“…Despite how events turned out…the raid [uprising] had the support of the enslaved community living in the area who were grateful… The events that took place directly after the raid offer ample evidence to suggest the enslaved were indeed engaged in resistance. Just a week after…Harpers Ferry [the location of the uprising] experienced an unprecedented number of fires. Five fires occurred on local plantations. The properties of three jurors were also subject to arson. Numerous slave owners found their wheat, supply yards, stables, and haystacks ablaze. It was never proved, but understood by all that the fires were being set by the enslaved and free black residents as a response to the aftermath of the raid and the trial.”Kellie Carter Jackson, Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence1
Stars, if you look closely, are more visible during an uprising. As clusters, they beam out in the dark. Power goes down in a city and fires emerge. From Minnehaha Avenue, at the cooperative where I’m located, it’s the shadows that complement their light. In their clusters, from a great distance, they peek out from the surrounding darkness. I run a local art coop. We gather clusters. Artists seeking out new ways to organize community power and mutual aid.
Most of our events happen at night. Underneath starlight. After curfew. We are located seven blocks from the Third Precinct, which burned down during the uprising in May 2020. As fires appeared, stars arrived, as if waiting. My city, at this moment, is awaiting a verdict. A waiting we’ve known. While waiting for a verdict, another murder occurred. A new name added to the infinite list. Daunte Wright. 20 years old. April 11th. As ritual, clusters gathered. Mourning in daylight. I began this essay writing about George; now I have to write about a new name. I began wanting to describe the clusters of community gathering for a 46-year-old; now I have to describe the clusters gathering for a 20-year-old. How these clusters emerge from a great distance. Like starlight.
Perhaps there is a role for the clusters that surround us. That seemingly peek out in the darkness. A way to describe the activities of rebellions as the activity of clusters. It might be the case rebellions are more sustainable when powered by little clusters, and when they happen under starlight.
Perhaps one definition of abolition can be: a combative imagination. Local groups of people learning how to be independent from state systems—emerging new ways of thinking and behaving, to organize their needs getting met—while undermining the legitimacy of the current systems.
I’m interested in the ways clusters do this. Clusters can then be defined as: a number of things growing naturally together. I’m interested in what we might call the “combative clusters”: We see clusters of dark umbrellas shielding protesters from tear gas. Clusters emerging a kind of resistance under starlight. The kind of resistance that renders groups of people hard to detect.
Considering this, I want to suggest that there are specific ways of knowing that are available to us, particularly if we study two strands of activism: the preservation of starlight and the history of abolitionists. Particularly if we study the ways abolitionists have gathered at night. What can we learn about rebellion by looking up at starlight?
Perhaps we should learn a little about activists organizing to preserve starlight. The work of Cipriano Martin is described in The End Of Night: “He talks in a language that seems made for ‘declarations’ written ‘in defense.’”2 Martin helped organize an international conference with the declaration “In Defense of the Night and the Right to Starlight.”
“…a writer from my homeland, an islander from the middle of the ocean, synthesized the whole spirit of the declaration in a beautiful short poem:
My inheritance was a handful of earth But of sky All the universe.
One of the most meaningful things about the Starlight Reserve concept is how detailed its dimensions are…rather than simply assume all protected areas are protected for the same reasons, the different Starlight Reserves imagine several types of these areas: Starlight Natural Sites safeguard nocturnal habitats; Starlight Astronomy Sites protect our view of the stars; Starlight Heritage Sites preserve ‘archaeological and cultural sites or monuments created by man as an expression of its relationship with the firmament [or the heavens].’”3
As abolitionists, how detailed are our dimensions? Where are our different sites of abolition located? How can local autonomous zones cooperate with each other to create what we might call a constellation of abolition? That is, a network of abolitionist efforts that are activated only at night? Only under starlight.
