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Past and Present Collide

A review of Donna Murch’s Assata Taught Me

Assata Taught Me
State Violence, Racial Capitalism, and the Movement for Black Lives

by Donna Murch

Haymarket, 2022

In May 1973, the former Black Panther Party member and revolutionary communist Assata Shakur was drifting in and out of consciousness at a hospital in Middlesex County, New Jersey. She had been shot by state troopers. As she waited for delayed medical care to arrive, blood bubbles bloomed across her chest. At the hospital, she was kept away from other patients. Her skin seemed to burn under the bright lights. Smirking state troopers hovered over her day and night, talking loudly.

“One day one of them came in and gave me a speech about how he fought in World War II on the wrong side,” Shakur recounted in her classic memoir Assata: An Autobiography, which she published once living safely in exile in Cuba. “He said that if Hitler had won, the world wouldn’t be in the mess it is in today, that niggers like me, no-good niggers, wouldn’t be going around shooting New Jersey state troopers” (10). Law enforcement accused her of several crimes, including the shooting of one of their own on the New Jersey turnpike, despite all evidence to the contrary.

For the next several years until her daring escape, Shakur was locked away, oftentimes in solitary confinement. The experience of being isolated from other prisoners and from friends and family, and of being dragged to and from court, chipped away at Shakur’s usual optimism. Over time, she became far more distant from others, unable to translate what she was thinking into words: She wrote, “I felt rigid, as though chunks of steel and concrete had worked themselves into my body. I was no longer the wide-eyed, romantic young revolutionary who believed revolution was just around the corner” (266).

Shakur, who was a member of the Black Liberation Army when she and her comrades were followed and attacked on the New Jersey Turnpike, became a potent symbol for the Left in a time of increased repression and internal division. It would be Shakur’s insights and analysis, as contained in her memoir published during the rightward reaction of the Reagan era, that would provide a guide for Black and Brown Left radicals still clinging to the dream of a humane America.

Image of block-printed poster with the image of activist Assata Shakur, a person with long dark hair and brown skin, on a red and green background. Poster reads: Hands Off Assata!"
Photo by dignidadrebelde via flikr.

Shakur’s life story and the insights she gathered in her political evolution–from pro-Vietnam War liberal to communist–were extremely valuable to many Black and Brown people who had grown up in the post-Jim Crow era, one of both promise and contradiction. The defeat of formal Jim Crow and anti-immigrant legislation during the civil rights movement had opened new opportunities for Black people and, depending on the region, Asians and Latino/as, such as attaining a college or university degree. The range of job opportunities was no longer as restricted as they had been just two decades earlier. It was now possible for some of us to become part of the emergent “professional” classes, working behind desks, wearing suits and ties, and not stinking of sweat at the end of the work day.

Donna Murch’s memoir Assata Taught Me: State Violence, Racial Capitalism, and the Movement for Black Lives recalls Shakur’s contribution:

“For me, and others who followed, Assata opened a lens to a recent history of self-defense, Black internationalism, and left Pan-Africanism that defied the strictures of a narrowly defined domestic push for African American inclusion and upward mobility.”

Murch, a prominent Rutgers historian, has been one of the foremost scholars on Black radical politics, capitalism, and race. In her previous work Living For the City, Murch focused on the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP) in Oakland. The Party was co-founded by Black college students whose parents and grandparents had migrated from the deep South with the intention of sending their children to university so they could land jobs regarded to be far more lucrative and less labor-intensive than working as a Pullman porter or dockworker. Of course, this dream of a middle-class existence was both difficult to achieve without abandoning one’s principles and premised on the continued exploitation of millions of people around the globe.

BPP co-founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale pierced through this delusion after taking classes and meeting other Black students (and some faculty) at Merritt College, one of the main institutions where Black students could gain a broader, more critical, grasp of world history and the critique of capitalism and colonialism. These students knew about the daily indignities of police abuse, poverty, and political betrayal. Their studies pushed them to engage more profoundly with the working-class communities of color around them.

In Assata Taught Me, Murch analyzes the historical intersections among policing, the expansion of the prison population, and the relationship between carceral politics and neoliberalism. Through a series of essays, Murch provides an accessible and detailed review of the decades after the disintegration of groups like the BPP and the arrest and torture of figures like Shakur.

Murch explores how policing and prisons have always played a role in U.S. politics, especially following the end of Reconstruction. As W.E.B. Du Bois explained, radical reconstruction gave way to the cravenness of industrial capitalism and its vanguard of white supremacists among the South’s planter class and white workers. Law enforcement was a direct tool of the oppressor class, wielded against labor radicals and Black and other non-white people daring to demand basic rights and what they were owed. Shakur and other radicals were driven underground and disappeared.

