The Civil Rights Movement Was More Than a String of Protests and Press Releases

13 Aug

Last week, Gawker published a piece called ‘Here’s Proof That Black Lives Matter Protests Are Working’. Its author, Andy Cush, devoted the better part of the article to highlighting new polling data indicating a significant upward trend in American recognition (including among whites) “that the fight for equal rights is not over.”

A heartening finding, and one undoubtedly owing mainly to the courageous work of Black Lives Matter. I’m proud to have played a small role in that work. And I intend to continue showing up and lending my support in whatever way I can.

The problem is the punchline Cush tacks on, which is both predictable and mistaken:

Those who argue that forceful demonstrations only serve to entrench people in the positions they’ve already taken are wrong. People are changing their minds. Just like it did for the suffrage movement 100 years ago or civil rights in the ‘60s, public protest is working in 2015. Now all we need is some meaningful policy change.

The analogy between the Civil Rights movement and BLM is a commonplace in journalistic commentary. But all too often, superficial history and editorial predilection for neat, emotionally compelling formulations combine to efface crucial–if less salient–features of the Second Reconstruction.

Just two days after Gawker declared that the BLM demonstrations have charted a course to the edge of “meaningful policy change”, The Root published an essay bearing the same premature triumphalism:

Some seem to think we’ve reached a point in time where the right to vote has replaced the need to disrupt the system—although the right to vote itself has yet to be secured. Rights are signed into law by the legislature, but history shows that the legislative pen moves in accordance with the pressure of organized protest and disruption in the streets.

This moment requires bold action and disruption of business as usual for the same reasons it was required in Birmingham in 1963.
If we are wrong now, King was wrong then. If King was right then, we are right now.

The author of this rousing homily, the film maker and activist Bree Newsome, boasts an impressive record of accomplishments that includes everyone’s favorite Mitt Romney parody rap video:

More recently Newsome made the news for staging a badass direct action to remove the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State House “in the name of God.”

But if the affirmation closing her piece–”The movement lives.”–is correct, it points to something nascent and anemic.   

Black Lives Matter is, at the moment, a diffuse protest movement without solid objectives or strong organizational grounding. Even those closest to its founding express uncertainty about its concrete aims, insofar as these are still being developed and debated:

The point to me is to be able to dig into these questions as opposed to being prescriptive about what the answers are.

In the same way, we are living in political moment where for the first time in a long time we are talking about alternatives to capitalism…It is a political moment that’s opening up opportunities to envision a world where people can actually live in dignity. So whether that’s abolishing a criminal justice system that feeds off the labor and the lives of black and brown people, whether that’s abolishing an economic system that thrives on exploitation, poverty and misery: this is the time for us to not just dream about what could be, but also start to build alternatives that we want to see.
Quite honestly I’m not sure we can have both [policing and the valuing of black lives]…because the institution of policing is rooted in the legacy of catching slaves.

Adolph Reed, a Penn political scientist and veteran of left struggles dating back to the 60s, has been critical of young activists who see themselves as mature heirs to the Civil Rights Movement simply because they stage demonstrations against various iterations of racial injustice. Such identification reflects inadequate understanding of the achievements of the American black social movements of the 1940s-60s and how they were won: namely, through long term, disciplined organizing work rooted in tough-minded, adaptive political strategy. Moreover, the efficacy of these tactics was largely a function of unflagging commitment to serious, hard-wrought political objectives.

As Reed instructively points out in a 2009 essay,

 The postwar activism that reached its crescendo in the South as the “civil rights movement” wasn’t a movement against a generic “racism;” it was specifically and explicitly directed toward full citizenship rights for black Americans and against the system of racial segregation that defined a specific regime of explicitly racial subordination in the South. The 1940s March on Washington Movement was also directed against specific targets, like employment discrimination in defense production. Black Power era and post-Black Power era struggles similarly focused on combating specific inequalities and pursuing specific goals like the effective exercise of voting rights and specific programs of redistribution.

Whether or not one considers those goals correct or appropriate, they were clear and strategic in a way that “antiracism” simply is not. Sure, those earlier struggles relied on a discourse of racial justice, but their targets were concrete and strategic. It is only in a period of political demobilization that the historical specificities of those struggles have become smoothed out of sight in a romantic idealism that homogenizes them into timeless abstractions like “the black liberation movement”

I’ve bolded the striking repetition of these adjectives because it highlights a crucial deficiency holding back Black Lives Matter from the status of the 20th century social movements to which it is so often compared. This same deficiency hamstrung Occupy, which has also been congratulated for effecting a shift in national discourse (but, to my chagrin at least, little else of substance).

