On 7-15-20, Dr. Ali Khan, epidemiologist and the dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, was interviewed on Democracy Now!. As Amy Goodman indicated in her introduction, Dr. Khan is the former director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the CDC and the author, with William Patrick, of The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers, a book published in 2016 that looks at how the world’s public health community responded to outbreaks of the most dangerous infectious diseases over the past quarter of a century.
Dr. Khan told Goodman that the US response to Covid-19 has been “without a doubt, is the greatest public health failure in our nation’s history, and it just continues to be in freefall. We peaked at about 30,000 cases in mid-April, and then squandered two months of lockdown and economic collapse by failing to get the disease contained. Now we’re up to 60,000 cases a day. That’s completely out of step with Europe, Oceania, and East Asia. All of those countries have not only just contained their outbreaks, resumed their economies, and started back schools, but some have just gone all out and said, ‘We’re going to zero.’ New Zealand and some other countries have eliminated the disease. China, with 1.4 billion people, has gone nine days without a domestic case. We’re clearly the outlier with this uncontrolled, failed response here in the United States.
When Goodman asked what the US is doing wrong, he said, “We don’t have a national strategy based on the four principles that everybody else has used to get rid of this outbreak. The first principle to contain this outbreak is leadership: integrated, whole-of-government leadership on the national, state, and local levels. We still don’t have that. We can’t agree on so many things that are important. The second part is, get down community transmission. And this is the role of government, to make sure we’re testing and tracing. Nobody is talking about that anymore – isolating cases quickly, finding those contacts – nor does anybody talk about the metrics around that. The third thing is community engagement. And that’s our role, right? Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Social distance. And the fourth thing is, do what you can to make sure that people who are hospitalized are more likely to survive. And the one drug we know that does that right now is dexamethasone.
GOODMAN: Dr. Khan, you’re the former head of the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, which included overseeing the Strategic National Stockpile on emergency medical supplies. Can you account for, many months into this pandemic, the United States continuing to have a shortage of tests and masks?
ALI KHAN: I have no explanation for that. I have said I could have grown polypropylene trees by this time for nasal swabs, given the ingenuity of Americans and our biomedical complex to create material, personal protective equipment, to conduct tests. I have no explanation for that. I can say, though, that we have enough testing in the United States currently, if we used it correctly and we got a timely result back and didn’t have to wait a week for the result. This goes back to strategy. We don’t have the right strategy in the United States to get this disease contained. And if we did, we wouldn’t be worried about personal protective equipment. South Korea today has 40 cases. Right? They’re not worried about personal protective equipment. So we’re worried about these things because we can’t contain the disease and not willing to do the hard things, not willing to strip politics out of this, base it on the science and get this disease under control.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Dr. Khan, I wanted to ask you about the role of Anthony Fauci in terms of the handling of this disease, because, on the one hand, we see the Trump administration trying to undermine his credibility these days as he increasingly comes into conflict with what the president wants to do, but, on the other hand, there are some legitimate questions. Your assessment of how Dr. Fauci has handled the crisis?
ALI KHAN: This isn’t really about Dr. Fauci. This is about CDC, our nation’s public health agency. We need to see it get its role back of educating the American people, providing the necessary data, and getting us back into containment. There’s no doubt that there were missteps made by our public health agencies and public health professionals. But what we need now is for the talent we’ve always had at CDC to be back at the forefront talking about public health issues. That’s where our public health expertise resides.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: How optimistic are you about the development of a vaccine?
ALI KHAN: I am optimistic; however, the road to an uncertain vaccine is paved in death. Right now we have about 60,000 cases a day, so basically 600 to a thousand new deaths every day. We can’t wait for a vaccine. And other countries have gotten their diseases contained and eliminated without a vaccine. So, yes, I would love a vaccine, but there’s lots of data that makes it problematic. Immunity may be short-lived. We’ve never had vaccines based on these technologies. But, like everybody else, I’m optimistic. I hope there’s a vaccine. But we don’t need a vaccine today so that we don’t kill another 600 to a thousand people tomorrow. We have the tools.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Dr. Ali Khan, about what it would mean if the president of the United States simply put on a mask on a regular basis? Trump seeing a mask as weakness – only this past weekend, you saw him for a minute wearing a mask, and he said, well, he was in a hospital? The significance of what this would mean at the federal level? Then you see it go down to the state level – his biggest allies, DeSantis, the governor Florida, for the first time donning a mask. In Arizona – we’re going to speak with the mayor of Tucson today…Governor Ducey, a recent death in Arizona of a Mexican-American man. His daughter said, ‘I say that the governor and the president have blood on their hands.’ Do you feel the same way, Dr. Khan?
ALI KHAN: I believe all of government has blood on its hands…136,000 deaths, preventable deaths, a tragedy, especially since most of the rest of the world has contained this disease, and some have even eliminated it. But what you saw in countries that were successful was that each and every politician, regardless of their party, followed the science. So, everybody said, ‘Wear masks.’ No controversy. Everybody wore a mask. We need to see that here right now at every political level. Wear a mask. That’s one of the four strategies that will get us out of this mess. We need everybody to be wearing a mask at this point.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about some of the recent studies out of China, Germany and Britain, suggesting that people who have had COVID-19 begin losing their antibodies in just a few months. So, even if there was a vaccine, the significance of this, Dr. Khan, and also of the younger people that we are seeing get sick and die all over the country?
ALI KHAN: Two great questions. Yes, if your immunity is short-lived, that makes finding a vaccine chasing a rainbows to some extent. Again: we don’t need a vaccine to get out of this mess. We can get this outbreak under control. As far as young people are concerned, without a doubt, we see less severe disease. However, young people also can get sick, get hospitalized, die. We’re now learning that about 50% of all people who get infected with this disease are left with some sort of heart abnormality. So, even if you don’t die, there can be long-term complications.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dr. Khan, speaking of young people, your sense of how various states and school districts around the nation are handling the issue of the reopening of public schools?
ALI KHAN: I’ll be very honest with you. As a pediatrician, as a father, as a public health professional, we need kids back in school for numerous reasons. But we have to do it safely. And we know we can do this. You know, I just did a review of over 15 countries that were able to safely get kids back in school. But that’s based not just on the safety measures we take and wearing masks and everything else that the kids need to do. It’s based on dropping community transmission. Unless you have approximately 25 cases per million population per day, you can’t reopen schools. So, drop your community transmission. Work with the local health department. Make sure they have the support they need to test and trace everybody. This is what we need to do to get our kids back in school.
Are we going to wait till January to get things going in a semi-right direction (assuming Biden defeats Trump)? A lot of people have been, are, and will be suffering from Trump’s “policy” moves in the meanwhile, the latest being foreign students who’ll be barred from the country if they don’t attend in-person classes in the fall. Trump’s self-serving (and serving nobody else) “leadership” on the pandemic is the worst, and the next 6 months are critical in that regard. According to Laurie Garrett, a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer, the corona virus will become endemic (never leave us) if we don’t get a handle on it right away, and to do that we need a national and global team effort based on science, the opposite of what Trump is doing. Impeach him, declare him unfit for office, mount a revolution, whatever is necessary to get him out of the way, and put someone else (not Mike Pence!) in charge now!! Our lives and the quality of our lives are on the line. Sort out the politics later.
