black agenda report

The Struggle to Abolish the Police is Not New
Garrett Felber, Black Agenda Report, Jul 7 2020

As protesters demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Ahmaud Arbery, calls for police and prison abolition have gained unprecedented traction. A majority of the Minneapolis city council pledged to disband a police department it said “cannot be reformed,” the public school system in Portland canceled its $1.6m contract for “school resource officers,” and LA has reallocated $150m from the police budget to communities of color. Both critics of abolition and recent converts often frame it as a radical new concept. This can have the effect, intended or not, of making it seem idealistic, naïve or undertheorized. But while the mainstream prominence of abolition may be new, the premise is not. Indeed, the struggle against mass criminalization—sometimes characterized as the “civil rights movement of our time” to combat a system described by some as the “new Jim Crow,” was a crucial feature of the movement to end the original Jim Crow. Struggles for black freedom have always had to contend with prisons and police as the enforcement arm of the racial capitalist state. However, many people remain unclear about how the movements to abolish prisons and abolish police connect to each other, exacerbating the feeling that the movement to abolish police lacks a history. But the movement to abolish prisons has always understood that doing so would necessarily entail an end to policing. Without police, there would be no one to fill prisons and jails. Without prison and jails, the police could not serve their current purpose. Put most simply, the two are locked in a mutually dependent relationship: to serve capital, and protect themselves . Historic movements to abolish prisons called for an entirely different social and economic order in which prisons and police would not exist. Considering how prison abolition was woven into the last century’s civil rights movement can help us better understand how to build on those successes in framing our own demands.

In Apr 1947, 9 men with suitcases in one hand and overcoats in the other posed briefly for a photograph in Richmond, Virginia, before embarking on a 2-week racial desegregation campaign in the South known as the Journey of Reconciliation . The men comprised an interracial group, 8 black and 8 white. (Women were originally set to participate but ultimately prohibited to avoid evoking fears of interracial sex.) Their aim was to test the effectiveness of a recent Supreme Court ruling, Morgan v Virginia (1946), which overturned state laws forbidding interstate travel by integrated groups. The Journey of Reconciliation is sometimes remembered as the “first Freedom Ride,” inspiration to the better-known busloads of student activists who in 1961 set out from Faschingstein with the goal of driving to New Orleans and were repeatedly attacked and imprisoned along the way. By the Journey of Reconciliation’s end, the men had attempted to board 26 buses and trains. A total of 12 were arrested on 6 different occasions, and 3 ultimately served 22-day sentences on a North Carolina chain gang. James Peck, the sole participant in both the 1947 and 1961 rides, was brutally beaten during both. Rarely noted is the fact that, of the Journey of Reconciliation’s participants, 8 were formerly-incarcerated conscientious objectors and part of a growing network of prison abolitionists. For example, Bayard Rustin, a young gay socialist who would go on to help organize Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 March on Faschingstein, was sentenced to serve three years in 1944 for violating the selective service act. He began his prison term by singing the anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit” through the vents from solitary confinement at Ashland prison. He would soon lead hunger strikes against racial segregation and protesters chanting “Jim Crow Must Go.” Another participant, Wally Nelson, a black pacifist, walked out of a Civilian Public Service camp in 1943 and served 3½ years in federal prisons. There, he went on a 107-day hunger strike against racial segregation and was force-fed for 87 days until his release in 1946.

George Houser, who along with Rustin was the Journey of Reconciliation’s mastermind, had served a year at Danbury federal prison for draft resistance in 1940. In September 1945, the year before he and Rustin began planning the Journey, Houser hosted nearly fifty formerly incarcerated men at his Philadelphia home for the inaugural Conference on Prison Problems. The attendees were mostly white (federal prisons were three quarters white and many black objectors, such as Nelson and Rustin, were still incarcerated on longer sentences than their white peers); they had been imprisoned in protest of conscription, war, imperialism, and racism, and now met to theorize the intersection of these moral evils with prisons themselves. Houser, for example, noted this intersectionality when writing shortly before the conference about a hunger strike against racial segregation at Lewisburg prison, where Rustin was incarcerated. He wrote:

Some of the fellows decided to make the purpose of the strike more inclusive. Not only would they protest race discrimination, but also the general philosophy behind the prison system.

