Sudan: On the 5th anniversary of the Qiyada Massacre in Khartoum

03/06/2024

 The following speech is by GPAC member Sara Abbas and was read out at a demonstration in Cologne, Germany on Staurday June 1st. Organised by Sudan AG Rhineland, the demonstration marked the 5th anniversary of the Qiyada Massacre in Khartoum on June 3rd, 2019, and the violent dispersal of the sit-in in front of the Military General Command.

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Greetings comrades, siblings and allies,

I want to start by paying the deepest respect to the martyrs of Sudan’s three revolutions of 1964, 1985 and 2018.

I want to also pay my respect to the revolutionary women and girls of Sudan, who defied so much to organize in every place and space. I want to especially pay respect to the women and girls from South Sudan, Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and Darfur, who were bombed out of their homes and their lands and who have been at the forefront of confronting state violence for decades.

I want to greet as well all those from Sudan at the demo, and to wish them strength in these painful times.

Greetings and love especially to our siblings from Palestine, Kurdistan, Tigray, Syria, Ukraine, Iran and everywhere else where people continue to stand up in the face of genocide and mass murder. Greetings to allies in Germany who see that what is happening to us in places like Sudan and Palestine is directly related to what is being done right here, in Europe. Europe continues to cut deals with mass murderers, to kill our siblings at its borders, to loot our resources, to blackmail us into cycles of escalating debt, and to tell billions of people across the world that all they can hope for, if they’re lucky, is to stay alive.

I won‘t speak much about June 3rd, 2019, except to say that it’s a day carved in blood forever in Sudanese history. A few weeks following that day, on June 30th, and despite the horror and internet blackout— millions came out on the streets across Sudan to say: there’s no turning back; the revolution continues. This took a stunning amount of local organizing and networking across locales, and would not have been possible without years of building structures capable of it. Sudan’s December Revolution is a testament to the power of sustained grassroots organizing. Its tools, tactics, vision, structures and evolution should be studied across movements, as should its lessons and failures.

The devastating war we see today in Sudan, which began in April of last year, is part of a long and bloody cycle of conflict. The extension of the war last year to other areas, including the capital city, Khartoum, is rapidly shrinking whatever safe spaces or means of livelihood were left. It is the workers, the poor, the small-scale farmers, the landless, the refugees, the displaced mothers and children living in shelters and camps, who are suffering the most. Sudan is in the grip of a catastrophic hunger crisis. In parts of the country and in some camps for the displaced, people are reduced to eating their seeds instead of planting them, to swallowing mud to feel full, to chewing toxic leaves from trees. The world as usual is desensitized to Black suffering, especially African suffering, and we see this too today in relation to what is happening in the D.R. Congo.

A few months before this war started, the neighborhood resistance committees had published what they call “the charter for the establishment of people power”. This came after months of local work across the country, from which a shared vision of how people can govern themselves crystallized. It is not a coincidence that this war started soon after. It is a counter-revolutionary war, meant to redirect energy from building alternative structures, to raw, basic, desperate survival.

At this moment in time, the counter-revolution is very much winning in Sudan, and the future of the revolutionary project is really unclear. The war is deepening, and the matrix of national and international interests fueling the fighting, is growing.

Defending the revolution right now means supporting the mutual aid initiatives. It means defending refugees’ right to cross borders without barriers or violence. It means pressuring for a ceasefire and an immediate end to the killing. It means rejecting false agreements based on secret negotiations in fancy hotels far away. It means defending revolutionaries and activists from repression by all sides. It means resisting the call to pit ethnicities against one another, or to pick a side to back. It means most of all to organize locally to raise the voices of those rejecting militarism, not just in Sudan but in Germany, in Palestine and elsewhere.

Since 2019, the German state has tried to bring so-called stability to Sudan by centering the military and promoting a civilian elite to share power with it. Germany is most interested in continuing to have a friendly face in power in Khartoum, one that can help it stop migration by any means. You should resist this and back the revolution’s demands of bottom up civilian rule, demilitarization and justice.

Before I end, I want to take a moment to remember your comrade and mine, Nuisha, who passed away suddenly here in Cologne in March. Nuisha, who fled Iran in 1980 following the Islamist counter-revolution there, was a committed anarchist, a courageous human being and steadfast ally to many struggles, including the Sudanese Revolution. May she rest in power and may we keep up her legacy.

Thank you.

Revisiting the Prison Industrial Complex

Romarilyn Ralston

Originally published in OpenDemocracy

Authoritarian capitalism and the prison industrial complex is a two-tiered tyrannical system designed to enslave through mass incarceration.

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Parchman Penal Farm. Female prisoners sewing, circa 1930. Flickr/Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Some rights reserved.More than 60% of women in state prisons in the US have a child under the age of 18. On any given day, over 2.7 million, or 1 in 28 children have a parent in prison. Children with incarcerated parents are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, poor academic performance, school absenteeism/drop out, poverty, homelessness, difficulty transitioning to basic adult roles, and physical health problems including migraines, asthma, and high cholesterol.

