Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee- Philadelphia, PA

Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee- Philadelphia, PA

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?

Our group is called the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee (TMOC). We first formed, as the name suggests, as an ad-hoc grouping in the aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. All of our members had been politically active prior to our formation. Members have been directly involved in organizing in Oakland around Oscar Grant’s murder and various other organizations and projects from Massachusetts to Florida, including Miami Autonomy and Solidarity, Black Rose/Rosa Negra, Raider Nation Collective, CopWatch, and Bring the Ruckus, among others. The majority of us worked together first in the Radical Caucus of Occupy Philly. We were fairly demobilized in the time between the Acquittal of George Zimmerman and the Ferguson uprising but have been organizing around the Black Lives Matter movement in Philly and Baltimore, though we have never been part of that official network.

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

The rioting in Ferguson is the reason there is a Black Lives Matter movement. Without that explosion of righteous anger, the older “official” organizations of Black struggle would have maintained control of the organizing as they did with the response to Trayvon Martin’s murder. They were swept away for a time and in the space created new organizers were able to establish themselves, while thousands of people learned that it was possible to fight the police. It seems that the rioting was what many were waiting for, and it threw hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people into the street across the country.

Rioting has kicked off and sustained this movement, but is not an end in itself. The 1992 L.A. riots were much larger than the ones in Ferguson and Baltimore, but did not lead to a mass movement in the way that these did. Movements must defend all rioters both politically and materially, but must also take into account the context of the particular riots. Every riot is not the revolution. We must look at what groups or social forces are likely to benefit from the aftermath, and act accordingly. It’s important for people to experience their collective power and see that the police and the system they protect are not invincible, but if new forms of Black working class and poor self-organization don’t emerge from the ashes then riots can just be a “flash in the pan.”

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?

Our group has argued against reforms such as body cameras, sensitivity training, and civilian review boards. Body cameras are a technological solution to a political problem, and for that reason will never do away with racist police brutality. Even worse, they will increase the level of police surveillance in Black and Brown neighborhoods, and at public political actions. We have already witnessed Philadelphia police officers turn off their body cameras prior to assaulting protesters.

To propose sensitivity training as a solution to police racism is to fundamentally misunderstand the role police play in capitalist society generally, and American society in particular. We believe that police function to protect the power, property, and privilege of the elite. Since the vast majority of the wealth that built the United States was generated by slavery, and slavery was justified and maintained by white supremacy (see W.E.B DuBois’s idea of the cross-class alliance), the violence of everyday police repression falls much harder and more often on Black people here. In the past, white supremacy was more rigidly defined, to the point of crossing the class line; as in the lowest white was higher than the highest Black. Today the system remains but the class tensions are much more prominent. Despite this “blurring” of the color line, white supremacy is as foundational as class to the system and cannot be trained out of an institution that exists almost exclusively to uphold it.

As for civilian review boards, they have never been effective in curbing police terror. When created, they are often underfunded, lack teeth, or are dependent on particular politicians and rarely outlive these people’s careers. For example, Philadelphia has had a civilian review board for years, yet the police always defeat it by citing their union contract’s arbitration process. This brings us to another point, which is where we believe organized labor needs to cut its support for police unions. Cops are not just another group of public sector workers. As stated before, they serve a fundamentally different and antagonistic role in our society than working people do.

While organizing to end “broken windows” policing and for demilitarization of the police can create breathing space for poor and working class Black and Brown people, as well as for organizers, they must not be seen as ends in themselves. They can be entry points for new activists, rallying calls for coalitions, and steps on the road to police abolition, but we must remember that the police upheld white supremacy for over 150 years without military grade weapons and modern “crime fighting” tactics.

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?

