| Black Liberation and Anti Imperialism An Interview with Austin Cole | MR Online Austin Cole

Black Liberation and Anti-Imperialism: An interview with Austin Cole

Originally published: Black Agenda Report on February 14, 2024 by Roberto Sirvent (more by Black Agenda Report)  | (Posted Feb 17, 2024)

Roberto Sirvent: Can you please share a little bit about your background, including how you became involved in community organizing? 

Austin Cole: I grew up in Ohio to a family from the South (Mississippi and Alabama), and some of my biggest early influences were the stories of struggle, achievement, and service that I learned in my AME church and from my family. From an early age, I remember wanting to do something that would help my people and use my education to make the world a better place. Much of that came from my mom or grandma who would share stories of growing in the Mississippi Delta under Jim Crow, and from my dad whose family moved to the northeast when he was young and who, according to him, found out that the north was just as racist as Alabama, just in different ways. So, from an early age I also had a healthy skepticism about the United States, the various structures and agents of white supremacy, and the elites that seemed to live by different rules than everyone else.

Still, I was always told that I needed to focus on education, and I spent most of my time in high school and college on schoolwork and sports, so it was a long journey to break out of the standard elitist and corporatist understandings of what success looked like and what it meant to have a “positive impact” on the world. In college and the first years after, I was in and around various social justice causes and did some canvassing and protesting, but I wasn’t consistently involved in organizing efforts. I was still in a place where I saw building a career in ‘social impact’ nonprofits or similar enterprises as ‘the work’ I could do. It wasn’t until 2020 and 2021 that I started to get more involved more consistently with local organizing efforts, first with mutual aid during the pandemic and then around Black liberation.

Eventually, I gravitated to the Black Alliance for Peace, where I found my first consistent political home because I saw a real need to connect the circumstances of Black/African people in the U.S. with those of people resisting Western imperialism globally. Through BAP, I also got connected to local organizing efforts when I moved to the Boston area to go back to school. Joining an anti-imperialist organization like BAP was a turning point for me in terms of finding a political home among radicals and revolutionaries truly building toward a future of liberation with no compromises. But to be honest, I’m still working to live up to my own expectations in terms of the organizing I’m involved in locally versus the national/international organizing where I’m currently dedicating a lot of time. I take a lot of my inspiration from Ella Baker’s life and legacy of working to empower people to collectively struggle for and seize their own freedom. Her question of “who are your people?”—who are we in community with, and who are we accountable to—is one that I’m constantly asking myself as I work at being a stronger and more consistent organizer.

RS: A lot of your work with the Black Alliance for Peace (BAP) focuses on sovereignty for—and solidarity with—Haiti. What are the goals of BAP’s Zone of Peace campaign, and why is it so important for leftist movements to join the struggle against U.S. imperialism in Haiti?

AC: The goal of Zone of Peace campaign is to create a true and durable peace in Our Americas through expelling the imperialists from our countries and our region. It is a vision of an Americas, and a world, without colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, and all forms of imperialism, particularly those emanating from the US/EU/NATO axis of domination. More specifically, we are working to build consciousness among progressive and revolutionary forces in the Americas about the need to engage in a connected movement and we are coordinating grassroots organizations to oppose those imperialist forces and build towards a peace based in popular struggle, sovereignty, self-determination, and human dignity.

For both this campaign and the broader work of our BAP Haiti/Americas team, solidarity with the people of Haiti is the foundation of our engagement in the hemisphere because Haiti is both a beacon of African, anticolonial resistance and a focal point of US/EU/NATO imperialist exploitation. Any leftist and/or anti-imperialist movement has to understand Haiti’s critical place in the struggle for both Black/African liberation and the anti-colonial independence fights throughout the Americas and in the wider African world. As we’ve heard a lot in the last few months, Palestine is a litmus test for leftist movements and individuals, and I think Haiti should be seen in a similar way, especially for Black/African liberation and anti-imperialism in the Americas. As leftists and anti-imperialists, we have to oppose the narratives that the West spins about Haiti and struggle against the attempted violations of the nation’s sovereignty because it is U.S. empire’s interest in the expansion of its hegemony that has resulted in the constant onslaught against the people of Haiti and decades of instability for the nation as a whole. The Haitian people haven’t had anything resembling sovereignty since the 2004 coup of Jean Bertrande Aristide, orchestrated by the U.S. and France, and followed by the 13-year UN ‘peacekeeping’ military occupation of Haiti.

