We are living in a moment of change and upheaval, a time of immense pain and suffering, but also a time of hope and tremendous possibility. We are nearing four years of an incompetent but dangerous authoritarian — Donald Trump — occupying the most powerful office in the land. We are in the midst of the deadly coronavirus pandemic. And we are just four months away from presidential and congressional elections.
But we are also in a moment of great reckoning, because of the courage and determination of activists, the Movement for Black Lives, and good people across the country. This reckoning is a confrontation of the legacy of racism and genocide upon which this nation was built. Monuments to slave owners, traders, and Confederate generals are being pulled down as the uprising against police violence has regained momentum. A new generation of abolitionists is picking up the mantle and building upon the work of the activists, scholars, and martyrs who came before them. Many of these activists are mobilizing around both broad and specific goals, among them defunding the police, abolishing the carceral system of jails and prisons, and attacking the systems and symbols of racism and white supremacy.
It is vitally important that during a time such as this, we take a moment to step back and look at the bigger picture, the historical context, and the possibilities that lay before us. On the latest episode of Intercepted, Robin D.G. Kelley joined us to discuss all this and more. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA and the author of several groundbreaking books, among them “Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times,” “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination,” and “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression.”
What follows is a transcript of the extended conversation with Kelley, lightly edited for context and clarity.
Jeremy Scahill: Robin D.G. Kelley, thank you so much for being with us here on Intercepted.
Robin D.G. Kelley: Thank you.
JS: So I want to begin just with the most recent events. We had Trump on Saturday giving this rally to six thousand people. They had a stadium that could have fit 19,000 people. Six thousand people are in there. Trump originally was going to hold it on the Juneteenth holiday. He then moved it one day later. At that rally, Trump claimed that the left is trying to “desecrate our monuments.” And as people across the country are continuing to rise up against police brutality, police murders, systemic racism in this country, demanding the removal of Confederate monuments to slaveholders, put Donald Trump’s comments and his decision to hold this rally in Tulsa in a historical context.
RK: Right, well there are a couple of things. One, this also happens to be the 99th anniversary, or commemoration, of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. And so choosing Tulsa wasn’t an accident. Just like choosing Juneteenth, June 19th, as the original date for this event wasn’t an accident. And I think Tulsa has a very interesting story, not because of what we typically talk about — that is the destruction of the Greenwood community in 1921, which was a Black community often called Black Wall Street because there was a significant Black business district — but there’s a carceral story to it. And that is after destroying this community, with the support of the police and deputized white men in Tulsa, destroying hospitals, public libraries, businesses, churches. After that, they literally incarcerated some 7,000 people, Black people, interned them in camps and held them there through the winter of 1921-1922. So imagine you’re rendered homeless and you’re forced into internment camps and your crime was being Black. Because in some ways victims of that kind of violence was the Black community and, again, it’s sanctioned by the state, sanctioned by the state department. White mobs come in and they literally destroy homes and loot. And so here is an example of looting in which Black property is stolen, taken, and destroyed. And over 300 Black people were killed, at least that much, we know that.
So the other aspect of course is that choosing June 19th initially was a kind of double slap in the face. Juneteenth represents emancipation, you know? It is the date, June 19th, 1865, when Galveston, Texas was occupied by the Union army and there was a declaration that slavery had come to an end. In other words, it was when Texas fell during the Civil War. It’s not true to say that Black people didn’t know they were free. Many people did know that, but the point of the fact is that Juneteenth had become a day of celebration of abolition, but it was also, historically, at least for the last century and a half, a day of reflection and organizing on the part of Black communities. I mean Juneteenth was the day in 1968 chosen to have a massive solidarity rally in support of the Poor People’s Campaign. Juneteenth was the date that the Black Radical Congress was launched in 1998. Juneteenth is the day that a lot of struggles around housing, opposition to police brutality, other issues, also just reflecting on the question of freedom and democracy. So there’s a long history of Juneteenth as representing the very opposite of what Trump tried to claim, and that is to turn that date into a reassertion of his authoritarian rule and in many ways it was a white rally.
Tulsa, Oklahoma as a whole is a really interesting place for another reason, which I don’t think anyone ever talks about, and that is that during the 19th century, with the Homestead Act — which itself was a means of continuation, of the continuation of dispossessing Indigenous peoples — the Homestead Act actually created an opportunity to have all Black towns. Oklahoma happened to have more all Black towns than any other state in the Union. And many of these towns were, like the Greenwood district, places of Black autonomy, economic independence, and those towns were all subject to racial pogroms and violence. Many of them were razed, destroyed, or just starved of basic necessities like access to water or other kinds of things that people need to maintain towns. So, in some respects, Oklahoma has been a battleground state for both Black freedom and, in some respects, for white supremacy.
