Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the day enslaved Black people learned of the end of the Civil War and that the Emancipation Proclamation freed them, is a good time to assess the state of racial justice movements. Heralding the promise of Black freedom in the U.S., this day inspires me to echo the question Detroit activists James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs used to ask: “What time is it on the clock of the world?”
On this Juneteenth, it seems that we are living in a period of “in between” — in between the promise of liberation offered by the 2020 uprisings and the reactionary assault against antiracism, LGBTQ rights and reproductive autonomy.
Right-wing activists and politicians have conducted campaigns against antiracism in education and against “Woke Capital” (the businesses and corporations that declare, or perform, solidarity with social justice causes) to undercut cultural gains of the racial justice movement.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden and Democrats, including congresspeople and mayors of big cities like Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot and New York City’s Eric Adams, have also attacked demands to “defund the police,” instead advocating for more tough-on-crime policies.
I was dismayed to watch these attacks from Democrats culminating in the recall of progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Boudin’s recall might signal that some Americans might not have the stomach to take on police power at the ballot box out of growing fears of property crimes. While it is true that leftist district attorneys and prosecutors cannot transform the criminal legal system, Boudin’s recall might point to a closing opportunity for progressive reformers.
This moment is also filled with dread as supporters of abortion rights prepare for the Supreme Court’s likely overturn of protections codified in Roe v. Wade. If the Supreme Court follows through, its ruling would not only take away people’s reproductive rights but also legally pave the way for the further criminalization of abortion services.
Meanwhile police continue to kill Americans, and especially Black and Indigenous people. According to Mapping Police Violence, law enforcement has killed 243 Americans in 2022. Black people continue to be disproportionately represented in this figure, as police have killed 62 this year. On April 4, Grand Rapids Police officer Christopher Schurr shot and killed 26-year-old Congolese refugee Patrick Lyoya in the back of the head after a struggle. Lyoya’s death generated much protest in that Michigan city. Although Schurr has been charged with murder, national corporate media have failed to cover Lyoya’s killing and the protests it provoked as they did in 2020, or even in 2014, after Michael Brown’s death.
In addition to the police killings, the racist massacre of Black grocery shoppers in Buffalo raised the specter of more attacks explicitly inspired by the white supremacist and white nationalist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that circulates among many on the far right, including those on Fox News.
Vigils and protests, including the large March for Our Lives demonstrations on June 11, have continued amid this period of reactionary violence.
Looking to the “In-Between” of the Civil War and Jim Crow for a Way Out
To make sense of the political complexity of the current moment, perhaps it would be helpful to look back at Reconstruction — another historical moment when Black people found themselves occupying the space between liberation and reactionary backlash, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.
According to W.E.B. Du Bois, Reconstruction (1865-1877) was marked by the quest to build a new society in the U.S. organized around the principles of “abolition-democracy.” As Du Bois theorized it in his book, Black Reconstruction in America, abolition-democracy entailed a comprehensive vision of overturning all the vestiges of racialized enslavement, challenging oppressive private property regimes, developing Black political and economic power, and also organizing an economy based upon power for all workers. And, as historian Robin D.G. Kelley reminds us, Black journalist T. Thomas Fortune advocated for the redirection of resources away from incarceration toward public investments in education and “’equity.’”
However, as we observe Juneteenth 2022 — this year’s annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States — looking back at Reconstruction is also instructive for another reason: it reminds us that we live in a country where reactionary forces are also constantly working to reverse the gains and possibilities of liberation movements.
In the wake of the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, white southerners used a variety of tactics to thwart the development of Black political and economic power, and to stymie Black life in general. These tactics included the founding of paramilitary organizations like the White League and the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, and, eventually, a constellation of laws disfranchising Black people.
While white southerners laid the foundation for racialized violence and terror, white northern capitalists and the federal government joined to consolidate the nation around capitalism. Capitalists sought to enlist all workers into a labor regime based on wage labor. The federal government supported economic expansion and territorial consolidation on the continent by continuing to wage its war on Indigenous people. Yet, as historian Paul Ortiz documents in Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920, newly freed Black people continued to search for pathways toward liberation, whether by forming mutual aid organizations, engaging in community organizing, or relying upon armed self-defense to support their efforts.
On this Juneteenth, two years after the largest uprisings for racial justice in modern U.S. history, it is important to remember there is no better time to join with organizers who are doing justice work than now. Even though it is tough to stay enthusiastically committed when much of the attention seems to be on conservative activists attacking critical race theory, abortion rights, and anti-racism, generally, or on progressive losses such as Boudin’s recall, it is important to remember that much of the most vital organizing work is done in between the protests, uprisings, and rebellions.
The “slow and respectful” work of organizing, as sociologist Charles Payne calls it, is what builds people power and prepares everyone to take the types of political leaps we all witnessed in the summer of 2020. Now is the time to continue to strive for what abolitionists like Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Mariame Kaba refer to as “non-reformist reforms” (an idea adopted from philosopher and labor intellectual André Gorz) — short- and medium-term changes in how we enact public safety and justice in a way the undermines police and carceral power.
Following in the footsteps of Black people and communities who joined mutual aid societies and continued to engage in the quest for liberation amid the construction of Jim Crow, we have opportunities for building alliances and participating in connected struggles that point us toward the horizon of an abolition-democracy, even if we remain a long way away from realizing it.
Amazon and Starbucks workers are leading renewed labor struggles at a time when unions have garnered more popular support. Black queer people are guiding reproductive justice organizing and leading rallies in southern cities like Birmingham. And, in addition to the police abolitionist work taking place among groups outside of prison walls such as Black Visions in Minneapolis, we cannot forget the growing network of incarcerated organizers, comrades, and groups such as Study and Struggle who are engaging in the important work of political education for those inside.
Juneteenth is a reminder that the quest for transformation is a long one. Our struggle requires us not only to continue to defend and protect Black and Brown communities, but also to protect all people who are marginalized and vulnerable to state violence, white supremacist violence, and political and economic violence. The 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd amid the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic were clearly a rupture in our everyday lives. The protests knocked reactionary forces on their heels and allowed racial justice activists to push many Americans to question the legitimacy of law enforcement and confront the long histories of racism and settler colonialism. To continue this work in between rebellion and reactionary backlash, we must continue to prepare everyone to struggle against the ravages of racial capitalism for economic, racial, environmental, gender, reparative and restorative justice.