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Living socialism in Houston, with Amy Zachmeyer

The Democratic Socialists of America are one of the political organizations on the ground doing disaster relief in Houston after Harvey, and to co-chair Amy Zachmeyer that work is an expression of working-class solidarity, “really living socialism.” She talks to me about the work DSA has done, where the austerity state has failed, and the environmental issues that make climate change tangible in Texas.

AZ: For large portions of Houston, things are going back to normal. The highways are reopening, people are going back to work, and their lives look relatively the same. But, for other portions of Houston, things are not going to be okay for a very long time. A lot of those divides are economic divides. It has also really highlighted the racial segregation in our city, because you go to some neighborhoods and they look fine. Everyone still has their home and their manicured lawn and their car sitting out front. Then, you go into some of the other neighborhoods that were affected and you see where people’s entire lives have been removed from their home, including the drywall. Everything inside a home that made that home a home has been pulled out and thrown in a large heap on the side of the road. It is a very visual representation of which neighborhoods are affected and which neighborhoods are just business as usual. SJ: We see the inequality really clearly in times of disaster. AZ: In a lot of the neighborhoods that we have gone to, we have actually had people tell us, “Nobody else has come to check on me.” Maybe their pastor has come to check on them, but no other organizations have been out there besides the Democratic Socialists in their red shirts. There is something really heartbreaking about that to me.

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The long history of antifa, with Mark Bray


A lot of attention has been paid recently to “antifa,” but where does it actually come from? Historian Mark Bray has a new book out, Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, to explain the history and present of anti-fascist organizing. He explains the various tactics, inspirations, and motivations for anti-fascists throughout the 20th century, and how that work pertains to today’s political moment.

The interviews I did with anti-racists from the late 1980s and early 1990s were unanimous in citing the origins of their organizing in contestations over the local punk scene. A lot of Europeans talk about anti-fascism as kind of a gateway drug for politics or as a first exposure to radical politics because of the immediacy of the white power threat in social scenes, community centers, punk shows, everyday life for youth. People that I spoke to in the US from a number of different places talked about this being a politics that was immediate, that mattered in their everyday life. I interviewed an anti-fascist from Denmark who emphasized that as a young person, combating capitalism was such a huge task, it was a global task. But being able to push a dozen neo-Nazi skinheads out of the scene was something that was achievable and tangible and immediate and super important in everyday life in a way that young people could feel like they were making a difference. The people that I spoke to said that by the mid-1990s, by the late 1990s anti-racist organizing in North America had largely been successful in marginalizing white power skinheads and pushing them out of the scene. To me, that is a huge accomplishment that needs to be on the record. If this were all laid out for mainstream pundits, I think they would still be dismissive of the importance subcultural scenes, in general, but I think that the whole anti-fascist politics takes seriously subcultural spaces as a way that they can promote politics more widely.

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Defending Immigrants, Rebuilding Texas, with Greg Casar


Even as Hurricane Harvey battered Texas’s coast, its politicians were adding more fear to the state’s immigrant residents. From the rumors of immigration checkpoints along evacuation routes to looming bills to further criminalize undocumented people to the threat from Trump to revoke DACA protections, there was a lot to be afraid of. Yet Texans beat back one big threat to immigrants, and the coalition they built, Austin city councilmember Greg Casar says, will help them turn the tide in the future.

[Senate Bill 4] has become a statewide issue, so there have been statewide calls by organizations for all local elected officials to join in on this lawsuit. What I think was really important and special about this moment was that community organizations on the ground, like Texas Organizing Project and Workers Defense Project and United We Dream, were on the demanding that local elected officials stand up and fight back and sue. There were grassroots attorneys that were advising those organizations through their work. Local Progress, which is the national network of progressive local elected officials, set up infrastructure in Texas to coordinate progressive city council members and county commissioners to play sort of an inside/outside game to stand with the activists, but also work on the inside to move the rest of their local government to join this lawsuit.
I think, if you read Judge Garcia’s opinion, it becomes so clear that both the overwhelming damage that SB4 could have caused, that community members themselves raised, was critical for his decision, but also, it was critical to his decision with how many jurisdictions and municipalities stated that there could be irreparable harm caused by the law to those jurisdictions’ safety and wellbeing if the law went into effect. I think it was really critical that both grassroots organizations like United We Dream, Workers Defense, and TOP and an organization like Local Progress were helping to coordinate something that had never been done in the State of Texas before, which was local governments all joining together to sue the governor and state on an immigrants rights and social justice issue like this one. It wasn’t just the mayors sweeping in to save everybody.

