This article was originally written in 2015 after the initial Black Lives Matter protest movement had died down. It has not been updated to include a discussion of the current wave of protests and riots. However, there are some insights in this piece that have a bearing on this moment and we believe that this can further the discussion around tactics and strategy moving forward
Contemporary Tasks for Revolutionaries
By the Screwed Up Click
The anti-police brutality movement that grew after Mike Brown’s murder in 2014 has created ample space for new organizing and street strategies. We have seen a movement develop in the past year that is willing to take on increasingly confrontational street tactics and create new radical participants. The movement has its ebbs and flows, but, like the uprising in Baltimore shows, events can change in very little time. With this in mind, it is necessary to prepare for the next moment in struggle. It is important to look at what tactics the movement and the class are employing in order to meet and push for more militant goals. In order to focus our work going forward, tasks must be developed.
In analyzing this movement and its developing tasks, it is impossible not to discuss violence. The state’s violence was a catalyst for the current movement, and violence was the weapon of protesters in different periods of the struggle in the form of riots. Violence is an integral part of our day-to-day existence: the violence of cops in our neighborhoods, the violence of an every-day struggle to put food on the table. Violence is also a tool in the arsenal of the oppressed. Violence is not an end in itself. A riot is an insurrection—a street-level confrontation with the state and capital. While the state and liberals may decry riots as wanton destruction of folks’ own neighborhoods, those rioting are taking a stand against the most visible forms of state repression: the street executions of people’s neighbors, friends, and children by the police. But the riot, although important, will not liberate us. It is a limited tactic, often flaring up and dying out after a few days. There is no infrastructure with which to deliver the riot into a new form of struggle. Violence is simply a tactic used to create a world which interests its users. The state uses violence to repress. Violence is a means to liberate us from capital, but it’s not the only tactic we have. The riot is an important concept to explore for the long-term goals of our movement, and it is in mind of those goals that we write this piece.
Reactionary violence is a present danger. From Dylann Roof in Charleston to the fascists in Olympia, there are real, clear dangers to radicals and various communities. Self-defense, the ability to protect oneself from harm, is an important skill to develop when dealing with these reactionaries. The riots themselves can be seen as a form of self-defense. A form of defense predicated on showing the police what happens when they kill our own. Ultimately, the goal of self-defense is the creation of a society in which we have no one against whom to defend ourselves.
Assessing the Current Moment
In taking up the question of self-defense it is important to step back for a moment and analyze the present circumstance. This compositional and material analysis is not meant to reflect the Black Lives Matter movement broadly. The targets here are those who participated in the riots in both Ferguson and Baltimore or who are likely to participate in future confrontations. Our ability to successfully join these struggles and determine appropriate steps of action relies on our understanding of the current situation. This entails identifying under what conditions new militants have emerged and what sections of the class have been actively engaging confrontational tactics in the street. We’ll delve into what exact tactics are being taken up a little further on. For now, it’s important to note that developing militants in any time period are shaped by the unique material conditions in which they find themselves. Today, there are a number of defining characteristics that militants from Houston, Ferguson, Baltimore and countless other cities face.
Over the past 40 years, the recomposition of capital has completely altered the urban landscape. The restructuring has entailed a simultaneous attack on working class and oppressed people in the sphere of production and reproduction of daily life. This attack was a counter-offensive against the working class movements of the 60’s and 70’s as well as a response to the 1973 crisis. The breaking up of the production process here in the US, and other developed capitalist centers in Western Europe, began a slow deindustrialization
A prime example of this recomposition is the automotive industry. Cities like Detroit used to be industrial powerhouses and important sites of black struggle. Organizations like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers evolved to fight back against speed-ups, deplorable working conditions and racism on the job. In these factories whole cars were made on assembly lines by various workers taking on specialized tasks. This is no longer the case as large parts of production have been broken up and relocated to “developing” countries. Detroit, like so many other Midwest and East Coast cities, is now a shell of the metropolis it once was.
Now you can have a car engine made in Mexico, a frame built in Canada, and have it all assembled in a car factory in rural Georgia. The atomization of the labor process has successfully fragmented the working class and lowered wages for workers across the globe. This coupled with technological advances and automation has thrown many black proletarians out of work and into the reserve army of labor.
