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KAI BARROW: Swan Song Manifesto

KAI BARROW:Kai Barrow,  a long time left organizer, activist, mentor to many and inspiration to more, is leaving her long held staff position at the prison abolition organization, Critical Resistance. As she leaves she has reflected on her time in the movement and her work in CR, producing the “Swan Song Manifesto.” This enlightening piece is over 20 pages long! Here we excerpted two sections from the introduction, which bring very good and clear challenges to left organizers in these times, based in a personal historical analysis of movement work. For everyone who hasn’t met Kai, or learned from Kai, this is a great introduction to one of our unsung movement heros.

Born at the tail end of the fifties and raised in Chicago by activist parents, I cannot recall a time when I was not politically engaged. I was surrounded by influences and energy that (in retrospect) produced a visceral desire for revolutionary change/liberation.  In third grade, I organized a walkout along with a few of my friends against the Vietnam War. We made signs and chanted “Humphrey, Humphrey, he’s our man. Nixon belongs in the garbage can”! (not the most revolutionary message, but hey…we were in third grade).  In fifth grade I refused to stand and recite the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance because I found it to be “hypocritical to Black people.”  My parents supported my analysis and decision, and after meeting with the teacher and the Vice Principal, Mr. Phillips, my parents and I negotiated a victory.I would sit in the VP’s office every morning during the “Pledge.” Sometimes Mr. Phillips and I would spend our time chatting, sometimes I would read or work on my homework. But I always felt good about my decision. Perhaps for the first time I understood the importance of taking power.

My fifth grade school year was also the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As is the tradition, many young people from throughout the country arrived in Chicago to protest the War and other repressive policies and my family and other residents of the co-op apartment we lived in, agreed to house several of these protestors, among them David Dellinger.  After Mayor Richard J. Daley gave the order for the Chicago Police Department to “shoot first, ask questions later,” my new out of town “friends” arrived back at our house broken, bloodied, and angry at the police, the mayor, and a system that shoots and kills its children.  I was heartbroken to see people in pain and I too became angry. Later that night, I was awakened by gunshots as the police surrounded our apartment and forced Dellinger out of the building. That day I experienced grief, anger and terror—all directly linked to the violence and abuse of power by the State.

During this period I also saw the rise of the Blackstone Rangers (a prominent Chicago street gang) who scared my grandmother, my best friend, and me. I saw families loaded with Christmas Day paraphernalia (bags of gifts, leftovers packed in aluminum foil trays) standing on the corner waiting for a bus while snow fell and the kids did the “I’m cold dance” to keep warm. I saw my mother cry for the first time and my father punch a hole in the wall in reaction to Dr. King’s murder. I attended a Saturday “survival school” organized by activists where I learned about the culture and contributions of African diasporic people.  I felt safe and proud when strangers passing me on the street raised a fist, gave me a smile and greeted me with “Black Power, little sister.”  I watched the creation of the Wall of Respect, one of the first murals of the Black Arts Movement, and had the privilege of placing a brush stroke of color on a corner of the Wall. My household was filled with the music of John Coltrane and Sarah Vaughn, West African masks, prints by artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, and a library of books on the Black experience. Culture and the arts were extremely important to me—both as an educational tool as well as for the deep pleasure it stirred within.  Early on, I knew I wanted to be an artist.

My visceral experiences and the daily snapshots of a people in struggle were facilitated and named by my elders. They offered me a way to make sense of the problems, solutions, contradictions and victories and directed me to become a critical thinker. So, after finishing The Autobiography of Malcolm X, at the age of ten, I proclaimed, “I want to be a revolutionary!

A culture of resistance, protest politics and institution-building by people of color, feminists, queer people, and poor people in the 1960s and ’70s filled me with pleasure and purpose.  It was a period of design and imagination—a period where people re-envisioned and re-structured their lives. Even as a kid, I knew that things were changing. I saw and felt the electricity of change. Nothing was static.  It seemed to me that everything was in question: from diet to living arrangements; interpersonal relationships to altered identities, from the ways that people asserted and responded to power to a new articulation of labor and production.  During this period, people reached beyond national boundaries and re-defined themselves as members of a global community (and in some cases, interplanetary community—see Sun Ra). And though these shifts were taking place on different scales and at a different pace, corresponding to class, race, gender, age, geographic location and sexual orientation, everyone was influenced by this cultural, social, political and economic re-imagining. This was a transformative moment, one that unleashed our imaginations and spurred our actions. We saw what we could be.

We were unprepared for the brutality of the State. As beautiful as this period was, we were also powerful enough to pose a threat so significant to the functioning of the State, that it systematically set out to squash our burgeoning revolution. Individual leaders were discredited, driven into exile, imprisoned, and murdered. Intra-and inter-organizational conflict resulted in a weakened movement that we are still recovering.  Culture was depoliticized and exploited.

Since this period, our movement continues to fight.  However; our electricity is contained. The passion for liberation is muted. Instead, we fight for our survival. And this is not enough.

