Black as Space: Reflecting on the Bay Bridge Shutdown

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Black.seed #reclaimMLK Bay Bridge shutdown, January 18, 2016. (Photo: Brooke Anderson)

I. The Fix Is In

In Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower,1 the key protagonist and founder of Earth Seed was a cross-dressing person who was born with a hyper-empathy condition that precipitated her clairvoyance. She felt others’ pain so well, and was so street smart, that she could predict the future.  This lead character narrates, “My name is androgynous, in pronunciation at least—Lauren sounds like the more masculine Loren.”2 Lauren was as much a messiah figure as she was an archetype of Harriet Tubman. Butler ingeniously reformulated religion, and leadership, and identity from the first person perspective of Lauren; a young girl, a young woman, a drag king, a wife, a mother, a savior. In what is likely the most famous passage of “Earthseed: The Book of the Living” Lauren writes:

All that you touch,
You Change.
All that you Change,
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God
Is Change.3

Lauren realized at a young age, that it was up to her to “shape God.”  She eventually led a multi-ethnic group out of the chaos of a post-apocalyptic California to start over in a new land, minding all the while, that our destiny is to be among the stars. Butler wrote the novel in the early-mid 90’s and it is set in the middle of the decade 2020.

In real life, in 2016, there exists Black.seed, a queer and trans-led Black liberation collective. The name “Black.seed” is borrowed from the spiritual movement “Earth Seed” that drove the storyline of Octavia Butler’s sci-fi series. Since January, I have had the honor of building and organizing with Black.seed. The group received international attention for its answer to the call to action put out by the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP) to reclaim the radical legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.4

Though many people heard about Black.seed because of the Bay Bridge Block Party (Bay Bridge shutdown), the action itself was a byproduct of the ongoing revolutionary praxis within the group. The level of organization necessary to safely carry out the shutdown of a highway on one of the busiest bridges in the United States is indicative of the Black love and Black genius that comprises Black.seed.  Radical love, communication, community, making safe spaces, and other nurturing forms are all seen as equally if not more important than creating the spectacle of political action.  Everyone involved is a self described Afrofuturist or Afropessimist or at least adept at working through these perspectives toward revolutionary praxis. The projects of Black.seed are about building connections between each other, building the future, and breaking whatever chains hold us back. They are ahead of their time, to be sure—revolutionaries tend to be—but these approaches to activism are also very much in the air. The plans we make and the moves we make are borne out of the power of our ability to connect to the past and future. These modalities are not exclusive to Black.seed. However innovative or brave the collective is, it is also part of something much larger.

Radical love, communication, community, making safe spaces, and other nurturing forms are all seen as equally if not more important than creating the spectacle of political action.

Over the course of the same 2016 MLK weekend, APTP—which is itself primarily led by sisters—carried out and coordinated several actions of its own.  During that 96 hours of action there were more actions than I could even keep track of. In the Bay Area alone there were Afrofuturist teach-ins, an interfaith funeral march, and a shutdown of a McDonald’s in solidarity with its workers’ fight for a $15 wage. Asians For Black lives (A4BL) held a wake up call at the home of Mayor Ed Lee,5 and while the Bay Bridge was being shut down, APTP led a march of thousands through the streets of downtown Oakland.

There were #ReclaimMLK actions and marches across the United States. In a stroke of Black genius, the Black Youth Project temporarily shut down a privately owned bank of the Chicago Police. They did so with arms interlocked standing shoulder to shoulder across the bank’s front counter, and wearing red Black and green shirts that read, “fund Black futures.”  An excerpt from their press release6 reads:

Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), Assata’s Daughters, We Charge Genocide, #Not1More, and Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) are taking action today to shut-down the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Conference in Chicago to demonstrate the urgency for a fundamental shift in the way this country invests in our most valuable resources – our people….Today, we are putting ourselves at risk to take power over our futures because we know that our liberation will not be handed to us, we have to build it ourselves.

With Power and Love,

BYP100, Assata’s Daughters, We Charge Genocide, #Not1More, and OCAD 6

Their creativity and bravery is significant.  It takes a lot to walk into a situation where you know you will soon be surrounded by angry police. Knowing that anger will be directed at you, because you are disrupting business as usual. They have guns. They have the infrastructure. They have the money. You do not have guns. You do not control the infrastructure (though you helped build it). You do not have the money (though you and your people did the hard work).  Instead what you have—what it is obvious that this coalition has—is each other. You have your mother, and aunt, and nephew, and that guy at the liquor store who could be your uncle.  Which is to say, you have the political, physical, and metaphysical support of your community stretching every direction in time and space.  You also have your own Black rage—your own sense of indignation toward what policing costs you and your community in both blood and treasure. Hence, the bravery found in this movement is not unlike that found on the Edmund-Pettis Bridge, or in the chest of Harriet Tubman.

