Author Jean Guerrero on Stephen Miller’s secrets: He likes to dress up as De Niro — and wants an all-white America
Author Jean Guerrero on Stephen Miller’s secrets: He likes to dress up as De Niro — and wants an all-white America
Community Control of Police = Autonomous Zone of People Power
Tue, 11/24/2020 – 00:36
Pan-African Community Action organizer Netfa Freeman told a panel organized by Black psychology students at Bowie State University, in Maryland: “Community control of police is a way to create autonomous zones of power, so that people can actually take control of public safety.” Dhoruba Bin Wahad, who spent 19 years as a Black Panther Party political prisoner, urged creation of a national front of organizations demanding community control of police. “Unless we abolish policing as it’s presently constituted, we are not going to get anywhere,” said Bin Wahad.
A new study shows that Black people die at a higher rate in a normal year than the rate of white people dying from the pandemic this year. In this interview, the author of the research explains its significance.
The fact that African Americans have suffered and died disproportionately during the COVID-19 pandemic has been widely discussed in the popular press. Less discussed, and more surprising, is the fact that Black mortality in the best of times is worse than white mortality even in the worst of times. “Excess Black mortality,” as demographers call it, is a normal feature of capitalism in the United States. But what if we treated it as a crisis on par with COVID-19? What if, overwhelmed by the enormity and urgency of the problem, we said, Everything must stop—schools, restaurants, businesses, church, public transportation—until we find a way for things to continue without prolonging, and so worsening, the crisis? What if we put ourselves on a war footing. That is, what if we did not think of ourselves as acting in normal times, or as bound by familiar assumptions about how things have to work. What if we were prepared to do whatever it takes to end the crisis, even to the point of upending our lives, as our lives have all been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic? That is the question raised by recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Anton Ford of Rampant interviews the the author of that study, Elizabeth Wrigley-Field.
I set out to answer the question, how many white people would have to die from the COVID-19 pandemic—through whatever pathways: COVID itself, delayed medical care, economic deprivation—for white mortality in 2020 to look like Black mortality in a normal year?
And, in fact, instead of asking about a typical year, I took the best ever Black mortality as my basis of comparison. That was in 2014, before the worst of the opioid crisis pushed mortality higher for the next several years (for Black people and white people).
And the other thing I should say is that I’m talking about age-adjusted mortality. In any given year, white people die at a higher rate than Black people overall—because the white population is about a decade older. But when you compare people who are the same ages, in general, Black mortality is substantially higher.
So I asked, how many extra white deaths would there have to be this year for age-adjusted white mortality to spike up to these best-ever, 2014 Black mortality rates?
The answer I found was, about 400,000. To come to that answer, I actually did two versions of the thought experiment, because it matters what age we imagine these extra deaths are happening at. Since it’s hard to know what the age pattern of excess mortality in 2020 will be, I tried imagining that these excess deaths follow the age pattern of direct COVID-19 deaths and that they follow the overall age pattern of mortality in a typical year. These two versions of the thought experiment gave me similar estimates, about 400,000 to 420,000.
I also asked how many extra white deaths there would have to be for white life expectancy—the average lifespan, or, on average, how old people are when they die—to plummet down to the best-ever Black level, also from 2014. This would take more deaths because deaths at relatively old ages don’t affect life expectancy all that much. And here, it makes more difference which particular thought experiment you choose about how old people are when they die from the pandemic. For white life expectancy in 2020 to fall to the best recorded Black life expectancy, I estimated that the pandemic would need to kill between about 700,000 and 1 million white people.
To put that in perspective, the most recent CDC estimate as I’m answering this uses data up to November 7. It shows almost 120,000 COVID deaths among non-Hispanic whites so far. These numbers are very likely to skyrocket over the next several weeks, but it would still be truly shocking if they reached 400,000.
And that tells you that, even if the Black population had somehow been immune to the coronavirus in 2020, we would expect white mortality in 2020 to still be lower than Black mortality this year—in fact, lower than Black mortality has ever been.
Meanwhile, as we all know, the pandemic actually has hit people of color hardest—the gulf between Black, Indigenous, and immigrant populations on one hand and the white population on the other will be much starker this year.
There’s a literal answer to this (what path led me to construct this comparison?) and a substantive answer (why do I think this comparison is meaningful?).
The literal answer stems with some research I did a few years ago with two great social scientists, Chris Muller and James Feigenbaum. We were looking at infectious disease mortality in US cities in the early twentieth century, when infectious disease spread wantonly—people died all the time of things like tuberculosis, flu; lots of babies died of diarrhea.
We ended up discovering that the infectious disease mortality that urban whites had during the 1918 flu pandemic—which was really, really high, like, almost literally off-the-charts mortality compared to every other year—was still less than the infectious disease mortality that all other urban residents experienced every single year in that era.
This stunned us. We actually didn’t believe it. We checked the data a million different ways: changing around what counts as an infectious disease when some of the records were ambiguous; changing which cities we looked at; adjusting for age or not adjusting for age—whatever we did, we found the same thing. That result is real.
This really affected how I think about the scale of racial inequality in that era. In my line of work, as a mortality demographer, we talk all the time about the 1918 flu as this unique, unprecedented event. Realizing that the same mortality level was just the typical, year-in, year-out experience for people of color in that era was shocking to me.
The reason this comparison is so important to me is that pandemics are intimately connected with social action. We do an awful lot to stop them.
It can seem strange to say that when we are living through the horror of completely inadequate action to stop the pandemic. We’re up to 185,000 confirmed COVID deaths, which means a much higher number in reality, and in a phase where the deaths are accelerating. And, more than nine months in, we still have PPE shortages for essential workers; indoor dining, bars, gyms, and weddings are seeding super-spreader events all over; there’s no national agreement about masks; there’s no national data infrastructure to guide decision-making on a local level; there’s no infusion of resources to schools and other essential buildings to improve their ventilation; there’s no transfers of wealth to make it livable for people to stay home safely rather than return to unsafe workplaces. So it seems strange to say that we do a lot to stop pandemics. And yet.
