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‘Voting And The Black Left’: An Interview With Kamau Franklin

Kamau Franklin, founder of Community Movement Builders , speaks with BAR Book Forum Editor Roberto Sirvent about the limitations of electoral politics for the left.

Roberto Sirvent: You probably remember Barack Obama’s initial one-word response to the 2020 demonstrations against police when he tweeted: “Vote. ” More recently, Michelle Obama said, looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections, “We’ve got to vote like the future of our democracy depends on it. ” I’m curious how you view this as symptomatic of the Obamas’ overall approach to social change – and why this leads so many people on the Black left to criticize them and other Democrat elites.

Kamau Franklin: I think the Obamas are playing their role as the most elite Black figures in the Democratic establishment, which is to control any form of protest so that it does not get “out of hand”. To be out of hand means to go beyond voting as a mechanism of social change – to actually get involved in direct democracy, like mass protest, direct action, and/or rebellions. To also build structures outside of the official electoral process for decision making. Doing these things are not easy, particularly when you have operatives like the Obamas telling you not to, or you have established systems of control like the police and the surveillance state, the use of private capital to control your finances and economic stability, the derailments of mass entertainment. All of these things make organizing outside of voting a difficult task. All of these institutions are lined up to get us all back in line, back in the pocket and back in hand. The danger for them is that we may disrupt the system, meaning disrupting profits. They all know the possibilities and so figures like the Obamas become that much more important to keep the masses in check. The Black left, what there is of it, knows that and so rightfully targets figures like the Obamas, Black mayors, and Black entertainers because their ability to control habits and options through their association with the capitalist class is enormous, and so they must be criticized.

Growing up in the U.S. school system, we’re often taught a very romanticized, misleading, and exaggerated picture of the role voting plays in social justice movements. What interests does the state have in spreading this propaganda? Why do you think students aren’t taught about more militant and autonomous forms of political participation?

Well, because they don’t want students or workers or community people to challenge, destroy, and build something redistributive. The capitalist class has worked so hard to plunder our communities and to capture our mind and bodies, that they will use all measures available to keep that control, and propaganda is central to that work. In America the propaganda system is the first line of defense for the bourgeoisie class against mass militant action. Training minds from early on to be consumers and workers, to pay their bills on time, to look up to and to strive be wealthy is what “schooling” in the U.S. is about. We are also taught that the U.S. strives to be inclusive and democratic and always fights wars for just reasons even if mistakes are made. This type of propaganda is powerful when mixed in with all the flag waiving and entertainment we are given. The idea that through voting we can “eventually” get to a better place is paramount in keeping people from taking militant action. The literally millions of lives destroyed and killed by the capitalist state in the process of making voting the only option for “change” is never really processed. It’s all part of the background story to the so-called attempt to make a more “perfect union.” So, the propaganda system in a relatively open society is needed to keep the multitudes in check and for them to “freely” feel part of (and believe in) the system of electoral politics as a way to make change.

Of course, for Black communities the propaganda system is mixed in with a system of violence to keep Black people in line. The overt use of violence through the police and prison system is meant to subdue our population in the same manner used in an overtly autocratic state. And because of U.S. racism and propaganda it is largely accepted as justifiable state violence against our people – so much so that Black elite and even the Black working class constantly hold up the state propaganda line that having more police will thwart community violence and keep us safe.

This use of violence and propaganda by the owners of society is done because they understand what we do not – that the most radical potential for change lies within the Black community. Even today this is still true because many of us understand the farce of modern American discourse on voting. More than any other people (indigenous people notwithstanding because their overall population is diminished because of outright genocide), the substantial Black population understands the propaganda system of America as rooted in lies. We can look at our own history here to see that. In private, even the Black elites and/or middle class understand that the violent and exploitative nature of America makes it unreformable. Most just receive too much of an individual benefit to publicly and fully acknowledge this fact. So, a tremendous amount of resources through schools, mass marketing, and entertainment are poured into a propaganda machine to make sure more militant action isn’t taken and that voting is viewed as the only way to make change.

