On the Streets for Social Justice: Lessons from the Past
This event took place on Friday, October 2, 2020
NEIL ROBERTS: Hello. Good day, everyone joining us, wherever you are both nationally and internationally. Welcome to this webinar entitled "On the Streets for Social Justice: Lessons from the Past." My name is Neil Roberts. I teach Africana studies, political theory, and the philosophy of religion at Williams College, and I am also this year a Bard College and Open Society University Network research professor. It is my delight to welcome you and also serve as the moderator for today's event.
This webinar is cosponsored by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Bard College, and the Open Society University Network. This event is also part of a new series that is dedicated to trying to decipher and explain the protests and uprisings nationally and internationally that have occurred.
The global wave of protests for racial justice did not occur in isolation or in a vacuum. Is this social movement like others in history, or is it unique? What can be learned by looking at past protests with similar characteristics?
Today's panel will consider the 2020 protests in light of the legacies of colonialism, self-determination, and previous struggles for human rights. We have two featured speakers who will be able to share their expertise and also be able to talk to one another about this very crucial topic that we will be exploring together. I wish to introduce them in turn.
Our first speaker is Michael Canham. Michael Canham is the chief director for international relations and inter-governmental relations in the Office of the Governor of Gauteng, South Africa. In this position he advises the governor and the regional government directly on South African policy responses to bilateral and multilateral issues affecting the regional government and South African foreign policy.
He was previously appointed as the first secretary for political affairs by the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served at the South African embassy in Washington, DC, as a diplomat until 2007. During his time in the United States Canham engaged with policymakers and international organizations to build bilateral and multilateral support for United States policies toward the New Partnership for Africa's Development. Prior to working for the governor of Guateng, Canham was a senior policy advisor on strategy in the Office of the President of South Africa.
I was told to particularly flag that our first speaker is a Bard and Central European University alum, so welcome, welcome, welcome.
MICHAEL CANHAM: Thank you very much.
NEIL ROBERTS: Our second featured speaker is Adom Getachew. Getachew is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science and the College at The University of Chicago. She is a dynamic and wide-ranging political theorist with research interests in the history of political thought, theories of race and empire, and postcolonial political theory. Her very important work focuses on the intellectual and political histories of Africa and the Caribbean. Her recent multiple-award-winning book, Worldmaking After Empire: The rise and Fall of Self-Determination, reconstructs an account of self-determination offered in the political thought of Black Atlantic anti-colonial nationalists during the height of decolonization in the 20th century.
Adom holds a joint Ph.D. in political science in African American studies from Yale University, and as we recently recalled, we believe we might have been the persons who last saw one another before COVID-19, so we are returning here to reason together, though in a virtual space.
Before I tag out initially, I wish to say briefly the format for this event. First, each of our speakers will offer opening remarks for approximately 10 minutes, and then we will have a dialogue among the three of us, much of which will be based, though not exclusively, on those remarks. Then we want to be able to have questions from you, the viewer, so we are hoping to have approximately 30 minutes of question-and-answer. I would ask those of you who are interested in sharing questions to use the Chat feature within our webinar.
Last but not least, if you are a student, please try to identify yourself as a student, so we can make sure as many voices are heard as possible.
Again, thank you all for joining us.
Michael, I will turn it over to you to get us started. Thank you.
MICHAEL CANHAM: Thank you, Neil. Thank you very much.
I was delighted to receive an invitation from the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs to say a few words here today. I want to make it clear from the outset that I am here in my personal capacity and therefore represent my personal reflections on the theme we are discussing here today.
We are also gathered here during one of the most trying times in the history of the world. South Africa, like all other countries, is faced with the scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic. The devastating impact of the coronavirus has been felt throughout the world, and, as scientists will readily admit, the coronavirus will be with us for the foreseeable future.
But today is also a moment to remember the untimely and brutal death of an ordinary American citizen, George Floyd, a death that happened under the supervision of the U.S. police in the United States. Floyd's death in police custody became I believe a catalyst for the largest and most continuous Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement the nation and the world has ever seen. Floyd's name will likely be documented in American history for that reason alone.
In my own country, South Africa, Floyd's death resonated with the struggle of black people against a brutal minority and racist regime led by the former National Party. Like George Floyd, the very idea of being black was reason for the apartheid government to unleash its most lethal extrajudicial killings against the black majority on mere suspicion, and they could do this without having to provide any reason.
As Floyd's video went viral the world over I could not help but appreciate the supreme sacrifices that many millions of South Africans made to save our country from what was clearly a looming race war. South Africa's first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, declared that, "As South Africa enters its first decade of democracy we should not stop advancing the aspirations of our people for better health, education, and strive toward non-racism." "More importantly," he said, "we should never stop advancing the ideals enshrined in our young constitution." I share this particular quote with you to demonstrate that even after 26 years of democracy in South Africa social justice activists have not shied away from advancing the ideals that Nelson Mandela and many others sacrificed their lives for.
There is a general consensus in South Africa today that the democratic government has made significant strides to realize the ideals of a better South Africa for all its people, black and white. I could share many statistics with you at this time, but time does not allow.
There is also a general consensus that a lot more needs to be done to fulfill the aspirations of millions of South Africans. Social justice activists have raised these very issues as they sought to show that South Africa continues to linger in the realm of economic shortage. While the police officer choked Floyd by placing a knee on his neck, ultimately killing him, South Africa's transition to democracy has only partially lifted the choke on our own economic freedom. Millions of South Africans still yearn for true economic freedom.
Drawing on our own historical experience as a country, conflict has always been between those who own the means and those who sell their labor. Yet again, in the South African experience economic ownership was and continues to be linked to the color of one's skin. So, despite the attainment of democracy, social activists continue to remind us that the ability to cast your vote and the ability to enjoy economic benefits derived from that vote remain somewhat irreconcilable.
Neil, I will stop there for now, and then I look forward to any further remarks or engagements that may come about. Thank you.
NEIL ROBERTS: Thank you for those important opening remarks, Michael.
Adom, I will turn it over to you.
ADOM GETACHEW: Great. Thanks, Neil, for the introduction. It's really great to be here with all of you and with everybody who is tuning in from around the world.
