The Anarchist movement in North America is overwhelmingly white, middle class, and for the most part, pacifist so the question arises: why am I a part of the Anarchist movement, since I am none of those things? Well, although the movement may not now be what I think it should be in North America, I visualize a mass movement that will have hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Black, Hispanic and other non-white workers in it. It will not be an Anarchist movement that Black workers and the other oppressed will just “join” — it will be an independent movement which has its own social outlook, cultural imperative, and political agenda. It will be Anarchist at its care, but it will also extend Anarchism to a degree no previous European social or cultural group ever has done. I am certain that many of these workers will believe, as I do, that Anarchism is the most democratic, effective, and radical way to obtain our freedom, but that we must be free to design our own movements, whether it is understood or “approved” by North American Anarchists or not. We must fight for our freedom, no one else can free us, but they can help us.Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, Anarchism and the Black Revolution
Originally published by Autonomies.
One of the most important lessons I also learned from anarchism is that you need to look for the radical things that we already do and try to encourage them. This is why I think there is so much potential for anarchism in the Black community: so much of what we already do is anarchistic and doesn’t involve the state, the police, or the politicians. We look out for each other, we care for each other’s kids, we go to the store for each other, we find ways to protect our communities. Even churches still do things in a very communal way to some extent. I learned that there are ways to be radical without always passing out literature and telling people, “Here is the picture, if you read this you will automatically follow our organization and join the revolution.” For example, participation is a very important theme for anarchism and it is also very important in the Back community. Consider jazz: it is one of the best illustrations of an existing radical practice because it assumes a participatory connection between the individual and the collective and allows for the expression of who you are, within a collective setting, based on the enjoyment and pleasure of the music itself. Our communities can be the same way. We can bring together all kinds of diverse perspectives to make music, to make revolution.Ashanti Omowali Alston, Black Anarchism
The expression “black anarchism” may ring a discordant note among some anarchists. The many adjectives that have distinguished different kinds of anarchism – mutualist, collectivist, communist, individualist, for example – have served above all to mark different ways in which the anarchist ideals of freedom and equality are imagined and fought for. And even when “anarchism” becomes the adjective of a designation – anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-feminism, anarcho-primitivism -, it reflects an effort to inject anarchist ideals into a larger body of political thought and practice.
A “black anarchism” suggests something more disturbing, a form of political parochialism, an anarchism for “black people”, somehow contrary to the universalist aspiration of anarchist intentions. And if to this is added a concern for “black nationalism”, then the anarchist may indeed have reasons for scepticism regarding the possibility of a seemingly racially defined form of anarchism.
Is then “black anarchism” simply a well meant misunderstanding, or worse, a contradiction in terms? Or cannot one instead see in “black anarchism” the desire to identify a form of domination that has and continues to mark modern capitalism?
An affirmative answer to the second question reminds us that capitalist social relations depend on a series of overlapping and structuring forms of hierarchical oppression grounded in identities of race, sex-gender, ethnicity and the like. Substantive social equality would render capitalist exploitation impossible. Put simply, someone has to do the “dirty work” and be paid little or nothing for it.
And among the functions of the State under capitalism is to create and police such identities.
For an anarchism then to elevate “blackness”, a capitalist racial, racialising and racist category, to the status of a type of anarchism would appear to be problematic. But it would only be so in light of an abstract demand that anarchists ignore the very conditions of domination, the actual circumstances in and through which racial categories function to create and oppress human communities.
It is one thing to recognise that “race” is a (scientific) fiction; it is another to thereby conclude that we should ignore it as if it did not exist, somehow then freeing ourselves from racism. Race is a political fiction that creates human types for very real kinds of specific control and racist abuse. Capitalism cannot function without it, because like sex-gender, it provides the broadest empirical and historical basis for discrimination, and thus a basis for simultaneously local and global forms of exploitation and destruction.
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last May 25th is dramatic testimony of the violence of racism. This violence though is not that of a haphazard event perpetrated by morally reprehensible police officers – though it is that too -, but a permanent possibility of racialising State power. George Floyd was killed not because he was George Floyd, but because he was black, as so many other black people have been killed before him. And his repeated statement “I can’t breath!”, while the knee of a police officer pressed down upon the back of his neck, could elicit no empathy because a black man or women in a white supremacist State deserve little, if none. They are rather to be used, when possible – in ways more often than not unacceptable to “higher” human-social groups -, and then forgotten or “removed” as superfluous. The call that “Black lives matter!” is the indignant refusal to be nothing, to be a bare life disposed of at will by reigning authority.
