Boots Riley On Power, Art, and the Radical Dr. King
Transcript February 2, 2020
[edited for clarity]
Laborwave Radio presents a reproduction of audio from a live discussion between Boots Riley and Andrea Haverkamp. The event was organized by the Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE 6069) and King Legacy Advisory Board (KLAB) to honor the legacy of the radical Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and the 20th Anniversary of CGE.
Works referenced and links at the end of the transcript.
“Even for us as organizers the nature of power under capitalism has been obscured. We’ve been told, for any of you who are old enough to have been around during the anti-Iraq War invasion protests of the early 2000s, people would say ‘if we could just get millions into the streets then we’ll be able to stop this war.’ And we did, we got millions of people into the streets at the same time on the same day all around the world- didn’t stop the war. Because that’s not how power works. Power doesn’t just get shamed into doing the right thing.”
Andrea Haverkamp (Laborwave): I’d like to start talking a bit about the film [Sorry To Bother You]. You’ve summed it up in an interview as an absurdist dark comedy and magical realism inspired by the world of telemarketing.
Boots Riley: Yeah, definitely that’s part of it. But, you know, I couldn’t give everything away.
LW: Give out some more, what else is there?
BR: That happens against the backdrop of a militant strike. A lot of people focus on the absurd things that happen in it, and that’s fine because what you end up realizing is that the most normal thing that’s happening in the movie is the strike. That’s the part we accept as part of life, and that’s what I wanted to happen.
LW: I think it’s the first time I’ve really seen union activism and a strike from the point of the worker in a film.
BR: It’s very few and far between. There’s Matewan and then Norma Rae, but definitely the idea of many films is to obscure class struggle and to show protest as merely raising your voice. It obscures how power works under capitalism. Sometimes you’ll get someone that’s supposed to be a radical or a militant in some way, and we don’t really understand what the methods are that they plan to use to get things to change.
If you’re going to build a world in a film I think it’s really important to build a world the way the world is, which means that we’re in a system in which the main contradiction is the exploitation of labor. Because of this our power comes at our place of work. So much of what the left has been focused on for the past sixty years has been spectacle. For the past sixty years it’s been based on the idea of getting people into the streets for a demonstration, claiming that if we just let our voices be heard that things will change. I’ve been part of those demonstrations where all of a sudden we have twenty thousand new people who have come into the street to join what we’re doing. Those people then ask, ‘what do we do now?’ And the organizers say, ‘well, I don’t know.’ [laughter] ‘Lift your voice high, let your voice be heard.’ And this is because, even for us as organizers, the nature of power under capitalism has been obscured. We’ve been told that, for any of you old enough to have been around during the anti-Iraq War invasion protests of the early 2000s, if we could just get millions into the streets then we can stop this war. And we did. We got millions into the streets at the same time on the same day all around the world- didn’t stop the war. Because that’s not how power works. Power doesn’t just get shamed into doing the right thing.
This is a fallacy in argument that, again, has its roots in the United States in the New Left. If you go back forty years before the New Left, that’s not how the left or radicals organized at all. If you look to the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, according to the documentary Seeing Red you had one-million card carrying communists when the population of the United States was one-hundred and thirty-million people. As that was happening you had militant strikes in places like Utah, Montana, Alabama. Strikes where people were wielding guns against the companies. You also had, at that same time, all across the Mid-West people occupying factories. On the West Coast you had the Longshoremen who were claimed to be unorganizable because there was too much turnover, too many sites, and they were low-skilled workers, and they had a militant strike so strong that the army with tanks were brought out to fight them. At the same time as that, somewhat unrelated, something called the Bonus March occurred where WWI veterans in the tens of thousands marched on the White House with guns and were met by General MacArthur with tanks.
During this period there were demonstrations of tens of thousands of people at once geared toward tearing down the system. All those union strikes weren’t just about wages, they were being led by radical visionaries who openly talked about getting rid of capitalism. These were struggles to overthrow capitalism. In that milieu is where we got the biggest liberal reforms in the past hundred years, one of the two biggest one of them being the Civil Rights Bill and the other being the New Deal. These didn’t happen just because someone was in the right position they happened because there was a militant radical movement happening, and at the time a demonstration wasn’t just demonstrating that we’re bodies in the street it was ‘we’re demonstrating that these twenty-thousand people can shut down your industry by withholding our labor.’