You have your mother, and aunt, and nephew, and that guy at the liquor store who could be your uncle.  Which is to say, you have the political, physical, and metaphysical support of your community stretching every direction in time and space.

It is also obvious that these folks are thinking analytically, evidenced by their pinpointing the intersection of the prison-military-industrial complex that a bank for police represents. Again, our actions only grace the headlines of the corporate (and non-corporate) crises-driven media when we turn up, often going out of our way and being meticulous about the details of the spectacle (demonstration) we create. From an indigenous perspective on the arts—instead of art for art’s sake—one might label these a kind of performance art that happens on the world stage—instead of in museums. Some of the most impactful art is made by nameless artists: those whose works comprise our tactile experiences, glance our screens, pass us by on a train, or formulate our worldview.  And again, the spectacle is only a tactic, while the group is actually about building. BYP’s Agenda To Build Black Futures website states:

The Agenda to Build Black Futures is a set of economic goals and structural changes that could improve the lives of Black people living in America. We envision a more economically just society that values the lives and well-being [sic] of ALL Black people, including women, queer, and transgender folks, the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated as well as those who languish in the bottom 1% of the economic hierarchy. The Agenda to Build Black Futures is a call-to-action for everyone who is committed to Black liberation.7

The feminization/queering of leadership in the resurgence of Black resistance in the wake of the Ferguson uprising indicates the image of the tough-guy—the hyper-masculine iconography of revolutionary politics—is becoming  de-emphasized as a generation becomes increasingly aware of how hetero-patriarchy, sexual objectification, organized religion, racism, and capitalism function as a conglomerate. Indeed, in the moments that we shine the light of truth broader and brighter we see that many heads of this hydra come from the same body. Analyses of the phenomena related to oppression are increasingly intersectional, and structural. This coincides with the glaring inefficacy of establishment politics and a glaring staleness among those Black/leftist folks who have called themselves our leaders.

How surprising would it be then, that Black.seed would make decisions on (modified) consensus, live by the code “we queer everything we do,” and be intentional about maintaining horizontal power dynamics? How surprised should we be that The Daughter’s of Assata would turn up at a bank for police in 2016?   The joyous irony is that these folk are the beginnings of Octavia Butler’s dreams coming true.

Black.seed = APTP = BYP100 = OCAD = Assata’s Daughter’s = Earth Seed

They are the future of Black leadership in the United States. The stirring that we are doing is causing a centering of the margins.  The doctrine of centering the margins alongside advancing telecommunications will inevitably result in an increase in coordinated efforts between Africa, the motherland, and the rest of the world.  Expect to see more and more leadership coming from folks who were historically oppressed. Expect to see more and more Harriet Tubmans.  The decentralization of leadership, the pluralization of creative production, and the upheavals of tradition are very much going on in new ways. Our revolutionary spirit. Our love that makes us act. Our dreams that make us consider the future. Our honor that makes us lift up the legacy of our ancestors.8 These are all older than history itself.

Photo: Brooke Anderson

Photo: Brooke Anderson

The fix is in. All over the world we are preparing. Thinking about how to think about the future is on the rise. We are planning to ambush oppression itself.

II. Being Spectacular, The Spectacle, and Decolonization.

Despite however flattened the movement for Black Liberation might look in the mainstream, our critique of the prison-military-educational complex is dynamic and nuanced.  It is difficult to get that message across to people who are under the delusion that they have a vested interest in the status quo. How do you establish dialogue with the segment of humankind that believes themselves to be the beneficiaries of stratification, of slavery, of sweatshops, of imperialism? At a recent kids-led rally/teach-in/march in Downtown Oakland, the kids (from infants on up) handed police postcards about how they want policing to look, then they led a march, then they chanted in call and response: #divestfrompolicing and #fundblackfutures, I counted 3 news helicopters. How do you reach the ones who only see the protest through the lens of news helicopters?

Enter the arts. And, in a world where communications infrastructure is an uneven platform for free speech,9 where a daft media favors the power hungry entities who control it, the arts are doubly important. How else would we convey programmatic ideas and sentiments more complex than the disturbingly obvious slogan #blacklivesmatter.

