The Black Radical Tradition Conference – Statement on Pattern of Disruption

Since the second day of the Black Radical Tradition Conference, there was a strange but seemingly coordinated effort to disrupt the conference. BROC held a dialogue with the disruptors on the third and final day of the conference to understand what their grievances were. While BROC did not get the chance to undertake an independent investigation of what had happened, we released this statement as a conclusion of what had happened. 

The Black Radical Organizing Collective (BROC) held a powerful conference that drew from many parts of the movement for Black liberation. We understood the fundamental principle that the people united will never be defeated and our program reflected the importance of principled unity in the face of capitalism and white supremacy in crisis. We invited a diverse host of speakers because we wanted a robust dialogue of different ideological orientations in the movement. Throughout the conference, we wanted to emphasize the importance of unity and solidarity in strengthening the victory of revolutionary movements, which is foundational to the Black Radical Tradition. Inevitably, our dedication to principled unity provoked an identitarian counter-revolutionary tendency of people dedicated to disrupting the conference and undermining the unity for which we had tirelessly worked in the months preceding the conference.

The pattern of disruption started with claims that Black people were being denied seats at the conference and the community wasn’t being heard. The Black Radical Tradition Conference was free of cost, and nobody was turned away from the conference. Because the main hall could not accommodate all of the people that came to the conference, attendees were sent to satellite locations where they could watch a livestream of the conference. Conference attendees had been notified in advance of the seating arrangement via email and the conference website. Priority registrants were guaranteed a seat at the people’s assemblies, but the panels were first-come, first-serve. If priority registrants did not show up, people on standby would be seated in the 15 to 20 minutes before each assembly. Because the conference was free of cost, we had to be disciplined about seating and consistent with what we had promised.

Additionally, the conference was a force of the Black Philadelphia community with our primary sponsor being the historical Church of the Advocate of North Philadelphia, which hosted the National Conference of Black Power in 1968 and the Black Panther Conference in 1970. BROC is a grassroots collective working on a limited budget and we do not enjoy substantial institutional funding. We held the conference at Temple University to challenge its racist and colonialist gentrification of North Philadelphia and its destruction of the African American Studies program. We, ourselves, were not Temple University, and we risked Temple shutting down the conference and kicking us out at their leisure. The subversive power of occupying space at Temple had been established by Kashara White, Anthony Monteiro and Cornel West at the first people’s assembly on Friday night, January 8. The conference empowered the voices of the community and illuminated Black Philadelphia—a vilified, criminalized and oppressed people—to a national audience, and showed a racist institution that its policing and gentrification would not diminish the resistance of the people.

Nevertheless, the conference experienced a pattern of disruption. People involved in the disruptive behavior showed contempt for conference organizers and the discipline with which we facilitated the program. Whether the people involved were misguided or unintentional in their behavior, their actions were not respectful, preventing the productive resolution of difficulties. BROC firmly believes revolutionary love for the people inspires discipline, humility and respect, and that the opposite exposes a lack of love for the people. We faced groups of people that failed to practice precisely this revolutionary fundamental and exposed themselves as counter-revolutionaries.

A group of people continually asked white people in the main hall to give up their seats for Black people in satellite rooms, even though white people constituted a minority in the main hall. They did this while the panels and assemblies occurred, distracting the audience and speakers. They were asked multiple times to stop by the organizers, but they persisted. This pattern of disruption culminated in the “Challenging White Supremacy” people’s assembly. A couple of individuals began screaming outside the main hall, interrupting the assembly and causing a few people to rush out of their seats, three of whom were BROC members. Fearing that a fight had broken out or the individuals were in distress, we learned they had in fact staged a disruption over seating.

The disruption disrespected the speakers, distracted the audience and posed a safety hazard. It could have provoked a physical altercation, and if more people had rushed out of their seats, a stampede could have occurred. The safety of renowned activists in the room was also at risk. After all, Malcolm X’s assassination occurred after a staged disruption in 1965, and Huey P. Newton was forced to abandon a speech he was supposed to give in 1970 because he knew counter-revolutionaries planned on assassinating him from the audience.

While we do not know if the group staging the disruption were agent provocateurs, they operated as if they were agent provocateurs. They worked against the wishes of conference organizers and volunteers on a highly premeditated level, and they were extremely calculated in disrupting the program and frustrating our arrangements. They sought to sabotage the conference and divide the people that attended, making difficult the building of principled unity in the movement. So while we do not know if they were agent provocateurs, their behavior caused BROC to treat them as such in guaranteeing the success and viability of the conference and the safety of attendees.