And one other small thing about Oklahoma, and we don’t talk about this either, in the period of disfranchisement — late 19th century, early 20th century — Oklahoma was one of those places where poor whites, many of whom were also disfranchised. And that’s an echo of a memory that many people in that stadium, all 6,000 of them, have no understanding of. Even in the framework of white supremacy, the class politics, the class rule in a place like Oklahoma could lead to the disfranchisement of poor white people. I mean, this is the reality that we’re facing and to me it has echoes for the next stage of American politics.
JS: You wrote a very powerful op-ed in the New York Times recently and I wanted to ask you a bit about that because at that same rally in Tulsa, Donald Trump claimed that Democrats want “rioters and looters” to have “more rights than law-abiding citizens.” In your New York Times piece, you explored how this obsession with looting and looters has been used for a pretext for expanding the police and their budgets and their operational capabilities and how it ultimately centers on the question of: What kind of society values property over Black life? How is Donald Trump using that word “looters” in this instance? I mean, set it in the historical context of this country.
RK: “Looting” is a Hindi term that says more about the British looting of India — that is, colonialism — than it says about, you know, what we call “flash looting,” as these massive riot-related acts of theft. And so in some ways what Trump does is so typical. In other words, he’s not, he doesn’t break with tradition. The tradition in this country has been to identify looting as criminal behavior. That is, to either treat it as an extension of protest strategy, but what it does is it creates a false equivalence between the state’s relentless use of lethal violence — as if that’s the least important thing — and the kind of episodic political violence by people who are trying to fight back, or people who are taking advantage of the crisis, of the lack of restraint, to try to get commodities. Especially in a context where over 40 million people have applied for unemployment. But to me that’s even less important than what Trump is doing. By targeting, by marking people as looters, it not only has a kind of racial context — that is the looters are the people who are disrupting the country, who are the folks who are dependent on welfare, poor, violent — but by focusing on looters, there’s a long history of identifying looters as a criminal element. Yes, there are lots of reasons for looting, but once you do that, it justifies increased expenditures and expansion of police, and even the militarization of the police.
And let me just give you an example. So in the 1960s, you could pick up almost any article in the press from the 60s and you’ll see the exact same question being posed today. Why do they loot? Why do people loot? And we know that the answer’s always wide-ranging: economic, political, it’s criminal, it’s senseless, it’s normative, it’s deviant, all these things. But one thing that came out of those articles was what became the prevailing theory of law enforcement. And that is that once looters were identified as hard-core criminals who just hadn’t been caught, as thugs, political scientist James Q. Wilson took this idea that looters were basically criminals — they were not people in acts of desperation, they were not people who were acting based on the lack of restraint or responding to a crisis — but once they become criminalized then, Wilson, in this 1968 essay, extended the argument to say looting is an expression of latent criminal tendencies in Black communities. And from that seed, he and criminologist George Kelling created broken windows theory. And broken windows theory policing basically makes this argument that criminals flourish in bad neighborhoods. And when people disrespect their community, they disrespect the authority and therefore law and order. Looters are those who disrespect authority and law and order. Therefore, we have to be able to tamp down on the smallest infractions, because any infraction — loitering, jaywalking — could lead to violent crime.
And so broken windows theory, which of course we know now has been repudiated, ignores the structural racism that created horrific conditions in these communities, that suppressed home values, that led to the divestment of services to certain urban communities that cause health and environmental problems, that reduce jobs, led to high unemployment, and also reduce legal protections for working people, people of color, the poor in urban communities.
So in some ways, it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You create policies that quite literally kill people, deny them basic goods and services, deny them employment, deny them a livelihood, and that level of desperation — people who are basically desperate and you police them through what is essentially a kind of fascist structure of violence, rendition, and we’ve seen that in places like Chicago, where people are brought to places and tortured, and you have this criminalization of community as opposed to dealing with crime. And so broken windows theory as a response to the notion that poor people are, themselves, poor people themselves hold — or Black people, in particular — hold latent criminal tendencies then leads to this kind of violence and it allows the police to basically function, with almost no boundaries.