If anarchism pretends to criticise all forms of domination, then it cannot ignore that racist violence is omnipresent, though not in the ultimately banal sense that we are all a little racist, but in the sense that capitalism as a system of social relations cannot do without it and thus engenders racial identities and forms of racist domination.
To speak then of “black anarchism” is both to bring attention to bear on “anti-black” racism and to acknowledge that “black” people cannot but give voice to their “blackness” when describing their experience of domination under capitalism. To ask them to set both aside in the name of a moral universalism – anarchist or otherwise – would be obscene.
“Black anarchism” implies no reified racialism; categories of race are understood to be “socially constructed” and yet of real consequence, because through multiple practices and discourses of discrimination and domination, they structure subjectivities and social relations. And any dissidence, rebellion, can only begin from within the latter, even as it pushes against their limits, forces changes, pushes them aside, acts for their collapse.
Huey Newton, in an insightful essay of 1974 entitled “Intercommunalism“, offers a partial lens through which to read more recent efforts to imagine “black anarchism” (partial, because we do not entirely share his Marxism).
As one of the founders of the Black Panther Party (1966), Newton acknowledges the Party’s original “black nationalism”.
We realized the contradictions in society, the pressure on black people in particular, and we saw that most people in the past had solved some of their problems by forming into nations. We therefore argued that it was rational and logical for us to believe that our sufferings as a people would end when we established a nation of our own, composed of our own people.
The limits of this logic though would subsequently show itself, both in practice and thought.
… we in the Black Panther Party saw that the United States was no longer a nation. It was something else; it was more than a nation. It had not only expanded its territorial boundaries, but it had expanded all of its controls as well. We called it an empire. Now at one time the world had an empire in which the conditions of rule were different—the Roman Empire. The difference between the Roman and the American empires is that other nations were able to exist external to and independent of the Roman Empire because their means of explorations, conquest, and control were all relatively limited.
But when we say “empire” today, we mean precisely what we say. An empire is a nation-state that has transformed itself into a power controlling all of the world’s lands and people.
We believe that there are no more colonies or neocolonies. If a people is colonized, it must be possible for them to decolonize and become what they formerly were. But what happens when the raw materials are extracted and labor is exploited within a territory dispersed over the entire globe? When the riches of the whole earth are depleted and used to feed a gigantic industrial machine in the imperialist’s home? Then the people and the economy are so integrated into the imperialist empire that it is impossible to “decolonize,” to return to the former conditions of existence.
If colonies cannot “decolonize” and return to their original existence as nations, then nations no longer exist. And since there must be nations for revolutionary nationalism or internationalism to make sense, we decided that we would have to call ourselves something new.
We say that the world today is a dispersed collection of communities. A community is different from a nation. A community is a small unit with a comprehensive collection of institutions that serve to exist a small group of people. And we say further that the struggle in the world today is between the small circle that administers and profits from the empire of the United States, and the peoples of the world who want to determine their own destinies.
We call this situation intercommunalism. We are now in the age of reactionary intercommunalism, in which a ruling circle, a small group of people, control all other people by using their technology.
Newton’s communities are bound and defined by commonalities of experience, traditions, histories, organisations; commonalities that are neither permanently fixed in time nor space, neither fixed nor impermeable. Under the dominion of a global empire – a United States centred global capitalism -, nationalism ceases to have any meaningful tie to sovereign nation-States, coloniser or colonised, and accordingly, falls to the wayside as politically empty. Revolutionary intercommunalism points rather to communities re-appropriating/creating their own forms of life freed of domination. And if Newton still sometimes imagined this autonomy through the examples of “national liberation” of his time, there is nothing in the concept of intercommunalism that dictates such an identification. He himself would consider the world’s black people as a community, an internationalist community, dispersed throughout many “nations” of the empire by slavery. And as oppressed, their struggle for freedom and equality could reach out to other communities contesting the same imperial rule.
There are only differences in degree between what is happening to the blacks here and what is happening to all of the people in the world, including Africans. Their needs are the same and their energy is the same. And the contradictions they suffer will only be resolved when the people establish a revolutionary intercommunalism where they share all the wealth that they produce and live in one world.
Revolutions are not final redemptive moments; they are permanent processes of overcoming the contradictions which impede the concrete realisation of “pure communism and anarchy”. And in the age of “capitalist empire”, the agency of revolution may reside in the many who, like George Floyd, are deemed disposable.