In between that time, and this stuff that I’m saying since I don’t have enough time I’m going to be very essentializing but-- it’s still right. [laughter] Shortly after that period the left in the United States wanted the country to join the United Front Against Fascism and fight Hitler. So radicals in the US, being connected to radicals all around the world organizationally and ideologically, said ‘well look, the deal is if the US goes and fights Hitler we here in the US won’t overthrow the government while you do that.’ [laughter] Part of that meant that radicals in the biggest radical organization in the history of the United States, which was at the time the Communist Party USA, went underground. They all of sudden decided they were not radical they were progressive or liberal. Again I’m essentializing because at the same time what was happening was radicals were being attacked in the labor movement. But they went underground while the US was fighting fascism. Now that left it open so that in the 1950s you could have the McCarthy era’s House Un-American Activities Committee point to people and say, ‘that person is lying to you, they’re actually a communist and a radical.’ It was true, they had been concealing things. Whereas had it been fifteen years before they would had said, ‘that person is a communist and a radical,’ and people would respond ‘yeah, I know. When a bunch of those people helped us move furniture back into my house while the police were trying to move it out they were talking about revolution.’
Going underground for the United Front Against Fascism helped the McCarthy era really be effective. Because of the House Un-American Activities Committee and splits within the Communist Party around revelations surrounding Stalin and the cult of personality that happened around him, the biggest radical organization broke up into all of these small groups that by the end of the 1950s became the organizations that we think of as the New Left.
The New Left had a different take on what had been happening in the period just before. They refused to go underground, ‘fuck you we’re revolutionaries,’ ‘fuck you we’re communists and socialists.’ That was good. But to go along with that what happened was a focus on cities and universities. Those other places that used to be organized, places in the Midwest and Montana, Alabama, Utah, that working-class was not being organized by radicals anymore. Radicals began focusing on universities. If you’re not a graduate student and don’t have a job when you do a strike it’s not the same. Things became more based on spectacle. It became the be all end all to say ‘we’re against this.’ The nature of things started changing, and the left started hiding even while they were out but they hid in a way from the rest of the people who needed to be organized. They were hiding in art and academia, and I’m a product of both of those things.
No longer, for the most part, were radicals organizing on the job. They left that work to the folks who didn’t have a radical vision, which is also why unions became less effective. The unions that didn’t run the radicals out, like the Longshoremen, they’re still the most militant unions out there and they are also the most successful. During the 1950s they said ‘we don’t care if you’re a communist, we just want to know if you want to win.’ That’s why you had a basic labor job where you can work four hours a day and can get a hundred and four thousand a year because they’ll shut your shit down.
An interesting history about the Longshoremen in the Bay Area is when they went to have their big strike in the 1930s, the leader of the ILWU was a socialist named Harry Bridges. He knew that what the bosses were going to do is go to the Black community and try to get them to scab. So Harry Bridges circumvented that and went to the Black community, went to nightclubs, door to door, churches, and said ‘look, if the Black community joins our strike we’ll make sure that Black folks are hired for these good jobs.’ The union was so strong, and they shut things down so effectively that they were able to make it so that the union became the one that did the hiring instead of the boss. If you lost your job your job would go to your next of kin, so to this day the Longshoremen are eighty percent Black workers. That has to do with people understanding where their power is.
LW: That history is so inspiring and radical. You’ve got Eugene Debs, back in the day, running for president as a socialist out of prison and received millions of votes on a platform for a maximum wage. Not even talking about a minimum, but chopping it at the top. You’ve got the Sedition Act and Red Scare, like you mentioned, pushing people into hiding. Why is this radical history not reflected in so much media? I think even your movie took what we think of as union activism and brought it to the surface to show this is what it is as opposed to calm negotiations at the bargaining table, but strikes and withholding of labor. But if you watch a lot of mainstream movies and media it’s always depictions of unions as corrupt, union bosses like Jimmy Hoffa, and anti-union narratives. Why is there this difference between the real history and legacy of unions and what’s shown?