I just want to say a few things to get us started. As Michael was saying, many of us in the United States lived through what The New York Times called "the largest protest movement in history" during the summer. This was, of course, spurred most powerfully and viscerally by the police murder of George Floyd but also others including Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade.
After those killings Americans from all walks of life, from diverse backgrounds, in small cities and in large settings like New York City and other places, came out onto the streets. We should remember that this protest happened after two months of quarantine and isolation, so it was a kind of political renewal. I think it's important, and we can talk about how the context of the pandemic shaped and fueled the kind of mass mobilization that happened in May and June.
One of the things that is striking and one of the things we are here to talk about is that this was not just a U.S. movement. Very quickly there was solidarity, protests, and mobilizations around the world. We saw actions from Belgium to Liberia, from Brazil to South Korea, and people in all these contexts were marching under the banner of Black Lives Matter. For many people this experience was truly an unprecedented one. That something that happened in a relatively small U.S. city could spur such a global reaction was not something people had experienced, at least for a while.
What I want to do in my short remarks is make three kinds of points: one, I want to give some historical background to this mobilization and these forms of solidarity; second, I want to say why it is that African American struggle is so globally resonant, why it is that African American struggle is exemplary for people around the world; and finally, I want to suggest that we should think about how the local and the global actually come together in these moments of solidarity.
I will start with the historical precedents first. Events like the murder of George Floyd are, of course, not new in the United States, and there are ways that moments of intense forms of racial violence have spurred similar kinds of solidarity. I just want to name here two events. One is from 1931. It's the trial of nine African American men, most of them very young, who were tried for the rape of two women in Alabama. They became known as the Scottsboro Boys. There was an effort by the Communist Party and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to launch an extensive defense campaign and defense fund for these young men. People from around the world contributed to these defense campaigns. Defense campaigns were started around the world in various countries and settings, where people raised money in defense of the Scottsboro nine.
One of the things that is striking about that example is that, of course, it comes at a moment before the forms of technology and mass communication that we have today, but even as early as 1931 and certainly even before that you see people mobilizing around what they take to be overt racial injustice.
A second example comes from 65 years ago, in August 1955, and that is the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who is visiting his extended family in Mississippi and is brutally beaten and shot. The defendants in that context are acquitted, even though they later admit to the murder, and this too becomes a galvanizing moment, especially when his mother decides to have an open casket and reveal the kind of violence that her son suffered. It would be covered in presses from around the world. It would become a clear moment of calling the contradiction and hypocrisy of American democracy as countries across the world are struggling for decolonization.
But it is important to note also that global solidarity has not been a one-way phenomenon. It is not just that global audiences mobilize around injustice in the United States. African Americans have also played active roles in global movements for decolonization and racial equality. Figures like Martin Luther King, who attended Ghana's independence celebration in 1957, made very clear connections between the civil rights struggle in the United States and the struggle for decolonization around the world.
Michael was just speaking about the anti-apartheid struggle. That too was a global struggle in which many Americans and especially African Americans played a leading role in galvanizing support for the African National Congress and others fighting for racial equality and democracy in South Africa. So there is a long, long, rich history of solidarity, internationalism, and building bridges and connections between struggles in the United States and around the world.
Now I want to turn to why it is that African American struggle in particular galvanizes so much attention, and I want to make the case to you that it is exemplary. What I mean by "exemplary" is that the struggle of African Americans for racial equality and full citizenship in the United States represents a universal struggle and experience. There are racial, ethnic, and religious minorities around the world who face similar kinds of battles for equity and inclusion within their various societies.
I think three things make the African American struggle stand out as something to gravitate toward, something you always look to. One, it's a 400-year struggle. We just celebrated last year 400 years of the first arrival of Africans onto the shores of what would become the United States.
Second, it's a struggle that happens in a country that claims to be the birthplace of modern democracy. This is the country that tells us all the time that it is the exemplary and exceptional democracy in the world that all other should emulate. The contradiction or the crisis around this epic struggle for full citizenship in the country that tells everyone in the world that it is the model democracy I think draws people to this experience.
Finally, in the 20th and 21st centuries, of course, the United States is the most powerful country in the world. Everything that happens in America gets a great deal of attention. I am sure many of you around the world even had to bear witness to the travesty that was our presidential debate earlier this week. So there is a way in which all eyes are on America because it is such a powerful country in the world. In that context many people around the world identify with and feel solidarity with the internal David that is fighting against the Goliath of American power. So there is this very important exemplarity of African American action for the rest of the world.
I want to say one last thing—and then we can begin our conversation—which is that solidarity mobilizations are not just about what's happening in the United States, but they are about moments in which protesters around the world actually connect their local struggles to the exemplary case of the United States. So when protesters mobilize in Europe or in other parts of the world, in Brazil, they are not just demanding justice for George Floyd or justice for Breonna Taylor, they're using those horrific, exceptional, exemplary cases to highlight contradictions and struggles that they face at home.
In the case of the protests in France, for instance, people used those moments to highlight their own history of police brutality and police violence in France, particularly highlighting the name of Adama Traoré, who was killed a few years back by the police and has yet to receive any kind of justice. His family is still fighting for that.
In the case of Britain protesters used the Black Lives Matter slogan and the murder of George Floyd to highlight the ongoing legacies of slavery and colonialism in Britain. The same is true in Belgium, where largely African migrants who now live in Belgium used this occasion again to draw the connection between the wealth of Belgium and the colonial violence that Belgium had unleashed onto the Congo. All of these are moments in which people are connecting their own specific struggles into a global narrative about racial equality and racial justice.
I will stop there, and I look forward to the conversation.
NEIL ROBERTS: Thank you, Adom, for those wonderful remarks.
I am going to try to put together what you both opened with to maybe spark some conversation initially between the two of you, and then I can join as well.
What struck me by your respective remarks were a few things: one, the connections between struggles for racial justice in the U.S. context, particularly African American struggles and those in solidarity with those struggles, and the global reverberations.
Michael, you used the evocative and chilling image of the chokehold with George Floyd, as well as the kneeing down or the holding. There are physical chokeholds or physical knees that can be used against one. But how do we also take into account economic and social holds that are affecting polities and states, for instance, in the post-apartheid period?
