I had heard about the Highlander Center, but I never knew just how integral it has been to the liberation movement. It is a place that energetically grounds itself in personal transformation as well as the transformation of our society as a whole. Leaning on history we see the sister I’d call the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, Septima Clarke, and how she used the highlander space to teach former slaves how to pass literacy test so that they could vote under Jim Crow. Organizing Black folks who could pass the literacy test had transformational effects on our society including the creation of the CIO, the first inclusive union, which was facilitated at the Highlander Center. The highlander is where people who are concerned with our condition in this country go to transform their lives, their values, their circumstances, their communities; it’s a place that transforms the overall human experience in Amerikkka. Since its creation people have gone there to plot the revolution and dismantle the dominant white narrative.
I recently had the opportunity to represent the Dream Defenders at the Highlander Center for the Combahee River Alliance Direct Action Practitioners training. The training itself was facilitated by members of the BlackOUT collective and IP3 (Indigenous Peoples Power Project- they are seriously dope. Check them out here and here.). The intention of the gathering was to bring Black folks and other POC from all over the country together to prepare them with the tools for the movement and to bring effective direct action strategies, skills, healing,and affirmations back to their communities.
We spent 5 days in holding space together to not only learn to channel our Black rage toward our oppressors, but also to struggle together through our own internalized white supremacy, heal our trauma, and also vision what our future can look like when Black liberation is won. Each day was spent on a different subject; rapid response, campaign strategy, and finally the abolitionist framework. Organizers from all over the country shared their experiences with each of these types of direct actions. Some used the rapid response model to respond to the internal violence in the southside of chicago by bringing elders to occupy the site of the violence and holding space. Some are in the process of using long term campaign strategies to get their cities to partially divest from the police budget and invest in the community, but there was one type of action in particular that resonated with me. The Abolitionist Framework.
The first time I heard this term it was from Angela Davis. She spoke of prison abolition and applying the abolitionist framework to our mass incarceration work. Immediately I was like damn, she talking about breaking folks out of prisons. It wasn’t until highlander that I got a real understanding of what it meant to work within this frame. Direct action through Abolitionist framework is a place for Dreamers. Simply defined, it seeks to prove 1) that we as a people are ungovernable (we don’t need your systems that seek to extinguish us) and 2) that we are capable of governing ourselves. The Abolitionist framework creates a space where transformation, power, and creativity meet; that third space of rebellion. And when centered in Black liberation it exemplifies our resilience as a people. In fact, it is resilience based meaning that we, as oppressed and marginalized people, have always acted in this framework for our very survival.
Previously in the movement this strategy was deployed by way of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and the Black Panthers self- defense mechanism. More recently the uprising in Ferguson and then Baltimore, the BART action in Oakland, the infiltration of immigration detention centers. All of these actions showed that Black people, Latinx people, Indigenous people, oppressed people, are ungovernable, and the we are both capable of a) shutting down oppressive systems, and also b) able to imagine/act out (see: prefiguration) what life would be if those systems were dismantled. The Ferguson Uprising in particular was our most recent large scale exercise in abolition. I remember the stages of grief following the uprising feeling completely powerless and then watching the narrative change from victim to rebellion. Hearing the stories from people on the front lines of widespread militarization and the rise of the gestapo-esque police state in response to this organic cathartic moment. That fall the world saw an entire city of young people demonstrating that their rage for the police terror could not be washed away in a couple news cycles or pacified by the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of the world, but that they were capable of directly (not just symbolically) fighting back. The uprising also showed how an organized community could provide the support systems our people needed to take care of each other. Not only did these brothers and sisters burn the city down but they also built food programs, education programs, and self policing systems among other alternative institutions.
Learning about the Abolition framework made me think about actions that have happened in my lifetime. One of the first instances that came to mind was the border crossing. Chicanos and other Latinx people have been running the longest sustained direct action within the abolitionist frame, i.e. crossing the border. Instead of asking for the right to exist on north american soil, and in some cases, their own stolen land, they just move. They typify the fact that as human beings they have the right to move, earn a living, and change their positions in life and they use their bodies to prove it.
How can we as marginalized and oppressed folks lean on this history and use this framework to dismantle the systems that keep us down? For me it's clear! If can enumerate the problem you can enumerate the solution. If your governor sucks can you organize a base of people to symbolically or directly shut them down and show your alternative. If your community is a food desert and riddled with Bodegas with no fresh food and liquor stores what creative tactic can you use to call them out while leaving enough room to educate our folks and provide an alternative solution. Acting within in the abolitionist framework gives us the opportunity to confront our oppressors, face our trauma, channel our rage in a much deserved direction and act out our dreams of a new reality for our people.
Our new project squadd2016 was rooted in my experience at the Highlander and grounded in the abolitionist framework. Our current selection of presidential candidates primarily represent the interest of white america and erase the experiences, interest and needs of disenfranchised folks. We sought to show how we, as Dream Defenders, would change the way that the this empire operates to meet the needs of the most marginalized.
My experience at the Highlander taught me a lot about using direct action outside of the ways we’ve seen it manifest in our current movement for Black lives ( die- ins, protest, marches). Even within our movement we perpetuate norms, direct action norms , in this case. It was a transformative experience that gave me new eyes for the work. It taught me that while reform is necessary, if we want to move toward true Black Liberation, it cannot be our end game. We must be working on getting our people what we need all the while envisioning and enacting the future that we want.