You can tell a lot about a movement by listening to what it shouts.
And by what it sings.
Indeed, the very fact that it sings at all is a sign of health. When people join together in song they express not only a unity of indignation against the state of things, they also affirm their common human spirit, even their communion in the mission at hand. They give a form to their grievances, one that points — through music — beyond the situation that oppresses them. Song reminds us of how horror can be turned into glory, how pain and suffering can be transmuted into beauty, how the bad times can give us the tools to build a better world. It’s a process as old as struggle, one that resonates through the ages, from old Irish ballads, to African American music: slave-work songs, the blues, hip-hop.
Can we even imagine the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s without song? “This Little Light of Mine…I’m Gonna Let It Shine.” “Down By the Riverside.” “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me Round” “We Shall Overcome.” Is it even conceivable that a movement demanding such persistence, courage, and sacrifice from so many could come into being, let alone last as it did, without such songs of solidarity? Songs that affirm the possibility of people overcoming the oppression they faced, even when victory was far from certain.
To sing as part of a crowd is not just to raise one’s voice, but to infuse that voice with emotion, to blend it with others and take strength from that blending. A movement that sings together is a movement that is at least starting to believe in itself, a movement that is no longer embarrassed to put itself out there, a movement that is developing the means to sustain its courage, even when the road ahead looks bleak.
A movement that sings is also a movement that welcomes others to join in, to learn the song and sing out as they can. On a very basic level, to lend one’s voice to support another’s is to offer to that person the spirit of solidarity, to join with them in an immediate and real way. For when you join another in song, you give them a chance to take a breath, without letting the melody itself get dropped.
It is much to the good then that the Black Lives Matter movement, following in the wake of Ferguson, is a movement that does not only shout: it sings. How inspiring to join together at the end of the Martin Luther King Day “4 Mile March” through Boston to sing round after round:
I Can Hear My Neighbor Cryin: "I Can’t Breathe"
Now I’m in the struggle, and I can’t leave.
I’m calling out the violence of the racist police.
We ain’t gonna stop…
‘Til people are free
Led by a number of individuals — predominantly youth of color — the crowd of a thousand at Reclaim MLK united in musical testimony, bearing public witness to the oppression of our “neighbor,” taking up the final words Eric Garner spoke on earth before the NYPD choked the life from him. Through song and protest chants, activists transformed Eric Garner’s dying words into an injunction to fight for social justice. His spirit lives on in this song.
And the song puts it so well: through its lyrics, we move from bearing witness to the suffering of another — “I can’t breathe” — to a statement of commitment: “I can’t leave." The sympathetic feeling for the crying neighbor in turn gives rise to the recognition of a common enemy: racist police. That identification of a common enemy in turn transforms the witnessing individual into a member of a collective subject. From an “I” to “We.”
The nature of the collective subject that this song enacts, we should emphasize, is negative, that is oppositional. It is not a matter of what we are, but what we are against. To sing this song is not to claim that we “are” Eric Garner — in fact, not a single one of us is. Eric Garner is dead. The NYPD killed him. Of course, as racially oppressed people, some among of us are much more vulnerable to being treated by police in the brutal way that Garner was. Nonetheless, this song leads us into a common collective state, one that is forged negatively; we are united in our opposition to what happened to him, in opposition to the systems of oppression that perpetrate and justify his killing. It is in this way that “I’m calling out the violence of the racist police” turns into “We ain’t gonna stop…’Til people are free.” This emergent collective subject in turn broadens its sharpened vision to a collective, indeed universal project, aiming not just at the freedom of an individual or a single group, but the freedom of all.
Singing together to this simple tune, we re-enact the movement from individual sympathy for another individual, to collective revolutionary determination to struggle for the freedom of all in the face of a common enemy.
Just as promising at the march and rally were the spontaneous outbreaks of the high energy rapid-fire chant: "I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!" This chant itself turned into a kind of song, provoking dancing and leaping and a euphoric expression.
To frame our project in terms of both belief and in terms of victory is a powerful thing. Granted, what exactly “winning” will mean is not entirely clear as of yet; certainly there is no one shared vision of victory (let alone of a plan how to get there). But conjuring a sense of the future in the present, as potential and as commitment itself, remains key to the very sustenance of a movement, that is, if it is ever to have a chance at discovering the means of bringing that victory about.