Adom, you hearkened back to 1619. Alicia Garza once responded to the question, "How does it feel to help to launch the term 'Black Lives Matter?" and Garza's response was that the phrase is part of a struggle that began in 1619 in Port Comfort, that it was not something that happened at just this one moment.
Which leads me to my first question for both of you, which is: Why wasn't Ferguson and the shooting of Michael Brown not just the national but a global catalyst, not only for the Movement for Black Lives but also for these protests in ways that the shooting of Breonna Taylor and killing of George Floyd in particular, though not exclusively, have led to them? Because in many regards what you all are talking about has not only become a national reckoning that still needs to happen in the United States context, but also in the case of South Africa and all around the world the ways in which in our current moment there has been a global reverberation. If you could both perhaps comment on why—I am particularly thinking of Ferguson, but it could also be why not in recent times was there not the types of mass movements that we are seeing? Why now and not necessarily after Ferguson or at other critical junctures?
ADOM GETACHEW: I can start with that.
I will say a few things that I think are at play, and it has a lot to do with the very specific context of 2020.
One, the national leadership we have, President Trump, the last four years has been in some ways an escalating series of mobilizations, whether it's the Women's March, whether it's the protests around the Muslim ban. So there has been a kind of crescendoing of popular mobilization and protests more generally, and I think there is this kind of deep-seated and more wide-ranging frustration at the particular political context we find ourselves in now. That wasn't quite there in 2014 under Obama and in that context. Also, the way in which the Obama administration, especially the Department of Justice, responded very quickly made people who were further away from the movement feel like, This is something that is being taken care of.
The second thing is that when the Movement for Black Lives started, especially with its escalation around Ferguson the kinds of things that movement activists have been talking about for decades now first entered the public sphere, a deeper critique of the carceral state that goes beyond just reform but is thinking about defunding and dismantling police institutions. That was a very new kind of conversation to enter the public sphere in 2014, and I think what you see is that movement activists and organizers have done the work of putting their language and putting their analysis into the public sphere in the intervening years such that by 2020 you have citizens calling into city councils across the country, saying: "Cut the police budget. I want education. I want health care. I don't want this."
I think also what has helped to make that possible is what I was saying about the pandemic context. The pandemic context is one that has revealed once more the various kinds of slow death that black people and people of color in the United States are subject to. You don't only die from police violence; you die from state neglect. And the pandemic has, of course, disproportionately affected people of color in America.
It has also been a context in which the United States has been incapable of providing the most basic forms of economic support, things that other developed countries have done. So I think there is this deep-seated frustration about the lack of adequate state response to the pandemic, and the conjunction of lethal state response in the case of George Floyd, who was accused of using a fake $20 bill—that's what he was killed for—that kind of rapid lethal state response against the backdrop of persistent state neglect of basic necessities has helped to fuel and galvanize people nationally and globally in a way that the conditions were not exactly the same in 2014.
NEIL ROBERTS: Thank you for that.
MICHAEL CANHAM: I think Adom captured the broad political economy under which Floyd's death happens in the United States.
I think that in the South African context what you had in a sense was this reawakening that clearly global justice and issues around racism continue to be a rallying call for minorities and for that matter oppressed minorities.
I remember when Floyd's video went viral I was driving from my office, and there was this sudden upsurge of protests as I passed from the office, and I realized that South Africans had also begun to realize that, Hey, African Americans are certainly not on their own in the struggle for racial equality. But what it also did for South Africa was to reawaken this in a sense skewed notion that all of us are equal. And that to us began to demonstrate that the struggle for racial equality, even within the South African context, remains unattained. Therefore, when Floyd died there was this sort of understanding that racism continues to be a policy that even the United States is still packing around and trying to find solutions to.
Neil, your earlier point about Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor, what we saw—at least from where I'm sitting—is that there were pockets of protests against that and which died down over a time without the kind of international spillover that George Floyd's death had. I am saying this because there was a fleeting reference to be sure on CNN when Ms. Taylor died, and people went on past this news item.
With respect to George Floyd, however, I think what spurred the international movement for equality was the manner in which he was executed. I think people quickly realized that democracy is precious. I think South Africans have really begun to realize that democracy is precious and needs to be protected. At the same time, there was a need to really show solidarity with those in other parts of the world, including the United States, that continue to battle racial inequality in a country that all of us as children grew up knowing as a country of opportunity and freedom.
ADOM GETACHEW: I want to add one thing about Ferguson. There was an important moment of global solidarity. It was not as widespread, and that had to do with the connection people were drawing between Ferguson and Gaza. People might not remember this, but when police came in with tear gas and other forms of nonlethal force, one of the things Ferguson activists began to do was talk with people in Gaza and make connections between the responses to protest in Gaza and the case in Ferguson. So people were exchanging information about what kinds of gas masks to wear and how to protect yourselves in these kinds of contexts. I think it was a briefer moment but one that was significant.
NEIL ROBERTS: That's very helpful. Both of your most recent remarks bring up a few topics, not only the question of how do we understand democracy and democratization, first of all, but second, the idea of solidarity regarding issues of human rights because I'm reminded of the Jamaican thinker Sylvia Wynter in 1992 in the wake of the Rodney King trial verdict wrote an open letter entitled, "No Humans Involved," or "NHI," which it turned out at the time was the acronym that the Los Angeles Police Department used to refer to particularly young black men in the city of Los Angeles. So Wynter was raising this question: What does "the human" mean? Figures like Achille Mbembe particularly in South Africa and others have also tried to explore what that means.
I wish to perhaps have you all speak a little bit more, especially with regard to this question of democracy and democratization because I'm curious how you each understand these protests. In other words, are these protests movements for helping to reestablish the foundations of democratic states, or in many regards are these protests trying to have states that claim to be democracies in some senses be democracies for the first time?
MICHAEL CANHAM: Adom, I think you can go first.
ADOM GETACHEW: Okay, happy to do it.
I want to step back before talking about the protests and say something more about the crisis of democracy, which we are all living in. I grew up on the African continent—not too far from South Africa actually, in Botswana—and in the 1990s and more generally we think of dysfunctional democracy as a Third World problem, something that happens in Africa and in Latin America, these places where they just can't get democracy right. Of course, America is the exemplary case in that context.
