Insurgent Practice and the Black Panther Party: an Interview with Joshua Bloom


Patrick King: We want to start from a method­olog­i­cal stand­point, think­ing about what kind of inter­ven­tion Black Against Empire makes in terms of social move­ment the­ory, a field which can often seem divorced from a real under­stand­ing of polit­i­cal prac­tice. There are two con­cepts that you and Waldo Mar­tin deploy in your book that we’d like to dis­cuss: one is what you call a “method­ol­ogy of strate­gic traces” or a “strate­gic geneal­ogy”; and the other is the focus given to the “insur­gent prac­tices” of dif­fer­ent move­ments, orga­ni­za­tions, and groups – in this case, the Black Pan­ther Party for Self-Defense. What was your aim in using these two con­cepts to serve as guid­ing threads for the book and your soci­o­log­i­cal work in gen­eral, and how do they help us move beyond the often nar­row frames of social move­ment the­ory?

Joshua Bloom: The big the­o­ret­i­cal prob­lem that was front and cen­ter going into the book was think­ing about why and how peo­ple build power from below in some move­ments, and ask­ing why is that so rare. The social move­ment lit­er­a­ture and social move­ment the­ory pro­vides a num­ber of tools to think about those ques­tions, but I was pretty dis­sat­is­fied with most of those tools. I felt like they erred on two sides of the structure/agency debate, a prob­lem that the lit­er­a­ture has tan­gled with for awhile, and I think there’s a broad con­sen­sus that pretty much none of the solu­tions are sat­is­fac­tory.

Around 30 years ago, there was a shift within social move­ment the­ory from social-psy­cho­log­i­cal, col­lec­tive behav­ior, and cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance-based the­o­ries that look at move­ments as irra­tional, to the frame­works that were devel­oped in study­ing the civil rights move­ment, espe­cially polit­i­cal process the­ory and, relat­edly, resource mobi­liza­tion the­ory. I think that the way that polit­i­cal process the­ory in par­tic­u­lar tried to solve these prob­lems is by agglom­er­at­ing sev­eral dif­fer­ent vari­ables, stack­ing them on top of each other as if they were all these inde­pen­dent deter­mi­nants, in this very social-sci­en­tific way. I do think it moved the dis­cus­sion for­ward, and it pro­vided some really impor­tant ways of think­ing about some of the impor­tant processes going on, but I think it missed the key way in which what peo­ple do mat­ters in a polit­i­cal con­text. On the one side, here was this under­stand­ing of a polit­i­cal oppor­tu­nity as the desta­bi­liza­tion of social roles in a given moment, thereby advan­tag­ing a group and really foment­ing insur­gency or move­ment by that group as if what peo­ple were doing wasn’t deter­mi­nant or deter­min­ing how those struc­tures mat­tered. Then on the other side, there were these very ideational and agen­tial types of processes, that in many ways were stripped of con­text – like fram­ing, which is some­times used as if peo­ple could sort of just all get together have this dis­cus­sion, where they come on the same page, and then you’re going to get a move­ment grow­ing out of that, as if there’s no real rela­tion­ship to what’s going on struc­turally.  

I came into this project dis­sat­is­fied with that dual­ity, and hav­ing worked as an orga­nizer and as an activist for many years, I wanted to cen­ter the ques­tion of what peo­ple are actu­ally doing and why that works in a given moment, and how that is what gen­er­ates move­ments. That’s the basic focus.

The method­olog­i­cal idea of strate­gic geneal­ogy, which came out of ear­lier dis­cus­sions around the book, was intended to get specif­i­cally at that rela­tion­ship in rel­a­tively infor­mal way. I mean this was writ­ten for a broad pop­u­lar audi­ence; there’s a strong the­o­ret­i­cal dimen­sion that dri­ves and guides the analy­sis, but it’s really a his­tory – an effort to tan­gle with all the avail­able evi­dence and given events, to be able to then try and make sense of the devel­op­ment of those events. This isn’t a heavy, quan­ti­ta­tive analy­sis – in some of my later work, I’ve moved on to try and do some more sys­tem­atic and rig­or­ous test­ing of some of the ideas that grow out of this his­tory and this study, but the idea of strate­gic geneal­ogy was really to look at: what are peo­ple doing, what are they say­ing, and how does that change from moment to moment over the course of the movement’s devel­op­ment, and where and why do par­tic­u­lar new forms of strat­egy get adopted? And then, what are the con­se­quences of those changes. You’re look­ing at two things at once, in par­al­lel: first, the tra­jec­tory of the move­ment  – how many peo­ple are par­tic­i­pat­ing? what kinds of atten­tion is it get­ting? what level of influ­ence is it gar­ner­ing? Sec­ond, you’re look­ing at what exactly peo­ple in the move­ment are doing, con­junc­ture by con­junc­ture. So the idea is that by look­ing at those two ques­tions in a par­al­lel fash­ion, you would get a sense of what that rela­tion­ship was. Why was it that at cer­tain moments, the things that peo­ple did dif­fer­ently brought new kinds of fol­low­ing and sup­port?

To use an early exam­ple, look at what the Black Pan­ther Party did in the first six months with the tac­tic of polic­ing the police and the armed patrols. Every piece of what they did was drawn from some­thing else: the name and sym­bol of the Black Pan­ther from the Lown­des County Free­dom Orga­ni­za­tion; the idea of armed self-defense from Robert Williams, the Dea­cons of Defense to some extent, and again, the Lown­des County Free­dom Orga­ni­za­tion; the kinds of claims about their rela­tion­ship to the black com­mu­nity were drawn from Mal­colm X; and a lot of the anti-impe­ri­al­ism was taken from their work with the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Action Move­ment (RAM) and their front groups. And finally, there was the piece of com­mu­nity armed patrol, which was them say­ing, “we’re going to fol­low the police around.” So, a lot, if not all, of the pieces were already there, but inde­pen­dently none of those parts worked. What Huey New­ton and Bobby Seale did was they fig­ured how to put them together in a way that they could actu­ally stand up to the police, and in that way, attract and draw sup­port from what they called the “broth­ers on the block.” And that really worked. It first pro­pelled them into build­ing a small lead­er­ship. Then, when Den­zil Dow­ell was killed in Rich­mond, that set of prac­tices, com­bined with their stand­ing up legally to police but with arms, had hun­dreds of black peo­ple, of all stripes and ages and with their own guns, com­ing out to the cor­ner fol­low­ing this killing by police with­out any account­abil­ity. From those claims and set of prac­tices, and then the newslet­ter that grew into the Black Pan­ther news­pa­per, they were able to get all kinds of sup­port and placed them onto a broader stage. And very quickly, in response, the state of Cal­i­for­nia tried to change the law and change the con­text in which they were able to do that.

It’s easy to see, then, how through that infor­mal method of strate­gic geneal­ogy, the rela­tion­ship between what the Pan­thers are doing and why it works in a given moment is made intel­li­gi­ble.

PK: And this is much more dynamic than see­ing these prac­tices, what you call insur­gent prac­tices, as a reper­toire or inven­tory that can just be taken up and used – even if we account for mod­u­lar­ity – but actu­ally involves real inven­tive strate­gies for com­bin­ing and trans­lat­ing these prac­tices into dif­fer­ent con­texts.

