“Our survival is at stake, and so, let’s think about all the best things that can help us better understand how we can ensure the collective survival of as many of us as possible,” says author and organizer Andrea Ritchie. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Ritchie and host Kelly Hayes discuss organizing, solidarity with Palestine and why activists cannot defer the work of practicing new worlds.
Music by Son Monarcas and David Celeste
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 organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. Today, we are talking about interdependence, decentralization and the work of practicing new worlds. I know these are deeply distressing times. We all have so much to grieve and so much to rage against. Like many of you, I have been in the streets protesting, in recent days. This moment demands action, for the sake of the Palestinian people, and for all our sakes, because our humanity and our shared future are also at stake. On a personal level, I also find comfort in the comradery of collective action amid so much tragedy. Protesting feels right, while nearly everything else feels wrong. Maintaining my routines, to the extent that I have, feels out of step with reality amid so much atrocity. My grief and my struggle to feel useful are not comparable to the heartbreak and loss that my Palestinian co-strugglers are experiencing, but these feelings are real, and I have learned not to hide from them. Being human, and refusing to turn away from atrocity, is painful, and yet, we know that we must bear witness and find ways to act in solidarity with those who are under siege. So how do we navigate such times? In addition to taking action in the streets, I find conversations with people I trust are crucial in moments like this one. That’s why I was grateful for the opportunity to talk to my friend and co-struggler Andrea Ritchie about organizing, our solidarity with Palestine, and why activists cannot defer the work of practicing new worlds.
Andrea Ritchie is a Black lesbian immigrant survivor who has been documenting, organizing, advocating, litigating, and agitating around the policing and criminalization of Black women, girls, trans, and gender-nonconforming people for the past three decades. She is the author and co-author of multiple books, including the essential abolitionist text No More Police: A Case for Abolition, with Mariame Kaba. Andrea also co-founded the Interrupting Criminalization initiative with Mariame, which is a movement resource hub offering information, cross-movement networks, learning, and practice spaces for organizers and advocates who are working to build a world free of criminalization, policing, punishment and violence. Andrea’s new book, Practicing New Worlds: Abolition and Emergent Strategies, explores how principles like emergence, adaptation, transformation, interdependence, and decentralization can shape organizing toward a world without the violence of surveillance or cages of any kind — a world in which we collectively have everything we need to survive and thrive.
Andrea is a friend of the show, and I was so grateful for the opportunity to discuss her new book, and what’s happening in the world right now. If you appreciate this episode, and you would like to support “Movement Memos,” you can help sustain our work by subscribing to Truthout’s newsletter or by making a donation at truthout.org. You can also support “Movement Memos” by subscribing to the podcast on Apple or Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, or by leaving a positive review on those platforms. Sharing episodes that you find useful with your friends and co-strugglers is also a big help. As a union shop with the best family and sick leave policies in the industry, we could not do this work without the support of our readers and listeners, so thanks for believing in us and for all that you do. And with that, I hope you enjoy the show.
Andrea Ritchie: My name is Andrea Ritchie. I’m a co-founder of Interrupting Criminalization and co-author with Mariame Kaba of No More Police: A Case for Abolition. And I’m someone who has been engaged in movements against apartheid and settler colonialism; in movements for reproductive environmental, gender, economic and LGBT justice, who’s been engaged in labor organizing, anti-violence organizing, anti-imperialist movements for over 30, maybe 40 years at this point. And I feel like it’s important to say in this moment, I’m someone who stands in deep solidarity with Palestinian people and in profound resistance to the genocide that Israel — with the full financial and political support of the U.S. — is perpetrating against Palestinians in Gaza, throughout Palestine in this moment. And that I stand with all who are being targeted around the world for rising up in resistance to it.
The road to writing Practicing New Worlds was a long and winding one that I’m not going to really go into here, but I think, ultimately I continued with the project and persevered to the end because I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned through organizing over the years with folks who are coming into abolitionist organizing now, folks who were newly introduced to abolitionist organizing or were more deeply engaged in it through the 2020 uprisings, to help maybe fast-forward through some of the lessons I’ve learned over the last decades around how we get to the futures that we’re all longing for and dreaming of that are free from violence of all kinds, including military, imperialist, police, genocide, or settler-colonial violence of the kind that we’re witnessing in real time right now.
I heard folks coming into abolitionist organizing in 2020 without the benefit of the decades of study and practice that many of us have been engaged in and saying things like, “Yeah, defund, abolish the police. And we’ll do that by ending qualified immunity, and ending no-knock warrants, and stopping choke holds and enacting choke hold bans.” Seeing people focused on legislative and policy solutions or understanding that abolitionist organizing is a budget fight. It’s about moving money from one place to another in the budget, from one government department to another. And I really wanted to say, “Look, there’s that, but there’s so much more than that.” That is really a very small part of how we get to the futures that we long for, and that changes to the laws and policies and institutions of the carceral state are at best about reducing the harm of the carceral state in this moment and changing conditions under which we can engage in different work, in other work that is about building the world that we long for and that is outside of the systems that currently exist right now.
