Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Working While Black: Reflections on 2nd Annual Black Worker Center Convening

Black workers are one of the primary social forces in the Black Liberation Movement in the US. Historically and today, they experience racism on the job, in labor unions, and the most negative effects of ‘neoliberal globalization.’ At several points throughout their history, Black workers have analyzed their own conditions and concluded self-organization was key to gaining power over their own lives. In the tradition of autonomous Black worker organizing, the 2nd annual Black Workers Center (BWC) National Convening met on November 12-14 in Oakland, CA to strategize for Black Workers Power. The theme of the convening was “Black Freedom Dreams.”
The history and current conditions of Black people demonstrate the necessity of spaces like BWCs where Black workers can conduct popular education, organize campaigns, and create Black worker-owned cooperatives. The exploitation of Black workers and the ideological justification to maintain control of their labor is foundational to the US settler colonial project. In a workshop titled “Black Worker Centers Meet Organized Labor” respected labor organizer Bill Fletcher discussed how Black radicals and anti-racist Whites were excluded from the newly formed AFL-CIO in 1955 due to segregation in the labor movement and McCarthyism. Around the same time in 1951, Black workers created the National Negro Labor Council to fight job discrimination, racism in labor unions, and build what we today call Black Workers Power.
BWCs are slowly proving themselves to be spaces where Black workers can organize for power to overcome structural inequalities such as having twice the white unemployment rate, receiving 60% the white income, and Black median wealth 20 times less than that of whites. For example, the inaugural BWC in Los Angeles, in coalition with community groups, organized to win a project labor agreement (PLA) that requires 40% of workers hired onto Metro Construction projects come from ‘disadvantaged areas.’ The convening allowed all of us to compare notes and learn from each other so that we can infuse the concerns of Black workers into the emergent Movement for Black Lives.
A few months ago a report and hashtag called #BlackWorkersMatter was created in order to highlight the numerous challenges confronting Black labor in the context of #BlackLivesMatter. At the National Convening, a presentation called “A Glimpse at the Moment” by Bill Fletcher discussed ‘neoliberal globalization’ as one of the fundamental issues impacting Black workers. He described it as “a transformation in the regime of capitalism placing more emphasis on deregulation, privatization, subcontracting, casualization, and anti-unionism. It emphasizes the elimination of trade barriers and the unrestricted flow of capital.” This process comes in the form of relocation of industry away from large concentrations of Black folk or privatization of the public sector. Manufacturing and the public sector were two sectors where Black people traditionally could attain upward mobility.
Furthermore, over 50 years ago, radical Black worker James Boggs identified automation as a major threat to Black working people. This is why Kali Akuno, in an article called “Until We Win,” asserted that in US society the value of Black life is connected to how much profit we produce for the capitalists. In short, in the era of ‘neoliberal globalization,’ Black Lives don’t matter because unlike in the period of chattel slavery or segregation, Black labor produces less profits. The importance of self-organization and advancing our own initiatives could never be greater.
Steven Pitts, the founder of the National BWC project, presented a new National campaign that will be promoted by BWCs across the country called Working While Black. The title is a play on the common refrains ‘driving while Black’ or ‘walking while Black.' Central to the initiative is building coalitions or united fronts on local and national campaigns. The current approach of most US labor unions is business unionism or a narrow focus on gaining better wages or benefits. The initiative rejects this restrictive approach in favor of social justice unionism wherein workers organize around wider human rights issues such as mass incarceration, reproductive justice, and more. Black workers, like all workers, problems extend outside of the workplace and into their communities and day-to-day lives. BWCs have the potential to begin the process of building Black Workers Power in the work place and wider community so that we can confidently say that BlackLivesMatter AND BlackWorkersMatter.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Six Lessons #BlackLivesMatter Can Learn From Amilcar Cabral

Amilcar Cabral is widely recognized as one of the most creative and influential revolutionary theorists that the African World has ever produced.  He was the co-founder and leader of a national liberation movement in West Africa called the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC).  Founded in 1956, the PAIGC led an eleven year armed struggle against Portuguese colonialism, culminating in political independence in 1974.   

Although an agent of the Portuguese political police assassinated Cabral before political independence was won, his ideas influenced the entire African world including the Black Liberation Movement in the United States.  To an extent, his views have been appropriated by various ideological tendencies from Afrocentrists to Post-modernists to Marxists.  The objective of this essay is twofold 1) to properly situate Cabral in the tradition of Revolutionary Pan Africanism and Socialism and 2) to demonstrate the lessons he can provide the emergent #BlackLivesMatter Movement. 