BR: They don’t want us to know the source of our power, especially when we come to certain issues that are thought of as not being “labor issues.” I end up sounding like a broken record when I point out that it’s all labor issues. This is Martin Luther King Jr. week, and the reason Black folks were brought here was for free labor and exploitation. That is still where the base of power for any group of people resides. Where we work is the base of power that we have. Not just organizing on the job, that’s part of it, but us organizing so we can collectively withhold our labor is the thing that allows us power not just in our job but it allows us the ability to have control over the economy, and, therefore, the ways society works in general.
Any demand that we want made is something that we have to be able to have a consequence for, and I think that’s why they portray unions in the way they do. Let’s say it’s not something as union-bashing as The Irishman, but it’s some other thing that shows the union as coercive or corrupt. You have that in a few Scorsese movies where the only time they mention unions is when the mob wants them to strike, so they make it happen or whatever. But when they just show a union it’ll be, like you said, some negotiating table and it’s not ever explained where the power is coming from. It’s not ever said why people should be able to strike. They don’t want us to think about exploitation. You will hear so much talk about taxes, but they never want to put out the fact that when you’re at work you’re being taxed every hour. If you’re getting paid ten or twenty dollars an hour it’s only because somebody is making ten times that off of you. So they don’t want us to think about things in those terms.
Some of it does not have to be so conspiratorial. There’s not usually somebody sitting around like, ‘how do we get people to think this?’ It doesn’t have to happen like that because they know that enough folks have been indoctrinated with certain ideas that if you just hand somebody a camera most likely they’re going to create something that falls in line with the ideas they’re ready to put out. You add to that just a little bit of pressure of some producer saying that ‘no this is the way things actually work,’ and then it’s sealed.
Beyond that the way that art is taught is one where we’re taught to look at conventions of art as the right way to do things. So if you want to write a love song there’s a few things you can do. You can say, ‘I love you,’ ‘I really really love you.’ ‘Do you love me?’ How long are you going to love me?’ ‘Do you love me more than that other person?’ There’s a few variations on that. [laughter] As long as you stick within those conventions you can do wild melodies or whatever, but sticking within those subjects means you have a love song.
In reality you may be facing all sorts of other things that go into your feelings about your significant other, or some other person, and they may be very complicated. They may be like, ‘I really love you, and like hanging out with you most nights. Your laugh is a little annoying and I hope you don’t do that around my friends.’ [laughter] That may be true, but if you put that in the song all of a sudden it’s not a love song. We’ve been taught that there are certain conventions that make art right or wrong. In film too, someone might even have radical ideas but when they go to make a film they’re used to these conventions so they have a thing where it’ll be like, ‘ok I need to have these two people meet. Where will they meet? Oh, how about a noon cafe date?’ I’ve never been on a noon cafe date, but I’ve seen hundreds of them in movies. [laughter] Because it’s an easy location, and you’ve seen it in other movies. We end up thinking that’s a part of life, even though usually people don’t have the time to leave their work during these hours and so forth. However, once you put something real in it that exists but isn’t normally put in film it starts feeling wrong.
More people have either been around or noticed or been part of or against some sort of on-the-job organizing effort. More people than have had noon cafe dates I bet. [laughter] But if you put that in a film all of a sudden it feels forced, because we haven’t seen it before. If you’re a writer dealing with these things, and you haven’t dedicated your life trying to make a revolutionary movement happen you’ll be like, ‘ok that scene idea won’t work.’ Even if you’ve had some experience that you think you might put in the background or something, you’re not going to do it because it won’t fit right. A lot of what I think is happening comes down to these ideas we have about what art is and what fits into what we’re supposed to be talking about.
LW: I think some things that are so subversive and radical about Sorry To Bother You are in moments where you see what seems like a conventional scene where two people are in bed together, and then the garage door opens up and you get a glimpse at their actual material conditions. Which are conditions that many of us have lived in which is crappy housing in a garage. They go out for drinks after work, but the car is one we can relate to as it’s broken down and steaming out. I feel like that is what you managed to communicate through a lot of your art; that all art is political and you imbue a politic into your art. Meeting in a cafe is almost a political statement, you’re meeting in a business, you’re exchanging money, maybe you’re treating someone to the coffee.
