Building to Building, Hood to Hood: An Interview with Chris Harris

Tom Keefer

Chris Harris is a longtime organizer in the black community in Toronto who has worked with the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) for the past seven years. In this interview he talks about the history and work of BADC, and in particular, the group’s attempt to intervene in local gangs through its “Hood to Hood” movement. Central to Harris’s concerns are the ways in which organizations like BADC can go beyond the limitations of social democratic consciousness, and begin developing the capacities for revolutionary leadership in some of the most oppressed communities in Canada. Tom Keefer interviewed Chris Harris in May of 2008.

Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about how you became politically involved in the black liberation struggle.

I’ve been organizing youth in the black community since I was in high school. I got into politics by volunteering at the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) when I was 21 years old. I found out about BADC through their 2001 “Stop the Killings” campaign during which they showed pictures of the large number of black youth who were murdered between 1996 and 2001.

I was also introduced to politics from different elders in the community. As a student in the Ryerson social work program, I was mentored by Akua Benjamin and Norman Otis Richmond, who were Marxist leaders in the Canadian black Power movement in the 1970s. Norman does a lot of radio programming at Ryerson and Akua is a professor specializing in anti-oppression education. They both took me under their wings in different ways. Sociology professor Louis Felthammer also played a big role in introducing me to Marxism. From 2002 to 2003 I did a lot of socialist youth organizing in Toronto with a group called Young Left.

Tell us about the origins and history of BADC.

BADC is a militant anti-racist organization that was founded in 1988 after a decade of mobilizing against police brutality in the city of Toronto. These mobilizations began in response to the murders of Buddy Evans in 1978 and Albert Johnson in 1979. Organizers who went on to form BADC led a number of mass protests involving thousands of black protesters in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The high-profile police murders of Lester Donaldson and others in 1988 led to the formation of the organization.

BADC is not a revolutionary organization, but it is anti-imperialist. BADC’s struggles against police brutality are against the Canadian imperialist state and its oppression of African Canadian people. BADC was politically independent for much of its life. However, for the last five or six years, we have been surviving on funding coming through a major grant from the United Way. BADC never compromised its struggle. It had no allegiance to the state. All of its struggles were against the police state expanding in the city.

What are some of the programs that BADC is involved in now?

For most of its history, BADC’s main struggle was against police murders of black people. Because of this work, the number of these murders began to decline in the early 1990s. Our efforts led to the formation of the Toronto Police Services’ Special Investigations Unit (SIU). The SIU was supposed to be a civilian-run agency that would investigate police murders of civilians. However, it ended up being staffed by retired police officers who claimed that civilians did not have the expertise to investigate police shootings. Although its implementation was flawed, the SIU reform is important to mention because it would not have happened without the mass mobilizations initiated by BADC over the previous decade.

Beginning in 1996 and 1997, black-on-black killings began occurring at an unprecedented rate in the city. For the last 10 years, a large number of the murders in Toronto have been black people killing other black people. So instead of focusing on struggles to reform the state, BADC is now much more focused on doing anti-colonial work within the black community to try and address the levels of internal violence.

We’ve had political campaigns in which we’ve mobilized around the shootings in our communities, held rallies condemning the shootings and raised questions about where all the guns are coming from. In the last two years, we’ve focused on mobilizing unemployed youth involved in gangs. Unemployment is a huge problem in the black community, especially given all the changes in the economy. Through our Freedom Cipher program, we’re using hip hop to mobilize youth, since that is what youth are into. We’re able to politicize youth by helping them make revolutionary music along the lines of artists like Dead Prez or Immortal Technique.Because the Freedom Cipher program is funded by the United Way, we’re essentially part of the non-profit industrial complex now.

We were funded to do peace-building work with gangs and our funding will run out in 2009. Our flagship program is the Hood to Hood movement through which we’re producing a series of mix tapes called “The Underground Railroad.” We’re having youth in gangs – be they Bloods, Crips, or Gators – as well as former gang members who are now in their late 20s or early 30s put together these mix tapes and holding community events in ’hoods like Jane and Finch, Weston and Lawrence, Lawrence Heights, and Vaughn and Oakwood.

The events are used to bring out local street youth and local gangs to promote Hood to Hood unity as an alternative to gang activity. We’re having discussions at these events about the “war on drugs,” the prison industrial complex, and the effects of capitalism on black youth. We emphasize the need for revolutionary youth in all of these communities to organize into some type of network so that we can resist the war on drugs, which is targeting our community.

