New men must be born: organizing Black men in a movement slump

Peoples Dispatch spoke to philip agnew for insights into organizing Black men in the US in the context of dire material conditions and the downswing of the anti-racist movement

October 09, 2022 by Natalia Marques
philip agnew speaks on a panel at the People's Summit for Democracy held in Los Angeles in June 2022. Photo: Midia Ninja

In 2020, studies claimed that over 15 million people took to the streets to protest police brutalty and racist violence. Since then, the momentum has significantly declined. In light of this ebb and flow, organizers have attempted to steer people away from far right politics which has largely entered the power vacuum left by the people’s movements. 

philip agnew is a voracious community organizer originally from Chicago, now based in Miami. His activism in the movement against police and prison brutality in the US has been recognized nationally. agnew gained national recognition through his work as a student activist fighting for justice for Martin Lee Anderson, a Florida youth who died while incarcerated at a juvenile detention center. agnew is the co-founder of the Dream Defenders, an organization that in its own words is “fighting for a world without prisons, policing, surveillance and punishment.” agnew now leads an organization called Black Men Build, where he works to recruit Black men in the US into the movement as organizers.

Peoples Dispatch: You’re leading an organization called Black Men Build. What are the goals of the organization?

philip agnew: The goal of the organization, when we first started it, was to provide a space for Black men to have a political home, for them to be educated, to find community to get more involved in, frankly, the left, but really on a basic level, to get more involved in organizing, period.

What we have witnessed over the last few years is record numbers of people joining the movement, being out in the streets, getting arrested. But I think conversely, we’ve seen more and more men, not just Black men, Latino men with machismo, white men with white men sh-t, starting to see the movement as their enemy. We’ve witnessed double digit support amongst Black men for Donald Trump. And that probably will increase.

So in that zeitgeist in 2020 we started the organization with an express purpose: that Black men needed to be reached out to in a very specific way, and that Black Men Build wanted to be a place for them to find a home to be politically educated, and to join the movement.

That remains our goal. We’ve broadened it out, we have chapters now all over the country, we have women who joined the organization as well. I would say our goal is in many ways the same as most left organizations, with a specific interest in recruiting Black men who are being actively recruited by the right-wing.

There are millions of people and in particular Black men, straight Black men, who are being heavily recruited online, through the radio, through social media, into right-wing values and groups. And I think the same about Latino folks and amongst immigrant folks. We say it often, but the leader of the Proud Boys is a Latino man from Miami. And I don’t think that’s an accident. For many, many years, even though I’ve heard less about him over the last few years, one of the most vocal white supremacists was a queer man: Milo.

I think we’ve witnessed over the last ten years a very weird dynamic within organizing circles as well. We’re not totally absolved of the “blame” for why folks don’t feel at home in the movement. With people on our side, our appetite for reaching out to people who disagree with us, or reaching out to people who, frankly, trigger trauma within us, our appetite for all of those things has decreased.

I’m not making a blanket criticism of it, but I do think it’s an objective observation that folks within the movement’s temperament towards people who don’t agree with us is different. And we’ve got to rebuild that muscle.

I don’t think it’s for everybody. I think that in many cases, it has become dangerous for some people to try to reach out. But I do think that there are certain people who have the temperament, have the desire, have the time, have the ability to reach out to people and expand our ranks as much as possible. And we’ve got to get back to doing that as well.

PD: You’ve mentioned that a lot of your organizing was in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Since that time, the murders of Black people by police are still happening, and they haven’t necessarily abated. At the same time, a lot of people have been brought into activism through the 2020 George Floyd uprisings, and previous uprisings. What is the role of organizers in this context?

pa: I’ll just speak from how I view 2012 and some of the other experiences that I’ve had. I thought revolution was coming, and I thought that anything was possible. I still believe anything is possible, but it just seemed so immediate, so urgent.

After that moment I got incredibly discouraged, and the speed of things decreased, and the amount of people who came to things decreased. And it seemed like people who have made promises and commitments, people who were excited about us, their excitement started to wane and things started to go back to “normal.”

