Out of the Flames of Ferguson- Houston, TX

Out of the Flames of Ferguson- Houston, TX

What is your group, and how did it come together? Were you inspired by, or involved in, protests against recent police killings, such as Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, etc? What about earlier incidents, like Katrina, Oscar Grant, or the Jena 6?

Out of the Flames of Ferguson (OOTFF) is a group of community members and organizers from around Houston working to combat police violence against Black and Brown people, particularly women, low-income, and trans and queer people of color through educational and community building events such as Know Your Rights (KYR) workshops, movie nights, panels and discussion, as well as direct action including protests, rallies, marches, and speak-outs. We believe that the police are an inherently racist, patriarchal, homophobic and transphobic institution; our hope for change is thus not in reform but, rather, in the capacity of our communities to envision, model, and create a more just society. Our framework for this kind of radical imagining and work is what we call the “3 D’s:” Disempower, Disarm, and Disband the police.

We first came together in response to the murder of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. The day following the non-indictment of his murderer, Darren Wilson, we organized a march that brought close to 1,000 Houstonians into the streets demanding justice for not only Mike Brown, but also the countless Black women, men, and gender nonconforming people who have been murdered by the police across the country. In the lead up to and in the months following this march, we spent an increasing amount of time with each other breaking bread, at the movies, doing study groups, going to parties, at protests, hosting fundraisers, conversing with comrades from around the country and numerous other things. During the height of the movement between August and December 2014, our lives were inseparably bound up with one another. This moment for us was a defining shift in the re-emergence of black struggle. It was the first time in most of our lives where we not only saw militant resistance in the street against police violence, but a movement with new political forces and organizations being created to sustain itself. Out of the Flames of Ferguson sees itself as part of this continuity in the Black Lives Matter movement. Since then, we have continued to be a leading radical voice against police violence in Texas.

The rioting in Ferguson and Baltimore was controversial throughout the nation. What role do you think rioting plays in the movement?

Rioting plays an important historical, political and social role in the movement. From jump, rioting defies “respectability” politics that portray looting as an irrational or unnecessary form of activity. Respectability politics tells us to protest as if everyone has equal rights with access to the same resources and influence on power. But we don’t; oppressed people are not listened to when we play it “safe” or stick to the legal channels of protest. Even though most media outlets focus on property destruction (as if that property was owned by the people in the first place) and try to exploit and delegitimize the actual reasons for people’s rebellion, rioting gets mass attention.

Riots are also an important source of political education. They raise awareness about a set of problems or conditions in a mass way. They build on existing social connections but also bring people together in a set of spaces and experiences where they can discuss what they are rebelling against and debate short and long term visions for change. Through experience of rioting, people can learn tactical strategies, like how to attack property, how to protect each other in the streets, how to deal with tear gas, etc. And people can share those lessons, as we saw in the communication that happened between people in Ferguson and in other places like Palestine. Riots are an important validation of anger. Usually we feel isolated, our anger is discouraged, so it is a powerful moment when we see people doing something with their anger on a mass scale. There is a powerful recognition that we are not the only ones who feel a certain way; that something tangible can come from the anger that we feel. In a way, a riot is a form of what we call “Disempowering” the police – stripping away the layers of our fear and pushing the cops out of our hoods. Finally, riots shows people who the enemies are; it captures in stark light the political divisions within our struggle.

Some groups have proposed reforms that they think will help lower the rate of police brutality, such as body cams, campaign zero, sensitivity training for cops, or civilian review boards. Do you advocate for any reforms? Do you think these reforms will be effective?

OOTFF does not advocate for these type of reforms because we do not believe they will be effective. Historically, either they have not worked at all or they have worked against us. Take for example, the claim by some politicians who, just as soon as they pass some BS reform, they blame the failure of those reforms to stop police violence on the communities who are victim to it. During the Mike Brown protests last year, the city of Houston mandated all HPD to wear body cams. But when we’ve seen so many recorded executions of black and brown people, going viral over social media and news networks, we don’t see any evidence that body cams are helping us. If anything, they are used to record our activity so that they can be used against us later in court.