1) Revolutionary Political Party. #BlackLivesMatter has inspired and generated numerous mass mobilizations throughout the U.S. The current discussion among organizers concerns how to move from mobilization to organization. Mobilizations are based on mass assemblies and spontaneity but organization includes continuous political education, a unified political platform and clearly defined long-term objectives. Cabral chose a political party as the organizational form and #BlackLivesMatter can do the same. A party is composed of cadre or full-time organizers trained in revolutionary ideology who root themselves among the working-class. The party must have clear objectives of self-determination and the elimination of the capitalism system.

2) Revolutionary Democracy. The PAIGC had two primary components: a) democratic centralism and b) village committees (VC). The objective of democratic centralism is "democracy in discussion, centralism in action." In his book Unity & Struggle Cabral writes  "It means that each decision concerning a new question must be taken after a full and free discussion within the bodies affected by it or from the base to the top, if the matter is one which affects the whole life of the party. After this discussion and in accordance with what emerges from it, the central bodies take a decision which must immediately be carried out at all levels concerned." And at this point discussion ceases and there is unity in action. This method has been used in successful revolutionary movements in Zimbabwe, Cuba, China, Mozambique, Angola, and many more. 

 The purpose of the VC system was to ensure the democratic participation of the majority of the population.  They were responsible along with party cadres for administering social services like education, local defense, health etc. in liberated areas.  The VC’s were headed by five elected representatives from the local community.  To guarantee gender equality two of the elected reps. were required to be women.   Even if the VC made a decision that was in contradiction with the party, the VC’s choice was upheld and respected.  In the US context, popular assemblies that include a set number of neighborhoods can operate in the same capacity as VCs did in Guinea-Bissau.  Venezuela’s communal councils and Cooperation Jackson offer excellent contemporary examples.

3) Pan Africanism.  Cabral was a staunch supporter of African unity and Pan Africanism.  In his own country he was able to organize the PAIGC cross ethnic and religious lines.  For example, the PAIGC was a secular organization that included Christians, Muslims, and traditional religions but Cabral was agnostic stating “I don’t believe there is a life after death.” He was also a co-founder and spokesperson for the national liberation organizations in Mozambique and Angola.  In a speech in 1972 titled ‘Connecting the Struggles: An Informal talk with Black Americans’ Cabral states “It is also a contribution for you to never forget that you are Africans.” The important lesson in this instance is for people of African descent to make practical connections across national borders in their struggles for self-determination.  Diplomatic relations can be established with the African Union, currently chaired by the revered Pan Africanist Robert Mugabe to, at least, make a statement about the ongoing police violence against Black people in the diaspora. 

4) Culture & Ideology. Cabral is most often cited for his contributions in explaining the relationship of culture and ideology to social movements and society in general.  Unlike some sectors of the American Left that promote a form of economic determinism, Cabral understood that there must be self-conscious effort on the part of the masses and the party to transform the individual and society.  Culture and ideas can be an instrument of domination or liberation.  Today, individualism, consumerism, American meritocracy, and the ‘illusion of inclusion’ are all instruments of social control that must be challenged at the organizational and mass level in order for #BlackLivesMatter to become a broad based social movement.

5) Class Suicide.  A central component of Cabral’s scientific worldview was the concept of class suicide or a rejection of the values, status, and privileges of the dominant society and identification with the working masses.   This is especially relevant for the group he called the ‘petty bourgeoisie’ (i.e. senior civil servants, intellectuals etc.) who generally are the most indoctrinated into colonial values.  He argued for a ‘Re-Africanization’ which, as he asserted, “is only completed during the course of the struggle, through daily contact with the mass of the people and communion of sacrifices which the struggle demands.” He warned against uncritically accepting tradition and cultural determinism. Cabral understood the new national culture would primarily be built through a process of protracted struggle and have what he called a ‘mass character.’

6) Scientific Socialism.  Arguably his most important lesson was in a speech ‘The Weapon the Theory’ given in 1966 at the Tri-continental Conference in Havana Cuba.  He boldly proclaimed “nobody has yet successfully practiced Revolution without a revolutionary theory.”  This is extremely relevant today due to the aversion to theory and ideological deficiencies so prevalent in the US. Although he didn’t adhere to any particular tendency (Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, etc.), Cabral began his analysis by applying the method of dialectical and historical materialism or scientific socialism to Guinea’s objective socio-economic conditions.  In fact, this is perhaps of one his greatest strengths: his ability to be non-dogmatic and flexible.  Similar to Cabral, #BlackLivesMatter should understand that theory emerges from practice and be sure to balance the essential role of political economy and culture. Cabral claimed that the ultimate objective of the movement was “the liberation of the process of development of the national productive forces (i.e. land, labor, tools of production, natural resources).” A master teacher, indeed.

