Can a movement be built that relies upon different forms of action without being substantially limited by the political views that perhaps inform the least militant of the protestors? Importantly, young people, frequently including teenagers, have been at the forefront of many of the most militant protests. What kinds of other experiences might sustain and deepen their commitments to system change?
John: To start with, there is seldom a good reason to interfere with any specific protest action although an action that placed unknowing or unwilling fellow protesters in danger might well deserve interference. On the other hand, individuals should be encouraged to reflect on what they have been doing and consider whether other forms of activity might be effective. In turn, this turns on what constitutes effectiveness. Influencing elected officials? Electing new officials? Introducing laws? Passing laws? Freeing people who have been arrested? Stopping people from being arrested? Building a movement? What kind of movement?
As I’ve written before, participation in the protests has probably been exhilarating and has expanded participants’ sense of the possibilities of collective action and given them an enhanced appreciation of the contribution they might make. As one Instagram poster, who has been attempting to publicize every protest in New York City, wrote:
One of my favorite parts about running this account over the last two weeks has been watching so many of you find your place as a leader in this movement, most of you unexpectedly.
Some of you have had experience organizing but never commanded crowds so large, while others were newbies just eager to bring the conversation to their own neighborhoods. Some found themselves leading a chant for the first time, while others, for the first time, chanted back. Some of you were speakers sharing your truths in front of strangers, while others sat and taught us how to listen. Sometimes you were in the middle of the dance circle, and sometimes you were on the sidelines handing out food, water, masks, and first aid. And don’t forget those behind the scenes connecting interpreters and solo protesters. All of you experimenting with little to no precedent. All of you different races and ages.
It has been my greatest honor to watch you all grow as leaders in your own right. To hear how it has changed you. To share with you in that pride, vulnerability, and personal strength as you inspire everyone watching to hope and to dream and to fight so that maybe this time it will be different. Hold onto that and don’t ever forget how much you are all needed here. Now and later.
Some people are referring to this as a “leaderless movement.” But I don’t see a leaderless anything, do you?
All these developments are more than encouraging but it’s time to ask, as Paul Gilroy has put it in a recently recorded conversation, if the “mobilization can become a movement” and to think about what we might do to make that more likely. Gilroy suggests that there is, for the first time in a long time, the possibility of a different future than the one we thought. He and his partner in the conversation, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, suggest that the moment creates an opportunity for reinvigorating the notion of universalism—of humans across the globe seeking liberation in common. They also suggest that an embrace of universalism might very well be essential for the mobilization to become a movement. CLR James once wrote that Marxism was the theoretical basis for a scientific (or universal) humanism—a humanism that would sweep away all the archaic and modern notions of the witches’ brew of divisions that plague our world—races, castes, particularistic religions, and nations. There will be more to say about this in the future but, in light of the constant stream of scorn and hysteria being cooked up by the White House, it’s high time that libertarian Marxists and anarchists publicly proclaim their convictions and intentions.
They both endorse the likelihood that the path forward will not be straightforward—there will be “detours, loops, new roads.” They see in the present signs of a “rehearsal for the future”—allowing for new relationships, new expectations, new desires, new organizational forms. Some time ago, Gilroy modified James’s insight with a call for a planetary humanism, one that would incorporate the future life of the planet as being all but inseparable from the liberation of humanity. In their recent talk, Gilmore suggested that the “livingness of the planet” is imperiled; the “livingness of the planet” is a wonderful phrase. Let’s hold on to it. It might come in handy.
Jarrod: The question of intentions is a thorny one right now. It often seems like two distinct realities exist side-by-side: an issue-based campaign against structural racism and its particular manifestation in policing, on the one side, and a generalized insurrection against an entire way of life, on the other. This is not to say the two realities don’t intersect; in fact, the task revolutionaries face right now is bridging the first to the second, and thankfully we are not alone. But it does mean that the nature of non-black participation is a hotly contested topic. Are non-black participants simply the ensemble cast of a specifically black struggle, answerable to any and every black voice they encounter? The answer, which nobody really wants to say, is an obvious no. This is not an exclusively black issue campaign — which, by the way, all the woke-washing corporations, fencewalking politicians, and monied lobbyists like the NAACP want it to be. And thank God, because if the non-black people out there fighting like hell didn’t have a direct stake in the outcome of this struggle, they’d have turned around and run home at the first whiff of tear gas. Everyone has skin in the game, if you’ll pardon the phrasing; the treatment of working-class black people by the police, schools, social workers, and so forth is simply the low bar for devaluing the lives of most working people in the name of capital accumulation. As thinkers from DuBois, to Baldwin, to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor have made clear, the victimization of black Americans is simply the most egregious expression of a social order that makes meaningful, dignified, and comfortable lives impossible for most people all over the world. The strongest component of this rebellion addresses the disposability of black life as a particularly deplorable facet of US life but does not end there; it takes aim at an entire way of life, that makes black lives, and a whole lot of other lives, disposable. So, we’ve solved the issue in the abstract, but how to address it in the concrete?
