Kelly Hayes talks with grassroots strategist Ejeris Dixon about courage and solidarity in a time of rebellion.
Note: This is 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. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes. We’re a couple of days late this week because, like most organizers, I have been busy over the last few days doing my best to support my community. In Chicago, as in other major cities, we have seen mass protests and mass arrests. We have also seen fires and insurrection. And we also saw the temporary suspension of a food program for Chicago Public School families, a suspension I would characterize as collective punishment for the protests. The program was restored after a day of organizing and outcry. Prior to all of this, I had recorded an interview with grassroots strategist Ejeris Dixon that was going to be this week’s episode. But as we confronted the crises unfolding in our cities over the weekend, Ejeris and I decided it wasn’t the right time for that content for this moment. Ejeris is with us again today, and I want to thank you so much for circling back to talk about [your] ideas [that] we’ve been discussing. I know how busy you are right now and I’m so grateful that you’re taking the time for this.
Ejeris Dixon: Hi Kelly. I’m so grateful to be here and to be able to discuss fascism and organizing, particularly in these times.
KH: Before we dig in, do you want to tell folks a bit about what’s been happening where you live?
ED: Absolutely. So I’m in Brooklyn, and similarly we’ve had a lot of protests, a lot of resistance, folks figuring out how to resist in the ways that were accessible to them. Also, a site of rebellion, we had the police murder a young person one neighborhood away from me, and we also heard of somebody who, these are both black people, a black person who was, recently, I think two days ago, killed in prison by being pepper sprayed. So it is hard. And what heartens me is that people deeply, deeply want change, and are doing whatever we need to do to get it.
KH: Well thank you for that. There’s so much happening that, even for folks who are paying close attention, it can be hard to keep up.
So to give our listeners some context for what we are going to say here: Ejeris and I are friends who have been there for each other over the last three and a half years as we’ve coped with our fears about the ascent of fascism. As Black and Native organizers, respectively, and as disabled activists who have organized against state violence for years, we recognized we were on dangerous ground. Neither of us studied fascism in college. We’re simply, as Ejeris would say, “bitches who read.” And we have read a lot in the past few years and examined our situation closely. We’ve tracked the march of fascism in the U.S. and tried to anticipate its progression. As organizers, we have also tried to gauge what interventions might be necessary, and discussed what we might have to do to ensure our safety. We were a lifeline to each other in moments when many others thought we were being alarmists, and that our situation would never deteriorate to the extent that it has.
ED: At least we weren’t being called alarmists alone.
KH: Right? Because that shit gets lonely.
KH: Even though being disbelieved was difficult, being right is even harder. It’s not what we wanted, but we’re here now, and as organizers, we don’t have time to fall apart or get stuck in a cycle of despair. Our biggest concern is helping our communities navigate this difficult moment of grief, rebellion and fascist brutality.
So, in the hopes of helping those who would resist in these times, we want to share with you all [in a future episode] some of what we’ve learned about fascism, and its role in the current crisis, but this week, we want to zero in on one particular aspect of that conversation. Ejeris wrote a really important piece for Truthout in April called, “Fascists Are Using COVID-19 to Advance Their Agenda. It’s Up to Us to Stop Them.” In the piece, Ejeris broke down “the fascist emergency playbook” and how Trump’s use of fascist strategies has accelerated. After Ejeris wrote the article, she heard from numerous folks who liked it, but also wanted to know, “What’s our playbook?”
Well, Ejeris and I talked about it, because that’s what we do, and Ejeris came up with some key points that we’ve flushed out together that we want to share with you today. These ideas are a work in progress, but we wanted to share that progress with you, because that feels like the most useful thing to do right now. Because, as Trump threatens to overrule state leadership and “dominate” U.S. cities with military action, I think we’re all feeling some urgency around the idea of what’s in “our playbook” for these times.
ED: We will dig deeper into a fascist analysis soon, but for right now. We want to hone in on some key ideas and principles. The first is the need for broadening alliances. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by fascism in action. Fascist violence is bold and brazen and it strikes fear into our hearts, which is one of its primary functions. Fascists move quickly and violently to overwhelm their targets. By creating a state of chaos, fascists seek to keep opponents in a reactive mode, constantly playing defense, and never developing or deploying an effective counter strategy. But the fact is, fascists are in the minority. There are more of us than them. They only outnumber us if we are unwilling to broaden our alliances and fortify a united front.
KH: People organizing on the left are frequently told that they should challenge their racist family members, and yet, despite expecting organizers to make intergenerational peace at the dinner table, leftists rarely expect themselves to make peace at the negotiating table when doing coalition work. Instead, leftists try to fashion their organizing circles into family dinner tables without ideological dissent. This keeps our local efforts small and scattered.
