Web Only / Features » May 26, 2017
Interviews for Resistance: From Resistance to Revolution—It’s Time To Switch to Offense
An organizer talks about what it takes to move from a reactionary position to one where we fight for the power to govern.
'What if our people could win? What if we were in charge?'
Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we'll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They'll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn't, what’s has changed and what is still the same.
James Hayes: My name is James Hayes. I am a trainer with the Ayni Institute. I used to be an organizer with the Ohio Student Association.
Sarah Jaffe: There are a lot of reasons I wanted to talk to you, but was reminded of this [when] you posted something on Facebook talking about the need to go beyond Trump, to think beyond Trump, to really think just not about resistance, but revolution, actually fundamentally changing society. I wanted to talk a little bit about that because I think it does occasionally get lost in the wealth of horrors that Trump provides us.
James: I think this question of, “How do we move from just being in the mode of resistance and rebellion to actually figuring out how we actually reorganize society?” I think that is the central question for our movements and for our generation and for those of us who really want to deal with the fundamental problems that produced a Trump presidency in the first place and that are producing these right-wing populist movements all across the world.
Fundamentally, I think part of what we have to do, really, is be clear on what we mean when we talk about a revolution. The word gets thrown around so much. That Facebook post that I made the other day, someone commented that Hillary Clinton’s presidency would have been revolutionary. I am like, “Wow. There are a lot of different ideas about what a revolution is.” I just wanted to open up the conversation. I also have my own thoughts about how we can get more clear on what it means to fight for revolution. I think it is probably the most central question right now because even the centrists and the neoliberals are part of the resistance now and I don’t think we need to try to stop them from taking that title. I think it is actually useful that they are in that mode and they don’t have a clear vision for how to actually fix these problems.
But people across the country who know that we need healthcare for all, we need free college, that we need to deal with inequality, and we need to address racism and misogyny, people have been offering solutions for how to fix this country for a long time. We just need to get out of their way.
Sarah: I have been watching all these movement groups come up over the last several years who really are thinking much, much bigger and that doesn’t often get covered. It doesn’t really come across when people say, “This is a group that is fighting police brutality,” and of course you are fighting police brutality every day, but there are also so many bigger conversations that are happening that I think need more space in public.
James: So often our movements are stuck in a reactionary phase and posture because there is so much happening urgently that we have to address, but I think the last several years that I have seen movements in this country develop and there are a lot more people who are asking very deep questions about “How do we actually move beyond just being against police brutality, against racism, and those things?” but really figuring out what we're for and figuring out, “What is the strategy to get there?” We definitely need more spaces for that.
After the election it became even harder to have that space because of how pressing everything was. Then, after the inauguration, Trump starts signing all these executive orders one after the other and we saw people jumping into the streets, but now the resistance is still strong and with the firing of [FBI Director James] Comey it is getting stronger, even. But this question of “How do we actually move forward?” isn’t really being addressed. Even in the movements, I think part of what is going to have to happen is our social movement leaders are going to have to start taking responsibility for answering that question and then also fighting to have the power to govern society, to actually put those answers into motion, rather than just sort of being in the social movement space forever.
Sarah: It is interesting because we are getting to this point, both because of Trump and also just because of the maturity of the movements over the last several years, people are thinking seriously about, “What would it look like if we took power?” Bernie Sanders had a lot of flaws, but also presented this moment to think about, “What if our people could win? What if we were in charge?”
James: Yes, definitely. For me, the day after the election I was just kicking myself that I didn’t do more personally and also as a participant and leader in that movement to push us to engage even more with the election and the Sanders campaign in the primary. I wasn’t really sold on him as a person, as a candidate, but after the election I was thinking, “Wow, Bernie came so close,” and started to reassess how I wanted to engage questions around electoral politics and what not in the future, because having a Bernie Sanders presidency—which we honestly could have had because the times we are in right now are so different than what I expected at the beginning of the election.
I don’t think I fully appreciated how ripe these times are for populist political campaigns. I think part of that is due to how successful the movements have been at polarizing society and exposing the deep problems like the elites and the traditional political establishment doesn’t have any answers for. And Bernie Sanders was the best that we had to try to address some of these things. Hopefully moving forward, we continue to find other folks to run, but it is looking like 2020 is going to be really slim in terms of people to support.
Sarah: You work with a couple of national organizations that are thinking about and working on social movement strategies. I would love to hear a little bit about that work that you have been doing.