Children with incarcerated parents are 6-9 times more likely to become incarcerated themselves. Black children are seven-and-a-half times more likely than White children to have a parent in prison, and Latino children are two-and-a-half times more likely to experience this family dynamic.

In 2000, in Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex, Angela Yvonne Davis examined the infamy of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), a term first coined, maybe by Angela Davis herself, in the late 1990’s. What is the PIC? It is a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. Davis stated:

“Prison privatization is the most obvious instance of capital’s current movement toward the prison industry. While government-run prisons are often in gross violation of international human rights standards, private prisons are even less accountable. In March 1998, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest US private prison company, claimed 54,944 beds in 68 facilities under contract or development in the US, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Following the global trend of subjecting more women to public punishment, CCA opened a women’s prison outside Melbourne.

Private prison companies are only the most visible component of the increasing corporatization of punishment. Many corporations whose products we consume on a daily basis have learned that prison labor can be as profitable as third world labor power exploited by US-based global corporations. Both relegate formerly unionized workers to joblessness and many even wind up in prison. Some of the companies that use prison labor are IBM, Motorola, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Microsoft, and Boeing. But it is not only the hi-tech industries that reap the profits of prison labor.

The California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) uses inmate labor to build, grow, and manufacture products for state agencies, institutions and schools. Products such as furniture, food products & agriculture, clothing, bedding, shoes & boots, and more. The 2016 revenue earned by PIA was approximately 225M, while inmates work pay ranges from .32-$1 per hour.

  • PIA Mission Statement: CALPIA is a self-supporting, customer-focused business that reduces recidivism, increases prison safety, and enhances public safety by providing offenders productive work and training opportunities.
  • Vision Statement: Changing offenders’ lives through innovative job training for a safer California.

While these messages may be the mission and vision of CalPIA, the training provided seldom if ever leads to work post-release. Unemployment and underemployment are the biggest barriers to successful reentry.”

Davis continued:

“Nordstrom department stores sell jeans that are marketed as “Prison Blues”, as well as t-shirts and jackets made in Oregon prisons. The advertising slogan for these clothes is “made on the inside to be worn on the outside”. Maryland prisoners inspect glass bottles and jars used by Revlon and Pierre Cardin, and schools throughout the world buy graduation caps and gowns made by South Carolina prisoners. “For private business”, write Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans (a political prisoner inside the Federal Correctional Institution at Dublin, California) “prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for airlines, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret all at a fraction of the cost of `free labor'”.

As a youth, I was arrested and convicted of a crime and sentenced to life in prison.  I served 23 years at the California Institution for women in Corona, CA.  When I was first incarcerated in 1988, the women’s prison in Corona was the largest women’s prison in the world. Since the 1980s prison expansion in California CIW has become second to the California Central Women’s Facility in Chowchilla which opened in 1991. We often saw tours given to visitors from other countries who were looking to CIW as a model to emulate. Many countries now look away from the American carceral system as a model, seeing prison expansion and mass incarceration of its citizens as disgraceful and a human rights violation.  

CIW was built in 1952 to hold approximately 500 women. When I arrived, there were 2800 female bodied prisoners packed into converted dayrooms, custodial boiler rooms, doubled bunked cells, and the auditorium.  From the vast number of women locked up, it was clear that CDC was only interested in human capital as a means of profiteering. The majority of women behind bars were convicted of drug-related and property crimes. Black women made up 47% of the population in 1988 and continued to grow through the late 1990s.

By the time I was released in 2011 Black women made up approximately 37% of the population behind bars a decrease of 10% but still a disproportionate number in relationship to the general population. Thanks to prison abolitionists, criminal justice reformists and policy changes, black women are less impacted today. However, the damage has been done and the cycle of generational poverty and incarceration is still high for black Americans.

To further illustrate these remarks Davis points out:

“To deliver up bodies destined for profitable punishment, the political economy of prisons relies on racialized assumptions of criminality – such as images of black welfare mothers reproducing criminal children – and on racist practices in arrest, conviction, and sentencing patterns. Colored bodies constitute the main human raw material in this vast experiment to disappear the major social problems of our time. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages. Prisons thus perform a feat of magic.

“But prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become a big business. Once the aura of magic is stripped away from the imprisonment solution, what is revealed is racism, class bias, and the parasitic seduction of capitalist profit. The prison industrial system materially and morally impoverishes its inhabitants and devours the social wealth needed to address the very problems that have led to spiraling numbers of prisoners.”

The prison industrial complex is a business!

The impact and intersection of race, mass incarceration, state violence and authoritarian capitalism can be seen and felt in places like Ferguson, Missouri.  After the murder of Michael Brown, Jr, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri by Darren Wilson, a white police office, the world witnessed the use of military force and weaponry on US soil against peaceful protesters and on American citizens like never before.

