American Summer

A youth-oriented primer on race, revolution, and repression

By Bella Bravo

A guy in his thirties begged over a bullhorn, “Don’t livestream this. No selfies. Put your phones away. Turn them off. Leave them at home.” Only half of the crowd at the train station cheered, indicative of the generational divide that ran through the George Floyd uprising on tech surveillance. Some of us grew up in the mass-arrest kettles of the anti-globalization movement, kept the door closed to the FBI during the Green Scare, and have shook with anger and fear during every police encounter unaffected by reform after Ferguson and Baltimore. We are wary of the seemingly unbridled police authority to search and seize digital information—whether it’s cell phone pings, GPS tracing, metadata analysis, search histories, Etsy receipts, text messages, or facial recognition applied to social media posts. We know that whatever it is, they will engineer a way to use it against us.

The other half of the movement belongs to Gen-Z, also known as Zoomers, Doomers, or the Trayvon generation. After the man’s last plea, “Don’t make their charges easy,” echoed around the underpass outside of the station, a Zoomer took the megaphone. She belted out, “No more pigs in our community!” Everyone knew the response, shouting in unison, “Off the pigs!” She continued, "No more brothers in jail.” “Off the pigs!” “No more sisters in jail.” “Off the pigs!” The girl, who was high school age, thanked her fellow protesters, because that was her favorite chant. She learned it from listening to her aunt tell stories of her days in the Black Panther Party. It was a reminder for the crowd that this moment is one of many in the ongoing struggle for world revolution and that the repression we face will be brutal.

Now, as the George Floyd rebellion calms and counterinsurgency against its participants amps up, we have to ask ourselves: will it be a curse for history to repeat itself?

I’ve put together a summer reading and movie list about resistance movements (i.e. uprisings, riots, insurrections, and what have you) and the containment, neutralization, and harsh repression that the state has welded against them—because the state has and will continue to use the same counter-insurgency measures to defang the George Floyd rebellion.

Please consider this summer list in light of recent arrests and investigations after the death of George Floyd. For example, feds have arrested TikTok influencer Bryce Williams among others for the burning of the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct, citing their TikTok and Snapchat posts from that night. In Atlanta, a Twitter post blaming a “white girl” for burning the Wendy’s restaurant where Rayshard Brooks was killed led to the arrest of his girlfriend Natalie White. In Philadelphia, the FBI used Instagram, Etsy, and LinkedIn to track down a protester accused of setting a police car on fire. Police reviewed footage from a television helicopter and then zoomed in on photos and videos of the protest posted on Instagram and Vimeo to find their suspect. In New York, feds charged two Brooklyn public defenders with explosives offenses, which carry a potential penalty of life in prison, citing surveillance camera footage of the pair. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) has established task forces in cities throughout the country, such as Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Chicago. They are releasing images from social media posted by protesters and asking for public help to identify and locate persons of interest connected to arson and vandalism.

This list is for youth but also for those of us reckoning with a history of resistance that did not become revolution, a history of the status quo being preserved. We may march into the future chanting the words we know by heart, but need to find a way for the scripts (and warrants) written for us to burn like the Third Precinct.

Books, Poems, and Essays

  • “The Anarchy of Colored Girls: Assembly in a Riotous Manner” is an astounding speculative history of a child Esther Brown and the riot at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in 1920s New York. Using Inmate Case Files from the records of the Department of Correctional Services, Saidhya Hartman imagines the juvenile girls imprisoned at the facility and their insurrection, “a revolution in a minor key.” This history can be found in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (W.W. Norton, 2019).

  • Black Mask & Up Against the Wall Motherfucker is a collection of pamphlets and a biography of the Motherfuckers, “a street gang with analysis” which was reputedly the only white group taken seriously by the Black Panther Party and whose interventions in 1960s art, politics, and culture influenced essentially every radical left movement since. Their name was taken from the poem, "Black People!" by Amiri Baraka in Black Magic—“The magic words are: Up against the wall, mother fucker, this is a stick up!”

  • “Paul Robeson” by Gwendolyn Brooks is a poem about the iconic Black singer and radical activist who in April 1949 went to France to attend a Soviet-aligned political conference. After singing “Joe Hill,” a ballad about a union activist falsely accused, convicted of murder, and executed, Robeson spoke impromptu about the plight of Black people in the US, concluding that Americans did not want another world war. That same day the Associated Press transcribed his off-the-cuff speech and dispatched it stateside. The government vilified Robeson as a communist traitor for suggesting that Black Americans would not fight against the Soviet Union.

  • Detroit, I Do Mind Dying, is Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin’s chronicle of the activities of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the group at the center of Black labor radicalism in Detroit from 1967 to 1974. They look at various publications of the time, including the Inner City Voice, a Black revolutionary paper inspired by the rebellion in 1967, and the South End, a student newspaper seized and operated as "the voice of the de facto radical united front" for Wayne State University. They also survey personal accounts from the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement about its formation and their 1968 wild-cat strike at a Chrysler Assembly plant as well as the later splits within the movement.

Movies

  • The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971) captures this high-profile case of police brutality in the US. Police assassinated the 19-year-old, charismatic Black Panther Party leader in his sleep. Reporters and filmmakers armed with new lightweight, handheld cameras were able to expose the lies behind the Chicago Police Department’s cover-up. Cheap recording devices have continued to play a pivotal role in outing state murders. Passers-by at the Fruitvale BART station on New Year’s Eve 2009 recorded the police murder of Oscar Grant with their cell phones and Darnella Frazier filmed and posted to social media George Floyd's death. Other great Black Panther Party documentaries are The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Both are readily accessible on Netflix.

  • The Spook who Sat by the Door (1973) is classic pulp, blaxploitation, and spy movie all in one. A former CIA agent organizes and trains Black teenagers in Chicago, turning them into guerrilla bands committed to overthrowing the white establishment. Herbie Hancock did the soundtrack, for all the jazz freaks out there.

  • The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016) travels to unexpected locations, revealing how mass incarceration shapes the geography where we all live and who we are.

  • We Shall Not Be Moved (2018) is an opera about five adolescents seeking shelter in the ruins of the MOVE building. They attempt to come to grips with the devastating history of the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE headquarters and surrounding neighborhood in West Philadelphia, a massacre of eleven people.

  • Children of the Revolution (2010) is a documentary about Ulrike Meinhof and Fusako Shigenobu, the respective leaders of the German and Japanese Red Army Factions—and their daughters. Inspired by the student revolutions of 1968, each woman set out to plot world revolution. In these interviews, their children speak to the legacies of these radical figures.