Since then, and after the 2008 economic crisis, we’ve further witnessed dramatic shifts in the type of work people do. More than half the jobs recovered after the 2008 crises have been precarious, low wage jobs in the fast food, retail or other service sector industries. Many people have to work 2 or 3 jobs just to make ends meet. The days of the single paycheck household are long gone. These unskilled positions reflect a general casualization of labor all over the US.
The second part of the restructuring involved the destruction of New Deal era social welfare programs. Implementation of massive austerity measures has significantly cut funding in education, healthcare, housing, unemployment, and infrastructure. Accompanying these budget cuts have been huge layoffs of public sector workers. Historically, this area of work has been filled by large numbers of black proletarians. This period is marked by the non-reproduction of the working class by capital. Instead of depending on the state to supplement their wages, working class people have turned to credit in order to purchase their necessities. The result has been the pyramiding of debt with the increasing likelihood that people will default on those loans. In part, this is what was behind the subprime mortgage crises as people were unable to repay their mortgages.
With the social safety nets of the Keynesian era ever decreasing, the state has had to rely on other means to keep black and brown proletarians in line. Throughout this time period, this dynamic has been complemented by the militarization of the police and expansion of the prison system. We need look no further than the growing list of police murders and incarceration rate of black and brown people across the nation to prove this fact. Capitalists have invested in more punitive measures to control increasing amounts of precarious and unemployed people. Not to mention those participating in the informal economy selling drugs, performing sex work and various other types of labor to make their living.
Based on these conditions we can piece together the social composition of those that participated in the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore. In addition, there is an exorbitant amount of footage from Baltimore and Ferguson that also gives us a glimpse of who’s out in the street. One of the most infamous moments caught on film in Baltimore was of the high school student whose mother physically tried to prevent him from participating in the riots. We can attempt to understand this mother’s desire to keep her son safe, however it is the high school students, the graduates with no future, and the gang members that must hide their faces and dawn hoodies to square off with the very cops that put them in these precarious positions to begin with. To be clear, there are nuanced differences as to what combinations of these forces participate in combating the police. For instance, in Baltimore some gangs sided with the establishment in their counter offensive against the rioters in their call for peace in the streets. In stark contrast, we’ve seen gangs act as a sort of armed self defense wing that combat the police during moments of rioting like in the LA uprising.
Our ability to identify what sections of the class have become mobilized in these mass moments doesn’t necessarily speak to their contradictory activity. Nevertheless, those that face an increasingly bleak existence are the ones actively fighting for a new world in the ghettoized suburbs, inner cities and working class neighborhoods of the US.
Now that we’ve situated ourselves in the current moment, we can begin to trace the steps of the struggle to where we are at this time.
Trajectory of the Movement
It is important to understand the origins of the anti-police brutality movement in order to understand the growth in consciousness and tactics. Although the latest wave of the movement started with the murder of Mike Brown, the groundwork of the movement can be seen in the struggles that erupted after the murder of Oscar Grant. In the days after Grant’s death, protests were held at the site of his murder: Fruitvale Station. As a march started, some protesters surrounded a police car and started smashing it, forcing the officer inside to flee. Protesters threw bottles at the police and started a riot in the city. While the energy was high in the moment, the protests did not move past the region. Many people saw the protests, but other cities did not match the energy of Oakland.
It was the protests for Trayvon Martin that did nationalize the struggle. After weeks of police indifference to Martin’s murder, members of the community marched in protest, attempting to raise awareness of the murder and the lack of action on the part of the police. Soon after, solidarity protests picked-up around the country, including here in Houston. The target of the protests was not specifically police brutality, but the white supremacist institution that allowed Trayvon’s murderer to go free. The protests, contrasting the ones following Oscar Grant’s murder however, were not confrontational. The vast majority were peaceful solidarity events. However, this moment in the struggle did produce militant organizations like the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee, a direct action oriented group advocating militant street tactics.