Zhana: Thank you for the reminder about the planet, John, because I would argue this generation (the 22 year olds we are seeing in the street) face climate change and “the livingness of the planet” in a more concrete way than any of us who are older. And they realize that business as usual means the destruction of our planet and humanity. And for me the generational divide is also shaping the tension Jarrod highlighted between reforms and a general insurrection against our way of life. It’s not to say that baby boomers have a monopoly on liberalism. Plenty of young people are liberals also. But even at the most basic level of electoral politics many young people are not swayed by racial liberalism or satisfied with the pick of a black woman as VP in a way that perhaps their older family members would be. A 22 year old protestor today would have been 14 years old when Trayvon Martin was killed. These young people have grown up during a decade of tumultuous change: the Great Recession, the Obama administration, #NODAPL, #MeToo movement, the rise of Bernie Sanders and socialism, the election of Trump. They are also leaving school with insurmountable debt, and will not have the social safety nets (no matter how meager) of their parents.
They have seen waves of police killings and are now witnessing COVID-19 ravage families and communities. Whereas even my generation would be amazed that a black lesbian was elected mayor of Chicago, for young people today this is not enough. They want more than symbolism and to me this is one of the most important developments of this moment.
It’s also been amazing to see so many young people be open to socialism, communism and to embracing anti-capitalist politics. I would like us to understand the context in which young people are living their lives more to better understand this generation’s capacity to turn around the mess we are all in.
Christian: There’s a couple parts to this question that while can be taken separately are mostly related and should be seen as that.
I think what we’ve been seeing is an array of tactics being utilized. The big determining factor is that people want to act; act against injustice, act against the police and act for Black lives. These immediate acts quickly transformed into a broader, a universal rejection of the whole system of white supremacy, colonialism, State brutality, and the marginalization and disenfranchisement of masses of poor and working people. People were making it clear that the whole of this unjust system had to be changed and the ways in which people made this clear was all over the place and usually pretty bold. It’s without a doubt that the burning of the Minneapolis 3rd precinct and then attempts to replicate that around the country, the burning down of cop shops, was a huge morale booster to the people in the streets. It also didn’t sit in some contrasted juxtaposed narrative to “non-violent” marches or civil-disobedience. The fact that the numerous forms of action were all immediate and organic expressions of the Uprising went a long way to erase the debate over legal/non-legal, militant/peaceful action. Let’s not ignore or pretend that debates around these forms of struggles aren’t happening, they did and are. But first and foremost, these acts, these tactics, were real expressions of peoples’ rage and desire for some dignity and justice.
The second is that from the jump so much of the moving force have been the youth, teens and folks in their early twenties, millennials. For most of these people being in the streets and part of the Uprising was something completely new and unprecedented, all the feelings, the actions, the ways of having to think through what was happening and, of course, the challenges and often violent response from police, white vigilantes–even as we are now seeing push back from Democratic establishment types hoping to diffuse and contain the protests. All of this is transforming how people see themselves, see the world and their relationship to it, to see what’s at stake, to see what they’re up against and the needed tactics and strategies in these struggles. There’s no linear step by step process here, it’s all very dramatic with sharp twists and change ups, but I think if we pay attention that we’ll see that this all makes for some new insights and thinking that new movements absolutely require. I think the big tasks for everyone are gonna be evaluation of these struggles and experiences and trying to think about what the lessons are. And even here lessons today will be affected by unknown events tomorrow. Once again, this is new and unprecedented for most of those who’ve been part of this Uprising, so any clear framework for thinking is gonna lack a through and through coherence: a fuller sense and understanding of what people experienced and are living through is going to be continually shaped and reshaped.
