Necessary Trouble: “Organizers Will Create the Future”

Transcribed from the 27 August 2016 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

Looking back at history, yes, disruption works, and everybody likes to look back and pretend that they weren’t the ones complaining about being inconvenienced when that was going on. They pretend that they were the ones who went to Selma and joined the march. If everybody who claims to have done that had actually done it, we wouldn’t have needed to march in the first place.

Chuck Mertz: The US is radicalizing. From right to left, new oppositions are arising and they may have a lot more in common than you think. Here to tell us about it, Sarah Jaffe is author of the new book Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt. Sarah is a Nation Institute fellow and independent journalist covering labor, economic justice, social movements, politics, gender, and pop culture. She is also a correspondent here on This is Hell!, where she gives us dispatches from the class war. Welcome back, Sarah.

Sarah Jaffe: Hi! Thanks for having me.

CM: At the beginning of your book you have a quote from US congressman John Lewis, Democrat from Georgia, who back in the early sixties was a civil rights activist who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington. You cite Lewis saying, “This is the way another generation did it, and you, too, can follow that path, studying the way of peace, love, and nonviolence, and finding a way to get in the way, finding a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”

How thin is the line between trouble and violence? I hear a lot of talk about violence. Can nonviolence cause trouble? Trouble that’s more effective than violence?

SJ: First of all, a lot of reports about what people call violence stretch the definition of violence. Somebody getting booed is not violence. Even breaking a window at a store is not violence. It may not be tactically smart. But violence is when people are getting hurt, like when we drone-bomb people, or people are thrown out of their house and can’t afford to feed their kids. In this country we have this weird tendency to privilege harm done to property over harm done to people. I don’t know, it might have something to do with this economic system that we like so much.

But when we’re talking about nonviolence causing trouble, in the last few years we’ve seen protesters block highways, occupy state capitols and public parks, hold sit-ins and sit-down strikes in Walmart stores, die-ins in convenience stores—I could go on. Going on strike is always a great nonviolent way to make trouble. There are so many ways to throw a wrench in the gears of the system, to make your presence felt and your complaints heard (because they don’t tend to get heard by elected officials unless you have a lot of money).

CM: You write, “Most importantly, today’s activists have discovered the power of making trouble, of causing disruption. Disrupting things is the best way for regular people to exercise some power. It isn’t about winning everyone over to one side. It is instead about finding a way to disrupt the day-to-day existence of those who do have power, to make them feel the crisis that they have inflicted on millions of people. Disruption, whether it be blocking a street, going on strike, or occupying a space, is a way to ensure that the message—that something has got to give—gets across.”

But when we had the protests on Michigan Avenue during the busiest shopping day of the year, the day after Thanksgiving last year (the Laquan McDonald protests), the way local TV news reported it was first as an inconvenience for shoppers, then for commuters, then for those who try to make a living working in the stores—in other words, it was about the inconvenience first.

Then they got to why it was happening: when the Apple Store was blocked, one reporter said they were blocking a “citadel of capitalism.”

SJ: There’s no better description for it than that, right? I’m struck by the order that you listed those things, because it’s a list of class power. First the shoppers—we can’t dare inconvenience people who are spending money, who have money. Then, the commuters who might be trying to get to work, then the people who work in the retail stores, who are probably low-wage workers. We are literally only concerned with inconveniencing people in order of how much power they have in a capitalist economy. That couldn’t be any clearer when you put it that way.

CM: But does disruption work? Or is it so thoroughly dismissed as an inconvenience that it becomes associated with negative feelings towards the activists’ message?

SJ: Everybody loves to talk about Martin Luther King. There was this wonderful moment this year when some politician said, “Martin Luther King never would have blocked a highway!” and everybody immediately flooded the internet with all these pictures of Martin Luther King blocking a highway, marching on the street…taking a bridge, perhaps.

We love our radicals when they’re dead. We love them when they’re defanged. We even love them when they’re in congress! We all love John Lewis, still, right? And he’s also trotted out to scold protesters, although quite often he refuses to. We look back on the Civil Rights Movement as this wonderful, magical time in America when we realized we were screwed up. But polls show that Black Lives Matter is actually more popular right now than the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak.

