A protester raises his fist outside the Baltimore Police Department’s Western District police station during a march and vigil for Freddie Gray last Tuesday. Gray died of a spinal injury April 19 while he was in police custody. (AP / Patrick Semansky)
The almost daily murders of young black men and women by police in the United States—a crisis undiminished by the protests of groups such as Black Lives Matter and by the empty rhetoric of black political elites—have given birth to a new young black militant.
This militant, rising off the bloody streets of cities such as Ferguson, Mo., understands that the beast is not simply white supremacy, chronic poverty and the many faces of racism but the destructive energy of corporate capitalism. This militant has given up on electoral politics, the courts and legislative reform, loathes the corporate press and rejects established black leaders such as Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Michael Eric Dyson. This militant believes it is only in the streets and in acts of civil disobedience that change is possible. And given the refusal of the corporate state to address the mounting suffering of the poor and working poor, draconian state repression and indiscriminate use of lethal state violence against unarmed people of color, I think the new black radical is right. It will be a long, hot and violent summer.
The world’s hundreds of millions of disenfranchised youths—in America this group is dominated by the black and brown underclass—come out of the surplus labor created by our system of corporate neofeudalism. These young men and women have been discarded as human refuse and are preyed upon by a legal system that criminalizes poverty. In the United States they constitute the bulk of the 2.3 million human beings locked in jails and prisons. The discontent in Ferguson, Athens, Cairo, Madrid and Ayotzinapa is one discontent. And the emerging revolt, although it comes in many colors, speaks many languages and has many belief systems, is united around a common enemy. Bonds of solidarity and consciousness are swiftly uniting the wretched of the earth against our corporate masters.
Corporate power, which knows what is coming, has put in place sophisticated systems of control that include militarized police, elaborate propaganda campaigns that seek to make us fearful and therefore passive, wholesale surveillance of every citizen and a court system that has stripped legal protection from the poor and any who dissent. The masses are to be kept in bondage. But the masses, especially the young, understand the game. There is a word for what is bubbling up from below—revolution. It can’t begin soon enough.
The global leadership for this revolt comes not from the institutions of privilege, elite universities where ambitious and self-centered young men and women jockey to become part of the ruling 1 percent, but from the squalid internal colonies that house the poor and usually people of color. The next great revolutionary in America won’t look like Thomas Jefferson. He or she will look like Lupe Fiasco.
T-Dubb-O is a hip-hop artist from St. Louis. He is one of the founders, along with Tef Poe, Tory Russell, Tara Thompson and Rika Tyler, of Hands Up United. The organization was formed in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson. It has built close alliances with radical organizations in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin American, in Europe and in Palestine.
“I honestly think it’s going to be worse than last year, this summer,” T-Dubb-O said when I met with him and Tyler at Princeton University, where they had gone to speak to students. “People have become more radical,” he said. “They’ve realized the power that they have. They’re no longer afraid of the police, the state, but also you have a police and a military force that’s been training for a year to deal with this type of circumstance. So I honestly think this summer is gonna be worse. More violence from the police, and this time you won’t have a group of people who is just gonna sit there and let it happen to ’em—you’re gonna have people that are actually gonna fight back instead of just continue to be peaceful protesters. Right now everybody is just on edge. I mean, it’s the same situation we was in before Mike Brown. People that don’t have jobs, there’s crime everywhere, there’s drugs everywhere, there’s predator policing. It’s the same circumstances, it’s just no cameras.”
“In my city every day, police is pulling somebody over, harassing them, extorting them,” he said. “Because that’s what it is—it’s legal extortion. When a government is making 30 to 40 percent of their yearly budget off of tickets, fines and imprisonment, it’s extortion. It’s the same thing the mob did in the ’20s. So we fight. We can’t go back to normal lives. We get followed, harassed, death threats, phones tapped, social media watched, they hack into our emails, hack into our social media account, we all got FBI files. They know we here right now. So I mean it’s not a game, but it’s either continue to deal with not being able to just live like a regular person, and dream, and have an opportunity, or get up and do something about it. And we decided to do something.”
Tyler said she was propelled into the movement by seeing the body of Michael Brown, which the Ferguson police left lying in the street for more than four hours.
“I went to Canfield [Drive, where Brown was killed],” she said when we spoke. “I saw the body. I saw the blood. I just broke down. And ever since then I’ve just been out there [as an activist] every day.”
“They left [Brown] in the street for four and a half hours in the hot sun on concrete, just for display,” she said. “That reminded me of a modern-day lynching. Because you know, they used to lynch slaves and then have it displayed. And that’s basically showing us that this system is not built for us. It made me wake up a little bit more.”
