“Strong people don’t need strong leaders” – The Continual Impact of Women in the Black Freedom Struggle

With the ongoing global protests against police brutality and systemic racism sparked by the murder of George Floyd, it is now more important than ever to look back at the history of the civil rights and black liberation movements. When we look at these movements, the work and contributions of women are often overlooked, although current protests take far more inspiration from historical female activists than is often recognised. The impact of women, such as Angela Davis and Ella Baker, in the black freedom struggle can be seen clearly. Many of the global demands being made at this time concern the police and prisons; however, it can only be helpful to take a closer look at the successes of women and attempt to learn from them as best we can.

The most well-known leading female figure of the black liberation struggle, and arguably the most influential in the current protests is, without a doubt, Angela Davis. An active and continuing campaigner for the black liberation struggle for over 5 decades, she has an exceedingly large body of experience to examine. The influence of her commitment to police and prison abolition and her lasting criticisms of the prison-industrial complex can be seen throughout many of the demands currently being made in protests. Furthermore, her internationalist, intersectional outlook should undoubtedly be the standard against which organisations attempting to foment radical change should be measured. There is much that has already been said about Angela Davis, but her ubiquity should not serve to diminish her influence. We should not focus simply on her work, but also the work of other contemporaries and past figures. The most important, yet overlooked, is Ella Baker.

Angela Davis speaking at Columbia University. (Credit: Columbia GSAPP, via Flickr)

It is hard to overstate the monumental impact that Ella Baker had on the civil rights movement. However, compared to many of her contemporaries, her contributions remain largely unrecognised. During her lifetime she was an active member of organisations such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and even helped to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. She was deeply critical of organisations driven by a single, usually male, charismatic leader and feared that such organisations would distance themselves from the very people they were intending to help. Ella Baker fundamentally believed that people should always be prioritised over organisations, and her approach to activism remains forward-thinking and progressive by modern standards. By prioritising grassroots appeal and more horizontal, technocratic forms of organisational hierarchy, she showed commitment to her belief that every individual has the capacity to engage with, and fight against oppression. 

The nature of the current protests exemplifies these womens’ lasting influence. We see now movements driven not by a single, messianic leader, but by a confidence in the wisdom of ordinary people to define their problems and cultivate solutions. We are beginning to see forms of group-centered leadership with individuals accountable to each other. Never before have calls for police defunding or prison abolition been so loud and so widespread; more people than ever are attempting to fight and dismantle a system that perpetuates racism and violence. However, none of this means that the current protest demands and organisational forms are beyond reproach, and it is important that we look back and learn from the actions and demands of women such as Angela Davis and Ella Baker, as well as unmentioned figures such as Assata Shakur, Rosa Parks, Elaine Brown, Ramona Africa and many, many others. Looking reflectively at the past, and the pioneering work of these women is critical to ensuring the current movements can be as effective as possible, and provide the best chance of inducing real change.

Freddy Fossey-Warren

Decolonising the Curriculum

Whilst the #RhodesMustFall protests began over 5 years ago in South Africa and in the United Kingdom, misunderstanding has continued over movements to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. To ‘decolonise the curriculum’ means to question well established biases and gaps within teaching that limit our understanding of the world around us. Thus, the movement campaigns to give a fuller version of British history to reflect injustice and celebrate the histories of British POC.  

If our curriculum remains entirely static in its distorted presentation of knowledge, it will become stale, risk entrenching racial thinking, and inadvertently devalue POC. As students, if we do not challenge what we are learning (and how we are learning it), entire perspectives and realms of knowledge can go unheard, which can become enormously damaging over time. For our BME peers, our current focus on the great (white) man theory can suggest that BME identity is inferior, as British course contents do not attempt to teach any aspect of their history.

On a personal level, as a white History undergraduate, I am glad to see petitions being submitted to my previous school which call for widened GCSE and A-level History curricula. Despite having both a GCSE and an A-level in History, my learning has been entirely Euro-centric, limited to the Tudors, the World Wars, the Cold War and the Stuart Century. Shamefully, it is only recently that I began to question why my curriculum focussed exclusively on white, western intellectual traditions and histories. To young and impressionable teenagers, this undoubtedly promotes the notion that European history and culture is both universal and superior.  

The movement to decolonise the curriculum is multidimensional and therefore its application, in practical terms, must also be. Firstly, our curriculum should widen its scope to include more internationally diverse thought. Undergraduate reading lists, for example, should encompass a greater inclusion of authors outside of Europe. Further, course contents, from the age of 16, must become more international, and give a fuller version of British colonial history.  

