Ferguson: Transnational Activism and The Academy

Voices Across Borders

The Blog of the Race and Resistance Research Network at TORCH

Posted by: Josh Aiken and Nicole Nfonoyim-Hara

Date: 26 February 2015

Ferguson: Transnational Activism and The Academy

The following is a transcript of presentations at the Race and Resistance seminar on 30th January 2015, at which Master’s students Josh Aiken and Nicole Nfonoyim-Hara reflected on the relationship between their studies at Oxford, transnational solidarity movements, and their activism protesting the killing of Michael Brown.

JOSH: Nicole reached out to me in about October to consider putting together some kind of action item or discussion space around police brutality and systematized racism in the United States.  On November 29th, #OxfordToFerguson In Solidarity, took place which was an event that included a march through Cornmarket, speeches and poems in front of the Rad Cam, and approximately 250 participants.  Nicole and I met through this Race & Resistance space and thought it would be important to not only discuss that experience here, but also expand upon how that experience might help us consider Race & Resistance in a broader sense.

 One of the important pieces of our protest and other protests in the United States has been the message that Black Lives Matter—from the depths of the Mediterranean Sea where over 3,000 undocumented African migrants died trying to come to Europe to the streets of Ferguson.  That state-sanctioned violence, acting in the name of anti-black racism, can not be tolerated in any form.  After Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, protests sparked up around the world.  And for the first part of our presentation, I want to discuss how we can connect Ferguson to struggles around the world in a multitude of ways and how, I’d like to argue, social justice and social movements demand us to interconnect radical resistance struggles.

 Ferguson, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and other terms that have infused the police brutality iconography in the United States.  But their names and efforts associated with them have existed in transatlantic ways.  This is an image from a protest in London, where individuals marched towards the U.S. Embassy.  Yet, participants and individuals noted the connections, Labour Party MP Diana Abbott remarking “Just as in Britain, the black community in the United States has a fraught history with the police.”

 And this is a common trend.  One salient aspect of protests around the world is the way that police brutality is linked to the criminalization and policing of people of color.  In the United Kingdom and the United States, the last twenty years have seen increases in prison populations that disproportionately effect people of color and poor people.  In the past fifteen years over 3,000 statutes have been added as criminal offenses in the UK, an idea that resonates in Ferguson. (Several lawsuits are moving through the courts in parts of St. Louis, as part of an legal activist group called ArchCity Defenders, where potentially illegal extra fees for parking tickets and other minor offenses generate the majority of the revenue for municipal police forces.)

 The criminalization of marginalized populations, expansion of prisons, the state’s role in the policing and containment of dissenting bodies resonated in Mexico this past year.  For those of you have kept up with the 43 missing students in Mexico, as of yesterday, you may know, the Attorney General officially declared the kidnapped students dead.  The case has raised serious questions about the role that the police and the state play in local policing—seeing as police officers were the ones who opened fire on these students and handed them over to a drug cartel in order to be executed.  In the broader trend of the state flexing it’s disparate muscles and limbs especially in the containment and management of dissenters, protestors in Mexico linked their struggles too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

