What a Black Power Attorney Tells Us About How to Handle a Biden/Harris Presidency
As She Muses About Alicia Garza’s The Purpose of Power
by Nkechi Taifa
Time can be both friend and enemy, although it teaches us so much in either identity. I was in my first year of evening law school when Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, was born. Ronald Reagan was president and I was working fulltime during the day for an anti-apartheid organization under the tutelage of Dr. Jean Sindab, a badass, brilliant Black woman — one of those activists that this age has forgotten. She was the director of the Washington Office on Africa, a church- and union-based organization that advocated for a progressive U.S. policy against white colonial rule in Southern Africa.
Like now, our enemies were easily identifiable by word and deed. Like now, the entire history of the world stared into itself, because, as movement veterans of the late 1960s and early 1970s, we know the movement for liberation could go forward or backward. What today’s young people have experienced now — Barack Obama to Donald Trump — we experienced with the liberal Lyndon Baines Johnson, then the counter-intelligent Richard Nixon, then Gerald Ford, who attempted to un-disgrace a nation damaged by Nixon’s Watergate scandal and, after a brief recess with neo-conservative Jimmy Carter — Ronald Reagan, the hater of Angela Davis.
Back then, South Africa’s 4.5 million whites — a minority of the country — ruthlessly controlled the political, economic and social lives of 26 million Blacks. Now, young people have watched the almost minority of whites almost succeed in electing Trump a second time. We in The Movement used to point out that the old name for the Republic of South Africa was the Union of South Africa, and we loved playing with those initials and making historic and current comparisons.
But as I read Garza’s new book, The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart (One World), there is a key difference between then and now that I want to point out lovingly but clearly. When I was part of the anti-apartheid movement, it was considered by conservatives a controversial, even radical activity. Although we were just and right, there was an entire anti-communist right wing machine in our U.S.A. that constantly said we were supporting “terrorists” such as the African National Congress’ Nelson Mandela, a freedom fighter, who was elevated to the status of a saintly figure by the time of his 2013 death. Ending apartheid was not on the Republicans’ agenda because the lives of Black South Africans didn’t matter; what mattered to them was the fact that that U.S.A., like this U.S.A., then and now, was racist and anti-communist. So we knew that we were in a protracted struggle to convince this country that had just recently gotten rid of its own racist “Whites Only” signs that it was important for them to implement sanctions on their fellow European colonialists.
See the language I’m using? It’s coming from hard-won experience on the margins of not only American society, but mainstream Black society as well. As we go forward into the Biden-Harris future, we must do what we refused to do in the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — bring forth to them and the public at large, particularly unpopular ideas in an undiluted way so an actual agenda can be formed, not the continued acceptance of sophisticated accommodation disguised as gradual change. The ahistorical nature that activists are vibing now is going to lead to another cycle of disappointment. We’ve got to turn off the self-editing machine and pull all of our historically-grounded ideas out of the fancy, middle-class closets we’ve made of our memories.
What we choose to say and what we choose not to say carries equal weight. In her book, Garza speaks several times of living and growing up in Marin County, California, yet curiously there is no mention anywhere of Jonathan Jackson and the audacious 1970 takeover attempt of the Marin County Courthouse calling for the freedom of his brother, George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers. Jonathan was killed in that attempt, making him a martyr of the Black Power Movement. It was Angela Davis’ guns that Jonathan had used; that’s what made Angela a fugitive.
George Jackson and the other Soledad Brothers (the collective name for George, John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo, three Black men who were falsely accused of the murder of a white prison guard at Soledad prison) were heroes to us. George, who had become a member of the Black Panther Party while inside Soledad, had written two books from prison, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson and Blood in My Eye. He was murdered in 1971, when shot by a prison guard. George was as famous to revolutionaries of all stripes then, as Mumia Abu-Jamal is today.
So to me its incredulous that a Black activist growing up and living in Marin County would not know that history, particularly as it was that incident that caused Angela to go underground. Most folk don’t know that background, much less the fact that Ruchell Magee, Angela Davis’ co-defendant (most folk don’t even know she had a co-defendant in the first place!) is still incarcerated — not just since Jonathan’s takeover attempt and the now-legendary FBI search for Angela, but since his original incarceration in 1961, coincidentally the year Barack Obama was born.
