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“Unapologetic”: Charlene Carruthers on Her Black, Queer and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements

Web ExclusiveSeptember 05, 2018
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Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100, joins us for a wide-ranging discussion upon the publication of her timely new book, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements. She reflects on electoral versus grassroots organizing, the Chicago model of activism, the Haitian revolution, healing justice, the importance of leadership development and more.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re joined here in our New York studio by Charlene Carruthers, the national director of the Black Youth Project 100.

AMY GOODMAN: Her book is just out. It’s titled Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements.

Charlene, it’s great to have you with us for Part 2 of our conversation, Part 1 talking about electoral politics. But you’ve talked about your book, Unapologetic, as the handbook you wanted when you got your start in activism.


AMY GOODMAN: So, explain why you write it and why you called it Unapologetic.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: So, Unapologetic, for me, like you said, is the book I wish I had when I was 18 years old and I got started in activism, and then, later, community organizing. I was a student. I remember my very first rally that I ever attended was about the DREAM Act. I was a college student. Someone told me that there were certain students, because of their legal status, that they weren’t able to go to college. And I was like, “That’s wrong. I’m going to show up to this action.” And actually, it was the first action I ever spoke at, on an issue that I cared about. And so, over the years—it’s been about 14 years now since I’ve been doing immigrant justice, racial justice, LGBTQ gender justice, racial justice, all kinds of stuff.

And I titled this book Unapologetic because the work that we’ve been doing in the past five years in BYP100 has made a huge intervention in how people think about black organizing. It was actually one of our leaders—her name is Fresco Steez, who’s also from Chicago—who really popularized the political message of unapologetically black. And it looks great on T-shirts, and people say it in chants, but really it’s a framework that demands and declares that as black radical feminists, as black radical LGBTQ folks, that we actually can take up space, we actually have expertise, and we actually have strategic leadership that’s valuable and necessary for collective liberation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you talk a little bit more about that, about the changing nature of black organizing and when you think it originated?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yes. So, when I talk about that black radical tradition, I place it in context of work for liberation as a result of colonialism both on the continent of Africa, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and I talk about the movements, the work, the revolution, be it the Haitian revolution or other places, that are as a result of chattel slavery or the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and all the work that has happened since then. And so that includes all types of black folks, from multiple ideologies. And when we look at black organizing, there have always been women in leadership, in some way—right?—be it the UNIA with Amy Garvey, or be it Rosa Parks in her campaign for equal justice for Recy Taylor, and there have always been black LGBTQ folks, like Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, all those people. At the same time, there are some people who should actually be more firmly situated in how we understand black organizing, like Marsha P. Johnson. Marsha P. Johnson, along with Sylvia Rivera, was one—started one of the very first known transgender rights organizations in the world and also helped spark the Stonewall rebellion here in New York City.

And so, black organizing is so much about—and why I wrote this book—is so much about telling a more complete story about the role of organizations, about the role of various groups of people. And in telling a more complete story, I believe they were able to craft more complete solutions. And so, when we tell incomplete stories about the civil rights movement that leave out the role of Rosa Parks and other folks who fought to end sexual assault and violence against black women, we then are building these movements today talking about #SayHerName without even like full knowledge of how they built an international coalition—right?—that almost brought the governor of Alabama to his knees and involved the military, all kinds of things. And so, that’s why I wrote this book, because I wanted to tell a more complete story about our work.

AMY GOODMAN: And you lay out the five questions that every organizer should ask themself or that organizers should be asked.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yes, yes. So, in writing this book, I wanted to make sure that I provided both a good amount of history, because I’m a history buff—I’ve loved it since I was in high school, I’m one of those people—and practice, like real practice from my own experience and practical guidance or practical tools for us to like improve as activists and organizers.

And so, the five questions begin with the question of “Who am I?” because if you don’t know who you are, what your self-interest is and what your best position to do, you can’t be as effective of an organizer as you could be.

The second question is Ella Baker’s question. Prolific organizer, Ella Baker would ask people the question, when she met them, “Who are your people?” And the answer to that question has so much to do with the work that you do, why you do it and why you show up.

The third is “What do we want?” We have to be clear about what we’re actually fighting for. Are we fighting for healthcare reform, or are we fighting for universal access to healthcare? And I believe that we have to actually make transformational demands, right? And universal healthcare just run by the state, in and of itself, isn’t transformational. I want to live in a world where people actually have, and communities have, self-determination over their lives.

The fourth question is “What are we building?” Are we building a 40-year strategy? Which we need. Are we building a year-long strategy? Are we engaged in electoral politics? Are we doing not—are we doing direct action, civil disobedience? All those things are necessary, but are we clear about what we’re building towards.