The revolutionary thrust will come from the growing number of what we call “unemployables” in this society. We call blacks and third world people in particular, and poor people in general, “unemployables” because they do not have the skills needed to work in a highly developed technological society. As every society, like every age, contains its opposite: feudalism produced capitalism, which wiped out feudalism, and capitalism produced socialism, which will wipe out capitalism; the same is true of reactionary intercommunalism. Technological development creates a large middle class, and the number of workers increases also. The workers are paid a good deal and get many comforts. But the ruling class is still only interested in itself. They might make certain compromises and give a little—as a matter of fact, the ruling circle has even developed something of a social structure or welfare state to keep the opposition down—but as technology develops, the need for workers decreases. It has been estimated that ten years from now only a small percentage of the present workforce will be necessary to run the industries. Then what will happen to your worker who is now making four dollars an hour? The working class will be narrowed down, the class of unemployables will grow because it will take more and more skills to operate those machines and fewer people. And as these people become unemployables, they will become more and more alienated; even socialist compromises will not be enough. You will then find an integration between the black unemployable and the white racist hard hat who is not regularly employed and mad at the blacks who he thinks threaten his job. We hope that he will join forces with those people who are already unemployable, but whether he does or not, his material existence will have changed. The proletarian will become the lumpen proletarian. It is this future change—the increase of the lumpen proletariat and the decrease of the proletariat—which makes us say that the lumpen proletariat is the majority and carries the revolutionary banner.
Huey Newton’s “lumpen proletariat” are those who increasingly have nothing, are nothing, and who therefore have nothing to lose. Their identities divide as much as they ground perspective. But as the latter depeens, identities reveal themselves as masks fixed forcibly upon life, constraining and devouring it. “I can’t breath!” The mask of blackness serves to deny life; in opposition, “Black lives matter!” affirms “black” desire, re-shaping “blackness”, overwhelming it, creating it again and again, as each lets themselves be carried away beyond who they were before.
There is an old African saying, “I am we.” If you met an African in ancient times and asked him who he was, he would reply, “I am we.” This is revolutionary suicide: I, we, all of us are the one and the multitude.
We share two essays by north american anarchists and former Black Panther Party members, Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin and Ashanti Omowali Alston, which seek to weave connections between radical “black” politics and anarchism. A number of essays by both are available at the Anarchist Library, from which we take the two pieces that we share. The Black Rose Anarchist Federation also edited an important and valuable “black anarchist reader“.
The anarchist tradition has by no means been blind to questions of slavery, colonialism and racism. See Uri Gordon’s essay “Anarchism and Multiculturalism“.
Why I Am An Anarchist
Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin
Lorenzo Komboa Ervin is a former member of the Black Panther Party and wrote the seminal text “Anarchism and the Black Revolution” while incarcerated as a political prisoner. This is an excerpt from the sections “Why I Became and Anarchist” and “What I Believe” and the full text can be found in Black Anarchism: A Reader published by Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation.
In the 1960s I was part of a number of Black revolutionary movements, including the Black Panther Party, which I feel partially failed because of the authoritarian leadership style of Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and others on the Central Committee. This is not a recrimination against those individuals, but many errors were made because the national leadership was too divorced from the chapters in cities all over the country, and therefore engaged in “commandism” or forced work dictated by leaders. But many contradictions were also set up because of the structure of the organization as a Marxist-Leninist group. There was not a lot of inner-party democracy, and when contradictions came up, it was the leaders who decided on their resolution, not the members. Purges became commonplace, and many good people were expelled from the group simply because they disagreed with the leadership.
Because of the over-importance of central leadership, the national organisation was ultimately liquidated entirely, packed up and shipped back to Oakland, California. Of course, many errors were made because the BPP was a young organisation and was under intense attack by the state. I do not want to imply that the internal errors were the primary contradictions that destroyed the BPP. The police attacks on it did that, but, if it were better and more democratically organized, it may have weathered the storm. So this is no mindless criticism or backstabbing attack. I loved the party. And, anyway, not myself or anyone else who critique the party with hindsight, will ever take away from the tremendous role that the BPP played in the Black Liberation movement of the 1960s. But we must look at a full picture of out organizations from that period, so that we do not repeat the same errors.
I think my brief period in the Panthers was very important because it taught me about the limits of – and even the bankruptcy of – leadership in a revolutionary movement. It was not a question of a personality defect on behalf of particular leader, but rather a realization that many times leaders have one agenda, followers have another.
