There was little about the Baltimore uprising, following the funeral of the murdered Freddie Gray, that surprised me. Tensions had been building ever since word broke that he had died after his spine was severed while in police custody. It was not just that this atrocity had taken place under the most suspicious of circumstances, but that the city government appeared nothing short of anemic in its response.
It did not surprise me that Black youth took to the streets in rage or that there were opportunists within the mobs that took advantage of the strife in order to carry out thefts. It was a riot or uprising. It was not an insurrection and it had neither an ideology nor coherent leadership.
What I found most noteworthy in recent events is something that received limited coverage: the fact that there were organized groupings of men and women who were actively working to redirect the anger of the youth away from the destruction of their neighborhoods. The Nation of Islam, for instance, deployed its members to walk the streets, speak with the youth, and attempt to dissuade them from violence. The NOI was not alone. There were other groups, including gangs as well as ad hoc community groups that set out to both protest the police killing of Freddie Gray but also to try to convince the young rebels that there needed to be a different path.
Much of the political Left has paid little attention to this work. To some extent we glamorize rebellions, in part because we recognize the legitimacy of the rage, as is the case in circumstances like Ferguson, Missouri or, now, Baltimore, Maryland. Yet there is a danger inherent in our responses in that we too often ignore the contradictory nature of riots/uprisings. We, on the Left, correctly react against those who write off the rebels as alleged “thugs” and “criminals.” However, when we stop there we are missing some critical issues.
Reacting with rage is very different from either self-defense or a planned insurrection (not that I am calling for the latter). In the 1960s, Black communities around the USA erupted in massive rebellions sparked by years of racist discrimination, police violence and a sense of the deprival of dignity on the part of the larger society. These uprisings were qualitatively different, however, than the “race riots” that took place in the early part of the 20th century (particularly 1917-1921), when African American communities were the victims of pogroms carried out by racist mobs set on destruction. African Americans frequently resisted such attacks, often with arms. These “race riots” were matters of an attack by one group against an entire community which, as a result, utilized whatever means necessary in order to defend itself.
An insurrection is aimed at either overthrowing an individual or regime and, in a best case scenario, bringing into existence a new system. It may start as a riot, but it gels into something very different, and that takes place when there is organization, leadership and vision.
Riots or unfocused uprisings express anger, rage and sometimes despair. As Martin Luther King so well noted, they represent the voice of those who are not being heard. This is so clear when one looks at Baltimore.
Baltimore is a classic example of a city that has been de-industrialized over the last forty years. This was a city with a thriving, and well-organized, working class that has witnessed nothing short of a large-scale devastation as industries relocated or shut-down entirely. As whites moved away into the suburbs, segregation came to be represented at a metropolitan level, i.e., a largely Black city surrounded by white suburbs.
Yet the situation does not end with race. The de-industrialization of Baltimore has brought with it increased poverty. The ground zero of the recent rebellion is an area with an unemployment level of at least 30% and with an average income of $17,000/year. Yet this poverty is something that one will not necessarily see on a visit to Baltimore because the renovation of the city has created zones of glitter, particularly around the harbor and the sports stadiums. You can go there as a tourist and have no sense that within a short distance you will witness the deadly results of reorganized, late 20th century capitalism.
Those who have engaged in these rebellions live a life dramatically different from those who have escaped to the suburbs. Encounters with the police—black and white police—do not endear them to the system, a system that presumes their guilt even before a crime has been committed. Thus, it should not have surprised anyone that violence would occur. If anything the surprise should have been that it did not occur earlier.
The challenge for those of us on the political Left is to get beyond reporting on the acts of rage or, worse, glamorizing the violence. I think that it is worth paying attention to those, such as the Nation of Islam, that spent time in the streets speaking with the youth. It is worth paying attention to the community leaders—leaders with a small “l” I would note—who have followings but are often unacknowledged. In looking at these and other groups what should emerge for us is a discussion about strategy and organization.
People will lash out in fury when they feel that the situation is hopeless. In the absence of a clear vision or direction in which to channel one’s anger, any direction becomes the direction. Yet this is not what makes a political movement. The energy and direction of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, however, can be at the core of a new racial justice movement, one that actually can—and I would argue must—unite race, class and gender as part of a thrust for social transformation.
Essential for us on the political Left, especially but not limited to the Black Left, is to engage in that discussion about strategy. Strategy is not planning out this or that demonstration but it involves thinking through the ‘hows’ of building a movement and the direction or objectives of such a movement. And strategy is irrelevant if it is not connected to the process of building or, in some cases, rebuilding organizations that are instruments of liberation.
It is not enough for us, on the Left, to comment favorably on the right of oppressed and repressed people to rebel. It is not enough for us to validate the rage that took a very destructive form. Rather, we must support those, like the Nation of Islam, the gangs that engaged in a truce in order to redirect the rage, and the ad hoc organizations that wanted to preserve their communities, all of who are part of a larger movement for justice for Freddie Gray. These efforts need to be brought together as part of the building of a broad united front for justice and power, a movement that in addition to protesting atrocities is guided by a sense of hope and a vision of a new day.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the host of The Global African on Telesur-English. He is a racial justice, labor and global justice writer and activist. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.
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