An interview with M. Adams by Dayna Long
Photo by Emily Mills
DL: It’s pretty clear that we’re living through a historic and unprecedented moment. There’s urban rebellions in every city. You have often referred to yourself as a movement scientist, and so I’m wondering about your assessment of the conditions that led to this upsurge of struggle that we’re seeing around the country. How do you think that we got here?
MA: A few significant threads that are woven into the cloth of this time are, one, in the last 10 or 15 years there’s been massive Black resistance to particular anti-Black violence that we can point to. Hurricane Katrina, which for many people my age – I’m 34 – was a lifting of the veil. We were able to identify state violence and point to it and say, “This is it, this is where it’s happening.” I think also the murder of Trayvon Martin, criminalization of Marissa Alexander, the Jena Six, the New Jersey Five, Ferguson – there’s several moments in the last 10 or 15 years that have sown in the seeds of resistance, or the seed of protest and rebellion in particular, as responses to state violence.
At this point, we can say it’s in people’s memories. That’s really important, because if we look at Cuba – I’m not saying we’re in the same stage that Cuba was in terms of our pre-revolutionary conditions – but if we look at Cuba, within a single lifetime, there were wars and rebellions. There’s something about people having participated in protest and rebellion in recent memory, I think, that is making rebellion feel more accessible to people. Part of why this is so big is because Ferguson was a predecessor. That’s one aspect of it, is that Black people – in particular, young Black people, not just the civil rights generation, but Black people thirty and below – have in our lived experience, have a history with rebellion.
Two, I think the conditions of the pandemic are an important one. The pandemic really highlighted and helped to speed up people’s awareness of how fucked up things are for Black people. People’s frustration and disappointment in the government’s response was really a blow. When people saw that Black people were dying, when people saw that we weren’t getting ventilators, I think it heightened things. We, as Black people, were not good enough to be saved, but our labor was deemed essential. Many could see how the military and police forces were well-funded, and health resources grossly underfunded. The contradictions were heightened! And because we were socially isolating, social distancing – many movement people were not thinking that there could be a move to in-person action. Many thought that all in-person work was far off. I did not think that. I knew that things were steeping and brewing and that things were ripening. So that was a miscalculation, a misunderstanding of the science, by some people who are on our side.
I think the other factor is the brute nature of gendered racial capitalism and police terrorism. To watch anyone scream for their mother as the life is choked out of them, for minutes, which feel eternal, evokes, forces all of us into action. In the last years, we have been inundated with stories, videos, memories of painful Black death, both slow and gratuitous. Enough was enough. So when we saw George Floyd’s slaying – it was reminiscent of lynching, and that is effectively what it is – in the middle of broad daylight, it ignited all of those things.
Those are some of the important social, economic and political factors, factors that were put in the crucible, that were put in the bake for this moment. I will also say, to go back to the science part, I remember being in classes in high school, chemistry classes, and learning about the concept of saturation, which is when something has absorbed all it can take. I think we are at another point of saturation. Internally, inside, many Black people know, whether or not they can articulate it, that there is no existing institutional recourse for what they’re experiencing or what we’re experiencing as a community and for our families. And so I think the very human, innate response is to fight for what you need, to rebel. That’s exactly what’s happening.
Those things, also with a fourth of Donald Trump. He is a fucking terror, and I think the rise of his white nationalism – but also, all the other forms of white supremacist, cisheteropatriachial capitalist violence that he sanctions – has forced many to reckon with their value systems and morality. He and national systems, as well as local systems, demonstrate the stark differences between how white people live here and how Black people live. Black people have effectively been backed into a corner knowing that nothing’s going to come here to save you. I think sometimes liberal governments confuse people on that, thinking, “Oh, there’s a way out,” or maybe there’s some harm reduction that will happen to make it more bearable. But I think with Trump it’s pretty clear. It’s pretty fucking clear.
DL: I almost fell out of my chair the night of the first rebellion on State Street when the mayor was praising your daytime protest and standing with Freedom Inc. and Urban Triage and the Party for Socialism and Liberation without saying those names. I’m interested in what you make of this sudden change of heart where you have people like the mayor, county board supervisors, and folks who have traditionally opposed the stuff that you’re fighting for suddenly sidling up to your organization.
MA: I don’t confuse them making a statement as being supporters of our mission. Our demands now were our demands then. I think there are two things that are happening right now.
One, tactically, the state is always figuring out how to divide and conquer, which is why we continue to have a message of “The movement will not be divided.” So we continuously say, however people resist, they resist. We will not at all feed into the narrative or support the narrative of a good protest versus a bad protest in terms of tactics being used and, really, in terms of whether or not there’s property destruction. We don’t at all measure protest or the effectiveness of our work by how many businesses still have glass. So one, we need to understand and be mindful about the ways that, right now, the opposition will try to pit us against one another. And we must reject that every time.
The other dynamic that I do think is interesting, that we have to have a level of sophistication to (which doesn’t completely change our position or orientation, but rather should be a factor in our strategy), I do think, based on the work that has been done for four or five years in local cities, that there have been organizations that have been able to advance in some local policy and opportunities. I do think that, for example, some of the things that we have seen in Minneapolis – with the university and the schools ending their contracts with the police – that didn’t just happen because of now. Now was absolutely a hell of a catalyst in the fire, but it was also because, prior to that, there have been organizations who were working to ultimately end police terrorism and, as a result, were able to help advance particular things that they could exploit within the system. So perhaps they were able to advance by getting someone who was less harmful to their political goals in office, which meant maybe they had a little more leeway in advancing current initiatives.
