I’ve written elsewhere about genealogies of knowledge, and my view that tracing them is central to understanding how we know what we know. Today, I’ll point to two intellectual genealogies outlined on recent episodes of Democracy Now! which I found particularly compelling.
On Thursday, historian Robin D.G. Kelley pointed to some of the individuals and organizations who have done the foundational work in recent years and decades (going all the way back to 1977 when the Combahee River Collective issued its iconic Statement) that is now making possible this transformative moment in US history:
And one of the things we all have to acknowledge is that we’re not here by accident. You know, this is not a spontaneous response to the pandemic, and suddenly white people are waking up and saying, “Oh, wait a second, Black lives matter.” No, this is a product of enormous work, going back well before Trayvon Martin. But you think about all the organizing work, the Movement for Black Lives, Black Lives Matter, the women who organized Black Lives Matter, initiated — Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors — people like Melina Abdullah, Charlene Carruthers of Black Youth Project 100, all the scholar activists who have been working on this question — Barbara Ransby, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore — and then, before that, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Copwatch, Dignity and Power, Critical Resistance, the African American Policy Forum. These were initiatives on the ground who did all this political education, all this organizing work — We Charge Genocide, Dream Defenders, the Rising Majority, Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity, and also groups like SURJ, you know, [Showing] Up for Racial Justice, which deals with white racism.
So you have an infrastructure in place that has been doing this work for a decade or more — more than a decade. And that’s why people are out here. […] And I think it’s very important to even go back and acknowledge how the foundations were laid by the Combahee River Collective, by people like Barbara Smith, raised by the Third World Women’s Alliance […] there’s a long history that got us here.
And the real question now is whether or not this can be sustained, because we know, throughout history, we’ve had revolutionary moments, after Reconstruction in the 1870s, followed by backlash and by what we can describe as American fascism. We have the sort of Second Reconstruction of the 1960s, followed by backlash, the rise of the Klan, the tamping down on the strike wave in the 1970s, neoliberalism. And now we’re facing another one. We have these forces trying to transform the world in a way that could actually bring safety and prosperity to all versus a president and a regime that asks, “What happened to Gone with the Wind?
And, yesterday, in the same spirit, Angela Davis observed that:
[W]hen these protests erupted, I remembered something that I’ve said many times to encourage activists, who often feel that the work that they do is not leading to tangible results. I often ask them to consider the very long trajectory of Black struggles. And what has been most important is the forging of legacies, the new arenas of struggle that can be handed down to younger generations.
But I’ve often said one never knows when conditions may give rise to a conjuncture such as the current one that rapidly shifts popular consciousness and suddenly allows us to move in the direction of radical change. If one does not engage in the ongoing work when such a moment arises, we cannot take advantage of the opportunities to change. And, of course, this moment will pass. The intensity of the current demonstrations cannot be sustained over time, but we will have to be ready to shift gears and address these issues in different arenas, including, of course, the electoral arena.
But I do think that we now have the conceptual means to engage in discussions, popular discussions, about capitalism. Occupy gave us new language. The notion of the prison-industrial complex requires us to understand the globalization of capitalism. Anti-capitalist consciousness helps us to understand the predicament of immigrants, who are barred from the U.S. by the wall that has been created by the current occupant. These conditions have been created by global capitalism. And I think this is a period during which we need to begin that process of popular education, which will allow people to understand the interconnections of racism, heteropatriarchy, capitalism.
In the statements of both Kelley and Davis, we see at once homage being paid to those who have done the often thankless work to get us here, and the open question posed, what it will take to carry the momentum of the current moment forward to make lasting political change. (Fittingly, a collection of Davis’s essays, published in 2015, bears the title, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle.) For my entire life, my inclinations, then my conscience, and finally, as they took shape, my politics have run counter to the dominant discourses and ruling ideologies of my country, and the idea that we might be at a turning point that will allow us to break free from Reaganism and the neoliberal status quo is as thrilling to me as it is daunting. I believe that public health experts err when they attempt to justify, by utilitarian calculus, claims that the risks associated with mass protest in the midst of a pandemic are outweighed by the benefits of confronting structural racism. This is math that is too uncertain regarding phenomena too disparate (and of too varied time horizons) in character. The commitment to support this movement, in spite of the impossible and disastrous timing, is fundamentally political. It’s been at least 50 years since we’ve seen an opening like this one, and who knows when (or, given the state of the world, even if) such an opportunity will arise again. The future hangs in the balance, so, in my view, this is not a question of trying to calculate mortality figures – by that logic, there would be no way to justify actions that risk significantly exacerbating the impacts of COVID-19. Epidemiologically-speaking, there simply should not be any mass gatherings right now – especially none with people packed tightly together, chanting, being brutalized by police in ways that threaten to increase the transmission of the disease – but there are mass gathering right now. There is a mass uprising, in fact, for reasons beyond any of our controls, and forces and phenomena such as those that have now been set in motion follow logics which are indifferent to the rational calculus of epidemiology. The pandemic may yet influence, perhaps even decisively, the outcome of the nationwide protest movement, but it will not do so through force of reason – only because lots of people start dying.
What we could have controlled, we failed to. What we can’t, we can now only wrestle with. Epidemiology can no more instruct us how to resolve our present intractable national dilemma than a climate model (or even a climate plan) can, alone, guide us out of our ever-deepening global climate crisis. Prediction and best practices are one thing – politics, action, and power, quite another.