The Black Abolitionist Network: An Interview with Jasson Perez

The Black Abolitionist Network: An Interview with Jasson Perez

This article originally appeared at Rampant.

After the first weeks of the rebellion sparked by the police murder of George Floyd, organizers in Chicago took steps to create a new network of organizers. This new formation, the Black Abolitionist Network (BAN), has released a list of demands and launched a campaign to Defund the Chicago Police Department that is gaining steam in Chicago.  

Here brian bean from Rampant talks with Jasson Perez, an organizer with BAN, about the strategies and tactics needed to adapt to the current political movement.

brian bean: What is the Black Abolitionist Network? How did it form and why now?

Jasson Perez: I mean, different people have different stories. Amika Tendaji, another local activist, invited me to a strategy session with folks about what best to do and how to respond to the uprisings that had started. That was the initial idea. This gathered a group of us with different organizer experiences like the Laquan McDonald protests, the Say Her Name/Rekia Boyd protests, No Cop Academy, Bye Anita, reparations for torture survivors, all these different types of campaigns around policing and mass incarceration.

So we just thought, maybe we can come in and hopefully provide some sort of strategic support to the rebellion. It’s free-flowing, we wanted to build something out where if you’re Black and you’re an abolitionist, you can come into BAN and develop yourself and learn more.

We viewed the network as more of a kind of ecology of things that can include transformative justice practitioners, or restorative justice practitioners, artists, things like that, as well as organizers. But we also know what is primary to us, which is seeding and starting a campaign around Defund CPD, and wanting to be a model for our city, and also other cities in terms of how to approach starting out a campaign that’s not just a coalition of organizations, w we which is important, but we wanted to have a model that was a little bit different. We believed there’s already a lot of dope organizing going on via organizations and then there was a lot of organizing going on unattached to organizations, where people were just doing their own stuff.

And so we wanted to tap into both of those. And we were worried that if we created something too much like a coalition of organizations, where these are the lead things or people or whatever, you get into bottlenecks where people are overly self-conscious about whether we can do this unless these people say this, or can we do that? We didn’t want that kind of deference. We definitely believe in Black leadership, but we believe in Black leadership within the context of: What are our politics? Do we have good politics? We think we have good politics. And then: is our strategy and organizing good?

We think we have good strategy and we feel like the level of organizing we’ve done in the past kind of speaks to how we might have some ideas of how to approach this. We just wanted to start a defund CPD campaign and train a bunch of people and then hopefully get people to be like, “Ah, we’re going to defund CPD. This is what it is, you know?”

So unifying around the demand and the campaign, as opposed to beginning with the building of organization for organization’s sake.

Yeah. And I feel like that’s usually more the model of what you do first, at least that was the model of how I got trained. So it’s a little different and it’s new for us, because for all of us, we never quite approached it in this kind of way. It is connected to an organizing model, for which different people have different names. Some people call it an open source campaign, some people call it distributed organizing, some people call it momentum organizing, but it’s all a way of trying to organize in a moment of uprising where people are already self-organizing and doing a lot of stuff. Especially people who wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as part of organizations.

Many of the folks involved in the founding of this network have come together through some of the long-term work that you just mentioned that has gone on in the city. Every social explosion has some people and organizers somewhere at the core and sometimes less visible continuity with organizing that has come before.

It seems like part of what drew the network together was the previous wave of protest of 2014 to 2015. And beyond that there’s a previous wave that’s not often talked about as much, with the struggle around the killing of Trayvon. Can you tell me about the importance of that experience and those relationships and how 2014 and 2015 laid the groundwork for today? What are the continuities between the previous wave and now, and also how’s it different?

I’m glad you brought up Trayvon. Yeah. That was so important, especially for Black Youth Project 100 and the Dream Defenders, too. It was super pivotal, there were uprisings in relation to Trayvon and then there was Ferguson. And that is what became the Black Lives Matter movement. I think that conditions our analysis all the time. At least for how we want to build up the Defund CPD campaign, where we want it to go.

I, we, see a continuation of this now in this moment. I think there is also something different right now. I think we have five years of experience of this kind of organizing.

I feel like we’ve always had the politics, but now the politics themselves have become more mainstream and more visible, more legible for people to understand that police are primarily a violent institution. More people see that police are not primarily about stopping things like gun violence, drug dealers, or any of the things that people say that they think cops do. People see that cops lie consistently, especially when it comes to testifying about the murders that they commit. So I feel like those conditions have changed. And as part of that, the tactics have changed, too, the willingness of community organizations, labor organizations, and even movement organizations to really engage in militant civil disobedience to the point where you have to de-arrest yourself from a cop, that you have to confront police, that you have to fight back against police.