Looking back at history, yes, disruption works, and everybody likes to look back and pretend that they weren’t the ones complaining about being inconvenienced when that was going on. They pretend that they were the ones who went to Selma and joined the march. If everybody who claims to have done that had actually done it, we wouldn’t have needed to march in the first place.

CM: What do you think it means that Black Lives Matter is more popular today than the Civil Rights Movement was back in the 1960s? What do you think has changed?

SJ: One of the things that’s changed is that we have video. We have cellphone video of Alton Sterling getting shot in front of a convenience store in Baton Rouge. We have police dashcam video of Sandra Bland getting pulled over and harassed by a cop and dragged off to jail. We can see it in a way that makes it hard to deny what happened in many of these cases.

Still, there are plenty of people who still pop up and say “All Lives Matter” or say that this person had it coming. Somebody came up to me at one of my events wanting to know why I was talking about Michael Brown and I wasn’t talking about Sean Bell, because Michael Brown had possibly done some bad things in his life so we shouldn’t be concerned about him, but Sean Bell was just minding his business so we should be more concerned with him.

There’s a lot of that, but there are also people who are now seeing something that they were never confronted with before. I would say that that has a lot to do with it.

CM: But we had film of Bull Connor’s cops abusing civil rights marchers.

SJ: That was what ended up working. That was the entire strategy, to get film of Bull Connor’s cops. Most of the time we didn’t have film of the cops going into the neighborhoods and harassing people. We didn’t have film of the literacy tests that people had to take to get to the polls. We didn’t have film of people being dragged out of restaurants that were segregated. But we ended up with film of Bull Connor’s cops beating the crap out of people, and then a whole lot of people came down to join the protests.

CM: What does it say to you about a society that needed to have video proof of this kind of abuse, when there are human beings who had been telling us about this abuse and showing us the evidence of this abuse for years?

SJ: We have a racist culture, that’s the short answer. We don’t believe people. We end up with a lot of victim-blaming. This person must have done something wrong. They must have deserved it. We are brought up and raised to believe and trust in cops, that police would never do anything wrong, that if police arrest you, you must have done something wrong. I think about victim-blaming as a way to rationalize the system, and it’s also a way to rationalize that it couldn’t happen to you.

One of the things that laid groundwork for a lot of white people’s support for Black Lives Matter was that people who were involved in protests before this, particularly in Occupy, had the experience (for the first time) of getting beaten up by the police, of being arrested, and realized what it’s like. I talked to several people who were arrested for the first time; they looked around the jail, and the only other white people in there were the other five protesters they had been arrested with. That’s a powerful experience. When you see it and you’re confronted by it, and you experience it, you start to think, wow, this is really screwed up. And if we’re mad about inequality, we should be mad about this inequality. Not only is it horrifying, but it’s also connected to the inequalities that we’re talking about.

I quote one of the fast food worker organizers, Malcolm Cooper-Suggs, who said if you can’t get a job, then you’re doing illegal things, maybe, to get by (as was the case with Alton Sterling and Eric Garner). Then you get arrested, you get harassed by police, you get a criminal record, and then you really can’t get a job. When they actually experience it, people start to realize it’s this cycle in which all of these things are connected.

When I look at an intersectional platform like the Vision for Black Lives, I think this is a really amazing moment, and I hope that it continues and grows and succeeds, because people are still screwed, and we certainly need it.

CM: You write about Occupy Our Homes in Atlanta, and you talk about a woman whose home is foreclosed upon. You write that at a meeting she goes to, Occupy Our Homes activist Shabnam Bashiri “welcomed her, reassuring her that that there was hope, that they could help. The first thing she was asked to do was to write out her story and post it on the Occupy Our Homes website.

‘I went, you mean tell people what’s going on? I was raised in a family and a culture and a society that said if you can’t pay your bills, then you are not a good person.’”

How much is this about a confrontation with a culture of “everything’s your fault and the system’s fine.” How much of this is about challenging the religion of personal responsibility?

