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OBS On Conflict: Know Your Friends From Your Enemies

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OBS leading Jefferson Bank Protest

The Organization for Black Struggle avoids both liberalism and callout culture. OBS leaders Jamala Rogers, Kalimu Endesha and Velta Smith tell Jen Disla how they do it.

The Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) is one of the oldest Black-led mass organizations with radical politics in Missouri. It is committed to fighting for political power, economic justice and cultural dignity for African Americans, especially the Black working class.  Jennifer Disla had the honor of working alongside OBS as a member-leader. She was captivated when introduced to their grounding document, combating liberalism. Jennifer sits in this interview to grapple with the hardest aspect of the work, conflict.

The interview focuses on many different aspects of conflict. One growing theme arises from conflicts over resources and positioning that have broken out since the 2014 racial justice protests following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.  In particular, the influx of donations, foundation money and media attention after Ferguson raised questions about how we can navigate the waters as outside forces influence our movement space.  OBS’s Jamala Rogers, Kalimu Endesha, and Velta Smith talk about the organization’s approach to conflict, which is drawn from experience, revolutionary politics, and cultural wisdom.

Jennifer Disla: How would you describe the guiding principles for resolving conflict at Organization for Black Struggle?

Jamala Rogers: You start with the premise that we’re in the struggle together. We love our people, we want to fight for our people. If you agree with that, then let’s see how we can resolve these differences that can’t be bigger than the contradiction between us and our capitalist enemies.

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When we re-frame the conflict or the contradiction, hopefully, to show how, even though it may seem to be important to us at the moment that it pales compared to the bigger contradictions. “What’s the big picture?” And then we might give people the freedom to be more vulnerable to admit mistakes, and  embrace change.

What Mao and others have written about is that the way that we treat our friends is very different than the way we treat our enemies. And sometimes in the movement, we get that confused, we act like our friends are the enemy, and we treat them the same. The way our movement responds to one another in terms of criticism, and the calling out culture, is not healthy, it’s not good, and it’s not principled. And it rarely results in a true unification or, helps us gain consciousness about a particular issue or strengthen relationships.

Jennifer Disla: Mama Jamala and Brother Kalimu, I feel that shows the humbleness of Organization for Black Struggle. As a member, I’ve seen the conflicts and seen the modeling done. And so that raises another question: are there conflicts that you would have handled differently? And if so, how? 

Kalimu Endesha: Doing taxing and consuming campaigns, there will always be conflicts. A lot of times, we don’t have the sufficient time to resolve these conflicts properly, because we are in the middle of some campaign. And we’re not huge. So we don’t have this conflict resolution committee.

So we have to put that on the side until we have a meeting where we can sum up everything. We got to keep on moving forward. When you get a chance to think about it, after you’ve gotten through that major campaign, you say, “Oh, I could have did it like this or that,” but it’s not too late, because then at that point, you can say, “Okay, well, look, let’s revisit that question.”

Resolving conflicts is a dialectical process. It is going to be a back and forth over time. You want to always go back and think: Was that the best decision? When you are heading up an organization, you have awesome responsibility, and the decisions you make affect all the people in the organization and the movement.

But then at the same time, we are all humans, and I always go back to that. When I went to Africa, they’d say, “I will do my best.” And that’s all we can do. But you have to always understand what could have been done better.

Jamala Rogers: I’m gonna push back on the time thing. Normally, it’s not the time issue. What happens is that liberalism allows the issue to get bigger and bigger. And so therefore the fallout is greater. And then it does take time, and people say, “Oh, we need a couple of hours to deal with that.” However, if you had not been liberal, it would have only taken a couple of minutes to deal with the issue before you let it grow and grow and grow.

So one of the things I’ve been encouraging people in organizations to do is just remind people of your values. Just ask the question, “Does that advance our values?” And then people just for minute may stop and say, “Oh, no, that’s me thinking crazy.” You got to stop people as you’re going along. Just gently asking questions, or saying, “I don’t think that that is promoting our values, I don’t think that the behavior that you just exhibited promotes our values.” It sounds simple. But I’m telling you, it works.

The other piece is first start with, “What part of this conflict do you own? What part did you contribute?”

