“I know it's difficult in this country,
but we've got to think more clearly than the State allows.”
- Rick Turner
IF I WAS YOU, I MIGHT NOT...
”Human beings can choose. They can stand back and look at alternatives.
Theoretically, they can choose about anything.
They can choose whether to live or to die; they can choose celibacy or promiscuity, voluntary poverty or the pursuit of wealth, ice-cream or jelly. Obviously they can’t always get what they choose,
but that is a different question.(1)
− Rick Turner
What is in a life?
How can a life be understood, as you continue to make meaning along the way?
Stories. Hints. Scraps.
Little bits of evidence that lead in possible directions.
Our lives are made up of all the choices that we make, or do not make. Choices made visible, but not chosen. Choices made, but not understood, or not re-evaluated later, or regretted and carried like a weight.
The work of studying history is – whatever else historians might claim — quite simply the study of human choices. We learn from other people’s life choices so that we can choose how to live.
Our lives are quite messy, and perhaps even more so if we are living in opposition to an established order, against armies and ideas that try and constrain us. We do not really live our lives 'in order,' so the attempt to make a clean chronology from the outside is futile and pointless. We live our lives more in the form of a collage — or multiple collages layered on top of each other — rather than in a simple linear progression from birth to death. We are constantly connected to ideas and people and places and memories and dreams and plans, in an endless web that has a coherent logic only if enough of the connecting threads are visible at once.
* * *
New Orleans, 2006:
”It's a hard position you're in as white folks.
You've got to go to these ex-slaves who ain't hardly been taught how to do nothin'
and ask them to tell you what to do.
If i was you, I might not even be in the movement.
I might be off on a beach somewhere. It's hard work, man.
But I'm not in your position. I'm a descendant of slaves.
I've got a natural born right to a voice within the struggle for justice.”
− Curtis Muhammad
I was sitting on Curtis Muhammad's porch, like I had done so many times before, but this time a huge gulf had grown between us, and I knew, minute by minute, that it would be our last conversation ever.
Curtis had been my mentor. He is a man that has committed the entirety of his adult life to revolutionary struggle, and he schooled me in this work. I had lived and worked with him for about a year and a half and I had absorbed his world view totally, thrown myself into the work that he asked me to do. I respected and admired him tremendously, and he treated me with deep compassion and patience, despite the differences of age, race, background, skills etc. But all of that was before Hurricane Katrina.
In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, and the military/government response to the storm ravaged the stability and coherency of the work we had been doing previously. Seeing the way that black people were left to die and subjected to the abuses of the US armed forces broke my will. I came to see the 'search and rescue' process as essentially genocidal. This was a horrifying revelation, and I didn't have enough courage to rise above it, to confront it. I evacuated myself out of New Orleans 48 hours before the storm hit ground, and I never tried to live there again.
Though I had committed myself to working within the 9th ward of New Orleans, and developed many personal relationships with people in that community, I left. I didn't help anyone there evacuate, and I didn't even contact many of my friends in the 9th ward until many days after the levees had broke and the neighborhood had been buried in water. I was not the only white person to leave. In fact, it was only a small minority of white people – no matter their political persuasion – that decided to wade through the filth of New Orleans and rebuild. But Curtis had reason to believe that I had dedicated myself to the city, as I had said as much. Nonetheless, I left, and I left very little trace of my good intentions to commit myself to the community.
* * *
When I left New Orleans, I left behind not only the apocalyptic misery and the cynical reconstruction of the city in the interests of the wealthy, but I also drifted away from the politics that had shaped my choices for the previous years.
I had come down to New Orleans to work in and around a working class black high school in the 9th ward, called Frederick Douglass High. The school was the site of a convergence of older black activists, all of whom had some role in the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. Together they had formed the Douglass Community Coalition. I spent nearly two years involved with the Coalition. On a day-to-day level the work was relatively banal. The demands were not revolutionary, but rather focused on questions such as the quality of the bathrooms in the school building, creating access to a functioning library and auditorium, and basic freedoms of the young people to move about without interference from security guards and police. It was a slow politics, in a degrading environment, up against tremendous odds, with incredibly generous and resilient people. I was happy to be involved in the work.
In addition, Curtis Muhammad had asked me and a couple of my friends to set up a 'White People's Project,' that would support 'black liberation' and black leadership. This would include providing assistance to the Douglass Coalition, but not only that. Curtis was also interested in seeing a conversation develop amongst the white left about how we saw our role in relationship to black radicals, and he wanted us to be capable of confronting paternalistic and counterproductive attitudes amongst white activists and organizations. In Curtis' opinion, black struggles for freedom have always been the engine of social transformation in America. He saw white people as rarely in history being willing to support black struggle, and never voluntarily. Our assignment was to see if we could create such a group of whites that would voluntarily commit themselves to playing a supportive role in relationship to black radicals in the city.
The White People's Project was also a slow politics, also up against tremendous odds, but unlike the work at the high school, we rarely made any traction whatsoever.(2) I didn't enjoy many of the people I was interacting with (the white liberals in various non-profits), and I generally struggled to believe that my efforts were effective, or 'successful.' If I had to answer the question, 'Can white people choose to assist radical black initiatives?' based solely on the brief life of the White People's Project, I would have to say, 'no.' Nonetheless, all through my work on the White People's Project I was convinced, without a doubt, of the validity of the political and moral stand that I was taking, and would have insisted that the work was basically necessary.
In the aftermath of the storm, the Douglass Community Coalition transformed itself into The People's Hurricane Relief Fund. A small, very localized, and largely non-hierarchical initiative became suddenly a massive national infrastructure – complete with a central committee, speakers bureau and a million dollar budget. Within the Relief Fund, the moral imperative to build black leadership became a mechanical formula, a theater of 'democracy' and 'empowerment' papered over an ineffective NGO apparatus. I became disillusioned with the whole process, and eventually stopped even marginally trying to be a 'member' of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund.
* * *
That day on the porch, ten months after the storm, Curtis told me that, “In emergency situations people who speak multiple languages always call out for help in their mother tongue.” He said that he had seen many people “speaking in their mother tongue” in the months after Katrina, and he didn't like what he saw at all. Of course he was furious with the government, with white racists, with capitalists, for their appalling behavior. But the 'mother tongue' metaphor had to do with something else, something even more frustrating. What drove Curtis absolutely mad with rage was the behavior of activists like myself, white and black, that had failed to do anything courageous or honorable in response to the tragedy in New Orleans. Our failure to act with integrity showed that our 'mother tongue' is privilege, complacency, the status quo.
Curtis told me that his family had recently kept him under 'house arrest' for a couple of weeks. He had started hinting that he had a desire to go out into the street and kill as many people as possible before dying, and they believed that he might be serious. By the time I saw him, the desperate, homicidal rage had passed, but Curtis was clearly and totally uninterested in ever having anything further to do with me (and many other 'well-intentioned' activists). He had severed ties with many of his former friends and 'comrades,' including the People's Hurricane Relief Fund who he accused of being greedy and ineffective.
The whole time I knew Curtis he had been dedicated to the principle of, in his words, “harvesting the genius of the poor.” His intention was that all politics should be shaped by and grounded in the language and demands of the oppressed, rather than based on radical theory. But on our last day together, his aversion to intellectuals had deepened even further. He told me of his decision to “never again listen to people who get their ideas from books.”
The message was loud and clear: I said goodbye to Curtis, walked off the porch, and I have never seen him again.
So, I walked away. I walked away from the problems in New Orleans, and also I walked away from the politics that claimed to be solving those problems.
“...our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss.
First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism.”
− founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society
“This here will be the freedom school,” he says, pointing to what was once a garage, but now is neglected and without any function whatsoever. The walls have been badly damaged by termites and fire, there is only a cracked, concrete slab floor, and the building is full of unwanted trash. I'm startled to hear that this building will be made into a school. It's the first time that I've heard anything about this. But somehow the simple declaration works. Our guests believe my uncle, and so we start to believe ourselves.
It has been a day of dramatic declarations, memories and feelings. We have transported ourselves back into the fervor of 1968, sitting around the kitchen table for hours, speaking freely. My uncle was, in 1968, a dropout from Antioch College, who moved to Chicago to join Students for Democratic Society (SDS), in a small and eclectic grouping of poor white southerners that came to be known as the Young Patriots. Our guest, Howie Matchinger, was also in Chicago in 1968, also a member of the Students for a Democratic Society, and – though he didn't admit it on the day we met – soon after joined that small faction of SDS that once called itself the Revolutionary Youth Movement, and later took on the name that stuck, the Weathermen. My uncle and I have been introduced to Howie through Charles Payne, my professor in a course on the Civil Rights Movement. Charles is a towering man, standing more than six feet tall, and speaks with a booming bass voice, tirelessly committed to the political vision of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Nonetheless, Charles is patient with me, the confrontational white anarchist sitting in his class, listening with rapt attention and asking questions incessantly.
Charles Payne had given me a manuscript by Howie Matchinger, called, “The New Left Reaction to Black Power.” Howie's piece looked systematically at the different responses white radicals made to the shift within the black movement, away from an integrationist politics and towards a revolutionary, and at times nationalist and separatist stance. My uncle and I read the piece together with great interest, and invited Howie and Charles over to discuss it.