I was living in North County St. Louis when all this happened.  I protested, attended rallies, and volunteered with the Ferguson Commission, a body of 16 local leaders. The charge was to address the underlying root cause that led to the unrest in the wake of Michael Brown’s death and to publish a report with transformative policy recommendations for making the region stronger and a better place for everyone to live and to guide the community in charting a new path toward healing and positive change for all residents of the St. Louis region. 

We know the 2015 report concluded what most reports have concluded after investigating the cause of unrest in Black communities over the past century (i.e., East St. Louis (1917), Watts (1965), Detroit (1967), and Los Angeles (1992)). Strategies for healing racial wounds, dismantling structural racism, and promoting racial and ethnic equity are needed but never produced.

The continuous mistreatment, torture, terrorism, and murder of Blacks in America as sanctioned by State violence and white supremacy have been normalized by authoritarian capitalism.  

Not much has changed in St. Louis since August 9, 2014. On September 15, 2017 another White police officer (ex-police officer) Jason Stockley was acquitted for killing Anthony Lamar Smith (24 yrs. old) after being caught on tape stating: “I’m going to kill the nigger,” despite the investigation concluding that he had planted a firearm in Smith’s car.

Authoritarian capitalism and the prison industrial complex is a two-tiered tyrannical system designed to enslave through mass incarceration. The white imagination that sees black people as less than human, sees poor people as slaves, and profit as justice.

CaliforniaInstitutionforWomen.jpg
California Institution for Women, Aerial View,2004. Wikicommons/ California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Some rights reserved.

Gender Violence, Political Activism & Imprisonment in Egypt

While nine years ago female protesters struggled with violence on the street, female dissidents today face worse consequences in political prisons. This includes the famous human rights lawyer Mahienour El Massry, who has been in and out of prison for the past 15 years.

By Yasmin

Originally published by The Alliance of Middle Eastern and North African Socialists

The current status of women’s rights in Egypt reflects nothing of the country’s long history of feminism. Over the course of the past century, silencing Egyptian women proved to be a difficult task whether for the state or for its patriarchal institutions.

Women’s struggles across the world are equally fascinating – even if my bias makes me secretly feel that the Egyptian women’s fight for freedom has been the greatest of them all. The distinctive feature, however, of Egyptian feminism, I would argue, is the bold expression of anger. And I don’t mean here the negative, probably Eurocentric, view of anger as this destructive, futile force. No, I mean the empowering type of anger, the anger that results from an inherent confidence that I deserve better than this. It is a type of anger that many Egyptian children proudly recall seeing in their mothers and grandmothers, and the type of anger that drives women out of their homes and into the dangerous realm of public spaces and the workforce, putting food on the table and sending kids to school.

Growing up in the economically struggling neighbourhood of Omraneya in Giza, I will never forget how proud I was of my mother, working two jobs with nothing but a short break in between, during which she came home to cook a warm meal for us. Chicken and potatoes baked in the oven, fried prawns and French fries, juicy beef cooked in red stew with okra, none of which reflected her humble salary. This was in the 1990’s, at the time when the president’s wife embezzled millions of Egyptian pounds from public money to build jacuzzies for her grandchildren and decorate the houses of her daughters in law. Everyone was watching in resentment, especially the women that had to take things into their owns hands when the men lost the will to fight.

When my generation grew up to face unemployment and a collapsing economy, with no hope of ever giving our mothers the dignified retirement that they deserve, women were at the forefront of the battle. If they were going to get crushed by a stronger enemy, the state, they weren’t going down without a fight. And fight they did, mobilising alongside the men in political movements opposing the Mubarak regime, including Kefaya Movement, formed in 2004, and the 6 April Youth Movement, formed in 2008. Parallel to the increasing role that women played, hostility towards them in public spaces was on the rise. By the time these political movements came to life, Cairo’s streets had already become infested with sexual harassment, which evolved over the years from cat calling to aggressive grabbing, especially in public transportation.

Because of the critical role that women played in the opposition, they were the main targets of the state when it came to silencing protesters. The first time the State Security started using sexual harassment to disperse protesters on a mass scale was on the 25th of May 2005, commonly known among the activist communities as Black Wednesday. Such attacks were orchestrated and sponsored by Mubarak’s allies, the likes of business tycoon Ibrahim Kamel (deceased in 2018). Such hostility towards female protesters was further exacerbated during and after the 2011 revolution. The day Mubarak stepped down on the 11th of February, the first gang rape took place in Tahrir Square, demonstrating calculated tactics that repeatedly occurred during protests afterwards. These tactics include what became known as the “circle of hell”, during which a group of men would surround a woman forming a circle that isolates her from others and this circle would in turn be surrounded by a second layer that prevents outsiders from intervening.

Later that year, in December 2011, a picture that reflected the struggles of female protesters was captured, depicting a woman, dressed in hijab and conservative back attire, getting beaten and stripped half naked, exposing her blue bra, during a protest in Tahrir Square. It was this incident that led to the birth of the blue bra as an icon of the Egyptian revolution. The image, that won its photographer numerous awards, spread like wildfire, whether in the international press or on the city walls through street art and stencils. It was a picture that remains difficult to look at until this day, and it is hard to believe that this same woman is still ruled by that same army that violated her because she expressed her views.

