Building Community Control in a White Supremacist Country

Building Community Control in a White Supremacist Country

Building Community Control in a White Supremacist Country

A tactic with deep roots in Black freedom movements shows promise, and pitfalls, for building a more equal future.

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In late May, as the national uprising against police brutality forced on America a crash course in “defunding” and “abolishing” the police, another concept also began circulating: “community control.”

This likely drew a few blank stares, and not without reason: “Community control” sounds utopian, even in a federalist country like ours that leaves great autonomy to the states. But it’s not a new idea, and it’s not only relevant to our current crisis of a law enforcement regime unaccountable to the people it polices. Community control proposes that the institutions people depend upon should be controlled by community members working in cooperation, not private individuals, corporate shareholders, or government bureaucrats.

“We’ve known for decades that the things that our communities really need to be healthy and safe not only aren’t being invested in, but are actually being starved of resources,” said Monifa Bandele of the Movement for Black Lives Policy Table. That’s why the Movement for Black Lives has made community control a key plank in its Vision for Black Lives platform, demanding community control of the “laws, institutions, and policies that are meant to serve us—from our schools to our local budgets, economies, police departments, and our land.”

To begin building community control in the 21st century, activists can look to experiments dating back centuries that have attempted to address systemic inequality and build Black power across different areas of American life, including land, work, education, and law enforcement. Successive Black freedom movements have advocated or enacted versions of community control, from the Abolitionists through the civil rights era, the New Left and the Black Power movement.

Examining key experiments in community control from the not-so-distant past—one that attempted to build power outside existing institutions, and one that aimed squarely at the structures standing in the way of Black empowerment—reveals both its potential as a tool for abolishing systemic racism and the challenges the model faces for enacting transformative change. These reflect the larger question that motivated the earlier experiments: How to end systemic racism when it is baked into every crumb of American life?

The idea, if not the reality, of direct, democratic control over the institutions that shape our lives was present at our country’s founding. Despite the varied inspirations for community control in the United States—British socialism, utopian communes, intentional communities—“the most important of these is the history of black ‘organized communities’ of the nineteenth century,” political scientist James DeFilippis writes in Unmaking Goliath: Community Control in the Face of Global Capital. These trailblazing efforts emerged at a time of great discrimination and oppression in order to pool the limited resources of individuals toward collective aims: surviving slavery, racial violence, discrimination, and poverty, as the political economist Jessica Gordon Nembhard describes in Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.

Until the end of the Civil War, Black fugitive slaves ran communes where they educated themselves, made a living, managed communal farms, and organized abolitionist resistance along the Underground Railroad. Black urban communities collected dues from members to establish their own schools, health benefits, and social welfare. Turning inward and working together, these organizations were born of necessity, and similar mutual aid efforts have also emerged in other communities neglected and targeted by racist society, such as Chinese and Mexican immigrants in the 19th and 20th century.

The early Black cooperative organizations became a springboard for cooperative businesses and trade unions, as W.E.B. Du Bois observed in 1907. He argued that maintaining economic self-sufficiency through collective ownership and control was essential for Black people—and all Americans—to achieve racial equality in a society defined by white supremacy, and a fundamentally unequal economic system. Cooperation would “weld the majority of our people into an impregnable, economic phalanx,” he wrote in 1933.

But by the 1960s, it was obvious that America still wasn’t meeting the basic needs of Black Americans. In 1968, a global influenza was killing 100,000 in the United States, cities across the country were roiled with mass disturbances following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and Richard Nixon was riding a wave of pent-up white rage to the White House. In this volatile climate, the civil rights, Black Power, and New Left movements revisited the notion that cooperation, collective ownership, and community governance could give poor, marginalized people more control of their lives, and by extension, more power.

In Southwest Georgia, civil rights activists had been registering Albany’s Black voters and organizing sit-ins, boycotts, mass meetings, and demonstrations against the city’s segregated bus stations through the ’60s, but by decade’s end, they hadn’t yielded many concrete improvements in Black people’s standard of living. The activists began building islands of Black self-determination to strengthen their position within the seas of white supremacy. “We were trying to organize people in the rural area, and we knew the struggle,” one of the activists, Shirley Sherrod, told me for a story I reported for Harper’s Magazine.