Black Prisoner Organizing
I also learned this lesson during my association with the African People’s Socialist Party during the 1980s. When I had gotten out of the joint I had met Omali Yeshitela while I was confined in Leavenworth (KS) federal pen, when he was invited to our annual Black Solidarity Bay festivities in 1979. This association continued when they formed the Black prisoners’ organization, the African National Prison Organization shortly thereafter. ANPO was definitely a good support organization, and along with News and Letters Committees, the Kentucky branch of the National Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression, and the Social revolutionary Anarchist Federation (now defunct), they wrote letters and made phone calls to have me hospitalized after I had been infected with Tuberculosis, which saved my life. But the group folded when the proposed coalition of founding organizations collapsed due to sectarianism.
After I got out of prison, I lost contact with them as they had moved from Louisville to the West Coast. It was not until 1987 that I once again contacted them when we were having a mass demonstration against police brutality in my hometown. They were invited and came to the demo, along with ANPO and several left-wing forces, and for two years off and on, I had an association with them. But I felt APSP politically was always an authoritarian organization, and even though was never a member, I became more and more uncomfortable with their organizational policies. In the Summer Of 1988, I went to Oakland, California to attend an “organizer’s school,” but I also wanted to satisfy myself about the internal workings of the group. For six weeks, I worked with them out of their national headquarters in the local community. I was able to determine for myself about internal matters and also abort the politics of the group itself. I found out that about a whole history of purges, factional fights, and the “one man” dictatorial leadership style of the Party. While in Oakland, I was asked to attend a meeting in Philadelphia that Fall to re-establish ANPO.
I attended the Philly meeting, but was very concerned when I was automatically placed as part of a “slate” to be officers of the ANPO group, without any real democratic discussion among the proposed membership, or allowing others to put themselves forward as potential candidates. I was in fact made the highest-ranking officer in the group. Although I still believe that there should be a mass political prisoners’ movement and especially a Black prisoners’ movement, I became convinced that this was not it. I believe that it will take a true coalition of forces in the Black and progressive movements to build a mass base of support. I got to feeling that these folks just wanted to push the party and its politics, rather than free prisoners, and so I just dropped out and haven’t dealt with them since. I was very disillusioned and depressed when I learned the truth. I won’t be used by anybody – not for long.
The early stages of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was a contrast in many ways to any Black freedom group to come before or after. Part of the SNCC activists were middle class college intellectuals, with a small number of working class grassroots activists, but they developed a working style that was very anti-authoritarian and was unique to the Civil rights movement. Instead of bringing in a national leader to lead local struggles, like Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. and his group, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, was wont to do, SNCC sent in field organizers to work with the local people and develop indigenous leadership and help organised, but not take over local struggles. They placed their faith in the ability of the people to determine an agenda which would best serve them and lead themselves to obtain their goals rather than being inspired or told what to do by a leader SNCC itself had no strong leaders, even though it had persons in decision-making authority, but they were accountable to membership boards and the community in a way no other group in the civil rights movement was.
SNCC and the Soviet Bloc
SNCC was also a secular organization, in contrast to SCLC, which was formed by Black preachers and had co-opted their style of organizing from the Black church, with a religious authority figure who gave orders to the troops. Today most political commentators or historians still do not want to give full credit to the effectiveness of SNCC, but many of the most powerful and successful struggles of the Civil rights movement were initiated and won by SNCC, including most of the voting rights struggles and the Mississippi phase of the freedom movement. I learned a lot about internal democracy by being a part of SNCC, how it could make or break an organization, and how it had so much to do with the morale of the members. Everyone was given an opportunity to participate in decision-making, and felt part of a great historical mission, which would change their lives forever. They were right. Even though SNCC gave some lifelong lessons to all of us involved, even if it was destroyed by the rich and their own, who resorted to an authoritarian style in later years.
I also began to have a rethinking process after I was forced to leave the U.S. and go to Cuba, Czechoslovakia and other countries in the “Socialist bloc,” as it was called then. It was clear that these countries were essentially police states, even though they had brought many significant reforms and material advances to their peoples over what had existed before. I observed also that racism existed in those countries, along with the denial of basic democratic rights and poverty on a scale I would not have thought possible. I also saw a great deal of corruption by the Communist Party leaders and State administrators, who were well off, while the workers were mere wage slaves. I thought to myself, “there has to be a better way!” There is. It is Anarchism, which I started to read about when I was captured in East Germany and had heard more about when I was eventually thrown into prison in the United States.