The “buy Black” strategy is fairly prevalent in Philly, and not just among activists. It’s fine as a moral choice, but it is not a political strategy likely to change anything. Examples from history such as the destruction of “Black Wall Street” by white mobs suggest that political power does not automatically flow from economic power in the US. There is already a Black capitalist class and while it is small in numbers and wealth compared to the white capitalist class, it has proven itself more interested in cutting itself off from the bulk of Black people in America than uplifting them as a whole. “Buy Black” ignores the class divisions that exist within Black people in America. Examples abound of wealthy Black Americans investing in things that hurt Black people, such as Michael Jordan’s connections to private prison companies. It also focuses exclusively on the power of the dollar as an agent for change instead of seeing that power can also come from the streets.

There is a reason that the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore were touched off by police violence and not economic exclusion. The police and prisons systems are the most vicious and visible enforcers of white supremacy in the U.S. Not only that, but when we call for the police to be “disempowered, disarmed, and disbanded” we are confronting not just the police but also the economic system they are part of.

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?

A split occured in the BLM movement in Philly during the “Say Her Name” protests. Loosely it can be described as a split between what we loosely describe as the cultural Black nationalists on one side, with multi-racial leftist organizations and anti-oppression Black folks on the other. Many of the main organizers of mass actions and mass work, from all the political tendencies active in the Philly BLM movement, are women. The particular organizers of this ‘Say Her Name” protest (not the first in Philly, an earlier vigil was attacked by the police, resulting in a broken wrist and arrests) framed it along the lines of “Black men standing up for Black women.” Many key Black women leaders in the BLM movement here found that inappropriate and voiced their concerns publicly during the rally. This particular moment of confrontation was made worse due to tensions from earlier mass marches, where men who had not helped organize the march (or anything else, for that matter) would physically seize bullhorns from Black women, claim leadership of marches, and insist upon certain tactics.

Despite, or rather because of this, a type of feminism is fairly prevalent in the BLM here. It draws heavily from “Intersectionality theory” in more or less academic ways. In a positive “the last shall be first” sort of way, it pushes for centering Black women’s, and especially Queer and trans Black women’s experiences, oppression, and leadership in the movement. It denounces the “respectability politics” of some progressive churches and organizations like the National Action Network and the NAACP. It insists that Black women be the ones leading meetings, speaking at rallies, etc. The downside to this type of feminism is that while it claims to have a systemic analysis of racism, it seems to settle for representation over qualitative change. It is not as shallow as the “Black faces in high places” strategy of the past, but it turns inward towards “Black love” and “Black Joy” as political strategies in and of themselves. While these are components of a struggle, albeit ones that are often ignored and suppressed, substituting them wholesale for all the different tactics that a movement requires is not a liberatory strategy.

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?

Some members of the Philly Coalition for Racial, Economic, And Legal Justice (PCxRJ), of which TMOC is a part, went to the BLM convention in Cleveland, but no TMOC members were there. PCxRJ members spoke of highy of it, and it seemed to be good for morale, but it was unclear to those of us who didn’t go what exactly happened there. We only learned of the political debates raging at the convention though anecdotal reports from comrades in other cities who went.

The Black Radical Tradition conference was held at Temple University in Philly, and although we did not organize it, one of our members was a panelist, and we did attend many of the panels and the march. Again, it was good for morale to hear speeches from the likes of Angela Davis and Cornell West, but it remains to be seen what shakes out of the aftermath of the conference. Most of the attendees were college aged Black people, though some younger organizers from other cities and older activists came as well. On one hand, it felt like a missed opportunity when few of the panels were focused on concrete next steps for the movement, but the discussion style format did allow the contradictory tendencies in the BLM movement to be laid bare.