What about civilian review boards? Civilian review boards are another way for those in power to mediate our struggles – “Ok, now you have this official channel to plug into, get out of the streets and into the courthouses for change.” But it was action in the streets, it was taking power into our own hands that brought us together. Just like grand juries, if people are selected through an illegitimate process (these are not juries or bodies of “our peers”) then what good did it do us? Reforms like this can lead to a false sense of security and accountability. Maybe a cop here or there gets fired after brutalizing someone, but this doesn’t fundamentally alter the relation of power that police wield over our communities. It doesn’t functionally disempower the police, instead it individualizes what is really a systemic problem.

The modern day police evolved out of slave patrols. To say that we can reform the police is like saying people back then could’ve reformed the slave patrols. The police must be disbanded. The only kind of viable reforms that our groups should be advocating for are those that disempower the police, pushing them out of our neighborhoods altogether. That could mean organizing to remove police recruitment events from our public schools and community centers. It could mean creating “no cop zones” (something we’ve picked up from a group in NYC called Take Back the Bronx where impromptu social gatherings stand up to police attempts to shut us down. In Houston, this could also mean revoking No Trespass Affidavits that currently allow HPD to patrol, harass and detain working class tenants in apartment complexes across the city.

The movement has sparked wide-ranging online discussions of strategies for black liberation. What do you think of strategies such as “buying black”? Forming black worker or consumer cooperatives? Strengthening the black family? Are there any other strategies you’re seeing discussed that you feel strongly about, for or against?

OOTFF has had some spirited debates around these very questions. We do not have collective agreement on these strategies for black liberation, specifically the call to “buy black” and to “strengthen the black family.” In the spirit of learning together and pushing each other to test and develop our ideas, we want to summarize some of the different ideas we have about liberation.

What are short term strategies or steps that advance our struggles toward liberation?

One set of ideas that have come up in discussion sees buying black and strengthening the black family as a tool to unify the black community. By doing business with people who look like you, who are in your neighborhood, you can hold them accountable to giving back to the community. By spending dollars locally, it’s also possible to develop relationships where black owned businesses employ people from that same neighborhood, including people who might be “unemployable” elsewhere (i.e. people with felony charges on their record). Similarly, strengthening the black family is an important step for black liberation. Black families were weakened when we were brought over by slavery (see the Willie Lynch letters); we were separated and divided. There is a lack of values, i.e. fathers who are deadbeats just because and don’t realize it is hurting whole black community.  So strengthening the black family is about fighting systemic white supremacy and also mental slavery. People don’t realize it still takes a village.

Related to this, we know we want revolutionary groups long-term but these are things that can be done to improve people’s material conditions right now. These immediate steps are necessary to get to revolution, they can create more space for people to come together to work toward revolution. Like strategies that invest a lot of energy into electoral policies, this may not be our first priority but certain policies can be put into place so that life doesn’t suck so much. The fact that efforts like “Black Wall Street” (in Oklahoma City) or MOVE (in Philadelphia) were so brutally repressed by the federal government is a sign that they are a threat to white supremacy.

Another set of ideas that have come up argue that liberation must be anti-capitalist. Black businesses replicate on a smaller scale what it means to be capitalist, i.e. selling things for money & paying a wage for labor. Buying black as a strategy or tactic does not lead toward liberation. The goal of the “buy black” strategy is to build an independent black nation, which historically has not led to liberation.

Further, there is a critique of what kind of “black family” is usually being discussed when people talk about strengthening it: the black hetero nuclear family (mom, dad, kids, hetero). Capitalism makes the nuclear family unattainable for most working class families. Not only this, but the “hotepian” view that the hetero black man and black woman need to reconcile differences and build stronger families leaves out the argument that capitalism, white supremacy, etc., are to blame and not individual black folks who can’t get along. We can go back to the Moynihan Report from the 1960s which pathologizes black folks and blames poverty, drug abuse, etc. on the black family rather than white supremacy.    