Essentially, everyone in the room had a shared analysis, at a basic level, regarding the movement of the 1960s. In other words, our starting point of the dialogue was a belief that the movement of my uncle's generation was, amongst other things – and fundamentally – based on a refusal to accept a society which is based on race hatred, racial power, racial inequality, race. For my uncle, for Howie, for Charles, the most appalling of all of America's crimes was (and is) the degradation of black people and the behavior and mentality of white people. Their politics was framed around the idea that black people – through their assertiveness, their militancy and their generosity of spirit – were able to name the moral crisis of the United States more clearly than anyone else. As a student of Charles Payne, and, in an informal way, my uncle, I agreed completely with this analysis. Our discussion was focused on the role of white people in relation to this basic analysis. We debated what actually did happen, back in '68, and what should be done now.
My uncle spoke strongly about the role of Fred Hampton and others in the Black Panther Party in steering the Patriots towards concrete action, such as setting up free health clinics, and the breakfast for children program. It was a heady time, full of flamboyant attitudes and over-confident posturing. The Panthers had a uniform of black leather jackets and black berets. The Young Patriots went for denim jackets, and there was broad agreement between the hillbillies and radicals to put the rebel flag on the jackets, sewn just above the heart, with the slogan, “we're all slaves under the man,” underneath the flag. In their different uniforms, and united by the slogan of “off the pigs,” the Panthers and the Patriots would do fundraising by going to cocktail parties at the homes of wealthy white liberals, who would give handsome donations in exchange for the peculiar theater of white and black revolutionaries filling their living rooms. Despite the quirky elements of the alliance, my uncle insisted that the alliance was genuine, freely entered into, and mutually beneficial to both sides. Further, he described the Panthers as generous, patient, and helping to provide a firm political foundation for the Young Patriots.
Howie had written at length about the confusing and contradictory stances that SDS activists had taken in response to the Black Panther Party. Some folks had sworn that the Panthers were the 'vanguard' of the black movement, and therefore the white movement should follow the directives of the Panthers to the letter. However, there were a couple of occasions when the Panthers made direct requests to SDS, and both times SDS refused to do what they were asked to do. On one occasion, SDS was asked to develop a parallel structure to the Panther Party's Copwatch program. In the black community, the Panthers would patrol the neighborhood, with guns and cameras, to keep tabs on the police and try and reduce brutality through their visibility. SDS was asked to keep watch on the police in the white neighborhoods that the cops lived in, disrupting their ability to cause violence in the black community and have a peaceful life 'at home.' This Copwatch idea didn't generate excitement within SDS, and was never taken on. On another occasion, the Panthers wanted to create a Freedom Party that would put forward candidates for the presidency. They had a presidential candidate and wanted SDS to supply a white vice-presidential candidate. This request was shut down based on the simple objection that voting is not revolutionary.
But what was the conclusion to be drawn from these moments of 'failure' on the part of the whites to follow through on their own proclaimed politics? The other stances taken by white activists surely had their own absurdities, their own failures. SDS attracted a wide range of political viewpoints, from liberal to communist to anarchist, and so forth. This openness was one of its strengths. But it also opened the organization up to the intentional manipulations of a group of antagonistic and doctrinaire Trotskyists, who called themselves the Progressive Labor Party. The PLP demanded a strict dress code of neatly cropped hair, and simple clean clothing, and thereby refused to associate themselves with the opening of morals that many white radicals were craving. Further, they totally negated any potential sympathy for the Black Power movement, writing it all off as simply nationalist nonsense, divisive to the goals of 'the working class' and the great dream of the 'worker's state,' which would be led by a conscious vanguard party, such as PLP.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was the RYM folks, such as Howie. The Weathermen represented white radicals who attempted to take seriously the idea that black people (or, 'the oppressed') should steer the course of revolutionary struggle, and that whites should contribute as much as possible to unsettling the clean uniformity of white society. The Weathermen confronted seriously the possibility of armed struggle in the United States, and underwent a great deal of personal sacrifice, going underground and trying to devise ways to sabotage the United States' war machine. Politically, the Weathermen made visible, in a way that no one else had, the potential of whites to embrace an absolute upheaval in their way of life, in their position of privilege within society.
Nonetheless, the Weathermen had their own odd antics. In 1968, the Weathermen called for 'Days of Rage,' an extended period of street protest in Chicago, with the goal of, for once, not holding back any means of confrontation with the police. My uncle portrayed the whole scene, from his memory, as nothing more than a great craving to be bloodied, to assuage the guilt of whiteness with the crisp clarity of violence. He remembers the Days of Rage as devoid of any clear substance, strategy, or aspiration. Howie recounted another infamous moment in the career of the Weathermen, when they went to a working class white beach, and paraded about with the Vietnamnese flag, shouting slogans in support of the 'third world revolutionary movement' and literally picking fist fights with any (presumably) racist onlooker who wanted to fight.
* * *
"The problem with the White left isn't that we kicked them out.
The problem is that they refused to accept Black Power;
they refused to humble themselves and take direction from Black people.
I don't know almost any White people that can really sit with that.
They'll try it for a while and then go run off and work with whales...
anything to get away from listening to Black leadership…
The only way we got anything done as SNCC is because we humbly went to the people and said,
'we want to support what you're doing.'
But white folks don't come into a community like that.
They come in with all this baggage and plans that they done thought out in an air-conditioned room somewhere. Every time the people put up a brick, white folks knock it down.
If we came into the white community like that, we'd be shot…”
− Curtis Muhammad
The clear backdrop for our whole conversation is a story that we are all familiar with, a true story that has taken on the weight of a parable in our imaginations. It is a story that shaped a great deal of the curriculum of Payne's class, and a great deal of the substance of my uncle's early radicalism.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had captured the imagination of the country starting in 1960 with their sit-in campaign to desegregate public spaces. Later, the voter registration campaign in Mississippi became national news, especially in the summer of 1964, when SNCC brought nearly a thousand (mostly) white volunteers to Mississippi for an intensive period of activity, known as 'Freedom Summer.' At the end of the summer, SNCC crashed the national Democratic Convention with their own, alternative party, known as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. It was an integrated party, built with the strong participation of black Mississippi sharecroppers, many of them illiterate, and all of them effectively marginalized from the political process. When the MFDP was denied seating at the convention, Fannie Lou Hamer, a charismatic sharecropper, a leader built by the slow organizing within SNCC, spoke out on national TV and said, “I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” It was a turning point. The so-called 'beloved community' of racial integration that SNCC had once hoped for, was quickly being abandoned, to be replaced by a much more radical set of demands.
In the aftermath of Freedom Summer, a group of SNCC staff in Atlanta drafted a position paper calling for SNCC to become entirely “black-staffed, black-controlled, and black-financed.” The Atlanta militants were fighting against, “The myth that the Negro is somehow incapable of liberating himself, is lazy, etc., [which] came out of the American experience… Negroes in this country have never been allowed to organize themselves because of white interference. As a result of this, the stereotype has been reinforced that blacks cannot organize themselves.” The position paper went on to declare, “If we are to proceed toward true liberation, we must cut ourselves off from white people. We must form our own institutions, credit unions, co-ops, political parties, write our own histories. These facts do not mean that whites cannot help. They can participate on a voluntary basis. We can contract work out to them, but in no way can they participate on a policy-making level.”
While calling for SNCC to be an all-black organization, they offered that, “White people who desire change in this country should go where that problem (racism) is most manifest. The problem is not in the black community. The white people should go into white communities where the whites have created power for the express purpose of denying blacks human dignity and self-determination. So far, we have found that most white radicals have sought to escape the horrible reality of America by going into the black community and attempting to organize black people while neglecting the organization of their own people's racist communities. How can one clean up someone else's yard when one's own yard is untidy?”
The whites who had previously been members of SNCC were encouraged to confront racism within their own communities.(2) It was a momentous decision, which sent ripples throughout the country, throughout time.
Three very important questions were embedded within this simple decision. First, there is the question of whether it is possible, then or now, for black people (in a racist country) to develop structures that give them dignity and control over their own lives. Likewise, there is the question of whether white people are capable of developing ways to confront the lies and abuses of racialism within their own communities. Lastly, there is the question of whether, under any circumstances, white and black people might be able to work together concretely towards ending racialism.
...AWAY FROM CYNICISM AND DESPAIR
“If a man happened to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, and some truth stands before the door of his life; some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right and that which is just, and he refuses to stand up because he wants to live longer, or he is afraid his home will get bombed, or he is afraid that he will lose his job, or he is afraid that he will get shot, he may go on and live until he is 80... and the cessation of breath is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is true. So, we are going to stand up right here... letting the world know that we are determined to be free.”
— Martin Luther King
(read at Rick Turner’s funeral, by his daughters, Jann and Kim)
What is in a life?
How can a life be understood, decades later?
How can our choices be translated out of our particular circumstances and be of use to others, in a different place, in a different time?
Stories. Hints. Scraps.
Little bits of evidence that lead in possible directions.
