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From Ferguson to Freedom, Part 2: Institutional Racism in America
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
16 December 2014
The primary issue of race in America, as elsewhere in the world, is less about the overt acceptance and propagation of racism on the individual level, and more about the realities of institutional racism. A racist society is established and sustained not simply by racist individuals, but by racist institutions and ideologies. If racism were simply an individual experience, education and interaction between racial groups would seemingly be enough to eradicate the scourge of racism in modern society. After all, most white Americans would likely not identify as racists, and in a society where a black man can become president, many may be tempted to proclaim that America is a “post-racial society.”
Viewing racism simply from an individual level is misleading, embracing the notion that because I am not a racist, we no longer live in a racist society; because the president is black, we have moved beyond racism; because there are black people who have succeeded in society and risen to top political and economic positions of power, there are no longer issues of racial segregation and oppression. These views present a mythology of ‘equal opportunity’ and ‘individual initiative.’ In other words, segregation and other overt forms of political and legal racism have been largely dismantled, and therefore, the rates of poverty, crime, imprisonment and death in black communities are no longer the result of a racist society, but rather, a lack of “individual responsibility” and failure to take advantage of the equal opportunities afforded.
Institutional racism, however, takes a view of society, of the relations between power and people, beyond the myopic and misleading focus of ‘the individual’ alone. Society is institutionally structured to support the rich and powerful at the expense of the vast majority of the population, which is evident through the structures, policies, and effects of institutions like the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, Wall Street banks, the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization, etc. The ideologies and actions of these institutions effectively protect the powerful, bail them out, promote policies which benefit them, punish the poor, impoverish the rest, and support a top-down power structure of the national (and global) economy.
There may be individual policymakers, executives or economists who advocate more economic equality, who criticize bailouts and austerity, who oppose the parasitic nature of the modern economy. However, when sitting in positions of power and influence, these individuals must succumb to the institutional demands of those positions. An executive at a bank may individually oppose the actions of banks in creating financial crises and then needing bailouts and profiting from them as millions lose homes, go hungry and are pushed into poverty. However, that executive cannot change the operations of the bank or realities of the industry alone, he must be concerned with the institutional realities, which focus on short-term quarterly profits for shareholders, which in turn would require him to follow and mimic the actions and initiatives of all the other big banks. If such an executive did not follow the path as designed by the institutional structure of the bank and financial markets, such an executive would be fired. Institutional inequality and economic exploitation are realities of the economic system, regardless of whether or not there are individuals within the system who oppose many of the policies and effects of that system.
The same logic applies to racism. This has been true for as long as racism has been a reality. In the United States, racism was institutionalized from the beginning, as the U.S. was founded as a Slave State. Racism was a legal reality, and it was reflected in the institutional structure of the economy, labour system, education, health care, politics, geography, demography, the criminal justice system, city planning, foreign policy and empire. Over the course of decades and centuries, there have been many tangible improvements, with reform to various institutions, legal changes and social transformations: the end of formal slavery, Civil Rights Movement, voting registration, etc. Yet, despite these various improvements and changes over the course of centuries, the realities of institutional racism remain in many facets, old and new. Institutional racism is embedded in the original and evolving structure of society as a whole, and to effectively challenge and remove racism from society, most of society’s dominant institutions must also be challenged, changed or made obsolete.
The institutional structure of society largely serves the same purpose, to protect and support the rich and powerful as the expense of the vast majority of the population. This is true, regardless of race. However, those same institutions enforce segregation, exploitation, domination and exclusion not only in terms of class, but also race. This has the effect of dividing the population among themselves, pitting white against black, promoting and maintaining social divides and conflicts between the population to ensure that they do not unite (through experience or action) against the true ruling groups and structures of society. Racism thus allows for more effective control of society by the few who rule it.
Stokely Carmichael helped to popularize the term ‘Black Power’ in the late 1960s, having risen to acclaim as a young leader in the Civil Rights movement. In 1966, Carmichael published an essay in The Massachusetts Review entitled, ‘Toward Black Liberation,’ in which he wrote that, “The history of every institution of this society indicates that a major concern in the ordering and structuring of the society has been the maintaining of the Negro community in its condition of dependence and oppression… that racist assumptions of white superiority have been so deeply ingrained in the structure of the society that it infuses its entire functioning, and is so much a part of the national subconscious that it is taken for granted and is frequently not even recognized.”
Carmichael provides an example to differentiate between individual and institutional racism: “When unidentified white terrorists bomb a Negro Church and kill five children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city, Birmingham, Alabama, not five but 500 Negro babies die each year because of a lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and deprivation in the ghetto, that is a function of institutionalized racism. But the society either pretends it doesn’t know of this situation, or is incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.”
