Redefining the Black Power Movement 20 Years After the L.A. Rebellion

1st Marine Division stands guard along Crenshaw, LA, April 1992 - photo via Wikimedia

By Ahjamu Umi

It was April 29, 1992. I remember the moment when the verdict was read, acquitting four L.A. police officers in the beating of Rodney King. In spite of all of the assurances by mainstream civil rights leaders, we knew L.A. was going to blow up. Within hours, people started taking the streets and waging a spontaneous eruption against the power structure. As was to be expected, from the beginning of the uprising, or the slave revolt as we called it, everyone–from the established civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Urban League, to the corporate media outlets–denounced the participants of the revolt as “lawless” and misguided. Looking back on that rebellion twenty years later, in light of the Trayvon Martin murder, the reinstatement of the killer of Aaron Campbell, and the extensive list of problems that impact African people today, I would like focus in on one facet of that event that literally amazed me.

When the L.A. rebellion started, there were many people who were shocked, upset, crying, and emotionally impacted in a variety of ways. As I talked to these people, they expressed their pain at seeing African people react in a violent manner. The reactions of those people, regardless of their racial background, was completely befuddling to me, because, whether you agree or not with how people expressed that frustration in Los Angeles 20 years ago, anyone remotely familiar with the conditions African people face in the inner cities couldn’t be shocked by what happened. The slightest study of African history in the U.S. would have to lead you to wonder why urban rebellions haven’t happened more often.

There is historical precedent to confirm we have always thought and acted in various forms like any community would. Take lynching, for example: conservative estimates indicate several thousand African women and men were hung from trees during the 1920s. As a result, the African community responded not only with the legal approach of the NAACP and other civil rights organizations, but also with the growth and development of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Primarily through its leader Marcus Garvey, the UNIA preached African self-determination, self-respect, and the willingness and desire to stand up and defend African people from attacks from the racist system.

Continuing this trend, during the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s–when African people were beaten senseless and often killed for peacefully fighting for the right to go to school, eat, or live wherever we desired–groups advocating a different approach than the civil disobedience practiced by the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) saw their membership numbers increase dramatically. The Deacons of Defense, Nation of Islam (NOI), Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), and later, the Black Panther Party (BPP), US Organization, Republic of New Afrika (RNA), and others, began to voice their perspective of the route the struggle for African freedom and dignity should take.

This is a critically important point because the power structure is desperately working today to paint a picture of the 1960s as a decade of non-violent struggle led by the pacifist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This vision, of course, serves the interests of the capitalist system, because it attempts to convince African people, who are still, I would argue, the most potentially volatile segment in this society, that our only option is to voice any grievance we have within the laws, values, and confines of the capitalist system. This perspective is reaffirmed by all the major civil rights leaders and organizations today. People like Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, Ben Jealous of the NAACP, Cornel West, and Tavis Smiley, go to great pains to express that the only solution is voting, voting, voting, and any response outside their established agenda to situations like Black on Black crime or the Trayvon killing is absurd.

Since class struggle has been around almost 4000 years now, it’s a safe bet to say disagreements about how to view our situation have been around for a while. Today, the perspective on how to proceed is still primarily colored by the class perspective of racism in this country. This was evident back on that hot June day in Mississippi in 1966, when the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) made an historic decision to break from SCLC, NAACP, and the other civil rights organizations by calling for “Black Power” and advocating our rights as a people to stand in violent opposition to the oppression of the U.S. government if we choose to do so. As a result of the courageous stand taken by critical groups like the UNIA, SNCC, and BPP, we can redefine Black Power today.

First, let’s make a distinction between the organized civil rights movement and civil unrest like the L.A. rebellion twenty years ago. Rebellions are unorganized, spontaneous, and should not in any way be confused with revolution. These are events in which people without knowledge of one another go out without a plan and engage in actions to attack the system. Sure, there may be pockets of people who have some idea of what they want to accomplish, but there is no collective planning during an urban rebellion. So although rebellions are certainly strong gauges to evaluate the discontent that people feel–and they obviously provide confirmation that there are many people who do not believe non-violence is anything more than a tactic–it’s unfair to compare rebellions with the organized civil rights movement. A more accurate comparison would be the organized civil rights movement compared with the Cuban revolution or even the so-called American Revolution.