And that’s what I’ve learned over the last 30 years, and had the privilege of learning from organizers at Critical Resistance, at Incite!, from people like you, and Mariame, and Beth Richie, and Mimi Kim, and Shira Hassan, and Paula Rojas and kai lumumba barrow, and Rachel Herzing, and just so many other folks who have been my teachers for such a long time as Black feminists, as women of color abolitionists, and queer and trans people — abolitionists who have been practicing abolitionist futures for much longer than I have. And I could go on, it’s a long list. But what they taught me is that if legislative, and legal, and budget and policy change work are not accompanied by the kinds of work that I talk with them about in Practicing New Worlds, and that abolitionist organizers have been engaged in for a long time, and that people talk about in many other places — whether it’s on “One Million Experiments” or “Movement Memos” — or many other places that you can learn about deep abolitionist organizing work that isn’t focused on changing law, or policies or institutions, but focused on changing how we are, and how we relate to each other and how we prevent, interrupt, and heal from and transform the conditions that produce violence.
That are about practicing new social, and economic, and political relations and forms of governance that can bring about the worlds that we’re longing for, then if we’re not focused on those things, we’re not actually going to get to the abolitionist futures that we are talking about. And I think it’s really an effort to say, “Okay, folks, please don’t take the 40 years I took to learn this, because we really just actually don’t have time for that right now.” We really need to understand that we’re not going to legislate or policy-make our way to abolitionist futures through the policy-making machine, the legislative machine of a carceral state. We’re not going to create a department of abolition in a carceral state that’s not just going to reproduce more carceral responses in new, and expanded, and more sinister and invasive and pervasive forms. And so, we have to understand that the work of abolition is work that we do in ourselves and with each other every single day, in everything that we do, as part of our organizing to shift the conditions and structures in which we do it.
And I think the other reason I wrote it is because I saw a lot of people who were very intrigued, and inspired, and taken by, and curious about what adrienne maree brown wrote about in the book Emergent Strategy. And I really wanted to invite them into a deeper engagement with those ideas and the many long lineages that they come from, whether it’s Indigenous ways of being and knowing, whether it’s Black feminist cultures of care and collectivity, whether it’s abolitionist organizing that’s been taking place for decades, there’s so much more than what people were kind of grasping at the surface from that book. And I think, I really want to invite people into understanding that it’s not enough to just sit back, and wait and see what emerges. That’s actually not what we’re talking about, that’s not how change happens. If we’re talking about emergent strategies, we’re talking about shaping change. We’re talking about each of us taking an active role in shaping the world that we’re in, that we’re building in every moment, and that requires us to act, and act again, and act in every moment and invite other people to take action through abolitionist organizing.
And I mean, it feels like a huge departure for me, and frankly, a bit terrifying to put out, especially in this moment because I spent my whole life writing about what I know, about documenting the horrors of what is, and documenting resistance to it, and now I’m writing about what I don’t know. But it just felt like in this moment, all of us are responsible for putting out ideas, possibilities, things for folks to chew on, and think on, and react to, even if they’re not perfectly formed, if they’re not really clear in terms of what we know. Because I think all of us in this moment are under an obligation, that we’re under a duty to put out our best thinking about the way forward, or at least to spark ideas and conversations that can help us see new ways of moving. Because I think that we can’t, in this moment, continue to reach for the same tools, and strategies, and tactics, and practices that have brought us to where we are and that keep us where we are. I think we are willing to think about what may feel like new approaches to folks, but are actually longstanding approaches rooted in abolitionist organizing, and Black feminist organizing, in Indigenous ways of being, and understandings of how we make change that are about building powers in deeper ways.
And we have to be willing to try those things at this point, and extend beyond what we’ve been doing, to really embracing any tool that could possibly bring us closer to the abolitionist futures we long for. And, I think, there are aspects of emergent strategies and the way that they play out in organizing that offer important clues, and pathways, and approaches to organizing that can get us closer to the worlds that we long for, and I think we have a duty to attend to that, and pay attention to it, particularly because of the urgency of the conditions that we’re facing right now. Our survival is at stake, and so, let’s think about all the best things that can help us better understand how we can ensure the collective survival of as many of us as possible, and particularly as many of us who are being consigned to not survival in this moment, and how can we shift our systems towards something different? And so, I’m hoping that this offering shines some light, offers some clues in that direction.
KH: Thanks to the popularity of adrienne maree brown’s 2017 bestseller Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, some of you will be familiar with the concept of emergent strategies. brown describes Emergent Strategy as “a guidebook for getting in right relationship with change, using our own nature and that of creatures beyond human as our teachers.” Many of my favorite authors, including Joanna Macy, explore similar themes in their work. As Macy wrote in World as Lover, World as Self in 1991:
From the ecological perspective, all open systems — be they cells or organisms, cedars or swamps — are seen to be self-organizing. They don’t require any external or superior agency to regulate them, any more than your liver or an apple tree needs direction on how to function. In other words, order, or dynamic self-organizing, is integral to life.
This contrasts with the hierarchical worldview that dominated our mainstream assumptions for millennia, where mind is set above nature and where order is assumed to be imposed from above on otherwise random stuff.
Living systems evolve, not according to the edicts of some manufactured hierarchy, but as Macy tells us, through “complexity, flexibility, and intelligence through interaction with each other.”
The concept of emergent strategy provides one framework through which we can understand some of this complexity.
AR: Emergent strategies are a number of things. They are observations about the way change and systems operate in the natural world and how we, as humans and human societies, are part of the natural world, and therefore can learn lessons from how networks of mushrooms or slime molds or other living beings — bee societies, ant societies — the ways in which they operate, and the ways in which the internet or other communication strategies or the human brain or other structures operate. And so, that’s one way of thinking about emergent strategies. Also, interestingly, I discovered people in the business world also have studied emergent strategies and understand that top-down strategies are not necessarily the most effective way to make change. And that the most effective way is to advance the purposes or goals of businesses also is perhaps to lean into more emergent strategies, which means you’re reacting in the moment, and every action is reacting to another action, and that we’re shaping what’s happening as a system in relationship to each other and the conditions around us.