Now, in 2024, Haiti continues to face all manner of imperialist attacks and as Dr. Jemima Pierre has said, Haiti is a laboratory for imperialist incursions and policies—like the Global Fragility Act and the U.S.-orchestrated “non-UN” multinational security support mission led by Kenyan that is an attempted occupation by another name. Despite all this, Haitians have been in the streets and building popular struggle against imperialist attacks and for their sovereignty for years. We have to understand that what is happening in Haiti is already happening in different forms across our region and within the U.S.—just in different contexts and to different degrees of severity. So, we can analyze the depravity of the imperialists but we can also learn from the resistance of the Haitian people. To be in solidarity with the people of Haiti and to support their struggle for sovereignty is imperative for peace in the Americas and the struggle of liberation, human dignity, and self-determination for us all.

RS: During your time at MIT, you’ve been actively involved with the MIT Black Graduate Student Association and the Graduate Student Union. Since the beginning of October, how has your work with these two groups connected with your deep involvement with pro-Palestinian organizing at MIT?

AC: It’s been really closely connected, especially with the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA). We were one of the original member organizations of the Coalition 4 Palestine on campus, which formed in October. For me, and for many of the BGSA active members, it was a no-brainer to be in solidarity with the Palestinian people because I think most of us instinctively recognize the shared nature of our liberation, and we see clearly the double standards along racial and national lines. I mean, when the war in Ukraine started, there were fundraisers for the Ukrainian military regularly posted in official school channels, with no backlash—imagine if the same had happened for the Palestinian Resistance. Without much explanation or need for convincing, Black students understand why these double standards exist and why Palestinian resistance and liberation is such an existential threat to white supremacy, so it has really been more of an exercise in helping people put their energy toward generative and collective efforts, instead of the despair that can seep in when the world we wish to see seems so far away.

In terms of the actual work, about a dozen of us within the BGSA formed a committee to support the Palestine solidarity organizing happening on campus and in the area, and we’ve organized teach-ins, written statements, attended and spoken at rallies, and supported the Coalition Against Apartheid on building the organizing infrastructure within the grad population here —always while tying a deep connection between Palestinian liberation and Black/African liberation. Individual members have also been plugged into other organizing and action on campus and off. For me, I’ve been proud and excited with how we’ve been able to both hold the urgent need to support Palestine and uphold the moral validity of the Resistance, while also lifting up the exploitation and popular struggles in other places throughout the Black world—Haiti, the Congo, Sudan, just to name a few. In addition to its being necessary to build pressure to stop this genocide and end the settler colonial zionist project, I see the organizing around Palestine as an opening for people to feel comfortable envisioning a new and liberated world for all peoples.

With the Graduate Student Union (GSU), things are a little more delicate because like any labor union within a majority-white institution in the U.S., questions around race, colonialism, and empire can be tricky. Also, personally, over this past semester I was also less involved with labor issues and union organizing on campus because we won a contract at the beginning of the school year. There are many wonderful organizers within the union, and I think the training, infrastructure, and practice of organizing and mobilizing for the union has benefited the on-campus Palestinian solidarity work immensely. But it is a long struggle in an institution like MIT with such deep connections and dependencies on servicing empire by being a scientific research and talent pipeline for the military industrial complex. I hope more folks in the future will take up that necessary fight.

RS: The Mapping Project has documented the “prison economy” of Massachusetts and you have also written (and presented) about the links between political economy and anti-militarism. What does it look like for community organizers to oppose local economic warfare? What kind of political & economic education is necessary for this task?

AC: In my opinion, organizers have a fundamental role in opposing economic warfare at a local level that is about both confronting the capitalist economy and simultaneously building alternatives to it that can provide for people’s needs. I think that more confrontational work is common with things like labor rights violations or big environmental catastrophes caused by corporations, but you see it less often around the everyday realities of capitalist exploitation and excess that cause mass suffering—under-employment and low pay, tax breaks that bleed municipal budgets, lack of critical socioeconomic infrastructure in marginalized neighborhoods (like limited grocery stores creating situations of food apartheid), high-wage or career-track jobs being inaccessible to many in the working class, and many more. These are more everyday occurrences that represent ‘business-as-usual’. So, I think we need to get better at naming and connecting these as part of the same story of economic warfare in our cities and neighborhoods.