The speed with which we have changed our basic assumptions about how we should live right now—it’s really incredible. For me, it was about ten days in March that upended all of my assumptions about the next, let’s say, two years of my life. My workplace transformed how we do our work. Kids in my city are in school remotely. From the perspective of today, with the reality of the pandemic, it’s astonishing how little we’ve done—but from the perspective of February, it’s astonishing how much we’ve changed.
And, actually, a lot of polls, especially relatively early on, showed that people generally wanted more restrictions and worried that things would open up too quickly. The polarization around COVID control is dramatic, but it shouldn’t obscure how high the level of agreement actually is that we should be living really differently right now.
So the question that poses for me is: what if we took racism as seriously as we take the pandemic?
My study is telling us that racism is associated with more deaths every year than white people are likely to experience from the pandemic this year. What if we reacted with the same level of urgency, the same willingness to let go of expectations about how things work, or doing things the way we’ve always done them, and instead had the starting point: what do we need to do to stop this?
Oh yes. Even with the hindsight of having been so surprised when I found the same thing about the 1918 flu. Even then, I really did not expect this. It’s staggering to me.
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is how much of the meaning we make from our lives depends on how our lives unfurl in time. Getting the time to pursue our own projects, to see ourselves change and grow, getting to see the people we love change—the things that make for a meaningful life really get their meaning from how they extend over our lives and our loved ones’ lives. Cutting someone’s life short robs them and the people they love of that meaning. And when we do it so disproportionately to a population that we also intensively segregate, we’re concentrating that theft and the experience of grief in a devastating way. It’s a really horrific thing.
And the losses aren’t just to that person, or even just to their loved ones. Because we’re social creatures and we’re creatures who learn so well, aging gives us different kinds of perspectives on the world. It’s not just a cliché to talk about aging bringing the possibility of wisdom. I think it’s actually something deep about what kind of organisms we are. So cutting all these lives short is also a huge cultural loss. I feel a little ambivalent about talking about it that way, to be honest, because I never want to distract from the fact that the biggest, most profound loss is to the person whose life was taken. But I think it can also be important to name the harm fully. These early deaths are robbing all of us of the effects that the people killed too soon should have had on the world.
Yeah. The comparison would have to be different, but the idea that a massive disaster for the white population might still not be as bad as the typical experience for the Black population—that will show up for a lot of outcomes. White unemployment and underemployment, at its Great Recession peak, was similar to historically low Black levels shortly before the recession.
Wealth is actually where you see the starkest gaps. Black family wealth at its peak, right before the Great Recession, was less than half of what white family wealth was decades earlier. White family wealth fell during the recession, certainly—and the value it fell to was larger than Black family wealth at its peak, by a factor of around 4.5. That’s an incredible difference that affects every aspect of your life—where you can live, what kind of education you and your kids can get, what kind of health care you can access in an emergency, whether you can retire.
From the right, the main critique is that I assume that the excessive death rates of African Americans compared to white Americans reflect racism. They will typically note that Asian American and Latinx populations in the United States live longer on average than whites do and ask rhetorically, does that mean that relatively high white mortality shows that there is racism against whites?
These critics are correct that population disparities are complex and can reflect many different things. In the case of populations with a lot of immigrants (and children of immigrants), one thing they reflect is that immigrants tend to be a healthy group of people on average, because immigrating is often really hard and not everyone can manage it. And another thing they reflect is that there are some key ways that US culture is distinctly unhealthy, and coming from another culture might protect you from some of that.
But when you’re making a Black/white comparison, you’re looking at a disparity in a very distinct context. If your society takes one group of people and confines them to the worst jobs, won’t sell or rent them housing in safer neighborhoods with better funded schools and more opportunities, puts its most toxic pollution in the neighborhoods where they do live, has a state apparatus that directs routine violence against them and behaves as though that’s normal, has many of its medical and social service workers treat them with hostility and contempt, and has, over many generations, locked them out of accumulating wealth that gives a cushion against economic insecurity . . . if your society does all that and then you turn around and see that the same group of people doesn’t live very long, your starting assumption should be that those choices are why. It’s specifically when we look at the Black/white disparity that our starting assumption should be: this gap reflects racism. And that’s because everything we know about health maps onto some way that Black people have been disadvantaged in the United States.
From the left, I get a different objection. A lot of people have a really visceral reaction against the idea that we’ve done a lot to shut down COVID. And, like I said, I get it—it’s jarring in the context that we have done so little, relative to what’s needed.
But the question I want to put back to those critics (all of whom, so far, have been white) is this: Take stock of how different your life is right now compared to, let’s say, February because of efforts to stop COVID spread. Your efforts, your loved ones’ efforts, your employer’s and your local government’s efforts. Your list is going to look really different depending on your class position and the specific nature of your job, but even if you’re, say, a school worker working in person, I suspect there is a lot on your list.
Now take stock of how different your life is compared with what you imagine it would be if you, your loved ones, and your government made no effort to stop racism—due to whatever efforts you, and they, have taken.
For most people who ask me this, there’s no comparison. And I don’t mean that as a criticism of the people asking. But it’s a way to put in perspective what I mean that we have embraced disruption to stop COVID while we, as a society, have been absolutely unwilling to embrace disruption to fight racism. We try to fit antiracist initiatives into the margins of how things work (“Let’s do an antiracist training at work!”) instead of asking, what do we need to change to stop this?
The last thing I want to say about this particular critique is that I do think there is a danger of letting the intense polarization around COVID containment keep us from recognizing how much has changed. And one thing I think is helpful about the comparison to the 1918 pandemic, actually, is that you can see both sides of this. Virus control was intensely polarizing then, too. People rebelled against supposedly authoritarian mask mandates and lockdowns then, too, and a lot of lives were lost because governments let businesses like theaters open up earlier than they should have. Yet that pandemic also introduced profound changes in daily life at the time and enduring changes in medicine, architecture, all kinds of things. Both are true. Polarization and hostility isn’t a sign that nothing has changed—not in 1918, not in the Civil Rights Movement, not in 2020.
