The New Abolitionists

On Friday March 6th, hundreds of people packed Lerner Hall at Columbia University for the opening kick off event for the school’s fifth annual Beyond the Bars conference on mass incarceration. The conference lasts three days and this year’s theme is Transforming (In)justice. Organized by the Criminal Justice Caucus and the Center for Justice at Columbia University, this year’s conference was seen as a special opportunity to build a mass movement given the attention shed on this issue in the past months.

Speakers ranged from student activists and Reverends to a formerly incarcerated Black Panther with the keynote address delivered by renowned civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander. The most remarkable take-away from the whole event is that every single speaker advocated for prison abolition rather than mere reforms. A movement once just relegated to Angela Davis and few black feminists has now garnered mainstream attention foreshadowing a new era of left-wing protest politics.

The night began with remarks from an activist with Columbia University Students Against Mass Incarceration, Asha Rosa. As she made clear from the start, “I believe in the abolition of police and prisons.” She delved into what transformative change could actually look like using Ella Baker’s definition of radical, meaning to examine the root cause of oppression. Rosa encouraged the audience to ask what the role of the police is in society. It not out of a concern safety or a solution to violence because policing and prisons have created broken unsafe communities and are in fact the primary instigators of violence. Nor is the role to prevent crime. As Rosa explained, the history of the United States is built on the legacy of controlling black bodies through violence. Criminality was socially constructed in tandem with the oppression of black people. The idea of ‘criminal’ became associated with the idea of ‘black’ resulting in the creation of a permanent caste system where black people were always seen as the feared ‘Other.’

She has hope in the new movement against police brutality. She critiqued those who advocated #AllLivesMatter noting that universalist discourse has always been used to hide the structural inequality that exists. Remember, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution both operate off the mantra of #AllLivesMatter even though the values espoused in these documents only applied to rich white land-owning men.

Developing a Youth Network

Later in the night, formerly incarcerated Black Panther Eddie Conway spoke about the role of organizing today. Conway spent the past 44 years behind bars on trumped up murder charges where he organized a prisoner’s labor union and established social programs for prisoner self-coping practices. Upon his release in March 2014, he joined the Baltimore based Real News Network. When asked of his opinion on the recently released Justice Department report on Ferguson police racism, Conway responded that those reports have been coming out for the past 100 years and the outcome is always the same. The killing of black people by security forces has been happening since slavery and it won’t stop until people take control of their communities, he noted.
Like Asha Rosa, Conway expressed hope with the youth whom he noted are committed to abandoning the old organizing model in favor of something more radical.
“Don’t listen to leadership that’s past their time,” he advised. “Fifty years ago when we started we didn’t trust anybody!” He stressed that young activists need to construct a new apparatus because the network the New Left created failed. Today’s activists need to examine the sectarianism and COINTELPRO infiltration that befell the old movement and learn how to not repeat the same mistakes.
Conway closed saying that people need to reach into the prisons, shed light on the atrocities occurring, and build real networks between the incarcerated and their allies outside of the walls.

Toward Permanent Abolition of the Caste System

The audience erupted in a standing ovation as the keynote speaker, Michelle Alexander, took the stage. Her book, The New Jim Crow, has become the Bible of Black Lives Matter intricately detailing the rise of the current prison-industrial complex. Like the other speakers, she made her conclusions clear: The system will not die with reforms, it must be radically restructured. She noted that the current rate of police killings is equivalent to the rate of lynchings at the height of Jim Crow. If her data is correct, that means the Age of Obama can be understood as a Second Nadir.
The civil right lawyer tore apart apologists, asking “How do we as a society measure progress?”
Revisionists cite the number of black CEOs, black politicians, and the President as well as the material gains of a small black elite. Yet, these are measures of progress in a capitalist society, in the white man’s world.
Instead, Alexander offered a new measure of progress, saying a society must be judged by how it treats the most vulnerable especially its prisoners. This era of colorblindness has disempowered so many blacks who turn to the white man’s tools for liberation. The country’s racial caste system constantly adapts overtime since it is a foundational feature of American capitalism. With the abolition of slavery came the implementation of Jim Crow and the legal victories of the Civil Rights Movement led to another reaction in the form of mass incarceration. It should be noted that the War on Drugs began the same time as the neoliberal project took off. This war is part of a new era of capitalism, designed to deal with “excess Americans” left homeless and jobless by outsourcing and downsizing.
“The White’s Only signs have come down but [the parole bureaucracy] has taken their place,” she informed. “Don’t look up at the top of the pyramid at Barack Obama for progress but down and ask how do we as a society treat our most vulnerable.” Alexander tore the veil of colorblindness off Obama’s America reminding attendees that current system was created through bipartisan support.

The audience cheered and hollered when she attacked the delusion that the Democrats are allies in the struggle explaining that it was Bill Clinton who escalated the war to its current state pushing through tough-on-crime legislation while masterfully using #AllLivesMatter dialogue to create the illusion of racial progress. Likewise, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio champions broken windows policing, which has been a key factor in filling the prison system with nonviolent offenders. It should also be noted that the Missouri Governor, the Mayor of Ferguson and the prosecutor were all Democrats. The enthusiasm with which the crowd cheered the denunciation of the Democratic Party shows how frustrated the black community has become with the two-party system. They recognize that these political leaders don’t want to uproot the system since the assimilation of the Civil Rights non-profit industry into the Democratic Coalition afforded some elite blacks privileges. They rely on the maintenance of the status quo for their positions to exist and as long as they refuse to rock the boat, they will continue to benefit from structural inequality.