Prison and Anarchism
Prison is a place where one continually thinks about his other past life, including the examination of new or contrary ideas, I began to think about what I had seen in the Black movement, along with my mistreatment in Cuba, my capture and escape in Czechoslovakia, and my final capture in East Germany. I replayed all this over and over in my head. I was first introduced to Anarchism in 1969, immediately after I was brought back to the U.S. and was placed in the federal lockup in New York City, where I met Martin Sostre who told me about how to survive in prison, the importance of fighting for prisoners’ democratic rights, and about Anarchism. This short course in Anarchism did not stick however, even though I greatly respected Sostre personally, because I did not understand the theoretical concepts.
Finally around 1973, after I had been locked up for about three years, I started receiving Anarchist literature and correspondence from Anarchists who had heard about my case. This began my slow metamorphosis to a confirmed Anarchist, and in fact it was not until a few years later that I came over. During the late 1970s, I was adopted by Anarchist Black Cross-England and also by a Dutch Anarchist group called HAPOTOC (Help A Prisoner Oppose Torture Organizing Committee) which organised an instrumental defense campaign. This proved crucial in ultimately getting people all over the world to write the U. S. government to demand my release.
I wrote a succession of articles for the Anarchist press, and was a member of the Social Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, the IWW, and a number of other Anarchist groups in the U.S. and around the world. But I became disheartened by the Anarchist movement’s failure to fight white supremacy and its lack of class struggle politics. So, in 1979, I wrote a pamphlet called “Anarchism and the Black Revolution,” to act as a guide to the discussion of these matters by our movement. Finally, in 1983, I was released from prison, after having served almost 15 years.
For all these years, the pamphlet influenced a number of Anarchists who were opposed to racism and also wanted a more class struggle-oriented approach than the movement then afforded. Meanwhile I had fallen away from the Anarchist movement in disgust, and it was not until 1992 when I was working in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee, as an anti-racist community organizer, that I ran into an Anarchist named John Johnson and once again made contact. He gave me an issue of Love and Rage newspaper, and as a result, I contacted Chris Day of Love and Rage, and comrades in WSA in New York. The rest, as they say, is history. I have been back with a vengeance ever since.
All of a sudden, I see there are now others in the movement who understand the workings of white supremacy and they have encouraged me to rewrite this pamphlet I have gratefully done so. Why am I an Anarchist? I have an alternative vision for the revolutionary process. There is a better way. Let us get on with it!
What I Believe
All anarchists do not believe in the same things. There are differences and the field is broad enough that those differences can coexist and be respected. So I don’t know what others believe, I just know what I believe in and I will spell out it simply, but thoroughly.
I believe in Black liberation, so I am a Black revolutionary. I believe that Black people are oppressed both as workers and a distinct nationality, and will only be freed by a Black revolution, which is an intrinsic part of a Social revolution. I believe that Blacks and other oppressed nationalities must have their own agenda, distinct world-view, and organizations of struggle, even though they may decide to work with white workers.
I believe in the destruction of the world Capitalist System, so I am an anti-imperialist. As long as Capitalism is alive on the planet, there will be exploitation, oppression and nation-states. Capitalism is responsible for the major world wars, numerous brush wars, and millions of people starving for the profit motive of the rich countries in the West.
I believe in racial justice, so I am an anti-racist. The Capitalist system was and is maintained by enslavement and colonial oppression of the African people, and before there will be a social revolution white supremacy must be defeated. I also believe that Africans in America are colonized and exist as an internal colonial of the U.S, white mother country. I believe that white workers must give up their privileged status, their “white identity,” and must support racially oppressed workers in their fights for equality and national liberation. Freedom cannot be bought by enslaving and exploiting others.
I believe in social justice and economic equality, so I am a Libertarian Socialist. I believe that society and all parties responsible for its production should share the economic products of labor. I do not believe in Capitalism or the state, and believe they both should be overthrown and abolished I accept the economic critique of Marxism, but not its model for political organizing. I accept the anti-authoritarian critique of Anarchism, but not its rejection of the class struggle.
I believe in workers control of society and industry, so I am an Anarcho-Syndicalist. Anarchist Syndicalism is revolutionary labor unionism, where direct action tactics are used to fight Capitalism and take over industry I believe that the factory committees, workers’ councils and other labor organizations should be the workplaces, and should take control from the Capitalists after a direct action campaign of sabotage, strikes, sit-downs, factory occupations and other actions.
