Reflecting on a Decade of New Afrikan Movement Essay #4: The Rise of the Movement 4 Black Lives

Apr 09, 2024

As we talked about in the third essay of this series, movements are born social contradictions. They arise when social forces that are foundational–that is to say those forces which shape the foundations of a society–come into conflict. 


Social forces are any human created ways of doing things that influence, pressure, or force people to behave, interact with others, and think in specified ways. Social forces are considered remote and impersonal because mostly people have no hand in creating them, nor do they know those who did. People can embrace social forces, be swept along or bypassed by them, and most importantly challenge them. 


When movements fail to intentionally resolve the contradiction that birthed them they end up being swept up in the swirl of foundational social forces that created the contradiction. 


The Movement for Black Lives arises from the contradictions arising from the development of U.S empire. Our continual investment in empire has led to an untenable situation.  The social forces of material extraction are overwhelming the social forces of belonging, connection and collective meaning making that allow society to function. As the social fabric tears and the amount of loot declines, the U.S has invested in genre-crafting and policing of its domestic colonies (communities of color and poor white communities) coupled with propaganda and myth making. 


The Tinder and The Spark

The Movement For Black Lives has always been equal parts Racial Justice movement and Black Liberation Movement. Thus it has long roots from which it grows. As Kali Akun writes, there is a long unbroken line of resistance from the time enslaved Africans first stepped on the continent to the Uprising in Ferguson. 


We strongly suggest that folks read Akuno’s article linked above as it explains the foundational organizing in the early 2000’s that allowed for the Uprising in Ferguson to spark a national movement whirlwind. As U.S society was building a narrative of itself as Post-Racial, the tragedies of hurricane Katrina were also radicalizing a new generation of activists to ways in which racism still shaped society. The plight of the Jena 6 in Louisiana was an early radicalization moment for many, including some of the authors of this essay. 


Additionally, there was an upswell in energy around the killing of Trayvon Martin that marked the beginning of the direct action focus of what would become the Movement for Black Lives. In response to this energy, older  Movement Institutions like Malcom X Grassroot Movement (MXGM)--founded and led by veterans of the long 60’s Black Liberation Movement–offered language and framing to deepen the analysis of the movement. (We should note that one of the authors–Aaron Goggans–is a member of MXGM and all of the authors have attended their trainings.) Other collections of 60’s radicals including former Panthers and SNCC organizers also wrote articles, held training sessions, mentored organizers and spoke privately to movement stewards about the lessons they have learned.


Without this work, we would not have been able to make the gains that we have. Similarly, without this work the movement would not have had the critical insight to see the role empire plays in Black people’s daily lives. Still, we maintain that the real spark of what would become BLM and the movement for Black Lives happened in Ferguson. 


The city of Ferguson was a unique confluence of the central three crises while at the same time had many aspects to it that made it feel like Anyhood, USA. This made it a vibrant, viscerally felt metaphor for the problems plaguing Black communities around the country. One of the most important dynamics in Ferguson for our purposes, was the clash between the young working class residents of the St. Louis area and the stewards and leading figures of the racial justice movement at the time. 


Civil rights leaders and organizers who went to Ferguson were woefully unprepared to deal with the conditions on the ground and, to put it bluntly, out of touch with the world view of the young people. The young people were angered, frustrated and scared but young people had always been angry, frustrated and scared.  What set these new Afrikan millennials apart was that they had lived through the neo-liberal turn and did not trust so-called “community organizations” or respect institutional authority. 


This is in part because few millennials had positive experiences interacting with functioning institutions. In Ferguson in particular, the vast majority of institutions were outwardly predatory towards the New Afrikan community. They also had no living memory of the demonstrate, negotiate, and escalate tactics of the civil right movement working for them but they had a lot of experience “negotiation” meaning getting sold out, especially in those first few weeks. 