With those two periods of struggle in mind, we can put into context the struggle that erupted around the murder of Mike Brown. While the Oscar Brown protests stayed regional and the Trayvon Martin protests stayed non-confrontational, the Mike Brown protests were immediately both national and confrontational. On the first night after Mike Brown was shot and killed, Ferguson citizens set fire to a convenience store and engaged in a small-scale riot. After that night however, the rioting tactic was abandoned. In later nights, groups of citizens banded together to stop looters and supporters of the Ferguson movement were quick to label anyone advocating rioting or looting an “outside agitator.” The tactic that the protestors settled on was nightly blockades and holding the street against the heavily militarized police force in the city.
As the movement spread, the tactic of taking the streets spread as well. The news was filled with highway takeovers. But in some places, the question of violence arose again. In New York City, chants of “Arms Up, Shoot Back” and “What do we want: dead cops!” were heard. One night during the protests, two cops went to the hospital, accusing protesters of beating them up. In the Bay Area, another riot broke out. The next night, undercover cops supposedly urged the crowd towards property destruction. After they were discovered to be cops, they brandished their weapons and arrested some of the protestors in the area. Back in Ferguson, the city rioted again after a grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson, Mike Brown’s killer.
The protests continued well into the winter, with the non-indictment of Eric Garner’s killers working to keep the flames of the struggle burning. But as the spring came and police murders of unarmed black men and women continued, the movement seemed to be slowing down. In April though, the movement was given new life through Baltimore. Baltimore took the confrontational approach of the Oscar Grant and Mike Brown protests and intensified it.
On April 12, 2015 Freddie Gray, a black Baltimore resident, was chased through the streets by police, beaten and then thrown in the back of a van without any restraints. In good health prior to the arrival of the police, after he arrived at the police station, Freddie Gray was unconscious, suffering from severe spinal injuries. He slipped into a coma for seven days and died on April 19, 2015. The ensuing protests marked a very different development than in other cities. Rioting started a few days after Gray’s death, but it didn’t peter out like it did in other cities. It escalated until the state had to call in the National Guard to restore order.
Where the Mike Brown protests pushed the strategy of blockades and standoffs, Baltimore residents added open confrontation. When the cops attacked the students, they attacked right back, forcing the cops out of the neighborhood. Reminiscent of the earlier Oscar Grant struggles, Baltimore’s tactics did not spread to the rest of the country.
At the same time that the anti-police brutality movement was gaining strength, the American far right was also developing. The massacre in the Charleston African Methodist Episcopalian church by Dylann Roof was just the most recent of white nationalist violence in the past few years. The presence of white nationalist violence and its uptick is important in the self-defense discussion.
There has been a rash of black church burnings since the Charleston AME massacre. White supremacist violence has not affected black communities alone, however. In the year before the Charleston AME shooting, mosques were targeted for arson. A Sikh temple was the site of a mass killing in 2012. And three young Muslims were murdered in their home by a white neighbor in 2015. Meanwhile, border militias have grown in visibility. Working to “reduce illegal immigration,” these groups constantly remove necessary supplies like water and food from border crossing areas and conduct armed patrols in hopes of catching immigrants.
Activists find themselves in the middle of these two trends: a movement that seems to be intensifying in different stages of the struggle and using increasingly confrontational tactics, and a reactionary movement that is murderous and destructive. In this moment, the need for tactical militancy and personal militancy are necessary. Conversations in Houston have revolved around how to be most effective in situations of intense street struggles, how to spread the struggle to other segments of the class and how to keep ourselves and our communities safe from reactionary backlash and violence. It is with these questions that we can prepare for both the short-term and long-term work that our movements need to gravitate around. It is with these questions that we can formulate tasks.
As we continue to live under conditions of austerity and the incarceration and murder of black and brown folks by the state continues, many questions have come up given the developments in the recent rebellions and the right wing backlash. What are people ready to do in the streets? How do we build from there and support the use of even more militant tactics? If a riot broke out in Houston, how would we successfully take and defend space while in the streets? Having an orientation to the police and their role in society is well and good, but how do we defend ourselves from these killers in blue or from attacks by racists?
Given the context of the recent upsurge in the anti-police brutality movement and the subsequent reactionary violence inflicted by white supremacists, the need for self-defense has become apparent. The State has largely been permissive of attacks by the far right, further emphasizing the need for autonomous means of protection from external violence and threats of violence. Our imperative as radicals and revolutionaries then, is to foster the development of self-defense skills not just in the Left, but also amongst Black and Brown working people. This is comprised of several smaller, concrete tasks, including but not limited to: improving street tactics, building community infrastructure, self-defense and weapons training, and deepening the movement to encompass a broader swath of people.
