“The Whole Damn System is Guilty as Hell”

1. “We Will Shake this System with the Truth of Our Message”

This past Monday in Boston, at least 1,000 people braved the bitter downtown wind to gather, march and rally against a system that strangles Black lives.  Invoking the activist legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.—but also other historic figures, from Malcolm X and Fred Hampton to Assata Shakur—protesters took the streets for a “Four Mile March” through downtown, culminating in a spirited rally and speak-out on the Boston Common steps, across from the Massachusetts Statehouse.

Twice along the way, at major intersections, marchers stopped and dropped to the ground for mass “die-ins,” collectively dramatizing the deaths of Black youth and young men shot and killed by police.  While they lay on the ground, organizers read out the names of victims of police violence, including those killed in Boston—such a Burrell Ramsey-White— as well as in Ferguson, New York City, and across the United States.

Drawing a clear—if gentle—distinction between Monday’s mass action and the controversial blockade that shut down Interstate-93 three days earlier, leading organizer and union member, Brock Satter made very clear from the start: “We’re not here to disrupt anything today.  We’re here for a peaceful march. We will shake this system with the truth of our message. And with the millions that we will mobilize to support us.”

Throughout the day, Satter emphasized the imperative of organizing “not just thousands or even tens of thousands, but millions,” in order to create  mass movement that can fundamentally change this society.  Several speakers agreed that today was “just the beginning” and that the “real work lay ahead of us.”

Satter further clarified the importance of insisting on the slogan “Black Lives Matter” not because all lives don’t matter,” he said, “but because, “Until Black lives matter, to say that ‘All Lives Matter’ is a lie.”

Fellow lead-organizer Brandi Artez, of Villa Victoria, kicked off the rally by targeting the resistance of “white moderates,” quoting Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  As King wrote:

“Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

“Who are these white moderates,” Artez asked of the crowd, “to tell me how to go about fighting for my freedom?”

If the protest’s MLK Day timing was symbolic, so was it’s starting place.  Protestors converged by the Old Statehouse, filling sidewalks —and soon the streets— at the site of the 1770 Boston Massacre.  As the leaflet for the demo reminded passerby: “It is here that Crispus Attucks, a black man, became the first casualty of the American Revolution.” As the hand-out further explained:

“Attucks, leading a group of men, came to the defense of a young apprentice who had been attacked by an English soldier policing the streets of Boston. 245 years later we stand on the spot where Crispus Attucks died and we protest the killing of black people by a militarized police force. ”

Marching from the Old State House to the modern-day one, the march plan encouraged participants to imagine themselves as part of a new American revolutionary movement, similarly provoked by militarized police violence, but aiming at much more fundamental social change than the “freedom fighters” of 1776.

Several young speakers of color at the post-march rally spoke in distinctly revolutionary terms, underscoring how little has changed fundamentally in US society from the time of slavery to today, and suggesting the parallels between slavery as a system of social control, and the modern mass incarceration system that many liken to “a New Jim Crow.”

Young organizer, Brenden LaRosa, for instance, received rousing applause when he drove home that the US was a country founded on slavery and genocide, emphasizing how “our real founding fathers are not the slaveowners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but rather the oppressed slaves that this country was founded on due to the production and sale of cotton, tobacco, and sugar.”  Referring to the racialized class exploitation that still characterizes the USA, LaRosa reminded listeners that even to this day “We manufacture the goods—they take it.  We grow the food—they take it.  And even the little money we make—they take it and call it taxes, and distribute among themselves…It is up to us,” he concluded, “to take this country back.”

The thread of the speeches was often radical, in keeping less with the familiar King of “I Have a Dream” than with the views he expressed later, in 1967-68, when he famously condemned the Vietnam War and spoke out against the “evil triplets: of racism, militarism, and materialism.”  In the final years before his assassination, King called for a “fundamental restructuring” of the US society, one that amounted to a “democratic socialism.”

In this vein, speakers indicted not only the police and the judicial system, but the US social and economic system as a whole.  Implicating the mainstream media system as well, LaRosa pointed out after the event: “They were following us through the entire march, but when we started speaking, they left…They didn’t want to get the raw emotion and truth on camera.”

