by Omali Yeshitela
The U.S. electoral system, like American society at-large, is dominated by wealthy capitalists. What use, then, is electoral politics to African Americans? The Black Is Back Coalition explored that question at its national conference, in Newark, New Jersey. “We must create the options, destroying the proverbial claptrap from some ‘leftists’ and ‘revolutionaries’ that ask, ‘If not Obama and the Democrats, then what?’”
Obama, the Elections and the Struggle for Justice, Peace, a Better Life and Black Power
by Omali Yeshitela
Omali Yeshitela, chairman of the Black Is Back Coalition for Social Justice, Peace and Reparations, presented the following remarks on August 18 at the Coalition’s national conference in Newark, New Jersey.
“We must take the resistance up into the electoral process itself.”
On September 12, 2009 the Black is Back Coalition for Social Justice, Peace and Reparations was organized in the wake of the campaign and election of Barack Hussein Obama as president of the U.S.
Three years later this important international Black is Back Conference is also contextualized by an upcoming U.S. presidential election featuring Barack Hussein Obama attempting to secure a second term at the helm of the most significant imperialist government to ever grace the face of the planet Earth.
Nothing has happened within the last three years to challenge the rationale for founding the Coalition. If anything, our views have been confirmed. There are many left/liberals who voice moderate disappointment with the performance of this first black president. But most of us in the Coalition, though sometimes reluctantly, were clear from the beginning that Obama’s presidency did not represent a break with U.S. history of empire.
This International Conference on Obama, the Elections and the Struggle for Justice, Peace, a Better Life and Black Power provides an excellent opportunity to address the larger question of elections in general and to specifically examine the role of elections in capitalist society. We will determine the possibilities, if any, as well as the limitations of the electoral process for advancing our struggle as oppressed Africans in the U.S. and throughout the world.
There are a number of reasons this is important. For one thing, allowing the issue of elections to revolve around the candidacy and presidency of Barack Hussein Obama is to invite a subjective response from everyone who supports Obama for what ever reason.
Secondly, the black liberation movement has not dealt with the role of elections in our struggle as a movement since the hey day of the Civil Rights struggle and the brief, but significant moment 40 years ago at the Black National Convention in Gary, Indiana in 1972.
“Most of us in the Coalition, though sometimes reluctantly, were clear from the beginning that Obama’s presidency did not represent a break with U.S. history of empire.”
Is electoral politics a legitimate arena of struggle for genuine African anti-imperialists who are guided by principles of self-determination? And, if so, what is it that confers legitimacy upon those who would enter into this arena?
Is having a black face enough to win the support of Africans and are there requirements that must be met by any candidate of any nationality to win the black vote?
These are some of the questions that this conference must deal with. These are questions that are contextualized by the fact that a presidential election is rapidly approaching and Obama is fighting for another term as U.S. president of the declining imperialist hegemon over a system obviously experiencing severe crisis. The evidence of this crisis intrudes into every aspect of our lives.
The economic aspect of this crisis has recently crashed into the consciousness of many who have previously considered themselves disinterested in politics or apolitical. Now they are rushing to the barricades as “Tea Partiers” or “Occupiers,” in a frenzy because of the loss of their retirement funds or student loans. In many ways these new entrants into the political arena are distorting the discussion, forcing into play agendas that fundamentally speak to the same white imperialist-reliant interests as the past.
While the political aspect of this imperialist crisis has been before us for some time now, especially in the form of unending wars, it has been up to the coalition to draw attention to the connection between the political and economic aspects of this crisis, to show that the latter is born of the former, and that it is the threat to the parasitic capitalist economy that makes perennial war inevitable.
Zbigniew Brzezinski is a former National Security Adviser for U.S. President James Earl Carter and one of Obama’s most influential advisers. In 2007 Brzezinski authored a book entitled “Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower” that was designed to help the U.S. ruling class recognize this crisis and employ Brzezinski’s solutions to deal with it.