JB: Yes, absolutely. The scholar that’s done the best with think­ing about these kinds of reper­toires is prob­a­bly Charles Tilly, but even then, he looks at these ques­tions from 30,000 feet off the ground. There, the idea is that within a cer­tain regime – a given space and a given time – there’s basi­cally a fairly set reper­toire of tac­tics, essen­tially. Peo­ple can mod­u­larly draw from these avail­able tac­tics, and there’s some kind of slow evo­lu­tion over time. But there’s no account of how these prac­tices actu­ally gen­er­ate move­ments, and that’s where I think the crux of the issue is. I don’t think that peo­ple indi­vid­u­ally make move­ments; if you look at the great lead­ers and you take them out of the move­ment con­text, often­times their capac­ity to actu­ally build a move­ment falls. Con­versely, if you look not only at the Black Pan­ther Party, but the civil rights move­ment, or the ear­lier instances of black anti-colo­nial­ism that I’ve looked at – but think also about the indus­trial union­ism of the 1930s, or even inter­na­tion­ally, the Intifada – if you look pretty much at any move­ment, there is usu­ally an arc of mobi­liza­tion and demo­bi­liza­tion cen­tered around a par­tic­u­lar form of prac­tice. This involves cer­tain types of tran­si­tive claims – we can over­come this form of oppres­sion by chal­leng­ing these author­i­ties in these ways, and here’s how we’re going to talk about it and here’s the speci­fic things we’re going to do. But if you look at the black free­dom strug­gle closely, the mobi­liza­tion doesn’t fol­low a sin­gu­lar kind of arc of mobi­liza­tion-demo­bi­liza­tion. For the black free­dom strug­gle as a whole, in fact, it dis­ag­gre­gates into these series of smaller move­ments which have a lot of coher­ence both in terms of the kinds of things peo­ple were say­ing, the kinds of tar­gets they were chal­leng­ing, and the kinds of tac­tics that they were employ­ing, who was try­ing to repress them, and who was com­ing out to sup­port them. Those move­ment dynam­ics are very coher­ent and con­sis­tent across those arcs of mobi­liza­tion and demo­bi­liza­tion, and they cen­ter very much around prac­tices, and how prac­tices become a novel source of power.

This idea of what I’m now call­ing insur­gent prac­tice the­ory emerged from Black Against Empire. It’s not some­thing I went into this project with; it’s part of a big­ger piece of what came out of look­ing very seri­ously into these rela­tion­ships within the his­tory of the Black Pan­ther Party. What the Black Pan­ther Party activists and orga­niz­ers achieved was a sort of cul­tural tech­nol­ogy, which pro­vided a source of power when they found and devel­oped a set of insur­gent prac­tices that was able to do two things. One was to dis­rupt busi­ness as usual – to make cus­tom­ary social rela­tions and insti­tu­tion­al­ized power impos­si­ble to con­duct as usual. With the BPP, you see that mostly in terms of con­tain­ment polic­ing prac­tices. It’s one thing to talk a lot of rhetoric like RAM was, before the Party ever got off the ground; it’s another to cre­ate the con­di­tions under which there can actu­ally be armed con­fronta­tions with the police in cities all across the coun­try. Those kinds of con­fronta­tions make cus­tom­ary con­tain­ment polic­ing very dif­fi­cult. The chal­lenge, how­ever, is that dis­rup­tion is always avail­able, it’s always pos­si­ble to vio­late social insti­tu­tions. The prob­lem is that repres­sion is usu­ally very effec­tive. So when peo­ple vio­late estab­lished social insti­tu­tions and chal­lenge estab­lished author­i­ties, they’re read­ily repressed most of the time. What the BPP was able to do– and they were very much try­ing to emu­late the civil rights move­ment in this regard, and they suc­ceeded to a cer­tain extent – was to cre­ate a cul­tural tech­nol­ogy that was able to sus­tain dis­rup­tion, and sus­tain dis­rup­tion as a source of power. They were able to do this because the char­ac­ter of the prac­tices that they had devel­oped, that cul­tural tech­nol­ogy of armed self-defense cou­pled with this anti-impe­ri­al­ism, in that moment, the more author­i­ties repressed them, the more they were able to gather broad allies, who oth­er­wise wouldn’t have sup­ported the party in the first place but also had their own rea­sons to really feel threat­ened by the sta­tus quo. This was an effec­tive and dif­fi­cult cul­tural tech­nol­ogy: the more you repressed it, the more you drew allied sup­port and fos­tered broader mobi­liza­tions. So in a nut­shell, that’s the the­ory of insur­gent prac­tice that grew out of the study.

“Every door that the fas­cists attempt to kick down will put them deeper into the pit of death. Shoot to kill.”

Ben Mabie: Your book is also one of the first to really probe the strate­gic dilemma faced by the Pan­thers in regards to orga­ni­za­tional form: it was caught between being a for­ma­tion that had ori­gins in a very speci­fic con­text (the migra­tion pat­terns of African Amer­i­cans from the South to the West Coast, the sub­se­quent indus­trial down­turn and cam­pus strug­gles in Oak­land) and a very rapid explo­sion into a nation­wide social move­ment. After the depar­ture of Eldridge Cleaver’s fac­tion in 1971 and Newton’s regroup­ment of the BPP to Oak­land, the extreme poles of a guerilla war sce­nario or a social-demo­c­ra­tic elec­toral strat­egy (with the Bobby Seale may­oral and Elaine Brown city coun­cil cam­paigns) seemed to become the only options. How do we make sense of this split? Did it con­cern the chang­ing nature of the Party’s base – a need to dras­ti­cally shift from their ini­tial focus on the lumpen class or “broth­ers on the block”? How can this dilemma, which seemed to affect many groups at the time, help us with our cur­rent strate­gic ques­tions, espe­cially in light of the inven­tive­ness of some orga­ni­za­tional aspects of the Pan­thers?

JB: There’s a lot in there, so let me start off by say­ing what I don’t think answers that ques­tion. A lot is often made about this idea that the Black Pan­ther Party’s base was the lumpen­pro­le­tariat, and the lumpen, as Karl Marx said, is impos­si­ble to orga­nize. You need the dis­ci­pline of the indus­trial work­ing class and this that or the other. But you know, those char­ac­ter­is­tics of the lumpen­pro­le­tariat were both a strength and weak­ness of the Party from its incep­tion through way past its demise. More­over, the Party was never mono­lith­i­cally com­prised of the lumpen­pro­le­tariat: it always had col­lege stu­dents, it always had work­ing class mem­bers, and there was some lumpen. Part of its strength and power, of course, was its abil­ity to orga­nize the “broth­ers on the block,” which is another way of say­ing the lumpen­pro­le­tariat. The weak­nesses – the dif­fi­culty of dis­ci­pline – and the strengths – the capac­ity for resis­tance – were always cen­tral to what the Party was. I don’t think they drove the split in any sig­nif­i­cant way. I don’t think you had a dif­fer­ent com­po­si­tion in terms of class basis or class con­stituency of the two sides of the divide. Nor do I think that in some abstract sense either of those sides spoke to the core inter­ests of the lumpen, one ver­sus the other or any­thing like that.

