The Black Liberation Movement and the Liberation of all Oppressed Peoples
by Kikanza Ramsey
If there was ever an historical moment that cries out for a gathering of "Black Radicals" in the same room for three days to discuss what is to be done, this is it.
If there ever was a time to squarely address the fragmentation and scarcity of Left leadership in the Black community, in theory and in practice, this is it.
Juneteenth 1998, the newly-formed Black Radical Congress (BRC) gathered in Chicago. The call to attend the gathering put it simply: Black people are in bad
shape. In most of the key quality of life indicators-income levels and unemployment rates, access and quality of education, rates of incarceration and state sponsored
executions, public health crises ranging from HIV/AIDS to asthma and breast cancer-Black folks are consistently among the worst off. As Reverend James
Lawson of Holeman United Methodist church in Los Angeles, with forty years of civil rights activism, has told me, Black folk are worse off now than at any time
since the Jim Crow system destroyed the progress of the post-Civil War Reconstruction.
In preparation for the gathering, I hosted at the Labor/Community Strategy Center
a few informal discussions with L.A.-based Black activists reflecting a range of different political histories and world views. For many of us, it was the first time we
were in the same room, and each of us-John Jackson from ACORN, Pete White from the Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, Michael Zinzun from
Coalition Against Police Abuse, Bilal Ali from Coalition in Support of the Gang Truce, Norma Henry and Woodrow Coleman from the Bus Riders Union, Patrick
Ramsey and Danny Widener from the Strategy Center-had our own set of expectations of the BRC event. I went with two main objectives: first, to represent
the past seven years of my life's work with the Labor/ Community Strategy Center and the Bus Riders Union as a contribution to Black liberation, and second, to learn
as much as I could about different theories on the Black National question and examples of other current work.
In 1991, at 22 years old and fresh out of Middlebury College, it was not a clearly
developed way of thinking ideologically, analytically, and strategically but rather "gut instinct" that led me to the Left. What I was clear about was my rejection of the "we
think the same because we're Black, we all want a corporate job" politics-which I would later call "bourgeois nationalism"; it pushed me away from the leadership of
my college's Black Student Union/African American Alliance. I was also clear that for my own sanity I needed to be part of something that would use my outrage at
my people's oppression to make significant strides toward justice. The explicit anti-capitalist, antiracist, multiracial, pro-immigrant, feminist politics of the
Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles attracted me as a way to "go back to my community." The Strategy Center offer-ed a plan to help Black people,
to test organizing theories that challenge the hegemony of the dominant culture, and to propose models that can change the whole society.
Over the past seven years at the Strategy Center, my work has revolved around
four political objectives that I believe are central to the Black Liberation Movement and the liberation of all oppressed peoples: (1) advancing the strategic importance
of multiracial organizing; (2) building unity by addressing the contradictions between African Americans and immigrants, in my work, specifically Latinos; (3) sharpening
the class struggle within the Black community to the benefit of the Black working class and poor; and (4) establishing independence from the Democratic Party.
BLACK LIBERATION AT THE FOREFRONT OF MULTIRACIAL
If the Left can't figure out how the races can work together to defeat racism, the Right will present multi- racial options to uphold it. The Strategy Center, influenced
by a socialist politics that has been grappling for 150 hundred years with strategies for uniting the international working class against capitalism, is trying to build
democratic structures that challenge institutional racism at it's core as it impacts all communities of color. But that work is rooted in addressing the specificities of the
different forms of racism experienced by different nationalities, forms of racism that keep us divided, disorganized, and ineffective in changing policies that affect communities of color.
In 1992, an urban rebellion exploded in Los Angeles in response to the unjust verdict of the Rodney King beating. The beating, captured on camera, was a
common act of political torture that is historically perpetrated against the Black community and Black men in particular. While South Central is now significantly
Latino, the burning rage of young Black men that ignited on the corner of Florence and Normandie and set the tone for days of burning and looting by all races,
reflected Black folk saying "we have had enough of white racist pigs and the judicial systems and juries that uphold their brutality." Black youth in South Central, who
suffer an unemployment rate of 50%, were saying "we are fed up with being tossed aside by capital and left behind by government."
At a time when L.A.'s racial polarization was at its height, and the beating of Rodney King and the urban rebellion were considered "a Black thing," our work
centered on trying to unite the races in fighting the specific oppression of Blacks, but also the racism perpetrated against other races and nationalities. Strategy
Center organizers participated in many meetings and eventually organized a coalition around two Left policy proposals: Rejecting Weed and Seed and Reconstructing L.A. for the Bottom Up
. We organized an alternative to REBUILD LA, the bankrupt scheme hatched by Peter Uberroth and Tom Bradley to make the inner city more attractive to corporate investments-through
environmental deregulation, increased police presence, and weakened wage scales. And through a complex process of coalition-building with Blacks who were
simmering in 500 years of outrage, Latinos who participated in the rebellion and were facing serious INS charges, and Koreans, many of whom had at first
welcomed George Bush's "law and order" response, we were able to defeat the original Weed and Seed proposal. (Weed and Seed was a plan to implicate
communities of color in establishing a police state under the federal Department of Justice-with interventions like gang sweeps, surveillance, and increased police
presence-in return for money for "social services.")
