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Lessons Never Learned: Nonprofits and the State, Redux
We were not surprised to hear of a recent meeting between the Oakland state apparatus (Mayor Ron Dellums and the Oakland Police Department) and representatives of the local nonprofit industrial complex. Nor were we surprised when the nonprofits emerged from that meeting with directives from the Mayor and the Police on how best to prevent and preemptively condemn civil rebellion in the case of the acquittal of Johannes Mehserle for the murder of Oscar Grant, or Mehserle’s conviction on a lesser charge. Why were we not surprised? Quite simply because what we are witnessing is a virtual repeat of last year’s controversy surrounding the short-lived Coalition Against Police Executions (CAPE), one which shows that the lessons of 2009 have fallen upon deaf ears.
On January 23, 2010 Nicole Lee of the Urban Peace Movement distributed an email, which astonishingly focused more on preventing rebellion than on ensuring that justice be served. The Urban Peace Movement is funded by the Movement Strategy Center, an umbrella organization representing a broad swath of the Bay Area nonprofit scene: from the Ella Baker Center to Just Cause and the School of Unity and Liberation (that is, many of the nonprofits rooted in the now-defunct STORM), and with connections to the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers’ Foundation, among others. UPM also currently advertises its participation in a Pepsi-sponsored fundraising scheme. In other words, UPM is deeply embedded within the nonprofit-industrial complex, and doesn’t try to hide it.
Now, to Lee’s email—entitled “Bracing for Mehserle Verdict: Community Engagement Plan”—and whose primary aim is not demanding justice, but rather preventing any militant popular response to an unjust verdict. She urges nonprofits and progressives to band together with their “partners and allies” in an effort to create a plan to prevent an explosion after the verdict, and these “partners and allies” include not only nonprofits (i.e. The Ella Baker Center, Oakland Rising, BWOPA) but also “the Mayor’s Office and the City of Oakland.”
In Lee’s email, it soon becomes apparent that “engaging” the community is clearly code for manipulating and co-opting the popular anger that will rightly greet anything less than a murder conviction. She urges groups to “create organized events or avenues for young people and community members to express their frustrations with the system in constructive and peaceful ways,” with the implication being that constructive=peaceful (more on this below). More surprisingly, she argues that “We need to begin 'innoculating' our bases and the community at-large so that when the verdict comes down, people are prepared for it, and so that the ‘outside agitators’ who were active during the initial Oscar Grant protests are not able to incite the crowd so easily.”
These claims are then followed by two sets of talking points, one dumbed-down and spiced up for a “youth audience.” The latter are replete with references to the “constructive” work of Martin and Malcolm, and end with the call: “Instead, let’s hold our heads high and throw up our fists in solidarity like Huey did!!”
Lee’s open collaboration with the state becomes shockingly clear once we visit the website of the City of Oakland, where we find a near-replica of Lee’s email coming out of the virtual mouth of the city administration itself, and crediting UPM for its contribution. And as we write this, the financial impetus for this unlikely partnership is becoming clear: there is word on the street that these same nonprofits are participating in a city-sponsored “speak-out” for which the city is paying bribes of $40 to participants and $100 to nonprofit organizers who turn people out to the event.
Several days later, a clever hoax email under the title “Keep it Cool After the Verdict” emerged which was spoofed to appear as though it had come from Lee herself. While Lee responded with indignant pleas for solidarity at an alleged identity theft, she did not address the fundamental reason that many had initially believed the email was the real thing: the fundamental points were the same. The hoax email was merely a slightly exaggerated version of Lee’s own open condescension toward the youth and willingness to collaborate with the state.
As participants in the rebellions of January 2009, most of us residents of the City of Oakland, we must respond to this condescending whitewashing of our history with five points:
1.) The “Outside Agitator” Soundbyte
We had hoped that this one was dead for good, as many participants had clearly debunked it, but Lee shows that, despite all evidence to the contrary, some people will insist on repeating discredited and condescending arguments despite how totally implausible they may be.
In the immediate aftermath of the first Oscar Grant rebellion on January 7th of 2009, OPD took their message to the press: this was all the fault of “outside agitators.” Echoing Bull Connor’s attack on those who went to Selma, Alabama to fight for civil rights, the police sought to discredit the rebellion while sowing division among those struggling for justice.
To some degree, they were successful. Despite not being present themselves for the rebellion, nonprofit leaders working under the banner of the Coalition Against Police Executions (CAPE), immediately began to parrot the police line, attacking “outside agitators” for leading the Black youth of Oakland astray, and tacitly (if not explicitly) suggesting that those who tore up the streets were white anarchists from the suburbs.
As participants in those rebellions, we saw something very different: a multiracial crowd of primarily Black and Brown youth expressing righteous anger at the state’s refusal to indict one of their own (we encourage readers to consult the various images from the rebellions to get a feel for their makeup). The “outside agitator” soundbyte was also thoroughly discredited in street-level reports by JR Valrey of the SF Bayview, George Ciccariello-Maher of Counterpunch, and Minster Keith Muhammad, among others.
But some soundbytes die hard, especially when these are so useful to governing elites seeking to divide our movements. Thus when a large and multiracial group protesting cuts to and privatization of public education took over and blocked the 980 in Downtown Oakland, we found it necessary to yet again combat attempts to trot out the “outside agitator” story in an effort to erase the many people of color who took to the highway.
