The Black Left and Political Repression

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn Spencer with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on “The Politics of Political Repression” scheduled for November 2nd, we are highlighting the scholarship of the guests.

Charisse Burden-Stelly is a critical Black Studies scholar of political theory, political economy, and intellectual history. Her research pursues two complementary lines of inquiry. The first interrogates the transnational entanglements of U.S. capitalist racism, anticommunism, and antiblack racial oppression. The second area of focus examines twentieth-century Black anticapitalist intellectual thought, theory, and praxis. She is the co-author, with Dr. Gerald Horne, of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History, and the single-authored book titled Black Scare/Red Scare: Theorizing Capitalist Racism in the United States is forthcoming in November 2023. She is also the co-editor, with Dr. Jodi Dean, of Organize, Fight, Win: Black Communist Women’s Political Writings (Verso, 2022) and the co-editor, with Dr. Aaron Kamugisha and Dr. Percy Hintzen, of the latter’s writings titled Reproducing Domination: On the Caribbean and the Postcolonial State.

Adam Elliott-Cooper received his PhD from the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, in 2016. He has previously worked as a researcher in the Department of Philosophy at UCL, as a teaching fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick and as a research associate in the Department of Geography at King’s College London. His first monograph, Black Resistance to British Policing, was published by Manchester University Press in May 2021. He is also co-author of Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State (Pluto Press, 2021). Adam sits on the board of The Monitoring Group, an anti-racist organisation challenging state racisms and racial violence.

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS): What do histories of repression, policing, state violence, and surveillance teach us about the Black left and the Black Freedom Movement historically?

Charisse Burden-Stelly (CBS): These histories point to the “countersubversive political tradition”—a concept I borrow from American Studies scholar Michael Paul Rogin—that constitutes US governance. Born out of the United States as a settler colony and imperial power, this tradition of countersubversion is animated by a discourse of “alien conspiracies” that allows the government to blame problems, issues, and unrest on hostile outside forces. From the early nineteenth century, the United States cultivated and sustained a fear of alien ideologies and the “foreigners” who ostensibly held and spread them. These exogenous thoughts and beliefs were interpreted as invading the ideals and organization of the republic. This hostility was linked to the idea of internal racial, ethnic, and religious enemies who were allied with, sympathetic to, or could be easily duped by menacing external forces. The Black left, and those struggling for Black freedom, fit this specification.

The suppression of those cast outside the normal political system was construed as a condition for the freedom and security of the people within it. In conflating radicalism, and Black agitation particularly, with danger, and political dissent with crime and contagion, the countersubversive political tradition animated the rise of a national security state through which the government, in partnership with corporation and private vigilante groups, used its monopoly over legitimate force to deprive dissenters of their rights to organize, assemble, publish, and speak freely. In short, the countersubversive political tradition transposed militant challenges to the status quo and antagonism between subordinate and superordinate groups into problems of national security and existential threats to capital, property, and national identity.

Adam Elliott-Cooper (AEC): The Black left and freedom movements have often mobilized in response to policing and other forms of state violence. I think this is for two key reasons. First, the violence and coercion of the state is in the immediate reality of ordinary people, waged and unwaged, regardless of how they are gendered, even sometimes Black folk with class privilege. This means that acts of state brutality can often be the spark of a movement or rebellion, as they speak to the experiences of Black folk, their loved ones and communities. Secondly, the state and its agents are crucial actors in the production of racial hierarchy and power, so organized movements of resistance have often focused on policing for this reason. Specifically, focusing on the state better enables us to fight racism in its institutional and structural, rather than interpersonal forms.

CBFS: How do internationalism and anti-colonial struggle shape your work and why are they important for the study of the Black Freedom Movement?