“Just envision a debtor’s prison being run by a collusion between city officials, police and court judges, who treated our community like an ATM machine,” Tyler said. “Because that’s all they did. Ferguson is in St. Louis County. It’s 21,000 people living in 8,100 households. So it’s a small town. Sixty-seven percent of the residents are African-American. Twenty-two percent live below poverty level. A total of $2.6 million [were paid in fines to city officials, the courts and the police] in 2013. The Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases. That’s about three warrants per household. One and a half cases for each household. You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and three warrants per household from an average crime rate. You get numbers like this from racist bullshit, arrests from jaywalking, and constant low-level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”
“For an example,” she went on, “I got pulled over. I turned a left [illegally] and my car was searched. I was met with three different officers, two detectives. I got a traffic ticket. I had a ticket because I didn’t have my license on me. So I had a ticket for not having my license, and then I got a ticket from turning the wrong way. I did not go to court because I was out of town. However, I called them and told them I will not appear to court and my lawyer would handle it from there. I got a letter in the mail that said failure to appear to court, and they have a warrant out for my arrest. They’re threatening to take my license and suspend it because I didn’t appear to court. So these are just the things that had happened in St. Louis right now. You can get a ticket from walking across the street, or a ticket from not cutting your grass, and then you’re stuck in this system that they put us in, that is oppressed, and keeps us oppressed.”
“I was arrested when I was pregnant, I was 37 weeks and I was arrested in St. Charles County by four white officers,” she said. “They took me into custody when I had this big-ass stomach. And I’m like, I’m pregnant. I had a traffic ticket for parking in the wrong meter. And they wrote me a ticket and I never paid it, so they took me. I had a warrant out for my arrest. I sat in jail, pregnant, had my baby a week early because I was stressed out and crying my eyes out in jail.”
“No person should have to go through this,” T-Dubb-O said, “whether it’s in America, Palestine, Mexico, Brazil, Canada. Nobody should have to go through this. You look at a bunch of young people [in Ferguson], their age ranges anywhere from 12 to 28 or 29, that went against the most powerful military force in this world. That’s pretty much what happened. … That’s not what’s explained, but that’s what it was. It was tanks on every corner, our phones tapped, they follow us. Every day we was out there we thought we were gonna die. At one point in time they said they were gonna kill us. ‘We’re not shooting rubber bullets tonight, we’re shooting live ammunition.’ And these are the things that you don’t see on the news. It was just because we was tired of being treated as less than people. Just for opportunity to be able to walk the streets and live and breathe and do what everybody else does. And that’s pretty much what we was fighting for. I mean, the level of oppression, it’s kind of hard to fathom, and believe that it’s actually true in America, especially the middle of America. But it’s real, where you have people that are judged off the neighborhoods they come from and the color of their skin and they’re denied certain opportunities.”
“In St. Louis if you’ve been arrested and you’re facing a misdemeanor or felony charges, you’re not allowed a Pell Grant to go to college,” he said. “So if you can’t afford to pay to go to college you’re just stuck. If you’re on probation and you’re trying to get a job, it’s aright-to-work state, they have the right to deny you employment because of your past. They don’t have to give you an opportunity to work. Where do they leave you, back in the same system that puts you in the same position where you made the first mistake. It’s all set up like this.”
“I’ve been tear-gassed six times,” Tyler said. “I’ve been put on the car, had different guns to my head. I’ve been shot at with rubber bullets, live ammo, wooden bullets, bean bag bullets, sound cannons, everything you can think of. I’ve went up against militarized police, and they did different things like a five-second rule, like I would get arrested if I stood still for longer than five seconds. I would get arrested if I didn’t walk longer than five seconds. It was just different things. They don’t wear their name badges. They don’t tell us who they are. They’re not transparent at all. They harass us. Women have been hogtied, beaten. I got arrested for standing on the sidewalk, just recording them.”
T-Dubb-O after the murder of Brown and the unrest in Ferguson was invited with other community leaders to meet with President Barack Obama in the White House. The president, he said, spoke “in clichés” about black-on-black crime, the necessity of staying in school, working hard and the importance of voting.
“He asked me did I vote for him,” he said, “I told him no. I didn’t vote for him either time, because I didn’t want to vote for him just because he was black. I felt like that would have been shallow on my end. Because he’s never honestly spoken and touched and said he was going to do anything for my community or the issues that we face on a daily basis, so why would I vote for somebody like that, whether you white, black, male, female, so on and so forth?”
As president he is proof that the system works, Obama told T-Dubb-O. The hip-hop artist said this statement shows how out of touch Obama is with the reality faced by poor people of color.
“When you have an 11-year-old boy whose mother is single, or has a single father who’s working two or three jobs just to put food on the table, he has to wake up at 5:30 in the morning, catch public transportation to school,” T-Dubb-O said. “Everything around him is damnation. You can’t expect an 11-year-old to have the mental capacity of an adult, to say I’m going to make the mature decisions and not get into trouble. So I don’t care about black-on-black crime. I don’t care about the normal cliché of working hard, you can do anything, you can accomplish, because that’s bullshit. And excuse my language, but I can’t tell a little boy up the street in my neighborhood, where over a hundred murders happened last year, that he can be an astronaut if he wants to be, because that’s not possible.”
“I think D.C. is a perfect example of what America is,” he said. “You have this big white house representing the government, that was built by slaves, that’s beautiful, excellent manicured lawns, and right outside the gate you have 50 homeless people sleeping in a park. Right outside of the gate of the White House. That perfectly describes America.”