Not that we just make a five-year plan, assuming that we can understand every iteration of every set of conditions, and then execute it with complete fidelity to the minute details of that plan. And I think what people realize in the business world is that’s actually not an effective way of doing things because we can’t control conditions, and because we learn as we go what works best, and it’s best to adapt and iterate and be nimble and flexible in response to changing conditions and in response to things that you learn in order to move towards an objective or towards a goal. And I think emergent strategies — they’re a mix of what’s known as complexity science, which is understanding how complex systems shift and change and operate.
Whether those complex systems are an ant society or a business or the human brain or a communications network, they are understanding that people and the natural world are in relationship, and that societies operate from that place. And Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes a great deal about this, in As We Have Always Done, that societies that are based on relationships and reciprocity and systems of mutual care and accountability between people and communities and the natural world are societies that are closer to the ones that we dream of. Ones that are free from violence, ones where people are treated with dignity, respect, love and care.
But I think the way that most people have come to these questions or these ideas are through the book, Emergent Strategy, or through the work of the Complex Movement collective, which names some basic principles of emergent strategies, which is that we most effectively make change at the level of critical connections rather than at the level of critical mass; that things reproduce themselves from the small to the large scale, whether it’s that tiny broccolis make up a broccoli or the shape of a fern is the same at multiple levels. And so, if we’re trying to shape a complex system, we start with the smallest unit, and then replicate it upwards. We need to do that in ways that learn from how change is happening, that are iterative, that are adaptive, that are non-linear, which is very challenging for me — that change happens in non-linear ways, and in ways that are transformative and rooted in transformative justice and that create new possibilities that can’t be imagined necessarily when you start.
So, there’s a set of principles of being decentralized, of really resisting a top-down approach and a more horizontalist approach that are the principles that people describe as emergent strategies as a whole. And I do want to lift up that, in that lineage that I was just mentioning, there’s also the work of, I’m thinking of, Grace Lee Boggs, who was reacting to things that she was reading about from Margaret Wheatley and her writings around organizational development and leadership in organizations. And then, just transferring that thinking to how social movements operate, and really thinking about What does it mean to organize in the way that you want to see society operate? So, in other words, how you change society by the way that you are, and organize with each other in (what she and others call) prefigurative organizing, and how that is visionary organizing.
So, all of these ideas and concepts were gathered together in this notion of emergent strategies. And, for me, what that means is looking at the ways each of us participate in creating the world around us. And I think what they do is they help bring sometimes overwhelming moments or concepts — like Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s charge that, “Abolition requires that we change one thing, which is everything” — I feel like that’s overwhelming. Moments, like the one we’re living right now, are overwhelming on so many fronts, and it’s hard to imagine how to have an impact on systems that are operating at a scale so far beyond us.
And I think what emergent strategies have taught me is how we each can take actions individually, as well as collectively in a networked, decentralized way across time and space in ways that can shift the systems, the larger systems, that we’re part of. And I write at one point that it brings abolition into the realm of the actionable, into something that we can practice every single day. And I think that kind of understanding of the axiom that Octavia Butler’s famous quote is that, “All that you touch, You Change. All that you Change, Changes you.” Or Marxists talking about how, as protagonists, we are shaping the material conditions under which we live and the possibilities for the societies we create — I think emergent strategies help us understand a little bit more about how that can work without having to be mediated through a top-down strategy, but rather one that can be more decentralized and more aligned with collective practices, Black feminist politics of collective care.
KH: Collective care is a critical concept in these times. Personally, I believe that our political potential, in the coming years, amid so much catastrophe and crisis, will be shaped by our willingness to insist upon collective care as a shared value. If we submit to a culture of abandonment — a culture that allows capitalism to cut its losses, by way of mass death and dispossession for the marginalized — we will be lost. If we resist policies of abandonment and a culture of disposability, then new trajectories — in which our lives and our ecosystems are recognized as precious, and fought for accordingly — might be possible. I often find myself thinking of Maya Schenwar’s foreword for my book with Mariame Kaba, Let This Radicalize You, in which Maya wrote:
These days, becoming radical isn’t an impulsive dalliance. It’s a leap toward allowing yourself to believe in the possibility of our collective survival — and to believe that even if we don’t make it, we are all still worth fighting for, to the last breath.
These words feel especially relevant in light of the apocalyptic violence that our siblings in Gaza have been experiencing in recent days.
AR: We just will literally not survive this moment without each other. And I think there’s so much that this podcast has talked about on every front, from resisting fascism, to resisting climate collapse, to resisting mounting white supremacist authoritarian violence in the U.S. and around the world that points us to interdependence, that points us to this notion that we need to be in relationship with each other in very intentional ways that are about ensuring our collective survival. And when we talked about doing this interview today… I mean, there’s such raw and present examples of interdependence in the ways that people are struggling to survive the incredible violence that is being rained down on Gaza right now in enforcement of the Israeli settler-colonial apartheid state.
And, on the one hand, I think that one thing when I was talking to people, particularly abolitionist organizers about this book, that all of us were very hesitant or had questions about, is: “Well, these emergent strategies all sound cute and interesting and inspiring and interesting to explore and experiment with, but what do they offer when the state comes crashing down with the power of its violence, when it perceives the experiments that we’re engaged in, the communities of practicing ways of doing things differently? When the state starts to perceive those as a threat and comes crashing down with the intent to crush them, what do emergent strategies offer in that moment?”