I do not know of a better vehicle toward historical agency than art that is centered on collective uplift. I want to pause here and quote Fanon on violence, or that judge who called the civil war battlefield a higher court, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the human vocation which is implacably bent on naming the world–on co-creating the future. I would argue that this kind of creation is an inherently political practice which is a fundamental element of art. To borrow from Assata Shakur: “Part of being a revolutionary is creating a vision that is more humane. That is more fun, too. That is more loving. It’s really working to create something beautiful.”10

I’m talking about the human vocation which is implacably bent on naming the world–on co-creating the future.

Those of us who ascribe to an indigenous lens on cultural praxis are aware that art is art because of its functionality. Art is a way of life and not an inanimate object. A thing becomes art because it is imbued with an abundance of life; an abundance of value; an abundance of functionality.  Despite whatever your elementary art teachers told you, art is not borne out of frivolity. Art is not a flat thing that hangs above a couch and collects dust. Art is not the sole property of the wealthy. Art can function as a status symbol for some museum or some wealthy person or the greatness of Euro-American philosophy, but it is so much more than that. Art comes out into the world and serves a purpose, it is a cultural technology. Technology has shown to be shockingly plural in the purposes it can be set to.

Photo: Brooke Anderson

Photo: Brooke Anderson

Now, if art is the opposite of pointless, and it is a way of life, then what is performance art or social practice art if not another oxymoronic false dichotomy borne of Western Culture’s quest to appropriate (annex) (colonize) the human-ness of those it has oppressed without coming to grips with its own cultural hegemony? Indeed, the “avante garde” is but a cultural wing of the same imperial project. When a work of art is didactic in a way that testifies to the greatness of Western culture, then and only then does the Western art world deem it great. If a work does not fall in line with the program of the Western progress narrative it is disparaged by those who think of themselves as having a monopoly on universality. If a work is explicitly didactic or subversive outside of the allotted parameters of rebellion (functional in a way that does not serve power) it is quickly cut down by every rhetorical and/or physical weapon in the arsenal of those in favor of the status quo. That is a basic aspect of how power maintains itself and power is not in a monogamous relationship with The Western World.

So rebellion is applauded, especially as “social practice,” when set in the confines of museum or gallery walls as long as it embodies the tropes prescribed by Eurocentric ideology at the time. In the case of the Bay Bridge Block Party, the spectacle Black.seed created was called many things, but nary a soul called it a masterful work of art. But if posters and graffiti about oppression is thought of as political art, then why wouldn’t a political perfomance be thought of as political performance art?  Which begs another question: why is some political art ignored by the art world while others are thought of as high art?

the spectacle Black.seed created was called many things, but nary a soul called it a masterful work of art

In addition to the extent to which a work can be associated with the trajectory of Western greatness mentioned above, there is the glaring factor of money. One would not have to search long to link the popular perception of a work as “great” and the endorsement of white hetero-patriarchy, but beyond this there is what is known in the art world as provenance.  The perceived value of a work of art becomes the actual value of a work of art, but who owns the art, and how much they paid is how value is quantified in our capitalist society. That is, it ain’t art if money doesn’t call it art–if somebody with money does not “endorse” it as such. In the colonizer’s view, it isn’t art if there is no curator, no patron, no grant, no fellowship, no museum, no gallery, no historian, no money.

Can we forget the silliness our terrible grade school art teachers taught us? Can everybody be an artist free of professionalization of the modality? How do we navigate in and around an economic and legal system so clearly bifurcated from morality?

Perhaps if we decolonize our perception of creative practice, it might open up the possibilities of the cultural action for the freedom we create. Many of us are aware that “protests” and “demonstrations” are not yielding the equality we seek to build. It seems like there is a diminishing return: every protest we have lessens the political efficacy of protests.

If we are serious about Black Liberation “by any means necessary,”11 then we have to be serious about the expansive creativity in our approaches. Amiri Baraka told us some time ago:

“The liberation of African American people and the ultimate destruction of Imperialism are inherent in nature itself, scientifically predictable. So the great African American artists are these people and their development.  The artist carries real life’s number. Art is science because it is a form of knowing.”12

What artistic project(s) push human society to an escape velocity out of “rhetorical structures and political desire [that] are underwritten by a supplemental anti-Blackness?” If I learned anything from Black.seed it was the power of Black love and invention. I am not suggesting that you adhere to the often pacifying cliche ‘be the change you wish to see in the world,’ so much as I am suggesting that WE make the change that WE wish to see in the world. Few of us live unapologetically Black, and fewer still have found a way to live Black as the site of potentiality.

