Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century

Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century

by Barbara Ransby

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"A powerful — and personal — account of the movement and its players."—The Washington Post

“This perceptive resource on radical black liberation movements in the 21st century can inform anyone wanting to better understand . . . how to make social change.”—Publishers Weekly

The breadth and impact of Black Lives Matter in the United States has been extraordinary. Between 2012 and 2016, thousands of people marched, rallied, held vigils, and engaged in direct actions to protest and draw attention to state and vigilante violence against Black people. What began as outrage over the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin and the exoneration of his killer, and accelerated during the Ferguson uprising of 2014, has evolved into a resurgent Black Freedom Movement, which includes a network of more than fifty organizations working together under the rubric of the Movement for Black Lives coalition. Employing a range of creative tactics and embracing group-centered leadership models, these visionary young organizers, many of them women, and many of them queer, are not only calling for an end to police violence, but demanding racial justice, gender justice, and systemic change.

In Making All Black Lives Matter, award-winning historian and longtime activist Barbara Ransby outlines the scope and genealogy of this movement, documenting its roots in Black feminist politics and situating it squarely in a Black radical tradition, one that is anticapitalist, internationalist, and focused on some of the most marginalized members of the Black community. From the perspective of a participant-observer, Ransby maps the movement, profiles many of its lesser-known leaders, measures its impact, outlines its challenges, and looks toward its future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520292710
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/28/2018
Series: American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present , #6
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 421,853
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Barbara Ransby is a historian, author, and longtime activist. She is the author of the acclaimed biography Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. Ransby was one of the founders of African American Women in Defense of Ourselves in 1991 and the Black Radical Congress in 1998. She is the editor of the journal Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture and Society, and Professor and Director of the Social Justice Initiative at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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Read an Excerpt


Roots and Recalibrated Expectations

Prologue to a Movement

No movement emerges out of thin air. There is always a prologue, and a prologue to the prologue. In other words, there is always a set of conditions and circumstances that set the stage for movements to emerge. Some of that stage-setting is historical, having little to do with the activists and organizers themselves but rather with the political and economic climate and an array of social realities beyond their immediate control. But then there is human agency: what we as human beings, as oppressed people, as conscientious allies of the oppressed, do (or don't do) in response to the conditions and circumstances we encounter. Nothing is predetermined or dictated by history. However, historical conditions both create and limit possibilities for change. And all individual participants in this moment may not even be fully aware of the history on which they stand. Nevertheless, it is there. What is also there is an ever-shifting political reality that, in this case, includes the 2008 election of the nation's first Black president and its implications for Black organizing.

So what is the political genealogy of the Black Lives Matter Movement/Movement for Black Lives (BLMM/M4BL)? In the 1990s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaged vulnerable populations worldwide, including Black gay men and Black intravenous drug users. In the United States, organizations emerged, often led by Black gay men and lesbians, that were intent on challenging the devastation of AIDS in Black communities but also on recognizing Black LGBTQIA folk in our communities. Organizations from Bebashi in Philadelphia to the Minority AIDS Project in Los Angeles, to the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, to the National Minority AIDS Council all rose up to respond to the suffering of Black people at the center of the epidemic and to insist upon recognizing the voices and leadership of Black gay/queer folk in the fights against HIV/AIDS and for access to treatment. People like Essex Hemphill, Pat Parker, Craig G. Harris, Cheryl Clark, Barbara Smith, Joseph Beam, Gary Paul, and filmmaker Marlon Riggs, to name just a few, through their activism and art manifested the radical Black queer politics that many members of BLMM/M4BL now embrace. Cathy Cohen, herself a leader of the Black AIDS Mobilizations (BAM), points out that the central role Black feminists and Black gay/queer activists play is essential to the Black radical tradition and is too often left out. This erasure, she insists, "must be corrected." This legacy is a part of the political roots of BLMM/M4BL.

