…you don’t fight fire with fire. You fight fire with water. The thing is to define what the fuck is the water.

Bobby Seale, Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party, 1970: page 251

Recently I had the opportunity to listen in on a 2-day strategy conference of experts on the liberation of Palestine. Most of the discussion focused on what social movements scholars call questions of “framing”. To my surprise, even people who have devoted their lives to this cause are still consumed with debates over “one state versus two states” and how to describe the current situation: as a war crime, colonialism, or apartheid.

Martin Luther King, Jr. did not live to comment on the results of the social movements he supported. We are left only with his astute insights into the landscape  he could interpret and interpolate. Presciently, he warned that civil political rights would not be sufficient to resolve the crises of Usonian racism. Something much more profound and expensive would be required: economic justice for African Americans and for all Americans. At the same time, he did not believe that social movements should focus overmuch on developing policy programs in advance of finding the power to implement them.

With 70 years of analysis, the movement for the liberation of Palestine now deconstructs the legitimacy of Israel from many fronts simultaneously, using legal, financial, and humanitarian tactics. The impressive documentation of Israel’s establishment of an apartheid regime successfully frames Israel as perpetrator of systematic, institutionalized, and fatal racism.

Nevertheless I am left wondering about “the water”. While the South African victory over apartheid was sweet, the outcome has been disappointing. The water of democracy has largely failed to address poverty and land rights. Similarly, the recent U.S. paroxysm of Black Lives Matter has increased the visibility of people of color in speaking parts on the national stage. Tragically, it has yet to disrupt the systematic racist violence that denies housing, water, safety, education, and work to low-income African Americans.

U.S. movements for racial equity already had a pattern of failure by the 1960s, which is why Black Muslims, Black Panthers, and assorted other separatist movements turned to the water of “self-determination” and began to study anti-colonial revolutions.

Indeed after a year of especially vigorous and perhaps historically inclusive reckoning with racism, the formerly slaveholding societies have acquitted themselves of a variety of statues, dethroned some obsolete heros, humiliated some public personages, valorized others, and written new books, hiring policies, and television programming. They have not abolished racist police practices, addressed racialized poverty and its consequent impacts on education, incarceration, healthcare, and housing, or figured out how to properly care for refugees.

Meanwhile decolonization proceeds. Barbados becomes a republic and elects its own head of state. Hong Kong and Taiwan ferociously guard their independence.

Decolonization itself is not an easy path. New states are vulnerable to dictatorships, civil wars, corruption, nasty neighbors, and all manner of destabilizing and dangerous interference from ex-colonial entities reluctant to relinquish access to land, labor, resources, and markets. They are besotted with new “friends” offering debt and deals too good to be true). Indeed post-colonial “ethnic violence” is often rigged by elites in an attempt to consolidate control of resources.

Nationalism is fraught, often arbitrary, and rarely entirely independent of racism. Yet it is a water which anti-racism cannot offer. Decolonization means writing a constitution, constructing a budget, defining the principles of institutions, joining the international community, establishing bilateral relations with sympathetic allies. Every step is difficult and vulnerable, but the opportunities are far more practical than those afforded by the grudging tug-of-war with racism and the utter disarticulation of voting and economics.

It’s worth noting that anti-racist struggles are based on categories of identity that never manage to accurately grasp the complexities of race, class, gender, culture, and history, locking the inheritors of privilege into guilt or resented charity. Nations at their best are territories who recognize the diversity of their inhabitants and histories, inspiring citizenship and creating pathways for service.

The conference purported to be a dialogue, but was inevitably a series of dense communiqués, assertions rather than questions. And what I’ve done so far here is add my own. The presumption of this kind of competitive dialogue is that the currently “fragmented” movement ought to organize its resources around a single strategy. I’m not sure this is true:

The resounding failures of a rationalist-materialist analysis of liberation (logic, interests, resources, opportunities…) have inspired new observations and concepts. Considering Europe since the 1980s in Nomads of the Present, Alberto Melucci observed social movements operating more in the realm of culture, fomenting a diversity of experiments that built the possibility for new ways of making society. As these experiments became more confident and popular they became common cultural practice (new norms), transforming institutions and policy. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, taking on leftist social theory more generally (not just social movements) proposed that battles for liberation are actually “struggles for hegemony”, meaning that the important dimension of battle is ideology. Similarly, through a far more accessible text, Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison analyze contemporary social movements to make the case that what social movements DO is generate “new ideas” and “technologies” of dissemination (popular films, magazines, new kinds of spokespeople…).

One simple example is the “idea” that humans are part of an ecology. This idea, at first psychedelic hippie woo-woo, is now conventional science and, in Laclau and Mouffe’s terms utterly “hegemonic”. Another example is the “me too” movement which in 30 years has grown from Anita Hill’s testimony to prison sentences and career endings for powerful men, is written policy in every formal institution, in bedrooms, on dates, across cultures. Another version of the same point was made first and perhaps most eloquently by Vincent Harding, in his history of African American resistance There is a River which argued that every gesture made in the diaspora, from slaves gulping down African sand to hip hop is one river of struggle for liberation, which not only increased in strength, but (in lawyer Patricia Williams’ terms) “alchemized” the concepts of humanity, rights, and freedom where they did not previously exist.

From this perspective, the “fragmented” approach to Palestinian liberation could be understood as a diverse, multi-dimensional movement to popularize the concept of Palestinian sovereignty through a multitude of international legal, financial, and humanitarian projects until it becomes hegemonic and is implemented not through a focused battle strategy aiming at a single resolution, but through a comprehensive development of cultural consensus which then transforms every relevant social and political institution.