Otherwise Liberalism

by R.L. Stephens II on January 29, 2015

I recently read Prof. Ashon Crawley’s article for The New Inquiry titled, “Otherwise Movements”. To properly appreciate the argument, it must be read in tandem with his series of tweets titled “on so-called radical progressive dudebros and revolution.” I’m not a professor, and I respect Prof. Crawley’s work. Much how I approached Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reparations piece, it is with great humility that I vigorously disagree with the argument Prof. Crawley puts forth in his article.

I reached out to Prof. Crawley to see if he wanted to comment, but he declined. For what it’s worth, I think he beautifully describes Black dance, and his use of ain’t nothing but as a metaphor for Black experiences both in dance and more broadly was artful. It’s not his cultural interpretations, but the political analysis he argues towards the end of the piece that concerns me.

Rationality is for White Folks?

The article assumes, a priori, that rationality is an imposition of Western hegemony. Therefore, strategy is, by default, an extension of that same Western hegemony. Prof. Crawley writes, “Calls for strategy are an effect of the very order we seek to obliterate: the western tradition of rationality that degrades and denigrates blackness as an unwieldy, destabilizing force.”

But, the entire argument is based on the outright racist and erroneous assumption that reason is a “western tradition.” There’s a wealth of information available that persuasively demonstrates that reason exists and existed beyond the West. Certainly, Western philosophers have promulgated the notion that non-Europeans lacked rationality, but that doesn’t make their claim true, and it definitely doesn’t mean that strategic thinking is an effect of the “western tradition of rationality.”

You know what is a “western tradition?” Race. Unlike reason, blackness has no other meaning outside of Western colonial social relations. In fact, the West itself is only as old as transatlantic colonialism, and it was through that process of domination that racial categories were created and given meaning. Because, if we take seriously his assumption that rationality is a “western tradition,” and should therefore be “obliterated”, then that would make blackness a worthy target as well.

Instead, Prof. Crawley calls for “a return to black radicality,” believing that position is “the space and zone from which otherwise modalities of living can emerge.” So, if the “western tradition” of blackness can be a source for these “otherwise modalities of living,” then so too can the calls for strategy that the article dismisses as Western.

Are All ‘Calls for Strategy’ Created Equal?

It’s fairly clear that Prof. Crawley values strategy, at least to a degree. He says as much in the article when he highlights the organizing efforts of groups like the Organization of Black Struggle and the Dream Defenders. Yet, he defines “calls for strategy” as being dismissals rather than engagements with these organizations. Using Oprah’s ignorant demands for “leadership”, the article reduces all post-Ferguson critiques of strategy to calls for top-down leadership that fail to “take into account the ongoing organizing that has been taking place.”

Unfortunately, Prof. Crawley doesn’t name any of the demands/strategies employed by the organization’s he lists. Whether this lack of specificity is an oversight or an editorial decision, it is nonetheless crucial. How are we to know that “This movement is the enactment of an otherwise strategy, an otherwise plan,” as the article claims?

Last month, I attended a panel with a number of self-described Ferguson activists. It was wonderful to meet some of the protest organizers, and I respect a lot of what they’ve accomplished. Yet, at the outset, one of the female panelists was quick to declare “but I’m not a radical.” So if this post-Ferguson moment is about locating “black radicality,” as Prof. Crawley so aptly put it, but some of the activists reject radicalism, then perhaps some of these calls for strategy are actually attempts to radicalize rather than ignore existing approaches.

I can’t speak for all critics, but my concerns about post-Ferguson strategies, demands, and tactics have always been tied to specific organizing groups around the country. Prof. Crawley claims that “asking for ‘strategy’… ain’t nothing but suppressing the radical movement and thought currently enacted.” But is all post-Ferguson organizing actually radical? He lists the Dream Defenders as an embodiment of that radical movement and thought, yet their endorsement of body cameras for police officers is hardly radical. It’s entirely appropriate to wonder, what’s the strategy here? 

Body Cameras as an Otherwise Strategy?

In an August 30th, 2014 tweet, the organization declared police officer bodycams to be a “victory for Ferguson” and implored others to “demand [law enforcement officers] in your town wear them.”   The organization then circulated a petition of “policy solutions” demanding that “All police officers must wear forward-facing body cameras while on duty. They cost just $99 and are having a significant, positive impact in several cities around the United States and the world.” However, the Dream Defenders’ argument here is at a minimum, an overstatement, and at worst, it’s outright false.  

First, there have only been five studies worldwide on the effectiveness of police body cameras, and the results have not been strong enough for firm conclusions to be made. Uri Friedman, writing for The Atlantic, interviewed Barak Ariel, co-author of “the world’s first randomized-controlled trial” on police body camera use. Conducted at the Rialto, California police department, Ariel characterized the body camera program as “surely promising, but we don’t know that it’s working.”  