Students at Oxford University calling for the removal of Cecil Rhose’s state in March 2016. (Credit: David Hartly/Rex, via Shutterstock)

In terms of having a genuinely positive impact on POC, providing an accurate and full portrayal of history will help to address the prominent racial attainment gap within academia. Where only 50% of black students are awarded first-class or upper-second class honours, 78.8% of white students are. Many believe this can be partly explained by BME students’ inability to engage with an exclusively white-focused curriculum in the way that their white peers do. We must also fundamentally reconsider who is teaching and how they are teaching. In 2016, only 25 black women were working as professors compared to 14,000 white men – outnumbering black women professors at a rate of 560 to 1. Promoting a more inclusive and diverse teaching body within higher education will help to broaden our perspectives by examining biases within our course content.  

See our podcast with Dr David Andersen for his academic view on the importance of a decolonised curriculum, as well as wider discussion about the impact of the Black Lives’ Matter movement on the Obama and Trump presidencies, alongside many other fascinating topics. Listen to it on Spotify here.

Amelia Crick

A Knock in the Dark: Venezuela’s Human Rights Violations

In a country ravaged by authoritarian socialism under dictator Nicolás Maduro, voicing opposition can be a death sentence. Freedom of speech and the right of expression are taken for granted where they exist, and it’s difficult for many in the West to envision a country whereby expressing a political opinion would endanger your own life as well as that of your family and closest friends. 

For Ariana Granadillo, it was a ‘knock in the dark’. Government agents, without a warrant, detained Granadillo, confined, beat, interrogated and threatened to suffocate her. Granadillo’s only crime had been that she was related to a political opponent, her father’s second cousin. Secret detentions such as these are used by the Venezuelan government as a tool to control its population and discourage dissent. Human rights groups counted over 200 cases in 2018 but 524 in 2019, revealing how sinister the situation has become. As well as arbitrary detentions, Venezuela’s Press and Society Institute recorded 1,032 violations to freedom of expression and access to public information for citizens. This year, there were 326 aggressions and attacks on journalists, the nature of which includes detentions. More important than counting the number of violations is the lasting impact of such tyrannical governance – a deliberately instilled fear of fighting against the government. 

Before Maduro, it was Hugo Chávez’s reign of destruction that plagued Venezuela, beginning in 1998 until his death in 2013. A damning report by Human Rights Watch in 2008 accused Chávez’s government of flouting human rights by ‘neutralising the judiciary’ with allies and increasing censorship in private media. The systemic abuse of freedoms has proven to have become entrenched by Venezuela’s worsening humanitarian crisis under Maduro. The government suppresses dissent through violent crackdowns, arbitrary arrests, and by prosecuting civilians in military courts. There remains no check on executive power by opposition groups. In 2019, a UN humanitarian affairs chief estimated that there were 7 million people in need of humanitarian aid in Venezuela – a quarter of its entire population. Whilst organisations send medicines and food supplies into the country, they are withheld by Maduro’s government and used to manipulate citizens into voting.

President Nicolas Maduro at a press conference in Caracas, March 12, 2020 (Credit: Matias Delacroix/Associated Press)

Yet, the same UN that recognises the perilous position of Venezuela’s people and its violations on basic freedoms, voted last year for the country to sit on its Human Rights Council. In fitting company, the council also hosts China, which has detained over 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims in re-education camps; Saudi Arabia, which likewise carries out arbitrary detentions and continues to commit atrocities against the Yemeni people; and Cuba, whose government represses and punishes dissent and criticism. Countries which are guilty of committing human rights atrocities often seek positions on the council to prevent alarms being raised towards their own country. Whilst the Venezuelan crisis continues to unravel, its people remain afraid of speaking out for fear of arrest and torture, or worse, their own families being punished instead. Whilst the Venezuelan government enjoys another two years on the council, those that are brave enough to take action may only await a ‘knock in the dark’.

Ariana Fanning

What Stonewall 1969 can Teach Us About Activism

Photo by Diana Davies depicts the Gay Liberation Front marches in Times Square 1969, accessed via The Guardian.

Understanding the historical construction of LGBTQ+ movements is imperative to furthering current activism. A prime example of this is the creation of the ‘Stonewall Myth’, as the Stonewall riots are now revered as the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement in the US. Given the current situation in the US it seems more important than ever to understand how protests shape the historical narrative. Understanding how activists construct social memory around particular events enables us to further the gains of the current LGBTQ+ movement as many grapple with how to further the rights of, and protect the more marginalized members of the LGBTQ+ community.

The Stonewall riots were started by African American transgender woman Marsha P. Johnson. A series of riots began on June 27th 1969 after police raided a homosexual bar in New York (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 724), they are now remembered as a catalyst for the gay civil rights movement in the US. However, sociologists Armstrong & Crage note that there were similar instances of activism prior to this such as the 1965 New Year’s Ball raid in San Francisco (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 730), which were not committed to the collective social memory. They use these instances to highlight the two conditions that are essential for an event to permeate the collective memory, which are that ‘activists considered the event commemorable and had the mnemonic capacity to create a commemorative vehicle’ (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 730). Unlike previous raids in other parts of the country, Stonewall was able to achieve these criteria. Activists used the raid as the basis for commemorative marches which became the first gay pride and has since solidified the event in US social memory. The significance of Stonewall also highlights the extent to which the movement grew between 1969 and the Black Cat raids a few years earlier (Armstrong & Crage, 2006: 736). Events that fit into existing genres are generally seen as more commemorable. Much like how the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd in the US demonstrate a maturation of the black lives matter movement, Stonewall showed a maturation of the gay civil rights movement, which meant that the Gay Liberation Front was better financially equipped to create mnemonic resonance.

