Living Black

Martin Luther King Jr. March in Oakland. c. 2015 Daniel Arauz

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Raimagine!

The BLM Effect: Hashtags, History and Race

Janelle Monae and members of Wonderland at SF rally for victims of police violence.  © 2016 Eric K. Arnold

By Eric K. Arnold

Four days after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, legendary hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest appeared on Saturday Night Live (SNL). Emcee Q-Tip announced, “Everybody stand up, one fist up in the air!” and proceeded to perform “We The People,” the most overtly-political song of their 26-year career. Tip peeled off some incendiary lines which referenced police brutality—“You be killing off good young brothers.” The song’s chorus took a direct stab at the bigotry aroused during the long Presidential campaign: “All you Black folks, you must go/ All you Mexicans, you must go.”

Post-election, even as much of America doubled down on bigotry or despair, Kamala Harris, California’s newly-elected Senator, offered her own message to immigrant families and communities of color (via her Facebook page): “We are going to come together and build a movement of people who will fight back against hate, xenophobia, racism and sexism.”

These are two of the most powerful recent examples to date of the “BLM Effect”—a willingness for Black people to use whatever platform they have—be it social media, political protests or SNL’s stage—to directly address issues of race and inequality. From everyday people swarming to the site of the latest incident of police murder, to Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem, the BLM effect is empowering a new generation to challenge the racist practices and institutions.

Birth of a Movement
On July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman was found not guilty by a Florida jury of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The night of the verdict, Oakland prepared for the worst. Several downtown businesses boarded up their windows in anticipation of property damage—a reasonable assumption, given that protest marches had been frequent occurrences since the murder of Oscar Grant III by a BART policeman on New Year’s Day 2009. Many Oakland residents were pained by another failure of the courts to administer justice, yet tired of hearing police helicopters circling over downtown. As darkness fell, hundreds of protestors took to the streets. Once again, trashcans were set ablaze, anarchist graffiti was sprayed and store windows were broken.

Alicia Garza, a community organizer with the National Alliance of Domestic Workers, watched the verdict on TV from a local bar. Logging into Facebook, she wrote a long post which ended with, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” Garza’s friend, prison-reform activist Patrisse Cullors, commented “#blacklivesmatter” on Garza’s post. Cullors started tagging friends’ Facebook walls with the hashtag; others did the same, and it quickly went viral.

The next day, Solespace, a downtown art gallery, offered a safe place for traumatized people to express themselves constructively, by making art. Garza spent her afternoon writing the slogan on sheets of colored paper over and over again. Afterwards, Garza, Cullors and another activist-organizer friend, Opal Tometi, announced through social media they had decided to form a new organizing project, called Black Lives Matter (BLM).

More than three years later, BLM has grown from a hashtag into a full-fledged, yet oft-misconstrued, movement. In August of 2014, following the murder by police of Mike Brown, Black Lives Matter organizers put together a bus tour to bring 600 Black community activists to assist with on-the-ground efforts in Ferguson and St. Louis. Their direct solidarity with Ferguson networks of young African Americans brought BLM into national prominence. The movement gained further momentum in 2015, when the first-ever National Convening of the Movement for Black Lives in Cleveland was attended by more than 2,000 “freedom fighters.”

Journalist Jamilah King, then a staff writer for Colorlines, covered BLM extensively during its early days. Her reportage helped demystify a movement which seemed to come out of nowhere and identified BLM’s cofounders as three Black women who were grounded in progressive social justice circles. In a 2014 Colorlines article written by King, Garza explained how the movement’s focus extended beyond the outcome of one legal case, toward a larger vision of making Black lives matter through effecting transformative change: “What’s going to make those lives matter is working hard for an end to state violence in Black communities, knowing that that’s going to benefit all communities.”

BLM has been at the forefront of what’s frequently been called a new Civil Rights movement, infusing fresh urgency into discussions around race in America. In 2015, BLM was a runner-up for Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” award, and Garza has gone on to give TED talks. The social media hashtag has become a global network with more than 40 BLM chapters worldwide. BLM is one of 28 organizations in the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) coalition of 28 affiliated organizations, which has issued a platform for Black liberation, and numerous policy briefs outlining necessary steps in that direction. Endorsers of M4BL include Color of Change, Race Forward, Brooklyn Movement Center, PolicyLink, Million Women March Cleveland, ONE DC and dozens of other organizations.

Shifting Pop Culture Toward Consciousness
“Black Lives Matter is arguably a more powerful cultural movement than it is a political one,” suggests King. “I say that because you have these moments in pop culture [where] we’ve seen the biggest shift: Kendrick Lamar at the Grammys, Solange [Knowles] releasing her album.... Those are really incredible moments [that] people are talking about.”

Nowadays, King says, “you can’t not talk about race publicly on a huge platform.” In 2015, singer Janelle Monae’s BLM-inspired song, “Hell You Talmbout” recalled the social protest anthems of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; Monae followed up by joining with local community organizers against police violence during every stop on her national tour. The awakening of R&B singers extended to J. Cole and D’Angelo, while dozens of politically-conscious underground rappers—from St. Louis’ Tef Poe to Chicago’s Lil Herb to Pittsburgh’s Jasiri X to Oakland’s Kev Choice—also felt inspired to make protest songs. In the BLM era, attempts at colorblindness by Black celebrities like Stacy Dash and Lil’ Wayne have been met with furious clap-backs from their peers and social media commentators alike.

We’ve even witnessed an emergent social and political consciousness coming from star athletes—whose voices have been mostly silent since the late ‘60s—symbolized by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem. Kaepernick subsequently held a youth camp in Oakland called “Know Your Rights” which outlined a racial-justice platform.

In an ESPN interview, Kaepernick related that “[The] spreading of knowledge is happening... you start to break down ignorance, you start to break down some of those prejudices.”

Local Organizing, National Networking
BLM has also impacted conversations within activist circles, King says, adding, “The effect has been cultural and political, and that cultural element has given people a way to talk about race.” Well-intentioned POC [people of color] groups have attempted to insert their own ethnicities into the “___ Lives Matter” slogan, only to be met with swift rebukes.Harsher criticisms have been directed at onerous attempts to redirect BLM’s message, e.g., “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter.”

The movement’s biggest single political action to date may have been the decision, as an organization, not to endorse a candidate in the 2016 presidential election. Yet BLM’s most impressive accomplishment has been the networking, coalition-building and on-the-ground organizing work it’s done to assemble its social justice troops into formation for what’s to come under a Trump presidency.

In the Bay Area, BLM helped organize direct actions like a shutdown of BART on Black Friday and protests held at the Oakland Police Department’s headquarters, but it’s also hosted candidate forums in heavily African American City Council districts. It’s helped to bring police reform efforts into mainstream awareness, resulting in increased political pressure. BLM members were active in the “Frisco 5” protests which directly led to the forced resignation of San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr; a Department of Justice report on the SFPD subsequently found “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups,” and made 272 specific recommendations for reform.

BLM’s national actions include lending organizational assistance to direct-action efforts in cities across America; disruption of the Republican National Convention and presidential debates; and most recently, on the ground mobilizing around the efforts to stop a proposed pipeline threatening a Sioux reservation in Standing Rock, North Dakota. Many BLM members are veteran community organizers who have long been involved in issues, such as immigration rights, affordable housing, police accountability, prison reform, medical cannabis, economic equity, media justice, gender identity and other interconnected issues which all relate to the Black experience in America.

BLM has garnered praise from Barack Obama—even though Garza criticized his State of the Union Address—yet it’s also been the target of considerable backlash. Right-wing pundits have labeled it a terrorist organization. Others have taken issue with its queer-friendly focus—Garza’s husband is transgender, and BLM has been outspoken about violence against the Black queer community. BLM’s critics have included both expected sources like Fox News and Breitbart flacks, and the unexpected: NAACP leaders complaining about direct action tactics; and former Black Panther Chairperson Elaine Brown, who accused BLM of having a “plantation mentality.”

BLM takes a strategic approach regarding disinformation, says Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, and a member of BLM’s communications team. As Cyril explains, “We know disorganized truth can be overcome by a well-organized lie. Sometimes, we simply don’t respond, to not give the lies credibility. Sometimes, we put out press releases and statements to correct inaccuracies. But mostly, we try to build a powerful counter-narrative. We communicate, strategically, as part of a larger strategy for change. But we are up against a powerful disinformation campaign driven by historic national commitment to white supremacy, so we take it one day at a time.”

Selassie Blackwell, one of the “Frisco 5” hunger-strikers. © 2016 Eric K. ArnoldPanther Parallels, People Power
Numerous points of connection between BLM and the Black Panthers suggest a historical continuum is at play. It’s no coincidence that both the Panthers and BLM originated in Oakland, or that the Panthers’ Ten-Point Program demanded freedom, full education, a jail moratorium, and an end to police brutality, while the M4BL’s platform states, “We demand an end to the criminalization, incarceration, and killing of our people.” Such apparent similarities explain why many see BLM’s emergence as part of the Panther legacy. Conversely, BLM’s existence has affirmed the continued relevance of the Panthers.

“People are feeling the conversation about race and justice, not only in the presidential election, but also in the era of Black Lives Matter,” says Rene de Guzman, curator of a recent Oakland Museum of California exhibit. “All Power to the People: The Black Panthers at 50.” In addition to archival material, and recent photographs of more than 100 rank-and-file former Panthers, the exhibit featured a video installation of BLM activist Cat Brooks speaking, driving the point home about the BLM/BPP connection.

The Panthers’ legacy, Cyril says, is “one of brilliant Black militancy and also deep fracture and suffering. As a Panther Cub, I’ve been shaped by both. Today, as a member of the Black Lives Matter Network specifically and the Movement for Black Lives in general, I see tons of similarities between the two organizations—and some important differences.”

According to Cyril, “Both organizations were birthed by organic intellectuals whose love for Black people and all oppressed people is unwavering. Both organizations seek alliances across the lines of difference and make every attempt to embrace and engage all Black people, but especially those pushed to the margins of society. Both organizations have an internationalist approach, both (in different ways) value and uphold the leadership of women, and both have made a unique commitment to rejecting homophobia as a principle and a practice. Both have a critical and clear commitment to the concept of Black Power, as articulated by Kwame Ture [aka Stokely Carmichael]. Also, both were/are under attack by the FBI and local police and under constant and illegal surveillance for democratically-protected activities.”

Cyril is careful to note that “these organizations... didn’t emerge in the same political context and shouldn’t be expected to mirror each other. The Black Panther Party emerged after several decades of decolonization movements in the global South, including the independence of Cuba. BLM emerged after three decades of neoliberal attack on the Black communities of the US, specifically decimating national and global movements, a massive expansion of the prison system, and a systematic destruction of public education.”

Hodari Davis, organizer of Oakland’s annual Life Is Living festival—held in DeFremery Park, a former Panther stronghold in West Oakland—points out that “the Panthers didn’t have hashtags. They didn’t have social media. They weren’t able to Tweet their story.” Still, he says, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” reminds him of Panther slogans like “Black is Beautiful,” which he says had a “profound” impact on him as a child.

For Cyril, some of the takeaways from the Panther experience reflect a more evolved view of social equality and civil rights: “The lessons we must learn are how to not allow patriarchy, heterosexism and internalized racism to become the fracture points that open the door to FBI surveillance and COINTELPRO-style activities. These weaken movements and threaten them as well.”

