The New Black Jacobins


Something important has happened during the “weekend of resistance” in St. Louis, Missouri. The event, organized by the campaign group Hands Up United plus a myriad groups from across the US, was billed as four days of civil disobedience, mass protest and debates to respond to the killing of an unarmed 18 year-old by a white police officer on August 9 in Ferguson.

Something going beyond the routine delivery of police violence and grotesque militarization of urban space and entering a deeper confrontation: the one taking place between the younger and the older generation of black activists. A generational divide that may probably mark and set the tone for the future fights to come.

On October 12, I was one of the 2,000 people who attended an interfaith rally at St. Louis University’s Chaifetz Arena. The event featured noted author Cornel West as a keynote speaker, and a majority of black people composed the audience with an important participation of “white allies” (as they are dubbed in activist circles) cheering at every intervention. It was the “American tradition” of civil rights movements ready for the usual show-off.

Black folks were essentially asking for three things: a conviction for Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown dead two months ago, the end of widespread police brutality, the launch of a national movement to fight white supremacy and systemic racism.

The media often try to make us engage in quarrels over vocabulary in order to tame and dilute any potentially dangerous message, but those are powerful, burning demands, supported by bone-chilling statistics: a black male killed every 28 hours, 80% of them unarmed, only 3 black officers out of those 53 employed in Ferguson, only 3 African-Americans on the 12-person grand jury weighing the indictment of Wilson.

And all merged into an adamant question: what is to be done?

The day before protestors had shown to the media what they were capable of. A hundred of them had gathered at a local gas station, trying to cause disruptions. Seventeen of them were arrested because, you know, disobedience is tolerated in America as long as it doesn’t disturb business hours. Earlier on October 12, a group of black activists called Tribe-X autonomously choose to stage a protest outside Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

My friend Mario, a physicist and activist from Cincinnati, and I were among the few whites with them – and most definitely the only two non-Americans. I couldn’t help but to be moved by the endurance of this youth in action, by the way they briefed each other on the possibility of getting screamed racial slurs at (“Don’t react using the same language! Don’t give the police an excuse to intervene!”, said one girl). And then they entered Ballpark Village chanting slogans and setting up a Michael Brown memorial right there, in the middle of the Cardinals fans’ trashy playground.

But at Chaifetz Arena it was soon made clear that this urgency was going to be dismissed.

The tone was nowhere near a radical panel but rather what you would expect from a moderate, Roman Catholic institution. Hence the service was, as required by the “American tradition,” an endless series of preachers from the major monotheistic religions delivering to the kids of Ferguson the same message: the world you’re born into is unjust, but we should all love one another.


Liturgy has always been a key component in the “American tradition.” And for over five decades the civil rights movement has followed the structure and the melodies of organized religions.

It is not an African-American exclusive. I remember the massive rallies for a more comprehensive immigration reform in Washington D.C. While beautifully organized, they showed the same abstractions of a dominant, all-encompassing Church-state: protesters orderly amassed in the spaces designed for protest, speeches scheduled with the exactitude of an oration service, speakers asking for justice while magnifying the values the oppressor; protesting America the Unjust while waving the America flag (some in Ferguson dared to burn it: sacrilege!).

The meaning of this symbolic obedience is clear: in order to be heard, you must first and foremost give a proof of your assimilation into the system: that’s the necessary passage before any possible emancipation.

This dialectics can sometimes work. It can work in the sense that it sends some grassroots leaders to wine and dine with important congressmen. It can work in the sense that minor concessions are granted, nobody is seriously hurt, and the economy of American NGOs is kept alive and well.

Schedule falls apart

But it didn’t work on Sunday night. The activists of Ferguson, while acknowledging the merits of the older generation and the struggles it had experienced, grew rapidly angered at the rabbis, reverends and imams speaking words of peace and unity. As the gap between the rich and the poor increases every day and the police still deal with black communities as foreign territories, the “American tradition” seems stuck on inoffensive, mortifying methods of half a century ago; on the superiority of upper class preachers over militancy. But the comrades of Missouri had long understood these dialectics are ineffective today, and they didn’t want to be co-opted anymore.

So it comes as no surprise that Traci Blackmon, a progressive reverend who seemed genuinely siding with movement, was interrupted multiple times by a restless audience. An initially small group of activists asked for the podium. Their voice got stronger, and stronger. “Let them be heard,” shouted others. And then they were brought to speak.