And the reason it’s dangerous to only see the hostility is that it exaggerates our sense of continuity in the status quo. But if you’re on the left, one of the biggest lessons of this year should be that the limits of the possibilities people will entertain can change very fast sometimes. New contexts will upend our assumptions about what’s reasonable the way COVID changed an awful lot of assumptions about, for example, what kinds of education are good enough for now or what kind of travel is expendable. And social movements will change what seems reasonable, too. I live in Minneapolis, so the embrace of defunding the police, broadly, and police abolition among a smaller group, really stands out to me.
It matters to know that basic assumptions can change for a big part of the populace very fast, because otherwise we develop tunnel vision; we limit our own imaginations before we start. Something I keep thinking about is that we’re on a path of accelerating climate change, just as much as an accelerating pandemic. I think some years ahead will feel more like the past than 2020 did, but I also think it’s quite possible that we will look back on 2019 as the last year of a former version of normal. I don’t know. But it seems like one of core tasks of the left in this context is to articulate some compelling visions of what things could look like. And it seems to me that having a good imagination requires you to see both sides, to imagine the pandemic response we could have had that wouldn’t be treating us all as so brutally expendable, but also to recognize that we’ve already seen a mass embrace of some real sacrifices to keep each other safe.
I actually did the first, very rough draft of my analysis on May 25, the day Floyd was killed. I learned of his death the next morning, and I put aside my analysis for a while because I was taken up with protesting. And then because of the protests I dropped everything for a couple of weeks to do a fast analysis of lifetime lost to police violence in the United States. I came back to this project comparing racism to COVID in early June and finished the final version in early August, so the whole thing was written in this context where my city, and specifically my neighborhood, Seward, were having a lot of conversations about the alternative to policing and the long-term organizing strategy to get there. I think that influenced what I wanted to do with what I found—not just say, “Look how bad racism is,” but say, “We could do something about this, and we must.”
If our starting point is “how do we keep society operating basically the way it has been, but tweak it to reduce racism,” we will still have profound inequality in how long we get to live. We will probably still have Black people experiencing a level of early death that matches white people’s COVID experience, every year because the racial inequality is built too deeply into how our economy, our state, and our culture work for that to be effective.
What I was thinking when I wrote that conclusion was that sometimes we talk ourselves out of even dreaming of what we should have. But what if our starting assumption was not that things will be roughly as they are, and most people will never accept any different, and we have to fit our goals into that box, but instead, we just asked: what will it take to prevent these deaths?
Then we would be having a conversation about mass redistribution of wealth, about reorganizing workplaces, about intense environmental cleanups, about mass training of a new generation of health workers who are embedded in the communities they serve. And we would face intense opposition to all those things. But we would be honest about what’s required, and we would pose the same question we ask, aghast, about the COVID protections we should have, but don’t: how can this not be worth it?
“Your petitioners will prove that the crime of which we complain is in fact genocide within the terms and meaning of the United Nations Convention providing for the prevention and punishment of this crime. We shall submit evidence, tragically voluminous, of ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, or racial or religious group as such,’–in this case the 15,000,000 Negro people of the United States.”
–We Charge Genocide
Donald Trump’s defeat may have quieted temporarily talk about the continued rise of an authoritarian right in the U.S. Trump’s election in 2016 was bolstered by support of white nationalists, white supremacists, and a motley range of far-right associations which included armed militia and vigilante groups. Trump fanned the flames of their aspirations consistently enough that by the end of his term the far-right antigovernment group Wolverine Watchmen were planning a kidnapping of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as a means to prompt a Civil War, a sustaining fantasy of U.S. white supremacists.
The annihilative racism on display in today’s far-right should draw our attention in another direction, however, namely to the tradition of Black Antifascism. By Black Antifascism, we mean movements against authoritarianism, white supremacy, white nationalism and fascism by name organized, theorized and staffed by people of African descent in the U.S. In the discussion below, we enumerate that tradition, with explicit attention to how and why recovering and mobilizing it is essential to strategic confrontation with today’s far-right. Our argument in brief is that the contemporary far-right remains primarily, if not wholly, obsessed with the control, discipline, removal or elimination of Black life and Black protests from U.S. civil society. Naming and understanding this helps us understand antecedents and motives for the historic rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., as well as why that movement needs to be central to any conception of what a revived antifascist movement in the U.S. might look like.
In 1951, the Civil Rights Congress, a coalition of radical Black and white activists headed by Communist Party member and attorney William Patterson, submitted to the United Nations a public petition titled “We Charge Genocide.” Subtitled “The Crime of Government Against the Negro People,” the petition deployed Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Crime and Punishment of Genocide, adopted only three years prior. The U.N. Convention defined genocide broadly as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
The Civil Rights Congress used this definition to assert that a continuous history of lynching and extralegal violence, police murder, and diminished life expectancy of Black people in the United States constituted an attempt to racially exterminate African Americans, “in whole or in part.” They further argued a point only recently elaborated by historians: that the Nazis openly credited the U.S. legal system with supplying models for their own racist legislation in Germany, including penalties against miscegenation in southern states and the spatial segregation of “proscribed minorities.” We Charge Genocide closed with the argument that only by reversing Black genocide could fascism in the U.S. be avoided, and “popular democracy” restored.
The United States had refused to sign on to the Convention in 1948 because it feared that doing so would allow the UN to prosecute southern lynchers who had been acquitted in US courts. This is precisely what the Civil Rights Congress was now trying to do.
We Charge Genocide is the ur-text of Black antifascism. It is the most comprehensive and detailed evidence we have of how African-American radicals have systematically challenged and defined the threat of a native fascism in the United States. In our recently published U.S. Antifascism Reader, we define Fascism as “a largely middle-class movement animated by a highly symbolic, populist, and mythic drive for national renewal, grounded in militarism or male violence, anti-Marxism, racism, and authoritarianism. In addition, it actively mobilizes the population in a culture war against national minorities and/or the political left.”