BR: All art, and everything is political. Art is communication. It says something about what you believe, and even the fact that you believe that has to do with the world around you. I think what I’ve tried to sell to other folks that are funding things that I’m doing is to try to get them to relate to it as it’s something that they don’t normally see. They might go through it, but they don’t normally see it. When that happens it’s like a really good joke. The comedian will say something that’s usually not from outer space, it’s something you’ve thought or an observation that makes sense to you, but you just never heard it expressed that way. That’s the space that I’m working in so that I can get people to think about being a part of a movement.
LW: Using irony to relate class analysis.
BR: What I do is I try to think about what I’m really going through. I have the general goal you mentioned in my mind, but I know to really get there I have to think about what I’m going through and what I think. In order to figure that out I really have to concentrate, because if I were to say I’m going to write a song about relationships the first thing that would come out are those corny subjects.
A lot of what’s in our brain about the world is not our actual experience. For instance I’ve never been to Delhi, India but I have a picture in my head of what it looks like. I feel like I have such a clear picture in my head that I can tell you what it sounds like there, what clothes people are wearing, and what the buildings look like. But I’ve never been there and if I think about it that image probably comes from a James Bond movie or something. We have our ideas of what the world is from usually pieces of art, songs, pictures, movies, tv shows, and so for me to get to what I really think about something sometimes I have to really investigate myself. What leads me to those thoughts and what do I really feel in those situations? If I were to sit down and try to write a break-up scene it would be full of cliches that come from other break-up scenes. If you were to transcribe the conversation you had the last time you broke up with someone you’d probably be like, ‘well, that’s not cinematic.’ [laughter]. The only reason it’s not cinematic is because you haven’t seen it in the cinema yet.
All analysis is heightening contradiction. You’re saying, ‘here is the system we live in and it has all of these hundreds of contradictions, and this one here is the one that ripples out and causes these other contradictions.’ That’s how you heighten the analysis of contradiction. Irony is very much about contradiction, and both comedy and tragedy often revolve around irony and around that contradiction, while analysis does too. It’s all one and the same thing. When I’m trying to write about life and I’m looking for what the actual contradictions are in the world it brings me to the giant contradiction in this economy which is the working-class versus the ruling class. Saying that and looking at in a big way almost means nothing sometimes, you need to say it, but how do people interact with this contradiction? That’s what my art is usually about.
LW: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us in a speech that the enemies of racial justice were also the enemies of unions. He stated that labor rights were linked to human rights and civil rights. His last speech was addressing sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the connections between all of these systems of power.
BR: I’d add that he often said that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference wouldn’t have been funded if it hadn’t been for the United Meatpackers Union having collected funds so they could start. There was already identified a connection with those things. I think that much of what Dr. King talked about, especially later in life, which when we say ‘later in life’ we’ll be referring to the early 1960s as early in life and then 1968 is considered ‘later in life,’ but what happened is as he started talking about people using the power of the strike to make changes he stopped being amplified. At the time of his death he wasn’t as popular with Black folks anymore. We often get told it’s because of the Black Power movement gaining popularity, which is true, but it’s also true that they stopped carrying his speeches on the news because he started looking for ways that the Black community could have a say in these issues.
In his speaking to the sanitation workers, not only was he supporting their strike but he was advocating that they turn it into a city-wide general strike. This is the part of Dr. King that won’t get promoted on the McDonald’s commercials of course. [laughter] He made many statements about the fight against racism and the fight for social justice being intertwined with the fight to stop exploitation. But, again, his message stopped being amplified by the mainstream media once he started saying these things. And at the same time, even though it wasn’t being amplified as much, the United States saw him as even more of a threat at that time.
There were definitely a lot of folks around him who were more radical than him at the time. There was Bayard Rustin, who at the time was a Communist Party member, later on he became a right-wing sell-out. This is the thing, if we’re fighting for changes around racial injustice we have to look at where our power actually lies. I always say that had the left been organizing in the St. Louis area fifteen or twenty years before Mike Brown was killed, then maybe they could’ve called for even a partial general strike in the area and had they done that there would’ve been an indictment of that cop within a day or two. It wouldn’t have been worth losing all that money.
We all know that those with the money have the power. Even Republicans won’t argue with that. Some of them will say, ‘those with the money should have the power,’ but no one will argue the fact that those with money have power. The question is how can we right now make those that have the money and the power heed our demands? The answer is through the power of withholding labor. When that idea is put out there, especially right now, it’s very infective. People latch on to it.
