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From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

Faline Bobier

January 27, 2017

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a Black American activist and socialist who is currently an assistant professor in the department of African American Studies at Princeton University. An article she published after the mobilizations on January 21st – the 500,000 strong Women’s March on Washington and the solidarity marches that mobilized millions in other US cities and around the world, including marches in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and other Canadian cities – has been widely reproduced and circulated on the Internet and in left publications such as Jacobin and The Guardian.

In it she makes a cogent argument against those who criticized the marches and those who participated because they weren’t sufficiently “radical.” Hers is not an argument that denies that we need to move in a more radical or revolutionary direction, but that we need to understand how to go from “moment to movement”: 

“The United States has just experienced a corporate highjacking. If Trump's inaugural speech did not alert you to the fact that they intend to come after all of us then you are not paying attention. The scale of this attack is deep as it is wide and it means that we need a mass movement. In order to build and organize that movement necessarily means that it will involve the previously uninitiated, those who are new to activism and organizing. We have to welcome those people and stop with this arrogant and moralistic chastising of people who are apparently not nearly as “woke” as everyone else seems to be in the social media world. Yesterday's marches around this country were stunning, inspiring and the first of a million steps needed to build the resistance to Trump. The denunciations of the character of the marches are a sign of the persistence of political immaturity that continues to stunt the growth of the American left. Were liberals on the march? Yes! And thank god. Mass movements aren't homogeneous, they are heterogeneous. There is not a single radical or revolutionary on earth who did not begin their political journey holding liberal ideas. Liberals become radicals through their own frustrating experiences with the system but also through engagement with radicals. So when radicals and those who have already come to some conclusions about the shortcomings of the existing system mock, deride or just dismiss those who have not achieved your level of consciousness then you are helping no one. This isn't leadership, its infantile and amateurish. It's also a recipe for how to keep your movement irrelevant, marginal and tiny. If you want a movement of the politically pure and already committed then you and your twelve friends go right ahead and be the resistance to Trump. Should the marches have been more multiracial and working class? Yes! But you are not a serious organizer if that's where your answer ends. The issue for the left is how do we get from where we are today to where we want to be in terms of making our marches blacker, browner and more working class. That is truly the work, but simply complaining about it changes nothing. Yesterday was the beginning, not the end.”

Taylor’s book #From BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is also a story of going from moment to movement. It’s a book that demonstrates clearly the way that American capitalism and racism have gone hand in hand from the very beginning: “Capitalism used racism to justify plunder, conquest, and slavery, but as Karl Marx pointed out, it would also come to use racism to divide and rule—to pit one section of the working class against another and, in so doing, blunt the class consciousness of all. To claim, then, as Marxists do, that racism is a product of capitalism is not to deny or diminish its centrality to or impact on American society. It is simply to explain its origins and persistence. Nor is this reducing racism to just a function of capitalism; it is locating the dynamic relationship between class exploitation and racial oppression in the functioning of American capitalism.”

Taylor builds her book by examining the latest moment of Black fightback, organized around the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and galvanized by a string of murders of Black people at the hands of racist police forces across the US. Although she argues it’s impossible to predict when Black anger against the daily injustices of racism will break through, she lays the groundwork for the current moment of Black activism by looking at the aftermath of the civil rights movement and the way gains that were made during that period were pushed back under successive Republican and Democratic  administrations alike.

Civil rights and Black power

Taylor describes the 60s as a period of foment and rebellion which gave birth to the politics of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. The Panthers, although they were never a mass party in terms of membership, had a huge appeal because of their militant stance against police racism and violence against Blacks and because they situated the problems of poverty, bad housing, lack of access to resources for Blacks as a systemic problem, not one of “lazy” or “criminal” individuals.

As Taylor argues, “This logic underlined calls for what would become ‘affirmative action’ but also much broader demands for federal funding and the enforcement of new civil rights rules to open up the possibility for greater jobs, access to better housing, and improvement in Black schools.”  The civil rights and Black Power movements were dangerous to American capitalism not just because of the challenge they represented to white power and privilege, but because of the role they played in galvanizing and inspiring other movements for change:  “Not only was the Black movement a threat to the racial status quo but it also acted as a catalyst for many other mobilizations against oppression. From the antiwar movement to the struggle for women’s liberation, the Black movement was a conduit for questioning American democracy and capitalism.”

