This piece is part of The Uprising Marches On, a package on what’s next for the movement for Black lives.
At the dawn of my tenure as a community organizer in Atlanta nearly seven years ago, the people with whom I organized all agreed that it was important that we create a nonhierarchical leadership structure: shared resources, more room for collaborative projects, no formal leadership roles, and collective power for all. We were, as we thought, committed to creating spaces wherein everyone who cared to have input had the room to do so. We were trying to move away from what we saw as flaws in former movements while adding to the collective Black liberation movement. What we did not realize, however, was that because of the ways that capitalism teaches us all to work vertically — with rigid tiers of authority within an organization — there would be a lot more work required for us to effectively cultivate spaces that were actually unranked.
We have witnessed the horrors of more vertical leadership structures in previous movements.
In 1968, during what would become the eventide of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. — who had tacitly and explicitly been deemed the leader of the movement — was assassinated by the U.S. government. Much of King’s work was centered around voting rights in the South, but after the signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, that changed. The Watts Riots, which according to James R. Ralph Jr. was the turning point for King’s organizing focus, transpired just days after the Voting Rights Act was signed. From that moment until his assassination, King demonstrated a commitment to a politic that was in direct opposition to the politic that had been assigned to him for so long — effectively making him a threat to the state.
Two years prior to King’s assassination, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party. Newton and Seale ushered in the Black Power era, which would serve as the next iteration of the overall Black liberation movement. The Black Panther Party (BPP) grew, and in 1968, shortly after transitioning out of the NAACP, Fred Hampton became the chairman of the Illinois BPP chapter as well as the deputy chairman of the national BPP. One year later, in December 1969, Hampton was assassinated by the Chicago Police Department and the FBI. Hampton was only 21.
In 1973, Assata Shakur and two other members of the Black Liberation Army were in a shootout with police. Between ’73 and ’77, Shakur was on trial and eventually convicted of the murder of the officer who was shot that night. In 1979, she escaped from her life sentence in prison, fled the United States, and started anew in Havana, Cuba.
And now, since the height of the Ferguson protests in 2014, at least six people who were in the thick of the uprisings have been found dead. While the Ferguson uprisings were not necessarily a moment in which a prominent person was appointed or hailed as the leader, many people held prominent roles that made them stand out among the crowd. It is those people who have sporadically and randomly been reported as missing and/or found dead. Because of COINTELPRO — a counterintelligence program operated by the FBI designed to track, harass, discredit, and murder radical Black movement leaders like King and Hampton — members of the Ferguson community have labeled these acts of violence as targeted attacks by police.
I and the folks I organized with knew this history. We also knew this meant we would need to be intentional about how we organized in this next iteration of the movement. This became even clearer as the Black Lives Matter movement began to kick up, and people like Deray McKesson started to be named as leaders. As time progressed, we’d come to understand that individual leadership in a movement is not only unsafe but can so often compromise our collective liberation. Appointing specific individuals as leaders of a movement being maintained by tens of thousands of people gives those individuals access to money and other resources to advocate for “solutions” that are unhelpful to local organizers. If the collective is advocating for defunding police and total abolition — and facing direct repercussions from the state for doing so — while appointed leaders are advocating only for reform, the demands of the movement are placed on hold for the sake of the individual.
But more than that, a leaderless movement is more easily sustained.
Typically, when one or just a few people are doing all of the work, it’s easier for the entire collective to burn out all at once — halting progress. In a movement without individual leaders, everyone is a leader, by which I mean everyone is empowered and equipped with the required tools to step up into organizing roles. Because of this, fewer people experience burnout, and it’s much less likely that everyone will burn out all at once. This means that a movement can’t and won’t stop when a person needs to rest.
The movement doesn’t need martyrs; the movement needs people committed to honoring their bodies and their wellness.
When I started organizing, I was taught that to add any real value to the movement, I must commit more of myself than my body would actually allow; taught that if I wanted to do impactful work, then I must take on every facet of the work and settle for the fact that rest was not an option. Almost as though I was a martyr-in-training. So, along with the other core organizers, I was at every meeting, every event, every direct action. I took care of logistics, communications, base-building, and more. Just a year prior, I was diagnosed with a chronic heart condition, major chronic depression disorder, and severe anxiety. But because I wanted to prove my commitment — despite how much my body begged me to rest — I persisted. It was that persistence and unwillingness to rest that would eventually lead to my second heart surgery — just months before turning 20 and only two years after my first surgery. As I recovered, I noticed that it was not more people who were stepping up to fill my role, but that the other core organizers ended up taking on more tasks. This is when I realized that part of being an effective organizer, and part of what makes a movement sustainable, is training enough other people as organizers so that tasks continue to be dispersed equitably — even and especially when your body tells you to rest.
Organizing is not easy. It is about engaging the communities around you; it places an emphasis on political education; it is about determining and working through the logistics for protests; it is about developing campaigns and programs which target both community members as well as local and state governments. There is canvassing, there is digital strategy, there is cultural work, there is physical outreach, there is… and there is… and there is. Because it is so much, rest is as necessary as base-building is in order to be an impactful organizer. The movement doesn’t need martyrs; the movement needs people committed to honoring their bodies and their wellness. As such, a leaderless movement is one that not only keeps Black folks as safe as one can be from state surveillance and policing, but it also creates the container to hold all of these moving pieces at once.
The first time I witnessed this in Atlanta was in 2016. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were murdered on back-to-back days, and around the country, uprisings ensued. Here in Atlanta, on any given day, there were anywhere between 2,000–10,000 people protesting in the streets. Protests organized by different groups began to pop up all around the city. There was no coordination, no one was necessarily “in sync,” and, ironically, nothing was organized. Yet, arrests were few, harm done within the crowds was minimum, and Black rage sustained itself in this way for seven days. The role of the “trained” or seasoned organizer at that moment was not to police how Black folks showed up in the streets, but rather to spread ourselves and the knowledge we have to ensure that little-to-no Black folks are harmed. At a direct action, this looks like airdropping graphics and other digital materials with bail fund numbers and safety tips for new protestors. It looks like communicating with the people around you — especially the people you do not know — to make sure they feel safe. It means having white and other non-Black people creating barriers around the crowd to protect the Black folks who are protesting. It means communicating with the people who are doing digital organizing work to make sure that the necessary information is more widespread. Overall, it means being intentional about building community, even if only for that moment, so that we keep as many people safe as possible.
The murder of George Floyd has led to ongoing, monthslong uprisings across the nation. They’ve been in his honor as well as Breonna Taylor’s, Ahmaud Arbery’s, Tony McDade’s, and a host of other names turned hashtags. Just as they were in 2016, the uprisings here have been continuous, sporadic, and beautifully chaotic.
Because I have a compromised immune system and Covid-19 is ever-present, I was mostly engaging in digital organizing as opposed to being physically in the streets. There was one night, though, where police were particularly aggressive with folks in the physical streets. This was the night that the Wendy’s where Rashard Brooks was murdered by Atlanta police burned. My organizing community was stretched across the city; this was the biggest and roughest night we’d experienced since the start of the uprisings. I couldn’t allow myself to not jump in and help where I could. So I went to one area in the city, and so much of the environment was different from the 2016 moment. A handful of people had megaphones and several others had varying protest tactics. I was reminded then that a leaderless movement was not only possible but necessary. While it is not strategic for a large number of people to attempt to lead a protest at once, this did prove that more people were committing themselves to the movement. It was chaotic, sure, but it was our chaos.