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Fighting to Win: Visualizing Contemporary Social Movements Through Art

Author Greg Jobin-Leeds discusses the 21st-century social movements profiled in “When We Fight, We Win!”

This poster "Dump the Prison Stock" is part of a divestment campaign aimed at privatized prison and refugee "detention" corporations. Tax dollars are paid to these businesses that perpetuate the prison industrial complex, at a profit to their shareholders. (Image: Melanie Cervantes, excerpted from When We Fight, We Win!)

Part of the Series

When We Fight, We Win! features the art, stories and philosophies behind the social change movements that have defined the last decade. From Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, and from the fight for a $15 minimum wage to the struggle to end the New Jim Crow, this beautifully crafted collaboration explores truly transformative organizing. Order your copy by making a donation to Truthout today!

The following is an interview with Greg Jobin-Leeds, who joined forces with art collective AgitArte to produce When We Fight, We Win!, an inspirational and visually compelling book that empowers activists.

Mark Karlin: You preface the book with a quotation from Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are [people] who want crops without plowing up the ground.” What do you say to those who want social change but are uncomfortable with robust public dissent?

Greg Jobin-Leeds: I understand the desire to be comfortable. Dissent is difficult. We do it because there is no other choice. But taking time for comfort, for pleasure and self-care, is critical. Developing yourself, building community and sanctuaries of protected space, is critical, and much too often self-nurturing and nurturing each other is not valued by our organizations and movements. The amazing artist Favianna Rodriguez, whose interview and posters are in When We Fight, We Win!, emphasizes this more and more in her work and it’s a real gift to the movement.

Being comfortable is one of the things we want for all of our people, especially those who are suffering the most. The reality is that in the US, 2.5 million of our brothers and sisters are in jail, 60 percent of them for nonviolent drug and immigration crimes. They have been demonized as criminals. They are not comfortable. The US has deported 4 million immigrants under President Obama alone, separating families, deporting elders, children, taking nursing moms from their babies.

We agitate because the reality is very uncomfortable. We must be the ones who say no – who dissent. It’s not always going to be comfortable.

Warren Buffet says, “There is a class war going on in this country, and my side (the billionaires) are winning.” As we go from Boston to New York to DC to Chicago to Seattle to Portland, folks living in the remains of the communities of color, in the working-class communities, repeatedly talk about the shrinking space for them to live in the cities they grew up in. They are being pushed out. Jitu Brown, from the South Side of Chicago, says so much of society from schools to the police to the displacement is designed for them to fail. So it’s not easy. We need to be able to get out of our comfort zone. And take time for nurturance.

As a follow-up question, do you believe that to be passive or silent, even if one feels “progressive,” is a form of collaboration with unjust social policies?

Beliefs and feelings are important because they inform our behavior, our voice, our action. But to be silent is to collaborate. Both my parents escaped Nazi Germany in the 1930s. My father was the last Jew in his high school in 1938. He lived under a different white supremacy, Aryan supremacy. I am alive because some people stood up for my parents. But not enough. In 2002, as our civil liberties were being rolled back with the US Patriot Act and there was the drumbeat for the Iraq war following the invasion of Afghanistan, my father said, “I have seen this before in Germany. This is how it develops.” Not enough people spoke out then about that brutality. And the whole society fell. We need to be the ones who speak out now.

Martin Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation (there are many versions of it online):

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

So listen to the folks on the front lines of the struggle. Get involved. Join others who are involved. Learn from the masters. We have a study guide on and lots of resources.

Stand up and speak out.

Greg Jobin-Leeds collaborated with AgitArte collective to produce the book <em>When We Fight, We Win!</em> (Photo: Osvaldo Budet)” width=”640″ style=”width: 100%; margin: auto;” /><span style=Greg Jobin-Leeds collaborated with AgitArte collective to produce the book When We Fight, We Win! (Photo: Osvaldo Budet)

The title of the book is When We Fight We Win! What do you say to activists who felt deflated after the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, was crushed by the state? What do you say to those who felt defeated that there wasn’t a revolutionary change in our economic structure? Isn’t this just one stage of what you describe as “the river of struggle”?

