movement.
SJ: You wrote a wonderful book about the Black Lives Matter movement (From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, 2016), putting it in historical context. I wonder what your thoughts are on how that movement is changing and shifting under Trump.
K-YT: I think that Trump put Black Lives Matter and the activist organizations affiliated with it in the crosshairs early on. His entire posture around law and order was created in opposition to Black Lives Matter and what he called a climate that was “anti-police.” That’s had a particular impact; for the president of the United States and his supporters to refer to political activists as terrorists, which they’ve done around Black Lives Matter, means a particular thing in the security state atmosphere of the United States. It’s put activists on the defensive and created a situation in which people internalize – look inside of their organizations to figure out how to tighten things up and politically respond to Trump. That’s understandable, but I think we’re at a moment where we need to look outward and connect with other groups of people experiencing some of the same attacks. Police abuse and violence isn’t just an issue affecting African American communities, and Trump is trying to expand the powers of the police to put other groups in the crosshairs. Attacks on the undocumented and the attempts of the Trump administration to deputize police officers in the effort to round them up, and attacks on Muslims and Arabs also call on greater powers for the state and its armed agents. These create an almost natural alliance of people to stand up against policing and police abuse. What all of this means is that we need a bigger movement to confront the police – a movement that tries to connect the issues. I think there has to be a great effort among folks from Black Lives Matter and other organizations that have been fighting these things to make connections with other groups for the sake of expanding the movement, while also preserving the space and understanding that these policies continue to have a disproportionate impact in Black communities.
On February 24th, I posted my notes on “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation” by Jeff Chang (2016), saying that it’s the best book on race in this country I’ve seen for awhile, and adding that if we don’t finally get race right, nothing will be right. I’ve redone those notes to shorten and clarify them, in the hope that more of you will read them. Apologies to Jeff Chang, whose book is definitely worth reading in its entirety, but I think I’ve gotten the gist of it, and better this than nothing.
Beginning with what he calls the “crisis cycle,” Chang says, “We’re living in serious times. Since 2012, the names of the fallen – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, the list never seems to cease – have catalyzed collective outrage and grief. In the waning years of a Black presidency, we saw a proliferation of images of Black people killed in the streets and the rise of a national justice movement to affirm that Black lives matter. After the non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the idea that there had ever been a post-racial moment has come to seem desperately naïve. Meanwhile, Donald Trump focuses the anxieties loosed by white vulnerability onto the bodies of migrants, Muslims, Blacks, women, and all the others who don’t deserve the gift of America. It seems clearer than ever that we as a nation are caught in a bad loop of history – from 1965 to 1992 to now. Race makes itself known in crisis, in the singular event that captures a larger pattern of abuse and pain. We react to crisis with a flurry of words and, sometimes, actions. Then the reaction sparks its own backlash of outrage, justification, and denial, leading to exhaustion, complacency, and paralysis. And before long, we’re back in crisis.
Inequity and injustice aren’t abstract things – they impact real people. In terms of poverty, annual income, wealth, health, housing, schooling, and incarceration, persistent gaps separate whites from Black, Latino, Southeast Asian, Pacific Islander, and American Indian populations. In the specific case of premature death – defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as death among persons under the age of 75 – the death rate of Blacks is over 50% higher than that of whites, and higher than that of all other major ethnic groups, except some American Indian cohorts. Only a small part of this statistic is attributable to homicide and that favorite digression of conservative pundits, ‘Black-on-Black violence.’ Rather, it’s the result of large disparities in access to quality food; regular and preventive health care; and diseases like cancer, stroke, and HIV. A shockingly large portion is the result of an African American infant mortality rate more than double that of white Americans, triple that of Swiss citizens, and five times that of Japanese citizens. Racism kills.
