Fighting state violence, fighting for Black freedom

Malcolm X was assassinated over 50 years ago, but organizations like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) are carrying on the fight for Black liberation today, winning important victories and developing crucial organizing strategies that social justice movements everywhere can learn from. In this episode of Rattling the Bars, TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway and cohost-in-training Charles Hopkins, better known as Mansa Musa, speak with Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele about the crucial lessons MXGM organizers have learned over the years through their efforts to liberate political prisoners, organize and empower Black communities, and combat the apparatuses of state violence. Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele is a community organizer, educator, and member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. He is also the former National Strategies and Partnerships Director at Movement for Black Lives and cofounder of the world-renowned Black August Hip Hop Project.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. Today, we are honored to be joined by Lumumba Bandele, who is one of the leading members of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, to share with us some insights into that movement. Lumumba, thanks for joining me.

Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele: It’s a pleasure and honor to be here with you and always an honor to be in discussion with you. Thank you.

Eddie Conway:                          Okay. I want to just start off so that the audience will know, give us a little brief overview of what the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement is.

Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele:     So the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement – We say MXGM for short – Is a national grassroots mass-based organization that was created in the early 1990s by the New African People’s Organization. And we are organized around six basic principles to help really try to defend the human rights of African people in the United States and globally. And we have chapters in New York City and Atlanta, in Mississippi, in Philadelphia, in DC, parts of Illinois, on the West coast, a few there. So we are growing and our chapters are ebbing and flowing in their health and activity, but we’ve been around for some time and we’ve had some significant wins, some significant lessons, and we are very fortunate to really have been able to come under some very seasoned organizers coming out of NAPO and some other formations that have been really influential in our path in this work.

Charles Hopkins:                       And let me ask you, I was doing some research and I see where y’all got the six principles that y’all operate under. Can you briefly, if possible, elaborate on what they are?

Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele:   All right. So the six principles that MXGM currently works on and we have founded on are defending the human rights of African people in the United States and around the world, reparations, centering our work around self-determination as a guiding principle, the opposing of genocide, releasing of political prisoners and prisoners of war, and then into sexist oppression.

Eddie Conway:                          Okay, that’s good. Talk a little bit about your programs, what kind of programs do you have, or the ones that you are involved with or so on?

Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele:   Got it. So we’ve had a number of programs over the years, and I should state, I’m actually a member of the New York chapter of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, that’s important to say. And over the years we’ve done a number of programs to center one or more of those particular principles. I’ve been responsible for a few of those programs, particularly with respect to the principle around political prisoners and prisons of war and also ending genocide. And so we have developed a people self defense campaign here in New York, which was responsible for our cop watch program that we developed, but that particular campaign really was developed to really deal with the issue of state violence in our communities in response to the increasing number of people being harassed, brutalized, and killed by the police.

And we did that in collaboration with a number of other organizations here in New York City. One of the, I think, most impactful collaborations we’ve had was with the smaller coalition called the Coalition Against Police Brutality under the leadership of now ancestor Richie Perez, who was a former member of the Young Lords Party. The Coalition Against Police Brutality is no longer in existence, but the founding organizations of that particular coalition have since grown that work into another coalition called the Communities United For Police Reform. And we are responsible, our collective visioning, our collective commitment, for actually really shifting some of the landscape of what policing looks like in New York City. Some of the work that our organization specifically was responsible for, I talked briefly about our cop watch program that we model, quite honestly, after the Panther program. What we did was replace the shotguns with video cameras and we decided to do police patrols in the 77, the 79th precincts of central Brooklyn.

And we used those particular locations because that’s where the majority of our membership lived. And that really was a reflection on how we saw our organizing, that we really wanted to make sure that we reflected this idea of organizing where you are. We aren’t going to go into Midtown Manhattan and talk about what needs to happen there, we really were about building a strong base of our neighbors, of our family, of our friends, of community members where we were. And that was essentially what we did. And we did it for about six years, every, probably twice a week in fact, we went out and we patrolled those two precincts in an organized manner.

