Seriously fam. Can we caucus and vote on any movement/BLM position on police before we continue to speak and write publicly/broadly about it? There are MANY of us that are abolitionists and that needs to be included too. Love yall and soooo appreciate the public work tho (I couldnt do it- or wouldnt want to, rather.) But goodness.
— Dara Cooper
I’m so thankful for the black activist friends I’ve become connected to over the past few years through my work on food justice. There are many reasons why this is important to me, including how it has both required and helped me to better understand my own sense of black identity when I operate in predominantly black professional, social and intellectual spaces; but that’s a blog post for another time. Today, I’m appreciating how my activist friends keep me connected to the vanguard of the current fight for black lives and black liberation, and how they keep challenging and making me reflect on my own understanding of the moment we are in.
The post above from one of my friends raises a really interesting and important question about movements for me, whether we’re talking BLM or food justice. We tend to think of movements as monolithic, but they’re not; and even when you have people who are solidly aligned on core values (which ISN’T always the case in the network of actors within a “movement!”), they may have very different strategies and even different visions for what it means to fully realize those core values. Thinking back to the civil rights struggles of the 60s, you had groups as different as the SCLC, Nation of Islam, and Black Panthers all within that movement; all were seriously and sincerely committed to the goal of black freedom, but held very different understandings both of what that meant and how to go about it. Yet, each group carried important components of what it would/will take to achieve black liberation.
What can we learn from that movement that would help make our present one stronger? How can we ensure that our full range of perspectives and solutions is recognized, rather than using the same models of dominance that we are fighting against to declare one sub-group of the movement as the “primary” one while marginalizing other voices and strategies? There are many who argue that a movement has to have a dominant narrative in order to be successful; and yet, when I look at the civil rights struggles from the 50s and 60s, I think that we are reaping today seeds that were sown back then, when “success” was defined as getting better access to oppressive, white-dominated systems instead of building and strengthening systems designed to serve us as black people (e.g., Nation of Islam farming cooperatives or the Black Panthers’ feeding program). Those initiatives pointed to a deeper reality about systemic racism, perhaps one that we were loath to fully acknowledge as a people at that point in time: that the roots of racism are so deeply embedded in every aspect of the United States’ history that no system of law or policy would ever be safe for black people until that national sickness was truly identified and healed in all its manifestations.
This isn’t a dismissal of what so many people fought and gave their lives for during that time; my life and those of every single one of my family members is markedly different because of the enormous policy wins that civil rights activists achieved in the middle of the 20th century. I’d have to be stupid, and profoundly ungrateful, not to recognize that. At the same time, I read even in the writings of leaders from that time that there was a recognition that the struggle had to go deeper and push further, and a worry about whether it would do so successfully and what that was supposed to look like. Too many people’s lives were cut short before they could pursue those questions. And maybe the questions weren’t theirs to pursue; maybe we had to go through the last 50 years as a people in order to come to our own understanding that we had to go after that deeper struggle. Maybe we weren’t ready to face that yet.
But we’re here again now, and we need to take the fullness of all the lessons we can learn from the work of our forebears – including those things they left undone. It’s not enough to return to comfort with confrontational tactics, or even to lift up the value of militancy in addition to nonviolence. There’s a deeper question of how we model the change we want to see in the world within our own movement, how we reject the forms and tactics of the oppressor and truly acknowledge the full range of our voices and needs. And how we learn to learn from each other and our different perspectives: maybe you’ll never become a police abolitionist, but do you understand why other movement colleagues are and can you work with them to address the real concerns they have about police reform platforms as they currently stand? Can we acknowledge, even if we choose police reform as a focus for now, that police abolitionists may be the holders of the long-term goal we need to work toward, and that our work won’t be done until that goal is addressed?
I see parallels in the LGBT movement and incidents like Jennicet Gutierrez’s action at the White House: marriage equality became the core fight because it was most palatable to the dominant culture and allowed the “movement” to “unify” its messaging – but that was a false unity that disregarded concerns voiced by groups experiencing marginalization within the movement. We can’t keep repeating this pattern. Intermediate policy wins are helpful for maintaining momentum and morale; but they become incredibly dangerous when we mistake them for endpoints and try to shut down those among us who are pointing to the work we need to keep doing. We need to figure out how to do the shorter-term, “feasible” work while holding the long-term, radically transformative vision before us at all times.
This isn’t an intellectual debate about movement strategies and tactics; this is about the life and heart of our movement. It’s about learning what love and solidarity mean so that, even when we are doing different things, we are always standing together and lifting one another up. And if nothing else, it’s because I don’t want my nephew and niece and their children fighting another version of this same battle in 40 or 50 years. I want the children of my family to inherit not only new policies but a new way of being, a transformed nation with love instead of hate and violence at its core. It takes a lot of faith to even believe that is a possibility – but for me, it’s the only vision worth working toward.