Cape Town, 2008:
Just a few months after my arrival in the country, an orgy of violence spread through the black townships, burning out the foreigners from other African countries, looting their few possessions, destroying their homes, and brutalizing them with crude weapons. Hundreds of thousands fled the country or became internal refugees. Cape Town alone had some 20,000 refugees. Five different refugee camps were set up throughout the city. One group of Somalian women, in a camp near the coast, attempted to walk into the ocean and drown. A group of 250 or so Zimbabweans refused to enter the camps, not trusting the state any more than the civilians, and instead chose to camp outside of the downtown police station.
Throughout the whole horrifying period I was bizarrely safe, living in a posh apartment in the center of the city, and, crucially, white. In fact, my home became a refuge for a few friends from Malawi to briefly escape the uncertainty of their lives. Nonetheless, the charred flesh of human beings expressed vividly the attitude of South Africans towards people who don't belong.
I was asked hundreds of times in Cape Town – and therefore asked myself thousands of times – 'Where are you from?' and 'Why did you come here?' Strangely enough, the answers to these questions have a lot to do with embracing – or at least being extremely curious about – a myth. South Africa is a good place for myth-making. For the last couple of decades, at least, the country has been churning out images, songs, and stories of a beautiful struggle of a righteous people overcoming great odds to tear down an unjust system and replace it with a 'rainbow nation' where everyone can live well.
Perhaps saying there is a mythology sounds too harsh. Of course there was a struggle against apartheid. Of course those who participated in that struggle faced grave risks, endured various hardships, or even lost their lives. Of course, the formal end of apartheid did stop a great deal of systematic abuses and open up opportunities – formally, at least – that had been previously unimaginable. But what is most remarkable about this whole process of transformation are not the indisputable facts, but rather the emotionally-charged and dramatic depictions. These depictions are created – with an impressively high level of agreement – by Hollywood, by politicians, and by liberals the world over.
It doesn't matter that I knew long before I arrived that the story of South Africa's glorious transformation is largely superficial. Nonetheless, the stories and images had an influence on me, made me long to see something that wasn't there, to believe in things that weren't true. I don't think I'm the only person on the radical left to be inflicted with this strange desire to somehow mangle history so that it can be read as a victory of some kind.
But as much as I have tried to find hope in the glittery imagery of successful revolutionary changes, this approach ultimately failed me. In the end, I found little hope in either the mythical or the actual transformation in South Africa. Once I faced it, and lived through it, the whole thing made me more weary than inspired, more cynical than energetic.
* * *
My life was narrowing towards cynicism and despair.
I had been persuaded by older people that I respected, that had been through the upheaval of the 1960s, that I ought to commit myself to understanding and opposing the fundamental problems of my country. I had tried with all the determination I had in me to dig roots and resist. But then I left all that conditioning behind, and I put myself amidst all the problems in South Africa. I found it even harder to be a white person there and to find a place for myself amidst any kind of radical politics. I had more privilege there than I had ever had in my life, and although I was in a majority black nation, the distance between me and them seemed to be constantly widening, rather than getting smaller. Amongst the whites, there were very few with a commitment to radical change, and a disturbing abundance of paternalistic liberals – who were deeply afraid of and even hateful towards black people, though they would never admit it. These liberals were full of disdain for any kind of restructuring of the economy in the direction of justice for the black majority; so much so that their politics essentially amounted to a stubborn defense of white privilege.
I found little to be inspired by in contemporary South African society.
* * *
Fortunately, I came across a story from the 1970s that shook me out of my cynicism and gave me a renewed sense of optimism about the possibilities for radical change. I had been looking for stories that could help speak to my ongoing questions about the role of white people in struggle, to re-ground myself in some vision of how to proceed against a deeply unjust society, from a position of privilege.
Nominally, I was thinking all of this through in order to produce a thesis that would allow me to get my master's degree in history. Turning to graduate studies had been a contentious decision, which I suppose I sort of drifted into in the years following Katrina. When I lived in New Orleans, I was an ideologue. I was utterly convinced of my politics, and nothing short of a catastrophe could have shaken me from my convictions. But after losing some of the coherency of my previous life, I decided it would be worthwhile to be a student. Further, I wanted to be forced to write, to be shaken awake by something and to try to convey that to others. Graduate school offered me that opportunity to write, but it came with a high price. I felt a sense of deep moral compromise, and despised the criteria they were using to evaluate good writing. So, if I was to complete my studies with a sense of integrity intact, I'd have to find something to write about that spoke to my deepest questions, rather than merely fulfilling an academic criteria.
I had been assigned a short essay by Rick Turner entitled 'The Present As History.' In it, Turner evaluated the prospects for radical change that were visible in 1972, and thought through potential avenues for pushing things in the direction of an 'ideally just society.' Inevitably, much of 'The Present As History,' centers around the role of white people. Turner felt strongly that the intransigence of the white population must be opposed not so much through force, but through organized initiatives of conscious whites and through black pressure in whatever ways available to them. Turner spoke out strongly against any attitude amongst whites that they are irrelevant merely because blacks must take a pro-active role in the struggle:
“It is said that change will come from the blacks and therefore any processes of change that happen to be occurring within the white group are essentially irrelevant. It seems to me that this is a very serious mistake to make; I certainly agree that the major factor in bringing about political change in South Africa will be black action... [but] political activity directed at and within the white group in an attempt to create at least a group within white society who would be more willing to envisage change is very important.”(3)
'The Present As History,' sparked my interest tremendously. As I continued reading more and more of Turner's writing, I grew more and more excited, as I saw that his writing and his activism were connected to a number of different radical developments in the struggle against apartheid.
For about ten years, from say 1968-1978, there was a small window within the overall struggle against apartheid where it became possible for a politics to emerge that was independent, disconnected from the organized nationalist and Communist tendencies in the country. A new black politics emerged, and thereby provoked a relatively large number of whites to radicalize.
Amongst that group of white radicals, Rick Turner refused to provide a rigid program for others to follow, choosing instead to ask deep and probing questions. In this way, Turner played an important role in provoking whites to adopt a more sympathetic stance in relationship to black radicals, and to expand their vision of an ideal society.
“People came from everywhere to see him,
to discuss their projects, to clarify their thinking, to raise troubling issues.
He mobilized individuals; directed them towards action, away from despair and cynicism.”(4)
− Tony Morphet
As a form of repressing intelligent dissidents, the South African state used banning orders to neutralize people. Perhaps even more effective than arrests and assassinations — which often have the effect of making martyrs out of rebels — banning sought to isolate and silence people.
In February of 1973, Dr. Richard Turner, (known to his friends as Rick) professor of Political Science at the University of Natal, Durban, was banned. As a banned person, Rick Turner was not allowed to be with more than one person at any one time, other than family members, was prohibited from setting foot on any university campus or factory, to speak with any students or workers, or enter any neighbourhoods designated for African, Indian, or Coloured(5) people. He was forbidden to publish his writing, and everyone else was forbidden to quote anything that he said or wrote. By all accounts, banning worked; banned people became more isolated and less visible in the public domain.
Turner immediately applied for a series of exemptions to the banning. On the prohibition to interact with students, he applied for an exemption to “perform [his] normal teaching duties.” On the prohibition against publishing, he applied for the right to publish scholarly articles and books. He applied for an exemption to enter Coloured and Indian areas of Durban.(6)
Predictably, his application for exemptions was denied totally. The South African Police Department in Durban stated to the Secretary for Justice that they “considered [it] highly undesirable that Turner be allowed on the premises of or to lecture at any institution... or to publish works in any form.” The reasoning given is telling:
“The applicant has a marked ability to influence others and was ardently followed by students and student leaders while he was a lecturer at the University of Natal, Durban... In an era of racial and labor conflicts, conditions are ideal for the applicant with his influence and knowledge of social science and philosophy to promote the idea of a social and economic change in the Republic of South Africa. Turner has a gift to write and to convey his views to his readers.”(7)
In short, the police saw Turner as an intelligent man — an unusually capable teacher and writer, who, worst of all, was liked by both his students and his peers. People were likely to take his ideas seriously.
* * *
“Love is a continual interrogation. I don't know of a better definition of love.
(In that case, my friend Hubl would have pointed out to me, no one loves us more than the police.) That's true. Just as every height has its symmetrical depth, so love's interest has as its negative the police's curiousity.”
− Milan Kundera
I feel as though I ask the same questions as the security police.
Just like the police, I want to believe that Rick Turner was a revolutionary and that he dedicated most of his waking hours to this task. I want to believe, as they did, that both his ideas and his projects were a threat to the continuation of a system of racial and economic privilege. And I do not think that either of us are insane for this belief. Turner was involved in a large number of activities, prolific in his writings and speeches and public dialogs, in his stubborn dedication to a new society, and he certainly had a 'marked ability to influence people.' But the police and I disagree strongly about what made Rick Turner dangerous to the status quo.