Clearly not a revolutionary, Brzezinski offered this insight about the crisis that helps to make our point about the relationship between the political and economic crisis:
“Global political awakening is historically anti-imperial, politically anti-Western, and emotionally increasingly anti-American. In the process, it is setting in motion a major shift in the global center of gravity. That in turn is altering the global distribution of power, with major implications for America’s role in the world.
“Imperial stability has historically depended on skilled domination, superior military organization and – ultimately most important – political passivity on the part of dominated peoples…
“Anti-Westernism is thus more than a populist attitude; it is an integral part of the shifting global demographic, economic, and political balance.”
What Brzezinski is describing here is the unfolding resistance of the world’s peoples to a parasitic arrangement that is the real basis of the economic crisis that has recently exposed itself to full view. It is this increasingly generalized global resistance to imperialism that threatens the student loans and the 401k retirement benefits that have mobilized a sizable section of the previously politically oblivious North American or white population.
“It is the threat to the parasitic capitalist economy that makes perennial war inevitable.”
Some have concluded that this crisis of imperialism is the reason for the selection of Barack Hussein Obama by a sector of the U.S. white ruling class as their president of the U.S. It was an attempt to give imperialism the face of the slave at a time when the slaves of the world were in a state of resistance that threatens the stability and existence of the imperialist system itself.
We come to this conference fully aware that we have our own experiences with the electoral process to contribute to our understanding of its significance, its possibilities and its limitations. The first of these experiences of importance for this discussion was the experience of Reconstruction, lasting from 1865 to 1877.
While most Africans in the U.S. are securely ensconced in the Democratic Party today, at the end of the U.S. Civil War and the formal dissolution of colonial slavery most Africans participated in the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and emancipation.
It was through the Republican Party of Lincoln during the Reconstruction era that Africans in the U.S. gained our initial experience with the U.S. electoral process that should contribute to our discussion of our participation in the bourgeois elections.
The tumultuous post-slavery Reconstruction era resulted in more than 1500 Africans being elected to office throughout the southern U.S.
This is the same period that saw the birth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866 and the concomitant rise in violence against African people in various locations in the South. Moreover, several southern states initially refused to comply with the Reconstruction Act and began a process of legal disenfranchisement through Black Codes and other means.
Most who are familiar with the Reconstruction Era know that in 1877, following a backroom deal between the Republican and Democratic parties, Republican Rutherford Hayes ascended to the U.S. presidency after a hotly contested election. In a deal known as the Tilden-Hayes Compromise, the Republican Hayes was allowed to take the presidency after promising to remove the remaining federal troops from the South that provided a modicum of protection for the newly enfranchised Africans.
Most of us know that the removal of the remaining federal troops from the South resulted in an orgy of violence against our people that resulted in what came to be known in our history as the great Exodustus. It was a time when as many of us as possible fled the violence of the South looking for new lands to settle in order to escape persecution, find justice, peace, a better life and black power over our own black lives.
Less known, however, is the degree of violence and chicanery that prevailed throughout the entire Reconstruction period. The demobilization of federal or Union troops had actually begun almost immediately after the Civil War. Where there were one million troops ostensibly protecting Africans in the South in May of 1865, by the end of that year the number had shrunk to 152,000 and by October 1, 1866 only 38,000 federal troops remained in the South.
On July 30, 1866 several Africans were massacred in New Orleans. But unless we make the mistake of thinking this attack on the rights and lives of Africans was unusual during the Reconstruction period, it must be noted that on September 1, 1868 all the black elected officials were ousted from the Georgia legislature, and on September 28 of the same year from 200 to 300 Africans were massacred in Opelousas, Louisiana.
After the end of the Reconstruction period in 1877 it would be almost another hundred years of bloody repression and unspeakable crimes against our people, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would bring a federal presence back to the South, again, ostensibly to protect the rights of Africans to vote.
