An Uprising Reader

An Uprising Reader

In solidarity with the uprising sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, we’ve gathered selections from our archives that speak to the political concerns of the moment.

At a makeshift memorial in honor of George Floyd, on June 4, 2020 in Minneapolis (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

Marcia Chatelain, “How Black Lives Matter Evolved” (2019)

Across the ideological spectrum, critiques of BLM have disregarded the nuances of black politics. The right vilifies black activism that challenges white supremacy for undermining national myths, including the idea that all change happens gradually. The left, meanwhile, which has fully embraced class analysis but still struggles to grasp the depths of anti-blackness, is often unable to understand black activism’s many shapes and forms, including the black feminist principles that have been so central to the activism and organizing of the last five years.

Rafael Khachaturian and Joe Soss, “How the Criminal Justice System Preys on the Poor” (2020)

Through a process that began in the late 1980s, financial extraction has now reached into every corner of the system, in many ways overtaking labor extraction. How should we make sense of this development in relation to the longer history of a nation that has thought of itself, in many ways, as being deeply and essentially liberal? How should we locate the recent turn toward financial criminal justice predation in relation to a longer historical trajectory that includes, for example, chattel slavery and the taking of native lands?

Waleed Shahid, “How Is Black Lives Matter Winning?” (2015)

What activists are now proving is what many other movements of the past have already shown us. Creating momentum around a symbolically loaded demand is in fact how many movements have won, and will continue to win. As the movement for black lives continues to grow, debate over its demands will also grow. In the meantime, activists might just change the scope of what it is possible to win.

Fredrick C. Harris, “The Rise of Respectability Politics” (2014)

What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans—but particularly for black Americans—the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “How Real Estate Segregated America(2018)

The real-estate industry’s history of racism has made it an unreliable partner in solving the United States’ longstanding shortage of dignified affordable housing. Black families are disproportionately affected by the lack of housing precisely because long-standing racist myths have been used to influence notions of value and community desirability. Government has a long and sullied history of invoking race to shape the housing market as well. But government can be malleable to the demands of political protests and organizing, and changes of political representation can make it even more responsive to the public. Solving the perpetual U.S. housing crisis is complex, but it begins by disconnecting the power of government from the private sector’s insatiable profit motive.

Christian Hosam, “From Police Violence to the City Budget” (2019)

At the time of Michael Brown’s death, nearly a quarter of Ferguson’s annual revenue was generated through the imposition of municipal fees. The city issued over 90,000 citations between 2010 and 2014 alone, in a municipality with just over 20,000 residents. Put another way, Ferguson’s continued solvency was a direct consequence of discriminatory practices enacted by the local government. This shaped every single interaction that residents, African Americans in particular, had with what scholars Joe Soss and Vesla Weaver call “the second face of power,” or the local bureaucrats and police officers who hold the discretionary authority to turn a parking citation into a court date. The Ferguson Uprising sparked renewed interest in understanding the link between municipal fines and racial surveillancea relationship that made tragedies like the deaths of Michael Brown and so many others less moments of rupture than logical endpoints.

Colin Gordon, “Police Murders Are the Tip of the Iceberg” (2017)

This regime of policing, at once systemic and chaotic, is just one iteration of the refusal of equal citizenship playing out hour by hour across the country—in stark racial inequalities on every metric from school suspensions to executions, in pervasive entanglement with the police and courts in particular for young black men, and an in era of mass incarceration without historical precedent or current analog.  These are the conditions that shield state actors no matter how egregious their conduct, and that extend to others the state’s constant attention but not its protection. These are the conditions that made it possible for Jason Stockley to murder Anthony Lamar Smith and walk away free.

Kaavya Asoka and Marcia Chatelain, “Women and Black Lives Matter” (2015)

I think any conversation about police brutality must include black women. Even if women are not the majority of the victims of homicide, the way they are profiled and targeted by police is incredibly gendered. There are now renewed conversations about how sexual violence and sexual intimidation are part of how black women experience racist policing. You don’t have to dig deep to see how police brutality is a women’s issue—whether it’s the terrifying way that Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw preyed on black women in low-income sections of the city, or the murder of seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones inside her Detroit home. We know that girls and women of color are also dying. The question is: does anyone care?

