We’re posting the first serious engagement and response to our pamphlet Justice for Oscar Grant: A Lost Opportunity? by comrades in the Oakland chapter of Bring the Ruckus. The response further develops the analysis of the pamphlet and poses further questions and challenges. We appreciate the response and look forward to discussing and debating the important questions of revolutionary praxis found within.
Bring the Struggle, Advance the Ruckus
Bring the Ruckus, Oakland (BR-OAK) welcomes the release of the new pamphlet by Advance the Struggle (AS), entitled “Justice for Oscar Grant: A Lost Opportunity?” In the spirit of comradely and productive critique, we offer the following comments, which we hope will both build upon ideas developed in the pamphlet, and also provoke further reflection on where to go from here.
“Justice for Oscar Grant: A Lost Opportunity?” seeks to critically assess the “organizational tools” available to those who took to the streets in January of 2009. According to AS, these tools primarily consisted of:
- The Coalition Against Police Executions (CAPE) a hastily-assembled grouping composed largely of nonprofit sector leftists, and
- “a self-labeled revolutionary communist organization” (i.e. the Avakianite Revolutionary Communist Party, or RCP) (p. 2).
The major contribution of this pamphlet, we believe, lies in this double-sided critique of two elements, two “organizational tools” which on the surface share very little, but whose subtle similarities could be further developed. While CAPE spent much of its time attempting to restrain the energies of the rebellion and channel these down reformist paths, young RCP cadres were consistently in the streets inciting further mobilization. AS is correct, nevertheless, to highlight the underlying compatibility that both sectors shared.
While we appreciate this useful critique, however, we are left hoping for more vision of how to move revolutionary organizing in the Bay forward. This is not a critique, since we ourselves have not publicly offered a systematic strategic vision of the coming months. This document is an effort to begin to make such a contribution, and to begin to move forward together.
I. Vanguardism, Reformist and “Revolutionary”
AS skillfully recounts the essential moments of the January rebellion, in which the initial intentions of the CAPE organizers were quickly overwhelmed by the “intuitive militancy of the Oakland youth” who—against the claims about “outside agitators” passed from police to the media, and regurgitated by CAPE itself—spearheaded the rebellions on January 7th, 14th, and 30th (p. 5). Against all calls for “moderation” and “rational” dialogue, this “intuitive militancy” demonstrated an astoundingly clear grasp of how the state functions. As C.L.R. James once put it, “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.” It was only when the City of Oakland and Alameda County found their interests threatened that action was forced on the state and Johannes Mehserle arrested.Despite this irrefutable logic of the rebellion, both objects of the AS critique would in their own way hinder the militancy of this momentary upsurge.
AS discusses how nonprofits function as a “buffer” protecting the state, a role manifested physically on the night of January 14th (i.e. the very day after the state was forced to act for fear of a repeat of the 7th), as the nonprofit security force faced down protesters (notably with their backs to police) to clear them off the streets with a combination of disgusting paternalism (we are here to protect you) and the internalized ideology of self-policing (we must therefore physically remove you for your own good). Members of AS and Ruckus were both at the CAPE meeting when this security strategy was proposed and pursued with near-unanimity, the safety and effectiveness of the movement placed uncritically in the hands of black-clad professional security officers.
In that meeting, decisions had already been made behind closed doors by non-profiteers (some with direct ties to the Dellums campaign), compelled more by the desire to maintain their public image than to represent the righteous anger of those on the street. Predictably, when this force was deployed on the 14th, it found itself forced to repress the very people it claimed to represent, physically pushing them off the street. As one recent analysis describes the scene, CAPE’s security force both sheltered the state in a very material way, “work[ing] with police by fighting protestors,” while simultaneously destroying the solidarity necessary for a successful movement: creating a snitch culture, threatening demonstrators with arrest, “shaming people into nonviolence and passivity,” profiling young people of color to determine if they were capable of thinking for themselves (i.e. resisting becoming the mindless pawns of “outside agitators”), and finally “stripp[ing] away the power and momentum that had been established in the January 7th uprising” (Unfinished Acts, p. 24-25).
But to this critique of the CAPE non-profiteers operating as an arm of the state and who undoubtedly represented the fundamental barrier to continued mobilization, AS adds a critique of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). While many on the left refuse to even engage the RCP, the comical nature of their dogma should not prevent us from noting their impact on the ground: many a young radical has joined the RCP due to the absence of serious revolutionary organizations active in the Bay. Given the RCP’s failure to organize systematic campaigns with roots in the community, this means no more and no less than the detachment of young organic intellectuals from the revolutionary struggles that desperately need to be fought. The success of the RCP is therefore not something to be laughed-at or dismissed out-of-hand, since it also represents our failure.
