The following piece by Jocelyn Cohn and James Frey was recently published by Unity and Struggle, in response to Will’s account of events in East Flatbush in “The Rebellion Contained: The Empire Strikes Back”.
This past Thursday in Flatbush Brooklyn we witnessed the events which Will describes in his excellent piece, and find his account to be consistent and the analysis superb. We have a few assorted thoughts to add and will try not to overlap Will’s account. Our piece assumes familiarity’s with Will’s, and the latter should be read first.
First, although this is absolutely implicit in Will’s piece, we wanted to point out that the activities of FAITH (Fathers Alive In The Hood) and Williams were the result of the loss of the ideological battle by Williams and by the peace-loving non-profits in general. Because Williams so clearly lost the ideological battle against anti-cop militancy, he had to resort to physical force, distraction, and intimidation to disrupt the activity–and still he was not successful in getting people to stop marching. Since they were defeated in the ideological battle, FAITH and Williams used their enormous bodies, bull horns, and aggression to literally drown out the voices of anti-cop militants, primarily women. FAITH aggressively tried to get people to stop the march to the precinct and literally commanded people to get into the church. Jumaane and FAITH were there to give the white media something to cling to, NOT to support the black militants and everyday people who are pursuing freedom.
This somewhat successful use of tactical force seems like a defeat for us but really it is a victory. Finally the non profits and politicians cannot hide their structural role and their relationship to the cops. Jumaane Williams had to resort to using physical force to try to stop people from fighting the cops. He has forever showed his role, and the hope is the antagonism between politicians/non profits and the working class has shown itself strongly enough to spread to other arenas of struggle. As Will so eloquently said, the enemy is bigger than the NYPD.
What this belies is a much larger break with the forms of organization that have held back militant political activity, especially among black and brown militants, for the last few decades. There is an emerging coalition around this issue and general anti-NYPD and hopefully anti-capitalist themes, with which many of our comrades desire to link up. How last night played out is forcing us to confront our obvious deficiencies in organizing, and our more general racial homogeneity. Many were frustrated by this experience because of the obstacles it presented, but these obstacles of course didn’t arise last week, and they point to concrete tasks facing NYC revolutionaries.
Though by no means a monolithic white crowd, the anarchists/communists Will describes were very much “the white people”. This is due in part to the severe segregation in Southeast Brooklyn, under which any white faces are very remarkable. By the time the story was written on the event’s Facebook page, all the non-black participants had just become “Occupy Wall St” and we were being lambasted for a variety of idiotic things said and done at Zuccotti Park. But it is also due to the literally centuries worth of work that has gone into creating the myth that the revolutionary class struggle and the black struggle are divergent.
Despite the numbers of both black and non-black revolutionaries who have made it their work to undo this myth and to instead reveal the intrinsic nature of the class struggle and struggle against white supremacy, the history and remnants of slavery and Jim Crow; the institutionalism of radicalism in the mostly white and white-washed university; the billions of dollars spent on incarceration and harassment of mostly black and immigrant men; and the enormous pressure to work several jobs AND work at home for black, latina, asian, and poor white women has done much to serve the still present divide. On top of the institutional forces that attempt to create a separation between the struggle against white supremacy, the struggle against patriarchy, and the struggle against capitalism, these objective elements of the capitalist state take on subjective and interpersonal expressions, which make unity and class-wide struggle all the more difficult and at times downright awkward.
Along these lines, Will’s denunciation of Sgt Thomas and FAITH is spot on and much-deserved. One important element missing is a gender analysis. FAITH was spouting rhetoric akin to the Promise Keepers, smuggling patriarchy into a discussion of male responsibility. The way they engaged with women, including a prominent organizer of the event, was horrendously sexist and condescending. They had one woman, their “PR rep”, running around trying to talk to talk to women on their behalf, who they were silencing with a megaphone they alone were allowed to use. This was hidden under a discourse of who’s “from the neighborhood”.
Additionally, in a tantrum that seemed to be staged in advance, Sgt Thomas was incredibly physical with a small woman who allegedly yelled “kill the pigs” (which, if she even said it, she was hardly introducing this fantasy into anyone’s mind for the first time). When a white man came to her aid, Thomas instantly made it a racial issue, making for what you can imagine to be a very uncomfortable situation for white militants trying to walk softly but nonetheless intercede in a violent act against a woman comrade. The gender dynamic was completely obscured by the race-baiting discourse which Jumaane Williams had been setting in place all day regarding “outsiders”, and the aggressive men he brought in only reinforced this. This is the kind of thing we have to be more prepared for, uncomfortable though it may be.