The police, under broken windows, targeted Black and brown communities. It targeted street vendors. And the targeting of street vendors, which is pretty interesting, not only undermine aspects of Black economic livelihood, but it also in some ways reflects the high profile killings of people like Eric Garner and Alton Sterling, and others, under the pretext of prosecuting people who are selling things illegally. And so that pretext becomes the basis for prosecution, the basis for violence, and then ultimately some of these killings. And so to me, that’s part of the story of looting. What I try to do in the article is kind of flip the question of “What is a looter? Who is doing the looting?” And what we’ve seen, often, is that the very system of racial capitalism has, in many ways, been the source, has been the looter.
JS: You just mentioned the term “racial capitalism.” I hope people are familiar with the work of Cedric Robinson, but if you can lay out your understanding of that term, of “racial capitalism,” and really explain that for people.
RK: Racial capitalism, as far as Cedric Robinson, the late political scientist, understands it or explained it basically was built based on this idea that capitalism itself is not distinct from racism. The way we think of racism is that racism is a by-product of capitalism. That is, capitalism emerges and racism is a way to divide workers. It’s a way to extract greater value from, say, enslaved people, Indigenous people, etc. But what Cedric argued was that the grounds of the civilization in which capitalism emerges is already based on racial hierarchy. And that racial hierarchy is not necessarily the global one, it’s even within Europe itself that racial distinctions were ways in which early capitalism was able to take advantage of certain groups over others, whether it’s in terms of wages, whether it’s in terms of dispossession and forcing people off the land, using violence against the Irish, for example. We don’t think of the Irish as a racialized group, but in many ways, in the 16th century, that’s what they were.
And so if you think of race as assigning meaning to whole groups of people, convincing, ideologically convincing others that some people are inferior to others, that some people are designed as beasts of burden and other people are designed to accept, to embrace the wealth of that, then what you end up getting is a system of extraction that allows for a kind of super-exploitation of Black and brown people. And racial capitalism also relies on an ideology or racial regime, and the racial regime convinces a lot of white people, who may get the crumbs of this extraction through slavery, through Jim Crow, through land disposession, convince them to be or support or shore up a regime that seems to benefit whiteness based in white supremacy but where their own share of the spoils is actually pretty miniscule. Du Bois called this the “wages of whiteness.” It’s like an ideological wage that doesn’t always translate materially. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
So if you think of capitalism as racial capitalism, then the outcome is you cannot eliminate capitalism, overthrow it, without the complete destruction of white supremacy, of the racial regime under which it’s built. And we can see how this works with the police all the time. I mean, when we talk about the police and we talk about defunding the police, we know of the police as generators of revenue, currently. That there’s an accumulation of fees and fines that the police rely on. We also talk about the kinds of support that police unions get, qualified immunity, for example, is part of the contract. We think of qualified immunity only in terms of the power of police unions against a democratic state that says, oh we actually want to tamp down on that. But, if you think about what the police do, the police protect capital. The police were designed to protect property going back to, not just the slave patrols, but even the system of jails in cities in the 19th century. Those jails were designed to hold fugitives, runaways. When you’re trying to track down a runaway slave you pay a jail a fee to hold that enslaved person until the master could come, identify the person, and take them back into slavery. So when you think about the whole system of policing, it’s organized around property. Protecting property against union strikes. Protecting property against anti-racist movements. Protecting property against workers in subjugated groups. So if that’s the point of the police, then we shouldn’t be surprised that qualified immunity or that the violent acts of the police would be supported by capital. Why is that? Because capital needs a police force that could terrify people. That’s what the police do. So when we look at the relationship between the cost of police, the police budgets, and the amount of money being shelled out to settle police misconduct cases, we’re talking about billions.
In my city, in Los Angeles, $880 million was shelled out between 2005 and 2018 over police misconduct suits, wrongful death suits, these kinds of things. Why do we do that? Why do we let that happen? Companies like Target, Walmart, they give money to police foundations, donate money to make sure that the police are operable. Wall Street benefits from police violence through the use of these police brutality bonds. That is that they facilitate the creation of public bonds to pay out these settlements because cities and municipalities don’t have the money to pay them out so they borrow the money. And then Wall Street benefits from facilitating these things. Banks do as well. Not just loaning money, but in terms of the fees that go into these kinds of transactions. You would think that capitalists trying to be as efficient as possible would say, this has to stop. But imagine if you have a police force that’s not a terror force. A police force that says, of course, labor has a right to strike and to occupy a workplace. Of course people have a right to protest and to protest freely and to protest militantly and to engage in forms of civil disobedience that disrupts business as usual and the police back off. That’s not going to work. And so there’s a way in which even the notion of racial capitalism is undergirding police activity in municipalities that support violent police activity, even though it may undermine their reputation as cities. A place like New York City is a good example.