The pattern of disruption reached its most intense point on the third day, January 10. The same group of people, who were disruptive about seating, staged a protest inside Anderson Hall. They used an incident of transphobia at the Queer Resistance panel to protest with chants and posters. From the beginning, the panel was stated to be a safe and brave space, making disagreement inevitable, but cultivating respect and learning amidst differences. When a cisgendered homosexual panelist said transphobic slurs, using them as examples of transphobia she had witnessed growing up, people in the audience were understandably upset. The panelist was unaware people were sensitive to the slurs and apologized many times. While BROC was not in total control of what speakers chose to say on panels, BROC member and moderator, Gabe Gonzalez, personally apologized to the people upset by the slurs. The group disregarded the apology and used transphobia as the pretext to protest the entire conference.

The disruptive protest was a reactionary and ultraleftist move that risked shutting down the entire conference and summoning the police.[1] BROC did not control Allied Barton security,[2] workers employed by Temple who make below a living wage, and Temple police. Temple police wanted to call reinforcements to remove the protesters from the building, but BROC explicitly told them not to call more police.[3] We decided to hold a dialogue with the protesters, rather than expose them and other attendees to the violence and brutality of the police.

BROC held the dialogue with the disrupters in a spirit of revolutionary love and unity. The primary grievance that arose pertained to the issue of seating and the idea that the conference should have been a Black-only space. BROC never intended to put on a Black-only conference and we were explicit in our Call to Action on the crucial importance of multiracial and internationalist solidarity in the struggle for Black liberation: “The Black Radical Tradition embraces commitments to the unity of the people. It has in the past and today stands with all victims of white supremacy and capitalist hierarchies and oppressions. It is part of the common resistance of all peoples of color, working people and the poor. It is internationalist, at home and abroad. It stands with all genuine efforts of Pan-Africanism, Afro-Asiatic, Afro-Indigenous and Afro-Latino unity. . . The Black Radical Tradition is welcoming and open.”

The Black Radical Tradition is foundational to people who are not Black, for it is only with the liberation of Black people that humanity can be freed from its chains of oppression, just as Black people cannot be liberated while humanity is in chains. The disrupters signaled an ideological split in the movement between reactionary division and revolutionary solidarity, not unlike the historical split between counter-revolutionary cultural nationalists like Ron Karenga, Molefi Asante, and US[4], and radical socialist organizations like the Black Panther Party and Fannie Lou Hamer’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

We view this trend of identity politics in the movement and the insistence on Black-only spaces as a re-manifestation of cultural nationalism and an ultimately divisive and dehumanizing force. We agree with Anthony Monteiro’s analysis that identity politics is the reconfiguration of whiteness and uses Western liberal conceptions of race to characterize Black identity, instead of dismantling whiteness and Americanism, and practicing a genuine politics of solidarity to liberate humanity from tyrannical systems of capitalism, racism, colonialism, patriarchy and imperialism.

As a collective, we seek to continue the legacy of the Black Panther Party, which embraced white and other nonblack allies in their struggle and practiced internationalism. The Black Panthers struggled with some Black students who opposed their coalition-building with white and nonblack people. Huey P. Newton writes in Revolutionary Suicide, “We maintained this was possible as long as we controlled the programs, but the students were opposed to working with white groups, or, for that matter, almost anyone but Blacks. While this viewpoint was understandable to me, it failed to take into consideration the [strategic] limitations of our power. We needed allies, and we believed that alliances with young whites—students and workers—were worth the risk” (182). And as Angela Davis reminded us at the conference, the contribution of nonblack revolutionaries like Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama at the prerogative of Black leaders is invaluable to the Black Radical Tradition.

BROC believes that a Black Power space is different from a Black-only space. While white and nonblack people were in attendance, they constituted the minority and Black people dominated the conference. We believe Black people dominating a space with white and nonblack people is more revolutionary than a Black-only space, which is insular and ignores the reality of the world outside the safe space. As Assata Shakur writes in her autobiography, “I believe in uniting with white [and nonblack] revolutionaries to fight against a common enemy, but I was convinced it had to be on the basis of power and unity rather than from weakness and unity at any cost” (192). The Black Radical Tradition Conference allowed the attendance of nonblack people from the position of power and unity for Black people, who were centralized and empowered at this conference.

