NEWARK, N.J.—The public reaction to the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., exposes the shifting dynamic of rebellion and repression in the United States. Spontaneous uprisings against the lethal force routinely employed by militarized police units will probably not erupt at first out of the old epicenters of unrest—Watts, Detroit, Harlem, Newark and others—but suburban black communities such as Ferguson, near St. Louis. In most of these communities, the power structures remain in the hands of white minorities although the populations have shifted from white to black. Only three of the 53 commissioned officers in Ferguson’s police department are black. These conditions, which approximate the racial divides that set off urban riots in the 1960s, have the potential to trigger a new wave of racial unrest in economically depressed black suburbs, and perhaps later in impoverished inner cities, especially amid a stagnant economy, high incarceration and unemployment rates for blacks and the rewriting of laws to make police forces omnipotent.
“We are headed into a period of increased social protest,” said Lawrence Hamm, one of the nation’s most important community organizers and the longtime chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress. POP, which has roughly 10,000 members, is based in Newark and has 13 chapters, most of them in New Jersey. I met with Hamm in a downtown coffee shop in Newark.
For a video of Lawrence Hamm speaking in Washington, D.C., in 2010 at a rally against imperialism, click here.
“The pendulum swung far to the right after 9/11. Now it is swinging back,” Hamm said. “Fear and paralysis gripped the country after 9/11 and the creation of our authoritarian police state. We are overcoming this fear. The rebellion in Ferguson was not planned. It was spontaneous. People said, ‘Enough.’ They struck out in the only way they knew how. All the other ways—and I have no doubt that the people in Ferguson and St. Louis, as we have, marched peacefully, sent letters and went to city council meetings to protest police violence—have proved ineffective. We will see other incidents like this one, but because of demographic changes these rebellions will occur in places that did not rebel previously.”
Hamm said that the declining populations of primarily black cities—Newark, where he has spent most of his life as an organizer, has seen its population drop from 400,000 to about 250,000 in the last few decades—coupled with the election of black officials and the integration of blacks into police forces mean that the old centers of rebellion are less polarized.
“These [changes] helped to ameliorate the overt racism and will probably prevent a recurrence of open rebellion in these urban areas,” he said. “In cities like Newark you no longer have a blatant apartheid structure. This dynamic dampens, to a degree, the movement for social justice. It dampens the outrage. It dampens the ability to mount opposition to ongoing institutional racism and oppression. But we have suburbs around Newark [much like the St. Louis suburb] Ferguson that were once white and are now black and that replicate the racial power imbalance. And this is where the tinder will be.”
Being the object of unwarranted deadly force by police officers is part of what it means to be black and poor in America. But, as Hamm said, no matter how much blacks raise their voices against indiscriminate police violence “the killings keep coming.”
“The police are the primary instrument of social control,” Hamm said. “But after the rebellions in American cities in the 1960s the [federal government under President] Nixon realized that the police were not enough. Nixon began to link the local police with the state police and the National Guard. During the rebellion in Detroit in 1967 the [federal] state had to deploy the 82nd Airborne. Nixon set up this seamless connection between local police units and the military. It was then that we began to see a change in training, the acquisition of military equipment and the arrival of SWAT teams in black uniforms. In April 1999 when we marched in Orange [N.J.] to protest the torturing to death by the police of Earl Faison the police deployed SWAT teams on the roofs of the post office and department stores. These teams had their automatic rifles pointed at us. And we were nonviolent marchers. The real criminals [those who killed Faison] were within the ranks of the police.”
In the 1970s Hamm obtained a scholarship to attend Princeton and when he graduated began work on a doctorate at the university. But he abandoned his doctoral work to return to Newark, where he had grown up. In 1983 the organizer co-founded POP, one of the nation’s most impressive grass-roots radical movements. He can routinely pull thousands of people into the streets and is one of the most rousing orators in the country. He was always an agitator, organizing a student walkout in city schools when he was in high school, but he credits his political maturation to the playwright and poet Amiri Baraka, also from Newark. They met in 1971 and remained close friends until Baraka’s death last January. It was Baraka, he said, who inspired him to commit his life to political struggle on behalf of poor people. And he carried that commitment to Princeton University, where he mobilized students to carry out sustained protests against the numerous ties between the university and the apartheid regime in South Africa.
“Groups like POP come out of the black liberation movement,” Hamm said. “They are led by people who were deeply involved in that movement and who are committed to a lifetime of struggle. Many of the organizations that existed in the ’60s don’t exist anymore. POP is one of the few survivors. But POP is also consciously anti-sectarian. One of the pitfalls of the movements of the ’60s was ideological sectarianism, that if you’re not of a particular ideology you’re wrong. Groups spent more time attacking each other than attacking the forces of oppression. We avoided that. That’s why we’ve lasted [more than 30] years.”
“There is an historical ebb and flow of social movements, and that’s true of the black liberation movement,” he said. “You don’t have an ever increasing radicalism. You have highs and lows. There was a conscious effort to destroy the black liberation movement of the 1960s. The state had great success in that regard. But it did not totally end. People continued to fight, even though we had COINTELPRO and the assassination of black leaders, as well as the incarceration of other black leaders.”
“It’s easier to fight the external aggressor than it is to fight someone who looks like you [Barack Obama],” he said. “We have to grapple with this until enough people become convinced that it’s not about individuals and that it’s about institutions and systems of oppression. I don’t think most people yet see it that way. We struggle to try to help people understand that it’s not about individuals. It’s about white supremacy, capitalist oppression and imperialism. But the majority does not share the radical consciousness we try to imbue. Black consciousness is oppositional, but oppositional does not necessarily mean radical. Oppositional means that people have a clear enough perspective that allows them to see an injustice and maybe a set of injustices and the desire to change those injustices. A radical consciousness requires a change of an entire system. And people in general, not just black people, people in general are not born with radical consciousness. We have to bring that kind of consciousness to them through education and persuasion. Black people see the election of Barack Obama as oppositional in terms of opposing white supremacy. But we want to tell people that just electing a president, even from a very conventional political point of view, is not enough.”
“There’s a difference between prophetic tradition, which we need, and political movement building,” Hamm said. “Many of us knew when Obama was running for president that if elected he would be the CEO for U.S. imperialism. But if the very people we purport to serve and represent are going in a particular direction, then we have to look very hard at how we operate in that given environment. Our struggle is to build a politically potent movement. We’re not going to be able to build that movement only with the people who have the most radical consciousness. When Obama is wrong, we criticize. But when the choice is between Obama and something worse, we do not tell the people to go out there and choose something worse. We don’t want to alienate ourselves from our own base. We have to accurately assess and be truthful about what’s happening, but at the same time we have to do that in a way that doesn’t alienate us.”
“After all,” he went on, “the problem confronting the left—black, white and otherwise—is that we’re weak. We don’t have enough people. We’re weak because of the state of the labor movement in the United States. There needs to be a symbiosis between the struggle for racial equality and the labor movement. You see that in countries such as Jamaica, but not here.”
Three decades after he co-founded POP, Hamm, 60, admits to some frustration.
“POP is a great organization,” he said. “I’m proud of our accomplishments. I’m proud of our members. But I have to say, as a criticism of myself, that after 30 years we should be stronger than we are.”
“I’m growing increasingly skeptical of the ability of electoral politics to bring about the kind of social change that not only African-Americans need but that working and poor people in general need,” he said. “We made the most progress when we were in the streets in the ’60s. There were more than a thousand urban uprisings. And that is what we need to do most—put people in the streets.”