State-sanctioned violence and abuse against protests touched in Palestine.  Social media, like Facebook and Twitter, became critical in linking these struggles.  Palestine activist tweeted at protestors in Ferguson during the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting.  They provided tips about recovering form being tear gassed or how to deal with wounds from rubber bullets.  At the beginning of this year, so just a few weeks ago, a delegation of young leaders from the United States—individuals I would say are the on the forefront of new burgeoning anti-racist organizations in the Untied States such as the Black Youth Project, DreamDefenders, etc.—traveled to Palestine and publicly drew connections between these struggles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ve seen this connection move to Hong Kong—where before the Ferguson protests began, state forces cracked down on protestors asking for a fairer electoral process.  Hong Kong and China’s relationship, in many ways defined by colonial legacies and by ethnic divisions, was also steeped in marginalized communities feeling unheard, unrecognized, and systematically silenced by the state.  In Ferguson, one of the first efforts that took place in response to Michael Brown was registering residents to vote in the next election—elect a new mayor, police chief, etc.  Anti-racist work around the world seems to involve the full emancipation of populations and involve seeing situations like Ferguson as not flashpoints, but indicators—symbolic and representative of the variety of ways oppression and white supremacy takes place around the world. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 These connections have been recognized and articulated in a variety of other places—this image in Syria came out days after the Eric Garner chokehold case in NYC. Nicole and I reflected on how meaningful this is coming from a place where a human rights crisis has largely been ignored.  Northern Ireland is another locale of interconnection.  This mural, which is a well-documented space of resistance, is indicative of a larger story of what liberation means and what liberation for all could looks like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These connections in many ways make sense.  When we consider what anti-racist work looks like around the world—it involves the political, economic, social and cultural.  It involves looking around the world at people who are poor, who are disenfranchised, who are killed and/or terrorized by the state, who are refused their human rights, etc.  It involves finding the ways that our increasingly globalized world has global implications for resistance movements.  It involves organizing as the grassroots and as a dear friend of mine termed it the “grasstops.”  Nicole is now going to discuss that very idea: interrogating what it means for individuals who are parts of institutions, organizations, and spaces—such as academia—which are often far from the grassroots organizing taking place.

NICOLE:

We thought it would be great to bridge the ideas and issues which Josh has just spoken about with regard to internationalizing the Black Lives Matter movement—to the role of the "grasstops" and to think specifically about academic institutions-- students, academics, and knowledge production, within the “academy” writ large in activism and resistance “struggles.” That is very expansive conversation and so our goal here is to flag a few things, mostly questions, that have run through our minds over the last few months and to provide some food for thought and discussion. A caveat, much of what will be shared is very U.S. centered and we’d love in the discussion for others to bring in thoughts from other academic settings and resistance movements.

So, I guess I want to start a bit more personally or closer to home if I may.

I’ll admit candidly the strangeness of speaking in this space where we gather as researchers to share our work and knowledge to present today about not something I read about or researched or studied, but rather something which I did with my body on the streets of central Oxford last November as a grad student, as a woman of color, as an American as someone who grew up in Staten Island, New York--the same hometown as Eric Garner-- and as someone who has made anti-racism work a big part of my personal commitments. I’d like us to keep this in mind, this idea of embodiment and positionality as we think about what can often seem like two things in a kinds of dialectical tension, the academic, on one hand and  the activist, on the other. We often speak of activism and the academy as two distinct and distant fields—the academy as the place of the mind, a place outside and separate from the ‘real’ world as it were and imagined as untouched and therefore able to think objectively, produce knowledge and make meaning from a place removed.  Activism, on the other hand, is thought of as embodied in very specific ways and connected to the “street,” the “square”, the "struggle" and the "grassroots".

When planning the solidarity march in November, there were a couple of significant things that Josh and I spoke about. One, was our desire to have something that would not be confined to a classroom discussion, but be something that was “out there” on the “streets” so to speak. And I think that alone is very interesting site to think through why we wanted to show our solidarity in that way, or our perception that the space of the classroom was limited and different somehow from the “street. And, of course, that street was in reality Cornmarket and that “out there” was actually the town of Oxford of which the University is an inextricable part.

The university is built for the work of the mind. There is something about academic study no matter what you’re studying that has an element of distance and even within disciplines that have rejected and deconstructed “objectivity” till they’ve turned blue, striving for that is still a rather central tenant of academic rigor and research. Oxford, in particular, is built in almost every way to cloister and shelter you from the “out there” so you may fully engage in the work of the mind, to have the privilege to consume and produce knowledge about the world in a way that allows you to be disembodied and out of the “world.” And you can definitely poke holes through this imagery I’m conjuring up here, and I am purposely developing these as polarities so we can consider the differences and most importantly reimagine and reconnect them. Even in planning the logistics of the march, Josh and I realized there was really no space in this town where a mass could congregate publicly, any large squares or outdoor spaces are safely kept behind college gates and those spaces of course are not meant to be touched and trampled. In this context, marching and chanting “Black Lives Matter” or “There’s A Black Rights Movement in This Town” as we did during the march rang through the dreaming spires in quite a peculiar way.