And because they are so different from the idea that we normally have around how we build power and how we build resistance, and I think, certainly, decentralization offers some protection against the violence of the state or white supremacists. But I think interdependence also, in recognizing the importance of our relationships, our communities of practice, our networks, I think right now people in Gaza, to the extent they’re surviving, are surviving because of their relationships and because of their networks and because of their long recognition of their interdependence with each other and with Palestinians elsewhere in Palestine. And also, because of the ways in which they have invited global resistance movements to understand our interdependence, whether it was through understanding the ways in which Israel Defense Forces are teaching these very same tactics that they’re being used on Palestinians throughout the enforcement of the apartheid state over the last many decades, are teaching those very tactics to U.S. police and vice versa, and understanding that we’re interdependent in our resistance to the kind of policing that’s happening both in the U.S. and in Palestine.
The interdependence that was shown by Palestinian organizers, who saw the same tactics being used on the streets of Ferguson, the same weapons being used on the streets of Ferguson, and offered solidarity and strategies for resistance, and the ways in which people around the world are seeing that if what’s happening right now in Gaza is allowed to stand without resistance, that that is the blueprint that is being replicated around the world. And so, our resistance is interdependent on each other.
And I think that’s the one that’s most present to me today, because we’re seeing…That’s certainly not the first time that any of us had a front-row seat to genocidal enforcement of settler colonialism. But it certainly is the one that’s happening on this scale at this moment. And I think, similarly, when we see the way that climate collapse is being responded to by states and institutions, we must similarly see whether it’s at the U.S. border, the European border, or within any of the spaces that we inhabit, the ways in which people’s movement and migration is being dictated and controlled and surveilled in ways that consign vast groups of people and territories to death and deprivation.
We have to recognize our interdependence, and the necessity of acting from that place, in order to ensure the collective survival of the people that white supremacist, authoritarian imperial powers would consign to death in the way that they’re consigning the people of Gaza to death today.
I think it really is this question of speaking from a place that recognizes that our struggles are truly linked with each other, and that we have to recognize the way that that is the case, that we have to recognize where solidarity lies, and where our shared interests lie, and where the parallels are, and where the very real connections are among the forces that are enacting unspeakable violence in Palestine and Gaza right now, and the forces that would enact unspeakable violence as they have in the U.S. and around the world. And to see the connections between struggles, like the struggle to Stop Cop City, at which Israel Defense Forces will come train people to engage in similar acts of violence and suppression here in the U.S.
So, I think I’m just repeating myself to say that we need to understand what’s at stake here, and that this is not something that’s happening in some far-away place that we can say, “Oh, well, I don’t really understand the geopolitics of it, and, well, it seems like there’s violence on all sides,” et cetera. I think people really need to understand what the Israeli occupation has looked like: how the practices of policing and border patrol and border enforcement and sexual violence by police, and army and reproductive violence by the police and army, and violence against children and elders and disabled people, and just people trying to live and survive on land that has been stolen from them in the world’s largest open-air prison.
I just really implore abolitionists to really dig into what is happening and understand where the parallels are, and to, again, act from a place where we have a shared vision of a world, a world free from violence of all kinds. And that requires us to understand the structures at play here: this is not an “equal sides” conflict. It’s resistance to a settler-colonial occupation, violent occupation, that has been going on for decades. And if people understood Standing Rock, if people understood what I lived through in my twenties, what came to be known as “the Oka Crisis,” the Canadian Army laying siege to the community of Kanesatake and Kahnawake, and similarly saying, “You should leave if there’s a problem,” when there was nowhere to go that wasn’t blocked off by Canadian tanks and army members.
If people can understand those things, they need to understand that that’s what we’re looking at on a scale exponentially bigger elsewhere. If people understand stop-and-frisk, then they need to understand that that’s the daily reality of every Palestinian person, both inside the borders of Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza. If people are concerned about the violence of policing, we literally need to understand that this is our fight, and we can’t just sit by and watch it happen.
The other thing people can be doing right now is continuing to talk about what’s happening and the history and the context, and offering a counter-perspective to the hegemonic, imperialist, dominant narrative in this moment. And that emergent strategies teach us that that is actually how people shift their understanding of the world, which is what organizing is. Organizing is shifting the common sense, helping people make sense of the conditions that they’re living under through their own expertise and their lived experience, but also in community and conversation with others.
And I think we can feel powerless in this moment, but what emergent strategies teach us is that we can shift our broader understanding and the systemic response through the relationships that we are in, and the critical connections that we are part of, and the communities that we are part of through conversations, through practice. That’s how people have come to believe what they believe about the situation now, because people that they’re in relationship with have told them a story their whole life, and then that makes them more likely to believe that story when they hear it from other sources, like media or government or politicians or their neighbors or whoever.
And we can shift that by shifting more of what is being talked about in relationship and in conversation and in community and how we’re approaching it and spreading knowledge. And so, I think part of what is behind the call to “just keep talking about it” is to understand that we have the power to shift systems through the relationships that we build, through the communities that we’re part of, through the networks that we’re part of, and that people should pick up the phone today and talk to whoever they are in relationship with and in community with to talk about what’s happening and encourage them to call their representative, but also encourage them to get a deeper understanding of what’s going on and to take action accordingly.
KH: Another important thing to understand in this moment is that the enthusiasm for acts of genocide that we are seeing — in some cases, from people who we would not expect to endorse such acts — comes at an incredibly dangerous time for us all. In David Klion’s reflection on the parallels between this moment and the aftermath of 9/11, appropriately titled “Have We Learned Nothing?,” Klion wrote:
It wasn’t that American elites were unaware that the United States had committed injustices around the world, or that 9/11 could plausibly be construed as blowback; it was that 9/11 had given them permission not to care.