Occupy was brutally evicted and, as you say, crushed by the state in collaboration with the banks. But it was incredibly successful in getting the message of the 99% and 1% out there. It was a training ground for many activists and it created a “psychic break” that allows us to more easily discuss capitalism and anti-capitalism and socialism. We can now begin to imagine a world that dismantles Wall Street, as you say. That was harder before Occupy.

Would we say the Montgomery bus boycott failed because we didn’t dismantle white supremacy? Occupy was an important part in the river of struggle as are all the movements in the book, from Black Lives Matter to the Dreamers. It took 300 years to end slavery. It is easy to feel deflated.

That is why it is important to celebrate victories even while things are getting worse economically, for public education, for housing and the climate. Celebrate while having the vision of transformation. As a friend shared who was in South Africa just before apartheid collapsed, “You never know how close you are to freedom.” It took hundreds of thousands of campaigns in this country before women finally got the right to own land in the 1920s, and they won the right to choose their own clothing and vote. People often just focus on the vote, but owning property was also key.

(Image: The New Press)(Image: The New Press)If prisoners behind bars can be organizing and fighting to win, I don’t think we can afford to let feelings of being deflated settle in. It’s important that we practice facing up to the harsh reality and then fighting as smartly and creatively and powerfully as we can in collaboration with others. We need to see ourselves as part of an interconnected worldwide movement that can win. That is why the art and stories in When We Fight, We Win! are so important. We don’t always win every fight for sure, but when we fight we win our humanity. We build community. We win our survival. If we don’t fight, we have already lost.

Mass media wants to encourage the feelings of individualism and this can lead to deflation. Listen to alternative media.

In your epilogue, you advise, “Transformers don’t let the corporate media define who they are.” This has been a particular insistence and strength of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, hasn’t it?

The role of art in the book is to put out alternative media – an alternative to the horrible, oppressive stories that are expressed by the mainstream media. The mainstream radio stations playing gangsta rap instead of the amazing, more overtly political rap that is out there … stations that are owned and run by predominantly white men either who are part of the 1% or work for them. That is why Truthout, “Uprising with Sonali” on KPFK, “Democracy Now!,” Laura Flanders’ “GRITtv” and the art in this book are so important.

Being a white man in the 1% participating in this book, I have to be very aware. I can’t be paralyzed to act but I need to be accountable. I have the power to put something like this out but I need to recognize that too many people of color have been burned by whites co-opting their story. I need to be able to understand the frustrations of my brothers and sisters of color who don’t have the same power. We need to understand more and more the war against people of color and the incredible forces of capitalism and how we reproduce it.

It is hard to watch the frustration and disappointment. But we must face it. Jorge [AgitArte’s founder and artistic director] says, “It’s a problem of survival. Transwomen are getting killed in the US…. women in the Caribbean are being sterilized. It’s not an issue of perspective or pluralism. It’s about power. When people of color meet, activists, they know it.”

This is consistent with your advocacy to “change the story.” After all, systemic injustice is an action that results from harmful embedded narratives, isn’t it?

In the “Designers’ Note” at the end, AgitArte explains hegemony and how our culture is dominated by a set of beliefs that make us think that it’s human nature for people to subjugate each other. It’s become “common sense” that capitalism is the only way, or as Gibrán Rivera points out in the epilogue, that survival of the fittest is framed by a white European man during the industrial imperial expansion. Our bodies and minds have been colonized. There are few independent broadcast media outlets that have women of color as the main hosts. Our media, our political systems, our books are for the most part controlled by the same land-owning white men that wrote the US Constitution. That is not to blame whites. It is meant to understand the outrage and to change the narrative. We can change the stories and we are doing it out on our book and art tour. We must never miss the opportunity to create a new world, the new narratives of today.