 The second thing which Josh and I discussed that I  think is really important to bring into our discussion today is that we were struggling with what it meant for us to be students of color at an institution of higher learning, and Oxford no less when our communities in Missouri and New York were taking to the streets. We had friends and family involved in mobilizing what felt like the biggest social movement in our communities in our lifetimes. Even as far back as August, it may seem rather extreme, but we both had (however fleeting) moments of asking ourselves:  Is going to Oxford something I should be doing now, at this particular moment in time when there was a call to action being sounded and we were coming to bury our heads in books and dutifully pursue our education and go about business as usual? How do you do business as usual when the streets are burning with anger and pain, and cries for justice?

And those were questions, interestingly enough that many black graduate students were asking themselves back in the United States. This article “After Ferguson, Some Black Academics Wonder: Does Pursuing a PhD Matter” published in an online magazine discusses some of the ambivalence that graduate students were facing in universities across the U.S. in the wake of the police shootings and protests.  It states,

“Broader questions intrude, too. Does students’ doctoral work matter? Does teaching matter? What about having a PhD? Should they continue to channel their passion and intellectual pursuits into higher learning or should they redirect that energy toward activism? For graduate students working on issues of race, the racially- charged killings of Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Ezell Ford, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Victor White have called those students out of their theoretical silos and into a space of activism, both in terms of getting physically involved and shifting how distant their work may be from the assault on black bodies in the every day.” [1]

This quote very much expresses this separation, this choice that has to be made between intellectual pursuits and activism as if the two were mutually exclusive.

Students and academics have played a big role in resistance movements of the last century. And because I’m a mere social scientist in a room where I am outnumbered by proper historians, I’m not going to embarrass myself by saying much more than that. Yet, one particular group of students does come to mind, and that is SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee active during the Civil Rights Movements in the United States. Many of those students ended up leaving school indefinitely to dedicate themselves full time to the movement. The 60s were actually an incredibly significant time for student movements across the United States on a variety of issues that included civil rights and the Vietnam War. In other parts of the world like Tlatelolco, Mexico  City the 1968 massacre of students peacefully protesting by police and military or the academics in Nigeria who sparked revolution serve as just a couple of examples. It is with a particular naïve nostalgia that the 60s are often evoked by millennials, and yet similar battles are being fought all these decades later. How have students changed, how has the academy changed?

Universities and colleges across the United States, and particularly Historically Black Colleges have played a very big role in organizing around the Black Lives Matter Movement. That activism has included protests, marches, dead-ins, sit-ins, and even teach-ins where professors and students make time to share knowledge about the criminal justice system, history of police violence, history of racialized violence against people of color, and to tackle issues of racial justice on their own campuses.  The photo on the left is of Harvard Medical students staging a die in remembrance of the four hours Michael Brown’s body lay in the street, they wore their lab coats and occupied a central lobby on their campus. On the right is a photo of Howard University students that went viral, with their hands up in what has now become an iconic gesture of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Wile, these are examples of students and professors organizing in universities, what role if any does “resistance” have in our knowledge production? Cultural critic Stuart Hall wrote, “We must mobilize everything we can find in terms of intellectual resources in order to understand what keeps making the lives we live, and the societies we live in, profoundly and deeply anti-humane.” [2]

For him this was a particular goal of cultural studies and Hall was working and writing during some very formative times here in the UK and globally. But can this be a wider call, a rethinking of the uses of our intellectual resources, particularly in our ever turbulent world and where resistance from “below” has reemerged on the public scene with marked fervor across the globe in the last decade alone? What optic do our intellectual resources grant us to take on Angela Davis’ definition of radical as “grabbing something by the root” and connect that to Hall’s idea of identifying and understanding that which keeps makings our world anti-humane? Is it a useful optic? Is it an optic that can allow us to make visible the thread between Ferguson, and Ayotzinapa, and Palestine, and Hong Kong, and Northern Ireland, and Syria—how can our intellectual resources help us understand the shared and distinct human struggles  unfolding all along that thread and more?

