The current upsurge in Black “movement”-type politics has been in the making for a decade. Katrina “reawakened the Black radical imagination” in 2005. Like a wave, the momentum built through the Jena 6 campaign and the Justice for Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin actions, culminating in the 2014 rebellion in Ferguson, Missouri. “This is a new moment where our people are learning more in a few days then they typically do in decades.”
By Kali Akuno
Author’s Note: A version of this essay will be printed in the forthcoming book, “Don’t Believe the Hype! Ferguson, Black Lives Matter and Hip Hop,” to be released by U.NET, a radical Italian publishing collective.
“We need to build a mass movement that focuses equally on organizing and building autonomous, self-organized and executed social projects and campaigns and initiatives that apply transformative pressure on the government and the forces of economic exploitation and domination.”
The line of New Afrikan resistance to enslavement, colonial subjugation, capitalist exploitation and white supremacy has never been broken since our mass introduction to the Great Turtle Island (i.e. the North American continent) in 1619. Because of the ideological onslaught of the myth of a “post-racial” society advanced by the liberal faction of the US ruling class since the 1990’s, and the ebb of the Black Liberation Movement in the early portion of the 2000’s, many political scientists and commentators were declaring that the Black Liberation Movement was dead, or worse that it was no longer necessary or relevant. The resurgence of mass, militant resistance over the last 2 years has laid many of these reactionary notions to rest. However, what is not as clearly understood or recognized about this resurgence is how it has been building and maturing over the past 10 years.
The Black Liberation Movement, like all critical social movements, should be looked at as a wave of energy. It ebbs and flows and until the gravity of the contradictions New Afrikan people confront with capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy are eliminated, either through self-emancipation or genocidal defeat, it will always do so. Over the last 10 years the flow of energy that is the Black Liberation Movement has steadily increased. The catalyst for the most recent amassing and mobilization of this energy was the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. The disaster in New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina exposed that reactionary force’s within society and the government were politically willing and able to dispose of Black people in mass, particularly those sectors of the Black working class that have largely become superfluous to the process of capital accumulation.
“The pattern of Black mass resistance that we are witnessing now began to concretely emerge in 2006 – 2007 with the campaign to defend the Jena 6.”
This catastrophe stimulated the collective consciousness of Black people, reminiscent of how the images of the grossly distorted body of Emmitt Till catalyzed Black consciousness over 60 years ago inspiring the mass resistance of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. The images of dead Black bodies floating in flood waters, thousands of Black people crying for aid at the Superdome, and the military occupation of New Orleans conjured up the nightmares of slavery, Klan raids, lynching’s and thousands of other horrors experienced by New Afrikan people. These images and events reawakened the Black radical imagination, which compelled millions of Black people to question the society more critically and, gradually, to act in defiant resistance.
The resistance was first registered as public outrage expressed through various forms of Black and “mainstream,” white dominated media. But it swiftly turned to direct action. The first steps were taken in direct response to the human rights violations committed by the US government in New Orleans via protests, demonstrations, and a regional people’s assembly that was hosted in Jackson, Mississippi in December 2005, organized by the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition and the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund. However, the pattern of Black mass resistance that we are witnessing now began to concretely emerge in 2006 – 2007 with the campaign to defend the Jena 6.
The Jena 6 were six teenage Black men convicted in 2006 of beating a white student in Jena, Louisiana who participated in a mock lynch action threatening the lives of the 6 young Black men and the Black people in that small community. A national campaign centered on overturning their convictions emerged in late 2006 and early 2007, which culminated with a mass mobilization of over 20,000 Black people who descended upon the city of Jena and effectively shut it down on September 20th, 2007. Although this campaign had many weaknesses – such as its lack of broader transformative demands, the blatant disregard for local leadership exhibited at times, the woefully inadequate political education of the defendants and their families, and the lack of national follow through, to name but a few – it did set a tone and fashioned a precedent.
“The Justice for Oscar Grant Campaign assimilated several critical lessons on how to overcome the shortcomings of the campaigns in New Orleans and Jena and established some critical new models and precedents.”
The motion that was initiated by actions in Mississippi and Louisiana in 2005 and 2007 respectively, were carried forward and advanced in Oakland, California in 2009 in response to the extrajudicial killing of Oscar Grant on January 1st, 2009. The Justice for Oscar Grant Campaign assimilated several critical lessons on how to overcome the shortcomings of the campaigns in New Orleans and Jena and established some critical new models and precedents. The Justice for Oscar Grant Campaign engaged national social movement forces, but was initiated and led by local working class forces, which fostered its staying power as it maintained critical momentum for nearly 2 years locally and statewide (particularly in Los Angeles). The Oscar Grant Campaign also was able to craft and articulate a set of transitional demands that addressed both local structural dynamics, as well as national structural dynamics. However, the movement was unable to successfully address many political and ideological differences, which led to disruptive infighting and fragmentation. However, like Jena before it, the Oscar Grant Campaign set a national precedent that was picked up and adapted in later struggles.
