AS PROTESTS sparked by the murder of George Floyd continue across the United States and throughout the world, Source spoke to a range of activists, commentators and campaigners in the US about the goals of Black Lives Matter, international solidarity, systemic racism, abolitionism and what comes next.
NYLAH BURTON: “The best thing people outside the US can do is get their own house in order”
What you’re seeing is a rebellion, an uprising. Those in power are trying to neuter it by having police march with protestors or by painting shallow messages of ‘support’ on public streets — in the case of my hometown, Washington D.C.
But this is an uprising against a government that’s been oppressing and slaughtering Black and Indigenous people for centuries. Even now, we are the most impacted by Covid-19, solely because of systemic racism.
We have to abolish prisons, abolish the police. They do not keep us safe, they actively endanger us, and a world without prisons and police is the only safe and just world for this country. People who are against abolition or who just don’t understand it say that this is unrealistic – it absolutely isn’t. We can create a safer world without law enforcement. We need to just stay in the streets until we get what we need.
The best thing people outside the US can do is get their own house in order, especially in the UK and other parts of Europe, where anti-Black racism is also rampant and deadly. I think hyper-focusing on racism in the US is a way that a lot of countries avoid accountability. Other countries can also reflect on ways they’ve also been oppressed by capitalism and white supremacy – especially places like Scotland with its long, painful history of being occupied by the British — and they ways that they’ve contributed to those systems of oppression. Then, use that reflection to make reparations, have solidarity with Black people, and free themselves from this yoke of capitalism and colonialism. Start your own uprisings. Address and dismantle your own anti-Blackness.
Nylah Burton is a Denver, Colorado-based writer. Her writing has appeared in New York Magazine, ESSENCE, and The Nation.
JARED WARE: “The ruling class in the US has made a decision at every level of government to finance repression rather than resources”
The latest protests in the United States are a reflection of 400 years of racial oppression in this country – a country where European settlers stole land from Indigenous people and kidnapped African people to do slave labour, and laid the very foundation for what would become the USA. As a European-descended American, the way we learn – and are taught – to view society in our schools, in our communities and culturally has been about maintaining as much of that oppression as the status quo, and as much as possible rendering it invisible.
Police in the United States, from their origins in slavery patrols to today, have always been primarily about maintaining a systems of racialized subjugation. This is not only a key function, but it is a logic that emanates throughout every aspect of the system. This is why racist police violence is such an intractable issue in the US.
The media and the political class in the US are committed to maintaining the current order, and either suppressing or co-opting any attempts to radically change society. The history of prison and police reform in the US has not been a history of reducing the harm of these institutions, but increasing the state’s capacity to enact harm on racialized people.
In terms of solving the problem, we need to look to the work of prison and police abolitionists like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson GIlmore to understand that these issues are systemic, and that they also impact the way that the United States operates as a policing force on the international stage. This impacts countries in Europe, but it also is much more detrimental to countries outside of the North Atlantic region, where the US is constantly actively engaged in imperialist wars and political destabilization. This disrupts the ability of countries all over the world to determine their own political futures on their own terms, just as it disrupts the ability of colonized people in the US to live politically self-determined lives.
The current movement is all about changing that dynamic. Targeting first the physical infrastructure of institutions that maintain that oppression and now pivoting towards targeting their budgets. Budgets are documents that reflect priorities. Part of the work of abolition is understanding that the ruling class in the US has made a decision at every level of government to finance repression rather than resources. Black people have led a movement to say enough is enough: we are going to defund the police and defend Black life, and force a reckoning for anyone who disagrees with that shift in priorities.
People around the world can support calls in the US to abolish police, and they can also examine their own structures of political repression within their own societies and the connections that exist between private corporations, public money and systems of global surveillance, repression and war. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “abolition must be Red, Green and International.” Red meaning it needs to be Socialist, Green meaning it needs to be environmentally, and International meaning we need to understand that these issues are global and must be resolved by a global movement.
Jared Ware is the co-host of the podcast Millennials Are Killing Capitalism, and can be followed on Twitter @jaybeware.
OLIVIA KATBI SMITH: “We know that the only ‘outside agitators’ are the police”
We are in an unprecedented moment in the United States, with millions of people revolting in the streets against racist police murder, displaying a militancy and hunger for radical change not seen in decades. The people in the streets are not calling for ‘reform’, as most have come to recognize that the reforms instituted in police departments across the country after the Ferguson uprising, including in Minneapolis, have done nothing to stop police violence. The people are now calling for defunding, disarming, disbanding and abolishing the very institution of policing.
Just today, the Minneapolis city council committed to disbanding their local police force. While these developments are clearly a response to the massive street demonstrations and should be celebrated, we cannot take our foot off the gas. We cannot disband a police department and replicate their horrific acts under other names. Police exist to uphold white supremacy and protect capital, not to create a safer community. Real change can only happen by getting rid of them entirely.
While we must keep our eyes on the prize – the end goal of total abolition and the creation of a society that does not require a violent paramilitary to keep order – the Minneapolis proposal is a massive first step forward. This first step could look, in the immediate term, like disbanding the current police department and creating a new public safety department which is wholly focused on social services and helping people in crisis.
