One of the things I’ve seen you talking about is how you’re not interested in shaming people for not voting or not going to protests. So as an activist what would you like to see people do to work towards justice?
That’s a great question, and it’s a question I’ve been talking to my friends a lot about during this moment of uprising and protest since August.
So not everybody can participate in protests or outdoor marches, because of accessibility issues. That’s linked to disability, but it’s also linked to your job, your childcare responsibilities, and any number of things. And there’s not just one way to make change in the world.
If you are somebody who doesn’t believe that voting makes a difference, and you say, “I don’t think I should vote,” I don’t understand people who then start yelling at people about how if you don’t vote, you get what you deserve. Really? No, actually no. Because the political system is a lot more complicated than that.
In the same way, I’m totally baffled at people who scream about the fact that when people do vote, they’re somehow involved in keeping the justice system going. Your voting means that you’re complicit in keeping the system going. And often the same people who say that voting doesn’t do anything, make the alternate point that your vote is keeping the system going. So which one is it? That voting has no power and is useless, or that the people, who are using that as one tactic, as part of a larger organizing strategy by the way, are somehow complicit in making sure the system doesn’t crumble? Like if everybody just stopped voting the system would crumble. Are you kidding? But I think it’s because people think the power is in the tactics, rather than the power being in the actual organizing. People look at a tactic rather than at the holistic organizing strategy.
So, why are we protesting in the streets? What is the point of that? Protest has its place, but it isn’t in and of itself organizing. Protest is a tactic that you can incorporate in a broader strategy. So you protest because you want disruption, you want to make people’s lives difficult. You want to get attention for yourself and your issues. You want the people in power to not be comfortable. You want to be active. But that in and of itself has done nothing if it’s not then connected to a vision of what it is you’re trying to accomplish. [Connected] to a set of demands that can be actionable and that you can measure yourself against towards your vision. And protest is never the only thing going on.
You tell me, in what social movement has only protest led to complete change? People were in the streets during the Black Freedom Movement, but people were also in rooms talking to the President. And those don’t have to be the same people. People were also having consciousness-raising groups among people in their own communities to get them to see the problem in a way that wasn’t just about an individual personal failings, but that was connected to the need for systemic changes, so people were doing popular education. That’s what those trainings were about, those peace trainings. If you ask Diane Nash or James Bevel, the strategy of doing those trainings was also political education for people. It wasn’t just to teach people how to not succumb to violence.
Also petitions and signatures and forcing people to go and do one-on-one visits in their local wards. Street theater, for god’s sake, to get people’s attention. We have always used many different kinds of tactics, and people should find what they think they do well.
Art and the use of art. Now in and of itself is art transformative and revolutionary? I don’t think so. That’s me. I have artist friends who might think differently, and some who think that art doesn’t have any place whatsoever in politics. But I see that as forms of expression and a way to get people to think in a different way, to expand our imagination of what’s possible. Using art for resistance is also a tactic and people who are artists and use their art for that are also part of the movement. You can’t imagine a Black Panther party without Emory Douglas and culture. Those images in the back of that newspaper.
Black resistance movements without art are hard to imagine.
You can’t imagine it! Can you imagine the Black Freedom Movement without song and singing as a communal gathering? Every one of those things is something that someone contributed to a whole to be able to move us from where we were to where we are.
I was at a vigil for Tamir Rice recently and somebody spent basically all his time berating people who had already come out on a Sunday evening to commemorate the loss of this young man and other children who have been killed by the police, to yell at those people about, “Why isn’t anybody doing anything?” And I took the opportunity at the end to speak out finally, because I was like: Excuse me; sometimes the choir deserves to be lifted. And sometimes we need to open our eyes to see that the people in this very room are here. You’re yelling at the wrong people, first of all.
But second of all, this concept and this idea that nobody is doing anything or nobody ever has done anything, by people who then quote people like King, Ida B. Wells and others. Okay but you just quoted all these people, particularly all these black people, who have been resistors to say that nobody ever did anything. The cognitive dissonance of that is hilarious to me. Of course people have done things. Of course people are doing things right now. And just because they’re not being publicized in the media doesn’t mean they’re not actually happening.
People sometimes also argue that no one is doing anything because change hasn’t been successful…
How do you then not include the possibility that many more people would have been lost, and that the misery index would have been much higher had the people who have been resisting not done that? I mean you can’t prove a counterfactual, but I will tell you this: it isn’t by accident that black people are still alive in this country, and contributing to the culture of this country, being integral to the culture of this country. It’s not accidental. We’ve resisted from the beginning. We continue to resist.
This is why I remain hopeful. In spite of lots and lots of things that should make me lose hope. I practice hope every day. But I’m very hopeful because I’m a student of history,and because I see every single day around me, whether it’s friends or families or people who are one step removed from that, people struggling for justice, struggling in some way against injustice, struggling in some way to build a world that they want to inhabit. I see that every day. There’s no way for me to lose hope, because of that reality. I have so much gratitude for people who get up and try to do anything for people; who try to do anything that is going to lead us to a more just world.