In this following post, I argue for movement builders and revolutionaries to take seriously the task of organizing with low-income people of color in the ghetto—the unemployed, the homeless, the gang members. I hope to engage with two primary audiences: white anti-racist progressives and revolutionaries. In my first section, I criticize white anti-racists and how they use the idea of white privilege (aka privilege politics) to distance themselves from directly organizing with people of color. In the later sections, I lay out the urgent need for revolutionaries and movement builders to organize with street people of color (POCs) and thus avoid reproducing the problems of social distancing by white anti-racists and avoid the rigid conception of working-class-led revolution by contemporary revolutionaries.
I. SOCIAL DISTANCING BY WHITE ANTI-RACIST PROGRESSIVES and THEIR FEAR OF BLACK BOY!
It happens so much it’s become ritual now. Every time I hear the overstated progressive truism “the oppressed peoples must lead the movement” put forth by an organizer/activist who’s completely disconnected from the day-to-day interactions with oppressed communities—and believe me, when you’re around the organizing scenes in Seattle, you hear it as frequent as it rains—the song “Black Boy” by Tech N9ne plays in my head. I can just hear a more movement-oriented Tech N9ne singing, “I was told by your movement I was a fool…I think I know why organizers would look in my eye and say that, and why’s that?” with Krizz Kaliko (Kali) responding in his opera-esque voice, “Cuz I’m a BLACKBOY!…Scared to see me, frauds disappear like a genie.”
I think Kali’s line “frauds disappear like a genie” is particularly appropriate for white anti-racists who talk the big talk of people of color movements and the need for people of color (POC) leadership, but don’t walk the walk in building this movement together with street folks and low-income POCs. White anti-racists, this day and age, seem intent on organizing in comfortable spaces while using the aforementioned truism to validate their own distance from low-income workers, unemployed, and street people of color based in the inner cities and ghettos of Amerikkka.
The added irony is that many white anti-racists, if they are in majority white organizations, proudly use the language of ANTI-RACISM as an excuse to not organize with street people of color. They correctly point to past histories of militant people of color movements co-opted by white folks, at the same time blatantly forgetting groups like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Congress of African Peoples, the Young Lords, and the Black Panther Party, none of whom could be dismissed as folks who were intimidated and co-opted by white anti-racists. This is extremely important when thinking about the possibilities of multi-racial organizations for the contemporary period. However, there is a host of real history, theories, and organizations which have devolved a multi-racial way of organizing into separate movement building based on “privilege”: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Freedom Summer, Fanon’s “Black Skin White Masks,” Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement, the Black Panther Party’s call to organize in one’s respective community, and Noel Ignatiev’s “Race Traitor.” A lot has been lumped together, and what is of interest is how each of these examples has been interpreted to justify specific social relations in terms of race.
To get to the point, the interpretations of this historical line up determine how white anti-racists are supposed to behave in a room full of people of color. One line of interpretation that exists is that anytime a white anti-racist walks in a room with other POCs, this strips agency and independent decision-making ability from oppressed people. How can this but assume that oppressed folks are stupid and silent when next to white anti-racists? As long as there’s distance between low-income street POCs and more organizers who consciously avoid organizing on the streets because of their “privilege”, there’s a problem.
To be clear, I most definitely disagree with Kali’s term, “fraud,” to indict white anti-racists. The sentiment that oppressed peoples must lead the movement is, in fact, real talk. However, what these progressives wholly miscalculate and fail to recognize is that in the inner city today, we don’t have the Black Liberation Army, the Panthers, the Young Lords, or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We have the Crips, the Bloods, the Surenos, the MS-13. As B.o.B. puts it, “I ain’t have neighbors, that’s why they call it hood.” Among progressives, there’s often a romanticization of the black liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s that is projected onto today’s black community. With this romantic projection comes another misguided expectation that today’s inner city POCs will organize and move independently because their objective conditions (white supremacist and capitalist Amerikkka systematically and completely fucking over inner cities) are far beyond intolerable. And when they move, there’s an expectation that they’ll move towards anti-patriarchy, anti-homophobia, anti-ableism because in the analytical minds of progressives, it makes sense that liberation is connected. In reality, when POCs have moved since the fall of the South African apartheid regime, it has taken on a middle-class leadership and orientation that fails to challenge capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia, and ableism (i.e. the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, the Million Man March, Jesse Jackson, Obamanation). Because white anti-racists who may have sound stances on patriarchy et al. don’t organize in the hood though, it’s no surprise that many overlook, postpone, or even change their own analysis on patriarchy when giving unconditional support to or becoming allies with existing middle-class POC organizations rooted in low-income POC communities. This results in reproducing the failures of having separate movements for black liberation and women’s liberation in the 1960s, should a patriarchal black middle-class organization become the vanguard for a contemporary black liberation movement. Perhaps two street prophets and activists, Tupac Shakur and Cle “Bone” Sloan (former Blood who made the excellent documentary “Bastards of the Party”), give more insight into the reality of depoliticization in the hood. They both criticize past (black male) movement leaders of the 1960s and 1970s for failing to spread political ideas and lessons and militant traditions to the current generation of POC youth. This failure of past leaders has allowed for a middle-class POC elite to emerge and reign in the militancy of our current generation, instead turning us into believers of “Change!” and reforming the system through electoral politics at best, or turning us into “suicidal thugs” (to invoke both Huey Newton and Tupac) at worst.
