Making Black Lives Matter in Riohacha, Colombia
A gentle breeze from the Caribbean sea should have provided temporary relief from the scorching sun for our small group of international observers gathered together in a stuffy, concrete hall off the beach in Riochacha, Colombia. But that breeze was unable to compete with the “street heat” generated by the hundreds of Black Colombians gathered in the coastal city of Riochacha for the Black Communities’ Process (PCN) IX National Council of Palenques August 22 to 24.
Originally established and defended by escaped enslaved Africans in the territory that became known as Colombia, Palenques are now the regional organizing structures for PCN, the preeminent militant Afro-Colombian organization primarily based in the majority black territories of Colombia’s pacific coast. For the last twenty-three years under increasingly dangerous conditions, PCN assumed the leadership of the struggle to defend Afro-Colombian culture, territorial rights, and political and economic independence.
For three days, our international delegation of black activists from Brazil, the U.S., Bolivia, and the U.K. watched and participated in some of the most extraordinary discussions and examples of participatory democracy that we had ever been a part of. These representatives from the Palenque’s – many of whom regularly receive death threats – debated security, development, internal organizational principles, and the programmatic goals that would ensure that they were able to continue to envision and defend their economic, ecological and cultural difference—their right to “be” to be black and self-determinant.
The Context of Struggle:
Historically, the story of Afro-Colombians is a familiar story for Africans in the America’s who were torn from our land to labor for the European invaders in conditions structured to destroy us individually and collectively. But while African populations in the Caribbean were able to win some degree of national independence with the establishment of national states, however neo-colonial they may have been, that minimum option was not available, short of a generalized social revolution, for the captured and colonized African people in the U.S., Colombia, Brazil and the other nations in the America’s with Black populations.
In Colombia, home to the third largest population of African people outside of Africa, the plight of Afro-Colombians has become even more daunting over the last twenty-five years with the “new” circumstances of internal armed conflict that has engulfed large portions of Afro-Colombian territory, paramilitary terror, and the free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombian.
Massive displacement, state and paramilitary violence, assassinations of community leaders, disappearances and an invasion of traditional Afro-Colombian territories by U.S. and other European multi-national corporations who want the land that Afro-Colombians occupy and the minerals beneath the ground, are the new existential threats. The imposition of these new realities have affirmed for Black organizers in Colombia that Black lives don’t matter to the Colombian authorities and certainly cannot mean much to the policy-makers in Washington D.C. who give unqualified support to the Colombian government.
The Black movement in Colombian has been able to win some of the most progressive protections of collective Black rights on paper, including the right to collective titles of land, ethno-education and the integrity of their independent cultural expressions. However, PCN asserts that the failure of the state to fully implement those legal protections and to reign-in the marauding paramilitary forces aligned with powerful economic forces empties those wins of content and ensures the continuation of the multi-dimension assault on black existence.
Making Black Lives Matter by Building Dual Power:
The Colombian authorities understand that with PCN they are dealing with a real and significant force that has the organizational capacity to mobilize opposition on both a local and national level. PCN is organized around a clearly articulated national program that fully integrates local and national work toward the realization of its strategic objectives.
PCN’s national program is informed by political principles and a common vision that emerged from its extensive social base and was developed through its network of internal democratic processes and structures. It fiercely guards its political independence and has a theoretical position that does not reject strategic engagement with the state or the electoral arena, but as a matter of principle PCN does not involve itself in any of the machinations of the traditional political parties. Its primary objective is developing its own independent power informed by its principles.
PCN would find it absurd to expend energies on demanding that the state or elected officials produce a program of action that addressed black concerns. And it would be inconceivable for any PCN organizer, no matter how inexperience, to get into a meeting with a presidential aspirate and frame a question around what that person “felt” about their role as an oppressor. PCN organizers understand that it’s about the balance of power when dealing with the state and making any transitional demands.
Ideologically PCN is clear about the role of the state and the character of the national and global system of white supremacist, neoliberal capitalist domination that denies the value of black life and indeed all life on this planet. That is why for PCN the slogan of “Black Lives Matter” resonates, as it does for so many in the black world who experience the constant negation of black humanity.
For PCN the assertion of blackness is reflected in the capacity to develop and project black power, that is power materialized in the structures and capacities to defend the right to be, to be different, the right to identity, ancestral territory, autonomous participation and the collective well-being of black communities reflected in envisioning “development” and economic life beyond the dictates and constraints of neoliberal capitalism.
The valuation of Black life is given material reality in the communities and territories where black people live and are able to gain control over the institutions and structures that impact on black life. It is not a gift from the state but a positive development of the people as a result of struggle. As one of the activist explained to the international delegation: “We understand that it is only through our organizational strength that we are able to intervene and shape the political, economic and environmental conditions that structure our lives, for us organization is the priority.”
That is why PCN concentrates on building a broad-based organization that addresses all of the elements of black life from education and housing to community-based economic development. Afro-Colombian Community Councils and local associated structures provide after-school services to young people, cultural events, support for the elders, formally incarcerated re-introduction programs, to name a few. However, along with addressing the material needs of the community, political education/learning from childhood to adults is fully integrated as a central component of the work.
Promoting and defending a Transnational Culture of Resistance:
For three days, from morning to late at night, the militants of PCN debated, struggled, and produced new clarity on the way forward. Documents were produced and debated on the spot. For the members of the international delegation, it became clear why PCN calls their approach a “process.” We observed the struggles around some of the same afflictions that still impact all people-centered movements grappling with constructing liberatory practices: sexist practices despite the very visible and central role played by women, creeping elitism, liberal opportunism, “celebrity-ism.” And we saw how through honest (and sometimes intense and painful) struggle those elements were taken head-on.
And at the end of the process on Sunday, the gathering had dozens of pages of a tentative plan that would be further debated in their regional Palenques back home in preparation for the National Assembly, PCN’s highest decision-making body.
PCN did not get to this point overnight. It took years of struggle, experimentation, and more struggle to build an instrument that has become institutionalized without becoming bureaucratized. We need to keep this in mind in relationship to our critique of the decentralized BLM in the U.S. that is in its infancy. The move from a social media phenomenon to a real oppositional structure will take time and will encounter many obstacles, including state subversion.
There are models of oppositional politics in the Black world that can be studied for how they can be applied within the particular conditions and circumstances of North America. Here in the hot sun of Riohacha, Colombia the militants of PCN engaged in a struggle for clarity of purpose and a way forward for themselves and all who still labor under the vicious regime of global capitalist neoliberalism. They understand the nature of the police state that we face in the U.S. because they see and experience the flip side of that militaristic coin with the subversive power of U.S. global militarism in their country and communities. They understand, like many of the young folks in the BLM in the U.S. are starting to understand, and us “old heads” who learned through painful experience, that black lives will not matter as long as the colonial/capitalist system that was born in the Americas is able to continue its brutal rule over all of the people of the world. And in this struggle, the militant black people of Colombia extend their hand of solidarity.