Movement for Black Lives: an interview with Barbara Ransby - Institute of Race Relations
As we witness one of the largest uprisings in US history, led by Black working-class activists, Race & Class interviews Barbara Ransby, a US-based historian, feminist and longtime organiser, on the significance of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) uprisings across the US ignited by the murder of George Floyd.
Jenny Bourne: As someone who has been involved in and written on US Black working-class movements for many decades, do you see what’s happening now as a watershed moment?
Barbara Ransby: It is definitely a watershed moment and I don’t say that lightly. You know historians say every historical moment is unique which is true. But there are those pivots after which you know things are ever different and so I think this moment comes at the convergence of, in the United States and globally, really three crises.
First, it’s the crisis of liberal democracy or bourgeois democracy. We see an uptick in authoritarianism across the globe from Bolsonaro to Duterte, to Erdogan, and of course the Donald Trump phenomenon which is increasingly repressive, xenophobic, and dangerous. Essentially, Trump and his followers have deployed white nationalism in the service of racial capitalism.
Secondly, we have the global coronavirus pandemic which adds to that and stops us all in our tracks. It jolts the elites in ways that they did not anticipate, and exposes the vulnerabilities of racial capitalism yet again. Because, of course, you know it’s not lucrative to prepare for something like this, so all the pharmaceutical companies and the elite research institutes have not invested in in research around pandemics; they’d rather invest in drugs that people will buy every year because that increases the profit margin. And Trump, in his infinite lack of wisdom, dismantled the office in the federal government that was supposed to actually plan for pandemics. And then we see states and hospitals scrambling on the open market to buy life-saving equipment like ventilators. Yet another example of the failure of capitalism to meet this crisis. The market does not care if people die. We have to care.
And then the third thing is the uprising against police violence and white supremacy. We saw a fifty-state uprising in this country. We never saw that in the 1960s, we never had, 500 towns and cities with people coming out into the street simultaneously. Even in places that don’t have a significant Black population, there was somebody in that town that felt they had to get out in the streets and say something against racism, to say Black Lives Matter. That is uplifting and I have to also believe that people in those small towns probably don’t have a deep understanding of racism. They were protesting for other reasons too, unsettled and angry about the condition of their lives in this country and the George Floyd murder and the visual impact of that injustice was the final straw. The cruelty in that violence jolted people into action.
Of course an uprising is spontaneous, it is organic, you can’t script it beforehand, you can’t predict exactly when it’ll occur and you certainly can’t script it from inside as it’s unfolding. And this uprising is not different. None of us predicted that of all the outrageous acts that we have witnessed and absorbed over the last four years, that this particular killing would be the last straw for hundreds of thousands of ordinary people not in any organisation, per se.
But, organisation is essential once uprisings begin to unfold. Movement organisations, and there are many, began to draw upon lessons and organising models and theoretical frames from earlier periods and from organisations like Critical Resistance which, of course you know, Angela Davis and Ruth Gilmore helped to found in 1997. This is an abolitionist organisation led by Black feminists. Another earlier group is INCITE!: Women of Colour Against Violence, a group that came out of the anti-domestic violence movement and insisted on including state and imperialist violence in their analysis and work. I write about these groups in my book [Making All Black Lives Matter]. But then in 2012, a new group of organisers began to congeal and they have been debating and training and doing scenario-planning and base-building in the years since. Another critical turn was, of course, the Ferguson uprising in 2014 when Michael Brown was shot dead by police in Missouri.
A Black Lives Matter march in Denver. Thomas Elliott/Flickr
So, when the 2020 uprising occurred, you had a group of young Black activists, many of them feminists, many of them queer, many of them with a very radical intersectional analysis, ready to move into action. And they called a series of demonstrations on Juneteenth weekend. There were actions from Washington DC to California with hundreds of thousands of protesters filling the streets. The demand of ‘defund the police’ has emerged as central, reflecting decades of efforts to ‘reform and improve’ the police, all of which have failed. But ‘defund’ is only part of the agenda for activists, and it would be wrong and incomplete to leave it at that. The full-throated demand is ‘defund the police, fund our people’.
M4BL and others are organising around that idea, and M4BL’s policy committee has just created a piece of mock legislation called the Breathe Act which outlines not only dismantling police and prisons over time but also what it would mean to revitalise our communities and our schools and make health available to everyone, and have a sustainable green economy. All of that I think is a prime example of the ways in which Black liberation movements over time and in this moment are also the hopeful visionary movements for the entire planet, not just for Black people.
That’s how I would see the significance of this moment. I draw a lot from Naomi Klein’s notion of disaster capitalism. That, in this moment of disaster, in this moment of dislocation and disorientation, elites are certainly plotting and scheming on how to maximise their power, how to institute and expand policies and practices from surveillance to austerity to further their agenda. But what also happens in the context of a crisis is the opportunity for galvanising our people and galvanising the Left, and I see that happening as well.
The demonstrations here showed a certain level of determination on the part of people who attended their first protest during a pandemic. I think, regarding the Left and the Black movement here, if we don’t tap into that anger and determination then we really have not done our work. People were willing to face health risks, people went out more often than not wearing masks, but sometimes not wearing masks − taking that risk to demonstrate their outrage against what was happening in this country. They also withstood rubber bullets and tear-gas, which was in wide use, and this is really a human rights violation of the first order. I mean the cops were very brutal against a lot of the demonstrators and old people were knocked down, two reporters lost their eyes because they were victims of projectiles.