Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement

The Black Struggle

The black position, with its struggle between overwhelming violence and the ceaseless drive for liberation, has always been the locus for any truly liberatory project in the United States must begin. The desire to escape bondage, to rid oneself of the totalizing violence that is black life in America, has proven to be impossible since, as instituted in law, and in deed, black life is trapped in the captivity of black skin itself. Through the actions of the State and society at large, we see time and time again that bondage and dehumanization have been etched into black existence, and like an apparition haunting the States, the black struggle has the potential to unleash the all-encompassing violence that is black life back onto the entire country until the racial question is truly rectified.

The difficulty in finding a political or social resolution is due to the fact that the system of slavery has not been abolished. It is still enshrined in legislation, and, more importantly, is codified into the subconscious makeup of the US citizenry. The plantation system in the American South no longer exists in its earlier historical form. The wage system of the North clearly established its hegemonic position over its competitor after the Civil War. However, the fundamental issue the abolitionists raised—the matter of slavery and slave society—was not only never resolved, but has been normalized, legitimized, and expanded. We see that the most egregious institutions of the 18th century are replicated in the 21st century in remarkably similar forms with similar effects.

In the 18th century people were transported across the Atlantic Ocean, hoarded beneath the bowels of squalid slave ships. Displayed on auction blocks like a miscellaneous object, people were marked, renamed, and separated from peers and loved ones to toil on southern plantations until they collapsed from stress, overwork, and misery. Today, the ships are simply correctional buses, the auction blocks are now the courtrooms, and people are indelibly marked with prison numbers that remain etched on their records till they die. Once institutionalized people internalize the deferment necessary to survive into a daily routine, this inevitably becomes a recreation of plantation life. Criminality, in the US, is then marked with the same coding as slave captivity, such that, in essence, blackness is enveloped with both distinctions. Whereas, whiteness, in contrast, is marked with what is deemed virtuous and the enforcement of these values. So, slavery and criminality are wedded as one and the same, and the reign of white supremacist terror and bondage becomes the imperative signifier.

The first obstacle to addressing slavery in the US is the misconception that relates slavery with a specific labor code, rather than a system, a lineage, and a stratified code of bondage, dehumanization and captivity. The slave system unquestionably included coerced, free labor, but looking at only the labor arrangements leads people to mistakenly assume that with the eradication of the labor code slavery was also eradicated. If we properly state, then, that slavery was not abolished in the US Civil War, we can redirect our understanding of the 19th century Abolitionist movement and recognize that the goal was not really achieved and the struggle continues today.

The establishment of the Atlantic world, and the modern world system overall, was constructed through the birth of the slave trade. The 16th century marks the beginning of the slave trade, the collapse of feudal system in England, and the beginning of the centralization of state power in England. This period marks the birth of capitalism, and ties capitalism’s emergence with the devastation of the African continent, the slave system, and the genocide in the Americas. Thus, the spread of wage labor and capital in Europe and the Americas developed concurrently with slave labor, demarcation of border, centralization of state power and the creation of race.

Most of the terms we use today to understand the world arise from this period: African, European, black, white, America, capitalism, etc, all have their root in the growth of the current world system founded on white supremacy. As black liberation theorist Frank Wilderson notes:

The theoretical importance of emphasizing this in the early twenty-first century is twofold. First, capital was kick-started by approaching a particular body (a black body) with direct relations of force, not by approaching a white body with variable capital. Thus, one could say that slavery is closer to capital’s primal desire than is exploitation. It is a relation of terror as opposed to a relation of hegemony. Second, today, late capital is imposing a renaissance of this original desire, the direct relation of force, the despotism of the unwaged relation. This renaissance of slavery–that is, the reconfiguration of the prison-industrial complex—has once again as it’s structuring metaphor and primary target the black body. [1]

The “relation of terror” became the norm in the US, with genocidal incursions into Native American territory, and draconian slave patrols mercilessly constituting the new racial hierarchy. The majority of Native American nations were vanquished, US territory expanded from coast to coast, and blackness became indelibly inscribed with the mark of the slave. The US elite, cloaked with a language of liberty and freedom, established a political system, overtly, shamelessly, for the wealthy and powerful—as John Jay stated, “those who own the country ought to govern it.”

Owning the country, by birthright, became a given for the propertied white population. Breeding part of the population like cattle was also a liberty that was forcefully enshrined in American practice. While the State marched shamelessly across the plains, and ventured into Latin America, the white establishment seized control over the bodies of all those in its path, encroaching upon the most intimate aspects their of humanity, rendering their incorporation into larger society practically impossible. The potential for human recognition vanished, and the far reaching nature of white supremacy became global as Native Americans were exterminated, and black people became enveloped in the slave-relation.