Then, we were open in our support of all these revolutionaries and their ideas. We did not care what the outside world thought of us, because we saw all of them — and all of us, too, it’s important to point out — as Black nationalists and internationalists who were going to stomp out imperialism across the world. Here’s an excerpt of spoken word I crafted back then:
Cointel’s got Blacks in Hell,
They open up our mail …
Tap our phones and kick our bones,
And railroad us to jails
Back then, we knew that the FBI — who had established a counter-intelligence program to destroy all radical movements in America, particularly those led by Blacks — was our enemy. So when I learned that Garza had recently received death threats from white terrorists for her activism, I was shocked to hear her say that the FBI knocked on her door to warn her about those threats. That was not the Black Liberation Movement’s history with that agency.
I recited the above poem at a 1979 rally in front of the United Nations. (By that time, the FBI’s COINTELPRO’s evil had been publicly exposed.) We — citizens of the Republic of New Afrika — were demanding sovereignty from America, five states that would be recognized as an independent Black nation on soil claimed by the U.S.
Assata Shakur’s letter of support for us was read there, including her words — “Malcolm X had his dream and his dream was land, nationhood. And his dream has become my dream.” A former Black Panther now part of the Black Liberation Army, she was arrested after a profile stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, shot while her arms were raised high, in an incident that left her comrade Zayd Malik Shakur and a police officer dead and another comrade, Sundiata Acoli, captured. With help from the Movement, she had escaped from a state prison just three days before my poem at the U.N. and was on the run. She’s still in Cuba right now. And her memoir, Assata, is as required reading as Angela Davis’ autobiography.
When I search through The Purpose of Power, I don’t see, by and large, the ideas of George, Angela or Assata. I don’t see the independence politics of Imari Obadele or Chokwe Lumumba, my leaders in the Republic of New Afrika back then, represented. Nor do I see mention of historic platforms like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the 1972 National Black Political Convention, the National Black Independent Political Party, Malcolm X’s OAAU charter, or the Black Panther Party 10-Point Program. It’s like it all didn’t exist, like the obliterated Marin County. And I guess reparations is off of Garza’s historical radar, too, because she doesn’t mention it in the book either, despite the issue being a central plank of the Movement for Black Lives’ policy platform as well as its visionary BREATHE Act.
Garza, like the celebrated Michelle Alexander before her, correctly discusses the War on Drugs and the crack-cocaine disparity (the latter work is one of my career highlights), but, also like Alexander, skips over the Black Power Movement in the incarceration narration. Any true history of America’s incarceration fetish has to explain that, from the first police force — slave patrols — to the development of SWAT teams, Blacks attempting to be free will always be at that story’s core. (At least Garza has a passing mention of Huey Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party; Alexander, whose work I have used and deeply appreciate, lacks such reference.)
But I want to stress the positive here. Garza does speak of intersectionality: She writes that intersectionality says two things: “First, by looking at the world through a lens that is different from that of just white people, we can see how power is distributed unevenly and on what basis, and second, we need to ensure that the world that we fight for, the claim we lay to the future, is one that meets the needs of all those who have been marginalized. … Intersectionality asks us to consider why we do not give the same attention to the criminalization of Black woman and girls as we do to the criminalization of Black men and boys. Intersectionality asks us to interrogate why Black people with disabilities — the group most likely to be killed by police — get little attention and physically able Black men who are killed by police get more attention.… It demands that we do better by one another so that we can be more powerful together.”
Yes, my sister. But the thing that keeps gnawing at me regarding intersectionality is does it have to be limited to gender, and disability, and sexual preference, etc. Why has it not been respectable to include political orientation, such as independence politics? For transparency’s sake: I am Black, female, heterosexual. Oh, and yes, I’m also a revolutionary Black Nationalist Pan-Africanist freedom fighter. Those are my intersections and I would like my non-integrationist politics to be centered as well, even as I live and work and function in a so-called integrationist society.