With abolition being the goal, the core demand, front and center is the demand to Defund CPD to the tune of 75 percent of their current operations budget. The slogan of defunding the police has definitely emerged as kind of the organic demand of this new movement. Why is defund such an important demand and also what does defund mean to the Black Abolitionist Network?

I love defund because it’s really simple. It says what it is. It’s one of those demands where it’s a symbolic demand, because Defund the Police, sounds so big and broad and just kind of earth-shattering that it becomes a symbolic demand. But then it’s also a very nice instrumental demand, which literally just means what it means. We want to take all the money, public or private, that goes to police out of policing and want it invested (well, there is debate in abolitionist circles) in government services that aren’t carceral, or in communal services that aren’t carceral. So however you want to figure it out, if you care about this thing called “public safety,” and if you care about having an equitable world where accountability actually happens, the last thing you invest in, the last thing you pay for, is police.

So for our demands, we just wanted to give it a little bit more of an instrumental angle, and make it a goalpost of what we wanted. Because we were worried about a situation where someone is like: “Okay. I cut the budget by two percent, I defunded the police.” We just didn’t feel we had the political will per se, the protest, the movement, the insurrection in Chicago to demand to disband the police. Cause we didn’t burn down a police station, like in Minneapolis.

So we thought a 75 percent reduction gives us a good place to start in terms of being a serious, meaningful proposal about how we’re going to defund the police, but also put it on the path to abolition. Some of the other defund demands that we had been seeing around other cities felt a little bit ambiguous about, is this about defunding police to a certain level and just making police power smaller? Or is this about eventually the disbanding and abolishing of the police department? So we just felt like 75 percent defunding kind of makes that clear.

What can you say about the rest of the demands? Obviously, defunding is key, but there’s a list of demands that y’all put forward, some of them are very recognizable for folks who have been around activism in Chicago. Can you talk about the other demands and what is their importance?

We wanted to build a kind of movement ecosystem of campaigns that were already happening and affirm those campaigns and then stitch them all together, and also have a fairly comprehensive abolitionist, decarceral campaign framework.

But ultimately it’s about the demands and the principles of the struggle. We felt like those are the two biggest things that we needed to present to folks and show to folks, to show what we’re trying to build out as a campaign and as a container and show that it’s meaningful and that they could see themselves in it, you know?

So, how are we going to win these demands? How do you see the struggle proceeding and what kind of strategy do you think is needed? For example, is the target the Chicago budget, that comes up in the fall? What kind of pressure points do you see or what do you think we need to keep in mind in beginning to build the struggle, to try to win these things in the short term?

In the short term, there is the direct campaign Defund CPD, that will continue until December. What we need to win is getting buy-in and for people to sign on. We need involvement from traditional labor organizations, traditional community organizations, churches. We need a lot of activity.

We need a lot of people trained in organizing and civil disobedience. That’s why we’re doing a series of mass trainings, and by mass trainings, we mean hundreds of people. We need trainings on the basics: What is abolition? What is defunding the police as a campaign? And then things like: How do you hold a protest? How do you hold a town hall? How do you do a de-arrest? And on the harder questions: How do you talk to people about defunding the police?

For us, we have a strategy of going after the mayor, of course. But we also need to go after the public: we’re trying to win the hearts and minds of the public. We don’t want to get into a narrow campaign where we’re just constantly thinking about how we put pressure on elected officials. While that’s part of the campaign, we want to be making sure that we’re doing actions, protests.

People want to join, people want to see themselves as a part of it, and so we are doing town halls and teach-ins to attract more people into the Defund CPD campaign. Our basic theory of change is that we need anywhere from five to ten percent of the people of the city of Chicago to get up in mass protest, and that protests have to happen with regular consistency. We are still at that level where people are having a few protests every week, but we will need to kick that back up. A part of what we’re trying to figure out is: what kind of actions can we do and organize with other people that bring people back out at the scale or close to the scale of what we saw with the initial uprising. We probably won’t hit that same intensity, but we try to get to that pace and that same intensity.

We want to just make sure that we are building with other organizations, and then helping support them doing their own trainings and calling their own protests and encouraging and supporting them in that.