I am motivated to do this work because at an early age I experienced the possibility of what could be.  Despite the conditions that we struggle with on a daily basis—that belief in our ability to change our lives; to transform ourselves and our environment, has never left me. It is deeply rooted and difficult to pinpoint through a single transformative moment, experience or observation. Instead, I am an outcome of my geography—time, place, and location in both material and imaginative space.

I work to dismantle the violence of the State—particularly the multiple layers of the prison industrial complex (PIC) I work to build a society that neither needs nor relies upon violence—State or interpersonal—as a solution to social, economic or political problems.  I work to re-charge that passion for liberation that was so significant and yet, short-lived. With the privilege of history and analysis and the willingness to boldly assert a liberatory vision, we can redesign our lives and shift our material conditions.  I see this as both an artistic and scientific process. It requires organization and vision beyond the limitations and concessions offered by the State.  It requires us to take the risk of challenging societal normatives in both our values and our actions. Like my ancestors, who took on this fight to end the violence of slavery, I am a prison industrial complex abolitionist.

The PIC is energized by racism, sexism, heteronormativity, and capitalism. It reproduces these systems while simultaneously creating and reinforcing fear, violence, abuse, broken communities, isolation, scarcity, and dependency. In other words, it creates harm as it claims to be about the business of punishing harm.

Our responsibilities are to articulate vision, build organization, and create practices that are PIC abolitionist. We work to “shrink” the system into non-existence using four key strategies: 1) Intervention. Developing strategies of decarceration, disrupting policies and practices that strengthen the PIC (through scope and breadth), and decommissioning structures that currently exist. 2) Prevention. Working to stop the building of more (or “better”) prisons/jails, policing and surveillance methods and strengthening the capacity and resources of a community so that it’s needs are met. 3) Accountability. Developing community-driven holistic models for intervening, preventing and repairing harm and facilitating processes and practices that strengthen a community’s efforts toward self-determination. 4) Transformation. Challenging individual characteristics that reinforce and reflect the intersecting oppressive systems that empower the PIC and other systems of control.  This work is neither linear nor static. Intervention, prevention, accountability and transformation are ongoing and function interdependently.

This work is critical for fomenting fundamental social change. Movement-building, cultural paradigm shifts, education, institution-building, and action (campaigns, projects, mobilizations), all provide opportunities to inspire and support people in recognizing our own power; challenging normatives; and taking responsibility for the well-being of all. This work is a collaborative process that is rooted in history and joins a continuum of freedom struggles. Though it must be ideologically grounded, organizing work itself must also be pliable—this allows for critique and dynamism. During my thirty + years in movement-building I have learned that these are critical elements for creating a liberated society.

In 1978, I became actively involved in grassroots organizing. Since this period I have been a member of, or worked closely with, several national and local organizations such as The Republic of New Africa, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the Spear and Shield Collective, the Coalition Against Jon Burge, the Black Panther Newspaper Committee, the Black Panther Collective, the Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM), the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition, the NY3 Defense Committee, Jericho, the Ruckus Society, the Direct Action Network, Resistance in Brooklyn, Hands off Assata, Sista II Sista, Estacion Libre, FIERCE! INCITE! UBUNTU and Queers for Economic Justice (to name a few). I have lived and worked in Chicago, Atlanta, Jersey City, New Jersey, NYC, Durham, NC and now, New Orleans. I have been embraced by a broad community of activists and organizations throughout the U.S. and traveled to Chiapas, Iraq, Jordan, Buenos Aires, and Porto Allegro, Brazil to work with organizers and activists primarily in skill facilitation, grassroots campaign organizing, capacity-building, or organizing mass mobilizations. Additionally, I am one of the founders of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization to end the prison industrial complex, where I am leaving my staff role as the Infrastructure and Training Director.

My work with these organizations has allowed me to develop and assert a vision for social change that requires participatory democracy, agreed upon principles, harm-free methods for accountability and repair, and unleashed imagination.  Though the specific tasks have changed over the years, in essence, my contributions continue to center around stimulating collectivity, fostering abundance and creativity, practicing risk-taking, demanding self-determination, and building organizations with (social, political, physical and intellectual) rigor….

The major challenges facing Critical Resistance are also the most pressing challenges faced by the U.S. Left. In some form or fashion, we are all asking: How do we win?  And though I have problems with the concept of “winning” liberation (as I see this as an ongoing process), I think at the root we are asking “how do we topple a system that is hell-bent on escalating worldwide material and cultural genocide to serve its greed?”

Big charge.

I believe that this core question, leads to another set of questions: What is to be done? How do we build a mass movement? How do we articulate a revolutionary intersectional analysis through our theory and practice? How do we create strategic points of entry that weaken the system? How do we challenge the multiple ways we replicate systemic oppression?  These questions reflect the major challenges we face in our organization and in our movement and are amplified by the howls of our people.

Within capitalism, racism, patriarchy and heteronormativity, our desire for freedom is in constant opposition to condensed, restrictive, and rigid space.  This has been particularly true in the communities where CR operates and where I have lived and worked. Subways, housing projects, courtrooms, the lack of public space and the control of what remains as “public space,”[1] and the lack of money, work, housing, and healthcare, has created a people who are experiencing physical, spiritual, and mental harm. As a member of these communities, I experience this harm. Internalized oppression drives us to inflict self-harm: abusive relationships, substance abuse, deadly eating habits… while simultaneously fighting the harm of the State: homelessness, hunger, toxic environments, the bombardment of images that cast us as inferior, and police violence. Yet within this oppressive space, we still fight to be free.