Another issue we must point out, and which we feel is related to the minor success FAITH and Thomas had in distracting from political issues through race-baiting, is the casual homophobia and misogyny among organizers and participants. It was “faggot” this and “bitch” that, especially with regards to those who they most hated: the cops in general, but primarily Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (We find this objectionable for a number of reasons, never mind that of the two lines we heard, “Ray Kelly, you’re a racist, and your son is a rapist!” flows much more naturally than “Ray Kelly you’re a faggot and your son is a rapist!”)
We are not shocked or morally outraged to hear this kind of talk from young working class people of any color. However it represents a serious practical issue which the struggle has to face. Instead of being able to confront the patriarchy inherent in the city government and police, organizers passively contributed to this atmosphere. Instead of being able to call out FAITH for being patriarchal and very homophobic as well as heteronormative (their m.o. is preserving “family values” and the male head of household), organizers are left with only calling them out for being not militant enough. Non-profits such as FAITH are then able to strike back by saying “we’re from the neighborhood, these (both white and non-white anarchists/communists) are not (regardless of whether they are)”. A more powerful analysis, and also basis for bringing together the class, would be to show how patriarchy, white supremacy, the institution of the police, capitalism, and heteronormativity are in fact deeply connected.
We are not trying to simply be language police; the reality is equating the most hated individuals in the city with “faggots” in an otherwise militant speech itself can cause unnecessary division. Queer people and women, especially black and latinx, face intense police harassment based on gender and gender expression and furthermore have literally been leading the battle against the police not just in the last week, but historically. Therefore, the attitudes described above are not inherent to the working class but represent a division under capitalism which must be overcome in our praxis.
These are a few thoughts toward what will hopefully be a dialogue in the coming weeks. A few comrades are trying to set up a discussion forum about last night, and we’re reaching out to the organizers to engage on questions of strategy, ideology, finding common ground, etc. If you’re local and you’re interested, get in touch.
-Jocelyn Cohn and James Frey
Thanks for reposting. A couple editorial mistakes on my (JC’s) part. We had an additional paragraph, which we edited back into the post at GF but originally took out by oversight. it should be situated after the paragraph that ends with “downright awkward”:
“Finally, on a tactical level, this divide was also due in no small part to the fetishism of transparency, a definite hangover from Occupy, resulting in about two dozen cameras trained on the crowd at all times, including several live-streams. Some of the very same kids who had been engaging in street battles with the cops the previous night now found cameras pointed at them from every direction by ordinary people in the crowd. If they live in the projects or go to New York public schools, for example, surveillance is a constant and hostile experience, no doubt causing a markedly different association than the illusion of safety or civic responsibility that inspires white “citizen journalists” to stick cameras up in peoples faces when they’re about to break the law. This needs to be addressed.”
Furthermore, an earlier draft of comments included a discussion of the failure of the anarchists/communists on two fronts: first, to organize themselves internally, and second, to be able to make connections with those outside their immediate mileau. This lack of development led to a situation where approximately 30 people there knew each other well, but were unable to plan before hand to militate with the younger black militants, the black and latino independent organizers who had been on the ground for several days (and likely long before that). They(/we) were also unable to perform any kind of intervention among ourselves. This problematic certainly has its roots in the legacy of white supremacy and divisions in the class, but also in a rejection of revolutionary organization by those people who potentially have the strongest grasp on revolutionary concepts. The divide between theory and praxis in this case, and in many others, calls into question the usefulness of revolutionary theory and militancy that is divorced from practical organizing experience.
For the purposes of this post, we wanted to focus on the possibilities and limits of the emergent layer of black militants, especially since Will’s post commented well on the role (or lack of) of the “white” anarchists/communists who were at the Kimani Gray actions. We hope to discuss and think about the limits as well as possibilities of the (relatively) established far left in NYC as well in the future.
More Thoughts on Gangs, Rebellions, Babies, and Revolution
Here are some more fragmentary thoughts on the rebellion. They are a little repetitive but get at different dimensions to many similar discussions happening in Flatbush and on the internet.