This is the point made by Kali Akuno in “From Rebellion to Revolution,” published on the Progressive International website, 6-18-20. Here’s what he had to say (edited, as always, for clarity and brevity):
“The Floyd rebellion is changing the world before our very eyes. What type of change and to what degree it will shift the balance of forces between rulers and ruled, haves and have-nots remains to be seen. What is clear is that there is an active and open political contest to shape the outcome. For the moment, the right wing and the Republicans have been relatively sidelined in this debate, which is mainly between liberals and Democrats on one hand and the radical mass that’s taken the streets all over the country and the world. That radical mass is increasingly examining and advancing critical left demands emerging from anarchist, communist, and socialist analytical and organizing traditions, such as police and prison abolition, economic democracy, and decolonization.
The debate is being played out in the streets, in mainstream media, and through social media, and following trends in these venues, it appears that the liberals and Democrats have gained significant ground in the narrative war on several points. One critical point is making distinctions between “good protestors” and “bad protestors.” Democratic-liberal dominance of this narrative will have negative consequences, some of which include: (1) narrowing the focus of the rebellion, (2) reasserting the myths of “democratic” reform and capitalist correction that only reinforce the perpetuation of the system, and (3) limiting the scope of the revolutionary possibilities and potentialities of the current rebellion.
The net effect of the positional gains of the liberals is that the rebellion is showing some clear signs of being defused, such as the serious policing of the movement on the streets that’s occurring in many places. This is starting to isolate the left in many critical ways and put it and its proposals on the defensive. This is best expressed in the hardcore efforts to water down the abolitionist demand of “defunding” and “abolishing” the police, to which we will return shortly. The aim of the liberals and the Democratic party is to redirect the mass movement towards electoral politics, particularly the 2020 elections, and a limited set of cosmetic corrections and reforms.
Where the liberals and Democrats appear to have made the most significant advance is narrowing the scope of the rebellion in the mainstream media. If you believe them, this is fundamentally just about reforming the police and the articulation of an obscure iteration of the “Black Lives Matter” demand framework. This downplays clear calls to eradicate white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and settler-colonialism, and fails to make sense of the removal of all statues and symbols representing settler-colonialism and enslavement, as well as targeted acts of redistribution that have occurred, and the forced dismantling of the institutions of repression, exploitation, and gentrification. Liberals and Democrats don’t support revolution, and have no interest in dismantling the systems of oppression that confine humanity. All they’ll ever do [as with FDR in the New Deal] is what’s necessary to preserve the existing capitalist system. To this end, they are willing to bend a few things, as long as it doesn’t fundamentally break or alter the social relations that shape society, particularly who owns and controls the means of production. The distorted “Black Lives Matter” framework they’re pushing is about trying to shore up their electoral base for the 2020 elections, particularly among Blacks and Latinos, who they have to rely upon to have any chance of winning. Thus, they support [cosmetic] police reform, while condemning the effort to dismantle the institution and its social function as absurd.
On the demand of “defunding the police” or “abolishing the police,” it must be noted that this question is being raised in the absence of a revolution — which the current moment is not, not yet anyway. Most of the responses are being cast in this light as well: “What will happen to communities without police?” This question assumes that capitalist relations of production and social reproduction will continue to exist — i.e., the same ole shit. Neither capital nor the state have been dismantled or destroyed, and few are proposing this possibility (i.e. revolution) or preparing for it in the present moment. If the fundamental social relations don’t change, however, this reform would only be a temporary appeasement measure, to be quickly attacked and undermined the operatives of the state. Anything the ruling class giveth, it can take away.
I think the demand for abolition should be raised to heighten the contradictions. But, it must be accompanied by the call for revolution, and organizing to dismantle the entire system.
Remember: state agencies all over the country are waiting for the rebellion to subside so they can hunt down thousands of young partisans and put them in jail in the name of justice and restoring law and order.
We on the left – anarchists, communists, indigenous sovereigntists, and socialists — must resist the elevation of liberal and Democratic party narratives and positions, and assert a counter-narrative in all arenas — one that aims towards transforming the Floyd rebellion into something potentially transformative. This must include upholding autonomous action, diversity of tactics, the sanctity of life over property and profits, and the building and execution of instruments of dual power [look it up] to transform social relations and the balance of forces.
A pathway to revolution currently exists, following a strategy anchored by the further politicization of the mutual aid, food sovereignty, cooperative economics, community production, self-defense, people’s assemblies, and general strike motions that already existed and that emerged in embryonic form in the midst of the pandemic. This could be harnessed through democratic efforts to federate these initiatives on a mass level to lay the foundations of dual power.
Cooperation Jackson and the People’s Strike coalition we’ve been working to build with various organizations and allies are working to advance a program of this character to interject left counter-narratives into the mass movement. One of the central things we’re proposing as our next contribution to the movement is the call for mass People’s Assemblies. Building on experiences from the Occupy movement, Assemblies have started spontaneously developing in New York city, Oakland, Portland, and Seattle. These are groundbreaking developments. But, we need more. The People’s Strike is calling for Assemblies to be held everywhere, and in particular calling for a first strike national day of action on July 1st. What we’ve been proposing, and will offer in this process, is that we organize and build towards the execution of a general strike. The beginning of a general strike under current conditions starts with People’s Assemblies in the streets debating and voting on having a general strike. This is how a largely street protest movement can blossom into an instrument of dual power that could radically transform society.
Kali Akuno is the co-founder and executive director of Cooperation Jackson, and co-editor of Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, MS.
In his 2016 book Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. notes that “matters haven’t changed much since 1967” when Martin Luther King Jr. noted that “most whites in America proceed from the premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement.” Glaude says that “when thought of in this way, racial justice gets reduced to a charitable enterprise – a practice by which white people ‘do good’ for black people. That is not equality.”
Like Taylor, Glaude believes that “the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and so many others shattered any notion we might have had about a post-racial America.” He also takes Barack Obama to task for selling “black America the snake oil of hope and change in both 2008 and 2012, joining Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, other Democratic confidence men who presented themselves as people who would challenge the racial order of things. But neither Carter nor Clinton changed the racial habits at the heart of the country. In some ways, they reinforced them.
Obama isn’t alone in falling short of a real response. Most black liberals (elected and otherwise) have stood silently by as economic devastation swallowed black America. Our choice now, as we leave behind the confidence men and their false hopes, is either to wake up and give everything to ‘achieve our country’ or to remain asleep as America burns.”
Focusing on “the Great Black Depression of 2008,” Glaude notes by 2011, black families had lost 53% of their wealth. This wasn’t just the loss of homes – the primary source of wealth for most African Americans – but lost retirement savings and jobs. By November 2010, national black unemployment reached the stunning level of 16%, while white unemployment stood at 9%. Some cities, including Detroit and New York, reported unemployment among black males that close to 50%. For all these reasons, poverty is growing in black America. One out of three black children grows up in poverty, while only one out of 10 white children does. One out of five black children is growing up in extreme poverty. In 25 of the 50 states and in the District of Columbia, at least 40% of African American children are poor. The implications for future generations of African Americans have yet to be calculated. Many young African Americans in this country will have to start economically with a little or no help from the previous generation, because social and systemic barriers have severely limited economic mobility for black folk.
Such crushing poverty not only dashes the dreams of millions of children, but it almost ensures that they will lead less healthy lives as they grow up and be more than likely to drop out of high school. They will also experience some form of violence in their lifetime and likely find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system, raising their children in the same horrifying conditions they grew up in. What’s really scary is how little anyone outside black America seems to care. We are rearing a generation of black children, as we have done for so many previous generations, to believe that their lives, unlike others who have money, aren’t worth as much.