There are also a lot of people who are active, but don’t have a political home. We want them to make Defund CPD their political home in this moment.

You described so much of it as giving folks the tools for them to take the slogan and do what they can to push it, to get at that mass character that we saw at the high point of the uprising. And it’s interesting because earlier you also talked about the importance of Black leadership, which I think is the obvious starting point.

But then you also said: which Black leadership. And so there’s tension that I’ve seen in the movement where some people, while coming from a good place by saying they want to follow a Black leadership, don’t grapple with the which. Relatedly, this “follow Black leadership” can lead to what I would call a white paralysis, which is not wanting to do anything without being told. Interestingly this is actually the opposite of what we saw in the rebellion in which all types of people, multiracial people all over the country, followed Black leadership and took to the streets. There’s a lot to unpack there, I wonder what your thoughts were about that.

I think that’s why for us, we’re definitely trying to deemphasize the BAN part and emphasize the Defund CPD part, and why we repeat that BAN is just here to seed the campaign. We’re not here to be like: “We are the Black vanguard leadership that knows all things, that we’re the all-knowing, all-seeing Black people in this.” I think there are ethical and political reasons for us wanting to avoid this, but I think the most important reasons are the practical implications. If a formal campaign, an organization gets really big you can get bottlenecks of just people constantly asking you: what should we do?

But it’s simple. Yo, go out and protest, go out and do a town hall, go out and have a community meeting. I mean, there are all these things that you can do and that you should do. And I agree, “follow Black leadership” can turn into this like white paralysis. This can become a tokenizing thing where A, B, or C person is politically correct because this other Black person said A, B, or C. Even us as members of BAN don’t all agree with each other on everything that should or should not happen.

For me, “follow Black leadership” means you follow Black leadership because we have a history as a community of a lot of organizing against police. This has made it easier to see the role of police for what it is: existing in order for a capitalist to maintain class power and racial power. If we want to achieve any of our other dreams, we have to fight against police too, we can’t just talk about fighting against economic inequality, or for Medicare for All, or any of these other things without taking on the question of the cops.

An example of that is the current organizing around Right to Recovery for the CARES Act. The minute the CARES Act money came in from the federal government, the relief packages for COVID-19, what do they want to spend it on? They want to spend it on cops. Even when we fight for things like progressive taxation and all this other stuff, when it gets down to the local level, all of a sudden all that money magically always goes to police and never to education, never to any of these other projects that progressive liberals and other folks claim that they care about. So for myself personally, the follow Black leadership thing means follow people who actually have radical politics, who also have good organizing strategy, and who you feel that you can be part of that organizing strategy with in a democratic way.

Without this, “follow Black leadership” can be this tokenizing, neoliberal way of doing fucked up shit, such as following Lori Lightfoot. There is a Black leadership you can follow, it’s Lori Lightfoot and she’s saying a bunch of different things for people to do, or there’s other people who are community organizers in the movement who work with police, and believe in just banning choke holds. Just because we’re movement organizers doesn’t necessarily give us more legitimacy either. There are people out there who have different political ideological dispositions than we do. We think our ideology, our politics, our strategy, and our experiences as organizers are arguments for why you might want to do what we’re suggesting, you know? And what we’re suggesting is something that’s participatory and democratic.

So the content of the politics being both radical and radically democratic is important as well for determining leadership.

I think that brings me to my next question which is: a component of the politics of BAN is connecting the struggle against anti-Black racism to an anticapitalist project. You’re in DSA, you’re a socialist: what is the importance of connecting the struggle against anti-Black racism with the struggle against capitalism?

I think a big part of why we make that clear is because we were seeing some abolitionist organizing that avoided explicitly stating that position. Then you see liberals or progressives take up abolition while distancing themselves from the anticapitalist aspect of it. For us, this is how we understand how policing functions. It’s an anti-Black project rooted in slavery. It’s also an anti-worker project rooted in trying to control workers and stop them from organizing and striking and owning the means of production. Policing is the way capitalists enforce social, economic, and political inequality.

So at least how most of us were taught abolition, you can’t talk about getting abolition without having to get rid of capitalism. There is no way you can have private ownership of the means of production and distribution in this country, in this world, and then say that we’re living in an abolition present without police and prisons.