Specifically, the tension in the movement between Black activists invested in “Identity Politics” and “white allies”, and the more socialist oriented left organizations, came to the foreground. Some elements of the BLM appear to be more influenced by “cultural nationalism” and Liberal interpretations of an intersectional analysis. The main contradiction seems to be that the leftist (broadly speaking) organizations seek to open up the struggle against police terrorism of Black people into a broader movement that also fights against the oppression of class, gender identity, immigration status, etc; while the cultural nationalists largely seek only to end the oppression of Black people. It seems that the new, college aged Black organizers could benefit from studying the writings of Frantz Fanon, specifically his application of Marxist and Hegelian dialectics to the anti-colonial struggle. These mostly college age participants are quite likely used to inhabiting “safe” spaces where language is heavily scrutinized, where contradictions are not allowed to emerge and worked on, and transgressors of any sort must be dealt with unequivocally and swiftly. Public call outs are usually the first resort. Would-be comrades are treated with suspicion and rarely given the benefit of the doubt. Manichean logic quickly replaces principle disagreements and debates. What should have probably been an intense, but comradely discussion over how the conference could have been better or to have the organizers address what seem to be legitimate grievances with how they handled particular situations was turned into a protest denouncing the entire conference. This happened both at the physical location and on social media. It’s a pattern that seems to repeat itself within the U.S. Left. What’s more troubling is that as BLM got recuperated by mostly college students and non-profit workers or people trying to take it in that direction, the sort of crass “identity politics”, and overall Liberal framework of doing politics has become more prominent. I don’t think this is going away anytime soon as long as the composition of the Left remains this way.

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

A rough comparison can be made that nonprofits are to street level struggle as unions are to workplace level struggle. They seek to be mediators of the struggle, and end up being the first line of defense for the system. While they can provide political cover and resources at best, at worst they can lead spontaneous and independent movements back into acceptable forms of struggle. They are funded by the enemy, a prime example of which is the Ford Foundation funding the BLM convergence in Cleveland last July. Non-profits substitute representation for content, and are avenues of access to the movement for opportunists. At any rate the issues with non-profits are numerous, and there are entire books like “The Revolution Will not Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex” that do a pretty good job of highlighting what are the many problems with the NPIC. Movements must be smart about how we deal with NP’s because they’re likely to be present, exerting more or less influence of struggles that we may be involved with as well. It’s important to identify where a NP might be useful, and where they’re not. NPs should absolutely not be the ones doing the organizing work.They should not be ones developing strategies for mass organizations. Their staffers should not be the lead organizers on any campaign. That work needs to be done by the folks directly affected by the conditions and situations they’ve decided to struggle against.

However, NPs could potentially be beneficial, in that they often have more resources than most of our small radical groups or mass level organizations (e.g. IWW, TBBx, etc.). If we could get access to certain resources without too many, or preferably any strings attached, we might be able to do our work without as many hardships. For this reason, it makes sense to cultivate some type of relationship with NPs, but always with a degree of skepticism of their motives, and always insisting on complete autonomy from them when in comes to making decisions and taking action. We must always insist on the autonomy of our mass organizations from the NPs.

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

None, its success is its independence and boldness. The Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings gave people hope that it is possible to fight again. The movement must not support any political candidate, not even Bernie. Rather than try to build a third party, it should try to establish an independent base within the Black poor and working class. A third party, even a successful Black third party, would be the vehicle the Black gatekeeper class would use to access power and cut itself off from the Black poor and working class.

The failure of the left coalition Syriza in Greece is the lesson of the hour for electoral politics in the neoliberal era. If in places like Greece, where there are genuine social movements, and politically you have a plurality of at least nominally revolutionary parties, if they can’t get a party like Syriza to stand up against austerity, what realistically are the chances that we will fare any better here? In terms of consciousness and base level organizing, as well as electoral politics, we’re light years from them. Electoralism at this point in our social movements existence should be off the table entirely. If we had autonomous, mass social movements to speak of, then maybe we could debate the nuances of having some sort of inside-outside electoral strategy, but zero energy or resources should be going to support electoralism of any sort right now.

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?

In our organizing here, we have seen potential for relationships, but few serious connection have been made. We have identified some areas where relationships should be built where possible. It’s absolutely critical that the BLM movement begin building those relationships and making these connections more explicit. The focus on the police has been necessary, but the police to a large degree are a symptom of white supremacy, not the cause, and as such there are other struggles against the state and capital which are essential for weakening/defeating white supremacy. They sometimes happen outside or somewhat outside those struggles against the police.