And if they say “Yeah, I see how this happened because I did X, or I said Z,” then you create some space for people on the other side to do likewise. And then you could have a conversation. Like, “Yeah, I should have been on time to that meeting, because then you would have got the materials that you needed. But I was late, and I apologize, I’m gonna make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

It disarms the other person. But it’s also like you are claiming the part that you are responsible for. You can’t be responsible for other people’s behavior, only yourself. And you can only be responsible for how you respond to them. That’s all you can do.

And so, those two things: think about your values and own your part. Then move toward resolution. The values of the organization are the glue that really is holding us all together. If we throw that out the window, then it’s a freefall.

I like to say, “Prepare for war in times of peace.” Let’s do that work so that when people get to a moment where it’s tense, where you don’t have time, you got to make split decisions. The practice of doing that is going to play out and not spontaneous individualism.

Dream for a better world

Jennifer Disla: What is your perspective on the concept of restorative justice and today’s movement space?

Jamala Rogers: I think restorative justice often is a buzzword. And in many cases, people think it only relates to prison work. But it really is a principle that should be applied wherever we are. How do we approach people who need guidance, who need to be held accountable, but at the same time, leave them whole?

Because when we leave them on the ground, that person is left with no dignity, with resentment, and in many times leaves our movement. And we don’t need to be running folks away from the movement unless they are truly enemies of the people.

Kalimu Endesha: We don’t believe in eye for an eye, we don’t believe in retribution. Because all that does is it perpetuates generation after generation of people seeking revenge against each other.

The truth and reconciliation process that was shown us is one way to do restorative justice. That’s a model that’s been adapted in different parts of the world with different organizations.

The violence that goes down in the Black, Brown, and people of color sectors, it’s got to do with the questions that we all face. And so we have to stop and step back, say, wait a minute, we’re fighting among ourselves, but the problem was brought on because we are all boxed in, and they have us fighting against each other.

That’s why in the broader Black Liberation movement we want reparations, we want the oppressors to apologize. And then give us what they took away from us. And then we move forward from there.

The approach that we take to the violence in our community is called haki. Project Haki is: cease fire, let’s talk. How can we work this stuff out? That’s part of the restorative process.

Jamala Rogers: There are people that are doing harm to our movement and to people in the movement.

When I look at people who have done wrong, and particularly against women, then is the only alternative that they get blasted on social media?

Or, can we have in different cities, some kind of council that people come to and they say, “Hey, I want to make this right.” And I often refer to the 12 steps of AA, because one of them is you go back to the people that you harmed. And I say the same thing for people in our movement, you need to go to the people that you harm, even understanding that we don’t have infrastructure at this point in time.

But you know, people are stealing money. All kinds of stuff is going on in the movement in the name of the movement. How do we call people in and make some distinctions between the folks who genuinely made some errors, whether it be in judgment, or tactics, versus those people who are intentionally trying to harm because they’re pimping off the movement?

Advice for movement leaders

Jennifer Disla: What advice do you have for today’s movement leaders, as they build their analysis?

Jamala Rogers: You really can’t go wrong if you ground yourself in the Black working class. And since most of us come from that class, it’s easier for some more than others. But I think you still can have class consciousness, even if you weren’t necessarily born in that class, or you aspire somewhere else. Because that’s where the masses of Black people are. And if we don’t understand the conditions in that reality, then it really is hard for us to organize in a way that’s going to benefit them.

I said this in Freedom Dreams Deferred, when I started talking about the way that all of this money has come into the movement. And this was not necessarily a criticism of Black Lives Matter. It was a criticism of the movement, that we have no way to hold people accountable, we have no way to say, “Here’s the agenda for our movement and here’s the infrastructure that we need to make this happen.”

The accumulation of ancestral knowledge in contemporary lessons has been trampled on by those folks seeking fame and fortune on the backs of working people. So when I look at somebody, and they say, “I’m an influencer, because I have one million people who follow me,” my question will be, “influencing what? have you moved the needle for working class people?” We have the highest poverty rate in this country. We have all kinds of levels of violence. We have folks unhoused.

And so to be grounded, it’s got to be you throwing your fate to the working class. Being a part of organizations whose work is rooted in the working class.