Alexander views the current reforms taking place from the release of eight incarcerated people to marijuana legalization as “doing the right things for the wrong reasons.” She believes the current civil rights advocacy model is broken and misguided, designed to preserve the underlying caste system. The root cause of mass incarceration is white supremacy and thus requires a revolutionary strategy to confront. Preserving the system is not the goal. Alexander makes clear that the entire prison network must be abolished.
As part of reforms pending revolution, she suggests adopting a drug policy similar to that of Portugal where all drugs have been decriminalized and drug use is treated as a public health issue. But Alexander understands that none of these reforms will solve the core problem until the underlying racism and the criminalization of the ‘Other’ are dismantled.

Check out the full event including all speakers here

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Who Decides Legitimacy?

In recent weeks, Mayor Bill de Blasio has frequently appealed to moderate sentiments of the situation surrounding policing in the City seeking to drive a wedge between various organizations involved in the movement. In mid-January, the Mayor publicly condemned the roles People’s Power Assemblies and Occu-Evolve played in New York’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. He told reporters these groups had a long history of letting their members say reprehensible things about the NYPD. As de Blasio explained, “They may have a constitutional right to chant their chants, but they’re wrong, and they’re denigrating any notion of calling for reform.” This came as a clear shock to many activists who have marched under the banners of People’s Power Assemblies for the past two months. As one of the major organizations involved with organizing many of the movement’s actions, PPA leaders interpreted this as an attack.

Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio has been regularly meeting with organizers from the Justice League NYC since mid-December. Rumors swirled among different activist groups who feared de Blasio allegedly advised the Justice League to inform on protestors who the City deemed “troublemakers.” The debates on social media failed to adequately confirm this claim but its ramifications are stark.

For example, during the demonstrations in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day the Justice League and People’s Power Assemblies held two separate marches within the same time frame effectively forcing activists to choose which group they wished to demonstrate with that day. While both crowds were diverse in both identity and opinions, the Justice League march was heavily pacified while the PPA march attracted a wider variety of radical influences yet focused around victims’ families and system change. The mainstream media had photos and video of both marches but failed to distinguish the nuanced differences in their reports.

The Token Liaison

Token Liaison

This episode demonstrates the divide and conquer techniques used by the state to diminish and eventually crush the budding protest movement.This tactic has been employed against social movements since the dawn of colonization. The goal has always been to recognize and isolate a moderate faction from protest movements and grant this faction privileges by allowing them a seat at the table of power to form a list of piecemeal reforms. The moderate demonstrators thus become the ‘legitimate’ representative of the entire movement in the eyes of the state and only those who recognize their leadership are considered ‘legitimate’ protestors. In recent years, the historical imagination of Martin Luther King, Jr. combined with the soundbite culture of the 21st century has led to many activists to create a legitimacy dichotomy regarding protest tactics.

In the larger Black Lives Matter movement, this role is filled by former FBI informant Al Sharpton. Sharpton serves as the personal liaison between the Obama Administration and the black community, a role many in that community reject. His organization National Action Network has been busy coordinating in cities across the United States to direct protestors outrage back into the system through canvassing and electing Democratic politicians to office. Sharpton has personally denounced the rioting in Ferguson and the East Bay and consistently snubbed the leadership of young activists in the movement. Al Sharpton’s role is to pacify the movement to keep a black power faction from gaining significant influence. Sinisterly, all of this is done through the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Era.

Similarly, the city of New York seeks to criminalize protestors by granting the Justice League legitimacy. Through the Mayor’s eyes, only the Justice League has the authority to organize protests and their demands are the only grievances worth addressing. The extent to which activists believe and work within this dichotomy is what inevitably results in schism.

The Violence Behind Respectability Politics

American liberalism has always enjoyed a comfortable seat at the table of power through its representation as a balancing force between extremes. As Noam Chomsky points out, liberalism historically embodies the political center, not the Left, with liberal politicians supporting incremental reform to appease the masses while keeping the oppressive social structures in place. Much of how liberals react to outbursts of radical democracy revolves around claiming a hegemony on legitimacy. Monopolizing legitimacy requires liberals to play political games by appealing to wide masses of people as to not alienate the elite or members of privileged classes. A good statesman is one that gets the most respect from the elite.

Respectability, like legitimacy, is determined by those whose power it helps uphold. To the privileged, respect means obeying authority, remaining passive, and exercising power through state channels even if those channels ultimately dilute and redirect passionate energy. The systematic killing of black and brown people is noticeably not seen as a breach of respect. In recent years, this mentality has become cemented within the liberal psyche, with its advocates preaching that young activists must not rock the boat lest they anger those in power who could actually provide them with structural support. It never dawns on these self-appointed leaders that these young activists may not be trying to appeal to those in power at all, but rather claiming power through self-determination.

A Rhetorical Dilemma

When Mayor de Blasio called out the members of People’s Power Assemblies for their ‘abhorrent rhetoric’ he was contrasting these populist chants with what he views as ‘appropriate rhetoric.’ Among the PPA language that disturbed de Blasio were blanket condemnations of the police as racist, critiques and rejection of the prison-industrial complex and chants comparing the NYPD to the KKK. Yet, it is with these slogans that activists can raise the conscious of the movement to create a more nuanced and holistic critique of policing, how it feeds mass incarceration and the historical implications of white supremacy. Instead, De Blasio and his allies champion dialogue that does not indict America for its dark history but rather reaffirms America’s commitment to upholding justice for all its citizens.