However, seeking a solution through the electoral process was not the overwhelming response of Africans to our situation in the post-Reconstruction era. We were learning from this history and it was becoming increasingly clear that we were suffering national oppression. We were beginning to understand that although many of us lived in the U.S. we were suffering as an oppressed people, not only in the U.S. but everywhere we were located.
It was this realization that informed the movement led by Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. Some make the mistake of abstracting Garvey out of the general history of struggle within the era that he lived and organized. Some have neutralized his historical significance by declaring Garvey some kind of prophet or demagogue. These are people who do not connect the movement of Garvey with those of his contemporaries such as Sun Yat Sen of China, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa of Mexico and Augusto Sandino of Nicaragua, among others.
Seen by imperialist intelligence agents as the center of much of the world’s resistance emanating from oppressed peoples, Garvey was persecuted, framed, tried, imprisoned and deported from the U.S. as part of the overall attack contributing to his defeat and the organizational disintegration of the UNIA.
“We were beginning to understand that although many of us lived in the U.S. we were suffering as an oppressed people, not only in the U.S. but everywhere we were located.”
It is worth noting that the millions of African followers of Garvey worldwide were not opposed to participation in the electoral process. However, the most important elections they participated in were those conducted by the UNIA itself. These were elections that revolved around the clearly identified interests of Africans. These interests manifested themselves in developing industries, the Black Star Shipping Line, factories, recording companies, the Black Cross Nurses and a host of other institutions of self-reliance and self-determination.
These interests were also reflected at the International Convention of the UNIA, held in 1920 at Madison Square Garden where more than 25,000 Africans converged from throughout the world and where Africans voted and voted and voted.
They voted Garvey the provisional president of Africa. They voted the red, black and green as the flag of the independent African nation. They voted for a future that would free them from a forcibly imposed relationship to the U.S. and other imperialist powers as oppressed subjects, dependent on the good will and institutions of the oppressor.
The attack on the Garvey movement by all the imperialist powers clearly revealed what we would see over and over again: The imperialists do not respect any vote that does not further their aims of exploitation and world domination. Even while killing and harassing Africans out of the electoral process we were severely punished when we attempted to opt out on our own and create independent institutions that addressed our own self-defined political reality.
A primary focus of the Civil Rights Movement within the U.S. was the struggle for the right to vote. This was based on the premise that the electoral process was the only legitimate method through which Africans could wage the struggle for rights and justice. It was a struggle that, therefore, bestowed a mantle of legitimacy over the very same oppressive system that was responsible for our status as oppressed people.
Nevertheless, it was a struggle that would eventually go far beyond the limitations of its leadership that sought to fight for inclusion into the system without challenging the existence of the system. Share croppers and wage workers bravely stood up to the naked, proudly displayed brutality of the general white population of the South as well as that of the U.S. government as it represented itself in that part of the country.
After a decade of relentless struggle, of marches and demonstrations that were more often than not occasioned by assassinations, mass jailings and beatings; after assaults by trained attack dogs, our homes and churches bombed and our leaders and children murdered, the U.S. government was forced to pass legislation guaranteeing Africans the right to register and vote in 1965 with passage of the Voting Rights Act.
However, by then the struggle had gotten away from the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and their white liberal supporters. By then the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 had successfully exposed the hypopcrosy of the U.S. electoral process and the Democratic Party to the world.
Promised by an assortment of liberals that Africans from Mississippi who were denied the right to register and vote in Mississippi would be able to represent the Mississippi Democratic Party at the National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the U.S. president and great liberal statesman of the period, decided to seat the white Mississippi Democratic Party lynch mob while offering the Africans who had risked life and limb to register and attend the National Convention two non-voting seats.
When the heroic and now-world renowned Fannie Lou Hamer declared “We didn’t come all this way for two seats when everybody is tired,” and led the African Mississippi delegation out of the Democratic Party Convention she ushered in a new era of politics within the U.S. and a split between the African community and the liberal sector of U.S. imperialists.
