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Conversations on Race and Resistance

By Jess Clarke

Today’s emerging resistance movements can draw on a long and varied history to challenge the reactionary US government. Racial justice organizing has been the leading edge of progressive change for generations, and lessons learned and leadership from Black liberation struggles are key to moving beyond resistance and toward revolutionary abundance.

This issue of RP&E, Conversations on Race and Resistance, brings together the voices of dozens of organizers and artists working in today’s racial justice movements, particularly Black Lives Matter (BLM), to explore the history and trajectory of struggle—from the Black Panthers, to the founding of the Environmental Justice (EJ) movement, to the present.

Articles by Eric K. Arnold and J. Douglas Allen-Taylor examine the strengths and weaknesses of BLM organizing; interviews with Cat Brooks (Anti-Police Terror Project and BLM Oakland) and Robbie Clark (Just Cause) give us first hand accounts of the ideological and practical origins of this work. Brooks zeroes in on the fact that police violence toward people of color is not an accidental system failure but the necessary action of a system of suppression. Clark digs deep to place gentrification in a broad spectrum of state violence perpetrated through policing, health and housing policies. Both Brooks and Clark situate BLM in a continuum of organizing for Black liberation and challenge organizers to evolve new approaches to educating the broader public about how capitalism itself needs to be attacked at its roots.

Steve Martinot describes a process of racialization that began with white fear of slave revolts and came to fruition with the incarceration of people of color in a prison system clearly descended from the slave plantation. He proposes that we see “race” as a verb, something done to people, not a noun describing their identity. Martinot asserts that one essential function of BLM organizing is affirmation in the face of the racialization process that devalues Back people. Opal Palmer Adisa echoes that sentiment by taking the occasion to interview 11 Black men talking about why “The Living Matter.”

This is very much in line with the “I Am San Francisco” Black oral history project that we began publishing in 2015.  In the current edition, in addition to several short excerpts, we feature an interview by Jarrel Phillips with Emory Douglas. The conversation opens a window into how, over 50 years ago, an aspiring artist taking graphic design classes at City College of San Francisco was drawn into the newly founded Black Panther Party (BPP) and to propagating its influential 10-point program. Douglas, who became the minister of culture of the BPP, went on to create iconic art that shaped the imagination of a generation of Black liberation struggles, including the next wave of organizing under the banner of environmental justice.

As Dana Alston details in her RP&E reprint from 25 years ago, 300 activists from a very broad range of organizations met at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and came to consensus on “the 25 principles of environmental justice” (see page 82). For its time, environmental justice was a high-water mark in understanding how different structures of oppression intersect.

In a panel discussion commemorating the 25th anniversary of the summit, Dr. Mindy Fullilove, a professor at The New School in New York, probes the complex interaction of segregation, health outcomes and how gentrification is creating intergenerational trauma. She tracks how government-sponsored redlining maps, developed in the 1930s, moved segregation out of the legal system and into the financial system where it continued to metastasize. She analyzes the common origins of environmental injustice—siting toxic facilities in communities of color—and gentrification and displacement.

This sort of intersectional analysis is an urgent task for our movements today. We need to be able to put together coalitions that can encompass the displaced residents of Mossville, Louisiana driven out of their homes by petrochemical corporations  and urban tenant organizers fighting evictions and rent hikes caused by corporate hyper-commodification of land in cities across the country. The Renters Day of Action in fall 2016, when local organizations across the country coordinated a national day of protest, was a step in the right direction. The multisector solidarity shown at Standing Rock is another encouraging sign.

Resistance to gentrification, access to public education, defense of workers’ rights and preservation of public ownership all intersect in the battle to save City College of San Francisco. A multifaceted campaign saved the college from losing its accreditation—and won a November 2016 ballot measure that taxed luxury real estate sales to fund tuition-free classes at the school for San Francisco residents. But despite approval by the voters and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, backers of “Free City” have had to battle Mayor Ed Lee to release money for the program.

In our latest installment on this story, Marcy Rein follows the controversy over the Balboa Reservoir, one of San Francisco’s largest tracts of undeveloped public land. Will this parcel next to City College be used for affordable housing and for the transportation needs of the students—or luxury condos? In light of the passage of free tuition for the school, perhaps this fight can also be won.

The right-wing attacks by the Trump regime and corporate monopolists make it easier than ever to understand how our struggles are linked and Dawn Phillips makes an eloquent and impassioned case for why collaborative action is essential to successful resistance. But absent systematic theoretical frameworks—including, at the minimum, an understanding of how capitalism uses race to make investment and disinvestment decisions—joint actions may wind up simply assembling a lowest-common-denominator grab bag of reformist demands.  We need to aspire to a higher goal than reforming systems whose actual purpose is to defend the economic structures that oppress and exploit our communities.

The Movement for Black Lives platform ( is a useful starting point for crafting a multi-issue, multi-strategy alliance that can challenge the white supremacist dinosaurs and fossil fuel barons whose time has passed. Coherent action using every available means of resistance, including mass protests, blockades, boycotts, strikes, divestment, local government resolutions, municipal and state legislation and constant pressure on elected and unelected leaders in government and business are time-tested methods of creating political space for real change.

Black Lives Matter, like Occupy before it, harnessed the power of social media and mass public dissent to change the nature of the national discourse. The widespread cultural resistance that has continued to grow from these are strengthening our communities.  But the next stage in our movement must move beyond changing the conversation to reshaping the terrain of conflict. To create revolutionary abundance for all, we need to Reimagine!—everything. ~

Jess Clarke is Reimagine! project director and an editor at Race, Poverty & the Environment.


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