“The difference between us and those leaders is that we aren’t doing it for fame, we aren’t doing it for political gain, we aren’t doing it for money,” he said, speaking of Obama, Sharpton, Jackson, Dyson and the other establishment black leaders. “We’re doing it because every day that we’ve lived we’ve been denied normal human rights, and we could have lost our life. We don’t believe those leaders are properly representing our community. Because they are no longer a part of the community, they don’t speak for the community, and honestly they don’t do much for it. They do some things, because they have to, being 501(c)3s, but they don’t speak for the people.”
Jackson and Sharpton have been heckled by crowds in Ferguson and told to leave, along with crews from CNN. Tyler described CNN and other major news outlets, which steadfastly parrot back the official narrative, as “worse than politicians, worse than police.”
“So people in Ferguson is basically like, fuck Al Sharpton, and fuck Jesse Jackson, for real,” Tyler said. “And that’s the best way I can put it, for real, because they are co-opted, first off. They had their own movement. They were co-opted. Their movement got destroyed. Now they want to come to the new leaders and try to come in our movement and give guidance and stuff, but it’s a totally different generation. They marched with suits and ties and sung ‘Kumbaya’ and stuff. It’s people out there that look like him,” she said, motioning to T-Dubb-O, “shirtless, tattoos, like Bloods, Crips, whatever, out there just mad, because they was pissed off and they was passionate about it.”
“Jesse Jackson came, actually we were in the middle of a prayer for Michael Brown’s mother, and we were at the memorial site in Canfield Apartments, where he was killed and laid down in the street for four and a half hours,” Tyler said. “Everyone has their heads bowed and he comes over and starts shouting ‘No justice, no peace’ in the middle of a prayer. So instantly the community is pissed the fuck off—like who the hell is this? I finally recognized his face. I went over to him, because the guys were ready to fight him. Like, you don’t come over here and, this mother’s grieving, we’re all upset, and break up our prayer. And he’s all like ‘No justice, no peace!’ He has his bullhorn, and his sign and everything, just for a photo op. So I went over and I said to him, you probably should leave, because they’re really angry and they’re gonna get you out of here. And he was like ‘No justice, no peace!’ and he just kept chanting. So I moved out of the way, and the dudes told him, like ‘Hey bro, if you don’t back the fuck up we’re gonna make you leave.’ And he’s like, ‘This is what’s wrong with us!’ and ‘generational divide!’ and everything like that. And you know the community wasn’t taking for it, so he got scared, and him and the people he came with, like his best-dressed suit on and everything, and everybody was out there shirtless, or tank tops, or just in their normal clothes. And he came out there with a cameraman and everything, like this is just a frenzy or a freaking parade or something to film. So people were pissed off and he instantly left, and he hasn’t really been back since.”
“Every national organization you can think of is in St. Louis, Mo.,” T-Dubb-O said. “We have Urban League. We have the NAACP. We have all these different organizations. But yet for the last two decades we’ve always had one of the three top murder rates, one of the three highest crime rates. Poverty level is crazy, unemployment, you have all these mission statements on your website saying you do this and you do that, yet those programs aren’t available in our city. But you have offices here. You’re getting grants. But you’re not doing anything. And the community sees that now. So it’s gonna come a point in time to where all 501(c)3s, and all organizations, have to actually be active in the communities that they’re representing.”
The young Ferguson activists respect only the few national black leaders who do not try to speak for the movement or use the unrest as a media backdrop to promote themselves. Among those they admire is Cornel West.
“He was kind of like a big brother or father of the movement,” Tyler said of West. “Instead of stepping up, he always brought me with him. He always uplifted us. They’ll try to put him in front of the camera, he’d always bring somebody with him. He would say, ‘These are the people, these are the new leaders of the world, and you guys need to talk to them.’ He’s very transparent. He always voices and uplifts our name.”
The activists are preparing for increased unrest. And they are preparing for increased state repression and violence.
“As far as politics,” T-Dubb-O said, “it’s going to go either one of two ways. Right now we have a window that’s closing pretty fast, to where we can either re-create this system for something that’s going to actually be equal for all people, or they’re going to re-create the system to where we’ll never be able to punch it in the mouth like we did in Ferguson again.”
“We don’t know what it’s gonna look like, honestly,” he said of the coming unrest. “It’s been legal to kill a black man in this country. Just since Mike Brown, 11 more people has been killed by police in St. Louis alone, one being a woman who was raped then hung in jail. But none of the other murders got national coverage. It was just two standoffs with police yesterday. So I mean, we don’t know what that’s going to look like. We know we’re dedicated. We’re going to continue to fight. It’s going to take full-fledged revolution to make a change. The worst of the worst would be civil war. That’s just where my mind is.”
“I don’t see them pulling back,” he said of the state and its security forces. “They have no problem killing people. They have no problem shooting gas at babies, pregnant people, old people. They don’t have an issue with it. And our politicians are just standing around with their arms folded.”
“As long as the powers that be are in control, the oppression isn’t going to go anywhere,” he said. “It’s really going to take people to unite worldwide, not just in America, not just in St. Louis, not just in one particular city or state. It’s gonna have to be people identifying their struggles with each other worldwide, internationally, and say enough is enough. That’s the only way oppression will ever leave.”