Our recent experiences have informed the questions we are posing. In Houston, the discourse around police brutality has shifted quantitatively and qualitatively in just a few months. We’ve moved from calls for body cams to calls for disarming and eventually disbanding the police. The slumbering Black struggle seems once again invigorated with youthful energy and militant tactics. Two protests in particular demonstrated leaps in what Houston would and could collectively do in the streets: August 20th and November 25t, 2014. These two protests, among others, demonstrate the advancing of tactics that have led us to question whether something like Baltimore or Ferguson could occur here, and if so, what would happen.
The August 20th protest started as a rally across from an HPD station in Third Ward but evolved into a spontaneous unpermitted march that abandoned the safety of the sidewalk for the possibilities of the street. Walking in the streets may sound routine, but in Houston it was a brief moment in which we experienced the thrill of having the tactical upper-hand. After several years of demonstrations that could be characterized as primarily yelling at cars behind barricades, protesters taking the street threw HPD for a loop and they scrambled to respond. The cops tried to redirect us back onto the sidewalk and towards the police station, but we held our ground, disobeyed orders, and moved around the increasing number of foot patrol, squad cars, and mounted patrol. Despite eventually being outmaneuvered and cornered into a nearby park with a choke-point, many of us regarded the experience as extremely significant.
November 25th was the most attended action. The march started at MacGregor Park, then the University of Houston, and eventually snaked the residential streets of Third Ward. Hundreds attended, the majority young and non-white. Walking in the streets, now normalized, was tolerated by the police, but when we moved to take the freeway as other cities had done, their response dramatically shifted. Our route was suddenly blocked by the cops. Confusion seized the crowd; some attempted to run through a gap on the sidewalk but failed. The moment in which we could’ve collectively pushed through the line, slipped away. Peacekeeping liberals seized the opportunity (either on their own accord or in collusion with the police – neither has been confirmed) and called for four minutes of silence, further thwarting momentum and allowing the police to surround us and amass backup. After a tense standoff, we were allowed to pass. The militant elements ran for the freeway but were met by mounted cops and a one to one ratio of squad cars to protesters. Despite the show of force, we were not ready to accept defeat. One young black protesters shouted that we had come so far, that he was even ready to get arrested, he didn’t care. About five rows of people linked arms and pushed up against the horses, one step at a time, in three second intervals. We gained about a foot, but could not break through. Regardless, we surprised even ourselves and expanded our repertoire of tactics.
The tactic of rioting was employed in Ferguson and Baltimore, though to different degrees. While we cannot guarantee this tactic will be used again in the near future, we should prepare and train for the possibility. To improve our chances of taking and holding down space, as well as sustaining the momentum of the collective activity, we will need to study advanced street tactics and strategy. In Houston, the need is two-pronged. First, the Left is small and often in flux; second, many new people have come around since the Ferguson solidarity protests. There is a real need to teach emerging radicals how to effectively conduct themselves during an action or escalated situations like a riot. Our difficulties in the streets during the last round of protests are evidence of this. The skills we need to acquire read a bit like a laundry list: We need to learn how to successfully maneuver, break police lines, and form blockades. Security protocols like anonymizing ourselves and/or masking up in critical moments have not been totally socialized here in Houston. We also have a need for trained medics or people with advanced first aid training. If we secured an area away from police control, we would need to learn how to coordinate supply lines to get in necessities like food and water. Our on the ground communication needs to be tightened up and we need to better prepare contingency plans ahead of time. We also need to be more effective propagandists and more favorably frame the public debate in the media regarding our tactics and goals.
Simultaneously, we must develop people’s abilities to defend themselves and their communities. We need networks of people who can call upon each other for defense or resources when threats present themselves. Some of the social foundation for these organizational forms may already informally exist. For example, friends or neighbors often share information and stories with each other about things that have happened in their communities. These relationships would not be hard to build upon when establishing more formal structures, like phone trees. A relatively simple but powerful tool we have used in advancing working people’s ability to defend themselves from the police, as well as challenge the legitimacy of the police, is know-your-rights training. Another important aspect of defense from police violence we envision on a community level is a functioning cop watch. While we cannot feasibly intervene in every instance of police brutality, it is important to monitor police activity to dissuade and document misconduct, as well as familiarize ourselves with the various officers who are regularly present in our communities. The creation and defense of no-cop-zones in our communities, an idea popularized recently by Disarm NYPD, would be a further step. Cops would not be allowed to enter these areas and people would deal with issues through alternative resolution processes instead of through police violence and the “justice” system.
