Political Education in a Time of Rebellion

As thousands of people across the world protest in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis cops, it’s clear that we need the both the expressions of rage and frustration, and solidarity and care that have been communicated by the uprisings. We also need continued political education.

I can already imagine critics asking what’s the point of political education when our cities are in rebellion? My response is that struggle and study are inextricably linked and feed off each other. It’s always the right time for political education which my organization, Center for Political Education, defines as the practice of studying the history and analysis of struggles for social, political, geographic, and economic power with the explicit purpose of strengthening political organizations and movements for social change.

Drawing a distinction between study and struggle misses the point. The current context is complicated and shifting, so we need study to gain more understanding of our conditions. What does it mean to be on “the front lines” of a struggle? How do we identify targets? What tactics should we choose? How we do we put everything together to make change? All of these questions are informed and shaped by political education.

None of us is born already understanding how to do all this. We learn how and improve our practice by trial and error (which is a form of study), but also by paying attention to what others around us do, in conversation with people with more experience, by reading things in formal educational settings and many other ways. None of these methods is the single best way and none of them are bad ways if we’re gaining knowledge and skills that help us make our work more effective. We join struggles already in motion. Being curious about what has already happened and why helps us avoid repeating old errors. It also helps us build off previous momentum, connect our actions to a lineage of fight back, and acknowledge those who have helped our struggles develop.

Right now there is a cacophony of opinions trying to lead us, get our attention, and provide us with the “correct” ideas. Being able to make sense of our own opinions in relationship to what’s out there and deciding what to keep and what to ignore requires developed skills of analysis. When Attorney General Bill Barr says he will bring federal charges against people crossing state lines to “riot” we benefit from understanding what’s underneath this threat—the long legacy of state actors suggesting that “outside agitators” are always behind protests as a way of discrediting dissent, the weight of federal charges versus local ones, and the contradiction of this statement on the heels of right-wing “open up” protestors amassing to challenge COVID-19 public health orders. When Trump claims that protestors at the White House would have been met with “vicious dogs” had they breached the barricades, it’s crucial that we be able to interpret the racism inherent in the statement, drawing from decades of racist violence by state and non-state actors against Black, brown, and Indigenous people. When city officials decry protestors’ “violence” when surrounded by cops in riot gear shooting rubber bullets and tear gas, it’s essential that we understand the ways that the language of violence and non-violence have been used to label some actions legitimate and others not even as we assess if we believe violence can be done to property. When groups promote demands, it’s important that we understand them and take the time to consider if we agree with them before signing on or circulating them. It’s not enough to just take in these pieces of information, we need to sharpen our skills to make meaning from them.

How we engage in political education is also important. Here are some ideas for engaging in political education during these trying times.

Reject Anti-Intellectualism

  • Don’t fall for the myth that study is the enemy of action. There’s nothing passive about political education. Study does not have to mean reading a dense book at home or in a library—although those are also good ways to do it. Study can be done through storytelling, observation, practice, engaging with art and culture, as well as through more “traditional” means. In the words of revolutionary Amílcar Cabral, “Learn from life, learn from our people, learn from books, learn from the experience of others. Never stop learning.”
  • Avoid false distinctions between thinkers and doers. Don’t assume that theorists aren’t also out in the streets with you. Honor the long genealogies of movement theorists coming from prison cells, favelas, townships, projects, and fields that have shaped modern day struggles. Chances are good that an amazing idea you have or learned about liberation and self-determination came from a doer who was also a thinker that took up political education (including reading—or learning to read!) in conditions many of us can’t even imagine. And for academics or journalists who need to be reminded of this, we need your organizing labor in this period as much as your observation, documentation, and teaching about movements; there’s no better time to join an organizing effort than now.

Seek resources, adapt tools, create new materials.

  • Put effort into locating and using the many, many good resources already out there to learn more about the histories behind current conditions, to sharpen your own analysis, and to help you understand and develop strategies for action. Ask someone you trust if you don’t know where to start and be careful to assess the quality of the tools you seek out. Always take care to acknowledge who you learned things from, too, regardless of whether that’s your auntie, a movement leader, or some famous theorist.
  • If you find something that is useful but not 100% perfect for your situation, credit it, adapt it, and circulate it. Don’t just reject a tool or resource because it doesn’t address every single aspect of what you’re dealing with.The process of adaptation is also an educational process. Also, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Every excellent tool had at least one mediocre draft. Don’t let a fear of social media blowback prevent you from trying to create something that many people might find helpful. We need experiments, and to adapt them.
  • Still can’t find the right thing? Don’t ask Mariame Kaba to make you another tool! Be accountable for your own learning and develop something on your own or with others and then test it out. Developing materials pushes us to think about what we really mean and figure out ways to communicate those ideas as clearly as we can.

Never stop learning.

  • The time when you think you’ve got it all figured out is probably the time you need to push yourself to learn even more. Instead of picking a fight on social media or denouncing other people’s work, revisit areas of study or take up new ones.

I’m not suggesting that study alone is enough or that having the “correct” analysis is the same as winning. We need to apply our thinking to action and our actions must influence our analysis. If we get out maneuvered on the streets, if we allowed ourselves to follow misguided leadership, if we got hoodwinked by kneeling cops, or if we guessed wrong about how a message or action would resonate with a group of people we’re trying to connect with, then we know we need to adjust our thinking and try it out again (or abandon that idea altogether). There is a lot at stake. That’s why we need to be informed, specific, and clear about what we’re trying to do and why. When people are putting themselves in direct confrontation with state power, we want to make sure we’re as well prepared for the actions we’ll take as possible. While preparation doesn’t mean we won’t still make mistakes or fail outright, it does mean we’re more likely to be able to learn better lessons for the next time.

Political education isn’t just education about politics. It’s education for the specific purpose of making our politics more powerful. It is front line work. It is core to advancing our struggles, not the “extra” activity we take up after the struggle is over or for recreation. It’s been inspiring to see political education undergirding and swirling through the recent rebellions—helping us understand the function of policing and why police departments should not only be defunded but starved to non-existence, encouraging us to carry forward the legacies of the struggles for Black liberation that proceeded us, helping us identify who is friend and who is foe, and compelling us to think about how the demands we make and actions we take today set us on a course for the future. To all the strugglers out there playing the right roles at the right moments, thank you.  We’ll be here  as partners in study and struggle.  Never stop learning!

Rachel Herzing
executive director, Center for Political Education

Thanks to Jazmín Delgado, Ejeris Dixon, Mariame Kaba, and Isaac Ontiveros for input on this piece.

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