Many black communities are opportunity deserts, places of tremendous hardship, joblessness, and what seems to be permanent marginalization. Opportunity deserts are those communities, both urban and world, that lack the resources and public institutions that give those who live there a chance to reach beyond their current lives. They’re characterized, in part, by the absence of social networks pointing out pathways for professional and educational advance, and heightened police surveillance that increases the likelihood of someone’s landing in the criminal justice system. These areas are the underside of a society that has turned it’s back on poor people, especially poor black people. This indifference to the poor allows most white Americans to be willfully ignorant of what happens in such places and to ignore the history of racism in this country that has consigned so many black people to poverty with little or no chance of escaping it. People who live in opportunity deserts, Americans think, have done something to deserve to be there. Economists Alberto Alesena, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote have shown that the primary reason we don’t have a European-style welfare state is because the programs are seen to benefit black people.
Overtly racist acts are increasingly rare in this country; rather, inequality comes from the habits we exercise daily – like responding to black faces with alarm or suspicion when none is warranted. A host of assumptions about who black people are and what they are capable of shape everything about how we live in this country. What researchers call the racial empathy gap is reflected in the fact that hundreds of thousands of black children struggle every day to eat and attend failed schools without raising a national alarm. In a study conducted at the University of Milan, white participants reacted differently to white people in pain then they did to black people. This wasn’t a matter of disregarding the pain of black people, but an assumption that they didn’t feel pain.
We as a nation must be in a continual crisis of racial awareness – aware of the ways we continue to consign large numbers of fellow Americans to the shadows for no other reason than because the color of their skin.
White fear is the danger, not black people, and it’s shadowed American life ever since we reconciled our commitment to democratic principles with the institution of slavery. Slavery affected and deformed the character of slaveholders by creating habits of mind that distorted their moral sense. These habits were passed along to children. But white fear has never motivated people to look for solutions that would involve ameliorating the conditions that produced the fear in the first place. Instead, the response has been to eliminate the fear by eliminating black people (either we needed to get rid of black folk physically or make the country colorblind).
White fear seems to require that black people make whites feel comfortable about race. If we’re angry we have to express that anger in away that white people find acceptable. If we talk directly about black suffering in this country, we risk alienating large segments of white America. This approach to race matters acknowledges the long-standing and dangerous racial habits lurking beneath our politics. And Barack Obama’s election did little if anything to uproot them. In fact he conceded to their terms.
The model for talking about racial justice in this country is a sanitized, cherry-picked version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Every year when we celebrate his holiday, every Black History Month when we recognize his accomplishments, every time we dare take up the thorny issues of racial inequality, people invoke Dr. King, his commitment to nonviolence, and his dream as the best example of black struggle. It’s always a particular version of King – the King of the March on Washington who dreamed, not the radical King who marched with garbage workers or understood the connection among the evils of poverty, racism, and militarism, or called attention to the fact of ‘two Americas.’ This whitewashed King often gets in the way of frank and fearless discussions of black suffering, because his words, in the hands of far too many, are used to hide racial habits and sustain the value gap.
In 1966 Dr. King and movement veterans faced a rising tide of white resentment based on the fear that true justice for black people meant robbing white Americans of something. At the same time, many young African Americans had grown impatient with King’s calls for nonviolent, direct action in his invocations of love in the face of white violence. Leaders like Stokely Carmichael said that what black folk needed was real political power to secure and protect their interests, not an idea of love dependent on the transformation of white people’s hearts.
In Grenada County, Mississippi, King saw, once again, the capacity for evil in those committed to white supremacy. As 150 black students entered John Rundle High School and Lizzie Horn Elementary, an angry mob gathered outside. White students were dismissed at midday. A half hour later, Black students walked out of the school and found themselves surrounded. The mob attacked the children with fists, feet, pipes, and tree limbs. Grown men descended upon 12-year-old Richard Sigh and broke his leg with pipes while others, laughing, pummeled a pigtailed girl.
Two years later, King would lie dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. In the short time between his bout with depression in Grenada and his murder in Memphis, Dr. King came to understand the depths of American racism. He had underestimated how deeply rooted white supremacy was in the habits of American life. In August 1967, King stated plainly, ‘The vast majority of white Americans are racists, either consciously or unconsciously.’ King remained committed to the moral power of his call to the nation – he never stopped being a preacher – but he now understood that something far greater was required if America was to be redeemed.
Just two months after struggling to get out of bed in Grenada, he offered this analysis at an SCLC retreat in St. Helens, South Carolina: ‘the fact is that the ultimate logic of racism is genocide. If you say that I am not good enough to live next-door to you because of the color of my skin or my ethnic origin, you are saying that I do not deserve to exist.’ Few, however, were listening. In 1967, for the first time in a decade, Dr. King wasn’t listed on the Gallup poll of the 10 most admired Americans. Young African Americans in ghettos throughout America now looked to the words of Malcolm X and the example of the Black Panther Party. King had fallen from the heights of the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered a speech that would become a crucial document in the history of our country, to the status of the lone voice in the wilderness: a voice marginalized by many white liberals, castigated by white conservatives, and dismissed by black militants.
This period of King’s career remains in the shadows of our contemporary celebration of his legacy. The fact that he spent his last years dismissed and demonized because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and his fearless criticism of the triple evils of racism, capitalism, and militarism, gets buried under the fragment of his body of work that corroborates the illusion of color-blindness. The man who sacrificed his life to dislodge the precious ideals of democracy from the stranglehold of white supremacy has now become the lead actor in the last staging of the tragedy of race in this country. Our yearly celebration of Dr. King is a ritual act of disremembrance.
The American emphasis on individualism means that if racism rears its ugly head, it’s not a reflection of racial habits, but of individual prejudice – prejudice that can be expressed in anti-black and anti-white attitudes, both equally abhorrent. In other words, black peoples’ anger and suspicion about white folk is as damaging as white racial prejudice. Any attempts to call attention to race in public policy debates, to acknowledge the significance of racial and cultural differences, is subject to claims of reverse racism and denounced as polarizing rhetoric, leaving racial habits unchecked in public deliberations.
The election of the nation’s first black president has been, ironically, a reversal of sorts: a black president who uses the language of black struggle in the service of Wall Street, and who is lauded for his celebration of black culture and his performance of black cultural cues, but whose policies leave much to be desired. Barack Obama is, of course, not the reason we are between two worlds. But his presidency hasn’t helped anything; rather, he is emblematic of the problem. ‘We ended up with a Rockefeller Republican in blackface,’ Cornell West said in 2012. Obama refuses to engage directly the crisis sweeping black America. As he has said, ‘I reject a politics that is based solely on racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or victimhood. I think much of what ails the intercity involves a breakdown and culture that will not be cured by money alone, and that our values and spiritual life matter at least as much as our GDP.’
For most of the 20th century, African American politics consisted of a wide range of ideologies that challenged white supremacy in this country. The kind of black liberalism informing Obama’s politics was just one option among many. In the early 20th century, The NAACP, the National Urban League, and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs stood alongside organizations like Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, the National Negro Congress, and the Council on African Affairs. Black liberals struggled alongside black nationalists and Communists, people who conceived of black political life beyond the borders of United States and who pushed up against any easy embrace of the belief that, no matter our practices, America was a place committed to freedom, equality, and the rights of every person. Black nationalists and Communists seriously questioned the American Idea. Black left activists like Cyril Briggs, Hubert Harrison, Harry Haywood, Claudia Jones, and Paul Robeson (names we rarely hear anymore outside of college classrooms) offered a radical critique of the nation, and linked that criticism with the conditions of black and brown people around the world. They joined with the venerable W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, in insisting on a deeper understanding of the relationship between capitalism, white supremacy, and empire. Their presence (many were West Indian immigrants) enriched the black political landscape as they worked with and alongside black liberals to challenge white supremacy at home and abroad.