Leading up to the 2020 election, we were told by many liberals and leftists that voting is a form of “harm reduction.” Community Movement Builders is involved in many struggles , including ones against policing, gentrification, and other forms of capitalist exploitation. Are there instances when voting for a particular candidate has served as “harm reduction” by significantly impacting the material conditions of your community? If so, what role did electoral politics play in your overall organizing strategy? What reasons are there to be skeptical that voting is harm reduction?

Harm reduction is as good as it gets in the American electoral system. It’s a game of numbers. So instead of a prison population of 2 million maybe we can get that down to 1.8 million. Maybe we can get some more people with health insurance. We can go from 40 million without any kind of health insurance to 35 million. We are told that the Democrats will fight to make these marginal changes, although it was under democratic leadership that some of these numbers skyrocketed, but what we are sold is that the Democrats are people we can work with. So, there is this cycle of hoping for harm reduction without any real changes to the material conditions of people (outside of a few percentage points). In addition, when we look at the imperial state and wars, the Democrats are just as – if not more – culpable than Republicans when it comes to starting wars, drone warfare, and the murdering of civilian life in the millions. The parties show no difference in protecting U.S. hegemony around the word no matter who you vote for.

Domestically, of course, people want harm reduction. Who doesn’t? As you stated we work in these margins also at times. The question is: Can we work on something much bigger that reduces voting to just a tactic as opposed to the main strategy. The answer is a resounding yes – whether it’s cooperatives, land trust, safety patrols, and building radical organizations.  Building new sites of struggle is a must and, again, the elites know this, which is why so much violence is used against any militant action that challenges capitalistic control over resources, economies, and people.

When Biden was inaugurated in 2021, Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, tweeted: “We voted out white supremacy! ” This statement was surprising to many on the Black left, especially since Biden himself is a white supremacist and the entire office of the Presidency is white supremacist . Why is it so problematic to think that white supremacy can be “voted out”?

It’s problematic because it’s a lie. People have political blinders on about the very nature of the American state. Hope sells and it also pays very well in these days and times. Every election we are told it’s the “most important election of our lifetime,” because if we don’t vote for a liberal/moderate Democrat then the fascist will take over. Well, as George Jackson said, fascism is already here. Enslavement, Black codes, lynching, Jim Crow, Prison Industrial Complex, Ghettos, all existed under Democrats as well as Republicans. Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria etc. existed under Democrats and Republicans. COINTELPRO, political prisoners and exiles, the killing of Malcolm, Martin, Lumumba, etc. took place under both Democrats and Republicans. Joblessness, infant mortality rates, poor reading levels, poor healthcare, housing crises, etc. all took place under both Republicans and Democrats. The distinction between these parties is not one of liberation or no liberation or white supremacy or no white supremacy. The distinction is which capitalist faction gets to run capitalism for the elite. Who has the best strategy to maintain capitalism at the time and sell it to the masses as change or hope or individualism or freedom. For the two-party state the question is: Who can do a better job keeping the masses in line? Who can do a better job of having them face off against one another ­– as opposed to the elite, who are actually the root of the issue since they control the resources and the distribution of those resources? When we get folks saying we can vote out white supremacy, they are naïve at best. At worst, there is a selling-out of the people’s interest for possible individual gain.

An important part of Community Movement Builders is the Pan African Solidarity Network . It’s almost impossible to imagine a politician in either Congress or the White House being elected on an anti-imperial platform. For communities fighting to dismantle the U.S. war machine, what tactics and strategies exist apart from electoral politics?

