The Politics of Contemporary Black Liberation

The 1831 insurrection led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia was one of the most successful and notorious in American history. Said to be anointed by God, Nat Turner organized more than 70 enslaved Africans to engage in a sacred war to free enslaved people. Collectively, they killed more than 60 white slavers and would-be slavers over two and a half days. It took thousands of white militia members to put down the rebellion and two months for them to find Nat Turner, who was quickly and publicly “tried” and hung. Nat Turner’s body was dismembered and sold as souvenirs.

The fear generated by Turner’s revolt resonated across the generations. It can be argued that 185 years later, long after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, supporters of structural racism are still so afraid of the legacy of Nat Turner that they virtually erased his depiction in Nate Parker’s 2016 film The Birth of a Nation. But the fear of Black revolt did not stop with African American emancipators in the 19th century, or with the attempted murder of anti-lynching crusaders like Ida B. Wells in the early 20th century, or the assassinations of Malcolm X in 1965 and Dr. King in 1968, or the political imprisonment of Black Power organizers like Marshall "Eddie" Conway, Sekou Odinga, Geronimo Pratt, Ericka Huggins, or the COINTELPRO-staged murders of Black Panther organizers Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, John Huggins and Bunchy Carter. The current iteration of Black freedom struggle – the Black Lives Matter movement – stands as the latest insurrection feared and targeted by the neoliberal and racially exclusionary state that it challenges.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) was birthed on July 13, 2013, in response to the acquittal of self-appointed neighborhood watchman and quasi-vigilante George Zimmerman. The intuitive, worldwide activism was met by the intentional organizing of Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi, who convened a few dozen folks two days later to give life to “a movement, not a moment.”

For the last five and a half years, we have been imagining and building towards the liberation of Black people. As abolitionists, we seek not to reform a system that is hell-bent on our oppression but to transform the world into one where we can truly be free. This means not merely responding to the murder of our people at the hands of police, but ending a system of policing that finds its roots in slave-catching and eliminating a system that locks our people in cages. Reimagining public safety is only the beginning; we want liberatory forms of education and community schools, housing as a human right, a clean and safe environment, an economic system that provides people with all of what they need and most of what they want; we want space to create and grow, and love. This radical imagining – like the visions of freedom held by our forebears – strikes fear into the white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative and capitalistic hegemony. As the progeny of enslavers, they cling to their power and hold mightily to their system of oppression by identifying the Nat Turners among us and seeking to neutralize or diminish their stature or presence.

Contemporary Black insurrections are both radical and nonviolent. There is no one plotting to seize an armory, to decapitate enslavers, or even lamenting that a “Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home.” What Black people are challenging is a violent system that routinely, intentionally and systematically targets our community. Not unlike the freedom fighters who preceded us, speaking out against the system of oppression is viewed as a great offense. Dozens of Black Lives Matter organizers have been criminalized to punish them and send a message to others who dare to defy.

After a freeway shut down in Los Angeles in November 2014, seven BLM protestors were tried and convicted by the same City Attorney who prosecuted BLM Los Angeles activists Evan Bunch and Luz Maria Flores in 2015 for attempting to speak to the Mayor at a public event. In December 2015, the “Black Friday 14” were to be prosecuted for shutting down a BART train in the San Francisco Bay Area for several hours. BLM organizer Jasmine Richards Abdullah was convicted of “lynching” for freeing a Black woman who was being unjustly held by police in Pasadena. (Her conviction was subsequently overturned.) The Los Angeles City Attorney chose to prosecute three Black Lives Matter protesters, “Baba” Greg Akili, General Jeff Page, Melina Abdullah, and Sheila Hines-Brim – the aunt of #WakieshaWilson, in separate incidents for daring to speak out at Los Angeles Police Commission meetings. In Birmingham, Black Lives Matter organizers Cara McClure and Martez Files are being prosecuted for dropping a banner in a mall following the murder of Black military serviceman EJ Bradford.

While the state has not openly put a price on the heads of this new generation of Black protestors, targeting and criminalization carries the same message that it did in 1831 – to punish those who dare to challenge the system, to send a message to others that the consequences are dire, and to put down liberatory movements. We are not being hung from trees, but criminalization bears a permanent stigma that has ramifications in terms of not only freedom of movement, but monitoring and surveillance, employability, parental rights, and social standing. The question becomes how much we want freedom for ourselves and our people. Do we seek a comfortable place in oppression or do we heed our sacred duty, summon Nat Turner, and dare to powerfully imagine and build toward Black liberation?

About the Author

Melina Abdullah is Professor and Chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. She was appointed to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission in 2014 and is a recognized expert on race, gender, class, and social movements. Abdullah is the author of numerous articles and book chapters, with subjects ranging from political coalition building to womanist mothering.