Carmichael described the ‘Negro community in America’ as being subjected to the realities of “white imperialism and colonial exploitation.” With more than 20 million black Americans accounting for roughly 10% of the national population (in 1966), they lived primarily in poor areas of the South, shanty-towns, and the urban slums and ghettos of northern and westerns industrial cities. Regardless of location in the country, if one were to go into any of these black communities, Carmichael wrote, “one will find that the same combination of political, economic, and social forces are at work. The people in the Negro community do not control the resources of that community, its political decisions, its law enforcement, its housing standards; and even the physical ownership of the land, houses, and stores lie outside that community.” Instead, white power “makes the laws, and it is violent white power in the form of armed white cops that enforces those laws with guns and nightsticks. The vast majority of Negroes in this country live in these captive communities and must endure these conditions of oppression because, and only because, they are black and powerless.”
The realities of institutional racism can be seen in the case of Ferguson. An analysis by Keith Boag of CBC News looked at the legal structure of St. Louis County, where two-thirds of the population, approximately 650,000 people, live within “incorporated municipalities.” There are roughly 90 of these municipalities, Ferguson being one such area, with a population of roughly 21,000 people. Fourteen of these areas have populations less than 500 people, and 58 of them have their own police forces. Boag describes the origins of this structure as dating back several decades to before the Civil Rights movement, when white people in the city of St. Louis fled to the suburbs as poor blacks moved to the inner city. As whites moved out of the city, they sought more autonomy and local power, establishing the system of ‘incorporated municipalities’, allowing the local populace to control their own development, writing legal ‘covenants’ which imposed restrictions on “who could buy or lease property within its boundaries.”
In 1970, Ferguson was 99% white, with their covenant enshrining in law that blacks could not sell, rent own property in any way. Over the decades, the covenants were eroded due to their overt racist forms, and they became “unenforceable.” Thus, black people from the city were able to move out to the suburbs, but had to inherit the plethora of jurisdictions left behind by the white population who continued to flee the movement of the black population. In many of these small jurisdictions, there are too few people to provide for a necessary tax base to afford the services and functions of the local administrative structure. The result was that many communities became increasingly dependent upon “aggressive policing” to raise revenue through ticketing and traffic fines.
Boag describes this as a “tax on the poor,” since they are the most susceptible to such practices: “It’s they who have trouble finding the money to pay fines. It’s they who may have to choose between driving illegally to work or not working. It’s they who may be struggling just to feed a family.” The main preoccupation of police becomes issuing traffic fines and tickets, and then arresting people for not paying those fines. As a result, people do not view the police as being there to ‘protect and serve’, but, rather, “to pinch and squeeze every nickel out of you in any way they can.” This system is rampant in the town of Ferguson, as confirmed in an investigation by the Washington Post.
In effect, the poor black population of Ferguson is thus made to pay for their own oppression, stuck in a cycle of poverty which forces them to pay fines (or go to prison) in order to pay the salaries of the police who fine them, arrest them, beat them and kill them.
Thus, racism in Ferguson, itself a product of the segregationist policies of the Jim Crow era, is institutionalized in the very legal structure, tax and revenue structures, city planning and law enforcement institutions. Such circumstances do not require an overt articulation of racism, nor for it to be enforced by individual white racists (though both of these realities also occur and are encouraged by such a system).
The same logic also applies to the official system of slavery that existed in the United States prior to the Civil War. The slave system was an inherently and obviously racist system. However, there were (on occasion) slave owners who would treat their “property” with kindness, even those who criticized and opposed the system of slavery, but would still participate within that system. The realities of the institutional system of slavery meant that despite an individual’s personal views and preferences, they operated within a system which was racially structured, and thus, were made active participants and supporters of a racist system of domination and exploitation.
If one white slave owner were to free his slaves and promote equality and justice, he would lose his entire economic, social and political base of power within the society, be ostracized and made irrelevant and ineffective. Further, the newly-freed slaves would likely be captured and sold to other slave owners, with ‘freedom’ a short-lived and largely symbolic experience. The actions of a moral individual within an immoral institutional structure cannot change anything alone.
What is required is the collective action of many thousands and hundreds of thousands of individuals, working together to make the costs of such a system greater than its perceived benefits, forcing institutional change. Collective and large-scale actions will, in time and struggle, force reform and gradual change from the top-down. Alternatively, collective action and radical struggle will add to this same pressure, but also propose, organize and initiate alternative methods and visions for social organization and objectives, promoting more revolutionary alternatives.
The events and reactions in Ferguson, New York and increasingly across much of the country and even internationally represent the emergence of a powerful new and resurgent force in society, the reactivation of people power. From urban rebellions and ‘riots’ in Ferguson and Berkeley, to mass arrests and protests in New York and Los Angeles, to the civil disobedience in Miami, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and beyond, America is witnessing the first few weeks and months of a powerful new social movement which promises not to go away quietly. Nor should it.
