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Sep 28, 20

The Role of Black Counter-Insurgency In Containing Black Rebellion: Notes from Rochester

A critical analysis of counter-insurgency efforts in Rochester, New York inside the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the wake of the murder of Daniel Prude.

On March 23rd, 2020, Daniel Prude was murdered by Rochester Police. We would not know his name today if it wasn’t for his family’s persistence to have the video released. On September 2nd, 2020 protests began in Rochester. They soon faced tear gas and rubber bullets. As of September 9th, Police Chief Singletary and the entire command staff have announced they will either retire or resign from their positions.

I went to Rochester for a couple of days to learn about the movement. On Monday night, September 8th a cat and mouse game between the Black counter-insurgents and Black insurgents played itself out. This will not be a play by play account of what happened, but a brief summary of key lessons that insurgents can learn all over the country. I will specifically focus on the relationship of the Black counter-insurgency and the Black insurgency. Their conflict decisively shaped what was possible during the night. The Black counter–insurgents wanted to keep things non-violent, reformist, and non-confrontational.

The Black counter-insurgency is not a Goliath. Defeating them can open up new political, strategic and tactical possibilities. While we will not defeat them every time, each encounter must be a fight. They have to know that they will not go uncontested. And we must wear them down from every angle.

The Problem of Black Counter-Insurgency

The movement has figured out many strategic and tactical solutions this summer, but it has yet to deal with the Black counterinsurgency. It seems like the Black counterinsurgency wins most of the time. The basic point is that the movement could have gone farther and deeper, if the Black counterinsurgency could be defeated. And they can be defeated, but that is a mix of political, strategic and tactical skills that have to be brought together. To separate the militant strategy from tactics or politics is a major error. They need to be understood as part of a fluid spectrum, where each front must be simultaneously engaged. A victory in one front, makes possible a victory on another front.

On the streets of Rochester, during another night of hearing from various official BLM groups that we had to vote, and keep it peaceful, Black insurgents were constantly organizing the crowd. In front of the Public Safety Building, Black insurgents organized the crowd to tear down the metal crowd control fence the police had set up. The crowd started attacking the fence, but ran into a major problem, when no one had a fence cutter to cut the 2 inch thick zip ties connecting the fences.

This tactical mistake was an opening for the Black counter-insurgency. Black counter-insurgents rushed to the front where they started shouting at the crowd to stop. Some people in the crowed started cussing them out. One Latinx insurgent started yelling that Latino Lives Matter. Another insurgent started yelling about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The crowd threw a few water bottles. A group of Black men and an old Black Panther told the crowd not to throw anything at the cops. This stopped further projectiles from being thrown.

The Black counter insurgents grabbed a couple of the non-Black insurgents who were “agitating.” The character of the counter-insurgency is important to note. It was a group of Black men who had marched to the action in formation. Their chants were about how Black men were showing up; that Black women were no longer going to fight alone.

This group of Black men told both demonstrators to leave and so they did. One of the protesters started shaming the Black men. Yelling Malcolm X would roll over in his grave if he saw what they were doing. There was a back and forth for a few minutes about what the right strategy was. The Black men argued that they were leading the protest and that non-Black people were allies. When the insurgents raised the fact that there were Black militants in the crowd who wanted to defend the streets from the police, the counter-insurgents said that we were putting Black women and children at risk. The protesters pointed out that there were plenty of Black women in goggles, shields, and other equipment who clearly wanted to hold the streets. Many of them were standing in the front of the shield wall. At this point the conversation reached an impasse and everyone went their separate ways.

This chess game played itself out several other times in the night. There is no need to repeat every detail. One example should get the point across. It seems appropriate that at the end of the night, around 1am, the official BLM group called everything off and told everyone to go home. The defeat in morale was palpable in the crowd. Although we were small in number, many wanted to stay in the streets.

An old Black Panther played a devastating counter-revolutionary role. He was always escorted by a group of younger Black people. His main point was not to antagonize the cops, not to throw anything. He screamed that most of the night. It was demoralizing and stopped any form of militancy.

My last conversation of the night was with a random Black man walking in the street. He was pissed, asking me why are people leaving. He said we had not finished the job. I told him that the organizers told us to go home. He told me that we were soft. I told him I did not want to go home. That I cannot do much as I am not a Black person. He said fuck that. He argued that everyone has to fight the police and if that means ignoring some Black people, so be it. He said he believes everyone who is here has to have a voice, and that our voices should not be shutdown. I told him, if he organized a protest I would be there. The lesson from this is that at least some people want to fight back and that some people have a broader sense of who can participate in this movement.

Going Forward

Rochester is a city on edge. Masses of people want to take action in the streets against the social death that the police enforce. The counter-insurgency can be defeated. The Black counter-insurgency prevents the movement from practicing collective resistance and working out a shared strategy. This is a monumental blunder considering the struggles that are ahead of us and the increasing push toward violence from the far-Right.

The morale of a people is an immense resource. This is partially what explains how in some cities small crowds defeated the police, looted stores, and burned cop cars. It is not always the size of crowds, but their determination to fight. What the Black counter-insurgency does is two things: 1) channel struggle into reformism and legalism and 2) demoralize the most militant sections of the crowd.

No one wants to march night after night, people want to feel the power of a collective struggle. But night after night of pointless marches sends people home feeling lost, that they wasted their time, and none of the crucial memories of solidarity and struggle forged in revolt. People are looking for a purpose. So many people under racial capitalism are lost, feeling there is no point to their own lives. Marching for days is not a purpose. People can find a purpose in resistance to the carceral state, in providing medical care in the streets, and in the precious moments of solidarity forged in struggle. This create a fighting spirit, a people with a purpose, who will return night after night. The Black counter-insurgency blocks all of this from happening.

Sometimes direct resistance must silence the debate, which can be a mix of organization and spontaneity, but once again determination is needed. When it first starts, the counter-insurgents will rush to the sight of conflict and try to shut it down. Here two roads can be taken: enter a debate or continue forward, making the debate moot.

The presence of Black militants on the streets is what made the cat and mouse game even possible in Rochester. By and large white, Latinx, Asian, and even Black activists and protesters follow the lead of whomever they think are the organizers. Black insurgents can and do sow confusion on that point and create the real possibility of a split in the so-called Black leadership.

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