Though security police do employ some social scientists in order to analyze the work of men like Rick Turner, in general their lens is relatively narrow; they have a rather simplistic concept of politics, and in particular the sorts of politics that should be considered a threat to the security of the state. In the case of a man like Turner, it seems that this lens forced the security police to translate what they saw and heard of Turner into their imagined persona of a Communist, a subversive, etc. According to Rick's close friend, Tony Morphet, this image was “grotesquely wrong:”
“Obviously, without police records it is impossible to state their view accurately, but it seems... likely that they saw Turner, if not as the leader, than as a strong contender for the position. In this they were grotesquely wrong. Charisma and organizing capacity he most certainly did have but he was entirely opposed, as every detail of his life makes clear, to the concept of a small vanguard group. He was constitutionally incapable of following an orthodox Leninist or Stalinist line.”(8)
Despite the fact that Turner's Socialist politics were always expressed openly, gently, and in an attempt to encourage dialogue, the police seemed incapable of taking him at face value. Rick's wife, Foszia Fisher, believes that it was actually Turner's openness that was so frustrating to the authorities:
“If you come out and actually say things, they don’t know what to do with you. They kept thinking, 'he must be doing something else, we just haven’t found it yet.' There's this assumption that the security police know, but they don’t know; they are trying to make sense of very little information and desperately looking for how they can hold their fabrications up. And it helps them when people are covert because they can carry on building their fabrications without interruptions. But when people are not covert it’s very confusing for them.”(9)
Rick Turner was not a party man, not a missionary or a dogmatist of any kind. He was deeply committed to discussion, to sharing ideas. Furthermore, “His domestic life was lived in strict accordance with his moral principles; he lived simply, with very little luxury,”(10) dressed casually always, had few possessions, abhorred the idea of having a domestic servant and refused to frequent whites-only establishments, strove towards equality in his marriage(11) and always shared his home with a number of friends, loved ones, students and fellow activists. Turner wrote,
“We must realize that love and truth are more important than possessions. We must do this to be human... We can learn to live differently as individuals, and we can also learn to live differently in small groups by experimenting with types of communal living based on the sharing of property. Only if the new culture is embodied in the process of moving toward the new society will that society work when we get to it.”(12)
Rick Turner was so threatening to the apartheid state precisely because he was “constitutionally incapable” of playing the stereotypical role of revolutionary leader.
Cape Town, 1968:
”If they are true liberals they must realize that they themselves are oppressed, and that they must fight for their own freedom and not that of the nebulous “they” with whom they can hardly claim identification.”
”The refusal of blacks to want to be “like whites” is not racism.
It is good taste.”
In August, University of Cape Town students staged a sit-in protest and took over the administration building. Hundreds of students lived together in the building for the duration of the protest, which lasted nine days. They declared their space a ‘Free University,' and held spontaneously organized 'classes,' with discussions of various political topics often going on well into the night. Turner, who was lecturing at UCT at the time, was heavily involved in the 'Free University.' Turner's attitude regarding this type of protest is encapsulated clearly in a speech he gave entitled, 'Should South African Students Riot?' As an answer to his own question, Turner stated that, “What white South African students should do is to try a little thinking. But I feel I should warn them to be a little discreet about it. Thinking, provided that it is done honestly and provided that one does something about one’s thoughts, is far more revolutionary and dangerous than mere rioting.”(13)
While the sit-in at UCT was an inspiring moment of student protest, the student left was going through an intense transition at the same time. The National Union of South African Students, (Nusas) which had always been (since its founding in 1924) a racially integrated and liberal organization, faced steady criticism from its black members of being dominated by white people and white (liberal, western) values. The Nusas national convention in 1967 was held at Rhodes University. There, black students were made to sleep in separate accomodations (in the townships) from the whites (who slept on campus) and they were enraged. The acceptance of apartheid divisions at the Nusas conference was taken as yet another example of what felt like a false commitment to integration on the part of white students. Blacks felt that integration did not mean genuine equality in social relationships (nor were whites likely to take equal risks towards social change, as evidenced by their unwillingness to stand up to the Rhodes University authorities). Steve Biko, a medical student and a charismatic black leader within Nusas, condemned what he termed artificial integration:
“the integration they talk about is first of all artificial in that… people have been extracted from various segregated societies with their inbuilt complexes of inferiority and superiority and these continue to assert themselves even in the ‘nonracial’ set-up of the integrated complex. As a result the integration so achieved is a one-way course, with the whites doing all the talking and the blacks the listening.”(14)
Black students, asserting the need to organize amongst themselves and to articulate a distinct black politics, (known as ‘Black Consciousness’) split off from Nusas in 1969 to form the South African Students Organisation (SASO). The SASO manifesto explains their decision to form an all-black organization as follows:
“SASO accepts the premise that before the black people should join the open society, they should first close their ranks, to form themselves into a solid group to oppose the definite racism that is meted out by the white society, to work out their direction clearly and bargain from a position of strength. SASO believes that a truly open society can only be achieved by blacks.”(15)
This bold assertion of black autonomy forced the white student activists to reconsider their role in the process of social change, and thereby to at least experiment with developing structures of resistance that were supportive to black protest, rather than directing it.
Nonetheless, there were many struggles amongst liberals and within the white left around how best to respond to the challenge of Black Consciousness. Many people were resentful of or confused by the message of Black Consciousness. Some felt that it was ‘racist’ to call on blacks to work only amongst themselves, or that it somehow went against the long-term goal of a nonracial society. Furthermore, it was unclear for many whites, particularly students, to understand how to engage in politics in a majority black society but in all-white organizations.
”Let us, for once, stop asking what the whites can be persuaded to do,
what concessions, other things being equal, they may make,
and instead explore the absolute limits of possibility by sketching an ideally just society.”
− Rick Turner
Rick Turner's life in general, and his book The Eye of the Needle in particular, were a profound provocation to white liberal society. Imagining the political climate of the time, the enduring image that comes to mind is of Turner's words striking like lightning into the heart of white liberal thought – leaving liberalism exposed, exploded, surpassed.
When he said that he saw liberals as being ‘white first,’ he meant that their capacity to envision any fundamental change to their way of life or their values is profoundly limited by their daily participation in a racist social, political and economic system. “They are offended by the barbarities of South African society but not sufficiently outraged to be willing to risk sacrificing their own privileged positions. This is not merely a question of cowardice; it also represents both a lack of imagination and ignorance.” Turner understood white people to be trapped within a social structure – of their own making – that persistently and severely limited the capacity of human beings to have any kind of genuine interactions with each other:
“The stereotypical reaction of white to black is only the most obvious expression of society in which all relationships, from courtship to commuting, become stereotyped. All relations become rituals. The paradigm for human relationships in white South Africa is the tea party in which the white ladies coo properly over the maid's cakes and circulate predigested opinions about 'the servant problem’. Not an idea, not a moment of communication, troubles the smooth, empty atmosphere. The excitement of self-discovery, the excitement of shattered certainties, and the thrill of freedom: these are experiences that are closed to white South Africans. The price of control is conformity.”
Turner saw the moral concern and commitment to action amongst whites at the time to be so tepid, so ineffective, that he sought to shock them out of what he called “the impracticality of realism.” Rick Turner's rejection of reformist politics was rooted in a deep-seated morality, an unshakable belief that oppressive systems cannot be reasonably 'reformed,' but instead need to be done away altogether to make way for dignified and meaningful human relationships. Turner made a distinction between white liberals and radicals:
“Liberals believe that “western civilization” is adequate, and superior to other forms, but also that blacks can, through education, attain the level of western civilization... It is arguable that the main 'contribution' of western civilization to human history was the development of a new and higher level of exploitation of person by person, and of a new and higher level of materialism... Radicals believe that “white” culture itself is at fault, and that both blacks and whites need to go beyond it and create a new culture.”
* * *
Rick Turner was one of the few whites to see Black Consciousness as “a form of radicalism,” and this theoretical contribution, combined with his overall demeanor, explain why, “Rick became enormously important for the first serious attempt to try to respond to Black Consciousness in a constructive way.”(16)
A number of people regarded Turner as unusually capable of acting humbly and supportively towards black radicals. Omar Badsha, a friend of Rick’s, feels that,
“Rick didn’t have all the trappings and arrogance of the white left. That also attracted him to a lot of the black activists. They had a great deal of respect for Rick. And so Biko and others didn’t see him as a white person or treat him as a white person. His ideas and his approach was so different from the normal condescending attitudes of whites that we came across; and that makes a huge difference.”(17)
On the theoretical level, Turner directed attention towards the philosophical underpinnings of Black Consciousness, and away from the knee-jerk feeling of being personally rejected that many whites were stuck in. He wrote that,”the major misperception is to see Black Consciousness as essentially an attack on ‘white liberalism,’” and nothing more. In fact, the attack is directed essentially against “white racist society.”(18) For Turner, the principal concern was to draw attention to the overall oppressive structure of the society, and the way in which all people are warped by that structure:
“Black Consciousness is a rejection of the idea that the ideal for human kind is ‘to be like the whites’. This should lead to the recognition that it is also bad for whites ‘to be like the whites’... For whites who have realized this, the desire to change South Africa is not merely the desire “to do something for the blacks.” It is the urgent need for personal dignity and the air of freedom and love.”(19)
* * *
”Organizations usually described as ‘white liberal’ or ‘white-controlled’ will face a period of temporary estrangement... until the black community feels that it is strong enough to move back as equals or until these organizations adapt rapidly and creatively to black pressures. Reconciliation will become increasingly difficult. To meet black anger with duplicity or delay is dangerous. To try to meet it with brute force is fatal. To talk about goodwill and tolerance without concerted action is futile.”(20)
- Beyers Naude, 1972
The Eye of the Needle was written, principally, for a small Christian study group, called Spro-cas. Spro-cas was the creation of the Christian Institute, founded by the dissident Afrikaner minister, Beyers Naude. While Spro-cas was openly against apartheid, and looked to gather clear 'evidence' of the wrongs of the system, their general orientation was essentially liberal and paternalistic. Steve Biko accused Spro-cas of “looking for an ‘alternative’ acceptable to the white man. Everybody in the commission knows what is right, but they are looking for the most seemly way of dodging the responsibility.”(21) Nonetheless, through the participation of Black Consciousness activists like Biko, and Turner and other white radicals, the organization changed slowly.