What the last at least four years if not more—and this is not just about the United States but about mature democracies around the world—is we have seen them come into crisis around the same kinds of things that Third World democracies have suffered from, namely, the politicization of identity and forms of violence that are connected to political competition and mobilization. We are about to have an election in this country, and it feels like war could break out in the context of an election. I don't mean to be alarmist, but that is the kind of sense in the air right now.
One thing I want to say and urge especially the students on the call to think about is to reverse the question about democracy, to think about what is it that democracies like South Africa and democratic experiments and their failures around the world, have those experiences actually shed new kinds of light on the experiences we're having in the United States and Europe right now, to take those experiences of the Third World, which are often treated as marginal and exceptional, and think that those are really the things that give us clues into how democracy operates and what some of its contradictions might be?
The more specific question about the protests and their relationship to democracy, it's hard at this point for me to say these are moments that re-found or remake democracy in the United States, but one of the things the protests remind us of—and this is a point that a lot of political theorists and others make—is that democracy does not just happen at the ballot box. Many of our empirical political science colleagues think that the vote is where we enact or exercise our democratic voice. It is of course a very important part of how we do that. It's a right that people fought for and died for here, in South Africa, and across the world. But I think what you are getting through these protests is a pluralization of what democratic politics and democratic action means and what it requires. I am interested and excited also to think about, Well, what could be the connections between these forms of popular mobilization on the streets and the ballot box? How could these things inform each other, and what are the ways in which they diverge from each other as well?
NEIL ROBERTS: If I was understanding, much of what you were saying is that on one hand taking a step back to think about, well, what constitutes democracy? Is it merely the vote, which is very important, or are there also different mechanisms across societies that also are central to trying to think about this question?
Michael, did you want to jump in?
MICHAEL CANHAM: Yes. I want to agree with Adom entirely. These protests to us in the developing world were reflective largely of two things: one was clearly the inherent crisis in democracy itself, that you can have a legitimately elected government unleashing lethal injury on its own people. In South Africa in particular I think that is what triggered it, the need to really undermine apartheid at its very essence. For me this is what this reflects, that there is a crisis of democracy that needs to be re-looked at now.
Adom, I know you are saying that this will not be the moment to look at an alternative form of democracy. I would agree with the proviso that the second thing that these protests reflect is that there is a long way to go to resolve global injustice based on racism, a very, very long way to go. Particularly in the South African context there was a sense of complacency after we reached our democratic era. People said: "Well, don't worry, government will take care of issues. You just live your life."
I think George Floyd's death and the expansion of the anti-racism movement was a wake-up call in my country, that: "Hey, you need to protect democracy, democracy is precious, and that democracy has both the potential to improve your immediate scenario, but it also has the potential to be reversed if we don't jealously guard some of our own democratic gains that we have made as a country."
Neil, to be more specific to your question, yes, I agree with Adom that there is a crisis in democracy. The danger with that crisis is that if it is taken up by a wrong political establishment, you are likely to have democracy deepen its existing crisis.
But for South Africans and our own history what this reflects is that democracy in South Africa is a necessity for us to move forward. At the same time, social activists have realized that even though we have reached a democratic dispensation where everybody is equal it is an asset that needs to be protected. I think for me this is what these protests around the world seem to be teaching us.
NEIL ROBERTS: Can I shift gears a little bit to get more specific to tactics? What you both are offering us and will continue to offer us are lessons from the past, so I want to get more specific in terms of having you each speak to protest tactics. Is what we are witnessing in 2020 not only in the United States and South Africa but also around the world an indication of new tactics of protest in real time that are being forged on the one hand, or are they the return or the extension of prior forms of tactics?
Why do I ask that? I remember when what became known as the Occupy Wall Street movement occurred. A lot of labor organizers and various other activists were raising the question: "Is Occupy Wall Street a new form of organization, or is it the refashioning of prior forms of mobilization that had been in place?"
I think similarly but in its own distinct way not on the Black Lives Matter movement but the wider networks of the Movement for Black Lives, decentralized network of activists, are these new tactics because—not just a question of democratization, but also, what does it mean to protest? What does it actually mean to protest? What are the types of methods?
Adom mentioned this sense within the U.S. context—although I would imagine it even some other polities—the feeling that something could erupt, that war could erupt, but there is that sense that are we on new terrain or are we needing lessons from the past particularly for those who are concerned with institutional change in civil and political society? This is a tactical question. How do we understand these 2020 protests and how they connect to tactics of the past?
MICHAEL CANHAM: What is interesting in the U.S. context, at least for us in the South, is that many of the tactics that were employed—I can go back to Rodney King, for example. When he was beaten almost to death, there was a realization that you can no longer stand on the sidelines and observe, that the crisis in the United States had gone to a point where there was a consensus that you cannot be a neighbor staring across the road and be a passive observer of the kind of repression that we saw in the United States.
So the tactics—and one may agree or disagree. The destruction of property was one of the tactics that I think was able to really invigorate policymakers in the United States to begin to take seriously the issue around social justice and the need to redress some of the historical consequences of some of the issues that Adom has raised—slavery, colonialism, and postcolonial repression—that have come about. I think the tactics certainly were an expression of the fact that when you fight a war for justice and equality you draw from historical experience, you shape that war, and you decide how you want that war to end.
Last, the one thing that the death of George Floyd taught South Africans in particular is that while you may have a democratic state in place there is always the fault line of a reversal to an authoritarian kind of government. So the tactics that were deployed, at least from where we were, in the United States were very reminiscent of the kinds of tactics that South African anti-apartheid activists demonstrated during the battle against apartheid.
I must add, though, Neil, that those kinds of tactics are still tactics that in our context the youth has begun to deploy against a legitimate state, demanding basic issues around equality and quality education. The most recent example in South Africa is a movement that was brought about by students at the University of Cape Town, one of the richest universities in our country, where symbols of old colonial leaders were brought down as a tactic to remind South Africans that we have a long way to go to resolve some of the historical legacies that we still have today. The U.S. experience for us was extremely fascinating in that sense.
