Video of cops throwing bricks thrown by protesters back at them, launching tear gas at high school students, beating photographers, and shooting bystanders with rubber bullets: all this is going on in Baltimore right now in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s murder by the Baltimore Police Department.
All this makes today a day to bear in mind that it was inner-city rebellions (rebellions, not riots) in the 1960s that gave much of the world a view into the unbearable conditions in which the black population in this country exists. The result was incomplete and partial progress, but progress that would not have happened had it not been for communities acting back against their oppression. By refusing to acknowledge the authority of the state as embodied in its coercive forces, and making themselves ungovernable, these communities unmasked the reality that it is the people, not those in power, who decide when political change will happen.
At times this must take the form of an absolute break with previous reality, even if this means violence. As anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon once wrote, “from birth it is clear to [the oppressed] that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in question by absolute violence.” He goes on to specify that rather than initiated by the oppressed, violence is a learned practice, etched deep into oppressed psyches by their experience of the violence of white supremacy. As Fanon writes, white supremacy “is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.” While we who participate in extra-institutional or street politics can criticize violence as strategic error, and I don’t think we can rely on violence to defeat what amounts to nearly infinite instruments of violence held by the US state (and in truth, no one I know in these movements is naive enough to believe we can win by violence alone), condemnations of political violence as immoral can only be directed at the violence of the state if we want our critiques are to maintain logical consistency. And yes, the targeting of police, corporate chains, and payday loan stores is by all means a political choice.
Dilapidated housing, bad schools, police brutality, and a lack of jobs for urban communities went from the periphery to the center of US political priorities in the wake of the 1960s rebellions. The US government poured billions more dollars into housing in an attempt to regain its footing over the cities. A pillar of their multi-pronged strategy, it was the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program that so threatened the state that the government institutionalized the idea, severing any mention of where the program came from but revealing the tenuousness of state legitimacy against the Panthers in the process. In Watts, even a former CIA director, John McCone, in his state-funded McCone Commission, found the cause of that city’s 1965 rebellion to be ” high unemployment, poor schools, and other inferior living conditions for African Americans in Watts.” Similar reports with similar findings were filed for many other U.S. cities.
Freddie Gray, and hundreds of black men, women, and LGBTQ individuals die senseless deaths in this country each year at the hands of the police. Being black in the United States is a game of Russian roulette with the forces that occupy black communities (not to mention the Zimmermanite vigilantes who emulate them). Black youth are forced to be conscious of their mortality in a way I, as a white kid, never was. It is in this context that youth in Baltimore are fighting for their freedom and humanity. It’s important to support them in that – be it through sending bail money or amplifying their voices – and to turn your eyes to your city at the end of the day. While you might have to squint real hard to find them, as no one with power voluntarily acknowledges their existence, there are youth in your own backyard trying to achieve freedom too, and now’s the time to offer your support to them in whatever way you can. Not rhetorically, I mean, take on some of the risk which is currently overwhelmingly hanging over the black population every day. If they win, we all win, as the only people who benefit from the perpetuation of a white supremacist capitalist system are those at the very top. The police are one key instrument in the reproduction of that system, birthed into existence as slave catchers and forces for disciplining the poor, so to diminish their power – or disband them entirely- is to make progress. Do you have cash? Graphic design skills? A car? A law degree? A public platform? All that, that’s what you offer up. And if you read this far, I know at the least you’ve got free time to offer.