“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
“Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.”
-Ruth Wilson Gilmore
“Abolition is both the horizon and the anchor.”
The Case for Abolitionist Practice
One might look at the material and spiritual conditions laid out in this series and assume that we should throw up our hands in defeat. Yet, I remain militantly hopeful. Hope, as I understand it, requires that we remain radically pessimisticabout the prison industrial complex and the nation-state’s ability to reform itself. Hope requires that we believe in the people, and with the people. For me, it means deepening my commitment to the revolutionary strandsof abolitionist practice. Tracing its genealogy, we see Black proto-womanists and feminists like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth at the very core of its architecture. To this day, Black women of whom the world is not worthy, remain its chief architects.
Previously a fringe idea, abolition made its way into mainstream discourse in the summer of 2020. For better or for worse, more people publicly assumed “abolitionist” as an identity. We are warned by Mariam Kaba and others, however, that abolition is not primarily an identity that an individual assumes, but a practice a community pursues. It is an ancestral project that calls us to act, create, and resist daily as though a world beyond empire, policing, prisons, economic exploitation, anti-Blackness, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism, queer and trans antagonism is possible.
Too often, our kinfolk’s first introduction to “abolition” is through the hashtags: #abolishthepolice or #defundthepolice. While I’m in no way trying to police our hashtag usage, I think we must resist the tendency to put the greatest emphasis on outcomes like a world beyond police and prisons. As someone who came to the end of my belief in the possibility for reform in 2015, I have found that the most effective way to dialogue about abolitionism is to emphasize it as a practice. For one, talking about it as an outcome makes it more easily dismissed or misunderstood by our kinfolk. As the hysteria around critical race theory reveals, folks fear and/or hate “radical” ideas like abolitionism much more than they actually understand them.
Our people—Black people—have the strongest critique of the police in the U.S. Yet, due to structural violence, we also live in communities that experience interpersonal violence at higher rates. For this reason, people who are vocal critics and victims of policing and prisons, are caught up in the conundrum of “depending” on the very same institutions for safety and accountability when harm happens.
Yes, it’s true that the police do not stop crime and harm. Yes, the words of Angela Davis are true: “prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear humans.” Still, folks need more than our analysis of the carceral state. They need to see our abolitionist visions made flesh. They/we need to see it in practice in ways that spark imagination and tap into the unconscious abolitionist impulses they/we already have and practice. As much as a “burn it down” ethic is important, we need to embody a “build a new world” practice with our people! Abolition is not just about getting rid of death-dealing systems. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore has put it: “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.” I find Dylan Rodriguez’s words helpful in the case I’m trying to make. He writes:
“Abolition is not an outcome. Rather, it is an everyday practice, a method of teaching, creating, thinking, and an insurgent (“fugitive”) community-building project that exposes the pitfalls of the reformist adventure.”
We will not overcome the anti-Black violence of policing with reforms. They are killing, caging, hunting, and sucking up funds that could go to communal well-being, despite the fact they got body cams. Despite the fact they banned a few holds. Despite the fact that they are “diversifying” the force. Despite the fact that they secured the bag to pay for more “training.” Despite the fact that they are dropping TikTok and Instagram videos of dancing cops. Despite the fact that they are hosting town halls. Despite it all.
How long are we gonna wait with bated breath for a system rooted in the same genocidal logics that stole indigenous lands and enslaved Africans to somehow become the arbiter of “justice”? How long are we gonna wait on a system that takes our breath, deprives us of resources, destabilizes neighborhoods, and tears families asunder? It is not a criminal justice system. It is a criminal legal system. Legality ≠ justice.
Justice is the redistribution of resources to the exploited. Justice is the reordering of society away from hierarchies. Justice is the repair of the wounds of oppression—the radical reorientation of society, that requires the destruction of domination systems and death cultures, while building apparatuses of healing and cultures of life that center those who have been cast as “the least” and “the last.” The U.S. system was designed to accomplish none of the above. There is nothing moral, legitimate, divinely ordained, or redeemable about this rotten system. All the data shows that the prison industrial complex has done the exact opposite of keeping us safe. Instead, it has severed families, terrorized psyches, maimed limbs, looted resources, and helped manufacture the kind of misery, suffering, and lack that drives our kinfolk into dangerous extra-legal activities that harm, rather than heal.
We must divest from it in the deepest part of our being. We must exorcise that demon from our souls. We must emancipate ourselves from its grip. We must heighten the contradictions of reformism. We must abolish the cop in our heads and the capitalists in our hearts. It is time to commit to the practice of abolition. It is high time we leave behind the fruitless adventure of reformism and begin tilling the soil in the heart of our communities, planting the seeds of self-determination, and watering and reaping a harvest of community-controlled systems of care, safety, and accountability that will make cops, cages, and capitalism obsolete. As so many feign concern about peer-on-peer violence and crime in Black communities, it’s my belief that the practice of abolition takes this kind of violence the most seriously. It is calling us to redirect resources towards root causes of violence. The largest workforce in the U.S. is the police and policing budgets of some of our cities are larger than the entire military budgets of nations. This is not logical, sustainable, or applaudable. To riff off Martin’s critique of the U.S.’s military-industrial complex, a city that spends more on policing budgets than it does on affordable housing is approaching spiritual doom. Abolition is “the horizon” calling us beyond this doom. The practice of abolition calls us to cultivate a sense and practice of justice that the carceral state cannot give us. As I wrote in a Facebook post on the day of Derick Chauvin’s guilty verdict:
“…the sense of justice i have, the carceral state didn’t give it to me. It can’t give it to me. And it can’t take it away.
I hold space for the family of George Floyd to feel whatever semblance of justice/relief they can from a possible guilty verdict.
However, we the people must indict, try, and convict the entire system that has bore the ‘strange fruit’ of Black death for generations.
Chauvins, Darren Wilsons, and Betty Shelbys may pass away or be caged away, but the death-dealing system remains the same.
This trial verdict does not determine if Floyd’s life mattered. It doesn’t determine if our lives matter. We, the sunkissed and sacred people of the African diaspora MATTER apart from this empire’s decisions.
This trial doesn’t determine if the U.S. is “just.”
It is not.”
Remembering Our Radical Ancestor’s Song
I often quote the poet who said, “love is remembering the song in someone’s heart and singing it to them when they’ve forgotten it.” For me, the practice of abolition is like singing a forgotten song. An ancestral song. A song that was on the lips of our enslaved African ancestors. A song sowed into the winds of time that has reverberated and given breath to every generation of maladjusted Black folks since. It’s a song that reminds us that we live in the afterlife of chattel slavery and have inherited systems of captivity and punishment, not of care and mutuality. It’s a song that reminds us that our ancestors’ “wildest dream” was not (predatory) inclusion in a settler-colonial empire and its systems of domination. No, the dream was either escape to a new world, or the abolition of those systems. Even then, abolition is about building the new world we want to see in the shell of a dying world that’s trying to take our life and breath. Abolition is a communal act of revolt. As Frantz Fanon put it, “we revolt because we can no longer breathe.” Abolition is, in the words of Angela Davis, “to act as though it was possible to radically transform the world, and to do it everyday.” We can no longer accept the notion that another world is impossible.
As I close this piece, I want to again own the fact that every critique raised lands at my own front door steps and that my limited perspective requires radical humility. There were situations and events during the summer of 2020 that require more voices than my own to paint a full picture. No one person or organization can tell the whole story. There are details that I may have gotten slightly wrong. As James Baldwin put it, “my memory stammers, but my soul is a witness.” Let us bear witness together!
As we move forward in this sacred work of ours:
May love be our vocation.
May abolition be our practice.
May freedom be our rhythm.
May liberation – not accumulation – be our struggle.
May healing justice be our balm.
May joyful community be our sustainer.
May the radical ancestors be our inspiration.
May the generations coming after us be our motivation.