NEIL ROBERTS: You presaged my one question before we take questions from the audience. We will circle back, thank you.
ADOM GETACHEW: I want to just say a bit about—this isn't maybe exactly about the tactics of the protests but the philosophical framework of the movement. I think many people have probably seen comparisons between the Movement for Black Lives and the Civil Rights Movement, and I do think there are a few important frameworks that the Movement for Blacks Lives have taken that is distinct from that historical experience.
One is that the founders of the Movement for Black Lives are primarily women, primarily queer black women, and they have taken seriously a black feminist critique of the Civil Rights Movement both substantively, like trying to focus and highlight the most marginalized members of the community, so thinking, for instance, that while all black poor people are subject to state violence, trying to think about the distinctive ways in which, say, transgender folks are subject to state violence, and also to expand what state violence is beyond lethal force to thinking about these forms of neglect that mean, say, that in Flint, Michigan, people have been drinking poisoned water. That too is a form of state violence and state-induced death basically. So there is this broadening of the agenda that is based on taking seriously the concerns and experiences of the most marginalized members of black communities.
Another kind of departure is around the question about leadership and trying to decenter or move away from a model of charismatic leadership, where there is primarily a male figure who stands in for the movement. I think for many people this feels like a loss in some way because you can't point to the spokespeople and say, "These are the people who are leading the movement and who are the responsible people," but I think the movement has an understanding of itself as not building a leaderless movement but what they call a "leaderful" movement in the sense of developing the capacities of activists and organizers so that many people take ownership of the movement and can count themselves as leaders and can speak for the movement.
I think these are really important departures. I think it's also right, as you say, that the network model and the various kinds of ways in which within the Movement for Black Lives there are many different kinds of organizations that are locally situated that constitute a national network. But even that national network is plugged into other coalitions, say, the Rising Majority, which includes immigrant justice organizations and labor organizations. I think that has been innovative.
The final thing is that it's also a movement in part because of that networked and capillary structure that is local. What Movement for Black Lives activists and organizers are doing in Chicago is not necessarily what they are doing in Minneapolis or what they're doing in Alabama. This means also that there is a lot of experimentation going on and lots of different possibilities being explored, and there is this opportunity to learn from the different examples and cases.
NEIL ROBERTS: Wonderful. Hearing particularly that last remark brought up a few things: One, the important point of thinking about thinking about Black Lives Matter and Movement for Black Lives heavily being supported and also pluralized by queer black women as central to that, what Deva Woodly more recently has called a "black feminist pragmatism" underlying this decentralized network.
But it also brings up your own work, particularly around self-determination on the one hand and also decolonization. Oftentimes decolonization gets historically bounded at a particular period as opposed to thinking about decolonization as processes that also are ongoing and trying to think about different ways of rethinking the state and what decolonization means.
But the last point with regard to leadership—I always recall, and Barbara Ransby brought this up in her brilliant book on Ella Baker. Ella Baker had a statement: "Strong people don't need strong leaders." That's often misconstrued as to not focus on leaders, but as you are pointing out Baker was trying to push against the idea of simply not only male leadership or black male leadership but also is it merely electoral politics as the avenue for change, or are there other types of venues?
Which leads me to my last question, and Michael, this brings up where you ended, which was going to be around monuments and statues. We have not really talked about symbolism, but going back to 2020 it seems unmistakable—I think we would be remiss if we didn't try to address why there has been at this particular moment a focus by protesters on statues and monuments, many of which have been the subject of discussion either for preservation or the ire of others who wish these statues to go down or be relocated or shattered for years, but for some reason this particular year. I think of a few things: One, enrichment in terms of the Robert E. Lee statue, especially after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, holograms being put on top of Robert E. Lee, so not merely taking down but keeping the so-called "Lost Cause" logic of monuments on the one hand.
A second example—and Michael, you mentioned this in terms of South Africa, not just the "FeesMustFall" but the "Rhodes Must Fall" movement. There is this sense of the connection of the figure of Cecil Rhodes as an imperialist who is still nonetheless central in the Rhodes Scholarship but also in terms of the naming of an important university in South Africa.
Third, I am struck in the British context. There is so much emphasis on London, but Bristol was one of the biggest areas where you have this figure, the brilliant University of Bristol, but nonetheless the university, the city of Bristol's massive urban space that much of the iconography is after a single figure who is so intimately tied to the slave trade and the funding of the slave ships that would then be central to the Middle Passage.
Pointedly, why at this moment has there been attention to monuments and statues, particularly even those that had been the subject of heated debates for decades quite frankly, and in some cases more? That does seem also to be a particularity.
To the audience, this is our last question in the first part of our event. If you have not asked a question in the Chat feature, please do so now so that our speakers can then try to address those after this.
Monuments and statues.
MICHAEL CANHAM: Neil, for me a statue symbolizes a particular period in the historical timeline. Take, for example, the statues of Cecil John Rhodes in South Africa. Cecil John Rhodes was central to some of the atrocities that have occurred in Southern Africa. You can talk of Zimbabwe, you can talk of Mozambique, and there is some connection that he has. So the Cecil John Rhodes statues represent a terrible epoch in the history of South Africa.
When you take racism and statues together there was a universal rejection of what Cecil John Rhodes stood for—plunder, in some cases mass rape in some of these countries. The struggle for liberation could not allow symbols of the past to continue to exist while you are trying to create a new order.
The advantage we had in South Africa, to be sure, was that we said: "Look, statues form an important part of our history, and the debate should be around how do we caution future generations never to go back to what Cecil John Rhodes and the others represented in our history?" So we didn't opt for destruction of monuments in South Africa. Instead, we had a national debate, which is still ongoing, as to how do we preserve those monuments but also teach that South Africans and the generations of Africans to come should never go back there because that would symbolize a reversal of the most important gains that this country has made in the last 20–30 years.
Finally, I was listening to an interesting discussion around the monuments in the former Soviet Union. I was a student at Central European University at the time, and I found it fascinating that what they decided to do in those countries was to rather create a statues park where you can go and reflect on some of the historical experiences that the former Soviet Union had gone through. For me that was important because as policymakers you can either decide to destroy history in whichever form it presents itself or you can decide to correct that kind of history but warn those who will come after you that we should never go back there.