Second, the Dream Defenders claim that these cameras cost $99, but this is simply not true. Again, according to Ariel, “There’s the hefty price tag for the cameras (around $800 to $1,000 each) and the systems to store and sift through the data they collect. Equipping frontline police officers across the U.S. with cameras, and paying the monthly subscription fees for their use and upkeep, could cost billions of dollars.”  

The cost of the body camera program has been a real windfall for the arms industry. The Rialto, California police used grant money to purchase 54 cameras for $100,000 with the necessary software costing an additional $80,000, and the recently announced LAPD plan to outfit 7,000 officers with body cameras is set to cost millions. The system, sold by Taser, is a popular choice among law enforcement officials and, according to a December article in the Washington Post, “Taser’s stock has almost doubled since Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown in August” reaching “its highest point in nearly 10 years.” As a result of this surge in investment, Taser’s chief executive said the company is “feeling phenomenal right now.”  

People are dead at the hands of the police, and this corporate vulture is “feeling phenomenal.” What’s worse, these body cameras come with a number of consequences. For example, as reported by the Washington Post, a 2014 report for the justice department revealed that “in the United Kingdom, where officers have been using body cameras since 2005, court officials have seen an increase in guilty pleas.” One of the primary rhetorical points of Black Lives Matter is the framing of the prison system as a form of systematic subjugation in Black communities, and it’s possible that body cameras on police would make that situation worse and not better.  

As it turns out, body cameras may in fact be counterrevolutionary. It should give us great pause that politicians like President Obama have been quick to jump on the body camera bandwagon. Technology does not exist independently of the power relations in which it is embedded, and in this case, it trends towards the status quo.  If body cameras are part of the “otherwise strategy” that Prof. Crawley describes, then is it that “otherwise strategy” actually all that different and radical? 

Populism vs. Radicalism

Prof. Crawley identifies the post-Ferguson organizing as being oriented around “an otherwise than strategy” which “is… fundamentally about not assenting to current configurations of power and authority.” But, the two primary demands articulated by the organizations cited in the piece, that police officers should be prosecuted under the law (as demanded by the Organization for Black Struggle) and that police should wear body cameras (as demanded by Dream Defenders), are not radical challenges to existing power. They presuppose the legitimacy and efficacy of both the court system and the police, and are almost the definition of liberal reformism. Therefore, by default, these demands are “assenting to current configurations of power and authority.”  

Their inherent liberalism doesn’t make these demands bad ideas, nor should we automatically dismiss them. But, we do need to engage them at a strategic level and explore their implications. Prof. Crawley’s argument that “the word strategy is used to marshal in the dominant framework” and is thus “suppressing the radical movement and thought currently enacted” strikes me as both reductive and an obfuscation. Not every call for strategy is the equivalent of Oprah’s blathering, and to argue otherwise damns us all to being pawns in a broader game.  

Rather than radicalism, I read Prof. Crawley’s analysis as more evocative of populism, an accessible form of movement with a low barrier to entry. It’s why he tweets, “we also learn from Ferguson: one does not need to “get ready” for revolution. one simply needs to desire participation within it. das it.” This is the populist ethos, and it can lead to wonderful explosions of empowerment, which Prof. Crawley observes in Black Lives Matter being “a primarily black woman-led movement that takes seriously the lives of queer people.” However, populism — like blackness — is not inherently liberating. The Klan was populist, and we all know how that turned out.

Former Black Panther Fred Hampton recognized this distinction as he called for a transition from populism to strategic and concerted political organization. Citing Haiti and other situations, Hampton saw that populism could be easily redirected towards oppressive ends. I’m afraid we’re seeing a similar trend with the populist knee-jerk support for body cameras and other approaches. As Fred Hampton reminds us, radicalism is not self-evident and claims to “black radicality” must be interrogated. There are serious political conflicts brewing in this Black Lives Matter era, and many of these calls for strategy should be understood in that context and not merely as extensions of “western tradition.”

Prof. Crawley remarks that “too many” have argued “that though marching can have positive effects, that those effects are not long-lasting, they are not strategic in terms of long-term organizing or thought.” Unfortunately, for many of us, this description of short-term surges lacking long-term organizing has been precisely our experience. Are we not already seeing these shut it down demonstrations subside? Is it not legitimate to wonder, as we rightfully did during and after the Occupy moment, what next? Perhaps we should see some of these calls for strategy as calls for community — a desire for a sense of consistency and sustained engagement that has been lacking in so many populist campaigns of recent memory.

We can, of course, agree to disagree. As far as the article’s argument is a pushback against the presumed irrationality of post-Ferguson demonstrators, I agree. I share the writer’s belief that we need movement beyond Oprah’s demands for gradual reformism and top-down leadership. I’m just not sure that organizations like Dream Defenders and others are those radical otherwise movements that Prof. Crawley hopes to see. It’s one thing to engage in struggle, but to win is another matter entirely.

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