With chants of “shut it down!” the demonstrators recognize that their power comes in the form of being able to disrupt the normal functioning of society. Institutional racism has led to immense injustice, segregation, exploitation and domination over life in America. The realities of present-day America are the modern manifestations of an institutional system of racism which pre-dates the formation of the United States itself. The current unrest is a reflection of the fact that solutions must go to the core of the problem, within the founding and functions of the institutions themselves.
America may have a black president, but he still has to live in the White House. Black Americans may have more political freedoms and opportunities than in previous decades and centuries, but they still have to live in a society shaped and dominated by institutional racism.
The black population has been kept at the bottom of the social order in the United States since the U.S. was founded as a country (and in fact, long before then). This has been unchanged over the course of several centuries. If progress is defined as one black man being able to rise to a position over which he exerts immense power over a society that continues to subject the majority black population to institutional racism, then ‘progress’ needs to be redefined. An individual, alone, cannot alter the institutional structure of society. Obama is not a symbol of a “post-racial” America, he is a symbol of the continued existence of an “institutionally racist” America, where one can have a black president overseeing a white empire, at home and abroad.
Obama is the exception, not the rule. The rule is Ferguson; the rule is Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The rules need to change. The rules need to be broken and replaced. The rule of racist and imperialist institutions and ideologies must be smashed and made obsolete. The rule of the people must become the law of the land. The road to justice runs through Ferguson, driven by the collective action of thousands of individuals, taking the struggle into the streets with the very real threat that if true liberation is not achieved, the system has lost any sense of legitimacy. When the cost of subservience to the status quo is greater than the cost of changing it, the people will “Shut It Down.”
Andrew Gavin Marshall is a freelance researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada.
A Revolution in Thinking: What is the People’s Book Project?
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
“I am… a Revolutionary.” – Fred Hampton
Since September of 2011, I have been asking people – readers, activists, and others – to support my endeavour to write a comprehensive, critical examination of the individuals, institutions, and ideas of power, domination, and control in our society – both historically and presently. I have called this process ‘The People’s Book Project.’ The support I have asked for is in the form of financial donations, which have come from people around the world: Canada, the United States, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands Antilles, Taiwan, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, Sweden, Malaysia, and Norway.
According to the site statistics, the website for The People’s Book Project has reached people in the following countries: the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia, Switzerland, Germany, France, India, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Philippines, Finland, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Thailand, Hungary, Greece, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Republic of Korea, Vietnam, Suriname, Taiwan, Spain, Romania, Italy, Turkey, Austria, Slovakia, South Africa, Qatar, Slovenia, Poland, Russia, Puerto Rico, Estonia, Pakistan, Singapore, Chile, Nigeria, Egypt, Argentina, Czech Republic, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Peru, Uganda, Ukraine, Dominican Republic, Lithuania, Japan, Serbia, Bahamas, Jamaica, Bosnia, Fiji, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Trinidad and Tobago, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Nepal, Georgia, Israel, Benin, Luxembourg, Panama, Kuwait, Latvia, Iceland, Azerbaijan, Cote d’Ivoire, Jordan, Venezuela, Zambia, Bahrain, Aruba, Colombia, Morocco, Zimbabwe, Barbados, Armenia, Tunisia and Ecuador, among others.
The Facebook page for The People’s Book Project has support from people all around the world: the United States, Canada, Dominican Republic, United Kingdom, Sweden, Philippines, Australia, Germany, Finland, Denmark, Portugal, Mexico, Indonesia, Netherlands, Ireland, France, Chile, Estonia, Italy, and Brazil. According to the Facebook stats for the page, 57.7% of those who the page reaches are between the ages of 18 and 34. Many of those who cannot financially support the Project have done so in other ways: re-posting my articles through social media, posting them on blogs, translating them, and spreading the word through other means. Both financially and fundamentally, all of this support has been of immense importance, and both are of equal necessity.
Why is this support necessary?
The People’s Book Project relies upon grassroots support from people around the world in order to remain independent, focused, active, advancing, critical, dedicated, and driven. The avenues for truly independent research and writing is lacking; free to discover itself and its own truths instead of being directed by the purse strings and for the purpose of institutions – whether think tanks, foundations, universities, government, industry, or otherwise. My research and writing is outside the oversight, control, direction, funding and suppression of any institution. It is precisely that which makes this Project have both a great deal of potential, and a great deal of problems. The potential, because the research can take – as it should – its own course to discover knowledge and truth: it is not directed, but instead, it directs me. The sheer volume of research and writing that has already been undertaken presents a great opportunity for a wider audience to receive important knowledge which may inform their ideas and actions: it is knowledge designed not to conform, but to inform; not to indoctrinate, but to liberate; not to overpower, but to empower. Because these are my intentions, and because I ask for support from people – individuals like you – to aid in these efforts, I think it’s only fair if I elaborate on the process of The People’s Book Project, and on my role in it.
What is The People’s Book Project?