Hand-in-hand with white anti-racists distancing from the hood is a more nuanced, subconscious racist fear of the “other” (the unknown) that gets to the spirit of Tupac and Bone’s grim reflection: fear of thugs or, as Kali sings it, “BLACKBOY!” More often than not, because white anti-racist progressives never set foot near the ghetto and get to know its population on a genuine basis, their own fear is shaped by the media’s dehumanization of street POCs into cold-blooded predators. Progressives then conflate mainstream hip hop or gangsta rap to thug culture and distance themselves from that as well. When they ostracize hip hop, progressives who do come in contact with street POCs quickly become irrelevant like the mainstream school system because they have no common basis to jump from. Though many progressives are quick to recognize the social context behind gang participation, their own act of social distancing exposes the contradiction between their sympathy for the unfortunate predicament of street POCs, and their lack of true solidarity in active movement building with street POCs. In the following section, I will lay out why it’s urgent and necessary to organize with street POCs.
II. THE TASK OF REVOLUTIONARIES and WHY IT’S IMPORTANT TO ORGANIZE STREET POCs
I’m going to shift focus away from the white anti-racist progressives and re-orient the rest of this post to revolutionaries who recognize the need for total change of structure, of system from oppression to liberation, and to build an interconnected movement to do so. I wanted to start with a critique on white anti-racist progressives in hopes of cautioning revolutionaries from assuming similar positions of deliberate social distancing from the streets, both in theory and in practice. As much as this post has criticized white anti-racists, I also want to challenge revolutionaries today (i.e. many Trotskyists) who rigidly view the working class (i.e. those employed in a workplace) as the agents of revolutionary change, and thus associate unemployed street POCs as either secondary or altogether insignificant in the initial process for social change.
Today, more and more youth are getting initiated into gangs because the 1960s and 1970s are drifting farther and farther away. More and more youth will be stuck in gangs because capitalist Amerikkka has decided to cut jobs, cut public services, defund education, lower wages, bust unions, destroy homes, gentrify communities, and bail out shadow bankers who caused the global economic crisis in the first place. Most importantly, more and more youth will be driven to individual suicide because there’s no revolutionary suicide (Huey Newton) tradition present. More and more will be driven to deathstyle (versus lifestyle, to invoke a phrase from “Bastards of the Party”) in gangbanging because there’s no alternative revolutionary organization in the hood to channel the widespread anger to a productive and necessary fight against the racist system. Street youth today lack a positive political vision of a genuine democratic, people-run society provided to them. If we are rhetorically serious about the necessity of the most oppressed to participate in and lead a movement, then we need to be actively serious in seeing through street POCs getting politicized (with perspectives of third world feminism, queer liberation, from-below democracy, etc). The task of organizing with street POCs is urgent. In the coming days of economic depression in the hood, will street youth be faced with a choice between Bloods or Crips, or gangs or revolutionary organization?
Revolutionaries need to seriously study efforts from past organizations that have organized the lumpen to avoid repeating mistakes and build off their strengths. Instead of demobilizing based on the paper-thin excuse that the BPP failed because of gang members themselves (that gang members inherently brought their violent tendencies and gang mentality and lowered the political consciousness of the organization, as Chris Booker argues in “The Black Panthers: Reconsidered”), we need to ask ourselves why gang members were not getting politicized and how the gang mentality trumped revolutionary discipline in the BPP. I have heard this paper-thin argument invoked many times to forewarn the impossibility and impracticality of organizing with gang youth. One of the more common arguments I hear is that gang members’ loyalties are volatile, that they can turn back to deathstyle at any moment. My counter to that is absence of a positive political vision and alternative, this is true, but in my own conversations with local gang youth, none have expressed a long-term desire of banging. In fact, most tell me they desire a college degree, or to go to culinary school, in recognition that banging is, indeed, a sentence to death or incarceration. Their desire points to the urgency and practicality of street organizing. Imagine a thousands-deep movement of street youth demanding access to higher education on the front steps of the University of Washington. When we talk about higher education, we don’t think affordability for middle-class students currently enrolled at UW. We talk about education is a right to all who want it, regardless of income level, and one that, like the student struggles of the late 1960s demanded, should be community-oriented and community-serving. Curriculums should not reflect the class interests of the rulers, but should be empowering and disseminating of the ideas and instruments needed to further fight racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and ableism in society. Without the element of street POCs in the fight for higher education who bring the numbers, urgency, and community vision, any higher education movement will devolve into a reformist affordability campaign that may successfully increase enrollment for a few more students from the inner city, but will co-opt them into the individualistic and disempowering way of middle-class life and “official society.” We see this today in the middle-class and cultural orientation of student of color groups today on campus, which have devolved from their political-militant and broader community roots of the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, when we say the oppressed must lead the movement, we need to ensure that those from the hood who are currently priced out of the university—their interests, as opposed to the interests of middle-class POCs already enrolled—must be foregrounded and they must lead the movement.