Extrajudicial police shootings have been the organizing spark of the Movement for Black Lives. But they’re based on segregation and resegregation, now mostly happening out of our sight. Whether through white flight, the optics of diversity, or metaphorical and actual wall building, the privileged spare themselves the sight of disparity, and foreclose the possibility of empathy and transformation. We live in a time when merchants of division draw us away from mutuality and toward the undoing of democracy. David Graeber proposes that their demagoguery isn’t different from schoolyard bullying. Trump, the silver spoon–fed child who as a second grader punched his music teacher in the eye, aspired ‘to be the toughest kid in the neighborhood.’ Graeber: ‘When researchers question children on why they don’t intervene to protect the bullied, the majority say they didn’t like what happened, and didn’t much like the bully, but decided that getting involved might mean ending up on the receiving end of the same treatment.’ Reactionaries don’t need to sustain the belief or the anger of the fearful; they need only the silence and complicity of the masses. The culture wars continue through justificatory innocence and willed inaction, allowing the structures that produce inequality and segregation to persist. If most Americans recoil from the kind of excessive, gleeful, cynical bigotry of someone like Donald Trump, they’re demobilized by denial (‘there is no problem’) or justification (‘there’s a problem but I can’t solve it’). Trump supporters are told that when demonstrators pour into the streets to protest police killings of Blacks, they’re supporting the killing of cops. ‘Black lives matter’ isn’t a call to end state violence against Blacks, and in that way to end state violence against all – it’s hatred of whites, a premonition of racial apocalypse.”
Ever since the Supreme Court decided in the 1979 Bakke case that affirmative action, an effort to redress hundreds of years of putting Blacks last was essentially anti-white, efforts at fairness have gone by the boards. The appearance of diversity on college campuses and culturally is just that, Chang says – a matter of what he calls “optics.” He also brings up an interesting point about free speech, noting that “racial attacks and hate speech, as well as the ‘anti-PC’ defense of them, are proof that free speech isn’t a neutral good equally available to all, because tolerance of hate speech isn’t tolerance borne by the community at large – it’s a psychic tax imposed on those least able to pay. On the other hand, protest, when it comes from those at the bottom, can often be a profound proposition about how to make the world better for all. Campuses, like the country itself, are seeing rising levels of hate and intolerance, the tragic result of over a quarter century of intensifying racial inequality and resegregation and a silence over these selfsame issues. Despite more and more diverse applicants, universities continue to admit fewer Black and brown students and provide them with less support. In 2012, a system-wide survey of over 100,000 students, staff, and faculty by the University of California found that one in four respondents ‘had personally experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive, and/or hostile conduct’ on campus.’ The most competitive Black and Latino students declined admission offers at places where affirmative action had been gutted, like the University of California and University of Michigan, and instead gathered at historically Black colleges and universities and private, elite universities that promised community and support.”
Chang also addresses “cultural equity,” pointing out that “culture, like food, sustains us and shapes our relations with each other. An inequitable culture is one in which people don’t have the same power to create, access, or circulate their practices, works, ideas, and stories. To say that American culture is inequitable is to say that it moves us away from seeing each other in our full humanity, making the creation of a more just society less likely. Cultural equity isn’t just about representation. It’s also about access and power. Who has access to the means of production of culture? Who has the power to shape it?” Much of this is an issue of funding. “Arts produced by diverse groups of people are socially valuable because they offer us ideas, technologies, and values that help us figure out how to live together. A vital, equitable culture offers us a sense of individual worth, bolsters our collective adaptability, and forms a foundation for social progress. In that sense, cultural diversity is just like biodiversity – at its best, it functions like a creative ecosystem. The final product of culture isn’t a commodity – it’s society. We’re far from that ideal.”
In the next section of the book, Chang describes how resegregation has taken place. “Americans are sorting themselves into new geographic alignments that will define political polarization in the coming decades. Cities are becoming wealthier and whiter. Aging suburbs are becoming poorer and darker, and being abandoned, policed, and contained the way communities of color in inner cities were for the past century.” Ferguson, Missouri, north of St. Louis, is an example of this. “Once a ‘sundown town’ where Blacks weren’t allowed after dark, between 1970 and 2010, it went from 1% to 67% Black.” Why? Because of the elimination of public and affordable housing in the former St. Louis ghettoes, a trend seen in many other cities during the 1990s and 2000s. Suburban communities, Chang says, are now either predominantly Black (and impoverished) or predominantly white and better off.
“Power in most of the municipalities outside of St. Louis remained in the hands of whites, and they reorganized their systems of policy-making, policing, and justice to exploit poor Black populations. Greater St. Louis remains one of the most hypersegregated regions in the country, alongside Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit, all key nodes on the map of the Movement for Black Lives. When the economic crash came in 2008, Blacks and Latinos were 70% more likely than whites to lose their homes to foreclosure, and the highest rates of foreclosure were in racially integrated neighborhoods.
