Dallas, Baton Rouge, and the New Level of Resistance

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by Yusef Imhotep

Dallas and Baton Rouge mark a new moment in the re-emerging Black Liberation movement, even if many activists aren’t ready to call what’s happening in the streets by that moniker.  Experts and pundits have already called both the attack in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter peaceful demonstration and the attack in Baton Rouge 3 days later senseless and unacceptable violence.  What they are is a new level of resistance. The shooters, Micah Xavier Johnson and Cosmo Setepenra (Gavin Long) were clear. They shot those police officers in retaliation for the police murders of Black people. They executed their actions in a planned, surgical, and pointed manner. This is resistance, whether one approves of the methods or not.  Community activists around the U.S. have long predicted an eventual armed group self-defense resistance because no people could continue to endure the abuse and repression U.S. Africans have endured since the height of the last sustained resistance during the Civil Rights and Black Power era. What have also been predictable are the responses to this heightened resistance: Republican politicians and conservative pundits blaming the president for endangering police with incendiary rhetoric, the president himself  characterizing the shootings as “vicious, callous, and despicable,” and cowardly, public figures placing responsibility on the Black Lives Matter movement for supposedly creating a hostile environment for police, traditional Civil Rights leadership, Black elected officials, and Black celebrities calling for peace and decrying violence “from both sides” in the face of the violent oppression of Black people, and the characterizing of Micah X. Johnson and Cosmo Setepenra as mentally unstable, disturbed individuals. All of these responses either mischaracterize or obscure the real context for Dallas and Baton Rouge. They instead offer various forms of cover and permission to pervasive police repression.

President Obama has faithfully maintained business as usual in the United States, an able operative of the sector of the ruling class that he represents.  Despite the hyperbolic rhetoric the conservative and liberal political talking points regarding the incompetence or subversion of their opposition, they are united in their commitment to business as usual, the flow of corporate money, and the extension of U.S. military and economic hegemony internationally.  President Obama, like every president before him, is the president of white America. So when the antagonistic relationship between African descendents in the U.S. and U.S. society re-emerges in one of its most spectacular forms, policing, the 2nd first Black president finds himself in an untenable position. As an African descended man of color and a lawyer, Mr. Obama is well aware of the violence that characterizes police interactions with Black people.

However, Mr. Obama is also aware of the special place police hold in the hearts of white Americans, who widely view police officers, especially white police officers, as the great defenders of civilization and the American way of life, particularly in the wake of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, both of which, philosophical non-violence notwithstanding, were and are seen as periods of lawlessness and disorder.  An impetus to discipline, punish and corral Black resistance has animated public discourse and policy on law and governance since then.  So as far back as his first term when Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates was erroneously arrested for entering his own house and Mr. Obama correctly and mildly identified the problematically poor behavior, the stupid behavior, of the police when they deal with African and Latino citizens, the conservative critics of the president have used those words to accuse him of inciting hatred and disrespect for the police.  The Civil Rights and the Black Power Movements both made it impossible to cling to the myth of U.S. innocence as they both revealed the heavy hand of the State in a contest for democratic space.  The professional conservatives refuse to see police repression of Black people for what it is.  They are committed to the lie.  It doesn’t matter what President Obama says.  His critics are a priori ready to lay blame at his feet.

What can I say of the president himself?  Because he is the primary representative of the U.S. state and the (problematic) embodiment of the American ego-ideal, he needed to say something about Dallas and Baton Rouge that would reassure Americans that he would defend the humanity and the mission of the downed police officers.  He described Micah Johnson’s actions as “vicious, callous, and despicable.”  How else could he characterize Johnson’s offensive?  He declared that there is no reason to shoot police officers following Setepenra’s attack.  He certainly wasn’t going to condone the shootings.  But the irony is thick.  These words came from the mouth of a man that maintains a kill list, approves the lethal use of drones, and has executed U.S. citizens abroad, liquidating their right to a trial by jury of their peers.  U.S. presidents are well acquainted with vicious, callous, despicable uses of violence.

The Black Lives Matter movement provides the easiest target for reactionary blame for Micah Johnson’s and Cosmo Setepenra’s actions.  Since the founding of BLM, defenders of the police and the criminal justice system have accused Black Lives Matter of making an already dangerous job even more dangerous.  This accusation simply went into overdrive.  Black Lives Matter has been disruptive, visible, articulate, resilient and resourceful over the last two years since the spontaneous and sustained resistance in Ferguson, MO, following Mike Brown’s murder.  They have kept the issue of both police and private citizen violence against Black people topical through their activism and organizing. Even as recipients of principled criticism from other Black activists engaged in a serious and independent organizing, Black Lives Matter has helped keep Black communities across the U.S. politically engaged with renewed energy.

Black Lives Matter employs non-violent direct actions like vigils, marches, die-ins, and disruptions.  One of their most recognizable memes since 2014 is the “Hands-up, don’t shoot” posture and slogan.  Black Lives Matter is decidedly non-violent. Those Black people and their non-Black allies demonstrating in the streets have not created the hostile environment.  They are responding to the hostile environment Black people endure every day, one in which Black lives so easily end at the hands of the police and private citizens without any guarantee of justice.  To do so amounts to an unforgivable sin in U.S. public discourse as it exposes the emptiness of claims to national unity.  Black protest cannot divide what was never unified.

Next, we have Representative John Lewis and the rest of the Congressional Black Caucus, Hip Hop MCs and impresarios, and most prominently several NBA superstars declaring for peace, for unity, for family and for understanding on both sides.  On the one hand, these responses gloss over the antagonistic relation between U.S. State and Civil Society forces and the U.S. African population.  U.S. society developed at the expense of African life and labor, and the society continues to benefit from an exploitative social relation through various sectors such as the prison industrial complex and finance capital in the form of high-interest payday loans and sub-prime loans.  On the other hand, these responses assume an equivalency between the national Black community and the State.  However, the State is bound by its own laws and international law to serve and protect citizens, including Black citizens.  Historically, rather than serving and protecting Black citizens and Black communities, police agencies have aggressively patrolled Black citizens and communities like they are in enemy territory.  Black communities possess none of the firepower or the institutional resources available to the state.  Nor do Black citizens have anymore obligation to be law abiding than any other citizens and residents.  The admonition from highly visible African Americans for the masses to behave better, more respectably, arises from the same false assumptions of pervasive criminality in Black communities.  The police, as agents of the state, have a higher duty to behave ethically, and when they don’t, the state has a higher duty to hold the police responsible.  The regular and routine exonerations of police officers (and private citizens) or the minimal consequences for police officers (and private citizens) after they have shot or choked and killed Black citizens, and others, have created an environment of impunity in the face of the murders of Black people.  That is exactly why the value of Black lives has been asserted.  The only threat the Black community poses to police officers is the one that haunts their imaginations and the imagination of the society at large.  That phantom of Black criminality also infiltrates the common sense of the national Black community.

Highly visible veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, Black elected officials, Black chiefs-of-police, and Black celebrities, all those who have most directly befitted from the advances gained with the limited opening of access since the Civil Rights Movement, have every reason to believe in the system.  It has rewarded them greatly.  So they try to walk a fine line, asserting the dignity and rights of Black people in the context of discrimination and racialized policing, but defending the fundamental credibility and authority of the system.  But this sector of the U.S. national Black community, the Black middle classes, the Black petty bourgeoisie, the primary beneficiaries of Affirmative Action programs after white women as a group, is upholding its part of the “new racial bribe,” the bargain with white power in the United States described by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow.  In the face of this, the U.S. African majority, the working class, the barely working, the mass incarcerated, the priced-out, suffer deeply all the worst effects of an exploitative, parasitic and violent system.  Those folks Houston Baker, Jr. defends as the poor Black majority in Little Africas all over the U.S. require no sensitivity training to understand better the plight of the police, as Russell Simmons recently recommended in Los Angeles.  Black Lives Matter and all the formations who demonstrate under that slogan and others who offer principled criticism of BLM are to be applauded for remaining in the streets and pushing back against attempts to shut down the movement after the shootings.  By doing so, they have challenged the turn to a new old narrative of police endangerment and police bravery by keeping the focus on police misconduct and systemic racism that demonstrate the colonial relationship the U.S. maintains with the U.S. African population.