As early as the 1940s, well before the 60s’ demonstrations pointed out by Gawker, “a civil rights alliance emerged among liberals, leftists, and trade unionists, both black and white.” The Democratic Party formally endorsed civil rights in 1948 while the NAACP eroded the regime of segregation in the legal arena. Following the watershed 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling against segregated schools, the movement’s strategy of “disruption” became focused around enforcing the rights of black Americans. “It became clear that only the federal government could enforce the law, but national leaders acted only under duress.” Toward the goals of ending segregation and ensuring black enfranchisement, the “main question for civil rights activists became how to make the federal government take action to implement the law.” (Van Gosse, The Movements of the New Left, pp. 5-6)

Thus, in the words of historian John Patrick Diggins, “the southern antisegregation campaign was basically a moral protest entirely within the spirit of the law.” The movement was focused on implementing the desegregation mandated by the Brown decision and realizing the fundamental constitutional rights of black Americans enshrined in the 14th and 15th amendments, which for “a century the South had been able to circumvent”. (John Patrick Higgins, The Rise and Fall of the American Left, 238) 

It was a movement spearheaded by robust organizations like CORE and SNCC, which recruited activists of all colors to run voter registration drives, freedom schools, and strategically orchestrated civil disobedience. And it was not aimed primarily at abstractions like “white supremacy”, nor did it issue (as Occupy did and BLM chapters do) extensive and incongruously composed lists of vague demands, hastily ranging from trans* rights to immigration to the occupation of Palestine.

Politics involves real conflict between competing interests; political struggles have winners and losers. There are real enemies facing liberals, leftists, and underprivileged/marginalized groups of all stripes in the US. Jodi Dean concisely runs down some key recent victories of the forces of reaction:

In the United States, the right has worked actively to reframe the constitution according to a theory of the unitary executive, to reverse the steps taken toward racial equality by undercutting Brown v. the Board of Education, to facilitate the redistribution of wealth to the top one percent of the population, to undermine the Geneva conventions as well as habeas corpus, to empower unwarranted state surveillance of the population, and to install a narrow, extreme, version of fundamentalist Christian doctrine into scientific discussions of evolution and climate change so as to disable any supposition of a common world or reality for which we might share responsibility. These are political achievements.

Without clear, concrete goals, and strong organizational networks to coordinate strategies and sustain efforts toward the realization of those goals, a resistance movement is unlikely to make significant gains against the established order. The reversals faced by working people generally, and people of color particularly, over the past three decades call for the mobilization of politically serious social movements, ones that can win.

The statement appearing under the heading ‘Who We Are’ on the homepage of the Outside Agitators group, which disrupted Bernie Sanders’s rally in Seattle, closes with a quotation reading, “This ain’t your daddy’s civil rights movement”. For now, unfortunately, they are right.


Quick Take on Black Lives Matter vs. Bernie Sanders: Redux

8 Aug

The Netroots action was effective because it embarrassed Sanders into incorporating direct, vocal support for Black Lives Matter into his campaign rhetoric. Insofar as he is–as his defensive supporters were quick to point out–the most progressive (visible) candidate participating in the interminable election pageantry, it actually makes political sense for a progressive movement like BLM to pressure him into backing its agenda.

I can’t say the same of Saturday’s Seattle intervention, at least based on the sonically muffled video:

The BLM activists who employed disruptive tactics at Netroots won traction and respect from many observers because they came across as serious. I know more than a few radical-averse liberals who were openly irritated by the direct action but nonetheless recognized the fundamental legitimacy of protesters bringing a marginalized message to bear on a politically influential figure.

The Seattle protesters, by contrast, give the impression that their express purpose was to take the mic and scream condemnation in Bernie Sanders’ face, as though he were a blameworthy target for the rage of the city’s oppressed people of color. And I can’t see how that makes any sense, factually or strategically.

Surprise! Spartacist League Supports Islamic State

17 Nov

From the official homepage of these intrepid LARPers:

ISIS today is in battle against the local tools of U.S. imperialism, the main enemy of the world’s working people. A setback for the U.S. in Syria might give pause to Washington in its military adventures, including by encouraging opposition at home. Such opposition adds to the tinder that must be ignited in class struggle against the capitalist rulers who, in their quest for ever greater profits, beat down the workers, black people and immigrants.


Rosa Luxemburg is rolling over in her grave, shouting “Just die already, idiots!”

Anyone who has ever wasted an hour arguing with these people for the sheer sport of it (I can’t be the only one) could’ve told you this is their position without bothering to check.

In the same breath, these Cold War relics will voice support for the Chinese (i.e. “communist”) annexation of Tibet and decry the Israeli (i.e.”capitalist”) occupation of Palestine; they oppose progressive legislation because reform is the enemy of revolution; they think anti-foreclosure organizing is a mistake because more homeless people = more people with no stake in the system (“We take the long view on this.” – direct quote); etc.

Theirs is one of the most pig-headedly (sorry, pigs) Manichean political mentalities on Earth. Makes the silly cats in the Avakian cult seem almost palatable.

Cheer yourself up with this recording of Chomsky butting heads with some Spart “militants”:

New York Probably Hosed

23 Oct

New York Times health journalist Donald McNeil on whether you can “get Ebola from public transportation“:

It is extremely unlikely to spread through public transit…If someone ejected bloody mucus or vomitus onto a subway pole, and the next passenger were to touch it while it was still wet and then, for some unimaginable reason, were to put those wet fingers into an eye or mouth instead of wiping them in disgust — then yes, it could happen. Similarly, if an extremely ill passenger with high viral saliva loads were to sneeze large, wet droplets directly into the mouth or eyes of another passenger, the infection might be passed.