By 1972, Spro-cas had radicalized. Peter Randall, the director of Spro-cas, stated that, “a white control model for change has become an outmoded strategy, an unrealistic hope destroyed by white intransigence.”(22) Therefore, Spro-cas was split into two separate groups, one called the Black Community Programme, and the other focused on what was termed 'White Consciousness.'
The White Consciousness section of Spro-cas published a book entitled White Liberation. In it, Clive Nettleton wrote from the basic premise that black people must increasingly adopt Black Consciousness as a world view and methodology and he assumed, therefore, that the blossoming of confidence amongst blacks will force whites to confront, as Biko puts it, “the one problem which they have, which is one of ‘superiority.’”(23) Refusing the choices of ignoring or actively suppressing Black Consciousness, Nettleton encouraged whites to
“try to create a white consciousness… which will enable them to act, rather then react. This would necessitate a change in the meaning of ‘whiteness’ to render possible an eventual meeting of blacks with whites. Domination by whites is the essential feature of such meetings as do at present take place. In a changed consciousness on the part of both blacks and whites lies the only possibility for a just and peaceful solution of the conflict inherent in the present situation.”(24)
Furthermore, Spro-cas attempted to offer white liberals salvation from their own paralysis. “White Consciousness... means overcoming the paralyzing feelings of apology and guilt which tend to make white liberals gloomy and ineffectual protagonists of change.”(25) Clearly indicting themselves — as well as others — the white consciousness group speaks out against the, “haphazard, sporadic, guilt-salving gestures of the past.”(26) In place of their previous ineffectiveness, Spro-cas now advocated, ‘to be radical, i.e. in the sense of going to the roots of the problem — power and wealth; we try to pose really radical alternatives (e.g. The Eye of the Needle, and the work which has flowed from this).’(27)
Ironically, given the group’s history, the decision to split Spro-cas into one all-Black group and another all-white group strengthened relationships between black and white people. Randall insists that the benefit of so dividing Spro-cas was that it allowed more authentic, deep and egalitarian cooperation amongst the staff.(28)
The growing willingness of Spro-cas to support Black Consciousness was partly rooted in ideological transformations as a result of radical influences such as Turner, but even more crucially it had to do with the existence of black confidence and pressure. For a ‘moment’ (roughly, say, 1969-1973 in particular) black self-assertion was relatively high. New forms of political and cultural self-expression amongst black youth were developing quickly and taking up a lot of space in the political landscape. Therefore, whites could much more easily (than during previous time periods of relative calm) believe that fundamental(29) change could only be initiated by blacks. In the absence of such self-assertive action, what could whites do? In years prior many other whites — and Randall in particular — had relied on much more paternalistic and gradual notions of social change. Therefore, it is exactly black self-assertion that allowed whites to perceive their own humility as a realistic option.
The action groups only survived until the end of 1973. They collapsed through a series of bannings of leadership and difficulties within the white group to do anything productive. Peter Walshe feels that the overall tendency was, 'for these small groups to falter on encountering massive white indifference, whereupon they either disintegrated or turned away from their radical intentions and consoled themselves by undertaking welfare services for blacks... The temptation was still to do things for Africans.”(30)
Intriguingly, Randall understood the impermanence of Spro-cas as a clear strength, strategically speaking, and recommended the strategy to others. In fact, Randall claims that they saw the goal of phasing out the white consciousness efforts from the start. ‘It has been temporary and short-term, with its own death envisaged from the start... Its structure has been made very simple and flexible, and its work has not been hampered by a hierarchy of committees... It has been able to take risks and to risk failure.”(31)
”The man with the gun walks free away
soft across the wet grass
between the policemen who smiled
and turned to cover you with their blanket.
“He's dead” I said
but they said nothing...
we are not alone in our hurting, our incomprehension
we are not alone in our anger
we are bound, we burn together with strength
with our wild fury
and so I, scarred with my father's blood,
I know what I must fight.”(32)
-Jann Turner (Rick Turner's daughter)
On January 8, 1978, about a month before his five year banning order was to expire, Richard Turner answered a knock at his door around midnight. When no one answered to ‘who’s there?’ He went to the bedroom window to see. When he pulled the curtain aside a pistol blast sent him flying to the ground, and he died a few moments later in his thirteen-year-old daughter’s arms.
Turner himself had foreseen such an outcome, writing in 1972 that:
A minority cannot rule a majority by consent, therefore they must be prepared to use force to maintain their rule and this in turn requires a cultural climate that sanctions killing... The secret police are the creation... of white supremacy. The spies must inevitably act among the whites as well as the blacks, for dissent anywhere may be contagious, and hence fatal.(33)
* * *
”If they want to beat me five times, they can only do so on condition that I allow them to beat me five times. If I react sharply, equally and oppositely, to the first clap, they are not going to systematically count the next four claps, you see. It’s a fight… If you allow me to respond, I’m certainly going to respond. And I’m afraid you might have to kill me in the process even if it’s not your intention.”(34)
- Steve Biko
Steve Biko was murdered in detention on the 12th of September, 1977.(35) 'Within a few weeks of Biko’s death, on 19 October 1977, the security police were out in force with their dogs, pounding and kicking down front doors in pre-dawn raids across the country. Seventeen Black Consciousness organizations were banned as well as the Christian Institute. Seventy key black leaders were detained,”(36) and Donald Woods, editor of the Daily Dispatch and friend of Biko, was also banned. Three months later Woods fled the country, on New Year's Eve.
The death of Rick Turner signaled the end of an era of resistance in South Africa. The majority of organizations that he had been a part of or had been influenced by were either finished or so severely hammered by repressive measures as to be rendered virtually unrecognizable.
Ironically, the brutal repression of independent and non-violent opposition groups (which thrived in the absence of the African National Congress and the Communist Party) led to a resurgence of armed struggle and commitment to the banned ANC and SACP. By choosing to repress absolutely everything the apartheid state breathed fresh life into their supposed worst nemesis.
The methods and structures of resistance necessarily needed (again) to be radically redefined after 1978. In fact, much of what captured the world's attention as The Anti-Apartheid struggle developed after Turner had died. In the years after Turner's death, the movement against apartheid grew generally much more powerful, but also more centralized, more 'united,' and 'disciplined' under the leadership of the ANC, the Communist Party, and the trade unions.
THE DESERT OF POSSIBILITIES &
THE MYTH OF VICTORY
“Imagine that we're among neighbors and friends, that during the course of a day and a half we rid the city of the last militarists. Imagine the city is ours to shape with each other as we shaped the barricades. We'll organize our social activity with each other in terms of our dreams. If the possibilities to realize all our dreams don't exist, we'll create the possibilities. We'll communicate with each other, we'll coordinate with each other, we'll organize with each other – without politicians who speak for us, without coordinators who manipulate us, without officials who organize our activity. To communicate with each other we hold large and small meetings where we exchange suggestions, initiate projects, solve problems. At the largest meeting, we attentively listen to the projects of all, the decisions of all.
Yet when we leave we all feel cheated, we feel that something has been taken from us, that something, somewhere has gone wrong. The most militant, admirable and courageous of our comrades, standing and sitting on the speakers' platform, were transformed into something we cannot quite understand... We become nauseated when we realize we've just taken part in an event which robbed us of the fruit of our struggle. We're learning, and we're nauseated because we're learning too late.”
- Fredy Perlman
What's in a society?
How can the shifts within the systems that govern our lives be understood?
How can we connect our own choices to the choices made by elites, by forces seemingly outside of our control?
Stories. Hints. Scraps.
Little bits of evidence that point in possible directions.
I was born in the eerie, triumphant calm created by 'neutralizing' the upheaval.
The rulers of the United States had to neutralize the radical movement in this country. Of course, there were the endless arrests, long prison sentences, ceaseless court battles and bankrupting legal expenses. Beyond all of that, there was what both sides called 'the war at home': maniacal cops running through crowds of thousands and beating people senseless, radical leaders murdered in their sleep, soldiers and tanks fighting poor people in the inner cities. But more often than all of these tactics, the radicals were made completely impotent in far more subtle and sinister ways. Revolutionary organizations were full of police informers, thousands of pages of personal information about the radicals were kept on file by the FBI and false organizations were created in order to stir up divisions. In time, the movement was splintered into a thousand different directions, and an atmosphere of mistrust, arrogance and fear was widespread. Many of the dynamic participants in radical organizations – those who survived and stayed out of jail – were absorbed into the academy, non-profit organizations and liberal and Marxist parties.