This was met with fierce resistance. From the Maroon fighters in the swamplands, to Nat Turner’s armed rebellion; from Fredrick Douglass’s cogent prose to the provocative story telling of Harriet Beecher Stowe, resistance to the system was constant. Maroon communities provided an example not only of resistance, but also of a social organization in the US that could escape the grasp of white supremacy. The Maroon societies existed from the self-declared “Revolutionary War” until the Civil War, as a loose-knit constellation of multi-racial group formations, that were fortified militarily and acted as a staging ground for guerrilla actions. They provided a network of support for those fleeing captivity and evading capture by the State. For instance, it seems that Nat Turner was attempting to reach their territory before being overwhelmed by reactionary militias. It is under these conditions that the Abolitionist movement was born, highlighted by John Brown’s assault of Harper’s Ferry and Harriet Tubman’s armed, underground railroad.

Just as we live with the myth that the Civil Rights movement ended second-class citizenship, we have the myth that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery. In actuality it was a northern military strategy to break the southern planter class. Just as militant struggle is erased today, the autonomous action of black rebels, is ignored, and Lincoln is applauded for freeing people he never intended to free, didn’t want to free, and in actuality didn’t free. The US signed and ratified the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, except as punishment for a crime. This exception rendered the entire notion of abolition false, and tragically succeeded in containing the larger freedom struggle in the US for some time.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, during the Reconstruction period, the black community established one of the most radical social experiments this country has ever seen. Erased by repression and social amnesia, it is not an overstatement for Angela Davis to call it, “one of the most hidden eras of US history.” The black community instituted forward-looking non-commodified education system, socialized medical services, and progressive legislation challenging statutory white supremacy. As a result, even poor whites began benefiting from these programs.

In conjunction with the Southern planter class and in collusion with the Northern establishment, the White House scrambled to do whatever it could in order to reinstitute the same policies that gave slavery its foundational core. President Andrew Johnson, who came to office after Lincoln’s assassination, has been often described as one of the most racist presidents in US history. Instead of supporting the community initiatives that would have eased racial antagonism, he enthusiastically supported the draconian black codes which restricted freedom of movement for black people, and trapped them in a labor economy based on share-cropping debt. Johnson vetoed legislation that would have given blacks land—while granting former plantations back to slave owners. He vetoed the Civil Rights bill and instead chose to support the rising white supremacist militia movements.

It was under this reign of racial terror that the US established itself as an industrial world power, with paramilitary KKK units forming in the South, increasingly cruel criminalization of black people in the North, and imperialist military ventures in far reaching areas of the globe, slaughtering and subjecting people from Haiti to the Philippines.

Meanwhile, revolutionary groups around the world began organizing concerted resistance against the world order. Militants around the world began espousing, and promoting self-organization against the international system for a different form of abolition–the abolition of the State and capitalism. Permeating in debate halls in France, cities in Russia, and small farms in Spain, a new revolutionary paradigm emerged that slowly started to penetrate into US political activity. When WEB DuBois portrayed slaves’ refusal to work during the Civil War as a General Strike against the ruling classes, it marked a substantial departure in the theoretical underpinning of the resistance, and brought this struggle to the attention of revolutionaries worldwide to the war for liberation in the States. Around the globe there were massive shifts in the balance of power: the Czar fell in Russia, Mexico went headfirst into revolution, while militants in Spain, France, Italy, and China began to experiment and implement council and commune-based forms of revolutionary activity with goal of eradicating capitalism and the State. Militants in the US took notice of these movements and began applying their strategies and tactics to form their own liberation struggles at home. With rising fear of this influence, the US government launched the Red Scare, and a severe wave of repression culminating in raids, strike breaking, large swaths of deportations, and huge anti-black race riots.

While revolutionary fervor spread globally, the nation-state system became solidified and capitalism spread to every corner of the globe as imperialist states forced open markets that did not previously exist. This further forced arbitrary borders and European State institutions on people in every continent. World Wars—or preparation for them—became the norm. Militarization became a criterion for the stability of power, and authoritarian social organization seemingly became a practical necessity for survival, even for revolutionary movements. The armed partisans during the Spanish Revolution provided the only formidable alternative; expropriating vast landholdings from the wealthy, establishing workplace collectives and communes, arming feminist militias, and coming as close as any movement towards organizing a stateless society in an industrialized setting.