I think that really the cause of the split goes back to the fate of the insur­gent prac­tices the Party built, and was able to use to build power and mobi­lize peo­ple. In many ways, the story is very par­al­lel to what hap­pened with the civil rights move­ment. I’m just fin­ish­ing up a quan­ti­ta­tive analy­sis, and if you look at the arc and tra­jec­tory of non­vi­o­lent mobi­liza­tions, specif­i­cally civil rights mobi­liza­tions in the post­war decades, there’s a pat­tern that hap­pens within non­vi­o­lent mobi­liza­tion that pre­cedes the turn towards vio­lence. The first thing that’s inter­est­ing is that all those anec­do­tal gen­er­al­iza­tions about a move towards vio­lent mobi­liza­tions in the late 1960s absolutely hold quan­ti­ta­tively. When you do a cod­ing of events on a large scale, there’s a very strik­ing shift within black mobi­liza­tion towards much more vio­lent mobi­liza­tion, really post-1966, 1967. It gets much stronger into 1968, ‘69. You obvi­ously have some impor­tant ear­lier forms of vio­lent mobi­liza­tion as well, but there’s a very strik­ing shift in quan­tity and char­ac­ter from non­vi­o­lence to vio­lence.

If you unpack what hap­pens within the non­vi­o­lent mobi­liza­tion, what insur­gent prac­tice the­ory pre­dicts absolutely holds, which is that there’s a tight cou­pling of repres­sion with non­vi­o­lent mobi­liza­tion through the late 1950s into the early 60s. The level of mobi­liza­tion esca­lates quickly, cou­pled with very high lev­els of repres­sion of non­vi­o­lent civil rights mobi­liza­tion and pro­test­ers – you think about the arrests, the beat­ings, the white vio­lent mobs, the killings. When you look at those rates, those rates are very high and they’re tightly cou­pled, through the late 50s into the early 60s, with the level of non­vi­o­lent mobi­liza­tion, and all that esca­lates together. What hap­pens after the pass­ing of the Civil Rights Act and the Vot­ing Rights Act is that with deseg­re­ga­tion, the tar­gets that the civil rights move­ment aimed for are no longer avail­able. Civil rights mobi­liza­tion was a cul­tural tech­nol­ogy – a move­ment tech­nol­ogy, a polit­i­cal tech­nol­ogy – ori­ented towards dis­rupt­ing and dis­man­tling Jim Crow. And it worked, because it dis­rupted Jim Crow directly: it bod­ily vio­lated it in such a way that drew and exposed the bru­tal repres­sion of seg­re­ga­tion, so all kinds of exter­nal actors, not least the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, legally, polit­i­cally, and mil­i­tar­ily inter­vened to crush and dis­man­tle the Jim Crow sys­tem. I mean, con­cern­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s con­stituency was such that he was not going to get up and be a cham­pion of the civil rights move­ment and dis­man­tling Jim Crow – they were forced to do that, and they were slow about it. But those changes hap­pened because the civil rights move­ment devel­oped a set of insur­gent prac­tices which forced them to inter­vene, due to the way that it exposed that bru­tal­ity through the repres­sion of civil rights prac­tices and move­ment actors.

Once you deseg­re­gate and dis­man­tle the sys­tem of seg­re­ga­tion in the South, what tar­gets can you use these civil rights prac­tices against? With­out Jim Crow, how do you have a civil rights insur­gency? You don’t. So if you look at the same orga­ni­za­tions – look at the his­tory of CORE in the North, dur­ing the early 60s, the hey­day of the civil rights move­ment. Same orga­ni­za­tion, same lead­er­ship, tons of resources, same claims, try­ing to do the same kind of thing, but it’s about maybe get­ting jobs in seg­re­gated Woolworth’s, and you have year-long cam­paigns, peo­ple are beaten, and what do you get? You get one job, a token job, because it’s been deseg­re­gated. There’s no firm line. Civil rights insur­gency never works to dis­man­tle eco­nomic exclu­sion or polit­i­cal exclu­sion. It never works to dis­man­tle ghet­toiza­tion. It works for one thing, which is to dis­man­tle Jim Crow. So what you get in the civil rights move­ment is a very sim­i­lar tra­jec­tory: that set of prac­tices fol­lows a course where it becomes a pow­er­ful source of power through sus­tained dis­rup­tion, by sus­tain­ing dis­rup­tion, to a cer­tain point, until the con­text shifts enough that it can no longer serve as a source of power in that way. In the civil rights move­ment it shifts because the tar­gets for insur­gency are removed very directly.

In the BPP’s expe­ri­ence, the rela­tion­ship is less direct. The Party is at the cen­ter of a much broader insur­gency – the Pan­thers are by no means the only set of insur­gents dur­ing the period; there are all types of insur­gen­cies that are work­ing together, and the BPP is an impor­tant part of that mix. There’s all kinds of anti-impe­ri­al­ist insur­gency, domes­ti­cally and to some extent cou­pled with and work­ing with these inter­na­tional insur­gen­cies. You also have reshuf­fling within the Demo­c­ra­tic party itself. When LBJ and the Democ­rats cre­ated fed­eral affir­ma­tive action leg­is­la­tion, it wasn’t just in response to the civil rights move­ment, and the same goes for the inte­gra­tion of the Demo­c­ra­tic Party machi­nes in the cities – where you get black peo­ple actu­ally run­ning for office and win­ning in these cities with large black pop­u­la­tions in the North. That’s in the late 1960s and into the 70s, and it hap­pens in large response to the tur­moil within the party. The Democ­rats don’t roll back the draft, and in fact in ‘68, it’s not just what’s going on the street dur­ing the Demo­c­ra­tic Con­ven­tion, but what hap­pens inside: 80% of Demo­c­ra­tic vot­ers vote to end the war and the party says screw you, we’re stick­ing to our pro-war plat­form and can­di­date. It’s only when there con­tin­ues to be this mas­sive social desta­bi­liza­tion – think about May 1970, with basi­cally all the good schools being shut down, and most of the rest of them – that a series of con­ces­sions to the mid­dle are made. Those con­ces­sions make it impos­si­ble to sus­tain the kind of prac­tices – anti-impe­ri­al­ist claims, cou­pled with armed self-defense, as well as efforts at local self-gov­er­nance – that the Black Pan­ther Party is cham­pi­oning. We make this claim explic­itly in the book: if there still were only six black rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Con­gress and no sig­nif­i­cant black local lead­er­ship elec­torally, and no access for black stu­dents to edu­ca­tion at elite insti­tu­tions or at least very lit­tle, and a mas­sive draft, and all these anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gles going on glob­ally, you would still have a BPP today.

Why does the BPP end and why does it split? It splits and ends because it becomes increas­ingly dif­fi­cult to sus­tain those prac­tices as a source of power and more and more allies obtain insti­tu­tion­al­ized ways of meet­ing their needs. Who is it that mobi­lizes for national response to the killing of Fred Hamp­ton? It’s Whit­ney Young, the head of the Urban Defense League! You can­not get more mod­er­ate than the Urban Defense League. And why? Because he sup­ports the Pan­thers? Of course not. It’s because you can’t go and kill young black activists in their beds, and we can’t get our kids from respectable black fam­i­lies into mid­dle class or good uni­ver­si­ties, or make legit­i­mate runs for elec­toral office. And who is it that is doing the law cases, buy­ing the news­pa­pers, and so on? A lot of that is the friends and fam­i­lies and the draftees. As those dynam­ics change, it becomes harder and harder to sup­port. At the same time, the Party has become really big and influ­en­tial, and so it’s very much in the spot­light and those pres­sures are get­ting more intense as well. The inter­nal con­tra­dic­tions are there all along, but they’re con­tain­able so long as the set of insur­gent prac­tices pro­vides a way to build power from below.

