Donna Murch is one of the foremost historians of Black radical movements in the 20th century. Her first book, 2010’s Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, retold a seemingly familiar story with new insights drawn from oral histories and untapped archives. Murch saw the story of the Panthers as a product of the Great Migration and as a fight for, among other things, access to public resources, countering both conservative and liberal framings that saw the party as either a criminal enterprise or a project solely devoted to self-defense. In the process, she demonstrated that the group was far more complicated than had been recognized.
Since that groundbreaking book’s publication, Murch has become known as well for her distinguished essays on racial inequities in America. With a historian’s eye for detail, she has tackled such subjects as the Movement for Black Lives, the opioid epidemic, and mass incarceration for The Boston Review. Her most recent book, Assata Taught Me, collects these and other writings about the development of the Movement for Black Lives as part of a longer history that dates back at least to the Black Panther Party and that has been especially inspired by the work and thought of Assata Shakur. Murch is currently an associate professor at Rutgers University, where she serves as the chapter president of her union. The Nation spoke with her earlier this year about her new book, her research on the crack epidemic, and the future of Black radical organizing against state violence.
Then, just as I arrived, there was this amazing arc that we’ve come to know as the Movement for Black Lives. It wasn’t called that at the time, but that summer of 2013 [when people began using the hashtag #Blacklivesmatter on Twitter in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman] helped birth all these organizations. Out of excitement for that political movement, I wrote a series of essays, extending the timeline of the 1980s and ’90s that I had been researching to think about this period: the second administration of Barack Obama and the last decade, where we have seen much of the organized resistance to these overlapping punishment campaigns.
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ER: What did you find from extending that timeline?
DM: In terms of repression and resistance, it takes people and communities time to understand what is happening to them. Take the example of the modern civil rights movement: what became visible as the national civil rights movement emerged in the mid-1950s with Brown v. Board of Education. But the institutions and infrastructure for fighting that battle went back at least to the 1930s. Some would take it back to Reconstruction. There’s a similar dynamic going on with the carceral state.
I lived through this era. I was a teenager in the 1980s. And the way that we understand it now is very different. The level of criminalization and sensationalization and the definition of “monsters”—the language of “crack babies” and “gang members”—were at the center of the spectacle of punishment, so much so that they occluded the enormous violence of the state. It takes time for people to figure out how to mount resistance to something that, at the time, they may not even recognize is happening. It’s very similar in the opioid crisis. Initially, these crises are understood as individual experiences, but to define them as a collective experience with culpable parties takes time.
ER: You mentioned that you were a teenager at the time. What did you experience?
DM: The first time I heard of crack, I was in college in the late ’80s. I went home [to Erie, Pa.] to visit my parents and went to this doughnut shop on the east side of the city. This was one of the oldest parts of the city, with a lot of housing that had not been well maintained. It also had a giant industrial dumpsite. People didn’t spend much time outside there in the winter, or even in the summer, for that matter. It always felt a little bit deserted. But we went to this doughnut shop in this neighborhood around midnight, just as the doughnuts were coming out. It was really cold, something like zero degrees, and there were all these little boys standing outside. I didn’t have a context for understanding why they were there. It was only later, from talking to friends, that I realized that they were likely selling drugs. And I realized that a lot of the street-level drug economy is facilitated through young people. Arguably, a lot of it is child labor. It’s not a sensational story, but it stands out in my mind because of their vulnerability: their vulnerability to the cold, their vulnerability in the part of the city that they were in, and the vulnerability that comes with being a young person working at midnight.
ER: Let’s keep moving back in time. Assata Taught Me begins with the uptick in the Great Migration in the 1940s and ’50s. Why start there?
DM: I wanted to think about an arc that connected the organizing and radical possibilities in the postwar social movements like the Black Panther Party with what happened in the years after their heyday and finally with the rise of the Movement for Black Lives. The essay that starts the collection is a genesis, explaining the origins of the Black Panthers. It’s different from the way the Panthers were understood in the ’80s and ’90s. We now have Stanley Nelson’s documentary about the party that was funded, partially, by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This was unimaginable in the ’90s. The Panthers were demonized. They were largely excluded from professional histories and history departments, and they were often talked about as criminals. But I wanted to start with a sense of radical possibilities as a factor in the ’60s and ’70s.
At the time, people who became Panthers had migrated to California from Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. They were migrating for the opportunity for their children to attend high school, because many of the segregated cities and towns did not even have Black high schools. But in that period from the ’40s through the early ’70s, massive federal subsidies were poured into public education in California. California schools were much better resourced and funded than they are today. And in researching the genesis of the Black Panthers, I found something that surprised me: The Black Panther Party started with a study group, the Afro-American Association, at Merritt College in Oakland. If you look at the people that became important later—Oakland’s first Black mayor, members of the Black Panther Party, Ron Karenga—they can all be traced back to this study group.
