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Artillery Row

Moral crusade – or extremist front?

Thousands have marched for Black Lives Matter without realising the movement’s revolutionary aims

In February 2003, three quarters of a million people marched through the streets of London to protest against plans by Blair’s Labour government to go to war in Iraq. It was the biggest demonstration the capital had ever seen. But it wasn’t long before questions began to be asked about the organisers, the Stop the War Coalition. On closer examination, it appeared that most of the StWC committee, including Labour backbench MP Jeremy Corbyn, were revolutionary socialists whose radical aims had very little in common with the vast majority of those who unknowingly marched under their banner.

It’s hard to avoid noticing the parallels in 2020. Once again, thousands marching for what they believe is a profound moral cause, unaware that the goals of Black Lives Matter, the movement in whose name the protests took place, were committed to abolish the police and “dismantle imperialism, capitalism, white-supremacy [and] patriarchy”. By the time the penny dropped BLM UK had scooped up more than £1 million and its US parent was tens of millions of dollars richer (questions to BLM US about the exact amount raised went unanswered). In the old days, it was Soviet “red gold” which financed efforts to overthrow of the Western bourgeoisie; now the Western bourgeois were donating the funds to be used against themselves.

BLM takes its cue from Marx: utopia can only come through overthrowing capitalism 

BLM originated in the U.S. in U.S. 2013 as a hashtag campaign in response to the acquittal of a Florida Neighbourhood Watch coordinator accused of murdering 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin. The movement took off so fast that, in a conference in 2015, it gave birth to a new coalition, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), comprising more than 50 organisations representing thousands of black people gathered around a “common vision and agenda”. At its core was BLM and BLM’s founders, three radical black feminists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. While it is very much a twenty-first century radical organisation — two of the three identified themselves as “queer” and announced their intention to foster “a queer‐affirming network”, disrupt “the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure” and dismantle “cis-gender privilege” — BLM’s political foundation lies firmly in an older tradition, that of Marxist-based Black Liberation. Cullors herself admitted this:

We have an ideological frame. Myself and Alicia [Garza] in particular are trained organisers. We are trained Marxists. We are super versed on ideological theories [and] we have some clear direction on where we want to take this movement … We are building this movement for Black Liberation.

To the generation that grew up in the Cold War and remember the Soviet Union’s sponsorship of terrorist groups under the guise of “liberation”, Cullors’s statement will ring familiar bells — as will BLM’s declaration that the United States is a “white supremacist patriarchal society” in which, “in the face of deadly oppression” and “genocide”, “black lives [are] systematically and intentionally targeted for demise”. It was rhetoric such as this which encouraged black revolutionary violence in the 1960s.

When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968 the black civil rights movement lost a powerful voice not only just for racial equality but for its pursuit through non-violent protest. In the disillusion that followed his death, two groups which rejected his nonviolence stepped into the vacuum — the Black Panther Party (BPP) and its even more violent underground offshoot, the Black Liberation Army (BLA). Both believed, as does BLM today, that America was the oppressive capitalist power that had to be overthrown before liberation could come. The police and judicial system, as arms of the state which enforced that oppression, were the irredeemable enemy (BLM’s demand to “defund” the police is not new). Taking their cue from classic Marxist teaching that the new utopia could only come through the overthrow of capitalism, their only departure from The Communist Manifesto was to put themselves, black revolutionaries, in the place of the proletariat at the head of the revolution. The fall of capitalism in America would lead first to the liberation of the worldwide black “diaspora” and then to world communism.

Black Power pin showing the panther with “Power to the People” slogan adopted by the Black Panther party. (Photo by David J; Janice L. Frent/Corbis via Getty Images)

When the “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense” was established, it declared its purpose was to defend the black community from police brutality. But the provocative tactic by which that was carried out — armed “citizen patrols” following and monitoring police officers — was bound to escalate into the violence which eventually erupted between the two. By mid-1969, gun battles between BPP members and the police had become so common that a virtual war had broken out between them. As the violence grew, the authorities became increasingly alarmed and took steps to disrupt and break up the organisation, which was by then financing itself by extortion and armed robbery. A series of raids, trials, deaths in gun battles and internecine killings in factional violence gradually weakened the group. By 1980, the organisation, whose newspaper once had a circulation of 250,000, was down to a few dozen members.