I say that to say, I think there’s an opportunity for us to follow that and to get police out of schools right now. I think if that is to happen, it’s going to happen not just because of the current resistance but also because some of our bigger opposition that was on the school board four years ago is no longer there. That’s a result of us being in the street rebellion, big picture and formative demand work, but also impacting institutions around us to create more leeway for some of these changes to happen through policy. Not that that’s our only method, but for some of that to happen, I think both of those things are happening. There may be people right now inside of the local government who are less adversarial to what we’re trying to achieve, and there may be some supporters.
However, again, we’re very clear that even if there may be some inkling of that, we are still very much against that total system and institution.
DL: A lot of socialists and anti-capitalists are under the mistaken impression that we can limit the fight against capitalism to economic issues and set aside questions of oppression, like racism. I’m interested in your understanding of the centrality of the fight for Black liberation in ending capitalism.
MA: It’s on both sides. We cannot end white supremacy and racial terrorism without anti-capitalism. We cannot end capitalism without ending anti-Blackness, white supremacy and racial terrorism. It’s because of how the systems were developed. You can’t end one without ending the other on both sides.
When people don’t have an understanding of how closely linked they are, it shows, because when there is anti-Black violence or white supremacist terrorism that happens to us, when our folks take to the street against the police, for example, they also are dealing with the economic situation they’re in. We have a true understanding of capitalism’s invention of race. To be clear, this is racial capitalism. There isn’t another form of it. There is no such thing as color blind capitalism. There’s only one capitalism that’s really ruling right now and has been ruling for 400 years, and that’s a white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism. So when that police terror happens to us and we’re resisting, we’re resisting the whole of it.
So for a person who doesn’t understand how those systems were developed together or globalized together to produce this condition and context, to them it seems disjointed that a Black person would be murdered by the police and that a Black person resisting would then go and burn a business. But if you understand that the role of the police is to act as an occupying force within this capitalist system to protect the material and policies and laws of capitalism, to advance those objectives, which are the expansion of capitalism – which is the exploitation of Black people, Black bodies, Black labor, the earth, women, disabled, queer, intersex and trans people, etc. – if we understand that, then a resistance against the police is a resistance against the business.
I think many leftists tend not to have a true understanding of the full picture of capitalism, because they neglect to understand how race was an essential feature in advancing capitalism and how Black people were effectively the first real capital, the first real place for profit. The creation of race – anti-Black chattel enslavement, the pillaging of Africa and the genocide of folx Indigenous to the Americas – was one of the first real ways of deriving profit and wealth under the capitalist system. I would like to see those on the left have a better understanding of that. We cannot end capitalism while also upholding white supremacy.
I would like to see many people who focus on race only to have a material analysis. Race has a material connection. There is value derived from race. Race is a creation of a capitalist system. They developed around the same time. My point is that we have to understand that this is a racial capitalist system and not simply a racial system or a capitalist system.
And really, it’s actually a gendered racial capitalist system, because without reproductive violence and the controlling of women’s bodies, the forcing of heteronormativity, the imposition of the nuclear family to produce workers, social reproduction theory and a host of other things, there couldn’t have been the same level of wealth accumulation. There couldn’t have been a precapitalist condition with reproductive violence and extractive patriarchal practices toward the Earth. The development of the state follows the same way. We have to understand that profit is derived from race, profit and value is derived from gender and those things are exploited as part of the capitalist system and also exacerbated and recreated as part of the capitalist system. And so in order to defeat capitalism we have to defeat its essential features, which are race and gender oppression and all of their derivatives, ableism, xenophobia etc.
DL: Finally, you’re not just a leader here in Madison, you’re a national leader in the Movement for Black Lives. We’re in the middle of the Movement for Black Lives week of action. Can you tell me about the significance of this week and speak to the movement’s demands?
MA: The Movement for Black Lives is a collection of over sixty Black-led organizations in the country. We do have a week of action that is inspired by the incredible resistance and rebellion happening all across the country, led by Black people. And on the following weekend of Juneteenth, we have a weekend of action. In many of the places where the rebellions are, there are organizations in the Movement for Black Lives that are joined in the resistance work.
Locally, the demands that we are really uplifting that are also connected to the broader week are, one, defund the police. Based on what I just said about how the police function as an occupying force within the Black communities with the objective to advance the gendered racial capitalist agenda, we have an assessment that the police must absolutely be defunded and this current iteration of police as we understand it must be abolished. We’re fighting to completely defund it. Take the money. Take the money and the resources completely away from the police and instead invest those in Black life-affirming institutions, infrastructure, programs, grassroots-led initiatives. Some of those things may be healthcare. Some of those things may be seizing land and developing land cooperatives. Some of those things may be ensuring universal income for Black people. Some of those things may be creating more opportunities for Black people to control our own food systems from farm to table. So there’s a range of things that we’re saying are important, Black life-affirming institutions, and they are not this iteration of police. As part of this fight, we are also directly contesting for the power the state has to develop policing apparatuses. We are seeking to determine what safety looks like for our communities.
The second thing we are continuing to fight for is freeing ’em all, getting our folks out of prisons. We understand the role of prisons inside of this system is in connection with what the function of the police are. So we’re demanding the release of our folks right now, today, immediately.
Also, we are advancing community control of the police, which is around seizing the political power, seizing the state’s ability to have an organized, armed branch of the state. We’re directly going after the power to govern ourselves around safety. We think, as Black people, that we should determine what those institutions and structures look like, and not the state.
There are also some other things that people are doing work around, including some online and digital organizing work, to fight for Black people to have the right to actually protest, to stop the police repression. Get the fucking national guard out of here, get the military out of here, get these police out of here, don’t be arresting people, let people out and all this stuff against surveillance. So that’s also some of the stuff. And we’re also demanding that Trump resign. Get his ass out of here!