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Mapping the power behind Trumpism, with Molly Gott


To effectively protest, you have to know who you’re protesting and where the pressure points are. The folks at LittleSis have created a database and research tool that helps organizers figure out who their opponents are, how they’re connected, and where to push in order to get results, and now they’re introducing a project to help bring those research skills to people across the country. Molly Gott of LittleSis tells me all about it.

The first project that we did was on corporate collaborators of Trump in Philadelphia. We went through and looked at “Who are the key donors to Trump in Philly? Who are people that he had created business relationships for? Who are people that were leading business councils or members of business councils that he was appointing?” to really put those folks on display. We released that set of information ahead of May Day when there were some actions happening in Philly, to bring the focus not just on Pat Toomey who is our Republican Senator, but also these corporate villains that are in Philly and didn’t really want to be publicly associated with Trump. That was one thing.
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Some of my thinking around “What is the role of research in our movements?” came about because I was involved in building some of the jail support apparatus in Ferguson and seeing the ways that actually attracted and gave roles in that movement to folks who maybe couldn’t do other things and gave them a home to be doing political work. So, I was thinking about the way that research can do that, as well. We have been pushing folks, which has been really fun to be doing research in community more. In Philly, we had research pizza nights where we all just bring our computers and do a bunch of tasks really quickly. It is way more fun than just being by yourself behind a computer screen, for sure.

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After Arpaio, what next for Arizona? With Alejandra Gomez


Donald Trump’s pardoning of infamous “Sheriff Joe” Arpaio was a signal to his base–both the police and the open white supremacists. But Arizonans aren’t done fighting. They removed Arpaio from office in the last election, and they’ve been organizing across communities to build a coalition, led by Latino youth, to change the very nature of Arizona politics. Alejandra Gomez tells me all about it.

Arpaio is the type of person who always wanted to be in the media and anything that really got him media attention he would do. So, Tent City was one of the worst ideas that could possibly happen. A complete violation of human rights and prisoners’ rights. What would happen in Tent City was, in Arizona, the temperatures reach about 120 degrees at any given time in the summer. You have prisoners outside with no air conditioning, people that have been incarcerated, outside with no air-conditioning. There are outhouses for bathrooms. So, all of the feces and urine have stagnated so you have that smell. You also have everything that is accumulating in terms of bacteria and all of that among the people that have been incarcerated.
On top of that, Sheriff Joe would make it known that he felt people that were in jail should not receive what he would consider food as a luxury. So, he would often give moldy bread and green macaroni to people that were in custody. People had also passed away in the jails because of the harsh conditions. That is just Tent City.
Under his jurisdiction there were smaller cities, these areas where you have largely Native American and Latino populations. In Surprise, Arizona there were a number of rape cases that were being reported of young women, of young girls, and the sheriff was failing to investigate those rape cases. Millions of dollars were misappropriated. This was all before SB 1070. Then, the raids started to happen and Arpaio completely revamped all his vans and basically it looked worse than border patrol. They would have signs, “If you see an illegal person, report them.” Pictures of people. It was a terrible sight to see these vans. Outside of his office, he had a big military tank. All of that is like, “Why does a sheriff need a military tank?” also. That goes back to the misappropriation of funds.

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A People’s Congress of Resistance, with Jodi Dean and Brian Becker


In September, frontline activists are coming together for a “people’s Congress” in Washington, D.C., organized around an openly radical platform that aims to put a left political horizon in front of the resistance movements that have grown against Trump. Jodi Dean and Brian Becker are part of the group convening the Congress and they spoke with me about why it’s important to build an independent political movement that doesn’t revolve solely around Trump or focus on electoral outcomes for Democrats.