The specter of state-sponsored repression has indeed loomed large over every would-be revolutionary uprising since the Panther days. The tools of oppression, however, have only gotten more sophisticated over the decades; the fire hoses of Bull Connor’s time have been updated by mobile sonic disruptors and portable cellphone signal-collecting devices.

Different Day, Same Movement
Ultimately, both BLM and the Panthers are part “of one movement: the movement for Black liberation,” Cyril says. “It’s a continuation of the resistance that Black people have been engaged in since the first slave revolt,” adds Brooks.

Similarly, Brooks says, “Direct action is not new to this moment in time. The Freedom Rides were a form of direct action. The lunch counter sit-ins were a form of direct action. The Montgomery bus boycott was direct action. All of those things interrupted business as usual.... You can’t uphold those [actions] and then call those of us who shut down freeways or BART trains or presidential debates troublemakers.”

While BLM is “not your grandfather’s Civil Rights Movement,” Brooks says, the economic reality for Black people in America means the movement must revisit what the Panthers called “survival programs.” Some communities of color, she explains, don’t engage in political activism because of pressing economic hardships, like paying electricity bills, or grappling with rising rents and eviction notices. That’s why, Brooks maintains there’s also a need “to be articulating and advocating for policies that make it less oppressive to live in this country.”

BLM may be many things to many people, but one thing it has consistently been is a wake-up call. Most people are unaware, as Davis points out, that the Panthers’ membership was two-thirds female. When museums curate exhibits on BLM five decades from now, there should be no denying that Black women and queer folks were at the forefront of the movement. As King notes, that would be a key pivot from the downplaying of queer Civil Rights-era figures like Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker, who are rarely mentioned in the same breath as Dr. King and Malcolm X.

Eric K. Arnold is a contributing editor to Race, Poverty & the Environment and the founder of oakulture.com.

Endnotes

1.           http://au.complex.com/music/2016/11/tribe-called-quest-saturday-night-live-performance
2.            http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/13/justice/zimmerman-trial/
3.            http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2015/07/thousands_of_freedom_fighters.html
4.           http://www.colorlines.com/articles/facing-race-spotlight-organizer-alicia-garza-why-black-lives-matter
5.           http://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-2015-runner-up-black-lives-matter/
6.           http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/how-blacklivesmatter-changed-hip-hop-and-r-b-in-2015-20151216
7.           http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music/t-blasts-lil-wayne-black-lives-matter-comments-article-1.2861145
8.           http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/17918655/san-francisco-49ers-qb-colin-kaepernick-hosts-know-your-rights-camp-oakland-area-youth
9.           http://www.oaklandrising.org/es/blog/black-lives-matter-election-town-hall-and-candidate-forum
10.           https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/justice-department-report-blasts-san-francisco-police/2016/10/12/becb841c-90a2-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html
11.           http://time.com/4179702/black-lives-matter-obama/
12.           http://www.eastbaytimes.com/2015/07/07/black-lives-matter-leader-cat-brooks-playing-the-role-of-her-life/
13.           http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/black-lives-matter-has-a-plantation-mentality-elaine-brown-black-panthers/18888#.WAqKD2Wt59I
14.           https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten-Point_Program
15.           https://policy.m4bl.org/end-war-on-black-people/

 

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From everyday people swarming to the site of the latest incident of police murder, to Colin Kaepernick’s protest during the national anthem, the BLM effect is empowering a new generation to challenge the racist practices and institutions.

Movement in Motion

Cat Brooks leads a press conference at Oakland Police Department headquarters.  © 2016 Eric K. Arnold

Interview with Cat Brooks by Eric K. Arnold

If you live in the Bay Area, it’s practically impossible to ignore Cat Brooks. She’s seemingly everywhere; on any given week, you might find her leading women’s marches against state-sponsored violence, holding press conferences at police headquarters for the Anti Police Terror Project (APTP), co-hosting KPFA-FM public affairs show “UpFront,” writing op/eds on how to correctly protest for the East Bay Express, speaking about the Black Panthers in a video installation at the Oakland Museum of California, pushing back against Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf on Facebook, or starring in a Lower Bottom Playaz stage production at theater venue The Flight Deck. And you thought your life was busy.

Brooks, whose background is as an attorney and actor, first came to prominence as a community activist as a member of the Onyx Organizing Committee (OOC), whose blog describes it as “an Afrikan liberation organization dedicated to the empowerment of all people of color.” OCC was active in the struggle against police violence in the years following the murder of Oscar Grant. During Occupy Oakland, the group maintained a POC presence at demonstrations, and occasionally clashed with would-be allies like the Revolutionary Communist Party over tactics —OCC spoke out against the destruction of small businesses and low-income communities of color, arguing that such actions would be more appropriate in affluent neighborhoods which lack diverse populations. OOC is currently on hiatus, but the same cannot be said of Brooks, who is highly active in both Black Lives Matter Bay Area and APTP. Recently, Reimagine! RPE caught up with Brooks. Here’s what she had to say.

Eric Arnold: Now, you’ve stated in past interviews that the murder of Oscar Grant was a catalyzing moment for you. Since then, we’ve seen similar scenes of police murder and violence against Black Americans caught on video all across the country. What needs to happen for this to change?

Cat Brooks: The first thing that we have to all come to a consensus on is that policing can’t be reformed, and it can’t be fixed. It can’t be fixed or reformed because it’s not broken. It’s not like policing was going along working well for Black, and Brown, and poor people in this country and then something went awfully awry and now we have to get back on track. Most people know that policing in this country was born out of the slave trade, the slave-catchers in particular, whose job then was to hunt, catch, kill, and/or incarcerate Black people. And that’s what it’s continuing to do. This particular moment in time affords us an opportunity to have some bold, and what some would consider crazy, conversations. And what I mean by that is: admitting that policing (and prisons for that matter) don’t work for anybody—Black, Brown, white or otherwise. White supremacy has done 600 years of damage. We’re hurt people. We need something as we try to unpack and heal from the last 600 years, but punitive and militarized policing and prisons is not the answer. So that needs to be the long game.

In the short term, we do believe that radical reforms need to take place in the meantime. This is the system we have now, so how do we create the conditions that stem the tide of Black and Brown bodies that are falling all over the streets of America at the hands of law enforcement? Radical reform looks like arresting, convicting and jailing police officers who murder unarmed citizens. It looks like leave without pay. It does look like body cameras but not in the sense that body cameras are the answer, right. And we have to really talk about what regulations around body cameras and consequences for not turning on cameras and where that footage goes, and all of those things. It looks like police commissions that are community-controlled, and by that I do not mean what is happening in Oakland. I want to be really clear about that. I mean what the Panthers were calling for 50 years ago and what we need to continue to call for today, which is community control of the police with the ability to hire, fire and discipline.

Arnold: Why, in your view, is it so difficult for police to comply with accountability regarding misconduct?

Brooks: I don’t think anybody is really seriously holding them accountable. I think that we’re getting paid a lot of lip service. The police in and of themselves aren’t the problem. So we should start there. Law enforcement, police departments across the country in and of themselves are not the problem. They are the frontline troops that enforce the mandate of the larger political. There are systems and institutions of white supremacy that impact who lives where, who gets what education, who has access to what jobs, who gets pushed out when, who gets incarcerated, etc., [and] the police are mandated by other people to utilize force.... Nobody’s having a serious conversation about dismantling systems of white supremacy and inequitable opportunity in this country; nobody’s serious about holding police officers accountable and they know that. The policing can’t be fixed, because it’s not broken, and tinkering around the edges of it are never going to get us the results that people are looking for. It’s only the kinds of courageous conversations that will actually start to push the needle towards really looking at what policing is and has always been in this country. Why, in a country that believes in democracy and equitable opportunity for everybody and, you know, land of the free and home of the brave, that model does not work along with those messages. They’re not conducive to each other.

Arnold: You’re a member of both the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) and Black Lives Matter (BLM). What’s the difference between the two organizations, and how do their platforms intersect?

Brooks: The first difference is that, while APTP is definitely concerned with Black liberation as a whole and engages on a variety of issues in solidarity, we have decided that our primary focus is to deal with base; engage and combat what we feel is the immediate threat to the physical safety of Black and Brown people in this country. The other difference is that, while we are Black-led, we are not an all-Black organization. We work across race and nationality. [An]other difference is that we’ve got a much more structured leadership formation than BLM. And I’m saying all this with no judgment.

Arnold: What do you make of the comparisons between the Black Panther Party and BLM, and what lessons can we learn from the Panther struggle?

Brooks: I don’t compare Black Lives Matter, as an organization, and the Black Panther Party, as an organization. They are completely separate organizations that exist in two different time frames and two very separate conditions that dictate the type of organizing that needs to happen. What I think we can compare is the Movement for Black Lives right now and the movement for Black liberation that was happening then.... One of the things that I hear people say [is], this isn’t your grandfather’s civil rights or your grandparents’ civil rights movement. You’re right. Ain’t nobody being lynched. Ain’t nobody being drug out of their house by the Klan. Ain’t nobody being set on fire on buses. Ain’t nobody being bitten by dogs, turned on by fire hoses. That said, the levels of surveillance that we’re under are so much more intense, and the complexity of the beast that we’re fighting is so much more intense and violent that it’s caused folks to really think through how, when, where they engage. The other lesson that we need to be pulling from the Panther Party that nobody is doing a very good job at—and actually APTP is in the process of pivoting our work to focus more on that—[is] the survival program. We’re really rooted in the theory that if someone is worried about their life, or they’re worried about feeding their kids, or they’re hungry, that there’s not a lot of room to think about liberation. We need to get back to the basics. In Oakland, we need to be east of 73rd [in the Acorn], organizing those folks, meeting their needs, lessening the boot of oppression on their neck a little bit so they can move around some and think about liberation, and deliver them the tools and the skill sets that some of us have been privileged enough to [bring] into those communities, so that they can rise up and they can lead the next steps of the revolution.

Arnold: You’re also known for your confrontational tactics. Why is confrontation and direct action necessary?

Brooks: Interrupting business as usual is normal because what we’ve learned, as can be seen in the 50-year drought of having conversation about racial equity in this country, unless Black and Brown folk are taking it and shoving it in the face of the establishment and in the faces of mainstream America, nobody’s going to talk about it. It isn’t until we interrupt your daily flow, until we interrupt your commerce, until we make you as close to uncomfortable as we can, to understand what it feels like to be Black or Brown in this country, that anybody’s ever willing to have a conversation.

Arnold: NAACP leaders have called actions like the BART shutdown “counterproductive.” Assuming you disagree with that statement, why is that not the case?

Brooks: You know, it’s unfortunate to me to see the way that some of our more established civil rights organizations in this country have responded to the current moment. Again, these are tactics that they were engaged in when they were younger and more active.

Arnold: You called out Barbara Lee on her support of Libby Schaaf.

Brooks: I called her out specifically around a grant that is coming to Oakland to put 15 “community-oriented police” on the streets of Oakland, and she’s saying that she’s doing it in the name of improving relationships between community and police, in the name of stemming the tide of violence that Black communities are facing at the hands of law enforcement. So how do you use a quote from a mayor who, in the face of an international movement—screaming about police violence—spends her entire first day unapologetically with one of the most corrupt and bloody police departments in the country? Who [stands] by their side as they murdered seven Black men in 2015, one of whom was asleep in his car?