I do not believe in government, and so I am an Anarchist. I believe that government is one of the worst forms of modem oppression, is the source of war and economic oppression, and must be overthrown. Anarchism means that we will have more democracy, social equality, and economic prosperity. I oppose all forms of oppression found in modem society: patriarchy, white supremacy, Capitalism, State Communism, religious dictates, gay discrimination, etc.
Ashanti Omowali Alston
Many classical anarchists regarded anarchism as a body of elemental truths that merely needed to be revealed to the world and believed people would become anarchists once exposed to the irresistible logic of the idea. This is one of the reasons they tended to be didactic.
Fortunately the lived practice of the anarchist movement is much richer than that. Few “convert” in such a way: it is much more common for people to embrace anarchism slowly, as they discover that it is relevant to their lived experience and amenable to their own insights and concerns.
The richness of the anarchist tradition lay precisely in the long history of encounters between non-anarchist dissidents and the anarchist framework that we inherited from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anarchism has grown through such encounters and now confronts social contradictions that were previously marginal to the movement. For example, a century ago the struggle against patriarchy was a relatively minor concern for most anarchists and yet it is now widely accepted as an integral part of our struggle against domination.
It is only within the last 10 or 15 years that anarchists in North America have begun to seriously explore what it means to develop an anarchism that can both fight white supremacy and articulate a positive vision of cultural diversity and cultural exchange. Comrades are working hard to identify the historical referents of such a task, how our movement must change to embrace it, and what a truly anti-racist anarchism might look like.
The following piece by IAS board member Ashanti Alston explores some of these questions. Alston, who was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, describes his encounter(s) with anarchism (which began while he was incarcerated for activities related to the Black Liberation Army). He touches upon some of the limitations of older visions of anarchism, the contemporary relevance of anarchism to black people, and some of the principles necessary to build a new revolutionary movement.
This is an edited transcript of a talk given by Alston on October 24th, 2003 at Hunter College in New York City. This event was organized by the Institute for Anarchist Studies and co-sponsored by the Student Liberation Action Movement of the City University of New York.
Although the Black Panther Party was very hierarchical, I learned a lot from my experience in the organization. Above all, the Panthers impressed upon me the need to learn from other peoples’ struggles. I think I have done that and that is one of the reasons why I am an anarchist today. After all, when old strategies don’t work, you need to look for other ways of doing things to see if you can get yourself unstuck and move forward again. In the Panthers we drew a lot from nationalists, Marxist-Leninists, and others like them, but their approaches to social change had significant problems and I delved into anarchism to see if there are other ways to think about making a revolution.
I learned about anarchism from letters and literature sent to me while in various prisons around the country. At first I didn’t want to read any of the material I received—it seemed like anarchism was just about chaos and everybody doing their own thing—and for the longest time I just ignored it. But there were times—when I was in segregation—that I didn’t have anything else to read and, out of boredom, finally dug in (despite everything I had heard about anarchism up to the time). I was actually quite surprised to find analyses of peoples’ struggles, peoples’ cultures, and peoples’ organizational formations—that made a lot of sense to me.
These analyses helped me see important things about my experience in the Panthers that had not been clear to me before. For example, I realized that there was a problem with my love for people like Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seal, and Eldridge Cleaver and the fact that I had put them on a pedestal. After all, what does it say about you, if you allow someone to set themselves up as your leader and make all your decisions for you? What anarchism helped me see was that you, as an individual, should be respected and that no one is important enough to do your thinking for you. Even if we thought of Huey P. Newton or Eldridge Cleaver as the baddest revolutionaries in the world, I should see myself as the baddest revolutionary, just like them. Even if I am young, I have a brain. I can think. I can make decisions.
I thought about all this while in prison and found myself saying, “Man, we really set ourselves up in a way that was bound to create problems and produce schisms. We were bound to follow programs without thinking.” The history of the Black Panther Party, as great as it is, has those skeletons. The smallest person on the totem pole was supposed to be a worker and the one on the top was the one with the brains. But in prison I learned that I could have made some of these decisions myself and that people around me could have made these decisions themselves. Although I appreciated everything that the leaders of the Black Panther Party did, I began to see that we can do things differently and thus draw more fully on our own potentials and move even further towards real self-determination. Although it wasn’t easy at first, I stuck with the anarchist material and found that I couldn’t put it down once it started giving me insights. I wrote to people in Detroit and Canada who had been sending me literature and asked them to send more.
