Reviewing: Assata Taught Me: State Violence, Mass Incarceration, and the Movement for Black Lives by Donna Murch

In Assata Taught Me historian Donna Murch collects a series of previously published essays, along with an introduction and a new piece to tie it all together, exploring the continuity from the days of the Black Panther Party (BPP) to the present Black queer- and female-led movement. For those wondering “how did we get here?” these essays provide historical context for the Black Power movement itself and for the intervening years with an emphasis on politics, media portrayals, and the social and economic factors.

As someone who went to school in the South in the 90s, growing up surrounded by white Democrats who prided themselves on participation in the civil rights movement and in some cases seemed to think of racism as a thing of the past, I appreciated the mythbusting of certain truisms of the era. And as a radical history nerd I found the historiography especially compelling—in the tradition of feminist and womanist scholarship Murch does not take herself out of the narrative, and shows how the ways we tell stories of movements reflect on our own concerns and narratives. As I read this volume I was encouraged to notice how my own understandings of history are informed by my context, and what biases might be present.

Assata Shakur herself doesn’t show up as often as I expected, but the naming of the collection points both to her use as an icon by the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and to how the overall centrality of economic and social issues is often left out of the story of Black movements. While Shakur is perhaps best known as a political prisoner who successfully escaped to Cuba, Murch points out that it was Shakur and other women in the BPP who kept social and educational programs going in the community after the murder or imprisonment of many of the male party leaders. Though the leadership of women and queer folks is more celebrated and public in current movements, it’s easy to see similar trends in how the media covers “rioting” and high-profile events but skips the movement’s criticisms of racist capitalism and their potential to spark meaningful social and economic change, not only for Black folks but for all marginalized and oppressed people.

Murch looks at historical media coverage from several angles including misrepresentations of Black intra-community issues, failure to cover actual demands of movements, the construction of a false King vs. Malcolm dichotomy, and geographic priorities. One powerful essay contextualizing organizing efforts in Ferguson considers how coverage of the Watts rebellion was impacted by national media disinterest in civil rights struggles beyond the focus topic of legal segregation in the South, with the rebellion portrayed as irrational violence justifying police militarization rather than as a rational reaction to governments ignoring community needs. Another criticizes Michael Javen Fortner’s theory of a “Black silent majority” for setting up a moral opposition between Black elites and criminalized populations rather than considering the actual impact of racist policies. Murch even shows how recent media coverage framing the opioid crisis as an unfortunate tragedy for helpless white victims of pain unable to access medicine is rooted in racism, contrasting the portrayal of white opioid addicts with how the media describes dangerous Black drug users and evil Mexican drug lords.

Education is also central to the story. Though Murch was born in 1968 and like me only ever knew the civil rights movement from a backwards-looking perspective, as a Black alumna of Berkeley she has a particular interest in how California’s promise of higher education intersected with the hopes of Black migrants, and in how the origin story of the BPP inextricably links education with radical organizing. Both the BPP and the current movement prioritize community needs including education, safe housing, and economic security, and both are demonized without directly addressing these demands. Murch shows how policing of Black youth as a supposed threat grew alongside Black student organizing, and as I read I couldn’t help but think about how school dress codes in the 90s were often explained as “protecting” students from gang involvement, without addressing any of the racism inherent in those codes or the actual needs of Black students.

Economic factors are especially prevalent in these interwoven narratives. While I was aware of many of the common economic refrains of anti-racist advocacy—for-profit prisons, convict labor, debt peonage, redlining, blockbusting, subprime mortgages—and their role in funding white business success, I found Murch’s treatment of how Black wealth is systematically funneled out of the community and into white / state pockets through the (highly profitable) criminal justice system particularly illuminating. Confiscation of assets, for example, at the time of an arrest, can result in big gains for local police departments, who are thereby incentivized to make more arrests. Localities also use procedural violations during civil suits to essentially get around the Fourteenth Amendment prohibition against debtors prisons and get Black folks into jail. Once imprisoned, the state can then keep debt mounting through exorbitant court and prison fees, and even parolees are required to pay for the costs of their own monitoring! It’s easy to see how these policies add on to the debt underserved Black communities face in the context of employment discrimination, lack of access to quality education or generational wealth, and predatory payday loans.

The work Murch does in this book makes historiography accessible, showing an audience that may not be historically trained how narratives are constructed and taught to make it hard to see what actually happened, embedding bias. If you still see the Clintons as heroes of the left, for example, you’re in for a rude awakening. And if you have a sense from school that the Black Panthers essentially faded away into the multi-cultural nineties, this book will help you to connect the dots. Although I’ve read Assata Shakur’s biography and have a decent sense of the political context around the BPP, I found this book particularly helpful in understanding some of the broader trends at work, especially in New York and California. There are occasional repetitive moments across essays, but for the most part the selection allows readers to clearly connect threads and stay engaged.

Murch’s final essay connects threads across hyperlocal contexts and national movements, emphasizing the intersectional nature of the current movement. While she does explore some of the challenges of movement politics and the fallouts, there is also a sense of the possibility so many are desperate for in this retrospective. Putting the spotlight on the summer of 2020 and how we got there, Murch covers how BLM and M4BL grew up out of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the culture of national organizations, while at the same time more grassroots movements including Florida’s Dream Defenders and BYP100 were forming. She explores intersectional connections, the role of national leadership vs. youth leading the charge on the ground, and how hashtag activism plays into the whole thing.

Looking at the collection as a whole, I find myself coming back to that feminist tradition of historiography and thinking about my own perspective as I reflect on how activism and history weave together. I studied history as an undergraduate, and one of my favorite things about the discipline was how details even at a very local scale could weave together into patterns and themes that emerge in how we see ourselves in the present. Murch really sparks that magic of historical inquiry, reminding me of other recent collections such as Abolition. Feminism. Now. in how she doesn’t attempt to present herself as an infallible narrator but brings attention to some of the potentially overlooked regional details with an attitude of transparency and consciousness of how stories evolve.

As someone who spent a lot of time in some of the same feminist and queer activist spaces where the BLM founders came up, attending national conferences like NetRoots Nation, Facing Race, and Creating Change while also doing a lot of my activism on early Twitter, I recognized with a certain level of retrospective cringe Murch’s account of how these spaces both gave rise to incredible activism and tended to prioritize the national players over the local. National nonprofits piggybacking on the work of regional grassroots organizations like the Dream Defenders is common, and while some organizations are more generous than others in recognizing the role of the grassroots, it’s important to interrogate how the nonprofit grant-funded model replicates some of the problems we’re ostensibly trying to solve.

While many of us working at the national level were inspired by a diverse blogosphere, the ideas of critical race feminism, and texts like This Bridge Called My Back and the Combahee River Collective Statement, it also was easy to fall into a kind of New York / DC egotism and take the lead rather than asking local and regional organizers for their expertise. The potential of a national Movement for Black Lives, of course, is tremendous and exciting. But as we pursue it, Murch reminds us to keep zooming in on what’s happening at a local level, question received narratives, and remember Assata Shakur’s legacy through truly intersectional and community-based organizing against racist capitalism and towards social and economic institutions that support Black life.

ARC provided through Edelweiss. Purchases through the above button support me as well as local independent bookstores!