The majority of our youth are entering the criminal justice system at an early age. There are weekly, if not daily, raids in our neighborhoods. The police are an occupying force in our communities, and the state is investing tens of millions of dollars in the construction of new prisons for our youth. Right now they’re building an $81 million Brampton youth jail, and a lot of the youth who will be incarcerated in that jail are from the same west end black communities that we’re currently organizing in. The war on drugs is also taking place in the school system. There are currently plans to start having police with guns patrolling the schools.

One positive thing about the gangs is that they show that youth are already getting organized and mobilized in their own communities. However, they have no real political vision right now. It’s similar to the Bloods and Crips in Los Angeles that were formed in the vacuum following the demise of the black Panther Party. The youth had a lot of revolutionary spirit and energy and they were rebellious. However, there was no revolutionary leadership to organize them along political lines, so they formed their own street gangs, which ended up promoting an ideology of gang-banging during the ’70s and ’80s. Today, gang-banging has become a new form of African-American and African-Canadian genocide.

What constraints do left organizations face when trying to take people directly out of gangs and bring them into political organizations?

Gangs are like any type of organization. They contain a right wing and a left wing. There are both revolutionary and reactionary youth within the gangs. We want to mobilize the revolutionary youth in each community. Gangs are here to stay. They’ve sunk deep roots in the city and, because of the contradictions of capitalism, it’s not realistic to expect that we can provide these youth with jobs. The loss of manufacturing jobs in the city means that we can’t facilitate youth’s entry into the working class. Some of these youth will never work at a “real job” a day in their life. The jobs just don’t exist. I believe that in the upcoming decades we’ll see a similar situation to the one in the US. Our black youth will make the transition from being unemployed workers to hard-core lumpen – a permanent underclass.

Right now, the Bloods and Crips are comprised primarily of working-class African Canadian youth with precarious positions in the economy. Many of them are struggling to find their place in the world of work. When I began this political work, I was under the impression that these youth were a purely lumpen force. However, by getting to know the youth and building real personal relationships with a lot of the Bloods in my community, I’ve come to realize that over half of them are actually workers. They’re security guards, they’re cooks, they’re cleaners; they’re doing odd jobs and they’re doing the kinds of precarious jobs that are available to them. It’s largely economic issues that are driving them into gangs. Our position is that we can’t end the gangs. Instead, we want to go back to the essence of the black Panther Party. Gangs played a leading role in mobilizing the Party in its first couple of years of existence.

Can you expand on the relationship between the Panthers and the gangs?

In mid-1960s LA, Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter was a leader of the Slawsons street gang. He was one of the first leaders in the gangs recruited to the Panthers and he was a really dynamic, charismatic figure. On the street he was even more influential than Huey P. Newton. Like Fred Hampton did in Chicago, Carter was able to organize local gangs in LA into the black Panthers. Many of the Slawsons were inspired to join the Panthers because their leader became a Panther leader. Once you’ve been in a gang, it’ll always be part of your identity. You never lose that. We see a similar pattern developing in Toronto and we need to identify the revolutionary youth in the gangs and create a mass political movement to which they can redirect their energy and bring their peers, in which they can bang out against imperialism and capitalism instead of fighting each other over turf.

Right now, the black community is under attack. The problems that confront us are overwhelming. Unlike working-class communities that are only dealing with oppression in the labour-capital relationship, we’re experiencing national and cultural oppression as well. A lot of white parents are pulling their children out of black schools. Most inner-city schools are largely composed of working-class black youth who can’t go to other schools. The prison industrial complex is expanding and the majority of police resources are being placed in the black community. These police resources are being used to criminalize black youth between the ages of 11 and 14, who then get cycled through the criminal justice system. The prison population swells and then people argue for the need to create new prisons.

How do you explain the major increase in black homicides since the 1990s? How do you try to address that problem?

Black-on-black violence in Toronto began to rise in 1996/1997, immediately following the implementation of Mike Harris’s neoliberal policies. Under Harris, who was Premier of Ontario from 1995 to 2001, we saw the loss of manufacturing jobs in the city. These were jobs that our youth would have held. The rise in unemployment meant that a large number of black youth who would have been entering the working class instead went into the underground economy and the drug trade. The rise in gang activity occured precisely during the period of Harris’s “Common Sense Revolution.”

Harris’s legacy extends to the school system, where his policies continue to criminalize black youth. Many kids are getting their first criminal charges at school. In recent years, the Safe Schools Act has contributed to the mass criminalization of black youth in inner-city high schools. The police are collaborating with school administrators and the courts. Toronto District School Board staff sit in court and document all the black youth with charges laid against them. They then go back to their schools and notify administrators. Under the Safe Schools Act, these students are categorized as “unsafe.” Consequently, they’re getting suspended and expelled and pushed out of school.