1. It does not matter if Kimani Gray was Blood or had a gun. The attempt by activists to constantly portray every person killed by a cop as an angel only fuels the right-wing and undercuts more fundamental arguments against the state, police, and racialism.
Would our position change if Kimani was actually trying to kill an officer and was shot in the process. Just like we are against capital destroying unions, we are against the police destroying gangs. We are for the working class resolving these situations however difficult.
2. The defensive nature of violence is usually acceptable in most people who have figured out this society is bullshit. However, the offensive stance on violence is much harder to come by. I have not heard this position put forward to date. Should we justify offensive violence? This is a major problem.
Those who argue that we are living under conditions of war, while problematic, are also onto something. If you know you are under war, you do not always wait for your enemy to make the first move, hence all the defensive union struggles in the USA so far. It is capital which makes the first move and the unionized workers who react on the terms of capital. The strategy for decades has been that the defensive struggle will turn into an offensive struggle. Unfortunately we are still waiting.
Obviously I am not trying to underplay the difficulty of discussing this. Most people with families–working class or not–would be horrified at an offensive argument of violence as far as I can tell.
Nor am I interested in fueling adventuristic discussions of promoting killing a,b,c, or d. That is not part of our politics. Instead mass struggle and intervention by the masses are with violence being a necessary component.
3. There is the question of the fears and concerns of the working class layers which have to deal with violence, drugs, etc in their communities. That is very real and immediate to peoples’ lives. Revolutionaries need serious discussions about this as well. This can dynamic is one of the reasons which internal divisions occur between many of the young people and the class. Often it is theorized as the lumpen versus the proletariat. There is some truth in this, but also limitations.
4. Without having all the facts, it is worth taking seriously that the rebellion might have occurred precisely because Kimani was in a gang. There was enough organization which provided for the basis for conversations, planning, and action to take in a coordinated manner.
5. It is being said that these militants are babies and the rebellions is needlessly sending them to jail. These young people will be stopped and frisked and carted off to jail for meaningless shit in the upcoming years in their life. At least now, they can say they went to jail with some larger purpose. A rebellion against injustice. There is nothing wrong about that. Instead of debating amongst the left of whether this is good or bad, we should be showering these young people with flowers and bail money.
6. It is claimed that the rebellion was not organized and the young people were not ready. Clearly the young people did not feel this way. Nor is the lack of organization clear. It is very possible that the different sets, street families, gangs etc planned for the rebellion and that it was organized. I do not know, but why isn’t that a possibility.
7. The justification of the rebellion is that the protestors were attacked by the NYPD and that set it off. Similar to point number 5, why couldn’t it be possible that it was planned all along and the rebellion happened regardless of police provocation. That also undercuts the argument that these kids are not ready or not organized. Again, I am not turning this into fact, but just pointing out alternative readings of the situation.
Also pointing out how one set of arguments: lack of organization= not serious= putting young high schoolers at risk= do not rebel. Why not they were organized, were serious, and were willing to take the risk, and should rebel.
8. Even if the rebellion is by young high school kids who are putting their future at risk….This exposes the myth and limits of what society imagines childhood is for young people. If these young high schoolers are put through shit like failing public education, stop and frisk, and shootings by cops, aren’t they old enough to break the law. On what terms and conditions should these young people rebel considering the cops are killing them?
This is one of the problems of society and even the progressive left. To be able to take your life into your own hands you have to be how old? I guess according to these people 18? Maybe 21? Obviously this line of thinking is ridiculous.
Maybe we should put an age limit to when you can rebel… hmm about 55, what is the age you get social security? There is no limit to how ridiculous these discussions can get.
9. Even if the rebellion was unorganized so what? Many great events in history have been unorganized, but led to great changes in society.
While there are obvious limits to spontaneous rebellions, we should be prepared for many more in the U.S. Considering the poor state of the revolutionary left, spontaneous rebellions will probably occur, against the wishes of the revolutionary left. Only through hundreds of such rebellions will a new revolutionary left be forged, will young militants be willing to pick up Rosa Luxemburg or Frantz Fanon, and develop more serious revolutionary organization, and of course plan more coordinate rebellions.
Some see unorganized rebellion as a blockage to change. This reveals their reformist characteristics. Rebellions will open the door to the possibilities of revolution and revolutionary organization not the other way around–at least in this period.
