The following is one in a series of posts dealing with the wave of protest sweeping the United States following the police murder of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Other posts in this series include: Burn Down the Prison: Race, Property, and the Ferguson Rebellion, 5 Ways To Build a Movement after Ferguson, The Old Mole Breaks Concrete: The Ongoing Rupture in New York City, and Points for Discussion on Race in the United States from Noel Ignatiev.
Turn Up Htown: Reflections on Nov 25 Day of Action
by Out of the Flames of Ferguson
The decision made by the grand jury to not indict Darren Wilson for the merciless killing of Mike Brown came at no surprise. I had been hearing and reading about similar stories prior to that one of Brown and realized the outcomes were pretty much the same. A black man dies at the hands of our American brothers and sisters and the system continues to work flawlessly. No indictment. No charge. Paid vacation. Half of me wishes this was fiction but all of the conscious me knows it is a full blown reality.
Knowing that it would not be anytime soon before any kind of justice would be displayed regarding such cases, many individuals including myself took our frustration to the streets. We marched tirelessly throughout Third Ward the following night…
It seemed as though I had arrived to the protest at precisely the right time. There was at least one thousand people there with signs that read BLACK LIVES MATTER and HANDS UP DON’T SHOOT. The momentum had been building for some time now and I could gather from observation, that at that corner of Southmore Boulevard and Dowling Street, the massive group in its entirety had to make a decision. The energy was perfect and our power as group was getting more intense by the second; however, there was a problem. We had no direction. Our mission has suddenly started to unravel. We began to look like fools in the eyes of the oppressor. While the majority wanted to push through the barricade of horses and pigs in uniform, those individuals who we thought were on our side presented their own agenda.
Summary of the Action
In Houston we had our day of action the day after the non-indictment, Nov 25 at 5pm, starting at MacGregor Park, a park near the University of Houston in Third Ward. The rally was organized by several radicals from Houston. What’s important to note is not only has there been a groundswell in activity, but a shift in the mood of protesters. People are willing to push the limits at protests and get in the streets to disrupt business as usual. Throughout the night the energy was high and our confidence grew as we chanted. The aim of this article is to show 1) our own tactical mistakes during the march 2) the reactionary orientation and methodology of specific groups 3) the ideological and historical reasons these groups relate to actions in such a manner and 4) the evolving strategy of the police in relation to Ferguson protests.
In the lead up to the rally, there was a disagreement between the different organizing groups over who should lead the action. Some felt that the New Black Panther Party or other black nationalist groups should be placed at the head of the action, on the assumption that those forces “represent” or speak for the black community. Folks with Out of the Flames of Ferguson (OOTFF) argued against that position and expressed that activity trumps identity. We called for facilitating an organic leadership to emerge from among the community that showed up the day of the action.
When we arrived at the park the day of, people were already gathering inside the park, and there was the media surrounding a group with the Nation of Islam (NOI) and the New Black Panther Party (NBPP). Despite not having been involved in the month-long effort of outreach and planning for the rally, the NOI presented themselves to the media as spokesmen for the rally. Although the orientation to these groups was out-debated they were able to attempt to coopt the rally because of our tardiness. This was the beginning of a chain of events where other liberal forces also intervened and tried to lead it.
So the NOI had people go stand around an MLK statue where we were able to intervene and start an open mic for everyone to speak, not just the NOI. There a woman, Assata Richards who we later found out was running for city council and is vice chair and program director for a non profit housing complex in Third Ward called Project Row Houses, said we should block traffic, so we did. She also didn’t want the march to go through Third Ward and instead to stay in the intersection at MLK and OST. But the energy was high, and after holding down that intersection for about 15 minutes we decided to get the march going. The NOI attempted to guide people back into the park, but we were able to intervene and get people to stay in the streets.
With a crowd of 400-500 mainly young black folks, we did an unpermitted march through Third Ward, going along side the two universities, UH and TSU, then through Cuney Homes (project housing). The crowd grew to close to 1,000, picking up people from the community and campuses as we passed by.