No elected official will get elected on an anti-imperialist platform on a national level. There might be some on the local level, but they won’t be implementing policy. International solidarity is key to fighting U.S. and western imperialism. Our Pan African Solidarity Network is but one example of sharing resources with an overt socialist organization/party in Haiti so that it can build a center where sustainability work and politics can be advanced. I think the work of Black Alliance for Peace is crucial in these times. They recognize that unity to stop western imperialism is one of our main roles because we are here where it is happening. We can argue about other imperialist aims that other nations have but it seems obvious that U.S./Western imperialism is in control of most of the world’s resources, land, and people. U.S./Western imperialism works to benefit the elites and is not interested in sovereignty or self-determination. It is interested in maintaining its grip on international commerce, trade, and resources. Our role is to create openings for people to gain a sense of freedom. This involves everything from platforms like this and Black Power Media. It also involves creating organizations and coalitions that are international in scope that can allow space for rebellion, anti-imperialist politics, and grassroots movements to create alternatives to capitalist development. We have to be ready here for direct action, for stopping and/or delaying the machinery of capitalism. For protest at airports and shipping docks. For re-creating militant unions with anti-imperialist politics like the Revolutionary League of Black Workers or DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement). We have to breed anti-imperialist politics in all that we do.

You recently helped start a fundraiser to support Dhoruba Bin Wahad, a former political prisoner and co-founder of the Black Liberation Army, who was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Since we’re talking about voting, why do you think it’s naïve to think that voting could ever be a means to secure the freedom or support of political prisoners?

Its naïve to think that voting is what secures the release of these prisoners. In New York for instance – where at one point we had the most political prisoners who were made up of veteran and former members of formations like the Panthers, BLA, Weather Underground, RNA and others – we had mostly Democratic governors year after year. Almost half our PP’s died in prison. Others were released close to death or because of medical emergencies, a few based on overturned evidence. A few maxed out and some received clemency after serving 30 to 40 years. Voting never factored into the release of our political prisoners. No candidate ran for office promising to release our soldiers if we gave them our vote. Of course, many people worked hard to fight for the release of such prisoners but the final determination was made by those in power who did this on their own time table, not because we represented any voting block. We have to build our power, a militant block – not a voting block – to threaten the status quo and not to reward it with votes. A militant block understands that the struggle is for power, not influence over groups that actually have their own agenda and see you as only a small piece of their larger puzzle. Voting is a tactic in a much larger struggle; a tactic that has been given too much significance and that will never secure our freedom or liberation.

Roberto Sirvent: You probably remember Barack Obama’s initial one-word response to the 2020 demonstrations against police when he tweeted: “Vote. ” More recently, Michelle Obama said, looking ahead to the 2022 midterm elections, “We’ve got to vote like the future of our democracy depends on it. ” I’m curious how you view this as symptomatic of the Obamas’ overall approach to social change – and why this leads so many people on the Black left to criticize them and other Democrat elites.

Kamau Franklin: I think the Obamas are playing their role as the most elite Black figures in the Democratic establishment, which is to control any form of protest so that it does not get “out of hand”. To be out of hand means to go beyond voting as a mechanism of social change – to actually get involved in direct democracy, like mass protest, direct action, and/or rebellions. To also build structures outside of the official electoral process for decision making. Doing these things are not easy, particularly when you have operatives like the Obamas telling you not to, or you have established systems of control like the police and the surveillance state, the use of private capital to control your finances and economic stability, the derailments of mass entertainment. All of these things make organizing outside of voting a difficult task. All of these institutions are lined up to get us all back in line, back in the pocket and back in hand. The danger for them is that we may disrupt the system, meaning disrupting profits. They all know the possibilities and so figures like the Obamas become that much more important to keep the masses in check. The Black left, what there is of it, knows that and so rightfully targets figures like the Obamas, Black mayors, and Black entertainers because their ability to control habits and options through their association with the capitalist class is enormous, and so they must be criticized.

Growing up in the U.S. school system, we’re often taught a very romanticized, misleading, and exaggerated picture of the role voting plays in social justice movements. What interests does the state have in spreading this propaganda? Why do you think students aren’t taught about more militant and autonomous forms of political participation?