Apparently Mr. McNeil has the means to get around in NYC without the use of public transit. Nice to be reminded there are still some lucrative gigs in journalism.

But anyone familiar with the elaborate Lord of the Flies-esque social experiment that is the New York subway system knows he basically just said, “It is extremely unlikely to happen…It is obviously going to happen. It’s probably happening right now.”

Red Malala

10 Oct

So apparently this righteous girl won a big award. Good for her.

Thought I’d take the occasion to highlight Ms. Yousafzai’s affinity for, and affiliation with, Marxism and socialism. Despite Malala’s record of pro-Left statements such as

“I am convinced Socialism is the only answer…Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.”

you are unlikely to find mention of her radical political views anywhere in the deluge of Western media coverage of her Nobel Peace Prize award.


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Good Morning, Grey Thursday

2 Oct

Good Morning, Grey Thursday 5

Good Morning, Grey Thursday 3

Good Morning, Grey Thursday

The Passion of Husam Zomlot

4 Aug

I gave this guy something of a hard time when he came to deliver a talk at MIT a few years back (watch around the 54:30 mark). To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t really paid him much attention since, even though he frequently appears on international TV and radio to discuss an issue I follow closely (Palestine).

But this morning I feel compelled to profess my respect for the moral and intellectual seriousness on display in this BBC interview clip, a longer version of which aired last Friday. US citizens especially would do well to listen.

Below is my transcription of the latter chunk of the clip, which features Dr. Zomlot delivering an impassioned contestation of the mainstream narrative surrounding Operation Protective Edge. I did my best to include supplementary links for his main points, particularly the putatively controversial ones.

Husam Zomlot: There are two wars happening, my friend. 

There is a war by the Israeli army, the most sophisticated in the region and maybe 4th in the world, against our people, against the Palestinian people. This war has seen entire neighborhoods obliterated. This war has seen the devastation and the mayhem. Wholesale murder, everywhere. 

BBC: But it’s not against Palestinians, is it? It’s against Hamas. It’s against the group that’s firing rockets into Israel.

Zomlot: I’m sorry. No. That is absolutely a lie and not true. And we should stop this because this is the second war.

The second war that is waged by Regev and his likes. The spinning and the PR and the game of deceit to blame the victim. 

I have not seen any Hamas fighter being targeted by Israel. What I have seen is families that I know–I am from Gaza, I lived with these families, I grew up with these families, I know them–I see entire families being wiped out.

I see hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the streets of Gaza as we speak.

I see a UN shelter being targeted and 16 killed.

I see the only power plant being targeted by Israel, to devastate.

I see the water supply being cut off so they devastate the entire nation.

I see the Israeli military doctrine.

BBC: So are Israeli forces just deliberately targeting civilians?

Zomlot: Yes

Because this is the founding military doctrine of Israel. Israel was founded on murdering as many civilians as possible to put pressure on the political and military leadership of the Palestinians…

Despite four mind-numbing weeks spent inundated with emotionally-laden Gaza coverage, I found these remarks from the mouth of a spokesman for Fatah–a party whose leadership actively collaborates with the occupation and carefully hedges its public image to retain the good graces of the very powers which oppress it–quite moving.

Let’s hope the UK was watching.

Update: Another brief, powerful excerpt:


Edit Note: Just after posting, I realized I needed to append the opening to mention for context that this interview was originally published by the BBC last Friday. This thought was almost immediately followed by the grim realization that the BBC’s headline (“Gaza crisis: ‘There was never a ceasefire’ – Fatah spokesman”) is just as accurate today, despite a new ceasefire that was supposed be in effect: 

A seven-hour unilateral “humanitarian window,” which was announced by Israel on Sunday evening and took effect in Gaza from 10 a.m. local time (3 a.m. EDT) Monday was almost immediately broken by an air strike on the al-Shati refugee camp in northwestern Gaza, Agence France-Presse reported.

A Gaza Health Ministry spokesperson told Al Jazeera that at least 30 people, including women and children, were injured in Israeli shelling on a residential building in the camp. And, according to other media reports, Israeli air strikes near Gaza City also killed Daniel Mansour, a commander of the Islamic Jihad group — a close ally of Hamas — just hours before the latest cease-fire was to begin. One child too was killed in the latest air strike on the refugee camp, AFP reported, citing doctors.

Israel had declared on Sunday that it would hold its fire in the Gaza Strip for seven hours following widespread international condemnation, including from the U.S. and the United Nations, over its attack on another U.N.-run school — the third one since the operation began on July 8 — on Sunday. The attack on the school in Rafah, which was reportedly sheltering thousands of displaced Palestinians, killed 10 people and injured 30 others.

Indeed, as increasingly outraged calls for an end to the violence echo from virtually the whole of the international community, basically everything in this exchange (aside from the specific strike times Zomlot rattles off at the beginning) is equally valid at the time of writing.

Here’s hoping that Israeli operations are stopped by the time you read this post.