The Black community lacked wealth, and farming is hard, low-paying, capital-intensive work. It was even more difficult for Black farmers who were discriminated against by banks, the USDA, and other institutions. Waves of Black farmers lost their land and went out of business during this era, as the historian Pete Daniel describes in Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights. Sherrod knew that racial equality would remain elusive so long as Black people lacked economic clout and stability. In 1968, after visiting Israel to study different land communities, Albany’s civil rights activists began a cooperative venture on collectively owned land. “We were thinking that we would develop something so that we would never lose the land,” Sherrod said.

New Communities, a Black-led, multiracial cooperative farm, broke ground in 1969 on 6,000 acres of land near Albany. It is widely considered to be the first Community Land Trust, a model of landholding that places the land in a trust that is governed by a board of community members, managed by a nonprofit, and used for whatever the community chooses, whether that’s housing, small businesses, cultural spaces, gardens, parks, or farms. Maximizing the community’s resources and spreading the risks across the collective, community control of land ensures that the land remains in the community—and for the community—beyond the lifespan, efforts, whims, or fate of any one individual. New Communities was then the largest tract of Black-owned land in the United States.

This was not an “intentional community,” those enclaves of like-minded individuals that were popular in the ’60s. Enmeshed in the civil rights movement, collective ownership and control was a way to buttress the economic power of its members. Collectively, they grew soybeans, peanuts, corn, peas, strawberries, collard greens, okra, and eight acres of muscadine grapes. They sold some of it in the New Communities store, along with syrup they made from their own sugarcane, and ham, bacon and sausage they cured in their own smokehouse, from the hundreds of hogs they raised. “You can sustain better because it’s a group thing,” said Gerald Holley, the resident storekeeper and meat-smoker, who later ran his own shoe business. “It’s not an individual company—one man holding up the company.”

The collective spirit of New Communities also protected them against the hostility of their white neighbors. “They didn’t want to see the new community succeed,” Holley told me, but the white racists still bought cigarettes and gas from their store. But they were still a relatively small Black-run outfit in a hostile white-run state. In 1969, the government reneged on a grant they had promised to help New Communities buy the land—Sherrod believes they caved to white opposition—and the farmers were forced to take out a private loan. When severe droughts began in 1981, the USDA denied them a loan to install irrigation, despite approving nearby white farmers for similar financing—part of a pattern of racial discrimination that became the focus of Pigford vs. Glickman, the Supreme Court case that produced the largest civil rights settlements in US history. Within their 6,000 acres, New Communities farmers had achieved a measure of autonomy that might’ve eluded them as individuals, but their island wasn’t completely protected from the whims of the wider world. Unable to pay their mortgage, they foreclosed in 1985.

As an experiment in building power apart from existing institutions, New Communities shows the often-insurmountable barriers such efforts at self-determination face. But it has proved even more difficult to establish community control over existing institutions head-on. Following Brown vs. Board of Education, New York City failed to integrate its public schools: Black children bused into white neighborhoods were greeted with fierce white opposition, schools in Black and brown neighborhoods were overcrowded and underfunded, and the mostly white teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, blocked efforts to encourage the best teachers to take assignments there. Parents also saw the mostly white teachers and principals—only 1 percent of principals and 8 percent of teachers in the city’s schools were Black—punishing their children for being “disruptive,” rather than treating them with patience, empathy, and care. So instead of waiting for complacent white politicians and administrators to change the system, they began seeking a more formal role in hiring, firing, and day-to-day management of their schools.