Indeed, the political situation today in Egypt is back to point zero and the status of the women is worse than ever. Of course, women that belong to the ruling elite who are enjoying different upper class privileges are the first to say that female protesters deserve to get gang raped and to serve years of their lives in political prison. Television broadcasters, who are themselves independent women practicing their own freedom, were among the many that launched a campaign basically saying that women who want to stay safe should stay home.

Over the course of the following years, victims of these incidents spoke out, publishing accounts of how they had been stripped naked and gang raped on the streets for hours before someone could rescue them.

One of the victims recalls her rape just one day after it happened, writing, “I begged him to make way so that I can escape to the field hospital. I do not really know what drove this harasser to save me after I begged him… and I do not know how he suddenly raised his belt, beating everyone around him, frantically screaming, ‘I will protect her… I will protect her’. I do not know how his conscience was awakened, but I found myself crawling to the field hospital.” This is not to mention the virginity tests carried out by military doctors against female protesters, for which no one was convicted.

While nine years ago female protesters struggled with violence on the street, female dissidents today face worse consequences in political prisons. This includes the famous human rights lawyer Mahienour El Massry, who has been in and out of prison for the past 15 years. “We don’t like jail but we’re not scared of it,” she once said in what became a famous quote that not only captures her defiance but also reflects her life as a narrative that revolves around political prison. A native of Alexandria and a member of the Revolutionary Socialists, she engaged with the opposition from its early years and became increasingly involved after she earned her law degree and started defending activists and laborers. Today, she is among the country’s 70,000 political prisoners.

While the number of political prisoners is rapidly increasing – the government arrested 4000 prisoners in just two months following the September 20th,  2019 protests –, a campaign was launched by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), highlighted the most intimate of the female prisoner’s struggles, menstruation. Periods in Prison, the name of the campaign, aimed at pressuring prison authorities to provide cotton-based sanitary pads free of charge, narrates the struggles of five women who were previously in jail, including three political prisoners.

“The prison transport vehicle is in itself, completely inhumane for a woman on her period. It’s terrible. From the metal interior you have to sit on, to the extreme shaking of the vehicle … it’s not comfortable at all … and in a trip that lasts two hours each way (to and from court for example). And when you get to the prosecutor, you cannot always use the bathroom. Also, when you’re going to the Kasr al-Ainy hospital, for example, the trip is usually about three hours each way. So on days like these, it’s normal to spend the entire day wearing the same pad,” a former prisoner writes in the EIPR report.

When it comes to political activists, they are often abducted for days and sometimes even months before they merge in the custody of police. The main purpose of this is to torture the prisoner to pressure her into confessing without being held accountable. During this time of disappearance, the prisoners have nothing on them except what they were wearing when they got caught.

“When I went to prison, I had been abducted for 16 days. I was sitting blindfolded in Lazoghly (the national security headquarters in Cairo). Another woman arrived after me. She had been abducted for three days and she had her period when she was kidnapped and didn’t have anything on her, not even a bag. When she arrived to the prison, she was completely soaked with her blood. She was in a very bad condition and all of her clothes were stained with blood,” a testimony published on the NGO’s Twitter account says.

According to one of the interviewees, the female body, with the exception of pregnancy, is invisible to Egyptian law. Therefore, it is not offered any special treatment or requirements than that offered to men. This means that female prisoners have to wait for their visits, during which their families come and provide them with things like money, pads, underwear, food, and medicine. However, some political prisoners are not allowed family visits, nor are they allowed access to the canteen, which sells overpriced items.

When this lack of sanitary pads, not to mention the bad hygienic conditions of the prison, cause infections and other health problem, going to the hospital is another ordeal in itself. If the warden takes the prisoner’s request seriously and the prisoner is indeed sent for a health check-up, the hospital staff are often “vicious and aggressive” in their treatment with the prisoners.

The campaign was aimed to draw attention to the struggles of cis females as well as transsexuals, but the Egyptian law continues to refuse to see the female body and its requirements and to force the transsexual body into the category of their assigned sex at birth.

When Mahienour El Masry and others struggled in women’s prison, the transsexual activist Malak Al Kashif fought long and hard just to join them. Thrown in men’s prison, with the excuse that her sex exchange procedures were not complete, Al Kashif’s fight to move to women’s prison soon made her famous among the Egyptian opposition, drawing the attention of locals NGO’s. In addition to sharing the same struggles of other political prisoners like medical negligence, including depriving her of the hormonal medicine that she needed, she was also subjected to sexual harassment by other inmates in men’s prison. Like other minorities, transsexuals in Egypt are largely rejected by the state’s institutions and, in most cases, by the society itself. The person that Al Kashif was inspired with when she was still considered to be a little boy, the transsexual actress Hanan Al-Tawil, died under tragic circumstances with speculations that she might have committed suicide. Just like Al Kashif, Al-Tawil was rejected by her family who refused to receive her dead body to arrange for a proper burial.