James: I have been working with the Ayni Institute, which is a training institute that supports a couple different training programs and communities of practice. The training programs that we support that is doing the most work I would say is the “Momentum” training program, which is really looking at, “How do we create mass popular social movements that can give participants what they need to maintain a balance of autonomy and unity so that we can grow in a distributed, decentralized way, but have a set of principles and what we call DNA to really help guide the movement?” A lot of the thinking has been influenced by civil resistance theory and some of the folks from struggles like Otpor in Serbia and the writings of Erica Chenoweth and a lot of folks, but in the last couple of years, there has also been groups in the country such as Cosecha and IfNotNow, which have launched based on Momentum theory, the Momentum frameworks and also have gone through a process to develop their own DNA.
It is really amazing to watch how fast each of those movements have grown in terms of their membership and their leadership and types of actions that they are able to take on. I am really excited about Momentum. We just finished doing a Momentum training at the end of February for about 95 leaders from across the Movement for Black Lives and it was really a special experience. I am really excited to see what comes out of some of those conversations that we had just a couple meetings ago.
Sarah: You also mentioned that you have been working with AllOfUs.
James: Yes, I've been working with AllOfUs, which is a project that is being pulled together by a lot of people who've been coming out of the social movements that we've seen arise over the last several years, people who see the limitations and also the strengths of social movements and really want to figure out how do we take on the challenge of winning power so we can govern and not just being on the outside looking in, protesting, but actually take over so we can set the direction of the country moving forward.
Part of what is driving the team to come together is a desire to really reclaim the identity of the country and there's been a lot of conversation about how we need to resist Trump, we need to resist Trump. There was an interesting conversation that Michelle Alexander was a part of, she named Trump as the resistance in opposition to all of the progressive forces throughout the history of the country that have been really pushing to make true those words on parchment that say liberty and justice for all, that all human beings are created equal, that this is a country that could be home for everybody who calls it home.
That's what really excites me the most, I feel like the left has ceded this idea of the country to the right wing and to the worst elements of the nation, and we've just sort of taken as fact that the nation started in slavery and genocide and can't be redeemed. But we actually think that there, at the beginning of the country, was a revolutionary promise that has yet to be fulfilled and that's the major task of our generation today and successive generations to come is to keep figuring out how do we fulfil the revolutionary promise of America, and defeat Donald Trump in the meantime.
Sarah: The questions of power and institution building are ones that have been fraught for a lot of people on the left and particularly electoral politics. It is interesting to see the way that is shifting. Speaking of power in your communities, talk about some of the work that has been going on in Ohio where you are. I guess we can start with policing.
James: In Columbus, just this past weekend, we actually had about 500 people come down from all over the state. There was a march organized by a bunch of different organizations around racial justice. Folks went to the governor’s mansion, where the governor doesn’t actually live, but the taxpayers still pay to have the lawn cut and all of that, to deliver this message from several mothers of young men who had been murdered by police in the last year who were there.
There have been several pretty high-profile police murders in Columbus. They haven’t broke nationally, but in the city a lot of people are talking about them. Thirteen-year-old Tyre King was murdered in September. Twenty-three-year-old Henry Green was murdered last June. In January of this year, Jaron Thomas was murdered. Jaron Thomas was the man who was calling 911 for help. He was calling for help because he was having a schizophrenic episode and he told them that. When the ambulance showed up there were also multiple cruisers who showed up, as well. He ended up in a coma after the police beat him and died in the hospital later. A few weeks after that, over 100,000 dashcam videos were erased or lost or misplaced, never to be found again. Then, the cop who shot and killed 23-year-old Henry Green last summer, just a couple of weeks ago, he was not indicted after a grand jury convened for a little while in that investigation. Then, a week after he was found to not need to go to trial, he was caught on camera stomping another man’s head into the ground while he was already handcuffed. Now, people in the community are calling for him to be fired, as well as the officer who killed Tyre King.
There is a lot of organizing going on both around the issue and significant issue-based campaigning and protesting and movement building work, but also, there is actually an electoral challenge happening in the city. There is a group here called Yes We Can that is running folks for city council against the establishment incumbent Democrats. It is a really exciting time in the city because while we have a lot of the movement work going on and people are mobilizing, we also have this very real electoral threat and there is a nice movement ecology developing in the city with a lot of different types of organizations supporting each other.
It is exciting to see even in the midst of all the tragedies that continue to happen here, the way people are finding creative ways to come together and fight. There is so much resilience in this community. Honestly, everything in this country is so crazy, but the community here really grounds me and helps me remember that we always have to keep fighting.
Sarah: Can you talk a little bit more about the Yes We Can effort and the grappling with local electoral politics?
James: In my city there has been one person in my lifetime who has run for city council and is not an incumbent and won. Everyone else, they were either appointed to be on city council if it is their first time and somebody steps down and they get appointed so in their first election, they actually run as an incumbent. There is really a hegemony of the sample ballot here, where if you are on the Democratic Party’s sample ballot and they say, “These are our endorsed candidates,” then you win. If you are not, you lose.