I have elaborated on this central question for a great deal of time in many places and forms. Whenever I am asked – “What is the book about?” – I let out a sigh, and think to reply, “What isn’t it about?” I think this, because the more research I do, the more I write, the more I come across, the more stories, individuals, institutions, and ideas I feel the need to discuss and examine and explain; to understand and illuminate the interactions, exchanges, relationships and reactions of these ‘new’ ideas to the ones I have already been spending so much time researching and writing about. As a result, it seems the Project continually gets larger, the scope grows wider, the subject matter swells and expands, the ideas change and evolve. It is precisely because of this last point – that the ideas change and evolve – which pushes the process further: why wouldn’t we want our ideas to change and evolve? It is for this reason that the scope expands and develops, the time it takes to write and research grows, and the efforts increase, and with that, so does the need for support.
Since I have asked for – and received – a great deal of support, and since I will continue to need that support in the future, it is important for me to explain not only an idea of a ‘finished product’ – a series of books – which is being supported, but also the process of getting to that finished product. I also must acknowledge that it is me individually who is being supported in this situation, and therefore it is perhaps appropriate if I explain a little bit about myself and what I am doing. This Project is almost the entire means through which I support myself, I have no other job – (other than a weekly podcast at BoilingFrogsPost) – and I come from a family who are very much among the rapidly-vanishing middle class of Canada. I have just this past January returned to school after more than three years out of school to continue a Bachelors degree, but I am only taking one class in order to dedicate most of my time and efforts to the book. Currently, the students in my province of Québec are on strike, protesting a doubling of tuition fees, which I would certainly not be able to afford.
I have hesitated to write myself into the narrative of the process of the book’s evolution, instead focusing on the subject matter itself. But as the people – you and others – are supporting not only a product, but a process, and a person, it is important that I elaborate on the process and my part in it. In short, to truly explain an end product, one must also examine the process and persons involved.
What is the Process of the People’s Book Project?
I have approached the research and writing of The People’s Book Project in a way unfamiliar to those who have undertaken the task of writing a book on a specific subject. When I began writing this book, the scope of it was comparatively small and narrow, the length was supposed to be short and confined, and the subject was based upon a foregone conclusion. It was to be the product of an institution, not an idea; it was directed and defined as to what it should be and what it should not be. For myself at the time, I was struggling to keep it within the confines of what it was “supposed” to be, for the more research I did, the more I discovered and learned, the more the book – and its ideas – evolved and changed with me. As a result, I could not find it within myself to be moved to – or be proud of – producing a book which began with a preordained conclusion, that the research was simply meant to conform to an idea which was already decided upon. If I were to do that, I would write a book in which I could not agree with nor support its conclusions, nor could I promote it or pretend that it speaks to some great truths when it does not stand up to the scrutiny of my own truths. For this reason, I decided to change my situation and leave my job to pursue my passion. I left behind all that I had written, and started anew, letting the process dictate the product.
Frequently, I find myself even trying to restrict the content and flow and direction of the book. A writer and researcher must, after all, make choices: choices about what to research, what to write, how to write it, why to write it, what to leave out, why to leave it out, etc. Without choices, nothing would get finished (or started, for that matter), and the results would speak for the lack of choices. In spite of my own choices on what subjects I will pursue, what angles I will examine, what I will leave out, what direction I want to go, and even what conclusions I have in mind, I all too often find myself facing this ever-present, persistent, and pervasive power which seems to suggest to me that the only choice I truly have at the moment, is to decide to let the process take on a life of its own.
How does this work?
I will give you a recent example. I have set about – and received a great deal of support – to write a series of chapters on a radical history of race and poverty, specifically focusing on the United States. I wrote a “brief” 20-page essay on the subject, covering its broad focus and ideas, thinking that my efforts would be emphasized on elaborating on the concepts already mentioned in what I wrote, that it would be about filling in the details, connecting the missing dots, and better explaining the circumstances and situations. I often don’t write and research a subject in its exact sequence of events; rather, I approach a subject by focusing in on one aspect, one event, one individual, idea, or institution which has caught my interest and fascination. I use that specific point of interest to act as inspiration; in fact, I cannot help but allow it to inspire. In seeking to learn all that I can about the particular individual, institution, or idea, I must examine its relationship, interaction, and interdependence with other individuals, institutions, and ideas of that particular time, and from there I must go into its history: where did these individuals, institutions, and ideas come from? From there, I follow the path as to where they went: what were the repercussions, results, reactions to and of these individuals, institutions, and ideas, and where do they exist (or not) today? And then of course, the big question: Why?