In terms of building alternative structures, right now I tend to start with the question of: “What does it look like to build a peoples-centered economy, to build socialism within the headquarters of capitalist exploitation that is the United States?”. In answering that, I take inspiration from conceptions of dual power and particularly in creating Black autonomous economic institutions. We have to be building economic relationships, power, and self-sufficiency in ways that don’t depend on the existing oppressive economic hierarchies that we live under. And I think this must also be connected to social and political projects focused on building power and popular struggle. So, for organizers, this means connecting the two and ensuring that when we talk about building a better economy, it isn’t divorced from that radical or revolutionary political project—that’s how efforts get co-opted and turned into things like ‘Buy Black’ campaigns that don’t challenge any of the systemic injustices that exist around us.

Education-wise, we can’t be afraid to engage with topics related to economics, finances, and business—we just have to center those topics in the relevant context and need for the majority of people and directly in community with those folks. As someone who is in grad school for business and urban planning programs right now, I can tell you that the education is intended not only to teach people how to be “managers,” but to also further instill a hierarchal worldview that some people are experts who make ‘strategic’ decisions and other people are either consumers to target with products or irrelevant. For me, people who have been trained in this way are not the people that we need doing this education or “service”, that’s how we get the hundreds of financial literacy programs that exist but do nothing to address the real economic problems that people have. We need organizers who will approach these subjects with a goal of overturning exploitative hierarchies and building people-centered, life affirming economic practices.

RS: You recently commented  on Orisanmi Burton’s new book, Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism, Prison Repression, and the Long Attica Revolt , and how you engaged the text with friends in Cuba. Can you share a little more about how you’re all using Burton’s book for political education and anti-imperialist organizing?

AC: Dr. Burton’s book has been a gift generally, but especially in connecting domestic and global anti-imperialist Black liberation work, and in on-campus organizing. In particular, I hope the archival work and perspective that he takes will inspire more scholars to engage seriously with the words and experiences of Black radicals and look beyond the talking points of imperialist states and institutions. On that last point, I think this is directly applicable for us right now as the genocide in Gaza continues and the U.S./zionist propaganda that denies the reality of what most of the world can see so clearly is opening people’s eyes to the simple truth that “the imperialists lie”, to quote a Palestinian scholar Esmat El Halaby.

As far as how I’ve been using it, the main way has been incorporating learnings into teach-ins or talks or articles, especially to drive home the points of connecting the domestic and the global. This is work that BAP and many others have been doing, but Dr. Burton’s work is so rigorous and academically sophisticated that it makes it easy to bring into a lot of spaces. Actually, part of an article that I wrote for the Political Economy of the Black World II symposium back in June built off of Dr. Burton’s thinking from an interview he did before the book came out, so I’ve been excited to build off of his work for a while. But beyond those more formal things, I think the most regular way I’ve been using the book and its teachings is through sharing with folks that I organize with—a lot of texts to individuals or groups with excerpts from the book. I’m sure most of my comrades are probably tired of me mentioning Tip of the Spear, but I see it as one of the best contemporary resources that forces us to think about how we might respond to threats of repression by various institutions, the cooptation and dangers of counterinsurgent ‘reforms’, and the ongoing war against Black radicalism and liberation.

The last thing I’ll say is that I think the concept of ‘counter-war’ is critical for all of us fighting for liberation and against imperialism. In BAP we call for an end to the war against African peoples globally and so while we understand ourselves to be engaged in a war, it is one that the oppressed, marginalized, and racialized people in society did not ask for, but one that has been forced upon us—Dr. Burton articulates this clearly in the book. This ‘counter-war’ that we have to see ourselves engaged in—from Black radicals in the U.S. to the Palestinian Resistance to all freedom fighters worldwide—is a moral one that can’t be equated to the violent and genocidal campaigns of the imperialists, but requires the discipline and creativity to defeat the imperialists, end the interlocking systems of global oppression. and build a just socialist system for all.

Austin Cole is a graduate student in City Planning and Business Administration. He is a member of the Black Alliance for Peace, the MIT Graduate Student Union-UE Local 256, the MIT Black Graduate Student Association, and BLM Boston.

Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.

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