Much of this radical energy would fall victim to the Cold War and the push for consensus. McCarthyism led to the persecution of figures like Du Bois and Robeson. Du Bois was arrested as ‘an agent of a foreign principal’ in February 1951, handcuffed and fingerprinted at the age of 82. Robeson was robbed of his ability to travel abroad and to perform, dying broken and alone. The upshot was that any hint of communism or socialism shaping black politics had to be purged, and the radical elements of black political life were marginalized. Black liberalism had to stand alone.
This trend has continued, and all we are left with is ‘tinkering’ with the system. Blotted from view are the complexities of Malcolm X, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panther Party. These were people and organizations who sought to uproot white supremacy in every facet of American society. They insisted that black was beautiful and that poor black people should participate fully in the democratic process. They also challenged economic arrangements that exploited black communities. Malcolm and groups like these come to us now in movies like ‘The Butler’ and ‘Selma,’ where they represent an irrational, angry politics that seems completely out of bounds because it heightens white fear and fails to understand how ‘real’ politics works. We imagine what’s possible within a narrow band of options provided by a political philosophy that’s bankrupt when it comes to fundamentally changing black lives. No wonder we green-screened Obama. We wanted so much more, but he was our only choice…
The underlying political philosophy of black liberalism is that it takes broad-based inclusion of black people into American life as its aim without closing the value gap. Liberals in general are committed to the rights of individuals rather than the needs of groups…
We don’t want to integrate into America as it is. We don’t believe white people possess something of intrinsic value that we need or want…
For young Black Lives Matter activists, the black liberal idea of a single male voice representing the interests of all black people is a dead option. We have to break the racial habits that give life to the value gap, and that starts with changes in our social and political arrangements. A revolution of value would seek to uproot those ways of seeing and living that allow Americans to support racial equality and yet live in ways that suggest they believe otherwise. It involves three basic components: A change in how we view government, a change in how we view black people, and a change in how we view what ultimately matters to us as Americans. These shifts are not abstract considerations. They get to the marrow of what blocks away to real change in this country, and they will require political mobilization and massive disruption of the status quo.
Since the death of Trayvon Martin, young people have been doing just that. They have engaged indirect actions in which they’ve stopped traffic, held citizens in state capitals, staged die-ins in places of business, interrupted brunch among the 1% in New York, and challenged the police from Ferguson to Oakland. Alongside these young people are other Americans, like those in the Forward Together movement in North Carolina and people who are organizing with fast food workers and Walmart employees for a livable wage, doing the hard work of democracy. They are in the streets, in voting booths, in courtrooms, and in their communities, block by block, challenging our view of government and black people, and laying the foundation for a true revolution of value. These activists force us, whether we agree with them or not, to think about how we currently live our lives. In short, they shed light on our racial habits and create the conditions, however fleeting, for us to change them.
Change how we view government
For more than three decades, we’ve been told that big government is bad. It’s inefficient, and its bureaucracies are prone to corruption. Even Democrats, especially since Clinton, have taken up this view. For some on the right, big government is bad because it aims to redistribute wealth to those who are lazy and undeserving – all too often coded language for race. From this perspective, government plays no role in changing our racial habits. But government can pass laws that create new patterns of interactions, and ultimately new habits. Neither Obama’s election to the presidency nor my appointment as a Princeton professor would’ve happened were it not for such new patterns and habits.
The civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the policies of the Great Society had just started to re-shape our interactions when they started to be rolled back. We barely had a chance to imagine America anew – to pursue what full employment might look like, to let the abolition of the death penalty settle in, to question the morality of putting people in prison cells, and to enact policies that would undo what the 1968 Kerner commission described as ‘two Americas’ – before the attack on ‘big government’ or, more precisely, the attack on racial equality was launched. Now we can’t even imagine things like full employment for the abolition of prisons.
We have to change our view of government, especially when it comes to racial matters. Government policy ensured the vote for African Americans and dismantled legal segregation. Policy established a social safety net for the poor and elderly; it put in place the conditions for the growth of our cities. Our racial habits are shaped by the kind of society in which we live, and our government plays a big role in shaping that society. As young children, our community offers us a way of seeing the world, letting us know what’s valuable and sacred; what stands as virtuous behavior and what doesn’t. When Michael Brown’s body was left in the street for more than four hours, it sent a clear message about the value of black lives. When everything in our society says that we should be less concerned about black folk, that they are dangerous, that no specific policies can address their misery, we say to our children and to everyone else that black people are less than, that they fall outside our moral concern. We say, without using the word, that they are niggers.
One way to change that view is to enact policies that suggest otherwise. For example, for the past 50 years African-American unemployment has been twice that of white unemployment. The 2013 unemployment rate for African Americans stood at 13.1%, the highest annual black unemployment rate in more than 70 years. No matter how we account for the numbers, the fact remains that most Americans see double-digit black unemployment as normal. However, a large-scale comprehensive jobs agenda with a living wage designed to put Americans, and explicitly African Americans, to work would go a long way toward uprooting the racial habits that informs such a view. It would counter the nonsense that currently stands as a reason for long-term black unemployment in public debate: black folk are lazy and don’t want to work. In addition to a jobs agenda, we need a comprehensive government response to the problems of public education and mass incarceration. We have to push for massive government investment in early childhood education and in shifting the center of gravity of our society from punishment to restorative justice. We can no longer believe that disproportionately locking up black men and women constitutes an answer to social ills. Those of us who don’t give a damn about the rules of the current political game must courageously organized, advocate, and insist on the moral and political significance of a more robust role for government. We have to change the terms of the political debate.
The remaking of America won’t happen inside the Beltway. Too many there have too much invested in the status quo. Neither will a more robust idea of government emerged from the current political parties, both beholden to big money. Substantive change will have to come from us. We’ll have to challenge the status quo in the streets and at the ballot box. In short, it will take a full-blown democratic awakening to enact this revolution.
Consider the five demands of the Forward Together movement in North Carolina: secure pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that ensure economic sustainability; provide well-funded, quality public education to all; stand up for the health of every North Carolinian by promoting health care access and environmental justice across all the state’s communities; address the continuing inequalities in the criminal justice system and ensure equality under the law for every person, regardless of race, class, creed, documentation, or sexual preference; and protect and expand voting rights for people of color, immigrants, the elderly, and students to safeguard their democratic representation. Each demand carries with it and expectation of the role of government in safeguarding the public good and an affirmation of the dignity and standing of all Americans. If we were to embrace these demands as policy, we would be well on our way to a revolution of value.
Change how we view black people
Most Americans see African Americans as failing, dependent on government instead of being self-reliant, and unwilling to hold ourselves responsible for our own failures. The truth is, much of the hell black people catch in this country today is rooted in the enduring legacy of racist practices in education, housing, the labor market, disparities in health, and in the rate of poverty.
The belief that white people matter most is the trap. That belief, to paraphrase Susan Sontag, is the aggressive cancer of modern human history.
Change what matters to us as Americans
We have to tell better stories about what truly matters to us. We have to release democracy from the burden of American exceptionalism, the idea that we are ‘the shining city on the hill’ or ‘the Redeemer Nation.’ This will involve confronting the ugly side of our history and sacrificing the comfort of national innocence along with the willful blindness that comes with it.
This will require a radical reordering of value. I’m not suggesting that we discard our cherished notions of success and self-reliance, just that the value of human beings should never be diminished in the pursuit of profit or in the name of some ideology. We need to envision a beloved community in which all Americans do more than just go to work and attend their individual gardens, but experience a deeply felt interdependence in a jointly shared effort to reimagine American democracy.