It was the latter part of this definition especially that motivated the We Charge Genocide petitioners. The foundations of the United States, and especially U.S. law, they argued, were premised on physical, economic, social and ideological terror against its African-American population. Slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, the KKK, policing, vigilante violence, rape, gender violence, gangs, militias were all state-sanctioned coordinates of an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, or racial or religious group as such.”
We Charge Genocide was also a direct interpretation not just of U.S. history writ large, but Black encounters with the U.S. state during World War II. Black soldiers fought in segregated armies during the war. They were lynched in southern states where they were sent for military training. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s first wholesale surveillance program against African-Americans, FBI RACON (Racial Conditions in the United States) began during the war; agents were sent into Black churches, political associations, and social groups to make sure African-Americans did not use wartime to foment resistance. The end of the war also saw a huge spike in attacks against Black soldiers returning home. To make the point that fascism was a potential domestic problem, Black newspapers during the conflict promoted the “Double Victory” campaign: defeat fascism abroad, defeat racism at home.
Fast forward now a short time to the 1960s, a mere decade later. African-American militants are updating arguments in We Charge Genocide to fit the times, with We Charge Genocide architect William Patterson a key tactical and theoretical influence; Patterson served as head (with his wife Louise Thompson Patterson) of the Free Angela Davis Committee after her frame-up and arrest in Marin County in 1970. During and after her incarceration, Davis began to retheorize racial conditions in the United States as what German Marxist Herbert Marcuse (Davis’s mentor) described as incipient and preventive fascism. In a recent Boston Review article, Alberto Toscano described this moment as follows:
Davis was drawn to Marcuse’s contention that “fascism is the preventive counter-revolution to the socialist transformation of society” because of how it resonated with racialized communities and activists. In the experience of many Black radicals, the aspect of their revolutionary politics that most threatened the state was not the endorsement of armed struggle, but rather the “survival programs,” those enclaves of autonomous social reproduction facilitated by the Panthers and more broadly practiced by Black movements. While nominally mobilized against the threat of armed insurrection, the ultimate target of counterinsurgency were these experiments with social life outside and against the racial state—especially when they edged toward what Huey P. Newton named “revolutionary intercommunalism.”
From 1968 to 1972, this notion of an ‘imminent and preventive fascism’ became the focus of much Black radical political work. In 1968, Black Panther Party leader Kathleen Cleaver published the article “Fascism, Racism and Political Murder” in the Black Panther, the party newspaper. In the wake of the arrests of numerous BPP comrades, the assassinations of Megdar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., police repression and violence against Black protests in Los Angeles, Watts, Detroit and Newark and FBI infiltration of the Black Power Movement, “Fascism, Racism and Political Murder” named fascism as counterrevolution. It read in part:
The advent of fascism in the United States is most clearly visible in the suppression of the black liberation struggle in the nationwide political imprisonment and assassination of black leaders, coupled with the concentration of massive police power in the ghettos of the black community across the country. The police departments nation-wide are preparing for armed struggle with the black community and are being directed and coordinated nationally with the US Army and the underground vigilante racist groups for a massive onslaught against black people.
One year later, the Black Panther Party published “Call for a United Front Against Fascism” promoting a four-day conference on the theme in Oakland. The Conference drew upon the Communist International’s “United Front” strategy against fascism in the 1930s–a spur to the We Charge Genocide authors–tailored to fit new racial conditions in the U.S. Responding directly to Richard Nixon’s call for “law and order” in his speech attacking the Black Power movement, the BPP enumerated “a blatant history of murder and violence inflicted upon us by the oppressor class in this society–the brutality of slavery, the lynching of the twenties and thirties, and the constant day-to-day brutality inflicted upon our people by the racist police force.”
It is instructive to think on We Charge Genocide and Panther manifestos in debates on the U.S. left now about the rise of the far-right and Trumpism. Both clearly show that the rise of the new far right, and its resistance, are embedded primarily in U.S. racial conditions, and especially in the repression of a potential new wave of Black Liberation struggle.
While there are many well-documented factors contributing to the rise of the new far right–U.S. militarism, the financial crash of 2007-2008, the rise of the Tea Party Movement, 9/11–there is little doubt that the primary factor is the state of Black struggle in the U.S. and reaction against it. Indeed, if we date the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement to the hashtag launched by Patrice Collors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi after the shooting of Travyon Martin by George Zimmerman in February 2012, we see a nearly perfect symmetry between the rise of the new far-right and that pivotal moment.
Consider the following examples:
The Center for Strategic and International Studies has reported that between 2007 and 2011, the number of far-right terrorist attacks was five or less per year. They then rose to 14 in 2012, continued at a similar level between 2012 and 2016, “with a mean of 11 and attacks and a median of 13, attacks” then jumped to 31 in 2017.
These attacks included both single murders of African-Americans by white supremacists, like Kenneth James Gleason’s shooting of Donald Smart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and more spectacular fits of racial genocide, like the Dylann Roof massacre of nine Black parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina.
More recently, Adam Turl has documented the numerous singular murders of African-Americans (and white people) engaging in Black Lives Matter protests. These range from Kyle Rittenhouse’s public execution of Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum in Kenosha, to James Scurlock’s murder by a white bar owner in Omaha, Nebraska.
Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 have been repeated targets for white supremacist and police attacks; more than 100 have been sites of car rammings by both civilians and police. Other attacks without vehicles have also been routine.
The most public-facing and aggressive far-right group, the Proud Boys, has made a regular past-time of attacking Black Lives Matter protests.
Donald Trump has publicly referred to Black Lives Matter protestors as “terrorists” and refused to condemn white supremacists who attack them (including the Proud Boys).
The rise of new militia movements and citizen patrols across the U.S. owes directly to reaction against Black Lives Matter protests.