Thus, Egypt still provides a fertile environment for gender-based oppression and violence. But it remains true that the 2011 popular uprisings brought some social change. It was unthinkable just a couple of decades earlier for a transsexual activist to openly request to be moved to women’s prison and have an entire legal team along with local NGO’s defend her case. Also, the fact that women spoke out about their gang rape and virginity tests is unprecedented in a place like Egypt. It is easy to assume that women were ultra-liberated in the 1950’s and 1960’s just because they wore short skirts in the streets, but it is important to also realise that they were given very little freedom and were closely supervised by their families and husbands. This is not to mention their limited participation in the workforce at the time. While it is easy to dwell on those pictures of Egyptian women with short dresses leaning against classic cars in the clean uncongested streets of Cairo, understanding the realities without romanticizing the past is vital in order to move forward in the emancipation process.

March 26, 2020

To Hongkongers: How can we understand ‘Black Lives Matter’?

By Samuel Chan and Alex Chowon June 8, 2020

Originally published in Lausan

Original: 【如何理解 Black Lives Matters?暴動是不被傾聽者的語言】, published in Matters

Translators: ah boat, P, LWH

This article has been edited for precision and clarity. If you would like to be involved in our translation work, please get in touch here.

As white police officer Derrick Chauvin pinned down George Floyd by kneeling on his neck, Floyd yelled “I can’t breathe” sixteen times before dying. Captured on video, George Floyd’s murder enraged many Americans. Local pundit Trevor Noah pointed out that there are two viruses in the United States: one being COVID-19 and the other being racism. The interplay between the two reveals the scars of the United States’ foundational systems of slavery and racial segregation. At the end of May, around 43.2 million people, out of a total of 328.2 million people, were unemployed in the US. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the unemployment rate of Black people is higher than that of white people. Although Black people only comprise around 10% of the population, they are twice as likely to die from contracting COVID-19.

On the other side of the Pacific, Hong Kong protesters have been lobbying U.S. politicians to launch the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA) and revoke Hong Kong’s special trade status as part of the laam chau strategy in opposing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In light of ongoing resistance, protest, and looting in the U.S., as well as rumors from many fronts that CCP-sent outside agitators are infiltrating and escalating the movement there, how should Hongkongers understand the current protests?

The complicated nature of Hong Kong’s political situation has required countless Hongkongers to educate, illustrate, and translate information for foreigners, so that they will be moved by the city’s struggles. It is difficult to explain to outsiders why many Hongkongers decided to support both peaceful protestors and militant frontliners through discussing the original extradition bill alone; only through explanations of post-Handover histories of dissent and resistance, as well as the failures of other attempts at political reform, do outsiders begin to grasp the origins of Hong Kong’s struggles. Similarly, only examining the current protests against George Floyd’s murder may not be enough for Hongkongers to have a full understanding as to why protesters in the U.S. have adopted radical tactics.

In order to understand the current Black Lives Matter protests, we need to have a basic understanding of the history of Black oppression and resistance in the U.S. 

From establishment to the Civil War: When Black people were treated as ⅗ of a full citizen

Before the Civil War, the U.S. maintained a system of slavery—this is a well-known fact. What people may not know is that the entire political and economic system is inseparable from slavery since the drafting of the American Constitution.

In the original thirteen American colonies, there was a split between the Northern states, which were known as the “free” states because they had banned the slave trade, and the Southern states, which continued to allow slavery. The greatest concern of the Southern states in joining the Union was that federal power would be so great that once they lose in the national game of democracy, they would be forced to abolish slavery. In order to establish the United States, Northern states were not only willing to weaken the power of the Union (this was also one of the main reasons for the U.S.’s federal system of government), but also to concede certain principles.

One of the key issues that these so-called founding fathers had to deal with was that of the enslaved person’s standing in society. Under the newly established federal government framework, each state’s tax rate and number of government representatives allocated would be proportional to the size of their population. Southern states therefore wanted slaves to be counted within the population for legislative representation purposes, but were unwilling to pay taxes on behalf of slaves, to which the Northern states were opposed. Finally, they agreed on the notorious Three-Fifths Compromise: in short, Black slaves would be seen as three-fifths of a citizen for taxation and electoral purposes. In the American Constitution, the system of slavery was written in black and white to remain unchanged for another twenty years; Northern states even promised to return any escaped slaves to their owners in the South. When the U.S. began to expand, in order to protect the balance of power between the North and the South, the two sides signed the Missouri Compromise (1820), promising that for every additional free state, a state that permitted slavery would be added accordingly. From this perspective, America’s current divide across state lines is a direct product of the system of slavery.

The interplay between COVID-19 and racism reveals the scars of the United States’ foundational systems of slavery and racial segregation.