The phrase Black Lives Matter isn’t about asserting our humanity to folks who deny it; it’s to remind white people that their lives don’t matter more than others. It’s a direct challenge to white supremacy.
We have to turn our backs on contemporary black liberal politics, which gets in the way of the kind of democratic life we seek. Black liberalism and its various forms today reflects the price that white supremacy demands: either we have the leaders who undermine how black people participate in the democratic process, or we have to translate black experiences into more palatable, universal claims in order to maintain political consensus and continue the lie of colorblindness. We must disrupt how society responds to black suffering and imagines black political participation. We also have to challenge our own sense of who and what the black community is. In other words, we need to shut down the traditional circuitry of black politics and reboot how we engage the democratic process.
The protests in the streets of Ferguson exposed the predatory practices of the municipal government. The city manager and the chief of police have resigned. Police tickets have decreased. The Missouri Supreme Court called for the immediate transfer of all Ferguson municipal cases to St. Louis County. This didn’t happen because of an election; it wasn’t the result of aligning the demonstrations with the Democratic Party. Nor did it happen because of traditional black leadership. As one of the organizers said, ‘it started because regular people came outside and said enough was enough.’ Our protests put the government and traditional black leaders and organizations on notice. As Brittany Packnett put it, ‘We have to be serious about not allowing established people in organizations to choose comfort. We operate with the authenticity to the real struggle of the people that we say we’re serving.’ When Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri urged Tef Poe of Hands up United to run for office and, most important, to vote, his response was telling: ‘What do you say to those of us that are politicized? I voted for Barack Obama twice and still got teargassed.’ It was a stunning dismissal of the power of the ballot.
Voting and direct action aren’t mutually exclusive, but we need to understand voting as a tool of protest that potentially goes beyond putting people out of office. In the novel Seeing by José Saramago, for example, people cast blank ballots in a direct challenge to the democratic process. Similarly, in 1998 Puerto Rican voters chose ‘none of the above’ in a referendum about the status of the island. The vote signaled a refusal to accept the given options; it was a political act – a refusal to play the game as scripted.
In 2016 we should call for an ‘electoral blank-out,’ leaving the ballot for president blank or writing in ‘none of the above.’ The core of the campaign would be a coordinated effort, a networked coalition of grassroots organizations whose primary task in the run-up to the election would be to focus attention on particular issues in the black community. These organizations would urge black voters to leave the presidential ballot blank or write ‘none of the above.’ After the election, the coalition and organizations would do grass roots work on relevant issues.
Some might say that this would give the presidency over to Republicans and their extremist base. The Supreme Court would turn red for the next 30 years. We would see the undoing of the healthcare law in the further erosion of the social safety net. And the country would be left in the hands of libertarians and corporate terrorists. But these same people who shout doom and gloom fail to advocate for dramatic change to take back the country from these folks. By this logic, we’re imprisoned in a political cage, forced to accept matters as they are. I want to choose another path. I want to remake American democracy, because whatever this is, it ain’t democracy.
The idea of politics I’m suggesting here assumes a different kind of leadership. It insists on the capacities and responsibilities of ordinary black people and urges them to reach for a higher self even in opportunity deserts. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee did this in the bowels of the deep South at the height of Jim Crow segregation. Its members dared to claim that black sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta were not only worthy of participation in the democratic process, but that they could lead themselves in doing so.
One of the core values of the Black Youth Project 100 is to be radically inclusive of all black people. As its coordinator Charlene Carruthers says, we have to lift up not only the A student and the college graduates, ‘but also the ones who never graduated from high school, the one who was incarcerated, the one who doesn’t speak well, and the one who doesn’t follow some gender binary. Until we’re able to do that, how we see justice will be limited.’ Young people are leading the way. Young men and women, queer and straight, are on the front lines, using Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat, leading this democratic awakening. All black lives matter. And until the value is no more, we will not rest; no one will rest.
Generations before faced their difficulties. We will face ours, with courage and the conviction that American democracy depends on us. With a revolution of value, the blank-out campaign of 2016, continued grassroots organizing, and ongoing direct action in the streets, we can set a new course for this nation. Black people have done it before. In our resistance against slavery, we offered a new path for the country. After the devastation of the Civil War, we put forward a more expansive idea of democracy as we legislated in state houses throughout the Reconstruction South. We changed the course of the nation by leaving the South and moving into cities in search of freedom. We connected our oppression at home with the effects of empire abroad and directly challenged US foreign policy. This is the heart of democracy in black – efforts to imagine a democratic way of life without the burden of the value gap or the illusion that somehow this country is God’s gift to the world.
There are those among us willing to turn their backs on democracy to safeguard their privilege. We won’t allow it. No more sweet-talking. No more dancing. No one can be comfortable. And no individual or organization can say they alone represent black people. If we fail, and if there is a God I pray that we don’t, this grand experiment in democracy will be no more.
In Freedom Is A Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of A Movement (2016), Angela Davis says (in an interview by Frank Barat in Brussels 9-21-14), “Ferguson is Gaza, and vice versa…The major challenge of this period is to infuse a consciousness of the structural character of state violence into the movements that spontaneously arise [against it]…I don’t know whether we can say yet that there is a movement, because movements are organized. But these spontaneous responses, which we know happen over and over again, will soon lead to organizations and a continual movement.
The use of state violence against Black people has its origins in colonization and slavery, [and] practices that originated with slavery weren’t resolved by the civil rights movement. We may not experience lynchings and Ku Klux Klan violence in the same way we did earlier, but there still is state violence, police violence, military violence…The civil rights movement was very successful in what it achieved: the legal eradication of racism and the dismantling of the apparatus of segregation…But racism persists in a framework that’s far vaster than the legal framework. Economic racism continues to exist, and racism can [still be] be discovered at every level in every major institution – including the military, the health care system, and the police.”
Asked about her advocacy for the abolition of prisons, Davis says, “The very existence of the prison forecloses the kinds of discussions that we need in order to imagine the possibility of eradicating [unwanted] behaviors. Just send them to prison…a violent institution that reproduces violence…so that when the person is released he or she is probably worse…
Abolishing the prison is about attempting to abolish racism. Why are so many prisoners illiterate? That means we have to attend to the educational system. Why is it that the three largest psychiatric institutions in the country are jails in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles: Rikers Island, Cook County Jail, and L.A. County Jail? That means we need to think about health care issues, especially mental health care issues. We have to figure out how to abolish homelessness…
Prison is a money-making business. They need prisoners, right? …A lot of people are in jail for really minor offenses…I think that you can say that all over the world now the institution of the prison serves as a place to warehouse people who represent major social problems. Getting rid of people, putting them in prison is a way not to have to deal with immigration in Europe. Immigration, of course, happens as a result of all the economic changes that have happened globally – global capitalism, the restructuring of economies in countries of the Global South that makes it impossible for people to live there. In many ways you can say that the prison serves as an institution that consolidates the state’s inability and refusal to address the most pressing social problems of this era…
[If you think of] prisoners as the objects of the charity of others, you defeat the very purpose of antiprison work. You are constituting them as an inferior in the process of trying to defend their rights. The abolitionist movement has learned that without the actual participation of prisoners, there can be no campaign.”
