Detroit Will Breathe organizers Tristan Taylor and Lloyd Simpson joined Party for Socialism and Liberation members Shabbir Manjee in Chicago, and Joel Ibrahim and Lillian House in Denver for an online forum on Dec. 5. They discussed state repression of the anti-racist movement and how to effectively counter it. The event was organized by the Detroit PSL.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the activist group Detroit Will Breathe held over 150 days of peaceful protests for racial justice, often facing down police violence. Their actions included a march on Oct. 24 in racist Shelby Township in Macomb County, Mich.
“When we went to Shelby Township, which in a lot of ways mimics the feeling one gets if one was in Mississippi or Alabama in the 50s, the act of even just trying to march in the street was met by Shelby Township Police, Macomb County Sheriffs, along with neighboring police departments, unmasked, in riot gear,” said Taylor.
Police made six arrests that day in Shelby Township and charged five protesters with felony counts of resisting arrest and/or felony assault on a police officer. Taylor was one of those arrested for peacefully protesting.
“We know the federal charges against us are fictitious. There is no evidence,” Taylor said. “The problem, of course, is this is their attempt to scare the movement away.”
Anniversary marked assassination of Fred Hampton
Manjee spoke about the legacy of Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, who was assassinated by Chicago Police and the FBI on Dec. 4, 1969, and how it relates to the anti-racist struggle today.
“COINTELPRO and similar operations by the state are still very much around today,” Manjee said. “The tactics of the state, however, change over time. Today the courts, law enforcement agencies and other organs of the state use a variety of legal tricks — lawfare — to repress and discredit leaders of protest movements.”
Such “lawfare” tactics are exactly how police have targeted Ibrahim, House and other activists for their role in leading non-violent protests to demand justice for Elijah McClain, a young Black man who was murdered by Aurora, Colo., police officers last year.
Ibrahim described: “On September 17, multiple Denver area police forces led a coordinated series of arrests against local anti-racist organizers. Several activists were rounded up and taken to jail. Five PSL members were arrested, and another activist we’ve worked closely with. Three of us, Lillian, Eliza, and I, were then held for eight days. We are being hit with a slew of false, very serious charges.”
House said, “In total, I have been charged with 25 crimes, including 12 felonies, all attached to nonviolent protests. Joel has nearly the same number. If we are convicted we could be facing as many as 48 years in prison.”
Taylor also cited additional “lawfare” aimed at financially disrupting Detroit Will Breathe. “The city of Detroit has actually filed a countersuit against Detroit Will Breathe, hinging on conspiracy charges to try to make us financially responsible for damages that they said occurred during the protest in Detroit. So not only do they seek to criminalize protest in Detroit, but they even seek to drain the resources of the movement, to take away our capacity to continue to organize independently from the Democrats and Republicans.”
A ‘number you can make a revolution with’
Yet as egregious as these attacks are, the criminal justice system is just one tool of state repression, Simpson pointed out. “The narratives by the media, the state, and the neoliberal order are every bit as subversive as overt police brutality.
“We need to think about the climate of fear that mass surveillance creates — in terms of people’s willingness to engage in the movement and people’s willingness to stand up to police brutality,” said Simpson.
All the panelists agreed that creating an atmosphere of fear within the anti-racist movement is a major goal of state repression. However, panelists also stressed the need to fight on and not give in to intimidation tactics.
“This attack is designed not just to take out the leadership of these protests but to strike fear in the movement as a whole, demonstrating that the police and the District Attorney have the power to arbitrarily abduct, imprison, and charge activists who engage in protests that challenge them. Every single element of this attack has been designed to inflict the highest degree of fear,” summarized House.
“[But] the authorities who contrived this attack, they miscalculated because the movement that we’ve been building is not easily swayed. We have actually proven that we have the organizational capacity to withstand these repressive attacks and fight back as a movement,” she said.
House emphasized, “As many as 26 million people took part in protests in some two-thousand five-hundred cities and towns all over the country in the first weeks following George Floyd’s murder.
“Twenty-six million people. That is a number you can make a revolution with.”
The activists closed the forum by emphasizing the need to stand in solidarity with each other. Taylor said, “We need to bring the whole movement around the country to come down on Denver and Aurora to make sure that those charges get dropped.”
Check out the full webinar here.