A Message from an Organizer to the Left and Progressive Forces inside the USA
- by Curtis Muhammad
Preface to Letter from Curtis Muhammad
The following letter from Curtis Muhammad reveals that working with the people can be disappointing to say the least, and without organiziers and the organized going through the process of recovering from the addiction to white supremacy, little shall be gained because the people and the organizers, which should be one and the same--if it is bottom up, as Curtis has attempted to teach and practice. Little will be gained because without the necessary recovery from white supremacy and its values of domination and exploitation, our values and behavior are wicked and demonic, as he reveals in his letter. Before any community work, the workers must go through the process of detox, recovery and discovery, then we will be able to work together in peace, justice and equality. One may think I am being idealist but I am being practical--in your present condition I can't go around the corner with you--as Curtis discovered in New Orleans and elsewhere on his journey. Yes, the organizers ran off with the people's money because the organizers are wicked opportunists who are full of greed and selfishness, thus it does not take much to destroy all the good that is possible, to disillusion the righteous and run them exile.
This letter should be an eye opener for those who work or dream to work in the community. Not only will there be opportunists, but agents, snitches and the ignorant who will easily fall for anything because in their wretchedness they know nothing. It is thus necessary to go through a healing process before working seriously with anyone or any group, because far too many have their own hidden agenda and it does not involve uplifting the oppressed--and yes, sometimes even the oppressed don't want to uplift the oppressed, so everyone must
come together in a peer group to process serious issues of fear, selfishness, greed and the desire to dominate.
Farewell Letter from Curtis Muhammad
November 12, 2007
A Message from an Organizer to the Left and Progressive Forces inside the USA - by Curtis Muhammad
With this second anniversary of Katrina upon us, there are a few words I wish to speak. This letter is written to the progressive, left movement for justice in the USA. In the last two years, every left organization has been in New Orleans, but despite that there is still no sign of a mass movement. There is still no sign that most activists are willing to put their knowledge and resources at the service of the grass roots and take their leadership from the bottom. I have found myself wondering, have poor black people been so vilified and criminalized that they are completely off the radar even of the so-called left? When Katrina happened, I hoped and expected that this would be the trigger to once again set off a true mass movement against racism and for justice in the US, led by those most affected: poor, black working people. When it became abundantly clear that this was not happening, I found myself at the crossroads of hope and hopelessness, and began to wonder how to spend the last years of my life in the service of my people.
The thing that I remind myself when I'm contemplating hopelessness is the beauty of humanity and the fact that people have always fought for what was right even when they knew they couldn't win. They tried because they loved each other; I think it's because it's built into human beings for people to look out for each other. There is a drive in humanity to be just, to live in a society that is just, equal and respectful. I believe that ultimately people will achieve a just society; I believe humanity came out of a just society and will create it again.
I do believe that there was a time that the lovers of life, the lovers of humanity, the lovers of justice dominated the world. Some say this was so during the hunter-gatherer days, when though there were evil people they could never gain dominance. Their numbers were always small, less than 1%; people ran their lives collectively, and therefore the greedy could not dominate. Well then, I say what happened, there is only that same 1% who dominates the world now.
This thinking, this logic has been the motivating factor in my life of movement work: the belief that there is a basic humanity that is inside the soul of most people. That this humanity can be harvested and organized into a movement for justice to free our people from slavery, bondage, oppression and exploitation. That the 80% of the world who live on an average of $2 a day can and will overcome the 1% and return us to a collective life organized around love, justice and equality.
Most of you who know me also know I'm a storyteller and believe story to be a universal language that can be a vehicle for voice â€“ the voice of all regardless of status, class, cast, race, gender. Story is an egalitarian language. So I wish to share with you my story, an abbreviated story of my organizing work from SNCC in Mississippi through the ghettoes of the US to the villages and jungles of Africa, to CLU, PHRF, NOSC, POC and finally the International School for Bottom-up Organizing. My story is meant to clarify why I now choose to live, work, teach and write outside the US and away from the grip of a drastically de-energized and often opportunistic and reactionary left in the USA.
* * *
I grew up in a community that, of necessity, had to take care of its own. In rural Mississippi in the 40s, 50s and 60s, mothers and fathers, grandparents, uncles and cousins protected the children from the hostile, racist world and collectively helped each other meet their needs. Nonetheless, when I was a child traveling to church on Sundays, I had to pass the tree from whose branches my cousin was lynched. The community of my birth gave me both my strength -- my faith in the people, my dedication to egalitarianism â€“ and my undying hatred of racism and the oppressive few that control the world.
When SNCC came to town, I found my direction. It was both a community of love and a set of organizers devoted, at the risk of their lives, to the folk on the bottom: the poorest black folk in Mississippi, those who had nothing, not even the knowledge of how to read. SNCC introduced me to the struggles of my brothers and sisters around the world, and particularly in Africa. I became an internationalist and a revolutionary. The lessons of Ella Baker and SNCC have stayed with me throughout my life; I labored to make them a reality from Mississippi to the ghettoes of our major cities, from my time in the revolutionary movement in Africa to my work as a labor organizer, and I have done my utmost to apply them in post-Katrina New Orleans.
In 1998, I helped to organize Community Labor United (CLU), a coalition that was founded with a commitment to bottom-up organizing. (CLU principles included "ending the exploitation of oppressed peoples everywhere; educating, organizing and mobilizing the masses within our organizations and communities from the bottom up.") After eight years of organizing in some of the poorest areas of New Orleans, it became the "first responder" after Katrina, and led the formation of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF).