Murch explains how the prison population expanded at an accelerated pace after that time. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. prison population has increased by nearly 500 percent. Despite having only five percent of the total world’s population, the current U.S. prison population consists of 20 percent of the world’s total prison population, exceeding that of China and Russia. The seeds of the modern Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), a concept developed by Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis, were planted by Republicans like Ronald Reagan during his time as California’s governor, ultimately forging the new “gulag archipelago.” (A term coined by Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “gulag archipelago” is an apt label for the United States, where most states now have more prisons than universities.)

The expansion of the Prison Industrial Complex was a bipartisan effort. “Like his notorious Republican predecessors, Clinton imposed a toxic mix of punishment and withdrawal of social welfare, but with a difference,” Murch states in her essay “The Clintons’ War on Drugs” (80). Murch describes Bill Clinton’s politics of “triangulation,” which oscillated between support for and betrayal of his Democratic base. It was under the Clinton administration that funding for law enforcement outpaced the funding and investment in social welfare. It was under Clinton that the police hoarded military-style equipment like armored Humvees and battering rams used to knock down the doors of mostly working-class and lower-income Black and Brown people. “The Democratic president actually implemented these policies on a much larger scale than the Republican New Right,” Murch comments (80).

It was in cities like Los Angeles where the police first militarized and originated tactical units like SWAT. It was in cities like Los Angeles where the police would barge into mainly Black and Brown neighborhoods, snatching up men for minor offenses like smoking or selling weed. Eventually, in Los Angeles, prisons became, essentially, detention camps for the poor and working-class, who were disproportionately Black and Latinx.

Some recent scholarship, such as Michael Fortner’s Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, argues that the War on Crime was a manifestation of Black support for increased policing. Murch reviews Fortner’s argument in the context of class politics among Black people, exposing it for what it is: a reductive conclusion that ironically mirrors scholarship that completely ignores class politics and other forms of division among Black Americans and other groups.

Public support for the carceral state must be situated in a broader context of capitalist maneuvering and a distorted politics from below. As Mike Davis explores in his work Prisoners of the American Dream, the latter half of FDR’s New Deal administration saw a vast improvement in ordinary peoples’ lives while generating contradictions that would eventually undermine its reforms. As the U.S. pivoted from its focus on defeating the fascists to allying with fascists in other countries to defeat so-called global communism, labor radicals, including communists who hoped to undo the bastion of reactionary politics within the Jim Crow South, were purged from mainstream labor unions or forced to hold their tongues. In their political naïveté, both Black and white communists were convinced at the dawn of the Popular Front during the second world war to cease organizing working people independently of the Democratic party. And so, when the purges began, there was no mass constituency to turn to, no mass of workers to activate on their behalf.

The retreat of radicals from labor organizing derailed a potential critique of white working-class identity and the ideology of the “middle class.” Thus, when the civil rights movement expanded into areas beyond the Jim Crow south into cities like Chicago, hordes of non-elite whites, stewing in their “white identity,” hurled bricks and flew Nazi flags in broad daylight. When major companies moved their base of operations from union-heavy regions into the sun belt or shifted from union cities to the suburbs, many white workers followed. Cheap home loans and other amenities convinced them that they were the defenders of the American Dream. When wave after wave of recession hit the nation in the 1970s, it was this constituency that became the most rabid supporter of the police. From the end of Jimmy Carter’s administration until that of Donald Trump, these suburban voters time and again promoted candidates “defending” the “American Dream” from the moochers, from the welfare queens, from queer communities, and from other “enemies within.”

Over this same period, Murch explains, areas like southern California experienced a severe decline in stable employment as major businesses closed their doors or relocated. These areas were home to  communities of Black people, who went from having something for themselves to absolutely nothing to rely on. Drug use and crime would compensate for their depression and frustrations, shared by others, including segments of the Black working class, all desperate for some security and protection.

Community leaders, including churches and middle-class constituencies, supported expanded policing. Murch contends, “Black Angelinos divided along lines of class, ideology, faith, and age in their attempts to address neighborhoods in crisis” (55).

Shakur identified class division as a major factor in the creation of carceral politics, stating (as quoted in Murch), “I got into heated arguments with sisters or brothers who claimed that the oppression of Black people was only a question of race. I argued that there were Black oppressors as well as white ones.”