For white Americans, the Declaration of Independence encapsulates their national ideal: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …” Yet the well-known orator and former slave Frederick Douglass made a speech on Independence Day in 1852, declaring that there was not a day that cast in such stark relief the contradictions and hypocrisy of the American people. The very reason that the various American states were able to come together to found a country was that the free states were willing to compromise the full humanity of Black people. From the position and historical perspective of many Black people, America has lacked legitimacy from its very foundation. 

From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement: The Constitution is but a piece of wastepaper 

Following the end of the Civil War, the introduction of the 13th Amendment abolished the institution of slavery, and the 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteed Black Americans’ civil liberties and voting rights. For freed slaves in the Reconstruction era (1863-1877), they may have provided a welcome glimmer of hope. During the Reconstruction era, the federal government used all kinds of coercive tactics, such as mobilizing federal troops, to ensure that the previous slave states would emancipate their slaves and enable them to exercise their civil liberties and voting rights. During Reconstruction, Black people participated actively in government; quite a few Black politicians emerged in the South. White people in the South were deeply afraid of losing their dominant position. As a result, there emerged white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, who murdered and intimidated Black people who dared to participate in government or exercise their voting rights.

So long as the extremely unequal balance of power between Black and white people continued to be maintained, the Constitution is really only a piece of wastepaper for Black people. 

From the end of the 19th century to the mid-20th century, whether in the South or the North, white Americans continued to engage in lynchings of Black people and other people of color (including Chinese people), to such an extent that this was basically taken for granted. And of course, those who conducted lynchings would never face punishment. After a number of years, white people in the North began to lose enthusiasm for the cause of protecting Black people’s rights. In 1877, not twenty years after the end of the American Civil War, federal troops withdrew from the South, and the period of Reconstruction was officially declared over. As soon as the federal troops withdrew, Southern state governments used different pretexts, such as taxation regulations or literacy requirements that on the surface had nothing to do with race, in order to restrict Black people’s voting rights. The most ridiculous of these is the “grandfather clause”: unless your grandfather had exercised his right to vote, you would not be able to exercise your right to vote, effectively excluding all recently emancipated Black slaves in one fell swoop. All of these different legal maneuvers ultimately caused the voting rate of Black people in the South to drop to less than 1%; their right to vote became illusory. 

In reality, life did not change for the majority of Black people in the South after Emancipation. After the end of the Civil War, the majority of factories refused to hire freed people; having no alternatives, Black people were forced to return to the plantations to make a living and were “hired” on the same conditions that had existed under slavery. To make the situation even worse, many states introduced a series of racial segregation policies commonly known as the Jim Crow laws in the 1890s, which allowed businesses, schools, and transportation to refuse service to Black people and other non-white people. In the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was legal, paving the way for an additional 60 years of segregation in the U.S. 

What Black people learnt from this history was that even as they were expressly granted rights under the U.S. Constitution, it did not necessarily follow that such rights could be exercised. So long as the extremely unequal balance of power between Black and white people continued to be maintained, the Constitution is really only a piece of wastepaper for Black people. 

Black Civil Rights Movement: The dispute between the paths of civil disobedience and militant protest 

Even if the system is corrupt, it is nonetheless necessary to try to resist from within—we know this as Hongkongers. In 1909, the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was established, and since then has been defending the rights of Black people in state and federal courts, forming the bedrock for the Black Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1954, the NAACP fought its biggest battle since its inception: Brown v. Board of Education. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, overturning the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. Soon after, however, Black Americans realized that this victory was hollow. Because the Supreme Court had no executive power, Southern states decided to ignore the ruling of the Supreme Court, and continued to operate their policies of segregation. In 1955, Rosa Parks, the secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, was arrested for sitting in the whites-only seats on the bus. This was a critical turning point in the 1960s civil disobedience movement. Black Americans saw civil disobedience as legitimate and necessary, not only because legal protests could not bring about change, but also because in rejecting the segregation laws, they were simply exercising the rights granted to them in the Constitution.

Civil disobedience and Black nationalism became the Black resistance movement’s two strongest currents. These paths of struggle greatly opened up the imagination of Black American social movements.

In reality, for Black people of that time, protests simply could not come to a peaceful end. Because in every demonstration, they were violently repressed by white supremacists and police officers. The most notorious incidents include the Ku Klux Klan’s multiple bombings of African-American churches, including one which resulted in the murder of four young Black girls, after which Black people came on to the streets in protest. In response, the mayor mobilized a high-pressure water cannon and police hounds to suppress protesters, arresting nearly 2,000 people. The leader of the NAACP, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was also arrested in Birmingham, where he wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” stating that he hoped that civil disobedience would serve as a path in-between concessionary and militant actions.