I hope it’s the nonprofit funding complex that stops Garza and others in Black Lives Matter to come to such obvious conclusions and not an ahistorical memory. So I chose to believe her when she writes: “I have a deep suspicion of any effort that doesn’t actively and loudly celebrate, study and model Black resistance and … We must go further, to recognize that in this country, Black liberation is the key to everyone’s liberation.” But if you don’t define Black liberation in the grounded, historical terms and goals of Black Power, then who is being freed and what is being dismantled and rebuilt? These are the questions that must dominate the future. Garza argues that “protest becomes predictable.” I would agree — if the goal of protest is to cry out for assistance and not as a way to begin to test how to dismantle hyper-capitalism and imperialism. There was a reason that, in the late 1960s, SNCC lost its funding when it started talking about Palestinian rights and Martin Luther King’s SCLC also lost much of its needed budget at the same time, when King spoke out against the war in Vietnam. If anyone thinks these rules don’t apply today, ask Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, who lost his CNN commentator gig and almost lost his six-figure Temple University endowed chair post with his full-throated — and yes, radical — support for Palestine. By their very nature and purpose, revolutionaries are not mandated to follow Robert’s Rules of Order.
So with Biden and my fellow Howard grad who is a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority soon to be in the Oval Office, it’s important, at the end of yesterday and the beginning of today, to analyze one more statement from Garza: “Movements who are afraid to enter the mainstream will have an increasingly difficult time becoming relevant.” But the question is always this, at least when we talk about Black movements — relevant to whom? For what purpose? Where is the strategy other than demanding to stay alive, and then going into electoral politics as a moderate to progressive Democrat? Whoops, I know I’m not supposed to go there, but we must.
As Inauguration Day 2021 approaches, the revolutionary history I talk about in my memoir, Black Power, Black Lawyer: My Audacious Quest for Justice, is all but obliterated. No one knows about it and those that do are fading elders. Ancestry is beckoning. Sometimes I even have tears in my eyes because the Civil Rights Movement is held up and venerated and analyzed and nostalgized. But the ascendancy in 2014 to the Jackson, Mississippi mayorship of the revolutionary ChokweLumumba –a former Vice President and Minister of Justice of the Republic of New Afrika who never abandoned his Black revolutionary politics up until the day he died — had been downplayed, as is the current mayorship of his son Chokwe Antar Lumumba. And then there is Obadele — a visionary genius, a man before his time, essentially erased from history.
So what I want to say to Black folk is this: remember, we are more than symbols on T-shirts. We have ideas for a new reality that need to be picked up. They are decolonizing ideas, revolutionary and radical ideas, so decisions to use them will have to be made by those who are not afraid to lose friends and allies, especially when the latter provide positions, book contracts and television commentator deals. Whoops, again, another area where I should lightly tread! Revolutions damage systems filled with friends and colleagues because it’s designed to do that; it is not a space for the popular. If that means being considered “irrelevant,” then so be it.
Yes, I saw all of the happy people around the world last Saturday. I was ecstatic as well. I’m sure the inauguration will righteously be filled with Divine Nine banners and HBCU celebrations. But recent history shows that post-COVID, post-Trump life is going to quickly go back to being boring, and the white supremacist hordes will soon fade back into the heart of White America. This will not be the time to do what we have already done twice: be patient and happy that overt racists were electorally vanquished. Medicaid For All is still a dream — one President-Elect Biden has said he would veto under any circumstances. Ruchell, Mumia, Sundiata, Mutulu Shakur, Veronza Bowers and more, as well as the Native American activist Leonard Peltier, still languish in prison. Black people in Flint, Michigan still don’t have clean drinking water, and Black people in the entire West Hemisphere still have not gotten reparations. Marcus Garvey has not been pardoned.
So there are unpopular ideas to express and unpopular work to do as the USA goes back to normal. I will call on Jean Sindab’s assistance from the Realm of the Ancestors, along with that of Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Ella Baker, and Queen Mother Moore, and I will ask them to bring as many of their friends as possible to the edge of veil that separates the living, the dead and the unborn. I’m sure these powerful sisters will join myself and my sister Alicia Garza with cutting edge ideas to share. Because all of us still here on this side of the veil know that the blood of the Black Power movement may have dried in the last 55 years, but it still stains the ground on which we still march.
Nkechi Taifa is the author of a new memoir, Black Power, Black Lawyer: My Audacious Quest for Justice.