Cabral’s life offers lessons in several other areas such as agronomy, women’s liberation, armed struggle, internationalism, the nature of the state, revolutionary ethics and more.  Unfortunately, far too often, he and other Pan-Africanists are reduced to icons or symbols and their actual life and work are sidelined.  As the next generation of revolutionary organizers step to the front of the line, it is important we know the contributions and lessons of those who came before us. 

A Luta Continua (The Struggle Continues)!!!

Cabral, Amilcar (1973) Return to the Source: Selected Speeches by Amilcar Cabral, edited by Africa Information Service, Monthly Review Press, New York, New York.
Cabral, Amilcar (1969) Revolution in Guinea: An African People’s Struggle, Stage 1, London, England.
Cabral, Amilcar (1979) Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings of Amilcar Cabral, Monthly Review Press, New York, New York.
Chabal, Patrick (2003) Amilcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War, Africa World Press, Trenton, New Jersey.
Ed. Firoze Manji & Bill Felcther (2013), Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral, Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.

Gleijeses, Piero (2003) Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976. Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press.  

Benjamin Woods is a PhD candidate at Howard University and co-founder of Students Against Mass Incarceration. He can be contacted at, or through his website FreeTheLand.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Pan-African Cultural Revolution

Let the martial songs be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men [and women] now rise and take control.” –Margaret Walker in For My People

“Let a thousand flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” –Mao Tse Tung

Two weeks ago, Black students at UC-Berkeley presented a series of demands to the university administration including renaming Barrows Hall after former Black Panther, Assata Shakur.  At the same time, after a student threw human feces on the Cecil Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Black students began the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign.  One of its main objectives is to remove the monument of the mass murderer, Cecil Rhodes.  While both campaigns have clear symbolic meaning, they include larger issues like an infusion of Black theorists in the curriculum, hiring more Black professors, on-campus workers rights and more. 

The rise in student activism must be seen as connected to larger global rebellions such as #BlackLivesMatter, Economic Freedom Fighters, and NUMSA’s United Front.  Social movements help to produce a shift in culture and consciousness.  For example, in the US, following the Ferguson uprising, hip-hop artists from G-Unit to Lauryn Hill made songs to express their “Black Rage” at police terrorism.  Even rapper J-Cole openly espoused Anti-Capitalist politics in an interview on mainstream radio in New York.  As movements emerge, new possibilities are imagined, the impossible becomes possible. 

Culture is a product of history.  Historically, under capitalism, white workers were exploited to produce commodities, but Black workers WERE commodities.  So, although the oppression of Blacks is primarily economic, slavery and colonialism produced an ideological superstructure to legitimate and reinforce white supremacy in general and anti-Black racism in particular.  Since all human beings have a history and culture, one of the primary means used to exclude Blacks from the Human family is to write Black people out of history.

In response to centuries of dehumanization, Africans have resisted white domination through forming Maroon communities, plantation insurrections, Populist, Labor, Black Power, National Liberation Movements and more. While the colonizer uses history to deny our humanity, for us, Our Art and History is a weapon we use to cut the throat of our oppressor.  The learning of history helps us to de-colonize our minds but to be clear, there is no pre-existing ‘African nation’ prior to slavery that we are attempting to reclaim. 

Our intent is to supplant white imposed definitions of reality with Black definitions of the world, therefore, we assert that Black or Pan African identity is principally a product of the Black Liberation Movement.  Our common oppression is not what makes us African, it is our movement for freedom that give us consciousness of our identity. Therefore, we are not just acted upon but are agents of history.

The Cultural Revolution is not a Negritude project wherein we attempt to return to an idealized African past or promote what Leopold Senghor calls “intuitive reasoning” (Emotion is Negro, Reason is Greek).  The primary purpose of the Pan African Cultural Revolution is to transform the values, consciousness, attitudes, norms, mores, etc. of African people.  As we transform society, we transform ourselves.  Our Cultural Revolution has four goals: 1) To eliminate corruption and bureaucracy among leadership 2) To promote intellectual independence 3) To encourage mass participation and 4) To instill a cohesive identity and an anti-authoritarian ethic. 

