2020 was a year of catastrophe and collective struggle. Now, we have a new era of organizing and action to gear up for. In this special New Year’s episode of Movement Memos, Kelly Hayes revisits some of the lessons we learned this year from guests like Mariame Kaba, Shane Burley, Brant Rosen and L.A. Kauffman.
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know, if you want to change the world. Well friends, we’ve made it. 2020 was a marathon of suffering, loss, struggle and grief. It was a year of making the best of bad situations, with Zoom funerals and holiday dinners. It was a year of losing people without getting to say goodbye, and a year of shuffling loans and gifts between friends to keep people fed. It was a year of mass death, which we know will continue. It was also a year when we had what we always have: the ability to work collectively to solve problems, TO care for one another, and to demand a better world.
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As many of you know, we began this show only weeks before the pandemic hit the United States last winter. We thought we knew what we wanted this podcast to be, and then suddenly, we were living in a different world. So we invited people on the show who I believed could help us light the way forward, and I believe they did. I am really grateful to the guests we had this year, including some of the early episodes, that a lot of you have probably never heard or read. So we are going to revisit some of their words today. Because, while there are many things we are going to want to leave behind in 2020, I think these are all insights that we are going to want to take with us.
The first person whose thoughts I would like to return to is L.A. Kauffman, an organizer and historian who was one of our first guests on the show. I’m a huge fan of L.A.’s book Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, and I think every activist should read it. Last January, we talked about direct action as an exercise of the imagination, and I talked a bit about how the disarmament of our imaginations is one of the most successful acts of violence this system has ever perpetrated, to which L.A. had this to say.
L.A. Kauffman: When I think about organizing, I always think, sometimes I just do this on the board, but I always have a mental map in my head where I put a- first, winning is the top line. Below that is movement building and below that is organization building, they’re all things that we need and to do any of them, we need a lot of tactics and tools. But winning is the ultimate goal, whatever winning looks like. And there’s a lot of ways one can think about what it means to win. And to me, having that framework, helps me when I’m approaching an action. Not fall into one of the most common traps of organizing, which is to kind of fall in love with your tactics or to confuse your tactics with principles.
So, there are forms of direct action that our movements have taken that can be really powerful, like occupations, for instance, that aren’t appropriate in all contexts, and then aren’t going to bring you closer to winning, if, they become these kinds of imaginary lines that we create ourselves in the world of direct action. So I’m always, even though I think that ultimately, movements facing long odds need to really use outsider tactics to leverage power and to win, I’m never dogmatic about- also, sometimes using those tactics that are inside the rules or inside the box. Like sometimes you need to write letters to your representatives as the first step in a campaign, or it’s an important step in a campaign.
As you note, if you disarm your imagination and you can only imagine standards, civics textbooks ways of participating, you’re never going to get to winning. But similarly, if you decide that blockades are radical and bad-ass, and so they must be used in all contexts, you’re not going to win either.
KH: And in thinking about what it means to win, I also came back to the words of my friend Shane Burley, who is an author, a Truthout contributor and a regular guest on the show. Shane and I have often discussed something that’s going to be of crucial importance in the new year: that neoliberalism and the defense of institutions will not save us. We have been through so much under Trump that some people find the idea of taking a wait and see approach to the Biden administration quite tempting, even though a moment of potential is actually cause for a full court press, rather than retreat. So where does this desire come from? Some of it is the product of fatigue, but also, organizing can be hard — and it is not work this society prepares us for. Capitalism and individualism splinter our collective power, which makes us more vulnerable to structural violence. People have been conditioned to expect the worst from each other, and to fear each other. But overcoming that fear and making human connections can actually lead to great relief in hard times.
Shane Burley: You know, one of the things is that people, when provided with no real alternative, will often just take what’s offered to them, in matters of survival, or what they think are going to be matters of survival. And what, kind of, organizing for a different world requires is a great deal of faith — in yourself, in your community — that by doing this, it will be better. And that’s a really scary thing when you have no experience doing it whatsoever. You have no reason to believe that this kind of action, trusting other people, is going to bring people together through it.
And so, I think, like, we can’t hold off until crisis sets in, and then think we’re going to intervene on people’s behavior. We have to start talking about what those solutions look like now, and also what happens when we don’t — because that’s the inevitability of climate chaos, is having a border imperialism, of having, like, this crushing kind of targeted force on immigrants and certain groups of folks, that whoever, are going to be decided by the apparatus of the state or the parties or the social movements — and we have to have a united force on it.
