There is no way to describe it really.
I am just flesh and bone but yet I want to touch the impossible thing.
In front of me, in all of its fiery glory, sits an Atlanta Police Department car set on fire by young Black people. In the wake of a global uprising against the occupied police state currently known as Atlanta, GA, fire is now the only way to heal. Everything, from federal buildings, institutions, and prisons must be touched by its holy hand.
Blooming the most gorgeous hue of orange, there is an insurrection occurring in the middle of a Georgian summer. That alone says something about Black folks’ ability to resist. That not even the heat of the devil can stop my people from showing their teeth to the rotten world.
A few days before this, young people set fire to the third precinct police department after Minneapolis Police killed George Floyd. The same way they killed Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery.
Fire at its peak speeds up the decaying process. It demands any substance it touches die at a faster rate than it was created. Fire, the breath of young people nationwide, and a long withstanding movement for Black liberation are demanding the defunding of police departments nationwide. There is no tomorrow in a world with police, only a type of suffering that I’m tired of romanticizing. We (see: Black people) deserve a world where the state doesn’t murder us or puts us in cages for being poor. We deserve a world without prisons and we will get it come hell or high water.
In 1960 James Baldwin ventured to Tallahassee, Florida to report on the student activism occurring at Florida A&M University. What followed was an observation called “They Can’t Turn Back” that spoke to the dawn of Black student activism and clarity that young people bring meaning to time. A meaning that happens even as the world falls away from itself and creates space to birth a new reality, a new kind of common sense.
The uprisings of 2020 are asking us questions about what our new normal will be. The uprisings in cities, states, and countries all across the world are asking us to sit with what it means to see, participate and be an oppressed person in a world that feeds off of your body. So it matters deeply how we respond. In the ‘60s we got voting rights, we saw the Black power movement and how the government silenced every leading voice it could. We watched as in the early 2000s they used “democracy” to bomb Brown people in the name of the new common sense. In 2016 we thought police reform would end the police-state killing us live on television.
Here we are four years later, and if you are like me, then this feels like a PTSD that rests easily on the skin. I joined movement work in 2015 while protesting Hillary Clinton as a student organizer. For three years I ran myself into the ground searching for purpose and eventually realized that the fight to end prisons, incarceration, and Black death by the state has to begin with prison abolition. That we must pull it from the root, or the thing will grow a new head.
“I am so tired of waiting.
for the world to become good
and beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
and cut the world in two –
and see what worms are eating
at the rind.”– Langston Hughes (1931)
In They Can’t Turn Back Baldwin wrestles with how these young people, so fresh in the world, met with immense disapproval from their parents but were able to prevail even with their community against them. Baldwin speaks to the clarity in their eyes, he doesn’t denounce it as naivete. He says, “What has "got into" them is their history in this country”. Four years ago, the kids breaking into Target, burning cop cars and shouting at police were speaking to a history that they have lived, a history that has shown them death, poverty, strife, and a new way of being that is invested in time. In the naming of systems that have been gnawing on them since birth.
The systems that create our current way of being: white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism all are rooted in the need for silence from marginalized people. It demands the status quo to keep the music playing. In Atlanta specifically, we are burdened with the reality that even Black leadership like mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Black celebrities are willing to protect property over the wellbeing of Black people. We do not live in Wakanda and any illusion of the sort ignores the knife in our backs. It tries to make invisible how the city of Atlanta continues to cage poor people for existing. These hollow attempts at quelling the masses make plain their fear of seeing the empire fall. An empire that keeps them safe and warm at night while we die in silence.
Anti-Blackness is a global project, meaning the riots of this time are echoed in the rebellions across the world of marginalized people. We are living in a new era. What must be understood without question is that the United States is not unique in its anti-Black racism, neoliberal tactics or its imperialist views of the global south. The imperial states of Canada, Great Britain, and any country that has roots in colonialism need to be fearful of the next insurrection. That they too will wake up on a Wednesday morning to the visual revolution that was seeing the Minneapolis precinct set on fire. That time is ticking and it’s calling for a new world, one without cages, one that centers care. A world where my back is no longer the bridge nor the stepping stone to a tomorrow with more platitudes and never enough freedom.
White people globally and those with immense privilege have to sit within the uncomfortable in order to get on the right side of history. This new world requires white people specifically to unlearn their inherited anti-Blackness, support Black people financially, and teach other white people around them about the work required to dismantle white supremacy. It is not easy and it requires you to not put that labor on Black people, as we cannot and will not absolve you of your racist past. But if abolition teaches anything it reminds us that anyone and everyone deserves the space to transform for the better.
As Baldwin states, and what is most evident in these perilous times is that Black people – specifically young Black people – have to move with a new kind of care and love than ever before. We are building the new common sense and it will demand we look at our fears head on. It will require of us a type of bravery that the youth know all too well.
“This was 40 years ago, and not enough has happened – not enough freedom has happened. But these young people are determined to make it happen and make it happen now. They cannot be diverted. It seems to me that they are the only people in this country now who really believe in freedom. Insofar as they can make it real for themselves, they will make it real for all of us. The question with which they present the nation is whether or not we really want to be free. It is because these students remain so closely related to their past that they are able to face with such authority a population ignorant of its history and enslaved by a myth...These students prove unmistakably what most people in this country have yet to discover: that time is real.” – James Baldwin, They Can’t Turn Back (1960)