“We revolt because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” - Frantz Fanon
“When you control for joblessness, the racial disparities in violent crime disappear...A shift occurred in urban communities across America beginning in the late 50s and early 60s and into the 70s, where work disappeared. It used to be that factories were located in segregated urban communities where they could have quick and easy access to cheap black labor. Almost overnight, those jobs vanished. Due to deindustrialization, globalization, technological advancement, factories closing down, jobs moving overseas, hundreds of thousands of people, overwhelmingly black men, found themselves suddenly jobless, trapped in racially segregated, jobless communities. Trapped. Economic collapse occurred. We could have responded with an outpouring of care and compassion, with economic stimulus programs, with bailout packages. But no, we chose a different road, a road more familiar when it comes to matters of race. We chose the road of division, punitiveness, and despair. We as a society ended the War on Poverty, and declared the War on Drugs. Black men suddenly found themselves disposable. No longer necessary to the functioning of the U.S. economy, precisely at the same moment that a backlash was brewing against the civil rights movement, a backlash that made it convenient for politicians to demonize black men as criminals. No longer needed to work, these black men found themselves scapegoats, pawns in political games, the enemy in a new war. They were rounded up by the millions, locked up, and then permanently locked out. And now decades later we stand back and say 'what's wrong with these people?'”
- Michelle Alexander
“Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.” – Audre Lorde
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together.” - Lila Watson
"We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings." - Ursula K. LeGuin
Since the Ferguson uprising began I have been riveted to my Facebook feed of articles, pictures and videos about how #BlackLivesMatter, and when not at the computer in these last weeks, I have been in the streets with DSAers and other protestors demanding that police stop killing black people with impunity.
I care because though I am not black, I know that my own humanity is at risk when I am part of a system which denies the humanity of others. Nobody's free until everybody is free. And make no mistake, this is a national crisis. Police harassment, humiliation, rape, brutality and even murder of black folks are the norm, not the exception.
But beyond grief and anger, I also feel excitement. This summer after Michael Brown’s death I thought we were in a movement moment, a short period of possibility. Now I believe that possibility has turned into a reality. We have a movement. For the first time in my lifetime, we have a real chance.
I'm not hopeful because we have already won some demands, though both in Ferguson and at the federal level there are tangible improvements. Over 220,000 of the municipal warrants which were used to economically oppress Ferguson residents have been forgiven; there will be cameras on all police cars in the county; the Feds might soon begin tracking police violence by race, to name a few. But people keep marching. Why? Because no one ever won anything by asking nicely when an entrenched power didn't want to give it up or admit there was a problem.
So by being in the streets day in and day out for months, we've made some progress. But as Eric Garner's case illustrates, catching the murders on film isn't enough to win justice. On the larger scale, we need police body cams universally, no more funding of military hardware for local police departments, an end to the conflict-of-interest-riddled indictment process, and ultimately, a complete transformation of the whole system from one of mass incarceration of poor people of color to one of restorative justice.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of the marches in New York City the night after the grand jury failed to indict the police who choked Eric Garner to death, and every night since then. Hope is in the air. Young people, especially young women who recognize the killing and the torture of black women at the hands of police, are taking the lead and blocking traffic to say #NoMoreBusinessAsUsual #ThisStopsToday. New people are joining up. This feels like the early days of Occupy Wall Street.
And it’s not just NYC. I’ve seen images of white protestors in Kentucky. Indigenous protestors in the Northwest Territories. Rural Oregonian protestors. Rabbis being arrested at New York civil disobedience actions. Protestors making connections with other liberation struggles like that in Mexico where 43 leftist students were recently murdered. This movement is picking up because black folks are sick and tired of the system economic violence, sick and tired of being killed, sick and tired of voting failing them. This is their last hope and they are mobilizing the disruptive power that DSA honorary chair Francis Fox Piven’s work demonstrates often brings about democratic change. Prominent socialist and civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin described this reality when he said “Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places, so wheels don’t turn.”
Because this is a life and death situation, protestors are willing to put their bodies on the line to cause that disruption, but that is not the only thing that makes this moment powerful. These sacrifices force everyone else who considers themselves an ally of oppressed people to make a decision about what they themselves are willing to sacrifice. Why? Because disruption and sacrifice helps solidify support and helps clarify the battle lines, but it also brings down repression.
As democratic socialists, it is not enough to support the movement from the sidelines. Not just morally, but strategically – we cannot take down capitalism without also taking down white supremacy – and we know that these systems won't go down without a fight.
We already know, as Michelle Alexander outlines above, that these systems are structurally violent. But the battle is also ideological. Outright racism (or a more so-called colorblind, wilfully clueless version) from many whites (and many other folks, because let's remember that anti-black racism is carefully taught to every other person of color in our culture as an example of what not to be). Distainful classism from the elites and hypocritical shocked denunciations from the aspiring middling classes - blame-the-victim respectability has provided a great scapegoat to distract people from examining structural problems but a thin shield against violence. And of course, crass opportunism from some figureheads.
And finally, the system is physically violent, and increasingly, strategic. Police in Ferguson and New York are even now beginning to crack down, rounding up the boldest activists by the hundreds and holding them for the maximum possible time and with the maximum possible bail.
In the words of one Ferguson activist, “now is the time to lose sleep.” We need to be on the front lines.
PS: One last note for my non-black brothers and sisters:
As socialists, we know that we have a mutual interest in winning this fight. The success of the socialist project depends on overcoming racism and that is only possible with a multi-racial movement for racial justice. Low wage workers organizing for a $15 minimum wage know it, that's why they are merging their demands for economic justice with demands for racial justice. We have all been fed a steady diet of white supremacy and thus we listen to folks who we perceive to be like us. White folks need to organize white folks, other non-black people of color need to organize our respective communities.
So don't unfriend your clueless friends on Facebook. Engage with them. Remind them that the vicious politics of racism has not only allowed the right to divide working people along racial lines, but also led neoliberal capitalist Democrats to destroy critical anti-poverty programs. For example, Clinton pushed “welfare reform” using the Reagan promoted sterotype of a black welfare “queen” despite most women on AFDC using it as a temporary form of infant child care before returning to the formal workforce and despite the largest group of women and children on welfare being white. DSA has long understood that unless the left can break the back of racism we can never forge a democratic majority for economic justice, either.
Help them get over their sense of paralysis or useless guilt and move them to action. Bring them to protests, but make sure they understand that because all lives should matter, we need to lift up black lives at this moment and use signs reading Black Lives Matter instead of All Lives Matter. Make sure they don't commandeer the bullhorn or instigate property destruction or un-planned direct action.
Help those that care realize that their silence is taken as consent by both the powerful and the protestors and thus stokes the distrust sowed so carefully by racism.
“White people are taught that racism is a personal attribute, an attitude, maybe a set of habits. Anti-racist whites invest too much energy worrying about getting it right; about not slipping up and revealing their racial socialization; about saying the right things and knowing when to say nothing. It's not about that. It's about putting your shoulder to the wheel of history; about undermining the structural supports of a system of control that grinds us under, that keeps us divided even against ourselves and that extracts wealth, power and life from our communities like an oil company sucks it from the earth.” - Ricardo Levins Morales
“The failure to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.” – Audre Lorde
|Maria Svart is national director of the Democratic Socialists of America.|
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