10. At best the politics of the young Black militants were against the police and worst they were only against the killing of Kimani Grey. Much of my own writing did not address this and there needs to be lots of thought put into what these young militants were thinking and saying.
11. A common argument by many is that rebellions put women and children at risk. I am going to address the line of argument focusing on women. The lumping of women and children as a whole is one set of problems. As if they were the same category. Why not lump in men and children? Cats and children? Cactus and men? It is a lumping together that symbolizes they need to be protected by men because they are helpless and weak. That somehow the act of rebellion might jeopardize their innocence.
Women are at risk by a million forces every single day. Don’t they have reasons to rebel? If they choose to participate in a rebellion then that is their own set of choices/ agency. Regardless of the lumping of the two groups together, the idea that rebellion endangers women, is fundamentally a patriarchal position. Rebellion is the only chance of ending the patriarchal conditions of existence.
There is no doubt getting arrested might mean getting groped by officers, humiliated as a women, and much worse. These are risks women face everyday in our society. Isn’t taking these risks in the fight for freedom, better then taking the chance of randomly by assaulted by a cop on a given day?
Victory to the brave,
I find much to unite with in both these reports/analyses. Jocelyn & James I really appreciate your discussion of how “faggot” was being thrown around. The first night I saw, Fatimah Shakur made a really inspiring speech concluding by denouncing the mayor and the NYPD as faggots. As a faggot myself, I understood her anger as much as I winced at these words. It would be interesting to approach her now, a week later, and see if the experience of protesting with all these different folks has had any effect on this part of her analysis.
Will, thanks for the bit on whether it doesn’t matter if Kimani Gray was an angel, and for your suggestion that indeed the rebellion is related to the forms of organization some of these kids already have.
Finally, I wrote a general overall portrait of the past week for Kasama.
Thanks Will and ISH for very thoughtful remarks.
One of the most promising aspects of the discussion so far (outside the reactionary media and Internet trolls, who I think always get disproportionate importance assigned to them) is the relative lack of concern over whether Kimani had the gun or not. There are plenty of folks saying he didn’t, and I really don’t know whether he did or whether any young kid would carry around a goofy six shooter without getting made fun of by their friends enough to get a cool looking gun. The important part is that this discussion is increasingly in the background.
There’s a great essay in the Lies journal called “Against Innocence” about the fetishization of “innocence” (relating to Trayvon Martin and others) and how it tacitly endorses police murder of non-innocents. I showed up to Flatbush with my head full of this essay but didn’t really see this narrative playing at all. The youth just seemed mad that the police shot their friend, period. The angry mothers were bemoaning the structural situation their children found themselves in more eloquently than the hackneyed press coverage. His innocence was only on the table for the reactionaries like FAITH. “Against innocence” should be our position. In a bumbling exchange on my part, I tried to start a conversation with a kid from the block, asking if the cops “picked a fight with [you]” and called it a riot. He got angry at me and said “fuck that we went at them!” I felt like a fool but I needed reminding of something I supposedly understood so well.
It seems like much of what we think and say is determined by the need to not feed racists who will be racist with or without us. Jumaanee Williams is getting trolled on the Internet and in the racist newspapers by representatives of the system he’s defending, people who he works so hard to make peace with, and they hate him more than we ever could. I think that should be a lesson for us. These are of course uncomfortable points, as Will identifies, but they seems to be more uncomfortable for us than for the kids going at the cops.
The gang question is equally touchy (for us at least, and that’s important to keep in mind) because its implicit that acknowledging that this mysterious vanguard may in fact be a youth gang (which as we know could really just mean friends who have each others back and also happen to be poor men of color) would be to cede to the reactionary press that Kimani somehow had it coming. Will correctly points to the need to supersede this distinction. So what if he was in a fucking gang, more young kids should be organizing themselves for mutual assistance, self-defense, and fighting their enemies. The problem arises when these enemies become other poor kids from different blocks, not the fact that they exist at all.