In regards to immigrant rights, here’s a struggle where there’s usually a race and class component, also imperialism or neocolonialism dimension, and state violence. Poor black and poc immigrants should be largely seen as refugees, fleeing economic and social conditions created by imperialism/neo-colonialism. There exist contradictions amongst immigrant groups, and some immigrants who find themselves in a vulnerable position in the U.S. because of their legal status had varying degrees of privilege in their home countries, so their must be an understanding that immigrants are not a homogenous group. This is important because once immigrants enter the U.S. they’re immediately confronted with the racial capitalism of the U.S. and the racial hierarchy where poor and working class blacks occupy the lowest rungs of the ladder. Due to their legal status and ethnicity/nationality/race, immigrants are in competition with poor and working class black U.S. “citizens”. This continues to be an obstacle for developing solidarity and bridging the black-brown (for lack of a better term) divide. The BLM movements can help do this by highlighting the real contradictions that exist amongst some (possibly many?) immigrant concerning racism, in particular anti-black racism. In turn, increasing solidarity amongst black and immigrants, especially poc immigrants, can help insure that some of the more chauvinistic and nationalist orientations within the movement struggling for black liberation are rendered obsolete, and superceded by an internationalist position.

The struggles around education should be part of the BLM movement. The issue of charter schools/defunding public ed, the school policing and disproportionate ways in which black students are meted out disciplinary punishments, and the eurocentric and white supremacist curriculum of most schools are just some issue that the BLM movement could be taking on as part of the struggle for Black Liberation. At the higher ed level there’s also issues, and here it seems like BLM is more present, with many of the movements participants being of college age.The struggles at the university level present certain challenges because of the entrenched liberalism present in those institutions. This is quite often reflected in the pervasiveness of bourgeois, identitarian politics amongst students, radical or otherwise, organizing on college campuses today; and which often make representation and accommodation a central component of their struggle, rather than say organizing along to seize and expropriate such institutions.

The prisons are an obvious one for BLM organizing. Prison abolition should be the de facto position of the movement. Recently, there seems to be more organizing going on inside the prison walls. This is a very positive development. More links need to be built with those organizing on the inside.

Are there any struggles around the world that you think resonate with the struggle for black liberation in the U.S? Which, and why?

The Kurdish led “Rojava Revolution” in northern Syria is an interesting development in an otherwise bleak situation. The Kurds are an oppressed minority in several countries, and have been fighting for their rights and even existence for generations. The recent political turn in organizations such as the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and its Syrian counterparts the TEV-DEM, PYD, YPG, and YPJ away from an authoritarian cult of personality and towards “Social Anarchism” is a positive development. Their tenacity and fierce independence from all the varying vested interests that have exacerbated the Syrian civil war is a lesson for movements all over the world. Not that we all should immediately take up armed struggle, but rather that we should take a long, hard look at our material conditions and our organizations to see if we are really operating as effectively as we could; or are we just repeating the forms of struggle from a previous generation? How are we being innovative, dynamic, and projecting a sense that we can actually win?

It would be interesting to have an exchange between organizers in the BLM movement here and social movements in Rojava and Palestine. This sort of thing already exists for Palestine, though largely geared towards college students. Despite the many impediments to such an exchange program (money, travelling to a war zone, etc) it would benefit US based organizers to see a social movement that is winning not just territory but also remaking society. This is all speculation, but it seems that Rojava needs aid, and not just in the form of weapons and troops; while those of us here need to be able to see and experience what real victory looks like and will take to accomplish.

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?

The best defense against right wing extremists is to build deep connections to the masses. They can provide things like political cover and safe houses to movements and organizations. As for armed defense of protests and movement meetings and places, it can be useful and necessary at times but must not be main focus of organizing efforts. When used, it must be in service of a broader plan. It would be a mistake to jump the gun without laying the organizing base which can support that escalation and the repression which will likely follow it. The main enemy we face now is the State, through its organizations like the police and prison system, not the extra-parliamentary right, for now. Police and prisons are much more dangerous to Black people than the current KKK or militias and wield infinitely greater power in our society.