We had attorneys that were with us, we had two particular teams that were dispatched, we had people at a base. And I’ll be honest with you, a lot of what we did took a lot of preparation, a lot of preparation, and most of the training that we required all of our members to go through who wanted to be in this particular program, that training took a few months and there was a lot of antsy people ready to get out and do the work and get out. But we actually recognize that learning from organizations like SNCC, scenario based preparation, that we had to be prepared for any kind of scenario that we came across. And we spent a lot of time going through particular scenarios and training in our offices. And it took us a few months before we actually went out and started doing the patrols.

And I’ll say this because it’s important too. One of the last things that stopped us from going out that made us go back to the drawing board and add another component to our organization and preparation was based on a correspondence I had with Sekou Odinga, who is now free but was a political prisoner at the time. I wrote him and told him about the program we were getting ready to do and he wrote me back a very short response.

He said, look, I’m glad y’all are doing this. He said, but make sure you put something in place when the state responds. He said, I’m not saying if, I’m saying when. And we put things on pause and we did just that, we created a rapid response network, we put a whole bunch of stuff in place. And lo and behold, it took five years. We thought it would happen sooner, gladly it didn’t. But in 2005 the police did actually respond, and myself and two other members of our organization were arrested while conducting this particular program. And what the training actually did was really put us in a position to make sure that we responded to that inevitability in a most appropriate way, and we did. Our rapid response network was put in place and people began to do all the things they were assigned to do.

By the time we were at the precinct, we hear the phones and the precinct ringing off the hook. We can hear elected officials being taken out of their bed and showing up at the precinct at 1:00 AM in the morning, all of the things that were supposed to happen, happen. And when we finally went before the judge the next day for our arraignment it was over 100 people in the courtroom. Many of them were our community members, some of them – At the time I was teaching at Medgar Evers College – My students, colleagues, neighbors, people who knew who we were as an organization were in the courtroom, and then we were released. And so the charges after almost a year of going back and forth with court dates were eventually dropped.

But what we did do was go on the offensive from then and we filed the lawsuit against the NYPD, a federal lawsuit. And it’s actually something you can look up now called Bandele versus NYC where it was affirmed that videotaping the police is a constitutionally protected act, and that was a big part of the other movement around our policing work moving forward. We use litigation as an organizing tool, and I can talk about that a little bit later. But that’s some of the work we did around policing.

Eddie Conway:                              I know you do a lot of work around political prisoners. Because I came into contact with a lot of your stuff. So talk a little bit about the work you do around political prisoners before we move on to Mansa’s next question.

Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele:  Absolutely. So MXGM, as I mentioned, one of the principles really was to make sure that we were moving on the issue of the existence of political prisoners in the United States and doing what we could to ensure their release. We had gone through some stages of what that work actually looked like. When I first joined MXGM in ’95, 1995, we were just coming out of a space where the leadership of that particular chapter was guided by a former political prisoner, a man by the name of Ahmed Obafemi. Ahmed really positioned the younger members of MXGM, and just to be clear, the New York chapter is primarily at that time young people, I’m almost 50 now, so we’re talking a few decades past, but most of us were in our late teens and early 20s who were doing this work.

And Ahmed made a very intentional decision to make sure that the leadership was put in the hands of young people. And what that did was make sure that the programming, particularly around political prisoners, was done in a way that reflected our voice, was done in a way that reflected our particular community, our peer group, and we were replicating some of the things that his particular age and peer group were doing. And so we did a number of things. Most of what we were doing in the early stages were awareness campaigns and rallies. We would put out different information, posters that we would put up. In fact, in ’95, we were a part of what we call Mumia Summer. If you remember correctly, that was the year that Mumia’s death warrant was signed. At the time judge Albert Sabo had intended on executing Mumia on Aug. 17 ’95, which is Marcus Garvey’s birthday.