So for my current subject – a radical history of race and poverty – my point of entry at present into the subject was brought about as a result of the recent anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. I have researched and read about King and his assassination, and how the King we idolize today is not the King who died in 1968. When MLK Day passes, the media, commentators, images, and sounds we hear are about the MLK that existed up until 1965, with the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the “I Have a Dream” speech, and the non-violence of the “Civil Rights Movement.” In the last years of his life, however, King became increasingly revolutionary: he was speaking out against the Vietnam War, the American empire, poverty and economic exploitation, and was even organizing a major national poor people’s campaign to end poverty in the United States. The King up until 1965 was a reformer. The King thereafter was a revolutionary. This is why, when today we “remember” King, we purposely neglect the memory of the man who he was – and was becoming – when he was murdered. By doing so, we are able to forget the issues he was talking about, and how they are even more relevant today than they were in the time in which he spoke, and we can congratulate ourselves on “giving freedom” to black people in the United States. With a black president, many have declared a “post-racial” America. The discourse of race and poverty, discrimination, racism, segregation and exploitation is no longer seen as valid or useful. Naturally, this is wrong.
However, another thing happened to me as I began reading about King and his anti-poverty campaign: I was exposed to new ideas, individuals, and institutions. Specifically, I have been exposed to the ‘Black Power’ movement, organizations like the Black Panthers, individuals like Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, and others. I began reading about these individuals, listening to their speeches, researching their ideas, learning about their organizations and actions and objectives and then suddenly, it happened, the process took on a life of its own. I have been utterly and completely inspired by the ideas, individuals, and actions of the Black Power movement. I realized that the revolutionary Martin Luther King that I so admire in the last years of his life, was not the only person speaking about such profound issues related to race, exploitation, history, and empire. What King was talking about in the last year of his life, a younger generation of black leaders had been talking about and acting on for years.
Suddenly, I had to know as much as I possibly could about Black Power, about the individuals involved, and about the ideas and their emergence, evolution, and relevance for today. When people typically hear the words ‘Black Power’ or ‘Black Panthers’ today, there are pre-programmed images and ideas which come into mind (especially if, like myself, you have lived most of your life in a predominantly white community and society): you see the images of leather-jacket and beret-wearing black men with sunglasses and guns, you think of violence and reactionary ideas, and even the concept of “reverse racism” – racism by blacks against whites. Like most things, the pre-packaged conceptions are a far cry from reality.
Black Power was not about hatred of whites, it was about empowerment of black people. The Black Power leaders – like Stokely Carmichael – understood that “integration” into white society would not liberate black people, because the solution was not one of repealing segregationist laws and then suddenly the scourge of racism would be erased from society and history. Black Power leaders and ideas were grounded in a significant historical understanding: they understood that racism was institutionalized in society, in all of its institutions and structures of power, not merely in the specific segregation laws of the South. Thus, what was needed in order to eradicate racism was to remake the institutions and ideas of society, not to simply step into the corridors of power (as Obama has) and proclaim a “post-racial” America. Black Power was not about dealing with the symptoms of racism (such as segregation, voting rights), but rather, in addressing the root causes of racism: found in the socio-political and economic system itself.
Racism was born out of class struggle, economic exploitation, imperialism, and poverty. It has remained a central feature of these issues right to the present day. The Black Power movement sought to challenge the root causes of racism. To do so, it was argued, black people themselves had to organize, mobilize and create their own source of power in society, they had to empower their own community and create their own institutions and articulate their own ideas – not against white people – but for black people. The understanding was that since integration would not solve the root causes of the problem at hand (institutionalized racism, as Stokely Carmichael wrote and spoke about), it was not a solution. Instead, black communities had to build their own power base in creating a new society with a new vision, free of racism (thus, those who equate Black Power with “white racism” do not understand Black Power). With its own power, vision, and objectives, Black Power would not have to conform or submit to the institutionalized power structure which already existed in society, and which had repressed black people for over four hundred years.
The Black Power movement was not about destruction or violence, it was about creation and protection. The Black Panther Party became a prominent symbol of Black Power. It was founded as the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, and its initial objective and the ideas behind arming themselves were not based upon an aggressive idea, or one which aimed to “overthrow” the government (as was the media and government portrayal of the Black Panthers at the time, and up until present). Rather, why they armed themselves was for self-defense of the ghettoes. The black ghetto communities in the United States were subjected to incredible amounts of police brutality, murdering black residents, and even white terrorism. The Panthers emerged, acting lawfully and legally in California (where gun laws stated that people could be armed, so long as they did not point their gun at anyone in public), and would act to protect the ghetto residents against the police and other forms of violence. When police would come into the ghetto, the Panthers would make their presence known and would observe the actions and conduct of the police to ensure that no violence was committed against black residents. Black communities were not protected by white people or the state, they were oppressed and attacked by white people and the state. In such a circumstance, one cannot condemn the actions and objectives of black residents to organize and seek to defend themselves.