The idea that, in the face of extreme grief and loss, or in moments when we feel horribly wronged, we should be spared any interrogation of the violence being done in our names, or with our tax dollars, is extraordinarily dangerous. We are living through an era of climate chaos. As the suffering the U.S. imposes militarily, and through the violence of capitalism continues to compound, crisis is outpacing our collective empathy. With regard to COVID, many people seem to feel they’ve been through enough, and should not have to worry about precautions to protect themselves, their communities, or the most vulnerable among us. We have also seen the steady normalization of the mass deaths of migrants who are often being left to die, whether in the Mediterranean or Sonoran Desert — and how the technology and ideology that supports such actions is exported by right-wing authoritarian countries like Israel. With regard to Gaza, many people have taken the stance that because Hamas committed extreme acts of violence, no one else can be blamed for any atrocities that are committed in response — as though one tragedy lets us all off the hook, and genocide is no longer unthinkable, but instead, a political inevitability that cannot be helped. This cooperative attitude in the face of organized abandonment and genocidal violence bodes poorly for us all at a time when fascism and right-wing authoritarianism are ascendant on a global scale.
AR: There’s a continuity between what we see: white supremacist, authoritarian, proto-fascist, fascist forces in the U.S. saying there’s a limited amount of resources and anyone who is “not us” is coming to take them from us, and we will annihilate them. And we will, whether that’s migrants, whether that’s trans people, whether that’s anyone who we feel is coming for what people believe they’re entitled to. And the same when there’s people drawing maps of the world that literally say, “This is an inhabitable area, and this is what will be the inhabitable area.” And the vast majority of the rest of the world, which is around the equator where Black, Brown, Indigenous people are predominantly located, well, that part is just going to die, and we’re going to build a very tight and violently enforced border around the inhabitable places in the Earth.
And yes, some people get to be there. And others, well, it’s just too bad. And this kind of violent enforcement of settler colonialism and crushing of resistance — whether it’s in Berlin, Gaza, the West Bank, or France, or Portugal, or Columbia University, or Chicago — anywhere people are crushing resistance to any of this is. It’s all of the same thread, of the same piece. And I think the sooner we recognize that and recognize our interdependence in resisting in order to ensure our collective survival and the worlds that we deserve and long for, the better off we’re going to be. But there’s just no time to not be recognizing that, in this moment.
KH: I appreciate the connections Andrea always urges us to draw between our struggles. We are witnessing the rise of Cop Cities for a reason in the United States, and we have to be prepared for any violence that we tolerate at a distance to show up at our doorstep. Because death-making governments and corporations think globally. They understand the connections between people organizing for collective survival in South and Central America, Palestine, and the United States, whether we see those connections or not. They have an international perspective on our movements, and on what it might take to crush them. In this highly reactionary moment, we have to think about how the U.S. government weaponized 9/11 to ramp up the surveillance state, and create sweeping new federal laws targeting activists and movements — all with little resistance, because they were exploiting the fears of a nation of people who were desperate to feel safe. This is a moment in which the surveillance state and the police state are going to make power grabs even more furiously than before, and we have to be ready.
Part of being ready means having a sense of strategy about how we utilize direct action. As a direct action trainer and someone who has planned countless protests over the years, I spend a lot of time thinking about protest. In a recent conversation, Andrea told me that the critical connections, communities of practice, and networks of support that are required to execute the kinds of actions I have worked on are a reflection, articulation or iteration of emergent strategies. That was a statement that got my interest and I wanted to hear more.
AR: Well, I was thinking about the work that you do and the way sometimes people say, “Oh, emergent strategies are this woo thing, and we need to be directly in confrontation with the state and be directly contending for power and dismantling the things that, directly or figuratively, the things that are death-making and building things that are life-making.” And, similarly, people think that either we do that through direct action or mass mobilization. And I think what I was getting at, and what I’ve been thinking about as I was writing this book, is that none of those things happen without the organizing that emergent strategies invite us to. That in order to pull off a direct action — and I’ve done plenty in my time, but I know that you train people on this, and so I’m curious to see how you think about this — but you need to have an affinity group.
You need to have a group of people who are in relationship with each other deeply and have built trust with each other deeply and share values and understanding of how those values play out in practice deeply that will surround the people who are taking on the confrontation directly. You need to be adaptive and iterative as conditions change during the direct action, right? The state responds in some way. You have to, then, assess the conditions and decide how you’re going to iterate and adapt the response. An effective direct action doesn’t always go straight to plan. There’s often ways in which we’re responding to the ways that conditions are shifting, and it requires a belief that taking one action at one time and place that might be something small, somewhat, some might argue fractal, will be able to have repercussions that will shape and influence entire systems. And so, I’m curious about whether you share that understanding of what lies beneath or behind that moment of direct confrontation of the state or the pipeline or the corporation or whatever death-making institution is the target of the direct action.