The chant “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” itself represents an internalization of defenselessness. It promotes passivity among protestors by asking for power from an incredibly powerless position. Contrast this with the slogan “Fist Up, Fight Back” which is focused on exercising power through self-determination. These chants do not demand justice from a system but seek to empower those who have been oppressed by that system. Words like these scare the liberal establishment because they essentially reject the theory of rights. If justice doesn’t exist, then the only true measure of morality is through power. Who has the power but the ones who represent the bottom of the pyramid. Without them the pyramid collapses.

De Blasio and his allies would much rather see activists tone down such divisive messages by calling for specific policy demands. Ending the War on Drugs is not considered a specific demand. Liberals want the focus to be on the implementation of personal body cameras within police departments, the creation of court-appointed civilian review boards, and the fostering of relationships through the widely ambiguous practice of community policing.

Pacifism Doesn’t Exist in an Era of Eternal Violence

The legitimacy of violence is another social trend that changes meaning depending on the agent who is committing such an act. Liberal activist leaders and their allies in the Democratic Party repeatedly seek to divide protestors through this false dichotomy. For example, Al Sharpton consistently reminds younger activists that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” while invoking the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. and subsequently taking the late organizer’s quotes out of context to justify his condemnation of those he disagrees with.

Remember, it was Al Sharpton, Representative John Lewis, and President Obama who condemned the rioting in Ferguson, Missouri despite that without the bold actions undertaken by those activists, the shooting of Michael Brown would never have reached mainstream attention. All the time, those in positions of power deride activists who utilize a diversity of tactics as nihilistic hooligans whose property destruction seeks to “hijack” the movement. Yet, these same leaders have been silent for years while the state apparatus they represent continues to destroy black lives uninterrupted. In all public statements by Obama and Sharpton, property rights are valued over life.

The night Darren Wilson was cleared, President Obama began his statements to the public reminding Americans that “we are a nation built on the rule of law” denouncing the expected fallout that was to come. He then made a mediocre appeal to the protestors but emphasized that any protest’s legitimacy rests on its commitment not to destroy property or disrespect law enforcement officers. The disturbing irony of the first black president affirming the side of the police over black protestors demonstrates the deep entrenchment of white supremacy within the political-economic power structure. This narrative is meant to disempower those who seek to confront these systems by reaffirming that only those employed through the generosity of the state have a monopoly on the use of violence.

Over the course of the entire Black Lives Matter movement, including the trigger with Ferguson in August 2014, the level of violence actually exhibited at demonstrations has been minimal. Even if we include the killings of two officers in New York, one in Florida, and a handful of injuries throughout the protests, no more than 15 police officers were subjected to violence. Compare that to the countless deaths at the hands of the police and the violence coming out of this conflict seems to be disproportionally affecting communities of color. When liberal leaders use the rhetoric of nonviolence it is always done to mask the inherent violence embedded within the socioeconomic system.

So while Sharpton, Obama and de Blasio decry the violence of the protestors, they legitimize the violence of the state. Let’s talk about gentrification, how policies implemented in police departments and housing development associations have led to a virtual genocide against poor people of color and contributed to creation of mass incarceral prison state which holds one in thirty-five adults. Let’s talk about how these policies turned Times Square from a Red Light district into a consumerist tourist trap or how more people have been deported under the Obama administration than any other administration in the past 25 years. Let’s talk about the creation of “free speech zones” and the brutal mass arrest of protestors. Let’s discuss the $350 billion security and surveillance industry that lets the NSA collect bulk data on American citizens, militarizes customs checkpoints, and created a financial market for security forces through asset forfeiture, immigration detention, and for-profit prisons.

Maybe we should also acknowledge the rampant torture abuses undertaken not just in CIA black sites but also domestic detention centers like in California and Chicago. Let’s talk about US foreign policy and how the current drone assassination program is the deadliest terrorist campaign in human history. Hitler and Pinochet could only have dreamed of the type of security apparatus the United States currently uses to conduct targeted killings across the globe. Just by looking at the policies and how they’ve been implemented throughout history, it remains pretty clear that the American state has been very explicit in conducting violence both domestically and abroad. This is why Obama’s demeanor toward the Black Lives Matter protests is so disrespectful. When he said, “Nobody needs good policing more than poor communities with higher crime rates,” this was pretty much an affirmation of broken windows policing and the continuation of the national urban gentrification project.

When activists debate tactics concerning nonviolence its important to understand to what extent these actions will be used to interrupt the violence already in progress. Remember this next time a riot breaks out in an occupied neighborhood.

The Master’s Servant is No Friend of The Field Slave

The greatest trick the white liberals of the Civil Rights Era pulled was convincing the nation that white supremacy was defeated. With the election of Barack Obama as President of this empire, pundits and allies quickly began to circulate the “post-racial America” myth throughout the media echo chamber. Naively, many progressives and radicals assumed that with this glass ceiling shattered a new era of sweeping changes would lift the masses out of poverty and the wars oversees would abruptly end. A core antiwar group, United for Peace and Justice, closed its doors on January 20th, 2009 as Obama took office.

Why did the growing democracy movement from the anti-Bush years dissipate so fast? Well, masses of people put their faith in a symbolic mascot for the status quo. As President, Obama’s role was to set the limits as to how far progressive reform would be allowed to go. Incremental adjustments would be made as long as the privileges of the financial class were secured. Change never comes from the top, history shows that its quite the opposite.

