The Concept of Black Autonomy [part 1]: Mythical time and Black Protest
When police executed 24 year old Jamar Clark late last year, Black America was overcome with that familiar feeling of pain, exhaustion and uncontrollable anger. Many in this country were anticipating the betrayal that had yet to come; a betrayal that seemed almost inevitable.
Jamar Clark was killed in the wake of multiple high profile police shootings victimizing black people in this country. Since these lynchings have gone public, “Black lives matter” has become both a battle-cry, and an International movement. A peculiarity of this country, that even brings tears to some of the worst dictators alive, is its flawed grand jury process which rarely indicts killer cops, giving near impunity to the police.
Or at least this is what we thought.
As the case of Jamar Clark shows, the problem runs deeper than Grand Juries; we still got no justice even when we got rid of it. There is a problem in this country, a problem of state-sanctioned murder and there no avenues of redress. Black lives matter exists solely to abolish this absurdity.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in the 162,500 cases prosecuted by US attorneys in the year of 2010 alone, grand juries voted not to return an indictment in only 11. If we do the math as one journalist did, it amounts to “one in 14,759 cases, or 0.0068 percent.” Police officers in this country get away with crime, and then the criminal justice system tells the rest of us that the chances of them being held responsible is less than 1%. It is of course no wonder then, that this inconvenient truth has become the point of ridicule to shame the US on the world stage.
The public health epidemic of police violence in the United States has been condemned by the United Nations, it has been condemned by organizations like Amnesty international and Human Rights Watch; it’s even compelled foreign dictatorships to berate the US for human rights abuse. And while we trust the former two to tell us the truth about what may be happening in Myanmar or Tibet for example, blind patriotism has forced many Americans to refuse to hold themselves to these same standards.
You would think that a nation, who holds the creed of self-evident truth with sanctity, would feel itself insulted by having to defend these crimes. You would think that they would be taken aback by the fact that as of 2015 alone, 1.5 million black men were missing either due to incarceration, or murder. Today, black women like Kindra Chapman and Sandra Bland are mercilessly murdered by the police and we refuse to even say their names, you would think this would concern your average Joe.
And yet, in the 160,000 or so cases that have absolved police of any wrongdoing in 2010 alone, many citizens of this country have had the opposite attitude. They’ve grown accustomed to the taste of the boot. They have been convinced, by both public pronouncements and their private media, that questioning the criminal justice system is tantamount to treason. On July 6th 2016, 140,000 people petitioned the white house to declare Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization. This is a country, where as Marc Lamont Hill has argued, the very evidence of white supremacy rests on the fact that the words Black lives matter are controversial.
It has become routine to hear pundits compare Black lives Matter to the KKK. We are living under the rule of a Faustian pact — mediated by police unions — between the right wing and killer police. Quite on the contrary to the morally bankrupt position of comparing the black liberation movement to white supremacy, we are in fact living in an environment that creates the conditions for Nazi terrorist attacks to target protesters. Just as they did to those that occupied the 4th precinct in Minneapolis to protest the ruthless murder of Jamar Clark.
David Duke, the former Grandmaster of the KKK, is in fact telling the truth when he says that his time has come to run for senate. This is his time, and the only way we can come to terms with this, is if we acknowledge that much like their grandparents, many white Americans today are echoing the very talking points championed by the contemporary KKK. In these absurd times, the pronouncements of white supremacy do not begin with the traditional epithets hurled at Jews and Blacks. In fact in post-racial America, white supremacy is also, unsurprisingly, “post-racial”.
Take for instance these KKK recruitment pamphlets distributed in Syracuse, Liverpool. “Why can’t pro-white organizations exist without being called racist?”, If you think otherwise, the KKK in fact insists that “your racist”. “Why isn’t black on white crime labelled a hate crime.”
Americans have agreed that “Racism” is bad; the KKK genuinely believes that it is engaging in anti-racism. Under this Orwellian regime, to point the existence of racism is the racist act itself. To say black lives matter, is to be racist.
What makes the statements of the KKK so fascinating is, to pay tribute to Hannah Arendt, how banal they are. They are familiar statements, indistinguishable from the questions asked regularly on the news. They are not controversial, and neither is White supremacy. Many Americans actually sympathize with this party line. It is for no other reason that the right in this country does not feel a semblance of shame for saying they want to make America great again. But if the 20th century taught us anything it is that Fascism is not an aberration, it is the rule.
Since 2008, when the first black president was elected to rule this country, KKK membership has exponentially increased. Since the BLM movement took off, the KKK has received airtime on public television.Those fighting for black liberation in this country are not only dealing with an unaccountable army, they are fighting with a growing Fascist movement that stands with them.
This is my relatively uncontroversial case for why black autonomous movements are necessary. It’s not that they are necessary now, the necessity of black autonomous movements never dissipated in the first place. We don’t live in the fantasy taught in public schools across America. You must know which fantasy to which I am referring, it is what Martin Luther King JR himself called “mythical time.” The story goes like this, once upon a time there was slavery, then there was Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, and then there was no slavery. Americans were misguided, but as everybody seems to secretly believe “if I was there back then, I would’ve obviously been on Frederick Douglass’s side….. obviously.”
The story is basic to the foundation myth of the United States, no matter what side of the spectrum you are on. It rests on the idea that American judicial institutions are infallible, that they are propellers of progress, and that only the people are capable of mistakes. Once upon a time women couldn’t vote, but thank god for Susan B Anthony. Once upon a time there was segregation but luckily for us, Martin Luther King Jr had a dream and Americans were reasonable enough to listen to it. In a country that invites celebrities to the national conventions of the leading political parties, this understanding of history — that intentionally obscures the Sojourner truth’s, the Ida B Wells’s and Ella Baker’s of the black struggle is — understandable. It’s annoying, but it’s unsurprising. This is not my biggest concern however, I’m more concerned by the teleology behind it.