KH: Recognizing what the moment demands of us can be jarring. Trump amplified the great horrors of our times, but those horrors were already there. As we saw in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in the U.S., the housing collapse, and other disasters, this system does not prioritize our survival. It prioritizes capitalism, which largely functions in opposition to our well being.
The climate crisis has provided especially jarring evidence that capitalism is a global death march. Earlier this year, I spoke with Vanamali Hermans, a mutual aid organizer in Australia, about the historic, apocalyptic wildfires that consumed vast swaths of the Australian landscape earlier this year. The cycle of collapse and neglect is so predictable and deeply embedded within capitalism that you’ll notice, as you listen to her speak, that, for the most part, she could just as easily be talking about COVID-19.
Vanamali Hermans: I think it’s starting to hit average people who may not be politically engaged or who may not acknowledge the urgency of the climate crisis. And for them to be like, “this what life is going to be like now and we actually need to prepare.” And it’s not good enough to prepare as individuals. And that has been really heartening too, I think a lot of people instinctively know, I can’t just get masks for my family. I need to help. We need to collaborate and do things together. Which has been really inspiring as well. I totally echo what you say about ableism. So I’m a disabled person myself, and my mom was also a disabled woman. She recently passed away in a hospital in my city after medical negligence, and she was living in a group home at the time with four or five other disabled women. And I just think about, if she was still alive during this situation, what would have been the response by her house, her institution she lived in? What would have been the response? And I think it would’ve been really, really poor . She had respiratory issues. So she would have been incredibly vulnerable to this. They would have done nothing. And I think too about the ACT government, the state government in my city, they just don’t give a shit. And I think as community organizers, and as people who are on the left, we acknowledge that the government will not intervene, that we need to create mutual aid networks ourselves, that we need to do these things ourselves, and we hold that commitment. But it is completely different, or at least I’ve found it’s completely different, when you are actually going through a crisis.
And even though you hold that commitment and you hold that knowledge that government won’t do anything, you kind of wait for it to still happen. Like you expect at least they’ll have some kind of response. I’m not going to be politically happy with the response, but it will happen. But nothing happened. So it’s completely different to actually see with your own two eyes, just nothing, you know? Absolutely no acknowledgement. And it took us pressuring the government to even have a meeting with them and within that meeting, the strategy from public health organizations in our city and the government broadly was just like, we don’t want to create public anxiety, so we’re not going to acknowledge this is a public health crisis, and that we’re not prepared to deal with this, so we’re not going to. It’s overwhelming and it was a very despairing moment for me, I think.
It’s not even “not coming to save you” a lot of the time. It is actively disposing of you. We’ve seen in, for instance, with one of the fires, in a town in Victoria called Mallacoota, a lot of pictures went viral. I think maybe you’ve seen it a picture of a red sky and a boy on a boat wearing a P2 mask. So that was in one of the really severely hit areas where people had to evacuate to the beach and the Navy had to come in and rescue people and then take them up the coast on the Navy boats. And from what I saw, it was like able body people first. You know, it’s like, we’ll come back for disabled people later.
I was reading a Sins Invalid essay the other night, because I was trying to calm myself down and trying to read a little bit more about disability justice and climate justice. And it was talking about how often disabled people are, the canaries in the mines, who kind of signal the alarm, and feel some of the first effects of climate change. And we let other people know about these effects, but often, you know, it comes at the expense of disabled lives.
KH: In thinking about who is being left behind in this time of collapse, we would be remiss if we didn’t address the crisis that is currently playing out in U.S. prisons and detention centers. We know that conditions in jails, prisons and detention centers were already tortuous, and that the situation has spiraled out of control under the pandemic. Last spring, I talked to Alan Mills, the executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, in Chicago. UPLC is one of too few organizations that is fighting for imprisoned people in this moment. The situation was bad then and it is much worse now. I know this is a hard subject, and that most people don’t want to think about these things right now, but what’s happening in this country’s cages is an atrocity, and I believe that one day, there will be a reckoning. Because, when the dead are counted, none of us will be able to say that we didn’t know what was happening in those facilities, and when that day comes, I plan on being able to say I did everything in my power to help.