Betrayed by the Democratic Party of the day just as we had been betrayed by the Republican and Democratic parties of the past, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a dynamic, vanguard element of the Civil Rights Movement, went into Lowndes County Alabama to organize the Lowndes County Freedom Organization that was to be a black political party through which Africans in the county would struggle for political power.
This was the real beginning of a struggle for independent black political power through the electoral process that should serve to inform our conference on today. The symbol chosen for the black political party was the now-iconic black panther. And, indeed, the ruling class media began to refer to the Lowndes County Freedom Organization as the Black Panther Party.
This historical trajectory was fueled in 1966 by the mass demand for black power heralding from SNCC leadership in Mississippi and gripping the imagination of Africans and others worldwide. This was going far beyond the demands of the Civil Rights leaders who were simply attempting to integrate into the capitalist system and who understood elections to be the appropriate vehicle for achieving that goal.
“Implicit in the struggle for black power was the assumption of anti-colonial struggle by a people for national liberation.”
Objectively, and independent of the will of its advocates, the demand for black power elevated the struggle of Africans in the U.S. from one for civil rights within the capitalist system to the same anti-colonial status of Africans on the continent of Africa and of the peoples of Viet Nam, Palestine, the Middle East, and South America. Implicit in the struggle for black power was the assumption of anti-colonial struggle by a people for national liberation.
This fact was punctuated in the same year of 1966 when urbanized Africans in Oakland took up the symbol and name of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and organized the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense that would later be known as the Black Panther Party.
The Black Panther Party was conscious of its connection with the revolutionary trajectory sweeping the earth and openly declared its relationship to the anti-imperialist movements and resistance of Viet Nam, Africa, South America and the rest of the world. With a slogan borrowed from the Revolutionary Chinese Communist Party of the time, the Black Panther Party, although open to participation in electoral politics, boldly declared, “Political power comes from the barrel of the gun.”
The struggle of Africans in the U.S. rendered the U.S. an ideological and political defeat within its own borders. The masses of Africans had turned our backs on the U.S. and were creating our own independent political institutions that were informed by our own aspirations and ideological assumptions.
In all the essential ways our struggle had returned to the basic premise of the Garvey movement that was also contained in the worldview of the Nation of Islam and most pronounced in the developing philosophy of Malcolm X.
From the Freedom Schools of the southern Civil Rights Movement to the Free Breakfast for School Children and Sickle Cell Anemia Testing Programs of the Black Panther Party and a myriad of other independent efforts, Africans were breaking free of the political and ideological influences of the U.S. capitalist system.
A primary ideological influence of the time was the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X. The Nation of Islam helped to reintroduce the “National Question” into our political life and preached independence with its Do-For-Self philosophy.
Malcolm X introduced revolutionary theory, politics and organization that would unite African people around the world with the revolutionary activities and aspirations of the masses of peoples fighting against colonialism everywhere.
In the words of the then-revolutionary Chinese Communist Party there was great disorder under the heavens and revolution was the main trend sweeping the world.
The world was rejecting the imperialist order and all its imposed institutions and assumptions, including the electoral process as the only legitimate means through which an oppressed people had a right to win power over our lives. Indeed, the greater question was whether elections could deliver freedom for a people oppressed under the same system through which elections were effected.
It was its loss of ideological and political authority and hegemony that resulted in the U.S. military assault on our independent anti-imperialist black power movement and the worldwide revolutionary project.
The U.S. government began a wholesale campaign of murder, terror and mass arrests that assassinated leaders, destroyed our organizations and dispersed their members, some of whom were chased into permanent exile. Our independent revolutionary news organs were undermined or destroyed and our communities beset by an inundation of drugs – first heroin and later a deadly, devastating derivative of cocaine.
“The greater question was whether elections could deliver freedom for a people oppressed under the same system through which elections were effected.”
In 1969 the last symbolic nail was hammered into the coffin of our revolution with the assassination of Fred Hampton, the Black Panther Party leader in Chicago, Illinois.