We know that because middle-of-the-road Democrats are largely going to be the officials tasked with overseeing this project, and because we still live under a capitalist system, they will not totally do away with law enforcement, and we must ensure that the ‘men with guns’ aspect of their idea of public safety is whittled away, in the public discourse and in its utility as a tool of suppression, by building a world that does not require the subjugation of an entire underclass to make profit for the ruling elite.
It is also hugely encouraging to see protests all over the world in solidarity, in the streets of major cities and outside US embassies. We must also remember that the issue of violent, racist policing is not unique to the US – for example, the Israeli police just last week shot and killed Eyad Hallaq, an unarmed autistic Palestinian man. The Israeli police train alongside American police in what Jewish Voice for Peace calls the Deadly Exchange. This is part of a larger, decades-long process of militarization of US police forces, who receive excess equipment from the US military, who sell that same military equipment to oppressive regimes around the world, when they are not using it themselves to invade, destabilize, and destroy entire regions. Drawing these global connections – and working together to abolish these systems globally—is essential for building a true internationalist movement.
While many attribute these rising tensions in the US to Trump’s presidency, we know that this is an explosion of decades of pressure, and a result of decades of organizing by Black leaders against the police state, with the emergence of the Movement for Black Lives in 2014 being a major driving force.
However, Trump’s presidency has emboldened an emerging fascist tendency in the US, and over recent years we’ve witnessed rapid growth in the ‘Blue Lives Matter’ crusade, which paints police as an oppressed and attacked minority. We know that openly fascist groups are supportive of this movement, and that many police officers have been exposed as being active members of these fascist groups. This raises serious concerns for what may transpire when we make real moves to defund and disband the police. In some cities, police unions line the block with police cars during contract negotiations as a show of force and intimidation. If we are to see our abolitionist dreams realized, we must prepare for the fight of our lives. If this is how they behave during regular union bargaining, how can we expect them to react to steps towards abolition?
The news coverage gives us little answers to these questions. We know that the police are a violent paramilitary force, and those of us on the ground during these protests have seen them behave as such. With tear gas, beatings, arrests, and even killings happening at an increasing rate in response to largely nonviolent protests, the mainstream media instead calls protesters “outside agitators”, a movement infiltrated by “white supremacists, terrorists, and anarchists”— which serves the purposes of the state in suppressing leftist organizing by lumping the latter in with the former all in the same breath. With uprisings happening in every city across the country and even small towns and rural communities, we know that the only “outside agitators” are the police, who largely do not live in the communities they terrorize.
We also know that the uprising is the youngest, and most diverse movement of our lifetime, with Black and brown teenagers leading the way. Any person of conscience should answer their call and stand with them to build a better world. A slogan we often use on the US left is “a better world is possible”. This is something we genuinely believe, but in the past it has felt more abstract – the tiny dose of optimism that has been more of a reassurance than a declaration, a reminder to each other that we must keep going. But now, it doesn’t feel like such a long shot anymore. A better world is possible, and we might be closer than ever to winning it.
Olivia Katbi Smith is the co-chair of the Portland, Oregon chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist organization in the United States. She is also a board member of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR)- Oregon chapter and is active in the Palestine solidarity movement in the US.
T.A. PICKENS: “Killing Black people for sport is an American pastime”
Like the protests in 2014 and before, people are upset about extra-judicial killings of Black folks and the state-sanctioned violence in Black communities. People want justice – not just arrests, not just indictments – for these killings. Also, people are angry that this is an ongoing, historical problem that does not abate. Killing Black people for sport is an American pastime and we’re tired of feeling scared, angry, and bereft.
This isn’t just about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, but about countless others besides. We can’t ignore that these current protests take place during a global pandemic that, because of systemic inequalities, is killing Black, Brown, and Indigenous people disproportionately. People are taking to the streets, risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones, because they are, in the words of Fanie Lou Hamer, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
The system would have to be broken in order for people to recognize that it needed fixing. Police function as an enforcement agency for the very laws designed to dehumanize and denegrate non-white people. So, one take is that the system is working the way it was intended, for the protection and perpetuation of white supremacy and settler colonialism. In San Jose, CA, the police shot (with rubber bullets to the groin) a man who taught implicit bias training. Body cams now capture what police have been doing; it isn’t stopping them from doing it.
Police and fire departments were the last spaces to desegregate in the US and it shows in the department culture and the manner of their work. Recently, people have called for defunding the police and there’s some utility to that thinking because of the way police are called into situations that are not dangerous and where they can actually do more harm. Limiting their scope is one way to think about that.
I urge others to highlight and amplify pro-Black voices and focusing on these events from their perspectives. I make sure to say pro-Black voices, because there are some anti-Black voices who identify as Black. Certainly, it would behoove others to educate themselves on the history of the United States from the perspectives of the historically marginalized.