The rise of fascism coincided with the defeat of the Spanish Revolution, culminating in World War II. Europe had already wreaked incomprehensible devastation on much of the world. The same ceaseless drive for mechanization, centralized power, and racial purity solidified their legacy with the Holocaust, leaving the world in awe as the cruelty it practiced around the world turned in on itself in the most savage fashion imaginable.

In the United States, the 20th century also provided no reprieve from white supremacist violence; in actuality the modern plantation system further entrenched itself into the substratum of the American psyche. The attempt to recreate a new world, to build a better future, and escape the shackles of chattel slavery, proved impossible for black people as American society, true to form, established new modes of racial terror, and proclaimed the birth of a nation anointed by the noose. Black people fled to the North in the early 20th century and were met with new forms of criminalization in every city. From the Rosewood Massacre, to the Red Summer violence around the country, to the spreading of syphilis in the Tuskegee experiments, the terror continued unabated. As people died with dignity in the war for abolition, new generations of fighters arose, particularly inspired by the internationalist and anti-colonial struggles of the day.

Malcolm X set the new paradigm for resistance, launching a huge recruitment drive, training militants in self-defense, and preaching a philosophy of armed resistance “by any means necessary.” Robert F. Williams’ branch of the NAACP began arming and training its members, leading to several armed conflicts with the KKK. The Deacons for Defense, in Alabama and Mississippi, followed suit. But, it was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), that combined internationalism, armed self-defense, community programs and a solid political vision in such an intelligible, and inspiring manner that they became, and remain a model for revolutionary movements in the world today.

The BPP organized survival programs for the black population: breakfast programs, education, health services, transportation, while their newspapers and armed self-defense became vehicles for revolutionary momentum. The BPP encouraged other revolutionary groups to organize in their local communities, in a similar political fashion, and work in larger coalitions for freedom of oppressed groups. Their resistance inspired the growth of the American Indian Movement, the Young Lords, the Weather Underground, and other militant organizations that were working towards abolition and a communal life. The BPP organized armed patrols against police brutality which propelled them into popular consciousness and made their membership skyrocket. These patrols resulted in several armed conflicts with the police. The federal government declared them the most dangerous group in the country. The resulting repression drained the Panthers resources and, eventually, eradicated the groups growth. But the armed attacks from the State also led to the growth of the Black Liberation Army (BLA), the organization most feared by government in recent US history.

After the BPP suffered frequent and unanswered casualties, the guerrilla organization was established. The BLA was a clandestine organization, that attacked police, prisons, and banks, in a valiant attempt to drag the United States government into a guerrilla war on its own soil. BLA guerrilla, Assata Shakur notes, “…the Black Liberation Army was not a centralized, organized group with a common leadership and chain of command. Instead there were various organizations and collectives working together and simultaneously independent of each other.”[2] The organization survived until the 1980’s, well after the fervor of the 1960’s rebellions subsided. Former BLA soldier, Russell Maroon Shoatz argued the BLA were “the most effective Black assault units since the maroons!” [3]

The Black Panther Party, while successful in many ways, was plagued by the same pitfalls that hindered other revolutionary groups around the world in the 20th century. The organization had a firm and unquestionable, leadership structure which was easily detained, discredited, and then destroyed. Furthermore, with all power lying in the hands of specific individuals, wider autonomy and fluidity was hindered. Equally as important, the BPP, had a militant stance but it did not have a larger militant strategy. When confronted with massive state violence the organization was forced on a defensive footing for the rest of its existence. It did not prepare for war until the war had begun. By the time of the BLA’s creation the war had already entered a new phase, and the political bodies (the BPP) were now hardly functional, or were not giving cues to the guerrilla units. If these two organizations had functioned simultaneously and concertedly the current political situation would be very different in the US today.

In response to the black freedom struggle, the government meted out some of the cruelest prison sentences that the world had ever seen, while Reagan launched a war on drugs, which was really a euphemistic phrase for a war on black people and the urban working-class. Reagan’s counter-revolution gutted social programs, criminalized Latino immigration, stigmatized Muslims, and ravaged the black community, creating an influx of drugs and growing poverty nationwide. As the Soviet Union collapsed the revolutionary aspirations of many around the world followed.

In the midst of the establishment of the uni-polar world order, under the banner of the New World Order, the United States ushered in a new period of free trade, attempting to liberalize markets all to further their political and economic sway around the globe. The US arranged an agreement with Mexico and Canada called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which opened North America’s borders to capital flight, while at the same time restricting labor laws.

