Interview: Zoe Samudzi, Co-Author of ‘As Black As Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation’

Zoe Samudzi is a writer, artist and activist currently completing her PhD in Medical Sociology at the University of San Francisco. A prominent voice in black leftist movements in San Francisco, Oakland and the United States at large, her work is deeply committed to demystifying the connections between capitalism, imperialism and historic forms of racial and political oppression.

In her recently-published book ‘As Black As Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation‘, co-authored with William C. Anderson, Zoe highlights a renewed relevance for anarchist thought in our current political climate, particularly for black communities in the US and further afield. The compelling framework hers and Anderson’s writing lays out offers a new set of strategies for how all of us can, should and must move forward if we are to conquer a system that has proven, time and time again, to be irreconcilable with humanity, even in the face of impending social, cultural and environmental cataclysm.

The premise of your book is embracing what you describe as ‘the anarchy of blackness’, describing anarchist thought itself as innately Black. Could you explain what you mean by that?

Throughout history, Black American resistance has been heavily focused on community and community materiality. Not reliant on the state, but on constructing self-sufficient community infrastructures that enable survival, participation and sociality. That’s a way that anarchism talks about what community is envisioned to be, but anarchist thought generally doesn’t cite black people or particular kinds of lived experiences of black, afro-descendant and indigenous people.

Instead, it cites theoretical conceptions of utopian societies created by white, European men. So they’re ignoring this vast swathe of communities who could actually be brought into anarchist politics, as well as world and community building. If they talked about anarchism in ways that were not so rigidly theoretical; if they spoke to communities’ lived experiences and modes of organising resources, I think they’d have a much easier time speaking to non-white people, as opposed to just throwing The Bread Book at them and hoping it sticks.

It seems like many current political awakenings have been present in black politics for a long time. For example, how videos of police shootings have made people question the legitimacy of the police, or how Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court has caused people to question the legitimacy of state power. Many people might not even realise that these are anarchist positions, and they’re learning that “Anarchy” is not synonymous with “Chaos”, as they’d probably been taught.

It’s really nice actually. When mine and William’s original essay came out in ROAR Magazine last year, I saw people across the left sharing it—state communists, socialists, anarchists, even solidly big-D Democrats.

My first impulse whenever something has wide, broad appeal like that is suspicion—am I not even taking a stance if so many people are able to apply this? But William and I offered a foundation for understanding the system which you can then take in whichever direction you choose. We’re demystifying the American mythos and saying, ‘This is the structure, and this is what it is founded upon.’ You can take that and say, we need to focus on voting-based reform, or we need to focus on revolution, but we laid a foundation: ‘These are the ways in which we have been taught to understand it, and this is how it actually exists, and these are the ways that people have been resisting it.’ It’s theoretical, but in a practical context.

I talk to black people who say, ‘I agree with socialism, but I hate white socialists, so I’m just going to reject socialism.’ In the same way, you meet groups who say, ‘Well, we agree with anarchism in a lot of ways, but we hate white anarchists, so therefore we hate anarchism.’ But I think that these concepts become less alienating when they’re not coming from white people, and from white people in a way that is still authoritative, political, and pushing a political project.

Instead, we say, we’re loosely defined as anarchists, but what we’re really trying to do is reveal the nature of the system for what it is, and then tell you how people have been subverting it. If Europeans want to impose a framework onto this ethos of community, voluntary participation, mutual sharing of resources and aid, and describe it in a theoretical framework later, then sure, but fundamentally this is not a thing that is “yours”. It’s been really interesting to see folks all across resonating with the work. I take pride in that.

On page one you say, ‘A disillusioned liberal establishment has begun to worry that this country might be losing its democracy. However, the democracy some fear to lose was never achieved for many of us in the first place.’ It’s an opportunity for subversion; for black activists to say, ‘You’re waking up to the reality of the situation, but we’ve been dealing with this for much longer than you. These are our strategies, and maybe it’s time for you to listen.’ Disillusionment can be a catalyst.

