John Brown's raid and the Black Panthers
This post, which was originally an email, started as a simple invite and campaign update but evolved into me sitting with some tough questions about the Jewish community’s legacy. Thanks for those of you that choose to join me on this path.
I’m celebrating wins no matter how small they may seem in this time of tragedy and impossible decisions. You may be wondering what the abolitionist raid on Harpers Ferry and the Black Panther Party (BPP) have in common: both are marked in time the weekend on October 15-17, 2021. The formative political organization BPP was founded on Friday in 1966 in response to police brutality against the Black community, specifically the killing of Matthew Johnson in San Francisco. I am celebrating the legacy of the Black Panther Party, whose Free Breakfast for Children Programs became a model for the Fed Up Political Food Distributionin which many CJJ members are currently engaged.
On Saturday, we stepped back further in time to mark the anniversary of the 1859 abolitionist raid on Harpers Ferry. I am celebrating John Brown and company’s brave attempt to take over the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, VA (modern day WV) in an effort to initiate a slave revolt across the Southern states. The raid, now seen as a prelude to the Civil War, included 21 additional abolitionists — 14 white and 7 Black. Brown, a white man, was defeated in the raid by a company of the U.S. Marines led by First Lieutenant Israel Greene. Greene, a Jewish man, later left the USMC and served as an officer in the Confederate States Marine Corps during the Civil War.
I’m familiar with Jewish communities celebrating our shared legacy of engaging in tikkun olam or social justice projects. While this heritage of building a more just world is worthy of celebration, I haven’t heard much introspection about a different part of our story — the one in which some of our ancestors fled persecution based on our Jewish identity in Europe, and then essentially traded in their otherness for whiteness. If we understand the Confederacy as a project of maintaining white cultural hegemony, I see First Lieutenant Israel Greene as having chosen assimilation as a survival strategy. The project worked so well for him that he became deputized as a crusader for white dominance.
While I condemn Greene choosing comfort over building a more fair world, in contrast I celebrate the community that we are cultivating within CJJ. We create and allow space to interrogate these nuances while writing a new story for ourselves, one in which we show up as vibrant, dynamic Jews in multiracial, intergenerational, and cross-class coalition within our Southern communities.
The People's Budget NC, which you can read more about at this link, is an example of one of these coalition spaces in which CJJ is engaged. I am celebrating coalition members Surena Johnson and Kathy Greggs who recently led direct actions in Raleigh and Fayetteville respectively, demanding more resources for those experiencing the current housing crisis. Activists camped out overnight on state property demanding greater transparency into the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), wanting to know why neighbors facing impending evictions hadn’t yet been approved for funding. I’m celebrating the team in Raleigh who called in help from a local council person after hearing from a neighbor experiencing homelessness that the portable bathrooms available to the public downtown hadn’t been serviced in weeks.
Additionally, in direct response to this day of action, the city council moved to provide more administrative support to the vendor facilitating ERAP that will undoubtedly increase the capacity of the program to meet the needs of our people. I’m also celebrating that the direct action team was able to motivate two apartment complexes to start accepting ERAP funds, preventing the impending eviction of three families who were approved for funds.
We know there is more work to be done and I'm celebrating our community that doesn't shy away from this necessary challenge.