At a minute after noon on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown Jr. and his friend Dorian Johnson were stopped by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for jaywalking. Two minutes later,” a man on a nearby apartment balcony, took a photo of two policemen standing watch over Brown’s lifeless body. Soon people were congregating on the behind a police line, and words and images were spreading over the internet. It would be twenty minutes before police covered Brown’s body. Witnesses, including Dorian Johnson, told reporters that Mike had had his hands up when the cop shot him. Family members, including Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, and father, Michael Brown, Sr., were kept away from the body. Some nodded in agreement when McSpadden gave an interview to a local television reporter. ‘You took my son away from me. You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many Black men graduate? Not many! Because you bring them down to this type of level where they feel like, “I don’t got nothing to live for anyway, they gon’ try to take me out anyway.”’ People began chanting, ‘Kill the police!’ Gunshots were heard nearby, and dozens more county and Ferguson cops, almost all white, were called. They arrived wearing bulletproof vests and brandishing assault rifles. They walked snarling police dogs up the driveways of the apartment complex, pushing people back toward their homes.
Hours after Brown was killed, his neighborhood resembled a war zone. On West Florissant, the street from which Brown and Johnson had been walking home, what residents would come to call ‘the tanks’ made their first appearance. County tactical operations units deployed Lenco BearCat vehicles, designed for SWAT teams to use ‘in hostile Urban Environments,’ outfitted with half-inch-steel ballistic armor, two-and-a-half-inch-thick windows, and eleven gun ports. Through it all, Michael Brown’s body lay under the burning sun. It would be more than four hours before his body was removed from the street. In the dimming daylight, firefighters hosed down the road and the police took down the yellow tape. The crowd followed Lezley McSpadden into the middle of Canfield Drive. Someone had given her a bouquet of roses. She removed the petals and gently dropped them to mark the spot where her son’s blood still stained the road. People placed flowers and lit candles.
Others, including representatives of the Organization for Black Struggle, one of the area’s oldest racial justice organizations, were making signs and talking strategy about how to get answers from the police. Back on Canfield Drive, a dumpster behind the apartments had been set on fire, and authorities moved in. Pushed back against the curb by growling police dogs straining at their leashes, residents and others who’d earlier gathered around the scene of the crime were now surrounded by police on all sides. Near the lamppost that had marked the edge of the yellow tape line, they held their hands in the air, chanting, ‘Hands up! Don’t shoot!’ One cop walked his dog over to the memorial that McSpadden had made for her son and let it pee on the flowers and candles. And after the rest of the policemen got into their vehicles to leave, they rolled over what was left of the memorial. In the days to come, these memorials to Michael Brown Jr. would be destroyed over and over, but every time they were torched or removed, people returned to put them up again. They were determined that this time the police wouldn’t get away with it. So began the daily protests in Ferguson against police brutality that continued unbroken for hundreds of days. It would become the longest rebellion in the history of the United States against police brutality.
Two weeks after Michael Brown was killed, the Arch City Defenders, a group of progressive St. Louis–area lawyers, released an influential white paper that exposed the link between policing, poverty, racial profiling, and city budget revenues. Throughout the county, Blacks experienced stops, searches, and arrests at much higher rates than whites. In 2013 the Ferguson court disposed of 24,352 warrants – more warrants than there were residents. Blacks, who made up 67% of the city and 6% of the police force, suffered 86% of traffic stops and 93% of arrests. Court fines and fees were the second-largest source of city revenue. A single violation – whether for a broken car taillight or failing to subscribe to the city’s garbage collection service – could set off a cycle of disaster leading to jail time, eviction, loss of child custody, and denial of loans and jobs. The Defenders called it a ‘modern debtors’ prison scheme.’ A Department of Justice investigation launched after the protests over Michael Brown’s killing found that Ferguson had implemented intentionally racist and unconstitutional practices in its policing and courts system. Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson’s jaywalking stop wasn’t unusual. It was routine. ‘From 2011 to 2013,’ the DOJ noted, ‘African Americans accounted for 95% of Manner of Walking in Roadway charges, and 94% of all Failure to Comply charges.’ The DOJ also stated bluntly that ‘Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.’ In one of its more stunning passages, the DOJ outlined how completely Ferguson’s system dehumanized its residents: ‘Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority. They’re inclined to interpret the exercise of free-speech rights as unlawful disobedience, innocent movements as physical threats, indications of mental or physical illness as belligerence. Police supervisors and leadership do little to ensure that officers act in accordance with law and policy, and rarely respond meaningfully to civilian complaints of officer misconduct. The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment; infringement on free expression, as well as retaliation for protected expression, in violation of the First Amendment; and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.’ Black residents of St. Louis County had long lived with this.