The role of the black elite within the business community is to toe this same line. Oprah initially expressed support for the current movement but criticized it for its lack of leadership and goals. Oprah, as the sole black American billionaire, clearly identifies closely with this system of privilege. The brand she peddles with her show, television channel and image is the rugged self-reliance myth that if one just works hard enough, they will eventually achieve success and wealth. She has criticized the black community’s “culture of poverty” and fails to understand the nuances of economic oppression resulting from the very system that she derives her privilege. Oprah will fund the building of a school in South Africa but invests very little of her wealth in the impoverished communities in her own country. Members of the black business class carefully craft their language in voicing support for this movement focusing on individual achievements through representative diversity over the more inclusive and liberating aspects of participatory diversity. This current movement emphasizes community, workplace and tenant organizing seeking to confront the roots of systemic racism present within the prison-industrial structure. Many activists do in fact see this as an economic anti-colonial struggle against gentrification. That stance definitively places this movement’s goals in opposition to Oprah and the wider business community.

Frighteningly, the movements and institutions left over from the Civil Rights Era today have become institutionalized within the liberal fail-safe mechanism of the Democratic Party. What were once coordinated mass displays of civil disobedience now take the role of demonstrations led by non-profits and professional activists. Marches are now permitted along a set route established beforehand by protest organizers in cooperation with police. ‘Protest Marshals’ are present to ensure all activists remain within the confines of the march as well as isolate and pacify any whose rhetoric seems divisive or presents an attitude outside their definition of nonviolent. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network is in the business of co-optation ensuring that any popular democratic protests are funneled toward existing power institutions. The older generation of civil rights leaders was always skeptical of black power and even began to abandoned Martin Luther King Jr. after he sought alliances with anticapitalist and antiwar movements. For these moderate leaders, they believe appealing to the white power structure is the best course of action for the black civil rights movement to take. They believe liberty can only be recognized by those who wield power rather than those who reclaim it through self-determination. Al Sharpton and the current religious leadership are afraid of any social movement that channels its energy outside the confines of electoral politics. This is the rift we are beginning to see develop as Sharpton lashes out at younger activists struggling to maintain dominance over the diverse movement. If he fails to direct this movement into the appropriate political structures, then Black Lives Matter has the potential to seriously challenge white supremacy at its deepest levels.

The old Civil Rights institutions have been offered a privileged status among the white establishment. While not directly integrated into the system, they are allowed to challenge racist elements of American society as long as this is done through the legal process and they actively discredit and dismantle those seeking more radical solutions. Liberal institutions, by design, focus on individual empowerment rather than collective salvation. If one feels their rights have been violated they can seek justice by challenging these violations in the courts. The Civil Rights legislation enables individual plaintiffs to reclaim their rights. The Civil Rights Movement only succeeded in providing legal equality but failed in its second phase to assure economic equality among the black community.

Martin Luther King Jr. and the black power movement that rose to prominence after his death maintained that true liberation could only be achieved through economic means. It means nothing to be able to sit at a lunch counter when one can’t afford to buy the sandwiches on the menu. The long term goal of the black power movement was to develop class consciousness among the black community, to link their ancestral heritage to solidarity framework of working class struggles. As the Black Panthers consistently preached, the role of racism and slavery ultimately revolved around labor and it became popularly understood within these circles that in America, capitalism could not exist without white supremacy. This is about life and death. Such a serious situation requires the use of everything in the toolbox and to call out the empire for what it is. Disrespecting white supremacy means respecting communities of color.

MLK Strike

On Thursday January 15th, the 86th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth, activists organized under People’s Power Assemblies and Occupy Wall Street walked out of their workplaces, schools, and homes in a day of action against police brutality in New York. Each borough hosted marches and rallies with the protests converging at the African Burial Ground monument in Lower Manhattan.

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The rally, relegated to the sidewalk by a significant police presence, listened to speakers relate the struggles of Africans during the Middle Passage to today’s struggles against police brutality, gentrification, and the prison system. For approximately two hours, activists reflected on the anti-slavery movement and Dr. King’s legacy from the Civil Rights Movement as different speakers shared their personal stories via megaphone.

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After assessing the situation, the crowd decided to march south toward Battery Park. Though briefly taking the street, the police escort quickly forced protestors to the sidewalk announcing directives through a mobile LRAD. The presence of the device concerned a number of activists who questioned the intentions of the police in handling what seemed like a peaceful, obedient demonstration.

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Activists let out cheers of democracy and cried “Black Lives Matter!” as the march moved past Zuccotti Park. Protestors called out black officers for siding with the police and urged them to ditch their jobs and join the movement.

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The march eventually found its way to the Staten Island Ferry station at the foot of Manhattan. Activists executed a die-in as the police maneuvered to separate the protestors from curious onlookers. One young activist took the megaphone and shouted confrontational slogans at officers to the point that many of the police backed away not knowing how to properly address the situation. After the protestors posed for the media and finished their speeches, the march took off toward the City Hall area.

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We congregated around the Metropolitan Correctional Center. One activist informed the crowd that we had gathered her to show solidarity with those currently behind the bars of the jail. She exclaimed that as brothers and sisters on the streets struggled against poverty and injustice, we should never forget those who sacrificed their freedom to assist the cause. After the speech protestors hollered, cheered, and made noise to let the prisoners know that they are still human and are in the protestors thoughts.

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The march continued toward City Hall circling the premises before a separate contingent joined them. With these new numbers, the activists decided to take the demonstration to Grand Central. As the protest snaked into the train terminal, they were met with a heavy police presence consisting of state troopers, MTA officers, special riot squads, and a surveillance team. The police forces did not prevent the activists from performing die-ins as well as marching throughout the Dining Hall and Main Concourse.

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The activists displayed an interesting assortment of banners with some relating the struggles in New York to movements around the world. Many protestors shared the similarities that America never abolished Jim Crow or slavery instead explaining that these institutions evolved economically. As much as the media, the police and their allies like to paint those within the movement as silly or ignorant, these activists expressed a deep frustration with current state of the country with a complex sociological understanding of how these oppressive systems came about.