We had just completed a youth organizers training conference and we decided to do a pivot. Actually, I don’t want to say we decided. We were instructed to pivot our work to really focus on Mumia because our speaker at the end of that conference, a woman by the name of Safiya Bukhari, came in and told us the urgency of the moment and said, quite frankly, that if we are not about the business of saving Mumia’s life, he will be executed. Excuse me, even though we were in New York, we knew that we had the responsibility to shift the landscape in Philadelphia, and so we did. We did a whole citywide poster campaign and all of New York City, all five boroughs were plastered with Mumia’s face all over it, and that was a big part of what we did. And I think it had some impact because, as we know, Mumia did receive a stay and eventually was removed from death row.

But much of our work was really around that. We took a shift in the mid 2000s. The shift around our approach to the work was done because we were recognizing that many of the folks that we were working on behalf of were not coming home. And in fact, some of them were dying behind the walls. People were dying because of medical neglect, people were dying because of other reasons, but we realized that we were not having the impact that we thought we would. We figured if we raised awareness that people would say, my goodness, the United States government has incarcerated our freedom fighters, we got to all get together and do something about it. And we were waiting for a mass response. And as an organizer you know that doesn’t happen unless you actually coordinate for that to happen. And that did not happen.

So we changed our approach from an awareness campaign approach to that of a freedom campaign approach. And we began to focus on parole, we began to focus on clemency, we began to focus on other litigation to challenge convictions. And what that did was give us a very clear pathway on what the strategy was to actually get our freedom fighters out of prison, and we saw some results with that. And we saw that if we really were clear about the necessity of creating a strategy, and that doesn’t mean that you stick with it regardless, it means that you actually have the ability to maneuver and be flexible as conditions change, as environments change, as situations change, you change with that. But we were not just sitting around hoping and waiting for our people to come in and just demand a release.

And so we shifted. And we were working closely with some attorneys, we began to work closely with people who were doing parole work. And we began to, in fact, shift some of the laws, particularly in New York, that prevented many of our freedom fighters from coming out. Many of those laws were around parole that prohibited people from being released based on the nature of the conviction. And we were told constantly by parole boards that people were being denied because of the nature of the conviction, and we know that that’s something that will never change. If they were supposed to be in prison for life, then they would’ve been sentenced to life without parole. But they had parole. And most of them, matter of fact all of them, actually had fit the criteria of parole but were consistently denied. And so we shifted our approach to that. We began to work with elected officials, we began to get support from state officials and other people, and what we saw was that it really had some real effect on it because people began to come home.

People who we were told would never see the light of day were coming home. We know in 2014 Sekou Odinga came home, we know you came home, Eddie, I think that was one of the most impactful moments of my life to actually be in a courtroom and hear the judge say that you were released. I was like, wait a minute, what did he say? Is he walking out today? And so that does something to you, that does something to people who have committed themselves to this work, to be able to remove this idea of impossibility. Because we are told, not only by the state, we’re told, in fact, by many comrades who were part of this work years ago who said, look, I don’t know what’s going to happen, that it’s impossible, that we actually made the impossible probable. And we really were clear that this actually can happen if we really are smart, intelligent, intentional, and strategic with how we had to do it.

And so we’ve been able to do a number of things since then, we’ve been able to share some of our strategies with other people in other states. And since we’ve been able to see the entire MOVE 9 be released we’ve been able to see a number of other folks released. But one of the things we learned also in this process is that the state doesn’t forget. And we learned that just as people were coming home, the state was really hellbent on making sure that they put other people in prison. And so while we were doing this work we ended up seeing the reincarceration of Kamal Siddiqi, we saw Jamil Al-Amin being put in prison. So we recognized that we had to continue this work and share it out and share these strategies out to make sure that these brothers didn’t die in prison.