At the time of the rebellion, we were not strong enough even in coalition with other
organizations to force the massive infusion of government resources into the area needed to provide any significant number of jobs. But the theory of "reconstructing
L.A." placed the struggle for Black liberation at the forefront while building a multiracial force around a set of explicitly antiracist demands for the redistribution of
wealth into Black communities and communities of color in general. This theoretical work would later be quite successfully sustained in the Strategy Center's campaign
against transit racism, modeled after the historic Black struggle for civil rights in the realm of transportation.
UNITY BETWEEN AFRICAN AMERICANS AND IMMIGRANTS
As an African American woman fluent in Spanish, I focus a significant portion of my work on grappling with the tensions that divide Black people and immigrants and
trying to build structures that will unite us. In many of the communities where I have organized-Wilmington, Long Beach, South and South Central Los Angeles-racial
demographics demand that immigrants' rights, language rights, and civil rights be addressed. In these areas, the ability of Blacks and Latinos to constructively handle
their conflicts will largely determine whether they can defeat the neofacist plans that the system has for them.
Therefore, in my organizing I always start with demands and organizational
structures that benefit, and offer liberation for, the most oppressed people in a particular situation but that also challenge the consciousness of the oppressed to be
more universal, more humane, more truly radical. In my work to unite Blacks and Latinos, I lead with immigrants' rights and language rights. Our political system turns
the rage that many Black people feel against that system toward Latino and Asian immigrants. Therefore, it is historically crucial to organize the Black community to
defend full immigrants' rights and language rights, including the right to be here in the United States, earn living wages, have access to full public service and public
assistance benefits, and have fully funded bilingual education programs that celebrate their language and teach English.
Our history of oppression as Black people does not make us immune to the
American tendency to rally around a "patriotic" nationalism that privileges the U.S. native born. In fact, because the U.S. government owes us so much, we are ripe to
be convinced that immigrants are our unworthy competition.
For many years I organized in Wilmington, the harbor community of L.A. that is approximately 60% Latino, 20% White, 10% Black, and 10% Asian where we
focused the Strategy Center's WATCHDOG project against Texaco and the petrochemical industry. And yet, as hard as I tried, I could never succeed in
bringing Black folk into what was perceived to be a Latino organization (because we organized bilingually and demanded Spanish translation from the industries and
the Air Quality Management District). And even though the two lead organizers-Chris Mathis and myself-were African American, we could not overcome the silence of most Blacks in Wilmington when environmental racism was
being perpetrated on their community, and some even united with white racist homeowners associations rather than join the WATCHDOG.
I have made significant advances in building unity through my work with the Bus
Riders Union/Sindicato de Pasajeros, the union initiated by the Strategy Center' Civil Rights lawsuit against the MTA, which has made international headlines and
continues to bring home victories for Blacks and immigrants alike. When I first began to organize on buses that don't come on time, break down constantly, and
pack us on like sardines, I was not surprised to hear Black folk say that their central gripe is the fact that there are too many of "them," "who crowd on with their
children and can't speak English." It is also not at all uncommon for monolingual Spanish-speaking bus riders to tell me that worst about the bus system "son los
choferes morenos quienes nos mal tratan como si nuetros tokens no valieran lo mismo y no tuvieramos derecho de usar el servicio del bus" (are the Black drivers
who treat us as if our tokens don't count and we don't have the right to use the bus service).
The breakthroughs in the Bus Riders Union are built upon our ability to recruit
African Americans with experience in the Black Liberation movement who have strong pro-immigrant politics and our commitment to build an organizational
structure with language rights and immigrants rights as the non-negotiable core. A turning point occurred when Pat Elmore, a 65 year old Black radical from
Inglewood, proposed writing immigrants' rights into the Bus Riders Union bylaws and having mandatory translation at the membership meetings: in her now famous
speech she told the members she was "against 'bilingualism' because in Los Angeles we need to become multilingual." Shortly after Pat's speech we decided to circulate
occasional leaflets in Korean and to translate all the membership meetings into Spanish; and we voted to mobilize our membership aggressive-ly against the antiimmigrant state propositions 187 and 227.
