Race, Identity, and Solidarity in the Fight Against State Violence

Photo: 'Millions March' in Downtown Oakland

Photo: ‘Millions March’ in Downtown Oakland

December 13th and November 24th

The Millions March, a national solidarity event with the Black Lives Matter movement that took place on December 13th, compels me to address the political dynamics of that nationwide event in order to open a dialogue about the objectives and tactics of the movement.  At the beginning of the march, one of the leading speakers called on White Allies of Black people to refrain from speaking on the bullhorn and from marching at the head of the protest; the purpose of this rule was to ensure that black and brown voices were emphasized throughout the march – a theme that was present throughout the march and throughout this movement as a whole.

When we arrived at the Oakland Courthouse, the leaders urged black and brown protesters to stand together on the steps leading to the courthouse and for white protesters to remain at the bottom. When the list of speakers was over, the lead speaker of the march implied in her words that the march was over and that people should head back to the site of the initial convergence to engage in Healing Circles. As the mass of protesters began to move, a black protester announced to the marchers that the march was not over. Indeed, the majority of protesters remained on the streets of Oakland hours after the spectacle at the courthouse.

Now – let’s pause for a moment and rewind three weeks to November 24th, 2014 – the night of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. On this night we also experienced a powerful display of black, brown and multiracial solidarity; this night, however, was slightly different than the Millions March.  People, more or less spontaneously, filled the streets the night of November 24th; during the beginning of the rally on 14th and Broadway, black protesters lead chants of “Black Lives Matter” while people danced in a circle; electricity filled the air as protesters carried out an unpermitted march from downtown Oakland to the 580 Freeway entrance on the north side of Lake Merritt; at some point in the evening, a brave group of young people took over the 580 Freeway, blocking the westward flow of traffic.  The people who carried out this first freeway blockade were a mixed racial group of people; black protesters were certainly represented in the mix, contributing to the dynamism of the action; brown, asian and white protesters also filled the gravel laden lanes of the highway.  All protesters were clear in their messaging: black lives matter, and police violence must end.

Our intention is to explore the way in which movements such as that experienced by us in the winter of 2014 can contribute to the development of a revolutionary situation in the US; further, we see the questions of racial empowerment, identity and solidarity to be of central importance in building movements against state violence and building revolutionary organizations.

The Focus On Black Lives and The Focus On Brown Lives, All Lives, and The State

As the facade of America as a “post-racial” society cracks under the assault of this latest cycle of struggle against racist state violence, tens of thousands of black youth and youth of color have emerged as the leadership of a militant and potentially revolutionary force in American society. Black Lives Matter is one of the main slogans that this new layer of radicalized and militant young people are putting forward.  It’s becoming increasingly clear to people that state violence is targeted against black bodies; whether in the form of stop-and-frisk policies, the percentage of black people incarcerated, or police murders, the state apparatus is anti-black to its core.

In an attempt to draw connections between the two communities most affected by state violence in the U.S., activists and protesters have also raised the slogan of Black and Brown Unity.  Further, we’ve heard chants where people start saying that Black Lives Matter, before transitioning to chants of Brown Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, and [Insert Group’s] Lives Matter. On the one hand, we understand the attempt to look at the commonalities of state violence that many groups of people experience; whether it’s brown people harassed by ICE, brown people harassed at airports, or white people killed by the police, the reality is that almost every social group has its bone to pick with the state.  On the other hand, it’s problematic to pose slogans like “All Lives Matter” because it de-centers the particularity of black oppression and implies, inaccurately,that state violence impacts ”all lives” equally.

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Photo: "Brown / Black Unity" showed up on a wall at Fruitvale BART station in East Oakland (where Oscar Grant was murdered a few years ago at the hands of BART PD) the day after the acquittal of the White police officer that murdered Mike Brown.

Photo: “Brown / Black Unity” showed up on a wall at Fruitvale BART station in East Oakland (where Oscar Grant was murdered a few years ago at the hands of BART PD) the day after the acquittal of the White police officer that murdered Mike Brown.

While it’s true that many people experience state violence, and in particular Latin@s are consistently harassed and killed by police, all these groups’ experiences with state repression, violence and incarceration are not exactly the same as those of the Black population. This has generated tons of debate within the movement, both online and in the streets, about putting Black Lives Matter at the center and not taking away from the centrality of the message by adding on the issues of other social groups impacted by state violence.