While it is necessary to recognize that young RCP members were consistently present on the streets, through a detailed and subtle analysis of a series of school walk-outs, AS convincingly demonstrates the simultaneous ineffectiveness and even dangers of the RCP approach to mobilizing. According to AS, the RCP “fetishizes” the function of having the “correct political line,” drawing their own motivation from the unquestioned line provided by Bob Avakian. The result is a mode of political organizing which often looks more like evangelism, “a tautological (circular) form” in which the RCP mobilizes the community not for community needs, but to bolster their own ranks and readership. Struggles which do not fit into this pre-ordained circularity, AS scathingly notes, are dismissed as “economistic,” and abandoned to nonprofits (p. 18).
The peculiar complementarity existing between the RCP and nonprofits is then this: they constitute circuit whereby “revolutionaries” refuse to engage community struggles while those who do engage such struggles are far from revolutionary (i.e. nonprofit-led campaigns). Here, AS is on point: “We are criticizing them [the RCP], because in exalting themselves as representatives of communism and revolution they discredit these worthy goals” (p. 19). AS therefore offers a simultaneous critique of “reformist” and “revolutionary” tendencies, despite the fact that the CAPE nonprofits and the RCP “revolutionaries” played very different roles on the streets. This double-critique is useful, and here we would just like to draw out the inherent similarity of the two positions, both of which mobilize popular resentment for their own dubious ends (increased membership for the RCP; bargaining power with the state and cushy jobs for the non-profiteers). The existence of organizations dedicated to mobilizing anger only to harness it toward their own ends has a long history, one which long predates the nonprofit industrial complex, and which constitutes a threat inherent to all efforts at revolutionary change, and which must be borne in mind constantly if we are to minimize its harmful effects.
In his Reflections on Violence, French syndicalist Georges Sorel condemned the behavior of the parliamentary socialists during the 1906 general strike. Their strategy, according to Sorel, was to “skillfully manipulate the specter of revolution,” mobilizing the masses in order to frighten the bosses while positioning themselves as the unquestioned representatives of those masses, who they would quickly sell up the river. Some six decades later, Frantz Fanon would confront a similar situation in the Algerian Revolution, condemning in Wretched of the Earth the mainstream, nationalist political parties as “violent in their words and reformist in their attitudes.” This ambiguity toward violence results from the very position of such reformists: as mediators between the people and the state, they require a violent upsurge from below (seeing this as a “godsend,” and indeed “brandish[ing] the threat of mass mobilization as a decisive weapon”), but they also require that this upsurge stay within their control (and fear that they will be “swept away” in the struggle, which is to say, swept out of their privileged position). In both cases, the mediators and moderates whip up violence only in an effort to shut it down, in so doing demonstrating their credentials as negotiators and compromisers. They mediate because they are moderate, and they are moderate in order to guarantee their privileged position as mediators.
This fundamental complicity between radical nonprofits and vanguardist revolutionaries appears as clear as day once we take a close look at the recent history of Bay Area radicalism, and specifically the history and legacy of STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement). Here was a self-professed revolutionary organization of the 1990s which has given rise to nearly every radical nonprofit currently congesting the horizon of the Bay Area. While we don’t want to unilaterally condemn all of the work carried out by such organizations, we must not confuse them with revolutionary organizations, and when they become barriers to struggle (as they most certainly did in January), they must be opposed relentlessly and critiqued ruthlessly.
What is it that ties vanguardist revolutionaries to reformist nonprofiteers? Firstly, there is the circuit that AS rightly points out: the overtly non-revolutionary nature of the nonprofits drive hungry young radicals into the RCP (and on into disillusionment), while the RCP’s lack of roots in the community leaves the nonprofits intact in their self-appointed role as spokespeople for that community. But secondly, and arguably more important, is the fact that the two often share a form of vanguardism. Both tend to assume that they represent and speak for the people (after all, nonprofits have already decided which form of struggle works: reformism), and this conceit can lead as much to revolutionary maximalism as easily as to reformist minimalism.
Speaking directly to STORM’s history, it is clear that vanguardism did not lead directly to reformism, but rather made the organization, its members, and their politics susceptible to the logic of the nonprofit world: if you appoint yourself leader, there is no one that can possibly dissuade you from making strategic concessions to the state and its nonprofit extensions once you have made such a strategic calculation. And as we saw during the January rebellions, self-appointed leaders are all the more likely to cherish the role of mediator and negotiator, a role for which nonprofits—as para-state institutions—are uniquely situated. The degree to which the logic of the nonprofit world can permeate such organizations was visible in the September 2008 resignation of the entire staff of the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL, itself an outgrowth of STORM), in part over the clashes with board members over the respective importance of nonprofit work vs. radical political work.