In an interview with Frank Barat on December 10, 2014 in Paris, Davis said, “We have to talk about systemic change, including perhaps establishing community control of the police. Not simply a review of actions in the aftermath of a crime by the police, but community bodies that have the power to actually control and dictate the actions of the police. That means addressing racism in the larger sense. It means also, looking at the ways in which police are encouraged to use violence as a first resort and the connection between this institutionalized violence and other modes of violence. In relation to Ferguson, especially, it means demilitarization of the police as a demand that needs to be taken up all over the country…
The way that society and the media portray Black people as potentially dangerous, potentially criminal…these stereotypes have been functioning since the era of slavery. Frederick Douglass wrote about the tendency to impute crime to color. This is true everywhere in a way. If you talk to someone who is of Moroccan or Algerian descent in Paris, they face pretty much the same stereotypes and fabrications as African Americans in the USA. Why do you think those stereotypes are fabricated? Is it a case of ‘divide and rule’ strategy? You know, racism is a very complex phenomenon. There are very important structural elements of racism and it’s often those structural elements that aren’t taken into consideration when there is discussion about ending racism or challenging racism…
Anyway I don’t think we can rely on governments, regardless of who is in power, to do the work that only mass movements can do. I think what is most important about the sustained demonstrations that are now happening is that they are having the effect of refusing to allow these issues to die…[In the struggle against racism] every change that has happened has come as a result of mass movements – from the era of slavery, the Civil War, and the involvement of Black people in the Civil War, which really determined the outcome. Many people are under the impression that it was Abraham Lincoln who played the major role, and he did as a matter of fact help to accelerate the move toward abolition, but it was the decision on the part of slaves to emancipate themselves and to join the Union Army – both women and men – that was primarily responsible for the victory over slavery. It was the slaves themselves and of course the abolitionist movement that led to the dismantling of slavery. When one looks at the civil rights era, it was those mass movements – anchored by women, incidentally – that pushed the government to bring about change. I don’t see why things would be any different today…
Movements require time to develop and mature. They don’t happen spontaneously. They occur as a result of organizing and hard work that most often happens behind the scenes. Over the last two decades I would say, there has actually been sustained organizing against police violence, racism, racist police violence, against prisons, and the prison-industrial complex, and I think that the sustained protests we are seeing now have a great deal to do with that organizing. They reflect the fact that the political consciousness in so many communities is so much higher than people think. That there is a popular understanding of the connection between racist police violence and systemic issues…I won’t say that there exists an organized movement because we haven’t yet reached that point, but there’s a powerful foundation and people are ready for a movement…
I think we learned in the ‘60s and ‘70s that mass movements can bring about systematic change. If one looks at all of the legislation that was passed, the Civil Rights Act, for example, the Voting Rights Act, that didn’t happen as a result of a president taking extraordinary steps. It happened as a result of people marching and organizing…
Certainly Black freedom in the narrow sense has not yet been won. Particularly considering the fact that huge numbers of Black people are ensconced in poverty. Considering the fact that a hugely disproportionate number of Black people are now in prison. But at the same time we have to look at Latino and Native American populations, and we have to look at the way in which anti-Muslim racism has thrived on the foundation of anti-Black racism…Increasing numbers of people associated with Black, Native American, and Latino movements [are also] incorporating Palestine into the agenda. I think I spoke in the last interview about the tweets of Palestinian activists used to provide advice for protesters in Ferguson, on how to deal with the tear gas…
I [also] think that feminism is not an approach that is or should be embraced simply by women but increasingly it has to be an approach embraced by people of all genders. We also need to do this with class, nationality, and ethnicity. I don’t think we can imagine Black movements in the same way today as we once did.
Can there be policing and imprisonment in the US without racism? At this point, at this moment in the history of the US, I don’t think that there can be policing without racism. I don’t think that the criminal justice system can operate without racism. Which is to say that if we want to imagine the possibility of a society without racism, it has to be a society without prisons. Without the kind of policing that we experience today. I think that different frameworks, perhaps restorative justice frameworks, need to be invoked in order to begin to imagine a society that is secure. I think that security is a[n important] issue, but not the kind of security that’s based on policing and incarceration. Perhaps transformative justice provides a framework for imagining a very different kind of security in the future.”
In a speech in London on 12-13-13, Davis said, “On any given day there are almost 2.5 million people in our country’s jails, prisons, and military prisons, as well as in jails in Indian country and immigrant detention centers. It’s a daily census, so it doesn’t reflect the numbers of people who go through the system every week or every month or every year. The majority are people of color. The fastest-growing sector consists of women – women of color. Many are queer or trans. As a matter of fact, trans people of color constitute the group most likely to be arrested and imprisoned. Racism provides the fuel for the maintenance, reproduction, and expansion of the prison-industrial complex.”
In a speech at Birkbeck University on 10-25-13, Davis said, “The historical significance of the Emancipation Proclamation is not so much that it enacted the emancipation of people of African descent; on the contrary, it was a military strategy. But if we examine the meaning of this historical moment we might better be able to grasp the failures as well as the successes of emancipation. I have thought that perhaps we were not asked to reflect on the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation because we might realize that we were never really emancipated. But anyway, at least we might be able to understand the dialectics of emancipation, because we still live with the popular myth that Lincoln freed the slaves and that continues to be perpetuated in popular culture, even by the film “Lincoln.” Lincoln did not free the slaves. We also live with the myth that the mid-20th-century civil rights movement freed the second-class citizens. Civil rights, of course, constitute an essential element of the freedom that was demanded at that time, but it was not the whole story. Eric Foner, in his book called The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, wrote that, and I am quoting: ‘The Emancipation Proclamation is perhaps the most misunderstood of the documents that have shaped American history. Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not free the nearly four million slaves with a stroke of his pen. It had no bearing on slaves in the four border states, since they were not in rebellion. The Proclamation also exempted certain parts of the Confederacy occupied by the Union. All told, it left perhaps 750,000 slaves in bondage.’ And of course popular narratives about the end of slavery produced by the pronouncing of this emancipation document by Abraham Lincoln erase the agency of Black people themselves. But, there is something for which Lincoln should be applauded, I believe: that he was shrewd enough to know that the only hope of winning the Civil War resided in creating the opportunity for Black people to fight for their own freedom, and that was the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation. W. E. B. Du Bois defined the consequence of the Emancipation Proclamation as a general strike. ‘The Black worker won the war by a general strike which transferred his labor from the Confederate planter to the Northern invader, in whose army lines workers began to be organized as a new labor force.’ What Du Bois calls ‘this army of striking labor’ eventually provided the 200,000 soldiers, ‘whose evident ability to fight decided the war.’ These soldiers included women like Harriet Tubman, who was a soldier and a spy and had to fight for many years in order to be granted, later, a soldier’s pension.
In the 1960s we confronted issues that should have been resolved in the 1860s. The Ku Klux Klan and the racial segregation that was so dramatically challenged during the mid-20th-century freedom movement was produced not during slavery, but rather in an attempt to manage free Black people who would have otherwise been far more successful in pushing forward democracy for all. And so we see this dialectical development of the Black liberation movement. There is this freedom movement and then there is an attempt to narrow the freedom movement so that it fits into a much smaller frame, the frame of civil rights. Not that civil rights isn’t immensely important, but freedom is more expansive than civil rights.
As that movement grew and developed it was inspired by and in turn inspired liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Australia. It was not only a question of acquiring the formal rights to fully participate in society, but rather it was also about substantive rights – it was about jobs, free education, free health care, affordable housing, and also about ending the racist police occupation of Black communities. And so in the 1960s organizations like the Black Panther Party were created.
