11. Mobilize!

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Blues Generation

Contemporary movements for Black liberation are both old and new at the same time, simultaneously questioning and responding to the calamities that engulf us.

The Pendulum Swing of Black Liberation

Fascism has established itself in a most disguised and efficient manner in this country. It feels so secure that the leaders allow us the luxury of a faint protest. Take protest too far, however, and they will show their other face. Doors will be kicked down in the night and machine-gun fire and buckshot will become the medium of exchange.

— George Jackson, Blood in My Eye

In June of last year, I wrote a piece about the call-and-response between movements for Black liberation in the United States and elsewhere, focusing on the upheavals that happened in Sudan in late 2018, and of course the protests that erupted in Minnesota and spread across the country after the murder of George Floyd in May of last year. In this piece, I encouraged all of us to refuse the enclosures of hemisphere, market, nation and language, to embrace urgency and refuse to concede to the divisions presented by nation, market and geography.

This piece focused on the activation of struggles, and less so on the reality that each movement for liberation was met with a deepening repression and political conservatism. In the past, increased militarism birthed the Black Panther Party, the global movements of ‘68, the formation of Black Studies, the Black Arts Movement as well as armed liberation struggles on the African continent such as FRELIMO and MPLA. This resulted — in the United States especially — in a monumental expansion of policing, the sedimentation of mass incarceration and neoliberal Reaganomics. Indeed, each moment of rebellion is met with its opposing force. What we have witnessed over the last year is what happens when Black people dare to engage in robust, rather than “faint” — as Jackson so presciently called it — protest.

So much of the fervor of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the — unfinished, ongoing — strivings of this time have been grouped under the umbrella term of “Black internationalism.” I want to suggest that even the term “Black internationalism” presupposes the nation in a way that undermines the monumental efforts of Black people all over the world to build and sustain all kinds of solidarity efforts. Many of these efforts were organized around national struggles, but almost all exceeded the boundaries of the nation-state even in those apparently nationalist struggles. Black peoples’ struggles have never been limited to ‘“inter” or “between” nations, but oftentimes rather against, and with total disregard for, the nation and the nation-state. “Black Internationalism” has also, as of late, been conflated with the movement of Black intellectuals and activists from the US to elsewhere, which in turn leaves possessive attachments to the US nation — and indeed others — unchallenged.

In reality, the manner in which, for example, Black people in the Caribbean — not only from Cuba — volunteered to fight during Angola’s liberation struggle, was not an expression of their solidarity on behalf of their nation, but as members of a global Black underclass that saw the Angolan liberation struggle as a necessary part of their own struggle(s), nation notwithstanding. What was most remarkable about this moment was not the iconography of socialist revolutions, nor the images of the world ablaze — from Detroit to Cape Town — but rather, the complete and utter disregard for the nation-state which fomented these global Black struggles. Many of these revolutionary projects have failed, but they were, as Du Bois termed it in Black Reconstruction, “splendid failures.”

It is now 2021, and we have been living under the thumb of the COVID-19 pandemic, while its ongoingness is both rendered inevitable and nonexistent at the same time. We find ourselves in the bind of a strange oscillation between grief and denial. New variants emerge — op-eds about the post-pandemic world follow soon after. India collapses under the weight of the Delta variant. More op-eds about post-pandemic life. La Soufriere erupts on Saint Vincent, travelers continue to bring the novel coronavirus to the Caribbean, despite the air being barely breathable. Disneyland reopens. Time is rendered uncanny — we are on different clocks.

“The real pandemic is capitalism,” “the real pandemic is racism,” “the real pandemic is isolation” — words we often hear from our comrades and co-conspirators in struggle. The word “real” does much heavy lifting, rendering COVID-19 and millions dead worldwide a backdrop against which the status quo works out its “real” problems. “The pandemic is a portal,” we are told. Despite the analogies, many of us have yet to accept that the pandemic is a pandemic, and people are dying — metaphor has no place here.

Those on the post-pandemic clock express their excitement at returning to normal. Others rightly point out that a return to normal is a return to the conditions that produced this nightmare. There is no need to caution against a return to the normal that delivered us to this place — that return is simply not possible. The impossibility of returning to a time before a monumental upheaval is, in my estimation, a perfect starting point for considering what kinds of movements will carry us to another place — be it better or worse. Or simply different.

The pendulum swings between rebellion and repression

The question that I am preoccupied with, is not so much concerned with how movements are subjected to the boomerang of deepening repression, surveillance and state violence. Instead, I would like to dedicate more time to considering how these conservative and violent state responses produce additional rebellions. I am not offering an account of on-the-ground developments. I am not a journalist, nor am I an ethnographer. What I am offering in this piece instead, is a collection of observations, as someone whose entry to teenagehood was marked by mass protests against the war in Iraq, and whose entire adult life has been spent being pulled into organizing in, and studying movements from all over the world. What I am offering is an explanation of how I have come to understand our predicament, as well as a way to pose questions. I am offering, quite simply, some of what I have noticed from looking around me.