Charles Hopkins:                      Yeah. I like your historical relationship and your reference. I want to segue now to, as we know our history tell us that every political movement that we have, mainly when we dealing with political prisons, like when Huey was locked up and when the OnStar of the Panthers, every time we went to get them out we organized a community and it was a correlation between organizing the community and getting them out. But more importantly, having something in place where the community would be more educated on understanding and being able to survive this OnStar, you talking. So how do you translate your organizational works into educating the community? More importantly, around the internal violence that’s going on in our community, the violence that we are waging against each other. How do y’all make a connection between what we’re doing with the political prisoners and other things that we’re doing, but more importantly, getting the community to become more self-conscious and more aware and self-supporting in terms of dealing with those problems?

Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele:  That’s a good question. That’s a very good question. In 1997 a few of us had gone to the World Youth Festival in Havana, Cuba. Myself, a bunch of young people from all over the country had gone there, all over the world, in fact, but we had a pretty broad delegation from the United States that had gone, a few folks from New York. And we had the opportunity to meet with our exiled freedom fighters over there. Both sisters, one of whom has now since passed, sister Nehanda Abiodoun, and Assata Shakur had pulled us to the side and said, look, you all are in a real unique position right now. You all are in a deep relationship with people in this hiphop community, you all have access to technology and resources that we didn’t. You need to make sure you utilize that technology, those resources, this creativity that you have, and really step up the game to bring our freedom fighters home.

And so we took that to heart. And we came back and we began to figure out what we could do, what we had at our disposal that could really help to move the needle on the work around political prisoners. At that time I was working as a program coordinator at the Caribbean Cultural Center. One of the things that I was responsible for, I was doing concerts. I was producing concerts, that was my nine to five. I was doing it as a part of the International African Arts Festival. And we were working with some of the other people that went on this delegation to Cuba who were founders of this hip hop magazine called Stress.

And so we came and put our heads together and said, look, who do we have at our disposal? We know all of these rap artists, right? Let’s get them together and let’s just do a concert to raise awareness and money around political prisoners. And we decided to call it Black August Hip Hop Project. We did not know at that time that it was going to blow up to the extent that it did, but over the years we made it an annual concert, and over the years we were able to get some of the top name rap artists to all donate their time and talent. And we paid absolutely no one from 1998 all the way up to 2000 I think 10 was the last time it happened. We paid no one. And we had everybody from Dead Prez, to Common, Talib Kweli, to Fat Joe, Erykah Badu, we’ve even had Gil Scott Herron. We had top name artists and we paid no one. These are people who volunteered their time to perform.

And what we did was take a, we switched up what the performance experience is like. If you go to a concert at Madison Square Garden, for instance, what you are looking at is a well produced show and you’re dealing with the regular commercial commodification around you, so you have all of these cigarette ads, beer ads, soda can ads, whatever. And we switched that and we made all of the imagery in the concert around freedom fighters. So when you walked in you were first going through a line of tables of organizations that were doing this work. Behind the stage was a slide show that was running with images of people like Eddie Conway, Mutulu Shakur, Sekou Odinga, even further back historical freedom fighters. So we really set the context of what this experience was going to be like and was not going to be like any other concert.

And we did that for over 10 years and we began to see that people were actually learning about it. Another component of that also was we traveled. We also went to other parts of the world and visited hiphop communities there where we shared our experiences, talking about what our liberation movement in the United States was like, and they shared what theirs were. And so we went to Cuba, we went to South Africa, we went to Venezuela, we went to Haiti, we went to Tanzania, we went to Puerto Rico, we went to a number of different places where we were focusing specifically on hip hop communities in those spaces.

And let me just answer your question. We realized that we were having some effect later on in the years when we were engaging in some of these parole campaigns and people who were positioned in other spaces began to fall in line. And when we later find out, yo, how did you, these are people we didn’t organize directly. Found out, well, hey, thanks for your support, and what made you do this? Oh, I used to go to your Black August shows. And so we realized that actually it was having some impact. People were learning, people were actually becoming more aware. And so that was some of what we did. And it was probably one of the best recruiting tools that we had also, people were down to like, oh, this is what this organization does, let me roll with them. And so that was one thing, and just recognizing that we have a long history of using culture and arts as a tool, not just for social change, but for revolution.