BM: I just want to clar­ify. Are you say­ing that the insur­gent prac­tices them­selves pro­duce power inso­far as they enable the strate­gic alliances you’ve just dis­cussed? Is that the crux of the kind of power that you’re describ­ing them as pro­duc­ing? Because it seems that what makes the insur­gent prac­tices work, despite the repres­sion, is not only their dis­rup­tion, but the the way in which dis­rup­tion and repres­sion expanded the Party’s capac­ity to artic­u­late unity between all these dif­fer­ent strug­gles that were tak­ing place con­cur­rently: so, to main­tain a pro­gram of self-defense while also to speak­ing for the black mid­dle class, stu­dents resist­ing the war, etc. They are able to put for­ward, if not a pro­gram, then at least a vision of com­mon strug­gle. So that moment of decom­po­si­tion, break­ing apart, dis­ar­tic­u­la­tion, is I think what we’re try­ing to get at in the ques­tion about the rela­tion­ship between these insur­gent prac­tices and the BPP’s base. Maybe it would be clearer to talk about that moment in terms of these strate­gic alliances.

JB: Almost, I would put it a lit­tle dif­fer­ently. I think the crux of the power is the dis­rup­tion which, again, is some­thing that is avail­able very widely. I could go right now and lay down in the mid­dle of the street, and there’s dis­rup­tion right there. If you look at the civil rights move­ment, there was never a dis­so­lu­tion of alliances. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment never renounced civil rights, lib­er­als never advo­cated going back to hav­ing Jim Crow, black churches never apol­o­gized, etc. So with the civil rights move­ment, those alliances were never degraded. The crux of the issue, the source of power, is the form of dis­rup­tion. In the civil rights move­ment, the source of power was being able to inter­fere bod­ily with Jim Crow. For the Pan­thers, it was being able to inter­fere directly with con­tain­ment polic­ing. For the civil rights move­ment that lever­age, that crux of power, was removed because con­ces­sions were made directly to the move­ment. For the BPP, those forms of dis­rup­tion are avail­able today: you could still stand up to police and have some sort of armed move­ment. Now, you’d get killed and labelled a ter­ror­ist, and every­one would be happy that you went to prison. So that’s the sec­ond piece. What makes that crux or lever­age sus­tain­able is that it dri­ves a wedge in a broader insti­tu­tion­al­ized cleav­age. It’s not that Whit­ney Young ever agreed with the BPP, it’s that there was a big polit­i­cal cleav­age between all black polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing the most mod­er­ate, and all the estab­lish­ment insti­tu­tions, whether you look at elec­toral rep­re­sen­ta­tion, or munic­i­pal hir­ing of police, or access to edu­ca­tion, class mobil­ity, etc. So there’s this mas­sive, much larger, polit­i­cal cleav­age that’s way beyond what the Party is, or who the Pan­thers’ con­stituency is, for that mat­ter, it’s this very broad insti­tu­tion­al­ized cleav­age. What the Party’s prac­tices did is they cre­ated dis­rup­tion in a way that drove a wedge into that cleav­age, that brought sup­port from the other side of that cleav­age. Not because those peo­ple on the other side sup­ported the Party, but because the repres­sion of the Party was threat­en­ing to them.


BM: Your book firmly reori­ents the his­tory of the Black Pan­ther Party towards its anti-impe­ri­al­ism, as we’ve briefly dis­cussed – after all, you titled the book Black Against Empire, and the first scene of the book describes Huey Newton’s meet­ing with Zhou Enlai in Bei­jing. The Black Pan­ther Party, along with many other Black Power cur­rents, argued that because African Amer­i­cans con­sti­tuted an oppressed colony inside the United States, their strug­gle for self-deter­mi­na­tion was indis­so­cia­bly linked to the anti-colo­nial and anti-impe­ri­al­ist rev­o­lu­tions rock­ing the globe from the 1950s to the 1970s. The Pan­thers had very close ties to rev­o­lu­tion­ary regimes, such as Alge­ria, and sup­ported anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gles, as in Viet­nam and Palestine. But these other anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gles in turn sup­ported the Pan­thers, sup­ply­ing them with ideas, inspi­ra­tional exam­ples, and aid. Thus, you argue that anti-impe­ri­al­ism was not a mere sup­ple­ment to the Party, but a fun­da­men­tal axis of their pol­i­tics. What, exactly, did the Pan­thers mean by impe­ri­al­ism? Would you say that the broader anti-impe­ri­al­ist con­text of the time was a pri­mary con­di­tion for the suc­cess of the Black Pan­ther Party? Where do we stand now that impe­ri­al­ism has changed, and the back­drop of Third World rev­o­lu­tion that helped make the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments in the advanced cap­i­tal­ist world pos­si­ble in the 1960s and 1970s no longer exist in the same way?

JB: So there’s actu­ally three ques­tions in there, and I’m going to take the sec­ond one first. Was global anti-impe­ri­al­ism cen­tral to the par­tic­u­lar form of prac­tice that was advanced by the BPP and its power? Absolutely. The par­tic­u­lar form of insur­gent prac­tice that the BPP devel­oped, and that cre­ated this kind of sus­tained dis­rup­tion, for really only three years, depended in a tremen­dous way on the extent and exis­tence of anti-impe­ri­al­ist strug­gles inter­na­tion­ally. Not only directly for fund­ing and polit­i­cal sup­port and these kinds of things, which in real­ity was not that sig­nif­i­cant – it’s not like there was that much money com­ing in or any­thing like that. Yes, Cuba said they were going to build a mil­i­tary train­ing ground, but it never hap­pened, and yes, there was an embassy in Alge­ria, but how many Pan­thers were there? You can count them on a hand or two. So was that essen­tial for the resources of the move­ment? No. Was it essen­tial for the polit­i­cal imag­i­nary and the way that the Party allied with other con­stituen­cies in the United States? Absolutely. You couldn’t have had an anti-impe­ri­al­ist anti-war move­ment with those strug­gles, and it was only because of this anti-impe­ri­al­ism that peo­ple could say “we are part and parcel of the strug­gle of black peo­ple against police bru­tal­ity, we are part and parcel of the strug­gle of the Viet­namese against the Mari­nes.” That was an anal­ogy that the BPP actively cham­pi­oned, and cham­pi­oned it in such a way as to cre­ate that com­mon cause. You couldn’t cre­ate that com­mon cause, you couldn’t have draft resis­tance, with­out that anal­ogy. You know, draft resis­tance in many ways pre­ceded the devel­op­ment of the Party, but it did not pre­cede the devel­op­ment of black anti-impe­ri­al­ism. Stokely Carmichael dragged SDS into draft resis­tance, and the Party took that posi­tion, and it really was in many ways in ref­er­ence to the black anti-impe­ri­al­ism that the Party cham­pi­oned that the anti-impe­ri­al­ist folks who really led and devel­oped the anti-war move­ment cen­ter­ing on the insur­gent prac­tices focused on draft resis­tance really were able to legit­i­mate for them­selves and their con­stituen­cies and sup­port­ers broader sup­port. Because if you look at draft resis­tance in ‘64, ‘65, espe­cially among whites, it was these white Catholic groups that were try­ing it out early on, they were branded trai­tors, they were trea­so­nous, they were beaten in the street, and nobody cared. Draft resis­tance was cen­tral to the Party’s pol­i­tics.