At the conference, the chief debate was whether to work toward prison reform or outright abolition. While there was general consensus in the goal of abolition, the question became how to get from here to there. The group’s concrete first steps were to divorce the chaplaincy from the prison, create independent legal aid, end all censorship, and demand paid work at union wages and all time in jail to count toward sentence. A meeting later that year even proposed settling the debate by calling the organization Prison Abolition Through Reform. While the conference did not outline a holistic plan for what would replace prisons, the participants felt that an important next step would be to “propose an alternative way of dealing with anti-social behavior.” Among the conference’s concrete suggestions, in the meantime, was to omit names from news reports of crimes (to prevent people from being stigmatized) and the creation within the criminal justice system of a “prosecutor of society” who would “present evidence as to the guilt of society” in all cases. It was also recommended to create a prisoners’ bill of rights, which would include an end to racial segregation, the right to workman’s compensation, no mandatory work without pay, conjugal visits, the right to communication with an attorney, an end to censorship, and “no solitary, no strip cell, no dark cells.”

Although the conference attendees fiercely debated the relationship between reform and abolition, the pages of Grapevine, the community’s newsletter, were less ambivalent. One reader responded to the question, “What are you doing about the prison system?” by writing:

Of the two groups, reformists or abolitionists, I am of the latter.

Anticipating the adage of abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore that “prisons are catch-all solutions to social problems ,” he went on to argue:

For as long as we have prisons and prison reforms more and bigger and better prisons will appear, as history is proving, and society will keep on using them as an escape from its own responsibilities of correcting the economic and social failures that make crime possible. Yes, reforming the prison system is like repairing a shack that should be torn down.” Newt Garver, who went to prison after burning his draft card in 1946, warned there, “Don’t get any false optimism about prison reform. Any hope there is lies outside the system, not in it.

For his part, Rustin, the Journey of Reconciliation’s other main organizer, was never an outspoken abolitionist. But early in the course of his long activist career, he did organize against both prisons and policing, beginning immediately upon his release. Just months before departing on the Journey of Reconciliation, he wrote a treatise “Imprisonment from the Inside” decrying punitive solutions to social problems:

Our aim today is to see that our present way of life—with its reliance on violence in economics, in politics, in social change, and in international warfare—is a corrupt society. And that the prisons today are a reflection of this society. We must see the connection between our use of the atomic bomb in international war and our mistreatment of the offender against society internally.

Even the Journey of Reconciliation itself provided ample opportunity to challenge the carceral state. As a result of his arrest during the rides, he and two other riders who attended the Philadelphia conference—Igal Roodenko and Joseph Felmet—served three weeks on a North Carolina chain gang. Rustin wrote a scathing report which was serialized in the NY Post and the Baltimore Afro-American and contributed to the abolishment of chain gangs in the state. Although abolition was not a central demand of the mid-century civil rights movement, despite informing the activism of many of its key figures, it took hold in the 1970s. This revolutionary ethos, what Chicano poet Raul Salinas called the “prison rebellion years,” was linked to mass uprisings in the streets; the state repression, jailing, and murder of black and brown radicals; and opposition to the Vietnam War and imprisonment of conscientious objectors. Quaker Fay Honey Knopp’s pivotal 1976 Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Prison Abolitionists , for example, had its genesis in her visits to conscientious objectors in prison during the Vietnam War and her participation in feminist, civil rights, gay rights, and prisoners’ rights struggles. As historians Dan Berger and Toussaint Losier document, prisoners became “symbols of and spokespeople for broader radical movements.”

The 1980s and ’90s saw an emergence of international gatherings on abolition. In 1983 Ruth Morris would organize the International Conference on Penal Abolition, and the abolition formation Critical Resistance in the Bay Area was formed in the late 1990s. Other groups since then, including Incite!, Survived and Punished, Movement 4 Black Lives, BYP100, Dream Defenders, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, have made abolitionist praxis a core part of their visions of liberation. Abolition has developed and expanded dramatically since the Philadelphia Prison Group conference, thanks to the contributions of incarcerated people, black radical feminists, survivors of sexual violence, Muslims, immigrants, and queer, trans, and disabled folks, among others. Consistent though has been a commitment to fighting the racism, militarism, and capitalism that define the Pindo empire. Abolition is inherently intersectional. To unravel the punishment system is to lay bare the interconnection of people’s struggles against extraction, dispossession, and enclosure organized through racial and gendered hierarchies.

The relationship between abolition (as the goal) and reform (as a means to an end) remains a live debate. Many continue to endorse what Wilson Gilmore calls “non-reformist reforms,” in other words, reforms that shrink the carceral system and thus continue to move us incrementally, in the words of abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba , “toward the horizon of abolition.” Examples of non-reformist reforms include, but are not limited to:

  • abolishing solitary confinement and capital punishment;
  • moratoriums on prison construction or expansion;
  • freeing survivors of physical and sexual violence, the elderly, infirm, juveniles, and all political prisoners;
  • sentencing reform; ending cash bail;
  • abolishing electronic monitoring, broken windows policing, and the criminalization of poverty; and
  • a federal jobs and homes guarantee for the formerly incarcerated.

