Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the day that enslaved Blacks learned of the Civil War’s end and that the Emancipation Proclamation released them, is a good opportunity to evaluate the state of racial justice movement. This day, which celebrates the promise of Black freedom here in the U.S.A, inspires me to answer the question Detroit activists James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs used to ask: “What time is it on the clock of the world?”
On this Juneteenth, it seems that we are living in a period of “in between” — in between the promise of liberation offered by the 2020 uprisings and the reactionary assault against antiracism, LGBTQ rights and reproductive autonomy.
Right-wing politicians and activists have waged campaigns against antiracism in education, and against “Woke Capital”(The businesses or corporations that show solidarity with social justice causes).
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden and Democrats, including congresspeople and mayors of big cities like Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot and New York City’s Eric Adams, have also attacked demands to “defund the police,” instead advocating for more tough-on-crime policies.
I was shocked to see these attacks by Democrats culminating with the recall of progressive San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin. Boudin’s recall might signal that some Americans might not have the stomach to take on police power at the ballot box out of growing fears of property crimes. While it is true that leftist district attorneys and prosecutors cannot transform the criminal legal system, Boudin’s recall might point to a closing opportunity for progressive reformers.
This moment is also filled with dread as supporters of abortion rights prepare for the Supreme Court’s likely overturn of protections codified in Roe v. Wade. If the Supreme Court follows through, its ruling would not only take away people’s reproductive rights but also legally pave the way for the further criminalization of abortion services.
Police continue to murder Americans, especially Black and Indigenous Americans. According to Mapping Police ViolenceIn 2022, law enforcement officers killed 243 Americans. Police have killed 62 of these victims this year, proving that black people are still disproportionately represented in this number. April 4, Grand Rapids Police officer Christopher Schurr shot and killed 26-year-old Congolese refugee Patrick LyoyaAfter a struggle, in the back of your head. Lyoya’s death generated much protest in that Michigan city. Although Schurr has been charged with murder, national corporate media have failed to cover Lyoya’s killing and the protests it provoked as they did in 2020, or even in 2014, after Michael Brown’s death.
In addition to the police killings, the racist massacre of Black grocery shoppers in Buffalo raised the specter of more attacks explicitly inspired by the white supremacist and white nationalist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that circulates among many on the far right, including those on Fox News.
Vigils and protests, such as the large March for Our Lives demonstrationsOn June 11, the violence continued during this period of reactionary violence.
Looking to the “In-Between” of the Civil War and Jim Crow for a Way Out
To make sense of the political complexity of the current moment, perhaps it would be helpful to look back at Reconstruction — another historical moment when Black people found themselves occupying the space between liberation and reactionary backlash, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.
W.E.B. Du Bois, Reconstruction (1865-1877) was marked by the quest to build a new society in the U.S. organized around the principles of “abolition-democracy.” As Du Bois theorized it in his book, Reconstruction in America for Black PeopleAbolition-democracy required a comprehensive vision to overturn all vestiges of racialized slavery, challenge oppressive private property regimes and develop Black political and economic power. It also required organizing an economy that is based on power for all workers. Robin D.G. Kelley reminds us that T. Thomas Fortune, a black journalist, was once a historian Robin D.G. advocated for the redirection of resources away from incarceration toward public investments in education and “’equity.’”
However, as we observe Juneteenth 2022 — this year’s annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States — looking back at Reconstruction is also instructive for another reason: it reminds us that we live in a country where reactionary forces are also constantly working to reverse the gains and possibilities of liberation movements.
After the Civil War defeat, the Confederacy was defeated. The white southerners used a variety tactics to stop Black economic and political power development and Black life in general. These tactics included the creation of paramilitary groups like the White Leagueand the Ku Klux Klan. Lynching and, eventually, a constellation laws disfranchising Blacks.
While the foundations for racialized violence were laid by white southerners, the federal government and white capitalists in the northern part of the country joined forces to consolidate capitalism. Capitalists wanted to enlist all workers in a labor system that relied on wage labor. The federal government supported economic expansion on the continent and territorial consolidation by continuing to wage war against Indigenous peoples. Paul Ortiz, a historian, documents that this was not the case. Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden Story of Black Organizing in Florida and White Violence in Florida, from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 2022The newly liberated Black people sought out ways to be free, including by creating mutual aid organizations, community organizing, and relying on armed defense to support their efforts.
On this Juneteenth, two-years after the largest uprisings in U.S. history for racial injustice, it is important that we remember that there is no better moment to join with organizers doing justice work. Even though it is tough to stay enthusiastically committed when much of the attention seems to be on conservative activists attacking critical race theory, abortion rights, and anti-racism, generally, or on progressive losses such as Boudin’s recall, it is important to remember that much of the most vital organizing work is done in between the protests, uprisings, and rebellions.
The “slow and respectful” work of organizingCharles Payne, sociologus, says that sociology is what builds people power, and prepares everyone for the kinds of political leaps we all witnessed this summer in 2020. Now is the right time to keep fighting for what abolitionists want. Ruth Wilson Gilmore Mariame Kaba refer to as “non-reformist reforms” (an idea adopted from philosopher and labor intellectual André Gorz) — short- and medium-term changes in how we enact public safety and justice in a way the undermines police and carceral power.
We can follow in the footsteps of Black communities that formed mutual aid societies and engaged in the struggle for liberation despite the existence of Jim Crow. There are opportunities to build alliances and participate in connected struggles that will help us reach the goal of an abolition democracy, even though we are still far from it.
Amazon workers and Starbucks workers are leading labor struggles in a time of greater support for unions. Black queer people are leading rallies and organizing reproductive justice. southern cities like Birmingham. In addition to the work of the police abolitionists, there is also work that takes place outside of prison walls. Black Visions in MinneapolisWe cannot forget about the growing network of incarcerated organizers and comrades as well as groups such a Study and Strugglewho are engaged in the important work that is political education for those within.
Juneteenth is a reminder of the long journey towards transformation. Our struggle requires that we not only defend and protect Black communities but also protect all people who are marginalized, vulnerable to violence from the state, white supremacist violence, as well as economic and political violence. The 2020 protests after George Floyd’s death in the early stages coronavirus pandemic stage were clearly a rupture within our daily lives. The protests put an end to reactionary forces and allowed racial activists to push for racial justice and question the legitimacy of law enforcement. We must continue this work between rebellion and reactionary backlash. We must prepare everyone to fight against the ravages racial capitalism for economic and racial environmental, gender and reparative justice.