Ironically, one of the most powerful weapons in the US government's war at home was to allow the movement to have some level of success. Laws were passed to grant certain concessions, such as the 1965 repetition of the 1870 legislation which had guaranteed black people the right to vote and the repeal of various laws which insisted on racial separation in public. In addition, many of the initiatives of the movement were replicated and replaced by government and non-profit projects. The revolutionary fervor of the Black Panther Party's 'breakfast for children' program was silenced through state-run programs to feed 'low income' schoolchildren breakfast. The freedom schools disappeared and were replaced by workshops and conferences, driven by foundation funding and agendas. And so on.
Things got 'better' in the United States, but the cost of that improvement has been staggering. After more than ten years of war and more than two million had been killed, the draft was repealed, and so now the world's most devastating military apparatus is run by volunteers and mercenaries, rather than a disgruntled and rag-tag group of eighteen year old boys. The United States government remains committed to 'permanent warfare,' all the same. Racial integration can claim certain tangible successes, including the supposed victory of a non-white person heading the Democratic Party – once the party of slavery, later the party of segregation – and being elected president. But this represents no obvious change in the fundamental policies of the united states, and actually seems to point to the final annihilation of a coherent and militant black politics in this country.
The idea that black people represent the 'moral conscience' of the nation is now specious, at best.
All things considered, these are essentially quiet times. We are living through a prolonged period of deep repression, not rebellion.
Every country has their own hell.
“South African capital still lacks any clear vision of an apartheid-free capitalism,
let alone how to bring it about.
But that does not mean that it won't be able to live profitably when others finally end it.”
− Gavin Williams, 1988
“The future will only contain what we put into it now.”
- Graffiti, France, May 1968
It is clear that every country has their own hell, their own savageries and traumas. South Africa may have a uniquely horrifying history to contend with, but it is not the only place where people struggle to break free from the weight of their history. All of us find ourselves increasingly living within a globalized hell; a system of exploitation and brutality which claims to be both inevitable and permanent. The tangible significance of 'independence' throughout the decolonized world has been steadily attacked at virtually all levels and socialism has collapsed, leaving many people feeling disillusioned and set adrift amidst what appears to be few fundamental alternatives.
Not unlike the situation in many other countries, the hopes and aspirations of South African radicals were not fulfilled by the system change which came about formally in 1994. In 1996, the government of South Africa, led by the African National Congress (ANC), began implementing a macro-economic policy known as GEAR (Growth, Employment And Redistribution). The program was designed based on basic structural recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, but without the assistance of a loan from either institution. The intent was to be voluntarily compliant (the people must volunteer themselves to suffer, because their leaders say so) with the demands of international capital, in exchange for a modicum of political independence.
In choosing such an economic policy, which is politely referred to in economics texts as 'austerity measures,' the ANC signaled a sharp reversal of the 'Reconstruction and Development' principles (such as a commitment to land reform and the creation of basic infrastructure to meet human needs, in terms of housing, health care and education) which won them the first democratic elections in 1994. There had been obvious stirrings in this direction prior to 1996, but GEAR left little room for speculation.
The era of 'realistic' politics in South Africa is underway.
Realistically, the prospects for social justice are slim.
In South Africa, the hell of apartheid has given way to a new desert of possibilities.
“Political and economic power is concentrated in white hands. The result is a situation in which merely removing the apartheid brakes on mobility and ending racial discrimination will not fundamentally alter the position of the black people of South Africa. A real change can be brought about only by a fundamental redistribution of wealth and of power.”(37)
- Rick Turner
The concept of 'winning' – wars of liberation, revolutions, etc. – is a dangerous concept. A clear victory is often a defeat in disguise. But when we say that we've already won, our minds shut off. We are infatuated with slogans and programs and clear and tangible progress. Even if we are able to speak out strongly against the failures of so-called revolutionaries to actually implement their stated goals once they take power, 'the movement' remains frozen in our memories at its climax: vibrant, inspiring, and utterly disconnected from the compromises and capitulations which followed.
The real lesson of the ANC's capitulation to the demands of international capital is that it is less a betrayal than it is a continuation of a process long underway.
There is a great deal of glorification of armed struggle in South Africa. The old songs about picking up a machine gun and going to war against the settlers remain popular. Many South Africans believe – and their politicians spend a great deal of effort to reinforce this belief – that the armed struggle represents a victory of the people against the old system. Objectively speaking, clandestine, illegal forces hiding in the bush didn't win the day in South Africa. At best, the armed struggle – mixed with popular rebellion at a variety of levels – helped create a political and economic climate that forced the old regime to the negotiating table.
For many years before the first democratic elections, negotiations had been underway between leadership of the ANC, representatives of the old government, and big business. After the ANC became a legal organization, in 1990, and many of the top leaders returned to the country, the negotiations became public, and took on much more importance. During this period, the mass organizations created by the movement within South Africa were almost entirely dismantled, as more and more power was placed within the hands of the ANC elite at the negotiating table.
Essentially cut off from any popular participation, the ANC leadership moved forward with a carefully orchestrated transfer of power. This ensured them a stable place within the state, without needing to significantly disrupt any of the basic facts of the South African system. The major mines, factories and banks would not be nationalized. There would be no widespread seizure or redistribution of private property. The mass of the population would not be given the skills and resources needed to take control of important positions within the economy and determine the future of economic choices in the country. Furthermore, a 'sunset clause' was added at that last moment, which guaranteed all of the old functionaries of the apartheid regime a stable job within the new government for at least five years after the ANC took control of the state. The police and military apparatus simply absorbed their previous enemies, and the various bureaucracies carried on as before, just with a few new black faces, and a modified rhetoric about their overall mission.
If any of this appears contradictory, it is important to remember that Marxism (in most of its variants) and nationalism (in all of its variants) is focused on the seizure of state power. At a certain level, for Marxists and Nationalists, state power in-and-of-itself is the perceived goal of revolutionary change. Looked at in this light, it is neither contradictory nor surprising that an alliance between the Communist Party and the primary nationalist party has succeeded in seizing state power, and yet has failed to implement a great deal of other changes which might be regarded as revolutionary.
The liberation struggle is used now to justify the status quo: power, privilege and poverty.
“Adherence to Communism has nothing to do with Marx and his theories...
The reason people are quitting communism today is not that their thinking has changed or undergone a shock, but that Communism no longer provides a way to look nonconformist or obey or punish the wicked or be useful or march forward with youth...
The Communist creed no longer answers any need.
It has become so unusable that everyone drops it easily, never even noticing.”
- Milan Kundera
There is in South Africa a concept called 'struggle credentials.'
That is, in the growing story of the 'liberation' of the country from apartheid, there are some people whose participation in the struggle supposedly makes them deserving of unquestioned loyalty from the populace. Criticisms of politicians in power can be neatly deflected by pointing to their service to the liberation of the country. In this way, national heroes are created in the mythology of the new nation. In this way, a political climate develops where outside of the party there is virtually no room for opposition... and within the party the stifling of dissent is even more severe. Public statements by high-ranking members of the ANC come out on a consistent basis, slandering anyone who is disloyal to the party. Disloyalty is attacked in-and-of-itself, and not in the interests of maintaining any principled position. Members of a break-away party formed in the last few years were described by ANC leadership as 'cockroaches.' Meanwhile, the corrupt head-of-state is defended publicly by other party members based on the logic that, 'if he's a corrupt president, we want a corrupt president.”(38)
The African National Congress maintained a working relationship with the Soviet Union until the collapse of communist states in 1989. The Soviet state provided food and weapons and training to the ANC military camps that were set up throughout southern Africa. ANC leadership took refuge in Moscow and were given extensive training. They were trained in the techniques of running a clandestine, authoritarian organization (responsible both for managing a long-term guerrilla war and a high-profile international diplomacy campaign) as well as Stalinist methods of state-craft. Throughout, South African security branch officers were unable to disrupt the flow of money and information between the Soviets and the ANC. In light of this, it's not surprising that the ANC now exhibits some of the worst habits of Stalinism. There is no contradiction in a political party pursuing capitalist economics through Stalinist means, as the essence of Stalinism has no relationship to 'socialism' – as a form of social ownership of wealth – and is merely a form of state power.
To make matters worse, the ANC has been for the last two decades in a formal alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).(39) Both of these organizations had a long-standing positive relationship with the Soviet Union, and orthodox concepts of authoritarian socialism. Both the SACP and COSATU were crucial to the process of 'disciplining' the struggle against apartheid, forcing out independent and dissident tendencies within the movement, and crafting a clear and 'unified' set of messages and goals for everyone that remained. Therefore, the existence of Communists and trade unionists in an alliance with the governing party does not – as many people lazily assume – point to a 'left' leaning of the state.
