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Est. April 5, 2002
January 21, 2016 - Issue 637

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Up You Mighty Race.
Accomplish What You Will.
What a Time.  To Be Alive! 
What a Time.  To Be Alive!

By umi selah
(formerly Philip Agnew)

"We must think of our responsibilities to others
in everything that we do and build. The Black
Radical Tradition has always been the champion
here and we must not allow subversive,
anti-revolutionary personalities and mis-leaders
to own this conversation any longer."

Note: The following is a presentation made by Mr. selah at The Black Radical Tradition in Our Time, 2016 Conference - Temple University, Philadelphia PA

The title of our panel today is “Challenging White Supremacy: The Black Radical View”, a richly wide-reaching prompt, as we live today in a world ever-increasingly consumed by the oppressive views, beliefs, force and power of ravenous white supremacy.

As we have heard, white supremacy is a disease. It is recalcitrant, and resistant to most forms of treatment.

As with patriarchy and capitalism, it is a chameleon, a toxin able to infect its hosts silently, often misdiagnosed as ego, religion, tradition, or ignorance. White supremacy is highly contagious: it has been known to be transmitted orally: in the venomous, caustic cancer of the tongue (watch your language); it has been transmitted through skin to skin contact: the loveless embrace or the domestic fist or the cold shoulder to the community (watch everything you build and keep moist towelettes on deck); I’ve even heard stories of it being waterborne, airborne and spread telepathically. I heard that if one happens to touch one afflicted with the illness and then one happens to rub ones eye it can render ones vision distorted or blinded or worse…color blind. I’ve heard it attacks even our dead, condemning and convicting our corpses. (Guard the graves.)

You get the picture. White supremacy is a motherfucker.

Alas, as Brothers West and Montiero reminded us, it is one that the Black Radical Tradition has wrestled with for centuries and, as this panel implies, it is a motherfucker that calls us, especially today, to remain ever vigilant and war ready.

Today, I’d like to speak of a particularly pervasive symptom of white supremacy. A telltale sign of the sickness: vicious individualism-- a uniquely western epidemic and export.

Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that emphasizes the moral worth of the individual. Individualists promote the exercise of one's goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance advocate that interests of the individual should achieve precedence over the state or a social group, while opposing external interference upon one's own interests by society or institutions such as the government. Individualism makes the individual its focus and so starts "with the fundamental premise that the human individual is of primary importance in the struggle for liberation.

This principle permeates patriarchal, capitalist, and white supremacist systems and is as American as the $.99 McDonald’s apple pie.

So this afternoon, with this and vigilance in mind, I’d like to illuminate a place where this virtue of white supremacy flourishes right beneath…our thumbs.

I call this talk: No One Hand should have all that Power: How Social Media May Not Be So Awesome and Popularizes White Supremacist Individualism.

Our generation’s relationship with social media is…complicated: with many tensions and contradictions. This relationship is widely examined as binary. And most analysis sides with its most positive elements. Most herald it as the “great connector and community constructor”, “democratizer”, “voice-granter”, and “power builder” of our age.

I disagree. The cooperative nature of this tool is exaggerated, it’s importance inflated to proportions that threaten to cripple the next generation of liberation fighters. I posit that is has now become an asylum for neoliberal values and an arena where unchecked hate, dominance, farce, and individualism now flourish and threaten to DOOM our chance at building a mass collective movement of the people.

We have reached a point where the hammer is being misrepresented as the house and many of social media’s most talented practitioners have preached embracing it as the pinnacle of representative power and solidarity at the expense of building real community and organization.

We live in the age of uploaded avatars, insecurities and weaknesses in the name of forming community. Social media coddles the individual’s expectation for recognition and a false sense of connection through that recognition. Our tangible feelings are lost in the experience of impersonal expression.

Even with the ability to reach others at the push of a button, we see many examples where Social Media makes us hyper acclimated to isolation and distance: the very antithesis of the Village. Thousands, maybe millions, of young people are adopting the belief that movement visibility in social media not only guarantees destiny and victory, but also celebrity and awareness: with deadly consequences to our movement. The indicators are seditious: Our movement is obsessed with doing the “biggest,” “most shared” thing and, subconsciously, lead ourselves into a war against our movement partners. Then there is the cynicism, the searching, the scrolling, and the beat of the thumbs against the devices that soon sour vision and even influence strategy.

