Article Art, Politics & Protest

"I lost the primary thing that held meaning to me for my adult life"

An interview with an activist who spent 16 years in a radical left-wing organisation that he now views as a political cult

Photo: Matthew Willis (circled far right) in January 2008, the last photo he took as an Uhuru Movement member. (C) Matthew Willis

A lot of people become more politically engaged in college as they meet new people and are opened up to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Matthew Willis, who graduated from college in Massachusetts in 1992, certainly found himself becoming more politically engaged during his college years, coinciding as they did with the First Gulf War. He became involved in civil disobedience against the war, including a sit-in at Mac-Dill Airforce Base in Florida. These actions did little to prevent the war and Matthew became demoralised by the failure of the protest movement and his politics became further radicalised. “I wanted something with more power than the ‘peace movement’ seemed to have,” he says of that time.

This was also the time of the Los Angeles riots. The riots followed the acquittal on charges of assault and use of excessive force of four police officers after they had been filmed beating a black man named Rodney King. The riots were the biggest seen in America since the 1960s and Matthew felt a sense of solidarity with the black community, who were rebelling against the treatment that they were receiving from the LA police force. He began listening to Public Enemy and old Malcolm X speeches, and not long after he finished college he moved to Oakland, California, where his brother lived.

With no job, Matthew had time on his hands. “There was an interesting little coffee shop near where I was staying called Uhuru Café, which had a big red, black and green silhouette of Africa hanging in front,” he says. “Since I wasn’t working, I would go in there, order a coffee and read sometimes during the day. The coffee was good, I liked the atmosphere and I was also intrigued that the workers seemed to all be white even though the place gave off a ‘black power’ vibe.”

This was where Matthew first came in to contact with the Uhuru Movement, an organisation to which he would dedicate a large chunk of the next 16 years of his life.

It started when Matthew was reading a book of speeches by Malcolm X, and the woman behind the counter asked what he thought of it, engaging him in a discussion about Malcolm X. “She also introduced me to the politics of Uhuru. I was happy to have someone to talk and debate politics with, and challenged by her position that I had ‘white left’ views, which were reactionary from an Uhuru Movement perspective,” he says of this woman.

“White left is a term used by Uhuru to describe sectors of marginalized whites - working class, women, gays, etc - who are able to acknowledge their own contradictions, view themselves as oppressed and do political work to change things for themselves, but who are unable to recognize themselves as members of a colonizer nation who benefit from colonialism despite any oppression they might experience, and who will unite with the ruling class against colonized peoples’ interests when push comes to shove,” Matthew explains.

The Uhuru Movement is a radical organisation that grew from the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and is centred on the principles of Pan-Africanism. Pan-Africanism advocates the political and economic liberation of black Africans on the continent of Africa and those of African descent living elsewhere in the world. The movement is headed by chairman Omali Yeshitela, the leader of the African People’s Socialist Party, which was founded in 1972. The party believes that the US government and nation were founded on “the genocide of Native people, the theft of their land, and the forcible, dispersal, enslavement and colonization of millions of African people”.

According to the beliefs of the party, this means that the existence of people of African descent in the US amounts to colonialism and that colonialism is the biggest problem that black people in America face. Also under the umbrella of the Uhuru Movement is the African People’s Solidarity Committee, a group for white people who support the aims of the APSP. This is the group that Matthew came to join after he was invited to attend an event in East Oakland.

“It was electrifying,” he says of that first event. “It was the first time I heard Omali Yeshitela. I was also invited to volunteer at a fundraiser, selling sausages at an outdoor festival that was going to happen in Marin. I attended and had a good experience meeting interesting and nice people and being appreciated for my work.” That day, July 4 1992, was the first of many volunteer shifts that Matthew would put in over the next 16 years as he became heavily involved with the APSC and the Uhuru Movement.

Initially, things went well for Matthew. “I rose pretty high into the leadership in the African People’s Solidarity Committee,” he says of that time. “I was in the Political Bureau, which is the highest body in APSC (and the only white male to have ever achieved that level of leadership up to that point).”

“I was the local chairman of the Oakland unit. I had a reputation for producing the best propaganda in the entire movement.”

On top of this, Matthew did a lot of other work for the movement. “I produced artwork and literature, provided IT support, participated in fundraisers such as street fairs and bake sales, drove around in a truck to pick up and move furniture donations, did phone banking, participated in multiple weekly meetings, organized events, represented myself as a spokesperson, participated in civil disobedience and donated a significant portion of the money I could earn working at for-pay jobs,” he says.

However, things began to take a turn for the worse for Matthew in 2004 when he was put under pressure to move to St Petersburg in Florida, where the leadership of the Uhuru Movement is concentrated. This relocation was a common thing for Uhuru leaders to be called to do, but Matthew was resistant.

“The idea of uprooting from a place I had lived for 13 or so years to a place where I had no interest in living, where I’d have no job, no income and no network of people outside of the few people I worked with in Uhuru was something I essentially dreaded,” he says.