I think that for those of us who identify with liberatory, humanist and decidedly revolutionary anti-system politics, there are real glimpses of something new, something popular and something predicated on people’s own personal visions and initiatives, which very rapidly became a collective sense of what’s needed. That’s the important stuff.
Mike: Experience is a double-edged sword. For example, there is the experience of somebody like Leslie Cagan, a lifelong organizer of the peace and justice movement in NYC. She has volumes of experience organizing and leading huge demonstrations here with tens of thousands of people. Unfortunately, most of these efforts subject the participants to marching from one closed office or governmental building to another, usually on a Sunday afternoon, and to countless boring speeches from other professional activists who specialize in the bleeding obvious. I am not knocking Leslie Cagan as a person, but these kinds of efforts are tailor-made to make people feel even more helpless and useless than they already do, especially newcomers. I come away from those events as angry with the organizers as I am with a Trump, Obama, Bush or Clinton. In this regard, a leaderless movement stands a much better shot. And it seems like that the old format of obedient protest has finally, and thankfully, run out of gas.
BLM 1, after the Eric Garner murder, came to a head late in 2014, and that was the first time that we witnessed non-choreographed mass street protests in the NYC metropolitan area. Permits no longer seemed to matter, arranging protest activity with the blessing of the police was a thing of the past, finally put to rest on the pyre that such meticulous ass-kissing deserved. There were all sorts of other problems, but that one was at least out of the way, no small thing. This was not ordained by some movement bwana or memsahib, it came from the bottom up. I have lived here since 1978. This was the first time that it appeared as if protestors really owned the streets and that took 36 years of my life to just get that far. I am not discounting the Occupy Wall Street period. That had organized Left written all over it, and was perhaps that’s why it died and didn’t come back.
The latest uprising has much more of an insurgent nature about it. It is younger, more militant, and it is truly diverse. The distinction between peaceful and non-peaceful action has become blurred, although the authorities and their spokes pieces hammer away at it, as do the peace police. It feels like the experienced ones have much to learn from the young ones, not the other way around.
Zhana: This is why the street protests hold such potential because we live a very atomized alienated existence. Life in America is experienced differently depending where you live. What happens in Tennessee can seem worlds apart from the streets of the Bronx but also what happens in the South Bronx is so different from the upper east side. So protests can bridge some of these divides in interesting ways and bring together people who would not have socialized otherwise. No one knows what can happen when they show up at a protest. They may have every intention of “peacefully marching” but then the police swing their clubs and that peaceful protester is confronted with the full force of the state and has to defend themselves and the people around them. We have even seen how much liberals have been pushed to embrace radical directions these past four years. For instance, white women who wore pink hats and carried protest signs against Trump back in 2016 were pushed by the moment to defend undocumented immigrants, to show up to a BLM protest, to fight off federal troops in Oregon. I bet the past four years has definitely won some people over to “our” side and unfortunately the election is a temporary blind spot and we still don’t know what can happen in the next few months.
Mike: Nothing can replace youthful zeal and energy. In South Africa in 1976, 11 and 12 year old children faced down armed police and soldiers in the townships. They grabbed the moment, made history and paid a costly price for what they did. They also took the established movement organizations by the scruff of the neck and shook them out of the rut they were in. These were children. Their parents were all involved in the horrible grind of working life for Africans and other non-white peoples under apartheid. It is remarkable what these kids achieved. The liberation organizations that had established external bases, like the ANC, benefitted hugely from this phenomenon. Where else could these youngsters go, except to prison? Whether the groups like the ANC deserved this or not is a separate debate. The new ones needed a home. That was truly a generation of resistance. The idea of a home, a base of support, is something to discuss, particularly here in the US.
Obviously South African society was in a tinderbox mode then. It didn’t take a whole lot of explaining as to why the system and the government needed to be destroyed. Something entirely new had to be built. It was the task of the revolutionaries and their organizations to do the construction work. South Africa was making revolutionaries then faster than a cheetah with a pin in the bum. Are we anywhere near those conditions here?
John: I believe that we at Hard Crackers should try to contribute to the development of a self-sustaining movement committed to social transformation–which incorporates and goes beyond insurrectionary acts. I have a few ideas for how we might do so.
First off, we need to develop substantial connections with the young rebels of the last couple of months so that we might find out, in much greater specificity than I think is currently the case, how they got involved, what they experienced, what they’re thinking about what should happen next, and what they’d like to learn more about. We might want to offer that we’d be glad to help them get some things done and to say something about the challenges they might face–from repression and from cooptation. As mentioned before on the Hard Crackers blog, an exceptionally good analysis of those issues has been posted on the Three Way Fight blog.