The Justice for Trayvon Martin campaign, which developed after Trayvon was extra judicially killed in Sanford, Florida on February 2012, was a critical crest in the present upsurge of the Black Liberation Movement. The Justice for Trayvon Martin campaign assimilated many of the organizing lessons from Oakland, Jena and New Orleans, but also incorporated many lessons drawn from the Occupy Movement that emerged in New York City in September 2011. These lessons were assimilated by local and national organizers alike who launched the campaign. But, the most critical development that emerged from this campaign was the development of numerous new youth organizations and alliances, like the Million Hoodies Movement and the Dream Defenders. None of the previous rebellious episodes and campaigns produced new formations with broader systemic agendas. Prior to this campaign there were local defense committee’s and foundations that were started in the names of the victims, like the Oscar Grant Foundation, but not new political formations. The new formations that emerged as a result of this campaign and how they connected to older radical formations, like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the People’s Organization for Progress, the Organization for Black Struggle, Anarchist People of Color, the Black Autonomy Federation, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, the African People’s Socialist Party, the Black is Back Coalition and the Black Left Unity Network proved critical for the deepening and broadening of the movement since 2012.
“Malcolm X Grassroots Movement issued a number of reports starting in 2012 that analyzed the escalating rate of extrajudicial killings of Black people.”
Another critical development from the 2012 – 2013 period was the development of a number of critical analytical and agitation tools produced by some of the older radical Black Radical formations, who correctly surmised that the tide of resistance was advancing but needed some political focus and ideological grounding. To this end, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement issued a number of reports starting in 2012 that analyzed the escalating rate of extrajudicial killings of Black people. This culminated with the production of “Operation Ghetto Storm,” better known as the Every 28 Hours Report. This report established a solid political reasoning and analytical foundation for the reawakening that we are experiencing now. It exposed the extent to which Black people are being disposed of by the state and started the dialogue regarding what can and must be done about it. This work was supplemented by periodic analysis pieces, and organizing guides such as “Let Your Motto Be Resistance” and “We Charge Genocide Again.”
These works were supplemented by more strategic works, like the “Jackson-Kush Plan,” which was publicly released in the summer of 2012, to try and ground a younger generation confronting the cold realities of disposability in the development and execution of revolutionary theory and practice. What many of these works have been struggling to convey is that we need to build a mass movement that focuses equally on organizing and building autonomous, self-organized and executed social projects and campaigns and initiatives that apply transformative pressure on the government and the forces of economic exploitation and domination (see “Until We Win” for more details).
When the world learned of Mike Brown’s murder via a state sanctioned extrajudicial killing on August 9th, 2014, they did so as a direct result of the mobilization of the infrastructure built by the movement over the preceding 9 years, particularly connections and relationships that were built in 2012. The Black August rebellion in Ferguson, Missouri had a spontaneous dimension to it, but it persisted and grew as a direct result of the movement’s national coordination and infrastructure. It was this national coordination which developed and employed a common nomenclature via social media that was able to transform public perception of the movement and the conditions of Black people via the mass utilization of the #Every28Hours and #BlackLivesMatter hash tags. It was also as a direct result of this infrastructure that Black Lives Matter was able to quickly transform from a hash tag, to a slogan, to an international organization and network.
“There are numerous ideological and political tendencies within the movement contending for preeminence in determining the course of its program and direction.”
The Movement for Black Lives, which is rapidly becoming the most common name employed to describe the current upsurge of the Black Liberation Movement, is a phenomenon still very much in development. It’s most distinguishing features and contributions to date have been an elevation and highlighting of women’s and queer struggles within the Black community, the employment of an intersectional analysis and politics, and the development of and struggle for non-hierarchical organizations. In this regard it is simultaneously an internal challenge to the community itself as well as an external challenge to the society at large, both of which are needed. There are numerous ideological and political tendencies within the movement contending for preeminence in determining the course of its program and direction. Where these battles are most acute are over demand development.
The main point of concern for Black revolutionaries (i.e. revolutionary nationalists, communists, and anarchists) operating in the movement is how to transform the current rebellious motion into a revolutionary movement. Revolutionaries must do everything we can to confront and defeat the extreme cooptive pressure being exerted by the Democratic Party and liberal philanthropic capital to narrow the movements focus towards policy reforms that will only enable minor tweaks to the current neo-liberal strategy of capitalist accumulation and the policies and programs of Black disposal governing the settler-colonial state apparatus.
“Revolutionaries must do everything we can to confront and defeat the extreme cooptive pressure being exerted by the Democratic Party and liberal philanthropic capital.”
However, moving the movement in a revolutionary direction is going to be a struggle. The overall weakness of anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist movements in the United States and the world means that the broad Black working class base the movement is drawing from has little experience with these radical ideologies and social systems. But, this is a new moment where our people are learning more in a few days then they typically do in decades. So, this is no time for pessimism, it is a time for revolutionary optimism and the dogged determination of our will to overcome the tremendous odds confronting us.
New Afrikan people refuse to go quietly into the night. The resistance of the last 10 years clearly demonstrates that the Black Liberation Movement is far from dead. New Afrikan people remain a central contradiction within the US settler-colonial project, one that will ultimately be resolved through a revolutionary program of decolonization or genocide. What the present illustrates clearly is that from 1619 to now, our resistance remains unbroken, unbowed, and undeterred and will remain so until we are free.
Kali Akuno is currently Co-Director of Cooperation Jackson (www.CooperationJackson.org). Kali served as the Director of Special Projects and External Funding for the late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba. He is a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and author of the Jackson-Kush Plan, Let Your Motto Be Resistance, and the preface of Operation Ghetto Storm.