I find it wild reading tweets from white women saying, ‘I was so sickened by the election of Donald Trump that I threw up’, or when it started to look like Kavanaugh was going to get the nomination, Mira Sorvino said, ‘I have never before today actually felt we needed a revolution’.

I was like, ‘… Yeah? Remember the time that there was slavery?’

Arguably there are material conditions that have improved, but to say you’ve never thought we needed transformation before today is actually really alarming. It highlights this convergence between both far-right and white moderate liberalism’s fear of “losing our democracy”. The far-right is talking about an influx of popular movements into political rhetoric, Liberals fear the same thing, but located in the rise of fascistic politics.

They’re both scared of what happens when politics is influenced by something that is not electoral politics, because it calls into question everything they were taught about political participation, what it means to be American, respectable political strategy, and they’re not ready for that political order to disappear. They’re not ready to confront those new tactics and adapt to them.

It’s not even that they don’t know how to—they don’t want to. They’ve seen the Black Bloc disincentivise white supremacists from appearing in the street, and they’re scared of that. They’re scared of what that means for popular struggle and left populism—which they should be, because if you’re afraid of that and you’re afraid of left popular movements, then you’re kind of an enemy of progress. It’s interesting when liberal and conservative points converge, and I think if anything it should be an indication that the Democrats and the Republicans are basically oars to the same sinking ship.

In chapter two, you highlight Henry Giroux’s writing about the devaluation of black life during Hurricane Katrina, and refer to our current era as a ‘new age of disposability’. In recent years, we’ve seen this logic of disposability applied in the aftermath of numerous disasters, such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, or the devastating floods in South Asia which now occur more and more frequently with little reaction from the West.

By connecting the imminent threat of climate change with neoliberal politics and global capitalism, you argue that the devaluation of black and brown lives has become necessary for the continuation of global capitalism itself. Could you talk a bit more about that?

There’s this book by Mike Davis called Planet of Slums which makes a terrifyingly spot-on indictment of environmental degradation and the capitalist project. With natural disasters, yes, there are freak natural occurrences that come out of nowhere and are cataclysmic in their nature, but the frequency of hurricanes, of these massively-destructive weather patterns, are obviously aligned with climate change and related to a capitalistic relationship with natural resources based on extraction, hoarding, accumulation and industrial production.

The thing that Davis highlights is that there are unpreventable storms, but there is preventable fallout. It’s the same kinds of people that are persistently harmed when these massive storms happen. It’s the same people being forced to live in eroded areas near the centres of agricultural production they participate in.

So when we look at what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, for example, I would argue that that is, to some extent, a natural disaster. You have an entire water supply that is undrinkable. So we have to link emergency management to racist management and racial geographies. You have all these black and brown folks and poor people who are being exposed to whatever horrible heavy metals are in their water, which then produces even more environmental harm because now they’re forced to buy bottled water. Is it being recycled properly? Where is the waste going?

I read this book a few years ago, I forget the name, but the author said, ‘The only thing that grows for the sake of growth is cancer.’ This is the attitude that capitalism has to natural resources. We’re approaching the point of no return. We could be as “productive” with renewable energy if we wanted to, but we don’t. We haven’t even reached global catastrophe, and people are already dying in scores. There’s something really scary about that apathy for what global catastrophe will look like.

It highlights one of the ugliest aspects of capitalism. Flint was a real opportunity for capital to be proactive, but instead, it was reactive: You no longer have any clean drinking water? Why would I fix your pipes when I could sell you the bottled water? Why would I clean your air when I could sell you the gas mask? Why fight sea level rise when I could sell you the floatation device? Capitalism will never take a wholly proactive stance, because there will always be something new to sell.

The consideration is profit margin, and environmental destruction will always allow you to sell a new thing to alleviate the problem. Just the other day I was reading about these new homes designed to withstand Category 4 hurricanes, and obviously they’re extremely expensive, but that’s the solution, right? You are effectively saying, ‘We only intend for rich people to be able to survive these hurricanes’, because who’s got a smooth $2 million to buy this stupid floating house?