And may the Creator be our co-conspirator & ever-present help!
“If I could get ‘biblical’ for a second, ‘having blood on one’s hands’ is not just about being the individual that caused direct harm in this situation, it is about collective sin & responsibility. By taking the helm of this system [as sherriff], you are entangled in and accountable for its systemic violence. Even by virtue of being taxpayers, to a certain degree, U.S. citizens have the blood of innocent people who this nation drops bombs on overseas on their hands.”
“The white man will try to satisfy us with symbolic victories rather than economic [redistribution] and real justice.”
“If capital is funding our freedom movements, they are not freedom movements.”
The Farce On U.S.A.: The Emptiness of the Ruling Elite’s Response to Summer 2020 Uprisings
When it was all said and done, Winston-Salem became a tragic microcosm of what happened on the national level. Nationally, the call to “defund the police” was REJECTED and scapegoated. This demand originated amongst Black abolitionist organizers and was taken up in both tactically weak and sound ways by an ideologically diverse group of formations. No one expected the Republicans to be on board, but there were those who held out hope that the Democrats would be responsive to the estimated 26 million people in the U.S. that participated in protests that summer. Instead, Democrats largely chose to play the game of symbolism. They appropriated movement language, virtue signaled, and staged cringe-worthy performative gestures like wearing kente cloth and taking the knee. We saw protests and boycotts that had tons of potential co-opted by ruling misdirection-ists and whisperer-careerists. One of the saddest instances was when former President Barack Obama talked Lebron James and striking NBA players off the ledge of their strike, and back onto the court in exchange for mostly symbolic concessions. In the words of ancestor Fannie Lou Hamer, “[We] are sick of symbolic things. We are fighting for our lives!”
Wall Street and corporate powers, who have profited from the violence of policing, waved the Black Lives Matter banner while continuing to exploit Black workers through wage theft. A recent in-depth study of corporate sponsorship of “racial justice causes” revealed the futility and severe limitations of said entities in addressing race/ism. In fact, over 90% of the corporate dollar pledges to the movement “[were] allocated as loans or investments they could stand to profit from.” As Joy James put it, “if capital is funding our freedom movements, they are not freedom movements.” Despite all the pearl-clutching done by neoliberal centrists and conservatives around the slogan “Defund the Police,” the police were NOT defunded in the overwhelming majority of cities. Rather, people were herded to the polls to vote for one of the most carceral presidential tickets ever: a chief architect of the infamous 94 crime bill, and a self-proclaimed “top-cop.” During the campaign trail, both Biden and Harris spoke of the ills of systemic racism and the need for policing and prison reform. However, I argue that their rhetoric was not the fruit of genuine repentance (turning from their carceral ways.) Instead, it was a politically expedient act of rebranding. This rebranding allowed a presidential ticket that was basically a “middle finger” to the movement, to be seen by some as a “peace sign.” As a battered and concussed electorate, perhaps the masses were “seeing double” in their desperation for the Chirstofascist Trump era to end. No matter where one may fall in terms of electoral politics and strategies, it must be constantly named that the so-called “lesser of two evils” is still evil.
Under the Biden administration, “The George Floyd Act” police reform bill passed in the House. However, as Black abolitionist Dereka Purnell has pointed out, the tragic irony is that the bill bearing his name, would not have actually saved George Floyd’s life. The bill — which would give 750 million dollars towards policing — was not strong enough to begin with, and most recently, crumbled on the Senate floor. Meanwhile, a republican initiated budget resolution amendment, that would essentially “defund cities” that choose to defund the police, was passed unanimously. Equally egregious is the reality that President Biden reneged on his campaign promise to decrease the militarization of the police via an Executive Order. To his credit, however, the 46th “imperialist in chief” did follow through on his promise to end the federal use of private prisons. This was reported and received as a giant step towards reform, nevertheless, a close look at the impact demonstrates it was a baby step at best. Not a single soul locked in a cage – during a deadly pandemic – was freed by the order. It ended a total of just 3 contracts that the Department of Justice had with private prisons. ICE detentions centers were not within its purview. Additionally, it bolstered the false dichotomy between private and public prisons. The reality is that every one of these rotten vestiges of chattel slavery makes profits for private companies. Yet, the executive order had just enough (fatty) meat on its bones for the masses to mistake it as substantial. The lack of substance so far in the Biden presidency should not have been a surprise to anyone. A man who tells corporate donors who depend on the violence of policing that “nothing will fundamentally change” is highly unlikely to do anything to substantially decrease the power and plunder of the carceral state. Even if one did not understand the relationship between capitalism and policing, Biden explicitly said in an exclusive ABC interview:
“I don’t want to defund police departments. I think they need more help, they need more assistance, but that, look, there are unethical senators, there are unethical presidents, there are unethical doctors, unethical lawyers, unethical prosecutors, there are unethical cops. They should be rooted out.”
Biden’s primary mandate was/is saving empire and capital, and calming the restless U.S. masses through piecemeal concessions. To that end, it was important that Chauvin (George Floyd’s murderer) be found guilty, “rooted out,” and delivered up as an individual sacrifice in order to save the deadly system, and avoid even larger mass mobilizations.
All of the above national happenings were mirrored in “Winston-Salem, USA.” The entire city council – republican and democrat – explicitly said they were against “defunding.” Despite the swan song over diminishing resources, neither the WSPD nor the FCSO budgets were decreased. As was the case in other cities, they sucked up covid-19 relief funding and secured grants as Winston-Salem residents were put out on the streets due to evictions during a global pandemic. During the heat of the summer and the months that followed, local politicians demonstrated their subservience to law enforcement and veiled apathy towards the people. There were two particular moments that demonstrate this dynamic. First, Black city council member and democrat, James Taylor, appeared to be a step above the rest of his city council colleagues in relation to his responsiveness to the demands coming from the most serious elements within our local protest scene. He attempted to pass a resolution that would purportedly reallocate funds from WSPD’s hiring budget and towards community programs, create a raise in the minimum wage for city jobs, and provide rental assistance for tenants. Yet, like Biden’s executive order ending the federal use of private prisons, a deeper look revealed that it was primarily cosmetic. The “reallocated” funds would not actually impact the WSPD’s budget, hiring, or power at all. Chief Katrina Thomspon approved. Meanwhile, Councilmember Ryan Clark pushed back on the resolution saying:
“It is very easy for the police chief to support your motion, Mr. Taylor, because it doesn’t do anything…I cannot support a sham of a motion that in fact eliminates positions in every department but the police…..”
By no means, was/is republican politician, Ryan Clark a comrade in our struggle. Still, the above quote at least exposed what was truly happening. Taylor’s resolution was not “bad,” it just was not in any way rooted in the anti-carceral logic and substance of movement demands. Yet, he was attempting to frame it in that way, dancing on that non-existent line of being pro-movement and pro-policing. In one city council meeting, Taylor addressed law enforcement with the words, “we love you and we trust you.” These words of carceral affirmation could not have been further from the cries of the streets heard worldwide. They were, in essence, a sad inversion of the chant done nightly at the occupation in front of the detention center to encourage incarcerated neighbors: “we see you, we love you!”
The second occurrence that demonstrated city/county leadership’s veiled apathy towards the people involved democratic city council member James Mundy. Mundy, who is white, was in the streets during the summer protests crying “Black lives matter.” However, when he stepped into power as the new southwest ward city councilmember, the story was different. At one point he likened grassroots organizations like Hate Out of Winston and the FCPARC to “terrorists” and “kidnappers” for their persistence in showing up to voice demands during the public comment section of city meetings. Mundy would eventually issue an apology and update his Facebook profile to a picture of himself protesting in the streets of Winston-Salem during the summer. Again, proving my point in part 1 of this series, that much of the activity of white folks in the summer of 2020 was about absolution.
