Below is a critique of a recent anti-police march held in the South Bronx and Harlem; written by FNT members Madeleine and Nat Winn.
By Madeleine and Nat Winn
Last Sunday just over 100 activists gathered in the South Bronx to participate in an anti-police brutality march that eventually crossed over into Manhattan and later ended on 125th street in Harlem. We were told that this march, which was organized mainly by the The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), was supposed to be a more militant alternative to Al Sharpton’s “silent march” through Manhattan’s East Side last fall.
However, while #F23 (the hashtag for the event) certainly was a step up in the energy displayed at Al Sharpton’s silent march last summer, it lacked the energy and spontaneous anger displayed at the 2011 Troy Davis march and last year’s million hoodie march in downtown Manhattan. It also fell short of the militancy and organic community leadership that were displayed in smaller marches in response to the police beating of Jateik Reid and the police murder of Reynaldo Cuevas – both of which occurred in the Bronx.
We believe the lack of energy and community response present in #F23 is due to a number of factors, some of which have to do with the actual organization of the march itself and others to do with critical questions of the role of revolutionaries during the crucial time between marches.
Below we hope to address some of these limitations, not as an attack against PSL or any of the organizers, but rather as a way to engage with the limitations of strategies and tactics currently being employed by the anti-police brutality movement in New York City.
As serious organizers and revolutionaries in New York City ourselves, we also believe that more critical discussion must take place inside the left and we hope that debates like this will continue to spark critical and constructive activity that can help us move our struggle beyond its current confines and towards a viable revolutionary movement.
1) Organization is important but so too is spontaneity
Though organization is something that is clearly lacking in much of New York’s left, #F23 displayed how excessive organization can limit the potential for action. This was most evident in #F23 by the pre-assigned list of speakers and chant leaders as well as the abundance of march “security” – all of which effectively kept organic leadership and anger from fully expressing itself.
During the march the majority of chants were routine activist chants dominated by march leaders and even the more militant ones were esoteric and did not resonate with the people and communities we seek to organize. In other words, the rally and march did not provide any real platform for non-activists.
Marchers were forced to walk speedily through the streets so as not to inconvenience traffic and anger cops that had caravaned along the march route. The obedience of the march kept participants constantly on the defensive from police who were essentially escorting us through the streets of Harlem – hardly a display of power.
This attempt to keep protests obedient is not something unique to #F23. The numerous marches around the police murder of Ramarley Graham in the North Bronx have also displayed similar limitations. Much of this comes not from the police themselves but rather by protest security, which is in many cases provided by nonprofit organizers and volunteers. Organizers claim that security is a way to protect marchers from the police and respect the wishes of the families of victims of police violence. As a result, marchers are often kept in small quarters with their language censored and are led through the streets like cattle.
The lack of spontaneity in these cases creates a barrier between community members and the marchers – an “us” and “them” dynamic. This played out in many marches in the North Bronx where community members, many of whom were young men and victims of police violence themselves, would watch from afar with little excitement as activists marched through their neighborhood. By effectively censoring the righteous anger of the communities and watering down marches for respectability we end up setting barriers between ourselves and those who would be the most militant fighters for liberation.
2) #Community Control? Where was the community?
Of the 100 or so people that attended #F23, we would estimate that over 90% were activists, most of whom had traveled in from around the city. We believe this speaks to the larger issue of not having a base within the community – an unfortunate problem that is evident in much of New York City’s left scene.
The lack of community members from the Bronx and Harlem may have come as a surprise to march organizers who had spent weeks (if not months) outreaching for this event. Yet as people who have attempted sustained neighborhood level work, we know that it is not enough to promote an event in a community for people to come out in numbers.
If revolutionaries are going to dig deep roots into an area like the South Bronx, they must start to create living connections with members of the neighborhood that go beyond isolated marches. Nonprofits, churchgoers, politicians are consistently outreaching in communities – what makes us different? Having the right message is not enough. We must also prove ourselves through our commitment.
3) What type of movement are we building?
There is a fundamental question about organizing here. There are many small groups of revolutionaries in New York that are able to get two or three people to join them and become really committed activists. Often there is a high turnover of idealistic youth coming into organizations that become discouraged with the inability of radicals to connect outside of their own milieus.
There is a problem with recruiting people in twos and threes, winning over individuals who are already sympathetic to radical politics. There needs to be a strategy of connecting radical ideas to broad sections of people in communities and throughout society. We need to set free the radical youth drawn to our organizations, supporting them as leaders in their communities, revolutionary examples to those in their community who are not yet politicized or who don’t see any hope.
Too often, youth from poor communities get recruited into a radical organization and get encapsulated within it. Effectively these energetic and enthusiastic youth get severed from their hood. They are trained in such a way and have been brought into a culture that is isolated and introverted and they lose the ability to connect radical ideas with the people they grew up around. We need a culture that is open and accessible; one that is not afraid to be taught and transformed by the poor communities who must be the core of revolutionary change.
We need an approach that allows these youth, with their living connection to the hood, to serve as a link between radicals and the broader community. Our revolutionary organizations should not become ideological bubbles.
4) The struggle isn’t only against Stop and Frisk.
The current movement of activists pushing for legal reform of stop-and-frisk will undoubtedly end as every police reform in the last century has – with little to no change to the NYPD. Police officers will continue to brutalize black, brown and poor people, they will continue to unlawfully arrest activists and they will continue to dismiss our rights. In essence they will continue to play the same role they were created to do some 150 years ago. No political reform will change this.
The large anti-police brutality/nonprofit movement, which is backed with hundreds of thousands of dollars, is currently framing the critical discussion on policing in New York. By following the lead of such nonprofits, we have become stuck in the narrow framework of police reform and until we recognize the contradictions of such a movement, we cannot continue to move beyond. PSL attempted this by creating the “Stop the Cops” slogan but it failed to follow it up with a clear political line and strategy.
In order to move beyond the conventional marches and reformist campaigns that have marked New York City’s left scene for so long, we must begin to think creatively. This means that our marches and actions in general should actively try to create unscripted, spontaneous moments of participation, we should develop broad circles of relations in poor and oppressed communities and we must develop a platform against not only stop and frisk but also policing in general.
The people change society. The organizations we create and actions we organize must unleash their imagination, creativity, and initiative. Otherwise, our small political organizations and marches are nothing more than an abstract display – with little meaning to the people – who ultimately will make the revolution.