However, in March of 1972, 8,000 Africans gathered in Gary, Indiana for the National Black Convention. It was an incredible convocation of Africans from throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean. Convened by Gary’s Mayor Richard Hatcher who had come to power in the wake of the extraordinary Black Power movement of the sixties, the Gary Declaration eloquently stated our cause. Here is a brief excerpt from that declaration:
“For more than a century we have followed the path of political dependence on white men and their systems. From the Liberty Party in the decades before the Civil War to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, we trusted in white men and white politics as our deliverers. Sixty years ago, W.E.B. Dubois said he would give the Democrats their "last chance" to prove their sincere commitment to equality for Black people -- and he was given white riots and official segregation in peace and in war.
“Nevertheless, some twenty years later we became Democrats in the name of Franklin Roosevelt, then supported his successor Harry Truman, and even tried a "non-partisan" Republican General of the Army named Eisenhower. We were wooed like many others by the superficial liberalism of John F. Kennedy and the make-believe populism of Lyndon Johnson. Let there be no more of that.
“Here at Gary, let us never forget that while the times and the names and the parties have continually changed, one truth has faced us insistently, never changing: Both parties have betrayed us whenever their interests conflicted with ours (which was most of the time), and whenever our forces were unorganized and dependent, quiescent and compliant. Nor should this be surprising, for by now we must know that the American political system, like all other white institutions in America, was designed to operate for the benefit of the white race: It was never meant to do anything else…
“If we have never faced it before, let us face it at Gary. The profound crisis of Black people and the disaster of America are not simply caused by men nor will they be solved by men alone. These crises are the crises of basically flawed economics and politics, and or cultural degradation. None of the Democratic candidates and none of the Republican candidates – regardless of their vague promises to us or to their white constituencies – can solve our problems or the problems of this country without radically changing the systems by which it operates.”
Although there were to be a number of Africans elected to political office subsequent to the Gary Convention, the reality is that its significance was severely undermined by the military defeat of our revolution of the sixties.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were dead; so were Fred Hampton and more than 30 members of the Black Panther Party. Mass arrests of African patriots in the U.S. had been successfully implemented under the infamous COINTELPRO program of the FBI, more than 300 of them of Black Panther Party members in 1968 alone.
Patrice Lumumba had been assassinated by U.S., Belgian and French agents in Congo and Kwame Nkrumah had been overthrown by the U.S. in Ghana. In Bolivia Che Guevara, wounded and captured by CIA operatives, was brutally murdered.
“Although there were to be a number of Africans elected to political office subsequent to the Gary Convention, the reality is that its significance was severely undermined by the military defeat of our revolution of the sixties.”
The Gary Convention offered a magnificent demonstration of the aspirations of our people for independent, radical political participation in the U.S. political arena, but it was a convention that, extraordinary as it was, had already been made impotent by the destruction of the revolutionary organizations and social movement that energized it and in whose wake it occurred.
This is not to say that the position of this Coalition should be that the electoral process is not something that we should utilize in our quest for peace, justice, a better life and black power. Rather, it is to say that history teaches us that our struggle cannot be reliant on the electoral process.
It teaches us that in every instance that we relied on the electoral process we were not only betrayed, but we had no independent, strategically-informed capacity to identify and fight for our own interests as an oppressed and colonized people.
Our history should also inform us that there is nothing “natural” or inevitable about our participation in the electoral process. The truth is that we were jailed, assassinated and gunned back into the electoral political arena after we had clearly elevated our struggle to another, higher, self-serving level. This gives lie to the notion that somehow the election of Barack Hussein Obama represents progress in our struggle for freedom.
The fact is that our reliance on Obama and the Democratic Party represents a serious setback that we must overcome if we are to ever be really free as a people.
The election of Obama was made possible in part because the murder and imprisonment of our revolutionary leaders and the destruction of our own independent revolutionary organizations and the dispersal of their members made it unnecessary for the Democratic Party through Obama to address a single issue that is important to African people or any oppressed people in the U.S. and the world. Indeed, Obama’s black face, his black self, became the only imperialist program offered to African people.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake at this point in our struggle to dismiss the use of the electoral process altogether. The fact is that the electoral process does offer us the democratic space to educate the masses of our people, who for the most part participate in political life primarily through ruling class organized elections and political parties.