In another anecdote (sorry), I heard about a white woman who yelled at a group of black men chanting “fuck the police” to “check your privilege”. Between this and the “outside agitator” label being applied to anyone who steps out of line, I think there’s a more interesting point than mere glaring hypocrisy of the reformist left. When a young man of color in a poor neighborhood takes his material conditions into his own hands, even if its just to throw a bottle at the pigs, he is “outside” the entire liberal narrative of urban poverty, in which young people are hopelessly degraded so as to require the guiding hand of non-profits, politicians, educators, so forth. These young men and women were truly outside the paradigm. Sorry if this is just wack theoretical pontificating but I think there’s a point in there. The same goes for “check your privilege”. According to this narrative, which I’ve heard a million times in the last few years, anyone desiring militant confrontation with the police, or who doesn’t denounce property damage, or reads revolutionary theory, or doesn’t want to eat out of the hand of our liberal caretakers and mediators is “privileged”. The idea being that the downtrodden of society are so radically degraded that any spark of agency or self-activity on their part must be the result of high-falutin’ ideas trickling down from the upper classes, who are actually entitled to self-activity by their social position. This is the real “reverse-racism”, to attempt a to reappropriate an idiotic phrase, and it emanates primarily from the white bourgeois left but also the self-appointed guardians of communities of color.
It also raises the question of who is able to take their lives into their own hands, which let’s face it, is a reality of fighting the police in any context. The horror of liberals that anyone would want to risk this reveals a complete blindness to the fact that many of these kids risk as much just walking down the street, like Kimani Gray, and to risk their life by taking it into their own hands against the pigs might actually be preferable to risking it passively in mundane daily activity.
A few more points for a great discussion.
Very interesting version of what happened. If I am the elected that is now the problem. Then there’s no elected who can help, and that’s terrible. In any case keep fighting for justice though
I just read about the Kimani Gray riots. Apparently revolution is on the brink of happening as “the community” “rises up” in rage. I fail to see how attacking policemen brings about any substantive change. The case is not clear-cut. The boy had obvious gang ties, documented on YouTube. Seems to me that the problem is a lot more complex than calling out cops. The black community needs healing as well, something that is not even being hinted at by the media. It’s not a black-white issue. Anybody who spends time in the hood who’s FROM the hood knows that young black men are involved in the criminal underworld at an unusual rate. Considering this, is it any surprise that they are being arrested and “harassed” at a greater rate? I mean, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe young white male New Yorkers are just as criminal as black ones.
But it’s not like this guy was wearing a business suit and coming from his internship at Morgan Stanley. If he had been, it would have been the kids from the ‘hood beating him up and not the cops. I know kids in this situation. Activist paternalism shows virtually no acknowledgement of these facts. I don’t even think these people know what they’re fighting for, other than the “powerless” “victims” of East Flatbush who don’t know enough to stand up for their rights. The protests seem to be composed of these arrogant and paternalistic “freedom fighters,” people who have suffered from police brutality or know people who have and are TRUE victims, and rowdy teenagers who are angry about their lot in general and like to break shit. Obviously, things need to change; these teenagers have a lot to be angry about. But how about starting by creating intensive academic and mentoring programs and offering college scholarships or venture capital? Or even by taking the initiative to start an after-school program for these “at-risk” youth? What good do these riots do, other than to exacerbate tensions and possibly make superficial surface changes in police procedure that do nothing to solve the true tensions in the hood?
I hate it when people who are not from the hood try to make changes from outside the hood. Do you know what it’s like to get soda dumped into your lap because you “sucked up” to your English teacher? Do you know what it’s like to be ostracized because you are CRAZY enough to try to make it to college, and then have to drop out because the support system’s not there? Do you know what it’s like to be called “fake” because you use words over 2 syllables and wear work pants? You people are insane. There’s a reason East Flatbush residents aren’t responding to your “rhetoric.” It’s because it’s condescending. You activists have it “together,” and we simple black folk have to try to raise our consciousness to your level. No, actually, we’re smarter than you ever imagined. We know it’s gonna take more than glib theories and some broad, sweeping “political revolution” to heal our society. No, we have to heal it from the inside out. We’re all in this together, the cops and the thugs, the nerds and the jocks. Nobody in Flatbush wants to demonize the cops… nobody over 19, anyway. The entire situation is f***** up, from start to finish, from top to bottom. Your naïve revolutionary ideas of holding up “the man” as a straw man, the personification of everything that’s evil and of everything that’s wrong with society, is a trick we see right through. We have to live with the thugs and the criminals every day. Maybe you should try to learn from us.