JS: Recently we featured the work of the abolitionist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore and at the beginning of that special that we did with her, she set the context for the murder of George Floyd by beginning with the deputizing, the kind of informal deputizing of a clerk at a convenient store who suspected that Floyd was trying to pass off a counterfeit $20 bill. And that individual, as she described it, was sort of deputized, then brings in the armed forces, the police. That was sort of the moment that it started. And we also see this with white people calling the police on African-Americans who are entering their own buildings where they live. This sense in our society that, oh, well, we need to immediately call the people with guns to respond to our discomfort, or our sense that maybe someone is violating, when we boil it down to it, a nothing law. The idea that he was passing off a $20 bill, even if it was true: really? You want to call in armed thugs to respond to him who then kneel on his neck for almost 9 minutes? But that broader culture that exists in this country now, where everyone is essentially deputized to snitch on other people or to call in the armed squads to take care of the problem.
RK: Oh, absolutely. And what’s sad about this, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore is absolutely right, what’s sad about it is that everyone is deputized in many ways — immigrant communities, even Black communities — because we have been, in some ways ideologically brainwashed to believe that any disruption, anything that’s not quite right, the first people you call are the police. Rayshard Brooks is another example, in which a Wendy’s employee, not knowing what to do, wanting to make sure the drive-thru line continues as Rayshard Brooks falls asleep at the wheel, calls the police. Now, we’re getting to a point where people are realizing that the police are not the people to call. But imagine that’s your first call, thinking, OK, if you could just wake him up, the option, of course, would have been to go outside and try to wake him up and move the car out. But no one knew what the outcome was going to be, or at least they didn’t think about the outcome. And as a result of that phone call, this man’s dead.
And so, I do want to give a happy example, like a positive example of an alternative to calling the police. Part of defunding the police is a recognition that the police, as constituted, make life more dangerous for vulnerable populations even as it creates a sense of false safety for white people. And so a really good example is in Brooklyn there was a group called Sister to Sister and they were dealing, in their community in Brooklyn, in the 1990s, they were dealing with a lot of cases of domestic violence. And these were immigrant communities for the most part, working class communities. They would call the police. Individuals would call the police. The police would come, and rarely come. When they did come, the first thing they would often do is arrest people for violating their citizenship status or their undocumented workers, harass people, and they wouldn’t solve the problem. So Sister to Sister, a group of young women, decided: we need to keep the police out and we need to figure out a way to deal with domestic violence on our own. So they develop workshops, street theater, vigilance committees, trainings, so that men, women, kids in the community, understood how to deal with domestic violence, how to reduce it and recognize that this is not something that, that intimate violence is not simply within a single household, but it affects the whole community. And as a result of their work, they were able to reduce the number of calls to police and reduce domestic violence significantly.
So part of what we have to think about is, how do we get out of the habit, or the reflex, of dialing 9-1-1 or calling the police to solve the most basic issues, issues that should have been solved by simply compassion, neighborliness, and just thoughtful responses. Because the fact of the matter is, Rayshard Brooks was probably terrified at the very moment that he woke up and saw a police officer in his face, because here’s someone who had gone through the system, who had been incarcerated, who knew the consequences. Even if he didn’t think the consequences would be he’d be shot, but just the arrest alone could have destroyed his life, an economic livelihood that he barely cobbled together as a convicted felon. So part of it is, many people are deputized and don’t realize it. Unless we learn better ways or different ways to care for one another, we’re going to continue to have this situation where we call the police and the police will continue to kill us.
JS: You have a new book coming out, “Black Bodies Swinging,” and in that book you write, “Reverend William Barber is right, we are living through a third Reconstruction and the great rebellion of the summer of 2020 marks a moment of reckoning between real freedom and fascism.” Can you expand on that?
RK: Yes, of course. So this is a third Reconstruction and there are two things I’m trying to deal with in this book. One is to really amplify the fact that this generation, this generation of abolitionists, have the most visionary conception of abolition in history. The first Reconstruction in the 1860s, and I know The Intercept had a great, great piece about Du Bois and Black Reconstruction, but that first Reconstruction was an effort to expand social democracy to include everyone. And it faced a backlash, that is it was crushed under the weight of racial terror, Jim Crow, disfranchisement. The second Reconstruction was an attempt to expand the democracy we had to include all people, but also deal with some of the social justice issues of housing and police violence, but had a conception of it which is still based on a system where you can just sort of tweak the Constitution, or tweak our rights and have them apply. The presumption was the constitutional basis of our system was sound, we just had to fix it to include everyone. This generation is saying it’s not sound and it never has been sound. It’s been based on dispossession, white supremacy, and gender violence. And so this vision of abolition is not simply, and from Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s work, it’s not simply: better jails, better police, better training. It’s: no police, it’s no jails, no prisons. It’s creating a new means of justice that’s not based on criminalization but based on affirmation and reparation, and by reparation that is trying to repair relationships that have been damaged and destroyed as a result of five centuries of warfare against Indigenous peoples, Africans, poor white people, Asian-Pacific Americans, and Latinx populations.