From that point on, the Bus Riders Union has organized regular political education around the correlation between immigrants' rights in Los Angeles (where 47% of
bus riders are Latino) and the policies of U.S. imperialism in the Third World. African American members like Norma Henry, Barbara Lott-Holland, Sheppard
Petit, and Sam Martin now regularly represent the Bus Riders Union at pro-EZLN zapatista rallies sporting T-shirts that say, "Soy Zapatista." My experience has
taught me that consciousness builds on itself. Black folk, when pushed, will choose the Left side of the struggle.
In this light, I was happy to hear Carribean, African, and Afro-Latino brothers and
sisters raise the struggle for immigrants' rights and against imperialism at the Black Radical Congress, a reflection of the understanding that Blacks in the United States
come here from many different nations. At a time when the Third World immigrant population is growing exponentially all over the U.S., and federal, state, and local
governments are aggressively passing antiimmigrant legislation (while the IMF and World Bank tighten the screws on Latin America, Asia, and South Africa), we
need to extend our thinking beyond this country's formative black-white axis. Of course, there remains tremendous unfinished business between black and white
society, and we will always have specific demands rooted in reparations for our particular history in this country. But my point here is that African Americans have a
unique political opportunity to lead the Left against the dominant culture of white racism and U.S. xenophobia by being strong allies and defenders of immigrants rights and the sovereignty of Third World countries.
UNITY AND CONTRADICTION IN THE BLACK UNITED FRONT
At the Strategy Center's National School for Strategic Organizing, where I was
initially trained, we analyze and strategize the multi-class Black united front as part of the Afro-American national question. We apply the theories presented in the historic texts Mao Tse Tung's
Analysis of Classes in Chinese Society and the Comintern 1928 and 1930 Resolutions on the Afro-American National Question to all of our work in communities of color. We are trying to figure out
how the different classes behave, how we can organize them, and how we can "unite all who can be united" against racism, national op-pression, and transnational
corporate capitalism.. It is very hard to carry out this theory in practice. I am usually on the front lines of this work, and I am commited to foregrounding the struggle that
the Black working class and urban poor are having with the Black corporate class, much of the Black middle class, and the Black representatives of the Democratic
Party. I believe that this work has been central to our contributions in the Black community.
In this context, we are working to build a united front against racism in the
transportation system of Los Angeles, what we call "transit racism." The bus riders are our "main force." When we are organizing the multiracial group of low-income
bus riders who constitute the constituency of the Bus Riders Union, we begin with the interests of the most oppressed and exploited, the urban poor of color. These
bus riders include low-wage workers, many women on AFDC and General Relief, inner city high school students, students at community colleges, all those who cannot
afford even the most beat up car-the "transit dependent."
We see the bus drivers and the progressive Black intellectuals and activists as our
main allies. Fortunately we have attracted key Black activists and progressive intellectuals, but they are at this point the exception among intellectuals in L.A. We
have worked for five years organizing the drivers, many of whom are Black and a significant number of whom are Black women. This work has been very difficult.
The drivers are relatively privileged and apolitical in both their union and in society, and some see themselves at war with the riders who are commonly lower-income
and often immigrant. Recently, through our "No Seat No Fare" Campaign-a mass direct action fare strike in July and August 1998 which drew participation from
more than 40,000 bus riders under the slogan, "Don't pay for racism"-we organized riders to refuse to pay their fare if they did not get a seat on the bus. At first we
were afraid that the Black and Latino drivers would be hostile, seeing this as a threat to their control of the bus, but we were very pleased to see most of the
drivers come through like champs; many actively encouraged the riders not to pay, and we reached an agreement with the union leadership so that drivers were
supported when they did not enforce the fares. We assured them, as we have for years, that we are a pro-union, pro-driver group and we see them as allies in our struggle with the MTA.
There are other strata in communities of color in Los Angeles that experience the effects of racism and say they are fighting against it, and we seek their support. But,
we are organizing at a time when leaders of a corporate narrow nationalism are turning their backs on the struggle against racism as it impacts the working class.
These "leaders" are the corporate elite of color, Democratic Party Black elected officials, "community economic development" forces in the Black community, and
most of the powerful forces in the Black church. They try to hide the evolving class structure of the Black community, especially their positions within it. In the last year,
however, our growing power has shown the role of struggle and change in these relationships.
In 1994, the Bus Riders Union, a multi-racial, predominantly "of color,"
organization of poor working class people, brought the Los Angeles MTA up on charges of violating the civil rights of half a million daily bus riders by raiding public
funds from the bus system to build a separate and unequal rail system in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Act. One of the main targets was the racist MTA board
member Mayor Richard Riordan, but some of the worst offenders were board members of color. After we secured a favorable Consent Decree, these powerful
Black and Latino Democratic Party machine politicians-Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, Gloria Molina, and Richard Alatorre-refused to implement the court-ordered
provisions to remedy transit racism. We have tried but continually failed to get support for the union from Black elected officials Congresswoman Maxine Waters
and Congressman Julian Dixon. I have had dozens of meetings with allegedly progressive Black clergy, but at each turn they refuse to take on the Black
politicians; they are almost all into the "economic development thing." There seems to be a growing comprador class of color that boldly leads, defends, and
participates in capitalism's pillage of poor communities of color because it owns shares in, and benefits from, the spoils.