The Black Panther Party was anticapitalist! It demanded ‘decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings, and decent education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in present-day society.’ The Panthers also demanded ‘free health care for all Black and oppressed people; an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of Black people, other people of color, and all oppressed people inside the United States; an immediate end to all wars of aggression; freedom for all Black and oppressed people now held in US federal, state, county, city, and military prisons and jails; trials by a jury of peers for all persons charged with so-called crimes under the laws of this country; and finally, we want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace, and people’s community control of modern technology.’ What’s so interesting about this manifesto is that it recapitulates 19th-century abolitionist agendas, and of course the most advanced abolitionists in the 19th = century recognized that slavery couldn’t be ended by simply negatively abolishing slavery but rather that institutions had to be produced that would incorporate former slaves into a new and developing democracy. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966, the program recapitulates abolitionist agendas from the 19th century, and it continues to resonate with respect to abolitionist agendas in the 21st century.
All around the world people are saying that we want to struggle together as global communities to create a world free of xenophobia and racism. A world from which poverty has been expunged, and the availability of food is not subject to the demands of capitalist profit. I would say a world where a corporation like Monsanto would be deemed criminal. Where homophobia and transphobia can truly be called historical relics along with the punishment of incarceration and institutions of confinement for disabled people, and where everyone learns how to respect the environment and all of the creatures, human and nonhuman alike, with whom we cohabit our worlds.”
In a speech given in St. Louis, Missouri on June 27, 2015, Davis said that “the call for public conversations on race and racism is also a call to develop a vocabulary that permits us to have insightful conversations. If we attempt to use historically obsolete vocabularies, our consciousness of racism will remain shallow and we can be urged to assume that, for example, changes in the law spontaneously produce effective changes in the social world. For example, those who assume that because slavery was legally abolished in the 19th century, it was thereby relegated to the dustbin of history, fail to recognize the extent to which cultural and structural elements of slavery are still with us. There are those who believe that we have definitively triumphed in the struggle for civil rights. However, vast numbers of Black people are still deprived of the right to vote, especially if they are in prison or former felons. Moreover, even those who did acquire rights that were not previously available to them did not thereby achieve jobs, education, housing, and health care. The mid-20th-century campaign for civil rights was an essential moment in our struggle for racial equality, but it’s important to develop vocabularies that help us acknowledge that civil rights was and is not the entire story. Such an analysis of racism would be helpful to those who are celebrating yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on marriage equality as if the final barrier to justice for LGBTQ communities had been surmounted. The decision was indeed historic, but the struggles against homophobic state violence, [for] economic rights, health care, et cetera, continue. Most importantly, if the intersectionality of struggles against racism, homophobia, and transphobia is minimized, we will never achieve significant victories in our fight for justice.
The inability to understand the complexity of racism can lead to assumptions, for example, that there is an independent phenomenon we can call ‘Black-on-Black crime’ that has nothing to do with racism. So, the development of new ways of thinking about racism requires us not only to understand economic, social, and ideological structures, but also collective psychic structures. One of the major examples of the violence of racism consists of the rearing of generations of Black people not now in possession of the education and the imagination that allows them to envision the future. This is violence that leads to other forms of violence – violence against children; violence against partners; and violence against friends…In our families and communities, we often unconsciously continue the work of larger forces of racism, assuming that this violence is individual and sui generis. If the popularization of more complex analyses of racism, especially those that have been developed in the context of Black and women-of-color feminisms, can assist us to understand how deeply embedded racist violence [is] in our country’s economic and ideological structures, these ways of talking about racism can help us to grasp the global reach of our struggles…
When we are told that we simply need better police and better prisons, we counter with what we really need. We need to reimagine security, which will involve the abolition of policing and imprisonment as we know them. We will say demilitarize the police, disarm the police, abolish the institution of the police as we know it, and abolish imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment. But we will have only just begun to tell the truth about violence in America.”
In a talk delivered at the University of Chicago on May 4, 2013, Davis said, “Feminism involves so much more than gender equality. And it involves so much more than gender. Feminism must involve a consciousness of capitalism – I mean, the feminism that I relate to. And there are multiple feminisms, right? It has to involve a consciousness of capitalism, racism, colonialism, postcolonialities, ability, more genders than we can even imagine, and more sexualities than we ever thought we could name. Feminism has helped us not only to recognize a range of connections among discourses, and institutions, and identities, and ideologies that we often tend to consider separately. But it has also helped us to develop epistemological and organizing strategies that take us beyond the categories “women” and “gender.” And, feminist methodologies impel us to explore connections that are not always apparent. And they drive us to inhabit contradictions and discover what is productive in these contradictions. Feminism insists on methods of thought and action that urge us to think about things together that appear to be separate, and to disaggregate things that appear to belong together. Now, the assumption has been that because transgender and gender-nonconforming populations are relatively small, why should they deserve so much attention? But feminist approaches to the understanding of prisons, and indeed the prison-industrial complex, have always insisted that, for example, if we look at imprisoned women, who are also a very small percentage throughout the world, we learn not only about women in prison, but we learn much more about the system as a whole than we would learn if we look exclusively at men. Thus, also, a feminist approach would insist both on what we can learn from, and what we can transform, with respect to trans and gender-nonconforming prisoners, but also it insists on what this knowledge and activism tells us about the nature of punishment writ large – about the very apparatus of prison. It’s true that we cannot begin to think about the abolition of prisons outside of an antiracist context. It’s also true that antiprison abolition embraces or should embrace the abolition of gender policing. That very process reveals the epistemic violence that is inherent in the gender binary in the larger society. So bringing feminism within an abolitionist frame, and vice versa, bringing abolition within a feminist frame, means that we take seriously the old feminist adage that ‘the personal is political.’
We can follow the lead of Beth Richie in thinking about the dangerous ways in which the institutional violence of the prison complements and extends the intimate violence of the family, the individual violence of battery and sexual assault. We also question whether incarcerating individual perpetrators does anything more than reproduce the very violence that the perpetrators have allegedly committed. In other words criminalization allows the problem to persist. And it seems to me that people who are working on the front line of the struggle against violence against women should also be on the front line of abolitionist struggles. And people opposed to police crimes, should also be opposed to domestic – what is constructed as domestic – violence. We should understand the connections between public violence and private or privatized violence. There is a feminist philosophical dimension of abolitionist theories and practices. The personal is political. There is a deep relationality that links struggles against institutions and struggles to reinvent our personal lives, and recraft ourselves. We know, for example, that we replicate the structures of retributive justice oftentimes in our own emotional responses. Someone attacks us, verbally or otherwise, and our response is what? A counterattack. The retributive impulses of the state are inscribed in our very emotional responses. The political reproduces itself through the personal. This is a feminist insight regarding the reproduction of the relations that enable something like the prison-industrial complex. The imprisoned population could not have grown to almost 2.5 million people in this country without our implicit assent. And we don’t even acknowledge the fact that psychiatric institutions are often an important part of the prison-industrial complex, nor do we acknowledge the intersection of the pharmaceutical-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex. But the point I make is that if we had mounted a more powerful resistance in the 1980s and 1990s during the Reagan-Bush era and during the Clinton era, we wouldn’t be confronting such a behemoth today. We’ve had to unlearn a great deal over the course of the last few decades. We’ve had to try to unlearn racism, and I’m not just speaking about white people. People of color have had to unlearn the assumption that racism is individual, that it is primarily a question of individual attitudes that can be dealt with through sensitivity training.