But the gains that were made through the struggles of the 60s could only endure as long as the movements in the streets endured. As economic crisis reappeared in the early 1970s the right and the establishment began to push back against some of the gains that were being made. By the end of the 70s the business class and the right were on the offensive and under the right wing government of Republican Ronald Reagan throughout the 1980s many of the gains of the civil rights movement, things like affirmative action and access to college education for minorities, were  eroded.

Taylor describes how the period of the 80s and 90s under Reagan and then Democratic President Bill Clinton saw a displacement from collective struggles against racism and an argument about the systemic nature of that racism to notions of living in a “postracial” society where supposedly the only thing holding Blacks back was their own ambition and willingness to work hard; at the same time, Reagan and Clinton pushed through vicious legislation, such as Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which “provided for 100,000 more police to be hired, expanded the death penalty by creating sixty new offenses for which a person could be executed, expanded construction of new prisons, created ‘three-strike’ provisions and ended inmate education.”  By the end of Clinton’s term Black incarceration rates had tripled. Although the US makes up only 5 per cent of the world’s population, it has the dubious distinction of making up 25 per cent of world’s prison population.

Evidence of this new postracial society was supposed to be proven by the existence of a Black middle class and the election of Black officials to run municipal governments in some major American cities. Coincidentally, this was also in the same period where American cities were being chronically underfunded, which meant that Black mayors would end up administering budget cuts, further impoverishing the lives of Black working class and poor citizens.

From Obama to BlackLivesMatter

Taylor describes the election of the first Black president in the US as something Blacks and other minorities looked to as a beacon of hope for real change. But after eight years in power those hopes were truly and soundly dashed, particularly as the murder of Black people at the hands of racist police continued unabated and largely ignored by Barack Obama: “The Black political establishment, led by President Barack Obama, had shown over and over again that it was not capable of the most basic task: keeping Black children alive. The young people would have to do it themselves.”

Taylor dedicates her book “to the parents, brothers, sisters, partners, and friends of those who have been killed by police and other forms of state-sanctioned violence and yet remain committed to the struggle for a just world.” Her book is a fitting tribute to these activists and her description of the Black Lives Matter movement highlights what is new about this young generation of anti-racist fighters: the fact that the leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement is “largely queer and female” and that it wants a movement that includes all members of the Black community. As one young activist, Charlene Carruthers, explains: “we are really serious about creating freedom and justice for all black people, but all too often black women and girls, black LGBTQ folks, are left on the sidelines. And if we’re going to be serious about liberation we have to include all black people.”

Taylor does point out some pitfalls for the movement, such as the tendency to adopt “the Occupy method of protest, which believes decentralized and ‘leaderless’ actions are more democratic…But at a time when many people are trying to find an entry point into anti-police activism and desire to be involved, this particular method of organizing can be difficult to penetrate. In some ways, this decentralized organizing can actually narrow opportunities for the democratic involvement of many in favor of the tightly knit workings of those already in the know.”

She also argues that “the long-term strength of the movement will depend on its ability to reach large numbers of people by connecting the issue of police violence to the other ways that Black people are oppressed.” So, she sees natural allies for Black Lives Matter activists in movements such as the Fight for $15 & Fairness, since a large percentage of low-income workers are Black and Latino—or the fight for educational justice in Black communities, such as the Chicago teachers’ strikes of recent years, which are about better wages and working conditions for teachers, but also about the quality of education for their students.

The final chapter in Taylor’s book puts forward a vision for the future and it’s certainly one we need, given the recent election of Trump and the way he has moved so quickly to attack on all fronts in the first few days of his presidency: immigrants, Indigenous people, women’s reproductive rights. Taylor argues that Black liberation cannot ultimately be achieved without challenging the system which structures and underpins all oppression and exploitation:

“The aspiration for Black liberation cannot be separated from what happens in the United States as a whole. Black life cannot be transformed while the rest of the country burns. The fires consuming the United States are stoked by the widespread alienation of low-wage and meaningless work, unaffordable rents, suffocating debt, and poverty. The essence of economic inequality is borne out in a simple fact: there are 400 billionaires in the United States and 45 million people living in poverty. These are not parallel facts; they are intersecting facts. There are 400 billionaires because there are 45 million people living in poverty. Profit comes at the expense of the living wage. The struggle for Black liberation, then, is not an abstract idea molded in isolation from the wider phenomenon of economic exploitation and inequality that pervades all of American society; it is intimately bound up with them…While it is true that when Black people get free, everyone gets free, Black people in America cannot ‘get free’ alone. In that sense, Black liberation is bound up with the project of human liberation and social transformation.”

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