Shakur was mistaken in her prediction that the majority of upper-class or socially mobile Black and other minorities would support Republicans like Reagan, but many did ally themselves with “tough on crime” Democrats and local sheriffs. Many embraced  respectability politics as well, eager for the “undeserving” and lawless to be swept away into the prison system for the sake of the “community’s” image and prestige.

Perhaps the most important point Murch makes, a point that the Left must keep pushing at a national level, is how the U.S. government has become an explicit arm of the business class. It is not Big Government, but rather Big Government and Big Capital that together pose the greatest threat to working-class people. Through the 1990s, and even during Obama’s administration, despite another major recession, major companies in so-called “public-private” partnerships gained far more influence and control over peoples’ lives. Even more so than before the New Deal, there was no safety net. Health care and housing, which should be public resources, were privatized and therefore shaped by the whims of corporate managers playing chicken on how high they can go with their prices. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, rents in major cities have gone over the $3,000 mark, even for some studio apartments. And when the pandemic became a part of our daily lives, most of us had no choice but to order what we needed–everything from food and entertainment to masks–from Amazon.

The government’s role in the meantime has been to corral the unemployed into prisons and to manage crises with police forces where officers are dressed like an invading army. Under Biden, who promised major corporate donors  that “nothing would drastically change” under his watch,  local governments have cut public resources while dialing up funding for the police. Major institutions, including prisons, continue to be operated as for-profit businesses.

“In states and municipalities throughout the country, the criminal justice system defrays costs by forcing prisoners and their families to pay for punishment,” Murch explains.

“It also allows private service providers to charge outrageous fees for everyday needs such as telephone calls. As a result, people facing even minor criminal charges can easily find themselves trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of debt, criminalization, and incarceration” (101).

For this reason abolition politics must also be socialist, aimed at not merely the de-funding of the police but also the broader re-allocation of resources in support of our communities. What is needed is a broader paradigmatic shift in how government should be run and who should oversee its major policymaking institutions.

Increasingly, people are recognizing that their lives are less than they hoped, with some going as far to express their dissatisfaction with capitalism itself, unthinkable some years ago. In 2020, thousands took to the streets to express themselves more clearly and to battle against an explicitly white nationalist government in the White House and the GOP, a party of scorched earth.

As Murch writes in her final essay about the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM), the protests challenged national political priorities and norms in the call to defund the police. I remember taking part in some of the protests as well, the energy swirling through us, as we’d march past Philadelphia’s city hall, slowing down traffic, catching sight of people on the sidewalk raising their fists. It was a time when I, along with so many others, believed a new world was on its way, waiting for us to find it beneath the concrete.

However, it has been two years now, and what remains of the  BLM movement is deeply fractured by issues stemming from a lack of transparency among its leadership and disregard for the hardships and demands that local chapters have faced. Murch takes note of some of this in her book, but overall, her insights on the movement are too enmeshed in the excitement and hope of that time. Whatever critiques she does have, such as the channeling of BLM activity into Democratic party politics and issues around funding, are mentioned only briefly.

Several activists in outdoor clothing are gathered on an urban street holding protest signs reading "Is my son next?" and "#BlackLiveMatter"
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

As Assata Shakur argued,“To win any struggle for liberation, you have to have the way as well as the will, an overall ideology and strategy that stem from a scientific analysis of history and present conditions” (242). We on the Left must develop such a strategy rather than staggering from one crisis to the next.

The frustrations expressed in polls and protests have proven ephemeral. Most people, as Shakur iterated in her memoirs, may feel a sense of injustice but have no clear idea as to what to do about this aside from what’s already familiar to them, which the status quo can adapt to. This is what happened as the police coordinated themselves against the protests while protestors lacked material support in terms of money and other resources to keep them in the street.

Understandably, given this crisis and the two-party system, many people ended up voting for Biden and the Democrats and returning to their routines. I was one of them, desperate to maintain my paycheck so that I could pay my rent.

The anger, frustration, and willingness to fight for one another are now lurking under the haze of a so-called “post-COVID” era in which people are told to resume working, to go to their local bars on the weekends, and to enjoy the summer heart as if “normality” is a state of mind. The broader problems, caused by capitalism eating itself, are internalized as personal failures. Politics has been winnowed down into consumer choices, into caring about what’s immediately put in front of you.

The end of formal Jim Crow didn’t happen because people miraculously woke up one day and had the epiphany that the status quo was untenable. Most Black people understood the segregationist order as fascistic and oppressive. What enabled effective struggle against that order was the emergence of organizations and leaders willing to train and discipline activists and coordinate movement efforts across the region.