On Sunday, August 10, 2014, inside the Ferguson Police Department conference room, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar told reporters that Michael Brown had assaulted a police officer. He added that the officer had been placed on administrative leave, refused to give his name, and suggested that he might be returned to active duty. Thousands of demonstrators were in the streets, and armored Humvees and BearCat vehicles, riot-ready officers, canine units, and SWAT teams rolled down the hill into Ferguson. They swept people back toward the QuikTrip, which was looted and set on fire. After midnight, cops fired tear gas volleys all along West Florissant to clear the area.
By Monday, Day Three, the canine units had been replaced by snipers sitting atop armored vehicles equipped with ear-shattering acoustic riot-control devices and groups of paramilitary police toting tear gas launchers, training their night-vision goggles, their M4 carbines, and twelve-gauge shotguns on demonstrators. The burned-out QuikTrip had become a gathering place for the resistance. People distributed water and food and made signs. Street-theater artists performed plays. Buddhist monks prayed. Bands played. The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery wrote, ‘This was their Tahrir Square, their Tiananmen Square. The place each night where they would make their stand.’ Then police began firing tear gas canisters into people’s yards and at people’s cars, and over the loudspeakers the cops told people to go home. One woman stood on her lawn and yelled back, ‘This is my home. You’re the ones who need to go home.’
On Wednesday night, Day Five, the street clashes reached a climax. Police were pelted with rocks, bottles, bricks, even Molotov cocktails. Cops fired stun grenades, beanbag rounds, Stinger balls that worked like flash-bangs, and PepperBalls – ammo that someone described as ‘Pokémon balls that spit out gas.’ The next morning, Attorney General Eric Holder, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, and other politicians, left and right, decried the police militarization. St. Louis Police Chief Samuel Dotson pulled his officers back from Ferguson, publicly denouncing the county police’s warlike tactics. Even military personnel were outraged. When police pointed rifles at people’s chests, one retired army officer told the Washington Post, ‘That’s not controlling the crowd. That’s intimidating them.’ The journalist Radley Balko noted that the police seemed to have lost their mission: ‘The soldier’s job is to annihilate a foreign enemy, to kill people and break things. A police officer’s job is to keep the peace and to protect our constitutional right’.” The same day, Governor Jay Nixon appointed Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, an African American resident of Florissant, to lead the command. Johnson met with Michael Brown’s family and marched with demonstrators. Thursday evening was the quietest of the week. But in the community, there was still a profound sense that police were protecting their own. On Friday, Day Seven, at QuikTrip, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson held a press conference to announce that the name of the officer who had shot Michael Brown was Darren Wilson. But before he did, Jackson described Brown’s August 9th robbery of Ferguson Market, immediately preceding his confrontation with Wilson.
Ferguson was now a national story, largely shaped by the people and the protesters. By the end of Friday, the Pew Research Center found, more than 7.9 million tweets had been generated under the hashtag #Ferguson. Social media fueled local and national interest, and organizing networks were forming. In the days that followed, Governor Nixon declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard, but demonstrations continued daily from morning to night. ‘This is civil rights 2.0,’ said young visual artist Damon Davis. ‘It’s not suits and ties anymore. It’s tattoos and dreads and queer women of color out here.’ Community meetings drew together over fifty different organizations to coordinate planning and training. In order to accommodate the needs of the growing movement, the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle brought in leaders and organizers from Oakland, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City. Between August and October, they trained over 200 organizers in nonviolent direct action, and hundreds more in areas such as emergency response, medical support, crowd control, communications, and de-escalation.
