This piece was written by our executive director, Jamila Medley, shortly after the murder of George Floyd.
Black Economic Sovereignty: Struggle, Fight, Build, Repeat
By now, you may have read any number of statements from organizations standing alongside Black folks in our struggle for racial and economic justice, an end to police brutality, and the state-sanctioned policies that lead to the too many inequalities that disproportionately and negatively impact Black, Indigenous, and people of color all over this country. The recent murder of George Floyd by the bent knee and intent of a white police officer and the complicity of the three other police officers who watched and stood guard without protest is yet one more in the long list of police killings of Black folks in the United States.
The killing of Black bodies began long before many of our ancestors reached these shores as captured and enslaved Africans were murdered and brutalized during the Middle Passage, then during centuries of legalized enslavement, leading into another century of murder and brutality under Jim Crow. Black folks have so-called been free for all of five to six decades and continue to be murdered by state-sanctioned violence.
So, the anger, frustration, sadness, numbness, depression, chronic disease, poverty, and other maladies of being Black in America have only ever co-existed alongside the yet to be realized promise of democracy here. And here I am, a Black woman running a nonprofit that supports cooperative business development in Philadelphia publishing another statement. Why?
The reality of Black life in America and other places throughout the African Diasporic experience has had cycles of struggle, fight, build. We have always revolted and simultaneously built up practices of community and self-care rooted in mutual aid and cooperative economics. And we are doing it now.
Black American Cooperative Economic Practice Meets State-Sanctioned Violence
From the time of the European-led Atlantic slave trade, which brought about the recurring arrival of enslaved Africans to stolen lands, we have resisted, we have struggled to be free. From refusing to be enslaved by choosing death via jumping into shark-infested waters to buying the freedom of family members from white slave-owners, Black folks have always revolted against white supremacy and notions of Black inferiority. We often exercised that struggle through mutual aid and cooperative economic practices. Over two centuries ago, free Blacks were organizing for their collective benefit and advancement in Philadelphia through organizations like the Free African Society founded by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. A long legacy of Black self-determination and community-wealth building remains a beacon of pride and hope in our city of brotherly love and sisterly affection.
Yet at every turn, for centuries, Black people have been met with racialized terrorism to disrupt our quest for equality and the right to live free. We consider the Underground Railroad a conduit of economic and racial justice because Black lives were proscribed monetary value in the system of chattel slavery. Black folks and white abolitionists working together through the Underground Railroad to free Black enslaved people were a threat to the dominance of enslavement as the economic engine of American society. And, runaway enslaved people were met with the creation of slave patrols, a critical component of the underlying police system we have with us today.
Consider that in 1889 (Memphis, TN) three Black men who engaged in cooperative economics to jointly own and operate a grocery store (People’s Grocery) were lynched while in police custody. Note that neither social nor economic status could protect these Black men from the hostility of racialized capitalism and white supremacy in the American South.
Also, in the height of the 1960s and 1970s civil rights efforts, the FBI, as a federal law enforcement agency, did all that it could to delegitimize and dismantle the Black Panther Party. The primary threat? Black people were feeding their own community through a free breakfast program that engendered some mainstream support for the Black Panthers doing good, which was a threat to white nationalism and supremacy.
We Are Still Building
And, no matter what Black people are doing – from bird watching to building community economic power – we are threatened by a government (enforced at the federal, state, and municipal levels) that insists on supporting police militarization, authority, and brutality over the peace, prosperity, and well-being of Black people in the US at all costs. There is a stifling of our lives.
So as a Black woman, married to a Black man, with Black daughters, and two toddler Black grandsons, I can’t help but to be fearful, enraged, and distraught while clinging to hope with unwavering determination that change is going to come – one way or another. I show up to do my work at the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliancein a cross-class, cross-cultural workplace with Black, Brown, queer and immigrant womxn who are experimenting with tools: those left before us and those we are co-creating in this moment. We work alongside cooperatively-owned enterprises, cooperators, grassroots organizations, and organizational partners throughout the Philadelphia region to imagine, build, and sustain a fair and just economy rooted in solidarity and care – not exploitation and greed – that serves all of us, because it serves the most excluded and marginalized among us first.
A change towards Black food and land sovereignty is coming. A change toward Black collective ownership and control of community assets is coming. A change toward Black people practicing and succeeding in creating and sustaining self-determining economies that provide for our needs and desires is coming.
I show up to work with the hope each day that something I am doing along with my staff members, board members, and the co-ops we are working with is paving a path for a future that is more fair, more just, more equal because people and communities will have control over their labor, their collective assets, and how to share their wealth.
With unwavering commitment, PACA stands with Black people at home here in Philadelphia and across the United States in the fight against racism. We are striving, however arduous, to build a movement of people who recognize that there are many alternatives to a racialized capitalist economy, and that these alternatives exist NOW. We are doing the work alongside poor people, people of color, youth, formerly incarcerated people, queer people, and many others to strengthen economic alternatives together. We will win!