Black resistance to enslavement and oppression has always existed as disruption and contestation of property relations.
I am reflecting with Rinaldo Walcott’s book On Property. He talks about how Black life has always existed in a misted imprecise boundary between enslavement and freedom. He calls convincingly for a complete rejection of property — for to accept american/canadian/settler conceptions of property is to acknowledge that Black folk still exist as property, not as somebodys but always as the monitored scrutinized possession of some bodies. In this place rightly called Abya Yala, Walcott’s book is a deeply personal call for Black solidarity with Indigenous struggle.
Black radical struggle — which is multifaceted with many traditions and informed by spiritualities and poetics that are ancient and evolving — if we look deeply has always centered the tearing apart of settler property relations.
My grandfather’s grandfather was enslaved in Virginia. He escaped shortly after the civil war started. That act in itself was illegal. It was the “looting” of some body’s property. He “looted” himself away. He returned to Richmond as a part of the effort to liberate those enslaved and disrupted property in land, plantations, farms, people. Richmond burned, to be recreated as a place where, for a little while, Black people lived in a kind of not-slavery.
In the history of Black resistance, the abolition of human-as-property takes many forms. The resistance of my grandfather’s grandmother is not formally recorded, but no less brave and disruptive in it’s creativity. The brilliance needed to undo and undermine enslavement in Alabama, to raise generations under (re)enslavement of 20th century Alabama. I exist because of her resistance.
There were many countless enslaved Africans who jumped off of the slaveship, settling in the bottom of the Atlantic. Rebecca Hall in her book Wake teaches us that these acts of rebellion were mostly lead and planned by African women.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs in her book Undrowned helps us glimpse how Atlantic whales marked these visionary acts of refusal.
Many of the enslaved burned those slaver ships and went down with them. I think they realized that by disrupting property, it bought the kin left behind on the other side more time to plan. Maybe to force the looters to think twice about showing up — a tactic that creates space and time. Many white people, many Black people refuse to accept this. I think it is the willing acceptance of the loot wrested from those ancestors; or the willingness to accept death in a futile quest to “belong”.
There were Africans enslaved in the Southeast who existed in various states of maroonage. The refusal to be completely defined by being some body’s property. The disruption of property value to restore humanity.
Thefts and destruction of cotton and tobacco. Perhaps bringing the plantation one step closer to collapse. The commitment to resistance that appears to the settler as destruction, but in reality is an affirmation of the creator, the creation of life among those denied access to the blessings of white Human label. The LAPD says “No Humans Involved”, we refuse the legitimacy of the LAPD.
Sit ins, street blockages, bus boycotts, the picketing of businesses, the destruction of tools (police cars, police foundations) used to end Black life. These disruptions create a negative space in which Black life can exist for a little while longer, create spaces where poets can write one more line, allow time and space for a plan, allow the realization of the effectiveness of strategies beyond vote-and-die. What Fred Moten calls The Undercommons.
The repurposing and dismantling of property relations, which to this day enable the uncontested caging, killing, ticketing, displacement, premature death of Black people. It continues as an active modality of our resistance required for our existence.
I reflect on calls for “peaceful” protests. These calls are really are no different than the book bans, Black history bans, states of emergency, forest bans, Black birder bans, Black pulse+breath bans. They seek to create a world in which Richmond never was liberated, Atlanta never burned, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Fred Hampton, or my great great grandparents never existed. The protection of “property rights” — to defend land that is un ceded and stolen, on which Black people and particularly Black disabled and unhoused people are harassed and refused access to humanity, are caged killed, ticketed out of existence — is the most egregious of anti-human crimes.
I reflect on the creation of the carceral industrial complex, in which the caging of Black life (re)creates a commodity, a person-as-property. The thing to be controlled and traded, kept in solitary extraction. We thought it had been dismantled.
We need to get to the root of things. There can be no accommodation with (re)enslavement. No accommodation with the property relations of a racial empire. Property so conceived must be dismantled for every human to fully exist.
There is a world, which has been forming for five hundred or more years where this logic of property ceases to exist. I sense it in dreams and on quiet morning runs. It is peace, it is being. It is in birdsong. They sense it coming like the next storm.