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‘Plus ça change …’ say the French; or ‘The more things change, of course, the more they stay the same.’
That thought, with all its despair and wisdom, resonates with particular power when we look at the Black Freedom Struggle, which, despite its ebbs and flows, has a sameness that seems to suspend it in its own time, akin to a Biblical narrative that exists in its own realm, strangely separate from our day-to-day immediacy, yet existing in consciousness.
But this is not a metaphysical discussion.
It is existential. It is blood and bullets. It is the hard bricks and cold steel of prison. And it’s not just the sameness of things for extended spaces of time, nor its sinister intensification of repression, but the incessant nature of such repression as a bipartisan expression of American hegemony over and antipathy towards, the Black Freedom Struggle that gives it its malevolent character.
For generations, Black leaders and organizations have been in search for some solution to our oppressions, some appealing to the international community, as expressed in William Patterson’s “We Charge Genocide’ of 1951 (a charge supported by the late Malcolm X). Some 15 years later the Black Panther Party would produce a list of grievances, called the 10-Point Program, decrying the police state’s violence against Blacks, slum lords exploiting Black home renters, and the bane of Black imprisonment, among other concerns. Seven years thereafter, the Black National Political Convention convened in Gary, Indiana, where it denounced the two capitalist parties, Democrats and Republicans, the continuous police violence against Blacks, and called for the formation of a National Black Independent Political Party to give voice to the needs of Black people
The foundational documents of these Black activists and organizations, if read today, would seem to have been written today – instead of 50 or 60 years ago.
That tells us that our conditions – or real material conditions – have not changed substantially for over ½ century – over 60 years.
Indeed, in many ways, those conditions have worsened, such as the phenomenon of mass incarceration.
Why? Because the material conditions of millions of Black folk have changed due to de-industrialization, the resultant loss of the tax base, the corporatization of the public school systems, and the explosive expansion of the imprisonment industry – the creation of what I call the White Rural Jobs Program – prisons.
From the earliest days of Black arrival in what would one day become the United States; Africans were seen as resources to be exploited for white profit. And despite relentless rhetoric in the mouths of the Founders of the State, there existed a nightmarish reality of un-freedom and state supported terror waged against Black life, proving the white words of freedom were little but lies.
For under the sweet nothings of liberty lived a world of repression, targeting, isolating and destroying the Black Freedom Movement and its leaders. From Dr. Martin Luther King to Malcolm X; from the Black Panther Party to Black actors and artists, agents of state power sought to weaken and neutralize Black freedom and Black Nationalist movements, using every means – fair and foul.
This wasn’t episodic meanness – random attacks on Blacks because of official distaste of Blacks.
There’s method in this madness; the same madness, which animated lynchings during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Such repression served to instill fear and apprehension in the minds of millions. State terrorism turned people away from the Nationalist and self-determination road towards more acceptable and less critical roads of political acquiescence with dominant capitalist parties.
The State thus canalized Black thought into the sterile roads of the personal instead of the collective, into the parties of personality instead of the programmatic. It also de- radicalized Black response to state terrorism.
That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the governments CoInTelPro initiative, where the U.S. government functioned as both race police – and political police.
These actions of alienation of a population continued, ironically enough, under the play of Black votes (or should we say, ‘the ploy of Black votes?’) who voted overwhelmingly for Bill Clinton, who ran on ‘hope’ and ‘change’. ‘Change’ it might’ve been; but change doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Elected by a plurality of narrow percentages, Clinton, in the name of bipartisanship would prove the architect of a prison expansion boom that would be the beginnings of the mass incarceration that we see today.
This neoliberalism in politics required an operative of considerable skill, one in which Blacks, the most loyal and consistent voting bloc within the democratic coalition, voted for a candidate who would promote and vote for a series of positions against Black interests, while simultaneously voting for white anxieties, fears and longings for white supremacy.
Clinton demonstrated that expertise.
As the late historian Howard Zinn (1922 – 2010) has written in his book The Twentieth Century:
‘despite his lofty rhetoric, Clinton showed, in his eight years in office, that he, like other politicians, was more interested in electoral victory than in social change.
To get more votes, he decided he must move the party closer to the center. This meant doing just enough for Blacks, women, and working people to keep their support, while trying to win over white conservative voters with a program of toughness on crime, stern measures on welfare, and a strong military.’ (Zinn, 428)
The neoliberal Clinton regime ushered in a program of repression that included the scuttling of habeas corpus via the anti-terrorism and effective death penalty act; the closing of the courthouse doors to prisoners via the Prison Litigation Reform Act; and the notorious 1996 Crime Bill, which spent billions on new prisons, and added some 60 new death penalties to the books.
The emblems of Clintonism that emerged after two terms in power were the empty factories and the overcrowded prisons – overcrowded with Black men and increasingly, women.
We referenced earlier Patterson’s “We Charge Genocide”; not that the charges in the book were written as a petition, and filed in the U.N charging the U.S. with genocide against Negros. The UN neither acted on, nor decided the petition. Rather, the media focused on Paul Robeson, and using charges he was a communist, demonized the petition, as he was one of its authors. For, in the public mind, to be communist was akin to being crazy.
Blacks, absent an independent politically representative entity, were – and are_ voiceless in spaces like the UN.
So, after many, many years, protest again rages against the repression of the state, a fuse lit by the killing of Mike brown in Ferguson, Missouri. These protests have spread across the country like kudzu in summer.
And now you see the corporate media trying to conspire to denounce Black Lives Matter as some kind of hate group engaged in an alleged ‘war on cops!’
But, here again, there’s some method to their madness. The point that the corporate media serves the capitalist state couldn’t be clearer in this instance. For the BLM throws words at cops who’ve beaten, shot and killed almost countless Blacks, Latinos – and even poor whites!
Guess how many people cops have killed in 2015?
Over 800. Over 800!
If this be war, the BLM is losing.
Over 150 years ago one of our most revered ancestors tried to convince his fellow abolitionists to continue to struggle. You see, the Civil War had ended, and slavery was legally dead.
Frederick Douglass warned them; “.[You and I, and all of us, had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth.”
He was right then. He is right now.
We must be mindful of the old snakes in new skin amongst us.
The struggle continues!
Zinn, Howard. The Twentieth Century
(New York: MJF Bks, 1980-2003
Mumia Abu-Jamal is the author of Writing on the Wall.