Are there ways in which we can redefine certain strategies in a more liberatory direction?

Strengthening the black family often gets used to exclude those who are non-hetero in sexual/gender expression or also hetero-families that are do not live in a nuclear setting.  We’ve explored whether it is possible to develop our own definition of family (i.e. chosen family) that is liberatory while also holding accountable the dominant narrative of the black family as racist & patriarchal. An alternative definition of “strengthening the family” could be critical of the individualistic narrative of how the capitalist family is supposed to be, while opening up space for demands and sites of struggle; i.e. we demand free and available childcare, counseling for family members addicted to drugs.

What is our long term vision for liberation?

In addressing the question of strategies, we inevitably came to the question of what is our long term vision for liberation. Are we fighting for a better capitalism or a black capitalism? Some expressed the belief that there is no freedom under capitalism. Communism is the real movement to abolish the current state of affairs. Capitalism marks a separation from the land, from means to reproduce ourselves, from the things we need as a society (in the broadest sense of need). Someone else owns the means of production and we have to go work for them. Their ownership is the result of an historical process of theft and violence. The current global crisis marks that capitalists are not reinvesting into communities, and objectively they cannot, which has significance for what kinds of reforms, if any, are possible today.

Are we fighting for a non-capitalist or a communist world? If so, then what is communism? Historically there have been communist groups or ruling parties that say that people should still work for a wage (others call this state capitalism). There have been communists who exploit people. A different tendency sees communism as the ability to free our labor as it currently exists.

What has been your orientation to the Say Her Name protests? What ways do you see questions of gender arising in the movement? Do you see a revitalization of feminism occurring? If so, what are its features? If not, why?

We see #SayHerName as a challenge to the dominant discourse and media representation of police brutality as an issue that only affects and claims the lives of straight, cisgender Black men, as well as the myth of the fight for racial justice as one that has been waged only or primarily by men. We see #SayHerName as a call not only to bring attention to the cases in which women and gender nonconforming people have been victims and survivors of police brutality, but also to recognize the reality that Black women and queers have comprised and continue to comprise both the leadership and the very backbone of these struggles. In this way, #SayHerName is a revitalization of feminism, a rejection of the “Lean In,” white, or 1% versions touted by the mainstream media, and a reclamation of the incredible organizing and community mobilization against sexualized and gender-based violence that Black women and queers have created, sustained, and developed for centuries.

OOTFF is majority black and majority non-men; in this way, we are representative of the demographics of the broader movement. Similarly, we, like BLM nationally, have had our own internal and external struggles with gender, and with forming an understanding of feminism and its connection to the fight against police brutality that feels authentic to all of our experiences and politics. We have been informed by the feminist and liberatory traditions of the queers of Stonewall and Compton’s Cafeteria, the women of the Young Lords, the women of the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, and the women of the Zapatistas, among others, as well as texts such as the Combahee River Collective Statement, Dorothy Roberts’ pivotal book on reproductive justice, “Killing the Black Body,” and Danielle McGuire’s “At the Dark End of the Street,” an exploration of the central role of Black women’s organizing against sexual violence in the Civil Rights Movement. As McGuire demonstrates in her crucial text, it was the organizing and mobilization efforts of Black women that maintained the continuity of the movement between what we have come to understand as the peaks of struggle: the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Woolworth’s sit-ins, and the March on Washington, to name a few.