No fantasy has been a bigger obstacle to social change than this mythical understanding of progress. A major reason for why we constantly lose is because of the stupid idea that the United States is on the route to the end of history. We ought to focus on the particular oppression of blacks, and fight in the autonomous Black struggle not because we feel that history is on our side. We ought to fight because we know that the awful moments of history — Slavery, Jim crow and Segregation just to name a few — were not snapshots of short-lived emergencies in the American path towards progress. They were different manifestations of the same rule: Capitalism. It’s not as if the Americans welcomed MLK with a “geez, sorry” kind of response; as if the struggle for an 8 hour work day was conceded because we all realized that it signaled a short departure from American progress. Human oppression, state violence, and actions worth the contempt of history were the rule back then, and they are the rule right now.
We have more people under correctional control today, than we ever had in slavery during the 1840’s. Walter Benjamin put it perfectly, we have to confront the fact that we already live under an emergency; the Spectre of fascism should not be our prime motivator. To do so would be to fall into the liberal trap of not acknowledging the misery of everything existing. This is why we demand black autonomy now! We demand it today, so that All lives can matter tomorrow. We demand Black liberation as the essential precondition for Human Liberation.
Now here is my relatively controversial case for Black autonomy. Black autonomy should confront this judicial myth with it’s own irrelevance. Such a vision will necessarily be one that criticizes all of the avenues of progress that are on the table. Liberal representation is the ugly stepbrother of the mythical view of time.
What has made Susan B Anthony, or Martin Luther King Jr, historically legible is not only the mythical idea of US progress. It is that this progress is only possible if it changes policy. Think of it this way, The 13th Amendment of the United States constitution that abolished slavery; The 19th amendment for women’s suffrage; The Civil rights act of 1964 for desegregation, what all of these have in common is that they are essential flagpoles for American progress. This mythical view of history is dangerous, it is dangerous because it limits our political imagination and it dangerous because it obscures the tyranny we live under in present day.
Every single one of those flagpoles have been co-opted by the ruling class and their historians, and the reason for this is quite simple: History is written by the victors. Do not at all believe that those rioting at Stonewall were demanding to be put in the annals of bourgeois historians. They rioted for one reason, they wanted to be left alone by a police state. They rioted for autonomy, and in their righteousness, they were forced into the history books. Their righteous struggle was forced into a deceptive narrative of human progress, invented for the sole purpose of justifying the present.
I believe that it is possible for the black liberation movement to demand liberation outside of mythical time. We shouldn’t strive to be an acceptable part of the American story and we should condemn any appeals for us to be rational and practical. We will not submit our imagination to what seems possible.
We ought to continue the work of our predecessors who screamed black power and I believe that the only way to do that is to change the world without taking it. We have to — to quote Walter Benjamin once more — blast through the continuum of history.
The social role of Black Protest
About a year ago, I considered myself a street fighting man in the good battle against mass-incarceration in Oakland, California. A few comrades in struggle asked me what I found most interesting about organizing in the United States. “I’ve never been in a country where you can get paid to resist the system” I responded, and in all honesty I believed that insofar as we were operating within what some have called a “Non-profit industrial complex”, we weren’t a threat to the system; we were, on the contrary, actually playing a vital role in its reproduction.
To understand this, we have to return to 2003. the US declared an illegal war on Iraq and more people went out to protest than there were revolutionaries in Tahrir Square to overthrow Mubarak. The white house — in one of the most fascinating moments in the history of statecraft — interpreted this demonstration to justify their invasion to ‘bring Democracy to Iraq.’ “The president is a strong advocate for freedom and democracy.And one of the democratic values that we hold dear is the right of people to peacefully assemble and express their views.”
The message is clear: unlike living in Saddam’s Iraq, one of the great things about living in a liberal representative democracy is that you can go out and protest; the goal of the US military was to turn Iraq into a place where Iraqi’s can do the same. How could anyone condemn this?
Here in america, the right to peaceful assembly is a qualified “right”: you must be peaceful — and in the case of the anti-police brutality movement — that means getting a permit from the very body you are protesting against. Should you not comply with these basic tenants, history tells us that the official response is most likely Mccarthyism or Cointelpro. Today, we know that the preferred accusation is terrorism.
This is the sociopolitical context that governs activism in this country. Protesting is not seen as a threat because it is in fact the opposite, it is an essential pillar of liberal democracy, it canvasses the spectacle. This is not an earth-shattering statement to make: Protest is the lifeblood of liberal democracy. The liberal myth of progress is this: Protesting leads to policy change, and policy change leads to progress. It’s why we’re constantly asked what “our demands are”, and by that, it is meant “what can we change in the courtroom.” Had the founders of this country thought like that, surely the United States would have never existed. They knew the difference between protest and resistance, and so should we.
Way back in May 1968 — in a world historical moment which made it increasingly clear that state repression was not solely a Soviet affair — the student activist Ulrike Meinhoff picked the idea up from black revolutionaries and translated it to their struggle in Germany. “Protest is when I say I don’t like this and that. Resistance is when I see to it that things that I don’t like no longer occur. Protest is when I say I will no longer go along with it. Resistance is when I see to it that no one else goes along with it anymore either.”
Insofar as the Black Struggle remains within the confines of protestation it will remain an object of sympathy for white liberals and nothing else. This is the epoch of 30 second petitions and flashmobs for peace; donations to save the whales and ensure that black lives matter. One should not be mistaken and believe that this is sustainable. We should treat the question of non-profits the same as we do that of “revolutionary reforms”: In what ways can work within these organizations be revolutionary and in what other ways are they in fact the opposite? To answer these questions we must follow the money, this will be addressed in part 2