When I look at Occupy Oakland, a place where I had been involved since the 1980s in various different organizations and campaigns in the Bay Area from radical communist organization to non-profit things to cultural things to other multi-racial and anti-racist organizations to all-Black organizations; we never had as many everyday Black folks come out as we did for Occupy Oakland. Specifically, as soon as we announced we were going to do a general strike. There was this combination of people saying, ‘okay now they’re not just talking about marching and showing their anger on the streets.’ Before that you could say to someone we’re going to have this anti-police brutality event, and people would just respond that marching again is not going to do anything. Even though some people would come out the biggest response was people saying it wouldn’t do anything. But with the call for a general strike it sparked people’s imagination, and people recognized that we were talking about stopping profit and folks felt like that could work. It was also connected to something which people saw as nation-wide, but we ended up having fifty-thousand people gathered together striking under the banner of “smash capitalism.” That was not just for the bigger idea only of smash capitalism, but it was about how there was an effective strategy being put forward.
I think that’s what often was happening in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s where you’d talk to folks in non-profit organizations tasked with vaguer things of fighting poverty in neighborhoods of color and things like that, and you’d hear people being frustrated that people wouldn’t get involved in these movements and they’d say, ‘people are too busy going to work, hustling, trying to pay bills.’ Often people would say that directly, like ‘y’all can talk about this consciousness shit all you want, I need to pay my bills.’ Often the movement got away from understanding that what we’re talking about is people paying bills. It got to this almost moralistic campaign separated from the fact that these values are so that we have more power and more ability to get the things we need to survive. So I think the direction that comes with something that says, ‘look, this is how we have power and how we can get the things we need,’ that’s explosive. Right now it’s happening all over the country.
Because of my movie I have people reaching out to me from all over the place. Theater workers in Utah said, ‘we saw the movie, now we have a union! What do we do?’ [laughter] So they got connected to IATSE [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts] and now they have a movie theater union. [applause]
But what I’m saying is there’s a lot more than that happening, these are just people that are just reaching out to me because of the movie. There’s also a bunch of baristas in Seattle, and folks that are just trying to figure out how to do it. These baristas in Seattle made an organization and they didn’t have any contact with other labor unions. So they told me, ‘these things were happening, so we all quit.’ Which was not necessarily the right tactical thing to do. [laughter] The point is they didn’t have any contact with any other organizations, but they were inspired and wanted to do something. This is why we have to have a radical militant labor movement. [applause]
A movement that uses the withholding of labor to not only get better wages and benefits, but to fight for broader social justice issues. Because that’s the thing that’s getting folks excited. I keep going around the country and hearing about things happening in small places that are things I wouldn’t have heard of before. It’s very important for radicals to be involved in this, because this new burgeoning labor movement can’t just be only about wages and benefits. It has to be part of a bigger struggle that’s about (I don’t like listing things because I feel like I leave things out) but fighting racism, fighting homophobia, fighting against these immigration raids, things like that. We can use the power of the strike to stop all of these forms of oppression.
There was the Wayfair workers who went on strike to stop their company from selling furniture to ICE. All of these things are happening, and I’m telling you fifteen years ago it wouldn’t have been happening. All of these things are little things that are going on, and right now there’s the prospect of folks wanting to vote in Medicare for All. That’s not going to happen unless we can have targeted strikes on certain industries that hold power. There are going to have to be general strikes in certain geographic areas to make it happen. Medicare for All is not just going to happen by threatening private individuals there’s going to have to be general strikes.
LW: For folks that might not know maybe we can define a bit what a general strike is. For our graduate employee union [CGE] we have a contract that doesn’t even want us to have the power of a local workplace strike. What separates a workplace strike from what is known as a general strike?
BR: This is why there has to be radical leadership in these movements. Some of these areas that need to be unionized, such as fast-food workers, will require solidarity strikes. You can’t just have this Burger King on this side of town striking by itself, you’ll need all the Burger Kings in the area striking. That’s called a solidarity strike and they are illegal. Who can guess why? [laughter] Because they work! They were made illegal because they work. This is one reason of critique I have of SEIU’s (Service Employees International Union] fast-food campaign is they didn’t plan on making it an actual union campaign because they would have had to have solidarity strikes to make it work. So it got turned into just a voter-drive basically. We need radical leadership that is willing to go to jail because they are calling for solidarity strikes.