In August 2005, Katrina, a devastating category 5 hurricane, hit the southern Gulf coast of the United States, including the historic, predominately Black city of New Orleans. Local officials were ill-prepared, and the federal government under President George W. Bush was callously slow and inept in its response. As a result, thousands were left to suffer and fend for themselves as sewage-contaminated water flooded homes and hospitals and washed away lives and livelihoods. Those suffering and dying in Katrina's wake were disproportionately Black and poor. Americans watched as the US government's blatant disregard for Black pain and death was on full display. As Milwaukee M4BL queer and gender-nonconforming organizer M. Adams put it eloquently, "Katrina and its aftermath felt particularly important to the general conscious-raising of Black folk, and the millennial generation in particular. It in some ways laid the ground to articulate the state's negligence as violent — and it helped folk question what the function of a government/state is. It was an incredible example and symbol of many forms of structural anti-Black racism."

Another critical antecedent to the emergence of BLMM/M4BL goes back to June 1998 and the launch in Chicago of the Black Radical Congress (BRC), a coalition of Black left organizers and intellectuals responding to the devastating impact of neoliberal policies on the Black community, and to the dearth of responsive Black leadership. The BRC revived coalitional Black left organizing, linked disparate radical traditions, made Black feminism central, and confronted white supremacy and racial capitalism head on. Michael Brown was only two years old in 1998. Twitter had not been invented. Facebook was in its infancy. It was another time.

I, along with Manning Marable, Leith Mullings, Bill Fletcher Jr., and Abdul Alkalimat, was one of the founders of the BRC. The concept behind the BRC was to create a Black left pole, as Fletcher described it: to make the Black radical tradition and the Black Left more visible and distinguish it from a mainstream Black political impulse that was invested in representational race politics and the integration of Black elites into existing hierarchies. For Black feminists like myself, the BRC was also adirect response to the 1995 Million Man March, which sought to re-establish the legitimacy of male dominance in Black politics while simultaneously celebrating Black capitalism and patriarchy. We rejected this outright and insisted there was another Black liberation agenda that had to be written and advanced. For many of us that agenda was grounded in Black feminist praxis, one that was multi-issued, anticapitalist, anti-imperialist, and affirming of the full breadth of our humanity and community. The BRC's expansive liberatory agenda was relevant not only to Black women and Black people but to all oppressed people.

In spite of its many mistakes, the BRC was an important landmark in the reemergence of a new Black Left. One of its most significant achievements is that it managed to bring together the three large, contentious, and sometimes overlapping streams of the Black radical tradition in the US context: Black socialist and communist forces of various stripes, radical Black feminists, and revolutionary nationalists and pan-Africanists. Personalities ranged from a creatively provocative and often irascible poet, Amiri Baraka, to Combahee River Collective cofounder and lesbian feminist leader Barbara Smith. Scholar-activist Cornel West, Communist Party leader Jarvis Tyner, and North Carolina labor activists Rukiya and Ajamu Dillahunt were all active participants. Revolutionary nationalists like Makungu Akinyela, Saladin Muhammad, and Sam Anderson were also in the mix. The unity we achieved in late twentieth-century Black politics by bringing this unlikely cast of characters together was not only unprecedented but, for the time it lasted, principled. That is, it was not simply a coalition of convenience. Under Bill Fletcher Jr.'s able and persistent guidance, the BRC navigated its way through about a half dozen national planning meetings leading up to the congress that was held on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago in June 1998 and that had some two thousand participants. Fletcher's tenacity, vision, and leadership in this effort cannot be overstated. A longtime labor organizer, leftist, and movement strategist, Fletcher saw a political void and was determined to help the BRC fill it. He assuaged egos, crafted potentially divisive unity documents, and chaired a number of unwieldy marathon meetings to hold us together. A significant characteristic of the BRC, as a sixteen-year precursor to BLMM/M4BL, is its gender politics, which situated a Black feminist intersectional paradigm prominently within the larger framework of Black left and radical thought.