How did the organizers and the participants in the march conceive of “victory” at this stage? Of course, songs and chants are not the only way a movement expresses its desires. The official demands of Boston’s “Four-Mile March” were clearly posted and read out throughout the day:
*Jail Killer Cops.
*End Mass Incarceration.
*Demilitarize the Police.
*No Olympics in Boston.
*End the Wars
*Fund Our Communities.
*$15 / hour minimum wage now!
Beginning from the immediate demand for the jailing of killer cops, this list of demands expands further to attack other structural and institutional manifestations of racial oppression and class exploitation, linking the defunding of community needs to the expansion of the prison system and the powers and resources of police. The list closes by pointing to the economic reality of low wages, which are in part responsible for the poverty and social desperation that disproportionately plagues Black and Brown communities (among others).
The most common street chants — and the most rousing speeches — of the day, similarly pointed beyond an immediate demand for justice, towards a radical questioning of an entire system of state sanctioned violence against poor, Black, and Brown people. Whereas it has been a left-liberal-progressive standard for decades to chant the call-and-response “What do we want? Justice! When Do We Want it? Now!” the post-Ferguson/Black Lives Matter movement has given this classic a radically third verse: “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! If we don’t get it? Shut it down. If we don’t get it? Shut it down. If. We. Don’t. Get. It? SHUT. IT. DOWN!”
This added third line represents a qualitative leap forward. Whereas the older version called on the state to “do the right thing” and to reform itself/correct its mistakes, the new chorus adds two new crucial aspects: #1) It calls into question the legitimacy of a state apparatus that refuses or is incapable of providing the justice demanded; and #2) It rallies people to become an actual counter-power that can actively disrupt the workings of a state apparatus that is no longer legitimate. To have tens of millions of people expressing this spirit in the streets across the US would be knocking on the doors of revolution.
And yet, even as this chant points to a precious step forward in radical consciousness and public militancy — especially when backed up by marches and die-ins unapologetically taking the streets — it too raises questions, questions that remain undecided as this movement moves towards February 2015.
Questions like: What exactly is the "it" that we are seeking to shut down? Shut it down?… Shut what down?
The potential vagueness of the “it” here of course testifies to a vagueness about what exactly “it” is that needs to be “shut down.” Does “Shut it down!” simply invoke a call to mass disruption of “business as usual” in general — from highway and road blockages, to shopping mall disruptions, to school walkouts… or does the “it” that needs to be “shut down” refer to a more specific set of institutions, power structures, laws, leaders, or practices that are directly implicated in the injustice at hand? What precisely should we be “shutting down”? And how so should we go about shutting it down?
What might appear to be semantic hair-splitting here is far from a mere academic matter. (Even as I concede that my literary critical training may bias me a bit!) For it is quite possible that how we understand “it” here will determine our future direction. Different definitions of the “it," — of “the system” that is to be shut down — may lead us down radically different and even opposed roads, politically, strategically, and tactically. In the meantime, the very fact that such militant calls are pulling tens of thousands into the streets is a very powerful and precious thing.
And of course, there are permutation of the Shut it Down chant that give some more idea of what is to be shut down, for instance: "Eric Garner, Michael Brown. Shut this Racist System Down."
Or this one, which rang out loudly the in the demonstrations soon after the announcement of the non-indictments cam down in Ferguson and in NYC: “If you SHOOT them down, We will SHUT it down!”
Here the clear sense of (state) action and (popular) re-action, as well as the invoking of a “We” opposed to the “You” of the police, was powerful, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the killings and non-indictments. Still the uncertain “it” lingers… Should highways and roads remain the focal point as they have often been to this point?
Protest organizers at the end of the MLK Day 4-Mile led the crowd in a powerful chant, one that merges the call for immediate justice, with a more radical sense of systemic injustice, and seems pitched to redirect our efforts at a more focused sense of “the system” to be taken on: Indict. Convict. Send these killer cops to jail. The Whole Damn System…Is Guilty as Hell
Joseph G. Ramsey is a co-editor at Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of Marxist theory and practice, and a contributing board member at Socialism and Democracy.