2.) Nonprofits and the State
Eventually, many in CAPE backtracked, but not without attempting to defend the state by becoming movement police and kicking those same youth they claimed to represent off the street on January 14th. CAPE’s obvious efforts to stabilize the state and prevent rebellion (while offering no real strategy for achieving justice) brought about harsh critiques from Advance the Struggle and the Oakland chapter of Bring the Ruckus. As our Advance the Struggle comrades put it:
Through their “buffer” tactics and diversions from confrontational struggle, Bay Area nonprofits effectively acted as an extension of the state. Nonprofit funding from foundations suffocates the development of a real revolutionary formation, keeping the politics of the nonprofit organization safely within the bounds of the rules of the system…. Despite frequent references to the radical legacy of Oakland, CAPE behaved as an extension of the state, “organizing” people to be peaceful, go home and not take militant action in the streets.
CAPE eventually splintered over these same questions, with a handful of coalition members rightfully recognizing the critiques before them. To their credit, many from CAPE learned an important lesson and we applaud that. Some in the nonprofit community clearly have not, as Lee’s email makes more than obvious.
3.) Condescending to the “Youth Audience”
One of the most galling parts of Lee’s email—and the nonprofit approach to their “community” more generally, is the sheer condescension it displays toward the members of that community, especially the youth. This appears in two ways in Lee’s email.
Firstly, the claim about “outside agitators” itself implies that Black and Brown youth are incapable of making good decisions or analyzing their situation, and are easily swept up into following “outside agitators” (again, read: “white anarchists”), who lead them, like a black-clad Pied Piper, down the path of destruction. As we will see below, this claim is the only way the nonprofits have to divert attention from their lack of a strategy for social change.
Secondly, we see this same condescending and patronizing attitude in Lee’s email itself, with its two lists of talking points, one for adults and one for a “youth audience.” This is an openly manipulative ploy which implies, again, that young community members cannot possibly understand the proper path to social change if it isn’t dumbed-down for them.
If not to manipulate the youth, then why are talking points necessary in the first place? If not to manipulate the youth, then why the dumbed-down version for a “youth audience”? And if not to manipulate the youth, then why the opportunistic references to Martin, Malcolm, and Huey, references which, as we will see below, do not accurately reflect history?
Clearly, what Lee and others fear from so-called non-existent or imagined “outside agitators” is not the manipulation they claim to oppose, but a viewpoint that differs from their own.
4.) The Uses and Abuses of the Panthers
The most infuriating part of Lee’s email by far is her references to Martin, Malcolm, and especially to Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party. To put it bluntly: what the hell does she think Huey was doing, or Martin and Malcolm for that matter? What does she think the Panthers stood for?
Let’s start with what they didn’t stand for: collaboration with the state and ruling elites. And the Panthers had a phrase, adapted from Mao Tse-Tung, to express this position: “Contradictions among the people are reconcilable, but contradictions between the people and the state are irreconcilable.” What is it about “irreconcilable” that Lee and the nonprofiteers don’t understand? The Panthers were not all free breakfast programs: they were also about organizing the youth in a non-condescending way to fight the very same state that Lee would see as an “ally and partner.”
But in reality, this isn’t about what the Panthers did or didn’t say. It’s about a strategic attempt by the nonprofits to perform their function of protecting the state, something which they do all the more effectively the more radical their rhetoric. By saying radical-sounding things, they are able to present themselves as the voice of the people, which makes them all the more powerful when they decide to sell us up the river.
5.) The Master’s Tools?
We can’t end without responding to the underlying premise of Lee’s email, and indeed of the entire state-entangled nonprofit “strategy,” one which evidently attempts—in the words of Audre Lorde—to use only the “master’s tools” to build the new world (and indeed to even recruit the master himself into this process).
Nonprofit efforts to harness and channel popular anger down “constructive” pathways and Lee’s insistence that Martin and Malcolm were examples of “constructive” approaches to change are deceptively deployed to prop up the idea that working with the state is the only truly “constructive” way of approaching social change. This is the lure of the nonprofit: they promise access to the levers of power if we behave correctly, and it is only by convincing us to behave that they prove to the state and their corporate masters that they can be trusted with that power.
But now as before, we must return to the single fundamental truth of the Oakland rebellions: nothing has been more “constructive” than the popular fury unleashed in January. Without these intermittent explosions, Mehserle would never have been arrested, would never have been indicted, and most certainly wouldn’t be facing a murder charge. Our power lies not in opportunistic deal-making with Dellums behind closed doors: it lies in the streets and it is homegrown, while the “outside agitators” line is an ideological construct meant to stifle rebellion.
Before and during the rebellions, the nonprofits were telling us that taking to the streets wouldn’t be “constructive,” but they were wrong then and they’re wrong now. The young people of color who took to the streets, the “youth audience” for which the nonprofits emit mindless “talking points,” they knew what was “constructive” all along and they’ve recognized the fruits of their efforts in the current trial of Johannes Mehserle.
It is this sort of constructiveness that will build the new world!
For more analysis from the Raider Nation Collective, see our recently-released pamphlet, “Raider Nation Vol. I: From the January Rebellions to Lovelle Mixon and Beyond,” available now from AK Press or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.