Originally published in Evrensel Daily:
US student Toivo Asheeke wrote on the ongoing protests: “It was the first time to discuss the financial resources of the police, who emerged as slave hunters.”
Student at Binghamton University.
With protests, mass rallies, occupations, and armed militant actions taking place across over 100 cities and towns in the United States, we are in unprecedented times. For the first time in its history, defunding the police, an institution which began as slave-catchers, has become the topic for national conversation. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers have provided the tinder for our current moment. Activists in Seattle have declared autonomous zones in sections of the city where the police are not allowed to go. Minneapolis has de-funded their police force after they burned the police precinct to the ground. New York City has had daily protests which have forced NYPD to back off cracking down on protests. Black people in Atlanta have put so much pressure on the police that they recently fired and have now charged the officer who shot Rayshard Brooks. Similar stories exist in other cities like Boston and LA. Moreover, many of these actions have attempted to highlight the violence Black women and Trans folks which for far too long have been ignored or seen as unimportant.
But what or whom are driving these protests? Contrary to popular opinion, this activity has not been lead or coordinated by the Black Lives Matter Movement. Instead, protesters have been inspired by BLM’s message and are guided by many of its politics. Similar to the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s, BLM is a banner not an organization. My thinking on this is inspired by a speech made by the Trinidadian Marxist Pan-Africanist scholar-activist, CLR James in 1967. During this talk, James described Black Power to his audience as the heir to centuries of Black struggle against racial capitalism. Black Power, to James, was building on the work of the Abolitionists, Garveyism, Black Communists of the 1920s and 30s, to the Pan-African conferences. As a banner, numerous organizations and individuals claimed its message and content, Black Liberation. However, they all organized towards that goal in different ways.
In the 1960s and 1970s there was no “Black Power Organization” with a central committee or politburo which coordinated the movement. What you had was organizations like the Black Panther Party, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, National Joint Action Committee (Trinidad), the New Jewel Movement (Grenada), and the South African Students Organization (SASO, South Africa). These organizations coalesced around Black Power’s broad message of systemic change in the realm of politics, socio-economics, and culture but organized towards these goals in their own unique ways, oftentimes not in close coordination with other groups. Some believed in armed struggle, others did not. Certain groups had a stronger anti-capitalist and anti-Vietnam war message, others focused more on local challenges in their communities or tried to form Black unions. A few groups believed education and healthcare needed to be emphasized, others felt a greater appreciation and openness for Black arts and music was needed. Others were mainstream liberal groups fighting for voting rights and incorporation into the American body-politics and used Black Power as a slogan, nothing more. And a few were able, albeit briefly, to hold all these contradictions within them, chiefly the Black Panther Party.
However, after state sanctioned repression of these radical Black groups in the 1960s and 1970s (as well as other communist or socialist groups) and the co-optation of many of the rest through NGOs, absorption into the academy and electoral politics, things have changed. As we know, the FBI in conjunction with local police forces hunted down and persecuted the Black Panthers, many of whom remain in prison today. Others like Fred Hampton were killed and guerrillas like Assata Shakur were forced into exile. Unity between Latinx, Asian, and Black people was discouraged and repressed so that today a lot of work is needed to heal the real distrust and created hierarchies that exist between us. Additionally, the increase of policing, building of prisons, and the release of harmful drugs into Black communities further hindered the ability of Black people to organize against capitalism in particular ways. While the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s and the rise of Hip-Hop in the 1990s constituted attempts by Black people to articulate and mobilize against racial injustice, radical organizations have taken time to rebuild their strength.
Fast forward to the summer of 2020, we find mass protests and demonstrations wracking the United States. While they have been influenced by the critique and analysis of BLM, building on the work of previous movements but with an added emphasis on centring Black women and LGBTQIA voices, politics, and struggles; they are not directly organized by it. This does not mean some BLM chapters aren’t participating and supporting some protests, they are. An example of an active and visible chapter here in New York City is BLM Greater New York. However like Black Power, some organizations and activists who claim BLM are more interesting in reforming the system, for example reforming the police, instead of advocating systemic change, like abolishing the police. Most importantly, BLM does not have the movement structures to coordinate mass uprisings on the scale we are seeing now.
Instead, Black/Latinx/Native American youths, older organizers, the unemployed, intellectuals, and indignant white professionals who have been influenced by BLM, are autonomously coming together to march and protest. This has been mostly spontaneous although many who are out in the streets have at one point or another protested against the killing of Black people by police and white supremacists. Broadly, what has been driving much of the marches is a broad consciousness shift, even amongst white people, which rejects the systemic killing of Black people by the police. While there have been some critiques of capitalism and a few open calls for socialism, this has not defined the tone and tenor of the protests, at least not yet. Groups in NYC like the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), the United Black Panther Party (UBPP), and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are openly calling for socialism, but they are not yet mass based popular organizations.