The organization's feminist caucus represented a coming together of an amazing intergenerational group of Black feminists, including Cathy Cohen, Lisa Crooms, Sherie Randolph, Lisa Brock, Cheryl I. Harris, Fran Beal, Barbara Smith, Tracye Matthews, Leith Mullings, Lynette Jackson, Ashanki Binta, Jamala Rogers, Jennifer Hamer, Helen Neville, and dozens more. Many of the BRC participants became mentors, teachers, allies, advisors, and supporters of the BLMM/M4BL organizers in the 2010s.

Two other organizations are also important parts of the political tradition from which BLMM/M4BL emerged: Critical Resistance (CR) and INCITE! Women of Color against Violence. The anti–state violence and prison abolition movements of which these groups are a part were largely launched and are led by Black feminists and feminists of color. The role of the two groups in setting the stage for BLMM/M4BL in particular cannot be overstated. These movement organizations, with the visionary demand for prison abolition at their center and their insistence that solutions to violence will not be found in the use of coercive state power, created a language, an analytical frame, a database, and a powerful set of narratives that indict the corrosive and racist nature of the prison-industrial complex (PIC), in which police, sheriff's departments, and other law enforcement entities and carceral projects are embedded. They wrote books, convened conferences, and conducted trainings for a whole generation of activists. Some BLMM/M4BL leaders who are now in their thirties participated in these organizations, and many more read the books and articles written by the radical scholar-activists who led and cofounded INCITE! and CR.

CR was founded in 1997 by Angela Y. Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Rose Braz and officially launched in 1998 (the same year as the BRC) in Berkeley, California, at a conference attended by thirty-five hundred people. The group describes its vision this way: "Critical Resistance is building a member-led and member-run grassroots movement to challenge the use of punishment to 'cure' complicated social problems. We know that more policing and imprisonment will not make us safer. Instead, we know that things like food, housing, and freedom are what create healthy, stable neighborhoods and communities. We work to prevent people from being arrested or locked up in prison. In all our work, we organize to build power and to stop the devastation that the reliance on imprisonment and policing has brought to ourselves, our families, and our communities." An understanding of the role of the police, and their often-unchecked power in the larger PIC, is one of the key precepts upon which BLMM/M4BL's anti–police violence political program is built. Prisons, as Davis puts it, facilitate the "disappearing" of people; they are the destination point, the "containers," for the new human chattel. In all of this, the police are the purveyors and enablers of the prison industry, and police violence as a consequence is a critical ingredient in terrorizing communities into submission. The analytical framework of the PIC, a term coined by Mike Davis (no relation to Angela), and popularized and advanced in Angela Davis's 1998 article in the magazine Colorlines, helped to set the stage for antiprison and anti–police violence work in the 2010s.

INCITE!, founded in 2000 and growing out of the anti–domestic violence movement, describes the evolution of its work as follows: "It is impossible to seriously address sexual and intimate partner violence within communities of color without addressing these larger structures of violence (including militarism, attacks on immigrants' rights and Indigenous treaty rights, the proliferation of prisons, economic neo-colonialism, the medical industry, and more). So, our organizing is focused on places where state violence and sexual/intimate partner violence intersect."

A number of books have emerged from INCITE!'s work that have powerfully impacted the current organizing culture and whole generations of feminists of color and others: Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology (2006) and The Revolution Will Not Be Funded (2007), written and edited collectively by INCITE! members; and Beth E. Richie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America's Prison Nation (2012). Ruth Wilson Gilmore's landmark book on California's prison system, Golden Gulag (2007), and Angela Davis's Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003) were also critical foundational texts. These influential publications collectively argue for several things. One is the ways in which overreliance on the state for protection — for example, in cases of domestic violence — has fed the buildup of the carceral state in unexpected ways. Richie cautions against reflexively calling for more arrests and longer prison sentences, even for crimes we deem deplorable, because the way in which police are trained to intervene often makes situations worse and more dangerous when poor Black people are involved. She warns organizers of the trap of foundation funding, which can derail or dilute the intended politics of a given group. And finally, all of these authors stress leadership by those most affected by violence — poor and working-class women of color. The centering of the most marginalized sectors of a community, the critique of prisons and police, and the skepticism about foundation funding have all carried over to the work and values of BLMM/M4BL.