Toronto’s black community is very diverse. Included in this community are recent immigrants from all over Africa and the Caribbean, as well as folks whose families have lived in Canada for generations. Is there a common point of unity within the black community or do you face insurmountable divisions?

There are a lot of ethnic divisions in the black community which complicate our efforts to build unity. Right now in Africa, there are conflicts between Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Somalians. A lot of those conflicts are reproduced in Toronto. A lot of black people in this city don’t see themselves as belonging to the same community.

But we have to remember that the state has been oppressing African Canadian people for 400 years. Living in this imperialist country means that all African people face a common oppression. This must be the basis of our organizing. We are all Africans, and we have to recognize that processes of colonization make it challenging for us to develop a common identity. In Africa and the Caribbean, colonization has always used tactics of divide and conquer. Even in the Americas, the colonizers divided lighter skinned slaves from darker slaves.

Just as First Nations peoples belong to different nations but share a political unity as aboriginal people struggling against the same colonial oppression, what unifies black people is colonial oppression. What would unify the gangs is recognition of the fact that we all suffer the same colonial oppression. The struggles of the youth at Jane and Finch are the same as those of the youth at Weston and Lawrence Heights or in Malvern or Regent Park. However, unity does not arise spontaneously; it will have to be organized step-by-step through struggle. Right now, BADC is working to build unity with the Somali community in Lawrence Heights. We’re organizing community events with local Somali activists and organizations. However, at our events all of the Caribbean blacks are on one side of the room and all of the Somalis are on the other side. It’s not an easy process, but building unity has to begin somewhere. And there are people from all the different nationalities in the city who understand the commonality of oppression.

Through the course of your organizing, you’ve developed connections to the struggle at Six Nations. How do you relate black liberation struggles to indigenous struggles? How are black struggles also about land?

In the development of Canadian imperialism, the two nations oppressed by the English and the French were the black Canadians and the First Nations. We share a history of colonial oppression. The people at Six Nations are struggling over land for self-determination and national liberation, and blacks are a national minority facing similar struggles. We have been driven off of our land and out of our historic communities. The gentrification of Nova Scotia in the 1970s led to the destruction of Africville, a historic black Canadian community. Today, in the city of Toronto, historic black neighborhoods like Regent Park and Lawrence Heights are being gentrified. Stable black working-class communities are being driven off their land so that private developers can build condos that black people won’t be able to afford.

All across Canada, First Nations people – especially at Six Nations, the vanguard of the aboriginal struggle for self-determination – are rising up and fighting back. In the city, we don’t see that same level of resistance. Black people are lying down. We’re not fighting gentrification. We’re going with the flow. So, we’re hoping that by bringing black youth to Six Nations they can see what it is for an oppressed minority community to rise up against the state and join in the struggle against gentrification. We’re working with BASICS, a group that’s leading the struggle against gentrification in Lawrence Heights. We’re hoping that some of our youth in Lawrence Heights will become a part of that struggle as it develops.

You’ve mentioned that you see BADC as a social democratic organization. But a lot of the work you’re doing seems revolutionary. What contradictions does the non-profit industrial complex introduce into BADC’s work?

It’s a good question. Can you develop revolutionary cadre and revolutionary leadership in a social democratic organization? What I’ve learned by running the Freedom Cipher program over the last year and a half is that social democratic organizations in the non-profit industrial complex produce social democratic consciousness. In the case of BADC, we see a black anti-racist consciousness that is social democratic and reformist in character. BADC is doing transitional work and it’s useful despite its contradictions. Even though we risk being politically co-opted, we’re developing organizing skills. However, BADC is currently in the common trap of having to constantly seek out state funds in order to maintain its operations. In order to receive state funds, we have to downplay our more radical political work. Eventually, we will either get blacklisted or be forced to cease doing this political work in order to maintain our funding.

Our nine-to-five work at BADC is more reform-oriented. However, we’re also doing work outside of the non-profit industrial complex. We’re doing work in the Six Nations struggle, we’re doing events on the weekends, and we’re doing revolutionary work in addition to the social democratic work. So, BADC doesn’t run on a 40-hour, nine-to-five type work week. We try to develop revolutionary consciousness outside of the parameters of our funding by doing special events at night and by doing work with revolutionary communist organizations. BASICS, a Maoist group that puts out a community newspaper, has revolutionary campaigns like the Justice for Alwy campaign. Alwy Al-Nadhir was an 18-year-old youth murdered by the Toronto police on October 31, 2007. Although the Freedom Cipher program is a reformist black anti-racist initiative struggling to create revolutionary activists, we’re finding that we have to integrate the youth into actual revolutionary political campaigns in order for revolutionary consciousness to develop.