Arnold: Where BLM is concerned, how important is it to have a national platform to address the same issues we’ve been dealing with in Oakland since the Panther era?

Brooks: Movement for Black Lives put out the platform, which is a coalition of a bunch of groups. I personally believe that we’ve got to be moving simultaneous paths. What I was talking about earlier in terms of specific police reform—we’re really talking about liberation for Black people in this country. We have to both be divesting from the system and investing in our own communities, and, by that, I mean trading models by which we can rely on the state less and less and empower the people that take care of our own business because the truth is that America is never going to treat us like full human beings. In the meantime, we do need to be articulating and fighting for policies that make it less oppressive for us to live in this country. I believe it’s a policy platform providing opportunity for folks who may not want to engage in direct action with some of the other tactics that we’ve been using to still fight for liberatory conditions in this country.

 Oree Original’s “justice for...” portraits decorate the window of Oakland’s Solespace. © 2016 Eric K. ArnoldArnold: What inspired you about the BLM organization or the Movement for Black Lives?

Brooks: I was inspired by what the organization ignited in the hearts and minds of thousands of Black people across the country and the world. I’m inspired by the numbers of people willing to put their bodies, and their freedom, and their money on the line in the name of Black liberation. I’m inspired by the unapologetic love that people that are working The Movement for Black Lives have today. For BLM, specifically... they bravely and boldly came out and said we’re talking about all Black lives, including our queer and trans brothers and sisters. I thought that was a critical pivot from where we had been previously to where we need to move towards.... [I’m also ] inspired by the unapologetic support of and upliftment of Black women as leaders in this movement. That’s also particularly unique to BLM.

Arnold: What do you say to people who say BLM and APTP should address Black on Black violence?

Brooks: As far as BLM is concerned, and the platform makes it evident, BLM is not just concerned about police violence. BLM is concerned about all of the ways in which the war is being waged on Black lives. If you look at the membership, or the affiliates or the allies that are working in concert underneath that banner, you’ll see that reflected in the work that’s happening across the country. Similarly, APTP is part of the Black Power Network. The Black Power Network is a coalition of Black organizations that are working for Black liberation on all fronts. We work in three areas in particular: reform, reactive and revolutionary. Reform is a policy arena. Reactive is definitely when we’re out in the streets, but that has not just been around policing [but] also around housing, gentrification and other stuff. Revolutionary is the longer term work that we’re doing in creating models for disengagement from the system that we currently have and investing, demonstrating for the people, and empowering the people with alternate models that don’t rely on the state as much.

Black on Black crime. Our value system is that all violence is state violence, and we have reacted repeatedly to inner communal violence locally here in Oakland and there are other groups that are doing it across the state, with the narrative, the understanding, the analysis that it’s the conditions of white supremacy [which] creates and perpetuates inner communal violence. I won’t even call it Black on Black crime. We hurt the people we live closest to, and no matter what lies America tells the rest of the country about the fact that we live in a desegregated society, America is incredibly segregated. So we harm those we live closest to. White people kill mostly white people. Latino people kill mostly Latino people. Black people kill mostly Black people.

Arnold: Any thoughts on the attempted coopting of the BLM hashtag, such as “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter?”

Brooks: Yes, all lives do matter. [But] it should say something about the levels of anti-Blackness and the ways in which white America, and others, see Black... the assertion of the importance of Black lives as such a threat and the unwillingness to really examine anti-Blackness in this country and the way it plays out for Black people in particular, that we would have to have that kind of response. The truth is that’s the courts, the powers that be, the police, the school systems, our local elected officials, [who] aren’t clear that Black lives matter too. If they were, Black people would not be subjected to the conditions that they’re subjected to. So we’re going to focus on Black life right now, and what we promise y’all is that your liberation is intertwined with ours.

Arnold: Any final thoughts?

Brooks: I do know that movements ebb and flow and that we’re flowing right now. This is not a new movement. It’s a continuation of the resistance that Black people have been engaged in since the first wave of revolt. That said, what we do know is that at some point the state is going to react in a violent, harsh, dramatic manner and that will let us know what happens next.

Eric K. Arnold is a contributing editor to Race, Poverty & the Environment and the founder of oakulture.com.

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Raimagine!

Black Lives Matter: Opening a Second Front

BLM Member Chaney Turner © 2016 Eric K. ArnoldBy J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

The time has come—where it’s not happening already—to open up a “Second Front” in the direct action campaign to save and preserve Black lives in cities like Oakland, California.

The term “Black Lives Matter” was coined in the immediate aftermath of the July, 2013 acquittal of civilian George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting death of Black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. But even before the term was created, the movement that would later be identified with it had already opened up its “First Front” following the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer at a BART station in East Oakland. The name “Black Lives Matter” now refers—sometimes interchangeably—both to the chapter organizations set up by the three women who coined the phrase as well as to the larger movement of organizations and individuals who rally under its banner. In this article, I use the term to refer to that larger movement and not necessarily the chapter organization.

While there has been a large turnover in the leadership and membership in this ‘larger movment’ BLM in Oakland since the days of the Oscar Grant protest, the tactics have remained generally similar. Each time a police officer shoots and kills a Black person in Oakland (and often when the killing occurs elsewhere in the country), a rally is organized in some central location in Oakland—usually in the plaza in front of City Hall—with a march following, which often ends with an action of civil disobedience somewhere within the streets or public spaces of Oakland or on the freeways traversing the city.

And while there have been variations in the tactics used during these marches and demonstrations over the years since Oscar Grant’s death, the geographical location of the battleground has largely remained the same: within the confines of the city of Oakland. These rolling rounds of demonstrations have come at a large cost of tax money, business revenue, and Oakland’s city image, and there is ample evidence that they have have forced some positive changes in the attitude of Oakland’s police leadership towards Oakland’s Black population and city leaders’ attitude towards its police problems.

Better or Worse?
In the fall of 2015, for example the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “Despite several recent officer-involved shootings, a Chronicle analysis of Oakland Police Department [OPD] data shows [use-of-force] incidents are becoming less common. Officer-involved shootings, excessive force complaints and incidents in which officers used force have all declined precipitously over the past three years in Oakland.” 1

More recently, in the November 2016 election, a city council-sponsored ballot measure for a Community Police Review Agency to oversee some of the actions of the Oakland police was passed by the voters. And while some advocates for strong citizen police oversight argued that the review panel could have and should have been stronger, the Mercury News quotes Tom Nolan, a retired Boston police lieutenant and criminology professor at Merrimack College, as saying that “This could arguably be the strongest police oversight board in the country, what many hope would be a national model.”

But while there have been positive steps in the past few years, there is also evidence that Oakland police actions towards Black Oakland residents have gone in the opposite direction during the same period.

That downturn in OPD use-of-force reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, looks not quite as good on closer inspection as it does on the surface. In the same article, the Chronicle reproduced a chart based on police sources that showed no suspect shootings whatsoever by Oakland police in 2014. That might be cause for celebration, except for the fact that the number of police-involved shootings immediately rose to six the next year, roughly the same average number as in the five years prior to 2014.

In a Democracy Now! June 2016 interview, Cat Brooks of the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project2 (APTP)—one of the organizations most active in the Black Lives Matter protests in Oakland—charged that the six men shot and killed by Oakland police in 2015 were murdered.3 Brooks also included a seventh man in the “murdered by police” statistic: an African-American named Richard Linyard who, according to Indybay online newspaper, “police claim suffocated to death after he squeezed himself between two buildings during a police chase.”4

And earlier this summer, Stanford University released the results of a two-year study of traffic and pedestrian stops of citizens by Oakland police that found “significant differences in... police conduct toward African Americans.”5

“Among the findings,” the study concluded, was that “African American men were four times more likely to be searched than whites during a traffic stop [in Oakland]. African Americans were also more likely to be handcuffed, even if they ultimately were not arrested.”

The directly contradictory nature of the above statistics and charges raises the difficult questions: have the marches and demonstrations under the general Black Lives Matter movement banner improved the police situation for Black Folk in Oakland, have things gotten worse since the demonstrations started seven and a half years ago, or have things remained much the same? They appear to have done both, depending upon which are of concern you’re talking about, and some of the reasons for that mixed outcome goes directly to who is targeted by those demonstrations, the location in which most of these demonstrations take place, and who is most affected by demonstrations in those locations.

Second Front
One approach to understanding what’s changed and what hasn’t is to revisit the role of the targets of the street demonstrations. Who is targeted by these demonstrations? And given the location in which most of these demonstrations take place, who is most affected by them?

Strangely, the group that rarely receives direct pressure—and the emphasis is on the “direct”—are the rank-and-file Oakland patrol officers themselves and their immediate supervisors. While individual officers are often named in the protests—officers, for example, who may have shot and killed an African American or Latino in Oakland—the protesters rarely demand anything from these individual officers themselves or their fellow officers or supervisors. Instead, the demand is almost always for the district attorney to prosecute offending officers, for the chief to discipline them, for the mayor to fire the chief, if the chief doesn’t do enough disciplining, and, most importantly, to direct the officers under his or her command to change the ways they deal with African American and Latino residents in Oakland.

The problem with the last demand is that while police administrators have some control over the actions of the officers under their command, many of their officers’ activities— particularly the ones of interest to the demonstrators—are left to the discretion of the officers themselves. Whether an officer should intervene with a stop-and-search or with the more serious use of force is highly subjective. Police departments put out general directives and parameters for actions and reactions police officers can and must take in different situations, but leave it to the officers to decide—often in a matter of seconds—what actions are appropriate in the moment.

But, of course, it is the presence of such department-authorized officer discretion in potentially dangerous situations that greatly increases the ability of bigoted officers to discriminate against African American and Latino suspects and still stay within department guidelines. In a situation where officer response could go in one of several ways, it allows officers to decide that a situation is already so dangerous that a suspect must be taken by force, up to and including shooting the suspect, even if another officer encountering the same situation might either talk the suspect into custody or decide that there was a mistake and no detainment or arrest was even necessary. Officer discretion also allows officers to purposely escalate a situation with a Black or Brown suspect in order to put themselves in actual immediate danger, thus meeting one of the key requirements that make the use of force necessary in effecting an arrest.

We know from experience and anecdotal evidence that racial discrimination and excessive use of force are being carried out by a minority of Oakland police and, in the case of the most extreme instances, such as unnecessary shootings of civilians, by a small minority.

We also know that while the vast majority of Oakland police officers are not committing these actions, they are also standing by and doing nothing to stop the excesses; nor are they reporting them to their superiors, even when they privately disagree with those actions. In many instances, officers on the scene but not committing the offenses—as well as supervising superiors—are actively participating in cover-ups to keep the offending officers from being disciplined or having legal action brought against them.

“And the Earth Did Not Swallow Them” by Precita Eyes Muralists  © 2015 Max Allbee, Marina Perez Wong, Suaro Cervantes, Fred AlvaradoIn fact, the legendary “blue wall of silence” all but requires police officers to remain publicly silent when they see their fellow officers break or bend the law. It even encourages police to give false reports and testimony to help their fellow officers avoid the consequences of discriminatory actions. And despite the fact that we have seen a small upswing in officers around the country reporting on fellow officers in recent months, the truth is that the vast majority suffer the wrath of their fellow officers if they stand up and tell on their own.

One should never forget the story of Keith Batt, the former Oakland rookie officer who blew the whistle on the self-described “Oakland Riders,” the four OPD officers who were arrested in 2000 for a massive campaign of falsifying reports, planting evidence and beating suspects, most of them Black.