What I can see is this — Black people have always ridden the pendulum towards, and away from, liberation. This is what a lived dialectics looks like in my estimation — an understanding that the state will respond with additional force anytime movements gain speed, and, likewise, movements will push back. This might sound like a terrible feedback loop, or what Hannah Arendt called in The Origins of Totalitarianism a “bundle of reactions that can be liquidated and replaced by other bundles of reactions that behave in exactly the same way.”

Instead, I’m referring to another mode of conceptualizing this persistent pendulum swing between rebellion and state repression. A lived dialectics, yes, but also exceeding the framework of dialectics, which tells us that social movements are the antagonizing force pushing against larger structures. Our most durable movements are always dynamic; they oppose systems while also evading systems-thinking altogether.

To gesture towards this thread I am following, I find it useful now — as ever — to consider the words of the late Clyde Woods. Writing about Hurricane Katrina over 15 years ago, Woods turned to French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s discussion in his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, of how the anticolonial wars of the 1950s and ‘60s undermined Europe’s claims to superiority. Paraphrasing Sartre, Woods writes that: “Hurricane Katrina has replaced the celebration of American civilization with a striptease of American humanism. ‘There you can see it, quite naked, and it’s not a pretty sight.’”

Yet even with humanism stripped bare, betraying its conceits, Woods reminds us that: “We must look at this disaster from the eyes of working-class African Americans, blacks, from the eyes of the impoverished, and, more important, through the eyes of impoverished black children for whom this is a defining moment.”

Black people have always ridden the pendulum towards, and away from, liberation.

“This new blues generation is being constructed out of the same disaster-induced social ruins that were created after the biblical Mississippi flood of 1927,” Woods continues, describing the blues as “a newly indigenous knowledge system that has been used repeatedly by multiple generations of working-class African Americans to organize communities of consciousness.” In Woods’ view, “The growing power of the blues tradition [of investigation and interpretation] results from its evolution as the antithesis of the neoplantation development tradition as the latter has grown to become the dominant national and international regime.”

Where some might term it dialectics, Woods shows us that there are grounded and lived vernaculars that describe the emergence of these antithetical and independently creative liberation movements, rising and falling like waves, or moving its weight to and fro, like a pendulum. Cedric Robinson described this as the Black Radical Tradition. Woods offers us another concept to add to this constellation of poiesis and struggle: a blues epistemology. In his introduction to Woods’ posthumous text, Development Drowned, Jordan T. Camp describes this as:

. . the philosophy of development that has been expressed in the cultural productions of Black working-class organic intellectuals since at least the Civil War and reconstruction. According to Woods, the blues epistemology is a way of knowing rooted in the historic redistributive agenda of freedom and labor struggles … an ethical vision that can be drawn upon in a struggle for a multi-racial working-class democracy … The Blues tradition refers to the countless ways that the working-class has struggled to survive while making its communities and the larger world more livable and just.

As such, discerning what type of movement organizing is necessary, means grappling with Woods’ insistence that movements are born from the ruins left behind by previous disasters, the “splendid failures.” It is not a coincidence then, that in the context of the last 18 months, Black peoples across the world have engaged in rebellious actions that are both old and new at the same time, born out of the calamity that engulfs us. The pendulum swings away, but also towards, Black liberation.

Old struggles made new — again and again

Last year I wrote that linking the struggle against policing in Minnesota with the revolutionary actions in Sudan was not a glossing over of difference, but rather, an example of the bombastic disregard for the nation-state which propelled past struggles for Black liberation — struggles which are, as we see, never past.

I discussed how Sudan’s revolutionary ethos in the winter of 2018-19 was dealt a sobering setback when no women were invited to the signing of the transitional agreement in early 2019, despite making up the majority of protestors and those subjected to police and state violence during the rebellion and indeed, throughout Al Bashir’s presidency. Even during the protests, class fissures, geography, religion and, undoubtedly, color, already began to deepen the chink in the armor of the Forces for Freedom and Change. In the end the Transitional Military Council’s “civilian-military” power sharing agreement is but one example of a “changing same” that characterizes these long and protracted struggles for liberation.