The BPP was unashamedly a Marxist-Leninist party and every member was required to study Mao’s Little Red Book in political education classes. In common with many other revolutionary groups of the time their mindset combined millennial fervour, paranoia, and an indifference to the use of extreme violence:

The Black Panther Party is a revolutionary nationalist group … This country became very rich upon slavery and that slavery is capitalism in the extreme. We have two evils to fight, capitalism and racism. We must destroy both racism and capitalism. The Black Panther Party … will ultimately lead us all out of the horror that is capitalism into the promise that is socialism … The white community is prepared for genocide. The Blacks are not going to die the way the Jews in Europe died. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising will be [our] example.

The Black Liberation Army was even more extreme than the Panthers, from which most of its members were drawn. As the BPP began to fold, it moved to “take up arms for the liberation and self-determination of black people in the United States”. It conducted numerous targeted assassinations of police officers and even the bombed the church in which the funeral of one of its victims was being held. The BLA welcomed the prospect of open civil war, promising to deliver “devastating blows” to the “class enemy … the bourgeois ruling class — and its agents and lackeys”, both black and white, because “anything we do to the bourgeoisie will be fair”:

Being scattered throughout the belly of the beast we have access to his entrails, his vital organs. And we shall take full advantage of this access. We shall strike boldly, ruthlessly, relentlessly. For it is war! War without terms. To tear the Black Nation away from the bourgeois-racist amerikkka entails a war and bloodletting of such magnitude the likes of which these shores have not witnessed for more than 100 years. But such a war is inevitable considering our only other alternative is continued oppression and slavery. It is as the righteous Comrade John Brown once stated: “This guilty land shall not repent except by blood”. Undoubtedly, much of the blood will be black blood. Thousands of us shall die. Perhaps tens of thousands. Millions will be imprisoned, incarcerated, interned. Families will be dislocated, torn away from loved ones, we will be tortured, raped and murdered. But we will fight on and we will win.

Given that Martin Luther King was a vigorous anti-communist, it is scarcely surprising that BLM has chosen to distance itself from him. “If people were looking [to us] for a remake of Martin Luther King Jr, Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, they’d be disappointed,” BLM’s “Herstory” (history) declares. In his place, BLM and the wider Movement for Black Lives have chosen to exalt a number of deeply disturbing individuals and groups. The 2015 conference welcomed, as platform speakers, past BLA members who had been convicted of murder and bank robbery. The programme referred to them as “former political prisoners”. One had been part of a group who walked up to a police patrol car and opened fire on the men inside. One officer was killed, the other seriously wounded. Also welcomed to the platform was the son of another who was still serving life for the 1970 killing of a police officer, shot five times as he sat his desk in a police station.

Conference sessions reflected the same ambivalence to violence. The title of one, “The Black Panther Party: Looking Back to Look Forward”, emphasised the context in which the two groups were now being viewed: rosy-tinted nostalgia and inspiration for future activism. There was a screening and discussion of a new movie, Panther Vanguard of the Revolution, described as “an essential history and a vibrant chronicle of this pivotal movement that birthed a new revolutionary culture in America”. Some would say that the Panthers’ “new revolutionary culture” was nothing short of domestic terrorism. It might be argued that, even though BLM stands at the centre of the M4BL coalition, it is unfair to accuse BLM of endorsing the police killers who were given platforms at the conference. However, enough evidence exists to bear that accusation out.

When Fidel Castro died in November 2016, the Black Lives Matter Global Network (of which Patrisse Cullors, BLM’s co-founder is chair) issued a tribute to him which included the following:

We are particularly grateful to Fidel for holding Mama Assata Shakur, who continues to inspire us. We are thankful that he provided a home for Brother Michael Finney, Ralph Goodwin, and Charles Hill … and sanctuary for so many other Black revolutionaries who were being persecuted by the American government during the Black Power era.

In 1971 Finney, Goodwin and Hill were in a car carrying weapons for another revolutionary group when they were stopped by a police officer. They shot and killed him, then hijacked a TWA plane and fled to Cuba. The officer left a wife and two small children. Years later, the plane’s stewardess, who had a knife held to her throat during the hijack, was still suffering from PTSD as a result of her experience.