Both the short-lived Philadelphia conference and the Journey of Reconciliation have been overshadowed and even forgotten. Houser later wrote:

The Journey of Reconciliation was a bit ahead of its time; a planned and often audacious attack on Jim Crow before the civil rights movement was full-blown.

Rustin argued:

Things we did in the ’40s were the same things that ushered in the civil rights revolution.

Ideas do not arrive fully-formed, and movements are not linear, but these histories of struggle provide raw material for us to build a world without gendered racial terror and state-sanctioned violence. A sprawling carceral landscape has bloated budgets and desiccated our imaginings of what is possible. The kneejerk question is often, What would we do without prisons or police? rather than, What could we do with $200b for our communities? But, as Wilson Gilmore points out:

Abolition is about presence, not absence.

Incarcerated abolitionist Stevie Wilson added:

This is not just about eliminating something (police and prisons); it is about creating what we need to live, love and thrive.

At this moment, when abolition feels more possible than ever, we should not look elsewhere for “better” models of policing and prisons, but look deeper within our own history for better models of liberation.

Syria, Corporate Media Lies, and the True Face of Imperialism: An Interview with Richard Medhurst
Danny Haiphong, Black Agenda Report, Jul 1 2020

This guy just got ‘demonetized’ by YouTube, then ‘remonetized’ after a general outcry, a couple of days later. YouTube is the second largest search engine worldwide and has become a popular platform for progressives and the left to conduct political education and debate. Few voices on the platform meaningfully engage the questions of war, white supremacy and Pindo imperialism. That cannot be said of Richard Medhurst, who is the subject of the following interview – RB.

Q: Can you please tell readers of the Black Agenda Report a little about your background and the history behind your YouTube show?

A: My name is Richard Thomas Medhurst. I was born in Damascus, Syria in 1992. My mother (Syrian) and father (British) served in United Nations Peacekeeping and Observation Missions in Angola, Lebanon, Syria, India, Pakistan (Kashmir), meaning we moved around a lot. They were among the UN Peacekeepers awarded the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize. Their work and these experiences directly shaped my life and outlook on international affairs. Additionally, I was lucky to have a good education. My entire high school education was completed in French and I am fluent in four languages: English, French, Arabic and German. I started my show in late 2019 to cover Pindo politics and international relations. There are a number of great indie channels out there that I admire, but not many cover foreign policy. Even fewer cover foreign policy from an anti-imperialist viewpoint. I think one of the reasons people gravitate towards my channel is due to its explicit nature. I don’t have time to sugarcoat war crimes, murder and corruption. The question isn’t why am I cursing and angry, the question is why isn’t everyone else? I can also put on a blazer, speak in a high register BBC accent. There is nothing nice about politics. This is a vile, nasty business filled with suffering and anguish. They’re too afraid to talk about Syria because YouTube will demonetize them. Fuck that. That’s pathetic. You’ll see them call out Israel’s barbarism against Palestinians once in a blue moon, and that’s it. They want to play it safe while also pretending to be an alternative to indie media. That’s unacceptable.

Q: You are very critical of the corporate media on your show. What role can independent media play in countering the narratives presented in mainstream news outlets?

A: They should grow a spine. A lot of people in independent media do good work, but I’m tired of hearing “lefties” either completely ignore foreign policy or repeat CIA talking-points about the Global South. You cannot be a Pindo journalist or pundit, and then proceed to ignore international politics when your country dictates world affairs. Foreign policy is not a backburner issue, it is the issue. Anyone can say “I support universal health-care and a wage increase.” There’s nothing brave or controversial about catching up to the rest of the industrialized world. But how many will expose and stand up to Pindo imperialism? Or the Zionist occupation in Palestine? How many will call out the Western-backed coup in Syria? The UK’s theft of Venezuelan gold? A handful, at best. If independent media want to be a real counter-weight to establishment media, they must challenge the status quo in its entirety. Many will advocate for Medicare For All, a Green New Deal, things that are already mainstream, but won’t touch anything else because they’re afraid of catching flak.