The rise of mass incarceration in the 1990s and early 2000s and of the carceral state, or as Richie terms it, "the prison nation," along with the criminalization of Black bodies, especially those of Black poor, women, and queer folks, laid the political groundwork for the grassroots campaigns and insurgent actions that have characterized the BLMM/M4BL moment. The popular success of Michelle Alexander's 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year, though predated by the groundbreaking praxis of INCITE! and CR, nevertheless helped to educate and sensitize a mass audience to the injustices and inhumanity of our current carceral system. Alexander offered her readers the following provocative facts: More Black men were under the control of the criminal justice system in 2010 than had been enslaved in 1850. Even after serving their sentences, mostly for nonviolent drug offenses, former felons are relegated to the status of second-class citizenship in what Alexander calls a "racial caste system," in which they are denied full voting rights, kept under harsh surveillance, excluded from public housing and many student-funding opportunities, and banned from certain jobs. Alexander's widely circulated statistics and compelling language animated the public discourse and furthered public understanding of race, policing, and prisons in the years leading up to 2014.

Angela Davis connected the temporal dots this way in her 2016 book, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: "Over the last two decades I would say, there has actually been sustained organizing against police violence, racism, racist police violence, against prisons, the prison industrial complex, and I think the sustained protests we are seeing now have a great deal to do with that organizing. They reflect the fact that the political consciousness in so many communities is so much higher than people think." Angela Davis herself has done a great deal to advance critical and radical political concerns in specific and deliberate ways. She is a powerful symbol of resistance for this generation of activists, one who has also provided moral and political support to the movement in myriad ways.

It is worthwhile saying a few words about Davis as a legendary figure in Black liberation movement history, and as a Black feminist organizer, because her influence on this generation of activists has been significant. Angela Davis's story and persona in many ways embody the Black radical internationalism of the 1960s and '70s and the radical Black feminism that came a bit later. She first came into public view as a young communist intellectual fired from her teaching job at the University of California by then-governor Ronald Reagan because of her left-wing political views. However, she is best known as a fugitive, and then political prisoner (1970–72), who was wrongly accused of involvement in the failed rescue of another political prisoner — George Jackson, one of the activist Soledad Brothers, who had been her loving friend and comrade. Her iconic Afro and raised fist in the courtroom, in defiance of her captors, became a symbol of Black resistance for an entire generation. "Free Angela" was a movement that circled the globe.

Once an international campaign led to Angela's release in 1972, she dedicated her life's work to prisoner solidarity and prison abolition. She is unapologetic in her feminist, anti-imperialist, and anticapitalist politics. For decades, she has spoken widely and participated in a number of progressive and radical organizations. The announcement that she is going to appear in any given city immediately produces overflow crowds, even at mammoth venues that include many young people. She has a fan club of ardent admirers, to be sure. But the source of her appeal is more than that. More than most other political celebrity figures of the twentieth century, Angela Davis has used her name and her fame in the service of consciousness-raising, mobilizing, and organizing. And she has taken on controversial issues within Black progressive circles: feminist and queer politics, solidarity with Palestine, and prison abolition. She has moved the needle and the consensus on all three. When Angela Davis was a political prisoner in the early 1970s, most BLMM/M4BL organizers had not yet been born. Still, her impact on them is palpable.


Excerpted from "Making All Black Lives Matter"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Ransby.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. Roots and Recalibrated Expectations: Prologue to a Movement
2. Justice for Trayvon: The Spark
3. The Ferguson Uprising and Its Reverberations
4. Black Rage and Blacks in Power: Baltimore and Electoral Politics
5. Themes, Dilemmas, and Challenges
6. Backlash and a Price
7. A View from the Local: Chicago’s Fighting Spirit
8. Political Quilters and Maroon Spaces

Epilogue: A Personal Reflection
Key Figures
Selected Bibliography

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