While engaging in these other tasks, we are also compelled to draw other layers of the working class into our movements and deepen the participation in moments of rebellion. This is one of the most important but difficult tasks for radicals and revolutionaries. We find ourselves in a period where there is tremendous stratification and alienation of working people. As seen in Ferguson and Baltimore, dispossessed Black youth have often been at the fray, but how do we pull in other people? What about workers in industry or recent immigrant populations? What about fast-food and service workers? How do we make struggle cross-generational or ensure inclusion and participation of women and trans folks? Expanding the movement and our networks will necessarily involve branching outside of the traditional Left and affinity groups, which even in one of the most diverse cities in the US, have a tendency to be disproportionately white. In Houston, we have started thinking more critically and strategically about linking up different struggles. For example, it was discovered that Madicorp, the same corporation who sent security forces into Ferguson, was also providing temporary workers when the United Steel Workers were on strike. The (mostly white) refinery workers and the Black and Brown youth involved in the anti-police brutality movement generally would not cross paths often or may even have antagonisms. Though other factors prevented our local IWW chapter’s ability to really take action, it was an example of the kinds of overlap that could bring otherwise unrelated people together on a practical, not contrived, basis.
Though the experiences in the streets have been exciting, equal praise must be given to the continuity we have maintained through the hills and valleys of activity. The work involved in network building isn’t always as glamorous. Behind the scenes, several local organizers have, for years, done the often thankless labor of building campaigns, flyering and making contacts, supporting other organizers’ events and projects, and facilitating the political development of others. The work has started to pay off. Many who have been drawn in during the recent episodes of struggle have stuck around and lasting organizations have formed. We’re developing a network of people who are in tactical agreement, ready and willing to back each other up in the streets as we’ve done before. We believe that this will be necessary for a sustained Black struggle, anti-police brutality movement, etc. We need to continue to broaden by making connections with people outside of the traditional Left, drawing in different sections of people, and push the envelope in terms of their thinking about the role of the police.
As we write this we’re witnessing a white backlash to the struggle against police brutality nationally. In Houston, a church in Fifth Ward, a historically Black neighborhood, has mysteriously gone up flames, bringing the total number of church burnings to seven. In Hempstead, Texas Sandra Bland, a Chicago native, was found dead in her jail cell after she was assaulted by an officer and arrested during a traffic stop. Authorities say it was suicide, but her family and friends suspect foul play. She had just found a job and was looking forward to moving and beginning a new chapter of her life. There have been numerous rallies across the south and other states to protest the removal of the confederate flag in South Carolina. Not to mention the Klu Klux Klan rally that recently took place in Columbia, SC where there were scuffles between fascists and Black counter protesters.
If we are serious about helping to facilitate the ability of working class and oppressed people to defend themselves, we need to be critical of an approach that fetishizes riots as the main form of struggle. Riots have been an important development in self defense through its practical activity of establishing temporary no-cop zones and providing a space to physically confront this oppressive system. But, its immediate strengths are also its limitations. Due to its spontaneous character, it provides no real lasting organization to maintain continuity between high points of struggle. In addition, it has a particular social composition that makes up only a fraction of societal forces. When looking at society in its totality, we need to be searching for ways to organically link seemingly disparate movements.
Currently there appears to be no end in sight to state and extra-judicial violence. The revolutionary Left is at a crossroads where we either begin to take seriously the need for self defense and the task of helping to facilitate this activity, or risk being further unprepared for future civil unrest and relegated to the sidelines of irrelevancy. In laying out the conditions from which these riots have emerged, identifying the subjects of these riots, and tracing the trajectory of the movement, we’ve tried to lay out some concrete tasks for the Left to consider developing in our day to day work. This conversation is far from over, and we hope that this piece adds to advancing the dialogue moving forward.