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As the evening came, a scuffle ensued when an onlooker approached and taunted an older demonstrator prompting a fight. The police immediately intervened letting the instigator walk away but then turning to arrest the protestor. Activists struggled to pull the arrestee back into the crowd but as more and more officers came to assist, the protestors backed off. Furious that one of their own was taken in an obvious case of provocation, a militant chant echoed through the Main Concourse: “Brick by brick, Wall by wall, We will make the system fall!” The tensity subsided as activists turned their backs on police and then gathered on the North side to execute more die-ins.

Despite the MTA and NYPD repeatedly announcing that demonstrations and die-ins were no longer going to be tolerated on Grand Central premises, the police are still handling these protests delicately and have yet to actively enforce these new declarations. The city  of New York does seem prepared for more civil unrest judging by the increase in police units assigned to the marches but the tension between activists and police has yet to escalate like the situations in the East Bay and Ferguson. With the indictment verdict over the shooting death of Brooklyn resident Akai Gurley expected in the coming months, we shall see if these confrontations will remain contained.

Direct Action and the Role of the State

On Monday January 12th, nearly a hundred protestors swarmed the Main Concourse of Grand Central Terminal. A Copwatch group organized the demonstration after an announcement by the MTA that “die-ins” were banned from Grand Central. The police showed up in force, with State troopers, MTA police, and different units of the NYPD present with higher ups calling the shots from a make-shift command center on the Northern balcony. At first the stand-off seemed tense but officers eventually backed off, watching from a distance as the demonstration executed die-ins.

Despite the consistent threats of arrest from the NYPD, the divisive bellicose language used by PBA union head Patrick Lynch, and the constant harassment of activist gatherings, the police have not cracked down as harshly as they did at the beginning of this movement. The so-called ‘hands-off’ approach has less to do with directives from Comissioner Bratton or Mayor de Blasio, and more to do with the cultural attitude adopted by the NYPD in the wake of controversy. Years of repression, racism and violence has led to angry attitudes toward the police reaching mainstream attention. The NYPD does not want to lose legitimacy out of fear of the social and economic ramifications. So, the work-stoppage and the ‘revised tactics’ are ways of appropriating community concerns while still ultimately maintaining the unequal distribution of power.

Escalation through Confrontation

DSCN0164What is the role of direct action in the Black Lives Matter movement? From its onset, the movement deployed the tactic to actively confront the very forces they were protesting. Every protest action draws a police escort, but this was the first time a protest movement was actively protesting the very presence of those police. As such, Black Lives Matter has always responded with defiance to laws and directives designed to quell the movement. After Bill de Blasio called for the demonstrations to cease in the wake of two police deaths, protestors defied his plea to march on Christmas Eve. Similarly, when warned by municipal officials to cease certain practices within the movement, protestors respond by putting those practices to the forefront. The Grand Central rally was done as an explicit rejection of the MTA’s authority. For Black Lives Matter, direct action means a reclamation of rights and liberties that are supposedly afforded to all Americans. Secondly, by increasing the tension between everyday citizens and the police forces that occupy their communities, the movement draws on an old Civil Rights tradition described as militant nonviolent direct action. As MLK explained while imprisoned in Birmingham, the purpose is to “create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

This explains why the NYPD tread carefully when handling this movement because they know they represent the target; they are the community which constantly refuses to recognize the current crisis. These past months have been a manipulation of the media spectacle by both sides to gain traction within the larger national community. For protestors, the point of these confrontational actions is to escalate the tension to the point that a Second Civil Right Movement will inevitably erupt thus representing a serious challenge to the status quo. They shut down bridges, tunnels, malls, and public spaces to paralyze the system of consumption, to disrupt the ebb and flow of capitalism, thus forcing everyone to confront the reality that our entire economic system is fueled through the repression of black and brown bodies.

Confrontation Out of Necessity

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Direct action has taken many different forms throughout the movement. From classic sit-ins and lockdowns to blockades and street fighting, Black Lives Matter protestors have deployed a diversity of tactics in order to disrupt the system. Mainstream media outlets and political leaders have often criticized the movement’s militancy, despite that the entire movement, including the East Bay rioting, has remained nonviolent. Liberals always seek to redefine nonviolence as means of protecting their privilege and legitimizing the very real violence inherent in the economic structure. They decry the burning of police stations yet are strangely silent when unarmed black youth are killed. This valuing of property over life is at the crux of why the movement needs to claim “Black Lives Matter” since it is very apparent that under the current system, in the eyes of the rich, they do not.

Protestors seek confrontation not because they find pleasure in violence but rather it remains the only option left to create meaningful change. In a country that jails more its population than some of the most despotic regimes in the world, a country that criminalizes black flesh through the segregation and exploitation constructed by the drug war, a country that has militarized its domestic police forces in the name of combating terrorism, the only way for people of color to reclaim their agency is through organized self-defense. The response in Ferguson awakened the conscious of many skeptics to the reality that the role of the state is not security of all people but rather the protection of some against a maligned “other.” Black and brown people serve as this other. Through social death does the criminalization of fellow human beings become possible. Social death allows for the creation of a generational group of exploited, a class of eternal slaves that can either choose to work or die. The Third Amendment to the Constitution enshrines slavery in the prison system and the neoliberal project of the past 35 years has only cemented its role as the corrections industry became an entrenched economic necessity. These activists operate with this context in mind. As the movement expands, it remains important for pundits and onlookers alike to understand that they are not just fighting for a cause, they are fighting for their lives.