Volatility and lack of commitment aren’t problems endemic to the hood either. In my own campus and labor organizing, college students and workers have exhibited a spotty turnout. Because UW has already undergone much privatization in the last decade, many students are not low-income and don’t feel the urgency of the tuition hikes/budget cuts and consequently, the urgency to organize. Among the low-income students who are not channeled into the individualistic mindset of college or middle-class oriented ethnic cultural groups, many commute from longer distances and can’t attend meetings, or else work a few jobs just to stay enrolled. It has been extremely difficult to find low-income students who remain committed to building a long-term movement, given these factors, and given the lack of others from their own situation with whom they can organize. With workers like custodians who initially turned out in hundreds to protest the cuts when it first came down, many have now backed out from organizing because they’ve experienced intense management retaliation, police harassment, and union bureaucracy backlash. Their jobs are on the line, so over time, without solidarity actions from other workplaces or among the community (i.e. unemployed street POCs who want jobs that pay well and are unionized, so they should fight with UW workers to ensure that wages are high and unions are strong because UW is one of the largest employers in state and their labor practices affect other workplaces), we have seen a decrease of worker optimism and involvement in labor organizing. Because few, if any, opportunities and jobs are available in the hood, street POCs don’t face the question of college complacency or getting fired. Absent of movement organizing, the choices are few and grim. The situation is urgent. Just as we say that black worker demands need to be met in the workplace to elevate the conditions of both black and white workers, a mobilized hood fighting for jobs and opportunities will not only save the hood, but bolster the collective power and confidence of worker movements.
III. MAKING THE MOVEMENT DEMOCRATIC and “HIP-HOP”-IFYING EDUCATION
So, why did the BPP fail? In her autobiography, ex-Panther Assata Shakur points to the male chauvinism and the vanguard authoritarianism of the Panther leadership. Loosely based on Maoist vanguard organization instead of democratic organization culture, the Panthers centralized political leadership among the top echelon of the Party and failed to build leadership and develop political consciousness among their rank and file. When the FBI’s COINTELPRO brought down Huey, the BPP was all but dead. Therefore, political education of street POCs must be prioritized. Revolutionaries cannot assume the role of vanguard and lead the liberation of the hood. This will fail either in the course of the movement, as it becomes attacked by the state and leaders are picked off one by one, or after the overthrow of the state, as the vanguard revolutionary leadership becomes the new oppressive ruling class exploiting those they purported to have fought for. As I have stated repeatedly already, oppressed peoples are NOT stupid, they do NOT need to be led by a vanguard and they need to lead the movement. As I have also stated in my critique of white anti-racists, this does NOT mean that revolutionaries do NOT share information and sound analyses like anti-patriarchy with oppressed folks. We need to re-conceptualize education from the undemocratic, authoritarian standard banking-model where more enlightened teachers deposit information to learning students. The task of education is a task of leadership development. But, the educational process cannot be truly liberating if it’s a one-way street. It must be a mutual, dialectical process in which both revolutionary and street POCs teach and learn from each other, strategize together in order to advance the struggle. This is a concept that Paulo Friere outlines in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”
A dialectical education means that revolutionaries are NEITHER dismissive nor judgmental towards the interests of street POCs. Far too many revolutionary individuals and groups are quick to attack mainstream and gangsta rap for its misogyny and violence, thereby stripping away one big feature in which they could be relevant to street POCs. Conversely, being versed in hip hop allows a revolutionary not only to open seemingly nonpolitical, unintimidating conversations with street POCs, but also opens the door to more political conversations of patriarchy and homophobia using the language of hip hop. We’ve got to remember that the misogyny and violence in hip hop is merely a reflection of the patriarchal and violent system, and any condemnation towards individual songs and artists incorrectly shift blame from the system. The key task is to contextualize patriarchal lyrics of songs familiar to street POCs into this broader systemic analysis. It’s a false expectation to jump straight into women’s liberation and recreates the worst of vanguard authoritarianism in that revolutionaries who go into the hood don’t care about the individuals—their unique personalities, their interests, their needs, but just the cookie cutter program of disseminating revolution to the masses.