So here is an opportunity to actually transform not just the nation, but the entire world. And what I’m hoping will not happen, but may happen, is what happened after the second Reconstruction and the first Reconstruction, that is a kind of backlash. The fascism that we recognize in the 1930s resembled the fascism of slavery and the fascism of the post-Reconstruction period, resembled the 1970s in which the Klan was resurrected and, the prison-industrial complex expanded, in that period. What we’re witnessing after 2020 is going to be either fascism or abolition, or maybe something else, I’m not sure. But this is a very exciting time, and so what the book tries to do is, not so much predict what’s going to happen, but understand that 500-year history through the autopsies of particular individuals who have died over the last few years and then to recognize what is unique about the generation that emerged. And by that I don’t say emerged in 2012, but I’m saying a generation that really emerged in the late 1990s that developed this particular vision of abolition.
JS: As you’re speaking I’m also just thinking of the fact that’s in front of all of us now and that is that it seems pretty clear that on the ballot in November, in terms of major party candidates, there’s going to be Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and you’re talking about a generation that came of age in the late 90s. Joe Biden was a major player in shaping the so-called criminal justice policies of the United States government. He was, as he said, a close friend of the segregationist Strom Thurmond. Joe Biden has repeatedly lied about his own involvement with the civil rights movement, about getting arrested in apartheid South Africa trying to go and visit Nelson Mandela. By all fair accounts, Joe Biden has been a major part of the problem in this country and yet here we are with the basic choice boiling down to Donald Trump for four more years or Joe Biden. I’m wondering your bigger picture thoughts on what that says about our society that those are the two major party candidates at this moment in history.
RK: Right, it says something about the failure of electoral politics to solve this problem. Because, imagine a political conundrum that leaves us with the choice of going back to Clinton-era policies, the policies that stripped us of the protections of Glass-Steagall, the policies that expanded the prison-industrial complex, the policies that criminalized immigration even further than before. I mean these are the same policies basically and Biden represents that. And so if we see this as, “elect Biden by any means necessary,” then I think we’ve lost. I do agree that a Trump White House, with the backing of the apparatus of state violence, is a much more difficult place to fight these fights, but at the same time, I think that this radical generation sees a much bigger fight ahead and that no matter who is elected, no matter who is in the White House in the fall, this fight has to continue. Because this is not just a fight to restore an old democracy, but to create a new one.
And it’s happening in the electoral sphere. Some of the most exciting campaigns, like in New York City for example, there’s all these people contesting incumbents, many of whom consider themselves liberals, making real strides at the local level, state legislature, city council. And in, also, all these fights around who’s going to be district attorney. That is the so-called law enforcement officer in many major cities. Progressive district attorneys, in fact, are embattled against police departments and police unions who see them as putting some handcuffs on their ability to conduct violence. So there’s these battles going on at the very local level, but I think that there’s a much bigger thing going on and as long as we silence the critique of Biden and the Clintons and Obama, because then we miss, we miss what the struggle is really about.
And I’ll give you just two more examples, two more interventions. One is that, in this book, I make the argument that the 1990s was critical and it’s not an accident that some of the most visionary organizations and movements emerge in the Clinton era: Critical Resistance, the Black Radical Congress, groups like Power — these were organizations that were fighting Clinton era reforms and policies. And the same thing with 2012, with Trayvon Martin — Black Lives Matter emerges in opposition to Obama era reforms and policies locally, and nationally, and internationally. And one last thing I should say, because none of this stuff can be limited to the domestic sphere. The kind of visionary abolitionist politics that we see as a throughline from the 1990s to the present was also directed at foreign policy — Clinton foreign policy, certainly George Bush foreign policy, and Obama. And recognizing that, as long as we continue to have a foreign policy that is built on war, built on drone strikes, the same violence that is replicated in the cities of the United States is replicated in the Arab world, is replicated elsewhere. As long as the happens, as long as we continue to maintain relationships between, like, the repression of Palestinian populations and populations in the United States through tax dollars, then we’re going to be stuck. This vision of abolition is one that’s trying to end forms of state violence and American expansion throughout the globe. And it’s very important because this is also a generation that recognizes that much of what we think of as policing, that modern policing got much of its training abroad, abroad in Haiti during the occupation after 1915, abroad in the Philippines, during the U.S. occupation of the Philippines, abroad through the daily exchange campaigns or relationships between Israel and the United States, where training of U.S. police officers by Israeli military was part of preparation for urban insurgencies, that sort of thing.