Finally, several commentators have declared, outside of their expertise, that Micah Johnson and Cosmo Setepenra (Gavin Long) clearly suffered from mental illness. Why else would they ambush the police?  They would have to be disturbed to do so, right?  Both men received their training from the U.S. military, the former from the army and the latter from the marines.  They executed their attacks in a tactical manner.  They used the element of surprise to their advantage.  They targeted armed forces.  They acted with purpose and offered rationales for their actions.  They conceived of themselves as politically informed, and engaged with a declared enemy.  They acted as militant insurgents.  From a Fanonian perspective, far from a sign of mental illness, the actions of Johnson and Setepenra manifest a turn toward mental health, a reasonable response to the violence of the white supremacist state and society and a claim to the right of group defense and group preservation.  As for those who claim the attacks were false flag operations to shift the narrative in favor of the police and further criminalize and alienate Black resistance, even if this were the case, and I for one strongly doubt that, the attacks have not been widely condemned by the grassroots, nor have the street protesters been deterred, and the example set runs a high probability of inspiring deeper resistance.  That does not mean that shootings of police will necessarily increase, but it instills a sense of consequence when the state is so unreliable.  To characterize the actions as the work of the nefarious covert state is to deny the resistance the therapeutic effects of militant group defense.  So even if one cannot condone Johnson and Setepenra on the grounds of a philosophical commitment to non-violent resistance or tactical cost-benefit analysis of armed action, they should not be characterized as disturbed.  They are certainly no more disturbed than their fellow veterans who joined U.S. police departments, nor more disturbed than the rest of us colonized bodies and minds who daily engage in self and group negating practices.

All the officers connected to the murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore have been acquitted or had the charges dismissed, despite the official ruling of homicide.  This is why the resistance exists.  This is why, for some, the tactics of Black Lives Matter are insufficient.  This is why the resistance has intensified.  This is also why the repression will intensify.  As conversations on police and Black community relations move forward, or turn in circles, as calls for improved “race relations” continue to sound, the comments of Officer Jonathan Aledda of North Miami, Florida, should be kept at the forefront of the conversation.  Charles Kinsey, the behavioral specialist in North Miami whom Officer Aledda recently shot despite Kinsey stretching out on the ground with his hands up, asked the officer why he shot him.  Officer Aledda responded, “I don’t know.”  He doesn’t know.  He doesn’t necessarily have to know.  He did not act with reason.  He acted from thoughtless compulsion when confronted with a black body, a Black life. That should be most disturbing.

 

 

JOKO SATURDAY

JOKOCollective2016

HealthHazard

 Capitalism & Crises/Culture & Solutions

Fire this time! We’ve got a cayennehot mix of social critique

&call to action that addresses the urgency of our situations

locally, nationally and globally.

Earth, Water & Sky: The Race Politics of Pollution 

Official policy & corporate interests– embedded in the cultural matrix of White Supremacy–conspire to ensure that Black and Brown peoples bear the brunt of crisis caused by industrial polluters. We see it in the global effects of climate change and in our toxin-saturated local communities. We see it in the development ventures that disfigure our neighborhoods, create hazards, disorient and displace us.

We must see that we have a human right to place and to sound environments.

 

Session Topics: Climate Change, Flint Water Poisoning, Public Health Policy, Resistance Efforts

Saturday, July 9 4-7 pm

 

Modern Revolutions and the African- Our Agency, Our Centrality, Our Outcomes: A Survey of Modern Revolutions and Reform

LucyParsons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FredHampton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below is a link to a PowerPoint presentation (Joko Teach-In: Modern Revolutions) and the bullet points that expand on some of the slides.  I gave the presentation a member of the JOKO Collective, a grassroots, community based  brain trust/think tank/study circle/discussion group.

“In the Yoruba language the word JOKO means “sit”. To “have a JOKO” is to have a “sit down”, or gathering for the purpose of resolving conflict — by uncovering the truth of the matter…JOKO is not a space where all information is created equal. It’s a space where information is scrutinized through universal rules of logic and inquiry, source quality and corroborative data, and sound, replicable methods of analysis…Thus, our agenda statement currently reads: ‘JOKO At The AFIBA is a panel/group discussion series that provides a space for the exercise of critical thinking. For practice in the art of sustained, critical dialogue, we treat selected topics for several sessions and in this way, we construct in-depth understandings of the topics, and their relationship to African People’s bid for empowerment.'” (from “Welcome to JOKO, a Grassroots Braintrust” by Tasha Thomas, posted at http://www.brothersquarterly.wordpress.com, August 5, 2014)

Joko Teach-In Modern Revolutions

A July Joko Two Day Teach-in:

“Modern Revolutions and the African World”

 

Saturday, July 11, 2015, 4-6 PM “A Survey of Modern Revolutions”

  • We must define Revolution and Reform.
  • 1649 The Commonwealth of England
  • Cromwell and Rump Parliament execute King Charles I and attempt to create an English republic.
  • Republicanism becomes the primary form of the modern, bourgeois, liberal state.
  • The class controlling the state controls the economy, the colonies, and the trade routes, to all of which Africans were central.
  • 1775-1783 The American War of Independence
  • The North American settlers wage an anti-royalist war for reform. They assume management of the system, and retain property and social relations. Independence insures that the U.S. can maintain slavery as the foundation of the national wealth.
  • 1789-1815 The French Revolution
  • Radical break with the Old Regime: Royalty, Aristocracy, and the Church.
  • Under pressure from men of color in the French National Assembly, slavery is abolished and then reinstated by Napoleon.
  • 1791 -1804 The Haitian Revolution
  • History of African resistance
  • From Caribbean front of French Revolution to Haitian Revolution.
  • Haiti shakes the security of all other slaveholding states and colonies in the Americas.
  • Spanish American Wars of Independence
  • Africans & Afro-Mestizos central to conflicts
  • 1808-1821 Bolivar and Gran Colombia
  • 1810-1821 The Mexican War of Independence
  • 1862-1898 Cuban Wars of Independence
  • 1848 Revolution in Europe
  • Primarily middles classes and organized workers seeking reform and/or asserting nationalist claims
  • Within a year, royalists and reactionaries reassert control.
  • Socialist ideas and principles spread and grow in popularity.
  • 1910-1920 The Mexican Revolution
  • Land reform was a key issue.
  • 1917-1918 The Russian Revolution
  • Bolsheviks come to power, execute royal family, and dismantle the Czarist state.
  • 1949 The Chinese Revolution
  • China goes from a nationalist liberation struggle to communist revolution with a primarily peasant army.
  • 1959 The Cuban Revolution
  • Under U.S. control since 1898 and the U.S. intervention in the Cuban struggle, Cubans make several attempts to overthrow foreign rule and the local collaborators.
  • July 26 Movement finally achieves victory.
  • Cuba embodies the propaganda problem of a successful revolutionary example.
  • 1945-1992 “Third World” Revolution
  • Africa
  • Americas
  • East and South Asia
  • The Pacific
  • Western Asia

 

 

 

Retiring Endeavor and the Meaning of Spectacle

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The retirement of the space shuttle USS Endeavor provides a rich opportunity to examine the role spectacle continues to play in the political culture of the postmodern imperial state.  The citizen-subjects of the United States enjoyed the opportunity to gaze upon the Sovereign embodied in the technology of the space shuttle program.  The vehicle that provided the means for the empire to break the barrier of the atmosphere and return multiple trips has always meant more to the image that the U.S. state has wanted to project to the U.S. public and the world than merely its scientific value.  In mid-October, it began its new old semiotic life.  The spectacle of the shuttle being carried across country on the back of a jumbo jet allowed the citizen-subjects to gaze upon the body of the Sovereign-Republic reconfigured in the display of power in its aspect as technology; it also allowed them to experience an imagined real transfixing moment. The Sovereign-Republic, twice embodied in the space shuttle and the plane big enough to carry it, doubles itself again in the joining of its two aspects, State and Civil Society, characterized by the political economy of government military spending on contracts with private industry. And the national and local media happily played their role as imperial criers, readying the population for the display of the Sovereign’s train.

The sight of the Endeavor riding piggy-back on a jumbo jet should have delivered a sufficient display of power, but it turns out that for Los Angeles, piggy-back space technology only provided prologue to the main event.  That was like the cartoon movie houses used to show before the double feature back in the days before the multiplex. In my neighborhood, we had a close up view of the spectacle. In fact, we joined in the spectacle, although joining in might not be exactly accurate. The engineers pulled the Endeavor from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center at Exposition Park.  That journey goes right through Inglewood and Southwest Los Angeles, among L.A.’s Blackest and Brownest neighborhoods, and also neighborhoods where barely working class, working class and lower middle class families live near some of the most affluent neighborhoods just up the hill or across the freeway.  This symbol of the Sovereign’s power took a two day journey through the midst of the U.S.’s historically repressed and exploited internal colonies, U.S. and immigrant Africans, First Nations and Chicano-Mexicanas, Central Americans and Puerto Ricans, Pacific Islanders, East Asians and South Asians.  People came out in droves to see the shuttle, and upon seeing the crowds, maybe to see each other.