ED: Exactly, if leftists can be strategic at family reunions, navigating racist family members, homophobic and transphobic family members, we can be strategic when we’re building power in our coalition work. Not everyone we work with on a particular issue has to have deep ideological alignment with us. A skilled organizer should be able to work with people who aren’t of their own choosing, including people they don’t like. It’s really as simple as being attacked by fascist police in the streets. Once the attack begins, there are two sides: armed police inflicting violence and everyone else. We need to be able to see each other in those terms, reeling in the face of unthinkable violence, scrambling to stay alive and uncaged, and doing the work to protect one another.
KH: There is a difference between unity and a strategic alliance. A strategic alliance can be temporary. In fact, an alliance broad enough to bring down fascism would almost certainly be temporary, because we would not have the ideological cohesion to agree on a larger vision of what the world should look like. At least not yet. But what we can do is draw a line between ourselves and the fascists, here and now, and declare that we surrender nothing and no one to these people.
ED: Another element of “our playbook” is the development of an emotionally and spiritually captivating vision. Those of us who might align against fascism have some shared values. For example, if we could unite everyone who believes that Black and Native people deserve to live, an incredibly basic idea, and give those people tasks to mobilize around, opportunities for political education and relationship building, we would obviously build solidarity between our communities. We know that sounds simple, and that political objectives that sound simple are rarely easy, but it is essential work. Any coalition where everyone is in immediate agreement about everything is too small to stop the march of fascism. Period.
KH: On issues like the environment and health care, we have common ground with many people who we neither love nor like. An emotionally and spiritually captivating vision might include universal healthcare or housing for all. Amid our current civil unravelling and economic crash, more people are going to be open to questioning the system and how it operates. For years, we’ve told people in our work that their sense of inevitability has been manufactured by their oppressors. Now, people are seeing for themselves that the so-called inevitabilities of this system are fabrications. It has never been easier to find common ground. As a jumping off point, most of us are frightened and uncertain. That uncertainty is a beginning, an opening in which organizers on the left can present something hopeful. It is much easier to mobilize people in support of what they desire than in opposition to what they oppose.
ED: This is one of the reasons mutual aid networks are so important right now. Because mutual aid is survival work done by and for the people. That means it is fueled by mutual concern and manifests the lived desires and ingenuity of the people who organize it. In such spaces there is room for visioning work that could help shift the course of this society. From labor unions to member organizations, collectives and ragtag mutual aid groups, we need frameworks that unite people behind what they want and need. We need to build culture around those pursuits with art and music. Taking action is not enough. We must build culture and community to power our movements. We are not all religious, but most of us hold some things sacred. We must bring that sacredness into collective spaces and contribute to a larger vision that can bind us together, mobilize more of us, activate more of us, even if that larger alliance is temporary.
KH: This will involve a lot of education, because we do not fully understand each other. Understanding won’t always bring agreement, but it will help us navigate the creation of the alignment we need to survive and halt the march of fascism. This is also an opportunity to invite people to imagine bolder versions of ideas they have begun to embrace. For example, COVID-19 has driven home the torturous nature of the prison system, just as police riots have reminded us of the true nature of policing. We can create spaces for discussion with people whose worldview has begun to shift or crack and invite them to explore ideas like prison abolition, which many of them have been conditioned to see as a descent into chaos, rather than a long term construction project aimed at the creation of a society that would have no need for the prison industrial complex. We have the power to organize people behind visionary ideas.
ED: People often talk about organizing as though it’s the art of telling the truth in a convincing manner. Telling the truth is the easy part. Mobilizing people, even people who generally agree with you, is more difficult. Doing the work of persuasion and finding partial agreement or shared inspiration is the organizing work we must do, because fascism is an existential threat to everything that we value and hold sacred.
Another aspect of “our playbook” is the need to build deep relationships and solidarity across our communities. This may sound like it contradicts the idea that broad alliances can be temporary, but it does not. We only feel outnumbered by the fascists because we are not significantly connected to one another. We do not have to love people or fully agree with them to practice reciprocal care, or to lock arms against fascism. In the months and years ahead, we will need to show up for each other in some scary ways. Some of us will have to put our bodies on the line to protect and defend one another. Sustained solidarity of that caliber does not happen by accident. It must be built and reinforced over time. We will need that level of solidarity to defend our bodies, our freedom, our homes and our rights. We will need that solidarity to fight fascist scapegoating, and to develop a shared understanding that an injury to any community that’s being vilified and dehumanized by the fascists is an attack on us all.
KH: This will not come easily, because white supremacy and classism have forced many wedges between our communities. Great harms have been committed and very difficult conversations are needed, but refusing to do that work, in this historical moment, is an abdication of responsibility. It is no exaggeration to say that the whole world is at stake, and we cannot afford to minimize what that demands of us.