Well, because they don’t want students or workers or community people to challenge, destroy, and build something redistributive. The capitalist class has worked so hard to plunder our communities and to capture our mind and bodies, that they will use all measures available to keep that control, and propaganda is central to that work. In America the propaganda system is the first line of defense for the bourgeoisie class against mass militant action. Training minds from early on to be consumers and workers, to pay their bills on time, to look up to and to strive be wealthy is what “schooling” in the U.S. is about. We are also taught that the U.S. strives to be inclusive and democratic and always fights wars for just reasons even if mistakes are made. This type of propaganda is powerful when mixed in with all the flag waiving and entertainment we are given. The idea that through voting we can “eventually” get to a better place is paramount in keeping people from taking militant action. The literally millions of lives destroyed and killed by the capitalist state in the process of making voting the only option for “change” is never really processed. It’s all part of the background story to the so-called attempt to make a more “perfect union.” So, the propaganda system in a relatively open society is needed to keep the multitudes in check and for them to “freely” feel part of (and believe in) the system of electoral politics as a way to make change.

Of course, for Black communities the propaganda system is mixed in with a system of violence to keep Black people in line. The overt use of violence through the police and prison system is meant to subdue our population in the same manner used in an overtly autocratic state. And because of U.S. racism and propaganda it is largely accepted as justifiable state violence against our people – so much so that Black elite and even the Black working class constantly hold up the state propaganda line that having more police will thwart community violence and keep us safe.

This use of violence and propaganda by the owners of society is done because they understand what we do not – that the most radical potential for change lies within the Black community. Even today this is still true because many of us understand the farce of modern American discourse on voting. More than any other people (indigenous people notwithstanding because their overall population is diminished because of outright genocide), the substantial Black population understands the propaganda system of America as rooted in lies. We can look at our own history here to see that. In private, even the Black elites and/or middle class understand that the violent and exploitative nature of America makes it unreformable. Most just receive too much of an individual benefit to publicly and fully acknowledge this fact. So, a tremendous amount of resources through schools, mass marketing, and entertainment are poured into a propaganda machine to make sure more militant action isn’t taken and that voting is viewed as the only way to make change.

Leading up to the 2020 election, we were told by many liberals and leftists that voting is a form of “harm reduction.” Community Movement Builders is involved in many struggles , including ones against policing, gentrification, and other forms of capitalist exploitation. Are there instances when voting for a particular candidate has served as “harm reduction” by significantly impacting the material conditions of your community? If so, what role did electoral politics play in your overall organizing strategy? What reasons are there to be skeptical that voting is harm reduction?

Harm reduction is as good as it gets in the American electoral system. It’s a game of numbers. So instead of a prison population of 2 million maybe we can get that down to 1.8 million. Maybe we can get some more people with health insurance. We can go from 40 million without any kind of health insurance to 35 million. We are told that the Democrats will fight to make these marginal changes, although it was under democratic leadership that some of these numbers skyrocketed, but what we are sold is that the Democrats are people we can work with. So, there is this cycle of hoping for harm reduction without any real changes to the material conditions of people (outside of a few percentage points). In addition, when we look at the imperial state and wars, the Democrats are just as – if not more – culpable than Republicans when it comes to starting wars, drone warfare, and the murdering of civilian life in the millions. The parties show no difference in protecting U.S. hegemony around the word no matter who you vote for.

Domestically, of course, people want harm reduction. Who doesn’t? As you stated we work in these margins also at times. The question is: Can we work on something much bigger that reduces voting to just a tactic as opposed to the main strategy. The answer is a resounding yes – whether it’s cooperatives, land trust, safety patrols, and building radical organizations.  Building new sites of struggle is a must and, again, the elites know this, which is why so much violence is used against any militant action that challenges capitalistic control over resources, economies, and people.

When Biden was inaugurated in 2021, Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, tweeted: “We voted out white supremacy! ” This statement was surprising to many on the Black left, especially since Biden himself is a white supremacist and the entire office of the Presidency is white supremacist . Why is it so problematic to think that white supremacy can be “voted out”?