Still, I question whether we joined in anything because most of us did very little. That is, the event, and it was an event, required minimal participation. The event required us to come forth and view. That is the meaning of spectacle, a thing to be seen, and that’s what most of us did, look, try to get a close-up, snap photos, post to Facebook or Instagram.  So despite the carnival atmosphere, the sense of celebration, there was no celebrating really happening beyond the official performances and speeches from politicians and community…leaders?  Those too were to be seen.  That aligns quite well with late modern popular culture in the U.S. So much of it requires watching: watching movies, watching parades, watching the game, watching TV, watching computer screens, watching smartphone screens, watching celebrities, watching our words, but not watching the watchers.  We waited, and we simply watched the shuttle sit on its raised, be-wheeled platform, or watched it get pulled ponderously, achingly slowly down the Inglewood and L.A. streets, being maneuvered to avoid telephone and lamp posts.  Many trees gave their lives for Endeavor even before the journey began, a little less shade in the ‘hood.

The Endeavor made an extended stop at the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Crenshaw Boulevard, in the heart of the last U.S. African majority neighborhood within the city limits of Los Angeles.  King runs east and west and marks the southern border of Exposition Park.  Besides the California Science Center and Aerospace Museum, Exposition Park also “houses” the L.A. County Museum of Natural History, the Rose Garden, the California Afro-American Museum, the Los Angeles Sports Arena, the Olympic Pool and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  Pointing east on King, the Endeavor was positioned for its final expedition, from Crenshaw to Exposition Park.  Befitting a city known for its entertainment industry, the Endeavor sat on its platform in the intersection flooded with lights, underscoring the (anti) drama of the moment and lending a bit more of unreality to the scene, as it felt like a movie set.  That night, as I joined the crowd to get a close up view of the thing that had blocked traffic in the neighborhood all day and had been attracting thousands since ten that morning, hours before its arrival in the early evening, I heard a sister on a cell phone behind me. “There it is,” she said, “right in front of me. Well, I’ve seen everything now. I guess I can move out of the neighborhood.”

When Exposition Park, Inglewood and Southwest L.A. were first designed and built, they were white neighborhoods.  That the display of the Sovereign wound its way through Black and Brown neighborhoods occurred as a result of history, shifting demographics, and white flight.  Nonetheless, the spectacle offered the local residents their chance to share in the delusion of inclusion as many of the country’s most marginalized people chanted, “U.S.A.,” for the local news crews.  For the weekend of October 12 through October 14, they occupied the patriotic center of attention, certainly in the region if not elsewhere.  Very much the way the spectacle of a black president has given permission to many otherwise disaffected people of color to express openly long held desires to feel a part of the project of the United States, the people most often found newsworthy for pathology, embraced their roles as the faces of U.S. patriotism.

Now, Toyota has launched an ad campaign for the Tundra, highlighting the truck for pulling the tonnage of the Endeavor.  In fact, Toyota’s advertising campaign is what has got me thinking about the Endeavor again.  The fact of a Japanese auto company capitalizing on a U.S. American patriotic display, and Time Warner Cable using their participation in clearing the Endeavor’s path as a public relations move, points us in the right direction: behind the sentimentality associated with this display of U.S. technological achievement, the Endeavor tells a story of the profit motive and military advantage, obscured themes of the United States’ story of itself.  The tales of brave astronaut-scientists routinely tempting death and defying the confines of the atmosphere in the pursuit of knowledge situate the U.S space program in a fictional space outside politics in the mainstream discussion.  The actual losses of life with the Challenger and the Columbia have demonstrated the real danger associated with human space travel and have only enhanced the seeming apolitical character of the space program.  But like all military contracting and aerospace projects, questions of jobs, resource use, spending priorities, disbursements, and budgets always carry political implications. 

The relationships between the technology present in the space shuttles and the procurement of the “strategic minerals” necessary to produce and maintain the now grounded shuttle fleet and other U.S. military technology remains primarily obscured.  But when we gazed upon the shuttle, we gazed upon the empire’s resolve to maintain control of those “strategic minerals,” minerals primarily found in the Global South, the ancestral homes of the people of color who lined the streets to see the body of the Sovereign, pulled down the street by a Toyota Tundra.  I am going to guess that few of us thought of the Endeavor as implicated in mineral wars in Congo or Western Asia, or ruinous mineral extraction in South America or the Caribbean Basin. I’m going to guess that most of us did not think of rocket testing in the Pacific.  I’m going to guess that few of us drew a connection between our under-funded public schools, libraries and medical centers and the government contracts awarded for shuttle construction, even as the shuttle program promised to enhance and inspire research in these areas.  Science is not free of the stains of imperialism and capitalism.

So now, the Endeavor sits in its new home, covered by a large tent in order to protect the State’s investment from weather and vandals.  It represents a tourism coup for Los Angeles County, one more destination for school field trips and visitors to our lovely city.  That means revenue, and revenue matters, which is why Toyota and Time Warner have seized the opportunity to use the Endeavor to sell Tundras and telecommunication services.   But more than the money, or at least as importantly as the money because of its implications for the continued flow of the money, the cultural meaning of the Endeavor also matters, matters very much.  The cultural value of the Endeavor’s display, which is to say its ideological value, must be measured in its ability to intimidate, to awe and to pacify the public at large, especially the colonized public.  It must be measured in its ability to foster a sense of credibility and inevitability for the Sovereign’s reign.  Come to think of it, I’m not sure that the Endeavor has retired at all.                

Revolution and Race in Ada Ferrer’s Insurgent Cuba

In Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898, Ada Ferrer describes a nationalist revolutionary process in late Nineteenth Century Cuba that created new subject positions for African descended Cubans, enslaved and free, which in turn threatened the symbolic order such that social relations formed under a slave-society regime exercised a counter pressure that frustrated the most liberatory practices of the independence struggle.  The threat to the social order in Cuba following the 1868 declaration of the independence struggle resulted in a propaganda offensive from the Spanish colonial government that initially succeeded by invoking the modern colonial symbolic order through the accusation of “race war”.  The partnering of independence and emancipation first articulated by Carlos Manuel De Cespedes in 1868 produced a tension between what a Cuban nationality could mean in the face of a freed and armed Black population and a Hispano-Catholic cultural hegemony.  The power of the symbolic order emerges always and already asserting itself under any historical condition.  Defined as language, the attempt to describe and assign meaning to the experience of “the real,” and enacted through the formal and informal uses of language by institutions and individuals, people perform the symbolic order through custom and habit.  We reproduce the symbolic order through law, education, commerce, customary behaviors, and the myriad conscious and unconscious retellings of the “…legends, stories, history, and above all historicity” (Fanon 112) that inhabit our understanding of how the world does and “should” work.  The symbolic exerts a policing action on worldview, placing boundaries on what should be imagined.  In other words, the symbolic order is the ideological ground upon which the subject figure acts.

The symbolic order under the regime of modern colonialism and slavery has posited the ontological difficulty of “blackness.”  Blackness, as a human condition, has been constructed as a sign of both the absence and the negation of civilization.  Indeed, the possibility of human blackness has even been brought into question as Western intellectuals have for centuries now seriously debated whether black peoples are members of the human species, or to what degree black people may be humans.  Whereas the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century bourgeois revolutions of the Americas and Europe reformed the Western symbolic relationship among social classes, raising the citizen-subject to ontological equality with the traditional nobility, introducing new behaviors and new explanations for those behaviors, black revolutionary struggle, as in Haiti, threatens to overturn the symbolic order more fundamentally, that is, from its foundation.  For example, in response to the colonial state invoking “race war” as the proper representation of the independence struggle, Cuban nationalists of the 1880s and 1890s invoked a policy of “racelessness.”  The nationalists invented racelessness specifically to erase the blackness of the independence struggle while avoiding an open appeal to whiteness.  But racelessness, as Ada Ferrer shows, means different things from different subject positions.  An attempt to shift the terrain of the symbolic, “racelessness” remains trapped in the language of race and the practice of white privilege, thus reproducing the ruling ideology.

Another aspect of the symbolic order, gender, also complicates the meaning of independence and national character.  In their own representation of the emerging Cuban nation, the Cuban nationalists of the late Nineteenth Century constructed an emphatically masculine image of the nation.  Governance remained the domain of men, black and/or white, those who through their struggle and sacrifice made independence possible.  The nationalist writers erase the contributions of women, without whom the war for independence could not succeed.  They erase the women from their representations of the struggle, thus excluding women from the public sphere of an independent Cuba.  On the gender question, the rebel army and nationalist intellectuals reproduced the symbolic order apparently without question, and this was despite the very active cadres of women forming revolutionary clubs, support committees and raising funds for the fight as Nancy Mirabal describes in “No Country but the One We Must Fight For” (62).  These tensions produced by challenges to the symbolic order and recourses to the symbolic order coalesce in the court martial of Quintin Bandera, a successful Black general of the rebel army, discussed below.