Central to the national resistance was an organization called Black Lives Matter, started by San Francisco Bay Area organizer Alicia Garza, Los Angeles artist and activist Patrisse Cullors, and New York/Phoenix–based organizer Opal Tometi. On August 10th, as #Ferguson exploded on social media, so did #blacklivesmatter. The genesis of the idea had come the summer before after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. After the verdict was announced, Garza posted to her Facebook page, ‘I can’t breathe. NOT GUILTY.’ Her feed filled with posts from people who said they weren’t surprised. ‘That’s a damn shame in itself,’ she responded. ‘I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.’ She added, ‘Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.’ Cullors’s activism had sprung from the brutal beating of her brother by Los Angeles County jail officers. Garza also worried about her brother, in whom she saw Trayvon Martin. That night, the two women, who’d known each other for years through organizing circles, talked for a long time about Zimmerman, Martin, their brothers, and what needed to happen. Cullors put a hashtag in front of Garza’s refrain, posted it to Facebook, and suddenly a big idea cohered. The next day, the two contacted Tometi, a friend and communications expert, and a social-media campaign was born. ‘Black Lives Matter’ articulated their impatience with the politics of respectability – taking care in presenting oneself publicly to avoid saying or doing anything that would reflect badly on Blacks, reinforce negative racial stereotypes, or needlessly alienate potential allies…Obama-style politics, in other words. The Black Lives Matter activists were pro-queer feminists who worked with those on the margins of society: incarcerated people, domestic workers, and migrants. They thought of themselves as defiantly intersectional, and offered an expansive notion of what they called ‘Black love,’ a vision of radical diversity. Garza wrote, ‘Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black undocumented folks, folks with [criminal] records, women, and Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.’ Black Lives Matter challenged not only the content but the form of respectability politics – the traditional, charismatic Black messiah model that typically privileged straight male leadership and top-down, hierarchical infrastructures, such as the Black church. Instead, the movement drew on the methods and examples of Bayard Rustin, the gay man who led the mobilization of the 1963 March on Washington while eschewing the spotlight; Ella Baker, the woman who’d trained generations of organizers while strongly advocating modes of decentralized leadership; and Assata Shakur, the Black Panther activist exiled to Cuba who was still on the FBI’s Most Wanted list and had written the lines they adopted as their mantra: ‘It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.’
Those who opposed the movement by arguing that ‘all lives matter’ couldn’t see the cold inhumanity of their stance. The systematic denigration of Black lives was inescapable, whether in shortened life expectancy or the growing list of extrajudicial murders. As always in the US, this conversation about race defaulted to a discussion about the needs of whites. But change would come only through a struggle to transform how everyone saw and treated Black lives. If Black lives mattered to all, then all lives really would matter.
The national network of organizations issued a set of demands, including the immediate arrest of Darren Wilson, the ending of police militarization, and reinvestment in resegregated, impoverished communities. To further these demands, organizers agreed to launch four days of civil disobedience they would call Ferguson October. But as the start of protests neared, the area was shaken by three more officer-involved extrajudicial killings. The first, just three miles away from Canfield Green and less than two weeks after Michael Brown was killed, involved the murder of Kajieme Powell, a mentally ill man who’d stolen two energy drinks from a store, then walked in circles taunting police. He has a steak knife, but hadn’t drawn it. Then, on September 19th, 21-year-old Kimberlee Randle-King was arrested in Pagedale, a small north county town. She’d been on her way to pick up her two children at her grandmother’s house, but ended up in a group of people arguing and tussling on the street. When she was taken in, police found Randle-King had seven ‘failure to appear’ warrants for traffic and vehicle violations and prepared to take her back to a cell. The police report said that she ‘became “hysterical,’ claiming she would lose her ‘job, house, and babies.’ Kimberlee then said, ‘I’m gonna die if I go back there.’ A half hour later, Randle-King was found dead in her cell, hanging by her own T-shirt. The last incident occurred on October 8th, two days before the start of Ferguson October. When VonDerrit Myers and some friends emerged from a night market after buying sandwiches, an off-duty cop who was working a nighttime security job in his police uniform stopped them on a ‘pedestrian check.’ The cop identified at least one of the group as suspicious and carrying a weapon. Myers and his friends ran, and the cop gave chase before losing them. Myers went up to his apartment, then came back down to the street, where he encountered the cop again. What happened next remains a mystery. There were no official witnesses. But when it was all over, the cop had unloaded an entire clip, and Myers had been shot seven times in the back. Police said Myers had been killed in a shootout and that there was gunshot residue on his hand to prove it. They noted Myers had been wearing a GPS ankle bracelet, a consequence of being out on bail for recent charges of unlawful use of a weapon and resisting arrest. The media was fed Instagram photos of Myers posing with guns. But in the days that followed, the police modified their account of the night’s events several times, talking about bushes that Myers had supposedly shot from that didn’t exist, and changing the make of the gun they said Myers carried. The officer, whose name wouldn’t be made public, refused to be interviewed by a prosecutor. Myers’s family argued that a gun had been planted on him, and that he had been executed. The prosecutor agreed that the bullets fired at him could have explained the residue evidence, and Myers’s DNA didn’t turn up on the gun that was found. Yet the prosecutor still decided not to take the case to the grand jury, stating that the evidence was inconclusive.