DSCN0089Nothing could better illustrate the role of the NYPD police state better than my experience during the third night of Eric Garner protests on December 5th, 2014. The march began that Friday evening in Columbus Circle during a cold torrential downpour. We targeted multiple public areas of commerce for die-ins and disruptions including the Apple Store, Macy’s and Bryant Park, the latter of which involved the occupation of a recently erected Christmas Tree. The march eventually made its way east down Delancy Street in an attempt to shut down FDR Drive. A police blockade had been set up at the entrance ramp complete with riot police and a mobile command center equipped with an LRAD. As the police led us toward our supposed fate, the march took a surprising turn in an attempt at evasion. We cut through the nearby housing projects eventually breaking out into a full out sprint as we bypassed the police escort and climbed over the cement barriers on to the highway. After shutting down the FDR, our celebratory moment was cut short upon the realization that the front of the march had been cut off from the thousands that were left in the Baruch Houses. Only about 50 people had successfully made it onto the highway.

With riot police approaching in formation from the front and more officers cutting us off from behind, we quickly took to the seven-foot-tall fence separating the FDR from East River Park. Like a mass exodus escaping over a territorial border, several protestors climbed over the fence to escape the police. However, for many the police came too soon. Those of us who had made it over tried desperately to help others climb the rain-soaked metal barrier. Riot officers whipped protestors with batons and violently shoved others to the ground. We held onto one women through the fence who struggled to climb, tears streaming down her face in fear. Despite having six arms wrapped around her waist and legs, a single officer tore her from our grasp and slammed her head-first into the pavement. The level of brutality displayed against the arrested provoked an angry reaction from the crowd. Many threw signs, bottles, and bulbs over the fence in retaliation. However, this reaction prompted the police to scale the fence and chase down activists. Chaos ensued as protestors dispersed, fleeing in many directions. I escaped with around seven others by cutting through the park and melding back into the pedestrian bustle on Grand Street. With my phone waterlogged and pants glued to my legs as I waded through puddles to the nearest metro station, I came to understand the type of violence the state uses to quell dissent.

 The World Can’t Breathe

MillionsMarchNYC american flagThe austerity protests of the anti-globalization movement did not end with the Arab Spring or the riots of Eastern Europe. The financial and political situations that led to those reactions have not been rectified. Now halfway through this decade, the world is still reeling from the effects of a global economic crash. Internationally, people have realized their personal struggles are structural. The political force that intertwines the oil barons of the Gulf States to the high frequency traders of Europe will lead to an exhaustion of resources and global environmental disaster. People realize that states will crack down in the midst of crisis to hold on to their slipping privileges. Yet, globalization has not just united the world’s elite but also the everyday citizens who struggle for liberation. Solidarity can only truly be realized in an international context.

During a march in mid-December a young black activist chanted expressions of solidarity as he filmed the police escort. “Ferguson Can’t Breathe, New York Can’t Breathe, Cleveland Can’t Breathe.” He continued with fire in his voice, “Oakland Can’t Breathe, Palestine Can’t Breathe, Kobanê Can’t Breathe, Hong Kong Can’t Breathe.” Protest movements around the world have been a struggle of occupied peoples against the state. No matter if its a struggle for a decent wage, permanent housing, or a refutation of an entire political system, one common apparatus remains constant. In the 21st century, every mass social movement is a struggle against the police.

 

Overview of the Black Lives Matter Movement

On November 24th, 2014 hundreds of New Yorkers gathered in Union Square patiently waiting for the announcement regarding the Ferguson grand jury’s decision on whether to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. When the announcement came down, tears rolled down a woman’s face as shouts of “No Indictment!” and “The Killer Walks!” echoed through the crowd. Anguished wails soon turned to chants of anger as the demonstrators tore down the barriers that caged us in the park and we set off up 14th street. That first night, protests were allowed to march around Manhattan for five hours going as far as Harlem and the Brooklyn Bridge. The next night, four separate marches turned out thousands more than the night before resulting in the shut down of three bridges, Time Square and Grand Central Terminal.

Ever since, there have been near daily protests against police brutality all claiming Black Lives Matter. The newly burgeoning movement gained significant traction after the non-indictment of Officer Pantaleo regarding the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. All across the nation, mass protests broke out in solidarity with the two martyrs for justice especially in places where unarmed black men were recently killed. Cleveland witnessed civil unrest after the killings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 22-year-old John Crawford. Actions include marches, shut downs, occupations, die-ins, walk-outs, targeted arson, rioting and skirmishes with the police. In Seattle, protestors threw bottles at the police. The East Bay has seen the most escalation with riots in Oakland and Berkeley. The protests seem to gain momentum which each police-related story to spread virally through the media. This entry serves as an introduction to the current social movement in the hopes of combating media distortion through the presentation of  a coalesced body of ideas that can serve as an educational tool for those who are unable to participate themselves.

Political Characterization
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Black Lives Matter is a populist/left-wing social uprising against police brutality, mass incarceration, institutional racism and structural poverty drawing on a historical tradition from the Civil Rights and Black Power struggles of the 1960s. It has attracted a wide range of political diversity from liberal reformers to veteran revolutionaries. Demands can range from implementation of body cameras to abolition of the prison-industrial complex. Liberals and radicals alike have called for an end to the War on Drugs.

The movement is generally characterized by distrust and even contempt with local state entities with many calls for Federal and independent prosecutors to investigate the deaths of unarmed black men across the United States. Broader characterizations express a systemic rejection of state security forces showing contempt even for FBI, National Guard, CIA and NSA officers alike. Basically, anyone in a uniform is met with spite.