JD: If we think about a society for the many in the United States, what does that have to look like? It has to look like the society that people would want to produce. And if we’re going to produce one that is desirable, a good place to live, then we have to confront directly and honestly the dual legacy of the US founding, which was in slavery and genocide. The most direct ways that we have of confronting head-on the fact that the country was anchored in slavery and genocide is by taking up the two answers that have been put forward as just the starting point of confronting it, namely Native American sovereignty and reparations. That’s the way that you can even start the conversation of how do we build a society for the many. Confront the basic crimes that have been at the basis of the entire country.
BB: The people who say that reparations for black America, for instance, will alienate people, they’re not talking about black people. They’re talking about a certain segment of society. It demonstrates who we’re aiming for. In other words, to build a really powerful viable social movement, yes we want people from all classes and all sectors to be it, but the things that really make history change are when the masses of people, meaning the poorest, the most oppressed, those sectors of society come onto the political stage. That’s why the sort of semi-revolution, the civil rights revolution happened, when Rosa Parks refused to give that seat up to a white man, the next nine years the masses of people came into politics. And so the Congress of the United States, which was compositionally the same as it was when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955, nine years later voted for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the two most progressive pieces of social legislation, it was because the poor, the masses, the working classes, the black community in particular came into political life. That’s what makes change possible, and that’s who we’re orienting toward with the People’s Congress.

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A platform for progress, with Nina Turner


Since the 2016 election, there have been a lot of debates about the direction in which the Democratic party should go. Our Revolution, the organization that grew out of the Sanders campaign and now headed by former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, has been working to provide an answer to that question, and is now backing a “people’s platform” of legislation to tackle inequalities of all kinds, from voting rights to abortion rights to slowing climate change. The Democratic leadership, though, didn’t exactly welcome Turner when she went to deliver the platform.

The reason why we decided to take legislation is because we did want it to be tangible. Sometimes we talk about these issues in ways where people can’t see that they can be realized, and the beautiful thing about the People’s Platform and the coalition that we have of supporting organizations of the People’s Platform is that it is tangible, it is real. The Education for All bill has been introduced that will require the federal government to pay 2/3rds of college. We know how important that is to make sure that we have a workforce that is highly educated and highly skilled. That is what this is about. It is about making that kind of investment.
Medicare for All, which is the signature, was the signature of Senator Sanders campaign. It is the foundation of what we do, which is affirming that we as a country can have Medicare for All, we can create an environment that doesn’t leave anybody behind, that is not attached to a job. To me, that kind of thing can spark an entrepreneurial spirit if somebody knows that their healthcare is not tied to a job and they can dream bigger and they can do things that probably ordinarily they would not do.
And what we are saying to the Congress, but particularly to the Democratic Party, particularly to the Democrats that serve in the Congress is “Here it is. Your members introduced these pieces of legislation. Sign onto them and let us show the people of this country, the folks of this country that this is what we stand for, this is what we are fighting for.” It is important to have all of these options, because for some people the environment might be the most important thing, to other people economic justice might be the thing, for other people racial justice. So we have something in the People’s Platform for everybody.

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Pulling down the statues in Durham and everywhere, with Angaza Laughinghouse


In the wake of the white supremacist attacks on Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, protests sprang up around the country. In North Carolina, a place laden with its own history of white supremacist violence, protesters pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier outside of the Durham County Courthouse. Arrests and raids on activists’ homes followed; so have further protests in solidarity with those who took down the statue, including, on Thursday morning, an attempt by hundreds to march on the jail and turn themselves in to protest the arrests and call for charges to be dropped. Angaza Laughinghouse is a longtime organizer in the area and he talks about the protests, the long fight against white supremacy in the South, and workers’ role in that struggle.

One of the things that we do as a union is we oftentimes go to the workplaces, whether it is street maintenance or it is the sanitation yard and usually they are in areas where people have to drive down a road to get into their workplace, to pick up their trucks, their sewer trucks or their equipment. While we are handing out the flyers, oftentimes some of the anti-union people, some of the people that have old white supremacist ideas and they are union haters, “You goddamned union communist organizer…” They try to hit you. So, it is very important that the governor stop this, make sure people are held liable as criminals when they hit or try to run over people as they hand out flyers in front of workplaces.
It is not just a question of protests and rallies. In the “right-to-work” South, where less than 3 percent of all workers in North Carolina are unionized, there is a lot of anti-union feeling. This white supremacist thinking is institutionalized. It is everywhere. In the history, in the workplace. Part of the anti-union right to work climate. These supremacists who are now calling the county government telling them to prosecute these folks who pulled down the statue to the fullest extent of the law. It is fully institutionalized, it is systematic, this white supremacy thing. It is not just a few crazies as some people want to write it off.