Let us take a closer look at what is happening on the ground through two concrete examples. In upstate New York (about 3 hours north of NYC) there is a town called Binghamton, NY with a population of about 45,000, 18% being Black and Latinx. The larger Broome County, where Binghamton is located, has 190,000 people with about 9% of the population being Black and Latinx. This is a rural area which has historically voted Republican and generally supports the police, US military, and Donald Trump. It is also one of the poorest areas in New York State with a Human Development Index lower than many Third World countries. What change is possible in this area given some of these realities?
A few weeks ago a young high school student, a Black girl, asked for help from local activists to organize a rally and march to protest the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Binghamton High School, where she goes to school, has seen a drastic increase in its population of Black/Latinx students over the last two decades. Where once there were only a handful of Black/Latinx students, today, about 42% of its population is of colour and this population has for years suffered at the hands of the racist Binghamton police and system which has arrested and beaten their parents, harasses them during summers, policies them in the school, and defunds their afterschool programs.
Organizations in Binghamton like the Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow (PLOT), Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier (JUST) and the Frances Beal Society (FBS) came together to help plan this event. None of these groups are formally under the BLM umbrella, but broadly subscribe to its principles. On the day of the rally over 1,000 people showed up, the vast majority being Black and working poor. This was an historic event for this town. In the past, most rallies around police brutality would receive maybe 200 people at most. Often times only 50 or so would show up. So to have 1,000 was truly historic.
In the aftermath of the BLM-inspired protest, a people’s assembly was called to discuss ways to make concrete changes. Groups broke out and intense discussions were had about what changes needed to happen in Binghamton. Not only alleviate the condition of racism and the police, but also how to make life better for all the working poor in Broome County. Some of the demands that came out of these meetings were grouped into themes such as Substance and Mental Health, Education, Housing, Food Justice, and Criminal Justice. This is the fruit of the work of activists who have been fighting to make change in Binghamton for the last half-century. It also shows what is possible in areas where Black people are not in a decided majority and what small towns in the United States can do when lead by Black progressives and radicals.
Our final example takes us to New York City. NYC has a long history of radical organizing. NYC is far bigger than Binghamton with a population that runs into the millions, due to this, much of the focused organizing takes place in the boroughs (Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island). The Bronx is one of the last boroughs left which has not been completely gentrified. Consequently, it retains a large majority of Black and Latinx people (1.4 million people total). It also is one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States, like Broome County, and has suffered from years of neglect, over-policing, and lack of investment in education, housing and healthcare. However, efforts are underway in the South Bronx to kick Black/Latinx working poor out of the area so that big businesses can move in and bring wealthier tenants and buildings to the surrounding area. This is being resisted by groups like Take Back the Bronx, another group which operates independently of BLM, who has been fighting for years against gentrification, police brutality, and the inhumane activities of I.C.E.
Protests in Brooklyn have probably been the largest and most sustained in NYC up to this point. There are a number of reasons for this, much of which centres on it is a borough that has suffered the most from gentrification. This has seen some guilty white petty bourgeois gentrifiers unite with Black people to fight rent increases (which has a long history in NYC), over-policing and surveillance, racism, and a host of other social ills. Many of the protesters here are young whites with sprinklings of old veteran white communists or union people who have found common cause with Black people. Manhattan, and in particular Harlem (which is fully in the storm of gentrification), have seen intense protests which have been led by Black people. Queens and Staten Island have been a bit quieter. Nevertheless, they too are finding ways to tap into this popular wave of protest to make their voices heard in the struggle to value Black Lives, Black Trans Lives, and Black Women’s Lives.
Overall, in NYC at least, the demands of the protesters have been clear. A divestment from the police and an investment in youth programs, food banks, jobs with a living wage and benefits, improved healthcare services, and improvements in housing conditions.
In closing, the United States finds itself in a very interesting moment. Right now, anti-racism and the police are the subjects of national and international attention. These protests have not been peaceful, although they have, for now, remained non-violent. This is commendable because police forces often attack protesters with little or no provocation. While they mention things like looting as reasons for their aggression, most of the stores “looted” have been big chain stores or corporations, pharmacies (because people are sick), and a handful of jewellery stores. The real looters, as groups like Take Back the Bronx argue, are the big capitalist stores and landlords who come into our communities to drain poor people of what little money they have. So the fight will continue and organizations like the United Black Panther Party, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Socialist Roots, Take Back the Bronx, and others must find ways to appeal to more people to build up their forces.
If they do not, politicians and liberals and moderates will move in to capture the popular energy to make minimal changes, but keep the system functioning like normal. Examples of this can be seen with Democratic Candidate Joe Biden not endorsing defunding the police and Democrats in congress pushing for minor changes to the police. This is unfortunate but people will eventually get tired of marching for hours and hours every single day with nothing tangible to show for it. More moderate forces understand this but also know right now their voices are not ones people want to hear. So instead of fighting this wave of protest, politicians and liberal forces are praising protesters, celebrating holidays like Juneteenth, and co-opting certain cultural practices of Black people to make it seem like they care. By November 2020, when the national elections are to take place, things should be clearer as it pertains for the political direction the country is to take. Until then, leftist organizations need to work harder to win over the masses and the masses need to keep the pressure on the system for change.