Protests continued outside of Khartoum after the agreement was signed, but were largely overlooked by the international community due to the center-provincial asymmetry that defines Sudan’s geopolitics. Protests have been reignited by the recent coup against the civilian presence in the transitional government, represented by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, by military counterrevolutionaries — including former members of the FFC — calling once again for full civilian government. The neighborhood committee structure — a collection of decentralized, hyper-local organizing hubs — that set Sudan’s organizing strategies apart from so many others, has once again emerged in full-force.

This teaches us all a lesson that decentralized local structures, rather than political parties or centralized national organizations, possess one — of many — things that make movements long-lasting: the ability to spring into action with almost no notice. The nation-state cannot account for this, no government can hold a thousand grains of sand in its palm, which is what these committees are. Old struggles made new again, and again.

Across the African continent, young people in particular took to the streets. In Nigeria, the #EndSars protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) overwhelmed cities and social media. When protestors disobeyed a state-wide curfew imposed to dampen protests, police and military proceeded to fire on Lekki toll gate, killing protestors. SARS was disbanded, but those responsible for the killing of the protesters are yet to be held accountable. In Ghana, queer activists and allies are finding creative ways to protest the government’s proposed homophobic “sexual rights” and “family values” bill. In Namibia, #ShutItAllDown protests against femicide and gender-based violence took to the streets of Windhoek. In Ghana, the Family Values Bill was officially tabled in August. The pendulum swings once again.

The state will never abolish itself

Minnesota was a powder keg in May 2020. Few of us can forget the image of a Minneapolis police precinct set ablaze three days after the murder of George Floyd. The following month, Minneapolis City Council promised to defund the city’s police department, a move which was seen as a possible first step in the mainstreaming of abolitionist demands. Three months later, some of the nine members of the city council who supported the pledge doubled back, with one member stating that he meant the words only “in spirit,” and another admitting that “most of us had interpreted that language differently.”

Meanwhile, as people in Minneapolis and elsewhere dealt with the backtracking of politicians, and faced down militarized responses to their dissent, academics who had been researching prisons and abolition before 2020 saw career and salary boosts amidst the surge in interest in abolitionist thought. As these scholars gained more and more visibility, some began to wonder if their investment — both monetary and personal — in abolition relied on the continuation of policing as an institution.This is something Joy James, a professor of humanities who has written about imprisoned intellectuals and abolition extensively, addresses in her piece “Airbrushing Revolution for the Sake of Abolition.” James writes that:

On-the-ground activists work with considerable risk and no wealth. Elites offer more peer-recognition to progressive (or conservative) associates than to working class militants. The political economy of social justice produces employment, honoraria, royalties, and stellar salaries, generating personal wealth or portfolio management with low risk of surveillance and repression.

The mainstreaming of abolition by academics, combined with the rise and fall of Minneapolis’ demands for abolition among establishment figures and politicians was a sobering reminder that elite institutions, and indeed the state, will never get us to abolition. They are the first and last obstacles to abolition.

Meanwhile, the US presidential elections in the fall of 2020 acted as a quicksand for much of the creativity and radicalism that had emerged in the summer earlier that year. President Donald Trump quickly showed his plans for dictatorship by challenging primary results, refusing to participate in processes to transition his power, telling white supremacist groups to “stand back, and stand by” on election day, culminating in the January 6 attempted coup in the nation’s capital. The election was close, and Trump secured more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016.

One thing we might be able to glean from the election campaigns of white supremacists in Europe since the early 2000s, is that they do not need to win elections to fundamentally alter the political landscape, and Trump’s 2020 election campaign proved the veracity of this claim. In the end, President Biden and Vice-President Harris were elected, promising to bring “democracy back” to America, while also promising to increase funding to police. Right away, Biden began the mass deportation of Haitians claiming asylum at the US-Mexico border, finishing what Trump had started. The Democrats’ opposition to Trump was always more apparent than real. The state never opposes itself.

Haiti’s struggle for self-determination

Starting in 2018, Haitians have been engaged in sustained protest, prompted by nearly US$2 billion in government funds which have gone unaccounted for. The money was a loan from Venezuela via its PetroCaribe initiative, through which it offered development loans to its neighbors at low interest rates and delayed payment schedules. This initiative offered Haiti and other smaller nations like it the opportunity to reduce their reliance on American oil and debt servicing, and access cash for developing key infrastructure and social programs.

However, the protests have focused not only on this particular incident, but rather, on late president Jovenel Moise’s sabotage of Haiti’s efforts at refusing the United States’ imbrication in every aspect of Haiti’s political structures and economy, which came to a head with the coup against Aristide in 2004, and the earthquake in 2010. The coup together with the UN peacekeeping mission have created nearly two decades of foreign occupation in Haiti, and resulted in horrors such as the post-earthquake cholera epidemic, caused by a sewage leak at a peacekeeper camp, claiming at least 4,672 lives by March 2011, and a total of 10,000 lives over the next eight years. The PetroCaribe initiative, along with Venezuela’s cancellation of Haitian debt after the earthquake, was an affront to the United States’ centuries-long desire to ensure Haiti remains enclosed politically and economically, to ensure it sovereignty is nullified, and thus, isolate the one nation which has sent tremors throughout the Americas consistently for over 200 years.