And I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know the outcome. But I do know that if there’s ever a time when a Reconstruction might actually lead to democratization of the United States and the end of American imperialism, this is the opportunity we have. And there’s no possible way that a Joe Biden is going to lead that. If anything, he and his folks are part of the problem.
JS: When I was preparing to talk to you, one of the subjects and a piece of your work that I was most excited to ask you to share from is your book from a couple decades ago, “Hammer and Hoe,” which tells the story of the 1930s and 40s, coming out of the Great Depression, how Communists took on Alabama’s repressive, racist police state, and engaged in a battle that is not so different from the analysis that you’re offering now from this newer generation of radical abolitionists. I’m wondering if you could share with people an overview of that book, of “Hammer and Hoe,” and share some of the stories that you researched and brought to life in it.
RK: Right, right. That’s actually really a great question. So that book is 30 years old, that’s how old I am.
JS: I have the 25th anniversary edition.
RK: Right [laughter], exactly. It came out in 1990. And it came out at a time when the Cold War had been declared victorious by the Reagan administration, I mean, before that. And after that was, that’s the end of the Cold War and so Communism is dead. That was the story. And so this is a story about the 1930s. A party made up overwhelmingly of Black working people in rural areas, as well as in cities like Birmingham and Montgomery, and in many ways they carried what some might argue is kind of the radical tradition, radical sort of wing of the civil rights movement. Fighting for the right to organize, fighting for relief for the unemployed, fighting to keep people in their homes and not be evicted, and ultimately trying to fight for democracy in the South and throughout the country. And, in some ways, it’s a very exciting story because it precedes the civil rights movement and it recovers a vision of social democracy that even the civil rights movement at its heyday didn’t quite grasp.
The Communist Party in Alabama had some white membership. It actually organized white working people. They actually tried to organize former klansmen into the organization and got some in there and, most importantly, they saw themselves as a multiracial movement that can create democratic, anti-capitalist society — true abolition for the entire United States, but also in solidarity with what they saw as a worldwide movement.
One of the things that made the Communist Party in Alabama different than, say, other movements was the confidence that they had that they were part of a global insurgency. I mean, there were people, right, I interviewed people, like a man named Lemon Johnson, who believed that when cotton pickers went on strike in 1935, he believed that any significant violence from the planter class would be met with the possibility of Stalin sending troops through Mobile, Alabama to protect them, to engage in class warfare against the planter class. I mean, that belief in internationalism was extraordinary. This is also an organization that believed in armed self-defense and practiced it when they could, but they also believed in making themselves invisible when necessary for the movement to survive another day.
So there’s so many lessons to be learned from the Communist Party of Alabama, but there’s also a lesson to be learned about how movements can be wiped out, how their history can be destroyed, because by the Cold War, by 1948, though individual communists continued to do their work, the party wasn’t simply outlawed but it was crushed under the pressure of Bull Connor and his regime. We think of Bull Connor in the streets of Birmingham in 1963, but in 1948 he was doing much the same thing in terms of crushing the Black left, or the interracial left in the South.
So that history, really, we need to come to terms with it because I do think that the best of this generation is an echo of that moment and it proves to me, and this is a really important lesson, that anti-racism and class solidarity, are just, are not trade-offs. They’re not mutually exclusive. We’ve been living in this world where we’re sort of deciding, are we going to be fighting for the class or fighting against racism? As if somehow these things are separate. This was a generation that laid the groundwork for the generation of activists we’re dealing with now. And it really does show the importance of fighting all forms of oppression, not just race and class, but gender oppression, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, that none of these things can be separated off and left to the side. That a truly, fundamental abolitionist future requires that they all be held together. And the Communist Party of Alabama shows that that actually could happen.
JS: On that same issue and sort of to bring it into the contemporary moment, there’s been a lot of talk from the Trump White House about Antifa and outside agitators being the real problem here and in your work you’ve studied and written about how this trope about outside agitators has been used throughout history in a systemic effort to attempt to discredit legitimate political movements, including Black rebellion. What is your assessment of the way that Trump is using that trope of the outside agitator right now?