Alan Mills: We have built this problem over the last 50 years, starting really in the early 1970s, we began the trend towards mass incarceration where we incarcerated millions and millions of people. We currently have over 2 million people locked in our prisons and jails throughout the country, and that is unprecedented worldwide, and certainly in the history of this country. We now have about seven times as many people in prison as we had in the early 1970s. So packing people into small spaces is in and of itself a recipe for disaster and has been for years. This is not the first outbreak that’s happened in prison. We’ve seen that certainly with tuberculosis. We’ve seen that with the regular old flu that comes around. So nothing here is new, but I would go beyond that. We have also, under-invested perhaps isn’t the right word, but we certainly haven’t taken care of the people that we put behind prison walls. Illinois is a particularly good example of that, where the medical care in this state has been horrific for decades.
About five years ago, Illinois spending per prisoner was towards the very bottom of the United States. We were down at about 47 in terms of the ratio between staff and prisoners, medical staff and prisoners, we were 49th of 50. We’ve improved a little bit. So maybe now we’re in the higher forties, but we’re still way down at the bottom of the stack. We at the Uptown People’s Law Center sued about the medical care that was provided in prisons a decade ago, long before anybody thought about COVID-19 or the coronavirus, or any of these other things. We just weren’t treating really, really basic stuff. I can remember vividly a prisoner that I had been corresponding for awhile with, and he’d been complaining about the lack of medical care, down at Tamms Correctional Center, our supermax prison, now thankfully closed.
And he said, “When I was up at Stateville, I got a prostate test and they told me my PSA levels were elevated. They said it wasn’t bad, but that I should have it checked every year to make sure it didn’t get worse.” Before any kind of follow up, he got transferred into Tamms and the doctors at Tamms claimed he was lying, so he never had an elevated test.
They checked his records, it wasn’t there, and [they claimed] he was just trying to maneuver the system and try to get something he wasn’t entitled to try and get away out of his cell. He got worse and worse, and they kept telling him, why you’re getting older, you have arthritis, you know, that’s why your have all these aches and pains. And he was like 40 years old. Finally, I went down to visit him and he literally had to crawl into the visiting room. He could not stand up. He could not get in and out of bed. He could barely use the toilet. And I just raised holy hell when I was down there. They finally took him to an outside doctor who realized who actually checked and found the old levels and did his tests, and discovered that he not only had cancer, but that at that point it had metastasized. They then immediately put him on to chemotherapy. However, a month later he died. This is a tragedy that repeats itself over and over again, even when there isn’t a crisis.
Now, we settled this case about medical care almost a year ago and the settlement gave the department really a 10 year period. It was going to take 10 years to bring them up to minimal constitutional standards where they’re actually providing medical care that people desperately needed. They were that far behind. Unfortunately, nature has not given us 10 years. Here we are less than a year later and we have a pandemic, not just on the outside, but spreading through the prison system. And we are simply totally unequipped to deal with that. You know, I think in some sense, the most dramatic example of that is the fact that it’s Stateville and they had to bring in the National Guard in order, not for security purposes, but to provide doctors. So we had to bring in essentially army doctors because the Stateville medical system was so overwhelmed, they just could not deal with such simple things as checking people’s temperature, checking people’s blood oxygen levels, and they just couldn’t do that sort of really simple stuff, let alone actually isolating people, let alone testing everybody.
KH: One of my favorite conversations this year was an episode I recorded with my dear friend Mariame Kaba. We talked about digital organizing, which was of extra importance at the time, since many organizers were in the process of completely reorienting their work, because of the pandemic. We talked about a lot of things that day, but one topic Mariame spoke to that I want to return to as we exit 2020 is that to make change, you need to be a storyteller.
Mariame Kaba: You know, to organize, you have to be able to tell a story very well. A story that is credible to people, that gives people a plan and some things to do, that people think can actually succeed. Right? That all those things are super important. So as organizers, we often rely on storytelling to kind of build relationships, to kind of unite our constituencies, to figure out how to name problems, to mobilize people. You know, we do, we use storytelling in those ways to try to support and propel organizing forward. And I think maybe part of what you were mentioning about the online sphere is that people confuse telling with storytelling.