The growing white supremacist militia group Boogaloo Movement premises its work on a coming “Race War” in reaction to Black political protest.
Police departments across the U.S. not only continue to shoot and kill African-Americans but work in tandem to protect white supremacists who seek to challenge Black Lives Matter protests.
Fascists and neo-Nazis continue to try to infiltrate police departments as officers.
This partial chronicle might be seen as a contemporary equivalent of the We Charge Genocide arguments made nearly 70 years ago. For contemporary antifascist activists, they mean one thing in particular: that maintaining the survival and advancement of the Black Lives Matter Movement should be a leading edge of antifascist organizing in the United States today. Put another way, a primary work of antifascists or those committed to it is to join, protect and advance the work of Black Lives Matter.
To this end it is important to recall some of the broader demands of the Movement that have not been enough discussed or acknowledged. For example, the 2016 Movement for Black Lives Platform, released and received at the time with insufficient fanfare and attention, built outward from a demand for “demilititarization of law enforcement” to more comprehensive and totalizing demands on the state: an end to the war on drugs, end to the death penalty, end to pretrial detention and money bail, and “end to all jails, prisons and immigration detention.”
Many of these demands have resurfaced in the post-George Floyd era. What could buttress resistance to this moment of resurgent far-right power is an even more explicit statement and focus within Black Lives Matter against the threat of fascism. To achieve that aim, the movement might emulate its ancestral movements and examine more explicitly the role of capitalism. This task the Panthers themselves took up in their 1969 United Front. Resurrecting the Popular Front definition of fascism from 1935, they wrote that fascism “is the power of finance capital itself:
Finance capital manifests itself not only as banks, trusts and monopolies, but also as the human property of finance capital–the avaricious businessman, the demagogic politician, and the racist-pig cop. Fascism is the organization of terrorist vengeance against the working-class and the revolutionary section and intelligentsia.
While this statement on fascism hued closely to Georgi Dimitrov’s famous definition from 1935, it differed in one key respect: it positioned racism and police violence as central components of fascist terror. As such, it acknowledged that under U.S. conditions, given the country’s historical fusion of policing, military action, and “race making” (to cite Nikhil Singh’s formulation), police violence would be a vanguard of fascist militarism.
Not despite but because of its anti-capitalist politics, the Panthers United Front Against Fascism did indeed produce a temporary United Front. As historian Robyn Spencer recounts it, “close to 5,000 activists from organizations like the Black Students Union, Communist Party USA, Los Siete de la Raza, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Students for a Democratic Society, Third World Liberation Front, Young Lords, Young Patriots, Youth Against War and Fascism, and the Progressive Labor Party” attended the four-day meeting. The meeting successfully launched the BPP campaign for National Committees to Combat Fascism. “After the conference” writes Spencer, “inquiries about starting NCCF chapters flooded into Oakland from Salt Lake City, Utah; Albany, New York; Las Vegas, Nevada; Toledo, Ohio; Sunflower, Mississippi; Keatchie, Louisiana; Erie, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; St. Louis, Missouri and Austin, Texas.
The NCCFs offered a multiracial group of local activists around the country a new avenue of involvement in Black Power politics at time when the Panthers had launched purges and membership freezes to combat infiltration from COINTELPRO. By April 1970, the FBI recorded 18 to 22 NCCFs around the country.
In practice, the NCCF chapters around the country effectively became local branches of the Black Panther Party rather than multi-racial organizations. Nonetheless, it is significant–and often forgotten–that the Panthers organized under the rubric of antifascism for several years. It signaled the coalition-building appeal of antifascism at a moment of danger, and also offers a template for antifascist coalition building for later generations.
Since the demise of NCCF, the nearest thing to a conscious revival of the history we are describing was the formation in 2014 of We Charge Genocide, a Chicago youth movement formed to chronicle acts of racist police violence by that city’s notorious police department. Taking its name and inspiration from the document with which we began this piece, over a course of several weeks, We Charge Genocide wrote and released a shadow report to the United Nations on Chicago violence against Black and Brown communities. It then raised $20,000 to send a delegation of eight people to give testimony before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva, Switzerland. The U.N. Commission in turn released a report condemning Chicago police racism.
We Charge Genocide formally ended its work in 2016. Yet it is not too much, or too little, to understand from the history sketched here that the history of Black Antifascism in the U.S. constitutes building blocks for a renewed broad anti-fascist movement. It is also not too much to understand that the time is right for a rejuvenation of the BPP’s “United Front” campaign, and for people of anti-fascist conscience everywhere to join it. Like Chicago’s We Charge Genocide activists, we can begin by recognizing in the lower frequencies of Black Lives Matter a history of U.S. anti-fascism that has always confronted structures of state power and the means of abolishing and transforming it.
Bill V. Mullen is Professor of American Studies at Purdue University. He is the author of James Baldwin: Living in Fire (forthcoming, Pluto Press); UnAmerican: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution and Afro-Orientalism. He is co-editor, with Ashley Dawson, of Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities. His articles have appeared in Social Text, African-American Review and American Quarterly. He is a member of the organizing collective of USACBI (U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) and a founding member of the Campus Antifascist Network.
Chris Vials is an Associate Professor of English and Director of American Studies at the University of Connecticut-Storrs. He is the author of Haunted by Hitler: Liberals, the Left, and the Fight against Fascism in the United States (2014) as well as numerous pieces on fascism and antifascism in the United States. He has appeared on CBC radio, PBS, and NPR to discuss the history of American fascist and antifascist movements. He is also co-founder of the Neighbor Fund, a non-profit devoted to legal defense for undocumented immigrants in Connecticut.
Regularly, the media has reported the dire effects of European dominance on the communities of a disenfranchised minority: the public execution of African-Americans by police, the epidemic of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in Canada, the shadow of residential schools in North America, the legacy of red-lining, the impact of the murders of the oil-rich Osage County Indians in Oklahoma, the victimization of native lobster fisherman in Nova Scotia, and the Tulsa race massacre of 1921.