It makes sense to emphasize the particularity of black oppression in the movement and focus the message on Black lives. The police, as the direct, physical, enforcers of the rule of private property, first emerged as slave patrols and Indian “constabularies”, the former to hunt runaway slaves, the latter to protect white settlements from Indian attacks to regain land. When people complain that relations between the Black community and the police are “broken”, they fail to realize that the police were created to monitor and repress Black and Native bodies. Black lives have never mattered in America, and the police were created to enforce this horrific reality. The current struggle is but one link in the long chain of resistance against white and state terror.

At the same time, the reality is that stopping state violence will take a concerted effort on the part of all people affected by it.  Most people agree with this.  The question is: how is it to be done?

Let’s explore an example from the past: the Black Panther Party in Chicago and their Rainbow Coalition project.

The Rainbow Coalition : A Key Historical Precedent

The Black Panther Party (BPP), one of the most dynamic organizations in the black revolutionary tradition, led the integration of radical organizations from several racially oppressed groups into a multiracial, socialist, formation: the Rainbow Coalition. The Illinois Chapter of the BPP initiated the Coalition by holding meetings with members of the Young Lords Organization and the Young Patriots, Puerto Rican and poor white radical organizations, respectively. All of these groups were the radicalized expressions of their particular sections of the working class; that is, they represented some of the most politicized layers of Black, Puerto Rican and White working class people.  The fact that they were part of separate organizations reflects the dominant politics of the 1960s – national liberation against imperialist capitalism.  Each social group – conceived of as separate nations – formed their own revolutionary socialist organization.

The Young Patriots were formed by young white activists from Chicago’s white Appalachian immigrant community of Uptown, where most residents lived in substandard housing, unemployment, hustling, decaying schools, and constant police harassment. Inspired by the example of the Black Panther Party on the south side of their city, the Patriots created their own political platform, which addressed many similar issues to those of the Black and Puerto Rican ones, in addition to calling for an end to racism. They laid claim to a working-class revolutionary white Southern culture, rejected the negation of the existence of a poor white population, and called for unity with racially oppressed workers against their common enemies.

None of this came easily. It’d be misleading to paint a picture of a quick, heartfelt connection. In the beginning, some white Uptowners were hesitant to coalesce with the Panthers or the Young Lords, as some Panthers and Young Lords were hesitant or even hostile to building with white people. However, leading members of these three organizations patiently met with and strategized with each other, creating the framework for the Rainbow Coalition and in the process drawing political lines around identity and class struggle within their own organizations:

Both the Panthers and the Lords lost members after the Rainbow Coalition was announced. For Cha-Cha Jiménez [of the Young Lords] these exits were sobering. “There’s nothing wrong with the process of building pride in yourself, your community, your culture and people,” he says. “However, some people got stuck in that phase and never moved beyond it.” Bob Lee [of the Panthers] was more blunt about it. “Some didn’t like the Patriots; some just didn’t like white people in general,” he says. “To tell the truth, it was a necessary purging. The Rainbow Coalition was just a code word for class struggle.” (Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power)

In the video below, a member of the Chicago Black Panther Party speaks to a group of Young Patriots about the common conditions they face as working-class people, and the strategies they might take on in their collective fight:

At 3:25, as the Black Panther was speaking on the issue of poverty as a common denominator of the black and white working classes, a white man rises from his seat and explains how his apartment building, “fit for dogs,” as he says, was sold to a new owner. He calls for “understanding among the people, coalition between the people, to step together and take them owners and put ‘em over the lake somewhere.”

At 7:28, the Black Panther member says,

“Once you realize, man, that your house is funky with rats and roaches, you know, same as a black dude’s house is…once you realize your brothers’ bein’ brutalized by cops same way the Westside and Southside is, once you realize that you’re getting inadequate education at these high schools and junior high schools over here, the same as the Southside and Westside…once you realize you are paying taxes !, taxes ! for the cops to come woop your ass…the same thing’s happening on the Southside and the Westside. If you can realize the concept of poverty…a revolution can begin.”

In the next part of the story, captured in the documentary American Revolution II, members of the Panthers and Patriots attend and shut down a city officials’ meeting around the use of a sum of money allocated to the city of Chicago. In the next scene, these two groups force a meeting with a police official where they get the official to agree to a conference with the poor white and black communities that suffer from police harassment.