In recent years, the more radical anti-racist movement in the United States have started to stand by the idea that the “revolution will not be cited, it will not have a bibliography or a title page.” (In a similar vein, writer and activist Arundhati Roy asserts “it’s vital to de-professionalize the public debate on matters that vitally affect the lives of ordinary people. It’s time to snatch our futures back from the ‘experts.’ Time to ask, in ordinary language, the public question and to demand, in ordinary language, the public answer.” In my current course in Migration Studies we often discuss who our scholarship is for—is it for the policy makers and driven by them? We, producers of knowledge, what is that knowledge for? It seems a very scary kind of existential question, and by no means a new one. But perhaps, it is a valuable one that demands continual revisiting in our ever-changing world.                                                

There is something rather critical about Roy’s call for “ordinary language” in addressing very “public” and “human” questions especially when intellectuals and academics have been accused of coopting movements.  Angela Davis and bell hooks have spoken specifically about academics using “knowledge” produced from the “grassroots” and exploiting it, or simply consuming it and deconstructing it until it has lost its meaning, its salience, its usefulness on the ground. Josh’s example of the concept of intersectionality fits that tendency. So too, has the academy in the United States been linked to coopting the resistance movements of the feminists, the queer community, communities of color, working class movements and subsumed them in the 80s and 90s into what has been dubbed the “multicultural or the diversity industrial complex” and reduced the knowledge, as knowledge is indeed produced by resistance movements, to discrete boxes, departments, and monolithic identity politics and ultimately, as a means of managing dissent.

Now I offer that take which again is a more left of left view, not to dismiss the incredibly significant contributions that cultural, ethnic, women’s and area studies have provided to a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, but to highlight the porousness between the grasstops and the grassroots and to consider that the academy is very much of this world, and that knowledge consumption and production is not a wholly innocent or objective thing.

In closing up, we thought this excerpt from a letter by the Kenyon College President in Ohio to the student body after the killing of twelve years old Tamir Rice was particularly salient in thinking about our own fields and the role of the “academy”. It states,

“Our work is not complete until we push ourselves to apply the experiences of the classroom to meaningful examination of the events of our time

Courses in political philosophy help us reflect on the nature of justice, individual rights and protection of the state. The study of history illuminates the narrative of how race, gender, class and systems of power shape communities such as those in Cleveland and Ferguson. Studies in psychology and sociology help us dissect the systems behind individual and collective action that create barriers for all of us to better understand the nature of difference. And the study of literature and art conveys the power of human tragedy and our struggles to understand it. 

We cannot and should not end with mere examination of outside events. Our work is not complete until we can use the lessons of distant events to examine and understand the dynamics, tensions and issues in our own communities.” [3]  

[1] https://chroniclevitae.com/news/703-after-ferguson-some-black-academics-wonder-does-pursuing-a-ph-d-matter

[2] Hall, Stuart (1996) ‘Race, Culture, and Communications: Looking Backward and Forward at Cultural Studies’, in John Storey (ed.) What is Cultural Studies? A Reader. London: Arnold.

[3] http://www.kenyon.edu/middle-path/story/the-search-for-lessons-in-cleveland-ferguson-and-new-york/

You can read about the Oxford - Ferguson solidarity protest that Josh and Nicole organized here

Voices Across Borders is always looking for new Race and Resistance Research network members to contribute to this blog. If you would like to write a piece, or if you have a response to a blog entry you have read here, please e-mail the Voices Across Borders editor, Tessa Roynon: tessa.roynon@ell.ox.ac.uk .

The viewpoints expressed in Voices Across Borders are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Oxford.

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