However, none of what I received dealt with Black folks or Latinos. Maybe there were occasional discussions of the Mexican revolution, but nothing dealt with us, here, in the United States. There was an overwhelming emphasis on those who became the anarchist founding fathers—Bakunin, Kropotkin, and some others—but these European figures, who were addressing European struggles, didn’t really speak to me.
I tried to figure out how this applies to me. I began to look at Black history again, at African history, and at the histories and struggles of other people of color. I found many examples of anarchist practices in non-European societies, from the most ancient times to the present. This was very important to me: I needed to know that it is not just European people who can function in an anti-authoritarian way, but that we all can.
I was encouraged by things I found in Africa—not so much by the ancient forms that we call tribes—but by modern struggles that occurred in Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. Even though they were led by vanguardist organizations, I saw that people were building radical, democratic communities on the ground. For the first time, in these colonial situations, African peoples where creating what was the Angolans called “popular power.” This popular power took a very anti-authoritarian form: people were not only conducting their lives, but also transforming them while fighting whatever foreign power was oppressing them. However, in every one of these liberation struggles new repressive structures were imposed as soon as people got close to liberation: the leadership was obsessed with ideas of government, of raising a standing army, of controlling the people when the oppressors were expelled. Once the so-called victory was accomplished, the people—who had fought for years against their oppressors—were disarmed and instead of having real popular power, a new party was installed at the helm of the state. So, there were no real revolutions or true liberation in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe because they simply replaced a foreign oppressor with an indigenous oppressor.
So, here I am, in the United States fighting for Black liberation, and wondering: how can we avoid situations like that? Anarchism gave me a way to respond to this question by insisting that we put into place, as we struggle now, structures of decision-making and doing things that continually bring more people into the process, and not just let the most “enlightened” folks make decisions for everyone else. The people themselves have to create structures in which they articulate their own voice and make their own decisions. I didn’t get that from other ideologies: I got that from anarchism.
I also began to see, in practice, that anarchistic structures of decision-making are possible. For example, at the protests against the Republican National Convention in August 2000 I saw normally excluded groups—people of color, women, and queers—participate actively in every aspect of the mobilization. We did not allow small groups to make decisions for others and although people had differences, they were seen as good and beneficial. It was new for me, after my experience in the Panthers, to be in a situation where people are not trying to be on the same page and truely embraced the attempt to work out our sometimes conflicting interests. This gave me some ideas about how anarchism can be applied.
It also made me wonder: if it can be applied to the diverse groups at the convention protest, could I, as a Black activist, apply these things in the Black community?
Some of our ideas about who we are as a people hamper our struggles. For example, the Black community is often considered a monolithic group, but it is actually a community of communities with many different interests. I think of being Black not so much as an ethnic category but as an oppositional force or touchstone for looking at situations differently. Black culture has always been oppositional and is all about finding ways to creatively resist oppression here, in the most racist country in the world. So, when I speak of a Black anarchism, it is not so tied to the color of my skin but who I am as a person, as someone who can resist, who can see differently when I am stuck, and thus live differently.
What is important to me about anarchism is its insistence that you should never be stuck in old, obsolete approaches and always try to find new ways of looking at things, feeling, and organizing. In my case, I first applied anarchism in the early 1990s in a collective we created to put out the Black Panther newspaper again. I was still a closet anarchist at this point. I wasn’t ready yet to come out and declare myself an anarchist, because I already knew what folks were going to say and how they were going to look at me. Who would they see when I say anarchist? They would see the white anarchists, with all the funny hair etc, and say “how the heck are you going to hook up with that?”
There was a divide in this collective: on the one side there were older comrades who were trying to reinvent the wheel and, on the other, myself and a few others who were saying, “Let’s see what we can learn from the Panther experience and build upon and improve it. We can’t do things the same way.” We emphasized the importance of an anti-sexist perspective—an old issue within the Panthers—but the other side was like, “I don’t want to hear all that feminist stuff.” And we said, “That’s fine if you don’t want to hear it, but we want the young folks to hear it, so they know about some of the things that did not work in the Panthers, so they know that we had some internal contradictions that we could not overcome.” We tried to press the issue, but it became a battle and the discussions got so difficult that a split occurred. As this point, I left the collective and began working with anarchist and anti-authoritarian groups, who have really been the only ones to consistently try to deal with these dynamics thus far.