The Black Panther Party was not only about self-defense; in fact, that was a rather small aspect of what they did. What we don’t hear about is the fact that the Black Panthers – and their leaders – were revolutionary philosophers and intellectuals, who put action to words, gave inspiration to people (whether black or white or otherwise), and empowered their communities: they organized and made self-sufficient a free breakfast program for black children in the community, free healthcare for residents, free education and literacy. J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, declared the “free breakfast” program to be the greatest internal threat to the United States at the time. Why? Because it was empowering a community of people to become self-sufficient, to not depend upon the existing power structures, but to create their own, based in the people and population itself. This, indeed, was dangerous for the existing power structures.
As a result, the FBI and the federal government undertook a war against black America. Through the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and other existing avenues, they infiltrated black organizations (as well as anti-war groups and other organizations) and sought to destroy the movement from inside. The COINTELPRO operation was used not only against Martin Luther King (and resulted in his murder), but against the Black Panther Party, and resulted in the assassination of many of its leaders. One such leader was Fred Hampton, a 21-year old man who was a revolutionary philosopher and activist. Not only did he help create the free breakfast program and other community programs in his branch of the Party in Chicago, but he even negotiated a peace settlement between street gangs and brought them within the movement, he (and the Party) worked with white activists and movements in northern cities and in the poor rural south. Black Power saw as essential the empowerment of all people, everywhere, white or black, articulating the fact that the black community would empower itself to create a society free of racism, but that this required white people to seek to empower their own communities to challenge and eradicate the causes of racism within white America. The Black Panthers worked with, traveled to, and inspired and were inspired by revolutionary movements all over the world, from the Caribbean and Latin America, to Africa and Southeast Asia. They spoke out against imperialism and exploitation not only nationally, but globally. Fred Hampton was one of the most profound thinkers, speakers, and actors within this movement. He was a young, vibrant, energetic speaker and activist, garnering the respect of activists all over the nation. In 1969, at the age of 21, he was assassinated by the Chicago Police Department and the FBI, shot to death at 4 a.m. as he was sleeping in bed with his wife, eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time. She survived, and two weeks later, she gave birth to Fred Hampton, Jr.
Why are these names, ideas and activities not better known today? Not only is Black Power important for black people to understand and learn about, but for all people. The reason for this is simple: Black Power was truly, at its core, about People Power. The movement inspired and often worked with other communities struggling for their own liberation against repression, such as the American Indian Movement (which was also subsequently destroyed by the FBI), and it lent rhetorical and ideological support to women’s liberation and gay liberation movements that emerged. Huey Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party, later wrote and spoke out on the need to support and promote radical women’s and gay liberation movements. Black Power elaborated and acted on ideas which had potential for the liberation of all people. Perhaps the most important principle of the movement was this: that when confronted with oppressive, dominating, and exploitative institutions and systems of power, the pathway toward liberation is not to join – or integrate – with that power, but to actively create something new, at the grassroots, organically developing out of the communities. The relevance these ideas have to the present circumstances of the world is shocking, and no less important to rejuvenate.
My newfound interest in Black Power has inspired me to such a degree that it is evolving my ideas of society and humanity as a whole. This is the profound importance of new ideas: that they lend to the evolution of our own, already-held ideas, that they may further inform the knowledge we already hold and articulate. Many of the ideas of Black Power already conform to ideas which I already held, such as the notion of empowering people and creating a new system instead of integrating within the existing system, the negation of the idea of “usurping” power (or overtaking the government or other existing institutions), and instead, creating a new form of power: vested in the people. However, this does not mean that the ideas of Black Power simply confirm or reaffirm ideas I already held, but instead, further inform them, lead to their evolution and understanding and aid in their articulation, presenting a view and lens through which to see a path of action. Programs like breakfast for children, education, and free health clinics, run by and for local communities, are ideas that need a desperate resurgence. As the current economic crisis descends deeper into a depression, and poverty and exploitation increase, such ideas and actions are essential to human survival as a whole. They bring hope and heart to issues largely void of both.
While a great deal more people than ever before are aware and increasingly becoming aware of such important issues as imperialism, domination, and exploitation, there is a tendency to pursue the path of integrating these individuals and ideas into the existing power structures. The growth of knowledge is leading to mass movements articulating a single philosophy (dogmatic and rigid in their interpretation and understanding), and seeking to put into power one or a few individuals who articulate that philosophy. Thus, the quest for change and articulation of hope become about a single individual, a single idea, and rests upon the premise of integrating such individuals and ideas into the existing power structures. What the history and philosophy of Black Power teaches us is that what is needed is not integration, not usurpation of power, but creativity and creation: not to take power, but to empower.