I don’t really know technically at what level it becomes a general strike, but the idea is there are different places and sites and industries having solidarity with each other. The idea that maybe if Wal-Mart went on strike, then to support them the Teamsters would say, ‘we’re not bringing any products into Wal-Mart.’ These sorts of things happened a lot of times in the United States until 1948, which was when the last general strike happened in California.
That sort of thing is not really that far away, I’m telling you in all of these spots people are organizing. They don’t know about each other organizing. I was just in Alabama and the Gender and Race Studies graduate students had made a union, and they were trying to figure out how do they spread out to other departments and how to do all of it. And I was like, ‘well you know there are other grad unions you could talk to.’ They didn’t know, and it’s not really they’re fault.
A lot of stuff is being kept from folks. A lot of people don’t know about that Wayfair strike. As soon as that starts all getting connected up, we’re going to see a wave of people organizing around things. We’re going to see some general strikes in certain cities, because someone was killed by police and they get the cop taken out by having a general strike. We’re going to see people fight against ICE by withholding labor. There’s going to be other things too, but I’m saying we need a movement with teeth that can stop profit and demand the things that we need.
LW: I think that’s a really good takeaway, instead of that vote with your dollar mentality that gets pushed so much. Like if we make better consumer choices we can change the world, and it’s just not like that at all.
BR: I believe, and somebody can prove me wrong, but the boycott got pushed as the priority on the left at the same time as strikes were being left behind. The thing about a boycott is you don’t know who is involved, who’s doing it and who’s not. You’re also not controlling a site. From what I can see boycotts became really popular when the UFW [United Farm Workers] started promoting them in the 1960s. The reality of why the UFW promoted boycotts is because they couldn’t really strike, because the UFW was anti-undocumented worker. They used to help immigration get rid of undocumented workers right before pay day. They used to help immigration patrol the borders. So how are they supposed to have a strike when they’re not even organizing most of the people who are working? So they started promoting boycotts, and boycotts became this whole “ethical consumption” thing to where it didn’t even have to be a boycott anymore. Now it’s like ‘I don’t like the owner of that company so I’m not going to buy that shoe.’ It’s even less powerful than a boycott. We end up feeling like we’re doing something, and all of it is promoted because of two things: they don’t want us to know about organizing labor movements, and organizing labor movements is hard. It’s a lot harder to organize on the job than to be like, ‘I don’t buy any of that stuff so I’m all good.’ [laughter]
It’s harder, because when you’re dealing with people it’s easier to get together on Saturday afternoon for a protest with everyone that agrees with you than it is to organize on the job with people that are way far away from you [on political issues] and to figure out how to talk to them and how to bring them to the left. It’s hard and it’s not always going to be successful, but it makes us better organizers and makes us understand what’s it’s going to take to win certain things.
We do need that coalescing of like-minds sometimes too, but we also have left behind the art of talking about things. This is something that maybe some folks don’t agree with me on, but a lot of talking to each other about these ideas and trying to organize each other sometimes is replaced by activity on social media. Unfortunately there’s a tendency to say these things on social media and it changes how we act towards each other. Not only does it change how we act toward each other, it’s done anonymously. That’s not what we need at this point. We need people communicating with their neighbors, their family members, that this is what we believe and this is where it’s going. That’s how we see that it’s big. That’s how we see that these are ideas we can be part of. And that’s how we also talk to people differently. It changes how we deal with each other and changes the potential of the movement.
LW: It’s really changed the way leftists communicate news. Finding out about the Wayfair strike, well back in the twenties activists like Emma Goldman was spouting anarchist propaganda in front of thousands of people, and folks were like ‘who’s this woman on a box shouting?’and they’d gravitate toward her. But now we have almost ninety percent of all media owned by three companies, and we don’t talk about these things.
BR: And I don’t mean to say that it’s all bad [about social media], but I just think that sometimes it placates us and makes us feel that we’ve done the thing that we need to do. We need to have that as the icing on the cake but not the base.
LW: What fascinates me is that you’ve been able to use art to communicate and have those conversations that spark those ideas with other people. What are some of the next steps that you think the labor movement needs to do to really keep with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy of having racial justice and social justice being built into labor unions, and where it’s not just about wages and agreeing to a no strike clause.