This has been a painful and nuanced part of my own political development; as many
Black folks as there now are elected to office, I see none challenging the corporate agenda or the Black middle class' abandonment of poor and working class Blacks.
I am heartened, however, that the low-income Black and Latino working class is not fooled by these politicians as they once were. Our Bus Rider Union members
do not shy away from making political demands on these elected officials, in the form of demonstrations at their offices, leaflets in their districts, and public debates
with them. In fact, we must work to convince our members that they need a long-term strategy to pressure these compradors through aggressive struggle,
instead of just writing them off and denouncing them; many of them will be in power for decades or more and we have to deal with them.
Still, the role of struggle within united front work is critical. In our recent campaign to stop the latest racist move in transportation-the secession of the Pasadena Blue
Line Construction Authority from the regional MTA taking bus eligible funds, the Black state senator Kevin Murray (after years of our meetings with him) worked
with us to hold hearings at the MTA where he supported our challenge to transfer of those funds. Similarly, Antonio Villaraigosa, the speaker of the Assembly who
once was a strong ally but lately has sided with the rail lobbyists, has, under popular pressure, begun to move, slowly and tentatively, to help our movement. I am
learning that these relationships are fluid and complicated, and test my patience when I am so outraged at the sell-outs and betrayals.
Nonetheless, the key to all this united front work, and the Black united front in particular, is my and our organization's firm roots in and allegiance to the most poor,
low-income oppressed working class women and men, employed and unemployed, in our community. It is this base, unfortunately a larger and larger part of our
community but fortunately also a stronger strategic component of the united front, that gives us growing power and gives me greater hope.
INDEPENDENCE FROM AND CRITIQUE OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY
I was happy to see that the Black Radical Congress was willing to put the question of the Democratic Party's role in Black liberation on the table by stating that "the
Democratic Party will not save us." I would sharpen that sentiment. Our ability to provide leadership in rebuilding Left mass consciousness in the Black community
depends on our independence from, and willingness to struggle with and even abandon, the Democratic Party; we must make this independence viable in order to
create space for Black liberation. Since the beginning of his administration six years ago, Clinton has moved to the right, and Democratic Party elected officials of color
have taken a dive on every single issue that is crucial to the survival of Black people or creates space for progressive reform. Universal health care, welfare reform,
minimum wage, affirmative action, three strikes, the crime bill, Cuba and the hunt for Assata Shakur: These are all issues around which a line should have been drawn
in the sand, and Black Democratic party elected officials at every level should have led massive actions of civil disobedience and political dissent. Instead we have a
Congressional Black Caucus that is unwilling to challenge Clinton on anything but will defend him vehemently as "our president" in the ridiculous Lewinsky scandal,
while the most disenfranchised Black people could care less about voting. We must suffer from a Black middle class and stable working class who consistently rally
behind the Democratic Party no matter what they do or don't do. Any strategy for building power for working class and poor Black people must begin with a politics
that is independent of and confrontational with the Democratic party: That doesn't seem very radical to me!
I was impressed by the large number of people who attended the Black Radical
Congress. In Los Angeles, in many national meetings of grassroots organizers, and within the "progressive" movement broadly defined, I am, as is the Strategy Center,
often the most controversial and Left force in the room. It was refreshing and inspiring to be in a space filled with 2,000 Black "radicals" where the common
denominator reflected in the Principles of Unity included discussions of anti-capitalism, feminism, socialism, immigrants' rights, and revolutionary Black
nationalism. But, there are many levels of political difference and disagreement within the Black Radical Congress that I think need to be more thoroughly
explained and debated. When these differences are not made explicit, it is very difficult to understand the debates. If the exchanges are kept at too low a level,
those who are not involved will be driven away. Understanding differences need not undermine the unity. I don't believe that the unity of the first meeting can be
sustained if there is not more upfront and principled struggle to reach higher levels of unity on strategy; we need to be united in common objectives and hopefully
specific national campaigns based on a broad common politics and real collective action.
Meanwhile, I return to the front lines to carry out my own politics of Black
radicalism feeling strengthened by the experience and realizing something that is hard for me as a young Black woman to think and say, that while I have a lot to learn, I also have something to teach.
is a strategy center organizer and bus riders union representative to the joint working group with the los angeles mta. habla y escrita en espaņol para el sindicato de pasajeros.