Throughout the march, there was a uniformed HPD Captain by the name of Troy who marched behind the frontlines, attempting to speak with protesters, gather information, and eavesdrop on conversations between the organizers. He even passed out his business card as he if is a “friend” to the struggle. This officer should not have been allowed to march among our people. There was a pastor, Pastor E A Deckard, who was up in the front of the march, talking to the cops in tandem with a member of the NAACP, telling them where our route was going, what we were planning, etc. The pastor made several other interventions that included stopping people from pushing through police lines. The RCP created a division because they wanted their signage to be visible. At one point, they were trailing a solid 30 feet behind which allowed a small splinter as we got into Cuney Homes.
When we got to Cuney Homes, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee came with her police escort for a quick photo op in front of the march before jumping back in her car and driving off. After that, people leading the march wanted to keep marching and shut down the 288 freeway. We marched to the edge of Third Ward where the freeway is and had a standoff with police, first at an intersection that was mainly houses, a couple blocks down from the freeway. The decision to attempt the takeover of highway 288 came naturally from the crowd.
At that point, the cops had started surrounding us and people started trying to push through the police line made up of cops on foot. There was some shoving back and forth with the cops when Pastor Deckard and another young man with the NAACP (who was also talking to the cops), made another intervention telling everyone to sit down and do a four-and-a-half minute moment of silence. This allowed the cops to prepare themselves and kill off some of the militancy of the crowd. We tried to intervene, calling on people to reject Deckard’s “silence is your strength” calls. About 100 people ended up leaving at this point.
After people started leaving, the cops let us through to get to the next intersection which was right next to the bridge of the freeway and around some stores and a gas station. There they were prepared already, with a row of horses and cops on foot, and behind them several rows of cop cars, and there was another stand off. People started linking arms and slowly making their way toward the cops on horses, one step at a time. The police line did not budge and the surge by the crowd began to dissipate.
After a while people were debating what to do when the cops showed up with paddy wagons. The preacher and the other man with the NAACP led the march from there, taking people away from the freeway and back toward TSU to do a speak out. There some students who were still on campus came out. A lot of different ideas were put forward, people booing at the more reformist ones, especially the “pull your pants up” kind of stuff.
There are many lessons we can take from this experience, and many things to consider while moving forward in Houston. These things include dealing with black nationalists including the NOI and NBPP and black church leaders, how the militancy in Houston is shifting, and what the response by the pigs has been to this activity.
Tensions with Black “Leadership”
As illustrated above, Houston has experienced similar dynamics that we’ve seen play out in Ferguson with regard to the self-appointed black leadership. It is no surprise that the black middle class has always had a relationship to black struggle. Yet its role has been that of silencing and taming black revolts when they happen, the usual line of “we’ll take it from here” playing this role. However, their interventions have repeatedly been repudiated by younger militants. Ferguson has been described as a place where civil rights and black power never happened. This void in local bourgeois black leadership and the inability of outside leadership like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to contain and mediate the struggle has partly resulted in the explosive events we’ve seen unfold.
However, being that the location of the march in Houston was held in the Greater 3rd Ward which is one of the few remaining neighborhoods with a history of the civil rights and black power movements, we came into direct conflict with the political and black nationalist forces that are remnants of that era. It can be dumbfounding for newer, younger militants coming out to see a man or woman dressed in all black fatigues and beret yelling loudly at the cops in one instant, and in the next actively communicating with them in attempting to herd and direct the crowd. Nevertheless, this contradiction doesn’t stop with groups like the NBPP or NOI.
This hypocrisy is evident as well when recently Democratic Party members Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green used the hands up dont shoot gesture during a Congress meeting. Both Lee and Green voted against limiting the transfer of weapons by the Department of Defense to local police agencies. Lee and Green are representative of the layer of black politicians that were integrated into the system to help quell the last cycle of mass struggle during the 60’s and 70’s. As they try to position themselves at the head of the movement we must remind ourselves that the Democrats have signed off on massive neo-liberal austerity measures that have gutted health care, transportation, infrastructure, education, housing, and food assistance while at the same time increasing police spending. Given the role the democrats have played in crushing and stifling black struggle makes Sheila Jackson Lee’s little photo op even more appalling.