So that anal­ogy with Black Amer­ica, and in many ways with the civil rights move­ment, that the Party took up and espoused really was essen­tial. You couldn’t have had the Black Pan­ther Party with­out those kinds of inter­na­tional strug­gles.

To return to your first ques­tion: what exactly did the Black Pan­ther Party mean by impe­ri­al­ism or anti-impe­ri­al­ism? The Party didn’t exactly mean any­thing by any­thing! The Party was not an aca­d­e­mic dis­course. Huey had some of those incli­na­tions, and he was great the­o­rist in many ways and tried to artic­u­late cer­tain things more clearly, but there’s no real schol­arly pre­ci­sion – where these terms and ideas have pre­ci­sion is in their prac­tice. They don’t have pre­ci­sion in a tex­tual or def­i­n­i­tional way. In fact, from leader to leader, from time to time, from city to city, over the course of the Party’s devel­op­ment – look at the Gar­veyite roots in New York ver­sus the stri­dent anti-pork chop nation­al­ism of the Oak­land Pan­thers – there were very strong and very stark ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences across the var­i­ous chap­ters. There was no pre­cise con­sen­sus, ever, on any­thing in the Party. What’s impor­tant to under­stand is the way that anti-impe­ri­al­ism helped con­sti­tute those prac­tices.

Emory Dou­glas really cap­tured this idea of impe­ri­al­ism in a graphic that I repro­duce in the book, of a pig stomp­ing on a resister. There are three pan­els and they’re all the same, but the first is the police and Black Amer­ica, the sec­ond is the National Guard and the draft resisters, and the third is the Mari­nes and the Viet­namese. That anal­ogy is cru­cial to the pol­i­tics of the BPP. With­out that anal­ogy, they can’t carry out and sus­tain insur­gency. They can only do so because they’re say­ing, “we’re part and parcel of this strug­gle that you all are part and parcel of, and a lot of you [our sup­port­ers and allies] all come out and help fight the court cases, feed the kids break­fast,” all of those activ­i­ties.


BM: As you point out, the Black Pan­ther Party saw their strug­gle as one of national lib­er­a­tion. But the Pan­thers saw their nation­al­ism as fun­da­men­tally a rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ist one. Thus, the Party con­demned the black bour­geoisie as col­lab­o­ra­tors, crit­i­cized those who adhered to a kind of “pork chop” cul­tural nation­al­ism that essen­tial­ized black­ness into an iden­tity, and actively sought out alliances with other oppressed non-black rev­o­lu­tion­ary groups such as the Puerto Rican Young Lords Orga­ni­za­tion or the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can Brown Berets. They even worked with the Young Patri­ots, an orga­ni­za­tion of poor whites whose leader often wore a Black Pan­ther but­ton and a Con­fed­er­ate flag together. What was the basis of this par­tic­u­lar kind of nation­al­ism? Why did the Pan­thers place such a strong empha­sis on work­ing with other oppressed peo­ples? And how has this anti-cap­i­tal­ist nation­al­ism, and the grounds for cross-racial sol­i­dar­ity in gen­eral, trans­formed since the 1970s?

JB: The first two ques­tions are about what is the char­ac­ter of the Pan­ther nation­al­ism and why was work­ing with other oppressed peo­ple so impor­tant. Again, I think that dif­fer­ent peo­ple thought about it in dif­fer­ent ways. I argue that the Pan­thers are so well-known because that par­tic­u­lar form of nation­al­ism answered prac­ti­cal con­cerns. I was shocked when I started research­ing to find out many young black peo­ple were answer­ing very sim­i­lar ques­tions in cities all around the coun­try in a very sophis­ti­cated way. Have you seen Soul­book, the mag­a­zine that Bobby Seale worked on? I mean, they’re beau­ti­fully done, as well as strik­ing and deep. Some of the most influ­en­tial black rev­o­lu­tion­ary nation­al­ists, like Harold Cruse and Harry Hay­wood, had major essays pub­lished there. And a lot of the ideas that you see in the party are all there! There’s also RAM’s mag­a­zine, Black Amer­ica. This dis­cus­sion was going on so pow­er­fully. Every­body of the genre of the Pan­thers was look­ing at the civil rights move­ment and say­ing: “We can over­come. We can build power from below. Look, our peo­ple just dis­man­tled Jim Crow. And yet here we are up in the ghetto, being beat up by the police. We can’t feed our­selves and we don’t even have any real access not only to money, but even polit­i­cal power and rep­re­sen­ta­tion.” So the ques­tion became: how do we build that move­ment that really addresses the fun­da­men­tal con­cerns that the civil rights move­ment at its heart was about? Civil rights prac­tices tar­geted Jim Crow, seg­re­ga­tion, and they also made claims for incor­po­ra­tion. But what peo­ple really cared about was free­dom. And some part of free­dom had been won, but lots of it hadn’t. In places like Oak­land, the fact of how lit­tle of those changes had actu­ally been made was pretty stark. Many sharp, young black peo­ple were ask­ing this ques­tion in very sophis­ti­cated, orga­nized, and force­ful ways in this period. The Pan­thers found an answer that, again, and I can’t empha­size this enough, wasn’t an ideational answer. It wasn’t a per­fect tex­tual response; it was a prac­ti­cal response. Now those ideas of rev­o­lu­tion­ary nation­al­ism, black lib­er­a­tion, etc., were essen­tial to the prac­tice. You couldn’t have had the Panther’s anti-impe­ri­al­ist prac­tices, or sus­tained armed self-defense, with­out an anti-impe­ri­al­ist pol­i­tics. It’s a cohe­sive, uni­tary cul­tural tech­nol­ogy. You can’t have one with­out the other in any sus­tained way. So the ideas are essen­tial to what the party is advanc­ing. But the essen­tial cri­te­ria is “how well can the party sus­tain dis­rup­tion in this moment?” And a big piece of why they could sus­tain dis­rup­tion in this moment is that they’re able to draw not only black sup­port, but that they’re able to draw all kinds of peo­ple to their cause. I mean, who were the lawyers of the party? To pay those lawyers, you’re talk­ing mil­lions of dol­lars a day. Who are those lawyers? The sharpest, bright­est minds from the top uni­ver­si­ties. But they were com­mit­ted because they felt as part of the broader New Left, and anti-impe­ri­al­ist New Left, that there was no recourse for them in the United States as it was con­fig­ured.