[Pictured: Top Right – city council member James Taylor & WSPD Chief Katrina Thompson, Top Left -Councilmember James Mundy sworn into office, Bottom Left – Hate Out of Winston lead-organizer Miranda Jones speaks at a demonstratiion calling for reallocatiion of policiing funds, Bottom Right – Brittany Battle moderates an FCPARC “People’s Report” on violence interruption work.]
Now we come to who might be described as the “Camel City Obama”: Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough (who falls under the ruling misdirectionist class as covered in part 1 of this series). Like Obama, Kimbrough is slick with his branding and PR. (Obama was declared the top “brand” in the year 2008.) You could argue that he moves like a hybrid sheriff and social media influencer. He’s charismatic. He knows how to project a sense of “around the way-ness.” He can employ Black preaching cadences with ease. He is skillful at giving people the impression that his positionality at the top of an anti-Black system, does not put him at odds with the best interests of the Black community. However, he missed the mark of Obama-level symbolism and political maneuvering on several occasions. One such occasion felt more in alignment with the likes of Nancy Pelosi, who in addition to that bootleg Colin Kaepernick demonstration, had the unmitigated (white liberal) gall to say “George Floyd gave his life as a sacrifice” after the Chauvin guilty verdict.
Commensurately cringeworthy was Sheriff Kimbrough’s suggestion to “honor” John Neville by renaming a wing of the detention center after him. After pushback, he recanted, but the fact that this was ever on the table, reveals the ways that Black faces in high places are not immune to the system’s enchantment. On the contrary, the Black (petite)bourgeois hold the spaces they hold because they have internalized and performed the duties of a “buffer class” that legitimizes racist-patriarchal-colonial systems. And as Miranda Jones of Hate Out of Winston put it during a teach-in at the occupation of Bailey Park, “Having a Black body with a ‘blue mind’ means my people are in trouble!”
Under Kimbrough’s leadership, the sheriff’s department called for residents to join surveillance efforts by linking their house security cams to their system. This would allow law enforcement to access security camera footage at private residences, businesses, etc. To sell this idea they funded a Hollywood movie quality copaganda commercial that gave folks the impression that linking their security cams would prevent a break-in while in progress. They later were forced to clarify that linking a camera to their system would not mean 24-hour security surveillance as the video purported. The WSPD hired a full-time PR person salaried at $60,000. The official title for this position, “civilian information officer,” is another sign of how committed our city is to the tenants of “community policing.” The myths of “community policing”, or more accurately described as CONmunity policing—policing that reifies the very structures they claim to improve— were constantly, cleverly, and forcefully shoved down the throats of Winston-Salem Forsyth County residents. Those who dared to call it into question were demonized. It seemed that at every turn, Kimbrough was committed to using his well-oiled social media presence and charisma to bash, dinegegrate, and mischaracterize the work of grassroots organizations.
This law enforcement PR blitz took place to the backdrop of a 15-year-old black girl being slammed by a musclebound white police officer in her own neighborhood that winter, a Black man being victimized by police at a gas station in East Winston, incarcerated kinfolk having to stage protests in response to being deprived of proper medical attention, water shutoffs, and refusal to give them their mail. As gun violence – too often involving Black and brown teens – escalates, the city that said it was for Black lives continues to block the flow of support for Black & Latinx community-controlled efforts to curtail it. Rather, they are engaging in what I call “disaster carceralism.” As the Drum Majors Alliance and Lit City noted in our statement responding to the deeply tragic shooting that took place on the campus of Mt tabor high school:
“Similar to ‘disaster capitalism’, disaster carceralism is an attempt to seize a moment of tragedy to further the economic drain, strengthen the systemic grip, and boost the public approval of “solving” issues of violence with law enforcement.”
As I wrap this up, it must be said that there can be no analysis of politics in Winston-Salem that does not interrogate the role of the faith community. The urban legend is that Winston-Salem is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most church buildings per capita in the nation. As a member of the local faith community, I must express my deep frustration with our engagement in summer 2020 protests and beyond. To be fair, I have seen glimmers of hope. More church folks took to the streets than they did in 2012, or 2014, or even 2016. Yet, there remains an unfortunate and unacceptable tendency amongst our most prominent clergy, churches, and faith-based non-profit organizations to virtue signal, but ultimately skirt the task of cross-bearing. There is much that could be said, but one haunting moment is emblematic of where too many of those who claim allegiance to Jesus of Nazareth have stood in this struggle. At a multi-racial unity prayer gathering hosted in summer 2020 ON THE VERY SAME GROUNDSAS #OccupyWSNC not so much as an official word of encouragement to protesters or a prayer was offered up for the family of John Neville. What’s more, this prayer gathering – which came together at the suggestion of Sheriff Kimbrough – was hosted by a local white evangelical megachurch pastor who happened to be an avid supporter of Donald Trump. What fellowship do Christofascists have with liberationist people of faith? Is the God of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Martin King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Bree Newsome the same as the God of Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Jerry Falwell Sr., and Franklin Graham?
In the final analysis, the power structure (and its accomplices in every sector) fought tooth and nail against grassroots organizations. When backed against the wall by the force of our activity, they divvied out “great-value” (diluted) versions of some demands, all while being self-congratulatory.
All that ensued post the summer of 2020, leads me back to the idea that it was “the Farce on Winston”: an empty, absurd, and performative series of events that ultimately upheld the deadly status quo.
“Protesters were confused. Some were afraid. Many were angry. [They] felt betrayed. Just days earlier, Chief Thompson had given an impassioned speech in plain clothes about her commitment to protect the citizens under her watch who were exercising their First Amendment right to protest for a cause she claimed to fully support. She had shed tears….but on July 8th, those promises were proven to be lip service. That empathy disappeared.”
–Brittany Battle & Bailey Pittenger
“This is still racist Winston f***ing Salem!”
-Larry Little (circa 1992)
Brother John Neville: ‘George Floyd’ In Our Own Backyard
At a vigil on June 6th, in downtown Winston-Salem, I clumsily attempted to narrate a history of Black radicalism in Winston-Salem. I was hoping to interrupt the sense of placelessness that pervaded so much of the activity and ground the attendees in our localstory. After that brief history lesson, I said, “It’s easy to look at racism in the national headlines and forget that it’s right up under your nose. Winston-Salem was founded in white supremacy and it continues to be marred and formed by white supremacy.” The evidence abounded. If one looked at the data, the daily structural violence of Winston-Salem was undeniable. A city that had been ranked 17th worst in eviction rates, 19th worst US city childhood poverty, and 4th hardest city for a child born into poverty to escape–is already a racist-capitalist tragedy. Yet, the “mundane” — but often more deadly — daily oppression has a numbing effect on the masses. The more effective and less detected evil is executed in slow-motion. Furthermore, a people accustomed to trauma will begin to normalize it and explain it in ways that obscure its root cause. To quote Kwame Ture again, “not only do we accept poverty, we even find it normal, and that…is because the oppressor makes his violence a part of the functioning of society.” Still, if one were waiting for the “sensational headline” of state-sponsored racialized violence in Winston-Salem, they would soon have it. And this tragic story would eerily mirror the details of George Floyd’s murder.