As the law went into effect, rebels in Mexico, inspired by Emiliano Zapata’s guerrilla struggle, emerged from the Southeast, calling the economic agreement a “death sentence,” for the indigenous and declaring war on the State. These new guerrillas eschewed the revolutionary paradigms of the 20th century and refused to vie for State power. Vehemently anti-capitalist and pro-feminist, the Zapatistas made alliances with revolutionary groups abroad and established a new revolutionary current, combining the thought of the Spanish revolution with local traditions. Inspired by the Zapatistas, rebels around the world began espousing anti-state thought, and besieged the meetings and conferences of the global elite. New connections were born, but these movements never developed the capacity to overthrow national governments. Rather they promoted ideas and actions that resonated across the world and demonstrated how anti-authoritarian decision-making could function.

The US, still firmly entrenched atop the world order, was already beginning to lose its political hegemony. It continued its endless wars in the Middle East, and stubbornly refused to distribute resources amongst its population. Wealth was being concentrated in fewer, and fewer hands, while the larger population was becoming increasingly destitute. Protest movements continued on the left and also developed on the right, each denouncing the corrupt political class, but for radically different reasons.

The Battle of Seattle in 1999, and subsequent clashes led to the growth of a larger movement committed to anarchist and anti-state principles. It is at this point that participation exploded in the revolutionary organizations of the modern period: the US Anarchist Black Cross Federations, the Earth Liberation Front, anti-fascist/anti-racist organization and an assortment of various of social centers and publications. These insurrectionary groups formed the militant backbone of the resistance in the United States. There is an impressive breadth of knowledge and activity from this period. While maintaining a network of public social centers and releasing dozens of influential texts, these groups also managed to develop resistance to wars, trade deals, and police violence, while also engaging in a diverse array of solidarity actions, ranging from prisoner letter writing campaigns, labor support, militant anti-racist resistance, and general attacks against the infrastructure of the State and capitalist institutions.

These newer resistance groups had varying degrees of success but their major limitation is that their traditions are rooted in the protest movements of the late 1990’s rather than from insurgent movements of the 1970’s or the larger abolitionist currents of the 19th century. A problem with historical memory arises, and the newer militants did not learn the lessons of the past, did not fully understand the significance of previous conflict, or avoided the mistakes of previous movements. The issue was not a lack of authenticity, or bad intentions but historical blindness. For the resistance to ground itself in a politic of revolution, then it must have an understanding of its own history. Without this understanding it may never have the capacity to insert itself into the larger body politic and the spread capacity to combat the historical injustices that have constituted the nation-state and enabled its survival.

These problems have become quite dire. The resistance, while occasionally militant, remains predominantly focused on protests, and has difficulty rising above them. Every few years the resistance recreates itself, without a conclusive strategic vision, and few revolutionary organizations arise to promote a new direction. Rebels focus on one-off militant demonstrations and the inevitable repression, and then wait for the next go-around, without enough serious thought about where these actions fit in to the larger freedom struggle in the United States or build up organizations capable of seizing territory, overthrowing the State, and abolishing slavery.

Towards Our Struggle

The situation in black America, since the containment of the BLA, is now similar to the 19th century, with huge swathes of the population in bondage, or in some form of penal supervision. With the United States prison system now housing 25% of the world’s inmates, the black community has been utterly devastated by mass incarceration. The modern American social system was designed to disguise social problems that have never been addressed since chattel slavery. As Angela Davis puts it:

From the aftermath of the abolition of slavery, we might take 1865 as that date, until 1877 when Radical Reconstruction was overturned. And it was not only overturned, but it was erased from the historical record. So in the 1960’s we confronted issues that should have been resolved in the 1860’s, one hundred years later. As a matter of fact, the Ku Klux Klan and the racial segregation that was so dramatically challenged, during the mid-20th century freedom movement was produced not during slavery, but rather in an attempt to manage free black people who would have otherwise been far more successful… [4]

The sheer magnitude of the prison/slave system has become a difficult subject for revolutionaries to grapple with due to the quotidian nature of black suffering.

Individual incidents demonstrate the regularity, and normality of the cruelty. Jon Burge, a KKK member and police detective in Chicago, tortured over 120 black men throughout several decades. He referred to an electric shock device he used during interrogations as the “nigger box.” Prisoner Kevin Moore was held in Downstate, a penal facility in New York State for one day before being transferred, and was beaten so badly he was left with life-threatening injuries, fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, and facial fractures. One corrections officer scalped Moore’s dreadlocks and decorated his motorcycle with his hair as a trophy. These horror stories are more the norm than the exception. An image like the mutilated back of Gordon, the slave who was whipped and maimed by his slaveowners is analogous to Abner Louima who was sodomized by the NYPD, iconically being rolled out of the hospital in a wheel chair, narrowly escaping death due to his ruptured intestines.