We are also trying to develop revolutionary consciousness by working with CUPE 3903, a union local that sponsored BADC youth to go to a hip hop show in solidarity with the Six Nations land reclamation. While it will take years to transform black working-class youth into communist activists, I think what we’ve demonstrated is that, as long as we’re honest about the work we’re doing in the non-profit industrial complex, there is a possibility of developing revolutionary activists.

We must not have the illusion that grassroots work in the ghettos and the hoods is revolutionary in itself. We have to be very strategic and we have to recognize that revolutionaries become revolutionaries by working within revolutionary organizations and struggling in revolutionary campaigns. Non-profit organizations don’t have the capacity to develop revolutionary organizations and campaigns. Because of this, there needs to be an alliance with communist and anarchist organizations. We need to be able to funnel youth into those initiatives.

The state isn’t stupid. In many ways, the political work that BADC does is biting the hand that feeds it. We always run the risk of jeopardizing our funding base. However, what distinguishes BADC from other non-profit organizations is that we have deep roots. We are a social movement organization that has a long history of independence from the state. We may lose our funding as we integrate black youth into revolutionary organizations like BASICS. However, we’re principled and, despite the fact that BADC has become co-opted by the non-profit industrial complex, we haven’t forgotten our vision or the reason we’re here. Ninety-nine percent of the non-profit organizations in Toronto will not mobilize with Six Nations or stand at their side. We’re not like that. Even though it means jeopardizing our funding base, BADC will stand with Six Nations together with organizations like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), CUPE 3903, and other allies.

How does BADC address the question of feminism?

The Hood to Hood movement is the work we’re doing with young men. In the Freedom Cipher program, an organic black feminist practice began to emerge out of self-criticism. We became aware that we were focusing exclusively on mobilizing young black men in gangs and were not responding to the needs of young black women in the same neighborhoods. So the black women who built the Freedom Cipher project decided that they needed to focus their energies on mobilizing young women. In the black community, there are a lot of young and unemployed single mothers who have had to drop out of school. They’re dealing with raising children and navigating the welfare bureaucracy. As black working-class women on welfare, they experience a lot of race, gender, and class oppression. In response, we’ve organized a network of black female groups called the Set It Off Girls Groups. There’s one at Lawrence Heights and there’s one at Jane and Finch. The groups focus on developing revolutionary black women the same way that the Hood to Hood program aims to develop revolutionary black males out of the gangs. The most vibrant and dynamic leadership in BADC right now is coming from women.

Compared to the Hood to Hood work, the organizing work with the women is advancing by leaps and bounds. One of the challenges with the Set It Off Girls Groups is that they’re fostering the development of these really dynamic young women. These women are taking up the struggle to get organized. Unfortunately, there are currently no black feminist organizations or revolutionary black women’s collectives in Toronto that can develop these young women into revolutionary communist activists. Without such organizations, it will be difficult for the Set It Off Girls Groups to avoid becoming liberal or reformist collectives. In order for them to fulfill their potential, in order for them to become revolutionary fighters struggling to transform oppressive relationships within the black community as well as struggling more broadly against capitalist society itself, they will need to be able to relate to revolutionary organizations and collectives that do not yet exist.

How does BADC relate to queer politics?

In January of 2007, BADC leader Sherona Hall passed away. She was one of the founders of BADC and one of the militant organizers on the frontlines of BADC’s mass protests in the 1980s and 1990s. She lived in the heart of the queer village at Church and Wellesley and was a queer activist in BADC. Nevertheless, her identity was concealed from many in BADC because there is a lot of homophobia in the organization. We need to resolve that contradiction in black left organizations. On the one hand, we’re organizing against race and class oppression in the black community while, on the other hand, we’re incredibly homophobic and at times sexist. During Pride Week in the summer of 2007, there was a black queer rally. More than 200 black queer activists mobilized for that. I went to the event on behalf of BADC and I spoke about Sherona Hall. I stressed the need for black revolutionaries – straight and queer – to start unifying because black queer people face the same national or racial oppression faced by black straights. There’s a lot of healing that needs to be done because, like the rest of Canadian society, the black community is very homophobic. This is especially true in working-class communities, and I feel like there needs to be organized dialogue between black queer and black straight activists on the left.

Part of the problem is that many black community activists see black queer people as having been influenced by white society. They envision homosexuality as a negative or corrupting influence that came from outside of black communities. This is all nonsense and very damaging. Some of the greatest revolutionary fighters in the black community are queer. We need to value the many Sherona Halls we still don’t know about. They are central to our entire community’s struggle for liberation.