Kalimu Endesha: I believe that we need to tell them that you have to be humble in your work among the people, and be open-minded and hungry for knowledge. Because when you go out to the people, they know what the problem is. You listen to them and sum up that knowledge. And help them see solutions.

Because too many of us believe Google. No. Go back to the classic works. We need to go back and read James Baldwin, Fannie Lou Hamer. And we always tell people to go study, don’t just listen. Amiri Baraka said he read two newspapers every morning. And he said, “go read this book.” He was always trying to understand. W.E.B. Du Bois was trying to get us to understand that we who are “talented” because our parents raised us to be doctors and lawyers, it’s our job. So when we decide to be revolutionaries, we have to bring back to the community.

The key thing is to be humble, and ask questions, and learn from any event you go to. Then we fight for our people like family. They just try to survive every day. We try to say, well, we got to do more than that. Here is a battle plan.

Jamala Rogers: Some of that also has to do with vision. We rarely talk about the kind of society that we’re working for. And so we got a lot of, “I’m against this, I’m against that,” but what are we working for? We should be more descriptive about what kind of society we’re trying to build, and how people fit in, and how some people won’t fit in for good reason.

How do we create a democratic society? The organizations that we are part of, those are the laboratories that we’re using to incubate what this would look like on a grander scale. And if we are undemocratic in our smaller organization, then you can imagine if we got to a national level, all of that would be replicated on a grander scale.

I always ask people, “Do you see a particular organization that you think reflects the kind of society that you would like to be in?” Oftentimes there is not a whole lot of enthusiasm. So that means we got to do more work to make sure our organizations are political and social homes that our people want to come to, they want to grow and develop, and then to be able to go back out and replicate that in our communities and our neighborhoods.

Jennifer Disla: As you’re thinking about creating the democracy that we want to see in society, how do you combat internal criticism? You know, the critiques that you’ll get from staff or members in the organization, and the differences that are caused?

Jamala Rogers: We have a lot going on, most of us, and some more than others. And there’s not always the willingness to be patient with one another, given what we go through. One of the things I think we have to do is slow it down. Think before you say something crazy.

Folks have to have patience and grace, because these are some pretty rough times, particularly under COVID. And then we were under Trump. So those two things alone have gotten us flipped around in ways that we don’t quite understand fully yet.

Kalimu Endesha: That’s a tough question you asked us, because that’s the question that everybody in the movement is trying to answer.  And so we want to be honest and say that we are in the middle of and still there, because it’s a living thing, in terms of how you resolve internal conflicts. And what you do is you grow through the process of that.

Our organization is the grass roots, so we don’t have people who have been with us as long as me and Jamala. It turns over. New people come on, and we have to teach them what it means to have unity, criticism in unity, and it is necessary for growth. We can give constructive criticism when necessary, but we’re gonna try to help you move forward. That’s the hard part that we have going through. You don’t give up on people. We don’t need to lose the valuable soldiers, as I call them.

We don’t have the answer, but this is how we deal with it. And hopefully, it’ll give some inspiration to other people.  It’s about being open and aboveboard and honest, and having real love and caring for your comrades, because we’re in this together.

Jamala Rogers: If you go from pop culture, from gangsta rap, to what’s on TV, how do people resolve conflicts? You obliterate people. That’s what you learn. So we say, “Oh, no, no, no, no, that’s not what we do here.” Then they say, “Well, how do I defend myself if I don’t literally, figuratively, punch you out?”

And so part of it is re-socializing people about that crazy stuff on TV. That is for entertainment. This is real, this is real people’s lives. You learn this from working with young people. They always hit and punch—they pick it up from TV and from the music they listen to. How are we going to counteract that? It is really modeling the behavior, and then intervening where you can and then re-socializing when you can.

It’s hard, right? We struggle with it. And people come in with all kinds of baggage and backgrounds that you have to take into consideration. We all are going to come alive around our values. And around an agenda and a struggle. But it ain’t easy. I’m just gonna leave it at that: it ain’t easy.

Featured Photo: Members of OBS hold the 57th Annual Jefferson Bank Commemorative Protest (Credit: OBS Facebook).


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