BR: I think one thing that can happen right away is that if we want to talk about just right here on this campus, earlier I was at the [Lonnie B. Harris] Black Cultural Center and they were talking about a couple years ago there was a struggle with somebody with the confederate flag. A real statement of solidarity would be, if the administration isn’t dealing with something like that, for CGE to be like, ‘okay we’re not working today.’ Those sorts of things will cause action. You can think about that in many other situations that aren’t just on this campus.
For instance the Longshoremen shut down the ports for a day in support of the Oscar Grant protests. That was good as a symbol, but it was definitely like they announced it was going to be one day so that the boss could be like, ‘cool we’ll move the work around for the next day.’ But it’s showing what some of the real things could be, and also let people understand that if there are struggles against racist actions or racist policies for unions to be part of that struggle, and not just by showing up at the demonstration, but by getting their members to participate in withholding labor. I know it’s not just an on/off switch. But if they can get their members to withhold labor in a tactical way it can help make those changes happen. Sometimes those changes might actually be more attainable than the wage hike. It depends on what the issue is about. It allows for victory and allows for folks to see where their power is.
If we’re going on the trajectory of what Dr. King was talking about and where he was going, and since the last thing he called for was a general strike and he didn’t put that only in terms of sanitation workers wages, but in terms of dignity and the idea of being against someone just stepping on you. The idea of withholding labor and stopping profit as more than a demonstration, as getting to where power is, I think that’s where we go with that legacy. Otherwise, we have a lot of lip-service about being against these things. It’s not really always purposeful lip-service. A lot of people just don’t know what can we do? Part of that is because we haven’t been getting the analysis of how this system works. A lot of the institutions that were around fighting racism at the time of Dr. King, like the NAACP, they were started by folks like WEB Du Bois who later in life became a communist and was advocating the use of strikes to fight against racism. Some of the most powerful unions that were part of the Civil Rights Movement of the twenties and thirties were things like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters that were unions that could shut down the train system. These are things that have been forgotten, and I think that’s the direction we need to go on all fronts is having an analysis of how this system works and what we can do about it which means having a militant, radical, mass labor movement that can use the withholding of labor as a tool to change the system. [applause]
Adding to that, people don’t know about things going on. The flip side of that is that everything you do, in terms of action on the job, it does still inspire so many people. I’ve been told by workers at Harvard that were about to go on strike, and when I went there they told me they were inspired by two things. One was this grocery workers strike that happened in Boston, and the other one was Michigan State’s graduate students. They kept talking about Michigan State graduate students. When I went to Michigan State I told them the reason that the graduate students at Harvard were going on strike is because they heard about you, and they were like, ‘what?’ They had no idea that people knew about it outside of their circles.
Similarly with Occupy Oakland it inspired Occupy Nigeria. After we had our general strike Occupy Nigeria said they we’re so excited by what happened, so when the government announced they were getting rid of the oil subsidy and the whole country shut down for three weeks. Oil industries, school, factories, everything shut down for three weeks. They didn’t get everything they asked for, but it was way better than before. Two-hundred thousand people in each city were out in the street. They were doing it Occupy Nigeria style, meaning they were taking out their whole living rooms and putting it in the street and taking pictures. They said they were inspired by Occupy Oakland. I only knew about it because someone reached out to me, but most people didn’t know about it happening and didn’t know this.
I went shortly after to Venice and people there were like, ‘what did Occupy Oakland think when we stopped that train for them?’ And I just was like, ‘what?’ [laughter] And they told me they stopped a freight train in support of Occupy Oakland getting raided. All of this stuff is getting heard about all over the place. I went to Rome and the workers had occupied their factory during a strike, and it was because the squat that was next to them had told them that Occupy Oakland had done it so they could do it too.
What you’re doing here is part of this movement that’s bubbling up right now. There’s a point that we have in history that can change the course of how people think of themselves in relationship to getting rid of capitalism, and how people think of themselves in relationship to each other and the power they have. What you do right here, especially because of the time it’s happening, is going to have a ripple effect geographically, throughout the United States, and maybe beyond.
LW: Even capitalism and the system’s response to moms who are houseless squatting in buildings when there are a hundred of empty buildings in Oakland, that was met with AR-15 rifles and tanks.