Their organizing worked. In 1967, the city set up three experimental “community control” school districts: one in Harlem, one in lower Manhattan, and one in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, a Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Central Brooklyn. Under “community control,” parents in each district elected a governing board that could hire superintendents and principals, decentralizing powers once concentrated in the Board of Education. Though supported by the city’s liberal elites and shaped by the Ford Foundation—community control would boost the self-esteem and boot-strapping capacities of Black people without threatening the power of white communities, they thought—the plan soon drew the ire of the UFT. It threatened their control over the city’s schools, including a contract clause they were seeking from the Board of Education to allow teachers to remove “disruptive” children from schools. So in May 1968, when the Ocean Hill–Brownsville community control board transferred 19 teachers and administrators out of their district, claiming they were hostile to community control, the UFT objected. And when classes started in September, the union called a citywide teacher strike, shutting down all of New York City’s public schools for ten weeks.

The events stoked deep, long-lasting racial divisions in New York City and America’s progressive movements. For the UFT, the community’s reaction to the strike was just “union-busting.” In Ocean Hill–Brownsville, the multiracial teaching staff—hired by the community control board, and backed by Black and brown parents, the Ocean Hill–Brownsville community, civil rights leaders, and the Afro-American Teachers Association—crossed the picket line each day to keep their schools open. The daily spectacle of activists, community members, journalists, and police became a flashpoint of racial tensions in the city, as New York’s white middle-class rallied around the union, and Black and brown New Yorkers coalesced around Ocean Hill–Brownsville leaders. But the UFT didn’t let up. Only once the city reinstated the transferred teachers and ended the community control experiment in mid-November was the strike called off.

For the Black Power movement, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville struggle was yet another instance of a progressive white institution reversing course on its civil rights commitments the moment it meant giving up any power. Echoes of “community control” still exist, if watered-down, in the city’s school districts—in 1969, New York State passed a UFT-backed decentralization bill that created 30 new elected school boards without giving them much control. But for Mark Winston Griffith, cohost of School Colors, a podcast that examines the afterlives of Ocean Hill–Brownsville, and an organizer who has helped to launch a community-controlled bank and grocery store in Central Brooklyn, Ocean Hill–Brownsville also highlighted the immense challenges of establishing “community control”—and negotiating varied, sometimes-clashing aims—within large, diverse communities.

It’s a challenge that any community control experiment will face in taking on an entrenched institution. Powerful white opposition can quash any new community control experiment, as it did to New Communities and Ocean Hill–Brownsville. Governments and institutions can co-opt community control rhetoric or structures without redistributing real power to the people, like the 1969 decentralization law.

Yet New Communities was also an unlikely success. After its end, Shirley Sherrod spent two decades assisting countless black farmers through the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, a nonprofit association of Black farmers and cooperatives founded in 1967. Under Obama, she became the USDA’s first black rural development director in Georgia—a radical shift for the agency she once sued. (Sherrod was infamously forced from her position at the USDA after the Obama administration caved to outcry over a doctored video clip. When the full clip was made public, the USDA offered Sherrod a new job, which she declined).

Also, New Communities birthed a new model of landholding that other communities continue to modify, strengthen, and adapt. Two hundred and sixty CLTs are thriving in the United States today, meaning that the experiment never truly ended.

In a way, the current push for community control over police is an amalgam of the inside-outside approaches: defunding police departments—targeting an existing institution that is harming Black communities—allows people to build their own institutions to meet their needs. “Control is essential to our platform, because that’s about self-determination,” the Movement for Black Lives’ Bandele explains. “If you don’t control the institutions that are critical to your life, to your existence, then you cannot survive. You can’t thrive.”

Activists are divided on the real meaning of community control when it comes to law enforcement, and how such control would relate to the calls to “defund” or “abolish” the police. In 1971, the city of Berkeley voted down the Black Panther Party’s program for “community control of police,” which proposed the formation of elected civilian review boards to investigate police shootings, in a referendum. This version of “community control of police” remains the most well-known, and civilian review boards have been criticized by the “abolish” camp as largely symbolic, vulnerable to cooptation by pro-police interests, and attempting to tweak a fundamentally oppressive institution without giving the people any real control.