As such, the history of Black Power is the history of People Power; black history is human history. While it is incredibly important for the black community to learn and remember this history, it is no less important for all peoples – regardless of race, religion, culture or creed – to learn this history. If you claim to articulate a philosophy of change, which can and should work for the benefit of all people in all places, one must not simply learn their own specific cultural history, but the history of all peoples and cultures. An understanding of black history is best delivered by the black thinkers, actors, and ideas which make up that history. Modern black history – both in the world and in the United States itself – is a history of a particularly brutal, oppressive, exploitative, and ruthless social, political, and economic system. If our objective is to truly understand the system in which we live, articulate its strengths and weaknesses, and plan for a solution to change these circumstances, if we do not understand and address the history of what that system did to its most oppressed, most exploited, and most dominated populations (whether black, Native, indigenous, disabled, etc.), we cannot – and DO NOT – properly understand the nature of the system in which we live. Thus, how can we even pretend to have “the solution” if we do not properly understand the problems?
Stokely Carmichael articulated the concept of “internal colonialism,” which was a description for the ways in which the United States government treated the black population of the United States. Many people criticized this term at the time, thinking it to be exaggerated and inflammatory. Carmichael commented that it was an absurd negation of logic to think that what the United States did to others around the world would not be done at home, and he used an example of suggesting that this was the equivalent of saying that the Mafia runs crooked casinos in Peru, but honest ones at home. Thus, just as black history is human history, Black Power is People Power. As such, understanding this history is of vital importance in understanding how to change history as we live today. To allow such profound, important, and philosophical leaders and actors of this history – like Carmichael and Hampton – to rise up and again speak their words and have them heard, will make the murder of 21-year old Fred Hampton and the dozens and hundreds of others have more meaning, will give his words new purpose, will give his ideas new understandings, and will bring the fallen new life as they again, even decades after their deaths, empower the people of the world. To not revive these ideas is to let them die with the individuals, to not bring meaning to their lives and actions, to let them be forgotten to history. This is why when today we hear about “Civil Rights,” these ideas and individuals are not remembered. This is why the movement is referred to as “Civil Rights,” because it implies a specific objective of reform, when, in reality, the “Civil Rights” struggle was but a single phase in a long and evolving history of Black Liberation, which today can and must empower the long and evolving history of human liberation. As Fred Hampton once said, “I am… a Revolutionary.”
So this brings me back to The People’s Book Project, and the process in which it exists and evolves. My exposure to the ideas of Black Power has not even surpassed two weeks of research, but already it is changing, evolving, informing, and adding to the ideas and issues of the book itself. Already, I can see that this area is so important, that to not write about it is to commit a great injustice, that it is already altering the conclusions of the book which I thought I had in stone. Again, the process takes on a life of its own. This is important because it allows me to grow and evolve my thoughts and ideas as I do the research, instead of supporting and regurgitating only that which confirms to my pre-conceived ideas and notions. As I do this, I am able to expose these ideas to others, and to hopefully inform their ideas and actions. This process is long, detailed, and challenging, no less so because of my own living situation in which I find myself having to write it. But that does not matter. What matters is what the process and the book mean, not only to me, but what they could potentially mean to others.
I would like to quote Stokely Carmichael quoting George Bernard Shaw, “All criticism is autobiography… you dig?” My critique – my book – is as much what I think as it is who I am. Both what I think and who I am are in a constant state of evolution and development, and thus, so is the critique itself. The People’s Book Project, as such, is as much a process of development as it is an objective of creating a finished product. I set out to write a book which may help in the cause of liberation for all people in all places. The process of writing this book, then, must be a liberating process; it must not be confined by rigid structures and direction, but must be permitted to find its own free expression, to discover its own path and direction, and to be the change it seeks, as Mohondas Gandhi suggested. The fact that this process is funded by people from around the world, providing what little dollars and cents they may, spreading the word and ideas as they can, is also evidence that the process is being the change it seeks. The patron of this book is not a think tank, a university, a foundation or a government grant. The patron is the people, the community – globally speaking. This is why it is the People’s Book Project, not my Book Project. As much as I am (for obvious reasons) the most influential single person in this project, I would not be able to do what I am doing if it were not for the support of others, everywhere. As much as I am the most involved in this project, despite all my efforts, I cannot control or direct the process more than it controls and directs me. That process is facilitated only by the support from people.
As a result of this process, I have come to accept that this book is not my product, but rather that I am just as much a product of the book. As the process of the project changes me, I change the product of the project. As the people support the process, they allow both of these changes to take place. The end result will be that when the project – which will certainly be a series of books – is finished, it will be all the more important, informed, and purposeful. Thus, the product of this process will be far more beneficial to the people and purpose for which it is being undertaken: to provide knowledge to inform action in the cause of liberation. If I do not seek to produce the best possible piece of work I can and have ever produced, what would be the point? This is why I abandoned what was supposed to be a 200 page book on “Global Governance” and embarked on the journey of a project which has thus far, resulted in an 800-plus page book on people and power.