MK: You know, like telling somebody something is not the same thing as storytelling, which kind of asks questions of people, which forces you’re doing storytelling to kind of listen actively as you’re telling the story. Because that story is critical to the building of the relationships we’re going to need to actually. Be able to build the power that we need to win. So I think that, you know, a lot of times I see the digital sphere serving as a broadcasting mechanism, sometimes, as opposed to the storytelling as central to the relationship building part.
KH: You know, I couldn’t agree more and I really wish people would spend more time kind of being kind to themselves and giving themselves space to explore their skills as storytellers and giving themselves kind creative exercises that really indulge what’s special about, you know, their worldview and their ability to kind of envision something and tell a story. I think that having studied creative writing and philosophy prepared me for direct action as much as anything, like getting my mind around narrative and what makes people feel things.
MK: Yes. So important. What makes people feel things and also what makes people believe you. Believe you and not necessarily believe you, it doesn’t almost matter, like, not believe you about the topic you’re ranting about, but rather believe you. That what you say you believe and that you believe you can win. Like those things are important in doing this work. You know, like folks have to believe you and they have to believe that you believe it’s possible to actually make this thing happen. And that’s why people are going to be more likely to join. There’s always this tension between like the Alinsky model that some of us grew up in, which was, you know, you appeal to people’s self interest, and that’s the way, you know, you agitate people, you rub the sores of discontent, you do like these kinds of ways of thinking, which always felt off to me. And it became clear later on why it was off to me because, you know, it didn’t meet, it didn’t fit my cultural upbringing. It didn’t fit my, you know, racial, kind of socialization. It didn’t fit like my, like there were many other things that motivated people, beyond self-interest, it turned out, you know, and so I just had, you know, I could only develop a critique of that work by actually doing the work and figuring out what it was that didn’t sit well with me by trial and error over time. And something I want to also raise here, since we’re talking a lot about terminology of organizing and kind of what we mean by all of these words, I always am also very concerned when we don’t pretty early on talk about power when we are talking about organizing, that ultimately, you know, when we use the term “building power,” it’s the ability to make your target, the person who has the unique power to give you what you want, right? That’s your target. The ability to make your target give you your demand. That’s power.
MK: Like, right? But we don’t actually talk clearly enough about like, that’s what we’re, that’s why we’re building “power,” is to be able to do that, to gain the ability to make our targets give us what our demands are, what we want. And something important within the concept of power, also, there’s different types of power, based on the type of organizing work that you’re doing. If you are at a negotiating table at your workplace and you’re trying to get your boss to do something, the kind of power you need to bring to bear is going to be different than in an electoral organizing campaign where ultimately what people care about is votes. Getting them and getting people out to vote for them. Right? The metrics of how to deploy power are very contingent on the type of organizing you’re actually doing. And you know, how would you know that? You would only know that if you’re actually engaged in doing that work to figure it out over a period of time, which is why a lot of arguments that people have, not just online, but in person to me, are devoid from actual context because most of these people haven’t actually done any organizing on any of these levels, and they’re speaking in some abstractions that aren’t belied by the facts on the ground that you’re dealing with on a regular basis, you know? So I just wanted, these are just ideas and thoughts that were in my mind as we began our conversation that I really feel like I haven’t heard a lot of conversations kind of breaking this stuff down for folks in that kind of way, outside of being in a training.
KH: We heard a bit earlier from my friend Shane Burley, who has been a touchstone for me during this last year. In an episode called How to Fight Fascism While Surviving a Plague, we talked about COVID-19 and the perils of allowing any further normalization of mass death. We talked about this in the context of what a fascist government could do with a country whose populace is becoming less and less reactive to mass death and atrocity, and how horribly that could spiral. But these words of warning are no less relevant as we move into a new year, under a new administration. Because the fascists aren’t the only ones who will weaponize your desensitization. Neoliberalism and elite Democrats have likewise always relied on your belief that not everyone can be helped. It’s how they get you to accept agendas that likewise lead to thousands upon thousands of deaths that do not want to happen. I know that’s not a narrative anyone wants to process right now, but it’s real, and we have to. Because we’ve been engaged in a battle over what death means in the last year, and in the new year, we will see where that battle takes us, because it’s not over. As Shane says…
Shane Burley: This is a step-by-step process to accepting the idea that some people are going to end up being expendable. And remember that in these step-by-step processes, there is logic behind them, and people are convinced of things, and people actually switch the way that they ascribe value to things. And so, by the time we get to a stage where more severe acts of violence are taking place, which is quite possible down the road, this would be a step along that way. I don’t want to be hyperbolic about what people are saying, but I do want to be real that, like, there has been a shift that’s happening. And when we understand where we’re going in geopolitics and next 20, 30, 40 years, when scarcity and, for example, border imperialism and climate collapse are very real things that people are kind of living through — it’s not just a political issue, but it’s very material, and people are getting hurt, people are dying — these are the sorts of steps along the way that end up justifying much more draconian policies and give people the impetus and, actually, the passive consent from the public to carry out and to recontextualize death and how it works.