And how about the Young Lords, the Young Patri­ots, or the Red Guard and the I Wor Kuen? You had these immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties that were strug­gling, try­ing to find their way. Dur­ing the San Fran­cisco State stu­dent strike, this dimen­sion was taken to a whole new level, where groups were all able to say: “We’re all excluded. We’ve got a sim­i­lar thing, with our own dis­tinct and unique his­to­ries and a unique and dis­tinct rela­tion­ship here with the uni­ver­sity. But there’s a com­mon­al­ity in that we’re excluded. And by work­ing together across these divides, we can actu­ally over­come some of that.” And the Black Pan­ther Party, unlike many of the forms of black nation­al­ism, was able to make those ties. The class pol­i­tics was cen­tral to it. It’s not that all of the Party’s allies were work­ing class or poor by any means – many of the lawyers, for exam­ple. But class pol­i­tics was cen­tral to under­stand­ing what this global empire that all these groups were fight­ing against was, more broadly. There were moments when those kinds of anti-impe­ri­al­ist nation­al­ism and Marx­ism were artic­u­lated more sharply. But it goes back to that three-part anal­ogy in Emory Douglas’s car­toon. In the same way that you can’t under­stand the Party with­out anti-impe­ri­al­ism inter­na­tion­ally ‒ it just wouldn’t have existed ‒ you can’t have a Black Pan­ther Party with­out this anal­ogy, i.e., that we’re all fight­ing in some way against a com­mon impe­ri­al­ist enemy. That’s the cen­tral idea, the guid­ing and coher­ent thread.

PK: This ques­tion of alliances can bring us back to some of the points you were talk­ing about ear­lier. One of the most provoca­tive claims in Black Against Empire is the argu­ment that repres­sion did not, strictly speak­ing, lead to the destruc­tion of the Black Pan­ther Party. Indeed, in the face of such extreme repres­sion (infil­tra­tion, fos­ter­ing inter­nal divi­sions, mass arrests, and assas­si­na­tions), you argue that the Party actu­ally grew. The Party was able to turn repres­sion to its advan­tage by build­ing these broad alliances with other rad­i­cals, pro­gres­sives, and lib­eral sym­pa­thiz­ers. Given the immense expan­sion, and increased sophis­ti­ca­tion, of the repres­sive and ide­o­log­i­cal state appa­ra­tuses in this coun­try, as well as the trans­for­ma­tion of main­stream lib­er­al­ism itself, do you think this dynamic has changed? Can we still coun­ter inevitable state repres­sion in the same way, in moments of con­tem­po­rary activism? 

JB: You’re ask­ing a con­tem­po­rary ques­tion there. Let me start by reit­er­at­ing the case that I make in the book and provide a lit­tle bit of quan­ti­ta­tive sup­port that wasn’t in the book. 

There’s no doubt that dur­ing the period of harsh­est repres­sion of the Party, it con­tin­ued to grow con­sid­er­ably. One index to mea­sure this is look­ing at the FBI records on the extent of growth of local chap­ters of the Party, or FBI records of the income of the Party, or cov­er­age in the main­stream press like the New York Times. Some peo­ple say that the Party was media dri­ven, but the real­ity is that media cov­er­age fol­lows the growth of the Party. But it fol­lowed it pow­er­fully dur­ing the Party’s growth in 1970, when there was a peak in news cov­er­age. At that point, the BPP some­times aver­aged three sto­ries a day, which is more than any sin­gle civil rights orga­ni­za­tion in the hey­day of the civil rights move­ment. This was also the period when the fed­eral gov­ern­ment was going all-out in terms of repres­sion, in coor­di­na­tion with local gov­ern­ments and police forces; but undoubt­edly, the Party con­tin­ued to grow pow­er­fully in the face of repres­sion. In other words, the Party’s great­est growth hap­pened in peri­ods of very intense repres­sion. And in fact, almost all of the Party’s growth was in the face of intense repres­sion. Very lit­tle growth hap­pened antecedent to those kinds of dynam­ics.

The ques­tion, then, about the future is: what hap­pens in the face of an increased capac­ity for repres­sion? And I would add not just repres­sion ‒ I sort of sug­gest this at the end of the book, but I read Gram­sci very seri­ously. I see the sus­tain­ing of social order as being also very much about con­sent. Not only have the tech­nolo­gies for repres­sion become more pow­er­ful and more tar­geted, I would argue more­over that the tech­nolo­gies of con­sent and mech­a­nisms of con­ces­sion have become more vastly pow­er­ful and ubiq­ui­tous. Think about Hol­ly­wood to inter­net to video games to Prozac to you name it. Absolutely, those are chal­lenges.

There’s a quan­ti­ta­tive change in repres­sion and con­sent, sure, but there’s also a qual­i­ta­tive change. The forms of repres­sion and the forms of con­sent are dif­fer­ent, and so the solu­tions are them­selves inevitably dif­fer­ent. I don’t know how you prove this, other than just man­i­fest­ing it in the world. There’s not really a proof for the claims that I’m about to make, but it’s my feel­ing, it’s my opin­ion, from hav­ing read his­tory and seen plenty of moments where peo­ple felt fatal­is­tic and felt like there was no way out ‒ where the things that had worked pre­vi­ously did not work. I think there has also been pro­gress and that these same tech­nolo­gies and same tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments are also tools that can be used, even if they are not panaceas. So no, the rev­o­lu­tion will not be tweeted, and sug­ges­tions like that are really mis­placed. But, I do think that what it comes down to is the cul­tural tech­nol­ogy of insur­gent prac­tice. There are always, every­where, in every social space, in every moment, strong and large insti­tu­tional con­tra­dic­tions. There are always social divi­sions, whether they’re class divi­sions, rela­tions of exploita­tion, whether they’re racial sub­or­di­na­tion, whether they’re patri­archy, whether they’re gen­dered divi­sions or cul­tural divi­sions or reli­gious ones: human soci­ety ubiq­ui­tously gen­er­ates rela­tions of dom­i­na­tion, sub­or­di­na­tion and divi­sion. And in doing so, it ubiq­ui­tously gen­er­ates insti­tu­tion­al­ized divi­sions. And those divi­sions are always a resource for insur­gency. Now, the divi­sions are not the same and the con­stituen­cies are not the same. The tar­gets or tac­tics can­not be the same. The claims can’t be the same. But it’s my strong belief that there’s always the capac­ity for peo­ple to tap the power of dis­rup­tion, and find ways to lever­age those broader insti­tu­tion­al­ized cleav­ages in order to sus­tain dis­rup­tion as a source of power from below. 

PK: Alongside repres­sion, the Party’s han­dling of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity is often named as one of the cen­tral rea­sons for their decline. In fact, it’s one of the few argu­ments that brings together the social-demo­c­ra­tic and insur­rec­tionary fac­tions – Elaine Brown and Assata Shakur have made remark­ably sim­i­lar obser­va­tions about patri­archy in the party. Some have even drawn a causal link between the force of repres­sion and the dan­ger­ous prac­tice of patri­archy that was active in some quar­ters, show­ing how “misog­y­nists make great infor­mants.” While you and Mar­tin admit that there were misog­y­nis­tic men in the orga­ni­za­tion, and that patri­archy and male power were still oper­a­tive like in the broader world, your book stakes two inter­ven­tions into this his­tory. First, you argue that the pol­i­tics of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity is a dynamic and con­tested ques­tion, and changes sig­nif­i­cantly from the found­ing of the Party in 1966 to the early 1970s, as evi­denced in Newton’s own writ­ings; but you also main­tain that the Pan­thers con­sis­tently relied on women’s lead­er­ship and labor in main­tain­ing some of their most effec­tive sur­vival pro­grams. How do we square these two view­points: the cri­tiques of patri­ar­chal atti­tudes and struc­tures within the BPP by lead­ing female mem­bers, but also the more quo­tid­ian, but still rev­o­lu­tion­ary activism car­ried out by so many rank and file women Party mem­bers, and which often leaves lit­tle his­tor­i­cal trace? Can we see a tra­jec­tory from the BPP’s gen­der pol­i­tics to the lead­er­ship role taken by women and queer activists in cur­rent anti-racist strug­gles?