KH: While listening to Andrea talk about the relationships and trust that facilitate direct actions, I thought about a message that I recently wrote for a group that was asking my advice as they prepared to engage in an act of protest. I want to share some of what I wrote to them about what it means to center ourselves to take action:
When we step into an action together, we are forming a community of shared risk. That means that if we are on an action team together, I am committing to the idea that what happens to you happens to me. There is a lot of power in that. When we move through life, at a neurological level, we are constantly assessing our conditions, and whether or not we feel certain about what’s going on and what we’re doing, whether we’re safe, and whether we belong. Certainty, safety and belonging — those are the things that ground us … During acts of protest, we have the potential to address those concerns intentionally, as we take action together. We take actions to ground us in our certainty about what we are doing, and why we know it’s right. The ways we ground ourselves and reiterate that commitment to ourselves, as a source of strength and stability may vary. It might be a chant, or the reading of names, or a song, or the recitation of a particular sentence or statement. But it helps to know how we are going to ground and reground ourselves in the certainty that brought us into the action. Now, safety is always dicey, because we are always taking a risk when we take direct action. But, what we do have, in direct action, that we often don’t have when we are walking through the world, is that we are part of a community of shared risk. If we are taking action together, my well-being is bound up in your well-being, and I know that we are looking out for each other, in whatever ways that we can. So grounding ourselves in that sense of shared risk and shared regard for one another — the connectivity that tells us amid this risk, we are not alone. It’s also important to remember that even as we take risks, we are putting a lot of thought into how to make sure everyone comes through it as safely as possible, which again, most of us do not have going for us, on a normal day. So we ground ourselves in that planning, that we are doing everything that we can for one another to be safe. And lastly, we ground ourselves in belonging. And that doesn’t mean that the folks participating in an action are all friends, or will become friends. It means that when we take action together, there is a communal aspect to that work, and it’s important that we feel that. On a neurological level, it’s important that we feel that fellowship and communion because it grounds us, and it gives us a collective super power. It allows us to show up as our best selves … That sense of collectivity can make us braver and more powerful. Sometimes, the stars align, and these feelings just happen, and we may actually surprise ourselves by how powerfully or effectively we show up in a moment. But for me, the goal is to actualize all of these things intentionally, and we do that by thinking ahead of time about how we ground ourselves in certainty, in safety, and in belonging.
That reflection also brings me back to the words of Joanna Macy, who wrote:
These interactions require openness and vulnerability in order to process the flow-through of energy and information, bringing new responses and possibilities into play. This collaborative release of novelty and fresh potential is called synergy. It is like grace, because it brings a reach and increase of power beyond one’s individual capacity.
So my answer would be yes, I believe that we practice interdependence and relational grounding in our direct actions, and that communal exchange is ultimately what makes protest an experience that I consider sacred.
I can also attest to the importance of decentralization in protest, which is something that Andrea has experienced in her own work.
AR: I was a legal observer and defended many people in the 2004 Republican National Convention protests in New York City. And I think the model that was being used there was an iteration and adaptation of models used at the WTO [World Trade Organization] protests in Seattle and the Free Trade of the Americas protests in Miami. But people were organized in affinity groups. And much of what happened was these smaller groups or relationships or nodes being networked in connection and communication with other relationships and nodes of being, and were able to move adaptively and nimbly through different conditions in order to disrupt the proceedings of New York City for an entire week. Sometimes it’s, “Oh, bikers are here, and they’ve blocked the Brooklyn Bridge. And, oh, now the marching band is over here.” That wasn’t just, “Oh, random, we just all showed up in New York and waited to see what emerged.”
It was a concerted, coordinated, decentralized set of actions. And there was a top-down march that was called, and people participated in that. But there were a whole bunch of other things happening that effectively shifted an entire city’s experience of a political moment. And, in the process of it, radicalized many people who participated because they were like, “I’m not particularly a fan of George Bush.” And then spent four days in detention under abhorrent conditions and experienced the violence of policing in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise have because they were white women, soccer moms from the suburbs who just didn’t like some of George Bush’s policies and came out radicalized and changed by the experience, and then became part of a larger network that is now engaged in different forms of resistance.
And so, I think the 2020 uprisings, yes, people came out, but they came out with their family, they came out with their friends, they came out with people who they were trapped inside with, they biked together, they marched together, the different affinity groups came out together. So, I think that we need to understand that the things that we understand as mass mobilizations, even, are the product of relationships and these communities of practice, and lean into that so that we can be more effective about them so, as you say, they don’t end up being a bunch of people who are in the streets one day and maybe not the next day, and not actually engaged in the work of building the world that they were chanting for in the streets the day before. And I think that is really critical.
KH: One passage that I deeply appreciated in Andrea’s book included the words, “Abolition starts with how you talk to yourself,” and I have to say, those words, and Andrea’s reflection on them, resonated so deeply with me.
AR: I’m so glad, Kelly, that you appreciated that because there’s so much of writing this book that felt like such a risk and so much vulnerability. For me, I’m very much someone who came up in the tradition of we make change through militant action in which you go hard, you go harder. The person who goes hardest and the most hardcore and who does the most direct actions and works hardest to have the best analysis and create the best response, and it felt weird or it felt challenging to sort of talk about what I know to be true. What Grace [Lee Boggs] talks about, the need to transform ourselves, to transform the world. Or what Mary Hooks talks about in the “Mandate for Black People in This Time” is to avenge the suffering of our ancestors, to earn the respect of future generations, and to be willing to be transformed in service of the work.
And I think we say those words, but we don’t always think about what that means. And we think that, “Oh, yeah. Maybe I’ll go to therapy on my own or do some healing work on my own, or we’ll do a healing circle or we’ll do some healing justice practices.” But really that’s not where the work is, and I certainly have been guilty of that myself. And when [I was in a discussion with] a comrade of mine, P.G. Watkins, the first thing I said was, “Well, what do you think about abolition and emergent strategies?” P.G. said: “Abolition starts with how you talk to yourself.” And I just was like, “I’m sorry. What now?” I understand that it’s about how I relate with other people. I understand that it’s about the communities that we’re practicing in the world, but how I talk to myself, I thought, is my business. And it’s not very nice often. I have many people in my life who will hear me mutter something at myself and be like, “I really wish that you would be kinder to the person I love.”