I hasten to add that being outraged about Black death in the US means nothing if one doesn’t focus on what they can do in their own space. That is, the solidarity will mean nothing if the people voicing it aren’t also doing what they can to advance the causes of those who are disenfranchised in their own countries. Anti-Blackness and white supremacy are global domination projects and they have affected every place on the planet. So, the struggles of indigenous folks in Australia are bound up with Palestinians in Israel are bound up with Blacks and Indigenous folks in the US and many others.
[For anti-racist and anti-fascist campaigners,] the concerns are always pressing, always urgent because the white supremacist and fascist actions are consistent and constant. The concerns are always structural: how to revamp the systems that privilege whites, men, the able-bodied, cisgendered folks, heterosexuals, and people making a certain amount of money? The concerns are also cultural: how to change the narrative so that people know the histories, literatures, and traditions that aren’t part of the dominant narrative? The concerns traverse various industries: literature, politics, history, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, art, dance, language, finances…. the list goes on.
[During the current protests] the media is getting a lot of help from people on the ground and they could highlight those voices more. They could also go for ledes and headlines that represent situations from the side of the oppressed. They should stop using the language of disability to describe all that is terrible or broken. The political establishment in the US is missing so much more than I could name here. Overall, it is missing a conscience.
Therí A Pickens is a Professor of English and the author of Black Madness :: Mad Blackness. You can find her on Twitter (@TAPPhD) and www.tpickens.org.
THE ABOLITIONIST LAW CENTER: “Another system is possible”
Police and prisons are the two core parts of a system of state violence that maintains a race and class order that derives from coercive capitalism and serves its interests. Police serve as the occupying troops that instil fear of and subordination to corporate and government interests, while jails and prisons then warehouse, stigmatize, traumatize, and disenfranchise those the police have removed from communities. The two together divide and dehumanize communities of color, keeping them disempowered, alienated, and ready serve as a standing reserve of labor. The violence inherent in their control is self-evident: sometimes it is graphic, as in the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade, or the physical abuse that the incarcerated suffer at the hands of prison staff; other times it is more hidden and quietly corrosive, as in the systemic use of surveillance in impoverished communities or the rampant use of solitary confinement in prison. Either way, the violence is obvious and unacceptable, and we support the efforts of Black communities, poor communities, people of color, immigrants, and queer people to resist it and demand an end to it.
We also know that another system is possible — that state violence is not inevitable and that racial capitalism is not our fate. We know that police forces were founded in the early industrial era to protect middle- and upper-class properties and businesses, while prisons were serving as dungeons and workhouses to dispose of the unwanted poor; we know that early law enforcement forces formed in the American south and the slave-holding north to terrorize enslaved African peoples, and track them down after they had escaped and sought their liberation. And we know that the idea of police and prisons as ‘protectors’ of the general community has only recently achieved consensus, and has done so by appealing to divisions between those who benefit from the racial-economic system by demonizing and disempowering those who do not.
The entire contemporary assumption that agents of state violence are neutral entities that benefit the public good and mete out justice and accountability is a recent ideological smokescreen, and we support all efforts to highlight the race- and class-control of these systems and build a counter-consensus against the legitimacy of police and prisons.
We furthermore support the right to pursue these goals by any means necessary. The police and prison system in its current forms are so deeply woven into every level of our political systems, that asking for it to change will inevitably lead to superficial, empty changes and further divided communities. We support the right of people of color to bear arms to protect their lives in a society that does not value their lives, and we refuse to ignore a history that tried to keep arms only in white hands for so much of American history.
We also reject the current divisions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ police and ‘peaceful’ and ‘aggressive’ protestors, which both distract from the real problems and reinforce the false assumption that police have legitimate protective functions. In particular, we reject the ‘outside agitator’ trope that politicians of both parties reflexively deploy to diminish Black agency and try to discredit legitimate protest against unspeakable injustice. This same idea was used by slave states to blame northern agitators for slave rebellions, attempting to deflect from the brutality of slavery and the right of the enslaved to revolt. It was cynically used again when Black cities erupted in response to white supremacist violence in the 20th Century, as communists were blamed for agitation instead of the violent segregation that sparked the protests. During the Black urban rebellions of the 1960s, white hippies and counterculture figures were blamed for agitation. And in the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising,“gangs” and “looters” were to blame. The white antifascists and anarchists now blamed are only the latest way to deny the very real anger and frustration of years of oppression and create paranoia and division.
We must be vigilant against these divisions and mythologies; we must keep our collective focus squarely on the violent state’s enforcement of racial capitalism that has produced these uprisings, decade after decade, and will continue to until we force a change to something better.
The change we look forward to and fight in the name of is one in which communities have no state-sponsored forces imposing and enforcing social control and coercion. In communities without police and prison systems, we see possibilities for those communities currently targeted by police to become more autonomous, less traumatized and more healed, and to find their own way out of poverty by taking back the resources formerly given to law enforcement. We see the possibility for communities strengthened by moving from a model of punishment to one of accountability and transformative justice — by shifting not just how we respond collectively to harm, but also to how we relate to one another and take collective care of each other.
The Abolitionist Law Center is a nonprofit law firm fighting to protect prisoners, and a community organizing project aiming to build a world without prisons. www.abolitionistlawcenter.org
Picture courtesy of Anthony Quintano