Second, it seems essential to expand our inquiries into circumstances and connections. We need deeper investigations that can incorporate historical evidence and analytical sharpness. Specifically, we need to connect the anti-police uprising back to the horrifying impacts of the COVID virus. Two Hard Crackers editors, Jarrod Shanahan and Zhandarka Kurti, have made a powerful argument that we need to appreciate “how a rebellion against police violence and systemic racism has taken root during a global pandemic, pushed into the mainstream the hitherto marginal movement to divert police funding to much-needed social services, and opened new horizons—unimaginable just weeks ago—for liberation and recuperation.”
We need to develop a new precision of popular language. We would be well served if we rejected the rhetorics and the logics of phrases like diversity, sensitivity, white fragility, white guilt representation, appropriation, racial justice, and so forth. Specifically, we should be consistently, adamantly, opposed to any approaches which perpetuate the insidious notion of race as a biological fact. The deep-seated, although absent-minded, conviction that there are different races may well be the root of all evil. Modern American ideas of race were developed as part of a strategy to keep English and African workers divided on the plantations of Virginia in the 17th Century. The adoption of those ideas was fostered by the systematic extension of advantages to those deemed white and the denial of them to those deemed black. The founding divide was the divide of slavery–slaves were black and indentured servants were white. The blacks could only look forward to perpetual enslavement; the whites, if they lived long enough, got a “Get Out of Jail” card. Over time and over lots of different specifics, what was invented in Virginia came to be seen as God’s common sense. Tempting as it is to blame God, it won’t help. But what people invented, they can abolish.
Mike: One of the differences between the situation in South Africa then and the one in the US now is the lack of revolutionary organization here. On the ground, a pretty solid argument can be made that material conditions are begging for a drastic change, not tinkering with a system that is failing in just about every critical department. Housing, education, healthcare, policing, incarceration, jobs, governance, the justification for foreign wars, all suffer from beyond miserable grades. Both political parties seem incapable. The one in power is oblivious to the pain and wants to cause more. The other has so little credibility left that it is seen as an enabler of the same old same old…more pain on the way, just camouflaged differently. If Trump lies, which he does all of the time, then the loyal opposition tells half lies (see Lawrence of Arabia). Hell, a monster bad weather storm or a raging wildfire this season might do this place in for keeps, along with the COVID debacle.
The upcoming Presidential election is due soon and it could become a farce, with each side claiming victory. These people cannot even agree on a basic weekly relief income for the most vulnerable. This is the richest country in the world! The likelihood that the shallowness of their proud democratic set-ups is about to be shattered is not really a stretch of the imagination. Pursuing the ideas of social transformation is not as alien as it was even six months ago. For example, the city of Portland appears to be in a continual state of revolt. Ask their youngsters on the barricades about normalcy and Joe Biden as the new Captain Bligh on the Ship of Fools. It is hard to see that situation being resolved at the polling booth or the post office.
If us older ones, who have experienced too many defeats and not near enough victories (like none), have anything to offer towards the making of the conditions for building a new society, first and foremost we have to be humble. We do not exactly have a glowing track record.
Zhana: I agree, Mike about the lack of revolutionary organization. I think a lot about how this moment is politicizing so many young people. And where can a young person turn to further develop their ideas and experiences? In the 1960s that young person may have joined the Panthers or other revolutionary groups. Today, young people take to social media. So, how do we reach this generation that is witnessing so much change, is disenchanted with politics as usual and does not want a return to the status quo. We need to reach out and develop relationships across generations, to pass along the historical lessons, defeats and wins. What are some other ways we can engage?
John: We might consider the preparation of educational materials and study guides on relevant historical topics–with a focused attention on making those materials accessible to people who may have difficulty with traditional texts; expand people’s literacy capacities so that they might independently read important stuff.
Possible Topics for Study Guides:
- Health Disparities
- The New Deal and the Renewal of Whiteness
- Race & Racism
- Abolitionism (including Civil War and Reconstruction)
- Civil Rights
- ACT UP
- Colonialism and Imperialism
- Colonization of America
One goal of an educational project along these lines would be to enable individuals and groups to acquire their own understanding of how we have gotten to the rather desperate place we’re in and how to make sense of connections to events of the past and to developments going on elsewhere in the present.