Struggle transforms.  When Carlos Manuel De Cespedes freed his slaves, declared them co-citizens and exhorted them to join him and other Cuban patriots in an armed struggle against the Spanish colonizer, he invited those African men into new subject positions, namely into a new claim to a Black subjectivity in the public sphere.  The call to independence and emancipation, the two being constructed as necessary for the realization of each other, and the call for African men to participate in the practice of independence and emancipation, created a sanctioned public space for Black subjectivity within a symbolic order that denies or at best doubts the possibility of a public Black subjectivity.  The Black body is already marked as an object, the body par excellence, if not exclusively, that can be enslaved.  The constructed pre-condition of the enslaved/enslaveable Black body made the certificate of freedom necessary for free Africans in slave societies, the authority of the master represented through the law embodied in the text of the certificate, here invoked to supersede the symbolic order of custom.  Unlike the unsanctioned public subjectivity of the maroon communities, the palenques, De Cespedes’ call to revolution and emancipation constructed Black armed resistance as a creative force in the forging of the nation, rather than the destructive element preventing the emergence of the nation.  It was after all, Ferrer reports, the prominent African descent population that allowed Spain to represent Cuba as incapable of nationhood because the nation would be a Black nation, another Haiti, in a sense an anti-nation.  I will return to this subject below.

African men expressed their new subject positions through new and open challenges to traditional social relations during the independence war.  Ferrer offers the example of Emeterio Palacios, a free black tobacco worker from Santiago who was detained by the Spanish authorities for suspicion of supporting the rebel cause.  What is of significant interest in his case has less to do with his actual or perceived support of the rebels, but rather with the manner in which he (allegedly) greeted a white man familiarly in a café.  Ferrer reports Palacios as having withheld the honorific title Don from the white man, D. Jose Gilli, and instead calling Gilli ciudadanito [little citizen]: “Palacios thus not only denied him the don to address him as “citizen” and therefore as an equal, but he also opted for the diminutive form of the word, much in the same manner that non-blacks often addressed blacks as negrito” (41).  Palacios’s familiarity was taken as a threat to public order of the same high order as any possible rebel activity.  Indeed, they are of a piece, the leveling of social relations both through race, class, and the claim to citizenship.

General Antonio Maceo
General Antonio Maceo

Again, Ferrer offers Antonio Maceo as an illuminating example of the challenge to the symbolic order expressed through traditional social relations.  When the Spanish commander Martinez Campos approached Maceo to bring him into the Pact of Zanjon, which inscribed the negotiated surrender of the Cuban rebels after ten years of war, Maceo, having already assumed a position in the symbolic order denied to him on at least two counts as colonial subject and a mulato, that of an honorable man, he also challenged Spain’s claim to being a civilized nation, equating civilization and progress with full emancipation and social equality.  As long as Spain was a slave owning empire, which is to say an empire at all, colonialism being a species of slavery, the colonial state could not be characterized as civilized.  Maceo turns the colonial symbolic order on its head (66).

Nonetheless, the symbolic order is resilient and adaptable.  It frames the ideology of a culture and gives shape to the content of that ideology, reproducing the ideology through the embodied actions of people, including those cultural acts like speech acts or the exercise of politeness or courtesy.  Even in the execution of the war, the tension created by the challenge to the symbolic order reveals the difficulty with which those invested in the maintenance of the order attempt to reproduce traditional social relations.  Insurgent white officer Ignacio Mora’s specific criticisms about the transfer of power from the white Cuban Ignacio Agramonte to the black Dominican Maximo Gomez betray a cultural-racial-national anxiety.  Ferrer reproduces this passage from his war diary:

“If [Gomez] has not destroyed the Camaguey division and converted it into bands, it is because its officer corps, formed by Agramonte, still remember the maxims and rules of their old leader.  How jarring it is to see today’s camps!  The noise, the gambling [el juego], the shooting of cattle, the tango of the blacks, the wild parties, and the filth of these camps warn us that their leader completed his apprenticeship in Santo Domingo.  Everything reveals his poor upbringing and the society from which he comes.” (52)

Mora clearly experienced anxiety over the shifting cultural forms of recreation in the camps.  War had been conducted as a “gentlemen’s” endeavor for centuries, reproducing the class structure of civilian society.  His comments replicate the myths, stories and legends that cast African cultural forms as inherently immoral and antithetical to “the love of discipline, order, or morality” (52).  Even his reference to “bands” may allude to unease with a shift to guerrilla tactics by Gomez. The culture of war came into tension with the shifting subjectivities that the rupture of the independence war allowed to emerge.

Haitian Revolution

Under the modern colonial condition of white supremacy, the black body represents a troubling presence.  The symbolic order under white supremacist colonialism demands that blackness, however widely or narrowly represented, to be defined as a problem.  Thus, the pressure exerted by the hegemonic symbolic order rendered the notion of an African Cuba, another Haiti, unthinkable except as a nightmare by slave societies and their neo-slavery arrangements following emancipation throughout the Americas in the Nineteenth Century.  Colonial Spain could therefore easily employ a propaganda war to exploit the fear of race war and the anxiety produced in the rebel camps by the darkening of the ranks and the officer corps.  Mora, cited above, was not among those rebels who surrendered to Spain in 1871, but he agreed with those who surrendered that the “problem” with the rebel army, the reason for its de-moralization, could be found in its increasingly African descended character.  Elite men asserted the old class hierarchies and racial hierarchies within the rebel army, and these assertions crashed against the new public faces of African men, Cuban citizens and patriots making claims to equality through shared armed struggle and the embrace of the values of the French Revolution: Liberte’, Egalite’, Fraternite’.

The representation of the independence struggle as a race war effectively demoralized white Cuban support for the war both within the rebel army and among the civilian population.  To combat claims of race war by Blacks against whites during the period between La Guerra Chiquita and the final war for independence, 1880 to 1895, the Cuban nationalists on the island and in exile reconstructed the war under the rubric of racelessness.  But racelessness is a tricky proposition.  It remains within the semantic field of race language.  The appeal to racelessness in the hands and from the pens of the most sympathetic of white Cubans could not transcend the “problem” of blackness.  Racelessness as a position was necessary because the racist anxieties of the white population needed to be assuaged.  In this way, racelessness reinforced a Eurocentric premise: the opinions and attitudes that mattered most were the opinions, fears and attitudes of whites, not blacks.  Ferrer explains that the whitening of Cuba through increased Spanish immigration in the period helped the nationalists in this reconstruction of the discourse of the Ten Years’ War.  Indeed, throughout Latin America, ruling elites encouraged and facilitated European immigration in order to whiten the overwhelmingly Mestizo/Mulato populations.    

Even as the final war in the 1890s drew to a close, and before the United States’ intervention, another sort of whitening occurred with the moving of white Cubans, many late comers to the struggle, into the military administrative positions that would eventually become the local governance, and thus limited or eliminated the possibility of black leadership in the future civilian administration of the nation.  Suitability for leadership became associated with “refinement” and “civility” and education, traits preconceived as nearly impossible in the black individual and monopolized by elite families.  Consistent with early Spanish colonial policy regarding gentes de razon or “persons of reason,” namely those conversant in the Spanish language, the sign of a rational mind, the turn to refinement as the mark of suitability for leadership again reproduced the lie that on the one hand equates progress, modernity and civilization with European history and culture, and on the other alienates Spain’s (and other European and settler colonialists’) colonial subjects from their own histories and cultures in antagonistic relation to Europe and whiteness.  Black majority threatens white existence and thus must remain controlled.

In contrast, in the hands and from the pens of black Cuban nationalists, the appeal to racelessness was an appeal to the democratic and egalitarian principles of the independence struggle.  It should have meant the removal of traditional barriers to advancement or access to power.  When it did not mean that, but instead denied access to African descended persons or facilitated the advancement of white individuals in order to remove the suggestion of favoritism toward blacks and mulattos, and thus remove charges of race war like those routinely aimed at Maceo, black Cuban intellectuals decried the practice as fundamentally treasonous, betraying the very ideals upon which the struggle was launched by Manuel de Cespedes in 1868, indeed antithetical to slogan of the French Revolution used freely by the Cubans: liberty, equality, fraternity.

Juan Gualberto Gomez
Juan Gualberto Gomez

Ferrer effectively demonstrates this in her comparative analysis of the writings of Juan Gualberto Gomez, a mulatto journalist, and Cuban patriot Jose Marti.  Once again betraying the anxiety producing presence of the black body, the black insurgent was a prominent figure for reconstruction.  Whereas the white reading audience needed to be reassured of the fidelity and even passivity of the black insurgent, grateful and deferential under arms, black and mulatto writers writing for a black press championed the black insurgents’ dedication to Cuban nationality, gratitude for the independence struggle that led to the end of slavery, but also the reminder of the nation’s debt of gratitude to the black insurgents.  Black and white Cuban nationalists both represented race war waged by blacks against whites as unthinkable and the accusation as slanderous.

