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Assata Taught Me

A conversation with Donna Murch and Naomi Murakawa

Donna Murch’s latest book is Assata Taught Me: State Violence, Racial Capitalism, and the Movement for Black Lives. Naomi Murakawa spoke to her soon after its release. What follows is an edited transcript. The complete video can be viewed via Labyrinth Books, which hosted the event.

Naomi Murakawa: You start Assata Taught Me with the Black Panther Party in Oakland in 1966. The Panthers were seen as a threat not just because of their Blackness, but because they were engaged in Black-led class struggle that was deeply internationalist and confrontational with the state. You offer us a fuller picture of how we should understand the Panthers and how we should understand Assata Shakur. Can you tell us why you return to the Panthers of 1966 to launch a book that is mostly about explaining the present?

Donna Murch: While we still have the iconography of the Panther Party, and its traditions of anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, the party is best known for its breakfast programs and its survival programs. But these were not forms of mutual aid in the way that’s conceived of today. They were explicitly political. The idea was, we need survival programs, given the stingy and punitive nature of the welfare state, with its “no man in the house” rule. For families to receive cash assistance, you had to have a social worker come in to make sure there was no man living there.

The 1960s is a period when a lot of the economic and material struggle of the Black radical movement and the Civil Rights movement was to force concessions from the state. We know in the 1930s, in many ways, Black people, through the elimination of the job categories of domestic worker and agricultural worker, were not included within the Social Security Act. In the 1960s, a lot of what’s being litigated is trying to get access, saying, “We deserve access to the state.”

A flier for The Black Panthers in Washington, DC, announce the opening of a second location for free breakfasts in 1970. It includes a photo of children eating breakfast captioned "THE MUCH-NEEDED MEAL BREAKFAST."
The Black Panthers in Washington, DC, announce the opening of a second location for free breakfasts in 1970. Image by Washington Area Spark.

The party goes through different periods in its history. The earliest period is armed self-defense and the use of police patrols—policing the state—inspired by the organizing that took place in Watts a year and a half before. After this period, the Panthers move into what they call “survival pending revolution.” And they have essentially these food give-away and other service programs as a way to shame the state and to make claims on it. I think it’s that tradition, which is both internationalist and really identifying with revolutionary movements and state socialism, that was core to the Panthers’ vision.

We’re left often with a kind of cartoon vision. “The Panthers wore leather jackets and powder-blue shirts and sunglasses.” But at the core, the party was a group of young people that used many different strategies, which evolved and changed throughout its history.

But thinking about a party that is internationalist and fighting against anti-communism, that was explicitly anti-capitalist and had a confrontational relationship with the state, while simultaneously feeling that they needed to extract resources from the state—to me, that’s one of the most important lessons of the Black Panther Party.

NM: I think one of my frustrations, as we’ve seen a so-called mainstreaming of abolition, is that there’s a tendency to think that radical politics means pointing to various things and saying, “Abolish it!”. I feel there’s some fundamental confusion that equates anti-capitalism with anti-statism, and says that anti-racism is anti-statism. But what I’m hearing from you and your book is that there has to be much more meaningful engagement and a willingness to make demands on the state.

DM: Yes, that’s absolutely right. And that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I live in Philadelphia now. I’ve lived in different cities across the United States and seen different tendencies on the Left. And I think that we need to return to the archives of radical struggle, especially in this post–Cold War period. Willingness to make demands on the state is one of the most important fault lines, and it’s a fault line that those of us who are older and lived through the Cold War understand.

This generational fault line really matters. I think without a connection to these earlier periods of struggle, many people are coming of age in the United States at a time when simply being anti-state makes sense. We’ve seen a gutting of so much of the welfare state, the enormous growth in the carceral apparatus, and people feel as if the state is only a source of violence. That’s understandable.

But that’s why I think the archives of past struggle matter, and that includes the Panther Party, it includes the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, it includes many different tendencies that were able to confront state power and state violence, but also argue that the greatest source of violence is often capital itself and its relationship to the state, and understand that as central.

NM: The final chapter of your book is a retrospective on the Movement for Black Lives from the standpoint of 2021. It’s now mid-2022, and my head is spinning around the speed of voter disenfranchisement, of the Critical Race Theory bans that are remaking public education, of the destruction of reproductive freedoms, of the attacks on trans children. How are you characterizing this present moment?

DM: It’s a really hard time. I mean, I’m devastated by what’s happening. I can’t lie. I’m afraid.

The right has opportunities. American history has so many moments of terrible violence. We talk about this all the time, those of us who teach African American History. Sometimes it’s just very hard. You have to teach the history of slavery, and then you teach the resistance to it. You teach the history of emancipation, and then you teach the enormous violence of Redemption and the violence that always follows Black accomplishment. And similar stories can be told about Indigenous populations and other people of color in the United States. But it’s hard. We don’t always want to teach the African American survey among the faculty. We like to trade off because we like to teach our own classes so that we can frame African American history in ways that aren’t as devastating.

But I’ll also speak as a person, and not as a scholar. How would I characterize this moment? I would characterize it as very fast movement toward minority rule. Many of us are critics of liberal democracy. We know about the limitations of the United States, its two-party system, its winner-take-all elections, its archaic electoral college system. All of this was nurtured by slavery and settler colonialism and was designed to prevent true democracy along class, racial, gender lines.

So American democracy has always been profoundly limited and flawed, as has liberalism, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have scenarios that are worse. This is the greatest period of opportunity for racial fascism to institutionalize itself into minority rule that I’ve ever seen, and that I didn’t know was possible.

I remember at the Left Forum, years ago, Immanuel Wallerstein (rest in peace) said, “We have a current set of arrangements. It’s also very possible in the next decades we will see a different set of arrangements.” He said it with a real economy of words.

The seizing of control of the Supreme Court within the structure of limited American democracy makes it possible to dismantle previous gains. Consider the latest opinion on Roe v. Wade, and defining it as lying outside the historical tradition of the United States, and mentioning also the overturning of sodomy laws and gay marriage in the same breath. This also is a threat to interracial marriage. And I’ll just say—to remind ourselves how close we are to that history—I come from an interracial family. My parents are from St. Louis. They met in 1966. And in order to marry, they had to move to the North. This is true of my own family and in our own lifetimes.

So, I would characterize this time as a real threat of racial fascism. I did predict that the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was going to happen. I didn’t know the form that it was going to take, but I expected that there was going to be violence with the election certifications because the fascists are simultaneously building a street and legal movement. During the Black Lives Matter protests in Philadelphia, they were coming down, carrying baseball bats, and beating people up in Fishtown. I actually moved out of Old City because there was such a white nationalist presence there.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Latin America and about how different countries—Argentina, Brazil, Chile—have gone through authoritarian periods in their history but have had contestation and come through them. One of the dangers of American exceptionalism is that you feel, “Our democracy is going to end, and then history ends.” But I think looking to other countries and seeing how they’ve dealt with organized fascist movements is critical.

Left organizing comes in many forms: organizing in unions, organizing in member-based organizations. Tenant organizing is very important—the housing crisis is enormous. And then, of course, organizing against state violence. I think the challenge, though, is bringing together material struggles—which have to be grounded in housing, education, jobs, and the material facts that make life possible—with the fight against state violence.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Stephen Shames; modified by Tempest.

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Naomi Murakawa View All

Naomi Murakawa is associate professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the editor of the Abolitionist Papers series at Haymarket Books and is the author of The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. She is a member of the Tempest Collective.