JB: Well, it was messy, right? And espe­cially so in terms of gen­der pol­i­tics. Ericka Hug­gins has told a story of going into a local Pan­ther office and being told to wait as the women cook the meal and the men sit down and eat inde­pen­dently; then the women and chil­dren would wait in the other room until the men fin­ished eat­ing. That was often stan­dard within a par­tic­u­lar kind of black nation­al­ism, a kind of misog­y­nis­tic black nation­al­ism. If you think about Ron Karenga and the US orga­ni­za­tion, that was built on a lot of those kinds of gen­dered nation­alisms. And, let’s be hon­est: today when you open the New York Times, there’s white men in suits on the front page, and women in under­wear sell­ing per­fume, jew­elry, and clothes on the sec­ond. So there was noth­ing orig­i­nal or unique about the misog­yny of the Black Pan­ther Party. It was def­i­nitely a seri­ous prob­lem that had real con­se­quences. It also was ini­tially a mas­culin­ized kind of lib­er­a­tion project, in that it was an asser­tion of black man­hood: “we’re going to stand up and resist the police.” Much of the early con­stituency, too, was young black men who were engaged in dif­fer­ent activ­i­ties of armed self-defense against the police. All that said, the Party took the ques­tion of other forms of oppres­sion, includ­ing gen­der oppres­sion, very seri­ously, not in the least var­i­ous male lead­ers in the party – Huey New­ton most sig­nif­i­cantly. Misog­yny was cen­tral among those, and they sought to chal­lenge and raise those ques­tions. Those debates become really cen­tral in the Party. As we say in the book, young black women increas­ingly became the cen­tral, dri­ving force of the Party. In fact, there’s a tremen­dous archival trace of this, which we describe. There’s many arti­cles in the Black Pan­ther news­pa­per that were writ­ten by women, although some pro-fem­i­nist men, rais­ing ques­tions of gen­der dynam­ics and gen­der lib­er­a­tion. So, while the Party came out of a milieu of wide­spread misog­yny, both in terms of black activism but also soci­ety more broadly, those assump­tions and those dynam­ics were chal­lenged from fairly early on from within the Party, espe­cially by women. They were incor­po­rated into the Party’s pol­i­tics and inter­nal mes­sages to such an extent that by 1970 or 1971, the BPP became the first major black polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion to endorse gay rights. I mean, that was just not hap­pen­ing very much in that moment, and it affected the Party’s daily polit­i­cal work. Many changes were incor­po­rated into the day to day activ­ity of the orga­ni­za­tion to reflect this stance. 

Noth­ing was lin­ear, straight­for­ward or con­sis­tent across all bases, so it would be com­pletely disin­gen­u­ous to assert that the Party was at the fore­front of women’s lib­er­a­tion. In some moments, how­ever, it was, and the pol­i­tics sur­round­ing it were always inter­est­ing. Think about the New Haven trial for Bobby Seale: peo­ple think about the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment grow­ing out of the strug­gle for civil rights, but to a large extent, the New Haven women’s move­ment grew out of sol­i­dar­ity and sup­port for Ericka Hug­gins in New Haven.  Many of the peo­ple that were a part of that mobi­liza­tion were not out sup­port­ing Bobby Seale as a fig­ure of male lead­er­ship; they only wanted to sup­port Ericka Hug­gins. They didn’t want to sup­port male lead­er­ship. These were very real divi­sions which were truly raw. But at cer­tain times and places, the Party had an effec­tive impact. Again, this wasn’t an over­ar­ch­ing, coher­ent story, as many peo­ple doc­u­ment. There were all kinds of misog­yny alive and pow­er­ful in the oper­a­tions of pol­i­tics of the Party.

“Mis­ery Mis­ery: Ain’t We Got A Right to the Tree of Life?”

BM: Okay, last ques­tion. It might also be a place to talk about some of the con­tem­po­rane­ity of ques­tions of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity, nation­al­ism and inter­na­tion­al­ism, and some of the orga­ni­za­tional ques­tions that we’ve been bring­ing up through­out the inter­view. In one of the lines of argu­ment near the end of the book, you give a sum­mary reflec­tion on the Pan­thers’ own decline as viable polit­i­cal move­ment: “No rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment of polit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance will gain a foothold in the United States again until a group of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies devel­ops insur­gent prac­tices that seize the polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion of a large seg­ment of the peo­ple and suc­ces­sively draw sup­port from other con­stituen­cies, cre­at­ing a broad insur­gent alliance that is dif­fi­cult to repress or appease.” In fact, how­ever, over the past year, with the rise of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment and con­nected orga­ni­za­tions, we’ve seen a resur­gence in large-scale protest activ­ity cen­tered around many of the issues the Pan­thers them­selves faced: police bru­tal­ity, entrenched racism in social ser­vices, and urban poverty. Do you see this rise in activism as a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge, with the abil­ity to pro­lif­er­ate and develop new insur­gent prac­tices? How does this new wave com­pare to the his­tor­i­cal move­ment you’ve stud­ied, and what are some resources that seri­ous study of the het­ero­ge­neous cur­rents of the Black Power/Long Civil Rights era could provide us with now? 

JB: To start, I want to stress that this is an excit­ing moment his­tor­i­cally. But so far, I don’t think that Black Lives Mat­ter is really com­pa­ra­ble, in terms of the scale of artic­u­la­tion and mobi­liza­tion, with the Black Pan­ther Party. I’m not sure if we can call it a move­ment yet. I think in many ways it’s par­al­lel with the call for Black Power and the ques­tion that call for Black Power posed. When I talked about RAM, the group around Soul­book, and those orga­ni­za­tions all around the coun­try that were ask­ing the ques­tion of “how do we build a move­ment that chal­lenges police bru­tal­ity, that chal­lenges ghet­toiza­tion, that chal­lenges exclu­sion from elec­toral pol­i­tics?” I think that’s the kind of moment that Black Lives Mat­ter rep­re­sents right now, and poses these ques­tions. It’s also tied to the ques­tions posed by Michelle Alexan­der, with the recog­ni­tion of the New Jim Crow. How do you have the per­sis­tence of a very strong and very sta­tis­ti­cally clear sys­tem of racial sub­or­di­na­tion in this post-racial era, where race sup­pos­edly doesn’t even exist? Alexan­der actu­ally pro­vides a frame­work for think­ing about that ques­tion, espe­cially around the War on Drugs and penal sen­tenc­ing, and how a color-blind­ness came to con­sti­tute a new form of per­sis­tent racial sub­or­di­na­tion, and we can call that the New Jim Crow. 