This movement also expresses a broad anticapitalist tendency with an emphasis on shutting down business as usual until justice has been appropriated. This is best exemplified in the chant, “If the Killer Walks, America Halts.” The original calls to Indict America drew in a record number of participants helping activists channel their anger toward a larger system that they see as responsible for the historical racism that allows for white policemen to murder black youth. Protestors have targeted centers of commerce such as malls, shopping centers, downtown marketplaces, and gentrified neighborhoods. Similarly, they shut down and occupy roads, highways, and bridges to disrupt the flow of capital through the disruption of daily routine.

The timing of Black Lives Matter conveniently began during a holiday season when a large amount of economic consumption would took place. This situation virtually guaranteed that BLM would be witnessed in public spheres by large numbers of people while also attacking a significant source of profit for large retail companies. The movement’s success could actually be measured through the loss of sales. Other related issues such as prisoner abolition, minimum wage raises, and rent control neatly intersect with this movement.

004A small but vocal part of the movement can be characterized as anti-fascist. In Ferguson, activists defended themselves from the rightwing survivalists and vigilantes as much as they defended themselves from police. In cities, this translated to the condemnation of municipal police alliances with overtly white supremacist forces. The NYPD suffered relentless comparisons to the KKK. Public rallies have drawn racist white reactionaries to confront the activists. The recent tension between Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD characterized as a coup by some pundits in combination with the strict discipline enforcing the Blue Code of Silence shows that larger police forces do have the capability and potential seize control of a city militarily if the uprising grew beyond the Mayor’s control.

Black Lives Matter is horizontally organized, virtually leaderless and emotionally angry. Unlike Occupy Wall Street that came before it, this movement sparked in the context of a focused issue that could personally resonate with the lived experiences of oppressed people’s. Occupy’s “99% vs 1%” rhetoric did not capture the multitudes and complexities of class inequality and its target was too symbolic to foster any meaningful results. Rather, with BLM, resistance against police could be seen as a struggle against low-wages, foreclosures, and gentrification. If I could emphasize one outstanding feature of this movement, I’d say its activists have the most precise sociological imagination since the movements of the Civil Rights Era.

Tactics

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Black Lives Matter incorporates a variety of influences from past movements, most recently labor campaigns, solidarity actions and to a lesser extent, Occupy Wall Street. While its leaderless structure, Internet savvy members, and use of human microphone are odes to the past, these new protests have many new features having learned from the mistakes of past movements.

Flash Mob Rallying

Activists are extremely savvy with the latest social media trends often using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to organize actions. Facebook events have especially aided in quickly drawing large masses of people into the streets.  The horizontal networking allows for anyone to join in and follow the movement. Continuous updates through twitter help give live coverage to the movement and creation of media spectacle.

Constant Motion

014Shying away from the occupation, maintenance, and defense of space tactics that characterized Occupy, activists use marches as the primary tool of protest . The march itself has become the base of operations with auxiliary actions usually stemming from the initial rally. Activists move from street to street, careful not to congregate in one area too long lest get enclosed by the police. These mass flows of people change direction suddenly without deliberation and organizers constantly tweet new locations and targets for actions. The marches move so fast that the NYPD often falls behind. The marchers only break ranks to execute a die-in or occupation usually for a few minutes and then meld back into the streets. The intense pace of how this coalesces helps break down the barrier between spectator and participant, allows the marcher’s ranks to swell as it progresses and prevents large numbers of protestors from arrest.

Disruption

The primary tactic of the movement is to disrupt the system of exploitation that historically oppresses black people while simultaneously drawing attention to the cause. In an almost 21st century incarnation of Propaganda by the Deed, activists specifically target capital to attack profit accumulation and raise the public awareness about police violence. If large companies, politicians, and power players cannot continue business as usual, then they are forced to confront the issue. Malls and holiday shopping centers are the prime targets for protestors. These businesses are seen to profit off the expendable lives of black youth and the continued consumptive lifestyle distracts white Americans from the systemic racism that pervades their society.013
Highways and bridges are also prime targets for disruption as they are the veins of the city that keep the fuel of urban culture alive. This is done to break the spectacle of capitalism by disrupting daily routine to the point that the city is effectively shut down. When routes of transportation become blocked, people can’t go to work, trucks can’t deliver goods, appointments are missed and the relegation of work-flow behavior becomes shattered. This in turn could inspire those formally trapped within the confines of routine to join the marches as can be evidenced by couples leaving their tour buses and taxi drivers pumping their fists in solidarity. While a general shutdown has yet to occur, its myth provides the creative energy that fuels mass shutdowns and demonstrates a goal the movement strives to attain. New York could still effectively run during even its largest demonstrations but the level of disruption still generated enough media attention and even cost the city thousands in overtime pay for police forces.010
Most recently, the protests have begun to target media forces and specific companies that are directly opposed to the movement’s goals. Fox News and the New York Post have been targeted for misrepresenting the nature of the movement.

Solidarity

P1110324Black Lives Matter displays a conscious level of diversity through its solidarity with other protest movements around the world. The very first groups that helped organize Ferguson solidarity protests came from Palestinian groups that were active during the Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014. Since September, the Palestinian solidarity groups remain the most connected to Black Lives Matter organizers in fomenting a conscious sociological connection between the oppressed peoples of  Palestine and the historically oppressed peoples of the United States. Occupy Central’s Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong became another source of inspiration for the movement as many could see their struggle for democracy in a system that similar disenfranchised Hong Kong citizens. Ferguson October actions coincided with protests in Iguala, Mexico over the disappearance of 43 student activists in that country. Since then, mass civil unrest erupted all over Mexico and many Black Lives Matter activists empathize with how the drug war that ravages black youth in America has even starker consequences for those living in Mexico.