The youth of Ferguson, who had been told to stay at home during the riots, who, for weeks, had been told to comply with the Law, was now at the center of the stage. The entire arena shouted support with chants of, “This is what democracy looks like.”

“The people who want to break down racism from a philosophical level, y’all didn’t show up,” Tef Poe, a rapper and activist for Hands Up United, said to loud cheers, referring to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim preachers on the podium who had deserted the streets when a more time confrontational time was needed.  Another young man said: “I’ve been out there since motherfucking August 9. If you don’t turn up at the protest, get the fuck out of here.”

West, who himself has surged to a sort of questionable celebrity status among anti-racism intellectuals, tried not to disappointed the audience. He explained to listeners how too many African Americans have been ‘reniggerised’: “All you’ve got to do is give big positions, give them some status, give them a little money, but walking around they’re still intimidated, they don’t want to tell the truth about the situation.”

But despite all efforts, the planned program had already fallen apart. Its focus had shifted: no more “liturgical service” as it was conceived in the comfort zone of professional preachers, but instead a series of slam jams raunchily dispensed. While the people sitting on the stage had no plan of action, a younger black speaker, whose age spurred disbelief in many (“She’s 14”, said some. “No, she’s 10!” said others) demanded to know whose streets they were. “Our streets,” the audience unanimously replied.

A lot of guests

A few hours later the crowd had left the Arena and was heading to the gates of St. Louis University. By that time Cornel West had made another appearance, this time jumping out of a car, trying to stay true to his earlier exclamation: “I didn’t come here to give a speech, I came here to go to jail.” Once the demonstrators were at the entrance of the campus, most of them then putting their foot on it for the first time, they faced the opposition of the security guards. An organizer was heard shouting: “I am a student. I have my ID, and I have a lot of guests.”

Please notice: one thing that never made the list of “American tradition” is an occupied university. But, clearly outnumbered, guards made way.

The students resting before midterm exams awoke to the sound of more than a thousand voices. Some just stood at the windows of their dorms looking out with excitement; some walked outside, blaming guards for not intervening (“Hopefully this won’t affect admission rates”, said a bespectacled lad). Some offered slices of pizza to the protesters, who chanted “out of the dorms and into the streets,” prompting many students to film with a camera that unforgettable moment of life inside the robotic routine of the campus.

Myers Jr.’s father took the stage to thank demonstrators for supporting his family and security for letting the crowd in, saying that “I am an employee of this school, and I can pull out my badge as well.” Myers Jr.’s mother asked for a moment of silence for Michael Brown and her son: four minutes of silences like the four days passed since her loss. Most cameras were pulled down. After a few seconds there was an ocean of clenched, raised fists.

When protest leader Dhoruba Shakur took the microphone and announced the beginning of an occupation of the university, West was pushed towards the microphone, but the black activists stopped him: “We’re good, Mr. West. We said enough”.

From Europe to America and Return 

One may say there was almost a Jacobin touch in the way the clergy was rebuffed and silenced by the black youth of America. Decades of religious rhetoric disguised as a civic tradition was wholesomely dismissed, in one night, by a bunch of teenagers who didn’t need quotes from the Gospel to deliver their message: the older generation of activists are wearing the Emperor’s old clothes, and we can’t trust them anymore.

One may say—or maybe not—that the October 12 confrontation in St. Louis is an original product of the young men and women who first took the streets two months ago, and since then have never complied, but instead generated their own cultural elaborations, slogans and political tactics. They don’t want to engage in ways that makes whites and liberals comfortable. They don’t want to use a language that makes whites and liberals comfortable. And they said that loudly.

European economic decay made European radicalism seem out of touch with the needs and dialectics of contemporary society. The “American tradition” had triumphed as the only way in a canon of ceramic-clean podiums, disciplined conferences and militarization of dissent. But the kids of Ferguson unwittingly showed to the world and those who care to listen that the time is up for empty words, and the “American tradition” is just another way to tame and sedate. As we acknowledge this watershed, bringing these poetic Jacobins back into our comfort zone is the last thing we should do.

The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased.

C. L. R. James

Paolo Mossetti is a writer and journalist, co-founder of the street art group “Il Richiamo” in Naples, Italy and now living in South Bronx. He wrote for Vice, Rolling Stone, Domus and Alfabeta 2.0.

(thanks to Amy S. Cunningham for partial editing)


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