BAR Book Forum editor Roberto Sirvent and Julian Akil Rose discuss community organizing, Black Queer Feminism, the struggle for police and prison abolition, and an end to militarism.
Roberto Sirvent: Can you please share a little bit about your background, including how you became involved in community organizing?
Julian Akil Rose: Yeah, so I actually got my grounding in organizing for a few reasons, and to be honest the timeline isn’t 100% clear simply because so many things were happening at once. So, don’t read this as a timeline, these are the co-incident layers.
Layer One: when I arrived at UConn in 2012 there was a big class action lawsuit against the university for mishandling sexual assault cases…I believe it was 7 women that came forward.
Layer Two: I was invited to participate in a program called The Men’s Project – the goal of the Men’s Project is to train students who identify as men to positively influence their peers by challenging social norms that promote gender-based violence; understanding their connection to survivors of gender-based violence; and role modeling effective bystander interventions – permanently changed my life.
Layer Three: Lots of overtly racist shit happening at school and trying to find a good grounding community in responding to it.
Layer Four: I took a Women’s and Gender Studies course in 2013 (Gender and Sexuality in Everyday Life) – the instructor of record was a grad student whose research focused on the gendered experiences of Black women behind bars…and that grounded some of the course content.
Layer Five: I was hired as an intern by Teach For America in 2013 to spread awareness about educational inequity on campus. I was learning as I was conducting discussions and shit…about the intersections of every single issue as they situate themselves in public education.
Layer Six: Michael Brown was murdered by the police in 2014.
I share all that context because before I committed myself to organizing I had committed myself to feminism and ending gender-based violence, to interrogating gender itself. But, at the outset this was a very academic, heady, immaterial commitment and after Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of the police, this commitment became much more about struggle and sacrifice and resistance. The change was ignited in many ways by engaging with more Black radical organizers, and has evolved in that way since.
Skipping a bunch, I consider myself to be a Black Queer Feminist and abolitionist. Some of the folks I organize with would say radical Queer Black Feminist and I embrace that too. I want to credit Yolande Tomlinson and the Organization for Human Rights and Democracy for that re-framing. I’ve had to unlearn a lot of neoliberal bullshit to get where I am and I’m still in the process. I am professionally trained as a biomedical engineer actually…I’ve always had a curiosity about healing and regenerating tissue felt like a good way to go about that (lol). Other things I do…I make music, poems, I write a whole lot, I am an educator. I embrace all of the possibilities of my life.
You do a lot of work around police and prison abolition. Why do you find these struggles so important for Black liberation?
These struggles are critical for Black liberation – and this is clear to me because like…look at the primary targets of policing and prisons. Not only do police regularly disrupt the lives and safety of Black folk but they also steal our money (via municipal budgeting) and serve as agents of political repression. When politicians don’t intend to heed the demands of the people, who are their foot soldiers? That would be police. When government officials want to criminalize abortion who will they send? That would be police. It is the police mishandling and agitating issues of intracommunal violence, including sexual assault and domestic abuse, and offering no tangible benefits to Black people. They keep us in cycles of violence by offering violence alone as solutions to violence. It’s like adding fire to fire in order to stop it from burning people. And to make matters worse – they keep the Black community dependent upon them by telling everybody they’re necessary.
Why has giving the police more money not reduced the incidence of acts of harm? It is because giving police more money generates further harm by usurping the community of critically needed resources. Public wellness, community wellness, includes great education, access to opportunity, social safety nets, strong infrastructure, arts and culture, housing, transportation, healthy and safe physical environments, recreation and rest – but paying for policing and prisons takes money away from being able to create and maintain these solutions.
I haven’t even gotten into the pervasive human rights abuses the police and prisons unapologetically tell us that we need for safety. It’s ridiculous. They create unsafety and they damage the fabric of what we dream the Black community will be. As long as there are police and prisons, even if only run by Black people, Black people broadly could never be free. The rate at which Black women and femmes are subjected to sexual assault in prisons is justification alone to end the institution entirely. Police and prisons evolved out of slavery and exist to uphold its legacy. The issue is that people have decided that those who cause harm deserve perpetual punishment and suffering, and that with that thinking, prisons are a natural consequence. But punitive measures aren't preventative, or rehabilitative, and they also simply cause further damage to people and communities. Further, so many people in prison have not harmed anyone! People who have sold weed to make a living make up a significant portion of the prison population, people who are AWAITING trial are held captive if they’re too broke to pay bond – they haven’t been found guilty but they sit in a cell for months and years. The entire thing has to go. The work of abolitionists today is actually not separate from slavery abolitionists centuries ago, in my perspective, because we are working to cut down an institution that has grown from the same roots and put something else in its place – something better.
How do you see abolition of prisons and police connecting to larger struggles against capitalism and U.S. imperialism?
Folks like Black Alliance for Peace have done a great job addressing questions like this, but I’ll give my thoughts as best as I know now. I’ve learned this term “imperial core” – it’s the idea that every imperial power has a core or a center point. If there is a US empire, that must mean the United States is the core. What weakens the core weakens the empire. This is why, in the view of imperialists, Black people cannot be free in the US because if they were, if the political repression wasn’t intense here, then the capacity of the US to siphon resources for military would be diminished. Do you follow? I don’t know if that’s clear enough.