Prisons are racism incarnate. As Michelle Alexander points out, they constitute the new Jim Crow. But also much more, as the lynchpins of the prison-industrial complex, they represent the increasing profitability of punishment. They represent the increasingly global strategy of dealing with populations of people of color and immigrant populations from the countries of the Global South as disposable populations. Put them all in a vast garbage bin, add some sophisticated electronic technology to control them, and let them languish there. And in the meantime, create the ideological illusion that the surrounding society is safer and more free because the dangerous Black people and Latinos, and the Native Americans, and the dangerous Asians, and the dangerous White people, and of course the dangerous Muslims, are locked up! And in the meantime, corporations profit and poor communities suffer! Public education suffers! Public education suffers because it’s not profitable according to corporate measures. Public health care suffers. If punishment can be profitable, then certainly health care should be profitable, too. This is outrageous. It’s also outrageous that the state of Israel uses the carceral technologies developed in relation to US prisons not only to control the more than eight thousand Palestinian political prisoners in Israel but also to control the broader Palestinian population. These carceral technologies, for example, the separation wall, which reminds us of the US-Mexico border wall, and other carceral technologies are the material constructs of Israeli apartheid.
We should not have allowed this to happen over the last three decades. And we cannot allow it to continue today.
We have to challenge the assimilationist logic of the struggle for marriage equality! We can’t assume that once outsiders are allowed to move into the circle of the bourgeois hetero-patriarchal institution of marriage, the struggle has been won.”
In a speech at Davidson College on February 12, 2013, Davis noted that “there are still many significant civil rights movements in the 21st century. The struggle for immigrant rights is a civil rights struggle. The struggle to defend the rights of prisoners is a civil rights struggle. The struggle for marriage equality with respect to LGBT communities is a civil rights struggle. But freedom is still more expansive than civil rights. And in the ‘60s there were some of us who insisted that it wasn’t simply a question of acquiring the formal rights to fully participate in society, but also about the forty acres and the mule that were dropped from the abolitionist agenda in the 19th century. It was about economic freedom. It was about free education. It was about free health care. Affordable housing. These are issues that should have been on the abolitionist agenda in the 19th century, and here we are in the 21st century and we still can’t say that we have affordable housing and health care, and education has thoroughly become a commodity. It’s been so thoroughly commoditized that many people don’t even know how to understand the process of acquiring knowledge because it is subordinated to the future capacity to make money…
Given that my historical relationships with this country have been shaped by circumstances of international solidarity, I have entitled my talk ‘Transnational Solidarities: Resisting Racism, Genocide, and Settler Colonialism,’ for the purpose of evoking possible futures, potential circuits connecting movements in various parts of the world, and specifically, in the US, Turkey, and occupied Palestine. The term ‘genocide’ has usually been reserved for particular conditions defined in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted on December 9, 1948, in the aftermath of the fascist scourge during World War II. Some of you are probably familiar with the wording of that convention, but let me share it with you: ‘Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such, killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.’ This convention was passed in 1948, but it wasn’t ratified by the US until 1987, almost forty years later. However, just three years after the passage of the convention, a petition was submitted to the United Nations by the Civil Rights Congress of the US, charging genocide with respect to Black people in the US. This petition was signed by luminaries such as W. E. B. Du Bois, who at that time was under attack by the government. It was submitted to the UN in New York by Paul Robeson and it was submitted in Paris by the civil rights attorney William L. Patterson. Patterson was at that time the head of the Civil Rights Congress. He was a Black member of the Communist Party, a prominent attorney who had defended the Scottsboro Nine. His passport was taken away when he returned. This was during the era in which communists and those who were accused of being communists were seriously under attack. In the introduction to this petition, one can read the following words: ‘Out of the inhuman Black ghettos of American cities, out of the cotton plantations of the South, comes this record of mass slayings on the basis of race, of lives deliberately warped and distorted by the willful creation of conditions making for premature death, poverty, and disease. It is a record that calls aloud for condemnation, for an end to these terrible injustices that constitute a daily and ever-increasing violation of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.’ The introduction continues, ‘We maintain, therefore, that the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States, segregated, discriminated against, and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as the result of the consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government.’ The authors go on to point out that they will submit evidence proving, in accordance with the convention, the killing of members of the group. They point to police killings – this is 1951 – killings by gangs, by the Ku Klux Klan, and other racist groups. They point out that the evidence concerns thousands of people who have been ‘beaten to death on chain gangs and in the back rooms of sheriffs’ offices and in the cells of county jails and precinct police stations and on city streets, who have been framed and murdered by sham legal forms and by a legal bureaucracy. They also point out that a significant number of Black people were killed allegedly for failure to say ‘sir’ to a white person, or to tip their hats, or to move aside. I mention this historic petition against genocide first because such a charge could have also been launched at the time based on the mass slaughters of Armenians, the death marches, the theft of children and the attempt to assimilate them into dominant culture.
I also evoke the genocide petition of 1951 because so many of the conditions outlined in that petition continue to exist in the US today. This analysis helps us to understand the extent to which contemporary racist state violence in the US is deeply rooted in genocidal histories, including, of course, the genocidal colonization of indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. A recent book by historian Craig Wilder addresses the extent to which the Ivy League universities, the universities everyone knows all over the world – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, et cetera – were founded on and are deeply implicated in the institution of slavery. But – and in my mind this may be the most important aspect of his research – he discovers that he cannot tell the story of slavery and US higher education without also simultaneously telling the story of the genocidal colonization of Native Americans. Our histories never unfold in isolation. We can’t truly tell what we consider to be our histories without knowing the other stories. And often we discover that those other stories are actually our stories. This is the admonition ‘Learn your sisters’ stories’ by Black feminist sociologist Jacqui Alexander. It’s a dialectical process that requires us to constantly retell our stories, to revise them, and retell them, and relaunch them. We can thus not pretend that we don’t know about the conjunctures of race and class and ethnicity and nationality and sexuality and ability. I can’t prescribe how Turkish people come to grips with the imperial past of this country. But I do know that it has to be possible to speak freely, it has to be possible to engage in free speech. The ethnic-cleansing processes, including the so-called population exchanges at the end of the Ottoman Empire that inflicted incalculable forms of violence on so many populations – Greeks, Syrians, and, of course, Armenians – have to be acknowledged in the historical record. But popular conversations about these events and about the histories of the Kurdish people in this space have to occur before any real social transformation can be imagined, much less rendered possible. I tell you that in the United States we are at such a disadvantage because we do not know how to talk about the genocide inflicted on indigenous people. We do not know how to talk about slavery. Otherwise it would not have been assumed that simply because of the election of one Black man to the presidency we would leap forward into a postracial era. We do not acknowledge that we all live on colonized land. And in the meantime, Native Americans live in impoverished conditions on reservations. They have an extremely high incarceration rate – as a matter of fact, per capita the highest incarceration rate – and they suffer disproportionately from such diseases as alcoholism and diabetes. In the meantime, sports teams still mock indigenous people with racially derogatory names, like the Washington Redskins. We don’t know how to talk about slavery, except, perhaps, within a framework of victim and victimizer, one that continues to polarize and implicate. But I can say that, increasingly, young activists are learning how to acknowledge the intersections of these stories, the ways in which these stories are crosshatched and overlaid. Therefore, when we attempt to develop an analysis of the persistence of racist violence, largely directed at young Black men, of which we have been hearing a great deal over this last period, we cannot forget to contextualize this racist violence.
For some time now I have been involved in efforts to abolish the death penalty and imprisonment as the main modes of punishment. I should say that it is not simply out of empathy with the victims of capital punishment and the victims of prison punishment, who are overwhelmingly people of color. It is because these modes of punishment don’t work. These forms of punishment don’t work when you consider that the majority of people who are in prison are there because society has failed them, because they’ve had no access to education or jobs or housing or health care. But let me say that criminalization and imprisonment don’t solve the problem of sexual violence either.”