In his 1963 “Message to the Grassroots” speech, Brother Malcolm X warned, “If some of you understood what a revolution really is, you wouldn’t use the word. Revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution destroys everything in its way.” I have reason to believe that many politically minded college students, hip-hop artists, and other members of our community, mistakenly refer to themselves as “revolutionary” because they confuse the term’s meaning.
One problem we face in discussing anything revolutionary, is that the term and its implications are not fully understood.
Naturally, this society’s elite benefits from our confusion in this regard. They have no interest in losing their power or prestige. Maintaing confusion within potential rebel forces helps to maintain power arrangements while compromisung revolutionary activity.
Language, which provides us with definition, clarity, and therefore direction, is a key tool used to misdirect our liberation movements. Many of us in the Hip Hop and conscious community facilitate our own confusion when we take words and change them to suit our interests.
For example, our word “gangsta” evolves from the word “gangster.” A gangster is a thug who uses any means necessary to enrich himself. A gangster by definition is selfish and territorial; they do what they do for themselves, their turf, and their “gang.” A gangster’s actions or interests often go against those of the community. Why? Because gangsters exist not to advance and advocate for the larger community, but to empower and enrich themselves.
Interestingly, gangsters (and wannabees) portray themselves as anti-establishment, but in reality, they mirror the values of our governing bodies. Self-serving violence, capitalist expansion produce by obsessions around profits, repression of dissenting voices/ideas, and control of territory are key qualities of our government. In similar fashion, gangsters are infatuated with the idea of capitalist expansion, creating and controlling new markets, and creating a stream of infinite profits. Like the government, they seize and control territory, suppress freedom of expression, and use violence to impose their will upon those weaker and less organized than themselves.
Contrary to popular opinion, gangsters do not oppose the status quo; they actually support it. The only difference is that they do so without “legitimate” or legal protection and support.
What is it then that we common folk find so attractive about gangsters? Certainly their general disregard for the law, law enforcement agencies, and societal norms fascinates us; they do things most of us are too fearful or powerless to do. A member of La Cosa Nostra (the Mafia) for example, enacts his/her own form of retribution against violators, rather than trusting the flawed criminal justice system to do so. The Bloods or Crips don’t write grants to federal and private agencies for money to secure their needs. They don’t sell candy, have bake sales or perform songs and dances for money. They steal it from others or sell drugs (in their community) to procure it. Street gangs don’t petition the police department to protect their territory, they use their organized and militarized power to do it themselves.
Their proactive stances, level of organization, willingness and ability to protect and provide for their own, and refusal to place trust in societal institutions is, well, attractive.
This explains the continuing romance the American public has with gangster movies and the tendency for so many rap artists to name themselves after iconic gangsters (or in Jim Jones’ case, psychotic cult leaders).
Some Black organizations during the Black Power Movement astutely recognized the political potential existent within local street gangs or criminal elements and attempted to recruit, reform and absorb them into the fold (the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party immediately come to mind).
In some cases, this strategy produced limited success. Typically though, the gangster element continued their criminal activities as members or allies of the recruiting organization.
For example, the “Philadelphia Black Mafia” continued to distribute heroin, perform murders for hire, and extort other drug dealers in the 1970s, even as official members in Nation of Islam Temple #12. The Black Panthers in Chicago attempted to form an alliances with the Blackstone Rangers – also known as the Black P. Stone Nation or El Rukins, a politically minded street organization with criminal elements. The Rangers were heavily influenced by the Panthers, Islam and the Moorish Science Temple, but became dismantled due to CointelPro, leadership rivalry and continued criminal activity.
Whatever our romance with the gangster lifestyle may be, the fact remains that embodying a criminal lifestyle, exhibiting predatory behavior, and becoming rich and powerful from these activities, does not make one a revolutionary. One is not a revolutionary unless his/her motivation and actions are intended to benefit the masses, and challenge/dismantle those wielding oppressive power. And while all human beings are capable of redemption or political transformation (as we saw with Malcolm X or more recently with our outstanding Detroit-based organizer Yusef Bunchy Shakur) reforming the gangster element is far more difficult and developmental than we realize. It is difficult for a person to quickly abandon behavior they’ve embraced for several years. And unless we provide financial incentives greater than those provided by street life, our efforts are often sabotaged by obsession with money and material status.
Why Gangsters are not Revolutionary
I say all of this to say that we cannot confuse being “gangsta” with being revolutionary. Perhaps we need a redefinition of terms. A revolutionary seeks total liberation of the people from all forms of ignorance, and oppression. A revolutionary seeks humane treatment of his/her people and has no tolerance for discrimination on any basis. A revolutionary seeks to expose and discard elitist and brutal authorities.
When we approach the conversation from this perspective, we realize that gangstas are not revolutionary, but reactionary. They have internalized the false teachings of their societal masters, leading them to hate themselves, devalue and abuse women, disregard family responsibilities, and personify in every conceivable way the white supremacist roles and perceptions of Black people.
A reactionary will read and quote Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, then go out and sell drugs in their community, justifying it as “a necessity for survival.” This contradiction is magnified when we observe that such people only brutalize, degrade, rob, and disrespect one group of people…his/her own!
Some in the RBG Movement attempt to fuse the gangsta persona with that of a revolutionary. What results are profanity-laced, bitter accusations (or acts of violence) against those critical of them; misogynist and patriarchal views and practices; predatory actions and attitudes toward their home communities. There is no role for gangsterism in revolutionary practice. In fact, revolutionaries often oppose the lumpen-proletariat in our communities, and often to no avail.
The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement published a report last year suggesting that a Black or Latino person is killed or physically attacked every 36 hours by a law enforcement agent or white vigilante. This report speaks to a very clear need for urban communities to organize and protect themselves from racial violence. Yet the very people most prepared and able to play this role consistently refuse to patrol Black communities, monitor police activity and intervene on behalf of their violated brothers and sisters. In Chicago, and many urban centers around this country, Black and Latino gangsters prey on their own people. But when it comes time to put an end to police brutality, these gangsters are conspicuously absent.
Keeping it “Real”
A key challenge for us is to be clear on the terms we use, our motivations, and to make sure our actions correspond with our theories. We cannot romanticize gangsterism in our communities. As Minister Farrakhan says, “God didn’t make you thugs and hoes….the white man did.” We must teach our youth that the ugliness, disrespect, violence, and misogyny they exhibit are in fact, reflections of how people view We must teach them how such actions benefit those who exploit and mistreat us.
While many valiant Black activists and organizations have facilitated gang truces, this is not enough. We must begin a long-term process of truly politically educating our criminal elements and raising their consciousness so that they understand the diabolical role they play in subjugating our people and empowering for example, the prison industrial complex.
Our continued failure to make the distinction between being revolutionary versus reactionary serves the interests of oppressive societal forces while betraying community interests. Think about it….whose interests are served when we adopt language and behavior that alienates our family members, creates dysfunctional relationships, increases Black/Latino incarceration and murder rates, encourages disrespect for learning, and perpetuates cycles of ugly in-fighting within our community? What we need to understand is that Black street gangs as we know them today, began in urban areas after this government destroyed our Black Nationalist organizations. Gangs filled in the void left by all the warriors killed, imprisoned, or missing in action. Some started off with community development intentions, but soon became reactionary. View the documentary “Bastards of the Party” when you can. Then ask yourselves: “Do we want to serve the interests of those who despise and conspire against us, or do we want to protect, educate, inspire and empower ourselves?
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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