ER: At a community college.
DM: We don’t talk nearly enough about community colleges. The majority of people in this country attend community colleges and get associate degrees. Then, and now, we need to look past this elite bias in the United States that takes small private schools as representative. This is a privileging of the wealthiest people in the country as the normative subjects, even though they have no real relationship to what life is really like in the United States. And their numbers are tiny.
Containing the cost of expanding higher education in California was done by trying to create a pyramid with the broadest base being the community colleges, the mid-level being the state level colleges, and then the very top was the UC system. But Black students organized to use access to community colleges to figure out transfer rules to access the entire system of higher education. The study group and public schools are important parts of the stories of the ’60s: poor and working-class kids accessing higher education without debt. (One of the most painful things is the way that these populations that became important to the formation of the Panthers—migrant working-class families and veterans like Geronimo Pratt—are precisely the populations that have been targeted by for-profit colleges.) That access to upward mobility and exposure to new ideas comes at the moment of decolonization. The young people that are entering Merritt College in the early ’60s do so as a dozen countries in Africa are winning their independence. They enter with a global sense of possibility and with an infrastructure of colleges to organize around.
ER: How did this study group become so important?
DM: In the 1960s, the fight for access to higher education was an extension of Black and Latinx liberation struggles. These were fights for access to state resources, whether it was aid for dependent children or access to higher education. They were trying to force open these programs, many of which could be traced back to the New Deal. In the case of California, these organizations wanted access to schools that had expanded funding during the Cold War. In the ’60s and ’70s, there was no tuition cost in the California public university system. That is the single most important fact. Why does that matter so much? Because many of the people who became important in the Black Panther Party didn’t come from Black middle-class families. They were a step away from rural Southern poverty, like Huey Newton’s family. Just by moving to the West Coast, they got access, and access to education became the laboratory for radical ideas in the lunchroom of Merritt College. So I started the book there and then thought about how people understood the problems of that era and about why it was so difficult to transmit this history to the subsequent generations.
ER: Why was it so difficult?
DM: Repression was the first obstacle to this form of Black radical and anti-capitalist organizing. The Black Panther Party was a self-avowed Marxist organization. They were explicitly anti-imperialist. They identified with the socialist Marxist revolutions of Cuba, Vietnam, and even the Chinese Maoist Revolution. And they supported a program of armed self-defense and redistribution. The campaign that was brought to bear against them from all levels of government—federal law enforcement, state, county, and city—led to a breaking apart of the party. The Black Panther Party still existed until 1980 or ’81, but oppression directed at the party and its individual members narrowed their reach.
The second obstacle came from the Panthers themselves. After the radical movements of the ’60s, which some people called a cultural revolution that offered “blaxploitation” instead of real Black Power and Black radicalism, the issue of drugs surfaced. Party members in Oakland and Los Angeles that I interviewed felt that the most important assaults on their community occurred in both the War on Drugs and the drug crises themselves. Now, this varied by city. In New York City, heroin was more dominant and powerful in those postwar years than on the West Coast. But on the West Coast, a lot of people talked about crack. The crack crisis and the War on Drugs interrupted this movement.
ER: Can you say more about this change?
DM: Many people assume that life is always a story of things getting better. But in many ways, those first stories about the Panthers are about the Second Great Migration. What comes later is a very different kind of story. It’s a story of people of two generations in cities where there has been systematic public defunding and an intensification of incarceration, policing, and repression. In that sense, I would say that it’s best understood as part of the late 20th-century increased market governance and the withdrawing of resources from public institutions. Those kinds of resources don’t exist today in the way that they did, especially in education. State defunding, the attack on teachers’ unions, and the acceleration in California of segregation as the demographics began to change all contributed to reducing those resources. This is a version of what we’re facing today: As populations of color grow, there’s a limiting of resources. Although people look back to the Panthers, and it is important to have an idea of ancestry in politics, today we are facing a very different country, a different political economy, and a much more limited set of resources.
ER: As you point out in your book, the end isn’t quite the end. BLM harks back to the Panthers and to Assata.
