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Art by David Istvan
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.
This content was originally published here.