Power and unity form the principle in our struggle going forward. We believe the Black Radical Tradition Conference marks the next phase in the struggle for Black liberation in the United States. The disruption showed us where some people were at in the movement, and it convinced us of the importance in revolutionary education for all the people. But we wish to ask: Was this pattern of disruptive behavior politically motivated? And what does that mean for the movement at large?

Nevertheless, we believe the people united will never be defeated, and our conference triumphed in spite of the elements that tried to stop it.

[1] Because the protest was inside the lobby of the building, police and security aimed to remove the protesters from the building.

[2] BROC hired an independent security force for the conference, which was distinct from the security employed by Temple University, and who were not involved in calling Temple police.

[3] Temple police disregarded our wishes and called reinforcements anyway. But they left, because we held a dialogue and the protest desisted.

[4] Karenga and US colluded with the police state and killed two Black Panthers, John Huggins and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter. Likewise, Asante joined forces with Temple to initiate Monteiro’s firing and removal from the African American Studies department.

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The Black Radical Tradition Conference – General Statement

 

The Black Radical Tradition Conference took place in January 2016 in Philadelphia at Temple University and the Church of the Advocate. Its goal was to cement the struggle for black liberation in these days and times within the philosophy and activism of the Black Radical Tradition. #Blacklivesmatter then became black liberation. “Reclaiming our future” meant the pathway to the liberation of black people, which was dependent on the liberation of all humanity. 

I was a part of this collective as a student and activist. I drafted the two statements that emerged from the conference with the input and conversation of my friends and fellow activists. The statements were thus rooted in the ideological framework of the Black Radical Tradition, but also my own context and experience as a Pakistani-American Muslim woman – Third Worldist, steeped in an ethos of Islamic liberation theology, and a collective opposition to racism and capitalism from which love and solidarity of the highest order sprang. 

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The Black Radical Tradition Conference, starting on Thursday, January 7, 2016, and finishing on Sunday, January 10, constituted a historical achievement of the highest order. It was a powerful congregation of leaders, activists and people fighting for social change in their communities and dedicating their lives to the liberation of humanity. Anchored in revolutionary love, the conference represented the unity of Black Philadelphia in challenging white supremacy and capitalism, and it anticipated the next stage of the Black liberation movement.

Black Radical Organizing Collective (BROC) was responsible for organizing the conference. BROC is a revolutionary collective based in North Philadelphia, and our membership draws from the diverse revolutionary community of the Philadelphia area and beyond. We are a multigenerational, multiracial and multifaith organization committed to revolutionary change and transformation. We serve the people, because we truly come from the people, distinguishing BROC from nonprofit and/or policy organizations. Our members and volunteers are unpaid and we do not enjoy substantial funding, wishing to locate ourselves in the power of the people and resist co-optation by the white supremacist and capitalist forces of money and power.

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Instead, we locate ourselves in the people of Black Philadelphia and its organic institutions. BROC’s primary sponsor is the Church of the Advocate, which hosted the Black Power Conference of 1968, the Black Panther Conference of 1970, and the first ordination of women in the Episcopal Church in 1974. The Advocate continues to serve the Black Philadelphia community through social services, community programs and spiritual enrichment, continuing the legacy of its pastor, Father Paul Washington, who practiced and envisioned the theology of liberation.

The Black Radical Tradition Conference delivered ideological clarity and centered radicalism in the movement. The conference prioritized the people who fight and struggle on the ground for social change and actively participate in movement-building and history-making. The conference invited historical leaders like Angela Davis, Pam Africa, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Jamala Rogers and united them with youth forces like Umi Selah, Kashara White, and Charlene Carruthers in shaping the future of the movement.

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The conference empowered the Beloved Community in fighting for liberation, and contextualized our movement in the global struggle against capitalism, colonialism and white supremacy. Ours is an internationalist struggle that builds unity and claims progressive power in the fight against oppressive systems. Approximately 2500 people attended the conference, coming from different parts of the country, impacting the nationwide movement for Black lives matter and establishing the important role of Philadelphia in the national struggle.

The Black Radical Tradition Conference anticipated the next phase of struggle in the Black liberation movement, rekindling the fiery anticapitalist momentum of the earliest stages of the movement. The conference inspired the people to new levels of consciousness and cemented the crucial importance of united struggle. We struggle towards revolutionary transformation and we serve the Beloved Community. Our struggle aims to reshape the future and come from the people. We can only move forward from here.