This connects to Du Bois’ explanation of abolitionist democracy in Black Reconstruction. If reconstruction would have been able to go the way it needed to go, and was going, until white power structures violently undermined and defeated it, you would have had collective ownership over the means of production. You would have had a radical democratic process. If there was a representative government, if it actually represented the people that it said it was representing, then capitalists couldn’t control the means of governance in a way that they do. When I read how DuBois describes an abolitionist democracy, he’s talking about some form of socialism. He’s not talking about a form of capitalism, and his analysis is rooted in empowering workers and workers having a democratic say over the economy, politics, and social life.

So we’re pulling from DuBois, we’re pulling from Angela Davis, we’re pulling from Ruth Gilmore, in terms of making that strong connection and saying that you can’t have one without the other.

You talked about the importance of BAN being a network designed to meet the needs of a moment of uprising, a rapidly changing situation. The uprising blew away what some people saw as kind of the status quo of politics being long-term focus on campaigns that are largely electoral, seeing campaigns as something that necessarily take place over a long time. Now we’re seeing things differently.

At the same time there’s also a discussion about this moment of uprising diminishing. We of course are still seeing protests, multiple protests on the weekends, but some of the intensity of it, the police precinct being burned down, and the fierceness of resistance, has diminished a little bit. This can for sure be overstated but what can you say about the trajectory of uprisings? Obviously movements go up and down. They’re not linear. But what are your expectations, what do you think the challenges are, and how do we organize to meet those challenges?

An example I like to use is when the original Ferguson uprising happened. It was in August. But then what became known as Black Lives Matter, the connection point, was the uprising that happened in October. There was also an uprising when people first learned about Trayvon’s murder, and then a subsequent uprising, months later when the verdict came in. I think it’s important to say that it’s okay if there’s a decline. We’re trying to collect ourselves or trying to figure things out.

I think my concern is that a lot of times people do what I think you were referring to, they go into electoralism or into these more static forms of campaigns and there’s a lack of commitment to militant civil disobedience. Or militant mass disruption. You lose a sense of the full embrace of diversity of tactics, from regular kumbaya stuff to property destruction. You lose the willingness to de-arrest and defend yourself against cops to have control of your protest. So I think that commitment starts getting lost as people are like, “Oh, that’s just protest, that only gets you so far.”

And BAN’s analysis is very different. Those disruptive protests are the foundation of how anything gets done, and you have to have that level of protest activity consistently. It’s what occurred in the Black freedom movement. Someone was telling me that there were like seven hundred protests just during one of the summers in the Black freedom movement. The most militant times also got the most gains for labor. You have to have a commitment to that, and then you have to build out organizational infrastructure that supports that.

That’s why we have focused mass trainings. That’s why we want trainings that happen every week. That’s why we want other people to adopt and take up those trainings so it’s not housed in one network, one organization or whatever. We have to be constantly building that capacity, cause we have to have bodies in the streets.

Building capacity is preparing for things like the murder of George Floyd, which in organizing-speak we call a trigger event. This brings everybody back into focus and people go out and mass protest. And that’s our job as organizers to figure these out and to consistently do actions that galvanize the public and bring more people in.

Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, but you gotta keep doing them. Once upon a time, the great task of the left was to understand organization’s relationship to spontaneity. And now it’s kind of bifurcated. People just act like there is no relation. One side is saying all spontaneity, and the other side is saying organization, organization, organization. We got to figure out how that melds together.

The decline part happens, but as long as we have a commitment to bringing it back up to scale, that’s the right place to be aiming our strategic focus, our thinking, and our actions.

Okay last question. We’ve seen 26 million Americans and politics in general transformed by the rebellion. How have you found yourself to be personally transformed by the events that have transpired in the past month?

I never lived through the things that I have read about, what was happening in the Great Depression, things like that. I haven’t lived before in a moment where there’s just massive unemployment, an economy at a standstill. I think the intensity of the rebellion was connected to the coronavirus, the stay-at-home orders and how the global capitalist economy is slowing down. World events have consequences and matter, and there’s reasons why movements start gaining momentum around world events that really push on capital’s power to control us in the way that they want to control us.

So I think that has been a revelation for me. How I was trained in organizing, there was the idea that it only matters what you do. And when you try to point to world events and political context, you’re told you are making excuses for why your organizing hasn’t gotten done, you know?

So just seeing this moment and seeing how people reacted to this moment, it allowed me to believe in uprisings again, to believe that we have the tools and we have a public that’s much more responsive to believing that uprisings have a meaningful purpose in our lives and can make the world better.