That's broadly how we dealt with monuments, Neil. Thanks.
NEIL ROBERTS: Adom?
ADOM GETACHEW: I think in some ways the question of why symbols have become such a powerful place of activism right now is: One, my view is that symbols have always been an important part of these mobilizations. As you were saying, some of these debates around statues are long debates.
One of the things that people are using the statues or politics around the statues to do now is to call attention to the normalization of particular histories, and they are tied to the kinds of demands that people are making politically. People's demands now I think in a different kind of way really call attention to what Du Bois would call "the presence of the past," that we don't leave the past behind, but the past lives on with us in all these various legacies of racial inequality.
I think the statues in some ways—we walk by these statues every day, they're normalized parts of our life. We don't even think about them sometimes. There is this way in which by toppling the statue or defacing the statue I think protesters are drawing attention to how that past remains present and how a particular one way of understanding the past is being normalized and institutionalized in our everyday practices. My view is that it has become an important site in some ways because the forms of demands that we have now, especially around reparations, are ones that are intimately tied to how we adjudicate the legacy of the past, how we come to terms with our various histories of racial and colonial domination.
It has been fascinating to me to see not just that the statues are the sites of politics and protest but also the various ways that people engage with them. I found it, for instance, very striking in the Bristol case Colston's statue was thrown into the sea. This is the sea in which many Africans lost their lives in the Middle Passage. In Belgium a flag of the Congo was placed onto the King Leopold statue, the Congo being his personal colony for a period of time at the turn of the 20th century.
People are very strategic about the forms of politics that they are engaged in. I think this connects a little bit to your point about tactics. The struggles that people are interested in or are intervening in now are legacies of older struggles, but they're not the exact same struggle, so I think we see a certain kind of innovation that opens up new kinds of questions for our moment that were not on the table in an earlier moment.
NEIL ROBERTS: Thank you both. I believe a colleague will chime in to read some of the questions that you have received from our audience. Thank you all for joining our first portion, and we will turn to the Q&A.
ALEX WOODSON: Thanks, Neil.
The first question is from Grady Jacobsen. He is a student at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. He is also a Carnegie Council staff member. His question: "Dr. Getachew published an opinion piece in The New York Times in July about the idea of decolonization and what that means in terms of searching for social and racial justice. What are the kinds of approaches to remaking the world as she says that are being untaken and advocated for around the world? Are they generally the same as those we are hearing about in the United States, or are there competing ideas and policies about how best to remake the world in search of racial and social justice?"
ADOM GETACHEW: Great. Thanks for that question.
In that piece I was reflecting on what Neil was talking about earlier about how the language of decolonization, which we often think of decolonization happened between 1945 and—if we want to include South Africa—1994. But most people would date it to the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s as the high point of decolonization.
One of the things I was trying to reflect on in that opinion piece was the resurgence of the language of decolonizing. It appears in the South African context vis-à-vis not just Rhodes Must Fall but the demands around curriculum and around free education. It appears in all kinds of university settings but also in relation to museums.
I think there is a way, for instance, that that language tells us that people are struggling with a similar kind of concern, namely the kind of limits and incomplete character of the project of ending empire. Those limits are different, of course, in different contexts. I think in the United States as with other settler colonial states including South Africa but also Canada and Latin America, there have been various kinds of mobilizations in this context for indigenous rights and in the South African context for making black equality economically and socially meaningful to match what was gained through the extension of suffrage and the extension of political and civil rights.
There is a resurgence of a particular rubric around decolonization, but then, as I was trying to say, what that means in each setting is different. In the context of Europe it's a debate about migrants and the status of black Europeans.
Are there competing ideas and policies? I wouldn't say that there are necessarily competing ideas. I think there are just locally specific or contextualized practices and forms of political action and mobilization, so I wouldn't say they're necessarily different.
Again, I think one other language that I have found is more resonant now than, say, the period I study, which is the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, is the language of reparations, which has come back in a big way in again very local settings. The city of Chicago, where I live, gave reparations to victims who were tortured by the police in an attempt to get them to confess or to give up certain kinds of information. The city paid reparations to those victims and also instituted a mandate that the Chicago torture case had to be taught in public schools and that there would be a memorial statue created in honor of the victims of that torture.
But the same concept of reparations has been advocated for by Caribbean states vis-à-vis their former colonial powers, and this is reparations for native genocide and the slave trade. There, of course, the demands are very different. There are demands for debt cancellation and for commitments to resource development programs in an equitable manner. So again, we see how that same idea of repairing historical harm takes on very specific connotations in specific places.
ALEX WOODSON: Next question is from Deborah Rogers in The Hague: "Can you speak about the role of truth telling for those responsible for the betrayal of civil rights and the process of reawakening a potential reconciliation? Should it be possible in the United States?"
ADOM GETACHEW: Michael, I wonder if you can start by telling us a bit about the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa, which is a model for the world.
MICHAEL CANHAM: Absolutely.
The policy choices that the new government faced when it started negotiating the end of apartheid was: What do you with the history of apartheid because it had real-life impact on people's lives? People were killed, people's properties were destroyed. Some social justice activists in fact were burned to death, alive in many cases.
What the South African negotiators decided to do was to institute what we had come to call the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Generally what the Commission sought to do was to first get from the perpetrators of apartheid and some of the murderous activities that they were involved in to tell the truth about what happened. It was a period that took South Africa about four years, and a report was obviously published, which is widely available. But the political agreement was that if you tell the truth, the new democratic state will not in any way punish you for what you have done. Obviously that was a massive sacrifice on the part of South Africans because it meant a neighbor who once tortured you literally could become a friend the next day.
On the reparations part, though, I think that is where the country fell short because the government had to decide, do you act against multinational companies, some of them based in the United States and in Europe, for having supported the apartheid government for so many years? Or do you then begin to demand, as Adom says, equality in terms of employment, in terms of access to education, in terms of health care, and so on?