And then, there was a moment where my therapist was asking me to reiterate my vision for abolitionist futures, et cetera, and I did that. And then, he said, “Well, that’s exactly the opposite of the way you talk to yourself. And I don’t know why you would want to build the kind of world that you build inside of yourself if it’s the direct opposite of the world you want to build around you.” And that, “Those things are in relationship with each other, that in the way that you speak to yourself is part of how you’re shaping the world around you.” And it took me a long time to come to terms with that.
And I think a lot of us, the ways we police ourselves, the ways in which we punish ourselves, the ways in which we replicate carcerality of the state and of its death-making institutions and the ways that we relate with each other do start with how we relate with ourselves. And so, it doesn’t mean that I think that we should be engaged in this very individualized self-help separate and devoid from our political organizing. But I think something that Adaku Utah, who’s one of my teachers in Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity always asks, and it always gathers me when they ask it, is, “What are you practicing right now?” And when we’re speaking to ourselves in ways that replicate the things that we have internalized and that have colonized our imaginations around policing, punishment, and exile as the default responses to everything, then we’re practicing the world that we’re trying to tear down inside us, and we want to be practicing something else.
So, I still feel awkward and weird that that’s out there and in the book and was concerned that people, like you, who I respect tremendously, would think I had gone the way of woo. But it’s actually the biggest lesson I’ve learned over the last 30 years is that these things are not separate. That we’re making the world every day in every way, in every interaction that we have, and everything that we do, and that includes the interactions we have inside us.
KH: Why did you choose to include works of fiction in Practicing New Worlds?
AR: Because we need what you and Mariame have called a jailbreak of the imagination. And all of us who engage in abolitionist organizing talk constantly, incessantly about one of the biggest barriers being our inability to imagine anything different, that we are swimming in the water of carceral thinking and practice. And it is almost impossible for us to imagine something different, even when we’re thinking about “alternatives” to police or community-based responses to violence or violence interruption or addressing what are often framed as unmet mental health needs, but might just be different ways of being in the world.
And we just need as many spaces as possible to exercise the muscle that racial capitalism and settler colonialism have deliberately atrophied in our psyches, have deliberately extracted, frankly, from our psyches, which is the capacity to imagine otherwise, and then to practice otherwise. And we do some exercises sometimes. Imagine what you want the headline to be in five years. Imagine the community you want. Imagine what safety feels like, tastes like, is like. We do those things in our abolitionist organizing. And I think those are steps towards being able to imagine radically different worlds, and I think sometimes we find ourselves back in the same place. And so, I realized that so much of my imaginations of the future are both the things I want to make sure don’t happen to the best of my ability and fight against. And the things I want to happen were shaped by the fact that I read a ton of visionary fiction in my twenties.
I read all of Octavia Butler, I read all of Marge Piercy, I read all of Nalo Hopkinson, I read all of many others, Kurt Vonnegut, and certainly George Orwell. And it just really puts things in sharp relief to place them in a very unfamiliar setting or world helps you think about them differently. And I really appreciated what Wakanda Dream Lab did with memories of Abolition Day, which was just really worked out: What would it look like after the abolition of all police and prisons? And where might we have gotten tricked into reproducing those things in our utopian future? And I think writing it out in fiction helps us do that in ways that talking in the present and in the current conditions, we might miss or not be able to get out of. And of course, there’s so many Black feminists and women of color and queer and trans people of color, liberation freedom fighters who have talked about the necessity of imagination, that we can’t create what we can’t imagine.
And that imagination is essential to, as you say, make the jailbreak from where we are to where we want to go. And so, I included fiction written by other people. And then, I thought, “Well, if I’m going to say that people need to engage in practices of imagination, I might need to model that myself.” So, there’s the first published fiction I’ve ever written in this book. Also terrifying that it’s out there, both because maybe the people who write fiction are going to be like, “This is terrible,” because I’m not studied or practiced or don’t have an MFA. I’m not a writer in that sense. And maybe because people who are organizers are going to be like, “What is this here?”
But I wanted to take up the challenge I was putting to other people, which is that we have to find ways to engage our imagination, stretch it, practice it every day. And maybe it’s through writing visionary fiction, maybe it’s through filmmaking, maybe it’s through poetry, maybe it’s through music, whatever it is that’s going to help us break out of who we are now to become the people we need to become, to create the worlds that we want to live in. We should try. So, it’s along the same lines of throwing everything out there and just being like, “We need to try everything at this point because our lives and the survival of the people we care about depends on it.”
Plus, I get so much from watching you tweet about DS9, which I have not watched in many years, or any of the “Star Trek” that you tweet about. Or other people tweeting about “Star Trek” or Star Wars or Wakanda or any of the franchises, because it’s the way that we’re all engaging with the imaginations that are being put out there by others for us to react, to think about, to really use as a way of trying to understand ableism or imperialism or cis-heteropatriarchy or racism better through the ways that it’s being depicted or discussed or characterized in the things that we watch and consume, which, ultimately, are what shape the way we think about and understand the world too.