Achieving ‘mnemonic capacity’ with regard to an event is all the more difficult now as the growth of social media makes it harder to corral attention around specific events for extended periods of time. As we have seen with the recent protests in both Hong Kong and the US, social media can be an immensely powerful tool to bring people together, even when communication is limited within society. But in order to make sure these movements are remembered and create lasting change we can take lessons from Stonewall activists in how they used repetitive action to make their message permeate the collective memory and achieve long term progress in civil rights. Zeynep Tufekci argues that modern social movements fail to ‘sustain over the long term and exert leverage over the system, which leads to frustrated protesters dropping out, and even more corrupt politics.’ Social media is a powerful tool to raise awareness of how our rights may be under threat, as we saw with the Government’s recent proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act which could have devastating impacts on the trans community. However, in order to transform this awareness into significant political power we can take inspiration from Stonewall, which showed how repetitive, radical action is necessary to make sure that the wider public take notice of movements for justice.

Alicia Bickerstaff


Bibliography

Armstrong, E.A & Crage, S.N, 2006, ‘Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth’, American Sociological Review, Vol.71, No. 5 pp. 724-751, Viewed 7th June 2020, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25472425

Loong, L.L.H, 2012, ‘Deconstructing the silences: Gay Social Memory’, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol.59, No.5, pp.675-688, DOI: 10.1080/00918369.2012.673903

Mitchell Reyes, G & Schulz, David. P & Hovland, Zoe, 2018, ‘When Memory and Sexuality Collide: The Homosentimental Style of Gay Liberation’, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 1 April 2018, Vol.21, No.1, pp.39-74, Viewed 7th June 2020, https://muse-jhu-edu.ezphost.dur.ac.uk/journal/171

Tufekci, Z, 2014, Online Social Change: Easy To Organize, Hard To Win, online video, Viewed 7th June, https://www.ted.com/…/zeynep_tufekci_how_the_internet_has_m…

George Floyd

History does not look kindly on bystanders but we must not allow our fear of this to determine our reaction to injustice.

The killing of George Floyd has emblazoned social media with messages of protest in solidarity with movements such as Black Lives Matter. Unlike those who came before us, we are able to broadcast our views to the world, but eagerness to not be remembered as onlookers in an atrocity should not determine the action we take. Soundbite political culture and social media allows statements to be publicly broadcast, but we must be careful that this does not supplant real meaningful political engagement. When the hashtags have stopped we must continue to act against injustice.

Posting on social media is not a replacement for real life critical engagement with our political and social climate. Public statements that ‘Black Lives Matter’ are virtue signalling if we don’t look at the flaws within our communities, families and ourselves. Racial injustice does not just occur in times like this when we see an African American man being murdered by a police officer in the US. In the UK, racism is prevalent, institutional and historically entrenched. If we are to proclaim that Black Lives Matter, they must matter always, not just when it is the done thing to post a slogan supporting justice on social media.

Unless they are backed up by action, words are dispassionate at best and dishonest at worst.

I fear that statement-led politics can be used to absolve white peoples’ guilt. Expressions of sympathy can be used as a statement that ‘I am not racist’, ‘I am not one of them’. White people are in a position of inherent privilege as their skin colour is not a basis for oppression. Does this political culture on social media make it easier to avoid conversations about race as people appoint themselves immune from being part of the problem? We must consider the use of social media in a productive way and solely expressing sympathy or solidarity is not enough to be part of the solution. White people must acknowledge their racial privilege and actively challenge racism even when it may feel uncomfortable to do so. If our behaviours or attitudes are challenged we should listen to the experiences of others and not assume that our Black Lives Matter post can make us immune from making mistakes.

Our generation’s power to engage with and combat global injustice is unparalleled and this is largely due to our connections with each other through social media. Our anger should not be used for social approval and our anger does not absolve people from wrongdoing. Our anger needs to be supported by action for radical change and active anti-racism. Social media can raise awareness, but if we don’t support these words with action, we are no better than those who stand by and watch.

I am writing this as a white person and am not exempt myself from what I have argued. I am going to do better and put more effort into being aware, listening and learning about racism and my own privilege. To find out how to help go to https://blacklivesmatter.carrd.co, this includes informational resources and links to the places where your donations and signature can be the most effective. For causes to contribute to in the UK: https://www.independent.co.uk/…/black-lives-matter-charity-….