During this conference, Bob Lee, one of the main Chicago Panthers tasked with building with the Patriots, grilled the police officials present about the attacks on them and their communities. This was brilliantly done; as Panthers, Patriots, and audience members question the police’s conduct, police representatives openly accept their selective repression towards “negroes” and “suspect groups,” thus clarifying the terrain of struggle for the people present. The meeting demonstrated the power of unity and organization, without which the police never would have accepted a meeting with people they despised and brutalized on a regular basis. While the Black Panthers and the Young Patriots continued organizing around their own group’s specific demands, they also laid the basis for proletarian unity against the bosses, landlords, and police that dominated them.

The Rainbow Coalition was a difficult endeavor since its inception. The influences of nationalism, particularly among newer, politically underdeveloped, layers in the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, clashed with the groups’ multiracial vision of class struggle and socialism that guided the Coalition. In American Revolution II, for example, a young black woman, member of the Black Panthers, talks about hating and taking revenge on “all honkies,” in between clips of Panthers and Patriots meeting and organizing with one another.

In addition, the state monitored the Coalition’s development since day one and brought it down through the now well-known program of the FBI’s war against revolutionaries: sowing division, making key arrests, and assassinating leaders.

This project was a first step in the development of a multi-racial revolutionary organization. It died in its infancy as a coalition of various groups, so it didn’t reach the stage of a unified force rooted in the major capitalist institutions (workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods) we think is a necessary precondition for a successful revolution. Nonetheless, the Rainbow Coalition is a highlight in America’s centuries-long tradition of multiracial working-class rebellion, from the resistance of white and black indentured servants against landowners during America’s colonial period, to the latest, multiracial uprisings against state violence in cities all across the U.S.

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Panthers and Brown Berets standing in solidarity with each other.

What Can We Do To End State Violence?

Black struggle should be led by black people. That much is correct due to the fact that those who are most immediately impacted by any instance of oppression should play leading roles in fighting back.  Simply put, identity matters.  Those who are most impacted by exploitation or oppression need to fight out of their own direct, material self-interest; this is central due to the fact that it sets the groundwork for fighting back and because these voices are those that are typically marginalized in the midst of political struggle.  .

We can also add layers to this; specifically, we’ve got to combine our emphasis on the identity of leadership with an emphasis on the politics of that leadership. The Black Lives Matter movement, as in any struggle for the recognition of the human rights of an oppressed population, is always politically contested by different actors with different strategic outlooks.

Some activists in favor of the slogan Black Lives Matter may want to reform the state so that it no longer disproportionately attacks black people; some may want to end the state apparatus as a whole; others consider that reforming anti-black policies and practices is a step toward building a movement that can abolish the state. The differences between all these perspectives matter; the differences don’t mean that people can’t unite together in public actions, but it does mean that at key moments these latent differences in politics may come to the surface and lead to different political choices.

Just as the choice to form the Rainbow Coalition lead to people with political differences leaving the Young Lords and the Panthers, the political choices that contemporary actors will make may lead to splits in coalitions and organizations.  We’ve got to prepare ourselves to understand these political differences for what they are: political questions.  If we aren’t clear on the politics then we risk personalizing differences, which can lead to unhealthy dynamics within movements and organizations.

Those of us who want to end state violence as a whole must consider the strategies we’re using and determine if they are enough to fight against a highly militarized police force.

In our view, the most effective way to challenge state violence is through the use of blockades, shutdowns and strikes.  Whole sections of the political economy – large numbers of significant workplaces, schools, hospitals and important spaces of infrastructure – need to be at the verge of shutdown and creative disorder.  This is how we can most effectively challenge the force of the state, through coordinated direct actions at key points in the network of the economy.

We need the direct participation of mass amounts of people in order to carry out this type of coordinated activity. People from various social groups – trans people, white people, brown people, etc – need to take leadership.

The politics of the leadership need to be clear: there must be no more attacks on black lives; further, it can be pointed out that the attacks on black lives are but the sharpest example of how many peoples lives are attacked by the state.  We need people to be attacking out of solidarity with black lives and protesting, striking and blockading with the Black Lives Matter slogan at the forefront; at the same time, we can also create room for people to bring up their own gripes with the state – trans issues with the state, latina issues with the state, white people’s issues with the state – so that we can build the most direct attack on the power structure as a whole.  This should be done in a way that both recognizes the differential impact of state violence on certain groups over others as it simultaneously develops the leadership of its most strategic sectors within a multiracial, coordinated, challenge on the state.