Jose Marti
Jose Marti

Finally, Ferrer effectively raises the problematic of gender in the representations of the independence struggle.  The Cuban independence writers constructed a singularly masculine image of the nation.  The descriptions of men, black and white, struggling as brothers in arms, suffering the hardships of camp life and war, dying in each other’s arms and carrying each other’s wounded bodies placed a claim on the public sphere of the emerging nation.  These writers constructed the nation as the creation of modern Cuban men inventing a new kind of brotherhood in the world.  This representation is, of course, a fiction.  Ferrer mentions the participation of mambisas, Cuban women who fought in battle with the men (174).  Susan D. Greenbaum discusses Paulina Pedroso, a black Cuban woman living in Tampa, Florida, during the independence struggle who among other activities organized locally in support of independence (53).  Mirabal reports on organizations founded by Cuban and Puerto Rican women in support of the independence struggle when they were barred from joining the male revolutionary clubs formed by the exile communities in North America, organizations like La Hijas de Cuba that challenged the hegemony of all-male groups like Junta Revolucionaria de Cuba y Puerto Rico (62).  Nonetheless, the masculinist language of the independence movements constrained access to power for women engaged in the struggle: “They remained, despite their efforts and relative power, outside of the decision-making body of what was quickly becoming the main exile nationalist organization, the PRC [Partido Revolucionario Cubano] (64).  This masculinist discourse of nation doubly erased the contributions of African descended Cuban women. 

Like the black presence, and with its own body of myths, stories, legends, histories and historicities, the female presence is also troubling in the masculinist symbolic order of patriarchal culture.  To return to a point introduced above, Ferrer’s discussion of the court martial of Quintin Bandera focuses on the cultural differences that emerged in the accusations against him, namely his openness about his fraternization with women in the camp, even though what he was accused of was a widespread practice throughout the rebel army, if done under cover of dark, as it were.  Among other things, the morality of his camp was impugned because of the presence of his female partner and those of his men in the camp, rather than at a remove as was the custom.

General Quintin Bandera
General Quintin Bandera

A “rustic” man, Bandera’s manner clashed with the expectations of the more “refined” Cuban leadership.  Bandera broke with the expectations and the representation of the rebel camp as an exclusively masculine space.  The broader, more inclusive and accurate model for the nation could have been taken from Bandera’s example, except that it too deeply upset the symbolic order that had been inscribed regarding the makers of the nation.  I even wonder to what degree Bandera and the men and women in his army may have been conducting the practice of war in a maroon manner.  That is mere speculation.  But I am fascinated by the suggestion.

Ferrer’s use of the war diaries and memoirs of the rebels provide an illuminating view into the ways in which political and social struggle transforms social relations and public subjectivities.  The African descended men (and women) who participated in this struggle in the thousands on the one hand seized upon this opportunity to abolish the slave society that held many of them and/or their family members as chattel, and on the other hand to participate in the forging of a new, independent modern nation, one that would owe them loyalty and gratitude for their service.  Ferrer’s examination of the independence writers also offers another example the role of a discourse of nationalism and the press in inventing the nation.  Nonetheless, the racialized symbolic order of modernity (re)imposed itself upon the Cuban struggle for independence, highlighting the difficulty involved in dismantling systems of hierarchy and oppression, however necessary the work, something to which contemporary Revolutionary Cuba attended early in its process when Fidel claimed African blood flowing freely through Cuban veins as constitutive of Cuban identity (qtd. in Cole 77).  Revolutionary Cuba acted upon this heritage through internationalist solidarity with liberation and revolutionary movements and nations in Africa and the Africa Diaspora.  Whereas Revolutionary Cuba has also inherited and promoted its own version of racelessness, and despite lingering racists attitudes and assumptions in Cuba, the revolution has at least seriously attempted to reconcile the African character of Cuban history, culture and genealogy with a contemporary Cuban national identity, another form of challenge to the modern symbolic order. Read Ada Ferrer’s Insurgent Cuba. She provides valuable lessons for us as some of us continue to work for a free world, for genuine African liberation.

Works Cited

Castro, Fidel. “We Stand with the People of Africa.” Venceremos Brigade Pamphlet. 1976. Quoted in “Afro-American Solidarity with Cuba. Johnetta B. Cole. The Black Scholar: Report from Cuba. Summer 1977.

Greenbaum, Susan D. “Afro-Cubans in Tampa.” The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. Eds. Miriam Jimenez Roman and Juan Flores. Duke University Press: Durham, 2010. Pp. 51-61.

Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. Grove Press: New York, 1967. Pp. 109-140.

Ferrer, Ada. Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1999.

Mirabal, Nancy, Raquel. “No Country but the One We Fight For: The Emergence of an Antillean Nation and Community in New York City, 1860-1901.” Mambo Montage. Eds. Agustin Lao-Montes and Arlene Davila.  Columbia University Press: New York, 2001. Pp. 57-72.

Free Libya Is Green Libya: Supporting the Real Libyan Revolution

For eight months now, NATO has executed an open crime against a sovereign African state and called it a democratic revolution.  Libya was a stable, prosperous, debt-free country in Africa until it came under attack in February.  The United States and the European Union cynically seized the opportunity provided by the genuine people’s movements in Tunisia and Egypt where the Western backed administrations were forced to remove their heads of state in attempts to manage the popular democratic movements in the streets.  The U.S. and E.U. rapidly exploited the monarchist and “Islamist” resentment long present in Benghazi.  The democratic aspirations of this opposition in Libya was dubious from the beginning, and within days of the actual opposition demonstrations that were not unusual in Benghazi, the “peaceful demonstrators” attacked a police station and suddenly emerged as a full-fledged armed faction.  That U.S. and E.U. country Special Forces and intelligence forces had been on the ground from the very beginning arming and guiding what has become the National Transitional Council has become clear, and who denies the fact?

Even now, as this coalition claims to be the true and legal representatives of the wishes of the Libyan people, they represent maybe 5 percent of Libyans.  They are an illegitimate entity thrust upon Libya by the force of NATO military power, and still they have not defeated the Jamahiriyah, the People’s Government of Libya.  Through their actions, NATO has declared once again that no country can impart upon an independent path of development and an indigenous, culturally specific experiment with democracy.  The West claims a monopoly on the meaning, form and practice of democracy, and the intellectuals, journalists and pundits in the West have shown themselves unable to remove the prejudices that convince them that democracy must look like and smell like the elite bourgeois democracy of the imperial countries.  These are the same liberal bourgeois republics and constitutional monarchies that have perpetrated more than two hundred years of slavery, colonialism, and genocide attendant to capitalist production over the centuries.  That doesn’t smell very good!

Through mainstream media, these professional talkers and writers made and continue to make the ground and air war palatable.  Mainstream capitalist media rarely break with the official story offered by government.  However on Libya, they have aggressively disseminated misinformation about Libyan society and the character of the uprising.  Not every rebellion is a revolution. The media’s uncritical representation of the factions that would become the NTC cast them as democratic freedom fighters rather than investigate their reactionary monarchism and fundamentalism.  Moreover, the media all but ignore the aggressive genocide taking place against the native Black population and migrant worker population.  Early in the conflict, media spread the lie of “African mercenaries,” thus facilitating attacks against dark skinned Libyans and other Africans.  Again, mainstream media reproduce the official story as a matter of course.

Unfortunately, the mainstream, corporate, pentagon friendly media were joined in the demonization of Gaddafi and the misrepresentation of the Jamahiriyah by the standard of progressive and liberal media in the United States, Democracy Now! and the Pacifica Network.  Progressive/liberal media characterized the rebellion that began in Benghazi as a revolution rather than the counter revolution that it is.  They provided airtime for opposition spokespersons and their supportive progressive and liberal analysts and pundits, which betrayed an antipathy to African and Arab revolutionary nationalism.  They offered little to no air to voices in support of the Jamahiriyah; neither did they report on its democratic processes, again reproducing the government narrative.  Those voices that make it onto Pacifica stations are brought on by independent producers like Dedon Kimathi at KPFK in Los Angeles and J.R. Valrey of Block Reportin’ at KPFK in Berkeley.  Progressive/liberal media has been consistent in its unity with the mainstream on the question of Libya, revolutionary nationalist governments like Zimbabwe, and war in Africa, assuming their place in the continuum of the hegemonic narrative of empire.  Much of the establishment Black press was only slightly better, refusing to criticize Obama directly, or doing so only obtusely, even when covering the anti-black violence of the NTC brigades.  Tied to the two-party system, and especially the Democratic Party, the imperative to re-elect the undeserving Obama supersedes the duty to defend what was the most advanced country in Africa in regard to the human development of the population and a government that reached out to African Americans as members of the Pan-African nation.  The Nation of Islam’s The Final Call’s coverage has been, on the other hand, exemplary.