All of these protests practice solidarity through a recognition of a fundamental corruption with systems of governance and more importantly as a rejection of neoliberal policies that led to militarization of security forces in the name of combating drugs and crime.

Organizations Involved

 

A range of different groups have been key to organizing a majority of the actions since November. Among them are various Occupy-oriented groups, socialist and worker’s parties, union groups, and an assortment of anticapitalist groups.

People’s Power Assemblies – This group has been at the forefront of organizing actions in this movement. Expanding on its minimum wage struggles from earlier in the Fall, PPA rallied its members around the police killings turning out heavy numbers for the Darren Wilson non-indictment protests in November as well as organizing walk-outs and teach-ins in early December. As a broadly leftist organization, its members overlap with a host of various activist groups, political parties, and labor unions.

OWS S17 & Assorted Occupy Affiliates – OWS S17 serves as a communications page to coordinate different events and actions in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. It represents a coalition of Occupy particularly, Alternative Banking and Occu-Evolve, and mainly organizes rallies and teach-ins. The group has led the organizing efforts behind the Grand Central sing-in and protests against News Corporation among being a constant presence at the dozens of marches in December. OWS S17 hosts meetings every Friday at 5:00pm at 60 Wall Street.

Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee – The New York chapter of the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee has led the way in militant disruption tactics that helped characterize the movement from the beginning. Initially formed after the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, the chapters of TMOC seek to build a coalition of anti-authoritarian/anticapitalist organizations to directly confront and uproot white supremacy through a diversity of tactics. TMOC called for #IndictAmerica rallies to take to the streets the day after the Darren Wilson verdict helping spark the national movement. The group also shut down Manhattan bridge during the Eric Garner protests in early December. Lately, TMOC has been raising money for the bail and legal fund for detained comrades for their alleged involvement in an incident on the Brooklyn Bridge during the Millions March NYC on December 13th. If you’re afraid of liberal co-optation or interested in marching with the radical left, follow TMOC for further actions and updates.

Revolutionary Communist Party -The Bob Avakian personality cult and self-described Maoist political party has actually been a central contributor to the movement’s numbers. With every rally they attend, they bring with them large numbers and enough signs to mount an effective protest. Though some of its members may try to derail the movement’s leaders for their own recruitment efforts, no one can deny the contribution they’ve made to the marches.

Socialist Alternative – This independent third party helped get Kshama Sawant elected to the Seattle City Council and push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage changing the national conversation. Fast food and retail store workers have since engaged in strikes across the country for this new standards. The New York chapter remains dedicated to the city’s fast food movement and seeks to connect the struggles of the black experience to a larger struggle for working class liberation.

Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation – The New York City chapter of Black Rose/Rosa Negra has been active in the protest scene since the Federation first formed in the Fall of 2013. The organization draws inspiration from the traditions of anarchist communism, anarcho-syndicalism, revolutionary feminism, queer liberation, abolitionism, anti-racism and various liberation movements around the world. Recently, they helped organize the anticapitalist contingents of the People’s Climate March in September and the Millions March NYC in December. The group’s current campaigns focus on prisoner support as well as organizing working class opposition to mass incarceration and the police state.

Black Autonomy North East – BANE organized the first march in the immediate aftermath following the shooting of Akai Gurley by Officer Liang in Brooklyn, NY. As part of the Black Autonomy Federation, BANE combines traditional Black Panther community organizing with militant direct action emphasizing a decentralized organizing structure. The Federation hopes to develop autonomous democratically organized cells for black liberation described as “building a new world in the shell of the old.”

Revolutionary Student Coordinating Committee – The RSCC is a student run organization seeking to unite radical youth through the CUNY education system in New York. The group characterizes itself as an anticapitalist, anti-imperialist, proletarian-feminist organization. The RSCC has been active in numerous actions through December and helped shutdown the FDR Drive during the Darren Wilson verdict protests.

Take Back the Bronx – This group formed out of the Occupy movement in response to the building of condos and pricy housing in the South Bronx. New Yorkers see the Bronx as the last borough to go through the process of restructuring undertaken by realtors in an effort to attract wealthy whites at the cost of driving out the people of color who already live there. Take Back the Bronx tirelessly challenges police brutality through community social programs, “cop-free” block parties, and copwatching patrols in order to combat gentrification in the borough.

National Lawyers Guild – This league of volunteer lawyers monitors protests for evidence of police brutality and records arrestee information to assist activists when they’ve been nabbed during a protest. They can be identified by their neon green caps. Look for them if you have any legal questions regarding your rights during a demonstration or political action. If you are ever arrested during a protest call the New York hotline at 212-679-6018.

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Chants

“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”
“Fist up, Fight Back”
“This is what democracy looks like”
“Whose streets? Our streets”
“NYPD KKK, How many kids did you kill today?”
“Indict, Convict, Send those killer cops to jail, The whole damn system is guilty as hell”
“Back up, Backup, We want freedom, freedom, All these racist ass cops we don’t need ’em, need ’em”
“How do you spell racist? N-Y-P-D”
“Who do you protect? Who do you serve?”
“No justice, No peace (No racist police)”
“Turn it up, Don’t turn it down, We’re doing this for Mike Brown”
“Hands up to the sky, We’re doing this for Akai”
“If we don’t get it, Shut it down”
“When they say ‘Get back’, we say ‘Fight back!'”
“If we don’t get no justice, then they don’t get no peace”
“No justice, no peace, take it to the streets and fuck the police”
“Black Lives Matter”