SJ: I think that’s huge. The religion of personal responsibility, as you put it, is an ideological component of the political economy we live in. If it is your fault, then it can’t be the fault of something larger than you. It can’t be the fault of the system, for instance; it can’t be the fault of a set of norms in the banking community, as we might like to say, where they were selling people mortgages they clearly couldn’t afford, packaging them and reselling them, maybe (probably) illegally, and then foreclosing on people who they in some cases had no legal right to foreclose on at all, and in other cases were people who might have been able to keep making their mortgage payments if they’d just lowered them like fifty or a hundred dollars a month. Then they would have stayed in their homes, they would have paid their mortgage, everything would have been better, but no, it was easier to foreclose because the mortgage servicer gets paid for that.

Once you start to learn all those things, and you start to meet other people who are in the same situation, it’s much harder to blame yourself. It’s much easier to realize you lost your job at a period in time when the economy was slowing down, and everybody was is danger of losing their jobs, with ten percent unemployment (those are the official unemployment statistics, which don’t count people who have dropped out of the labor force, and miscellaneous other things, so the numbers are usually much higher). It’s harder to blame yourself and it’s easier to look around and try to figure out who you do blame.

That’s where we get some problems. Because sometimes you look around and try to figure out who to blame, and you look to Donald Trump, and you think that you should blame immigrants. But if you start to learn about and talk about the way these things work, you start to figure out who you should actually blame, and who is actually benefiting from your situation.

CM: During the Arab Spring, there were a lot of people in the mainstream media who were saying that it never would have happened if there hadn’t been economic troubles—if there weren’t economic problems in Tunisia, if there weren’t economic problems in Egypt. They seemed to dismiss any desire or motivation for political reform, saying this is just about the bottom line.

Do you think the kind of radicalization that we’re seeing in the United States would have happened without any economic downturn? Can we dismiss any political motivation and just see this as people looking out for their own wallets?

SJ: Those two things are connected, right? The political power and the economic power in any given country are usually closely intertwined. At this point, political power and economic power globally are pretty closely intertwined. So we can’t discount the fact that it was when a certain layer of the elites stopped supporting Mubarak in Egypt that he was eventually ousted.

The reason that I refer to a political economy and not just an economy is that we just can’t separate one from the other. People like to try. But when you’re mad about your own bottom line, you’re mad, on some level—sometimes very obviously, sometimes less obviously—about the distribution of wealth and power. You start to think about what that means, and who pays for elections in this country, who is investing in these politicians, who is donating to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and who is donating to Donald Trump’s campaign, who is donating to Rahm Emanuel’s campaign or Bruce Rauner’s campaign. Well, Bruce Rauner is donating to his own campaign. Bruce Rauner just cut out the middle man.

Bruce Rauner is a great example, because he did just cut out the middle man. He’s a multi-millionaire, possibly billionaire, who decided he was going to buy himself a governorship, and did that, and now look what he’s doing. He’s dismantling everything that would actually help regular people. And whether that’s support that goes directly into their pockets or whether that’s firing a thousand teachers and closing public schools, it is affecting the bottom lines of a lot of people that this wealthy ideologue has bought himself power. So we really can’t separate those two criticisms.

CM: Are we entering a new era of protest? Do you believe this era of protest has more potential than the protest movements of the 1960s?

SJ: I hesitate to predict the future. I like to say that organizers are the ones who will create the future. I just follow them and write about it. But the thing that I find fascinating and different from the sixties in this moment is that these protest movements are coming together. The Vision for Black Lives platform that just came out is a really expansive document. It’s not just about ending police brutality. It’s not just, “Stop Killing Us.” It’s actually, “Stop killing us, reinvest in our communities, stop spending money on charter schools, stop extracting fossil fuels and killing the planet.” There’s so much in it. Stop giving money to dictatorships overseas, and stop droning people.

There’s everything in this document, and it is all through the lens of black liberation. They are explicit about things like reparations for slavery as well as for mass incarceration and redlining, but there are also demands for universal healthcare. That would help everybody; even Tea Party supporters would have it better if we had a functional universal healthcare system in this country.

