By Bedour Alagraa | Towards Freedom
As the protests demanding justice for George Floyd quickly turned into a nationwide uprising with people taking to the streets in all 50 states in America, we are called to study and reflect on the radical movements that came before us. Indeed, we would be remiss if we were to gloss over or ignore both the lessons and pitfalls of the radical uprisings that Black people have launched and sustained around the world.
With this in mind, this moment offers an opportunity to reflect on one of the more recent upheavals: the Sudanese revolution that began in late 2018. The purpose here is not to conflate the struggles of the Sudanese people with other struggles, including the one currently being waged in America. The point, rather, is to understand how Black struggles globally are co-constitutive and kindred. This moment demands that we draw lessons and motivation from one another, and recognize that local ecologies of struggle hold the keys to a transnational and anti-national understanding of liberation.
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A monumental uprising; not a perfect revolution
On December 19, 2018, people from all ages, genders and regions and a wide variety of occupational, class and ethnic backgrounds launched what would become one of the longest, most sustained and most rupturous moments of protest in Africa’s history and, by no contest, in that of Sudan. After months of hyperinflation, long queues for ATMs and, finally, a 40 percent hike in the price of bread, nearly a dozen cities across Sudan erupted in protests.
What began as protests against devastating economic conditions, soon transformed into calls for the removal of president Al Bashir and for a total upending of Sudan’s entire economic and political systems, social norms, reparations for Darfur and South Sudan, de-Arabization of the national culture and media and an end to theocratic rule, among other demands.
At the time of the revolution, Omar Al Bashir, a racist ethnonationalist who massacred millions of people in Darfur, South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, had amassed almost $9 billion in personal wealth, siphoned from a country that had already been bled dry by sanctions imposed by the international community. Add to this the fact that Sudan has spent most of its history since independence engaged in civil war, and it becomes clear that throughout his decades-long reign, Al Bashir was a de facto wartime president who ruled by force rather than popular consent.
These are the conditions under which a broad based coalition of students, labor unions, women’s rights groups, rebel factions, neighborhood committees and professionals associations, united under the banner of the Forces for Freedom and Change, managed to mobilize huge swathes of working class people and professionals alike. It was not a perfect revolution by any means, and it would not benefit any of us to pretend that race, gender, geography and, in particular, class, did not present major antagonisms inside the movement from its initiation to this day. Indeed, the leverage held by middle class Sudanese both in the country and in the diaspora is something that still requires a remedy.
No women were present at the signing of the transitional agreement in early 2019, despite sexual violence being the main weapon of terror used by the ruling party, and despite women making up the overwhelming majority of protesters.
We also cannot deny the ways in which the armed struggles of people in the provinces over the last few decades, as well as the disproportionate violence meted against them during the protests, were omitted from the conversations about the non-violent tactics used by protesters, as well as the Khartoum-centered bias of international media and the diaspora.
Yet we also cannot deny how monumental this uprising was; what a fantastic break from the past it offered. It also reveals how, time and time again, a diversity of tactics and, most of all, creativity, can carry and sustain a movement in ways that are both old and entirely new at the same time.
Occupying the Qiyada
Protests, strikes and widespread civil disobedience began in earnest in December 2018, building on prior protest movements in 2011 and 2013, and continued into the new year, despite mass arrests and the brutalization of protesters by the regime’s security forces. In response, Al Bashir declared a state of emergency on February 22. Protests intensified on International Women’s Day, and continued until April 6, the day which marked the tipping point of this uprising.
The Qiyada managed to do all that the state had failed to do; there were areas dedicated to political education, improvised schools, Quran lessons, Bible studies, meals were being provided with funds raised in the diaspora, doctors on strike offered free medical examinations, therapists were offering free counselling and men and women patrolled night and day to ensure the safety of all the protesters.
In a country in which artistic expression was stifled for more than thirty years, the Qiyada was an explosion of the frustrations, desires, strivings, disappointments experienced by young people in particular, who gave concerts, danced, sang, and covered the area in street art. Outside the Qiyada, neighborhood committees were established to develop plans for civil disobedience, share information, share resources and practice the types of non-hierarchical democratic associations that had been denied to them for decades.
Meanwhile, in the midst of a media blackout and initial refusal of major international outlets to cover the uprising in December, social media was harnessed in what can only be described as a remarkable display of creativity and innovation. Sudanese in the diaspora were providing rapid-fire translations of documents and updates, Whatsapp group chats were harnessed to share information on the whereabouts of family members and to collect and distribute funds.