This reluctance caused trouble with his superiors within the movement. Matthew was declared as “being in struggle”, a move that he believes was made to intensify the pressure on him to relocate to St Petersburg. “’Being in struggle’ is to be in state of political backwardness, where one can do nothing right, and evidence for one’s political backwardness is presented in almost every meeting,” he explains. “When one is ‘in struggle’ he or she is usually stripped of some leadership. In my case, I was expelled from the political bureau. He or she is also expected to submit to a ‘rectification process’. In my case, it was to move to Florida, as was expected of me, and proving myself worthy through assisting APSP.”

And so Matthew found himself forced to move to Florida. Once he was there things did not go well. He was assigned to work with a party member for whom he felt he couldn’t do anything right. “She hated me and would regularly complain about me to the leadership.” This eventually led to Matthew being expelled from the APSC in 2006 and set to do “mass work”. Matthew tried his best to keep his head down, carry out his mass work and return to the party’s good graces but the resentment was building up inside.

“I was growing tired and resentful of working my ass off and getting nothing but disdain and unfair criticism from the people around me as thanks,” he says. “I resented having been bullied to move to St Petersburg where I hated it. I figured I could work hard in the mass work, limit the number of meetings I needed to attend and avoid the kind of criticism I had experienced as an APSC member.”

Throughout this time, Matthew was subjected to regular group criticism sessions. “I’d be denounced by members higher up in the Solidarity Committee and then the meeting would be ‘opened up’ so that other attendees could demonstrate their allegiance by agreeing with the denunciation and expressing in their own words how they experienced my shortcomings,” he says of these meetings.

The criticism ranged from valid things like falling short of a deadline, to strange things such as being accused of failing to produce some work that actually had been produced. “I remember sitting in one meeting where I was severely criticized for having ‘sabotaged’ the process of creating an important graphic that I had been assigned to create, listening to these terrible denunciations of me while looking at stacks of the recently published newspaper with the graphic I had supposedly sabotaged being the primary image on the front page.”

Things came to a head in February 2008 when Matthew attended a meeting where he made some criticisms of a paper that had been written, “instead of saying how much I agreed with it, and how profound it was, which was what was expected of everyone in these types of situations”.

“This culminated in receiving a long, wild diatribe accusing me of having done all sorts of terrible things over the years. A week or so later, I was called by a Political Bureau member and told that I was expelled from the mass work and I was no longer welcome to do anything,” he says. “A week or so after that, I was asked to attend a meeting where things could be ‘summed up’. This meeting proved to be nothing more than a kangaroo court, where party leaders could have an opportunity to endorse the content of the email. After that I was banished and shunned.”

Some of the things that Matthew was accused of were reproduced in this article and include accusations of Matthew being a sexual predator, an accusation that Matthew strongly denies. “Most of the leaders in APSC are women who come from radical feminist separatist political roots. While straight, white men are allowed to do work in the ‘Solidarity Movement’ there is a certain level of hostility one will experience,” he explains. “That political environment, coupled with the desire to defame my character with anything they could come up with is why that claim was made.”

After his banishment, Matthew felt somewhat lost. “For several years, I felt humiliation, shame, anger, terror, bitterness and hopelessness,” he says. “I lost the primary thing that held meaning to me for my adult life, along with many of my deepest friends.” Despite this he says he also felt some relief. “I was no longer accountable to the unreasonable demands I had sunken into after all those years as an Uhuru zealot,” he explains.

As time wore on, Matthew began to believe that the movement that he had been involved in was a political cult. In particular he cites Ideological Intransigence, Democratic Centralism and Cultism by Denis Tourish as an influence on his thinking. “Tourish spent 11 years as a member of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), was able to understand it as a political cult and write about his observations,” he says. “Substitute the names of the leaders and heroes mentioned in his essay with the Uhuru pantheon, and the story is exactly the same.”

Despite his experience, Matthew’s political beliefs remain intact. “My fundamental political beliefs remained unaltered,” he says. “After a while I discovered a number of individuals - many of whom were also Uhuru expatriates - to work with to act upon my leftist political views.” One of these individuals is Courtland Rowles, who had a similar experience in APSC and, like Matthew, believes that the organisation is a political cult.

“There was definitely good that came of it,” he says, when asked if he completely regrets his involvement with the movement. “I think their political and economic theories are mostly correct and I’m glad to be well versed in them.”

Things are less hectic for Matthew now, but he still stays involved with leftist politics. “I donate money and time to various organizations and activists on a case-by-case basis. I’ve helped build a few events. I’ve attended some local demonstrations to denounce police brutality,” he says. “I am much quieter politically now, but the fundamental convictions that led me to Uhuru remain with me.”

And does he think that the goal of the Uhuru Movement is achievable?

“Sadly, it seems most likely to me that humans will become extinct relatively soon and take a number of more innocent species with us as we go down,” he says before warning, “If the goal of African liberation is achievable, it will require as part of the process the exposing of the tendency on the left for organizations to function as political cults.”

The African People’s Solidarity Committee have not yet responded to requests for comment on this article. This article will be updated if they choose to do so.

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