When NBA players threatened to disrupt business as usual the ruling class deployed perhaps its most effective weapon of counterinsurgency: Barack Obama.
On August 26th, Milwaukee Bucks players led a strike in solidarity with the movement for Black lives in the aftermath of the near fatal shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police. Scheduled NBA games were canceled. Other sports leagues such as the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB) also participated in the work stoppage. Players, coaches, and NBA executives held a series of meetings to address the situation. From the outside, the corporate media and Democratic Party establishment voiced tepid support for striking NBA players. But on the inside, U.S. capital moved quickly to employ its tools of counterinsurgency warfare against the Black liberation movement to help put an end to the job action.
The NBA is over seventy percent Black American. Any independent political activity on the part of Black people that cannot be co-opted or controlled is seen as a threat to the stability of the U.S. ruling class’ racist and imperialist order. This is a byproduct of the U.S.’ two generations-long counterinsurgency war on the Black liberation movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, a brutal campaign of repression led by the FBI’s counterintelligence program (CONTELPRO) served as the military arm of the broader war on Black liberation organizations such as the Black Panther Party. An equally critical component of the war on the Black liberation movement was the institution of reforms capable of severing any ties between radical politics and Black America. From the 1970s onward, a select few Black Americans were elevated to government and corporate posts within the white power structure while the Democratic Party became the principle political force within Black communities.
This historical process was evident in the way that NBA players were pressured back to work. Michael Jordan was called upon to serve as a liaison between the National Basketball Players Association and NBA ownership. Several media outlets reported that Jordan played a “key role” in ending the work stoppage. While Jordan is considered arguably to be the best player in NBA history and the first Black majority owner of an NBA team, his role in the cause of Black liberation has been far from progressive. Jordan has thrown millions at Black Lives Matter affiliated non-profits in recent months but has a history of openly rejecting any connection to the Black freedom movements. Between the years 1990-1991, Jordan refused to oppose North Carolina segregationist Jessie Helms because “Republicans buy shoes too” and stymied Craig Hodges’s proposed walk out of an NBA Finals game in protest of the LAPD’s brutal beating of Rodney King.
Jordan wasn’t the only member of what Black Agenda Report calls the Black misleadership class to intervene in the NBA work stoppage. Former president Barack Obama, perhaps the ruling class’ most effective weapon of counterinsurgency war to date, placed a call to Lebron James and Chris Paul to encourage them to resume the NBA’s postseason. Obama’s words were highly influential. Lebron James quickly changed his stance from total support for the strike to a negotiated resumption of play that would include NBA support for “social justice initiatives.” NBA owners conceded to the use of NBA arenas as polling stations and the creation of coalition within the NBA that is dedicated to criminal justice “reform.”
Counterinsurgency warfare is a form of military and political repression that specifically targets the ideological development of the masses of people. Missing from most analyses of late stage U.S. capitalism is the acknowledgement that the system is organized to strangle movements before they emerge. The technology of counterinsurgency can be broken down into two primary components. The first is the violent repression of the Black poor and oppressed, most starkly represented in the mass incarceration and policing regime. The second is the soft power wielded by Black misleaders, non-profits, corporate media outlets, and Democratic Party officials to misdirect and splinter mass movements in their infancy.
Repression in the form of soft power was immediately exerted by the U.S. ruling class to remind NBA players that their allegiance to the multi-billion-dollar NBA industry must be weighed equally with their loyalties to the Black masses. Still, the NBA strike offers several lessons for oppressed people in the ongoing struggle against the U.S.’ racist and imperialist social system. One of the most important lessons from the strike is that movements are defined by their demands and the political leadership organizing around them. Milwaukee Bucks players initially demanded that the cops involved in Jacob Blake’s near fatal shooting be held accountable and for the Wisconsin state legislature to reconvene on the issue of police reform. That the strike ended without the state having to address either of these demands is a testament to the necessity of a strong, organized, and accountable leadership for movements to be successful.
The success of the Black liberation movement has always been predicated upon the strength of Black grassroots leadership to carry demands to their logical conclusion through struggle. Reconstruction era reforms were born from centuries of resistance around the demand to end chattel slavery. The formal end of Jim Crow segregation was the byproduct of decades of organized struggle where mass movement leaders such as Ella Baker and Robert Williams used a multitude of tactics to pressure the state to act on their demands for Black freedom. As the movement became more militant, the counterinsurgency war became more intense. Barack Obama’s two-term presidency included the massive militarization of U.S. police departments and the spread of the U.S. African Command (AFRICOM) to nearly all countries on the African continent. These obvious yet ignored examples of counterinsurgency warfare have been motivated in part by the desperate need of the ruling class to separate the legacy of the Black Radical Tradition from the growing unrest against racism simmering in the present-day United States.
In 2018, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham told Lebron James to “shut up and dribble” after the NBA superstar criticized Donald Trump. A key aspect of the struggle to come is to build mass consciousness around the fact that the Democratic Party establishment and its stakeholders operate on the same racist principles as Ingraham. “Shut up and dribble” is no different a message than “vote Blue no matter who.” Leftists are scorned by celebrities such as Ava DuVernay and lectured to vote Democrat for protesting Kamala Harris’ role in the racist power structure. The same forces within the political class that pressured NBA players back to work also champion voting Democrat as the principle method from which to enact social transformation.
NBA players compelled the ruling class to bring counterinsurgency warfare to one of the most lucrative and profitable sectors of society when they decided to conduct a work stoppage in solidarity with the movement for Black lives. The correct path forward is not to denigrate or question the legitimacy of the protest. Instead, activists, organizers, and intellectuals must direct their focus on building the kind of movement that can successfully survive the counterinsurgency war being waged by the ruling class. The ruling class holds a monopoly on state power and thus possesses a myriad of methods for weakening mass uprisings against its oppressive system. Self-determination, or the right of oppressed people to determine their political destiny free of outside interference from the power structure, has been the only successful counterweight to racism over the last several centuries.
The embodiment of self-determination in movement politics requires that demands and movement leaders be accountable to the masses of Black people and all people facing the daily threats to their existence under U.S. imperial rule. Great movement leaders in the entertainment realm such as Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte were born out of the independent and self-determined organization of Black America. They were not beholden to an establishment political party or corporate patronage. We cannot expect NBA players or anyone else in their position to successfully throw off the shackles of American exceptionalism and corporate sponsorship unless the movement is armed with demands and leaders willing to take bold, class conscious action for self-determination and liberation.
Revolution is neither a dinner party nor a sport. It is, however, a competition between contending ideologies that reflect different visions for how to organize society. This competition cannot be won by using the tools of the oppressor to tear down the house of the oppressor. The counterinsurgency war on the Black liberation movement is in the final analysis a deliberate effort to condition us think and act otherwise.