Introduction To Reflections on a Decade of New African MovementFeb 05, 2024
Here at the WildSeed Society we talk a lot about the world that we want and how we think we should get there. At our core we are an organization oriented towards the future and the possibilities it offers us. Yet, we are still rooted in our past and the wisdom it has to teach us. In the coming weeks, we plan to announce a series of new programs that we hope will build the spiritual and emotional capacity of people seeking to build a better world that we hope will also allow us to be more economically and energetically sustainable as an organization.
We think that it is necessary to turn to the past for a moment to understand the history that leads us to try these bold new experiments. This means that we need to take the time to talk about the lessons that some of our members learned organizing within the Black Lives Matter Movement ecology.
Who Are We?
As a bit of background, Erika and Aaron were called together by Omolara Williams Mcallister to form the Washington, DC chapter of BLM in December of 2014. D.C was one of the spontaneous chapters created before it was widely known that a semi-formal network was emerging, before there was any talk of something having been “founded.” Both Erika and Aaron left BLM D.C 4 years later in April 2018.
Before BLM, Erika had spent years facilitating conversations and healing spaces acknowledging the increasing pain of racial trauma. Erika first got engaged in movement work after the police killing of John Crawford in a Walmart aisle. In 2014, Erika went on to join the Ferguson Uprising days after hearing about the police killing of Mike Brown. That August she was fundamentally and irrevocably changed.
Aaron had been a part of movements for justice from a young age, going to his first protest in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq at the age of 14. In college he was introduced to the labor movement as a young organizer with United Students Against SweatShops (U.S.A.S). He would later branch out into organizing around housing before getting involved in solidarity with people living the homelessness through his time as a Catholic Worker.
Reece has been organizing for over 20 years. Before he joined BLM Louisville in 2019 he organized in the labor movement starting as a teamster and working for several unions for nearly two decades. He spent a number of years as the national director of what was called U.S Labor Against the War (now U.S Labor Against Racism and War).
In this series we talk a lot about how class, gender and relationships to whiteness shaped the organization and the movement. We know that this might be hard for many to hear. Yet we do this not as a critique or shaming but as truth-telling for learning and growth. We know that these things played a role in the movement because, with hindsight, we understand how they warped our own thinking.
Erika and Aaron can see now, in a way they didn’t at the time, their middle-class background shaped how they participated in the movement. They were, for instance, able to work jobs (in Aaron’s case) or be a full time parent (in Erika’s case) that allowed them to volunteer 40+ hours a week doing movement work. Likewise, Aaron can understand how his relationship to whiteness, having been radicalized in white spaces during college, changed how he thought politically. We point these things out not to dismiss people or cast blame but to illuminate lessons that we feel desperately need to be learned.
A Note On Our Collaboration
Anyone who knows us well can probably tell that Aaron was the person who actually composed this essay series. It's too academically adjacent to Erika's writing and lacks the parables mixed with personal narrative of Reece’s writing. Yet this series is the result of dozens of hours of conversations between all three of us. The central argument was hashed out in debriefs weeks before a word was written. Erika and Reece also suggested specific language, lines of arguments and central points that Aaron dutifully incorporated into the text that you are now reading.
This series is a result of our shared commitment to acting, reflecting and theorizing within the movement traditions of Africans in North America. That commitment to taking action, reflecting on the results of that action and using that reflection to theorize about the world is often called praxis. It is a much more holistic and collaborative way of creating, collecting, synthesizing and refining knowledge than we are used to. It actually comes from a tradition of thinking that is fundamentally opposed to how we taught in school in much the same way that this article seeks to analyze the movement in a very different way than the mainstream press has. Thus the act of writing it down in a nuisanced and accessible way is only one small product of that collaborative praxis.
In that way, this essay series is a distillation of ongoing conversation, what you might call notes from the meeting after the meeting. The meeting after the meeting is where the agenda slips away and people’s role-based masks come off and people say what they really think and feel. This is often where the real actionable decisions are made, where the spirit of what is put on paper as a decision actually lives.
The Reason For This Series a.k.a The Thing Itself
We believe that the movement against the killing of unarmed afro-descendant people and the upswell in larger Black Liberation Movement it fueled, has reached a moment ripe for reflection and learning. This is especially true now that the post George-Floyd uprising honeymoon period has made the inevitable shift into disillusionment with the movement. This shift in prominence of the movement was predicted by most scholars of social movement history but still have provided space for reactionaries to write a counter narrative of what the movement accomplished.
Over time a narrative that the whole movement is nothing but a grift or a shill for the democratic party has picked up steam. We all find it interesting–and ultimately disappointing–that of all the books prominent organizers in the movement have written, there aren't a lot of us giving overviews of what actually happened and what we can learn from it. This is a gap that this essay series hopes to start, in a small way, to fill.
These essays are not looking to throw punches or score points, we want you to understand. We are uninterested in exposees or sensationalist think pieces. The Movement for Black Lives and BLM have always been–and continue to be–more than the sum of scandals of well known personalities. We believe that afro-descendant movement in this moment has been articulating a new vision for society based on a unique set of understandings about what it could mean to be human. We find that this gets lost when we focus on personalities, fundraising totals and combating reactionary talking points.
Maybe the clearest way to say this, is that this article series is not an inside scoop but rather a reflection from participant observers about The Thing.
In many ways, The Thing is whatever we (that is a collective we as in a community or people) lack at the moment or need more of. People who have experienced oppression might understand it easiest in the most negative sense. The Thing is both whatever the dominant perceive we lack (or more often fabricate us lacking) to justify our needs being chronically unmet as well as the thing that would actually meet our needs.
