Was electing black faces to high places really the ultimate goal of the black freedom movement? If not, then what is?
On February 23 2018, a forum will be held in Newark, NJ under the banner “The Progress Continues: Newark Forward.” Special guest speakers will be Mayor Ras J. Baraka of Newark, New Jersey and Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi. They will be speaking at the Robert Treat Hotel, 50 Park Place, Newark, New Jersey. Suggested donation is $50. The gathering is paid for by the committee to re-elect Ras Baraka mayor.
In an otherwise red, black, and green color scheme, the poster advertising these events has Amiri Baraka and Chokwe Lumumba Sr., the long-time Pan African and socialist activists, prominently displayed in the shadows -- as well as the American flag. As the current mayors invoke their fathers, they invite us to question whether they are being true to those fathers. They don’t have to promote themselves in this way. But since they choose to, we must ask how the Black freedom movement of the past became a mere brand for the mediocre politics of the present?
Actually, long before Mayor Baraka and Mayor Lumumba came to power, African American politics across the US have functioned in this hollow manner.
Friends who plan on attending this meeting have asked: are there some critical questions we may offer these African American mayors who continue to claim the liberation heritage while not disturbing the lords of capital and empire? Here are several:
Both Amiri Baraka and Chokwe Lumumba Sr. were concerned with police brutality and murder, mass incarceration, and political prisoners. Are there any current political prisoners or victims of police brutality in Newark and Jackson under the administrations of Mayors Baraka and Lumumba? Are police shootings and allegations of misconduct investigated by any independent authority apart from regular prosecutors?
Both Amiri Baraka and Chokwe Lumumba Sr. were concerned about neo-colonialism, Black led governments with the trappings of independence but controlled by multi-national corporations. Most US political campaigns are funded by wealthy donors who expect to influence candidates and officials. Do either of the mayors have a policy on taking money from Big Business or those representing corporate interests? Do these mayors impose upon themselves a maximum amount that wealthy donors can give? If they fail to take even these modest measures to insulate themselves, are they not neo-colonial governments?
Amiri Baraka and Chokwe Lumumba spoke a lot about “self-determination” for Black communities. But in the circumstance of their sons’ support for capitalism, and for insanely rising military budgets to maintain a global empire, the functions of government like health, education, housing and social security which ordinary people depend are starved. And in the contexts of increasing privatization of water, roads and other vital infrastructure, along with the legal obligation of cities to pay debts before meeting people’s needs, what’s left for everyday people to determine? Both mayors are Democrats. Does “self-determination” only mean getting out the Black vote for the Democratic Party even where they perpetually exploit us?
In Jackson there’s been talk of awarding more city contracts to African Americans. In Newark, the government has been associated with centering and developing high school drop outs and the unemployed for a time. If democracy means “majority rule” how are their administrations above society preparing ordinary Black people to govern? Is finding Black people contracts or jobs the same thing as Black people governing?
When both mayors speak of “forward” and “the progress continues” do they mean to imply that their governments are the fruits of the struggles of the civil rights movement that fought for equality? Is there equal justice under the law and capital in their cities? Or do they mean to imply that their governments are an improvement on the achievements of President Obama? If, so what were Barack Obama’s achievements besides being “black?”
Both Amiri Baraka and Chokwe Lumumba were associated with the urban rebellions against police brutality from 1964-1968 in Los Angeles, Detroit, Cleveland, Harlem, Newark, Chicago, and Washington, DC? Do the present mayors support the uprisings against police brutality like those which occurred in Ferguson and Baltimore? In the event of an incident of police brutality and murder should ordinary Black people rise up and fight the police in the streets in Jackson and Newark today while they are mayor?
Given the difficulty of being elected mayor, and maintaining one’s standing in a pro-imperialist Democratic party while a declared opponent of empire, both mayors – and even the elder Chokwe Lumumba – have minimized their opposition to empire to get elected. The poster for this event plays up identification with the American flag in a time where American youth are questioning their allegiance to what the flag represents. Is this not supporting American empire? Is it not a most peculiar stance for a socialist or a Pan Africanist?
Both Ras Baraka and Chokwe Lumumba have claimed to be “socialists” and “radicals.” Yet they have also promoted capitalist development and declared that investors can become wealthy in their cities. Is the disposition of these mayors a contradiction in terms?
These are eight questions. We ought to expect that one or both mayors can respond convincingly, at least for some in the audience, to aspects of these questions. Our last questions should be of a follow up nature that anticipate this.
Mayor Baraka and Mayor Lumumba might say that there can be no self-determination without capital accumulation, that any means “the Black nation” can achieve capital accumulation is a good transitional way to enhance Black sovereignty.
They might say that both are supporters of human rights of all oppressed peoples all over the world as defined by the U.N. and international law.
The mayors might also explain that “new democracy” must develop a culture of liberation even as it builds a united front against white supremacy and fascism. They might add that there are contradictions among the people and this includes the necessity for a tentative alliance with progressive and reactionary economic and state forces until our people can secure more power, that in this period our people do not have the consciousness and organization for an insurgent war of liberation.
