Historian Donna Murch on the Long History that Led to BLMHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Black lives matter, Protest, policing
Donna Murch is one of the foremost historians of Black radical movements in the 20th century. Her first book, 2010’s Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, retold a seemingly familiar story with new insights drawn from oral histories and untapped archives. Murch saw the story of the Panthers as a product of the Great Migration and as a fight for, among other things, access to public resources, countering both conservative and liberal framings that saw the party as either a criminal enterprise or a project solely devoted to self-defense. In the process, she demonstrated that the group was far more complicated than had been recognized.
Since that groundbreaking book’s publication, Murch has become known as well for her distinguished essays on racial inequities in America. With a historian’s eye for detail, she has tackled such subjects as the Movement for Black Lives, the opioid epidemic, and mass incarceration for The Boston Review. Her most recent book, Assata Taught Me, collects these and other writings about the development of the Movement for Black Lives as part of a longer history that dates back at least to the Black Panther Party and that has been especially inspired by the work and thought of Assata Shakur. Murch is currently an associate professor at Rutgers University, where she serves as the chapter president of her union. The Nation spoke with her earlier this year about her new book, her research on the crack epidemic, and the future of Black radical organizing against state violence.
ELIAS RODRIQUES: What led you to write this book?
DONNA MURCH: Most of these essays came about in a moment of joy and surprise. I was in Los Angeles from August 2013 through August 2015 to write a book called Crack in Los Angeles: Policing the Crisis in the War on Drugs. I am, in my heart, a social historian. I like to write about the places where I am, because I want the depth of experience that makes that kind of research possible. So I took this research trip. I conducted oral histories, went to different archives, and kept facing this conundrum: Even though there’s a collective recognition of how damaging the Wars on Crime and Drugs were, people had difficulty mounting organized resistance to them. There were pockets of resistance and intellectuals. There were ways that people in their everyday lives resisted being criminalized. But finding organized resistance was difficult, despite the work of amazing people like the organizers of Coalition Against Police Abuse, Michael Zinzun, and others.
Then, just as I arrived, there was this amazing arc that we’ve come to know as the Movement for Black Lives. It wasn’t called that at the time, but that summer of 2013 [when people began using the hashtag #Blacklivesmatter on Twitter in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman] helped birth all these organizations. Out of excitement for that political movement, I wrote a series of essays, extending the timeline of the 1980s and ’90s that I had been researching to think about this period: the second administration of Barack Obama and the last decade, where we have seen much of the organized resistance to these overlapping punishment campaigns.
ER: What did you find from extending that timeline?
DM: In terms of repression and resistance, it takes people and communities time to understand what is happening to them. Take the example of the modern civil rights movement: what became visible as the national civil rights movement emerged in the mid-1950s with Brown v. Board of Education. But the institutions and infrastructure for fighting that battle went back at least to the 1930s. Some would take it back to Reconstruction. There’s a similar dynamic going on with the carceral state.
I lived through this era. I was a teenager in the 1980s. And the way that we understand it now is very different. The level of criminalization and sensationalization and the definition of “monsters”—the language of “crack babies” and “gang members”—were at the center of the spectacle of punishment, so much so that they occluded the enormous violence of the state. It takes time for people to figure out how to mount resistance to something that, at the time, they may not even recognize is happening. It’s very similar in the opioid crisis. Initially, these crises are understood as individual experiences, but to define them as a collective experience with culpable parties takes time.