This led to a healthy skepticism of anyone in a suit trying to get them to calm down and get organized. The spontaneous affinity group style organizing that developed instead was incredibly effective in launching actions that garnered massive attention and sometimes pushed back the police. In many ways you saw New African people using the same tactics that their mainly middle class socialized white peers had used in the Occupy movement. 


 There were many reasons for this. One was that New Afrikan people who were radicalized in occupy were some of the first outsiders on the ground in Ferguson. Both movements were inspired by stories of asymmetrical organizational resistance in the middle east and responding to the same skepticism of institutions. There were also a lot of white-socailized comrades like Lisa Fithian who gave massive training on her affinity group mobilization model. Not to mention multi-racial organizers from what would become Beautiful struggle who gave trainings throughout the country. 


In many ways, the Movement took these anarchistic organizing models and ran with them to astonishing results. The confrontational, vibrant and often spiritually infused style of protesting that came together on the streets of Ferguson quickly became the predominant style of protesting in Black movement spaces. Eventually, as happened in the long 60’s the whole country was adopting the tactics and posture of Black Movements. 


Looking back on it now, it is easy to forget much of the departure from the status quo and from proceeding movements  BLM and the Movement for Black Lives was. For those of us who participated, it is also remarkably easy to forget just how many protests, actions, campaigns and interventions we helped launch. In February of 2022, New York Magazine posted a pretty comprehensive  overview of the past 10 years since Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012.  


Decentralized Explosion of Action and Collaboration


Starting from Ferguson in summer of 2014, a wave of protest swept the U.S. It's important to remember that each city had its own unique history of protests which changed how protests looked across the county. 


Cities like New York had decades of experience organizing large, coordinated and decentralized actions against police brutality. In the Bay Area groups had been protesting the militarization of police through vibrant, creative and disruptive mass regional protests for years as well. In other cities, like Washington D.C, disruptive local protests were far less common and issues such as housing, education and jobs were much higher initial prioties for the local Black community. 


One could argue that groups were organized according to existing regional radical cultures. The Northeast was largely organized as decentralized networks of direct action and mass protests activists with strong points of unity that occasionally came together as coalitions for specific campaigns. The midwest and rustbelt groups followed the industrial areas foundation model school of organizing that focused on disciplined organizations rooted in communities. 


The west coast had the most experienced, resourced and tactically sophisticated direct action groups in the country. BLM groups on the west coast thus often formed as coalitions of other groups of people who have been protesting local issues that found a common cause under the BLM banner. The south was geared on highly relational organizing that focused on mobilizing tight knit communities. Under resourced and often surrounded by hostile political forces, organizers in the south were often directly concerned with building out Black radical spaces either for healing and culture work or mutual aid and economic development.  


Despite these regional differences, there are some basic similarities in how the movement developed. In every major city (and whole lot of smaller cities) groups of young people put calls on social media for marches. This was typically after video footage was released of the killing of an unarmed Black man or after a police officer who killed an unarmed Black man didn’t get indicted for it. They typically met in natural gathering spaces, parks, squares or in front of police stations. 


In some cities, protests were called by existing groups of either Black radicals, socialist organizations or anti-police brutality coalitions. Yet oftentimes, the largest and most well attended protests were launched by first time organizers who just wanted to do something, anything to fill a void in their soul that ached whenever we saw another one of ours lynched. These young activists were often overwhelmed with the response to their protests, often expecting 20 people and getting thousands. 


[This was of course possible due to the nature of social media at the time. It's hard to imagine  a similar dynamic in the current corporate social media landscape. Turns out the elders warning us that relying on corporate black form would backfire on us were pretty insightful. We can see that much more traditional outreach and organization is necessary for today's Palestinian solidarity marches. While young people having marches blow up is still happening, the largest mobilizations rely on decades long solidarity networks and coordinated coalition events.]