You also discuss Islamophobia, and highlight a trap people fall into in thinking that the rise of Islamophobia in the United States and Europe has somehow “supplanted” anti-black racism (or anti-semitism). You argue that the two are actually complementary – ‘Where Islamism constitutes the enemy abroad, blackness is the perpetual enemy at home’. By connecting those two distinct systems, it makes the question of what is being “defended” much clearer.

The very first muslims in the United States were enslaved West Africans, so part of the plantation structure, the Slaveocracy, was white Americans trying to figure out how to disrupt the social networks created by Islam, and to monitor, understand, regulate and eventually supplant Islam with some other way of governing and organising black life. That is the inception of American Islamophobia.

So if we understand Islamophobia as squarely within this plantation structure, and then within this structure of American governance and the “internal enemy”, then we have to understand that any technology being used in Islamophobic contexts now was used first against the original enemies of the United States; first indigenous people, then black people.

The carceral structure itself was established on the frontier and through genocidal interactions with Indigenous communities, but also in trying to understand how to manage blackness and black life. I think that in saying Islamophobia is the new anti-blackness, you’re erasing the black muslims that still exist in the United States, and the once deeply-influential Nation of Islam and how instrumental they were in black liberation struggles in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s (though I don’t pay much attention to them today). There are deep intersections between Islam and blackness.

In order to understand what it means to “racialise” a people, you have to start with anti-blackness. European identity and understandings of European freedom were contoured around that which can be enslaved, and that which cannot. The “enslaveable” thing is Africa, and the “unenslaveable” thing is whiteness.

So if you’re thinking about what it means to molecularise a people and distil them to their racial essence, you have to understand anti-blackness; the way that Jewish people as religious minorities were able to be transformed into “Jews” as a “race” of “Semitic people”. You have to use these anti-black logics and eugenic sciences that Europeans had adopted and exported in all of their colonies.

I think it’s also important to understand how invested many marginalised groups are in anti-blackness. You can’t talk about Islamophobia without talking about the erasure of the specific targeting of black muslims by non-black muslims. If you look at the police shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, CA, or the recent killing of Nia Wilson in Oakland, it wasn’t until these people were revealed to have been muslim that their deaths became relevant to the muslim community, as opposed to understanding that we are all part of this same racial underclass to some extent. Why are we not in solidarity with one another? Because anti-blackness is still profitable and useful in situating yourself as proximate to whiteness as a non-black person.

That’s why intersectionality is useful. People look at a politician like Susan Collins and ask, how could a woman support someone like Brett Kavanaugh? White women were very enthusiastic participants in slave economies. They’re not these unequivocal victims. We all have to recognise our own complicity within structures of violence.

In chapter three, you argue explicitly in favour of oppressed people arming themselves in self-defence—‘self-defence is not violence, it is a means of survival’—and you demonstrate how, throughout the history of the United States, the politics of reform has been a losing strategy for oppressed peoples. That debate is as relevant as ever in the United States, but the rise in calls for gun control measures has arguably complicated this position. Could you explain some of the deeper nuances of the gun control debate?

When we have conversations about gun control, we need to remember that the only time the United States has ever passed gun control legislation was when black people began arming themselves; it was a political reaction to black people unequivocally asserting their right to self-defence. Constitutional rights become scarier when black people start claiming them.

I have a complicated set of desires around guns. I don’t think that anyone needs to have access to the types of weapons the NRA thinks should be protected by the 2nd Amendment. I also don’t like the way that this conversation is being framed around mental health, and anything other than the broader structure of violence in the United States.

Statistically, who has been responsible for all these acts of mass violence and terror in the United States? This is fundamentally about white male violence, but also about asking, what is the “gun threat” in America? We need to have a conversation about the relationship between these incidents of violence and domestic abuse, and also link domestic abuse to militarism. Some of these mass shooters have been both military veterans and people with a track record of domestic violence.

What does it mean to create laws around any kind of criminalisation? When you criminalise a thing, who are the people that are presumed to be criminal, and who are the people that, by the expansion of the carceral structure, will be most harmed? That’s what I want to have conversations about when we talk about gun control. From the beginning, gun control was an explicitly anti-black act.