It’s problematic because it’s a lie. People have political blinders on about the very nature of the American state. Hope sells and it also pays very well in these days and times. Every election we are told it’s the “most important election of our lifetime,” because if we don’t vote for a liberal/moderate Democrat then the fascist will take over. Well, as George Jackson said, fascism is already here. Enslavement, Black codes, lynching, Jim Crow, Prison Industrial Complex, Ghettos, all existed under Democrats as well as Republicans. Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria etc. existed under Democrats and Republicans. COINTELPRO, political prisoners and exiles, the killing of Malcolm, Martin, Lumumba, etc. took place under both Democrats and Republicans. Joblessness, infant mortality rates, poor reading levels, poor healthcare, housing crises, etc. all took place under both Republicans and Democrats. The distinction between these parties is not one of liberation or no liberation or white supremacy or no white supremacy. The distinction is which capitalist faction gets to run capitalism for the elite. Who has the best strategy to maintain capitalism at the time and sell it to the masses as change or hope or individualism or freedom. For the two-party state the question is: Who can do a better job keeping the masses in line? Who can do a better job of having them face off against one another ­– as opposed to the elite, who are actually the root of the issue since they control the resources and the distribution of those resources? When we get folks saying we can vote out white supremacy, they are naïve at best. At worst, there is a selling-out of the people’s interest for possible individual gain.

An important part of Community Movement Builders is the Pan African Solidarity Network . It’s almost impossible to imagine a politician in either Congress or the White House being elected on an anti-imperial platform. For communities fighting to dismantle the U.S. war machine, what tactics and strategies exist apart from electoral politics?

No elected official will get elected on an anti-imperialist platform on a national level. There might be some on the local level, but they won’t be implementing policy. International solidarity is key to fighting U.S. and western imperialism. Our Pan African Solidarity Network is but one example of sharing resources with an overt socialist organization/party in Haiti so that it can build a center where sustainability work and politics can be advanced. I think the work of Black Alliance for Peace is crucial in these times. They recognize that unity to stop western imperialism is one of our main roles because we are here where it is happening. We can argue about other imperialist aims that other nations have but it seems obvious that U.S./Western imperialism is in control of most of the world’s resources, land, and people. U.S./Western imperialism works to benefit the elites and is not interested in sovereignty or self-determination. It is interested in maintaining its grip on international commerce, trade, and resources. Our role is to create openings for people to gain a sense of freedom. This involves everything from platforms like this and Black Power Media. It also involves creating organizations and coalitions that are international in scope that can allow space for rebellion, anti-imperialist politics, and grassroots movements to create alternatives to capitalist development. We have to be ready here for direct action, for stopping and/or delaying the machinery of capitalism. For protest at airports and shipping docks. For re-creating militant unions with anti-imperialist politics like the Revolutionary League of Black Workers or DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement). We have to breed anti-imperialist politics in all that we do.

You recently helped start a fundraiser to support Dhoruba Bin Wahad, a former political prisoner and co-founder of the Black Liberation Army, who was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Since we’re talking about voting, why do you think it’s naïve to think that voting could ever be a means to secure the freedom or support of political prisoners?

Its naïve to think that voting is what secures the release of these prisoners. In New York for instance – where at one point we had the most political prisoners who were made up of veteran and former members of formations like the Panthers, BLA, Weather Underground, RNA and others – we had mostly Democratic governors year after year. Almost half our PP’s died in prison. Others were released close to death or because of medical emergencies, a few based on overturned evidence. A few maxed out and some received clemency after serving 30 to 40 years. Voting never factored into the release of our political prisoners. No candidate ran for office promising to release our soldiers if we gave them our vote. Of course, many people worked hard to fight for the release of such prisoners but the final determination was made by those in power who did this on their own time table, not because we represented any voting block. We have to build our power, a militant block – not a voting block – to threaten the status quo and not to reward it with votes. A militant block understands that the struggle is for power, not influence over groups that actually have their own agenda and see you as only a small piece of their larger puzzle. Voting is a tactic in a much larger struggle; a tactic that has been given too much significance and that will never secure our freedom or liberation.

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