This contradiction creates a “raw opposition” that is explosive.  It can change the terms of a space.  As organizers, our challenge is to identify the nature of our raw opposition and build/create within the space between oppression and freedom. We are charged with entering the space of raw opposition with clarity, precision, and analysis, passion, energy, and generosity. In Black tradition, this is known as the “Cool.” Think Miles Davis.

We are challenged to develop shared strategy and principles. Power-sharing, confronting privilege, and building trust are central to this work. We are challenged to willingly participate in ongoing critique of our methodologies and outcomes—making adaptations where necessary and continuing to build upon our strengths.

We are also challenged to “reproduce” a future generation of organizers across racial, gender, sexual-orientation, class, physical/mental abilities, geographic location, age, cultural, and political boundaries.  We are challenged to replace ourselves—share leadership in a responsible way, making space for “new” voices while integrating the knowledge and experience of the past. Yet, replication is complex because political, economic, and social contexts constantly shift and we want more than to simply mint newer versions of ourselves.

We are challenged to draw upon collective abundance. Acting from a place of abundance allows us to challenge scarcity. Collective abundance produces flexibility, creative problem-solving, and courage. I am reflecting here on the ways that the Black tradition models a practice of abundance. Without access to and control of resources, we have managed to pay rent, feed our families, send our children to college, and create hip hop.

We are challenged to utilize our agency in the service of our shared goals and charged with a demand for constant creativity, risk-taking, and self-determination. Agency is as empowering as it is messy. It helps us challenge the “cops in our head” or the complex ways we internalize power structures in our daily lives.

Additionally, we are challenged to foster a healthy culture of accountability and repair.  Understanding that contradictions are integral to any process of change, we are challenged to construct a dialectical analysis. We are challenged to be fluid in our work, transparent about our mistakes, seek non-punitive methods of repair for the harms we both cause and survive, and willingly struggle to transform.

This is not the work of a selective “we.”  It is work that must be done by everyone. To willingly and actively take on the challenges above, places one in this working group. This is work that demands a deep commitment to foment transformative revolutionary change within our individual selves and among our families, friends, communities, organizations, coalitions, and allies.

I choose the challenges listed above as our major challenges, because they feed the numerous challenges that we bump up against on an operational basis. Challenges related to membership recruitment and sustainability, policy wins, uneven political development, effective communications, and resource generation (human capacity and material resources), are woven into the fabric of our daily tasks. History dictates that these skill-driven challenges ebb and flow.  We will have a large number of members and supporters and then we will have few. We will have money to keep our doors open, and then we will not. Without cultivating strategies and tactics for our major challenges, these operational challenges are doomed to repeat.

Picture it: A multiracial, multi-gendered, intergenerational group of about 250 people are marching down the middle of the street in a neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The people are a loud bunch, carrying signs that read “Free Mumia Now!” and “Stop the Execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal.”  Community members come out on their porch to wave at the group or raise a fist in solidarity.  There is a pick-up truck with a loud speaker rigged to a megaphone. People are reciting chants that rhyme and have each phrase and pause dedicated to memory. This performance has become ritualized.

There is a lull.  The speaker/chant leader is tired and needs a break.  He hands the megaphone to me. I am known for my energy. I hold the dubious title of “Cheerleader for the Movement.” Holding the megaphone, I wanted to see if we could transform our ritual. Could we inspire spontaneity and surprise within ourselves and each other? Could we share with this Black, working-class community whose neighborhood we entered, an expansive vision—one where Mumia’s freedom was tied in with their own liberation? I placed the megaphone to my lips and faced the crowd.


Me: What do we want?

Chanters: Free Mumia!

Me: When do we want it?

Chanters: Now!


Me: What else do we want?

Chanters: [silence.]

Me: No really. What else do we want? Shout it out. It doesn’t have to rhyme. It doesn’t have to be scripted. Let’s make a cacophony of sound, shouting out our visions of what we want. [pleading] We don’t even have to do it for more than 60 seconds.

Chanters: [silence.]


Actually, there wasn’t complete silence. A few people attempted to shout out a vision, but it was mumbled and lacked passion. For the most part people were unable, more so than unwilling, to go along with this shift. I began to cry (I do this often—cry) and passed the megaphone back to the lead chanter.  A few people hugged me. The Mumia march served as a catalyst that has prompted me to struggle deeply with questions on the uses ofimaginative spacein revolutionary/liberatory organizing.  How do we take opportunities to scream our vision—whether through words, sounds, or actions—to the point where our ears are ringing from our own voice—with no regard for propriety, no fear of retribution, no authority reigning us in? How do we make revolution like jazz? I believe it is the artist’s work to stimulate the desire and the organizer’s work to organize the output from this desire. This leads to synchronicity.




[1]For example, cameras posted in parks and on street lights; neighbors reporting “suspicious activity;” police patrols and military convoys (as was the case in New Orleans post-Katrina).

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