Mayor Baraka and Mayor Lumumba could say just because Kwame Nkrumah, V.I. Lenin, and Mao Tse Tung’s critiqued finance capital and neo-colonialism didn’t mean they didn’t support the development of capitalism in their own nations. They would be historically correct here, if opportunist, in saying so.
This should remind us that almost all the contemporary critiques of neo-liberalism are also pro-capitalist and that we shouldn’t speak of radical traditions loosely or without uncritical examination of them. We should be alert that many cling to aspects of radicalism of the past that can justify conservatism in the present.
If this next generation of Black mayors say such ambiguous and mediocre things we should be aware that this can be a recycling of the ideological and programmatic stances that have been expressed among the Pan African Left for over forty years. That this disposition is what paved the way for Black radicals like Amiri Baraka and Chokwe Lumumba to defend the electoral campaigns of Barack Obama, an agent of capitalism, empire, and the police state.
So the best follow up responses might sound something like this:
Is there not something wrong with a conception of self-determination and the
Black nation that strives for capital accumulation in a manner that doesn’t disturb white supremacy and empire (by this we mean half the ruling class as embodied in the Democratic Party)?
Even where a small section of the ruling class, that promotes extreme Anglo-Americanism, attacks Black professionals and Black business people, it doesn’t mean our anti-fascist responses should be to speak about the limited consciousness of Black working people and youth. Anti-fascism should be organized to destabilize capitalism and state power not in a manner that rallies around the capitalist state and half the ruling class, even where its representatives are Black.
Isn’t it about time we separate our discussion of human liberation from the UN,
international law, and the State Department? Black internationalism unites people of
color in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and North America to overthrow hierarchy and domination – it is best understood as a projection of the working people of color whom emancipate themselves not governments above society.
Instead “self-determination” is being used as a veil for the neo-colonial Black elite and their police states to have a united front with capital.
There can be no Black radical analysis in 2018 that doesn’t take inventory of the crimes of the Black led state. The analysis that said every 28 or 36 hours a Black person is killed by the police and “Black lives matter” did not do that. The Baltimore rebellion instinctively corrected this shortcoming. A similar rebellion in Mayor Baraka’s Newark or Mayor Lumumba’s Jackson also can clarify this.
If we wish to labor under the assumption that when Black people are elected to state power, Black people really don’t control the state in normative terms, like white people in state power, then we should stop participating in electoral politics and build maroon communities outside state power. There are few signs of a desire to do this. As a result, those that do not desire this continue to defend middle class evasions of principle.
It’s about time we discard old and stale formulations of democracy that are not democratic. Democracy has two contradictory meanings today: the justification of states and ruling classes through periodic elections versus a tradition of revolutionary popular liberation and direct self-government.
We should be promoting that the Black working classes and unemployed, Black mothers and care-givers, in their cooperatives, workplace councils, and popular assemblies, and armed for self-defense, should be forming their own governments and liberated zones in urban communities where they are the overwhelming majority. Counter-planning should come from the commons and the kitchen not from professional economists and non-profit foundations.
Finally, we might think about this. It is a difficult project to cultivate the popular will toward self-government. We shouldn’t tell lies or claim easy victories. Still there have been some lies and easy victories in recent years asserted. And this poster, advertising these Black mayors’ forum, should remind us that speaking against easy victories is difficult because it conflicts with the desire to defend joining the capitalist ruling class in the name of building “a nation within a nation.”
These lies and easy victories are a product of a false idea of provisional government in Black politics. If some assume they are the ruling class of their community before ordinary people form their own popular government, choose their own programs, and then their own leaders, then Black Power is conceived as staying in front of the people, even a people said by their own “radical” leaders to be degraded by their limited consciousness and scars of bondage, and with whom not much can be done.
Unless and until we redefine “community” to give primacy to ordinary working class and unemployed black people, “Black community control” can become nothing more than joining in the disciplining of ordinary people in collaboration with capital and empire. Those who see themselves as the provisional government can and will make themselves the minority that rules above that community no matter the conditions of democracy or holding power.
The anti-racist project cannot stand with the Black mayors of Baltimore, Newark, and Jackson and then rise up to tear down their state in an insurgent moment when invariably the police brutalize and murder ordinary Black people. It is true that people overcome past mistaken ideas as they move to rebel, but organizers that label mediocre and ambiguous regimes “progress” are obstacles to doing so. Seen this way, mayoral administrations like those in Jackson and Newark are frequently not consolidating “people’s power” but rather capitalist and state power – black faces in high places.
There are aspects of the Black radical tradition that remind us of insurgent strategies. But the truth is there are aspects that enable us to tell lies and claim easy victories also. Claiming easy victories, and confusing them with patriotic symbolism referring both to “a Black nation” and the US global empire, helps cultivate docile and subservient subjects. The whole post-independence heritage of the African world warns us against such servility. The experience of the Age of Obama should have revealed this deadly mediocrity. The experience of the coming Black uprisings against Mayor Baraka’s and Mayor Lumumba’s police states will truly be a step forward.
Matthew Quest is a scholar of the legacies of C.L.R. James. See his essay on James and the history of the Haitian Revolution in The Black Jacobins Reader.