Neocolonialism and neoliberalism have taken firm root in continental and diasporic African communities.  Neocolonialsim requires the complicity of a comprador elite to facilitate labor exploitation and resource extraction.  Our Cultural Revolution is a class struggle in the realm of ideas and culture wherein our current leaders must transform or be replaced.  Furthermore, neoliberalism is more than a set of policies, it is an ideology that presupposes the individual as the primary actor and unit of analysis.

 In opposition, mass-based social movements advance the communal values of solidarity, cooperation, self-sacrifice, and discipline.  Finally, the neoliberal policies that facilitated the growth of NGOs and non-profits have assisted in the ideological and organizational domination of White Liberals.  This is a perennial problem in Africa and the diaspora that can only be overcome by developing independent All-Black organizations.  To ensure its success, the Pan African Cultural Revolution must have concrete policy objections.  These include the creation of:

1)    Independent All-African mass based organizations (ex: labor, women’s, students, youth, religious, fraternal, political party, etc).
2)    Independent Educational Institutions (universities, K-12, youth programs, cadre schools, study groups, regular community political education, etc).
3)    Independent African Art Institutions (theatre houses, museums, publishing houses, music labels, distribution companies, etc.)
4)    Independent Systems of Communications (radio, television, movie studios, social media, etc).
5)    Self Defense Networks and/or a People’s Army

In addition, as a central component of the Cultural Revolution, all of the above institutions must create mass-based popular education regarding gender and sexuality in order to challenge the patriarchal and hetero-normative ideas inculcated through imperialism.  The above organizations and institutions are the primary vehicles to advance our Political Revolution.  Therefore, the Cultural Revolution does not occur before or after the Political Revolution but happens simultaneously and continues once we capture state power.

Our Cultural Revolution is inspired by the Black Arts Movement in the US, the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, and the Cultural Revolution in China.  The fundamental objective of Political Revolution is to democratize the means of production i.e. the establishment of a Socialist system.  Although we keep ‘Politics in Command,’ without the Cultural Revolution the Political Revolution is impossible.

Amandla! (Power)
Black Power!
Asijiki! (Forward)
A Luta Continua! (the struggle continues)

I Write What I Like by Steve Biko
Unity and Struggle by Amilcar Cabral
Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
A Dying Colonialism by Frantz Fanon
The Black Aesthetic by (Editor) Addison Gayle
Class Struggle in Africa by Kwame Nkrumah
Groundings With My Brothers by Walter Rodney
Revolution, Culture, and Pan-Africanism by Sekou Toure

The Unknown Cultural Revolution by Dongping Han
“On Contradiction” by Mao Tse-Tung

Benjamin Woods is a PhD candidate at Howard University and co-founder of Students Against Mass Incarceration. He can be contacted at, or through his website FreeTheLand.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

#BlackLivesMatter: From Marikana to Ferguson

South Africa and the United States are presently in the early stages of a militant mass Black movement.  In South Africa, MPs affiliated with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a self described revolutionary organization, disrupted parliament chanting ‘pay back the money’ to senior officials in the ruling ANC government accused of corruption. Similarly, in the US, militant activists commandeered the microphone at a march sponsored by the National Action Network to protest their exclusion.  While both instances are portrayed as generational divides and disrespect to ‘the elders’, these are ideological disagreements that reflect a conflicting set of class interests and consciousness in the US and South Africa. 

Ronald Walters in the Price of Racial Reconciliation and George Fredrickson in White Supremacy and Black Liberation compare and contrast the legal systems and Black Liberation Movement (BLM) in each country.  Both countries are white settler states that had mass movements to eliminate racial apartheid.  Although the fundamental problem is global capitalism, it expresses itself in three important ways:  neocolonialism, neoliberalism, and militarism. 

‘Osagyefo’ Kwame Nkrumah defined neocolonialism as a nation that has gained political freedom but is still economically dependent on external powers.  Last year, Ronnie Kasrils, a national leader of the ANC and SACP, acknowledged that in the 1980s & 90s ANC ‘gavetoo much away’ during its negotiated settlement with the apartheid government.  The negotiated settlement by the ANC left the land, mines, banks etc in the hands of white monopoly capital.  After 1994, the ANC promoted Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).  BEE was a program that consolidated a Black capitalist class by establishing quotas in the economic sector.   In essence, the ANC transitioned from a liberation movement to a neocolonial government.