If the US cannot spend trillions to fund war because they’re forced to feed our own poor and resource our schools how will they maintain their empire? If the US cannot depend upon the forced labor of folks who’ve been imprisoned – slave labor – how would they gain profits to fund domination?
Abolition of prisons and police not only frees us to resist this empire in solidarity with Black and African folks globally, but it also hurts the actual industrial mechanisms that keep this machine moving. The connections between policing and militaristic assault on the world are endless – the GILEE program is a prime example, where local police & israeli police and military ops actually share tactics of political repressions through violence! The 1033 program, which allows local police to obtain military equipment and use it domestically is another primary example. More funding for militaristic imperialism means more deadly weapons will trickle down to our streets and Black people’s streets abroad. If you’re wondering why Black folk can protest peacefully and be met with military tanks – it is because police and military are processes (like a tentacle) of imperialism together. And capitalism, a socioeconomic and anti-Black project, is dependent upon the existence of a group to be subjugated and exploited. Police, prisons, and military maintain a social order domestically and globally, and perpetually produce classes of subjugated communities, by disrupting and destabilizing folks they intend to oppress and extract from. This has been evidenced by history. For the few to amass great wealth and property, and hoard resources, they need people to protect their shit. Basically, if they know others want and need what they have, and they're not willing to share, then they must make sure no one else can get to it. If we think of revolution as including the REdistribution of these resources, then they have to disincentivise revolution via the threat of violence and punishment. This is yet another critical role the police play in the subjugation of the masses – protecting property and private interests.
Wealthy supreme court justices and congresspeople can use the police and military as private security as they thrash our rights and subject us to institutionalized violence. Police and prisons maintain the government’s monopoly on violence, and the military does so globally. No one is allowed to use violence to bring about social change except for white supremacists and the US government – that’s how they’d like to keep it, they need police and prisons in order to do so.
Can you please share how Black queer feminism informs your work?
My personal entry to Black Queer Feminism, from Black feminisms broadly, was through BYP100’s previous Atlanta Chapter. Although that chapter no longer exists and the original group of organizers is no longer together, I am incredibly thankful for the political and social groundings that were offered by that crew of Black queer revolutionaries.
Put simply, Black Queer Feminism to me was explained as a framework that mandates us to center the most marginalized in our work and leadership. Because Black queer and trans folks are most likely to be targets of state and communal violence, it is critical that any interventions through this lens are thus focused on the liberation of Black people that share these experiences.
For me, that has looked like working alongside the Organization for Human Rights and Democracy, Barred Business, Endstate ATL, Southerners on New Ground, Gangstas to Growers, Women on the Rise to mount efforts to free Black people from cages, via the vehicle of the Free Atlanta Abolition Movement – a Black-run bail formation. How is that Black Queer Feminist work? Well, leading organizers in the container are Black queer folks and Black women who were formerly incarcerated, almost all of the people we’ve freed from cages thus far have been Black mothers, and our stabilization efforts post-bail are designed to empower folks to write their own destinies in a life-affirming community. The goal is to invite folks to join this movement, if interested, and do political education around abolition, transformative justice and Black Queer feminist. Honestly other organizers in the formation deserve all the love for what the team has been able to do, I support where I can and grease wheels as necessary, but this is one example.
Endstate ATL, my political home which was born out of our departure from BYP100, is preparing to launch a few initiatives soon that we know will build power amongst Black queer folks and femmes. One of them is the Black Power Fund, which we hope can pay power bills for chosen family houses, those places where Black queer folks stay because family may not be a safe option, or because they need transitional housing. Solidarity economy work means sharing and moving resources in a way that ensures our survival, and builds our capacity to participate in the struggle against our oppression. Our hope is that these Black Power Fund partnerships can resource folks, build political engagement with Black queer folks, and alleviate suffering so folks can show up for their communities as they’d like to. People sometimes ask how mutual aid builds power. I think if voting is a means of meeting Black people where they at, then so is mutual aid. If electoral organizing is a verifiable means of engagement then so is meetings people’s needs, especially if there is a goal of deepening relationships and curiosity about liberation.
I care deeply about disrupting gender-based violence and sexual assault, so I work with organizers to host workshops teaching Black folks about healthy relationships and consent. They take consent out of the context of just sexual encounters and encourage folks to operate with consent as a way to build healthy relationships in ALL types of relationships. Our hope is that Black folks will be able to have healthier relationships, preventing communal violence that is so often rooted in the violation of various forms of consent.
The organizers who fought for and won policy to divert quality of life arrests to social services were Black queer and trans folks, some of whom were sex workers targeted by the City of Atlanta and local businesses, and those abolitionists interventions continue to grow. Specifically, the leadership of folks at Solutions NOT Punishment Collaborative, among others, moved that work. Now, Policing Alternatives and Diversion (PAD Atlanta) is a staple program that prevents the expansion of mass incarceration and connects folks with services rather than the criminal injustice system. Alongside many other organizers, I’ve done some work with PAD to canvass neighborhoods, telling more people that they can call PAD instead of the police, telling them there are alternatives to policing and prisons. I hope that this work has protected countless Black queer folks from incarceration and continued the legacy of the original organizers, I hope.