Martin Henson explicitly took issue with the standard way that King is invoked in today’s America.  As he pointed out, the mainstream view encourages us to wait for the “Second Coming” of an “MLK” to tell us what to do. “That day,” he went on, “is never going to come.  We need to liberate ourselves.”

Notably, the rally ended with speakers leading the crowd in reciting words not by King, but by Assata Shakur:

It is our duty to fight for freedom

It is our duty to win

We must love and protect each other

We have nothing to lost but our chains

Yet as radical as it was in content, the afternoon of action was very disciplined in form.  Lead organizers, Brock Satter and Brandi Artez outlined a pre-arranged march route, and the speaker lists and chants were tightly managed, while protest marshals in fluorescent orange vests kept marchers together. Printed handouts gave participants a clear outline of the march route, suggested slogans for the day, and invited marchers to the next planning meeting.

The emphasis here was on clarity of message and mass movement building.

At the same time, it was notable that no one from the speaker’s platform in any way overtly criticized the Friday I-93 protest action.  Akunna Eneh, of the International Socialist Organization, pointedly defended the highway activists against their critics, stating that the inconvenience that drivers encountered on Friday morning “paled by comparison with what millions of Black people endure in the United State every day at the hands of a racist police state.”  The crowd responded with loud applause.

But making the unassailable point that Black people’s lives are regularly disrupted by police brutality and racism, and expressing solidarity with I-93 activists who are under attack, was not quite the same thing as suggesting that mass disruption of highway commuters is the most effective way to build the movement in the present moment.

Thus, as the movement heads into a Friday 7pm open meeting to sum up the MLK weekend, and to plan future steps, the question of how to fight for freedom—of how to make sure that black lives will matter—remains an open and contested one.  The way forward is by no means clear.  And despite the powerful unity of Monday’s march, there are clearly competing views in circulation as how to proceed.  Talk about “diversity of tactics” notwithstanding, the mass march on Monday and the I-93 shut down suggest not just alternative tactical approaches, but competing strategic and long-term political outlooks on how to best build the fight for freedom.  A challenge for the movement in the coming period will be how to discuss and debate these different ways forward in a real way, while maintaining unity and growing its ranks.

As LaRosa pointed out reflecting on the weekend, “Revolution is a very long road.  No one knows how long it will take as it has never been successfully done here in America.”

It is to the credit of Monday’s organizers that they have openly welcomed all who marched to participate in collective discussion of the weekend’s events, as they begin planning for what comes after MLK Day.  Which way forward? This writer hopes that those reading this article will contribute to the process of forging this revolutionary road.

2. More than Just Demands: Some reflections on what we say when we sing and shout

You can tell a lot about a movement by listening to what it shouts.

And by what it sings.

Indeed, the very fact that it sings at all is a sign of health. When people join together in song they express not only a unity of indignation against the state of things, they also affirm their common human spirit, even their communion in the mission at hand.  They give a form to their grievances, one that points—through music—beyond the situation that oppresses them.  Song reminds us of how horror can be turned into glory, how pain and suffering can be transmuted into beauty, how the bad times can give us the tools to build better ones. It’s a process as old as struggle, one that resonates through the ages, from old Irish ballads that emerged under British colonialism, to African American music, forged in the crucible of a white supremacist capitalism: slave-work songs, the blues, hip hop.

Can we even imagine the Civill Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s without song?  “This Little Light of Mine…I’m Gonna Let It Shine.” “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Round.”  “We Shall Overcome.”  Is it even conceivable that a movement demanding such persistence, courage, and sacrifice from so many could come into being, let alone last as it did, without such songs of solidarity? Or that it could stay united in solidarity, even with so many differing and competing political outlooks in its midst?

To sing as part of a crowd is not just to raise one’s voice, but to infuse that voice with emotion, to blend it with others and take strength from that blending. A movement that sings together is a movement that is at least starting to believe in itself, a movement that is no longer embarrassed to put itself out there, a movement that is developing the means to sustain its courage, even when the road ahead looks bleak.