None of these things would have been if they were not fueled by a racist ideology. We will explore the connection between racism and imperialism as it played out in the United States.
My reading of three books worked as complementary texts which raised historical questions about the function of race in imperial capitalism. In combination, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America by Kahlil Gibran Muhammad, True Flag by Stephen Kinzer and The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley gave me answers to these questions.
Tracing the intellectual roots of racism in The Condemnation of Blackness, Khalil Gibran Muhammad explores the Darwinian theories of race regarding inferior genetics and the cultural biases of the late 19th century and early 20th century America, those in the academic world of prestigious universities. On the surface we might think that racist ideology would co-extensively appear with racist practices at the same time the slaves first were brought over. But it was only after the Civil War that they became fully developed. The reason was the fear of what African Americans might do politically.
After the Civil War, a Harvard scientist, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, wrote that the Black people were “a danger greater and more insuperable than any of those that menace the other great civilized states of the world” (Muhammad 15). Therefore, the newly emancipated African American had to be scrutinized and evaluated for fitness in citizenship. Such scrutiny would demand newly minted scientific methods of analysis to demonstrate that inherited qualities enhanced “criminality…alongside disease and intelligence, as a fundamental measure of black inferiority” (Muhammad 20).
Such a practice would lead eventually even to the measurement of the volume of skulls as with the Darwinian studies of Samuel George Morton, repeated even as recently as 1989 and touted by Philippe Rushton in a TV debate with David Suzuki on CBC in Canada. Contributions made to this Anglo-Saxon narrative of civilization entrenched the imperial European supremacist views derived from its self-admiring historiography and political vanities. The trajectory was clear: German to Anglo-Saxon to American – emancipation did not ensure equity.
Still within the United States, as the varying races of the European stock had the challenge of unifying its branches, the Celts and the Slavs were granted grudging acceptance. However, the African was simply excluded. Muhammad, in The Condemnation of Blackness, identifies the hierarchy of races in the Eurocentric world by citing W.E.B. Du Bois who condemns the social stratification of the Anglo-Saxon, Teuton, Celt, Slav, yellow Asian, brown Indian, but “with the Negroes of Africa we come to a full stop, and in its heart the civilized world with one accord denies that these come within the pale of nineteenth-century Humanity” (Muhammad 25).
However, it is this qualitative gradation of races that becomes the moral validation for the explosion of American imperialism onto foreign shores and for its burgeoning market capitalism, while being touted as necessary for the advance of civilization.
Both James Bradley in The Imperial Cruise and Stephen Kinzer in True Flag document the imperial expansion of the Spanish-American War. But having been established by the slavery of European mercantilism, the wealth accumulation of American capitalism was becoming increasingly hemmed in with the closing of the West at the end of the nineteenth century. However, the Aryan urge for its sense of rightful dominance refused to be limited, and so the American imperial era was born with McKinley and Roosevelt’s reaching beyond the strictures of the Monroe Doctrine, now becoming a global doctrine of security and democracy.
As documented in True Flag by Stephen Kinzer, the destinies of Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, would fall to the brutal wiles of men such as Henry Cabot Lodge, the expansionist icon, wielding his more-than-significant weight upon the fantasies of imperial buckaroos such as Theodore Roosevelt. As Lodge charged, the Enlightenment principle, the “consent of the governed,” offering “a great lack of definite meaning,” must be supplanted, for “to abandon the islands or to leave them now would be a wrong to humanity…[as he] would regard their loss as a calamity to our trade and commerce, and to all our business interests, so great that no man can measure it…” (Kinzer 165). The capitalist priority was clear.
So, it came to pass, with the killing of a Filipino by Private William Grayson on February 4, 1899, that within twenty-four hours, three thousand Pacific Negroes, with the soldiers so erroneously using the n-word, (Bradley 102) lay dead; being dark and indigenous earned that degrading American appellation even for these non-Africans. Because even with tens of thousands killed, they refused American kindness as the killing, the slaughters, the concentration camps, and the waterboarding were carried out by such barbarians as Jake Smith in deeply criminal aggression.
Of course, justified back home by racial ideology, Roosevelt was promising “our earnest effort is to help these people upward along the stony and difficult path that leads to self-government” (Bradley 124). The pancake maquillage of paternalistic munificence was applied heavily under the imperial stage lights. At the Minnesota State Fair Roosevelt claimed “our duty toward the people living in barbarism is to see that they are freed from their chains, and we can do it only by destroying barbarism itself” (Kinzer 206). Lodge would get his wish.
In Asia, the supremacist operation took a different turn as the Chinese Open-Door Policy became threatened with such inconveniences as the Boxer Rebellion, the Chinese Boycott of 1905 and Russian interests. Although control of Hawaii, the Philippines and Guam were firm, what was needed was a proxy, not only superior technically and militarily, but inherently superior. The love-in began between Japan and the United States, for direct action would have been impossible in a region complicated by Russian, French, German, American and Japanese incursions.
Because America was amassing capital from the growth of agricultural and industrial strength, it had to find opportunities to grow in foreign lands; capitalism stagnant is capitalism moribund. Following its victories, as Stephen Kinzer states, “Americans were eager for the adventure of conquest. They had been convinced that the stability of their economy, and of the United States itself, depended on taking foreign lands” (Kinzer 201). Threatened by competition in the East especially from Czarist Russia, an alliance, with utmost discretion, was consolidated between Japan and the United States.
The ideological construction of a hierarchy of races was foundational in the nurturing of the proxy. Bradley clarifies, “To Roosevelt, the Japanese were the champions of Anglo-Saxon civilisation in North Asia and an antidote to the degraded ‘Chinks’ and slovenly Slavs. Roosevelt was convinced…that the Japanese…were ‘a wonderfully civilized people…entitled to stand on absolute equality with all the other peoples of the civilized world’” (Bradley 208).