We also have to consider that sexual harassment, exploitation, and assault not only happen on the streets, they also occur in the home and in the detention center. In other words, black women are often targets of violence inside homes and in private spaces where people cannot easily see them or galvanize around them. When we consider how and where people organize, it’s important to remember these victims of brutality too, even if we can’t gather at their specific sites of victimization.

Timothy Shenk and Elizabeth Hinton, “The Origins of the Carceral State” (2016)

In 1970 Nixon orders Attorney General John Mitchell to devise a ten-year Long-Range Master Plan for American corrections. Nixon says we’re going to spend $500 million to revitalize the federal system and this is going to be a model for states. The Crime Commission—which was started by Johnson—starts making projections of prison populations based on what the black youth population would be, and prison construction is planned accordingly.

This Long-Range Master Plan is important because it debunks the idea that mass incarceration is something that policymakers didn’t anticipate or plan for, or that it was a response to crime. . . . In the mid-1970s, as the plan was unfolding, the congressional research service found correlations between unemployment and incarceration, but instead of supporting programs that might have dealt with unemployment, they decide we need to build more prisons. Beginning in 1970, the federal government begins to give states 75 percent off for prison construction. And the prison population transitions from being majority white to majority black and Latino, sometime around 1975.

Rob Bryan, “Closing Rikers Island: A Step Beyond Police Reform” (2017)

At Rikers, America’s economic divide is hidden in plain sight: about three-quarters of the 10,000-odd people at the facility on a given day are locked up because they can’t afford bail. Nine out of ten, as the #CLOSErikers protesters emphasize, are black and Latino, belying the notion that “race issues” such as police brutality and mass incarceration are separate from political economy. As Reverend Calderón-Payne pointed out, allowing rich kids to walk free while keeping the poor locked up because they can’t afford bail is a slap in the face of the city’s working class.

Barbara Ransby, “The Class Politics of Black Lives Matter” (2015)

The brilliant veteran organizer Ruth Gilmore explains that the prison abolition movement is not just about abolishing unjust institutions, but about building just alternatives. Similarly the insistence of Black Lives Matter on the value of all black lives, especially the most marginalized and oppressed, is nothing less than a challenge to all of us to rethink, reimagine, and reconstruct the entire society we live in. And what a daunting and beautiful challenge that is.

Robert Greene, “The Urgency of a Third Reconstruction” (2018)

Movement leader Reverend William J. Barber II argues that the task facing the United States today is nothing short of a “Third Reconstruction,” drawing on the legacies of both the Reconstruction era of the 1860s and 1870s and the civil rights movement, or “Second Reconstruction,” of the 1960s and 1970s. In making these historical connections, today’s activists can understand that they aren’t alone, and draw both lessons and spiritual strength from those previous eras of promise and dashed expectations. If the left wishes to make the most of the Third Reconstruction—not just defeating a revanchist right wing at the polls but fundamentally changing the nation for the better—we can draw important insights from these two previous eras of civic revolution.

Mike Konczal, “Liberal Punishment” (2015)

Even if we cut the prison population in half, it would still be two and a half times greater than it was in the 1970s. . . . But even if there is a wave of reform, Naomi Murakawa shows that liberalism, with its focus on procedural accountability, will be unable to challenge our system of mass incarceration. We can see this with initiatives like police officers wearing body cameras. Abuses are already setting in, with police simply turning them off before shootings or using them to further monitor communities. Our new goal should be to focus on decriminalization, to find alternatives to current regimes of policing and jails, and to scale back prison America. Unlike the liberal reformers of the past sixty years, we should be thinking not about how to make the system better, but about how to take it apart.

Aziz Rana and Jedediah Britton-Purdy, “We Need an Insurgent Mass Movement” (2020)

The country’s settler structure has meant that who counts as worthy of full membership has always been narrowly drawn. How do you get a majority within a polity—including insiders who enjoy material and status benefits from the subordination of outsiders—to alter the terms of who is seen as part of that very community? Indeed, how do you get insiders to participate in the reconstruction of their own society?

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

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