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Defending Charlottesville from White Supremacy, with Lisa Woolfork


Photo by Jill Harms.
The eyes of the country turned to Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend when a so-called “Unite the Right” rally turned deadly when a white nationalist plowed his car into a crowd of people, injuring 19 and killing Heather Heyer, 32, an activist and counter-protester. But organizers in Charlottesville have been fighting white nationalism for a while. Lisa Woolfork of Charlottesville Black Lives Matter shares some background on the community’s response to its “summer of hate,” connects the dots between the fights over Confederate monuments to violent white supremacy, and tells us about what she saw on the ground.

As well as seeing the Nazis and the “alt-right” retreat from Emancipation Park after their event was declared an unlawful assembly. That was quite a parade of hate. As they were leaving the area, they threw flares, they spit on people. There were several altercations of shouting matches and shoving matches. But still, it was a very powerful display of how love conquers hate. To stand there shoulder to shoulder to shoulder with neighbors, with colleagues from my department in English, with other faculty from around the university that I have seen a few of, from people in my own organization representing Black Lives Matter Charlottesville, which is a very small and new group, has since developed allied connections.
These were all examples of how the community wants to stand together against the threat and the promise of racist violence. Something that I thought was, again, very heartening, was that too often people want to believe that symbolic hatred and symbolic racism has no real world consequence, that if we are to maintain symbols of white supremacy, those are completely devoid from the practices of white supremacy. That is false.
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What does it mean that someone’s personal identity is bound up in a racist confederate monument, a monument to white supremacy? For me, the argument about re-contextualization has already been made. I think the best and most honest context for these monuments is white supremacy. Nothing says what these monuments really mean like a thousand white supremacists coming to defend them.

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Moving pieces for system change, with Jeff Ordower


It’s been nearly eight months since the inauguration of Donald Trump, and things could be a lot worse, notes longtime organizer Jeff Ordower. Yet it is not enough to simply congratulate ourselves for saving the Affordable Care Act or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he says. Instead, we should be thinking about how to move the protests and uprisings of recent years onto the next level.

I think the story is really critical. Uprisings and movements happen because something horrible happened or something that affects people is going to happen. They are going to poison the water on indigenous land at Standing Rock or there is yet another police massacre in cold blood or there are people who are worried about their healthcare and what is going to happen to them and more importantly what is going to happen to their children. That is really important and can’t be underestimated as a starting place. How we tell that story and who is affected and having affected people take the biggest and boldest risk, being in the front is critical.
Then, I think a lot of times as organizers we sometimes fall into the trap where we want to have the perfect thing; either it is the perfect narrative, the perfect story—I know in the early days of the healthcare fight, for example, people were like, “If you want to move McCain, you have to get seven veterans to go to McCain’s office.” I think sometimes we try to be too strategic. Really, if people want to move, we have got to give them something to do that makes sense. Sometimes that is occupying a park or putting your bodies on the line and sometimes that is just like, “Show up with a handwritten letter. Here is your toolkit for organizing this alternative town hall.” I think creating those containers where everyone can take action is really, really important.
It is no different than when I was first training as an ACORN organizer back in the 1990s and you sit on someone’s couch and you’re talking about neighborhood issues. The way people were going to get involved or not, you are saying, “What do you think it would take to get a stop sign on the corner?” and they would say, “I don’t know. We have got to get some people in the street” and you are like, “How many people would it take to block the street?” “Thirty.” You would say, “Great. Could you be one of those thirty?” and if they could see themselves doing that, then they were going to join. And if they thought it didn’t make sense, they wouldn’t. I think creating things that people can see themselves doing is really, really critical to all the fights. That ask is different. It is not always an easy thing to do. People will go and be in the streets as we saw in St. Louis, as we saw in Ferguson, night after night after night, because they felt like that was the most important thing that they could do.

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