A general pattern started to develop where one city would host a dynamic direct action or demonstration (often organized by people with years of prior experience) and then a dozen cities would copy the chants, stances and tactics.  Due to social media's more bottom up algorithms at the time and the predominance on Black users on certain platforms like twitter,  it was much easier for actions to go viral in 2014-5. Thus there were certain tactics and chants that became pretty standard. 


The post Ferguson moment was what activist scholars Mark and Paul Engler call a movement whirlwind:


“the defining attribute of a moment of the whirlwind is that it involves a dramatic public event or series of events that sets off a flurry of activity, and that this activity quickly spreads beyond the institutional control of any one organization. It inspires a rash of decentralized action, drawing in people previously unconnected to established movement groups.” This Is An Uprising (p. 178)


In that whirlwind moment hundreds of activist groups, mostly little more than 4-7 person affinity groups that went to protest together, started to form across the country. Most of these groups remained small gatherings of friends who had each other’s backs at protests. Others started specializing based on what they did. 


Some groups became media collectives that live-streamed protests, others were art collectives that made protest art, some became direct action groups and some became regular organizers of protests. Many of these protest organizing groups would go on to call themselves some version of BLM [insert city, region or zipcode]. 


This use of the BLM was not directly connected to the work of so-called “founders” on the ground. While the #BlackLivesMatters tag is a beautiful and timely hashtag, and they were smart, skillful and intentional about its use and dissemination, it was only a hashtag. Similarly while Patrisse, Alicia and Opal did organize locally at the time, the majority of the early chapters organizing around the country were by and large unaware that their contributions. People used it because it was effective. For most of 2014, few people considered that there might be an actual organization behind the hashtag. Many of the groups using the hashtag would never become members of the BLM network or organization despite how the network would later be positioned in the media as the head or heart of the movement. . 


Further, these BLM groups did not generally agree on much other than Black Lives Mattered and the police should stop killing unarmed Black people. Some of these groups were even completely or mostly white in their leadership (though this didn’t last long in most cities). Some of these groups wanted to have community conversations between cops and the community while others were advocates for the abolition of policing altogether. Perhaps most notably, few were explicitly or intentionally anti-capitalist. 


Yet just as protest tactics spread virally through social media, praxis and politics also started to spread through these small affinity groups and formations. These groups were generally disruption oriented, suspicious of traditional authority figures, wary of formal structures of power and social media savvy. Many of these initial groups were also led by outspoken, college educated Afro-descendant young women.


With the launch of one group in the Movement, the Black Youth Project 100 [launched in 2013], these emerging praxis and politic of movement became infused with a particular brand of Black Queer Feminism that was, as BYP famously put it, unapolegtically Black. Though generally smaller in numbers than groups like BLM, BYP has had the largest cultural impact on the movements. Many of songs, chants, tactics and language of the movement have been popularized if not created by their members. 


In many ways the movement for Black Lives has always been more cultural than ideological. What unites the participants is more shared demographics, affects, tactics and attitudes than ideology. This reality would have important implications for what would transpire. While there may have been no ideological coherence at the start movement and still little ideological coherence years later, a lens would come the prominence through which the movement would come to see itself. Black Queer Feminism. 

The Movement Black Queer Feminists Dreamed Of

“I identify as a queer black feminist and all of those words actually mean the same thing to me. It is profoundly redundant. All of those words for me signify transformation at the root. A queer approach is a transformative approach. A black approach is a transformative approach. A black feminist approach is a transformative transformative approach. My queerness is my belief that love transforms everything. And I am here for it. As a queer black feminist I believe my role is to make space for transformation and to reject the violence of conformity. To make it basic, if the choice is transform or conform, I choose transform…” Alexis Pauline Gumbs


The disruptive tactics and orientations of these groups caused many of them to run afoul of the more respectable Black establishment and the overwhelmingly white-male dominated leftist groups. There were many in both camps that wanted to dismiss these young upstarts. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, they often did this in ways that were both paternalistic and misogynistic. As these young women leaders push to be taken seriously on panels and community conversations about the movement they are often left unsupported by their male comrades.