Additionally, how can we not simply assume how a process will unfold, but anticipate different scenarios? For example, our cooperative originally bought gas masks in anticipation of a non-guilty verdict for Derek Chauvin. As it turned out, we needed to assemble them sooner as a result of another murder, that of Daunte Wright. Even though we anticipated injustice in the near future, policing is barbaric and unpredictable. It’s interesting how that unpredictability produces collective projects. You assemble the gas masks with a friend. Then within the next few days, you learn any protester caught with a gas mask could be charged with a felony. Then, collectively, we have to decide how to distribute gas masks outside the eyes of the state.
Within the study of starlight, we learn to navigate this unpredictability. Abolition and the preservation of starlight seem to require similar frameworks. Another activist written about in The End Of Night, Bob Mizon, speaks about how he sees his work unfolding over time: “It would be nice to wave a magic wand and suddenly get the stars back. But I realize it’s a long-term, evolutionary process… We’re talking about the night sky in perhaps fifty years’ time, when we’re dead. But it’s still worth doing.”4
Similarly, in the same way one can talk about the night sky, we can talk about the future. We preserve starlight and work towards abolition with a sensibility of futurity. A future, even if it appears in fragmented installments, is worth our while. Another artist mentioned in the book The End Of Night, a light designer for the city of Paris, Roger Narboni, suggests, “We can be as poetic there as we can in the center…so I always try to work for parts of the cities that are the most destroyed, the most difficult. It’s easier to bring beauty to this part…with light, a total metamorphosis.”5
The sites where these clusters grow are also the site of collapse. Our cooperative used to be a run-down window repair company. No floors, ceilings, or walls. Gutted from the inside. A total metamorphosis. Perhaps this is a kind of planet-building within a planet.
But what in particular can we learn through the study of black abolitionists and their efforts? Specifically the activities of unruly clusters that have an interesting relationship with the night. A history that ties back to fugitive slaves seeking their own kind of “cluster utopia”—regardless how temporal or brief they may be. For this we only need to look to the work of Stephanie M.H. Camp in Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South.
“Speaking for slaves everywhere, Charlie Crump recounted that, ‘We aint ‘lowed ter go nowhar at night.’ ‘Dat is,’ he added, “if dey knowed it.’
In violation of the rule against leaving at night, Crump and many of the young people he knew who had worked ‘from daylight till dark’ sometimes ventured out at night, the dark sheltering their movements. ‘Night is their day,’ one planter complained about slaves’ nighttime activities. Risking punishment, blacks ‘from all ober de neighborhood [would] gang up an have fun anyhow.’ Similarly, Midge Burnett and his friends knew that ‘de patterollers ‘ud watch all de paths leadin frum de plantation’ to prevent bondpeople from running away. What the patrollers did not know, however was that ‘dar wus a number of little paths what run through de woods dat nobody ain’t watched case dey aint knowed dat de paths wus dar.’”6
Perhaps here we find the true work of abolitionists. To create little paths outside the sight of local authorities. Leading to the local cooperative. The local night meeting. To ensure they are never able to find where our paths are located. These clusters of paths are available to us only by starlight. We emerge at night in spite of complaints from the state. From a far distance. We risk punishment by ganging up. Within this risk of punishment, we have fun anyhow. This is an abolitionist sensibility.
Stephanie M.H. Camp continues: “Many partygoers traveled to their covert events along just such paths… ‘Yes, mam, they danced all right,’ Georgian Jefferson Franklin Henry remembered. ‘That’s how they got mixed up with patterollers. Negroes would go off to dances and stay out all night.’”7 The secrecy of illicit dances demanded a high level of planning, so they were often prepared in advance. Here again we see a direct affinity with abolition. The careful planning in an interest of collective joy. We even see the role of looting in Closer to Freedom—that is, looting for the dance party:
“Theft was the main way of obtaining the goods they needed. ‘They took without saying, “By your leave, sir,” the food and drink they wanted. Steward wrote, ‘Reasoning among themselves as slaves often do that it cannot be stealing, because, ‘It belongs to massa, and so do we, and we only use one part of his property to benefit another.’”8
This is where we see mutual aid within joyful fugitivity. These are the logics of a joyful revolt. Which isn’t to concede to be owned. On the contrary, it is the deepening of mutual aid by disrespecting authority completely unbothered. I’m interested in how we, as local abolitionists in Minneapolis, create conditions to disrespect authority completely unbothered?