Parts 3 and 4 →


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Benjamin Jones is a writer, artist, and educator. He has worked in collaboration with documentarian Roz Payne, music acts the Faint, Dead Prez, and George Clinton, and more recently with Black.seed as part of the #reclaimMLK Bay Bridge shutdown.  He is currently illustrating a post-capitalist children’s book, screenwriting a film on the great migration, and working on two manuscripts titled “The Life And Philosophy Of Dewey Crumpler” and “What We Finna Do: Preface to a 5,000 Year Almanac.”

Brooke Anderson is an activist photographer based in Oakland, CA. She has spent 20 years as an organizer in movements for social, racial, economic, and ecological justice. Brooke first learned organizing in the environmental justice movement, fighting medical waste incinerators in her hometown when she was just 17. She later spent over a decade doing union organizing and other economic justice campaigning with university employees, hotel housekeepers, port truck drivers, and other low-wage workers. She is currently part of the staff collective of Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project and she is a proud union member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO. Her work can be found at movementphotographer.com.


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Works Cited

  1. Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993. ebook
  2. Ibid, Butler, Parable of the Sower, 404. ebook
  3. Ibid, Butler, Parable of the Sower, 234. ebook Lauren’s subtitle ‘book of the living’ was inspired by Tibetan and Egyptian books of the Dead.
  4. “BLACK QUEER LIBERATION COLLECTIVE BLACK.SEED SHUTS DOWN BAY BRIDGE.” Anti Police Terror Project. January 18, 2016. Accessed May 06, 2016. http://www.antipoliceterrorproject.org/new-blog/.
  5. “Asians4BlackLives Wakes Up Ed Lee to Demand an End …” 2016. 9 Aug. 2016 <http://a4bl.tumblr.com/post/137479183394/asians4blacklives-wakes-up-ed-lee-to-demand-an-end>
  6.  “#StopTheCops and #FundBlackFutures | BYP 100.” BYP 100 RSS. January 18, 2016. Accessed May 06, 2016. http://byp100.org/stopthecops/.  The exclusion of specific authors and the lack of framing/editing is intentional; groups such as these are leader-ful, though I am attempting to include their stories in the words that they prepared specifically for the public.
  7. Ibid. “#StopTheCops and #FundBlackFutures | BYP 100.”
  8. The legacy of our ancestors lifts us up. It can be thought of as wind above/beneath the wings of history.
  9. Ammori, Marvin. 2012. First Amendment Architecture. Wisconsin Law Review 2012, no. 1. “Rather than making the descriptive assumption that free speech doctrine is unconcerned with spaces, this Article identifies and interprets the Court’s role in ensuring, requiring, or permitting government to make spaces available for speech.” (p.1) “Litigants have argued such laws requiring cable and phone companies to serve rural and poor areas ‘compel the speech’ of these companies, who must ‘speak’ by building systems and providing service to those with whom they would rather not speak. Some district court cases, though outliers, have even struck down such rules. Nonetheless, across the range of these laws, government affirmatively furthers particular values, imposing private burdens deliberately to ‘redistribute’ speech power. Finally, spaces required by the judiciary—traditional public forums—serve a universality role. Streets and parks are largely universal, and they benefit all Americans, but disproportionately benefit the ‘poorly financed causes of little people’ who would otherwise lack spaces. All these examples support the Supreme Court’s often cited ‘basic tenet’: ‘the widest possible dissemination of information’ serves the First Amendment.” (p. 53)
  10. “Assata Shakur Quotes, Axioms,Excerpts Assata Shakur Speaks.” 2008. 8 Aug. 2016 <http://www.assatashakur.org/axioms.htm>
  11.  2013. (1964) Malcolm X’s Speech at the Founding Rally of … – BlackPast.org. http://www.blackpast.org/1964-malcolm-x-s-speech-founding-rally-organization-afro-american-unity.  See also: 2013. RBG-Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary| Full Speech … – YouTube.
  12. Baraka, Amiri. “Henry Dumas: Afro-Surreal Expressionist.” Black American Literature Forum 22, no. 2 (Summer 1988): 164-66. Accessed June 17, 2014. doi:10.2307/2904491.

 

 

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