Libya is the northern front in the re-assault on Africa.  NATO countries engage in proxy war in Somalia while French troops continue muscularly to prop up the imposed government of Alassane Ouattara in Cote Ivoire, and now with troops on the ground in Central Africa, the U.S and Europe through AFRICOM has increasingly militarized their activities on the continent.  These powers cannot abide African independence, nor will they allow China to continue to pursue its agenda in Africa unchallenged.  As during the Cold War of the Twentieth Century, the US and EU again show their willingness to use African and Asian bodies in hot war to frustrate the interests of their competitors, this time capitalist-communist China.  Where ever the U.S. and Europe are present in Africa, the countries are destabilized and in debt, and the people suffer.  Despite their democratic rhetoric, their humanitarian rationalizations, and promises of economic growth, the Western presence in Africa, whether through diplomacy, covert and overt military intervention, economic investment, or settler channels, remains toxic.  Now the poison flows through Libya, literally, as NATO has bombed both land and water with depleted uranium.

During the 1960s and 1970s, socialist and progressive sectors around the world recognized the heroism and the correctness of the Vietnamese people in their struggle against the U.S. inheritors of the French colonial project in Southeast Asia.  The Vietnamese fought the most powerful military in the world and won the victory.  Their struggle inspired revolutionaries across the Global South and among internal colonies in the Global North.  Today Vietnam is a sovereign country.  Despite a number of independent journalists’ (e.g. Lizzie Phelan, Webster Tarpley, Stephen Lendmen, Gerald Perreira, and Thierry Meyssan) challenges to the dominant narrative on Libya, easily accessible on the internet and sometimes on cable news outlets like RT News, Libya still suffers from gross misrepresentations of the experiment in direct democracy and socialism embodied in the People’s Committees of the Jamahiriyah.  Western professional progressives rarely take the vision expressed in the Green Book seriously, routinely falling into the “eccentric, flamboyant” Gaddafi” lazy reporting trap.   The failure of what passes for leftist analysis in much of the U.S. and Europe to recognize the progressive and genuinely popular character of the Jamahiriyah makes them complicit in the disaster called the NTC that has befallen Libya.  Nonetheless, the Libyan people continue to fight against the most powerful military alliance in the world, NATO.  The NTC is nothing without NATO.  The Green Resistance continues to fight.  Libya is Vietnam.  Can the Green Resistance rely on international support?

Libya is also Spain in the 1930s.  During that struggle, the capitalist governments of the West stood by and watched the fascists bleed Republican Spain, despite material support from the Soviet Union, because in fact, they cared more about capitalist social relations and profits than they cared about democracy and the will of the Spanish people who elected the popular government.  Today, they have destroyed the infrastructure of the most stable African country outside of Southern Africa, bombing them incessantly in support of racist, fascist and monarchist forces in the NTC who would have been defeated months ago if not for NATO air war.  This time Russia failed to veto the key vote in the UN Security Council and can’t offer the same kind of material support, despite their distrust and defensive position vis-à-vis NATO.  Their criticism of NATO since then, even as it helps challenge NATO’s narrative, still rings somewhat hollow.  During the Spanish Civil War, progressive forces around the world organized themselves into international brigades to support the Spanish Republican and Loyalists forces materially and as brothers and sisters in arms.  Can the international brigades today fly to Libya’s aid?  Can African revolutionaries fight in Libya, knowing that the fight for Libya is the fight for Africa, and not care if they are called mercenaries?  What national African military will join the Green Resistance in its battle against a virulently anti-black, racist force in the NATO/NTC and the mercenaries they are now flying into Libya, like Xe (formerly Blackwater)?

Of course, now it is not so easy to offer material support or even ideological support to revolutionary movements.  In the world of the Patriot Act, heightened security measures and full spectrum surveillance, one can quite quickly be arrested and disappeared for aiding and abetting “terrorism” if the group or movement one supports has been classified as a terrorist organization.  Power has been very careful to police the degree to which groups and movements engaged in anti-imperialist and revolutionary struggle can be helped by exile and solidarity formations.  The kind of fund raising and support that the ANC, the PAC, the PAIGC, the PLO, the IRA, the FMLN and similar movements enjoyed in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s into the ‘90s is mostly illegal now.  The governments of the NATO countries will not likely look easily on activists among their own citizens and residents dedicated to restoring the people’s government they have spent so much money and time bombing.  The formation of a group like C.I.S.P.E.S. (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) or Witnesses for Peace who worked to support citizens and revolutionary parties in El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1980s grows increasingly difficult in the current surveillance climate.  Even so, those of us committed to African sovereignty, African continental and diasporic integration, to socialism and people’s democracy, and to a brighter future for humanity need to find ways to support the Green Resistance in Libya.  We need to find ways to be international brigades for Libya.  Free Libya is Green Libya.

More than two hundred years of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is long enough.  Liberation struggles and revolutionary governments must be supported despite differences on some ideological points.  The fate of an individual is not what is at stake.  Despite his defamation in the mainstream Western press, Gaddafi is being mourned by millions in Africa and around the world.  This attack has short circuited the move toward African continental integration that Gaddafi championed.  He acted independently in the interests of Libya and Africa, and offered real material support for the integration of Africa under one, gold standard currency, one army, and continental governing institutions.  He supported revolutionary and national liberation struggles around the world.  He was a genuine anti-imperialist.  For many of us, the opinions of Minister Louis Farrakhan, Ms. Cynthia KcKinney and Warrior Woman of the Dine Nation matter more than the opinions expressed by the U.S. State Department and 10 Downing Street and disseminated by the New York Times, Le Figaro, CNN, AL Jazeera, et al. The Jamahiriyah is a genuinely popular government that has come under attack by the most powerful and advanced militaries in the world, yet they continue to hold out despite the loss of the revolutionary leader.  Who speaks out?  Who can help restore Libya and a united Africa?  NATO, the UN and the NTC trivialized the African Union during this debacle, rendering the body all but ceremonial.  Will they now stand up and assume the real leadership necessary to make themselves relevant, or is overcoming their class allegiance to the Western bourgeoisie just too much to fathom? That’s probably too much to expect from a class trained to protect the interests of its benefactors in order to protect its own narrow interests.  I guess this great task is up to the world’s African workers and peasants.

One Year to Life (Also Posted at www.BlackFood.org)

One year to life was the grossly indeterminate sentence given to George Jackson in 1960 for his conviction for the alleged theft of $70, a charge for which he maintained his innocence. His court-appointed lawyer convinced him to take a plea bargain, and Jackson spent the next 11 years in California State prison until his assassination in 1971.  Jackson was 18 at the time of his conviction.  With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the world expected the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center to be closed, but that site of human brutality exercised in the name of life and liberty’s defense remains open.  However, what is practiced at Guantanamo was learned in U.S. state and federal prisons, all of it.  In Chicago, a court last year indicted former Chicago police commander Jon Burge on charges of torture, the torture of over 100 African American men by officers under Burge’s command.  Those are the men who reported the abuse.  Prisoners at Pelican Bay and just concluded a twenty day hunger strike that spread throughout the California penal system to raise awareness of the inhuman treatment and conditions to which they are subjected.  Few U.S. Americans know of these routine practices because the treatment of prisoners in the law and order culture of United States does not merit comment in the political calculations of most politicians and mainstream media producers.  The United States locks up more than 2 million of its citizens and residents, the per capita world leading incarcerator.  African Americans make up more than half of those incarcerated.  When one adds to their numbers the number of Latinos, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders, visiting a U.S. American prison is like visiting several Third World countries, right down to the sweatshop labor.

The criminal justice system and prison industrial complex are principal sites of the stark contradictions that continue to plague U.S. society in their most obviously racialized and class manifestations, succinctly explained by Angela Y. Davis in Are Prisons Obsolete.  Beginning in the 1960s, as the Civil Rights wing of the Black Freedom Movement became codified in U.S. Law through the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, and as the Movement evolved into various Black Power and revolutionary formations in the face of an entrenched White resistance to change, policing and criminal courts began to increase in importance as a method of repression of U.S. African communities.  Law professor Michelle Alexander in her recent book The New Jim Crow: Mass Black Incarceration in the Era of Color Blindness, describes the transition as a move from an openly racist rhetoric to, “a racially sanitized rhetoric of ‘cracking down on crime’ –rhetoric that is now used freely by politicians of every stripe.”  The post-Civil Rights Era has been, paradoxically, the era of the mass incarceration of U.S. Africans, one of several sites/moments of the routine abuse of the human rights of Black persons and Black communities in the United States.  Article Five through Article Twelve of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights directly address the criminal justice abuses suffered by U.S. African communities:

Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8. Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10. Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11. (1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence. (2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Thomas Ruffin of the Black August Coalition, speaking at the Black is Back Coalition Conference in January 2010, classified three areas in which the U.S. State continues its repression of the U.S. African communities: mass incarceration, the death penalty, and the question of political prisoners and prisoners of war.  To these should be added the high rate of police killings of Black people, and the under reported coverage of these issues in the mainstream press.