After May 28, 1905, the Naval Battle of Tsushima destroyed the Russian Navy. Reverend Robert MacArthur of New York City’s Calvary Baptist Church, offering his religious insights, intoned to his faithful, “The victory of the Japanese is a distinct triumph for Christianity. The new civilization of Japan is largely the result of Christian teaching” (Bradley 236). With its victory, Japan, in this Darwinian evolution of societies, now spiritually, socially and technically becomes worthy of being the proxy warrior for American capitalism, the honorary Aryan.
The Japanese had been groomed to affect their Asian Monroe Doctrine from thirty years earlier as the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. The American diplomat General Le Gendre stated when guiding the Japanese Foreign Ministry, “One must act courageously for the purpose of pushing forward the flag of the rising Sun in Asia and for the sake of the expansion of our empire” (Bradley 187-8). The deputy was expected to serve the interests of the master, but he learned more than the master bargained for. This unholy alliance of mutual self-interest, reciprocal flattery and unintended consequences turns ugly, culminating in Pearl Harbour and Nagasaki.
However, those others—the “pacific negroes” (Bradley 97)—anywhere, must duly play their role in gratitude and subservience. At the time, Senator Orville Platt [of the Platt Amendment] called Western Pacific expansion, “the law of our national growth…the great law of our racial development,” (Bradley 98). The newspaper, the Baltimore American called upon “the same old law of the survival of the fittest. The weak must bend to the strong and today the American race is the sturdiest, the noblest on earth” (Bradley 99). Such is an idea that would plague the 19th and 20th centuries in years to come.
As James Bradley states, quoting the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Lewis H. Morgan (1818-1881) in The Imperial Cruise, “The Aryan family represents the central stream of progress, because it produced the highest type of mankind, and because it proved its intrinsic superiority by gradually assuming control of the earth” (Bradley 33). The white man had a right to the globe through his inherent superiority. The rights of the indigenous peoples were to be subordinate.
Warnings are so often dismissed. So, after the Patriot Act and the endless wars of conquest, the “full spectrum dominance,” the ruin and death as imperial capitalism takes its toll in the name of bringing democracy, I quote of the words of Moorfield Storey.
On June 15, 1898, as the House of Representatives were debating the annexation of Hawaii, the founding president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, stood on the steps of Faneuil Hall in Boston and announced, “Let us govern any considerable body of men without their consent, and it is but a question of time how soon this Republic shares the fate of Rome!” (Kinzer 15)
Muhammad Kahlil Gibran (2019) The condemnation of blackness: race, crime, and the making of modern urban America Harvard University press.
Bradley, James (2010) The imperial cruise: a true story of empire and war Back Bay
Kinzer, Steven (2008 )The true flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the birth of American empire St. Martin’s Griffin
The idea that we can resolve racism by integrating a fundamentally anti-Black institution is the most absurd notion of all.
Amid recent growing calls for defunding police this summer, a set of billboards appeared in Dallas, Atlanta, and New York City. Each had the words “No Police, No Peace” printed in large, bold letters next to an image of a Black police officer.
Funded by a conservative right-wing think tank , the billboards captured all the hallmarks of modern pro-policing propaganda. The jarring choice of language, a deliberate corruption of the protest chant “no justice, no peace,” follows a pattern we see frequently from proponents of the police state. Any word or phrase made popular by the modern movement is quickly co-opted and repurposed until it’s rendered virtually meaningless. But perhaps the most insidious aspect of modern pro-police propaganda is reflected in the choice to make the officer on the billboard the face of a Black man.
This is in keeping with a narrative pro-police advocates seek to push on a regular basis in mass media — that policing can’t be racist when there are Black officers on the force, and that the police force itself is an integral part of Black communities. When Freddie Gray died in police custody, police defenders quickly pointed out that three of the officers involved were Black , implying that racism couldn’t be a factor in a case where the offending officers were the same race as the victim.
Pro-police advocates push a narrative that policing can’t be racist when there are Black officers on the force.
When I scaled the flagpole at South Carolina’s capital in 2015 and lowered the Confederate flag, many noted that it was a Black officer who was tasked with raising the flag to the top of its pole again. When an incident of brutality brings a city to its brink, Black police chiefs are paraded to podiums and cameras to serve as the face of the United States’ racist police state and to symbolically restore a sense of order.
One of the most frequent recommendations from police reformists is to recruit and promote more Black officers. This is based on an argument that the primary problem with policing centers on a “breakdown of trust” between police forces and communities they have terrorized for decades; the solution, then, is to “restore trust” between the two parties by recruiting officers who resemble the communities they police.
Images of police officers dancing or playing basketball with Black children in economically deprived neighborhoods are often published as local news items to help drive this narrative home. The idea gained traction in the aftermath of numerous urban rebellions in the 1960s and has seen a resurgence in the wake of the 2014 Ferguson uprising.
When protests broke out in Atlanta this past summer in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, the city’s Black mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, held a press conference flanked by some of Atlanta’s most famous and wealthy Black residents. Together they pleaded for protestors to go home and leave property alone. Soon after, Rayshard Brooks was killed by white police officers in Atlanta.
The moment exposed a class divide that exists in cities all over the nation: A chasm between the image of Black affluence promoted by Black politicians and the Black petite bourgeoisie (middle class) and the lived realities of the majority of Black residents in those cities, many of whom still face disproportionate unemployment, displacement by rapid gentrification, and policies that cater to white corporate interests. If the solution to racism were simply a matter of a few select Black people gaining entry to anti-Black institutions, we would see different outcomes than what we’re witnessing now.
But the idea that we can resolve racism by integrating what is perhaps the most fundamentally anti-Black institution in the U.S. — its policing and prison industry — is the most absurd notion of all.
Part of the reason why calls to defund police have sent such shock waves through the nation, prompting placement of pro-police billboards and pushback from figures of the Black establishment, is because it cuts right to the heart of how structural racism operates in the United States. At a time when the Black elite would prefer to measure progress by their own tokenized positions of power and symbolic gestures like murals, the push to defund police would require direct confrontation with how the white supremacist system has been organized since the end of chattel slavery — when the prisons replaced plantations as the primary tool of racial control. Actions that may have been widely seen as adequate responses to injustice just a couple of decades ago now ring hollow to many observers who see that Black people continue to be killed by a system that remains largely unchanged.