A movement that sings is also a movement that welcomes others to join in, to learn the song and sing out as they can. On a very basic level, to lend one’s voice to support another’s is to offer to that person the spirit of solidarity, to join with them in an immediate and real way.  For when you join another in song, you give them a chance to take a breath, without letting the melody itself get dropped.

It is much to the good then that the anti-racist movement in the wake of Ferguson, is a movement that does not only shout: it *sings* .  How inspiring to join together this past Monday, at the end of the Martin Luther King Day “4 Mile March” through Boston to sing round after round:

I Can Hear My Neighbor Cryin: ‘I Can’t Breathe’

            Now I’m in the struggle…and I can’t leave.

            I’m calling out the violence of the racist police. 

            We ain’t gonna stop…

            ’Til people are free” (repeat)

Led by a number of individuals—predominantly youth of color—Monday’s crowd of a thousand united in musical testimony, bearing public witness to the oppression of our “neighbor,” taking up the final words Eric Garner spoke on earth before the NYPD choked the life from him.  Through song and protest chants, activists transformed Eric Garner’s dying words—“I Can’t Breathe”— into an injunction to fight for social justice.  His spirit lives on in this song.  And those who sing out become his neighbor.

Through its lyrics, we move from bearing witness to the suffering of another —“I can’t breathe”— to a statement of personal commitment: “I can’t leave.”   The sympathetic feeling for the crying neighbor in turn gives rise to the recognition of a common enemy: “racist police.”   That identification of a common enemy in turn transforms the witnessing individual into a member of a collective subject.  From an “I” to “We.”

The nature of the collective viewpoint that this song enacts, we should emphasize, is negative, that is oppositional.  It is not a matter of what we are, but what we are against.  To sing this song is not to claim that we “are” Eric Garner—in fact, not a single one of us is.  Eric Garner is dead.  The NYPD killed him. Of course, as racially oppressed people, some among us are far more vulnerable to being brutalized by police in the way Eric Garner was.  Nonetheless, this song leads us into a common collective state, one that is forged negatively; we are united in our opposition to what happened to him, in opposition to the systems of oppression that perpetrate and justify such killings. It is in this way that “I’m calling out the violence of the racist police” turns into “We ain’t gonna stop…’Til people are free.”   This emergent collective viewpoint in turn broadens its vision to a collective, indeed universal goal, aiming not just at the freedom of an individual or a single group, but the freedom of all.

Singing together to this simple tune, we re-enact the movement from individual sympathy for another individual, to collective —and implicitly revolutionary —determination to struggle for the freedom of all in the face of a common enemy.

There can be a lot going on, when a movement sings a song!

Just as promising at Monday’s march and rally were the spontaneous outbreaks of the high energy rapid-fire chant:

I believe that we will win!  I believe that we will win!  I believe that we will win!”

This chant itself turned into a kind of song, provoking dancing and leaping and euphoria in the crowd.

To frame our project in terms of both belief and in terms of victory is a powerful and precious thing. Granted, what exactly “winning” will mean is not entirely clear as of yet; certainly there is no one shared vision of victory (let alone of a plan how to get there). But conjuring a sense of the future in the present, as potential and as commitment itself, remains key to the very sustenance of a movement, that is, if it is ever to have a chance at discovering the means of bringing that victory about.

How did the organizers and the participants in the march conceive of “victory” at this stage?  Of course, songs and chants are not the only way a movement expresses its desires.  The official demands of Boston’s “Four-Mile March” were clearly posted and read out throughout the day:

*Jail Killer Cops.

*De-fund Prisons.

*End Mass Incarceration.

*Demilitarize the Police.

*No Olympics in Boston.

*End the Wars

*Fund Our Communities.

*$15 / hour minimum wage now!

Beginning from the immediate demand for the jailing of killer cops, this list of demands expands further to attack other structural and institutional manifestations of racial oppression and class exploitation, linking the defunding of community needs to the expansion of the prison system and the police state. The list closes by pointing to the economic reality of low wages, which are in part responsible for the poverty and social desperation that disproportionately plagues Black and Brown communities (among others).