If we’re going to achieve liberation, we can’t contradict ourselves by oppressing one of the most oppressed sectors of our community – people that suffer race, gender, class, and sexual oppression in capitalist society. We can’t just wait until we have a socialist society; we have to begin transforming these relations within our own movements and organizations right here and now. This work is easier said than done, but I think we need to begin with some serious dialogue, self-criticism, and honesty. I’m sure a lot of black queer activists don’t want to have anything to do with homophobic activists, so we have to figure out a way of coming together to begin a dialogue. From there, we can encourage this type of exchange on a wider basis in the community.

The consciousness-raising that black revolutionaries do today can’t just be about capitalism, racism, and imperialism. In order for alliances to be sustained, it also has to be around homophobia. A lot of our homophobia comes from Christianity and, because of hard times, black people are turning to the church for consolation and support. While other communities are getting out of the church, we’re running there in record numbers. Homophobia is pervasive in the church, so we need to engage in ideological struggle in the movement and the community. This work will have to be organized by people like myself and by black queer activists willing to take those risks. It’s dangerous work. Because of the level of ignorance and homophobia in the black community, people could get killed doing this kind of alliance work.

There’s been a lot of debate about the proposal to have Afrocentric schools in Toronto. What’s your take on it? Would Afrocentric schools provide a sense of community and identity or would they result in the ghettoization and marginalization of black youth in the education system?

Inner-city schools with predominantly black populations are colonial institutions. If the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is going to create black focused schools without consulting the black left, then it will create a neocolonial type of institution. The mainstream inner-city black schools are already segregated because white families are pulling their children out and sending them to better quality schools. The proposal for black-focused schools arose because of struggle. Black parents have taken the TDSB to court and, in many cases, have won. Half of the black student population is failing and dropping out. Because of the external and internal pressure, it has become clear to the TDSB that they need to rectify the situation, or at least give the appearance that they’re going to make more egalitarian schools.

The idea of black-focused schools did not come from the Board but from the black community. Black-focused schooling comes out of the US Black Power movement in the 1960s. Across Canada, there are native focused schools that are very important. However, they can either maintain the status quo by training another generation of aboriginal youth to have a colonial consciousness, or they can produce an anti-colonial consciousness and inspire aboriginal youth to struggle for liberation. I see black focused schools in the same light. The reason there’s so much resistance to black-focused schools in white society is because they are political. Once you start providing an oppressed national minority with an education about the history of their colonization, than they will ultimately become politicized and start to struggle against imperialism.

Unfortunately, if the schools keep going the way they’re going now, they’re going to be bourgeois liberal Afrocentric institutions whose dominant ideology will most likely be cultural nationalist. They will look at African-Canadian history and African history from a bourgeois perspective. The black left needs to struggle for community control of these institutions; we need to struggle for control over the curriculum in order to ensure that the schools become liberation schools. There needs to be a broader movement because, if the TDSB ends up controlling the schools, they will be neocolonial institutions.

Any final comments?

I think that the black revolutionary movement in Toronto will benefit from the rich tradition of BADC and other organizations with whom we have organized over the years. Although BADC is not a revolutionary organization, it has a rich tradition of struggle against Canadian imperialism. It provides contemporary activists with a point of inter-generational transfer for the historical memories of the Canadian black Power movement in the 1960s and ’70s, and the anti-apartheid movement and struggles against police brutality in the 1980s and 1990s. There’s a new generation of black youth interested in continuing the legacy of BADC. By developing youth movement leaders we are helping to create the future leaders of revolutionary organizations.

One of the big problems with the Canadian left is that we have our eyes set too far into the future. People need to struggle for community control and be able to lead local struggles over prolonged periods before oppressed groups – whether they’re workers, women, aboriginals, or minorities like black people – can actually lead revolutionary movements against an imperialist state.

There were a lot of strong organizations during the black Power movement in America but they lacked political maturity. Many of those organizations were led by youth, and it was very easy for the state to undermine them. Although they were doing tremendous work, their political immaturity prevented them from sustaining their struggles. We need to learn from that experience and develop better strategies. The Left needs to learn from BADC and become more grounded in communities. We need to learn to be more patient. Only then will we be able to build a revolutionary socialist movement in the country. But if the Left stays on university campuses rather than organizing in the communities, we will remain very dogmatic, sectarian, and abstract. I think there are many possible roles for a group like BADC to play in developing revolutionary organizations. However, it takes time to develop revolutionaries and it takes time to build revolutionary movements. Although BADC is on its way, I’m not saying we’ll have something concrete in the next five years. In 20 years, you’ll find that we’ll be producing dynamic leaders. These will be the people who will lead future struggles.