Ferguson October began on October 13th. In the dramatic week that followed, tens of thousands marched. Young Activists United occupied the St. Louis city hall rotunda. Bearing signs that said ‘Stop Killing Us”’ and chanting ‘Black lives matter,’ Millennial Activists United shut down the Plaza Frontenac shopping center. Protesters also closed Emerson Electric Corporation, and shut down two Walmarts and a Democratic Party fund-raiser. At the police station, dozens more were arrested, including Cornel West and other leaders. A student-led protest at St. Louis University led to a weeklong encampment by a group called Occupy SLU, resulting in a negotiated resolution that committed the university to more discussions about race, funding for Black student recruitment and retention, African American studies, and a community center committed to addressing inequality in the area, and a sculpture.
On October 4th, fifty ‘Artivists’ interrupted a St. Louis Symphony performance of Brahms’s Requiem, standing throughout the hall to sing a version of ‘Which Side Are You On?’ The original song, written by Florence Reece for the bitterly fought 1930s Appalachian coal strike, included the words ‘They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there.’ The Artivists changed the lyrics to ‘Justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all,’ and unfurled fifteen-foot-high banners that read ‘Rise Up and Join the Movement,’ ‘Racism Lives Here,’ and ‘Requiem for Mike Brown 1996–2014.’ Some in the overwhelmingly white crowd applauded, others could be heard saying, ‘He’s a thug.’ Most remained silent. On another evening the Artivists carried a funeral casket covered in cracked, mirrored glass to the front of the police line on South Florissant. ‘Look into the mirror,’ one of the protesters told them. ‘We’re human too.’
On November 17th, as the St. Louis area girded for Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s announcement of the grand jury decision, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared another state of emergency. Public schools in Ferguson and Jennings canceled classes. Police restocked tear gas, flex cuffs, and ‘less-lethal’ munitions. The National Guard was placed on alert. Stores throughout the city and county boarded up their windows. The grand jury announcement was still a week away, and already it felt like the worst hidden secret in Missouri was a coming non-indictment.
Damon Davis of the Artivists noticed that many of his friends were showing signs of stress and trauma. He wanted to create a work that would raise their morale, and lift up their message against the violence of the state and the media’s anticipation of tear gas and fire. The result was a project he called All Hands On Deck. Davis and others created 51-inch-high posters of the hands of local Black and white organizers and activists. Davis had photographed their hands on white tables or against the snow. ‘Hands are what you do work with,’ he explained, ‘and it’s time for you to get up and help work on this if you want it to be any better.’ He got permission from West Florissant businesses whose windows had been covered with plywood to paste the posters on the boards. All Hands On Deck tapped desires coursing across time and place – the 9,000-year-old black, red, white, yellow, and brown cave-art hand stencils at Patagonia’s Cueva de las Manos that shouted, ‘We are here!’; John Heartfield’s street poster, Five Fingers Has the Hand, taunting the Nazi party from Berlin walls during the 1928 Weimar election season; and the gloved hands that John Carlos and Tommie Smith thrust into the air on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, their fingers closed into fists. There was affirmation, defiance, and power here, but something else too – a radical vision of community. At the root of the pre-riot frenzy was the same kind of fear that had left Mike Brown dead in the street, that had driven a century of segregation and resegregation in the city and county. But these posters transformed the plywood from enclosing shields of fear into open walls that revealed the breadth of community: a child, a preacher, a barista, an activist, and others in Black-and-white. Authority demanded submission. But when people raised their hands together, they might be demanding recognition, defying injustice, or even reveling in collective joy.
