Black August and the Unmasking of the US Police State

Black August, paradoxically, shines a light on the contradictions of a country that never was, yet must always be.

“The reason you call the police is because you’re in a police state.”
– Dhoruba bin-Wahad

“Before our eyes and ears, a ‘web of business relationships that now defines America’s media and culture’ has one particular business raking in billions of dollars while another defines the culture of a specific demographic as criminal.”
– Homeboy Sandman

By Jared A. Ball

Much like a credit card that finances a lifestyle far beyond our means, prison has long been central to maintaining a certain racial, social and class structure in the United States and masking social contradictions. Mass incarceration helps to obscure stagnant wages for labor, and enormous profits for bosses and owners and a low-wage, captive workforce–quite literally– that answers our customer service calls, produces our furniture and clothing and – with their ancillary associates in policing and the courts – exists as fodder for tv cop dramas, sitcoms, movies and documentaries.

All of that product makes a ton of money for the prison, media, and other industries, and, just as importantly, helps sharpen the cultural narratives which defines who is “good,” and who is “innocent” and who is “guilty” just by their mere presence.

Black August refers to the coordinated efforts of U.S. political prisoners — or more accurately prisoners of war — to “unmask” their jailers and the interests on whose behalf they toil, and to commemorate, study and learn from the history of Black liberation struggles in this country.  Specifically, as recounted in the history of Black August by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement:

Black August originated in the concentration camps of California to honor fallen Freedom Fighters, Jonathan Jackson, George Jackson, William Christmas, James McClain and Khatari Gaulden. Jonathan Jackson was gunned down outside the Marin County California courthouse on August 7, 1970 as he attempted to liberate three imprisoned Black Liberation Fighters: James McClain, William Christmas and Ruchell Magee.

It is a time to fast, train, study and reflect on the importance of past examples of struggle that may inform the present. It can also be a time to recalibrate  standards by which we assess both our progress and our peril. Black August challenges the very nature of the state and its claim on human beings as colonial subjects, and its insistence, in word and deed, that this, is the natural, almost divine order of things.

For this reason, Black August is all that the state abhors; humanity, dignity, principle and adherence to so many of the state’s hated isms; pan-Africanism, socialism, communism, intercommunalism.  To a ruling elite, Black August is an uncomfortable, repressed memory of the traditions, militancy and robust responses to injustice and oppression–and therefore a reminder of their depravity– in a state that insists on only sanctioned forms of resistance.

All the evidence we need can be found in the continued repression, imprisonment and exile of U.S. political prisoners so many of whom come out of this Black August tradition; Assata Shakur, Mutulu Shakur, Sundiata Acoli, Imam Jamil al-Amin (H. Rap Brown), Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Russell Maroon Shoatz to name but a few.

That this August takes place amid a unique electoral moment in the U.S., a reset of the standard could not be more timely. The nominal “Left” defends their indefensible candidate as “not Donald Trump,” which would seem the very definition of damning with faint praise. Moreover, it signals that this neoliberal, hawkish femme is no friend to the people’s struggle.  Hillary Clinton represents the interests of what has been affectionately called the “liberal wing of the ruling elite.”  But she, like her political party, is skilled at masking their allegiance to power and posing as a representative of the majority of citizens who have been abandoned by the super white and male Republicans.

One particularly egregious and pernicious example of this occurred when the former Secretary of State proudly proclaimed her intent to repair the country’s tarnished image by exporting hip-hop, and sending Black rappers around the world as cultural ambassadors of a sort. Many of these artists are indeed radical and consequently are seldom, if ever, heard or seen in commercial U.S. media. But Clinton’s gesture was intended only to help redeem the “War on Terror” by improving “poor perceptions” as part of what she described as a “complex game” of “cultural diplomacy,” or, as she explained, “multidimensional chess.”  When asked if hip-hop would be a “chess piece” Clinton said, “Absolutely!”

Of course, this is better understood as cultural warfare, itself an extension of policies long engaged by this — and arguably every — state looking to maintain a particular social order.

Far from conspiratorial fantasy there is a long and documented trail of cultural abuse and distortion meant to coincide with equally devolving material conditions. Only this year Clinton  apologized for describing Black youths as “super predators” and accepting campaign donations from private prison operators. Her apology rang hollow, particularly when Damon Hininger, CEO of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA):

I would say that being around 30 years and being in operation in many, many states, and also doing work with the federal government going back to the 1980s, where you had Clinton White House, you had a Bush White House, you had Obama White House, we’ve done very, very well.

Clinton’s plan to cleanse her country’s reputation with hip-hop is also significant because as emcee and writer Homeboy Sandman has made clear the largest investor in CCA, the Vanguard Group Incorporated, is also a major investor in Time Warner and Viacom.  While one industry sends Blacks to prison, the other reinforces their image as deserving of their imprisonment.

And this is also why the roll call of political prisoners is incomplete without a roster of hip-hop artists who support their release, if not an end to mass incarceration on the whole. There are, but for a few examples, the wonderfully documented work of MXGM and its hip-hop Black August project by Dream Hampton highlighting the work of artists like Dead Prez, The Roots, Common and Talib Kweli.  There is Rebel Diaz, Lah Tere, Invicible, The Cornel West Theory, Head-Roc, Tef Poe, Marcel P. Black and those appearing in our George Jackson: Releasing the Dragon Video Mixtape; Slangston Hughes, Laini Mataka, Umar bin-Hasan, Malcolm and Son of Nun.

Black August reminds us that too little has changed in the lived experience of African people in this or any hemisphere.  It is, as Bob Marley once sang, a call to “Want More!” Our expectations have been unacceptably downsized. Want More!

Black August reminds us that we do, and we will have it!