KH: One of the primary messages of Andrea’s new book is that we cannot defer the work of practicing new worlds. I found Andrea’s journey around that idea very relatable, as we are both people who, for a long time in our work, were primarily focused on smashing structures and mechanisms of harm, or on itemizing harms that were occurring. For Andrea, this eventually took the shape of a lot of policy-focused work. But for both of us, there was often a lack of imagination in our work, in terms of the world we were fighting for. We often weren’t envisioning the world we were fighting for or imagining ourselves within it. This need to imagine, embody and practice is one of the reasons I appreciate Andrea’s addition of speculative fiction to her book. Because if we want to build a different future, we have to imagine it, and we have to practice those ideas with other people. It is not enough to be opposed to the way things are, and we cannot delegate the creative work or the rehearsal that a different future demands of us.
AR: I think it’s back to this idea that we’re always practicing something. And I think, as we’re dismantling, we’re building. And Mariame says this, everything’s happening at the same time. So, as we’re saying, for instance, cops shouldn’t be the ones responding to people in crisis in community, what we’re suggesting instead, as a matter of policy or documentation or organizing or whatever, is still building something. And so, we have to know what we want to be building, not just because someone else told us, but in our hearts and our minds and our analysis as we’re dismantling. That’s why Critical Resistance says dismantle, change, build all at the same time. And maybe some of us are more focused on one or the other, but it always has to be with a sense of what we’re building or what we want to build or what we imagine and want to practice instead.
Because, otherwise, we will, in the process of dismantling, recreate what we’re dismantling in new forms. And I think that was where I realized if I didn’t have a very clear idea of what the world is, or that I wasn’t also engaged in this practice of trying to envision the world, that I was going to make mistakes in the organizing that I was doing because I wasn’t going to be focused on, well, what is that building? What is that creating? What is that manifesting? What are we practicing when we do that? And then, obviously, Mariame says, whenever she’s asked, “What’s your vision of the …” she’s like, “This is something we all have to create together. This is not something that we can defer to a group of people just like we can’t defer or delegate the act of caring for each other or being accountable to each other or being in mutual and reciprocal and relationship with each other to something else that is going to end up doing it in a way that polices us like the carceral state.”
We also can’t defer dreaming to other people. We have to be actively engaged in it ourselves because it’s the work of all of us to build the world that we want together. And we can be inspired by other people’s dreams, and we can be like, “Well, that person definitely has their imagination muscle stronger than mine,” and practice with them. But we can’t just say, “That’s not my job.” And that’s something that took me a long time to learn. I was like, “Hurry up. I’m just holding off the state. I’m trying to pull people out of its maw. I’m trying to take tools and power away from it. But you all have to hurry up over there because this is intolerable.” And, yeah, “you all” is me, and you, and everyone. And so, I think you are called to all of us to be builders in the time of collapse.
And Grace Lee Boggs making a similar call — that we have to be building and practicing and be solutionaries around the world that we’re trying to create — that really rings true for me. And I think, particularly in this moment of collapse and multiple fronts, that we have to be clear about what it is that we want in its place and push that vision through. Because other people have some very clear ideas about what they want in its place, and they are building those things. And so, we need to be building the things that we want and shoving them through at the same time. So, I think we have to stop being people who, as Ruthie says, catalog the violence of what is. And I’m badly paraphrasing her because I think that’s who I’ve been. We must be at the same time, imagining and practicing and rehearsing what we want to be, in this time.
KH: I want to thank Andrea Ritchie for joining me to talk about interdependence, solidarity with Palestine, and the lessons of her new book. I encourage everyone to check out Practicing New Worlds, and to accept Andrea’s invitation to share our best thinking, take creative risks, and rehearse for the future we hope to build.
I also 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.
- Don’t forget to check out Andrea’s new book Practicing New Worlds: Abolition and Emergent Strategies.
- To keep up with Kelly’s work between episodes of “Movement Memos,” you can subscribe to her free newsletter, Organizing My Thoughts.
- Be sure to check out the organizing resources Interrupting Criminalization (IC) offers on their website. IC is an initiative that offers political education materials, organizing tools, support skill-building and practice spaces for organizers and movements challenging criminalization and the violence of policing and punishment to build safer communities.
- This is also a great time to download free ebooks about Palestinian struggle and the history of Israeli apartheid. Verso and Haymarket are both offering free downloads of ebooks on these topics right now, including the book we discussed in our last episode, The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World by Antony Loewenstein.
- Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown
- No More Police: A Case for Abolition by Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie
- “One Million Experiments” (podcast)
- World as Lover, World as Self: 30th Anniversary Edition by Joanna Macy
- Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
- Four Insights for Radical Organizing From the Mysterious World of Mushrooms by adrienne maree brown
- As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
- Making Abolition Geography in California’s Central Valley (Léopold Lambert in conversation with Ruth Wilson Gilmore)
- Our Movements Need Infrastructure for Care, Recovery and Belonging (Kelly Hayes in conversation with Aaron Goggans)
- Let This Radicalize You: Organizing and the Revolution of Reciprocal Care by Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba
- Have We Learned Nothing? By David Klion
- A Jailbreak of the Imagination: Seeing Prisons for What They Are and Demanding Transformation by Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba
- The Mandate: A Call and Response From Black Lives Matter Atlanta
- All the Walls Will Fall: 2023 Palestine Liberation: Resource List Curated by the Popular University of the Palestinian Youth Movement
- A group of radical artists has generously shared this collection of artwork that can be printed for use at Palestine liberation protests.
- Black Feminist Writers and Palestine (webinar featuring Clarissa Brooks, Angela Y. Davis, Breya Johnson, Briona Simone Jones, and Jaimee A. Swift)
- Complex Movements is a Detroit-based artist collective supporting the transformation of communities by exploring the connections of complex science and social justice movements through multimedia interactive performance work.
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