“Batt quit the Oakland force after coming forward” and went to work as an officer in the Pleasanton Police Department, according to a 2004 article in The San Francisco Chronicle.6 “Under questioning... by [the Alameda County] Deputy District Attorney,” the Chronicle article continues, “Batt said he had kept quiet at first about the alleged misconduct of the Riders, knowing that if he broke the code of silence and decided to ‘rat on cops,’ fellow officers would ‘turn their back on me.’”

What is true for OPD’s use of deadly force policy—discretion in application and cover-up by fellow officers and immediate superiors—is even more the case with regard to searches during police foot and traffic stops. OPD’s November 15, 2004, policy on “Prohibitions Regarding Racial Profiling And Other Bias-Based Policing”7 only requires that “investigative detentions, traffic stops, arrests, searches and property seizures by officers shall be based on a standard of reasonable suspicion or probable cause in accordance with the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

Despite the fact that Oakland’s foot and traffic stop policy specifically requires police officers to “articulate specific facts and circumstances that support reasonable suspicion or probable cause,” and forbids the consideration of “actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, or disability” in determining that suspicion or probable cause, OPD officers still managed—as we have seen—to search African American men during a traffic stop at a higher rate than appears necessary to protect the safety of Oakland.

This can happen because—as with the use of force—it is up to the discretion of the police officers themselves to decide whether somebody’s actions in each particular case add up to enough “reasonable suspicion” to warrant a stop, or a stop and a subsequent search.

And so, while Oakland’s mayor and chief of police can be pressured, like Shakespeare’s Glendower, to summon the spirits of racism and bigotry from the “vasty deep” of Oakland’s police, they cannot force those demons to come out.

Why Cops Don’t Care
In many instances of concern expressed by the Black Lives Matter protests in Oakland, the exorcism of the OPD’s bigoted and discriminatory practices lies not in the hands of the mayor or the police chief or anyone else at the top of the chain of command, but rather in the hands of the rank-and-file police officers themselves, along with their immediate supervisors. And Oakland’s rank-and-file police are rarely directly challenged to change their ways by marches and demonstrations taking place inside the city limits of Oakland because—to the suprise of few—most of them don’t live in Oakland.

According to a 2014 article in Oakland North newspaper, “only 49 of 626 sworn [Oakland police] officers live in Oakland. Most OPD officers commute from Contra Costa County or other parts of Alameda County, according to police data from June.”8

And so, while Oakland businesses are adversely impacted by Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and Oakland city services are cut back in order to pay for massive overtime costs to provide police for those demonstrations, the rank-and-file police themselves go back to their own communities to find their own parks and libraries and playgrounds undisturbed, and their businesses unbothered by the problems they have left behind in Oakland.

This, then, is one of the major reasons why there has been such a mixed response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations over the years, with significant progress in some areas of police conduct, but a stubborn, dug-in stagnation in others.

That mixed response will not likely change until Oakland police officers and detectives and their immediate supervisors begin to feel the heat of the demonstrations, not in Oakland, but in their own communities. When their residential taxes are forced to go up to pay for police supervision of demonstrations, when their own businesses suffer, when their own friends and neighbors and family begin to complain about the inconveniences, when Contra Costa residents begin to howl about police misconduct in Oakland, that is the point when these Oakland police officers will begin to understand that whatever happens in Oakland will not stay in Oakland but will follow them to their own homes.

Not until then will Oakland police officers living in outlying communities have the incentive to change the way Oakland streets are patrolled and its Black and Brown citizens treated.

This is why we need a Second Front opened up in the direct action campaign to save and preserve Black lives in cities like Oakland, California. This is not a call for demonstrations in Oakland to stop. Rather, it’s a call for some of those marches and demonstrations to cross over the eastern hills and take the struggle into those quiet and pleasant communities where Oakland police officers live.

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is a freelance journalist and author who was born and raised in Oakland, California. You can find an archive of his writings at www.safero.org.

Endnotes
1.           www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Sharp-downturn-in-use-of-force-at-Oakland-Police-6481637.php September 2, 2015

2.           www.antipoliceterrorproject.org
3.           www.democracynow.org/2016/6/21/blacklivesmatter_activist_oakland_needs_to_name
4.           www.indybay.org/newsitems/2015/08/27/18776752.php
5.           news.stanford.edu/2016/06/15/stanford-big-data-study-finds-racial-disparities-oakland-calif-police-behavior-offers-solutions/
6.           www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/OAKLAND-Riders-lied-brutalized-man-2629441.php
7.           www2.oaklandnet.com/oakca1/groups/police/documents/webcontent/oak032293.pdf
8.           oaklandnorth.net/2014/09/18/kaplan-proposes-hiring-50-percent-oakland-residents-for-next-police-academy/

 

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Raimagine!

Gentrified Violence

Robbie Clarke affordable housing and tenant’s rights symposium . © 2015 Eric K. Arnold

Interview with Robbie Clark by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Robbie Clark was born and raised in Oakland, California. They’ve worked with Just Cause for almost 10 years and have been the Housing Rights Campaign lead organizer for the last six years. Clark is currently transitioning into building up the Just Cause Black Priorities Project.

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor: You’ve defined some of that work as battling gentrification. A lot of people have a definition of gentrification, which is simply that it’s a case of taking an existing lower-to-moderate income, primarily African American neighborhood, and slowly or quickly replacing it with a middle-to-upper income white neighborhood. Is that your definition?

Robbie Clark: I think it’s definitely one that resonates with a lot of people and a lot of the ways that people understand it, and it is also a piece of gentrification. But we have to look at the entire process of gentrification in order to identify what are real solutions to the problem and to the issue.

Gentrification is state violence. You can’t talk about the state of Black people in the Bay Area without really talking about gentrification and talking about all the ways that state violence manifests itself: from the police, to housing, to what our education looks like, to our health and access to health, our economic health. All of those things are related to expressions of state violence. By saying gentrification is state violence, it really puts the role of the state at the forefront and names it as violence at the core of it.

I think that there are still some people that will say that there isn’t anything that the city can do about gentrification because that’s just how things are. You know, that’s just how things move, and that’s business as usual. As profit moves, as capitalism grows and develops, it has a detrimental impact on Black People. That’s just what it is. But that simplified definition really doesn’t hold the state or the city accountable in relationship to being able to do something to fight or stop that problem.

The more people see how much gentrification is related to and is just an extension of, or the way that capitalism works in a city, on a city level, the more people see that, the more we can actually agitate people to have a critique of capitalism and think about transforming the economy, transforming the way that money flows, transforming the way that development happens, and doing development from a place of preservation of human beings, and of Black People in particular, in cities like Oakland and San Francisco.

Also, working on trying to get some of our folks back, so really being focused on that. I feel like it’s comparable to the way that they won’t put money into rehabilitation. They don’t want to fix anything. They just wanna do something new. They want to forget there’s anything to fix. I feel like that’s what happens with gentrification. In fact, they just want to build new things in East Oakland, forgetting that there were older buildings that just need to be prepared, repaired and fixed. Those kind of material things or built environment are not the only things that have been neglected and that are in disrepair. The people who have lived there have been neglected, and the economic base there has been neglected. That is in disrepair.

Black Lives Matter march in Minneapolis, Minnesota. cc. 2015 Fibonacci BlueThe way that we want to do development, it’s not just about what the streetscape looks like or how tall they build the buildings. Even though that kind of thing’s important, it’s not just about the facade. It’s really about, like, everywhere our neighborhood could grow. We have to think about many existing institutions. You know, how are the churches, and how are the stores in the area? How are the local businesses in the area? How are those things that make a community what it is? Our goal is letting the residents of that city define that, not the economics define what happens in our neighborhood.

Allen-Taylor: How does that work on the gentrification issue with Just Cause relate to your work with Black Lives Matter? Is it intertwined? Or is it different?

Clark: A lot of the relationships that I have with both have been relationships that got built through me doing this work at Just Cause. And when we decided that we were going to do the Black Friday action and block the West Oakland BART station, in addition to responding to the call coming out of the people of Ferguson, was to be able to talk about the many dimensions of state violence, including gentrification.

Allen-Taylor: The popular perception of Black Lives Matter is that it either began or is a movement primarily concerned with the killing of African Americans, either by police or by non-African-Americans. Obviously, things that you’re talking about are much broader than that. Is it that the movement started out of those killing issues and moved into the broader area at some point, either quickly or later? Or is it that it was always involved with the broader issues and it’s just that the popular perception did not pick that up, for whatever reason, maybe because of the media?

Clark: When we started the Bay Area chapter specifically, we were very clear from the beginning that we really wanted our chapter to broadly take on state violence—in that we wanted to do our work in a way that really highlighted a number of different aspects of state violence. But the killing of Black People at the hands of police, at the root of it is capitalism. At the root of it is white supremacy. So I think that the killing of African Americans by police and non-African-Americans is definitely something that is going to get picked up and carried throughout the media. But if you see The Movement For Black Lives’ “Vision For Black Lives” platform online (policy.m4bl.org), that goes into a number of different issue areas: relationship to land, relationship to economic and Black institutions, education and health. I think that policy platform is an expression of the way that a number of Black People who have been organizing Black People throughout this country specifically see how the violence manifests.

Allen-Taylor: How would you describe your relationship to the Bay Area chapter of the Black Lives Matter? Are you in leadership?

Clark: Two years ago I was a part of some of the folks that first came together to create a chapter.

Allen-Taylor: So you were one of the founders of the chapter?

Clark: Yeah. There were a lot of us who were founders. I don’t usually talk about myself as being a founder, but I guess so. When it gets down to it, there were a lot of us who came together to make it happen and to make the Black Friday action happen.

The first thing that we did was the BART shutdown, and even though there were 14 of us, I was one of the 14 that locked up BART and was part of the Black Friday 14. I think people started to see us 14 as being kind of the leadership of the chapter because there was a lot of attention around our holding BART accountable, taking up some of the demands that a lot of folks had on BART after the murder of Oscar Grant, things like that.

But there were over 200 people involved and played a role and had a relationship to that action, and about a quarter of those folks were planning day-to-day [to make] it happen. So there’s been a lot of leadership roles in the development of the chapter.

Allen-Taylor: How should they view what you are saying in relationship to Black Lives Matter? Are you simply speaking for yourself and not for the chapter? I’m assuming that there are no specific leadership positions like chairperson and so forth.

Clark: Yeah, we don’t have any specific leadership positions like that. We have a team of folks who we call our core team, and different ones of us take up different roles to build us out. I’m part of the core team.

Allen-Taylor: Who is authorized to speak for the Black Lives Matter Bay Area chapter?

Clark: I think for me, for most of us who are actually in the core team of Black Lives Matter Bay Area, we have been doing work in more traditional organizations where it’s a lot more cut and dried in terms of who can speak for the organization and all these different things. I think what we’re trying to do is when we do specific actions, or hold specific events, we identify people for those actions, for those events, who are speaking on behalf of Black Lives Matter Bay Area. Sometimes those people are the same and sometimes they’re different people, depending on their relationship to the work.

When we’re putting out something and we’re making a statement, then those people are speaking for the organization. There are people who speak for certain projects who are part of building those projects, and if I wasn’t a part of the work, I wouldn’t talk to you about that program. So I think it’s a lot different from how people traditionally have done things in organizations. Our model is that the folks who are doing that work are the ones that are talking about that work.