As organizers, we have a responsibility to prepare people for the long road ahead. And we do that through being present in those moments of upheaval, where people are inspired, where people are angry, where people are moved into action, and by building organizations that can hold them in those periods after that big exciting moment, where afterwards depression and egoism and disappointment start to set in, and then people are turned off from the movement.

As organizers, we have a responsibility to build and support and to nurture the infrastructure that can hold people after these things.

I think the 2020 George Floyd upheaval was the biggest that we have seen in our iteration of the movement, and very inspiring, but we’ve also seen a huge lurch backwards. Most of those mayors [who claimed that they sympathized in some way with the movement’s demands] have increased their police budgets, those ones who were coming out and naming streets after Black Lives Matter. We’ve seen the right-wing become even more emboldened.

We’ve seen everyone from Hollywood to philanthropy start to openly question whether the demands of the movement during that time were just some flight of fancy or ridiculous or crazy. And so we still have a lot of work to do, and maybe more work to do, after those moments are “over.”

PD: We’ve seen, like you said, a resurgence of the right wing here in the US and also this idea of defunding the police being attacked. Some are saying that defunding the police is connected to rising crime in the US [the rise in crime itself is a claim many critique]. But very few places actually defunded the police, right?

pa: And they completely obscure the point. They’re blaming the wrong thing, blaming us and not blaming the global pandemic, that we lost millions of people that we didn’t have to, that people lost jobs that are never coming back, that people are forced to live in cities in substandard conditions and the things that that does to a society. No one wants to reckon with that.

And the “crime” that is happening is then blamed on the fact that we don’t have enough police to police and not on the fact that we have a society that’s crumbling at the seams and that the walls are closing in, the ceiling is falling, the floor is falling, and people are struggling through that. They take out that anger and that disappointment and that sadness and depression usually on the people who are right around them.

PD: Can you talk about the obstacles that Black men face organizing in terms of incarceration, police brutality, vigilante violence? How can Black men organize despite these obstacles?

pa: As young boys, we are taught a way of being that forces us inward, that forces us to silence our feelings, to silence all feeling, not just pain and hurt, but also joy and laughter and happiness and confusion, you can’t show any of those things. We first do that to ourselves. Someone else does it to us, but we replicate that within ourselves. And then we get about the business of transforming our friends into patriarchal beings. And exerting that violence and that force and that domination of everybody around us.

I think one of the bigger obstacles to Black men really participating fully in the movement is frankly, ourselves. We’ve got to get out of our own ways. We’ve got to find the space, the desire, the time, the discipline to do the self work. I’m in the midst of it now. I think it’s a process, a lifelong process for everybody. I think that that is one of the bigger obstacles.

Now, that’s balanced with the material conditions as well that you were mentioning. And I think a lot of Black men are victims of brutality, are victims of incarceration, are victims of, frankly, not being allowed in the homes because the way laws are written around people who are formerly incarcerated, being with their families in public housing, et cetera. Black men are not able to vote many times. And so a conversation about electoral politics kind of just stops at: join us, but you can’t go in there and do the thing in the ballot box.

A lot of these issues, without an understanding of them, both the inward and the external, we can’t organize around them. So that’s what we think Black Men Build’s job is. We are in the places where Black men are. And I think at its most basic level, that is the work. To not just be in our office talking about these things, but to be online, to be in prisons, to be in living rooms, to be on corners, at gas stations, unafraid to talk to other Black men, not just about the internal work that we must do around patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and our adherence to those things as the basis of our value in the world, but also to really show them that a new world is possible, a new way of being.

We say new men must be born, and so for us, that is how we get to that point where more Black men are participating, more Black men can overcome those obstacles.

We hope in the next few years we can actually start to have some campaigns that are around the prison system that are around joblessness and homelessness and houselessness in the Black community, in the Latino community, the immigrant community.

But right now, that’s where we are. Recruiting, base building, opening the door and saying, “Hey, we know you felt for maybe some justified and unjustified reasons that the movement was not for you. It is. And we want you to be here. We want you to join”

That’s our role right now. And then we hope to really have an army.