There is a really high bar of entry into local politics here if you are not part of the Democratic Party establishment, you haven’t waited your turn and been picked. So what is happening with Yes We Can is really exciting because for the first time in the last 20 years there is actually a chance to see some people run with real vision for how to help the city and not just the city, but is connected to a national strategy about, “How do we fight back against Trump’s America?” because in Ohio we have already been dealing with Trump's America with our state legislature. Then, also, Columbus is such a progressive city, certainly in comparison with the rest of the state, but there is still so much that happens here. On the same night that the mayor and city council members declared the city a sanctuary city, there was a 4,000-person protest at the state house where people were protesting the Muslim ban. Later, a bunch of us, including myself, we got “maced.” There were a bunch of Muslim youth, Somali refugees—we have a huge Somali population here in Columbus. A lot of young Muslim kids are out just standing against the Muslim ban and a few hours after the city was declared a sanctuary city, we were all maced. That serves to illustrate the kinds of issues that are ripe in the city.
Yes We Can—they had the primary on May 2nd. All of their candidates, they are running for city council and also for school board, and all of the candidates made it through the primary and are going to be facing off against the incumbents in the general election. I think things are going to get really interesting here, personally.
Sarah: The question of primarying Democrats seemed to come up a lot in early days around Trump's Cabinet being confirmed and certain people voting for Trump’s Cabinet nominees. But then these days, because of Trump, it seems like there is a doubling down of criticism of people who dare to suggest that Democrats might also be part of the problem. I wonder if you have been experiencing any of that.
James: Without a doubt. I haven’t been really involved in the Yes We Can campaigning, but I have seen both people saying, “Don’t come after us,” but also people saying, “You are not even a Democrat. You have all these other ideas.” It is the Democrats narrowing their own base of support. It is not very logical politics. You want to have more people on your team.
I see it all over the place. It is part of the reason I wrote that Facebook post the other day about needing to distinguish between the resistance and the revolution, because these folks who don’t want to deal with the idea that Democrats might be part of the problem, they just want to take us back to the world of Barack Obama. A world where Guantanamo is still open, where we are still involved in multiple wars, where we bail out the banks and don’t bail out homeowners, where black people are being shot down every two weeks on Facebook Live and it is fine. That is the world they want to go to and want to live in and want to stay in. They don’t want to deal with the fact that we have to move forward.
The thing is, it doesn’t even matter what they want. We are moving forward regardless of whether they want to deal with these issue or not. But, it is just emblematic of the issues of mediocre leadership from the Democratic Party across the board. I know because I used to work—my first job in this whole thing, I was a page in the statehouse. I was like, “Man, I like all these people. I don’t think they are bad people, but mediocre leadership.”
Sarah: Going forward, thinking about specifically electoral politics, some of the things we have seen this year. We have seen Chokwe Antar Lumumba get through the Democratic primary in Jackson, khalid kamau in Georgia. I am wondering what you are thinking about electoral politics moving forward.
James: A couple of years ago I would have said, “No, I would never run for office.” Now I am sort of reassessing a lot of things. I definitely think the folks at Yes We Can have done a great job in our city. In other cities, there are folks who are doing the same thing. I think there are also ways to use electoral politics to engage people around issues, using ballot initiatives. I know there is a lot of interest in bringing ballot initiatives to the state that we can use to really build new alliances with different types of folks, particularly around criminal justice reform. One in six people in the state of Ohio has a family member who is incarcerated or has been incarcerated or themselves have been incarcerated. It is an issue that affects so many people.
So we were looking at stuff like Prop 47 in California and thinking, “Would there be an ability to do something like that in this state in 2018?” Part of why we want to do that, too, is because in 2018 is when we have the governor’s race in the state of Ohio. If a Republican wins, I will probably end up moving from the state because it will probably be until 2030 until we can actually do something about the gerrymandered districts. There is a lot on the line right now in my state. I think there will be people running for office. I think we can have people run for Congress and run for Senate and maybe not in Ohio—our Democratic senator is pretty good, relatively, but maybe we should primary them all.
Sarah: How can people keep up with you and your work and sign up to get some of your trainings?
James: People can go to the website, it is ayni.institute and check out any upcoming trainings that are available. The next training that we are doing is in July. It is going to be a four-day training called Movement Ecology. It is going to be very exciting. Folks should also check out @TimeForAllOfUs on Twitter and also on Facebook. I don’t really get on social media much myself, but my Twitter is @ContrabandJames. Those are the best ways to keep up with me right now.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
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Sarah Jaffe is a former staff writer at In These Times and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.
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