Black Power And Anti-Carceral State Infrastructure

Above Photo: Stephen Coles / Flickr

In 1991, Black radical activist Safiya Bukhari spoke to an audience and reflected on her decision to join the Harlem branch of the Black Panther Party (BPP). It wasn’t the black leather jackets, berets, dramatic displays of militancy, or even the Party’s high political theory that attracted Bukhari to the Panthers. Rather, it was the less visible politics behind the free breakfast program that initially drew her to the party in the spring of 1969: “I could not get into the politics of the Black Panther Party, but I could volunteer to feed some hungry children; you see, children deserve a good start and you have to feed them for them to live to learn. It is difficult to think of reading and arithmetic when your stomach is growling” Later that year, however, Bukhari found herself intervening in an altercation between a Black Panther Party member and a police officer. Bukhari attempted to stop the officer from harassing the Panther member who was selling the Panther’s newspaper. She viewed it as a political infringement on the Panther’s first amendment speech. Following her intervention, Bukhari was arrested and after getting out of jail, she officially joined the Party. As she reflected years later, Bukhari highlighted this as the moment she dedicated her life to the Black Liberation Movement: “It wasn’t the Panthers that made me join the Black Panther Party. It was the police.”

Since the police killings of Mike Brown and the Ferguson Uprising, many with stories like Bukhari’s have joined a growing movement against state-sanctioned violence. The summer of 2020 rallying cry to “defund the police” brought to the forefront the problems of policing, but also to how policing reflects larger realities of unfreedom, repression and state violence that Black, Brown, and low-income communities face. Books and articles by abolitionists such as Mariame KabaRuth Wilson GilmoreAndrea RitchieBeth Ritchie, and the abolitionist organizing and theorizing of Critical Resistance have made important contributions to the growing understanding that for Black people to be free, the carceral state—policing, jails, prisons, and surveillance—must end. Today’s abolitionists and thinkers build on the ideas of Black Power era organizers, activists, and thinkers. The community defense groups, mutual aid programs, legal defense committees, and political education classes that Black Power organizers developed formed an anti-carceral state infrastructure that resisted state violence, neglect, and their attendant anti-Black, capitalist, and imperialist ideologies.

Community defense groups and mutual aid programs were some of the primary components in the anti-carceral state infrastructure Black Power organizers built to reframe violence. Then, as now, Black, heavily under-resourced communities were seen as violent places. However, Black Power collectives like the BPP saw the constant presence of police in their communities as violence. They understood poverty that plagued Black communities because of state policies and neglect as violence. As a response, in 1967 the Panthers organized community defense groups that patrolled the police. They reasoned that the police were not sent into Black communities to protect Black people. Rather they were sent into communities as agents of the state to protect property and harass, surveil, and jail Black folks.

However, the Panthers also saw the underside of over-policing in Black communities: the state’s only investment in their communities came in the form of policing, jails, surveillance, and prisons. Meanwhile, Black communities in Oakland, where the Panthers were founded, and around the country suffered from lack of material resources and delipidated segregated neighborhoods. By 1969, the Panthers launched their first free breakfast program, and a slew of other services and public goods ranging from free ambulance, free sickle-cell testing, and free medical care would follow. Both the community defense groups and the mutual aid programs were the Panther’s ways of arguing that because of the state’s violence and neglect, they’d have to organize and provide the life-affirming and sustaining services that people needed to live safe and whole lives.

Defense groups and mutual aid services weren’t the only types of infrastructure Black Power organizers built, they also formed legal defense campaigns that raised support for political prisoners and undermined the ideologies behind the carceral state. By the late 1960s, COINTELPRO increased its repression of the Black Power Movement. From movement leaders to rank-and-file members, law-enforcement murdered, jailed, surveilled, and became more violent toward Black Power organizations. As Black radicals were sent to jails and prisons, legal defense committees were formed to raise financial support and present political arguments. While the United States claimed it had no political prisoners, legal defense groups such as the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis highlighted the increasing presence of Black revolutionaries and dissidents in prisons. These committees also argued that how the government was jailing Black radicals was also how society treated Black people every day—that the prison was an extension of society. The disproportionate presence of Black people in jails was directly related to the consignment of Black people into ghettos. Legal defense groups maintained that the logics that guided the carceral state also guided society. Society needed to be transformed.

While legal defense campaigns were directed outward toward the carceral state, political education classes Black Power collectives developed asked their members to go through their own re-education.  What followed among members was often not only more knowledge about the material conditions of Black people, but an instilled sense of pride in being Black.  Many Republic of New Afrika citizens embraced this new education as call to self-transformation by changing their birth names from European names to Afro-centric ones. Political education gave Black Power activists space to think about how they’d internalized the anti-Black, capitalist, and imperialist logics of society—which are also the logics of the carceral state. For true freedom and self-determination, they had to reject these ways of thinking and being and relate to one another differently. If government repression, policing, and prisons ended, Black people still would not be free if they did not also give up the ideologies that uphold these systems. They had to build something new and be different.

Black Power thinkers built an anti-carceral state infrastructure that protected communities against police violence, provided the material services for communities to thrive, undermined carceral logics, and called for internal transformation as a prerequisite to revolution. For them, freedom and self-determination could not occur while their lives were being surveilled and their basic living needs unmet. Where the state could only deliver death-dealing systems, Black Power organizers created alternatives.

It should not be surprising that last year, mutual aid groups in the United States had to step in where the government has historically failed. Groups like Black Lives Matter Nashville distributed dozens of micro-grants—even as, at the height of the pandemic, federal and state governments drug their feet to help everyday people. As we reel from the pandemic, instead of providing more resources, the Biden administration has pledged to devote more federal spending to police. States like Texas cut additional unemployment benefits. Local groups around the country like the Nashville People’s Budget Coalition, however, are demanding people-centered budgets that move away from carceral spending and toward some of the life-affirming infrastructures that Black Power collectives knew were important. We should understand these “defund the police” efforts as alternatives that are not just about policing, but as an organizing strategy to get our needs met and our communities funded. It’s a strategy that calls for shifting the state’s long-held priority of only investing in police and jails in Black, Brown, and low-income communities. Ultimately, however, the end of police will mean we will also have to, like Black Power activists, go through our own transformation and relate to each other differently. This includes rejecting the ideologies of white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism, sexism, and transphobia that uphold the carceral state.