Police forces represent some of the oldest white fraternal organizations in the United States. The rules of who is empowered to police and who is subject to policing are fundamental to the organization of the racial caste system. Even in the earliest days of integrating police forces, Black officers were often told they couldn’t arrest white people . The integration of police forces does nothing to alter their basic function as the primary enforcers of structural racism on a daily basis, and the presence of Black officers only serves as an attempt to mask this fact.
The push to defund police would require direct confrontation with how the white supremacist system has been organized since the end of chattel slavery.
Police forces in America began as slave patrols, and their primary function has always been to act in service of the white ownership class and its capitalist production. In one century, that meant policing and controlling enslaved Black people, with the purview to use violence against free Black people as well; in another, it involved cracking down on organized labor, for the benefit of white capitalists .
Receiving a badge and joining the force has been an entryway to white manhood for many European immigrants — providing them a sense of citizenship and superiority when they would have traditionally been part of the peasantry rather than the white owner class.
That spirit of white fraternity remains deeply entrenched in the culture of policing and its unions today, regardless of this new wave of Black police chiefs and media spokespeople. Police forces became unionized around the same time various other public employees sought collective bargaining rights — however, under capitalism, their role as maintainers of race-property relations remains the same. The most fundamental rule of race established under chattel slavery was that Black people were the equivalent of white property (if not counted as less than property).
This relationship between race and property is most overt during periods of open rebellion against the police state, where officers are deployed to use lethal force in the interest of protecting inanimate property. We see swifter and harsher punishments handed out to those who vandalize police cars than to police who assault and kill Black people. (This is a major reason why the press conference in Atlanta with T.I. and Killer Mike struck people as classist and out of touch with the majority Black experience.)
This same pattern extends throughout the carceral state. Roughly a quarter of all bailiffs, correctional officers, and jailers are Black , yet there’s no indication that diversifying the staff of a racist institution results in less violence and death for those who are held within it. That’s because the institution continues to operate as designed. It is not “broken,” as reformists are fond of saying. The fallacy is in believing the function of police and prisons is to mete out punishment and justice in an equitable manner and not to first and foremost serve as a means of maintaining the race, gender, and class hierarchy of an oppressive society.
Believing that the system is “broken” rather than functioning exactly as intended requires a certain adherence to white supremacist and anti-Black beliefs. One has to ignore the rampant amount of violence, fraud, and theft being committed by some of the most powerful figures in society with little to no legal consequence while massive amounts of resources are devoted to the hyper-policing of the poor for infractions as minor as trespassing, shoplifting, and turnstile jumping at subway stations.
The Trump era has provided some of the starkest examples of this dynamic. The most powerful person in the nation and his associates have been able to break the law and violate the Constitution — including documented crimes against humanity — in full view of the public while he proclaims himself the upholder of law and order. Wealthy celebrities involved in the college admissions bribery scandal have gotten away with a slap on the wrist for orchestrating a multimillion-dollar scheme while a dozen NYPD officers surrounded a Black teenager, guns drawn, for the “crime” of failing to pay $2.75 for a subway ride.
The propaganda that depicts this type of policing as being essential to public safety and order is fundamentally classist and anti-Black. It traces its roots to the Black Codes that were passed immediately after the Civil War to control the movements of newly freed Black people. It relies on the racist assumption that Black people would run amok and pose a threat to the larger society if not kept under the constant surveillance of a police force that has authority to kill them if deemed necessary, and with virtual impunity. That’s why we are inundated with a narrative that depicts the police officer who regularly patrols predominantly Black communities as being an essential part of maintaining order in society.
One of the primary talking points against calls to defund and abolish police is that Black communities would have no way to maintain peace and order, and that a state of chaos would ensue. In wealthier neighborhoods, if an officer is present at all, they’re most likely positioned by a gate at the top of the neighborhood to monitor who enters. Meanwhile, the officer assigned to the predominantly Black community is there to keep a watchful eye on the residents themselves, and to ensure they are contained in their designated place within the larger city or town.
Massive resources are devoted to the hyper-policing of the poor for infractions as minor as trespassing, shoplifting, and turnstile jumping.
The current political divide on this issue falls exactly along these lines, separating those who think the system is simply in need of reform and those who correctly define the problem as the system itself. The reality is that Black people fall on both sides of this divide, which is why we find so many Black officers in uniform arguing for a reformist agenda even as every reform they propose is vociferously opposed by the powerful, majority-white police unions and most of the rank and file. Reformists remain committed to preserving the existing system even though the idea of reforming it to be the opposite of what it was designed to be is an unproven theory that’s no more realistic than the idea of abolishing police altogether.
The most pressing question remains: Why are we seeking to integrate and reform modern manifestations of the slave patrols and plantations in the first place? In Mississippi and Louisiana, state penitentiaries are converted plantations. What is a reformed plantation — and what is its purpose?
We must remember that many of these so-called “reforms” are not new. For as long as the plantation and chattel slavery systems existed, there also existed Black slaveowners, Black overseers, and Black slave catchers who participated in and profited from the daily operations of white supremacy.
The presence of these few Black people in elevated positions of power did nothing to change the material conditions of the millions of enslaved people back then. And it makes no greater amount of sense to believe they indicate a shift in material conditions for Black people now.
Bree Newsome Bass
Black Agenda Report
Bree Newsome Bass is an award-winning artist and activist known for her historic act of civil disobedience when she removed SC’s confederate flag in 2015. www.breenewsome.com
This article is part of Abolition for the People , a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL , a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.
This panel will provide an updated reflection on the relationship between Marxism and intersectionality and offer a critical gaze of what intersectionality adds (and possibly subtracts from) contemporary Marxism that is inclusive, enabling and powerful in building political practice.
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