Eddie Conway:                       Okay. Can you maybe share some of the lessons that you’ve learned as an organization, as an organizer, to these new groups that are developing? Successes and mistakes, things to be aware of or things to be proud of?

Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele:   Yeah, we got a lot of lessons. And I actually think sometimes the mistakes are the most valuable lessons that you can learn from. There’s some things we learned. Black August was a very instructive experience. We realized that we didn’t need to replicate what had been done before, that we actually had the ability to utilize what was at our disposal. I teach community organizing now and one of the things that I always underscore is like, do what you do, but do it in the context of what it is your political objective is. Sekou Odinga always told us, if you are an artist, do revolutionary art. If you are a carpenter, use that work in that particular context for that particular purpose. If you’re an athlete, you know. So you have all of those things.

So the lesson that we learned was that we actually have the ability to utilize our resources, our skills, for our political purposes. Black August was one of those things. I was doing concerts for a living. It only made sense that I utilized those skills for this particular area. So that was a really valuable lesson. We also made a number of mistakes. When we went to South Africa as part of our Black August delegation in 2001, we recognized that we had to do some decolonizing of our delegation before we traveled internationally. We know that there’s this thing called an ugly American, but we also had to recognize that we had some real privilege as Africans in America that we did not recognize and it showed up when we were interacting with other people. We wanted a conversation to center around us, we wanted to tell you how smart we were, we wanted to tell you about all the work we were doing, but we had to be told to shut up, to listen, to recognize that the world did not revolve around us.

And so we had to put some things in place. And from that moment we actually shifted how we did some of our international work and made sure that we had to include, as part of our orientation, this self-reflection on what it is to be a US citizen. Even though we consider ourselves to be Africans, we have an American passport, that particular privilege really speaks a lot, so we recognize that. A few other lessons we learned also is to not be married to tools, meaning that if we have a particular objective, recognize that we have a number of tools in the toolbox. Some of them will require a screwdriver, some require a little oil, some will require a hammer, but we don’t need to use the hammer all the time. Let’s figure out what’s the best tool to get us to where we are trying to go and recognize that we have a whole toolbox at our disposal. Let’s become familiar with the rest of the tools in that toolbox. Electoral strategy is one tool. It’s not the only tool, it’s one tool.

Litigation is one tool. We can file some lawsuits to help destabilize this particular policy, come around, do some organizing, and crush it that way, but we had to be really strategic with how we wanted to approach the work and recognizing the variety of tools in our toolbox. Those are some of the major lessons that we learned. But I think the most important thing was that we actually have the ability to win. That we have not only the responsibility to make sure that we do all the work that we had to do, but we have the ability to win and if we don’t tell our stories of victory then that empathy that exists in our community will continue to win over people’s ability to actually imagine something different. So we really took it among ourselves to tell stories of our victories whether they be small or large, but to know that we have the ability to win.

Eddie Conway:                       Lumumba, some years ago the Malcolm X Grassroots organization did a survey about the amount of violence against Black and colored communities. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele:      Absolutely. One of the things that we did as a part of our work, particularly around policing, was try to make sure that we shared the severity of what this actually means. We wanted to make sure we put in context that we were not just organizing around police murders, we were not just around the severe police killings, but we were organizing around the entire spectrum of state violence. But when we really looked at it and what we saw also was that there wasn’t adequate research that was done to really tell the story of how we were impacted by state violence. We decided to work with some other people and do our own guerrilla research. And so through newspaper clippings, through other media stuff, through community dialogue, some folks, particularly from our Southern and West coast chapters, were able to do some research and determine that every 28 hours a Black person is killed by either law enforcement or a state sanctioned person of law enforcement. So a security guard, whatever that may be.

