5 Ways To Build a Movement after Ferguson
The following is one in a series of posts dealing with the wave of protest sweeping the United States following the police murder of Mike Brown and Eric Garner re-posted with permission from Unity and Struggle.
1. Work to abolish police and prisons, not to reform them. President Obama has passed legislation to put body cameras on police officers, but this won’t stop the cops from killing black folks. Eric Garner’s murder was caught on camera like many others, and it didn’t save his life. Even worse, this reform can be used against the people it’s supposed to protect: a recent study showed body cameras help police far more often than their victims.
The police and the prison system can’t be reformed, because their basic role is to maintain a racist, unjust, unequal capitalist society–and this requires violence. As Kristian Williams documented in Our Enemies in Blue, police forces developed in the U.S. to capture runaway slaves, crush strikes, and prevent hungry mobs from taking what they needed to live. The system isn’t “broken” when it kills someone like Mike Brown, it’s working just as intended.
Instead of chasing reforms, we should work to abolish police and prisons. It won’t happen all at once, but we can guide our efforts with the catchphrase: disempower, disarm, and disband. We can disempower the police on the streets, by building neighborhood groups that respond to police abuse, and deter them from terrorizing us. We can demand the police be disarmed, taking away their military gear and firearms. And we can work to disband police units one-by-one, starting with the most vicious.
2. Build democratic groups, where we create our own leaders. The old Civil Rights-era leaders are falling back. Jesse Jackson was booed off stage in Ferguson in August, when he tried to pass a collection plate. Al Sharpton was booed when he told everyone to vote for the Democrats. The change is long overdue: these leadersgained prominence only when the movement of the 1970s was defeated, by substituting their own interests for those they claimed to represent, and have stayed in the spotlight ever since.
Now we have the opportunity to build directly democratic groups, events and activities, in which poor and working class people can lead collectively. Yes, the movement needs leaders. But real leaders don’t exist just to stay in power, or make themselves famous. Instead they help the movement develop, and help new leaders to emerge to grapple with new problems. We need leaders from our own neighborhoods and workplaces, who fight in the streets with us, and who make themselves unnecessary over time.
3. Judge people by what they propose and do, not by their identity or rhetoric.This movement is about fighting against the oppression of black people. But at the same time this movement holds promise for everyone: smashing racism and the police will help all poor and working class people, and enrich our common humanity. The movement should welcome everyone who’s really about these goals on as equal footing as possible.
Not everyone thinks this way. With good intentions, many people use “ally” or “privilege” politics to try to correct the inequalities of capitalism and racism within the movement. But most of the time, this just causes those not at the center of these struggles (often, white people) to get involved out of guilt or self-gratification. People constantly think about their own identity and how we can’t work together, instead of seeking out how how we can work together, and what we need to do to win. Instead of uniting us through smashing capitalism and racism, these methods actually reduce us to what we are under these systems. As recent zines and blog posts have argued, this keeps us neurotic, divided, and separated.
Even worse, conservative and middle-class mis-leaders use this guilt to draw lines according to identity, and divide those of us who are fighting in the streets. Guilty, confused “allies” don’t know whether to support the radical black rebellion, or the mis-leaders working to stifle grassroots militancy and shut down debate. When we decide if someone is right based on identity alone, we keep the movement from growing through experience and debate. Instead of judging people this way, we should weigh if their proposals and actions actually contribute to liberating poor and working class black people — and therefore liberating us all.
4. Up-shift from disruptive protests to collective care and power. Taking streets and freeways has provided a huge leap forward for the movement, but all tactics have limits. If we stop building our capacity to fight and sustain ourselves, then even freeway occupations could become a kind of militant reformism, simply causing disruption to get the attention of those ruling over us. To keep building the movement’s strength, we need new ways to assert our collective power, and to take control of more and different spaces, for our own good.
One small step is to support one another when we fight back. Some people weaken and endanger the movement by stopping protesters from confronting cops, damaging property, de-arresting their friends, or moving objects into the street. But the system is violent toward us every day, by definition. Calls for “nonviolence” and “peaceful protest” only perpetuate this condition, by insisting the capitalist state alone can use force–on us. Instead of policing one another, we need to have each other’s back.
We also need to hit back against capitalism and the state, and seize the means to sustain our lives and resistance. Encampments around the world, from Tahrir Square to Occupy Oakland, did this in miniature. Now we have to start thinking and acting bigger. To overcome the police, white supremacy and capitalism, we will have to occupy state offices, city halls, and police stations; take over our schools, workplaces and transit systems; and provide education, health care, transport, goods and services to our communities for free. We can start by building groups with others who’ve been protesting, and with people where we work, learn and live.
5. Deepen our knowledge of race, capitalism and revolution. If police murders aren’t caused by a few “bad apples” or a “broken” system, but are instead the logical result of the system itself, then we need to understand how this system works. The experiences of black people, women and queers, and the working class as a whole, are all fundamentally shaped by capitalism and the state. To learn how this world works, we can explore the ideas of Marx, and many others in the history of revolutions. To learn how to transform it, we can look to communists who opposed authoritarianism and the state, and many other great revolutionaries, while drawing on the history of world revolution.
Past revolutions can show us the general features of how capitalism might be overthrown. Russia 1917, Spain 1936, the high points of the anti-colonial revolutions, and more recently Egypt in 2011, offer lessons good and bad. We know that forms of counter-power tend to emerge, first as small seeds, and then on large scales in moments of crisis. We know internal divisions among the oppressed become barriers to the continued growth of movements, and must be overcome. We know movements can generate new would-be ruling groups, who try to stop the revolution and consolidate class power. We know new forms of social life and creativity tend to emerge in the heat of struggle.
We can draw general lessons like these from past revolutions, but each one is different. What will ours be like?