Libations & Molotov Cocktails: A Breaking Brown Breakup.

[Author’s note, added 21 November.: To the extent that some of the readers feel this article is merely gossip and not grounded in a deeper critique of methodology and praxis, I would ask you to please consider, as you read, how large and significant a role funding plays in what Yvette & Irami are able to do with their respective projects. Given their contrasting funding models, the ways in which both of their political projects play out may — I feel — be very instructive in helping determine a maximally effective and sound course of action going forward. This article isn’t about taking sides, necessarily, but rather thinking through some of the limitations of a grassroots political movement that prioritizes funding from outside the group itself, and the purpose-defeating, incendiary rhetoric of violence that seems to me to be more of a self-promotional, rather than political, tactic. – PS]

On three different occasions during the inaugural episode of The Black Athenians, a live YouTube show on local black politics in Athens, GA, host Irami Osei-Frimpong turns to look into the camera and, addressing the audience he has gathered in-studio and online, emphatically calls for all listening to riot in the streets of Athens in the event that he gets assassinated.

Here’s Mr. Osei-Frimpong himself:

I need you to shut it down. I’m talking bricks and molotov cocktails…If I end up in a body bag, I need you to tear down Five Points and then just work out…Go loot over there. Loot! Loot! Take all that property! If something happens to me..anyone who looks like they didn’t give me money for this show…I need you to be shutting them down.

This comes just around the one-hour mark of the show’s premiere episode.

Apprehending in real-time just how problematic this might be is the show’s special guest, Yvette Carnell, whose body language for most of the episode is basically an oration of discomfort and exasperation as she appears to get the sense that—insofar as there are going to be any loud bangs in Irami Osei-Frimpong’s future as a political leader—they probably won’t be gunshots; they will simply be doors slamming shut.

Ms. Carnell is herself a highly respected voice in new black media. She’s the founder of Breaking Brown, a bi-weekly, live YouTube broadcast on which—for about the past year now—Mr. Osei-Frimpong has worked in the capacity of producer. In both a personal and work sense, the two have always appeared to have good chemistry and a solid relationship. That is, until the week following the premiere episode of The Black Athenians, when Mr. Osei-Frimpong took to his Facebook page to make an announcement that he would no longer be a part Breaking Brown. Shortly afterward, Ms. Carnell, via her YouTube channel, uploaded a video in which she confirmed Mr. Osei-Frimpong’s departure from the show, and also delivered the news that Breaking Brown would henceforth be on indefinite hiatus. These announcements—especially taking place at such a high moment in the show’s popularity—registered as quite a shock to fans of the show, and neither Mr. Osei-Frimpong nor Ms. Carnell have yet to provide (nor are they under any obligation to provide) their viewers with any real explanation as to what contributed to the dissolution of the partnership.

Since the two began working together last year, Breaking Brown has enjoyed a tremendous amount of growth. The present number of subscribers to the channel is just under 34,000. Of late, Ms. Carnell has been taking the show’s message to a few different colleges and conferences where she speaks candidly about the objectively disastrous situation facing African-American descendants of slaves in this country and the urgent need to provide a political (re)education that lays the groundwork for collectivist action in the struggle for meaningful social and economic justice.

Importantly, as Breaking Brown has swelled in popularity over the past year, it has done so all the while being funded largely by donations supplied by the show’s viewers; that is, namely, black people. This funding model is something that, on numerous occasions, Ms. Carnell has mentioned she places a great deal of importance on, since it means she’s beholden exclusively to the people for whom she intends to advocate. Any alternative arrangement, she seems to feel, stands to effect one of two undesirable outcomes: either compel precisely the sort of obedience by black media figures that has ensured the black agenda for which they nominally speak be woefully underserved, if not ignored altogether. Or, the funding will simply be cut off the moment the project’s message comes up against certain interests that deem it to be a bit too extreme.

For his own project, Mr. Osei-Frimpong has—seemingly for the purposes of expediency—sought out a different source of financial backing for his project. The studio equipment that makes The Black Athenians possible is, in his words, “paid for by some nice white people…because black people don’t have the kind of capital that we needed for the cameras and equipment that are going to make this show excellent.” However, by the show’s fourth episode, the pitfalls of relying on local white money to do local (and nakedly antagonistic) black politics are evident:

Mr. Osei-Frimpong, again:

We’re in a smaller space than we need to be because we had a bigger space, but the person who owns the bigger space saw the show, thought it was a little bit too hot—that it might jeopardize his white check—and so we’re in a smaller space right now and the smaller space is too small for what we’re growing.

The question is why leave your project exposed and vulnerable by going outside your group for funds? What Breaking Brown appears to firmly grasp is that the political project itself is precarious enough; the funding doesn’t have to be.

And despite the apparent consequences of his decision to source-fund from “people who are not in our group,” and his literally threatening investors with an outbreak of violent civil disobedience, he nonetheless continues to spend parts of the show returning to a discussion about his possible assassination.

Again, from the fourth episode, in which he is hamming up the prospect of his being the target of coordinated agencies with guest Mehrsa Baradaran:

If anything happens to me…if anything happens to me or mine, I do not forgive anybody. I want you to shut it down! There is a plot to get me because I wanted to build a black middle class in Athens…So get ’em! If anything happens to me, get ’em! I’m not forgiving…I’m talking molotov cocktails, and start in Five Points. Start in Five Points and then work out into the suburbs.

There’s something weirdly performative and indulgent about Mr. Osei-Frimpong’s imagining of his own politically-motivated murder each episode. It’s apparently gravely serious, but also treated playfully. He seems to delight in it, smiling brightly, as if the idea of himself as an eventual FBI target confers some aura of look-at-me radicalism upon him here in the present. The flight of Bureau-target fancies he indulges are certainly exciting and dramatic relative to the tedious present of political movement building (of any kind, but maybe especially that of a local black politics), which—to those involved—is generally always anemic-seeming. The better world that exists in the imagination is moved toward at a glacial crawl amid the sclerotic conditions and reactionary forces of the actual moment. And it seems that, in order to abide the duration, and ensure the movement’s cohesion and resilience, there’s an almost monastic selflessness required as a precondition on the part of its primary spokespeople. So it should be a red flag, or at least highly suspect, when anyone can be so reckless as to instruct a vulnerable, tiny minority to go out and confront an enforcement arm of the state, which, behind their riot masks, are police officers who are absolutely frothing at the mouth for the chance to—as brutally as possible—suppress an uprising. We live in a time where there is a fully-militarized police force that will open fire on a black person for caring for an autistic patient, let alone one actually engaging in armed conflict.

Absent some account by either Mr. Osei-Frimpong or Ms. Carnell, fans of “Breaking Brown” will probably be left to speculate amongst themselves on the precise causes that led the duo to suddenly conclude working together. And maybe the closest that fans of the show will ever get to a clear explanation of what caused Ms. Carnell and Mr. Osei-Frimpong to part ways is the former’s own description of the latter’s method of providing a political education in the service of racial justice: “This is a different kind of project,” she says, clearly understating her misgivings of Mr. Osei-Frimpong’s approach. But if the constant, odd pretense to martyrdom from a small studio space in Athens is any indication, Mr. Osei-Frimpong desires notoriety far beyond the role of producer. After all, what is imagining yourself as a target, if not imagining yourself as the very center of attention? One thing, though, is for sure, Mr. Osei-Frimpong’s abrupt departure from the “Breaking Brown” show has left one of the most vital outlets for black political education without a producer, an intern, and a studio space at a crucial moment in its development.