Also, in talking about gun control we aren’t talking enough about acts of self-defence. I’m not saying we need stockpiles of guns for when the state comes for us. What I am saying is that historically, with black folks, sometimes the only thing that prevented black people from being massacred by the klan or by racist vigilantes, was those vigilantes knowing that those black people had guns, and as soon as you stepped foot on their property, they’d shoot at you. We can’t have a conversation about gun control without a historical account of what has served as an effective deterrent against black people being murdered.

What is it about the ethos of this country that makes black people be fair game in this way? What is it about the socialisation of manhood and masculinity that makes violence an accessible means of emotional reaction? Not only accessible, but encouragedLet’s talk about Stand Your Ground laws, and how there are certain people who are allowed to stand their ground when black people have been murdered, but when Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot in a state with those same laws, she went to prison.

We have to have all these conversations at the same time. That makes gun control conversations a lot more complicated, because you can’t legislate a solution to all of that without really having a conversation about what the ideological foundation of this country is. There are so many more variables than ‘either you care about children or you don’t’. Because at this point, clearly nobody cares about children! That’s an appeal to emotion that has been wildly unsuccessful. 

Traditionally, gun ownership is about defending yourself against a tyrannical government, but when you’ve got militarised police driving tanks through your towns with automatic weapons and drones, nothing in your domestic arsenal will protect you. But black people are living not only in terror of a tyrannical government, but of their fellow citizens as well, and when you place total authority in state power in deciding who should be armed, and how, it’s not hard to see who will experience the worst side effects.

Yeah. Arguably the defining characteristic of state sovereignty is he who has the monopoly over legitimate violence. The violence in self-defence becomes illegitimate. And people are like, ‘Yeah, but if people are able to compete against the government then we’ll devolve into civil war!’ and I sort of feel like… well, it’s been a war. Just not against white people in this particular way.

You also reaffirm a position that Jackie Wang lays out in her book Carceral Capitalism, arguing against the politics of “innocence” when discussing anti-black violence. It highlights the danger of the seemingly-innocuous politics of the centre; how a need for victims of violence to be innocent often creates a minefield of conditionality regarding the value of black life.

The politics of innocence for me is highlighted most dramatically when a black person is killed by police, and if they have a previous record, their mugshot will get shown, even though they are literally the victim. When Eric Garner was murdered over selling cigarettes, okay, what he was doing was technically illegal, but was that a capital crime? Selling loose cigarettes?

It really came to a head with the recent prison strikes. People poured onto the streets for the Women’s March, but weren’t comparably supportive of incarcerated people demanding, in their own words, to not be treated like slaves through carceral labour practices; calling to end certain gang stat-sheets and laws that funnel black and brown people into prison structures; calling for a particular claim to humanity that, through a lack of solidarity, was not answered.

The way we have come to understand prison and carceral violence as necessary, because you are someone who has violated a law and therefore should be subject to certain state controls, you are a criminal, no longer innocent, and therefore no longer worthy of the same protections as other citizens.

And yes, it gets hard to have that stance as a person who self-describes as a prison abolitionist, because when Bill Cosby was convicted, for example, and all these women came out saying they had been drugged and raped by him, my first impulse is like, ‘Lock that bitch up!’ because he was the guiltiest of the guilty. Or Dylann Roof, who shot 9 people in a church. It’s harder to grapple with the people that are “guilty” than to resist the criminalisation of innocent people writ large. I always think about how, after shooting 9 people in a church and going on the run, they apprehended Dylann Roof, and took him to Burger King.

When we talk about prison abolition we’re talking about much more than four walls and a door. We’re talking about the entire structure; how that logic penetrates all of society. Who is eligible as a citizen? Who is eligible as human? We can talk about the incarcerated people in the South Carolina prisons who were not evacuated during Hurricane Florence; they were not worthy of saving. It’s a metaphor for what the prison has become—a depository people who have been deemed morally, socially, culturally, racially, not worth saving. It’s not that we believe in no prisons, but that the system cannot continue in its current form, and if we’re going to put the good bits to use, we need to take them apart and put them back together.