I could say more but ultimately, BQF (Black Queer Feminism) pushes me to question whose leadership we move with, which folks are most direly impacted and how to be principled about centering their needs. In the Black community, who is most likely to be targeted by state and communal violence due to their identity and circumstances? Black femmes and women, Black queer folks, Black trans people, Black disabled people, poor Black people. I mean we’re talking about power and how it flows. People not just experiencing different forms of oppression in isolation. We’re building power with those who are most denied it in order to turn the old world on its fuckin head and account for everybody as we build power. And much of the activists, organizers and thought-leaders that shaped radical Black feminism will tell you it’s anti-capitalist. Because capitalism disposes of Black people and especially those that are marginalized. I mean, it doesn’t take much digging to see how Black folk with disabilities experience economic and social destabilization via capitalism, and if that’s the case, we can understand that the fight for Black liberation requires upending capitalism too. Claudia Jones makes this clear in her writings about the subjugation of Black domestic workers, especially Black women.
Some of your most recent organizing is around forming solidarity economy ecosystems. How did you become involved in this? And how can BAR readers support your work?
I’m so excited about this question! Whew where do I start! Organizing around abolition and specifically a divest/invest framework really started for me around 2019. And the question of, “if we divest from police/prisons, what should we invest it in?” has brought me to solidarity economy ecosystems. I really want to know how money, resources and time can move within our communities in a way that empowers and stabilizes us. When capitalists come in with their big pockets to “invest” in Black businesses, they always benefit more than the business and more than the customer, more than the community – that’s because they come for extraction and leave with our hard-developed resources.
Self-determination will require we care for each other. In my own words, solidarity economy is an economic model where we practice solidarity by caring for each other, sharing resources, time and skills in a way where our needs are met and the relationships can be sustained. Think of co-ops, think of communal savings plans (padna hand, sou sou), think of credit unions, think of mutual aid, think of time banking, think of goods exchanges…this is what community is supposed to be. This is what many communities look like prior to the devastating intervention of capitalism. This is what I imagine it looks like for us to use our money, time, goods and skills to care for us. Anyways, in thinking about the other side of abolition, I think of a solidarity economy and I knew I needed to learn more. And the solidarity economy has been practiced by Black radical people for so so long. Shoutout to Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard and Yolande Tomlinson and many many others who I’ve been able to learn so much from about this.
I was talking to someone recently about why folks don’t leave relationships that don’t fulfill them, or maybe harm them, and sometimes the reason is economic. We talked about how if there was a community for folks, if there was a community-built economic safety net for folks, there would be more pathways to seek healthier relationships and leave harm where it is – a small but significant example. Black queer folks know what it is to move money to protect ourselves, to free ourselves, to rebirth ourselves…and the gofundmes on the timeline make it clear the need is there. Solidarity economy is an invitation into a relationship and network where we offer our resources as a gift folks could never earn but undoubtedly deserve. I loved Robin Kimmerer’s description of the gift economy in Braiding Sweetgrass – that’s how I view this solidarity economy work.
I became involved in this work via abolitionist organizing in response to crisis, like so many others. The People’s Response in ATL was in many ways a movement of resources and political energy to deep deep needs in community at the start of the pandemic. That group is no longer together but the spirit of mutual aid organizing bound to resistance is certainly still abundant amongst Black radical, queer organizers in Atlanta. The Organization for Human Rights and Democracy do deep work in helping people launch cooperatives and I’ve learned so much as a part of that ecosystem. Community Movement Builders has their own co-op and liberation programs that Endstate ATL supports, and I’ve been incredibly inspired by their efforts to resource, engage and then mobilize their Pittsburgh neighborhood community. Like I said, abolition organizing and solidarity economy work in ATL has never been separate for me since I got here. Very incredible work is happening. The future is being built in Atlanta.
I’m now a Network Organizer for the New Economy Coalition – there’s over 200 orgs tapped in with that network all working on solidarity economy work. That would be a good group to tap into for folks that wanna engage and learn. I’ve mentioned them a few times cause I mean it – Organization for Human Rights and Democracy (OHRD) is doing incredible work and if you are looking for radical Queer Black Feminist organizers doing solidarity economy work, that is your place. If you are looking for somewhere to donate, donate to OHRD and make it monthly. Those are my two highlights.
Julian Akil Rose is a community organizer, writer and scholar originally from Hartford, CT and currently living in Atlanta, GA. He is involved in a range of abolitionist, Black Queer Feminist organizing efforts focused in Atlanta and dreams of new worlds we can build. His interests span education, community wellness and transformative justice. His political home and local work is with Endstate ATL (@endstateatl), he also organizes with the Free Atlanta Abolition Movement (@forthefaam), the In Defense of Black Lives ATL Coalition (@idblatl), and the New Economy Coalition (@neweconomycoalition) nationally.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.