Ruffin explained that United States prisons currently hold more than 1 million 300 thousand U.S. African men in adult prisons and jails, federal, state and municipal.  This figure does not include imprisoned U.S. African minors and women, for several years now characterized as the imprisoned group growing at the fastest rate.  Let me here take a moment to mention the recently released Scott sisters in Mississippi.  Gladys and Jamie Scott, sentenced to life for the theft of $11, had spent the last 15 years in prison for a crime they did not commit.  The victims of the crime admitted that the Scott sisters did not rob them, and no one was injured in the crime, confessed to by three Black teenagers who were promised lighter sentences if they implicated the Scotts, a decision they have since recanted.  Mississippi continues to maintain the guilt of the Scott sisters, members of a politically active family, despite their release for “humanitarian” medical reasons, and the struggle to have them completely exonerated continues.

One out of three young Black men between the ages of 18 and 30 are in some way connected to the criminal justice and prison systems, either as an incarcerated prisoner, a parolee, or person on probation.  These men live under a regime of constant surveillance, subject to drop in visits from probation or parole officers, persons of constant interest in police investigation, often disenfranchised from the vote, and restricted in their associations.  This last point implies a severe limitation on their ability to organize for their own or their communities’ development.  It assumes these young men are forever trapped in adolescence, unable to grow beyond the risky behaviors associated with male adolescence that are usually outgrown.  In fact, U.S. Africans commit crimes at no appreciably greater rate than any other ethnic or racial community in the U.S.  Rather, in keeping with the racialized schemas concerning crime in the U.S., U.S. Africans are represented in news and entertainment media as more prone to crime, resulting in more aggressive policing of U.S. African communities and more aggressive prosecution of U.S. African defendants, primarily in the context of the now 40 year old War on Drugs.  Collectively, incarcerated U.S. Africans constitute 5 percent of the total U.S. African population, and run the gamut, according to Ruffin, from a nonagenarian sentenced to 8 years to a 13 year old child convicted as an adult.

A four-year-old child arrested for being disruptive!

As for the application of the death penalty, the U.S. Supreme Court has admitted that capital punishment in the United States, as well as other sentencing practices like the maximum-minimum sentences, has been implemented in a racist manner, based on statistical evidence presented in McCleskey v. Kemp.  The Court ruled that despite clearly identifiable racial bias, unless direct racist intent can be proven, racial bias need not be considered in sentencing or appeals.  “The Court’s answer was that racial bias would be tolerated –virtually to any degree- so long as no one admitted it,” writes Alexander.  Troy Anthony Davis, on death row in Georgia, stands as an example of the racist uses of the death penalty.  Davis has been on death row since 1991 for the murder of a white, Savannah, Georgia police officer, Mark Allen MacPhail.  Seven of the nine state witnesses against Davis have changed or recanted their testimony.  Davis has had his execution stayed by the Supreme Court three times since 2007.  Despite the Court’s rulings for a new hearing, the State of Georgia continues to aggressively pursue execution.  The race and profession of the victim, rather than the race of the defendant, matter most statistically in death penalty sentencing.  In Georgia, a Black defendant accused of killing a white victim can expect the prosecution to pursue the death penalty in 7 out of 10 such cases.  Then, of course, the U.S.’s most famous death row inmate resides in Pennsylvania, Mumia Abu Jamal.  The issues of death penalty and of political prisoners/prisoners of war converge in Jamal’s case.

The sentencing phase of Mumia Abu Jamal’s case was currently re-argued before a 3 judge panel to determine whether the death penalty can be implemented after nearly thirty years, or whether the sentence will become life without parole.  Jamal’s release, despite admitted irregularities in the original trial (I almost characterized Jamal’s first trial as racially charged.  But all cases involving U.S. Africans are racially charged, despite the races or ethnicities of the officers of the court).  The possibility of Jamal’s release has been taken off the table.  Jamal is one of many political prisoners.  The United States, unlike South Africa, has had no Truth and Reconciliation Commission – flawed as it may have been – so the complete story of the 1960s and 1970s remains untold.  Most U.S. citizens have no idea what horrors their local, state and federal government agencies wreaked upon dissidents through COINTELPRO, the Counter Intelligence Program of the FBI.  Few know of the political prisoners who are now being completely erased from memory in the new narrative of U.S. American triumphalism, the African American, Chicana/o, Puerto Rican, Native American, Native Hawaiian, and the radical white prisoners of conscience and prisoners of war now warehoused in U.S. federal and state prisons.

Efia Nwangaza

The United States, until recently, has always denied holding political prisoners.  Efia Nwangaza of the Malcolm X Center for Self determination reports that at the November 5, 2010, United Nations Universal Periodic Review process held in Geneva, Switzerland, the United States was specifically cited for the existence and treatment of political prisoners for the first time. U.S. delegation leader Michael Posner, rather than denying their existence, asked for a list of their names, which Nwangaza handed to him, along with details of their cases.  This is a slight but significant progressive development. Those prisoners identified by their supporters as political prisoners, those imprisoned during COINTELPRO activities of 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, endure incarceration under criminal charges.  The cases of seventy-five political prisoners, mostly but exclusively U.S. Africans, have been championed for several decades now.  The difficulty of breaking through a media narrative that reinforces claims to American Exceptionalism and thus remains indifferent when not hostile to the cause of U.S. African political prisoners leaves most of these prisoners suffering in obscurity and, most significantly, removed from the consciousness of the very communities with whom and for whom they have struggled for liberation.

As 2008 came to close, many in the U.S. African communities and other communities enjoyed a level of optimism associated with the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency, despite his rather conservative views on racialized contradictions in the U.S.  Three weeks before his inauguration, Oscar Grant was murdered while lying prone on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train platform.  In July of 2009, Dr. Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his own home and then released within hours, having suffered a blow to his dignity and not much more.  President Obama characterized the arrest as stupid and commented on the historical antagonistic relationships between U.S. police agencies and communities of color.  In the subsequent news cycle, Obama was brow beaten into apologizing for his remarks, as was Gates for his behavior, and convened the infamous beer summit.  For a former professor who often speaks of teachable moments, President Obama failed to open a genuine national discussion of abusive police behavior and the role of the police in the post-Civil Rights area.  Officer Crowley never apologized for his behavior nor for wasting tax money by making a frivolous arrest.

Rivera, police victim

Since the murder of Oscar Grant, dozens more U.S. Africans have been killed or hospitalized by U.S. police agencies.  These have included Imam Luqman Abdullah of Dearborn, Michigan, accused of running guns to terrorists, but found shot in the back wearing handcuffs, James Rivera (15 years old), Tyron Lewis, Brandon McCleland, Troy Joiner, Shaquista Johnson, Deonte Rollins, James Davis, Danroy Henry, Jr., and 7 year old Aiyana Jones, killed while sleeping on her couch with her grandmother.  The police raided her home and an adjoining apartment in the kind of military operation commonly used as a policing technique.  The child was hit by the flash grenade shot into the room and shot in the neck.  The Detroit police had the wrong apartment, but they knew that. That’s why they raided both apartments, putting innocent people at risk as a matter of policy.  Consider Michelle Alexander’s description: “In countless situations in which police could easily have arrested someone a conducted a search without a military-style raid, police blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting, and pointing guns and rifles at anyone inside, often including young children.  In recent years, dozens of people have been killed by police in the course of these raids, including elderly grandparents and those completely who are innocent of any crime.”  Mehserle, Oscar Grants killer, has been released, convicted of manslaughter and given credit for time served.  I believe he served less time than Michael Vick served for animal cruelty.  That’s what an African life is worth in the United States.

Now it has happened again, this time in Bay View neighborhood of San Francisco Friday, July 16, less than two months after police killed a 22 year-old Black man in Miami.  19 year old Kenneth Harding, Jr. was shot while running from the police when asked to produce his ticket for the street car.  Why police officers are checking commuters for tickets rather than transit employees is a measure of the depth of the police culture in California.  The practice is not unique to San Francisco.  The police claim that Harding fired on them as he ran from them, but they still have not found the gun he allegedly fired backwards while running.  Community members on the scene deny the official story, reporting that they didn’t see any shots fired by Harding, and deeply doubt the delayed report of gunpowder residue on the victim’s hand.  Indeed, the police have continued to release different versions of the official story including a claim that Harding shot himself in the neck, which has only confirmed the community’s doubts.  Video from the scene shows the brother alive and bleeding on the ground.  Despite having incapacitated him, rather than approach to aid the wounded man, he is allowed to bleed.  The shooting took place around 5:15 pm.  The young man was pronounced dead at 7:00 pm.  The community erupted into a spontaneous demonstration of outrage for another brother shot down, soon to be faced with the San Francisco S.W.A.T.  Despite police show of force, efforts to ameliorate the community through forums with the Chief of Police Michael Suhr, and the predictable media practice of reducing the shooting victim to a criminal record, nothing unusual for young Black men in the U.S., the Bay View/Hunter’s Point community continues to pressure the San Francisco Police Department to properly investigate this case or expose their unwillingness or inability to do so.  The unnamed police shooter has been given leave with pay while the investigation continues. 