These comparisons are much more interesting because the same people who argue that violence is never the solution because we are outgunned, never explain why the colonies were right to go up against a British Empire that certainly had them outgunned. They don’t explain, because to open up that argument would be to expose their misinformation about what revolution actually is.

Revolution is not spontaneous rebellion, where the people participating would certainly be outgunned once the National Guard hits the streets. Revolution is constant political education and organization, in which every sector of society is organized: women, people of color within their communities, elderly people, students, etc. Examples are the Viet Minh Front in Vietnam and Cuban National Front against Batista in Cuba. When this organizational approach is properly carried out, hundreds of thousands of people, even millions, become a part of the revolutionary struggle. And when those people are properly organized into guerrilla units, they effectively demoralize the enemy and, before long, the people gain the upper hand. There were plenty of visuals of police taking part in the L.A. rebellion, for example by looting. Imagine the possibilities in an organized revolutionary campaign. The power structure knows this already. They know the colonies had overwhelming support for independence and this made Britain’s military superiority irrelevant, just as the Vietnamese patriotism against U.S. imperialism made the U.S.’s military might irrelevant in Vietnam. These are the kinds of questions the radical Black movement has to tackle in light of the current-day reality. And make no mistake about it, the community is tackling these questions.

We can state confidently that the Black Power movement today means that African people have the right and responsibility to forge a movement that represents the interests of the masses of African people, in the U.S. and across the world. We have the right to develop that movement based on international considerations; we can’t see solution only in the context of the U.S. Because the U.S. relies on African resources and Caribbean labor, the solution must take those factors into account. We say that we have the right to determine a strategy to liberate our people based on our ability to free ourselves from capitalist exploitation. We also have the right to discuss this strategy within the context of non-violent civil disobedience and revolutionary violence, leading to the construction of a socialist state (in Africa as well as the Western world).

Further, we have the right to define Black Power in the context of being united and working in solidarity with sincere White radicals as well as other people of color. We think that present day organizations like the All African People’s Revolutionary Party, African People’s Socialist Party, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, US Organization, Nation of Islam, and the New Black Panther Party have to come together and hammer out relevant issues. We also think organizations like the NAACP, Urban League, National Action Network, and SCLC must be a part of that conversation. This developing solidarity could be called the African United Front: everything on the table and nothing left out.

We are defining our direction for ourselves, while working with other communities to create mutually beneficial and sustainable solutions in solidarity with one another. So Black Power needs to be viewed in the context of the African United Front. If they are willing to do the work, people from non-African communities can work in conjunction with the African United Front and develop similar fronts within their communities. Those of us who have worked within the African liberation Movement have earned the right to come to the table and discuss our perspective of the problem and the solution. We can decide for ourselves whether non-violence is a principle or a tactic. We can decide whether reform is an option, or whether revolution is the only solution. We can decide if our focus is the U.S., or if we should be looking more directly at Africa.

We have to do all of that without quieting any voice, especially when the calls to censor the discussion are primarily coming from outside our communities and from people who don’t have our best interests at heart. Finally, there is the question of why this discussion is even presented in Portland, Oregon, where very few African Liberation organizers exist? The answer is, just because they don’t exist today, doesn’t mean they won’t exist here tomorrow. Conditions are ripe for creating African revolutionaries. Further, we should work in solidarity with others. We are well aware that many so-called White activists in Portland arrogantly hold ignorant views about African people and openly make comments that easily expose their ignorance to us. Yet, we are also aware of a very small–but dedicated and committed–group of sincere White revolutionaries in this geographical area. It is to those comrades that we reach out to work in solidarity.

As discussion is being waged within African activist circles, we look forward to participating and contributing to the development of Black Power (also called Pan-Africanism) in the days to come. We look forward to working with those of you who are ready to build a better world that respects everyone from where they stand in that world.

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