When I look at that kind of intersectional platform, I think this is a really amazing moment, and I hope that it continues and grows and succeeds, because people are still screwed, and we certainly need it.

CM: In writing your book, you “wanted to find out what people were angry about and what they were doing to take their country back.” You write how you “traveled the country building on the years of reporting [you] had already done by meeting activists where they lived and worked and organized.”

How well-informed is the public about the actions of activists and their successes? Does the media do a good job covering protests? How good of a job is the media doing reporting on the revolution and the radicalization of America?

SJ: They’re doing a pretty lousy job. One of the interesting things, though, about the way the Tea Party spread was just that: the mainstream media doesn’t usually like to cover protests. If they do cover them, they present them as incoherent, just some weird mad people who should probably go home and shut up. But what happened with the Tea Party was that Fox News did the opposite of that. Fox News spent days, weeks, months, years talking about how wonderful this was, and how patriotic, and how these were real Americans and this was the best thing they could possibly be doing, going and yelling at politicians during town hall meetings and showing up to have a huge rally in front of congress. This was awesome! And because Fox News did it, then the rest of cable news got in on the act.

And so for the first time all of these massive, well-funded corporate media outlets were reporting on a protest movement as if it wasn’t terrible or incoherent. What comes of that? Protest movements look a little bit more legitimate, even if you disagree with the aims of that particular one. That was a really interesting moment in the role of the media in covering protests. We underestimate how bad a job the media almost always does in covering protests, and underestimate the effect it had when they actually spent a bunch of time covering a protest.

These are movements that have layers of demands. So there are little things that they can chalk up as victories, but there is still a big thing hanging over it all: “We are going to end white supremacy; we are going to end capitalism.”

CM: Is the difference between the right and the left, when it comes to this radicalization, that the right is trying to determine how to save capitalism from itself while the left is trying to change capitalism?

SJ: It was Hillary Clinton who said in a presidential debate that sometimes we have to save capitalism from itself. There are a lot of people trying to save capitalism from itself. But many people in these movements would not put it in those terms. When you say “Make America Great Again” or “Take Our Country Back,” you are envisioning a moment that already existed when things were good, which always means a time when things were good for middle class white married straight men.

But that was a period created by the New Deal, and it’s over. We have to figure out what it looks like next, and people on the left, the people of Black Lives Matter, immigrant organizers, women, queer and transgender people, are saying there’s no “back then” we can go to that was good for us. There’s no period in time when we were actually treated as equal humans. So to solve inequality in this country, we’re going to have to solve those inequalities that have always been there, and you can’t do that by going backwards.

CM: You write, “It is not just inequality in income or wealth that is setting off protests in the streets, either. It is the whole set of other inequalities that come alongside them. It’s the way a police officer who shoots or chokes a black man to death can walk away with paid leave, while the man who videotaped the killing winds up in jail on petty charges. It’s the way multi-billionaires or talk show hosts pretending to be them can get a personal phone call from the governor of a state while ordinary citizens seeking redress from him are likened to terrorists. It’s how decisions are made about where to locate a new coal-fired power plant. As South Bronx activists Michael Johnson told me, ‘It’s the air we breathe.’ It’s about power, it’s about inclusion, it’s about access, and it’s about who counts as a person.”

So it’s about our system’s power inequality. But being that we are a republic where power is held by the people through our elected representatives and a president that we vote into office—still not a democracy—is that inequality of power inevitable? Are we in a battle over whether we want to be a republic or a democracy?

SJ: That’s an interesting question. We’ve watched all of these experiments with democracy and structure going on within these movements. Everybody likes to joke about the General Assemblies at Occupy, and most people who came out of Occupy never want to see another General Assembly in their life—the consensus process or the hand gestures. Still, pieces of that show up all over the place. This is coming out of a particular set of desires, and it is based in the fact that people feel like they are not heard in the system that exists.

They don’t have enough money to get a phone call with Scott Walker. That, of course, is a reference to the blogger and prankster who called Scott Walker pretending to be one of the Koch brothers during the protests in Wisconsin in 2011, and had this conversation with Scott Walker that he then, of course, released. That was a perfect prank for showing people who gets access to their elected officials and who doesn’t.