II. Where Next?
If we agree with AS’s two-pronged critique of vanguardist nonprofits and vanguardist “revolutionaries,” then what do we think of their positive program? Where does “Justice for Oscar Grant: A Lost Opportunity?” take us next? Here AS is rightly modest: their goal was to emphasize critique so that we might avoid making the same errors next time around. “Criticism of existing organizations is a necessary step in the direction of building the type of organization that can respond to movements of the oppressed and help guide them in a revolutionary direction, instead of fumbling or capitulating to the system” (p. 20). An atheistic Amen.
Further, AS correctly argues that developing a “correct line” is not, as the RCP would have it, to create a self-referential and dogmatic belief system regarding the course the struggle must and will take, but nor is it the opportunistic anti-correct-line of nonprofits (which itself, as we have seen, implies a vanguardist line of its own, which became viscerally obvious on the night of the 14th). “Both can and will be overrun and shoved aside by the spontaneous militancy of the people,” and our objective as revolutionaries should not be to merely corral or channel this spontaneity into our own organizations, but instead to self-reflexively allow our organizations to respond to radical demands: “The challenge is to develop an organization that can match its strategy and tactics to the mood of the masses and infuse the spontaneous movements that develop from that mood with a more conscious and political view of their world” (p. 21). (Note: we find this formulation more precise and useful than the initial call for “new leadership” at the beginning the pamphlet (p. 2). While we do not doubt that AS means only the best and most self-reflexive form of “leadership,” one with deep roots in the struggle and a clarity of vision as to where that struggle must move, we fear that the term “leadership” is unnecessarily ambiguous and can allow for vanguardist interpretations.)
AS closes its pamphlet with a touch of nostalgia for the spirit of the 1946 general strike in Oakland, wondering aloud why we have not seen a similar coalescence of union support for the Oscar Grant rebellions. A similar nostalgia is evident for the Black Panther Party, the other side of Oakland’s revolutionary coin (one which AS rightly shows to be in some ways connected to workplace organizing). Nostalgia is a useful tool, pointing us as it does in the right direction, but it does so only partially. We need to figure out the rest. We believe that AS recognizes that its answers are partial (indeed, no answers are ever complete). We would like to therefore prod the organization to push harder on their overarching conclusion. Why did the Oscar Grant rebellions fizzle out? For AS, “There was no organization” (p. 25). Meaning that there was no serious mechanism paralleling the union movements of the 1940s or the Black Panthers of the 1970s. Our provocation is to ask what it was that unions and the Black Panthers represented? What was the basis of their support, the durability of their revolutionary organizations, and the challenge
(and threat) they posed to the state?
Bring the Ruckus would respond by saying that both sought to create structures that were both strategic and lasting. As we have seen above, the post-STORM nonprofits have certainly built lasting institutions, but institutions which by virtue of their funding streams and intrinsic logics have lost their strategic teeth and no longer represent a threat to the state. And while organizations like the RCP may at moments engage in strategic action, their vanguardism, dogmatism, and adventurism prevent the building of stable institutions in the community (and as AS has shown, they frequently burn more bridges than they build). While there are many terms that can describe the existence of stable and strategic revolutionary institutions, we prefer the term dual power. Dual power institutions are those that simultaneously challenge the racist-capitalist status quo (in a strategic manner) while prefiguring the new society (thereby creating a basis for lasting institutions). This dual power vision is precisely what revolutionary workplace struggles of the past and the Black Panthers embodied, the only difference being that in the former dual power is located in the workplace while in the latter it is located geographically, or as Eldridge Cleaver put it, “in the streets.” While both are necessary, this is a division in dual power strategies and among workers more generally that must be overcome.
In this vein, we celebrate the fact that Oakland Copwatch is, after some false starts, off and running, since the police are a primary mechanism that the state uses to divide workers along race lines while preventing meaningful self-determination in the Black and Latino community. We also celebrate those union members who have been actively involved in the struggle around Oscar Grant’s death, although there is clearly much more to be done in this direction. We look forward, moreover, to the flourishing of strategic, dual power struggles as the economic crisis deepens: as homeowners refuse to heed foreclosures and become homeless, as students refuse to accept budget cuts, as healthcare workers and patients refuse to accept higher mortality as the “natural” result of capitalist crisis, and as migrant workers organize themselves to resist increasingly-frequent ICE raids. We believe that AS and others will agree that, if Johannes Mehserle is eventually acquitted or given a slap on the wrist, it is the development of such lasting and strategic organizational structures that will determine whether what we see next time is “just another riot” or something altogether more momentous.
Bring the Ruckus is a national organization of revolutionaries organizing to fight white supremacy and build dual power.