CBS: Internationalism and anticolonial struggle are important to my work for two reasons. First, the Black radicals I study, including W.E.B. Du Bois, William and Louise Thompson Patterson, Alphaeus Hunton, and Claudia Jones, were deeply committed to internationalist praxis and to linking anticolonial struggle to Black liberation in the United States. Secondly, because of these commitments, radical Black individuals and organizations were targeted, harassed, and sanctioned by the US government in distinct but linked ways across time. Internationalism and anticolonial struggle are important to the Black Freedom Movement because they engender a panoply of practice and production that includes connecting antiblack racial oppression in the United States to other forms of colonial and imperial oppression; exploring alternative modes of socioeconomic organization; expressing the right to self-determination; and asserting of Black subjectivity and humanity through cultural creativity. This transterritorial agency is a fundamental challenge to white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and their institutional and social arrangements.

AEC: The vast majority of Black people in Britain have only lived on the British mainland for a generation or two, most have parents or grandparents born in British colonies. Therefore, Black people in Britain are part of a freedom movement which stretches beyond the shores of Britain, across the former Empire. The anti-colonial struggles were our civil rights movements, and the experiences, lessons and ideas which emerged from them continue to feed Black action and thought across Europe.

CBFS: What do the histories you write about in Black Scare/Red Scare, Black Resistance to British Policing, and the Gospel of J Edgar Hoover teach us about politics and organizing today?

CBS: Black Scare/Red Scare examines the United States’ mutually constitutive repression of struggles for Black liberation, and the advocacy of and movement for anticapitalist economic organization. Its excavation of these dynamics between World War I and the early Cold War gives much needed historical context for current realities such as the state’s classification of organizers against “Cop City” as domestic terrorists and criminals; the FBI attack on the African Peoples Socialist Party as an agent of a foreign power; the employment of “outside agitator” discourse against Black and interracial uprisings that defy liberal non-violent doxa; and the so-called “New McCarthyism” that misidentifies anti-imperialist peace organizers as agents of China or another nefarious foreign power. This is not least because those who espouse, agitate on behalf of, or struggle for racial and economic egalitarianism are still viewed with suspicion or derision, while the steady march of neofascist and white nationalist elements is feared but, in many ways, tolerated and abetted.

Not unlike the mutually constitutive violence of Wall Street imperialism domestically and abroad during the period spanning the passage of the Espionage Act 1917 and the Internal Security Act of 1950, police forces in the United States replicate the brutality of AFRICOM and SOUTHCOM against Black and racialized populations whose poverty marks them as criminal, and whose organized and spontaneous struggles for livable lives render them subversives and terrorists. Moreover, critiques of the United States because of its imperialist practice, war-driven expropriation, and intolerance for ways of living that defy its authority continue to be deemed anti-American and therefore dangerous and destabilizing. We can thus draw inspiration from the individuals, organizations, and movements lifted up in Black Scare/Red Scare, who, against extraordinary odds and relentless dehumanization, were steadfast in their struggle for a better, more humane society and world.

AEC: The anti-colonial movements across the decolonizing world faced state repression, and this experience of colonial policing is crucial for contextualizing contemporary movements against British policing. Specifically, the abolitionist organizing which has grown in influence since 2020 can only be understand as a continuation of these earlier movements, reaffirming that abolition must be international in its conception of freedom.

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Lucien Baskin

Lucien Baskin is a doctoral student in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, a fellow with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and an instructor of Sociology at John Jay College. Their work focuses on social movements, the Black Radical Tradition, abolition, and education. Much of Lucien’s work is rooted in the City University of New York, including a dissertation project on radical organizing at CUNY in the era following Open Admissions. They are also at work on a project about Stuart Hall’s educational and pedagogical work and the institutional contexts of his radical intellectualism. They organize with Free CUNY and the Cops Off Campus Coalition, and have written about campus policing and abolitionist organizing in the university, including “Looking to Get Cops Off Your Campus? Start Here.” with Erica Meiners in Truthout, and “Abolitionist Study and Struggle in and beyond the University” in the Abusable Past.