The most common street chants—and the most rousing speeches—of the day, similarly pointed beyond an immediate demand for justice, towards a radical questioning of an entire system of state sanctioned violence against poor, Black, and Brown people.  Whereas it has been a left-liberal-progressive standard for decades to chant the call-and-response

“What do we want? Justice!  When Do We Want it?  Now!”

the post-Ferguson/Black Lives Matter movement has given this classic a radical third verse.

“What do we want?  Justice! 

When do we want it? Now! 

            If we don’t get it?  Shut it down.”

            If we don’t get it?  Shut it down”

            If. We. Don’t. Get. It?

            SHUT. IT. DOWN!”

This added third line represents a qualitative leap forward.  Whereas the older version called on the state to “do the right thing” and to reform itself/correct its mistakes, the new chorus adds two new crucial aspects: #1) It calls into question the legitimacy of a state apparatus that refuses or is incapable of providing the justice demanded; and #2)  It rallies people to become an actual counter-power that can actively disrupt the workings of a state apparatus that is no longer serves their needs.  To have tens of millions of people expressing this spirit in the streets across the US would be knocking on the doors of revolution.

And yet, even as this chant points to a precious step forward in radical consciousness and public militancy—especially when backed up by marches and die-ins unapologetically taking the streets— it too raises questions, questions that remain undecided and demand attention as this movement moves towards February 2015  (officially designated “Black History Month” we might add).

Questions like:  What exactly is the IT that we are seeking to SHUT DOWN?  Shut  “IT” down?…Shut *what* down?

Does “Shut it down!” invoke a call to mass disruption of “business as usual” in general—from highway and road blockages, to shopping mall disruptions, to school walkouts…or does the “IT” that needs to be “shut down” refer to a more specific set of institutions, power structures, laws, leaders, or practices that are directly implicated in the injustice at hand?  What precisely should we be “shutting down”?  And how so should we go about shutting it down?

What might appear to be semantic hair-splitting here is far from a mere academic matter.   (Even as I concede that my literary critical training may bias me a bit!) For it is quite possible that how we understand “IT” here will determine the movement’s future direction.  Different definitions of the “IT— of “the system” that is to be shut down—may lead us down radically different and even opposed roads, politically, strategically, and tactically.  In the meantime, the very fact that such militant calls are pulling tens of thousands into the streets is a very powerful and precious thing.

And of course, there are permutation of the Shut it Down chant that give some more idea of what is to be shut down, for instance:

Eric Garner, Michael Brown.  Shut this Racist System Down.

Or this one, which rang out loudly in the demonstrations soon after the announcement of the non-indictment in New York:

If you SHOOT them down, We will SHUT IT down!

Here the clear sense of (state) action and (popular) re-action, as well as the invoking of a “We” opposed to the “You” of the police, was powerful, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the killings and non-indictments.  Still the uncertain “IT” lingers…Should highways and roads remain the focal point as they have often been until now? What are the targets that should be subject to mass direct action and other forms of political mobilization?

Protest organizers at the very end of the MLK Day 4-Mile March led the crowd in a chant that sharpened things powerfully:

“Indict.  Convict.  Send these killer cops to jail.

            The Whole Damn System…Is Guilty as Hell”

Such a chant simultaneously focuses protest anger on the immediate demand for justice—calling for the killers of unarmed Black people be punished—and links this immediate demand to the “guilt” of the broader system.  The chant poses a practical question for us, one that will be crucial in the days to come:  How to link these two aspects, the immediate and the systemic, concretely?  How do we take on the system as a whole at more than the level of abstract language?  How do we build the political capacity not just to “indict” the system, but to “convict” it, and indeed to enforce that conviction? How do we lock up the forces that have us and/or our neighbors in lock down?  What are the specific manifestations of this “damn system” that we want to, and that we believe we can, given proper mobilization, actually shut down?

To sharpen the question and conclude:

“What is the IT that we want to shut down?”

To answer this question, collectively and in practice, would be to develop a list of targets—from laws, particular leaders, institutions, ideologies, and practices—that could help to mobilize concrete mass movement for system change (or even abolition).  How can this movement become in reality what it presently expresses as desire in its shouts and songs?

Joe Ramsey is a writer, editor, educator, and organizer, residing in the Boston area.  He welcomes comments at jgramsey gmail com.