That is the choice that we had as a country beginning in 1996, but the other reality that we had to face as well was if we had to act against the perpetrators of apartheid violence, you still at the time had an army totally controlled by the former perpetrators of apartheid, and Mandela had to make those strategic choices. South Africa settled, after four years of a protracted process, for non-retribution for those who had committed apartheid.
I must just say, though, Neil, that there were those who refused to tell the truth, and those were then sent to prison for the rest of their lives.
Also to clarify, South Africans unfortunately did not get to a point where there were reparations either financially or otherwise because the economy could never take that at the time.
I must just say, Adom, though, they are in new discussions as I speak now where young South Africans are saying: "If the perpetrators of violence and apartheid had agreed to work with a new apartheid government, then surely there must be some level of compensation or reparations for those who lost their properties, those who lost family members, and those who lost opportunities." So it's an ongoing debate in South Africa.
ADOM GETACHEW: One of the things that is a model in terms of how South Africa is twofold: One, truth and reconciliation was part of a whole political process of transition to democracy. It's not just that people can tell the truth and then be cleansed. It has to be part of a broader project of political and social transformation, and inside Africa that process may not be done, but it was always situated in a broader vision of what needed to be transformed.
I think the other thing that is really important for movement activists is if we are truly abolitionist in the sense of people who are trying to move beyond prisons and beyond carceral institutions and carceral visions, thinking about models of justice and reconciliation that are not about indicting people as criminals and having them serve jail times is an important part of the project of the Movement for Black Lives. I think what those models are, how you might secure justice in the absence of carceral institutions is an important struggle that we would have to have in this country and figure out what would be the appropriate models for us. The South Africa case as I said is exemplary of at least where to start thinking about that process.
NEIL ROBERTS: Can I add something real quick to what you both said?
I think that last point in terms of even rethinking what does it mean to even talk about a just society, thinking about a certain understanding of justice, but also what is a reparation claim? I usually understand reparation claims as having two pillars, the first a public apology where the agent or agents responsible for a historical injustice, and the second a rectification/compensation valence. That could be the monetary.
So going back to Michael's point, when you're saying an idea of a mass monetary reparation program may at a certain juncture perhaps be considered not possible, even if that were the case, we can imagine different forms, programs of rectification for a past harm that need not necessarily take the place of the truth telling—which I gather was the question that was posed—but as was just mentioned, Adom, these are still things that we are working through.
ALEX WOODSON: This is from Bard College's Jonathan Becker: "Could we hear more about what lessons the ongoing BLM movement might learn from the fight against apartheid and other national and global protest movements beyond the Gaza reference? We have heard that BLM has developed in recent years in terms of protests and sophistication of interactions with politicians, but it is often commented that Americans are behind the rest of the world in terms of protests. (I can say I recall Michael thinking that when he was in the United States.) What lessons might be learned?"
MICHAEL CANHAM: Adom, you can go.
ADOM GETACHEW: One thing, as someone who is interested in internationalism, I wish the Movement for Black Lives would more seriously think about the question of international solidarity. That is to say, we have seen this outpouring of solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives, and I think there are moments where the movement has reached out to specific struggles and connected with specific struggles, but I would like to see a moment in which we try to recover some of the more reciprocal forms of solidarity and internationalism that we saw in an earlier moment.
I think another possible lesson—this would depend on a different kind of regime in the United States, but one model, for instance, or one thing we can learn from those experiences of solidarity is about the kind of black power movements in Latin America over the last 20–30 years, which used international institutions and international discourses to push for equal rights for black people in Colombia, Brazil, and other countries in Latin America.
Here South Africa again is important because the 2001 World Conference Against Racism held in Durban that helped galvanize Latin American activists and organizers, and they were able to use the resources of that international meeting to press for transformations in their specific states. This is, of course, a strategy that was also central to African Americans at an earlier moment. In 1947 the NAACP with Du Bois at the helm of this project published an appeal to the world, which was a statement about the United States as a human rights violator within its own country. That petition was marginalized within the United Nations, but it helped shine a spotlight on American racism globally, and that helped to push the civil rights agenda forward in the United States.
So I think there may be ways in which those forms of internationalism that contemporary movements use around the world and that have been part of the repertoire of black politics in the United States in previous moments could be recovered and redeployed.
But I see more parallelism in struggles. For instance, one issue we haven't talked about in this context is climate change and what environmental justice will look like, but the issue of the climate crisis isn't going to affect all people in the same way. Poor people, black people, people who live in the Global South are going to bear the heaviest burdens around the question of the climate crisis. I think there are tons of moments of possibility for there to be translocal struggles or connections, say, thinking about the [cyclone] that went through Mozambique last year and then thinking about the vulnerabilities of a place like Puerto Rico or New Orleans, where predominantly black and brown bodies are also facing the brunt of the struggle. I think greater forms of local connection between specific sites and locations might be another way to advance that vision of internationalism.
MICHAEL CANHAM: Adom is quite correct. One can list the various similarities in the United States and the lessons certainly that social activists can learn, but I want to draw a slight distinction if I may, Neil, between the South African struggle—in South Africa I must point out constitutionally there is no "distinction," if I may call it that, between black people and white people. That does not exist. What we were able to do very accurately was to put in strong institutions to protect the right to a number of liberties that we enjoy in our constitution.
The principal battle that social activists now deal with is the whole issue around economic freedom, which Adom correctly pointed out in the beginning has become a rallying call for the kind of equality that South Africans would like to see. As I said earlier, while you might have political freedom, there is a crucial element that is missing there, which is economic equality. That is where South Africa finds itself in the broad spectrum of issues. I thought I would maybe just throw that distinction out there, Neil, so there is no confusion in that. Thanks.
NEIL ROBERTS: Thank you.
ALEX WOODSON: This question is from Peter Burgess: "I agree with the reality that racism is a huge issue to be addressed, but there is also the issue of class within race. What do you all think of this as an issue that also needs to be addressed?"
ADOM GETACHEW: I think that's what we have been getting at, especially with Michael's last comment about economic inequality and the ways in which economic inequality is at the center of the next phase of struggle in South Africa.
I think that is also absolutely true in the United States. First, I would encourage everybody who is on the call to look at "A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice," which is a policy agenda that the Movement for Black Lives put out in 2016. They have updated it since in the context of the 2020 protests and the current context we're in in the United States.