On the contrary, the current governing alliance is deeply stagnated, hemmed in by their own frightening mix of socialist rhetoric, Stalinist organizational principles and capitalist policies.
THE NECESSITY OF UTOPIAN THINKING.
THE IMPRACTICALITY OF REALISM.
”The essential problem is this:
How can we design a set of institutions that will give all individuals power over their own lives without permitting them to exercise power over other people?
How can we design political institutions that will give people the maximum freedom to choose what to do with their own lives?”
− Rick Turner
What's in a life?
How can we trace a coherent thread of aspiration and maintain our dignity in spite of the fact that compromise feels like an inevitability?
What's in a society?
How do we retain our determination to radically transform all of our social interactions and structures in light of the seeming permanence of the current moment?
Stories. Hints. Scraps.
Little bits of evidence that point in possible directions.
There are two ways to think about how societies change. One can either focus on structures or on people, power or relationships. On one level, it is possible to analyze the broad dynamics that govern our lives: economic forces, ideologies we are socialized to believe, political machinations, and so forth. I don't deny that this is a helpful thought process at times. But at the same time, it is vital to try and understand social change as a dynamic of human relationships: friendships and collaborations, shared projects and risks... drifting, distance and betrayal.
As it turns out, people made all of the major, dramatic changes in social systems that we know of.
* * *
I want to spin the concept of 'struggle credentials' on its head.
The system change in South Africa makes for such good myth material because of the human qualities of the story. Nelson Mandela had a deep and abiding friendship with his jailer, which spanned many years, even after his captivity had ended. The current president, Jacob Zuma, was once a much cherished protector of Dirk Coetzee, a security policeman who had been in charge of a psychotic hit squad that terrorized the ANC. A white employee of the Anglo-American mining company was crucially influential in bringing about the first stage of negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid state, in the mid 1980s.
Many of Rick Turner's peers had long lasting and fruitful careers as activists, trade unionists, professors and, eventually, businessmen and government ministers. In tracing the trajectory of their lives, it is possible to see ourselves. In that initial moment of constant opposition to the state, we want to recognize ourselves in their choices, we share their aspiration. Then, we must unravel the slow drift, the unfolding in the direction of not only accepting, but justifying a deeply compromised situation. At the core, there is the tremendous weight of rationality, the powerfully persuasive logic of pragmatism, of doing what can be done.
How do we avoid following down that slow drifting spiral of 'realism'?
”Theory itself is not difficult.
What is often difficult is to shift oneself into a theoretical attitude, that is, to see that things in one's experience cannot be taken for granted... The present nearly always seems to be at least fairly permanent.
In order to theorize about society perhaps the first step (psychologically) we have to make is to grasp the present as history. History is not something that has just come to an end and certainly not something that came to an end fifty years ago. Societies, including our own society, have been changing in many ways, great and small, throughout time, and there is no reason to believe that they have stopped now. History is not a process leading up to perfection in the flowering of our present 'civilization.'”
- Rick Turner
We are dealing with a global collapse of the coherency of all previous left politics.
We have become unmoored, on many levels and for many reasons. Despite the aspirations of movements for 'national liberation,' the end of colonialism leaves a situation in which Third World states remain deeply unjust, and heavily controlled by the powerful capitalist states of the west. The racial system has been re-designed on many levels, obscuring the obvious and gross brutality of the old arrangement. The end of socialism signals a need to fundamentally re-evaluate the rationality and the clarity not only of authoritarian marxism, but also of traditional strands of anarchism which rely on many basic premises of communism.
I'm starting to re-evaluate my politics, starting to ask myself what, if anything, of my previous world view is still helpful towards a radical transformation of the society I was born in.
I want to step away from the ease and coherency of my previous values and beliefs. Even though this feels like walking off of a cliff in some ways, I think it's healthy and necessary. I need to re-evaluate the governing logic of my life and figure out whether it still makes any sense.
* * *
“I thought the epoch of wage labor was coming to an end.
I responded by formulating slogans, printing them on signs, and displaying the signs...
My commitment to slogans, words, programs, abstractions on signs, was a commitment to death.
Instead of life I had a credo.
Instead of taking steps with other people toward real projects carried out during our living moments of time,
I took steps to convert other people to my credo, my religion, my words.
My desire for liberated activity became a belief in liberated activity.”
- Fredy Perlman
I'm through with being a self-proclaimed 'activist.' My disillusionment with organized left wing politics, which began in the months following the hurricane, feels permanent now. I can't imagine returning to a role of being a firm supporter of any particular platform, program, or organization.
At this point, it would feel deeply artificial to try and persuade anyone, including myself, that I have any solid answers to our present predicament that can be packaged and presented to 'the people.' I agree strongly with Rick Turner when he says that, “The object is not to tell people what they want, or what they ought to want. It is to give individuals the maximum possible amount of control over what happens to themselves and hence the maximum possible amount of freedom to decide what they want, and then to act to get it.”(40)
Nonetheless, I still think it's important to have a radical ethics, a set of criteria by which I can try and avoid losing my integrity.
* * *
“As powerful and as rigid as the structures of white supremacy were,
they were more easily defeated than the manner in which thought
– and with thought, behavior – imprisoned the communities in which we worked…
Most of us organizing soon learned that our main challenge was
getting black people to challenge themselves…
Every step in the fight against racism and discrimination was preceded by
a deeper and more profound struggle that involved confronting oneself.”
- Charlie Cobb, SNCC
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Consciousness movement captivated people's imagination because of the tremendous determination of their members. The only reason there was even a possibility of a white radical collaboration in support of either movement was because the black radicals were able to assert themselves with such courage, and such clarity. The social and political conditions, in both South Africa and the United States, have changed dramatically; it may be that the surface questions – of integration or separation, of the role of whites – have largely faded in significance. Nonetheless, a certain ethical core remains from that time period.
Steve Biko framed one of the fundamental paradoxes of the Black Consciousness movement:
“The black man has become a shell, a shadow of a man, completely defeated... drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity... This is the first truth, bitter as it may seem, that we have to acknowledge before we can start on any program of changing the status quo… The only vehicle for change are these people who have lost their personality.”
It is an unusual – and riveting – decision to place the sole responsibility for radical change on the shoulders of “a shell of a man.” How can this possibly work? Biko insisted that the black person himself must “pump back life into his empty shell.”(41) In short, Biko is outlining an ethical choice, with profound ramifications: Dignity is not something that can be granted from above. There will be no way to be 'led' to freedom. In fact, this is quite a universal message, not at all limited to the experience of black people.
Ella Baker, a long-time radical organizer and close friend and mentor for many within SNCC, articulated a very similar position to Biko's, but in slightly different terms. Her focus was to encourage,
“people living in given situations to realize that there was a strength they had within them and that by combined efforts they could do something about whatever their conditions were. But they first had to face the fact that nobody’s gonna do for you that which you had the power to do and failed to do.”
* * *
“It is relatively easy to sketch out the above picture of an ideal possible society in South Africa.
It is, I must stress, a possible society, in that there are neither imperatives of organization nor imperatives of human nature which would prevent such a society from operating once it came into existence.”
- Rick Turner
Rick Turner wrote at length about the necessity of Utopian thinking. In his book The Eye of the Needle, He attempted to present his vision for an ideal South African future, which he called a 'Participatory Democracy,' in a clear and coherent way. While I don't want to be a believer, per se, in any one vision of the future, it is absolutely vital, for my survival, for my sanity, for my capacity to be generous with those around me, that these idealistic visions exist. I cannot possibly thrive in a climate of pragmatic proposals towards the lessening of the horrific qualities of our present system.
I am very much interested in the attitude, the spirit, the energy behind Turner's Utopianism. In his writing he confronted a group of cautious, reasonable, middle-class, Christian whites; and he told them in no uncertain terms to abandon their caution entirely, to abandon any hope that their present way of life would last. Rick Turner refused to demand less, of himself, of his peers, of society as a whole, merely because the climate at the time was suffocating.
I have been deeply inspired by Rick Turner's ethical choices. There are a number of ethical positions that Turner articulated that resonate with me: place more value in people than things, and strive to share property as fully as possible; use dialog to stimulate critical thought and change values; avoid, to the greatest extent possible, authoritarian and hierarchical methods of working together; and a corresponding trust in 'the educative function of participation,' the ability of people to develop the capacity to control their own lives through the act of collaboration.
* * *
Our lives are made up of all the choices that we make, or do not make.
Choices made visible, but not chosen.
Choices made, but not understood, or not re-evaluated later, or regretted and carried like a weight.
These are, indeed, troublingly quiet times.
It is tempting to drift into the numb comfort of cynicism.
But simply naming the moral depravity of our times is not enough.
The only escape from cynicism,
at this point,
lies in Utopian thought,
in articulating and defending a vision of an 'ideally possible society.'