Allen-Taylor: Is there room within Black Lives Matter for others to have differing views, slightly differing positions? Is that fair to say?

Clark: I think it’s fair to say that people are going to have different views and positions, but that we want to make sure that they’re aligned with the principles that we have. As long as everyone fits under those principles, if it isn’t a contradiction of those principles, then, yeah, there’s space for folks to have different perspectives and different views.

People have a number of different strategies on how we should get there. So what we’re doing is trying to make this space where as much of that can happen and in a way, where leadership is a little bit more decentralized, because we want people to take ownership of what it is that we’re doing and building and use that as a shield to do what’s going to be best. We’ve done a number of different events as Black Lives Matter Bay Area partnering with other Black organizations, and people will feel connected to Black Lives Matter because we worked together on actions. And they’ll also be building out their own specific group or affinity group or organization.

We’re not looking to be the place where all Black organizing needs to happen. What we’re really looking to do, what our hope is to, like I said, nurture more Black organizing, nurture more Black leadership, and support those folks that are already doing that organizing, that leadership. And having an all-Black space where we’re able to talk about, connect across different issues, different struggles, and really be able to imagine together. So often people are only thinking about how to do “x” thing, or this strategy, or this tactic, and sometimes we just need the space to be in Black communities and just build with each other; talk about our journey as Black People and utilize that to really shape our imagination and utilize our desires for our own self-determination, and for our own liberation.

Art by Jessica Sabogal. cc.  goodfromyou.coWhatever kind of negative stereotypes we’ve learned, we try to create a space where we’re able to leave all of that outside and just bring Black love together. In that, there’s a lot of power—just being able to connect with each other and just have Black love and Black joy with each other—and [build] a space where Black imagination can grow. That’s really critical in the Bay Area.

The more that we get pushed out, the more it’s critical that we have that space to imagine what it would look like. To imagine those paths together of how we get to having more self-determined Black communities that are exercising their power politically and in other ways, to stay here, to stay alive, to be healthy.

Allen-Taylor: Getting back to your work with Just Cause, what is the Black Priorities Project going to be?

Clark: It started at POWER—at People Organized to Win Human Employment Rights. POWER merged with Causa Justa a little over a year ago. We were, like, we have to continue to do this work, so we continued to do the base-building work.

Allen-Taylor: To do what kind of base-building work?

Clark: The base-building work is the part of organizing that I think people don’t see as much as other things, like a direct action. There are different things like that which are a little bit more flashy, a little bit more kind of exciting to look at, but, really, the base-building work is what’s at the core of organizing—building out your constituency, building out the people who know and identify with your organization and also identify who are going to be the folks that are going to be a part of it, who are going to be leading the organization, who make the decisions about the direction that we go.

So, the base-building portion is really critical, and it’s also really very different from what it looked like when I first started at Just Cause in terms of, like, how spread out over the region the lives of Black People are now, due to gentrification and due to the housing problem. It’s accelerated over the past decade. So, yeah, that’s a lot of where that work is but, again, the goal is to build Black political power in the Bay Area. One of the racialized aspects of displacement and the impact that it has on Black People is that our political power dwindles, and that has a direct impact on our ability to access the social safety net, our ability to grow economic bases, specifically Black economic bases.

Our strength is our unity and the more that we’re able to come together, then that unity is actually at the core of our ability. Our base of power to be able to push these reforms into the next level really comes from the strength of the unity that we have built. That just takes time. It’ll take people being open. It takes a little trust in people.

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Raimagine!

A Call to Cultural Transformation

Occupy4Prisoners: The Injustice System on Trial action in Oakland, California  highlighting injustice in the prison industrial complex in April 2012. cc. 2012 Daniel Arauz

By Steve Martinot

Black Lives Matter (BLM) broke upon the scene in mid-2013 with the voices of enraged crowds from Baltimore and New York City through Ferguson and Chicago to Oakland and Los Angeles. It added itself to a growing US uprising against police murder, mass incarceration, racial profiling, terror against immigrants and continued racial segregation in housing, employment and education. It quickly took hold as the name for a movement, a catalytic crystal that gave coherence and coordination to hundreds of separate events scattered across the country. And it appeared internationally in demonstrations in Peru, Tokyo, Germany and elsewhere. The world was evidently watching the US very carefully, weary of its pretensions to democracy and humanitarian enterprise, as Black Lives Matter turned the shutdown of expressways and neighborhoods at home from local responses to local atrocities into a global event.

The slogan meant, first of all, that the war on Black people must stop. But second, it demanded recognition of autonomy for all communities of color, their struggles for justice and their power to determine their own destiny. That demand led to a myriad of interruptions of board rooms and brunches, hearings and banquets, by teams of Black people loudly affirming, “We’re here and we exist.” These many groups then coalesced in Cleveland early 2016 to form the Movement For Black Lives, pooling their voices in their “Vision For Black Lives” founding platform to call for “a world in which the full humanity and dignity of all people is recognized.”1

 Behind that proclamation, “Black Lives Matter” became a call for what is essentially a cultural transformation of the world. As BLM cofounder Alicia Garza says, “The existing system is not what we ultimately want, nor will it ever substantively meet the needs of Black people.... Work has to be done [beyond non-participation] to make sure those systems are transformed, or that new systems are built.”2 These broad sentiments, in their common recognition of a national and international endeavor, also dovetail with two specific issues that must be addressed. One is the enormous problem of the huge denationalized population in the prisons of the US, the vast majority of whom are people of color. The other is the nature of race itself, the nature of what it means to be Black and, therefore, what it means to be white.

The United States operates the largest prison system in the world. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, the US holds 25 percent of its prisoners. And it is they for whom Garza’s call for cultural transformation is both most urgent and most familiar. They are the ones taken prisoner by a police system that in 2015 killed over 1,100 unarmed Black people in the streets of the US (which averages out to more than three a day; a “war” indeed). Since the majority are imprisoned for victimless crimes, they are there for their race, first and foremost. Those who survive the mind-destroying conditions of indefinite sentences, of decades-long solitary confinements, of torture at the whim of officials, guards and politically-appointed parole boards, are the ones who dream most deeply of a humane and dignifying world.

Poster Art by Annie Banks and Mutope Duguma, called “Each of Us.” Duguma is a New Afrikan author and educator, currently imprisoned in the SHU (Solitary Housing Unit) at the Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, CA. www.anniembanks.wordpress.com/Of course, the racialization of Black people has always depended on imprisonment. Slavery is more properly understood as “prison labor,” since the “ownership” of a person is blatantly oxymoronic, having meaning only for white landowners. Under Jim Crow, Black people were imprisoned in a debt structure that tied them to the land. Any attempt to escape led to a chain gang, or contract labor on a plantation (indistinguishable from slavery).

Today, not only have prisoners joined the leadership of many of the movements for justice from which BLM has sprung, they have been at the forefront of the search for new mythologies on the basis of which a society that is human—granting dignity to and recognizing the sanctity of human beings—might be possible; as also, a world in which the dehumanization and irrationality of racialized violence would not be possible.

Some among the incarcerated turn to ancient African thinking, others to contemporary (20th century) African philosophy; some turn to various indigenous traditions from the Americas, some to a variety of Asian philosophies and religions; and some simply take a hard look at the degrees of dehumanization that surround them and attempt to imagine an antithesis.

The struggle of the incarcerated for human rights, recently sparking hunger strikes and labor strikes throughout the country’s prisons, has been at the heart of the BLM call.

Those among the incarcerated who politicize their imprisonment are the ones most likely to be thrown into solitary confinement by prison administrations. It was with an intent to destroy them that the government invented the humanity-breaking “control unit” and “secure housing unit” policies in such institutions as the Marion Federal Prison in Illinois and Pelican Bay State Prison in California.

Criminalize at Will
What is often covered up, along with the lives of those thrown into the nation’s solitary confinement dungeons, is the police ability to criminalize anyone at will. They can act autonomously because the system of victimless crime laws relieves them of the need for a complainant. Police racial profiling has been legitimized by the Supreme Court (Terry v. Ohio; see Michelle Alexander’s analysis in The New Jim Crow). Police have been given enhanced obedience statutes that enable them to issue humiliating commands and immediately arrest or punish anyone who defends their sense of self-respect by disobeying. With impunity, they divide civil society between those whose humanity will be respected (the non-profiled) and those whose humanity can and will be disrespected (the racially profiled). In other words, the police have become the new “color line.” They have used it to imprison millions of people.

This is what led the Movement For Black Lives to announce in their founding platform a call for, among other things, “an immediate end to the criminalization and dehumanization of Black youth across all areas of society including, but not limited to, our nation’s justice and education systems, social service agencies, and media and pop culture. This includes an end to zero-tolerance school policies and arrests of students, the removal of police from schools and the reallocation of funds from police and punitive school discipline practices to restorative services.”

Meanwhile, the urgency of the BLM call for cultural transformation poses certain questions. To whom is this call addressed? What are “Black lives”? Do they just stand in opposition to a militarizing government, or is their existence more profoundly linked to the surrounding whiteness of this country’s socio-cultural framework?

We know the institutional elements to which the call is addressed. There are the prison walls constructed to replace the walls of segregation that the civil rights movements tore down. There is the police and prosecutorial impunity that subverts the equality and dignity that the civil rights movements made available. There is the ongoing pillaging of “Third World” national sovereignty by the Euro-American corporate structure, using centralized manipulation of economic factors (interest rates, exchange rates, import-export charges, etc.) to determine local politics in any area of the world.

In other words, to be made Black is not something that happens once; it happens for the rest of a person’s life. But this simply signifies that being made white is also something that never stops. When white people racialize Black people as Black, they are also racializing themselves as white, though generally without awareness that that is what is happening. Their enactments, whether arbitrary cruelty or thinly-veiled contempt, have substance primarily for real or imagined white audiences. And whenever the coherence of that audience is broken, when the hegemony of white cultural identity has been eroded by pro-democracy movements—such as abolitionism, Reconstruction and the civil rights movements—the government has stepped to reconsolidate it.

Graphic courtesy of bytheirstrangefruit.blogspot.com/The Origins of Whiteness
When the English first got to what is now Virginia in 1606, they did not refer to themselves as white. “White” was still only a descriptive and not a racializing term. A racializing language had not yet been developed. The first record in Virginia of the English referring to themselves as “white” as a social identity only occurs in 1691, 85 years later. And it didn’t become a cultural identity until the early 1700s. (I have given a step-by-step account of how this happened in my book, The Rule of Racialization.) “Whiteness” was only “naturalized” as the modern concept of “race” by the European “naturalists” of the 18th century. But the identity of whiteness developed first in the wake of Nathanial Bacon’s 1676 rebellion of white colonists against the Virginia colonial governor. It emerged from a fear of Black rebellion, which fear required an inchoate sense of defensive solidarity, and which solidarity required a violence to make the fear seem real. Today, when a cop shoots a Black person and then says, “I felt threatened,” he is intoning the innermost essence of whiteness as a cultural identity. Thus, the cop and the media that explains him keep making all Black people Black again and again, so that all white people can see themselves as white again, across the verb “to racialize.”

To simply oppose “racism” is thus insufficient. As we grow a movement against racializing violence, following the BLM call to end the war against Black people, we also need a movement that can expose and contest the paranoia that is culturally ingrained in white culture and white identity. And we need a movement that reveals the relationship between white solidarity and white identity, between the project of reconstructing whiteness (the new Jim Crow) and reconsolidating white hegemony as a violently reimposed system.