As a founding member of PHRF and an organizer and New Orleans resident, I was back in the city within 8 days of the flood, struggling with overwhelming pain and anger. I felt that Katrina represented an historic moment. Never before had all levels of government united to attempt genocide of 100,000 black people at the same time. Even in the 60s in Mississippi, they were murdering us in ones, twos and threes. I threw myself into the attempt to put the knowledge and resources of the left and nationalist organizations and "movement" people under the direction of the bottom: the poor and working class black folk who had been left to die in New Orleans. PHRF became a coalition that committed itself on paper to that goal.
What followed was a dramatic learning experience for me and for all those whose commitment is truly to the people and not to their own particular grouping. Within months, mainly as a result of a speaking tour I went on for PHRF, we had raised about a million dollars from folk across the country who were deeply moved by the attempted genocide of over a hundred thousand black folk. And by December, there was already conflict over who controlled that money and how it was to be used.
The New Orleans Survivor Council was organized by PHRF with the understanding that it was to become the leadership of the organization and the movement, and should control all resources. By April of 2006, when the NOSC began to sound like it wanted oversight of the funds, the interim leadership of PHRF took the money and ran, firing its own organizers for daring to tell the poor black residents in NOSC that they had the right to control the resources raised in their names. Undaunted, the young organizers continued working for the survivors and formed a new group called People's Organizing Committee (POC).
This event was a turning point for me. I realized that the words of those who I had considered my comrades were empty, that their so-called commitment to bottom-up was a fiction; that their real commitments were to various organizations and their own egos. Our attempt to institutionalize bottom-up had led instead to a coalition of opportunists.
When I had spoken to mass audiences about Katrina in the fall of 2005, I had spoken of my discovery of the depth of the fear and hatred America has for poor, black people. The images on the media of those left to die could have been taken in sub-Saharan Africa or the Caribbean: those people were very poor and very black. With the desertion of PHRF, I was confronted by the knowledge that this hatred of poor black people extended into and throughout the progressive movement, even within exclusively black organizations. I felt very lonely in my continued commitment to lift up precisely that segment of oppressed Americans to lead the movement.
But POC plunged ahead, still dedicated to that vision. Thousands of volunteers came in the spring and summer, and many continue to come to this day. The hearts of so many people are in the right place. The New Orleans Survivor Council and its member group Residents of Public Housing continue to work to put bottom-up leadership on the map and fight for the right of our community to return and control its own destiny. But the past year has also revealed further weakness and lack of vision in our movement.
From the days immediately following the flood, we recognized that immigrants â€“ brown people, some of the poorest and most desperate of our brothers and sisters from countries to the south â€“ were being brought into our city. They were put to the dirtiest, most dangerous clean-up tasks, and later to replace the forcibly dispersed black labor force, for slave wages and in slave conditions. From the start, we called for organizing this new part of the New Orleans community in unity with and under the leadership of the black folk on the bottom.
This call was part of my message in the speeches I made in the fall of 2005, and several immigrant organizers heeded the call and came to work with us. However, despite many serious attempts to develop unity between black survivors and immigrants, it has become
clear that those organizers refuse to unite with and take leadership from black folk. They have organized immigrant slaves into separate groupings with no contact with the NOSC, despite their initial commitment to unity. They are essentially, wittingly or unwittingly, following the government's agenda, which is to build a racist, assimilationist immigrant "movement" that will serve the needs of a war economy and patriotism.
And so we come to the second anniversary of Katrina. Bottom-up organizing is still embryonic, though hanging on to life and with a small, dedicated band of survivors, organizers and volunteers. But the rest of the movement is in shambles, or under direct or indirect influence of our enemies.
Through the experience of the last two years, I have also come to the conclusion that the infiltration of and direct attacks on the movement that started (in my lifetime as an activist) in the late 60s and early 70s with Cointelpro have never stopped. Our movement has been successfully divided into thousands of groupings, non-profits and NGOs, and the left has been rendered ineffectual. It is not an accident that, for forty years now, the movement has been so totally reformist, or that those who want to be revolutionaries are so isolated as to be irrelevant. The government and its agencies have a stranglehold on the people, the culture and even the left. I do not think it is possible in the U.S. at this time â€“ for me â€“ to develop and train organizers with a real understanding and commitment to the folk on the bottom.
And thus, I find myself at the crossroads of hope and hopelessness. I find myself possibly in the position of writing not mainly to the current readers of these words, but to those future revolutionaries who will learn from our impasse. I find myself deciding to work toward creating an international organizing school as a vehicle to discover, recruit and train radical organizers. I want to continue my investigation of the movements in Mexico and South America among very poor -- members of the informal economy, workers, campesinos and landless people -- learn more about how class and hue interact to shape oppression, take inspiration from the fact that the struggle continues, un-abandoned, worldwide, and share my own knowledge and experience with the rebels of today and tomorrow.
I have lived 64 years and have struggled intentionally for justice for about forty-six of those years. I am thankful and appreciative to all those who have traveled some of that distance with me: those who helped nurture my children, who stood with me when I was imprisoned and tortured, those who have always supported my work and stood by me when all seemed to stand against me. To these worthy friends, comrades and loved ones, I will always honor you, be there for you, and know you are there for me.
Still, I have arrived at a place in my life where I wish to share everything I have and know with the "sufferers." My principle continues to be the struggle to engage the poor, oppressed, voiceless, and those who have the least and suffer the most. The only struggle that matters to me now is finding justice for those who have never had it.
This is me, where I am, trying to figure out how to organize our folk in a way that we always look at need as the principle of justice. If you are looking for me, look among the youth, the poor, and the struggling masses trapped in slave-like conditions throughout the world, for I am no longer available to an opportunistic and racist left. I NOW SEEK REFUGE AMONG THE POOR.
This is my struggle.
Wish me well,
Click here to view a videotaped interview by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now http://www.democracynow.org/2007/9/4/the_privatization_of_new_orleans_curtis