Author Archives: Sheehan

11/28 Bianca Williams

Bianca Williams is professor of anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center and a co-founder, in 2015, of Black Lives Matter 5280 in Denver, Colorado. Williams began her presentation by showing a clip from the group’s MLK Day 2016 action, where co-leaders demanded Denver cops release recordings of the murder of Michael Marshall. Their analysis linked mental health and police brutality to the city’s homelessness and housing crisis (including a 200% rent increase over five years) and its criminalization of “urban camping.”

The broader Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is now five years old, and has had up to 45 chapters in the United States, as well as in Toronto, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. Various chapters have a high degree of autonomy, differing approaches to prison abolition, bail abolition, and a critique of capital. BLM is one network within the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), which comprises over sixty groups organizing together. In August 2016, M4BL released its platform, a year in the making, titled “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom & Justice.” This document addresses the relationship between Black labor and premature death to the exploitation of capitalism, presenting a transformative vision for the future. The set of demands includes: demilitarization of the police, bail abolition, the decriminalization of drugs and sex work, an end to the criminalization of youth and trans and gender-nonconforming people, divestment from fossil fuels, investment in universal healthcare and education, community control over police and schools, protection for unions, and a universal basic income. Williams shared Robin DG Kelley’s overview of the platform’s document, claiming it is not just wealth that will be the cure to poverty but justice.  

In describing BLM 5280 as an anti-capitalist formation, Williams emphasized the constant negotiations the group undertook to establish an everyday anti-capitalist organizational practice. Decision-making protocol features centrally here, with members acknowledging the limits of simple majority rule, as well as discussions around fiscal status, childcare at events, payment for organizing, and members’ class positions. When a Black woman landowner offered the BLM 5280 a reduced rate on a derelict plaza and Denver’s Black mayor offered to cover the difference in exchange for a say in what the plaza was used for, the chapter ultimately refused the deal. For Williams, these kinds of decisions and discussions – often less-visible and more quotidien than protests or direct action – were are important ways of “denaturalizing” capitalism practically.

Discussing her time organizing with BLM, Williams highlighted the everyday tensions that arise between theory and practice, especially as it regards managing money. In deciding to pay one of the organizers for her work as an administrator, BLM 5280 members differed in opinion on whether it was fair to pay just one person in the group. Similarly, by attaining fiscal status as a non-profit, the organization was constantly figuring out what sources of funding would or would not compromise their goals.

Williams also described the dynamics between BLM and other groups. Standing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) was a mostly white group that often took part in the riskier aspects of actions in order to minimize the vulnerability of people of color during protest. BLM members trained SURJ members, who then participated in actions, directly using white privilege as a strategy for attaining political recognition in spaces where black bodies are the most vulnerable to police prosecution, violence and murder.

While Black churches and the Nation of Islam were uncomfortable with some of the gender politics of BLM, they nonetheless showed their support during actions and offered their security services during public actions. BLM activism was in this way a lesson in building solidarity within and across groups through an ongoing, and at times exhausting, negotiation of individual race and gender power dynamics and politics.

Williams addressed how fundraising and grant proposals as well as general organizing led to a tension among group members between the theory of Black equality and resistance and the everyday practice of fighting for it. They would often refuse to accept certain grants because of where the money came from while fighting for the fact that people lacked everyday necessities of food and shelter.  BLM 5280’s participation in the Mother and Father’s Day bailouts was also a point of contestation as it reinforced in the power of the carceral state while aiming to solve the more pressing need to free people from jail. BLM was also criticized more broadly for not recruiting enough non-college educated working class people of color, claiming that BLM fights for Black equality while excluding those most marginalized groups,  reproducing an exclusive membership of black excellence. Williams also expressed frustration at the graduate student member who would bring up the history of Black resistance and revolution when needing to confront the everyday urgency to protect oneself from poverty and police violence.

The political pursuit of Black owned and controlled capital as a means to attain social and political autonomy was brought up in class as a debatable form of Black progress.  Only placing and extracting wealth from Black-owned businesses, organizations and banks directly increases economic power to select black communities and generally perpetuating capitalist inequality. The strategy of using capitalist competition to level the playing field for Black people’s participation in the system may neglect the need to undermine capitalism’ role in maintaining unequal access to resources as well as racial justice according to Robin Kelley’s understanding.

Considering the gender and sexuality politics that arose through the confrontation of Black patriarchy, such as with Black preachers and Nation of Islam as well as in organizing meetings, Williams pointed to the need in both academia and activism, to address how paying attention to emotions can be a means to achieve pedagogical and emotional justice. Both within the classroom and the activist spaces, the emotional body is an often neglected yet crucial means to help us understand how systems of race, class, capitalism and power embed themselves onto the body and shape our everyday experience.

Discussion questions:

1. The BLM economic platform invokes a concept of democracy that is separate from capitalism. Does democracy have potential beyond capitalism, and/or as a strategy in anti-capitalist movements?

2. One of the things BLM supports is Black Christmas, an event encouraging consumers to spend their money only at Black-owned businesses and to bank with Black-owned banks. This sparked in class discussion on whether this could be an anti-capitalist strategy or not. Can it? Can a historically informed strategy of racial justice be achieved through capitalist means?

3. Should BLM, a movement firmly based in social media networks  have a more centralized national platform for black equality or should strategies be shaped by the particular racial and economic dynamics of each local community?   

4. What are ways that personal emotions be used as the content of anti-capitalist and anti-racist intervention, thought and action?