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Our Work is Not Done

Resources for the struggle against anti-Black racism and subjugation in all its forms

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Fields of Knowledge
  • Health / Sustainability
  • Politics / Economics
  • Social Justice

Organizing Institutions

Slought

Organizers

Eduardo Cadava, Aaron Levy, Ella Comberg

Opens to public

06/19/2020

In early December 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech entitled "Our Work is Not Done" at the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. In it, he argues that our work will not be done until everyone—and especially our Black brethren—is "admitted, fully and completely, into the body politic of America."

He addresses his audience directly in what is still our beloved city when noting that, even "in this most antislavery city in the Northern States of our Union, in the city of Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love, the city of churches, the city of piety," anti-Black racism still exists and, as long as it does, "we are in danger of a compromise." "We are fighting for something incomparably better than the Old Union," he added, "We are fighting for unity; for unity of idea, unity of sentiment, unity of object, unity of institutions, in which there shall be no North, no South, no East, no West, no black, no white, but a solidarity of the nation, making every slave free, and every free man a voter." This is why, he says, if we are ever to "live to see this better day...we should consent to no peace that shall not be an Abolition peace." Peace will only come, that is, if we transform everything and, in a certain sense, begin again.

This was not the first time Douglass had spoken in Philadelphia, however. When he was twenty-six years old—six years after he had escaped from slavery and one year before he published his famous Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave—he was invited by abolitionists to speak against slavery in Independence Square on August 22, 1844. Although there is no known text of this speech, it was reported in two local newspapers, the Philadelphia Public Ledger and the anti-slavery paper the Pennsylvania Freeman. While both accounts praise the speech—its eloquence, its strength, its capacity to move its audience—they also point to a context that resonates deeply with our present crises and indeed to the reasons why we, too, should remain committed to a politics of abolition.

Because there had been a great deal of apprehension about unrest because of the advertised speech, and because the city's authorities were determined to preserve peace no matter what the cost, a curfew was set at 7pm. In the words of the Pennsylvania Freeman, Douglass presumably began his speech with "some hesitancy," but soon:

"his heart began to play, and he poured forth a stream of glowing thought and thrilling eloquence....How a man not six years freed from the yoke, and never having been, as he said, a single day to school in his life, should exhibit such a command of language and force of thought, [the audience] was utterly at a loss to imagine. All listened with deep attention, and the only interruption we heard of the quiet of the meeting arose from the hearty clapping of hands which every now and then broke in upon the speaker and betokened the feelings of the audience.... The stand which Douglass occupied was close by the old Hall in which the Declaration of Independence was adopted, and he made one or two allusions to this circumstance with thrilling effect....He only spoke for about an hour, orders having been given, as a precaution against a riot, to close the gates at 7 o'clock; in an unnecessary measure, as little or no disposition was manifested, unless it was by the police officers themselves, to make any disturbance."

The account continues by noting that the officers seemed "uneasy" that things were going so well and "they were observed going through the crowd, muttering their curses, and expressing themselves in such a way of the speaker and the meeting, as under other circumstances would have probably raised a mob. Their behavior was noticed and condemned by many of our most respectable citizens, as it has often been before on similar occasions. One person, not an abolitionist, remarked to us after the meeting that Philadelphia certainly had the rowdiest police-men that ever infested any city. This is a prevailing opinion among a large portion of our citizens, and should claim the attention of his Honor the Mayor. It is in vain that we hope for the preservation of order in our city so long as we have a set of police-men appointed for that purpose."

It should be clear why we have wanted to return to Douglass' speeches and experiences in Philadelphia. They serve as a stark reminder of the history and longevity of the issues that are presently being raised by the protests and demonstrations that have spread around the globe since the deaths of, among so many others, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and, more recently, of Rayshard Brooks. What is so remarkable is not simply the brutality with which the protests against police violence have been met, but the rather extraordinary relays between Douglass' experience more than 175 years ago and what we are witnessing today. The links between mass incarceration and the rhetoric of slave laws has been widely documented, but we can also register the ongoing history of police malfeasance and even of police efforts to suppress voices that stand for liberty and freedom, that express their protests and dissent in the name of a more democratic and inclusive nation. This work of suppression becomes more effective when it has the complicity of city and state governments.

Despite the intervening years between Douglass' visits to Philadelphia and the present, different forms of bondage continue to affect our Black communities—mass incarceration, debt, racism and discrimination, policing, and surveillance—all of which continue to diminish and endanger Black life in Philadelphia and across the country. At the beginning of the recent protests, the violence of the curfew and its twin in police provocation and violence haunted us nightly and now, even with the curfews lifted, we hear daily of new incidents involving police brutality: police driving cars into crowds, beating nonviolent protesters with sticks, firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at protesters at point-blank range, pushing an elderly man to the ground and stepping past his body as he bled from his skull, and, yet again, killing unarmed Black men. While the immensity of the recent response to this brutality is new, the struggles are not. This is why contextualizing the current struggle against police within the generations-long struggle for equal rights is such an important gesture.

As Douglass so forcefully put it, our banners must remain emblazoned. Our forms of resistance must find ways—in concert with everyone who shares this urgent sense of the need for resistance and abolition—to meet the efforts to suppress our cries for justice, transformation, and abolitionist peace. Our resistance should include an insistence on the importance of community organizing, educational workshops, food banks, grassroots work directed at issues of housing, education, health-care systems, policing, prison reform and criminal-justice systems, and a divestment from the police that corresponds with an investment in Black communities.