These torture methods do not operate in a vacuum. They are a reflection, on the level of the individual, of the massive violence that the US government deploys against the oppressed across the globe. When the US tightened the slave codes, it also expanded the scale of indigenous genocide. While the government exalted its conquest of the indigenous as Manifest Destiny, it also announced the Monroe Doctrine and declared the entire hemisphere its property. After it attacked black rebels in Ferguson, it sent its troops to brutalize the indigenous fighters in Standing Rock. The NYPD proudly perfected its system of institutionalized torture, with Bernard Kerik at the helm of New York City Corrections and later as police commissioner. He subsequently went on to become Interior Minister in Iraq during the US occupation, spearheading the creation of the torture facilities of Abu Ghraib. Under the rubric of global imperialism, the US government exports its homegrown violence from struggle to struggle and then brings new forms of terror back home. The techniques used to terrorize one will eventually terrorize all.

The normalcy of terror is the current political situation in the United States. Depending on the fairness of their skin colors, citizens are regularly deputized, whether as jurors, snitches and police to ensure the black populace doesn’t get out of line, and indeed remains on the plantation. As Wilderson observed, white citizens “are not simply ‘protected’ by the police, they are– in their very corporeality–the police.” [5] George Zimmerman is not an anomaly but the norm. The Black Lives Matter uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, then must be viewed in light of the Watts Riots or even the Stono Rebellion.

The swing of the counter-revolution is engulfing the entire world. The rise to prominence of the far right around the world, Golden Dawn, Duterte, ISIS, Le Pen, Britain First, and the coup in Brazil, marks the greatest political shift since WWII. In response to the Black Lives Matter rebellion back home and unstable capitalist accumulation globally, the far right has risen to power in the United States. The far right has seized remarkable amounts of power, and they are wielding it brazenly and recklessly. Acting on decades of xenophobic paranoia, Trump is unleashing the power of the State against Latinos and Muslims, preparing a campaign of ethnic cleansing, detention, and violence. The oppressive apparatus of the American State, constructed through anti-black violence, is now subsuming the country.

The resistance in the United States now has a choice. It must rise beyond the limits of the protest movements that we have become accustomed to and organize revolutionary bodies with the intention of combatting the State, assisting the populace, and expanding our forces both quantitatively and qualitatively.

The Rojava Revolution, the anti-state revolution in northern Syria, provides us with a successful example of the strategies of organization and resistance we need to apply in the US today. This revolution is based on anti-state struggle, feminism, multiplicity, and the ending of ethnic oppression. The revolution is rooted in the Kurdish freedom struggle in the Middle East.

Similar to the Black Panther Party in the US, the Kurds, an oppressed minority group, initially adopted the traditional Marxist-Leninist framework for revolution with a focus towards national liberation, hoping to seize state power and gradually abolish capitalism. At the turn of the century, however, the movement shifted direction and adopted anarchist ideas and reorganized their societies and militant groups so as to render the State obsolete. Furthermore, the Rojava Revolution, while grounded in the ethnic oppression of Kurds, presents a solution that encompasses various ethnicities, religions, and genders.

As the United States marches into darkness, this is where we find the light. We must look at the political situation of the United States today, with all of its barbarism and exploitation, and realize that we are living in a country that is in a political stalemate. The US Civil War was never resolved, and the riots, rebellions, and guerrilla struggles that have taken place since have all attempted to resolve the contradictions that came to a head in the 1860s. The political system is designed for the abasement and degradation of black life; to guarantee that the direct application of force and terror are permanent mainstays of American life. The political system can ensure a great life for some, a troubled life for many, and sheer terror for those it excludes. Today, this system has reached its peak, and the terror that was developed against black life in the United States is being spread throughout the country and around the world in an increasingly erratic fashion.

We must begin to vigorously organize the resistance. From the social centers and workplaces, the prisons and detention centers, in school and homes across the country, we are now launching the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement. This struggle is a centuries-old conflict, and will not end until we resolve the issues of the Civil War once and for all. A society built on slavery and genocide, and maintained through prison-slavery, is a society that must remain at war with itself. We must fight back now before it is too late. To create a society worth living in we must liberate those in chains from bondage. Those who are seeking escape have the power to liberate those of us who are already engaged in the battle, as we struggle together we build a new world.

Next: What We’re Working Towards