The first year of the Biden presidency proceeds as one would expect from a man who always represented the most retrograde wing of the democratic party. The work of Community Movement Builders shows a way out of the political trap for Black people in this country.
Roberto Sirvent: The Black Agenda Report is taking a look back at the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency. What are some of your takeaways as to how his policies have impacted Black communities both home and abroad?
Kamau Franklin: Well simply put I think his policies, as predicted by any serious left analysis, have continued the terrible predicament of Black life in america. Biden by his own admission was a moderate and was not destined to do anything particularly helpful for the larger collective Black community. His inability to direct his own party to pass his signature legislation, Build Back Better, is a clear indication of how weak he is politically. His refusal to challenge to do anything on voting rights, to extend the housing moratorium to expand healthcare, to cancel student loans, and lastly to have a coherent national policy on fighting the COVID pandemic shows that his loyalties were always to just keep capitalist markets chugging along without the bombast of a Trump-like figure. That is what both the white political and economic elite wanted and the Black political elite wanted.
As far as an international context, Biden is now the point person for the American empire. One that is eager to shift focus on “containing” China but one that also is looking to strengthen the western international order which always means keeping a weak and compliant Africa. I think what's happening in Ethiopia is a good case in point where America seeks to destabilize Ethiopia by supporting an insurgent war against the national government by supporting the TPLF which once governed Ethiopia as a dictatorship. Although Ethiopia is no bastion of left politics it has become a more open society, it recently became the number two economy in Africa, it is challenging Egypt for control of the Nile, and is open to ore trade with China to balance it off against the west, and has a history of supporting Pan African thought and institutions to escape western dominance. These factors make Ethiopia a target of the US because any strong African state that is not captured by the west will be targeted and Biden is doing that as the current leader of the American and western hegemony.
Can you please share a little about the history of Community Movement Builders, including how it got started, its founding principles, and the various programs you organize?
Community Movement Builders was founded in 2015 as a member-based collective of community residents and activists dedicated to creating sustainable, self-determining Black communities through cooperative economic advancement and community organizing. Through the purchase of a house in one of the last entact Black poor/working-class communities in Atlanta named Pittsburgh, which was founded in 1883 by formerly enslaved Africans, we settled in as an organization to do place-based organizing.
Our founding principles are rooted in the idea of self-determination and community control. We believe that poor and working-class Black people should be fighting for power over resources and institutions that have decision-making power over their lives. CMB’s vision is one where organized residents of marginalized communities control and benefit from stable integrated networks of grassroots institutions which include cooperatives, mutual aid, security, social, political and educational organizations to create communities that are safe, stable, sustainable and supportive;
We divide our work into organizing and sustainable development work. We organize campaigns against police brutality (stopping the building or a police training center known as “cop-city”, fighting for some justice on individual cases of police brutality, creating alternatives to police in our community by creating a cop watch and safety patrol). We also organize against gentrification in the community by challenging the outrageous increases in rents and home prices over the last few years. Our sustainable development work includes creating cooperative enterprises (Community Sea Moss cooperative, Kale Chip Cooperative, security Cooperative, etc.)
What is your group’s philosophy of mutual aid? How does it differ from some of the more mainstream and neoliberal understandings of mutual aid? Are there ways that the radical nature of mutual aid has been diluted or co-opted in recent years? If so, how?
Mutual Aid for us (what we now call Liberation Programs) is a way of exchanging resources and support for the mutual benefit of the larger community. We try and pull in the people who receive support into political, organizing and mutual aid activities so that we don’t fall into a charity model of service. I think the name mutual aid has been slapped on to all kinds of charitable work that has diluted the political nature of the activity. But those are the times we live in where people are using words and concepts like abolition, revolution, self-determination for policy, electoral, and charity work that does not challenge at all the political order but instead works with it. The left here in the United States is weak and suffers from a desire to be middle class operatives as opposed to radical organizers to challenge the economic and political powers that be.
An important part of your work is the safety/cop-watch patrol. Can you explain some of the challenges and successes you’ve all had in organizing this? How do these patrols fit into the larger tradition of communal self-defense in Black liberation movements?
We believe that in fighting against police brutality and harassment we have to create alternative forces that act as a buffer between our community and the police. We need to decrease the contact between the armed forces of the state and everyday Black people. Not only for the most obvious reason of stopping the killing, brutalization, and harassment of our people but also to stop the police from putting our people through a system that results in loss of liberty, a criminal record that then decreases life chances at jobs, housing and education. The challenges are probably the most obvious: that we are a volunteer force for the most part (we are striving to give more stipends to those who become a part of the security coop) which means people are subject to time constraints and or “burn-out”. Also, our larger community is still propagandized into believing that we need the police to solve issues. This is not just pushed by copaganda pro-cop movies, tv shows, and news outlets but of course Black elected officials and people who have middle class values and think that the police are the only viable way to have “public safety”. This all plays a role in the limitations of a program like ours.