We should think imaginatively and expansively about what forms this resistance might take, and what it might look like. Resistance can never appear in just one form, and this because it requires a struggle across several fronts, and at times across several generations. As one image of what abolitionist struggle might look like, we wish to point to Ryan Navazio's photograph, entitled "We Can't Breathe," taken in Philadelphia on May 31, 2020.

Taken in front of City Hall, which—beyond a part of its dome and the statue of William Penn that stands atop it—is obscured by a mixture of the smoke of protest and fumes of tear gas, the photograph presents three young Black women, each holding up a sign, reading, from left to right: "They Want Our RHYTHM but not our BLUES!!!," "#We Can't Breathe," and "Am I Next?" The image references the twin pandemics currently circulating, not just in Philadelphia, but around the globe: the Coronavirus pandemic, referenced by the masks the protesters are wearing, and the longer, more historical pandemic of racism and police brutality, referenced by the signs of protest and the smoke and fumes that make visible the force of the protests and the responses to them. What is so strong about the image is that the smoke and fumes seem to efface City Hall, and thereby to make the symbolic authority of this iconic building almost illegible. The configuration of the young women in combination with the lamp post—the shape they make as an ensemble—is a visual echo of the City Hall dome. Putting the building in the background—a building clouded over by the uprising—the ensemble seems to overshadow City Hall, if not to replace it. The arms of the two protesters on the left of the image are also replicated in the arms of the lamp post. The posters they hold are doubled in the lamps, suggesting that the message the protesters carry may, like the lamps, help bring light to the streets. Protesting is a kind of language that includes bodies and words, gestures and forms, and even buildings that can be replaced.

If this photograph offers us resources for imagining what resistance might look like, it makes it clear that protesting must come with words that can point to injustice, grief, and suffering, and in the name of a more just and less exclusionary world. In this case, the central sign, "#We Can't Breathe," evokes the words uttered by Eric Garner after being placed in a choke-hold by officers of the New York Police Department in July 2014. Garner's last utterance, "I can't breathe," became the unofficial slogan chanted by protesters against police and the words that were again uttered by George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, just before he died as a result of another police choke-hold. In pluralizing Garner and Floyd's "I Can't Breathe" into "We Can't Breathe," the protesters not only express their solidarity with Garner and Floyd and all the other Black men and women who have died at the hands of police officers, but they also express their own inability to breathe. If they can't breathe it is because they might be next—indeed, the sign of the protester on the right asks if she might be next. They also can't breathe because the degree of police brutality has been breathtaking, and they can no longer live with this violence.

If the protests have themselves generated even more police violence, it is because, as the first sign says, people may claim to like Black rhythm but they resist their blues—they do not wish to hear Black laments or complaints, expressions of Black grief and suffering. Like photography, the blues are also a means of documenting violence and, in the words of Fred Moten, perhaps even "a way of transforming or turning the direction of that violence against the grain of brutality that produces its particular forms and conditions." The blues may even offer us a language that, supported by other words and gestures, can match and meet the violence directed toward Black communities by police officers in their own blue. In this photographic tableau, the language offered by the signs and bodies of this trio of young Black women also emphasizes the role of women in the struggles for civil rights. From Sojourner Truth to Ida B. Wells, from Rosa Parks to Angela Davis, from Kathleen Cleaver to Ruthie Gilmore to the three community organizers who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—radical organizing has often been part of a feminist struggle that emphasizes collective leadership and, in these recent weeks, has asked us to collectively mourn an entire community that has had to live in constant fear of having its breath taken away, constantly worrying about which loved ones may be next.

If this photograph can give us a glimpse into what one form of resistance might look like, it tells us that resistance requires words that, like those of Frederick Douglass, can point to violence and injustice, even as they inspire us to counter these experiences in all their forms. It also tells us that resistance requires bodies that are willing to put themselves on the line in the name of peace and justice, in the name of equality and inclusiveness, and in the spirit of the most democratic vision possible. Resistance can never be the work of one person, even if, at times, one person can move many. It requires that we work together, in solidarity and across all sorts of barriers, against the inhumanity, inequality, and violence that threaten communities from within as well as from without. These collectivities—embodied so movingly by all the protesters and demonstrators who have moved this struggle to the streets—would seek to inaugurate a world in which displacements, racisms, nationalisms, class ideologies, sexisms, and economic oppressions of all kinds would no longer exist, and would ask us to imagine what the world has never yet offered us: absolute freedom, justice, equality, and rights. If this world can ever be inaugurated, it may well be enabled by our work today—work that can gather strength and resources from the past, since, even then, many knew that "our work is not done."

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"No Rest Till We're Free" by Alan Daher, May 31, 2020, Philadelphia

We need a new vision for policy that recognizes housing, food insecurity, and low wages as the crises they are, and sees education, the arts, and non-punitive justice as pathways to peace.

We lend our voice in support to the various efforts already underway to fight for an alternative future. The work of Black Lives Matter Philly, Philly We Rise, the 215 People's Alliance, Reclaim Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, One PA, Decarcerate PA, and many others has been foundational to the actions in Philadelphia.

The vision they uphold for a society free from subjugation in all its forms is one we share.

"Let us emblazon it on our banners, and declare before the world that this is an Abolition war."

— Frederick Douglass, "Our Work is Not Done," Philadelphia, 1863

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The conversations set into motion by the recent protests across the United States and around the globe have made the urgency of reconceiving how we have been socialized to think about race all the more legible. To contribute to this effort, we are offering a modest series of recordings drawn from our archives that we hope might contribute to this ongoing work of transformation, with those close to us and beyond.