Now, I have friends and family who are in editing and publishing and writers and researchers, and they hear – “800 pages” – and they think and say, “What the hell are you doing? Edit, condense, concise, cut down” – and of course, they do it out of love, and I need to hear such suggestions and informed opinions. This is important. As I previously mentioned, writers must make choices, and it would appear that at the moment, I have not made many choices save to say that I have chosen to let the process overtake me and the Project. Now I have explained why I made this choice, that it directed me more than I directed it, and what this means in terms of a finished product, in terms of the purpose of the Project. This does not mean, however, that I will not make choices in the future. This Project will not be never-ending and eternal (though it often feels like it, as I am sure it does to ardent supporters who perhaps desire a finished product in the near future). The process has taken on a life of its own, that is true, and it has its place: it is important and essential to the finished product. But when I am left with what I can only assume will be a book far beyond 1,000 pages, when I have made the choices not to go further (as indeed, I cannot cover everything), but to cover what I think as to be most important (as the process itself dictates what is so), then I will make choices in editing: what are the common threads, ideas, institutions and individuals, what are the major events, the major actions and subjects, what must be within and what can be left out, what order should this story be told in, what structure for the chapters, how can it be broken up, how many books should result, and what are the conclusions that I am left with at the end of this current process? For it is when I reach the end of this current process, that I will understand the ideas and information within the research and writing, and thus, it is then that I will truly develop the thesis, and at which point I can truly tell the story as it can and must be told. The editing process is one all to itself. And when I get there, I will do what needs to be done to ensure that the book and books are readable, presentable, approachable, and purposeful.
The books will not be the beginning and end of human history, far from it; they will not be the most comprehensive examination of our modern world (though I certainly am aiming to make them as much, at least for myself as for others), but rather, I see them as a stepping stone, out of which others will critique the books, their ideas, and their suggestions, and through which such critique, the ideas within them will become more informed, more evolved, strengthened and empowered. I will no doubt write future books and research elaborating on the evolution of the ideas within. In such a scenario, the process is, for me, my very life; but don’t worry, this book will not take my entire life. It is simply what I must do at present, to provide for myself and others, a foundation upon which to stand and create something new. It is not to be a rigid dogma, a concise and complete compendium of all knowledge, no single source could ever hope to (or should) be such a thing. It is simply meant to inspire, to inspire with knowledge, to inspire others to add to and critique that knowledge, to evolve and make it stronger, to inspire action and ideas, to inspire and empower people, regardless of race or place. For this to happen, however, I will need to finish the book and get it out to others. Otherwise the process and the product are nothing more than a selfish and insulated personal journey without any other higher purpose. Thus, when the time comes, I know I will have both the instinct and the impetus to know when to make the choice to stop, to say, this is the story I need to tell.
It was upon researching about Black Power these past few weeks that I have come to truly embrace all that I have written about here, that I have come to be inspired to move forward, but that I have also become determined to allow the process to direct the person (me) in creating the product (the book). For if I had stood rigid and controlling over the subject and direction of the book, and decided, without investigation and understanding, what I would and would not include, I would not have allowed myself to research the issue of Black Power, and as a result, I would not have understood the absolute importance of this movement to human history and its evolution into hope for the future of humanity. If I had taken power over the process, instead of allowing the process to have power over me, the end product would be all the more pointless for what it hopes to achieve. At this point, I cannot imagine producing a finished product which does not include the relevancy of Black Power to the past and present.
So I want to extend my appreciation, with the utmost sincerity, to those who have supported this process both financially and otherwise, because none of this would be possible without you, it would not be where it is if it were not for your support, and it will not get anywhere without your future support. So to my patrons, I felt the need to inform you as to the process of this Project, so that you may better understand what it is you are supporting, how you are supporting it, where that support is going and what it is producing. In every sense of the word, then, this is the People’s Book Project, because it would not be possible without the support of the people.
And how many books can say that?
Thank you all, now and forever.
Andrew Gavin Marshall
Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People’s Book Project. He also hosts a weekly podcast show, “Empire, Power, and People,” on BoilingFrogsPost.com.
Empire, Power, and People with Andrew Gavin Marshall, Episode 14
What is Black Power? When, where, how, and why did it emerge? Taking a look at the Civil Rights movement in the broader context of a Black Liberation Movement, we must examine the concept of Black Power, and look to the revolutionary philosophers of action who both articulated the concept, and actively sought to mobilize and manifest it in the form of empowering communities and creating alternatives. With the ideas and actions of Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton and Angela Davis – among many many others! – we see a profoundly complex, indigenous, grassroots and globally-connected revolutionary movement emerge in the United States in the 1960s, led by young, black leaders, male and female, speaking out against the racism, imperialism, exploitation and domination of the American empire at home and abroad, historically and presently, from Harlem to Haiti to Hanoi.
The Black Panther Party was a particularly active component of the black power movement, organizing free breakfasts, medical care, and education for ghetto residents and children. So threatening to the power structure was the Black Power movement, that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once declared the free breakfast program to be the “greatest internal threat to the United States.” A look at the Black Power movement helps us understand why it was so threatening back then, and why it’s important to remember today.