Eugene Puryear is a community and anti-war activist based in Washington D.C, and is the 2016 Vice-Presidential Candidate of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, running with Gloria La Riva for President. Learn more about the candidates, their 10-Point Program and how to get involved in the PSL’s “Vote Socialist in 2016!” campaign at www.VotePSL.org.
A year ago it would have been tough to predict what was going to become of the firestorm of protest that erupted in Ferguson, Mo. after the killing of Michael Brown. Perhaps one way to sum it up is with the words uttered by Eric Garner before he was murdered: “This stops today.” While the obvious fact, that police terrorism is still with us, may seem to invalidate this, there is no doubt it’s an entirely new day. Having been involved in a number of major uprisings against racism, in particular the Jena 6 struggle, it is notable that this is the most significant national movement against racist brutality for some time, at least the last decade.
At the outset it seems important not to lose the forest for the trees; whatever else may be said about the movement there is no doubt that it has put the issue of racism or (in communist terms, national oppression) in the forefront of the political conversation. The Occupy Movement similarly gave voice to the deep dissatisfaction over the distribution of wealth in society, but was repressed and undermined by its own contradictions before it could congeal into a larger movement.
What has become known as the Black Lives Matter movement seems to have much more permanence.
While there are most likely a number of reasons for this, the primary one seems to be its general accordance with the political circumstances of Black people. Anger against the general state of the economy is powerful and visceral but not coherent. The same anger that drove Occupy also had a serious effect in putting wind in the sails of the Tea Party whose harangues against “crony capitalism,” while superficial, certainly had the intended effect.
The struggle against racism, (discriminatory practices that are both easy to identify and unlike wealth inequality don’t find satisfactory justification in the official creation myths of capitalist America), produces diverse responses but ones that all move in the same direction, in parallel fashion, at least for now.
To obtain the ultimate “Black First,” the Presidency, Barack Obama had to essentially deny his Blackness, not in the most obvious way of course, but by divorcing himself from any connection to the historical Black Liberation Movement, even its more liberal factions. He had to fashion himself into a “post-racial” figure that didn’t–as one commentator claimed in 2008–“carry the baggage of slavery.”
This carried over to almost his entire presidency as Obama sought to downplay “racial” issues to maintain a broad appeal, using phrases like “I am not the President of Black America, but the United States of America.” Thus the struggle against racism became the most muted during the term of the first Black President, even when conditions of oppression were just as sharp.
Further, given the both implicitly and explicitly racist elements of the Republican strategy of blocking the Obama agenda, large sections of the Black community went out of their way not to criticize Obama for fear of offering him up on the altar of white supremacy in the 2012 election.
The murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, however, came at a time when clearly Obama’s presidency was past its sell-by date and “protecting” him became less relevant, and when the pent up anger of roughly six years of submissiveness without much tangible progress had clearly primed people for an explosion.
This explains why “Black Lives Matter” became such an electric slogan. It wasn’t about police terror per se, but about police terror as a sign of the general and brutal oppression of the majority of Black Americans in a variety of ways. It was simply indicative of what Black America had been wanting to scream for half a “post-racial” decade.
Going into the next year however, there are some major challenges. First and foremost going into the 2016 election cycle there is a very real danger of being co-opted. The easiest way to avoid co-option, however, is to stand very clearly for something.
If we are going to be taking stages then, the movement must use that platform to articulate a radical counter-vision to that presented by mainstream political candidates. These candidates have already accepted the capitalist system that is at the root of oppression and exploitation amongst the mass of Black America. To the extent we put the onus on them to develop programs that we then approve or disapprove they can only come back with empty slogans and various reforms that simply rearrange the furniture inside the capitalist system.
None of the candidates of the capitalist parties speak to the scale of the problems we face: the literally tens of millions of jobs needed now; the dire need for millions upon millions of units of decent housing; public health crises; the need to radically overhaul the way we live to save our planet; the deeply ingrained biases and manifested bigotry. There is no way to meet the challenges posed us, not only around simply living standards but about the existence of humanity– without transcending the system.
Any real movement for Black Liberation should be in the business of defining its own reality and goals and presenting them to the masses of people; let the politicians accept or reject them as they will. If we are going to break through the media blockade, let’s not do it to provide platforms for candidates to seek our favor but to expose the system of candidates and elections as entirely inadequate.
Developing ideas, platforms and procedures need not be one hegemonic process, nor must there be “one organization” for the entire “Black Lives Matter” movement. However poles need to start forming and organizations cohering. But to more deeply engage the masses of Black people, primarily poor and working class, we need concrete structures with multiple levels of engagement to maximize everyone’s time and skills and to concentrate and coordinate our forces.
“State violence” has become a buzzword in the movement, and fair enough. However the capitalist state is one of the most centralized, murderous regimes to ever exist. To think it can be destroyed through spontaneity is folly.
We have to become clear that our struggle is not a struggle to “make space” for ourselves. If we really want to win, our struggle has to be a struggle for power over those who oppress us by uprooting them from society and building a new one free from the hatred, violence and fear that capitalist exploitation and racist bigotry has wrought.