***CONTENT WARNING: State Violence Against Black People***
In December 2019, a Black man named John Neville had a health episode while being held captive in a cell in our county’s local detention center. The official – but contested – narrative is that he had fallen from his 4-feet tall top bunker while sleeping and began having what appeared to be seizures. Guards and nurses were called in and found Neville “shaking and sweating, with vomit on his clothes and blood around his mouth.” Instead of providing adequate care to a person who was clearly in crisis, they put a “spit mask” over his face and “hog-tied” him. Like George Floyd in 2020, and Eric Garner before him, John Neville pleaded for his life, uttering those fateful words, “I can’t breathe”, 27 times in the span of 3 minutes. Yet, those charged with his care, flippantly laughed and told jokes during this terrible ordeal. As a result of their murderous negligence and the use of the hog-tie restraint, Neville would eventually die of asphyxiation in a hospital that night—according to “official” reports. As life faded from his body, an inmate is heard in surveillance camera video footage saying, “y’all killed that man.” The inmates’ testimony underscored the agentic nature of the actions taken by the guards and nurses. When Neville’s body was taken out of the cell by paramedics, inmates joined voices singing “Amazing Grace.” Their raised voices stood in direct contradiction to, and condemnation of, the gracelessness of a nation-state much more committed to the preservation of cages and capital, than caring for its people. The song on their lips was both a lamentation and an invitation. It lamented the fact that the apartheid city of Winston-Salem is structurally hogtied — that there are spaces of deprivation that restrict, suppress, asphyxiate, and limit the life-breath chances of Black and brown communities. This city is not a place of life-giving “amazing grace,” but rather a death-dealing Bible-belt city organized around what antifascist theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” A cheap grace which seeks peace without justice, democracy without decolonization, healing without reparations, (re)conciliation without wealth redistribution, “forgiveness without repentance,” and unity without verity. Ultimately, their song is a radical invitation. Their raised voices invite and call us to cut through the bitter wails of Black suffering with the “sweet sound” of justice and beloved community.
Rhyming With 1992
Tragically and predictably, it would be a full 7 months before details of what happened to John Neville would become public. This “cover-up,” as many of us called it, was a tragic rhyme with a previous moment in Winston-Salem’s history: 1992. Like the year 2020,1992 was a year of uprisings and protests in the wake of a national headline-grabbing instance of police-violence. In 1992 it was the acquittal of the cops who brutally beat motorist Rodney King and the subsequent L.A. Rebellion. In 2020, it was the murder of George Floyd and the rebellions that sprung up around the country. Because the U.S. traps Black people in a single web of carcerality, what happens in L.A., or Minneapolis, or Ferguson, has a visceral impact on Black folks wherever they may live.
On a bone-deep level, we feel it as if it happened in our own backyard, and to our closest of kin.
The revolutionary potential of this reality haunts the powers that be. So efforts are made in every locale to de-link the problem. The last thing the powers want is for the dots to be connected locally — and certainly not internationally. This would bring about too much political clarity and liberatory intensity. As Malcolm X argued, “you can’t understand what is going on in Mississippi if you don’t understand what is going on in the Congo….the same [colonial] schemes are at work.”
For this reason, the ruling elite of Winston-Salem tried hard to cover up certain details of the murder of a Black man named Carlos Stoner in 1992. On a night in late May of that year, he was brutally stabbed to death by a group of white men in Washington Park. They left the scene of the crime, only to return a half-hour later to castrate him and to place his genitals in his mouth. This post-mortem brutality was the calling card of white terrorist lynch mobs of the past. When reporting the murder, the WSPD and the ruling elite decided to withhold that specific detail– as well as the racial identities of those involved. They rightly believed that any relatively conscious Black person would immediately begin to suspect that this was more than a murder–but a racist act of terror. Keeping the tinderbox of Winston-Salem from exploding was more important than exposing the truth. But for the investigative journalism of the Winston-Salem Chronicle – the city’s historically Black-owned newspaper – this cover-up would not have been known until the trial.
Fast-forward 18 years: it took 270 days for details to emerge about the death of John Neville, and for charges to be pressed against those whose murderous negligence resulted in his demise. As usual, power conceded absolutely nothing without demands and pressure from protestors. One protest took place about 10 days prior to the July 8th press conference held by District Attorney Jim O’Neill announcing the indictments. On June 27th, another rally and march was organized by a coalition of grassroots organizations including Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem, Prisoner Outreach Initiative, Siembra NC, Winston for Peace, and my own beloved Drum Majors Alliance. This was just one day after Sheriff Kimbrough first uttered the name John Neville publicly in a vague and misleading response to an interview question. The march, like quite a few others before it, was centered on making demands around the ongoing Covid-19 infection crisis in the detention center. By this time, there were rumblings that the video footage of John Neville’s death would be absolutely damning and there were calls during the protest for the video to be released immediately. At the time, these calls were not official demands and, considering lack of clarity about the Neville family’s position on the matter, there was disagreement around whether this demand should be made. That said, the fire was intensified in this second wave of protests, and we would soon have all the evidence needed to indict Winston-Salem as a racist neoliberal city with strategically placed, accommodationist, Black leaders.
At the July 8th press conference, District Attorney and brazen Trumpist, Jim O’Neill, informed the press that he was charging Lt. Lavette Maria Williams, 48; Cpl. Edward Roussel, 51, Officer Christopher Bryan Stamper, 43; Officer Antonio Woodley Jr., 26; Officer Sarah Elizabeth Poole, 37; and nurse Michelle Heughins, 45 with involuntary manslaughter. In that same press conference, the first Black Sheriff of Winston-Salem, Bobby Kimbrough Jr, called the group of officers and the nurse who told jokes and laughed as Neville was dying under their care, “good men and women [who] made a bad decision [while]….trying to do the right thing.” In his comments, he also made it very clear that protesters who “crossed the line and broke the law” in response to this local issue would be swiftly prosecuted.
Later that day, an emergency protest was organized in downtown Winston-Salem. The differences between this protest and those of the first wave were glaring. The participation was smaller, diminishing from crowds of up to 1,000 protestors down to about 30. Yes, it was organized on short notice. Yes, it was on a weekday. Yes, I myself couldn’t get down there until after the most intense moments had passed. After all the prior mobilizations, there was not enough organization to rally a strong response to a George Floyd-like situation in our own backyards. Secondly, this small crowd of protesters was met with an entirely different response from a law enforcement department that was purportedly in full “solidarity” with previous summer protests. There were no speeches of support from Chief Thompson or Sheriff Kimbrough. Mayor Joines did not make an appearance to smile and shake protesters hands. There were no photo-ops, and no cops were participating in hug-fests with protesters this time. Once the context shifted from the national to the local, law enforcement showed up ready to commit acts of suppression. Winston-Salem Forsyth County’s “upstanding image” had to be protected. Underscoring the shift in energy and tactics, Triad Abolition Project co-founders, Brittany Battle & Bailey Pittenger wrote in an October 2020 piece:
“Despite not a single act of violence occurring during protests which took place multiple times a week for five weeks, officers arrived outfitted with bags full of zip-ties and large canisters of pepper spray, some riding in a gorilla cart with an attached LRAD (long range acoustic device which can cause permanent hearing damage and has been historically used to quash protests.)”
That evening 5 protesters — including Brittany Battle and Tony Ndege of Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem — were arrested for “impeding traffic.” In reality, the road was already blocked off by the police, and the people arrested were either on the sidewalk or very close to it. They were not blocking traffic. Nevertheless, they were aggressively dragged off the sidewalk and handcuffed. It couldn’t be much more obvious that the moment protests took the turn from a “national headline” to a local issue, the temperature shifted. Though the most obvious aspect of this shift was amongst law enforcement, it was in no way limited to that sector. From City Council to county commissioners, from the Black petit-bourgeois to the clergy (mis)leadership class, to the armchair activists of social media and the so-called “concerned citizens” who had been loud in the streets for George Floyd—the script was completely flipped. Folks went from being on-the-ground cheerleaders and co-conspirators in “the resistance,” to missing-in-action naysayers and colluders with the carceral state.
The costs of bearing witness were no longer abstract. When faced with the concrete risks of burning bridges to the mayor’s office, too many would rather betray the cause of freedom. It was easier to show up for a Black neighbor who cried “I can’t breathe” across the nation than it was to show up for one who cried the same thing across the street in your local detention center. What’s more, the stigma of incarceration causes even some of those who claim to have justice commitments less likely to show solidarity.