I think it is very easy to look at the Movement for Black Lives and say, "This is an organization that is focused on racism, and especially the question of police violence," but that is not true. If you look at their agenda, they have a vision of economic transformation, of guaranteed employment, of a living wage, and of the right to unions and the right to organize and bargain over the terms of your work. This is not a movement that thinks only or solely in terms of race. It has an intersectional analysis, one that thinks that race, class, and gender are intersecting and interlocking forms of oppression.
We might not think that the murder of George Floyd is a question of class, but it absolutely is a question of class. Where is he shopping? A corner store. What is he accused of? Of having a fake $20 bill. This is a person who is out of work at the moment he is killed because he has been fired because we are in the middle of a pandemic, and this is a country that is incapable of providing basic economic protection in this moment.
The police officer who killed him also has to work two jobs. He works as a police officer, and in fact he used to work at the same bar that George Floyd worked at as a bouncer. So the police officer is able to escape or move up the economic ladder by becoming a part of the state's armed wing, and George Floyd, who can't access that form of escape or moving up, ends up being killed by him. It's a profound story about what it means to live at the intersections of racial and economic marginalization and precarity in this country. Again, if you read that "Vision for Black Lives" platform, you will see that the movement has that kind of analysis about the intersections of those two things.
NEIL ROBERTS: Can I jump in real quick on this? If one looks back to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and their famous Ten-Point Program, a lot of that platform were basic human rights. These are in terms of actually what was being asked for. Certainly there was a question of thinking about black self-determination, but many of the pillars of the Black Panther Party were really about human rights, questions of economic stability and equality, and what does it mean to live in a just and free world? So looking at the updated "Vision for Black Lives" is important.
My additional rider would be that I think it also was important to bring up climate change and environmental justice, but I don't necessarily want to disentangle the question of race because I think a lot of commentators and activists are returning to this notion of racial capitalism, one of the ways in which not only race but also how does class structure human societies and then one of the books du jour, Isabel Wilkerson's recent work dealing with the question of castes, are we even using the right categories? Is it simply class or race or gender, sex, and ability, or are we also talking about caste societies that much of these activities are responding to? I don't think there is a consensus, but I think of both of what you all are pointing out about an attention that we should have to climate change and environmental justice and what does it mean to think about "A Vision for Black Lives" that also takes into account different notions such as class are important.
Looking at the time, we're getting close to the end. I don't know if it's possible to have a couple of questions together to be able to address.
ALEX WOODSON: I just have one more question that I think would be good to wrap up on. This is from Carnegie Council's Billy Pickett: "Do you have any advice on how to stay hopeful that real change and accountability in policing is possible in the United States, especially in light of the lack of charges brought against the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor?"
ADOM GETACHEW: That's a good question.
I say this often, so if you have heard me say it before, I'm sorry to be a broken record. Again, thinking back to the work that I do and the period I studied in my book, decolonization after World War II; in 1945 if you had said that by 1960 over 20 African countries would have gained independence, you would have been laughed out of any room, including the rooms where anti-colonial nationalists were struggling and deciding how to think about the future of the world. It looked bleak. Even the institutions we now associate with the rise of decolonization like the United Nations were hostile to the project of self-determination.
But in 15 years, by 1960, we are looking at a different kind of world order. It doesn't mean that that project of decolonization was won and ended in 1960, but we were in a different stage or phase of the fight than we were in 1945. In some ways that gives me hope because it's a reminder that politics is not set in stone, it's not stuck in time, it's not a frozen experience, it changes very rapidly. If nothing else, I think the last four years should tell us that our conditions, our context, our conjectures could be completely transformed in matter of months.
That is also a lesson of the 2020 protests. When we went into lockdown on March 15 or whatever it was if you had told people that by the end of May we would be living through the greatest resurgence of protest mobilization in the United States and in the world, people would have thought you were crazy. So I think remaining attentive to the real political contingencies that structure our lives is important.
I think keeping your eye on these smaller experiments—it may be that Breonna Taylor's killers won't face trial, but this is also a summer in which many cities have voted to withdraw some funds from the police. It's a moment in which students at universities and K-12 are insisting that they don't want police in their schools and on their campuses and are winning some of those fights.
So to me, I look at this moment as one not of failure but one of lots of promising possibilities. It is not to say that they will be realized, but there is, I think, much to feel optimistic about.
NEIL ROBERTS: And Michael?
MICHAEL CANHAM: Thanks, Neil.
I want to agree largely with what Adom has said. I think it is an accurate reflection of the type of struggle that minorities face in any country where black people are the minority.
I think in the South African context one of the biggest challenges that we will continue to face for some time in the future will be how do we reconcile the political freedoms that we enjoy at the moment versus the kind of economic inequality that still exists and which appears to be deepening over time. One cannot de-link racism and the need to resolve racism away from economic equality because that is fundamentally where the battle is. If you want to deal with racism, you need to deal with structural inequality of the economy. You can't do it any other way. South Africans recognize and we have learned as we work toward a country that is more inclusive that we will have to deal with economic inequality that is there.
Obviously, just as a last point, Neil, South Africa's experience with racism in a sense has been what I would call colonialism of a special type, where you have a very few black wealthy individuals and the majority remaining in a condition of squalor. For us that is fundamentally the core: How do we move from political freedom and the kinds of freedoms we enjoy to a more economic one? I think that for us—and I will say this as well for special social activists—remains the fundamental battle into the future.
NEIL ROBERTS: Okay. On that note, I will let our speakers have the last word. This has been "On the Streets for Social Justice: Lessons from the Past."
I want to think very much Michael Canham and Adom Getachew for sharing with us not only your work and insight but also where we ended in terms of thinking about, whether one wants to call it hope or whether one wants to call it an alternative future, but ultimately why it's important to not only think about what has happened in both the distant and recent past and what that can actually mean for us moving forward globally, not just nationally and subnationally, but really all over the world.
For those who were not able to view the entirety of this event, it will be available very soon online, and so we hope you will be able to share that. Also, on the page for the event there are some resources, and given today's conversation we will likely add some other resources there as well.
Thank you all, and enjoy the rest of the day.