Sometimes it's something like culture, in the sense that we are denied what we need because we are supposedly “uncultured”, while a culture of universal care is actually what we need.
Sometimes it's something like power. Under capitalism it's often something very much like money.
Fundamentally The Thing is the key to access mutual recognition and the freedom to chart our path with others.
The Thing is always ineffable, like the particular type of loving-nurturance we receive from our beloved aunties or the satisfaction we feel in our bones when we meet the needs of community through something we built ourselves. Even when we must put words to it in our demands for equity, representation, voice or justice, it’s always something a little bit greater than can be said.
The Thing is the groove of a social song made of power, desire and connection. It's hunger for The Thing, sometimes buried deep and sometimes right on the surface, that gets us up in the morning. Its the broader category of human experience to which Audrey Lourde prophetically called the Erotic.
The category of instances, interactions, feelings, possessions and contexts which remind us both that we are alive in a spiritual sense and that being truly alive is a wonderous thing worth fighting for. It's the love of community, the solidity of cultural kinship, the solace of grieving, pride of teaching the young, the honor of learning from our elders and the affirmation of life within orgasim.
At WildSeed, we recognize that The Thing has a unique ability to remind us of our inherent connection to all that is and so we hold it as sacred.
There are a lot of theories that try to put the thing in a box and take about one aspect of it. But New Afrikan people want the whole thing and so our movements are about getting The Thing. All of it. Especially the little bits that exist between the spaces where power lies.
This essay series is about the context in which New African people have gone about trying to get the thing over the past decade.
The Thing Should Not Be Forgotten
For the past 30 years the liberatory wing of most communities has been at least over shadowed if not outright co-opted by technocrats. Instead of taking the radical re-imaging of every aspect of our lives seriously, “serious politics” has become about best practices or techniques for achieving good policy within the liberal democratic structures we find ourselves shackled to. While this situation seems to be waning with widespread disillusionment with institutions, it still holds power within large unions, funded movements and electoral politics.
The techniques of the technocrat are never grassroots, democratic or emergent let alone embodied or somatic. It's never the technique of break-dancers whose moves are honed over hours of practice in basement apartments but whose performance relies on passion and feeling the beat. It's the technique of classical ballet, beautiful, precise and deeply unhealthy for the dancer’s body and inaccessible to the average dancer. The technocrate always prioritizes the techniques of the academy–wealthy institutions intentionally and structurally separated from Black, Indigenous or People of Color (BIPOC) communities.
In this technocratic process, the thing is often lost as it tends to be hostile to rigorous categorization. Once you put freedom in a box, it is no longer really freedom is it?
The Thing is lost when we try to translate the beautiful, ephemeral sense of power and belonging we built on the streets in uprisings into liberal or progressive policy. “Stop killing us” is a totally complete and rational human response to the state of policing in the U.S. but almost laughable as policy. In this sense, policy is like arguing with your partners about the dishes. It's never about the dishes. It's almost always about respect, reciprocity and mutuality i.e. its about that love thing.
The truth is, The Thing cannot be written down, much to my dismay as a writer. The Thing can only be felt, embodied. The Thing is fluid. The Thing changes because we both change it and change with it. The Thing transforms. Therefore, real vibrant movements will always fail technical standards. Movements should not be held to “non-profit best practices.” Contrary to many critiques of Black movement organizations, it doesn’t matter if we have receipts for the money we spent or if there were conflicts of interests in who we gave it to.
Our money will be messy because life is messy…the Thing is always a mess.
What matters is if our people (however we choose to define them) are more capable of getting The Thing now than they were when we started. For the three of us, this examination of the BLM movement is not a technical accounting of how the money was spent or even how our movements have been represented to the press. Its not even a breakdown of the success or failure of the movement's strategy at any point and time.
This examination is about how much of the feeling of transformative, joyful and dignified possibility did we communicate to Afro-descendant people and how skillful were we in supporting them to actualize those possibilities in their day to day lives. Did we get the thing for our people or did we not?
It is better to have been messy, powerful and authentic while delivering accessible opportunities for joy, dignity, abundance and belonging to our people than use best practices, with audit proof books and great PR while we starve ourselves and fail our people. This is crucial because movements and movement stewards–let alone our actual communities–are starved of the thing right now.
Put plainly, we write this essay series because we fear that the ingrained response from many of us in the movement to reactionary backlash has been to double down on defensive, technocratic responses of denial, deflection and disposability. We believe that this is in large part because too many of us have begun to internalize the white technocratic standard embedded in most mainstream critiques of Black movement. We worry so much more about being seen as messy or technically incompetent and losing the social esteem that can feel so much like power than we do about being disconnected from our visceral embodied need for the thing itself…for true freedom, dignity, joy and abundance.
As long as that is the case, we will continue to burn ourselves out with heroic sacrifices and self-righteous deprivation trying to meet the same standards of whiteness that we seek to abolish. If we cannot reconnect with the drive for the thing that put us into the streets in the first place and examine our praxis clearly, then we will be stuck chasing empty policy goals and find ourselves shaped by the same social forces of money, power and whiteness that shape existing policy.
Equally important, as our peers who started with us on the streets of any hood U.S.A in 2014 burnt out in mass from the unattended wounds of the past decade, the new cadre of Black leaders are stepping in structures that may be doomed to fail them all over again. So, in deep and important way, this essay series is for them.
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