But it’s not the only program. After the Ferguson uprising in 2014, Max Rameau and his Pan-African Community Action (PACA) began formulating a proposal for Community Control of Police that has since become a central campaign of the National Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression. It proposes a directly elected, all-civilian council with full or final authority—not just the right to offer input—over police policy, budgets, disciplinary measures, hiring and firing (including of the police chief), full access to all investigations, and negotiations with police unions. By granting real power over these essential functions to the civilian council, communities can choose to completely overhaul—to abolish and remake—their police. What’s missing from this brief, skeletal proposal are answers to the litany of questions that people often raise: How will communities handle violence? Can I send my children to the playground and expect them to return unscathed? How do we deal with the barrage of fireworks exploding through the night on our block?

“We need you to reimagine public safety in your community”—Rameau and PACA give this directive to communities they engage on the proposal. It’s a prompt for people to figure out what safety would mean outside of a world that only knows to punish people for social violations, and an indication that this program might be more accurately described as “community control of public safety.” “Imagine that you have 100 organizers. They all have cars. They have walkie-talkies. They could have guns. They don’t have to have them, but they could have them. It’s up to you,” he continues. “They’re all wearing uniforms. You know who they are. How would you use them to improve your community?”

No one ever suggests catching truant kids and putting them in jail, he reports. No one says they need military-grade weapons or tanks. Most envision safety and security as someone picking up elderly people from the supermarket in the winter, so they’re not waiting for the bus in the cold, or someone finding out why a homeless person is on the street, and then helping them to address the root cause.

These answers still leave conspicuous blank spaces in the same spots where our collective imaginations usually fail, but the point of sticking with the exercise is to fill them in. “We have good answers for why you shouldn’t call the police,” Rameau says. Namely, that they are instruments of terror for poor communities, even if they are also sometimes protectors. “But we don’t have an answer for what to do when something’s legitimately happening to you, and you need some help and support. And we need to build that,” he said. “We need to get people to a viable alternative.”

That is what New Communities created: not just a commitment to reimagine the world but an actual model that, despite its limitations, has allowed hundreds of communities to fill in the blanks, improve on the model, and collectively build a different system for the nation, one plot at a time. “I’m not opposed to the idea of defunding,” said Rameau. Defunding is a crucial step to achieving public safety, but in the era of New Communities and Ocean Hill-Brownsville, police budgets were half what they are today, and police were still “abusive because of who held the power,” he said. Yet power is the reason Rameau doesn’t use the term “abolition,” even if his end goal sounds suspiciously abolitionist: a system of public safety controlled by the people most brutalized and oppressed by police today, and so radically different from existing police that it shouldn’t be called “police.” “The real question is: ‘Has power shifted?’”

One thing hasn’t changed since the late ’60s, or even the 19th century: power remains concentrated in America’s wealthy white communities. But since that era, proponents of neoliberalism have also steadily strengthened the power of corporations, at the expense of collective and public institutions. Prisons have been privatized. The private security industry is ballooning, globally and in the United States, with bodyguards and private patrols protecting shopping malls, luxury hotels, gated communities, and the 1 percent. Without a viable alternative like the one Rameau seeks, it’s not hard to imagine this industry absorbing the functions of public police, but with less accountability, fewer restrictions, and, by extension, more brutality. “Walmart is not going to say, ‘Well, there’s no police here, I guess we’ll take whatever losses come.’”

The divergence between “community control of public safety” and “abolition” seems to reflect the same question that animated the movements of the late ’60s: Do we get to our goal—a world structured by principles of justice—by targeting, outwardly, the oppressive system, or by building our own power and, through it, our own alternative? Yet if there’s a lesson to draw from the earlier community control experiments, it is that each approach also requires the other. Decentralization, a goal shared by right-wing libertarians, leaves intact the seas of white supremacy, while “community control” mechanisms, like civilian boards, risk being corrupted or co-opted by reformist agendas. If “abolish” doesn’t carry this risk, that’s because it doesn’t offer a formal alternative—a proposed roadmap, how ever imperfect, that doesn’t just lead away from injustice, but toward a more fair society.

With no models of community-controlled public safety at a large scale in the United States, we are ultimately limited by the road maps we create. “We want to be visionary and think about things that can and should work,” says Rameau. “Not to say, ‘We’re going to limit ourselves to the things that we’ve seen already work’.”

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