Introduction: “The Rememberings”
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 generative and degenerative ways, 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, and important work sometimes lacks 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.
This was an insidiously non-substantive, but ingeniously symbolic gesture being made by mayors across the nation. Being the politically savvy politician that Mayor Allen Joines is, he adopted it as well. He knew that the art, as Black and beautiful as it may be, was not a direct threat to the local power structure in the way that a recently censored mural piece depicting Wake Forest’s “Demon Deacon” mascot as a gentrifying corporate thief.
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.