The same trend is present today, with heightened moments of struggle concentrated around cases such as those of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray. These men have become household names, and the struggles that have emerged around their murders have sparked the radicalization of a generation. The significance of these moments should not be underestimated; at the same time, we must recognize the reality that it is the day-to-day and often less glamorous reproductive, relationship-building, and infrastructure- building work of Black women and queers that has facilitated the coherence of these sparks into a fire – a hugely important movement for Black liberation unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. It is also no coincidence that this sustaining organizing work is often around the lesser known cases of police violence against Black cis and trans women, queers, and gender nonconforming people. For instance, Rekia Boyd has kept Chicago organizing steady for two years, laying the groundwork that made possible the pop off after the murder of Laquan McDonald. McDonald’s name is the one most people think of now in regards to police brutality in Chicago, and the one that people were willing to show up in the streets for. We can and must celebrate the amazing moment of struggle that the reaction to McDonald’s murder was, while also fiercely criticizing and combatting the erasure of Black women, both in terms of the violence the state wages against them and the lack of recognition and support they receive for their work that is so central to the success of the movement.

As a group we have been working to educate ourselves on Black and Brown feminist traditions of thought and organizing that came before us through study, events, and dialogue. We have hosted a series of screenings and discussions, including the Women of the Young Lords panel at the Bronx Museum of Art that occurred this past summer, and a “We Fight Back!” movie night where we watched an interview with CeCe McDonald and video clips of the radical anarchoqueer group Bash Back! In these ways we have sought to engage with questions of gender and misogyny within the U.S., within our group, and within the broader movement. The majority of our involvement in the #SayHerName movement, however, has been through our recent #JusticeForBrittany campaign.

(We recently did an interview with We’re Hir We’re Queer so check that out for a more in-depth rundown of our thoughts on the Say Her Name protests)

Have you participated in any movement conferences (the Movement for Black Lives convening in Cleveland, etc)? What came out of it? What useful functions do gatherings like these serve for the movement?

No, we have not participated in any formal movement conferences. Although, we have been networking with BLM activists in more sporadic and decentralized ways. For example, we have held events such as the Subversive Skype Series that allows us to link up with groups nationally like the African People’s Caucus (APC) based in Minneapolis. This provided an opportunity for the APC to talk about dynamics in their city, and opened space for us all to compare experiences and notes on the movement. Locally we’ve also been in conversation with BLMHTX which is putting a lot of energy into coordinating & connecting Houston based groups doing BLM work.

Even if we haven’t been able to participate in conferences, we do recognize the importance of having a centralized space that allows everyone to meet face to face, reflect, discuss and debate. These moments are crucial for any burgeoning  movement. Hopefully, we’ll be able to participate in future ones.

What do you feel is the place of nonprofit organizations in the movement? Are they a positive or negative influence, and why?

Unlike a lot of major cities, Houston does not have a large Non Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC). So, our common experience with regard to non profits is limited. OOTFF has received a one time grant from the non profit Third Wave Fund which we’ve put to good use in our Justice for Brittany campaign. We are in favor of receiving other resources to further develop our radical organizing as long as there are no strings attached. At the same time we are aware that there are some non profits with ties to the Democratic Party. This represents a very real threat that non profits could hijack our struggles and/or play a conservatizing role by silencing more rowdy elements.

What relationship should the Black Lives Matter movement have to the established political parties, if any? To the electoral system in general?

The Black Lives Matter movement should take a confrontational and antagonistic stance towards the established political parties. There is an inherent contradiction in pursuing electoral politics. It implies that we believe that the current system can work in our favor, but this runs directly contrary to our actual experience in this capitalist, patriarchal and white supremacist society. Having close ties to either party has not helped our struggles. Politicians say one thing, they make empty promises to get the movement to vote them into office. Then they turn around and do something totally different and we’re back to square one. All we end up with is wasted energy that should’ve been spent organizing.

This is the broader problem with electoralism: it diverts energy and people power and diminishes our assessment of who our enemies are. There is a saying that “the Democratic Party is where movements go to die.” The Democrats are not just complacent towards police violence, they are actively responsible for this system of police murders. Historically, many of the so-called reforms passed by Democrats have actually advanced the mass incarceration of black and brown people (i.e. the Clinton presidency). As a movement, our independence and autonomy from political parties, our unwillingness to conform and play nice, is our strength.