Put simply, we aren’t fighting patriarchy, white supremacy or capitalism-- we are vying for virtual validation. This competition is intensely individualistic, apathetic, and na´ve to the joys of being fully present in a moment, to the sacrifice and commitment that it takes to build a powerful thing that contends with powerful things and transforms relationships to power and destiny.

Let us question it’s distinction as a “great democratizer.” Unquestionably, it has opened the door for millions of marginalized to be heard and seen by allowing for the stories of scores of once invisible people to be elevated. That is a power previous generations could only hope for. Yet, a true democracy weighs both the power of individual identity with the responsibility to the collective. There is no responsibility or accountability in the online arena. (Save for Twitter feeding frenzies launched when someone goes afoul of groupthink).

There is an anonymity that shields many from the repercussions of their lies and feaux leadership; allowing for many to enjoy the fruits of freedom without the labor of accountability. It is this lack of responsibility, to a collective to a community and unchecked liberalism even within our ranks that created the vacuum that the DeRay McKessons of the world-- individuals-crowned-leaders by white liberals with no base, no experience, and cobbled analysis now occupies. His ascendance is the favorite American tale: the story of an individual who through snark and soundbite and brand alone can accrue the soft power of influence and online followers and the very real power to speak for Black people. This narrative is happening on our watch and must be challenged.

Millions of our youth are internalizing the notion that democracy is the ability to say and do as you please without the responsibility of consequences or to a collective greater than oneself. It is a Right Wing Pipe Dream: a generation of black folk poised to ferociously defend individual liberties under the banners of a “Freedom” and “Democracy” that is inherently individualistic and American.

Our movement must attack this belief at every turn. Democracy is work. It challenges selfishness and greed and is the building block for an alternative conception of society. We must think of our responsibilities to others in everything that we do and build. The Black Radical Tradition has always been the champion here and we must not allow subversive, anti-revolutionary personalities and mis-leaders to own this conversation any longer.

Now, to its merit as the great connector and community builder. One would be a fool to ignore the obvious: that social media is a virtual passport to places and people worlds away. But what we gain in long distance connection I fear we lose in close ones. We’ve all seen the signs: trains and restaurants and parties filled with people with their eyes transfixed on their palms, collections of people reduced to insular individuals locked in an ever expanding digital universe. We find it easier to upload every corner of our conscious to the Web in the name of forming community. And yet, we lack the energy and desire to engage the energy around us. Even with this great collective weapon, here we find another example of it being used to make us intensely individual and incapable of empathy and the joys of the present.

Movements and communities are built and sustained through deep personal relationships which challenge dominant narratives of success, opportunism, and supremacist tactics. Social media is a tool toward building transparent forms of relating and articulation but cannot replace the work organizers must do in order to demonstrate other modes of positive radical communication. We have to continue to create and imagine ways to resolve conflict and affirm each other’s voices. We should challenge the notion that Social Media can do any more than serve as a gateway to organizing in the here and now. Anything less than a strong on the ground accomplice to this virtual reality will surely doom this burgeoning movement moment nurtured and developed over time. We have to embrace this necessary truth or else fall victim to distraction and deception.

Let’s examine its position as a barometer of a movement’s power. There are many definitions of power. To use a concept coined by American Political Scientist, Joseph Nye, I propose that social media is an expression of “soft power”. It is appealing and attractive. Culture becomes an ambassador and infiltrates where an individual can become a movement onto oneself without accountability or collective support. It attracts and coopts instead of coercion. It is a process of lobbying through less transparent channels for political or non-political influence. Social media’s power lays in how powerless people are and society becomes more prone to control or persuasion.

As organizers contending with clear and present exertion of “hard power”: “the use of military and economic means to influence the behavior or interests of other political bodies”, we cannot grow comfortable here in our capable wielding of Social Media “soft power.” Our opposition relishes our reliance on inherently disconnected online tools and forums to measure, guide, and direct our movement. They crown online leaders (they tried us for a minute) with the obvious goal of co-optation and the subversive goal of teaching our people that those individuals with millions of followers are the drivers of change.