One of the most important lessons I also learned from anarchism is that you need to look for the radical things that we already do and try to encourage them. This is why I think there is so much potential for anarchism in the Black community: so much of what we already do is anarchistic and doesn’t involve the state, the police, or the politicians. We look out for each other, we care for each other’s kids, we go to the store for each other, we find ways to protect our communities. Even churches still do things in a very communal way to some extent. I learned that there are ways to be radical without always passing out literature and telling people, “Here is the picture, if you read this you will automatically follow our organization and join the revolution.” For example, participation is a very important theme for anarchism and it is also very important in the Back community. Consider jazz: it is one of the best illustrations of an existing radical practice because it assumes a participatory connection between the individual and the collective and allows for the expression of who you are, within a collective setting, based on the enjoyment and pleasure of the music itself. Our communities can be the same way. We can bring together all kinds of diverse perspectives to make music, to make revolution.
How can we nurture every act of freedom? Whether it is with people on the job or the folks that hang out on the corner, how can we plan and work together? We need to learn from the different struggles around the world that are not based on vanguards. There are examples in Bolivia. There are the Zapatistas. There are groups in Senegal building social centers. You really have to look at people who are trying to live and not necessarily trying to come up with the most advanced ideas. We need to de-emphasize the abstract and focus what is happening on the ground.
How can we bring all these different strands together? How can we bring in the Rastas? How can we bring in the people on the west coast who are still fighting the government strip-mining of indigenous land? How can we bring together all of these peoples to begin to create a vision of America that is for all of us?
Oppositional thinking and oppositional risks are necessary. I think that is very important right now and one of the reasons why I think anarchism has so much potential to help us move forward. It is not asking of us to dogmatically adhere to the founders of the tradition, but to be open to whatever increases our democratic participation, our creativity, and our happiness.
We just had an Anarchist People of Color conference in Detroit on October 3rd to the 5th. One hundred thirty people came from all over the country. It was great to just see ourselves and the interest of people of color from around the United States in finding ways of thinking outside of the norm. We saw that we could become that voice in our communities that says, “Wait, maybe we don’t need to organize like that. Wait, the way that you are treating people within the organization is oppressive. Wait, what is your vision? Would you like to hear mine?” There is a need for those kinds of voices within our different communities. Not just our communities of color, but in every community there is a need to stop advancing ready-made plans and to trust that people can collectively figure out what to do with this world. I think we have the opportunity to put aside what we thought would be the answer and fight together to explore different visions of the future. We can work on that. And there is no one answer: we’ve got to work it out as we go.
Although we want to struggle, it is going to be very difficult because of the problems that we have inherited from this empire. For example, I saw some very hard, emotional struggles at the protests against the Republican National Convention. But people stuck to it, even if they broke down crying in the process. We are not going to get through some of our internal dynamics that have kept us divided unless we are willing to go through some really tough struggles. This is one of the other reasons why I say there is no answer: we’ve just got to go through this.
Our struggles here in the United States affect everybody in the world. People on the bottom are going to play a key role and the way we relate to people on the bottom is going to be very important. Many of us are privileged enough to be able to avoid some of the most difficult challenges and we will need to give up some of this privilege in order to build a new movement. The potential is there. We can still win—and redefine what it means to win—but we have the opportunity to advance a richer vision of freedom than we have ever had before. We have to be willing to try.
As a Panther, and as someone who went underground as an urban guerrilla, I have put my life on the line. I have watched my comrades die and spent most of my adult life in prison. But I still believe that we can win. Struggle is very tough and when you cross that line, you risk going to jail, getting seriously hurt, killed, and watching your comrades getting seriously hurt and killed. That is not a pretty picture, but that is what happens when you fight an entrenched oppressor. We are struggling and will make it rough for them, but struggle is also going to be rough for us too.
This is why we have to find ways to love and support each other through tough times. It is more than just believing that we can win: we need to have structures in place that can carry us through when we feel like we cannot go another step. I think we can move again if we can figure out some of those things. This system has got to come down. It hurts us every day and we can’t give up. We have to get there. We have to find new ways.
Anarchism, if it means anything, means being open to whatever it takes in thinking, living, and in our relationships—to live fully and win. In some ways, I think they are both the same: living to the fullest is to win. Of course we will and must clash with our oppressors and we need to find good ways of doing it. Remember those on the bottom who are most impacted by this. They might have different perspectives on how this fight is supposed to go. If we can’t find ways for meeting face-to-face to work that stuff out, old ghosts will re-appear and we will be back in the same old situation that we have been in before.
You all can do this. You have the vision. You have the creativity. Do not allow anyone to lock that down.
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