Nevertheless, the demonstrations and arrests would not stop. Before the summer was over, an additional 50 arrests were made of protesters engaging in acts of civil disobedience (right under the shadow of the Sit-In historical marker) and a historic 49-day occupation of Bailey Park in downtown Winston-Salem would occur. The occupation was led by the Triad Abolition Project and a short-lived formation that sprouted up earlier in the summer called the Unity Coalition. Beginning in mid-July, and ending in early September, the occupation marked the beginning of the “third wave” of the summer protests. Like any organizing work, the occupation was not without its contradictions. Yet, it emerged as a courageous, tireless, and fruit-bearing effort! Through violent storms and rain, blistering hot days, constant surveillance by the police, ridicule and hostility from entrenched white and Black leadership, and interpersonal conflicts, the occupation remained intact until the prone restraint responsible for John Neville’s death was banned! It’s also very important to note that John Neville’s children – as well as other family members – vocally supported and participated in actions connected to the occupation. This was no small thing, and it embodied an ethic of care that kept track of the reality that John Neville was/is more than a cause. He was/is a person and dearly beloved father, brother, neighbor, and more.
To be transparent, I was very hesitant to participate in this effort and had deep concerns about the aims of some of its organizers based on their deeply problematic and counter-revolutionary activity earlier in the summer. This skepticism and critique was largely directed towards certain people within the Unity Coalition, not Triad Abolition Project. However, after learning of the Neville family’s support and having some dialogue with a brother-preacher who was involved, I cautiously used my limited capacity to show as much support and solidarity as possible. Triad Abolition would eventually break ties with the Unity Coalition during the course of the occupation. That split – which came on the heels of a legitimate attempt at transformative justice – will not be discussed in this piece. It is not my story to tell.
“The Other Patterson Avenue” & Black Radical Organizing
As I alluded to earlier, there is often an unspoken gap between home-grown working-class Black communities and certain flavors of organizing efforts. In some ways, this was apparent within the occupation. At the core of the occupation’s leadership were Black folks – mostly women and trans folx – who I have come to have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for! (As such, I joined the Triad Abolition Project only a year later.) Nevertheless, one critique of the occupation was that its multi-racial makeup did not include a strong contingency of the homegrown Black proletariat (have-nots) of Winston-Salem. I do not point this out as a disparagement of any kind. The same observation can and should be made about many other applaudable advocacy efforts in Winston-Salem. Without spending too much time on it here, let’s think about this gap in two ways:
1.) As the late great Black revolutionary, Walter Rodney would say, “people should organize where they are.” The make-up of the occupation was a genuine reflection of people building out from the spaces they already inhabited. This is not to be shamed, rather it should be honored. And in the middle of a pandemic, it was difficult to safely engage in meaningful cross-community work. Furthermore, lead organizers of the occupation were hesitant and cautious about making sweeping calls for Black working class and poor folks to put themselves in the eye of the storm. Rather, their orientation was to do mutual aid work to support those communities. It was their assessment that white folks needed to put their bodies on the line in this moment of pandemic.
2.) It’s often the case that working-class Black folks do not have the bandwidth to participate in certain forms of protest and organizing. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. It just tapers our perspective and expectations. It means that Black organizers – regardless of their class status – must constantly refine their methods, and where possible, resituate ourselves amongst the most oppressed communities, not as messianic saviors, but as good neighbors who move in the spirit of Ella Baker.
Pictures of OccupyWSNC in downtown Bailey Park.
At the time, I was engaged in a clumsy attempt to do just that, living with my family on what I have called “The Other Patterson Avenue.” The other Patterson Avenue is a historically Black, working-class/poor area of Winston-Salem. The people are beautiful and resilient, but the decades of systemic neglect are evident. On the other hand, Bailey Park, the site of the occupation, is smack dab in the middle of a billion-dollar downtown renewal effort on the very same street. Ironically divided by Martin Luther King Jr Ave, the two Patterson avenues are a window into the reality that there are two Winston-Salems. One Winston-Salem is marked by investment, access, and opportunity, and the other is marked by a living legacy of disinheritance and racist degradation.
Once while sitting on my porch on the 30th block of the “other Patterson,” a neighbor came by and got to talking about things going on in the city. He had known John Neville prior to his passing, had heard about the occupation, and was glad it was happening! Yet, I’ll never forget him saying, “I know they sittin’ targets down there, but can you imagine how ‘12’ [the police] would turn up if we had the hood side of Patterson Ave down there?” He took the words right out of my mouth. I look forward to the day when the Black and brown “domestic 3rd world” of Winston-Salem reclaims its radical birthright in a city that is home to legendary Black working class – and often women-led! – struggles and formations like the Local 22 and the first southern chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense!
“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.”
Malcolm X ( The Farce on Washington)
“Each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is.”
-1st Corinthians 13:3
“Until the Lion tells her part of the story, history will always glorify the hunter.”
The Farce on Washington, 1963
The inspiration behind the title “The Farce On Winston” is found In 1963 when the US Empire witnessed one of the largest mobilizations of the Black freedom struggle to date. Hundreds of thousands of people came to the nation’s capital for the March On Washington for Jobs & Freedom. Today, this march is almost universally acclaimed as a triumphant moment of the Civil Rights Movement and a testimony to the power of Black-led non-violent protests. For good and for bad, it cemented Martin Luther King Jr as the nation’s greatest orator and its central champion of racial justice. The extemporaneous (off-script) “I have a dream” portion of his speech, originally titled “The Canceled Check”, has been hailed as the defining moment of King’s witness and the aims of the movement that birthed him. (Nevermind the fact Martin would later say that his dream was “naive” and had “become a nightmare.”)
All that said, there is a counter-narrative to that legendary march that is under-engaged. It came from Malcolm X. Malcolm infamously called it the “Farce on Washington.” He was a fierce critic of the march. His assessment was that the idea of a march on Washington began organically as a militant rallying cry of poor and working-class Black folks, but was institutionally co-opted. It was initially to be a disruptive, threatening, leaderless, and antagonistic uprising that shut down Washington until the powers bent their knees to Black demands. In Malcolm’s own words:
“Groups of Negroes were talking of getting to Washington any way they could–in rickety old cars, on buses, hitch-hiking–walking, even, if they had to. They envisioned thousands of black [people] converging together upon Washington–to lie down in the streets, on airport runways, on government lawns–demanding of the Congress and the White House some concrete civil rights action.”
The white power structure was deeply afraid of this possibility and sought to get “ahead of it” by deputizing accommodationist Black leaders to take the helm. Malcolm said that Kennedy called in big-shot Black leaders like Roy Wilkins and told them to “call it off.” To which X said they replied, “‘Boss I can’t stop it, because I didn’t start it.” Speaking of Kennedy’s response to Black leadership’s admission of being out of the loop:
“That old shrewd fox…said, ‘If you aren’t in it, I’ll put you in it. I’ll put you at the head of it.’”
In essence, the powers infiltrated the planning and began to set parameters that were agreeable to white capitalist interests. Incentivized by promises of financial support for their organizations, “The Big Six” acquiesced and watered down some of their demands to fit within the desires of the powers. It was a case of what critical race theorist Derrick Bell would later call “interest convergence.”
According to Malcolm: “[March on Washington leaders] had been told how to arrive, when, where to arrive, where to assemble, when to start marching, [and] the route to march.” For instance, James Baldwin was not permitted to speak for fear that his speech would be too controversial and the more aggressive aspects of then SNCC member John Lewis’s originally drafted speech were edited out. The March on the capital went from being a militant all-Black protest, to being a more tame and racially integrated one. Malcolm went as far as to say that “it ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all.”
(Does any of this sound familiar, Winston-Salem?)
Malcolm went on to pierce the veil of what was happening with this provocative analogy:
“It’s just like when you’ve got some coffee that’s too black, which means it’s too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won’t even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep.”