Early in the fall, I worked in a high school in the Central District with students diagnosed with Emotional Behavioral Disorder (EBD). (I’ve subsequently worked in many of these classrooms and have noticed a severely disproportionate number of black and Latino street youth diagnosed with this. It is a socially constructed disability. Many are diagnosed at an early age because they have not performed academically on par with the rest of their grade, and do not choose to engage with classroom material. Once you get to know these youth, you’ll find that they are extremely smart, can list out many real-life experiences of racism in ways I cannot articulate, and can read if presented with relevant material. They are a testament to the irrelevance of the standardized school curriculum to street POCs). The lead teacher, a middle-aged white woman, unsuccessfully tried to run a by-the-textbook world history lesson on Buddhism. The students were blasting their ipods, myspacing on the computers, and mad disrespecting the teacher and running the classroom, calling her a “fat b****” and “pop that p****” to her face. She ineptly and nervously laughed at these situations, while trying to play friend to the students. When a student made a comment of how he heard another female student in the room fucking someone else in the school, the teacher obnoxiously jumped in saying to the male student, “oh Jamal, you know so much about everyone else. You should be a matchmaker.” It was painful for me to watch her attempt to teach. I jumped in and broadly related the classroom lesson to spirituality and religion in hip hop (many of the concepts I had thought out already from my previous blog entry “Hip Hop Has Saved My Spirituality”), which paved the way for a more focused lesson on Buddhism, which I also related to hip hop. I related Buddha’s contemplative journey towards self-realization and meditation to Tupac’s spiritual journey of challenging contemporary religious authorities like the Pope and his ultimate self-realization that gangstas had their own heaven or thugz mansion free of police harassment; I related Buddha’s divine laws to the laws of hip hop godfather Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation. The classroom dynamic immediately changed and the students were focused. The hip hop references gave me an edge of credibility and respect because I respect and I myself identified with the hip hop generation. More importantly, by introducing gangsta rappers like DMX into the spirituality and religion discussion, I was able to draw from DMX the following day and have a rich discussion on his quote, “Look thru my eyes, see what I see, do as I do, be as I be, walk in my shoes, hurt your feet, then know why I do dirt in the street,” which gave students an opportunity to reflect, journal on and then share about their experiences with racism, law and authority, and growing up in black and poor in the ghetto. Without even explicitly bringing up politics, hip hop had turned the classroom political and allowed students to bond on their common experiences with racism, and allowed me to situate their personal experiences into a broader system of racist oppression. Just like that, hip hop saved the day. By drawing from my own experience, I hope this illustrates the need to be relevant and NOT be a broken record screaming “REVOLUTION!”
Education is a dialectical, mutually reinforcing process. I’ve worked with a lot of young street POCs this past year and have learned immensely about gangs, racism, gentrification—in short, the “real” Seattle, from the run-down motels along Aurora Ave of the otherwise white bourgie North End, to the increasingly gentrified neighborhoods of High Point and White Center in West Seattle, to the bastion of the white homeless juggalo family hovering around downtown Westlake. I’ve come to respect the positive values that gang membership brings, while develop a more thorough critique of gangs and, consequently, believe in the urgency of developing revolutionary organization in the hood. The best values of gangs reflect the unflinching loyalty and commitment to the cause, and militancy and confrontational attitude from the revolutionary organizations of the 1960s and 1970s that is sorely needed in many more organizations today. Of course, the worst—the preying on other community members, the self-destruction, minority-on-minority violence, the patriarchal and homophobic culture—reflect on the failures of yesterday’s movement to transmit lessons of the past. Many more rank-and-file gang members realize the fatality of gangbanging and are searching for an alternative vision. They scoff at the school system for patronizing them and treating them like youth when, as one Blood validly pointed out to me as he was unrolling a stack of benjamins, he’s had so much more real life experiences than myself or any other counselor or teacher. At the same time, they cling onto the one alternative that they hear from teachers day in and day out, that one day they can be restaurant owners, lawyers, businessmen, heads of painting companies, if they stopped banging, get their act together, and concentrate in school. With the economic crisis deepening, and governments turning to austerity measures resulting in social service cutbacks and even fewer opportunities, can movement-building revolutionaries help chart a new and real positive alternative that street POCs devote their lives to? Can movements once again become an ordinary social activity today among ordinary folks as they were just a few decades ago? Will revolutionaries step up to the task to organize with street POCs in a non-patronizing, non-authoritarian way? If we can’t, then any broad movement will leave out some of the most oppressed folks and violate the sentiment that oppressed folks must lead the movement. I hope this post will be the start of more serious studying and discussions around past and contemporary efforts of organizing with street POCs, and more serious engagement with street POCs.