On November 24th, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced the grand jury’s refusal to indict Officer Darren Wilson, and the predicted clashes between demonstrators and police followed: television stations ran hi-def split-screen images of President Barack Obama urging calm in the streets as police teargassed Black Lives Matter protesters in Ferguson. In St. Louis, organizers and activists gathered at a bustling café at the edge of Tower Grove Park, not far from where VonDerrit Myers had been killed. Owned and run by a white radical named Mo Costello, MoKaBe’s had long served as a gathering spot for activists from the Occupy, queer rights, and Black Lives Matter movements. Two weeks before, Mo had announced on Facebook that she would keep the spot open 24 hours a day for activists. That night, the intersection at Grand and Arsenal in front of MoKaBe’s filled with paramilitary police and armored vehicles. Police issued clearance orders while the crowd mocked them. Protesters backed onto the sidewalk and filled MoKaBe’s. Dozens, including Amnesty International observers, parents, and children, gathered inside, drinking free cups of hot chocolate. When windows were broken along Grand, police moved to clear the corner, firing rubber bullets at people on the sidewalk, then shooting tear gas canisters onto MoKaBe’s patio and through the café’s front door. Gas filled the interior, and dozens of choking patrons fled into the basement. As the stricken were treated with eye drops, riot cops marched behind the coffee house to fire more tear gas into the residential neighborhood to prevent patrons from leaving. St. Louis University professor and civil rights lawyer Brendan Roediger negotiated with the police for a way for the patrons to leave. Finally, they filed out of the café one by one with their hands up, and walked slowly away from the police line.
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou had been at MoKaBe’s on the morning of the 24th to attend an urgent meeting about preparations for the grand jury announcement. The young organizers had received him with a warmth and deference that they showed only a handful of other members of the clergy. Back in the earliest days of the protests, mainstream clergy positioned themselves as brokers to the white elite. Then it became clear to the protesters that some of those same clergy were negotiating away their rights, and when the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson came to town, they received the cold shoulder from street activists. In October, at a massive interfaith gathering at St. Louis University’s Chaifetz Arena, the same activists grew tired of the empty talk from church and civil rights leaders. They began chanting to let young people speak. When Tef Poe took the stage, they cheered. He told the leaders he trusted the shirtless, bandanna’d boys and the young girls who’d gone truant to be at the protests more than the elders. ‘This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement,’ he cried. ‘Get off your ass and join us!’
When Reverend Sekou heard, on the night of Tuesday 11-24, that hundreds of police had again massed at the corner of Grand and Arsenal in front of MoKaBe’s, he came to the café, mounted a table, and quieted the crowd. ‘We’ve already won,’ he said as he pointed back to the cops across the street. ‘They don’t do that when we’re losing.’ He asked the crowd, ‘What does a heartbeat sound like?’ Someone said, ‘You mean the way it’s going like boomboomboomboom right now?’ The crowd roared. ‘On a normal day, Sekou said, ‘your heart goes…’ And he hit his chest twice with his hand. The crowd joined him, pounding their hearts into a rhythm that could be heard across the street. Sekou turned to face the police. ‘You are on the wrong side of history, and we have already won,’ he told them. ‘We are peacefully gathered here in the tradition of Martin Luther King and Gandhi. This multiracial gathering is possible because of nonviolence. And that is the heartbeat of democracy that you hear. And so whoever your captain is, stand down. Go home. We’ll be alright.’ All along the police line, stiffened backs seemed to wilt. Then the cops turned to the left in file, turned again, and marched silently away down Grand Street.”
Chang ends his book by saying that “if we are to undo resegregation and racialized exclusion, all of the forms of refusal, denial, and justification that preserve the structures of privilege will have to be undone to make room for the most marginalized. We often think of revolution as something to be won in bloodshed through war and the violent seizure of power. But as Grace Lee Boggs has put it, the next revolution might be better thought of as ‘advancing humankind to a new stage of consciousness, creativity, and social and political responsibility.’ Her revolution would require us to move away from finding new ways to divide and rule, and instead move toward honoring and transforming ourselves and our relations to each other.
We need to be roused to the inequity in our neighborhoods, our schools, our metro areas, our justice system, and our culture. Ending resegregation is about understanding the ways we allow ourselves to stop seeing the humanity of others. It’s about learning to look and never stopping. James Baldwin’s most revolutionary and misunderstood idea, notes the intellectual Robin D. G. Kelley, was that love is agency. ‘For him it meant to love ourselves as black people; it meant making love the motivation for making revolution; it meant envisioning a society where everyone is embraced, where there is no oppression, where every life is valued – even those who may once have been our oppressors.’ This didn’t mean that Blacks should capitulate before whiteness and systemic racism, but exactly the opposite. He wrote, ‘To love all is to fight relentlessly to end exploitation and oppression everywhere, even on behalf of those who think they hate us.’ Each of us is left with the question: Can we, given all the pain we’ve had inflicted upon us and that we’ve inflicted upon others, ever find our way toward freedom for all? Redemption is out there for us if we’re always in the process of finding love and grace.”