Was Malcolm fair in his assessment? I would say that for the most part, he was. This does not necessitate that we erase the importance of that march in the Black Freedom struggle. It also doesn’t mean that none of the liberatory sensibilities of its origins survived the state’s infiltration. It means we must hold those two narratives in tension with each other and learn the historical lessons. Things aren’t always so black and white, cut and dry. Freedom work is messy and always an imperfect endeavor. The powers are quite adept in the art of co-optation. With this lens in mind, I draw our attention back to Winston-Salem, summer 2020.
Fatigue, Farce, and Fire
One of the most noticeable things about the protests in Winston-Salem was that they were often majority white. Quite a strange sight to behold. It was a sight that inspired some, but bewildered and puzzled others. Folks like myself were mostly annoyed by the racial optics and lack of direction of it all. A quick, but incomplete explanation for the lack of melanin and overwhelming amount of “creamer in the coffee” is 2- fold:
1.) Most of the demonstrations were planned by people who were not rooted in the Black community. For that reason, word spread fast in white networks, but was slower to find its way to Black networks.
2.) Black organizers, the larger Black community, and their accomplices were experiencing a deadly cocktail of COVID-19 exhaustion and racial battle fatigue. Many of us had labored ourselves into burnout trying to respond to the crisis of Covid-19 in our communities. That reality, on top of the day-to-day trauma of being Black in America was enough to make some hesitant to participate.
Nevertheless, in a “white sea” of farcical demonstrations, various groups shored up islands of bonafide resistance throughout the summer. The summer of 2020 might be broken down into 3 waves of protests. A first wave, mostly characterized by fluff. A second wave, that began to turn the heat up, and a third wave that truly demonstrated the emptiness of the ruling elite and their accomplice’s interactions with the first wave.
The Black-led fire of resistance seemed to begin burning more prominently in mid-to-late June. On Juneteenth, an ideologically diverse all-Black coalition of grassroots activists called the “Rails Coalition”–whom sheriff Bobby Kimbrough would later call “sh*t stirrers” — commandeered a downtown Juneteenth march to go public with their 3-fold demands:
Defund the Police. Fund healing justice.
Fund a Community-Controlled Truth & Reparations Commission
Institutionalized reparations for Black Winston-Salem in the form of major investment in majority/historically Black neighborhoods, debt cancellation, land, etc.
As a member of the coalition, and having delivered the speech that set the stage for these demands, I can say with deep honesty, that this act was not petty, nor was it a personal attack on anyone. It was bigger than any one personality or group. It was about the fierce urgency of shifting the energy, putting opportunists on notice, and re-centering home-grown Black grassroots voices. In the closing words of my speech I said:
“…to the wet-behind-the-ears ‘anti-racists’ in this space: we welcome you with revolutionary love. But to the opportunists…we say to you: ‘you will not gentrify our movements!’”
Longtime local and national organizer Nakida McDaniel repeated this theme as she along with Miranda Jones spelled out our coalition’s demands saying, “We were here before ya’ll, and we’ll be working in our communities when y’all decide to leave.” Truer words were never spoken.
Just 10 days after that, the fire of prophetic disruption was turned up even more as protesters began shutting down highways, performing sit-ins and die-ins in affluent white parts of town, paying the mayor’s house a “visit”, and more! And it is here that the emptiness of the power structure’s gestures of support began to be exposed for what it truly was: a farce. To be clear, I and others maintained from the very beginning that their presence at protests and statements of solidarity were hollow and should be called out explicitly as such. Still, there are some things that are revealed by the fire.
Last spring I read a novel entitled “The Deep” by Rivers Solomon. “The Deep” is an Afrofuturist tale about an underwater civilization of water-breathing people descendant from pregnant African women who were tossed overboard from slave ships. By some miraculous bending of the laws of nature, these women gave birth to mer-babies as they drowned to death. Known as the “Wajinru”, this mer-race created a beautiful utopian society in “the deep.”
Over time, the Wajinru came to believe that the brutality their ancestors suffered was too heavy to be held within their collective memory. Consequently, they assigned a single Historian from amongst them to carry “the rememberings.” As the community lived “free” of these excruciating ancestral memories, the Historian bore the agonizing and weighty assignment of holding them all—only releasing them briefly into the minds of the community during an annual ritual called the Remembrance. In the story, a mer-person named Yetu is the most recent in a long line of Wajinru historians to assume this sacred task. Burdened into deep despair, almost to the point of death, Yetu transferred the rememberings to the people at the annual ritual and then fled the scene. In fleeing the ritual for (t)he(i)r own survival, Yetu left the Wajinru trapped in the Remembrance well beyond the traditional two to three-day period. The Wajinru were now forced to confront the horror of their past in a way that they had organized their society in order to avoid. In Yetu’s own words: “I was prodding them lest they try to move on from things that should not be moved on from. Forgetting was not the same as healing.” With the looming threat of the “two-legs” (white colonizers) coming dangerously close to endangering their civilization in a greedy quest for oil, it was all the more important that the Wajinru learn how to collectively hold their past as they sought to preserve life in the present, and secure a future.
As I read this beautifully poetic and piercingly prophetic story, I was struck by certain parallels in my life as an organizer and the life of my beloved city. Generally speaking, organizers carry the burden of communal memory in ways that others do not. Being a memory carrier can often be a vocation of grief and sorrow. What gets washed away from a community’s memory by time and counterinsurgency efforts often stays at the front of our consciousness. We cannot forget. Like Yetu, we know that forgetting is not the same thing as healing—and it most certainly does not lead to organization. We know that the past is never truly “bygone.” Its traumas and promise is present deep in our bones.
Nonetheless, it does not take a half-century, a decade, or even a year, for the thorns of mis-remembrance to choke the harvest of radical memory. This phenomenon was apparent during the 2020 summer of local “Black Lives Matter” protests. As the days have turned to weeks, weeks to months, and months to a year, it is clear that there is a severe lack of common memory about what actually transpired here in Winston-Salem, NC. We, like the Wajinru, are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Like the Wajinru, we live in a society that ritualistically disfigures and strangles memory. In our trauma, we have clung to liberal narratives of “inevitable progress” and conservative monuments of nostalgia. Rooted in white (settler colonial) supremacy, neither of these trauma-responses have the power to reveal our sickness or heal our wounds. The violent contradictions of Winston-Salem will never be redressed if we do not abandon this religion of misremembrance. Without unarmed truth-telling and common memory building, there is no hope for healing justice. The manifold looming threats to Black (and brown) Winston-Salem, seem to say to us that another ceremony must be found.
In the days and months that followed the summer of 2020, I would have moments when my consciousness was seized by all that took place. Sometimes, I would journal these thoughts and on other occasions, I would share them publicly. At a certain point, these streams of consciousness, memory, and analysis seemed to irresistibly call to one another, demanding to be housed together. Stubbornly and slowly, I began to compile everything from speeches, social media posts, articles, and journal entries into one google doc. Eventually, I named it “The Farce On Winston.”
What follows is my clumsy and imperfect attempt to transfer “the rememberings” of summer 2020 protests to my people and our accomplices. In addition to remembering, my aim here is to engage in Black radical analysis for the sake of liberatory action. To be abundantly clear, I am not the “lone carrier” of memory or analysis. Others have stories that must be told and analyses that should be heard. Furthermore, I do not see myself as writing from a “pure space,” nor as one outside the problem looking in with absolute clarity. I am not —as Bayo Akomolafe put it— a “pillar in the sandstorm.” I do not possess “an impenetrable inner-world” or “free-willed consciousness.”(1) Rather, I am a leaf blown here and there by the tumultuous winds of our times. I am, on a certain level, shot through with the very contradictions I seek to name in this piece. To varying degrees, we are all complicit in the evil we seek to overcome.