What Is Black Life?
To address the problem, we must start at the edges. What, after all, is a “Black life”? This is neither a biological nor an anthropological question. It is a cultural question. Is existence in a Black community what makes a life “Black”? But Black people have to be Black before constituting a Black community. Were Black people, therefore, born Black? Only some societies racialize dark-complexioned people as Black, showing that race is a social construct. It happens to people after they are born.

So, in the US, Black people aren’t born Black; they are made Black by a white supremacist society. Similarly, white people aren’t born white; they are made white by the same entity. The difference is that they are racialized differently by the supremacy that constructs them.

If there is nothing inherent in the concept of race, then race is something done to people. It is done in the same sense that poverty is done to people by an exploitative economic structure, and prison is done to people by a vengeful and oppressive judicial structure. Race is “done” by a white supremacist culture. But that means “race” is not a noun. It doesn’t name an inherent condition. It is a verb. The verb is “to racialize,” and it is something that one group of people does to others. In the US, it is something that white people do to those they proclaim non-white.

We all know what a racializing structure does. It marginalizes, it reduces social status, it produces social deprivileging, it disenfranchises (politically and culturally), and it humiliates through the generalizations it imposes on individuals. These are all forms of social violence, enacted by some whites, though not all. Some whites struggle against doing it; some do it unconsciously; some do it even though they try not to; some do it because it is essential to their identity; and some do it because they love the violence and paranoia of it. But ultimately, none escape their whiteness because it is given to them by others. Though their whiteness is given them as a juxtaposition to Black people, it is not Black people but other white people who demand that they accede, whether consciously or unconsciously, to the enactment of that verb.

“White lives” become what they are through having others to racialize, by making others the objects of the verb. Some abjure the alliance this requires and refuse the role. Others become strongly white-identified, white-oriented to the point of embracing their given role as agents of the verb. White anti-Black racism is the result. It is a performance by white-identified people whose audience is other white people, not those racialized by it. Racism is a relationship between white people for which Black people are the means. That is why its irrationality is so egregious. The racialization of others that whites enact becomes a form of dues paid for membership in whiteness as a cultural structure.

It is across this verb of race that Black Lives Matter is spoken. Its real power, then, becomes its ability to “flip the script.” It puts Black people in the subject position of a different verb, the verb “to stop.” And it thus renders all white people, and their governmental institutions, the object of that other verb.

In other words, Black Lives Matter is most importantly addressed to Black and Brown people, to those who suffer the terror of racist assault, and who wonder if they are going to get home each night because there is killing going on. “Take heart, you matter, you count.” This is its inclusionary value... it speaks to the invisible and the unheard. It is the voice of a history that has been dedicated to the same cultural transformation that the present now necessitates. It was the voice of Gabriel Prosser, of Denmark Vesey, of Nat Turner, of David Walker, of Marcus Garvey, of W.E.B. DuBois, of Ida B. Wells, of Malcolm, of King, of the Panthers, of Black Power, of Sandra Bland, and now, of Alicia Garza and the Movement for Black Lives. We/you/they matter. We/you/they count. It is not new. It has been around for centuries in all the areas that call themselves the United States. It appeared in the multiple progeny of the civil rights movements: La Raza, AIM [American Indian Movement], ACT-UP and the vast spectrum of women’s organizations, all wrestling themselves out from under their own objecthood.

We must all take heart. Since “race” had a beginning, it will inevitably also have an end.

BLM not only addresses the government and says “stop;” it also addresses white-oriented people and says, “Get up off the subject position of that verb by letting us be subjects in our own right, and not objects for you to use to construct your cultural identity.” Many white people demur and say, “I don’t see color; I don’t care what race a person is.” But that remains empty rhetoric. It allows the entire cultural structure to speak for them. It ignores the role model for the violence of the prison system, the objectification that police impunity enacts, and the paranoia played up by the media.

White people should welcome removing the verb “to racialize” from the social landscape. It would free them from the necessity to play the role of white person through that verb, to perform all the arbitrary generalizations or objectifications that their membership in whiteness requires. It would enable them to simply enjoy the company and variety of real people.

There is, after all, more than one form of prison from which the incarcerated need to be freed.

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance and Forms in the Abyss: A Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple). He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.

Endnotes

1.           www.policy.m4bl.org/platform/
2.           Email interview with Karen Kamp published October 3, 2016 in Moyers & Company
www.billmoyers.com/story/black-lives-matter/

 

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The Living Matter: Honoring Those in Our Midst

Window art highlighting the BLM cofounders in Portland, Oregon. cc. 2015 Travis Wise

By Opal Palmer Adisa

From the beginning, and throughout time, Black women have been formidable shakers and shapers in movements that have pushed for equality and justice for Black people and, by extension, for other people in the US and globally. Black Lives Matter (BLM) co-founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi are sisters who are following the well-worn path of their foremothers (See sidebar).

While BLM as hashtag and movement began after Trayvon Martin’s murderer was acquitted in 2013, Garza, Cullors, Tometi and others were already doing work to eradicate social injustice in this country. Expanded into a national movement by 2014, BLM has grown to over 30 local chapters—an inclusive, decentralized mass movement that does not appear to have a hierarchal structure. (For a fuller description of the origins and structure of BLM please see article on page 8.)

I commend Garza, Cullors and Tometi for starting this movement and applaud the community and the larger society for joining in these efforts. However, I am inviting us to expand and shift the focus of the BLM movement from those who have been martyred to those who are living.

In the 1980s many of us adopted a dangerous talk, saying that Black boys were endangered and would be lucky to live beyond 25 years. I was vehemently opposed to that fatalistic talk and to counter that negative portrayal of our boy children, I wrote a poem for my son Jawara and other Black boys entitled, “I Will Not Let Them Take You.” I know that words are very powerful, so I only speak into the universe what I want. I want all our boys to live long and productive lives. I insist that we continue to affirm and demonstrate to the world that our lives matter, to us as individuals, but also to our families and the whole community. The society needs each of us.

“Millions March” in Oakland. cc. 2014 Amir AzizThe killings of Black people began from our enslavement, continued with the lynching, burning and hosing down during the civil rights movement, and exist in the new form of slavery: privatized jails. In particular, police killings of Black men, is nothing new. The late poet June Jordan, one of the first writers I read, was documenting this issue from the 1980s. An amazing African American poet whose work I love, Henry Dumas, was gunned down in a New York subway on May 23, 1968, by New York City Transit Police. The circumstances surrounding Dumas’ murder were, at best, murky. Conveniently, official records of his killing were destroyed.

Every time one of us is struck down, the community, like the family of the one killed, is deprived. While it is imperative that we remain vigilant and work to make sure police officers and others know they cannot murder Black men and women without facing criminal charges, and that we will not stand by any longer and let this happen, we must speak and create another reality. We must celebrate the living.

Because I believe acutely that Black lives matter, I recently spoke to 10 Black men between the ages of 13 and 82 to ascertain what they know about the movement. I conducted these interviews so that we could hear first-hand from Black men of all ages why their lives matter and how they are assessing the present reality.

But first, I ask myself the same question I have posed others: Why does my life matter?

My life matters because I am a mother of three amazing young adults. I am a writer whose stories of mostly working-class Jamaican women need to be heard. I am a teacher who guides and nurtures future minds. I am a friend, a lover and a creative being.

I invite each of you to daily celebrate your life and the lives of all those you encounter. BLM is a humanitarian movement that says let’s come together and ensure that life matters.

Opal Palmer Adisa is a Jamaica-born writer of both poetry and prose, photographer, curator, professor, educator and cultural activist, Adisa has lectured and read her work throughout the United States, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Germany, England and the Czech Republic, and has performed in Italy and Bosnia. An award-winning poet and prose writer, Adisa has writeen 14 books, including the novel, It Begins With Tears (1997).

How many of these women’s names and stories do you know?

Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Dorothy Height, Diane Nash, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Daisy Bates, Mary McLeod Bethune, Mary Church Terrell, Anna Julia Cooper, Marian Wright Edelman, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Claudia Jones, Amelia Boynton, Fannie Lou Hamer, Yuri Kochiyama, Septima Clark, Shirley Chisolm, Kathleen Cleaver, Peaches, Elaine Brown, Regina Davis, Ericka Huggins, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Charlotte Hill O’Neal, Tarika

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Why Does Your Life Matter?

Interviews and photos by Opal Palmer Adisa

James RobinsonJames Robinson, 82 years strong, West Oakland resident, is a retired Contra Costa County deputy sheriff. He began the interview by saying he has seen a lot of injustice against Black people in his lifetime. Growing up in Oklahoma in the era of Jim Crow segregation, he witnessed “white only” and “Black only” fountains, was told to go to the back to enter restaurants, and was once kicked out of an A&W restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi, by a white waitress who said she didn’t care that he was in military attire. The two white soldiers with him were also denied service, because they had come with a Black man.

Discrimination followed Robinson long after the end of segregation and after he had left the South—the type of discrimination that many non-Blacks do not see or think unimportant, but which contributes to a general theme of the African experience in America. A week ago, Robinson relates, “I was at a bar at a golf tournament in north Vallejo. The bartender looked at me and two other Black guys and turned to a white fella and said ‘I see you have been waiting a long time. Can I help you?’ I just had to speak up, and say we have been waiting longer than he has. [The bartender] recognized that he might have made a mistake, and waited on us. But the mere fact that he could do that says racism has not gone away, it is unconscious....”

In defense of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Robinson said, “A lot of people have misunderstood [him] when he kneeled for the National Anthem. If you listen to him, he is saying some very important things about people and that Black life matters.”

Robinson wants to be seen, “As who I am, not based on how anybody else lives, but how I want to live. I am me. I remember thinking as a young man that the most important thing for me to do is to take care of the people around me, at any expense. As I have grown older, I’ve learned that you also have a responsibility to take care of yourself.”

A father of four, grandfather of seven and great grandfather of four, James Robinson’s life matters to at least three generations.


 

Joshua WestJoshua West, 13, is an 8th-grader at Claremont Middle School in Oakland, an athlete and all-round good student; he spoke with great insights on why his life matters.

“I am aware of BLM. I don’t know why different races be trying to kill Black people. They kill all races, but Black people the most. We are human beings. We all should be treated equally. I just don’t get it....”

West’s response is common to so many young Black men who are truly puzzled by this country’s injustice against Black people.

“My life matters because God put me here for a reason,” he says. “He didn’t put me here just so you could take me out. I want to be seen as that person who always makes you laugh, and who is always there for you. I want to be the person who everybody likes and have fun with.”


 

James HadleyA passionate man, 64-year-old consultant James Hadley says his life matters “because of the love, respect and upbringing my parents, their parents and our ancestors have given me. It matters because I have a responsibility to raise my kids and others on the importance of things I have learned: Right, Wrong, Respect, Peace, Love and Faith.”

Hadley speaks about the systemic entrenchment of racism, which is why he supports BLM. “The kind of violence perpetrated by police and others against Black folks and people of color is despicable. Cellphones capture crimes committed against our folks and Grand Juries around this country continue to release these criminal cops. We Black folks are the main target of racist policies that have existed throughout the history of this country.”