AgitArte, an artist and organizing collective, was your partner in this book. Can you elaborate on your statement in the introduction on how art is used in the book and advocacy in general “to engage and inspire, to enrage and move people to action”?

When We Fight, We Win! has been a journey filled with amazing people and organizations. When you hold the book in your hands, it sparkles and shines. That is due to the brilliance of AgitArte. Whatever they touch turns to beauty. From the harshest reality of Puerto Rico, they create powerful, moving art that stirs, agitates and inspires the audience.

I have worked with Jorge Díaz Ortiz, AgitArte’s founder and artistic director, for over 23 years. I hired him as an intern and over time he has become MY teacher and guide. Jorge edited the book, created the artist interviews, identified missing elements, and organized the book and art tour with me, helping to develop the larger project and framing our central questions. AgitArte’s Deymirie (Dey) Hernández – an artist, puppeteer, architect and activist – co-authored, designed and curated the book with incredible images; she made a home for all the stories and art. She also designed our website and social media. José “Primo” Hernández designed the book cover and partnered with Dey in creating the feel. Osvaldo Budet created our videos. Jorge, Dey, Primo and Osvaldo are among those leading the fight to transform America, one provocative project at a time.

We live in a visual world. Many of us are visual learners. My kids in their late teens and twenties expect sharp quality. I wanted the book to be accessible to them. Word and images together speak to us. The role of music in the civil rights movement gave courage to those prophets in jail. As Jorge says, “Puppets have drawn us in for centuries.” Art allow us to express a view, to use a new voice behind the mask. To create beauty – flowers out of the mud of reality. Art allows us to imagine beyond the reality of today and then struggle towards a north star, like Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown’s book of science fiction, Octavia’s Brood. Visual art, like Julio Salgado’s, makes you laugh and cry. Stories are the underpinning of how we transmit knowledge.

In her afterword to the book, Dr. Antonia Darder describes the dissent and uprisings detailed in When We Fight, We Win! as a “fury born of love.” Can you describe your reaction to that characterization?

Antonia is brilliant. I encourage your readers to read her most recent book on Paulo Freire, which is written incredibly accessibly and so relevant to today. All the movements in the book are grounded in love.

And outrage in what is going on today. Jorge says, “We are losing many of the battles. As I go through the cities and I see the conditions for people of color and the amount of gentrification, the homelessness and working class – people not being able to live in these cities that we had a space in just a few years ago. It’s very dramatic what is happening. The title is an invitation to organize. Not as an easy solution. We do this work because we are furious about what is happening to our families that we love.” The book’s title and Antonia’s quote are good motivations to, as Jorge says, “develop the kind of organizations and strength that we are going to need to change this world….”

Osvaldo says about this dissent, “In the process of acting, you empower yourself and your community. We have to fight because we have no other option. Not fighting is going to lead you to lose…. At least when we fight, we have the possibility of winning.”

Folks on the front lines often have much clearer and more powerful language and art, and are much quicker to see the huge forces they are battling against and use language and art that plainly calls it what it is. Whites often like to talk about white privilege or racism. But folks on the front lines, on the receiving end of the oppression, know it for what it is, white supremacy. I can say this clearly as a white man in the 1%. It’s about white power. Racism and privilege are the products, but it’s grounded in the belief that whiteness is the norm and people of color are less equal or “the other.”

Those with power, like myself, often talk about privilege but not the underpinnings of capitalism. When We Fight, We Win! gets people to see through that. We don’t have museums in the US on slavery. We have Holocaust museums about my people. We have American Indian museums but don’t have any on the Native American genocide. The suffering of our brothers and sisters goes unseen. As Jorge points out, there are hardly any movies and no museums about the US wars of imperialism in Central America and the Caribbean. As a white, I don’t feel the brunt of white supremacy. I don’t feel daily what it is like to live within the context of a history of slavery that continues to go unrecognized.

So hearing the stories in When We Fight, We Win! makes it is easier to understand the fury born of love.

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