Young people memed their hearts out, offering unrelenting critiques of the state and a balm for those living in the midst of such a tempest. Facebook groups dedicated to gossip were mobilized to out informants and organize students. The social media presence was so undeniable that soon the entire world was talking about Sudan and bearing witness to this cataclysm, decades in the making.
Finally, on April 11, Al Bashir was ousted in a military coup led by his cousin Awad Ibn Auf.
Of course, the people were not satisfied and after only one day in office and with the number of people in the Qiyada continuing to grow, Ibn Auf quickly resigned. General Abdel Fattah al Burhan took over, aided by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as “Himedty,” the notorious Janjaweed commander responsible for the ethnic cleansing campaign in Darfur nearly 15 years ago. In response, the civilian coalition called for an intensification of the sit-in and a general strike.
In early June, the first week of Ramadan, Himedty’s forces attacked the sit-in with live ammunition, setting tents on fire and committing mass sexual violence on women in the Qiyada. Internet was blocked to prevent any evidence of their crimes from leaking to international press, and phone lines were cut for ten days as the massacre continued. Despite the killings, strikes and protests continued until mid-July, when the government conceded to the demands of the protesters and a transitional peace agreement was signed. This agreement is only the first step in a long struggle for liberation in Sudan.
It would be difficult to find two more different political, social, economic and cultural realities than Sudan and the United States. Regardless, the current moment requires us to push against the circumscriptions placed on our political imaginations — which includes any assumptions that the struggles in Sudan have no bearing on our struggles on this continent — in order to honor the actions and aspirations of those before us and those around us at right now.
This imaginative push also requires us to engage in a hemispheric conversation that forges connections that are not only unlikely under our current world-system, but one that pushes against the forces of neoliberal atomization, which stymies political, intellectual and social intimacy at the interpersonal and collective levels, and which mystifies, sticks-and-moves, disguises itself, tricking us into thinking its crumbs are akin to freedom itself. This trickery, wherein neoliberalism tells us we are freest when we think of ourselves as wholesome individuals with a freedom of choice — between violence and non-violence, for example — is simply the other side of fascism’s janus-faced appearance.
So, when we ask what can be learned from the recent struggles in Sudan, we are brought full circle to a host of durable and effective strategies that make up the nucleus of movement-building, most of which are present more than ever in the uprisings across the US. This includes an emphasis on the provision of services to the people, the importance of building and sustaining truly broad based coalitions, with participation from every sector of society. It includes creating and implementing alternate democratic structures, like neighborhood committees, that do not mimic the state but exceed it in every way. It reveals the manner in which movements tend to fall short of their goals due to deep and possessive investments in patriarchy.
During the uprisings in Sudan and elsewhere, political education has been paramount, as well as the importance of controlling the dissemination of information to the world, especially on social media, which not only offers on-the-ground information in real time, but is also a site for politicizing people and for the escalation of demands. Finally, and most importantly, the efficacy of general strikes in bringing governments to their knees. This was true decades ago, it was true in Sudan last year, it is evident in the way young organizers have seized this current moment here in North America, and it is, in my estimation, still the way to sustain people’s physical, mental, and emotional steadfastness during and after these moments.
So when we ask ourselves, “What is to be done?,” I join the ranks of countless dissenters and radicals who have reclaimed Martin Luther King Jr. from the disgraceful liberal sanitization of his politics, and offer some of his words, from his “I have a dream” speech, which has been consistently manipulated by liberal accommodationists and color-blind racists alike. He remarked: “Now is not the time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” The young people in Sudan, Minnesota, and all over the world have refused this gradualism in favor of an urgency that has placed abolition and liberation firmly within our grasp.
People are dying in the hundreds of thousands from a pandemic that has blown the lid off of an always-already inept health care and social welfare system. Forty million people are out of work, without basic goods and without the already inadequate healthcare which their employment provided. People are in the streets and are demanding the abolition of police, prisons and capitalism. People are rapidly politicizing and educating themselves.
Now is the time to seize the opening in front of us. So when we ask what is to be done, we know that the tasks are small and large at the same time. Most importantly, we know that in order to give ourselves a fighting chance, we must shatter the neoliberal obstructions that prevent us from thinking of ourselves outside of and against nation, hemisphere and market. An ethic which can be summed up by a chorus, a refrain, offered by Saidiya Hartman — a bridge for our thinking and doing in this moment, “How can I live? I want to be free. Hold on.”
Bedour Alagraa is a Professor of Black Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently working on her manuscript entitled, The Interminable Catastrophe, and is the co-editor of the Black Critique book series at Pluto Press.
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