And that particular piece of research caught on and people were able to use that as just some real anchoring data to help them in their organizing space. What it did, however, also show was that we were responsible for seeking out the data that we needed to verify our work, because if we were waiting for it to come out of a Pew Research, it wasn’t going to happen. If we were waiting for The New York Times to do research like that, it wasn’t going to happen. And so that guerilla style research was informative.

And again, this was a part of a broader state violence campaign that we were currently doing. And attached to that also was some discussions on how to remedy it. We talked about what community control and community safety mechanisms needed to be put in place to ensure that we protect ourselves from those things. And so those things are, that data was, the research rather was done over 10 years ago, it has since changed, it’s certainly due to be updated. I’m not sure what the numbers would tell now especially with technology being what it is. I would venture to say that we would find it to be more than every 28 hours, that maybe every 18 hours by now, we don’t know. But an updated research is probably due.

Eddie Conway:                           Mansa, you get the last question.

Charles Hopkins:                   Okay, have you heard the term that the revolution would not be televised?

Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele:   Yes, sir.

Charles Hopkins:                  And that’s the last point I think Gil Scott Heron came out and said the same thing. So my question to you is in your coalition building, how do y’all come start from being commercialized? We see that they are systematically commercializing Black Lives Matter, so how do y’all in a coalition fashion be able to maintain separate that y’all identity in terms of revolutionary politics and be effective in your coalition builder?

Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele:  Right. Well, I think part of what we recognize is that there’s an innate responsibility to have some accountability attached to the organizational infrastructure. If you don’t have a base that you’re organizing, if you are organizing just a few of your friends and you all agree, or if you are organizing, we’re just a small leadership body of people and you all have the same interest, that’s not an organization. That’s a group of friends. We have, in our particular organization, people who live in our communities, people who are from different spaces, and we have a process. We have to go back to folks and say, look, this is what we have as an idea, what do you think? If they say no, we got to switch it up. This is not the Lumumba show, this is not the Bandele show, this is actually a collective and we are held responsible, not only by the members of our organization, but those in our community, because we got to come back to this place where we live.

And people, like I said, the same way that they came to the courthouse and supported us when we were arrested is the same way they will tell us no, what y’all doing is not it, what y’all doing is not what we want. And that kind of engagement and relationship is absolutely necessary. And let me be clear, it’s not going to always be flowers. There’s a process that we have to have with both listening to, but also informing and engaging with our community because our community doesn’t have all of the information sometimes, so we say, okay, how about if we share this with you, what do you now think? It’s a process.

We have to make sure that we are engaging in this dialogue regularly. The other thing is understanding that this particular concept becomes far more complicated with technology. It’s easy for people to develop followers on these social platforms, and people mistake that as a base. That’s not a base. Sure, you can be influential because you can get people to do certain things, but that’s not an actual organized base. There’s a difference. And so we recognize that we have to always be a part of a process that anchors our work and community accountability. When I go home I need to be able to look at my neighbors and be able to say, yeah, this is what I’m doing and I’m doing this on behalf of you, on behalf of our block, on behalf of our community, because this is why we do what we do.

And when we do that, that helps us recognize the co-optation that’s out there, we’ll not win. And I have to say this also, it’s important to recognize that part of that co-optation is disinformation. There’s a lot of disinformation, particularly about BLM, out there that we as an organization have been trying to make it our business to correct, this idea that they have been getting money from X, Y, and Z, and doing a lot of that has just been false information. And so we have to be real clear about where people are, verify information, and always be about an honest, open dialogue with our communities.

Eddie Conway:                         Okay. Thank you Lumumba for joining us. That’s a good overview of the Malcolm X Grassroots Organization. And thank you Mansa Musa for backing me up here.

Charles Hopkins:                     You’re welcome.

Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele:   I appreciate y’all for having me, man. Thank you so much. It’s always good to be in conversation with y’all.

Eddie Conway:                      Okay. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling The Bars.

Eddie Conway

Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.