And we can preserve those things in the recreation of some new thing! But recognise that the foundation is rotten, and if we’re going to renovate the structure, we need to start from the very bottom. Your basement is shitty, and flooded. You can’t just buy a new couch and call it a day.

In chapter four you discuss strategies for resistance moving forward, and emphasise the need to ‘avoid neoliberal enticements to corporatize or commoditize’, and question the ‘murky morality of “conscious consumerism”’.

That discussion is certainly a pressing one right now, where diversity in the media and black representation has become a hot discussion in film, literature, commerce and so on. It feels like a lot of people, black and white, struggle with this particular issue because to argue against these ‘enticements’ feels cynical. How do we highlight the problem of over-reliance on what you call ‘microwaveable movements’ without alienating people?

I was on a panel a couple of days ago about women’s suffrage and the mid-term elections. Part of the way we’re over-emphasising the importance of electing women is this crisis of liberal representation; this notion that representation in itself is a win. But what does it mean to have a woman at the helm of empire?

When I’m looking at elections, I’m wondering, what is your definition of political success? Even if we have Democrats controlling a capitalist United States, we’re still going to have an ongoing genocide of Indigenous people, a prison structure, and a need to keep people poor in order to access a pool of cheap labour.

When Kamala Harris was Attorney General of California, her office refused an early parole programme because then California would lose its pool of inmate labour—especially as a firefighting force for the increasing wildfires that are happening as a result of climate change.

London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, is a black woman from the Bay Area who grew up in public housing, and her response to homelessness in SF was to send “Poop Patrols” out to power-wash human faeces off the streets before big spikes in non-emergency 311 calls, instead of saying, hey, we need to revamp this housing structure and this understanding of housing as a commodity. You’d assume because she grew up in public housing that she would “know better”, but what kind of values do you have to adopt in order to be able to thrive in the American political system?

What does it mean when a structure of capitalism decides that you are marketable? There are studies that have demonstrated that movies with “diverse” casts often do much better at the box office because people are sick of watching Girls and Friends and these all-white casts in otherwise diverse spaces. So then, because there’s an opportunity for profit margin, as opposed to recognising that there’s a violence in forcing non-white people to only watch white people on television, what does that decision actually mean? What are we fighting for? Are we fighting for the ability to be as commodifiable?

It’s not to say that it’s not important for people to see themselves in high places. Seeing Serena Williams as a tennis player who’s just been destroying people on the court for such a long time is incredible! Even though I hate the Obamas, there was still something kind of awesome about having a black president, I’m not going to pretend that there wasn’t.

But then I think about the film Crazy Rich Asians, and how there were so many great critiques of the class politics of where the movie was set, and how all the main characters were very fair-skinned and comparatively white-proximate, and the only dark-skinned people were the help. I’m thinking of all the controlling images of black women in the media—like in The Help! I’m wondering, what is the cost of being able to see yourself?

It takes a particularly cynical turn with Colin Kaepernick, for example, where you have Nike literally commodifying resistance, and now everyone is like, ‘Nike’s the resistance!’ Meanwhile, there’s some 14-year old in the Pacific making our sneakers and making Kaepernick product.

I want to be able to celebrate it, but I also know that we don’t own the means of media production, so the stories that are often being told on our behalves are being told by the people who are perceived to be safe; a good return on white investment. That doesn’t excite me. It just makes me sad. Even thinking about all these black folks wearing wax print and Kente fabric to Black Panther screenings, and how that wax print is made in the Netherlands. We don’t even own the means of what is understood as some kind of indigenous cultural expression!

I just want people to ask, what is the material function, the material benefit, the material gain that we make through representation. And if there is one, on a mass scale, then I’ll shut my mouth, but until there is one, beyond the nice feelings of seeing yourself, I’m going to be sceptical of that as a politic in itself.

Colin Kaepernick is a threat to the NFL. That’s why they’re not hiring him. But he’s not a threat to racial capital, per se, because he represents a particular kind of resistance, and though it’s certainly destabilising of certain institutions, in others, it’s just sexy.

As Black As Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation is available now from AK Press
Alternatively, request it at your local bookstore or library.
Follow Zoe Samudzi on Twitter.

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