Almost two years ago, my book about the Republic of New Africa (RNA) came out entitled "How Social Movements Die: Repression and Demobilization of the Republic of New Africa. Who and what is the RNA? Well, I'll get to that later in a blog or two. In the book, I attempted to strike a balance between acknowledging the theoretical insights that guided my reflection about what I had collected versus simply telling the story of the RNA. It was a hard needle to thread. For rigorous social scientists, there were no tests of the claims that were made. Instead, I used a detailed reading/writing of the case to flesh out what I thought was going on and I was doing plenty of testing in another book and series of articles co-authored with Chris Sullivan so I did not feel that I needed to address some of the things that hinder reading rigorous work. There was also the issue of what to do about the case. Were the dynamics I was seeing specific to African Americans and/or the US or were they generalizable? Would someone in/out of political science and sociology feel comfortable arguing about conflict dynamics in another place/time based on a disaggregated group and individual analysis of some black folk? Not clear yet. I'm not optimistic for political science but I hope that I am wrong. Sociology has had less of a problem in this regard.
For those who just wanted the story though, there was this theory stuff to wade through and for some reason skipping some chapters did not seem to feel right for them. In my new series, I will then revisit the story of the RNA from the beginning - diving into the archives that underlie the project as well as simply telling the compelling story of who did what to whom and why. Enjoy.
Detroit Explodes on July 23, 1967
In many ways, the roots of the Republic of New Africa (like many radical/radicalized black nationalist movements) can be found in one of the most important mass expressions of dissatisfaction in US history. On this day 50 years ago today in Detroit, after a police raid of an African American after hours club, large numbers of blacks hit the streets and engaged in what many whites generally call(ed) "rioting" and what many blacks call(ed) "rebellion". While labeled/understood differently, the content of the activities were the same: there was looting, there were fires started and there was some shooting (from people in the neighborhood as well as the police).
Here is tv coverage of the event from the time; here are some photos.
The differences in labeling is crucial if one is to understand political conflict and violence. For one side, the activities of this day represented a moment where victimized individuals decided to stand up for their humanity and they did this with the only thing that they could figure out at the time. For the other side, the activities of this day represented a moment where diverse citizens engaged in what was believed to be criminalistic behavior. The conflict lies in the difference. One cannot understand what happened or what happens without dealing with that fundamental point.
The differences here are not unique to Detroit, 1967, to black folk or to the US. These differences are what conflicts are about. This is the reason why it is so important to identify, document and understand the different sides and sources of information about a conflict. This is what I attempted to do in my book Media Bias, Perspective and State Repression. The key however is that we need to retain the distinct voices/opinions/events so that we can better understand the conflict as lived. Much of what we attempt to do as students of conflict/contentious politics reflects a position where we try to identify everything that happened but this is not really what matters quite frequently. We need to understand what individuals/groups at the time were paying attention to and what they were doing with that information. The most comprehensive accounting/the acceptable narrative is not always what we want to know.
In this vein, seeing Detroit 1967 on July 23 as either a rebellion or riot misses the point. It is both. How does the RNA get involved? Well, that happened on July 24th.....