They’ll talk a bit about racial inequality, they’ll mention Palestine once in a while, but they won’t challenge Pindo hegemony and imperialism when it matters. They must bring up the uncomfortable topics that no one wants to bring up. Repeating “end the wars” is not enough. What about economic sanctions that kill civilians? What about defunding the military? Talking about police brutality, racial inequality, the oppression of Black Pindos only when it’s trending on Twitter is not enough. This continued silence on Western imperialism is not only journalistic malpractice, but also ignorant. A lot of these pundits have grown too comfortable arguing with conservatives online about health-care, while burying their heads in the sand about everything else, specifically foreign policy. I don’t need someone pretending to be a leftist on YouTube to repeat the same nonsense I heard from Dick Cheney. I expect and demand better from people in leftist independent media. They need a rude awakening and that’s why I’m here.

Q: Syria has not been subject to the same news coverage as in past years. Why is it so important to defend Syria right now?

A: They’re silent because Pindostan lost its war on Syria. Pindostan and its vassals have been trying to conquer Syria since 2011 to advance their imperialist agenda. One of their tools was to wage a war of disinformation, using the mainstream media to spread lies, provoke outrage, and sway international opinion in favor of regime change. The mainstream media have never met a war they didn’t like. Whatever Uncle Sam says, they repeat. The NYT and CNN beat the war drums for Iraq and they did the same for Syria. Simultaneously, Pindostan covertly funded and armed opposition groups inside Syria; so-called “moderate rebels” who then turn out to be affiliated with AQ and 50 other flavors of Jihad. They also tried to provoke international outrage by claiming that Syria used chemical weapons, which of course turned out to be nonsense. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons published falsified reports and suppressed its own scientists to implicate the Syrian government. They are another international body controlled by Washington and their reputation is essentially tarnished and all credibility gone.

The Syrian army has now recaptured most of the country. Only Idlib remains as the last major terrorist stronghold. Syria had been a self-sufficient country since the 1990s, producing its own wheat, cotton and more. Syria also has oil, which before the war accounted for 25% of all government revenue. Pindostan knows this and is illegally occupying Syria’s oil fields to cut off revenue. Pindo helicopters have begun burning down Syria’s wheat-fields to starve the Syrian population, a blatant war crime. Since their tricks haven’t worked, they have turned to sanctions (economic terrorism) in order to starve off Syria. It’s not about regime change anymore, it’s about burning the country down, literally. The new Caesar Act also just came into effect. This Pindo law imposes new sanctions on Syria and anyone who deals with the country. The real aim here isn’t to punish Assad, it’s to prevent Syria from rebuilding. These sanctions are evil and only hurt the civilian population. Independent media have a moral obligation to call out and expose these atrocities.

Q: What do you find most troubling about the mainstream media’s coverage of the recent mass demonstrations in Pindostan?

A: The mainstream media is a tool, an arm of the establishment and ruling elites. When the ruling elites feel threatened, they send the police and military to crack skulls and keep the workers in line. When it really counts, there is no free speech or first amendment. If you criticize Pindostan or the foundations upon which it was built (slavery, settler colonialism, genocide), then there is no first amendment for you. The media pretends to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter but constantly uses negative language and framing to delegitimize them. This is done on purpose. The media and their corporate puppet masters need the police to keep the population in line and maintain the status quo. It doesn’t matter if protestors are peaceful or not, the police will always be violent. We’ve all seen the videos of indiscriminate beatings, teargassing, etc. even when protestors are kneeling or are simply bystanders. When Colin Kaepernick was taking a knee, the media called him “disruptive” and “unpatriotic.” And now when people are out in the streets protesting, they’re also called “disruptive” and “unpatriotic.” These are typical oppressor tactics. No matter if you are peaceful or not, they will always try to paint you as the aggressor.

Notice also how the media will always try to divert attention to material and capital wealth. They’ll talk about windows being smashed, or a store that was burned down. This is part of the conditioning to make people value material wealth over human life. They want you to be more outraged over a Target store than George Floyd’s murder. They want you to believe that corporations are more valuable than people. This is a sickness. This is capitalism. Pay attention to the language used and choice of words. They constantly say that George Floyd was “killed,” when in fact he was murdered in cold blood – all on camera. Breonna Taylor was shot eight times in her apartment while sleeping, but they just say she was “killed.” They tone down the language on purpose in order to protect the police. Even if you were to play devil’s advocate, and claim that protestors are allegedly being violent, and supposedly looting, this pales in comparison to the injustices committed against Black Pindos. Over 400 years of slavery, of torture, of killing and persecution. The looting of Africa itself, an entire continent ravaged by colonialism. Black men are also being lynched just weeks apart, and the police are immediately dubbing them as suicides to cover up the murders and avoid further protests. Black men are still being lynched in 2020 and the mainstream media have said absolutely nothing. This is inadmissible and fucking outrageous. The media are complicit with white supremacy, with murder, and directly enabling the oppression of Black Pindos every single minute by refusing to do their jobs and hold the authorities accountable.