Of course, there were people who disagreed with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “peaceful, rational, non-violent” activism, such as the militant Black Panthers, of which Hong Kong militants love to sing praises, and most famously, Malcolm X. The most radical part of Malcolm X’s vision was not simply that he supported Black people’s self-defense, but that he also believed Black people should establish their own nation in America. In one interview, he said, “If the white people really passed meaningful laws, it would not be necessary to pass any more laws. There are already enough laws in the law books to protect an American citizen. You only need additional laws when you are dealing with someone who is not regarded as an American citizen …. If [the black man] was a real citizen, you’d need no more laws, you’d need no civil rights legislation.” For him, in the existing system, the difference in power between Black people and white people was too great, and any legal reform would only fail to protect Black people’s rights. Black nationalism was the only way out.

Civil disobedience and Black nationalism became the Black resistance movement’s two strongest currents; ironically, no matter which side they were on, both Dr. King and Malcolm X were ultimately assassinated. Yet these paths of struggle greatly opened up the imagination of Black American social movements, which were no longer constrained within the purview of the law and demonstrations.

The silence of progressives over the issues facing Black people 

There may be a misunderstanding that even though Black people have been suppressed by conservative politicians, at least American progressives have always defended the rights of Black people. But historically, Black people’s rights have always been ignored or compromised by progressives.

In the 19th and 20th century, Black workers tried on multiple occasions to join various unions, but were blocked by white workers who had a monopoly on their leadership, even putting pressure on companies and factories not to hire or promote Black workers. Even open-minded union leaders believed that class should be the focus of struggle, rather than racial equality. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt advocated economic reforms under the New Deal in the 1930s, expanding the welfare state, he excluded Black people from various schemes in order to attract the support of Democrats in the Southern states who opposed Black civil rights. Even after the momentum of the civil rights movement passed, Black people have continued to face challenges in various parts of the progressive camp. For example, the 1970s feminist movement was dominated by white middle-class women. In 1977, a group of Black feminists issued the Combahee River Collective Statement, pointing out that white women were not only uninterested in the history and culture of Black women and women of color, they were also incapable of understanding and dealing with the intersecting class, race, and gender oppressions faced by Black women, resulting in the emergence of a Black feminist movement. 

Black Americans’ social movements are not monolithic; in the face of different forms of marginalization, there is the conservative camp, the reformist camp, and even the pessimist camp (Afro-Pessimism is the most accurate representation of this camp’s philosophy). But for many Black people, it is not individuals, political parties, or sides of the political spectrum who oppress them, but the entire system of white supremacy. Black people do not feel that they owe the supposedly enlightened progressives anything either. For Black Americans to escape repression, they can only fight to save themselves. 

Oppression today: why say “Black Lives Matter”? 

If we’re only talking about legislation and what’s written on paper, then the rights of Black people would seem to have been increasingly protected. However, the problems Black people face have not been fully resolved because the political system of the United States has long been dominated by the interests of the white elite, while progressive parties have put Black issues on the back burner.

After racial segregation was deemed unconstitutional, many state and municipal governments fine-tuned their mechanisms and strategies for exclusion and segregation. Such examples include redlining, whereby officials deploy administrative measures to prevent Black people from buying homes in affluent areas, resulting in Black people predominantly living in poorer areas. In the United States, the quality of schools, hospitals, and other public utilities are tied to the resources of the region one lives in. As a result of these redlining practices, Black people have been systematically excluded from better facilities and plunged even deeper into inter-generational poverty. Since the Reagan years, the U.S. has privatized many of its public facilities as part of neoliberal economic policies, exacerbating the economic situation of Black people. (As many people know, the costs of medical care in the United States are extremely high; an ambulance ride can cost more than $600 USD.) Consequently, Black people who live in the most economically dispossessed areas of the U.S. bear the brunt of various crises such as the Great Recession, mortgage crisis, and opioid epidemic; in the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, Black people make up 70% of deaths in the United States.

Historically, Black people’s rights have always been ignored or compromised by progressives.

Apart from politics and the economy, one of the most blatant forms of oppression towards Black people is that enacted by white supremacists and the police. American police have always used racial profiling in order to maintain law and order, presuming that Black people are all criminal. This has not only led Black people to suffer disproportionately from stop and searches; in 2013, 92% of people targeted by stop and search powers in Ferguson were Black. The police have continuously designated Black people as “dangerous” criminals, and have shot and/or used excessive force against them on many occasions. And because courtrooms are often presided over by white judges, white police officers who have murdered Black people often get off scot free. In 2012, a 17-year-old boy, Trayvon Martin, was followed, shot, and killed by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman. After the incident, not only did George Zimmerman escape conviction, he even sued Trayvon’s family for falsifying evidence. Subsequently, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in order to respond to a system of legal enforcement that does not accord any value to Black people’s lives, spreading across the country. The reason for stating “Black Lives Matter” is that Black lives have been systematically devalued by the police, the courts, and by white-dominated society; it is an affirmation of the fact that Black people’s lives matter. The saying “All Lives Matter” is offensive because it completely ignores the reality that it is specifically Black people whose lives have historically been disregarded.