Organizations like the SCLC and SNCC did just that, according to prominent sociologist-historian Aldon Morris. They were willing to raise the political consciousness of the masses and their commitment to struggle. The people learned that certain tactics were more effective than others, like boycotts and the withholding of their labor. They absorbed critical facts about how the enemy amassed power through the nefarious alliance among white supremacy, business, and anticommunist liberals.

For example, “During the Birmingham confrontation the SCLC held sixty-five consecutive nightly mass meetings,” Morris states in The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. “These meetings rotated from church to church in order to maximize community solidarity” (257).

This process of leading, organizing, and developing peoples’ commitments to waging what is, ultimately, a longer-term struggle has been repeated across history, for example, in the early New Deal years when workers were occupying factories and in global struggles like the 26th of July Movement that toppled Cuba’s pro-U.S. dictator in 1953.

Such leadership and organization are largely missing now, as BLM and other prominent Left groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA, to which I belong). We  have not developed the capacity to effect policy at the national level. Since Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, the DSA remains a loose constellation of local chapters who don’t share common work or goals.

The political landscape in which groups must operate has devolved since Shakur’s arrest. Class struggle is far more mystified for people of color as more and more of us find ourselves embedded in the deluded and contradictory world of the American Dream. More people of color have moved into pockets of middle-class assimilation known as suburbia, buying homes with lush front lawns and having the privilege of working behind a desk, not having to worry over the stench of sweat sticking to your clothes.

East Brunswick, the town Shakur was arrested in decades ago, is also where my parents and I moved in the year before 9/11. When Shakur was captured, the area was predominantly white, where everyone’s pastime had been peeking through the curtains at any person with a slight tan strolling by. When we moved in, however, the area included significant numbers of Asians, Arabs, and Latinx people, along with some Black residents. Our houses were newly constructed, oftentimes next to a park. Our streets were devoid of wrappers and trash. Our bosses could be seen smiling and shaking hands at our local mosques or temples, as if running a political campaign–which, when you think about it, they were.

Growing up, I developed a politics of accommodation, a narrow liberal view that said, vote for the Democrats and everything else will be okay. Since we did face racism (the random white person hurling insults, which would prompt my parents to hurl insults back), I knew society had “issues” to reckon with, but ultimately, such issues could be resolved through the ballot box or through my hard work, persistence, and personal success. To strike at the heart of oppression meant to become someone other people of color could follow by example, those we’d left behind in Queens, operating cash registers, driving cabs during a storm, or sewing shirts and pants in some warehouse where the lights flicker.

Fortunately, I joined a labor union and was challenged politically by those experienced in radical politics to question my foolish notions about society and change. Experienced activists who had read more and asked and discussed questions helped me to realize that society needs a total transformation instead, that I still worked for a boss, and that my parents and everyone I knew depended on their jobs for the lifestyle they led.

But how many of the people I grew up with would be so lucky as to be pushed and confronted with reality itself by others willing to do that work? How many of us will have a Left-wing collective invested in our lives and power?

It is easy to fall back into routines and sink back into narratives and stories that provide some comfort in trying times. Even I have moments when I drive through East Brunswick, ignoring the Walmart hulking over the town and the Air Force recruitment office. I gaze at the houses and sigh. Living in an apartment where there’s barely enough space and where your rent keeps skyrocketing makes you wistful and, sometimes, missing a sunnier outlook, no matter how deluded.

In her essay on opioid addiction, Murch skillfully demonstrates how the Reagan Revolution, made possible by white voters, had come full circle. By electing Reagan and monsters like him, many white people sealed their own fate, allowing the Right to gut the federal government, to deregulate major businesses, and to cede opportunity for business interests to accrue more wealth and power. The major pharmaceutical companies, now unhinged, began to market drugs like Oxycontin to doctors, who then would prescribe this highly addictive drug to their mainly white patients. The rest is history, or rather, a nightmare that seemingly never ends.

Murch concludes,

“One of the most important lessons to be learned from viewing the opioid crisis and the drug war through the lens of racial capitalism is that the privileges of whiteness come at a great social cost not only for those excluded from them but also from those who possess them.”

Capitalism and white supremacy have been scourges for society overall. The question remains: Who will pass on this knowledge to the people? What forces will be capable, in time, to pierce through the veneer of the American Dream as it continues to loom over us?

Shakur once stated, near the end of her memoir’s journey, “The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows” (262).

Featured Image Credit: Photo by dignidadrebelde; modified by Tempest.

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Sudip Bhattacharya View All

Sudip Bhattacharya is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Rutgers University and a writer and organizer. You can find his work at outlets like Protean Magazine, CounterPunch, and Reappropriate.