We must never voluntarily accede this democratic space to our oppressors. One exception to this rule would be when the system has fallen in such disfavor among the masses and the crisis of imperialism has become so pervasive that our participation would serve primarily to validate a system that cannot otherwise claim legitimacy.
Generally speaking we are also open to some use of the electoral process because this is the method by which neocolonialists and others who claim to represent our interests win authenticity from within and without our community. We cannot allow hostile politics and ideologies to monopolize this important political space without a fierce fight back. We must take the resistance up into the electoral process itself.
To fight against imperialist ideologies and programs, to fight against neocolonialism within the electoral process itself, a process that is generally recognized by the masses as legitimate, gives legitimacy to our revolutionary, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist politics and, over a period of time can educate the masses of our people while exposing imperialism and forcing it to move openly in ways that will bring discredit to the system among our people.
However, this must not be seen as an individual endeavor as most electoral politics are. We must be truly representative of our people and the agenda we present must be one that is crafted from our relationship with the people whose popular participation is central to its creation.
Moreover, we must not promote the electoral process as the only or even the primary way for the people to achieve power. We cannot say that if the colonial system will not accede to black power by the electoral process we do not have any other options.
“We must be truly representative of our people and the agenda we present must be one that is crafted from our relationship with the people whose popular participation is central to its creation.”
In fact, we must create the options, destroying the proverbial claptrap from some “leftists” and “revolutionaries” that ask, “If not Obama and the Democrats, then what?”
When we witness how Africans were treated during and After Reconstruction in the U.S. and how the U.S. and other so-called democracies overthrew and murdered the duly elected Patrice Lumumba of Congo and overthrew the elected governments of Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s or most recently of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in 2002 and of Manual Zelaya of Honduras in 2009, it is clear that the imperialist ruling class respects the electoral process only when it serves its needs.
The fact is that elections within the capitalist-colonialist system only serve as nonviolent contests between different sectors of the ruling class for control of the State, the primary organ of coercion through which the capitalists pursues their political and economic interests.
Elections offer a form of systemic stability. All the vested, privileged beneficiaries of the system, especially its ruling class, need this nonviolent process to serve and be recognized as the only legitimate means through which political power is to be sought. Ultimately, although different individuals will win and lose and different sectors of the ruling class and other privileged social forces may win or lose, as long as the struggle is confined to the electoral process the system of exploitation and oppression is generally safe.
In fact Africans have at times been encouraged to join ruling class political parties and to run for political office, functioning as pied pipers to draw African political activity into the safe embrace of the Democratic Party and the imperialist system during times of crises when African people might look otherwise, outside the system for solutions.
Our task is not to contribute to the stabilization of a system of global oppression and exploitation; it is not our task to rescue imperialism from the crisis that has it reeling desperately from one crime to another in attempts to stanch the wounds stemming from the peoples’ resistance.
Yes, let us use the electoral process right now as one form of struggle. But let us, at the same time, recognize that it is only one form of struggle and that our future depends on our willingness to build a real capacity to utilize every form of struggle in the quest for our liberation.
To concentrate our political efforts within the electoral system without building genuine independent revolutionary organization is to invite the disaster of the past and leave our future and our people at the mercy of the vicious white nationalist system that has enslaved, colonized and betrayed us time after time.
Malcolm X once said we should win our freedom “by any means necessary.” This statement was too ambiguous about our possibilities within the U.S.-led imperialist system.
Today we must affirmatively declare that we will use all necessary means to wrench our freedom and future out of the grasp of a dying imperialist system that by its very nature is incapable of conferring freedom on Africans or any other oppressed people on this Earth.
The Black Is Back Coalition website is located at http://blackisbackcoalition.org/