That said, collecting the last year’s worth of rants, rememberings, and analysis felt like an inescapable calling. It was like a “fire shut up in my bones” that only grew more intense as the powers of Winston-Salem trampled on our tears, hissed at our wails, and scoffed at our demands. I could not, in good conscience, quench this fire, because the tears of Black people are sacred. Our wails are holy. Our demands are both world-destroying and world-building. Black tears, wails, and demands – in the words of Black poet Sonya Sanchez – are “the fire that burned through the holes of slave ships and made us breathe.” It is “the fire that took rhythms and made jazz; the fire of sit-ins and marches that made us jump boundaries and barriers.” It’s the “torch of life” that was in “Nat Turner….Dubois, Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin and Malcolm.” It is a “beautiful light that gives light to the world.” As single actors, we cannot light the world, but each of us has a responsibility to help fan the flames of those around us. The pages ahead are my personal attempt to embrace this responsibility and to carry forward the tradition of “Black Prophetic Fire.” With revolutionary love — and the humility that my finiteness demands, I offer this. May this trail of breadcrumbs get us a little closer to justice, peace, Black self-determination, and beloved community.
The Farce On Winston:
A Remembrance & Analysis of Summer 2020 Protests In Winston-Salem, NC
“Not long ago, the [B]lack [community] in America was fed a dose of another form of the weakening, lulling, and deluding effects of so-called “integration.” It was that “Farce on Washington,” I call it. (…) It lost its militancy….Why, it even ceased to be a march. It became a picnic, a circus. Nothing but a circus, with clowns and all….”
“That was all remembering was: prodding them lest they try to move on from things that should not be moved on from. Forgetting was not the same as healing.”
“We are sick of symbolic things. We are fighting for our lives!”
-Fannie Lou Hamer
“My memory stammers, but my soul is a witness.”
Farce- [ˈfärs ] an empty or patently ridiculous act, proceeding, or situation.
On May 6th of 2021, people across the nation commemorated the first anniversary of George Floyd’s state-sponsored murder at the hands of police officer Derik Chauvin. Chauvin, a white police officer, pressed his knee on George Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes, strangling the breath from his body. This obscene display of white supremacy was captured on cell phone video by a Black teenage girl, and once released, sent shockwaves across the globe. From Minneapolis to Nigeria, from Palestine to the UK, from Brazil to Hong Kong, historic numbers of people took to the streets to protest in the middle of a deadly global pandemic. Something about the nature of Floyd’s murder resonated with people across the spectrum of race, space, ethnicity, and nationality. The knee on George Floyd’s neck was emblematic of the colonial knee on the neck of colonized people everywhere. Intuitively, people saw Chauvin, not as a rogue individual state actor, but rather as an “avatar”—a vile manifestation of the suffocating forces of global oppression. Racist-predatory-capitalism works around the clock to threaten Black safety. It wages war when we are awake, like George Floyd, and when we are sleeping like Breonna Taylor. It violently takes the life and breath from oppressed people everywhere, and from the planet itself. Consequently, in both generativeand degenerativeways, the name George Floyd and shortly thereafter, the name Breonna Taylor, became emblems of Black suffering and flashpoints in the fight to abolish interlocking systems of racial, economic, and heteropatriarchal domination.
Like most cities in the U.S., the relatively small metropolitan area of Winston-Salem, North Carolina did not go untouched by the wave of “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations. Protest after protest flooded downtown Winston-Salem in the summer of 2020. People of all kinds of political persuasions, varying degrees of experience in movement work, and wildly different aims and motivations took to our city streets. Without question, there are always a diversity of elements within protest movements. Some complimentary, and others contradictory. Together, they all create an ecosystem of sorts. The question is: does this ecosystem have conditions that allow the most righteous and radical aims to thrive, or does it strangle them? Over the years, I’ve observed at least 10 elements or “blocks” of people within the average mass protest. Below I will attempt to name and describe just 7 of these blocks in detail. Hopefully, it helps to paint a picture of the dynamics at play within local protests during the summer of 2020. The seven blocks are as follows: the curious, the absolution-ists, the acceleration-ists, the whisperer-careerists, the nouveau-zealots, the revolutionists, and the ruling misdirection-ists.
I begin with “the curious” block. These are folks whose habit of looking away was broken by being quarantined under COVID-19. The graphically wicked nature of Chauvin’s murderous actions made it almost impossible for them to do so. Sadly, some of these folks had not so much as batted an eye at previous high-profile cases of police-violence. This is why celebratory declarations in the summer of 2020 about “white people finally waking up” felt pretentious. The sad reality is that the naked anti-Blackness of George Floyd’s murder was a low-bar. Even fairly vast numbers of right-wing reactionaries condemned it. (Albeit, that condemnation framed the incident as an anomalous act within an otherwise “just” system of policing.) Low bars are the modus operandi in a settler-colonial empire birthed by the chattel enslavement of African peoples, the genocide of indigenous peoples, and the stealing of their lands. A nation whose origins are grounded in this level of barbarity can always use the “past to absolve the present.”(1) Suffice it to say, “the curious” were not politically educated at all. They were not committed to, or thinking about, any sort of long-term struggle for justice. What compelled them was not solidarity, but a sense of “curiosity.” Internally they asked questions like:
“Could it be that there is something to all these claims about racism in the U.S.?”
“Could these folks in the streets not be so ridiculously misguided after all?”
People within the curious block were called into long-term struggle and organization in some cases. However, in most instances, they were one-march-and-done “protesters.”
Second, there were “the absolution-ists.” These were generally white folks, who showed up in the streets to perform an act of absolution, not revolution. Their actions were not about solidarity but about the performance of a thin piety that worked to soothe their white guilt. A veneer that, in the future, could be leveraged to prove that they are “not racist.” These folks were procuring their “I was on the right side of history” card so they could, from now til their dying day, proudly declare: “I participated in the Black Lives Matter movement.” Thus, fending off any concerns about their commitment to anti-racist struggle. For these folks, the summer of 2020 was like an evangelical summer mission trip: short-term, piecemeal, voyeuristic, and self-serving. It wasn’t about showing up with those who live under the threat of violence from cops. It was a photo op! It was about gaining and/or protecting social capital. They screamed Black Lives Matter in the heat of summer, only to go into hibernation by winter. They cosplayed as our accomplices for a few weeks, but soon thereafter took off their “woke costumes” and went back to the regularly scheduled program of “white being.”(2)
Thirdly, there were the acceleration-ists. Sometimes, they held radical political ideas, but were unconnected and unsubmitted to Black (radical) leadership. They acted as loose cannons, putting Black people in harm’s way through reckless activity at protests. There were certainly accounts of such actors in Winston-Salem, summer 2020. In other cases, they were white, right wing, provocateurs who embedded themselves in protests in an effort to fan the flames of state violence against Black protesters and their accomplices.
Next, you have the “nouveau-zealots.” To be clear, I am not necessarily using “zealot” and “nouveau” pejoratively. Zealous simply means “enthusiastic” and nouveau or novice means “new.” At times, these folks have honorable motives. However, they are wet-behind-the-ears and completely untrained in organizing work. Out of some overwhelming need to act, they unwisely assume “leadership” without having ever been rooted in the struggle, become aware of local political dynamics, or engaged in conversation with “O.G.” (seasoned) organizers.
Locally, there were those within this multi-racial block that had skills that are actually useful in mobilization. However, these skills minus political education and organization ultimately became a liability. Kwame Ture taught us that there is a difference between mobilization and organization. One can mobilize a crowd for an event or march, but only organization sustains movements, builds power, and ultimately achieves liberation. In Ture’s own words:
“We must come to know the difference between mobilization and organization, because the enemy will use mobilization to demobilize us.
Mobilization is very easy….
Because we are instinctively ready to respond against acts of injustice…we’ll make some mass demonstration around it. This is what mobilization does. It mobilizes people around issues. Those of us who are revolutionary are not concerned [primarily] with issues, we’re concerned with the system….
Mobilization is temporary. Organization is permanent, and eternal.”
