Monday, November 29, 2021

Armed Black Radicals Epically Failed Because They Targetted Tools Rather Than Sources Of Oppression

plough |  This article is part of “The Beginning of Understanding,” a symposium in response to Ashley Lucas’s report “The End of Rage” in Plough’s Autumn 2021 issue.

In one sense, it was just refreshing to encounter a careful, detailed recounting of a chapter in the Black liberation struggle that is typically redacted from the official civil rights chronology. The stories of the Black radicals who were willing to kill for the cause are indeed full of shady detours and dark dirt roads that many of us would rather avoid. Yet they are part of the legacy and have earned their place in the annals. In “The End of Rage” Lucas gives Shoatz’s story its due. In a world of hot takes and swift rebukes on social media, she tells an unflinching, often unflattering tale of a man whose commitment to liberation conjured the full force of the American justice system. Even more, she brings coherence and clarity to a life that, at a distance and absent context, appears to have been ruled by chaos and compulsion.

While most of us moved on (and up!) from the movement, some of those who put themselves at greatest risk are still wading through the debris.

But after a second read, I also can’t ignore the perception that Lucas’s utmost objective is to tender a requiem – and referendum – for a failed revolutionary whose violent, rage-filled choices shattered dozens of lives, most notably his own. In a piece otherwise beautifully crafted to inspire empathy, Lucas’s tone is strikingly intolerant whenever the matter of armed struggle surfaces.

On the police killings that led to Shoatz’s conviction, she chides: “Apparently, the ethos of this war did not lead this combatant to distinguish between individual officers or take into account the context that one of the victims had been simply sitting at his desk and the other had been helpfully offering directions.”

On the ultimate effect of his tactics, she chafes: “Whatever he believed then or now, Russell’s revolutionary actions as a member of the BLA did not free his people or prevent future harm. Instead, they called forth further violence from state institutions in ways that would brutalize the Shoatz family for decades to come.”

These are the two most glaring examples of Lucas’s contempt for political violence but elsewhere subtle jabs pierce her narrative.

Lucas is within her rights to question whether being a militant revolutionary was worth all it cost Shoatz, his family and the families of those whom he harmed. But to suggest that his choices yielded only suffering, as she does throughout the piece, misses a different role that armed resistance plays in an oppressed minority’s struggle for freedom against an oppressive majority that uses state violence to maintain its grip. In 1965, Malcolm X, who Lucas tells us inspired Shoatz to become an activist, framed the utility of political violence for an audience of militant young activists in Selma. “If the White people realize what the alternative is,” he counseled, “perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”

My question for Lucas is this: Is it possible that the revolutionary worldview and radical actions of the BLA made space for more moderate views and appeals? And if that’s true, does that not count as an important, albeit costly, contribution to the freedom cause? Is this not at least part of the reason that Assata Shakur remains a beloved freedom symbol and potent terrorist threat four decades after her escape to Cuba?



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