BLM policy proposals would bring anarchy and civil disorder to American streets

Assata Shakur is an iconic figure in the history of Black Liberation. In 1973, the car containing Assata and two other BLA members was stopped by two state troopers. They opened fire on the police, leaving one dead and the other severely wounded. One BLA member was killed, Assata was wounded and captured, and the third was captured two days later. Assata was convicted as an accessory to murder but subsequently escaped from custody and fled to Cuba where she claimed political asylum and has lived ever since. There is still a bounty on her head, and she is on the US “most wanted” terrorists list. BLM co-founder Alicia Garza appears to have nothing but admiration for Assata, whose story was also a subject of a session at the 2015 M4BL conference. In an early version of BLM’s “Herstory”, now deleted, Garza wrote: “When I use Assata’s powerful demand in my organising work, I always begin by sharing where it comes from, sharing about Assata’s significance to the Black Liberation Movement, what its political purpose and message is, and why it’s important in our context.” Assata’s “powerful demand” is an uncompromising call for armed black revolution:

I am a revolutionary. A Black revolutionary. By that I mean that I have declared war on all forces that have raped our women, castrated our men, and kept our babies empty-bellied … Every revolution in history has been accomplished by actions, although words are necessary. We must create shields that protect us and spears that penetrate our enemies … We must gain our liberation by any means necessary.

Since the killing of George Floyd, funds have flooded in. How will the money be used? BLM’s most recent statement, that it will “prioritise mutual aid organizations focused on creating sustainable improvements in the material conditions for all black people”, is bland and inoffensive, probably intentionally so. But M4BL have released dozens of pages of policy proposals and it is not unreasonable to suggest that they probably closely mirror the aims of BLM, its leading member. They combine the bizarre and far-fetched with measures that would bring unprecedented anarchy and civil disorder to American streets and homes.

“Prisons, police and all other institutions that inflict violence on Black people” would be “abolished” and the “systems and institutions that criminalise and cage” black people would be defunded. The money saved would pay reparations to “all black people” in the form of universal free healthcare, free lifetime education (the latter costed at an eye-watering $165 billion) and universal basic income which would be neither means-tested nor have any work requirements. There would be retroactive decriminalisation, immediate release, and record expungement of all drug-related offences and prostitution”. The possession and sale of all drugs would be decriminalised “no matter the quantity” and “reparations” paid “to all those affected” (i.e. previously incarcerated). Every drug dealer and gang leader would be back out on the streets and back in business with a large cash handout to start again. American efforts to halt the flow of drugs from South America and their aid to countries there to stop drug production, dismissed as colonialist empire-building, would be defunded too.

Inspired by Marx’s vision of the utopia that was to follow the fall of capitalism, the black liberation movement of the 1960s saw itself as one part of the coming world socialist revolution. Its twenty-first-century inheritor has the same internationalist vision, seeing itself as part of that wider struggle. “Patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders … America is an empire that uses war to expand territory and power,” one policy paper boldly declares:

The interlinked systems of white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy shape the violence we face. As oppressed people living in the US, the belly of global empire, we are in a critical position to build the necessary connections for a global liberation movement [my italics]. Until we are able to overturn US imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy, our brothers and sisters around the world will continue to live in chains. Our struggle is strengthened by our connections to the resistance of peoples around the world fighting for their liberation.

Accordingly, the movement seeks cuts by 50 per cent in US military expenditure and an end to US support to African nations fighting Islamist terrorism such Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia. Presumably, it sees such groups not as terrorists but as fellow liberation fighters. It further demands an end to all support for socialism’s other arch-enemy Israel, mirroring the accusations of fellow leftists across the globe that it is “an apartheid state” which commits “genocide” against the Palestinian people. Black Lives Matter’s veneration of the Panthers long predates the death of George Floyd. In the tension that followed Floyd’s death, it was inevitable that some within the movement would begin to talk more openly about resurrecting the Panther model. In an interview less than a fortnight after the killing, Hawk Newsome, chairman of BLM’s Greater New York chapter, did just that:

We want liberation. We want the power to determine our own destiny. We want freedom from an oppressive government, and we want the immediate end of government-sanctioned murder by the police. And we prepare to stop these government-sanctioned murders by any means necessary. We are preparing and training our people to defend our communities. We pattern ourselves after the Black Panthers … we believe that we need an arm to defend ourselves … We will build and train peace officers to keep the peace in our communities, to defend our communities, to keep our communities safe. I don’t see us working with police. I see us policing ourselves.

When asked if those “peace officers” would be armed, he replied, “Yes, absolutely,” revealing his members were already receiving military training: “We have black Special Forces officers advising us, and we will teach and train people in our communities.” It remains to be seen if the momentum that BLM leaders like Newsome are contributing to can be defused before the violence gets out of control as it did in the 1960s. The omens are not good. In a subsequent interview, Newsome’s rhetoric became even more inflammatory — literally:

If this country doesn’t give us what we want, then we will burn down this system and replace it. All right? And I could be speaking … figuratively. I could be speaking literally. It’s a matter of interpretation.

For some, that may be all the encouragement they need.

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