In fact, Omolara Willaims McCallister and Erika Totten (two of the co-instigators of BLM DC) first met at a panel in DC on what was called the Ferguson Movement at the time. It was an all male panel, in which the contributions and leadership of women were erased. The questions and comments from young Afro-descendant women in the audience were dismissed off hand until they disrupted the panel. 


It is a testament to these young women’s eventual achievements in cultural organizing that it is a little hard to remember just how different movement spaces used to be then they are now. Yet back then, the idea that all the Blacks were men and all the women were white was pretty ubiquitous. Black issues were always considered the issues that affected Afro-descendent men, with the issues Afro-descendant women faced often being seen as secondary symptoms of anti-Black racism at most. 


Similarly, women’s issues were synonymous with the issues women socialized as white. In left spaces in general, Black people’s issues were always secondary to the universal issues (by which they meant the issues of the white working class.) 


At the time, it would not have been unusual for a panel on racism to be all men. In some left movement spaces, it would not have been all that unusual for a panel on racism to have more white socialized people than Afro-descendant women. It would also not have been unusual for racism to also be only one panel on a week long conference about transformation in America. 


Outside of movement spaces, the situation was even worse. There was little serious professional talk of racial disparity in the fields of medicine, education, nutrition, sports or a whole host of other fields outside of the POC professional associations. In those rare moments when it was given a chance to be talked about in the open, there was often a desire by white socialized people to have anyone other than a person socialized as Black to speak on it. 


In those rare occasions that Afro-descendant people were invited to speak on race in mainstream events they were almost invariably asked to do so for free. 


Yet this was a generation of young leaders, especially young queer femme leaders, who were being radicalized.  When these new radicals sought texts to help make sense of their experiences they often found Black Queer Feminist icons as the only people who analysis viscerally fit the moment. Thus Black Queer Feminist became the dominant lens used in the movement. We mean lens as distinct from ideology. Ideology is a worldview that encompasses not only a story of how the world works and how power shapes the world but a story of how we got to this point and where we want to go. A lens is more like a viewpoint,  a social position from which to analyze the world and a set of central questions to organize your analysis. 


While many people have a Black Queer Feminist ideology, the movement generally speaking does not. Movement stewards tended not to ask and study theories of how the world became this way in any rigorous fashion. It is generally taken as received wisdom that capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy worked together in some way to bring us here and must be undone (again in some unarticulated way) to get us to a better place. 


If questions of ideology were put aside, as lens, Black Queer Feminism was readily adopted. We at WildSeed would offer that this was because Black Queer Feminism was the only prominent strain of the Black Radical Tradition that spoke directly and plainly to the crisis of belonging, unacknowledged history and social reproduction that birthed the movement in the first place. We believe this is a direct result of the contradictions between the role women are often forced to play in social reproduction as nurturers and the predominance of the service industry as a main driver of domestic economic growth.


 The double duty of women of color was at its most untenable thanks to neoliberalism defunding the social safety net at the time when working women were more powerful and essential. Adding to this women of color are overwhelmingly better educated than other social groups and found radical refuge in the academy to make serious and well developed theories about their own social location. All of this made working class women of color uniquely suited to lead movements as a social force. They are an educated, socially invaluable proletariat conscious of their own power, shared interests and historical relevance. 


This is why the leadership of Black women and femmes as a social force is so necessary in this moment. Not because women are better leaders or that identity should ever be the sole criterion for leadership but because they have the most revolutionary potential as a social force to resolve the contradiction between our material overdevelopment and our social and spiritual underdevelopment. 


“The Black, queer, feminist lens allows people to view the world in a way that accounts for multiple modes of resistance and multiple experiences of oppression. Organizing is not inherently radical. It's important for young people to take up clear political commitments that are based in the basic notion that none of us will be free until all of us are free.” Charlene Carruthers Founding Director of BYP 100

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