Q: Some of the most-watched segments of your show involve scathing critiques of the Demagog Party. Can you please share some of your (uncensored) reflections with our readers?

A: There is no real Left in Pindostan. The Demagog Party is not a workers’ party, nor is it a leftist party. Anywhere else in the world they would be a right-wing party. Moreover, what you have in Pindostan is a one-party system where the two factions, Thugs & Demagogs, come together to fuck over the working class. They appear to be at odds with each other on a handful of issues. However, when it comes to maintaining the interests of the Pindo empire through war, sanctions, bailouts and corporate handouts, miraculously they seem to agree with each other and “reach across the aisle.” Their sole purpose is to serve the oligarchs to whom they’ve prostituted themselves, and to give people the illusion of choice. This way they can pacify the working class and prevent revolt. Those who call themselves “progressives” but tell you to vote for a racist warmonger like Joe Biden are nothing but crypto-neoliberal bastards and must be exposed as such. It’s usually white, upper middle-class people saying this, who’ve obviously never seen nor been on the receiving end of neoliberal policies (crime bill, more wars, outsourcing of jobs, etc.). Moreover, the Progressives Caucus within the Demagog party is a joke. They have no agenda; every member votes a different way and they refuse to form an actual resistance against the neoliberal crooks running the party or call out their leadership. They’re not interested in standing up for workers, they’re interested in preserving their careers.

This notion that you can reform the Demagog party by electing more progressives is complete horseshit. They’re basically telling you to wait another 50 years and die without health-care for them to maybe get enough people in the party, who will be coopted by the neoliberal establishment anyway. This is preposterous and insulting. You don’t reform the Demagog party, the Demagog party reforms you. Faschingstein does not allow revolutionaries or well-intentioned rookies to thrive. It blunts them, absorbs them into the party and molds them to remove their teeth. Capitol Hill is a sideshow to distract people from Wall Street, where all the real decisions are made. Lawmakers don’t control Wall Street; it’s the other way around. Many people recognize this, yet are dying to pursue electoral politics, as if it were some kind of entertainment or sport. And in many ways, it is a spectacle. It’s designed to distract and pacify the masses while they get away with murder. The only thing that gets things done is direct action. I was yelling about this since the beginning, and lo and behold here it is. The protests happening now led to George Floyd’s killers being arrested. Rayshard Brook’s killers were arrested. The Minneapolis police department has been overhauled. Direct action got these things done, not politicians.

Q: Your social commentary is consistently rooted in an anti-capitalist and anti-imperial framework. What books and/or experiences radicalized you to adopt these political commitments?

A: I haven’t seen my family in Syria in over ten years because of a war started by imperialists and multinational corporations. I think that would piss anyone off. I have been all over the Global South and I’m no stranger to former colonies. I’ve seen firsthand the poverty that they are condemned to after centuries of plundering by former European colonies. I was born in Syria, which used to be a French mandate. Before that it was occupied by the Ottomans for 400 years. When the British and French decided to carve up Syria, they set the entire region on fire and plunged it into chaos that lasts to this very day. Destroying Arab nationalism and unity has always been a priority for the West because they fear our strength. It is therefore every Syrian and every Arab’s duty to be anti-imperialist. Imperialism is a cancer that has plagued the Middle East and Africa for centuries, and we must unite to resist it. Understanding history, particularly colonialism and the Cold War, is crucial in order to grasp what is going on today. I cannot stress this enough. When you learn of how the European empires plundered Africa’s resources, committed genocide, and engaged in slavery, it makes me angry. They teach you in school that colonialism came to an end in 1945, yet many Western powers still maintain oppressive neo-colonial ties with their former colonies and bully them into submission. When the European powers began crumbling after 1945, America picked up where they left off. Pindostan perpetuates the same imperialism, rooted in white supremacy and Pindo exceptionalism, while hiding under the label of a supposed democracy. I grew up seeing Colin Powell lie at the UN about WMDs that didn’t exist. I saw the entire world change after 9/11, with everyone treating Arabs like terrorists. How anyone can read about these atrocities and not be anti-imperialist is beyond me.

Q: How can readers of the Black Agenda Report support your work?

A: You can help support my work by subscribing to my channel on YouTube and by following me on twitter.

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