RK: So the outside agitator is a very old trope to delegitimize any legitimate claims of social movements. It’s been used all over the world and in this particular instance, and specifically Antifa, which stands for anti-fascism, or anti-fascist, is a way of not just delegitimizing movements, but it’s also a way of delegitimizing struggles against fascism. And it is a way of targeting groups like anarchists, for example, many of whom have been at the forefront of mutual aid campaigns and working really around how to try to prefigure, new communities of solidarity. And so you vilify these groups and when you vilify those groups you do several things. One, you justify the criminalization of them. Outside agitator equals communist has been a way that the United States has been able to pass legislation to jail, imprison, and deport people who are considered outside agitators. It’s not an accident that anti-sedition laws in this country have come very close to anti-immigrant laws. In other words, they follow one another. Much of anti-immigrant laws have been based on the fear of sedition within the United States. And we’re seeing the same thing now. I mean, even the idea that immigrants are responsible, not just for the violence, but immigrants are responsible for Covid deaths. This sort of thing happens all the time. The xenophobia works. The other thing is that outside agitators is a form of xenophobia that works to shore up white support, despite the fact that many of the people that support the Trump regime don’t benefit from those policies. And so it’s a very effective strategy but one that, in this particular generation, particular moment, I don’t think is working very well.
One of the things that we see in these demonstrations in 2020 is the extent to which they’re vastly multiracial and diverse. Diverse not just in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality but diverse also in terms of age and even status. So that’s something that, where there’s evidence that the old idea that you could sort of divide, create a wedge in a movement using the outside agitator, that’s kind of problematic. On the other hand, there are, I should say this, because this is actually important, there are examples where the outside agitator claims have been effective, in part because of the violence perpetrated by agent provocateurs. I mean, in other words, there are some outside agitators, not Antifa, but the Boogaloo Boys, for example, which is not uncommon to have agent provocateurs cause violence, promote violence, perpetuate disruption and even engage in forms of assassination as we’ve seen recently in California. And so, there’s a way in which Trump and his ilk can take the idea or the fear of the outside agitator and flip it to vilify those who are genuinely fighting for social justice and for an end to policing and ignore, completely ignore if not justify the activities of groups who are actually trying disrupt these really important movements for social justice.
JS: You also have outside agitators in the form of actual police or FBI, the COINTELPRO program for instance. But that also is an element of this throughout history, that “law enforcement” agents actually infiltrate movements and try to encourage acts of violence. We’ve certainly seen that post-9/11, where the FBI has had a PhD in breaking up its own terror plots that we discover later they were actually at the center of it. It’s not just private actors, it’s also state actors that do this as well.
RK: Absolutely, absolutely. And a lot of taxpayer money, a lot of taxpayer revenue went into paying for police, local police, red squads, and FBI agents who have been at the center of these kinds of disruptive plots. One of the unfortunate things maybe was one of the unfortunate outcomes, recently, of the film “BlacKkKlansman.” It left a lot of people with the impression that undercover cops do good things. And that is that the story of a Black police officer in Colorado infiltrating the Klan, though it’s not quite what happened but the story that he infiltrated the Klan makes the police out to be the heroes. In a film, by the way not to criticize Spike Lee because, who wants to do that, right? But in a film in which the Black student organizations are seen as incompetent. And it’s a very scary thought that we’re being taught through popular culture that the police actually do these really good things. The same police officer, by the way, Ron Stallworth, also infiltrated groups like the International Socialist Organization, some of the left organizations. And, if I remember correctly, also had, supported or was involved in some of the other Black movements like the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party.
So what we see mostly — and again this is across the board, this is not just the Trump administration but the last century of administrations — the focus has been on infiltrating and undermining movements that have at least set out on an agenda for liberation, abolition, social justice. So what are the organizations? Go back to the Garvey movement of the early 20th century, the Social Party, communists, the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, all the way up through to this idea of the Obama administration infiltrating Black Lives Matter. The idea of the “Black identity extremists.” The notion that there’s a black identity extremist without the equivalent — The fact that organizations that are saying, “we really want an end to police killings,” are “black identity extremists.” By the way, a movement that had always been open to people across racial and ethnic lines to participate, and yet the kinds of resources that are needed to try to outlaw or end white racial terrorism — the Klan and similar organizations, anti-semitic organizations, the militia groups — these are not the groups being infiltrated or undermined or even outlawed. These are the ones that President Trump has described as being filled with, “very fine people.”