UCLA History professor Robin D.G. Kelley once analyzed that Black Americans have always been engaged in a low-intensity war with the American government. He said that in the eyes of others, sudden confrontations between Black people and the police may look like warfare, but Black people suffer many different kinds of attacks on a daily basis. According to statistics collected by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a Black person is killed by the American government every 28 hours. Black people have never escaped the state of war. If we say that Hongkongers have spent the last twenty years learning that peaceful protests do not work, Black Americans have been living under this oppressive reality for four hundred years. 

The saying ‘All Lives Matter’ is offensive because it completely ignores the reality that it is specifically Black people whose lives have historically been disregarded.

It is well known that liberal media outlets and politicians fetishize non-violent protest; even those who support Hong Kong have previously fixated on the fact that Hongkongers are “peaceful” protesters, while ignoring more militant aspects of the movement. It is unsurprising, then, that when such media outlets see Black people’s escalation of tactics, including setting fire to property and engaging in looting, they have condemned these forms of protest as “riots.” Interestingly, while Hongkongers have continuously rejected the definition of themselves as rioters, Black Americans’ response has been to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Not every Black person or supporter of Black Lives Matter supports escalation, fire-setting, or looting; but they do not sever ties with others in the movement, because they know that without disrupting societal order, no one will hear Black people’s voices. In reality, we all know that if protesters had not escalated their tactics, they would not receive such widespread attention. Protesters know that the true violence is the violence of the system—a system that is expropriating and killing Black people on a daily basis. One interviewee from the 2013 Ferguson uprisings said, “They say we destroying our own neighborhoods. We don’t own nothing out here!”

We can agree or disagree with their protest tactics, and empathize with or reject the looting that has occurred as a result of the uprisings. To truly engage in citizen diplomacy, we must first understand American history from the perspective of Black Americans; their struggle is not only rooted in four hundred years’ worth of experience in peaceful protest (often in vain), but is also a fundamental criticism of the entire oppressive system of American politics and society. 

Can we connect? 

The history of anti-racist mobilization is not limited to Black activists; it also includes Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities. Collectively, these movements and revolutions are pushing American society towards a more equal, diverse, and free track. 

If we say that Hongkongers have spent the last twenty years learning that peaceful protests do not work, Black Americans have been living under this oppressive reality for four hundred years. While Hongkongers have continuously rejected the definition of themselves as rioters, Black Americans’ response has been to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’

In this era, as the Sino-U.S. rivalry continues to escalate, Hongkongers need to step out of their financial haven, and connect with allies in the rest of the world; rather than centering ourselves, we need to face the world and its harsh realities head-on.

Within the American political system, representatives from both the Democratic and Republican parties have spoken out in support of the Hong Kong protests. Achieving a bipartisan coalition that supports the Hong Kong struggle, and manages to pass the HKHRDA, was not easy; it was traded through Hongkongers’ blood and sweat. The Democratic and Republican parties are not monoliths; apart from the two parties, American civil society also possesses independent power, and has continually sought to escape the vicious cycle of the two parties’ squabbles, even forcing the two parties to reform from within.

In regards to their relationships with the U.S., Hongkongers can not only engage in elite diplomacy, but can also be more active in various American civil society organizations and networks, and build trust and solidarity, just as Hongkongers and Taiwanese people have sought to establish friendships over many years. In pursuit of greater transnational solidarity, it will be up to Hongkongers to see whether we can situate ourselves in different parts of the community, understand their complex conflicts and their different experiences. We do not have to stick to one side, or one party; at the same time, we should not be simply be driven by transactional utility, seeking only self-preservation and the protection of elite diplomatic relations, thereby giving up on others who are similarly in pursuit of freedom and equality, seeking a defense of their fundamental rights. 

In pursuit of greater transnational solidarity, it will be up to Hongkongers to see whether we can situate ourselves in different parts of the community, understand their complex conflicts, their different experiences.

We often ask: “How can we make people sustain their interest in Hong Kong? How can we compel people to stand with Hong Kong protesters?” To move beyond transactional relationships, we must also ask: “When others are in crisis, have we ever invested time and effort to understand their struggles, and extend our solidarity and support?”

Hongkongers understand that protesters’ choice of militant or peaceful tactics is not black and white; instead, unity is a strategy to progress our collective aims in a context of oppression. Hongkongers do not stand alone; and so when protesters across the world pay homage to us, we are all the more obliged to become reliable allies to their struggles. As the coronavirus outbreak subsides, and the national security laws come into effect, the task of liberating Hong Kong will require new forms of international solidarity. 

As we step onto the international stage, hoping to establish ties with citizens of other countries, we must understand others’ needs, expand our base of support, and stand with others in the fight for justice. 

Further reading

Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July” (1852)

Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law in America” (1900)

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)

Malcolm X’s interview at UC Berkeley (1963)

Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement” (1977)

Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and the Violence Against Women of Color” (1991)

Desmond S. King & Rogers M. Smith, “Racial Orders in American Political Development” (2005)

Robin D.G. Kelley, “The U.S. v. Trayvon Martin: How the system worked” (2013)

Vicky Osterweil, “In Defense of Looting” (2014)