DM: The Black Lives Matter movement, and the broader Movement for Black Lives, chose Assata as the primary icon of their movement. They chose her image, but most importantly, they chose her words. They use a poem that was published in Cuba while she was in exile to open all of their meetings. “It is our duty to fight for freedom. / It is our duty to win. / We must love and protect each other. / We have nothing to lose but our chains.” That refrain is used in many kinds of meetings. They chose Assata for several reasons. Assata was a Black Panther Party member, but she was not from California. She was from New York, and she was a Southern migrant who came out of the Carolinas. She was also part of the New York party, which was purged from the larger national organization. The state repression against the Panthers was always terrible, but it was significantly worse in the largest cities in the United States. In New York City, there’s [the incarceration of] the Panther 21. In Chicago, there’s the assassination of Fred Hampton. And in Los Angeles, there’s an attack on the Los Angeles chapter in 1969, which destroyed most of the aboveground party infrastructure.
It’s significant that the historical memory that they tapped into was through Assata Shakur. She emerges in part because she wrote an autobiography that allowed for broad dissemination when it was first published in 1987. And her autobiography, much more so than some of the other Panther autobiographies, is largely a story about incarceration. So much of it is descriptions of what it means to be a woman who was incarcerated. That really resonates, especially for younger generations: all the effects of these domestic Wars on Crime, on Drugs, on Gangs. But she is broken out of federal prison, becomes a fugitive, and then becomes an exile in Cuba. This is a story of liberation. Assata does the impossible. It is her history as fugitive and as exile that also lends a sense of hope and possibility for people who are fighting something very, very difficult: the American police state.
ER: How did BLM frame that fight?
DM: Recounting police killings and reclaiming the histories of those people became a core organizing strategy. The decision to understand Black death became the strategy, as opposed to police reform or other technocratic solutions. One of the reasons for its success is the way that it was able to demonstrate and mobilize around a series of violent murders and deaths as the logical extension of carceral policies over the last half-century. And it was the image and the reality of Michael Brown, having been murdered in North County in St. Louis and left in the street, that set St. Louis on fire. In many ways, that provided a template for things that would happen across the country. At the core of that was exposing police murder.
ER: All the way until 2020.
DM: Near the end of the book, I observe that “We’ve had the largest number of protests ever in our history in 2020, with 26 million people going onto the streets and protesting in the name of Black Lives Matter.” That encompassed 40 percent of the counties in the US. This is an amazing story of a different kind of genesis of a broad-based movement. And it has inserted abolition into mainstream discourse. Seeing corporate media and television talking about defunding the police and abolition were things that I never thought I would see. However, as I talk to you in the early weeks of 2022, we’re seeing, as we have often in history, the ways in which law enforcement and the forces of reaction use this moment to expand powers and expand funding. One of the really disheartening things about writing about law enforcement is seeing this constant oscillation between organizing against it and reform and then increased powers. So often law enforcement uses the challenges that are posed to them to expand their powers. In this moment—the second year of Joe Biden’s presidency and a year after the attack on January 6—we’re seeing a real resurgence in law-and-order rhetoric and policy.
ER: So what does Assata teach us?
DM: In terms of thinking about the title of the book, Assata Taught Me, I mean it quite literally. Before it became the language of the movement, the book Assata, Assata Shakur’s autobiography, taught us. In 1987, when it came out, we were living under the second administration of Ronald Reagan. This is the era of Iran-contra and of the invasion of Grenada and anti-communist warfare. (None of us knew that 1989 was coming.) But Assata represented this other possibility—this tradition of Black militants, of Marxism—linked to the anti-colonial struggle of Cuba, where she lives now. She literally taught me and people of my generation. And she has taught a subsequent generation, becoming the avatar and inspiration for new types of organizing against state violence, for demanding resources and funding, and for divesting from carceral projects and investing in education and health care.
ER: And she does so globally.
DM: In 2017, I visited the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. A graduate student who read my book asked me to come and give a talk to the group Occupy Alemão. Alemão is in North Rio. It’s a part of a large complex of favelas of informal communities. I went to Zilda Chaves’s house, which is essentially a community center there. Many of the people there were part of the first generation of students who were attending university. This was, in many ways, a dynamic that’s not unlike the one I talked about in California: the first real generation of large numbers of college students of African descent. I talked to them about Assata, and they grilled me. They were deeply invested in reclaiming Assata Shakur for a tradition of Pan-Africanism that was recognizable to them and that evoked the history of their mothers, sisters, and daughters.
During the conversation, there was a tension between pan-Africanism and Marxism, or even Angela Davis versus Assata Shakur. I forced myself to listen (because I had my own opinions). But it was a reminder of the importance of Assata in the diaspora. I’m still thinking about it. One of the reasons I have such a great affection for the Panthers is that they bring together those two traditions of Pan-Africanism and Marxism. They are an all-Black organization, and this is a very important development in the modern Black freedom struggle. At the same time, they really believed in radical coalitions and made common cause with white radicals, mother country radicals, and Brown Berets. At the core of that was anti-imperialism. Even though it’s contested, I am invested in claiming Assata Shakur for both those traditions.