So I think, right now, when we’re having this discussion, we can look back at other really large genocides and see that there was steps along the way, and there was concessions made by people, and people change their, not just their opinions about policies, but they changed their opinions about other people and about what it took to get things done. And so I think that’s one part of it. The other part is that this stuff doesn’t stop on its own. And it also doesn’t stop just by voting patterns. It doesn’t stop from polite protest. It doesn’t stop from strongly worded arguments, obviously. It stops from people stopping it. Actual interventions in these things is what stops it. And if we’re talking about mutual aid now, we’re talking about intervening on someone who doesn’t have food in the closet or they don’t have their medicine.
KH: The ways that we mark time and contain events in our mind are very important. We understand the world in stories. No one is exempt from that. 2020 is an amalgamation of stories we will be telling ourselves for as long as we live. The relentless losses we endured, the lonely holidays, the times we delivered food and prescriptions, the times we cried alone, the times we got people out of cages — the times we came together to stop a fascist. These are stories we will carry with us as we step into a new year and find out what comes next.
I want to close the year with some sage words Brant Rosen, who was one of the first people I interviewed for this show. Brant is a rabbi, an author and an activist who also worked with me this year to co-organize the Mutual Aid Mourning and Healing Project, which provides free counseling to people who are grieving during the pandemic.
Brant Rosen: Struggle is painful, but struggle is also joyful. It needs to be, or it’s not gonna work. And being able to find meaning in and love and joy in that struggle and being able to promote a vision of the world that sees struggle, not just as hard work and often just setback after setback, but actually, it’s a way we build community. It’s the way we build, meaning it’s a way we activate love in the world and it’s a way we generate hope. I mean, that for me is a primary place where hope is found is by the camaraderie that comes from the struggle itself.
You know, I’ll just say very briefly in my new congregation, Tzedek Chicago, which is five years old, is a justice-focused, intentional Jewish congregation. And when we first started, we, when we get together on our Sabbath on Friday night, our services tended to be exhausting cause we just talked about the struggle and we would actually use the service to organize around specific issues. And it occurred to me pretty early on that this wasn’t what people needed or what people wanted. You know, most of the people who belonged to our congregation are involved in that struggle every day. And they’re coming on the Sabbath on Shabbat to be rejuvenated, to get the hope you were asking about. And early on in building this community, one of the things I realized that the function of Shabbat needs to be is about allowing ourselves this 24-hour period to live in the world that we’re fighting for. That’s how we frame it. That we’re going to create that world for each other, which is, I would argue with Shabbat has always been, frankly. It’s in Judaism, it’s called Olam Ha-Ba, the world to come. And it’s not just something that we pray for on Shabbat, It’s something we live in. And there’s all kinds of traditional laws that have been prescribed throughout history about what that means.
But the bottom line, at it’s essence means we’re going to cease the work of the last week, which is the struggle for justice and liberation. And we are going to inspire one another and live in that world just for this period of time, so that when we go back into it on Saturday night and Sunday, and when it’s over, we will be all the more replenished, and able to engage in that struggle anew.
And for me, and I suspect for you as well, that’s really where the hope comes from is, finding joy in the struggle and finding love in that struggle, no matter where it may lead us because we don’t know, you know, there are no guarantees. There’s only this work that we have before us.
KH: At the year’s end, my friends and I have a tradition. On New Year’s Eve, we would normally gather in a circle, in my living room, just before midnight. We would take turns speaking and name something that we want to leave behind, in the year that was, and something that we want to carry with us, into the new year. In a way, this episode is my very elaborate answer to that question. These words are what I want to bring with me, into the new year, as I do my part to write the next page. So I invite you all to join me in carrying these lessons forward, as we face the future together, in joy and struggle.
I want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.