Some of these groups claim the legacy of black power, such as the NBPP. Yet they embody its exact opposite through respectability politics and reinforcing the prescription of struggle by official society through electoral politics, petitioning, and collaborating with and trying to reform the police. All of the communist and radical content that animated groups like the original Black Panther Party has been stripped away and what we’re left with is a militant veneer. Those dead-end tactics are what young folks in Ferguson have spurned as they’ve fought to hold public space, establish street and freeway blockades, unarrest fellow protesters, organize mass marches, engage in street battles with police, hold sit-ins, store occupations and more.
Marches like this and other actions provide us with the space to debate and reject interventions by reformist elements. These spaces are an ideological and tactical battleground we contend in where we must help facilitate or support the most radical tactics that arise organically from the crowd. Ignoring the ideological differences means conceding ground to the most conservative and reformist forces present.
Nationally there has been the police strategy of letting people blow off steam, not making too strong of an intervention unless there is property damage and in the case of Houston if people try to take the freeways. This ABC News interview with HPD executive assistant chief George Buenik, demonstrates the coordination of this police strategy at the Nov 25th march. Buenik says, “They can march. They can chant. They can say whatever they want. We’re not going to tolerate property destruction like we’ve seen in other cities. We’re not going to allow them to shut down any freeways or throw rocks, bottles or break any windows in the city.”
What this looked like in practice the day of was HPD relying on the information provided by the so-called leadership of people like Pastor Deckard and others mentioned above, about the route and what our next moves were, in order to keep things contained and plan ahead. We have also noticed in Houston HPD’s extensive use of horses, part of the Special Operations Unit, which act as a barricade when people try to take the freeway. Aside from that they were very hands off, allowing us to take intersections, block traffic, even burn an American flag without any intervention.
Contrasting this to the unpermitted Ferguson march we did just weeks before we can see how they have gone from tailing our activity to leaping ahead. At the August 20th march through Third Ward it appeared as if they had no idea what we were planning. We broke through several police lines and took the streets for over an hour. There was a lot of mixed communication between the cops and the crowd, some cops being very aggressive, others allowing us to march. Now, they are coming out strong in very large numbers, hundreds police being present at this Nov 25th action, and playing crowd control.
There is a need to understand police tactics both locally and nationally in an attempt to think and move forward. The August 20th action was absolutely the right thing to do and we know this because we not only caught the cops off guard, but we were making leaps in terms of what kind of activity was acceptable in Houston. This became even more generalized and even advanced at the non-indictment march on Nov 25th, where we not only held a mass unpermitted march, but also attempted to take the freeway. How can we think about developing and pushing the most militant tactics without allowing their attempt to burn out our energy to be successful?
The destruction or shutting down of business as usual is an important development, and has taken the shape of highway shutdowns, die-ins in stores, malls, or public spaces, to property destruction in places like Berkeley, and obviously Ferguson. These are really important developments because they have pushed forward new kinds of energy and tactics. But they also have their limits. In order to tackle the question of how we are going to put an end to police brutality, we have to be looking forward, pushing the most militant tactics, and developing fighting organizations within communities of color. Below are a few thoughts on how we can accomplish these things given the current energy and tactics being taken up both nationally and locally.
- These actions must be honed in on specific targets – Next steps for facing power need to take the forms of direct confrontation with the phony politicians who claim to be representative of our struggle but constantly throw us under the bus, and the police directly. In Houston certain key political targets should be Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green. Also targeting police departments, or the Sheriff’s office.
- Our efforts should be focused on abolishing police and prisons, not reforming them – there are a lot of groups and people who are putting forward tactics of police reforms – body cams, meet and greets with police, sensitivity trainings, and so on. Here we need an ideological battle against reformism and against mainstream liberal bandaids.
- Develop fighting organizations – At some point a direct confrontation with the police will be necessary to keep them from brutalizing us and in an effort to keep them out of our communities altogether. This will also mean developing fighting organizations in communities of color that can respond to instances of police brutality and pose a serious challenge to police presence.