However, even if we shut down the entire political economy and challenge the heart of the state apparatus, we’re still left at challenging the enemy and not yet at the stage of ending the enemy.  To take our movements beyond the limits of reforms, we must have clear ideas and politics that allow us to envision how we can move beyond a society dominated by the state, capitalism, and white supremacy.  Communist viewpoints and politics are needed so that we can project a vision of what an anti-capitalist, anti-racist society can look like.

As the example of the Rainbow Coalition shows, revolutionary organizations based on principles of class struggle and multiracial solidarity can support the development of political leadership among young people who become politicized through mass movements. The type of political development that’s possible here is specific – that is, it moves through the important politics of the day and connects them to a revolutionary perspective, with an eye on a powerful communist organization composed of militants from America’s racially oppressed and white working-class communities.

As long as the enemy’s political and economic apparatus remains intact, police brutality will remain a fact of life for oppressed people. This apparatus is built upon a hierarchical division of the oppressed population into white, black, latino, etc, and reinforced through systematic brutality and murder. The enemy’s war on us, then, is a consequence of fear; the fear of rebellion that cuts across imposed boundaries and morphs into a multiracial class assault on their halls of power and its armed gatekeepers. The events on the night of November 24th, 2014 carry the potential multiracial solidarity forward, and the racial dynamics of the December 13th march allow an opening into thinking through what types of solidarity are needed.

It is no coincidence that Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were all murdered at the point in their political development where they were exploring the possibilities for radical, militant, coalitions between poor people of various backgrounds, and all three were either socialists already, or entering into dialogue with socialist groups. The key to our liberation lies in continuing the project for which the state silenced these three revolutionaries.

 

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4 responses to “Race, Identity, and Solidarity in the Fight Against State Violence

  1. Pingback: Critical Engagements: Intersectionality, Privilege, and Identity Politics | Full Opinionism

  2. Fantastic essay. I’ve been progressing in my study and understanding of the Black Panthers for a while now, but haven’t made much headway in researching about the cross-racial organizing of the period; quite interesting to hear about the Appalachian radicals. I recall reading about how Detroit, like Chicago, had lots of White radicals from Appalachia and the cross-racial solidarity during the 1967 Rebellion, when Whites and Blacks alike shot at cops.

    The only nitpick I have is around the strategy of blockades; I’m not convinced this is the most effective way to challenge state and capital, mainly because the networks that we would (and are) disrupting are still depended on by the masses. As you say, we need to move toward a communist politics and envision the actual alternative society; but I think this needs to be done sooner rather than later, in the form of inquiring into ways that we can seize control of the means of production and circulation *now* and subject them to popular democratic will.

    Absent actual seizure and the development of popular material power, blockades rely on influencing state power into reforming itself, which might yield some short and medium-term gains, but in the long run is a dead-end.

  3. Arjun – I really appreciate your perspective on the reformism of focusing solely on tactics such as blockades as a means of challenging state power and capital accumulation. It would be really interesting to hear more of your perspective on how to approach what you refer to as the need for us to be, “inquiring into ways that we can seize control of the means of production and circulation *now* and subject them to popular democratic will.”

    Are there any examples of this being done in the recent period that are influential on your thinking?

    To what extent is it beyond the realm of possibility to expect people to be seizing control NOW, short of the experience of struggles, the development of communist perspectives among significant groupings of workers?

    I have more to write in response to your thoughts, but am stuck at work at the moment. Will respond more soon.

    Mara

    • I don’t think there are any good examples of seizing control recently in the US; but my thoughts are pretty heavily influenced by stuff I’ve read about with regards to Latin America, particularly the seizure of agricultural land by peasants.

      In the US context, I think engaging more with workers, and in particular empowering the more radical sectors of workers in certain logistical industries, would be a really good way forward in terms of overcoming the current limits of blockades and make them a conscious precursor to seizing control. Dock workers seem to be pretty radical; and there have been recent stirrings with railroad workers against management and union bureaucrats that could see similar radicalization in that sector.

      But it is a good point that there needs to be more escalated struggle in order for communist perspectives and strategy to be able to proliferate. Still, I think its important to always keep “seizing control” as a conscious, longer-term strategic goal even when shorter-term/immediate tactics cannot accomplish as such, since that will inform general efforts at decisions around general organizing and research.

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