Only the most powerful movements are met with the type of repression we saw in the streets of US cities in the summer of 2020 and in Port-au-Prince over the last two years.

As Woods and Jackson tell us, only the most powerful movements are met with the type of repression we saw in the streets of US cities in the summer of 2020 and in Port-au-Prince over the last two years. The airport was locked down — as was the case after Aristide’s assassination and the 2010 earthquake — a particularly effective strategy for immobilizing an island nation. Moise’s surveillance apparatus worked overtime, critical journalists were turning up dead under suspicious circumstances, and nearly 200 protestors have been killed by police since 2018. Moise’s decision to delay elections amid his refusal to offer relief in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be the fatal straw. Thousands of Haitians took to the streets, demanding an end to the UN occupation, an end to elite rule over Haiti and that Moise resign.

On July 7, 2021, Moise was assassinated in the presidential palace, under circumstances that remain unclear, with protests continuing during and after his funeral. Then, on August 14, Haiti was dealt an additional blow as another earthquake struck the island nation, leaving over 2,000 people dead, and countless injured and displaced. In the midst of this collage of loss and dispossession, Haitian people continue their struggle for self-determination and against US occupation, both latent and manifest. What Césaire called the “boomerang effect” of fascism refers not only to fascistic violence, but also to its antithetical movements. A boomerang, in the end, always returns to its sender.

The pendulum must swing back

Anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston famously wrote in her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God that “there are years that ask questions and those that answer.” Very rarely do we have a year like 2020 which, in some ways, was in a call and response with itself. Rehearsing the ways that the state deepens its violence and repression in the face of radical movements is not an attempt to frame these violences as inevitable. It is also not meant to puncture movements’ belief that organizing can and will produce a more livable world for all of us. It is, however, meant to signal that we need to inhabit the pendulum on both ends, and embrace, as Gramsci termed it, a “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

This returns me to the question offered in this spotlight issue, which I paraphrased at the beginning of this piece, asking what it will take for our movements to implement a break with our current epistemic, material and social orders. In a recent interview in Offshoot Journal, Sylvia Wynter offered a provocation on the importance of cultural production — in this case, creative outlets like Jamaica Journal — in transmitting different stories about who we are. These stories are crucial for organizing our thinking — and therefore, our lives — differently:

We were able to forego that cheap and easy radicalism of simply organizing the state differently and we began to tell different origin stories of who we were as Blacks and as Africans. It was the creative side and the creative working of things which led us to the difference in making claims about who we are. The cheap and easy radicalism does not address the underlying requirement for a total transformation — who are we as Black people, as Africans?

One thing that I wrote in last year’s piece, was that the uprisings in Sudan led to an explosion of public art. All movements — big and small — are accompanied and sustained by expressive and artistic mediums, which are the most significant ways we transmit and tell different stories about who we are as Black people, as Wynter reminds us.

Read the full issue here.

The pendulum swings towards repression, and the weight that swings it back cannot be credited to national parties or revolutionary armies. It comes from music, poetry, dance — what Woods’ referred to as “cultural productions of Black working-class organic intellectuals.” Take, for example, Eduardo Mondlane, founder of FRELIMO, which sustained a 10-year war of independence against Portuguese colonialism. In his book The Struggle for Mozambique he argues that the earliest signs of resistance were not in the factories or in the barracks, but found in the traditional songs of the Chope people of southern Mozambique. He argues further that revolutionary and national consciousness was sown first in the traditions of the Chope — including folk songs and poetry — followed by intellectuals, artists, painters, undoing the attachments to vanguardism that has since long dominated Marxian thinking. The final stage — not the first! — of political consciousness was that of industrial workers, soldiers and political organizations.

While Fanon argued in the Wretched of the Earth, that violence is the first act of the decolonial melodrama, the activator, Mondlane argued that culture loads the gun, and armed struggle pulls the trigger. Revolution is, directly translated, about returns. Culture — blues, poetry, storytelling — offers, as Suzanne Césaire wrote, “a return to ourselves.” The pendulum swings away from liberation, and must swing back.

Bedour Alagraa

Bedour Alagraa is a Professor of Black Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently working on her manuscript entitled, The Interminable Catastrophe, and is the co-editor of the Black Critique book series at Pluto Press.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/magazine/pendulum-swing-black-liberation/

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Magazine — Issue 11