Despite living in such a state, we should marvel that many Black men are still gentle and kind and display their humanity—a quality that is evident in Hadley. “I would like to be seen as a good person who helped out and tried to share my happiness, joy and sometimes sadness of being part of the human race,” he says.


 

KellyFor 23-year-old Kelly, a senior Graphic Design Student at the California College of the Arts and a transplant to San Francisco from Washington, D.C., the life of a Black man is, at best, trying.

Articulate and self-contained, Kelly believes, “there’s a silent war against me in the United States due to the high percentage of police brutality and mass incarceration. I do agree, All Lives Matter and should be equally represented. However, I feel, whenever the Black community fights for its overdue justice, everyone wants a part and that results in us being pushed to the side. So, until I see and experience change within my community and how we are treated in America, no lives matter but Black lives.”

Kelly engages with a diverse group in his life and respects who they are and their rights. He just believes that Black folks have to take care of themselves first. He considers himself “a proud, God-fearing, unapologetic Black man.”

“I want to be an inspiration (hero) one day to a Black child who’s seeking guidance in identifying their purpose in this world,” says Kelly, not to be seen “as an animal or as a criminal, but a human being.”


 

Clint CollinsRapper Clint Collins, 32, is a practicing Muslim who integrates all aspects of his life. “I always want people to look at me and see a Muslim, not the negative picture of Muslims the media tries to paint but actually someone who practices Islam, which is a religion of peace. I would like to be viewed in society as a good person who contributes to making the world a better place. I want society to see a successful, intelligent and strong Black man.”

Collins, whom I have known for at least 15 years, has a big heart. If you wonder why his life matters, he sums it up best:

“My life matters because I’m a Black man in America and I haven’t done anything for it not to matter. My life matters because my ancestors were stolen from their homeland and forced into slavery and I’m living proof that the ones who fought for freedom didn’t do so in vain. My life matters because I positively affect so many other people’s lives and I’m always trying to make the world a better place. My life matters because my mother and grandmother told me it does.”


 

Khalil ChatmonAmani Chatmon of Oakland, 16, a junior in high school, possesses a wisdom beyond his age. He realizes that when Black people are “witnessing innocent Black bodies harshly and unjustly being killed without any recognition of actual loss of life—this is where the outrage is coming from.” A diligent student and a hard worker, Kahlil’s life matters because, as he declares, “I have so much to offer to my family, my community, my country and my race. As a Black young man I have a responsibility to study my history and analyze the situations that are happening in the present and come up with a way to better the future, not only for myself, but for the people around me. I have a vision.”

A wisdom seeker, Kahlil says, “I want to be seen as a humble and knowledgeable king who isn’t scared to combat corruption. I want to be seen as an equal, but I need the world to recognize the power my people possess, as well as the historic depth.”


 

Seventeen years old, handsome and charismatic, Oakland student Jordan Dabney Jordan Dabney puts it succinctly when he says why his life matters. “I have potential to do amazing things in my lifetime, and to bring joy to a lot of people throughout my lifetime. But honestly, I shouldn’t need a reason to matter other than the simple fact that I’m alive. I live, therefore I matter.”

“I want to be seen as an individual with choices, and I want people to respect that these choices put me in control of my life, successes and failures,” he adds. “I also want to be seen as someone who has the potential to contribute positivity to all of my communities.”


 

Marc SingletonAn up and coming designer from Philly, 23-year-old Marc Singleton, a senior at the California College of the Arts, wants to be seen “as a popular role model in the Black community. But I value how I see myself more. I just want to be content with myself and the work I have produced that helps, improves and inspires other’s lives.”

Raised with a sense of community and responsibility, Singleton knows his life matters “because of the sacrifices of others before me. So, making others’ lives matter gives me a sense of completeness. Being able to open doors for my brothers and sisters in career fields they never knew were obtainable.”


 

 Ozem RobertsThe quest to be seen and be recognized as a man is a long-standing petition and demand of Black men. There is a famous picture from the ‘60s of a Black man wearing a placard around his neck which reads: “I am a man.” I know and recognize this image of manhood in the life and worldview of 31-year-old Ozem Roberts, assistant manager in the media services division of an Oakland educational institution.

Roberts gets right to heart of the matter about the value of his life. “My life matters because I live to love, teach and encourage others. I matter! I’m a believer of hope, change and growth from all angles. I want to be seen as the strong person that I am.”


 

YousefOakland resident and father, 37-year-old Yousef is grounded in community and family and draws his strength and identity from that foundation. “My life is very important as I have a family that depends on me,” he affirms. “I have young boys that I have to lead into becoming young men.”

About the larger question of his individual self-worth, he says, “I want to be seen as a human being, as a role model, a positive person, a hard worker; not as a drug dealer; not be looked at like I’m going to steal your purse or break into your car.”

Certainly, a goal of BLM is to shatter the stereotype of all Black men as criminals. There are countless Black men, such as Yousef, who go to work daily, provide for their families and live decent, honest lives.


 

It seems appropriate that the youngest should have the last word.

DeMarcus ThompsonDeMarcus Thompson, 13, is also an eighth grader at Claremont Middle School, whose eyes glow as he confronts these issues. He appears very present in the world and has given my questions a lot of thought.

With a rushed breath he says, “We do a lot of good things. We don’t just do bad things because we are Black, so we should be equal to everybody else. It shouldn’t be different. My life matters because I am a good person. I have a family that loves me, and I have people that look up to me, and I feel that I’m going to do something good with my life. I want to be seen as a good person, a humble person. I want others to see me as something good when I get out of college. I don’t like to see people depressed. I don’t like to see people be put down. I just want everybody to be happy.”

DaMarcus is the voice of tomorrow, so we need to listen and keep him safe so that his voice indeed matters and the beaming light of happiness evident in his face spreads and helps to light the world.

 

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I Am San Francisco Exhibit - Closing Reception, Feb. 22, 2018 - 6-9pm Free!

Closing reception for I AM SF exhibition and RP&E Release
February 22,2018  7 p.m. SF State

San Francisco State Univerity,
Caeser Chavez Student Center Art Gallery
1600 Holloway in SF.

This interview and the excerpts that follow are portions of an on-going project called I Am San Francisco: Black Past & Presence (IAMSF). Created and curated by Jarrel Phillips, IAMSF was presented as an art exhibition at City College of San Francisco’s Rosenberg Library in 2016 and at San Francisco State 2017-18. The purpose of IAMSF is to recognize the depth, beauty, complexity and abundance prevalent within ‘Black Life’ in San Francisco—culturallly, communally and individually. For more information, visit avesidea.org.

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Exhibit continues through Feb 2018. Join us for the Closing Reception on Thursday February 22, 2018 6-9 pm at SF State University.

Where Revolution Abounds

Emory Douglas © 2016 Jarrel Phillips

An Interview with Emory Douglas by Jarrel Phillips

Emory Douglas is the former minister of culture and revolutionary artist for the Black Panther Party, who continues to be a progressive artist dealing with social commentary in his artwork.

Jarrel Phillips: Can you tell me about your beginnings as a social movement artist?

Emory Douglas: I came out when the Black consciousness movement was starting; when you had Black power and Black people beginning to find themselves and who they were, as opposed to the mainstream society, and finding who you are as Negroes. Then we began to define ourselves as “Black,” “African,” “African American.”

I used to work in advertising—cutting and placing, doing display signs—close to Macy’s on Geary Street; also at community print shops. During that era you had high levels of frustration because of police abuse and it always being justified. Young people were looking for something to become involved in, such as now with the Black Lives Matter and Occupy and all the things that are taking place today. Some 50 years later, the same things that we were confronted with then, we are still confronted with today. Having transitioned into the Black Panther Party here in the Bay Area, I have been able to hone and develop my skills for today’s Black arts movement.

Jarrel Phillips: Why is it important for children to grow up around Black art?

Douglas: Youth can see themselves in the artwork and identify with issues and concerns about themselves. It reinforces maybe positive issues as they evolve and grow. They can begin to question what’s in the art that’s about themselves. When you see something that you can see yourself in, it can be an inspiration to you to maybe want someday to be creative in that respect yourself or to be creative in other ways. Art can help you to focus and be disciplined in relationship to carrying out a project and can help you to critique and be critical of what you do. Because you can evaluate it if you choose to, if you don’t get caught up in the subjective aspects of what you’ve done and open yourself to evaluate your work, trying to improve it. You could always see something in it that you can improve or do better; or add on and enhance what you’ve already done that may be of a good standard and quality as well. So it can help you in that way: discipline, focus, creativity, imagination, visual. You might have to do research and other things that connect you to art to do certain artwork that you may need if you’re talking about some social issue. Then there’s research that comes in and all those things that play into it.

1969: The Black Panthers promoted gender equality, and many women were members of the movement © Emory Douglas/PRPhillips: Going into the Black Panther movement, can you talk about its beginnings in Oakland and in San Francisco? What was the connection?

Douglas: The Black Panther Party was called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense at first. It was local in Oakland and then evolved into San Francisco and then had chapters and branches around the country and developed over periods of time. But in San Francisco we used to work out of a studio apartment of Eldridge Cleaver’s, who Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had been kind [enough] to contact [when] he got out of prison during that time in 1967. He was working for a magazine publication here in San Francisco. So they were able to get in touch with him when Huey and Bobby did the security for Malcolm X’s widow when she came to the Bay Area.

They got him to work on the paper in [its] beginning stages. There was no chapter or branches at that time. It was just where we worked on the newspaper. It was out of his studio apartment. Huey and Bobby had an office in Oakland but it was not necessarily open to the public. They used to do the patrolling in the communities and observing the police misbehavior in the community and that was where they used to meet at, but it wasn’t an open office to everybody. It was [later] that we began to have a chapter in San Francisco. We opened our headquarters, I believe, in Oakland, California. We finally had our distribution in the East Bay in different locations. Then we were able to get the location on Fillmore [in San Francisco] where the nightclub Yoshi’s used to be. There’s a plaque on the street that says “Black Panthers” and that’s where the office used to be. That became our central distribution for our newspaper [from] where we would ship it all over the country and all over the world.

Phillips: How did you end up in the Black Panther Party?

Douglas: Like many other young people. There were a lot of murders of young Blacks going on then, as it is today. There’s high levels of frustration of wanting to do something to try to deal with that issue. When I went to the meeting where I was asked to do the poster that Malcolm X was coming to the Bay Area, they said some brothers was coming over to do security for that event and they were going to come over to the next meeting. When they came, there was Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and couple more Panthers. It was after that meeting that I asked them how I could join. This was in late January of 1967 about three and a half months after the inception of the organization itself.

Me [as] minister of culture came about when Huey and Bobby were working on their first edition of the newspaper, which was 8 1/2x14, legal sized sheet of paper. Bobby was laying it out with markers for a masthead and it was written on a typewriter, the text. There were a lot of cultural events [that] used to take place at a place we called the Black House in San Francisco. Eldridge Cleaver lived upstairs in [this] Victorian house [and] the cultural activities took place downstairs.

I went there one evening to see if there was anything happening. I saw Bobby working on that first issue of that newspaper. Because I had been going to City College and had kept a lot of the materials that I had from doing graphic designing, I told them, well, I could help him improve the quality of what he was doing and I’d go home and get the materials and come back. He said, “Okay.” I lived on Divisadero and 8th. Took me about 45 minutes to walk home and come back. When I got back he said, “Well, we’re finished with this one but we’re going to start the newspaper and we know your work as an artist. So we want you to be the revolutionary artist and eventually become the Minister of Culture.” They had a whole vision about the newspaper, telling our story from our perspective, our point of view. It could criticize you on the one hand and praise you on the other, being like a double-edged sword. It was informative, enlightening, all those things.