Because of the relative inexperience of those at the helm of some demonstrations, many mobilizations took place in Winston-Salem minus any demands, and at times, they took place without an organization even naming themselves as hosts. Thankfully, some were open to challenge, correction, and guidance from seasoned organizers. Others were hostile to it, reducing critiques to ego trips, personal attacks, and jealousy. Time demonstrated that some of the folks who jumped to the forefront had not fully considered the costs of what it meant to engage in this work. As a result, they vanished from the “activist scene” almost as quickly as they appeared on it. Others showed themselves to have been selfishly motivated in their efforts. They wanted the spotlight and the mic, not a liberation fight.
Fifthly, in mass protests, there is a block that could be called “the revolutionists.” These are folks with clear politics, who have rooted themselves in radical traditions of struggle. They have a structural understanding of the issues and are members and leaders of actual political formations. Their commitment is unquestionably authentic, and they are willing to put their bodies on the line to incite revolutionary and/or radical transformation. This bunch was a small remnant in the streets of Winston-Salem and they are not above critique. In many instances, they have been unsuccessful at organizing critical masses of Black working-class folks. Their less radical—but just as genuine—counterparts, who I call “salt of the earth organizers,” are much more effective at building with the people. Unfortunately, in Winston-Salem, too many “salt of the earth” organizers have been estranged from the Black Radical Tradition. As a result, their admirable, necessary, andimportant work sometimeslacks the political analysis and aims that might get us beyond reform and relief, and towards self-determination and freedom. Much more could be said about salt of the earth organizers, but I’ll leave it there for now.
Next, we come to “the whisperer-careerists.” These are folks who’ve been in the “activist game” for some time. Whisperer-careerists are the snake oil salesmen of community organizing and activism. They may not have started their journey in that spirit, but somewhere along the way they were co-opted and mascotized by the powers-that-be. At times, careerists will traffic in the language of Black Radicalism, but they are ultimately committed to (neo)liberal projects that do not get at the root of oppression. They may even perform what on the surface appears to be fiery rhetoric. Nonetheless, their primary aim is to accommodate the system, not to agitate or abolish it. They are the “negro whisperers” sent to manage Black discontent and denounce Black militancy. They often say the right words, but their deeds show them to be unprincipled opportunists. Sadly, Black death can be leveraged as a “come-up” and a hustle. There have always been bad faith actors that ride the waves of movements to “secure the bag” and acquire public visibility. This element was alive and well in the streets of Winston-Salem during the 2020 summer protests.
Nevertheless, the record will show that while it is the Black working class at the center of the real rebellions against white supremacy, the benefits of those rebellions have historically skipped over them. Black, financially well-off, liberal grifters show up “ontologically glued to the camera,” while redirecting radical energy towards anti-radical formations. They scold and browbeat the crowds about “voting Blue” as if it’s the panacea for state violence. They have no intention of stirring up the masses to interrogate the racist, carceral, capitalist, and imperialist two-party duopoly. No, as democrat party operatives, they are tasked with re-interpreting the cries of the oppressed in ways that are palatable for their white liberal sponsors. Once successfully done, the non-profiteers can suck up the foundation grant money, and a hand-selected few are given platforms to speak and write on the anti-racism “chicken circuit.” If you look closely enough, you’ll find that the careerists are figuratively and literally “arm-in-arm” with the carceral state—even at protests. I recall participating in the Charlotte Uprising in 2016 and witnessing a Black clergy person at the front of the march who would regularly step away to talk to law enforcement. It was later shown that CPD was feeding this clergyman orders on which streets to turn on. Was his allegiance to the Spirit of the liberating Christ or the spirit of the age? Was he embodying the office of the prophet, or doing the bidding of the mayor’s office? These are questions that needed answering in Charlotte, and summer 2020 in Winston-Salem.
Lastly, you have what, in my experience, was a new phenomenon within protests. I can’t recall previous marches where the mayor, the police chief, the sheriff, city council members, and local “white lords of capitol” joined the protests. Yet, such was the case this past that summer. I am calling this new element “the ruling misdirectionists.” These misdirectionists were given space to do speeches of “solidarity” and support that always ended with encouragement to remain “peaceful.” It was quite amusing to see the very people whose hands control the levers of power in a deceitfully unjust city, be given the opportunity to get their hands on a bullhorn at a protest. Further entrenching themselves in the moment and (mis)directing the narrative, they hosted town halls and panels to discuss “the state of justice” in Winston-Salem. These events were characterized by softball questions, a glaringly obvious lack of more radical voices, and a glossing over of the material conditions of oppressed communities in Winston-Salem. As James Baldwin put it in his 1972 book, “No Name in the Street”:
“Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a [city], one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected—those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! —and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any Black [person], any poor person—ask the wretched how they fare….and then you will know, not whether or not the [city] is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
Ignorantly allied with the powers– at times literally walking hand-in-hand with them — too many of the summer 2020 protests betrayed the tradition of Black freedom struggle. At times, it wasn’t clear what was actually being protested. The ruling forces of Winston-Salem were so enmeshed in the activity, that it blurred the contradictions and transformed the public image of oppressors into “fellow protesters.” At one point in the summer, the City of Winston-Salem in partnership with the Minister’s Conference, The Arts Council of Winston-Salem, and other organizations sponsored an event in which a downtown city street was painted with the words: “End Racism Now #BLM.” I have no desire or intent to denigrate artists or everyday people that participated in that. I only wish to interrogate the larger context that it took place in, and why it was embraced.
Instead, this mural gave the unsuspecting public the sense that “all was well in Camel City.” It bolstered a brewing “Winston-exceptionalism” that said: “Our leadership is getting it right! We’re not like Minneapolis or Ferguson.” This was literally the theme of an October 2020 Politico article featuring WSPD chief, Katrina Thompson. Yet, I argue that the Politico article was just icing on the cake of a narrative that had already baked in the oven of a hot summer of protests. The powers cleverly put themselves in the heart of the activity and it allowed them to control the narrative and regulate the temperature of protests. Political philosopher and author Dr. Joy James used the analogy of “brood parasitism” to describe this phenomenon. In a talk entitled “The Algorhythms of Anti-racism”, she argued that, “Painting ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the street is a form of brood parasitism.”
A brood parasite is a bird that lays its eggs in another bird’s nest. They cleverly disguise the eggs to look just like the eggs that actually belong to the mother chicken. Unknowingly, the chicken broods over eggs that are not her own. The foreign egg grows bigger and faster than her own, and hatches first. Once hatched, the foreign chickling ends up eating all the chicken’s eggs before they have the chance to hatch.
This is a cogent metaphor for what happened in the city of Winston-Salem! Folks unwittingly brooded and nurtured the status-quo upholding political vision of the powers. The potential for the summer to be a time of radical transformation got eaten up by the much bigger platforms and PR departments of the elite. One must ask: Did having melanated and charismatic heads of the sheriff and police department lull folks to sleep? The Yoruba proverb warns us that, “the Axe was clever and convinced the Trees that because his handle was made of wood, he was one of them.”
This was all quite predictable. In the early days of local protests, I shared the following cautionary words via Facebook:
“Right now the national (and local) strategy to stop the radical freedom struggle is at least 2-fold:
Firstly, they crush resistance through militarized force, martial law, & criminalization of protest.Secondly, they make the public catch a “crush” by “weaponizing the good apple.” A set of cops taking a knee, giving a [protester a] hug, and/or giving an inspiring speech is in some cases, more powerful than any tear gas or tank. The good apple motif takes our attention away from the system itself and redirects it to the actions of individuals. I’m positive there are some well-intentioned cops. This ain’t personal. We must come to see that the good intentions of individuals cannot redirect the orientation of a corrupt and harmful system.”
I was certainly not alone in this analysis. Though in the minority, there were other individuals, grassroots organizations, and organizers who drew very bright lines that summer.