What relationship does the Black Lives Matter movement have to other movements in the U.S, like the immigrants rights, prisoners, or student movements? How do they mutually influence one another other?

The BLM movement has everything to do with students, prisoners and immigrants rights. BLM cares about Black and Brown lives, and BLM needs to fight against police brutality in all forms whether it occurs on campuses, our neighborhoods, in workplaces, against immigrants or prisoners. BLM has the potential to unite Black and Brown people, and to bring seemingly disparate movements into contact with one another. Furthermore, when people say the “student movement” there is a sort of erasure that takes place because there is the assumption that the student movement is independent from Black struggle, and the same goes for immigration. The composition of BLM already includes portions of other movements in it.

However, while there may be some overlap between BLM and other movements we have yet to see more formal relationships established across struggles. For example, immigrants rights doesn’t tend to get viewed as a police brutality issue although we would argue it most definitely is. There are many reasons why this happens. Under capitalism there is real competition between races when it comes to jobs, housing, education, etc. Capitalism breaks people down with regard to race, gender, and sexuality just to name a few lived experiences. It reinforces divisions and reproduces a dog eat dog world. In response, people orient and struggle against oppressive conditions in different ways that appear separate and unrelated. This plays out in our movements when we try to show the inherent connections between struggles and get accused of “diluting the issue”. An important task we see is to understand how these shared conditions create space for organic ties to be made which could allow for new possibilities in the fight against police terrorism.

Recent years have seen a resurgence of right-wing violence, such as the Charleston Emmanuel AME massacre and the shooting of protesters in Minneapolis. How should we orient ourselves to this rise in violence?

We need to have an understanding of and be preparing for community self defense. Right now BLM as a movement has not collectively through experience come up with a plan for dealing with right wing violence. This is partly due to more conservative elements in the movement attempting to smother self defense efforts that arise naturally, but the failure to develop self defense efforts can’t be explained away by this. In grappling with this question OOTFF has solicited advice from Ashanti Alston. Ashanti is an elder in the movement who participated in the Black Power struggles of the 60’s as a member of the Original Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army. According to Ashanti, the ability for militants to carry out tasks such as self defense was tied to the mass movements of that time. In other words, self defense is something that develops historically through the experience and needs of people in motion. Our ability to carry out self defense is limited or bolstered by the unfolding conditions on the ground. In our assessment of the current conditions and whether or not they lend themselves to self defense efforts there has emerged discussion and debate within OOTFF as to what tactics we support in the street and how best to prepare for community self defense.

One question we debated is whether or not groups should plan or participate in open carry protests where leftists publicly display firearms. An example of such open carry protests would be those carried out by the New Black Panther Party. How much of a risk do such protests run? What kind of attention do they draw and from who? How do we decipher which types of actions are adventuristic and which appropriately match material conditions?

We are keenly aware of the fact that leftists face state repression much differently compared to the right. We need only look at the fact that the shooters in Minneapolis responsible for wounding 5 BLM protesters received misdemeanor charges for a crime that was obviously racially and politically motivated. If left wing militants would open fire in the face of a right wing threat we are sure that the outcome would be very different.

While being wary of state repression and the risks involved with self defense, it is clear that leftists should be engaging in tactical and physical self defense training at some level. Whether it’s martial arts practice or other types of physical discipline. Right wing attacks show no signs of abatement. If anything we’re seeing a rise in rightwing violence not just against BLM, but other movements as well. Attacks such as the recent shooting at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado should be understood as a part of this right wing backlash that is taking place. Once again, our ability to connect and broaden the struggle could strengthen our ability to defend ourselves.

In the end, we recognize the only way we’ll truly be safe and free is to put an end to this unjust system and create something new. Until then, any efforts to protect ourselves and our communities always runs the risk of being used against us by the state and/or the right.