We see people experimenting with how we govern ourselves without leaders, how we govern ourselves without hierarchies, how we would structure things differently. I think those are real questions that people are feeling. And the question is whether it’s enough to “get money out of politics,” or if there is something broader about the system and the way that it’s set up that we have to change, more than just the regulations on who can donate to campaigns.

CM: Does that include changing protests? You write, “Today’s protests might be spawned on the internet, but they come together in public space. They challenge contested political locations, and they hold symbolic places. Instead of quietly voting and going home to shout at the television, people who seem to have very little in common are coming together in such spaces to reclaim the power of protest, of communicating directly with one another, of being together.”

Reclaim the power of protest”—does that mean change protest? Because there have been plenty of huge, worldwide protests, and the biggest in the history of the world couldn’t stop the Iraq War. So is there protest power to be reclaimed, or has that strategy burned itself out?

SJ: What happened with the Iraq War protests is instructive in a lot of ways. It did, in some ways, lay some groundwork for what’s happening now. But it’s also instructive that it didn’t work. And the question of whether just getting a lot of people to come out and march is going to solve anything was pretty decisively answered by those. It was not going to stop people who were determined to go to war.

We had to find other ways to disrupt business, to actually put a wrench in the gears, to figure out how to do things that make people feel the need to change something. Because just a march, just a protest in itself is not enough.

The protests of the last few years are learning from each other in real time and communicating with each other, learning from protest movements overseas. The first person that I met at Occupy Wall Street was from Spain. She had been one of the Indignados, she had been part of the massive protests in public squares in Spain, and she had come to the US to help the people here figure out how to do their massive public protests.

New tactics are inevitable because the system always adjusts to the ones that exist. There was the people’s mic that people used at Occupy: when they started to use that to disrupt things, at first nobody knew what to do. There is an amazing video of New York protesters going to a panel meeting on educational policy and just shutting it down by getting up one by one and people’s-mic-ing their complaints until the board just left and they were there by themselves having a speak-out on how screwed they felt by the way New York City ran the schools.

That was amazingly disruptive the first time. And then a year later I went to the Morgan Stanley shareholders meeting with a bunch of activists, and they mic-checked it, and the board chair just waited for them to be done, and then went on with business. It was no longer disruptive. You have to continually find new ways to be disruptive, because people will inevitably learn what you’re doing and adjust to it.

CM: To what degree is Occupy growing up? Is it proving not to be the failure that a lot of people said it was? You write in your book how the Occupy Homes groups grew and racked up successes; “they also began to coordinate on national political campaigns, joining community groups and labor unions to press for a new director to the Federal Housing Finance Agency and to push for a new law allowing homeowners to buy back their homes after foreclosure. They drew on the drama of their battles to highlight those demands.”

So to what degree has Occupy proved not to be the failure so many—even within the movement—said it was?

SJ: I think it’s obvious that it wasn’t a failure. But it’s hard to measure the success of movements. It’s not an uncommon problem. And when people say, “Is this movement growing up?” they usually mean “Has it lowered its standards? Is it lowering its sights from the really big changes?”

What I think is most interesting about these movements in this moment right now is embodied in the Vision for Black Lives platform. It has very specific demands (we should block this thing, we should pass this bill) that can be done fairly quickly, and it has broader terms, all the way to abolishing prisons. And then there is this big thing hanging over it all, which is: we’re going to end white supremacy. And in that document, we’re also going to end capitalism.

These are movements that have layers of demands. So there are things that they can chalk up as victories. Bill Bratton resigned as police commissioner in New York City. That was huge. It made the movement feel like it was winning something. It was great. But they didn’t go away. There was a picture of a woman who had this checklist sign; she had a check box next to “Fire Bratton,” and it was checked off, and then there were two more boxes, and the bottom one was “Abolish the Police.” That’s how these movements are thinking now, and I think that is more grown-up than settling for only “Fire Bratton.”

CM: Thank you so much for being back on, Sarah, it’s always a pleasure to hear your voice.

SJ: Bye!

Featured image source: Black Lives Matter Minneapolis (Facebook)

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