 In the US during the McCarthy era, Black liberal organizations such as NAACP and the Urban League either assisted or remained silent when Black radicals like Paul Robeson and WEB Dubois suffered political repression for their uncompromising stand on human rights.  Without this ‘negotiated settlement’, the Black liberal demands of the Civil Rights Movement would not likely have been accepted.  Then, in the 1960s, Richard Nixon supported government programs that reflected his slogan that “Black capitalism is Black Power.”  This process helped to create the Black misleadership class that BAR consistently highlights and the emerging movement must confront.

Since the 1970s, there has been a neoliberal counterrevolution to undermine progressive and radical social movements through the promotion of policies such as trade liberalization, privitazation, deregulation, and cutting of social services.  The EFF has argued that the ANC abandoned the redistributive policies of the Freedom Charter for the neoliberal policies of GEAR and the NDP.   

In the US context, the Black misleadership class remained loyal to the Democratic Party even as it transitioned to the neoliberal policies of the Democratic Leadership Council and Blue Dog Democrats.  While the Democrats supported welfare reform, deregulation of radio airwaves in 1996 and repeal of the Glass Steegal Act, the Black political class said we must support ‘lesser of two evils.”  These and other neoliberal policies not only deepened class contradictions in African America but also the perceived need for police containment in both US and South Africa.
In the US and South Africa, the domestic police force has become militarized.  The ANC government inherited the highly militarized apartheid era police force and a culture of anti-Black racism.  Therefore, even with a majority Black government the police terrorism against Black people remains a major problem in the country.  In order to combat the high crime rates caused by economic dislocation and social alienation, in 2009, the police commissioner once suggested the country adopt a ‘shoot to kill’policy.  The most famous recent instance of police terrorism in South Africa, was the case of 34 miners at Marikana murdered while protesting for higher wages. 

Stateside, calls for law and order and the repeated refrain of ‘Black on Black’ violence legitimated the militarization of domestic police.  This militarization began in the 1960s,  when the local police departments created SWAT teams in order to contain urban rebellions and radical Black organizations.  And even though the CBC is well aware of the Black complaints of police terrorism in their districts, four-fifths voted against an amendment that would have halted Pentagon military transfers to U.S. police departments.  Now, there is an incipient mass Black movement to challenge them and these colonial policies. 

Although these two movements have several similarities, there are differences as well.  A significant difference is political development.  One reason being that the South African Communist Party played a critical role in the anti-apartheid movement and is one part of the Tripartite Alliance.  This means the South African Left has a higher level of ideological and organizational development.  For example, the EFF is a revolutionary socialist and Black consciousness organization with over 500,000 members and 25 members of parliament in just a little over a year of existence.  At its National Assembly held Dec. 13-16 in Bloemfontein, the 33 year old Julius Malema was elected President.  The rank and file of the membership appears to be in their early twenties. 

The protest movement that has emanated from Ferguson, MO has captured the worlds attention from Venezuela to North Korea to Palestine.  It has hearlded a new generation of radical Black organizers who before the murder of Mike Brown had never even attended a protest.  In addition, the national discourse has undergone a seismic shift over the past few weeks due to their grassroots organizing.  This movement is truly a game changer.  But because of the political repression of McCarthyism and Cointelpro, this generation, my generation, has not had the same the level of political continuity and mentorship as our counterparts in South Africa.  For example, Malema and other leaders in EFF received part of their political education in revolutionary Cuba. 

The South African and US based Black Liberation Movement (BLM) have a lot to teach each other.  Unfortunantly, at the moment, the two movements do not appear to be in conversation with one another.  The EFF strategy of ‘economic emancipation in our lifetimes’ and a national assembly to create a political program, point a way forward for the BLM in the US.  At this point, the radical sectors of the BLM must develop organization, strategy, and concrete objectives. It should plan a national assembly with four clear objectives:

1) Examine the historical weakness and strengths of the BLM

2) Assess the current state of the BLM

3) Create an independent Black organization (party, congress, united front etc)

4) Develop a five to ten year plan for the Black Community

The organizations that have been created over past five years to combat the prison system by young Black people (Dream Defenders, Millineal Activists United, #BlackLivesMatter, Students Against Mass Incarceration, Lost Voices etc.) and more established groups (MXGM, AAPRP, Uhuru Movement etc.) can make such a call.  They have the organizers and clout do so.  Hopefully, something is already in the works.  But for now, in the words of the EFF ideologue Frantz Fanon, we “either must fulfill our mission, or betray it.” 

Benjamin Woods is a PhD candidate at Howard University and co-founder of Students Against Mass Incarceration. He can be contacted at, or through his website FreeTheLand.