Famed political freedom fighter Angela Davis gives a keynote speech at the NAARPR Re-founding Conference in Chicago this weekend | Photos by Morgan Elise Johnson [The TRiiBE]

A multi-generational collective of social justice activists and political freedom fighters, including famed political freedom fighter Angela Davis, convened in Chicago this weekend with one goal in mind: bridging the gap between generations of Black activists while gaining community control of police. 

The National Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression’s (NAARPR) Re-Founding Conference kicked off on the evening of Nov. 22 with a rally held at the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) headquarters. The rally featured remarks from CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, political activist Carlos Montes, Black Lives Matter Chicago lead organizer Aislinn Pulley and more. Each gave a short speech in front of an estimated crowd of 1,200 individuals from across the country and abroad. The rally concluded with a keynote address from Davis.

“The questions we face today are different,” Davis told the crowd.  “We might say that we have acquired more complex approaches to issues of repression that refused to go away.”

During her remarks, Davis spoke about the differences between today’s movement for Black lives and the 1970s Black Power movement. Although the social injustices she and other activists endured in the early 1970s still persist today, she said the nature of combating them has evolved too. In today’s movement work, it is imperative to be inclusive to other marginalized communities fighting against systemic forms of repression.

During her era of activism, Davis said, many issues were not viewed through the lens of women, non-binary people and disabled people when encountering police, or through the eyes of immigrants facing expulsion or detention upon entering the U.S. 

With today’s activists keeping intersectionality in mind, Davis said “new insights” have been gained with regards to “how to address state repressive apparatuses.

“Even though impulsively we are all happy when we hear that a police officer has been convicted, we have to also ask ourselves whether or not we are thinking about different modes of justice,” Davis said, “And whether we should also be thinking about ways of addressing existing problems that do not necessarily rely on the police and on prisons.”

Most of the two-day conference’s attendees participated in panel discussions and workshops. Behind the scenes, though, members of the NAARPR and the Chicago Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression (CAARPR) discussed the framework for re-establishing a national collaborative effort.

When asked about NAARPR’s next steps following the conference, former NAARPR executive director and current CAARPR field organizer and educational director Frank Chapman, 77, said the organization will establish a continuations committee tasked with organizing the next national conference. A date for the next conference hasn’t been determined yet.

Frank Chapman speaking in front of the NAARPR crowd.

The focus of the next conference will be creating bylaws, electing officers and setting up a national office. Chapman said decisions regarding the NAARPR will be made “democratically.”

“Function determines structure in nature and society,” Chapman said. “We’re going in and telling them we should have united action as the basis of all that we are doing in these different communities. And we should have an agenda that says we want community control of the police.”

There was a significant number of millennials in attendance. Chapman said the Re-Founding Conference’s 800 attendees — consisting mostly of “young people” from 28 states and more than 140 cities — was larger than the original conference years ago. 

“A new movement has emerged around the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd — primarily a Black youth-led movement that is calling for the same kind of systemic changes that we called for back in the 1960s,” Chapman said. 

Chapman said the murders of Martin and Laquan McDonald are the result of a police state working diligently to stop another Black liberation movement from coming into existence. “[The younger generation] realizes those are racist, repressive moves to deny people the organizing space they need in order to overturn new oppression,” he added. 

“But the movement today is in a more advanced place,” Chapman explained, “Because they realized today that we’re not going to buy our way out of capitalism, that this system is designed to do what it does to us. It’s not broken.” 

One of the speakers at the conference, Ariel Atkins, 28, a lead organizer for Black Lives Matter Chicago, recalled her first encounter with Chapman and CAARPR. It happened about three years ago following the election of President Donald Trump. She was among several young organizers invited to attend CAARPR meetings. 

Because of her movement and community work, Chapman thought Atkins could help bridge the generational gap between the old and new guards of activists. At the time, Atkins, who said she first began with her activism by hosting food drives out of her Chicago apartment, got involved “because I felt like I needed to do something.” While at the CAARPR meeting, she recalled Chapman saying to her “we need you,” and it was at that moment she decided to work with the organization.

“What’s really incredible about Frank is that he has so much knowledge and has such a strong desire to share that knowledge and develop the next group of leaders,” Atkins said.  “Frank believes in the youth. And he fully believes in allowing them the power and access they need in order to grow.”

Prior to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the national presence of Black social activism movement appeared dormant in the 1980s and 1990s when compared to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Atkins said the dormant decades were the direct result of national policies orchestrated by President Richard Nixon and later by President Ronald Reagan to deconstruct Black communities. 

“If you completely destroy communities, then they can’t fight for their own power because they don’t have the energy. They don’t have the strength and they have no hope,” Atkins said. “When Trayvon Martin was killed, I think that was when the next wave of organizers really took place because there were people organizing but you know, they didn’t have the means and the energy to mobilize people to really base build.” 

Chapman echoed Atkins’ sentiments in a separate conversation. He attributed the Black community’s decline after the Civil Rights Movement to a “law-and-order doctrine,” which was pushed by conservatives during the Nixon and Reagan administrations. Both presidents also pushed for the War on Drugs, which became a platform to increase incarceration rates throughout the country. 

“The War on Drugs became the policy of the land. That’s how we got to mass incarceration,” Chapman said. “That’s how we got to prison nation.” 

Atkins credited today’s technology for its ability to rapidly spread information, which allows the younger generation to stay on top of what’s going on locally, nationally and internationally.

“I definitely think it’s super accurate to say that there was a lull [in the movement], but I think that that was by design,” said Atkins. “They did it on purpose to mute. But now, they can’t really do that as much as way too many people and information moves so much quicker, so much faster now than it ever did before.”

Chapman added the lull in the movement was led by “right-wing extremists” who desired to create a police state to eliminate the social justice movement and ensure it never rose again.

Or so they thought. 

Chapman said some of the negative comments from the old guard of his generation that are directed towards today’s generation of activists are mostly unfounded, especially from those active in the social justice ecosystem. He said he and others from his generation immediately embraced the Black Lives Matter movement and wish to help them succeed moving forward.

“You know, young people in this movement have shown me great respect. But I earned that respect, because I wasn’t just keeping the trenches warm for them to show up. When they showed up, that’s when they found me. They found me in the trenches, you know, and we were glad to see them coming,” Chapman said.

“Do young people make mistakes? Hell yeah. I [also]made a bunch of them,” he said. “But it is our responsibility and duty as their elders is to make damn sure that they don’t make the mistakes that we made, because we made it for them. They’re supposed to start out on higher ground. That is our purpose for existing.”