JS: As we wrap up this conversation, Robin, I wanted to bring it full circle and return to the discussion on racial capitalism in this moment of the pandemic. Arundhati Roy, the great Indian writer, described coronavirus as a portal and I’m wondering what your assessment is of the racial capitalist system at this moment in an election year with this rebellion that shows no signs of ceasing, with Trump in power and with so many people having their lives and their livelihood put in the sniper scope of the government and the pandemic.
RK: Right. Absolutely, I totally agree that this pandemic is a portal. And as a portal, it is just an opening. And as an opening, nothing’s guaranteed, but it’s an opening because it exposed the structure of racial and gendered capitalism and the violence meted out to people who are most vulnerable. So Covid-19, of course, exposes the fact that it’s a lot of poor people dying, exposed, not protected. That the healthcare industry and the industry assigned to care for the aging have utterly failed for lack of resources and forms of structural racism. That the same kinds of inequalities in the same, the same kinds of limits that have made Black and brown people not just poor but unhealthier, having lack of access to health care, all that became clearly exposed through the Covid-19 pandemic. And then following that, the fact that people are already dying from Covid-19 and then dying from state violence, with the video of Ahmaud Arbery, for example, the killing of Breonna Taylor — Breonna Taylor as an EMT worker in Louisville — that these kinds of things exposed both the underside of the health crisis, but also the topside of it, that is the continuation of racial violence, state sanctioned violence that are taking peoples’ lives or making it difficult for people to live. So when folks carry the sign around a protest saying “Stop killing us”— “Stop killing us” is a slogan that we’ve been carrying for centuries, and in some ways it’s aimed at ending state sanctioned racist violence, but also ending the violence of poverty; the violence of a health care system that has continued to ignore our own health care crises and to reproduce inequality; the violence of dilapidated housing; the violence of a kind of economic strangulation. That would lead people like Rayshard Brooks, for example, to cobble together a life working in a Mexican restaurant and sitting in Wendy’s in a community where the unemployment rate and the per capita income — the unemployment rate is staggeringly high and per capita income is incredibly low. I mean, it’s not an accident that these things converge.
The question is, what are we going to do in this portal? Do we have the political will to basically recognize the fact that all these conditions are inseparable, that all these conditions — you cannot simply reform your way out of this. But they have to be destroyed and be built all over again in order to create a humane society, a society that cares about human beings and life itself — not just human life but all life — over wealth accumulation and property. I mean that’s really the question that I think Arundhati Roy is posing and many of us are posing. What kind of society will we have? And this is an opportunity to change it all. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen. But I don’t think many portals open up. And this particular portal, I would argue, wasn’t simply rendered open by Covid-19. It was rendered open by what Covid-19 revealed in terms of the contradictions of society that claims to be a democracy and claims to care about people but actually cares more about property and wealth accumulation than the lives of the most vulnerable.
JS: I have to ask one last question then to follow up on that. It’s a big question, so you can share any aspect of it you want, but I think you beg the question there. Is it possible to end a society that is rooted in racism while leaving capitalism intact?
RG: That’s a great question and it is the question that has been asked in South Africa, and that is can you end apartheid and leave capitalism intact? No. I mean, South Africa is our portal, in some ways, of recognizing why the only future that is a truly abolitionist future is the dismantling of capitalism and the racial and gender structures that oppress us because capitalism was created on the grounds of a theory of inequality. Inequality was foundational to capitalism. The inequality of who has land and who doesn’t. The inequality of why certain people should get paid a small wage and that the wealth produced, the surplus produced should be in the hands of a handful of people. And that theory of inequality is sometimes based on the idea of physical differences, intellectual differences, the idea that no one is the same and some people should be beasts of burden and other people should be the recipients of wealth accumulation. I mean that is ultimately based on ideas about race and gender. And as long as we hold onto those ideas and as long as capitalism exists as a means of accumulating wealth through exploitation, then those ideas are not going to go away. You can’t get rid of them. So that’s why I think this generation is seeing that both need to be dismantled. I’m not saying everyone says that. I know that there are some people who are making the argument that we need a kinder and gentler capitalism. But what does that actually mean if capitalism is still based on extraction of peoples’ labor, and peoples’ knowledge, and peoples’ bodies turned into wealth held by a few?
So, to me, this is not a matter of a slight redistribution, like let’s give more crumbs to the poor. Nor is it about just ending poverty as we know it. It is really about creating a structure of caring and repair in which we all can benefit from our labor and our kind of collective generosity and create a whole new ethos, not just for the United States but for the world.
JS: On that note, Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley I want to thank you so much for being with us here on Intercepted. It was my honor.
RK: Well it was mine. It was such a great pleasure to talk to you. So brilliant.