I think what Black Lives Mat­ter does, is that it very specif­i­cally attaches the effort to dis­man­tle the New Jim Crow to this front of police bru­tal­ity, as it is expe­ri­enced and lived. Now, what has hap­pened in the past few years is that there’s a pierc­ing of the veil, to use W.E.B. Du Bois’s phrase. In Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois talks about Black Amer­ica liv­ing in a dif­fer­ent world, one that white Amer­ica can­not see or access. In turn, Black Amer­ica lives out this dou­ble con­scious­ness: it lives both behind the veil, but also expe­ri­ences what’s going on in the dom­i­nant soci­ety. With the numer­ous record­ings of these instances of police bru­tal­ity, cap­tured through rel­a­tively recent video tech­nolo­gies, there has been a pierc­ing of the veil, as it were. But let’s be clear: hardly any black per­son liv­ing in the United States is sur­prised by these videos; cer­tainly not many poor black peo­ple are sur­prised, or even peo­ple who work to an exten­sive extent in black communities.This is not new, it’s been going on for decades. There is a kind of polic­ing of black com­mu­ni­ties that is very much akin to what Frantz Fanon talks about in Wretched of the Earth: the rule of the rifle butt and bay­o­net. It doesn’t fol­low the order or rules of civil soci­ety – it’s a rule of force. Those are the con­di­tions in which many com­mu­ni­ties have lived under and have inter­acted with police for decades.

What hap­pens in this moment of post-racial mythol­ogy is that since there are so many peo­ple who are not liv­ing in and insu­lated from life behind the veil, when that veil is rup­tured by this video footage of what it means to be black in Amer­ica – to be killed with impunity, with no recourse in the jus­tice sys­tem – when that’s exposed, it shakes things up. Some desta­bi­liza­tion hap­pens there, and it’s some­thing poten­tially com­pa­ra­ble to what was hap­pen­ing in the early civil rights move­ment, in the sense that there was a sys­temic decou­pling with the decline of the cot­ton econ­omy and a break­ing of the national con­sen­sus on Jim Crow – but there was also news footage, you could broad­cast these vio­la­tions of civil rights. But the news footage itself did not dis­man­tle Jim Crow. The video record­ings of bru­tal police mur­ders will not dis­man­tle the New Jim Crow. And already, there has been a coor­di­nated, pow­er­ful fed­eral and munic­i­pal response to suture the wound – a con­certed response to try to show that everything’s okay. Keep this thing out of the news, and let’s reas­sure our­selves that Amer­ica is actu­ally okay. Author­i­ties at the local level, together with clear national coor­di­na­tion, are try­ing to fill this hole in the veil and are fig­ur­ing out insti­tu­tional responses. But there’s very lit­tle moti­va­tion on the part of those author­i­ties to actu­ally dis­man­tle the New Jim Crow, and very lit­tle evi­dence that they will do much to dis­man­tle it. 

The way that his­tory works in my read­ing – if you think about Michels and the Iron Law of Oli­garchy – it’s not just that the rich get richer, but that the pow­er­ful become more pow­er­ful. Why? Because as you accu­mu­late and gain insti­tu­tional power, you have an increased capac­ity to set the rules of the game. So if you’re rac­ing, and you’re both doing devel­op­men­tal pol­i­tics and doing the best you can with what you have, the peo­ple ahead of you in an exploita­tive, polar­ized, oppres­sive rela­tion­ship are always going to get ahead faster. Impor­tant junc­tures and changes in that dynamic are some­times dri­ven by tech­nol­ogy, but more often are cat­alyzed from below, when peo­ple have fig­ured out how to make busi­ness as usual impos­si­ble, and how to sus­tain dis­rup­tion as a source of power.

BLM has not fig­ured out the last part: how to sus­tain dis­rup­tion as a source of power. The biggest growth of the move­ment, which we can see in pre­lim­i­nary quan­ti­ta­tive analy­ses from event data, came with the death of Michael Brown. Of course, the phrase itself came with the death of Trayvon Mar­tin, but you really got a national move­ment with Mike Brown. Eric Gar­ner was killed before Brown, but his case received more atten­tion as the move­ment erupted out of Fer­gu­son. And I believe that Fer­gu­son was such a big deal because it almost looked more like the old Jim Crow. “You guys are going to have the audac­ity to non­vi­o­lently protest this thing? You’re black, get your ass in place.” They brought out tanks and mil­i­tary gear, and pro­ceeded to beat the hell out of the pro­test­ers who were doing basi­cally what they had learned and everyone’s sup­posed to do – the non­vi­o­lent, civil rights protest prac­tices. They treated the non­vi­o­lent pro­test­ers in Fer­gu­son much like how peo­ple had been treated in the hey­day of the civil rights move­ment. And there is a strong national con­sen­sus that those actions by law enforce­ment author­i­ties are not tol­er­a­ble, and a national move­ment emerged. But what hap­pened sub­se­quently?

When you look at those Eric Gar­ner mobi­liza­tions in New York, both after the ini­tial inci­dents and again after it was regen­er­ated by the the upris­ing in Mis­souri, there was a very big wave of protests fol­low­ing the fail­ure to indict in Decem­ber. Peo­ple were ask­ing: “how is that pos­si­ble, we have a video of Gar­ner say­ing I can’t breathe, and you won’t even take it to a court to find out?” This is pre­cisely a rup­tur­ing of the veil, and lots of peo­ple were mobi­lized. And what do they do? They shut things down, dis­rupted daily activ­i­ties, like the planned actions in Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion: “We’re going to have a die-in in Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion every­day until we get jus­tice.” How did those events unfold? Well, on day one, there’s real sup­port, because the mobi­liz­ing event is fresh in people’s minds. On day two, there’s still sup­port, but less so. And it pro­gres­sively decreases from there. By week three there’s almost a con­sen­sus reac­tion of “get out of my way, I’ve got to get my kids to school and I’ve got to get to work.”

It’s obvi­ous in this case that you have dis­rup­tion that is not cou­pled in any coher­ent way with the actual claims of the move­ment, and does not suc­ceed in lever­ag­ing those broader insti­tu­tional cleav­ages. There’s all kinds of peo­ple upset about all kinds of things, and all kinds of peo­ple who think that the way that Black Amer­ica is being treated at the hands of the police and the legal sys­tem is quite alarm­ing and a big prob­lem. But no cul­tural tech­nol­ogy exists for mak­ing busi­ness as usual impos­si­ble in a way that draws all those folks on board, to the point where they’re say­ing: “and when we get repressed, that repres­sion feels just as impor­tant to me as the ini­tial killing felt to me in the first place.” It is not as threat­en­ing to you when those activists are try­ing to shut down Grand Cen­tral and every­one else is try­ing to go about their daily busi­ness. It’s not like you’re out­raged and peo­ple are cir­cu­lat­ing videos about the activists three weeks in, block­ing traf­fic – those peo­ple are being taken off in hand­cuffs. But peo­ple need to be out­raged. The only way Black Lives Mat­ter will become a move­ment, and the only way that we’ll dis­man­tle the New Jim Crow, is if we develop the cul­tural tech­nolo­gies, the insur­gent prac­tices, the repres­sion of which would be just as threat­en­ing as the ini­tial events them­selves.

Authors of the article

teaches Sociology at UCLA. He is the author, with Waldo E. Martin, of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, and co-editor of Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy.

is a member of the editorial collective of Viewpoint and a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.

is managing editor at Viewpoint.