Epilogue: refusing to be erased by being known as 'anti-racists'
(a reply from my uncle)
well, you make it sound as if there were an internal, organic 'issue' around the rebel flag. there was not an issue; surprisingly, the effective mechanism for decisions within the Young Patriots was consensus!
people might propose all kinds of shit – the point was that nothing would really get done unless the 'group' was pretty solid behind it. no factions (that i am aware of). leadership came from the young men (and women, to a lesser extent) of the community; it was fundamentally a 'defensive' mindset that prevailed – no one was to be put at risk unless there was a compelling reason for it.
so, when the Panther Party proposed the 'Rainbow Coalition,' and invited the Young Patriots to represent the interests of white southerners in it – the decision to participate with them was, as usual, a consensus choice: no effective disagreement.
why does a group with a 'defensive' (i.e. no risk) mindset agree to an alliance with the BPP?
the astonishing agreement (a modern-day 'peace treaty') was the fruit of the work of Bobby Lee (or, more formally, Robert E. Lee III). Bobby Lee was a 'light-skinned black man' or, a mixed-race individual, or, a citizen of the U.S. Bobby Lee came into the Uptown neighborhood (ours) and stayed with us for a long time (maybe 10 days, or two weeks). he didn't say too much; he partied with us, watched us quietly. at the end of that interval he suggested to us that we would be welcome in a new 'tri-racial' alliance of youthful militants (that is to say the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords, representing the 'Latino' near-north side of Chicago, and the YPO, representing displaced appalachians and sundry fellow-travelers at the far(ther) north, Uptown community).
the near-north territory of the Young Lords shared a mutual boundary with the south-east corner of Uptown. a hypothetical mixed-race group in Uptown might 'party hardy' in Uptown, but if a journey into the near-north Young Lords domain was contemplated, then an escort and a 'good attitude' were always handy if not necessary. for the southern whites in Uptown, a journey south of Montrose Ave. was historically fraught with anxiety, potential misunderstanding and/or physical violence.
it is important to understand that this 'peace treaty' was not fundamentally, and certainly not exclusively, about ideology. it was not abstract, but rather realistic.
to the young people involved it held out the real benefit of:
− easier and more secure travel across cultural-social-racial boundaries in Chicago.
− it constituted a 'mutual defense' pact against a multiplicity of enemies: i.e. cops, 'criminal' (or brain-dead) gangs, bosses, landlords, etc. by virtue of this posture of mutual-defense it seemed to them that they would be less prone to, and better defended against, both casual and methodical violence.
& ALWAYS REMEMBER:
many of the southern men were fugitives from the law.
− patterns of employment in Appalachia were among the early victims of technological change. Coal-eating, truly colossal machinery, made men in coal mining nearly obsolete. sketchy, low-pay employment readily led to unsatisfied debts with local merchants and state officials.
− patterns of employment in Chicago were the bourgeois reciprocal of affairs in Appalachia. relatively high-pay factory work in Chicago (and Detroit, Indiannapolis, etc.) said 'come hither' to the skill-less, homeless fugitive.
− just pack up a car with quilts, clothes, children, and head on over to the promised land. no more debts; brand new life.
− until similar unstable conditions in the big city created new debts and related beefs with bourgeois law.
− and back again to KY or WV to begin the cycle anew. this time with unserved, outstanding warrants on file already.
To these people, Fred Hampton's disdain of and resistance to the Chicago PD made him a hero of the 1st order. He wasn't a 'Black' Hero and he clearly wasn't a 'White' Hero – he was merely a hero.
It was on this basis that the treaty of the Rainbow Coalition was possible:
a posture of mutual self-defense against a set of daunting (and mutual) enemies
& especially: zero tolerance toward the genocidal policies of the Chicago Police Department
Now, Bobby Lee and the Panthers made no particular demands of us, other than that we
− generally accepted (and did not opppose) the Panther Party's political program.
We did that.
And one of our great successes was that, whereas at the outset several (many?) of our group were functionally illiterate (that is to say, if an activity required reading or writing they would habitually abstain from that activity) a regular study session of about six weeks (group reading and discussion of Mao's Red Book) persuaded nearly all that they were not illiterate at all, just inhibited about comparison with their peers, and for no good reason other than shame.
the Panthers didn't tell us what to do or how to do it. they asked for our assistance and it was freely and voluntarily given.
the choice to put the rebel flag on the jackets was consensual; nobody disagreed. i put out a leaflet and saw to its distribution; the header was a graphic:
[insert image of rebel flag, with the inscription: WE ARE ALL SLAVES IN THE EYES OF THE MAN underneath]
i was very careful to carry the draft text around until i was certain of broad agreement. i supervised its distribution; we leafletted the commercial center of the community – very public. afterward, my ears were all pricked up for any and all feedback. there was none. it was if nothing had happened. i couldn't believe it.
* * *
i have been interviewed by a man (a very nice man, named James Tracy, from San Francisco) about the Patriots. he seemed to want to portray the Patriots as a crucial link in a multi-generational narrative (there's a long story here- there was a splinter group later, in Eugene, Oregon; they wound up doing time. James Tracy would portray us as the philosophical forebears of this die-hard group) of ANTI-RACISM.
i finally got impatient with him and told him: anti-racism was never the nature of our agreement.
the politics we were shaping were more real, more human, more mature (!) than any vacuus appeal anti-racism might have held.
the Left at that time spat on us as impressionable children; the Panthers solicited our help.
the writers of today would perhaps erase us – only of course so that we might be eligible for a more saintly group.
1. At the 1966 meeting to decide whether or not to become an all-black organization, Bob Zellner, the one white organizer that had been with SNCC since 1961, put forward a proposal to organize white southerners, separate from the blacks, but still under the name, SNCC. The group voted down his proposal, insisting that SNCC must be only for blacks, and whites must work amongst themselves. Zellner, lacking the support of SNCC, didn't go forward with his project.
2. Turner, Eye of the Needle, pp. 123-124.
3. Morphet, ‘Why We Need Richard Turner,' p. 90.
4. “Coloured” is a specific racial designation in South Africa. It connotes a broad group of people, including all varieties of so-called “mixed-race” peoples, including any mixes of Dutch, English, Malay, Indian, Khoi-San, or African descent. The Coloured population received a relative level of privilege amongst the non-white groups living under apartheid. As Turner's second wife, Foszia Fisher, was officially designated as “Coloured,” the state was particularly concerned to severe his ties to that community.
5. South African Police file, Ref. S.1/8242, signed Brigadier H.G.V. Cilliers, 8.6.1973, Jann Turner Papers.
7. Morphet, 'Introduction,' p. xxxii.
8. Interview with Turner-Stylinau, 17 October 2009.
9. De Kadt et. al., 'Why We Need Richard Turner,' p. 89.
10. As his marriage with Foszia broke numerous apartheid laws on racial mixing, and all social conventions, this striving for equality took on increased significance.
11. Turner, Eye of the Needle, p. 102.
12. Turner, ‘Should South African students riot?,' p. 4.
13. Biko, I Write What I Like, p. 20.
14. Turner, ‘Black Consciousness and White Liberals,' in Karis and Gerhart, From Protest to Challenge, p. 429.
15. Interview with Cheadle, 9 November 2009.
16. Interview with Badsha, 5 November 2009.
17. Ibid., ‘Black Consciousness and White Liberals,’ in From Protest to Challenge, p. 427.
18. Ibid., 431.
19. 1972 speech in Utretcht, as quoted in Walshe, Church vs State in South Africa, pp. 117-118.
20. As quoted in Ryan, Beyers Naude, 1990, pp. 132-133.
21. SPRO-CAS, Taste of Power, pp. 109.
22. Biko, I Write What I Like, p 20. I have changed the tense of this quote from past tense to present tense.
23. SPRO-CAS, White Liberation, p. 7. Saunders cites a man named Peter Jones, 'of the BC movement' who says that 'assistance from the CI was unconditional and nothing was expected in return.' C. Saunders, 'Aboveground Organisations and Activities.' In The Road to Democracy, vol. 2, p. 850.
24. Ibid., p. 80.
25. Ibid., p. 81.
26. Ibid., p. 197.
27. Ibid., p. 82.
28. And this they always stressed, implying that tinkering about and making insignificant changes could be initiated by whites alone.
29. Walshe, Church vs State in South Africa, p. 142.
30. SPRO-CAS, Taste of Power, p. 82.
31. J. Turner, 'Now in the Cold Dawn,' 2 pp. Jann Turner Papers.
32. R. Turner, The Eye of the Needle: Toward Participatory Democracy in South Africa. (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1980), p. 99.
33. Biko, I Write What I Like, p. 153.
34 Ordered to stand, Biko repeatedly refused. Enraged, the officers picked him up and shoved him head-first into the concrete wall of his cell.
35. Ibid., p. 221.
36. The Eye of the Needle, ch. 7.
37. Julius Malema. Many damning quotes from him can be found.
38. The alliance with the SACP goes back to 1960.
39. Ibid., p. 91.
40. Biko, I Write What I Like, p. 29.
Taylor received a grant from the Institute for Anarchist Studies in the summer of 2009. Taylor is a historian, poet, and autonomist raised white in the United States. He worked for three years for Firestarter Press, producing materials principally for prisoners, and was both a student and a teacher at the School for Designing a Society, a space for developing radical and non-doctrinaire visions for ending capitalism. He continues to try to find constructive (and destructive, where applicable) ways to disrupt and oppose the fundamentally unjust and undignified society in which he – and we – now live.