The practices described in brief above occur under a regime of malign neglect in the news media.  Project Censored listed “Katrina’s Hidden Race War” as one of its top twenty-five under reported stories of 2009, pointing out the suppression of information on white vigilante violence against Blacks as well as police misconduct.  According to the Pew Research Center’s study “Media, Race, and Obama’s First Year,” released in during the summer of 2010, “…from February 2009 to February 2010, stories defined as significantly focused on Black Americans accounted for 1.9% of all news coverage.”  The bulk of that coverage concerned Dr. Gates, Officer Crowley, and the President.  With the dearth of coverage in the mainstream media, abuse of the human rights of U.S. African persons and communities remains trapped in a discussion of rogue police officers out of control or tragic misunderstandings rather than a systemic abuse of power.  Lack of national coverage relegates these stories to local newspapers and broadcast news, undermining any momentum toward a national movement to protect the human rights of Black people and other colonized communities in the United States.

Moreover, efforts to sustain a movement to protect the U.S. African population from the abuses of the criminal justice and penal systems confront the mechanisms of the state to thwart or punish communities for daring to challenge the systems’ abuses.  In fact, mass incarceration and police containment effectively discourage community organizing and political activism, sometimes characterized as a form of counter insurgency, a pre-emptive strike against the possibility of African resistance in the post Civil Rights period.  After more than 10,000 U.S. Africans and allies marched in support of the Jena Six in Jena, Louisiana, moved to action by the ubiquity of police abuse nationally and the rallying effect of national Black radio, coverage of the activism has nearly vanished, and the national organizers shifted their energies to helping elect a centrist Black president committed to the interests of Euro-American empire.  Jordan Flaherty of Left Turn Magazine, in his report following up on the wake of the march in Jena, “Jena Justice: Drug Bust or Racist Revenge?” originally posted May 18, 2010, explains what happens to the local community when national interest has waned: “In a parish that is eighty-five percent white, the sheriff’s actions have almost exclusively targeted African Americans [in a crackdown on drug crimes].”  Flaherty’s report implicates the sheriff’s department in abuse of power, using the Drug War as a pretext to launch reprisals against the Black community for organizing support of the Jena Six and the national attention garnered.  The report also highlights the necessity to keep struggle present in the minds of people and to expose continually the stark contradictions between U.S. society and its colonized communities.  Those contradictions show most vividly in the conduct of U.S. police agencies and the judicial system.  In a society that characterizes itself as a nation of laws, those laws have not only been unable to alleviate the suffering or dispossession of those culturally and symbolically outside the society, Africans and the First Nations people, including the Chicano/Mexica people, those laws have been written, re-written and interpreted in such a way as to deepen that suffering and dispossession.  May we never fail to resist.  Venceremos!  Uhuru!

 Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Ball, Jared. “Beware of Invisible Negroes!” Black Agenda Report: www.blackagendareport.com. Originally Posted August 8, 2010.

Davis, Angela Y. “The Prison Industrial Complex.” Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

Flaherty, Jordan. “Jena Justice: Drug Bust or Racist Revenge?” Black Agenda Report: www.blackagendareport.com. Originally Posted May 18 2010.

Jackson, George L. Blood in My Eye. Black Classic Press: Baltimore, 1990.

Ruffin, Thomas. Public Lecture on Police Containment and Mass incarceration. The Black is Back Coalition for Social Justice, Peace and Reparations, Consolidating Conference, January 23, 2010, the Uhuru House, St. Petersburg, Florida. Viewed in real time over www.uhurunews.com feed of a http://www.Justin.tv webcast of the conference.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr

 Go to www.thejerichomovement.com to find out more about these political prisoners and others, and to find out what you can do to support them in their struggles.  Their struggles are our struggles! Solidarity Forever!

Defending Libya and Zimbabwe Is Defending African Sovereignty

The United States and NATO, a redundancy, wage open war on Africa.  In fact, the United States through the offices of the world system’s international agencies, such as the UN and the IMF, has been aggressively pursuing military intervention at least since the Bush administration launched the War on Terror.  President Obama very early in his tenure proved his willingness to deploy lethal force to achieve US goals in Africa when he gave the order to have the Somali so-called “pirates” taken out by Navy sharpshooters.  Now President Obama with his partners Sarkozy and Cameron wantonly bomb Libya in the name of humanitarianism and the interest of “democracy,” and officially recognize a cluster of criminals and traitors as the “legitimate” government of Libya.  This is, of course, consistent with Western disdain for the legal government of Zimbabwe, as Western governments routinely receive government officials from their favored and funded MDC-T and rebuff government officials from ZANU-PF, despite the power sharing agreement brokered by the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).  The arrogance of these imperialists is beyond galling.  They leave me just short of apoplectic with anger and contempt for them.

It comes to this: eventually one must take a side.  Some may insist that binaries should be avoided, that choosing one side over another only deepens the rift, locking opponents into a self perpetuating cycle of incrimination and re-incrimination, violence and responding violence.  Of course, issues are not always simple binaries.  After all, squares have four sides, and cubes have six.  But the moment for disinterested observation from a supposed position above or outside the fray has long passed.  One must finally accept that abstention acts as a passive vote for the eventual majority position.  One must eventually take a side, even a nuanced, contextualized side, eventually, as events dictate, or a side may be taken for one.  The events in Africa over the last seven months have laid bare before the world the vicious disregard with which the Imperialist Northern super states hold Africa, Africans, and African institutions.  So if one is not prepared to take a side, choosing instead a practiced objectivity within which to wrap oneself as guard against accusation of partisanship, then one must accept the contempt of those who have thrown all in for the cause.  If one cannot or will not rise to the defense of the most progressive, forward and revolutionary nation-states in contemporary Africa, Libya and Zimbabwe, one chooses abjectivity for Africa’s foreseeable future.

To get right to the point, the NATO bombing of Libya must stop now, immediately!  The sanctions against Zimbabwe must be lifted now, immediately!  African development and indigenization must proceed with all due speed!  Libya and Zimbabwe have unapologetically put these goals, development and indigenization, at the forefront of political and social action in Africa.  These are the unforgivable sins for which they bear the brunt of imperialism’s deadly and persistent attack.  And they must be defended!  The distorted democracy practiced in the Global North can offer no real model for democracy in Africa precisely because it is itself profoundly undemocratic.  Capitalist modes of production can ultimately offer no lasting solution for African development precisely because capitalist modes of production under the current world system embody the very site of Africa’s repression.  Brother Comrade Kaddafi and President Mugabe bear the disdain of western liberals and progressives because they are not seen as fully committed to democratic politics, or even hostile to them.  These African patriots are excoriated as dictators, despite the recent recognition of Libya as a constitutionally governed state responsive to the demands of the Libyan people and committed to the further democratization of its political culture in the UN periodic review, and despite regularity of open elections in Zimbabwe since the country won its independence in 1980. 

The Arab Jamahariya of Libya and the Zanu-PF government of Zimbabwe are popular governments regardless of the judgment of Western journalists, pundits and diplomats.  Furthermore, neither government nor civil society in North America or Europe has any moral authority or monopoly on democracy so long as they remain committed to neo-liberal solutions to the crisis of capitalism or their narcissistic expectation that democratic institutions must mirror those of the Global North, institutions and practices that are themselves compromised by corporate interests and endemic racism.  Choose a side: fight for the African people or facilitate the continuing rule of imperialism from the Global North.  Defend the unfolding African Revolution, or support counter revolution.  Work to achieve the vision of a united Africa, The United States of Africa, explicit goals of Kaddafi and the Green Revolution and Mugabe and ZANU-PF, or condemn Africa to further fragmentation, exploitation, and dispossession.  We need clarity, and clarity reveals that these Global North countries are not now nor have they ever been genuine friends of Africa and Africans.  They have not even been disingenuous friends.  They are no friends at all, the African descended Barack Obama and Susan Rice no better than their European and Euro-American allies and counterparts.

Already the indignity of President Gbagbo’s arrest by France in the Ivory Coast despite that country’s Supreme Court declaring Gbagbo the elected president after investigating irregularities by France’s man Ouatarra and the electoral commission, and the near complete contempt for the African Union’s efforts to sponsor a negotiated peace in the E.U. / U.S. sponsored civil war/counter revolution in Libya severely damage any pretense to sovereignty in Africa.  If Kaddafi’s financial support for the African Union is taken as compromising that continental organization’s independence, what then can we say about U.S funding of NATO, the UN, or the IMF?  What makes these organizations uniquely able to remain independent despite pressure from their major funder?  Nothing, I think.  These people, the U.S. and the E.U. are the enemies of Africa and Africans.  Eventually one must choose a side.  Defend the African Revolution.  Defend Libyan sovereignty and Zimbabwean sovereignty.  No bombs on Libya!  No sanctions on Zimbabwe!