Considering this, what is the most useful way to think about the goal for abolitionists and a local rebellion? Perhaps we find insight in the event referenced at the beginning, the uprising at Harpers Ferry. It was a failure. A grim tragedy. Historically, by all measures, it did not achieve success. In some ways, I don’t think achievement and success are words within the lexicon of abolitionist work. Particularly when it comes to what we might call “achieving justice’” within the context of the state. The mother of Daunte Wright at a press conference earlier this month said, “When people say ‘justice,’ I just shake my head.”
Instead it could be the case that the role of the abolitionist, and that of rebellion, is not to succeed. Particularly within the context of the state. Perhaps our work is simply to make local power paranoid. The enslaved community living in West Virginia at the time lit fires in all directions, establishing anxiety into the minds of the overseers. This kind of work is a shift. The goal is for the state to be paranoid and for us to be unruly. Which isn’t to say verdicts don’t matter. It is to recognize activities available to us, independent of whether the state recognizes the violence it inflicts, or takes accountability for it.
Considering this, we have to get together outside zones of duress. Outside of spaces where the state could or could not take accountability for the violence it perpetuates. Combative clusters also have to be joyful clusters. How can starlight inspire these activities within us? To inspire spontaneity down the “little paths” that are unrecognizable to, unknowable by, the state. These little paths lead us to make power paranoid. And perhaps in the other direction, they lead us to a gathering of music, a bonfire, or tactical training where we are distributing gas masks and listening to poetry. It’s as if these activities could only have happened under starlight. In what an abolitionist would call “the zone of adventure.”
Adventure is often defined as: an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity. Perhaps to be an abolitionist is to stand ready for that zone, to be prepared for the possibility of association—not through trauma, through struggle. We struggle to put the pieces together, both the equipment and the relations. Each object fits, if not at first, through a pattern of slight movements and interventions. And perhaps this is what it means to make oneself available for abolition: At the same time you assemble equipment for rebellion, you are also assembling relations of sustained regard. At night, after curfew, you find yourself breathing through a gas mask assembled by a friend.
Abolitionists don’t predict the future, we anticipate it. We know what to anticipate by studying local conditions. Our community will need gas masks in the coming nights, so how can we distribute these resources with the least amount of hierarchy? How do we not hoard resources, but give them away freely down the cluster of paths that local police can’t see? On Minnehaha and Lake, there’s a burned down police station. If you walk a little further, down the path, there’s a cooperative. This is the geography of a kind of abolition.
In organizing circles, one could say—and historians often do—that the history of the left is the history of failed utopias. To be a utopian thinker is to be one interested in the study of failure. The poet often has to say to the historian: There were friendships at that site of failure, at the rebellion that didn’t succeed. If you look at the clusters, there was poetry you missed, music you can’t seem to hear. Starlight often isn’t a part of the historical record. Enzo Traverso, looking at the work of queer activism in the 1980s, reminds us how clusters emerged under conditions of grief and mourning:
“The gay activism that reacted against…such tragic circumstances—to some extent comparable to the fall of communism—was inseparable from grief and mourning. Rather than escaping the melancholia, it channeled it toward a fruitful work of reconstruction, creating medical centers, assuring psychological care, defending recently-achieved rights, and rebuilding a network of associations…”9
Starlight is subversive because it provides conditions for our mourning and our militancy. Candlelight vigils can be better seen in the dark. The night allows us to beam out. To sneak away inside the little paths. To pray over our dead and be together with our friends. Historian Douglas Crimp reminds us: militancy, of course, but mourning too: mourning and militancy. Little by little, we form combative clusters outside the eyes of the state, while listening to poetry. I’m not sure what the next few months in Minnesota are going to look like. The state, the local police, aren’t the only ones who are unpredictable. So are poets. Rebellion is often another word for surprise. I often find myself working late at the cooperative. Minnehaha Avenue is dark. The starlight above me isn’t anything I can escape.