More telling, many crowned “leaders” openly advocate against building grassroots organizations (with some valid critiques, yet painted with brushes far too broad) in lieu of online engagement and refuge. More sinister, there is a growing fear amongst many liberal circles to contend with and grasp hard power. This fear has evolved into outright aversion. This activity reveals itself in the reactions by many to direct action tactics and can only be described as counterrevolutionary and anti-movement.

Soul (blackness) is produced through struggle and a resistance to live and become, not through the passive witnessing of spectacle and speaking. There is warmth in our intimacy and sincerity that can only be mocked by Social Media but can never fully be replicated or experienced. Soul is made through the tension of life’s obstacles and one’s many methods of overcoming. It is what feeds and nourishes our invisible realities.

This analysis comes from a personal reflection.

For quite some time, Social Media was my public Hall of Mirrors. Judge and jury to every action and movement. It inebriated my ego and courted my insecurities. I was off-center; my self-perception self-curated online. Without it, I began to recognize the “little things”— the tiny triumphs coming to comfort me in the dark times.

I recognized my most vicarious nature. How I used my timeline to escape the stress, isolation, or perceived shortcomings of the present. I looked in the mirror and saw my deep desire to be known, remembered, and valued. I recognized the lengths I would go to keep hold of Social Media’s illusionary embrace. I was passively skeptical of each performance of resistance I saw on my timeline. Human actions became perverted caricatures.

Maybe it was the act of putting the phone face down that forced me to see the people in front of me or maybe the silencing of all the commenting that made me listen to the actual voices of people around me. I could hear my own voice more clearly. It was a fasting of the spirit. I was no longer overwhelmed with newsfeeds of death, pain, politics, and posturing—at least for the time being. I gained some solace from the numbness and cynicism growing from the constant posts on my timeline. I became more connected to the people around me. I actively participated more in every day events. There was Newness again. I was reunited with a time before we knew what everyone ate, who everyone loved, where they vacationed, how their day went--all before meeting them. I was meeting people outside of other’s interest in them.

So what is our duty as a movement in challenging this? We must build organizations, actions, and practices that have mass educational appeal and also transform intimate relational presence or engagement. Our movement must return the Collective to its rightful place in our analysis, practice, and vision for tomorrow.

I encourage our community organizers toward true and exhibitions of democracy, community, and power. Not followship and diffusions of responsibility. We must ferociously challenge the notion that any one of us is more important than all of us. We must re-embrace the great strategic value in everyone not knowing everything you do, when we do it, and whom we do it with. We have been conditioned to be complicit in compromising our best strategies, delivering our plans publicly. We must envision new strategies in this ‘1984’ reality. (misinformation)?

We must wrest our movement from the clutches of individualism and the false message of microwave movement. A movement can be educated and invigorated online, but never built there. A true movement is one based on deep relationships that can withstand the winds of trend. We have all watched cyber solidarity and camaraderie drown in the shallow waters of online connections. Building relationships with people requires being present. Nothing--no amount of speeches, witty tweets, shirts, appearances, or protester pictures--can replace that.

Dr. King speaks from the grave: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

I challenge us all to bask in the magic of the here and now, reserve precious moments for your memory, implore our communities to reunite with all of their many selves—not just the Avatar with the most likes. We must remind our movement of the magic of the collective community. We must get lost in conversation with our innermost thoughts and idiosyncrasies. We must seek out the “why’s” and the “how longs”, and once again be amazed and embarrassed at ourselves. We must remember a time where love was a warm embrace, liberation a hot meal with comrades in the kitchen and a song in the heart, and victory more than headlines.

Then, and only then, will we challenge subversive cyber white Supremacy and truly hold a united future in the palms of our hands. Guest Commentator umi selah fka Phillip Agnew, a native of Chicago, Ill., found his voice as a community activist while a student at Florida A&M University, the #1 Historically Black College & University in the world.
In 2005, he helped to organize students from FAMU, Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College in the creation of the Student Coalition for Justice, which was formed in response to the Martin Lee Anderson case.
In 2012, he co-founded the Dream Defenders, an organization committed to shifting the culture through transformational organizing;  dedicated to building a community of love and reconciliation and training and organizing young people in nonviolent civil disobedience, transformative organizing, and direct action.

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