Another aspect of “our playbook” is navigating grief, pain and discomfort. Ideas like healing justice and self care have at times been twisted to sprinkle aspects of capitalism and individualism over our movement spaces. These ideas can be warped in ways that are oppositional to organizing and action. Healing justice is intended to make our movements stronger, but some have taken it to mean that we should be able to create spaces or work where we are all comfortable, and where our trauma can be fully attended to. This work is difficult. It sometimes requires conversations and experiences that are injurious to us. We should not subject ourselves to abuse in organizing spaces for the sake of our movements, but we must learn the difference between discomfort and abuse. Organizing is a journey through injustice in pursuit of a different world. Most people who have won revolutions, who’ve led movements, have sacrificed a lot. So while it is essential that we create space for joy, fellowship, and belonging, we must also hold space for conflict and understand that not everything will be resolved or repaired to our satisfaction. Just as a riot is not a scalpel that only harms the guilty, our movements are not perfect vehicles for change that deliver a steady stream of pleasure and fulfillment.
ED: Acknowledging that we must navigate grief, pain, harm, violence, and discomfort doesn’t mean we should tell people to suck it up and continue on. We need deep systems of care. We need skill building for conflict and coping. We need grief rituals that acknowledge our losses and our traumas. We need to get better at supporting people to take care of themselves, so that they are in our movements for the long haul. The navigation of pain, and loss and anger is a massive project, but we can build that infrastructure in our communities piece by piece if we are willing to do so.
The last idea in “our playbook,” that we want to drive home today, is the creation of a multi-year, multi-tactic strategy. We believe in a diversity of tactics. History tells us that no singular tactic overthrows an oppressive system or brings about a new world. We need to throw every tactic we can at our enemies, whether it’s at the ballot box or in the streets. And we need to have a long game that extends well beyond our survival of the immediate crises that our fascist enemies create. The most successful efforts we have been a part of as organizers were multi-layered. They involved legislative work, electoral work, communications strategies, direct action organizing, mutual aid, and other interventions. Those efforts had conflicts over strategies, language and tactics, but the work continued. This requires us to center alignment over an impulse to manage movement work. We cannot get caught up in arguments over binaries of good and bad protests or good and bad tactics. We need to be flexible and to understand that even when we are not friends, we are likewise not enemies.
KH: Fascism strikes quickly and violently. It aims to keep us off balance. Cycles of lateral critique and condemnation that lead nowhere are folly, and folly is something that we cannot afford. Our cities are on fire. Our peoples are being thrown in cages that are quickly becoming death chambers. We are seeing the worst horrors in U.S. history reimagined and redeployed against those this country has traditionally victimized: Black people, Native people, Latinx folks, disabled people, immigrants, Jewish people, trans folks and other marginalized people. But it would be harmful of us to say this moment is just another iteration of the same evils that have plagued this country throughout its history. Because history is a progression of events, not a series of comparisons, and we must not normalize the evolution and ascent of full blown fascism. Under full blown fascism, we would not simply be at odds with Trump’s fascist unreality, we would be consumed by it. Living in a world we would no longer recognize, it would still be our duty to cultivate hope and build power against our enemies, but action now could prevent that brand of dystopia from coming into being.
ED: What we want is a different world, and that will not come easily. The deeply troubled world we live in, where we are often oppressed, attacked and afraid, is under siege by people who would plunge us further into the depths of our worst fears. But we are not helpless, and we are not out of moves. We will be talking more soon about fascism and how we can organize against it. We’ll be digging into some history and some of the present realities we are up against, but for now, we wanted to bring you these ideas in the hopes they might help you begin to imagine your own playbook, or to expand upon whatever game plan you already have. These are desperate, frightening times, but they are not hopeless times. We have an immeasurable amount of untapped power within ourselves and within our communities, and there are more of us. So we hope you will hold these ideas in your hearts and in your minds as we all work to find our footing in the moment. We trust your creativity and courage, and we believe that more and more of us are becoming ready to do the difficult work ahead. There will be joy in that work, and fellowship and purpose. There will also be pain and loss, but if we take these hits together, we are less likely to fall, and our solidarity just might sink roots that are strong enough to survive.
KH: We want to add that your mileage may vary, and whatever approach you take, we want to send our love and appreciation to everyone who is demanding justice right now.
ED: And I just want folks to remember that we have everything we need to defeat fascism. As long as we remember all of our power.
KH: Well, I want to thank you so much, Ejeris, for making time to talk today. I know we’re all in emergency mode and I am just so grateful for your time, and for your friendship and for your wisdom.
ED: Kelly, I’m so grateful for you and to be in this together.
KH: You all will get a chance to learn more about Ejeris and the incredible work she’s been doing in our next episode.
I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. If you’re headed outside, please be safe out there, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, we’ll see you online and in the streets.