WHAT REVOLUTION LOOKS LIKE IN THE USA
A Response from Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal (EMAJ) to the Riverside Church Dialogue between Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party-USA and Professor Cornel West of Union Theological Seminary, NYC.
On November 15, 2014, at the Riverside Church, the White left Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, Bob Avakian, entered into dialogue with Black public left, intellectual, professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary, Cornel West. The theme was: “Revolution and Religion: The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion.”
This statement is a critique of the event’s singular focus on one predominating voice, of its disrespect for black radical leadership and all leaders of color, and of its failure to uphold the radical democratic values needed in revolutionary movements.
EMAJ supported the event beforehand, and celebrates the fact that the dialogue took place. In fact one of its coordinators served on its Host Committee and brought the program’s opening greetings to an overflow audience, upwards of 1900 who came to hear both Avakian and West. Both of the EMAJ Coordinators were in attendance. We were impressed with Avakian’s organic approach to the presentation of socialist arguments and use of vivid examples to paint a picture of what’s politically possible. He was well received by the audience, often deservedly applauded. We stress this positive affirmation, in spite of the more critical point we feel compelled to make with this statement.
The EMAJ Coordinators, along with many of its members, share a commitment to a revolutionary socialist future, as embodied in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s and Angela Y. Davis’s recent co-writing on “Alternatives to Capitalist Injustice.” They presented their view of a socialist future with the idea of “abolition democracy,” a concept used by W. E. B. Du Bois in his Black Reconstruction. Davis and Abu-Jamal define it as,
“. . . the abolition of institutions that advance the dominance of any one group over any other. It is the democracy that is possible if we continue the legacy of the great abolition movements in American history, those that opposed slavery, lynching, and segregation.”
Abolitionist democracy demands a comprehensive refusal of domination by any group, especially when facing the imperial and class wars of today, white racism against any of the nonwhite communities, police violence, and gender and sexual domination of anyone.
Abolition democracy’s comprehensive refusal of domination also requires a revolutionary way of deliberating and strategizing on the ground in our emerging movements. As Abu-Jamal and Davis stress, “what we decide to do will be open to the decisions of popular, democratic groupings in the future to seek greater humanistic and socialistic expressions.” Abu-Jamal and Davis modeled this future not only by writing as co-authors, but also by drawing from Black, indigenous and other traditions.
From this perspective, we are compelled to say that the best of revolutionary socialist futures was not on display at the Riverside dialogue. We place primary responsibility for this not on Professor West but on Chairman Avakian and program planners.
The fact that Avakian spoke for upwards of 2 hours and 10 minutes made his speech didactic in the end. Above all, his utter usurpation of the time allotted for the presentations was disrespectful of Dr. West and his views. It also meant that neither real debate nor illuminating dialogue were finally possible. The absence of a democratic culture and conscientious ethic on that stage is a deal breaker for us –their absence will destroy our movements for a socialist future. Their absence also speaks of the sense of entitlement and lack of critical self-awareness of the American Left.
We also sensed an opportunism in the meeting’s proceedings during which an audience that was anxious to listen to Dr. West, one of the most important black public figures on the left, was held hostage to Mr. Avakian’s interminable speech. In their totality, these actions speak to an implicit racism and disrespect for an important Christian revolutionary, and by extension of everyone in the audience. The manner in which the voice of a stalwart fighter for black folk was diminished at the event bespeaks an arrogance – even a white privilege and white supremacy – that should not reside in the American Left. In the end, West displayed grace and patience beyond words, more so than might be expected of anyone else.
Those of us associated with EMAJ can hardly claim the “revolutionarily correct” posture. Placed as we are in US colleges and universities, we recognize that the marginalization of communities of color and the entrenchment of white elite hierarchies in higher education often subvert our own principles of abolitionist democracy. As part of our struggle, though, we know that none of us on the left dare stand forth to present what we witnessed at Riverside: one white revolutionary lecturing for more than two hours while a Black revolutionary sat on the stage. This is not what revolution looks like in the U.S.
It is no wonder that as the 2-hour mark neared in Avakian’s lecture, segments of the audience clamored for Dr. West to speak. The people’s clamor was truth spoken, and unfortunately truth unheeded.
We look to a future built of many voices and revolutionary collectives. We especially foreground our emergent/insurgent leaders of color, young and old, male, female, lgbtq, Black, Latino/a, Asian- and Arab-American and more, with revolutionary whites as part of a collective leadership. The legacy of class exploitation rooted in racial oppression in the US – with a history characterized by indigenous genocide, slavery and immigrant repression – means that radical collectives today cannot compromise the central role of leaders of color. This is more what revolution in the U.S. looks like. This is certainly the way to best catalyze “abolition democracy.” We must lift our lament: the Riverside event undermined that kind of future. We hope to go forward, along another path of deliberation, debate and dialogue, as part of our collective planning of the people’s socialist future.
Johanna Fernandez, Baruch College, CUNY
Mark Lewis Taylor, Princeton Theological Seminary
Heidi Boghosian, Law and Disorder Radio
Peter Bohmer, Evergreen State College
Akili Buchanan, Newark Teachers Union
Frederica Clare, CAMPHEAL, South Africa
James H. Cone, Union Theological Seminary
Alfred Duckett, Jackson State University
Farah Jasmine Griffin, Columbia University
Joy A. James, Williams College
Elizabeth Liberty, International P.E.N. (former Board Member)
Anthony Monteiro, Temple University
David Roediger, University of Illinois/Champagne-Urbana
Michael M. Schiffmann, University of Heidelberg
Johnny Eric Williams, Trinity College
All institutions listed for identification purposes only.