In relationship to the vision of the paper, having a lot of photographs with captions and headlines [helped] so that those who weren’t going to read those long, drawn-out articles could get the gist of what the stories were about by just seeing the images. That was the whole concept of the paper. And making headlines accessible to seniors by making text bigger—[for those] who couldn’t read the whole article or see well enough to read all the fine text.

Phillips: Your images are very, very strong on the posters and in all your work. Can you talk about the significance of image in the face of how Black image is typically portrayed?

Douglas: The images I turned in were just common folk images in that sense and the beauty within the essence of that. People could see themselves in those images.

The culture and expression of Black folks: self-determination, the suffering, the pain and the love. If you can capture that in your artwork, you’ve made the connection with the community and the broader community as well. We were talking about revolutionary culture for transforming society. Our art was a reflection of what was going on in the world.

The 10-point platform of the Black Panther Party talked about decent housing, full employment, and quality of life… all those things were part of the education. Part of what the Black Panther Party was about. That’s what the artwork is about too.

Phillips: A lot of images portray the police as pigs. Why is that?

Douglas: Yes, that came about when Huey Newton was working on the paper. Eldridge and Huey and Bobby came out from organizing and came over to check on how things were going. At one point they began to define what a police was, and those kinds of words came into the statement. Huey brought over an idea and told me he wanted me to do this pig drawing, which I did on four hooves. We were going to put the badge number on the pig each week [of] a bad actor in the community, and it just so happens that the first badge was 206. It was the pig named Fry. The policeman who got killed when Huey Newton got shot. He was notoriously known to abuse his power in the community. That was the first badge number we put on the drawing. That was the early issues of the Black Panther Newspaper.

Phillips: It sounds like a lot of individuals in the Black Panther Party had dealt with the law a bit. Do you think that was significant or was that intentional in some way?

Douglas: The first group was young people like myself, 13 [to] 19 years old. Huey Newton and them understood that those who were organizing and recruiting the party were brothers and sisters out there in the hood who had firsthand experience with the police, as opposed to when they were arrested for whatever violation they did. They weren’t just arrested, they were abused. They understood that. If they could get to them and organize them, then they would become a force to deal with that situation out there. That’s why you had a lot of those youngsters who became that first cadre, because of their experience.

Then it also had others who came in as well who were students, intellectuals, all those became part of the organization. But that first group of people who they organized were the youngsters off the block because they were confronted every day with the issues of profiling and abuse and harassment.

They started the Black Panther Party for self-defense in the beginning then [it] turned into the Black Panther Party. They started off with patrolling the communities against police abuse, which was point number seven of the Black Panther Party’s 10-point platform. We wanted an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people. It started off because of the urgency of the situation at the time.

Phillips: Can you talk about any connection or insight you see in relation to that and Black Lives Matter and what’s going on in San Francisco specifically?

Douglas: You still have the police murders. That’s at the core of the Black Lives Matter. Even before it was called Black Lives Matter, Black lives was mattering. That’s why people were standing up. That’s why people were resisting and that’s why all of a sudden that name came to be—Black Lives Matter—because of the abuse [at] the hands of the system itself; starting with the police abuse and murders always being justified, always demonizing those that are killed to make them look as though they should have been killed.

Phillips: How did you define safety and self defense?

Douglas: Safety was part of defending the community and educating them about their basic rights when they were stopped. But also, yes, there were things that... when the Black Panthers came on the scene there was less community gang banging and stuff going on during that time. It existed but there was less of it because of the respect the Panthers had and could intervene in certain situations. Not only that, the P. Stone Nation, one of the most notorious gangs in the United States out of Chicago, where we had a chapter, had great respect for the Panthers. We were the only ones who could come into their territories and do these social programs, have doctors and stuff come into the projects and check on seniors and those who were ill; or set up free breakfast, all those kinds of things.

Phillips: Can you talk about the significance of having individuals who are protecting you? You talk about quality of life, but can you talk about quality protection by those that are here to serve and protect?

Douglas: We say quality protection is when police come into this community and respect community, like they do in the white community. They come in there and talk respectful. They go and walk the kids across the street and help them cross the street. They don’t come in like an occupying army as they do in our community. So that’s the difference.

Phillips: My generation, what is our responsibility? How do we pick up?

Douglas: Well, you pick up in being just what is. The fact is that these institutions exist. You’re going to be a part of these institutions at some point in time until they negate it or transform. Don’t get into it and do what other generations have done before [as] they become compromised. In the context of standing strong and tall in relationship to what needs to be done, being able to make that commitment and not get in there and get caught up in the compromise, come together with others on how you can get alternative institutions and fund them.

Out of the situation in this country that’s created the situation where you have more people coming together, yes, generation over generation, between the young and old and what have you—lessons to learn from everyone. You got a lot of insight from a lot of folks who’ve been through a lot of the challenges in life that can be inspiring in order not to duplicate some of the limitations that have taken place now and in the past. You’re bombarded by mainstream success which has nothing to do with community success or community. It has to do with exploitation and selling yourself. Community success requires self-determination. You can define for yourself who you are. You create community and institutions in [the] community that you run.

Phillips: What does the Black leadership look like in San Francisco?

Douglas: It’s compromised just like most when they get into the city. You got those who are outspoken and maybe mean well. But when they take the oath they can only say so much. They can’t do what they said they were going to do because [of] the system. It’s the system that’s racist. It’s the system that compromises them as well. When I talk about the artwork that I do, I’m talking about it in the context of the system, not the individuals. It may be used as the symbol of the individual but it’s about the system itself. It’s the system that has to be transformed, changed, negated or purged. That’s an ongoing process that’s going to exist for a while, so you have to stay diligent in relationship to exposing and enlightening and informing people, the community, about what that system is about— from the vision that you see in relationship to what you understand through your observation, the research and validation of things that have shown how corrupt it is. When you get in that comfort zone, that’s when you compromise. When you assimilate you negate your own self, your own identity. ~

Jarrel Phillips is a curator, youth worker, capoeira instructor and storyteller who uses performance, writing and photography and film as his mediums. He is also a Reimagine! RP&E correspondent. Learn more about his work at avesidea.org.

 

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"Community success requires self-determination. You can define for yourself who you are."

Thomas Robert Simpson

Thomas Robert Simpson © 2016 Jarrel Phillips

One of the things I experience, and something I see in other people, is a sense of freedom when they are free enough and open enough to allow themselves to be vulnerable. In our culture we’re frequently so tied down and we have so many restrictions on how we’re supposed to be or should be, or things we can do or can’t do. The arts, at its purest, unbuckles some of those things to allow different parts of us to show itself, parts that sometimes we don’t want to show, the negative part, the sensitive part, the shy part, the ugly part, the happy part... It’s a means of healing. The arts allow us to explore each one of these areas. Its transference from the artist to the audience allows the audience to share the same type of experience. This can be something physical but it can also be something emotional, but more importantly, it can be something intellectual. I have this idea that when the lights go down, minds open up. We’re sitting in the dark, not being watched, something is happening on stage, and we’re reacting to what’s happening. We’re focused on the stage. Sometimes it can make you think, “Hmm. I never thought about it from that point of view” or “Oh, no that person is wrong.” You’re having this conversation with yourself, but in some ways you’re having a conversation with the artist too.

Thomas Robert Simpson
Founder and Artistic Director of the AfroSolo Theater Company

 

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Mestre Urubu Malandro

Samoel “Mestre Urubu Malandro” Domingos © 2016 32k Productions

It’s sometimes hard to get people to understand why they should KNOW their history, culture and African heritage. Find out where your family tree comes from. We are here, but we could be in Haiti, Uganda, Jamaica, or some place else. We came from one place only, and that place is the continent of Africa. They were our ancestors. There are so many historians in Brazil that studied everything about the Africans who were taken from their homes and died leaving their legacy. I know capoeira. I will do my best to learn as much as I can about Candomblé, but not just African religion, I want to learn about anything that the Africans brought with them or developed. I do Samba, Frevo, Maracatu, and I drum because it’s part of my culture. In capoeira we have this drum called a berimbau. The berimbau was used for calling people and gathering their attention to a particular thing. African slaves in United States were not allowed to drum. Many of them lost their hands trying to play drums because their oppressors knew how powerful the drum could be. Rhythm unites a community.

Samoel “Mestre Urubu Malandro” Domingos
Founder of Capoeira Ijexa

 

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Stewart Shaw

Courtesy of Stewart Shaw

The African American community has a long history of storytelling. It’s important to tell your story. We’ve always passed down legacy from one to another. Black presence is having a voice. Our society will quickly run you over if you’re quiet. I always heard this phrase from my mother, “A squeaky wheel gets the oil,” and “A closed mouth doesn’t get fed.” That’s why a lot of these social movements are very loud. The Black Panthers, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) that formed in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the gay community... ACT UP was so vocal. They knew if they weren’t loud they weren’t going to get fed. With Black Lives Matter, they get out there. They protest. They have to be heard. Now, not every protest has to be loud, but until you are heard, no one’s going to care about you. I think writers know that, especially the poets. Poets are the philosophers of society. They’re the truth-sayers. And they know voice. Their voice can be very quiet, but they speak loudly. You have to be in the world putting your soul on the line in some form. Just because you’re alive doesn’t mean someone’s going to care about you. You have to make your presence known. Even if it’s in a whisper, announce yourself.

Stewart Shaw
Program Manager, San Francisco Public Library’s African American Department

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Kristine Mays

Kristine Mays c. 2016 Jarrel Phillips

I refer to San Francisco as my city, my love or as my baby. My baby is in an awkward position right now. I feel like it’s in some awkward teenage stage where… you know, when you see an adolescent kid and they haven’t quite formed into anything yet. I question myself over and over again as to why I’m here in San Francisco. Why don’t I just throw in the towel and go somewhere else? Yet, I’m still curious to see what’s going to happen. What’s going to come out of it?

I’m concerned. At times, I’m really disappointed and at other times very distraught, which is funny to me because that’s probably how parents are when they’re looking at their teenage kid. If anything, I’m just hoping that San Francisco grows up. And, grows into something that I’d be proud of, into a place where I’d still be welcomed and loved.

I think for a lot of parents of minorities, they’re always hoping their kid remains and retains the core essence of who they are. So for a Black person, they would hope… I don’t know. I’ll speak for myself:

If I had a little kid I would hope that my kid would still enjoy, embrace, and love the fact that they’re Black and not feel like they have to conform to mainstream America and a Eurocentric way of life. I hope the same for San Francisco.

I hope that this doesn’t become some whitewashed, Silicon Valley secondary home, but rather that it maintains all of its flavor, zest and whimsy; free-spirited feel that it used to have. So even though it’s in this awkward stage, I keep waiting with bated breath hoping that essence won’t crumble away completely and I’ll still be able to see it come into fruition.

My love has not changed. It’s a love-hate relationship at times, but I just want the best for my beloved San Francisco and I hope to see it come into that fullness. Just as history goes full circle, I hope that San Francisco will too, and that it won’t take so long and it won’t have to go through falling on its face in order to come back around into the goodness that’s always been there.”

Kristine Mays
Wire Sculptor, Three Point Nine Art Collective

 

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