As far as the larger tradition of communal self-defense in Black liberation movements it is obvious to us that if we can’t defend in any way what we are building and/or offer alternatives to state forces, we are at the whim of a powerful weaponized institution that looks to destroy Black radical movements under the guise of calling us dangerous. So while they hold all the tools of violence in their hands, they portray themselves as weak and at the mercy of the scary Black radical and or everyday Black person. We know that to counter this narrative we have to show our people that it is the police that are dangerous, not just because of the overt murders that happen to our people but because the role of the police to occupy the spaces that Black people, working class people, and poor people live so that it can control our movement, spaces and our lives.
Your group recently tweeted, “Black Power does not mean Black faces in high places enforcing white supremacy.” What makes the “Black faces in high places” ideology so seductive? And why is it so important for Black power struggles to resist this ideology?
I think what is seductive for us as a people is that we all want to believe in the idea that progress is being made to solve the American “race” problem. We want to believe that ultimately character will prevail over prejudice and that the “system” creates openings for us and whether we make it or not is based on our abilities. Obviously for those Black folks in high places this last one is particularly important for them to justify their own positioning and to tell the rest of us that the concept of “hard” work and not race is the final determinant of what is considered success. So as an ideology it feeds off of part of the human condition, particularly as it is harnessed in western culture to feed the ego of having some self-importance and to want to be able to explain to everyone else how self-important you are. The obvious danger is that when this ideology is centered it becomes the basis for a blame game against our own that we buy into. No examination of monies or economic interest, of societal structures, of how benefits have been distributed and who gets the least of those. Instead, we are proud of the one or two who are given favor to enforce the same rules that keep the vast majority of our people and other oppressed people locked in misery. We fight to recognize the one or two as exceptional and people to emulate as opposed to an earnest evaluation of how structures and politics works. So the danger is that it keeps us ignorant of what collective freedom should and could mean and how we have to fight for said freedom as opposed to celebrating those who cozy up to power as sycophants as the rest of us suffer.
You’ve critiqued a short promotional video by “Master Class” on a course they’re offering by some Black elites like Angela Davis, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Cornel West. “Black love is the force that makes you believe in American democracy,” the promo reads, “even when American democracy hasn’t believed in us.” What are some of the most troubling assumptions this video makes about U.S. democracy – and about where Black people’s love and faith should be directed? How do these academic media projects create obstacles for Black liberation movements?
This media project hit me as a bourgeois propaganda tool. Its only purpose other than providing an additional payday for well off academics, seems to be to persuade us that Black love and gradualism overcomes racism, capitalism and white supremacy. This approach to history and resistance is a song and dance presented to us by those who have enough resources to ride out the roughness of Black exploitation that is visited upon the poor and working-class people. Ultimately, it seems to be told through a lens of a perseverance model that gauges success as integrating into the US system. Further, that Black love and the US electoral system is a moral pathway to liberation. Forget about US capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy as being the very foundation of this society. That our resistance is not about joining these institutions or even making them less overtly racist, but it’s about ending, overthrowing, defeating something that will never give us and/or the majority of the planet liberation.
I think this false hope and misuse of our history is something these academics know better. But instead they allowed their material interest to get in the way of their obvious intellectual capacity to understand the phenomena of white supremacy and capitalism. The frustrating part is that these liberal academics know our history better than most of us and they have chosen to peddle this package to us that does not advance struggle but instead dumbs us down into thinking of our resistance struggle as if it’s a pop song for teenagers and that love will save the day.
Community Movement Builders has a strong partnership with the Pan African Solidarity Network. Why is Pan African solidarity so important for today’s struggles against capitalism, imperialism, and neocolonialism?
Pan African solidarity is key to fighting against western dominances. There is no solution to an international order of European white supremacy vis-à-vis capitalism, imperialism, and neocolonialism outside of the context of a counter struggle or counter weight that is Pan African, socialist, and let me add militant. Militancy is an important added ingredient that will help organized fronts not fall for capitalist propaganda and its ability to shift outcomes. The solidarity that is the promise of Pan Africanism allows for unity of purpose, exchange of resources and structures to replace the ones that are currently under European control and serve the purpose of keeping European/US hegemony in place. Pan African institutions, when militant by their very nature, will counter the status quo and, in addition, when socialist in nature they will foster a distribution of resources that is useful to larger societies. There is no freedom here in America for Black people that is not tied to a free Pan-African Africa and or African diaspora. Our problems are not just local but they are national and international in scope and therefore need a vision that is both Pan-African and internationalist in nature.
How can BAR readers support your work?
Folks can support us at our website at www.communitymovementbuilders.org/donate.html
Kamau Franklin is a community organizer and former practicing attorney from Brooklyn New York, now organizing out of Atlanta.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.