BR: They’re scared of movements happening. They’re going to meet movements that way, but that still can’t stop it. I think that just shows what they’re worried about, but it still doesn’t stop the movement.
I don’t know if everyone knows about what you’re mentioning. There’s a group of homeless mothers, who are all Black, and I think there’s about seven or eight of them that occupied a home that a developer had bought and left just sitting there. The developer had many homes sitting around, because in order to keep rent prices up because they’re not sustainable they choose to just keep homes empty instead of lowering rents. So the mothers occupied the home, there was a big battle around it, and at one point the police came and raided. There was so much community support that it ended up being to where they were able to get the owner to sell them the house without them having the credit for it. Something of a minor victory for those folks, but the point is that it brought out the community to support them. Hundreds of people came out to support and defend them. It is indicative of the fact that people are looking at solving these problems through collective action.
LW: As we draw a close here, one thing that I think that has come through all this is that in the mainstream narrative people take Dr. King’s legacy and practice of non-violent resistance to mean getting a city permit, getting on a sidewalk when it’s nice and tidy on a weekend afternoon, and that’s non-violent resistance. But you mentioned striking, squatting and taking houses, so how do you envision the resistance in the spirit of non-violence?
BR: The idea that protests are something that should only happen if you have these permits, and do it in legal ways, sprout out of the idea that it’s all spectacle. That’s what’s going to lead you to think that, if it’s all spectacle and about using your voice then why not do it in the way that it’s legal? So I can see how some people would come up with that. However, that’s not where our power is at. Our power is being able to stop profit. If it’s just about free speech, then yeah you can sit in a free speech section and say that. The fallacy with free speech is you can say whatever you want without having any power to do anything about it. What that’s about is controlling what our idea of our movement is.
Some people are like, ‘oh this one group out of the coalition got these permits so now I’m not doing the demonstration.’ I’m not necessarily for or against that. I’m just saying that what that idea does is grounds the movement down to just being about speech. That’s not what we’re about. We’re about trying to get power and trying to get material resources so that we can have the things that we need. That only comes from being able to stop profit, from a physicality that happens.
Even a strike could be done by everyone just goes home and hope the boss doesn’t just hire more people. Obviously that’s not going to work, you can try it but it’s going to fail. Or you could get out in front with a picket line and say, ‘we’re non-violent please don’t go in,’ and hope the boss doesn’t bring some folks in. You can try that, but it always fails. They’re always going to bring in other folks because it’s their business interests. Or you can have people out in front saying, ‘nobody is getting through.’ At the very least you pushing somebody to make sure they don’t get through, well that’s violence. It’s necessary and it’s violence. Even if you’re just threatening to block saying we’re not letting anybody through, well that’s violence too. It’s threatening to keep people out.The idea that Dr. King was calling for strikes knowing that the only way strikes work is if you keep out scabs that means he just had a different idea of what non-violence means than some people do today. [applause]
If you want to say, ‘okay keeping out scabs is still non-violent,’ then fine I’m with you. If that can move you with that place so you’re down with keeping out scabs then fine. [laughter] I have heard, especially with stuff around Occupy Oakland, you’d have old-school union folks that were confused and claimed Occupy was violent. I’d say, ‘keeping out scabs is violent.’ And they’d say, ‘no that’s just what we have to do.’ Cool, if you want to call that non-violent then you can.
There’s a physicality to it. You’ll hear people on the Moms for Housing instagram account people claiming it was violent because somebody owned the house and they were taking someone’s property. I’m not here to argue what’s violent or what’s not I can only argue what needs to be done. On the other hand the argument will claim, ‘it’s not violent because that house is an inanimate object.’ However, we would then argue that the boss stealing money that we would buy food with is violence, so that inanimate object argument isn’t necessarily what we’d argue either.
So the question doesn’t need to be what is violent and what isn’t, the question needs to be what is necessary to do so that even if overtaking the house is considered violent then it’s violence that needs to be done. [applause]
I think sometimes we’ll get caught up in the semantics of it, and we’re missing what the real argument needs to be.
LW: When the cops and the bosses and the landowners and landlords come in, they’re not going to be non-violent.
Sorry To Bother You
Utah Theater Workers Union
Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE 6069)
King Legacy Advisory Board (KLAB)