And the last question is “Are we ready to win?” And that question, to me, is one of the toughest ones, because what happens when we live in a world, which I believe is possible, without prisons and police, where safety goes beyond prisons and policing, and it’s in the hands, the hearts and the work of everyday people? Are we ready to win that? Are we doing the work that when we actually are able to govern ourselves and our communities, to provide healthcare, mental healthcare, deliver basic needs like food? And so, when I think about the work that we need to do—and I talk about it in the book—I’m really interested in how are we getting down on a 40-, 50-, 75-year strategy, and what are the things that we’re going to do along the way.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And who is your intended audience for the book?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Oh, my gosh. So, of course, it’s my former 18-year-old self, and thinking about all the young folks, who—and 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds, who are coming into movement in this particular moment. And it’s also for the people that I get to work alongside who’ve been doing this work for decades, who may have questions about what—as Robin D.G. Kelley asked, you know, I know—in his book Freedom Dreams, I know what young activists are against, but I want to know what they’re for. And I wanted to write a book to articulate a lot of what we are actually for, the kind of world that we vision, one where a person can walk down the street without fear of being criminalized because of what they look like, because of their perceived or actual gender, because of their class status, because they have any sort of disability, perceived or actual disability. And so, I want this—I wrote this book for people who are curious about and committed to collective liberation. And that means that’s a lot of people. And I’m writing—I wrote this book for people who aren’t afraid to be uncomfortable. If I did my job right as an organizer, people will be agitated and uncomfortable in reading this book. And so, I want folks to ask—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Explain why. Explain why you think that is.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Because I talk about some stuff in this book that isn’t necessarily—it’s not at all liberal. At least that’s not my aim or my intention. I share a bunch of Marxist ideas, black radical feminist ideas, socialist ideas, abolitionist, abolition of the prison-industrial complex ideas—ones that say we actually shouldn’t move a race-first or a race-only strategy, and that, as black folks, we’ve never been able to just be one thing. You might be black and immigrant, black and undocumented, black and disabled, black and currently incarcerated. And so that makes some people uncomfortable, when we—when folks aren’t liberal about just laying it out there and being honest about what it is that I actually believe in. And I’m not the only person who believes in this stuff. I just had the opportunity and want more people even to write. I need more people who have their eyes towards collective liberation, who organize with people—right?—committed to leadership development, aren’t just single leaders, to write their own books, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have a number of groups that were incubating and formed right around the killing of Trayvon Martin.


AMY GOODMAN: You have the Dream Defenders. In 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed. Your group, BYP100, when the verdict came down exonerating George Zimmerman—you know, legally, within the legal system.


AMY GOODMAN: I don’t think most people see him in any way as exonerated. Dream Defenders, BYP100, Black Lives Matter. Let’s talk about grassroots organizing and electoral politics—


AMY GOODMAN: —because you’ve got your feet in both. You know some of the people who are now rising through the ranks. For example, in Part 1 of our discussion, you talked about Andrew Gillum—


AMY GOODMAN: —who you worked with years ago, who could be the first black governor of Florida—huge upset, Bernie Sanders supporter.


AMY GOODMAN: Talks about politics in a number of the ways you do. You have Stacey Abrams in Georgia could be the first black governor of Georgia. You’ve got Ben Jealous in Maryland. So, where do you see electoral politics in the whole—within social change?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: So, I talk quite a bit about the Haitian revolution in the book. And the reason why is because there’s so many lessons for us to learn about when black folks contend for power, we win; we have political power and even a certain level of economic power in various societies; and the lessons to be learned. And while that I see—I’ve seen a lot of articles that say he’s going to be the first black governor, the first African-American governor. He clenched his victory because he’s black, he’s African-American. What matters most is the person’s platform, their agenda. And so, for me, when I think about these electoral politics—and what we do in BYP100, what we do in multiple organizations across the Movement for Black Lives, is we focus on issues, not candidates. And if the candidate is not about the business of the platform that we need to move for our people, then we’re not going to support that candidate. And, you know, people often credit this to Saul Alinsky, but I’m pretty sure he got it from somebody else. Who knows? That, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: Wait a second. You have to say who Saul Alinsky is, for the younger set.


AMY GOODMAN: Yes, you’re Chicago. You know. But—

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yeah, so, Saul Alinsky actually grew up in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. And I had no idea about Saul Alinsky when I was growing up. I didn’t know who he was or about the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. And people—and he wrote Rules for Radicals. And people often credit him with this statement of “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies” or “no permanent allies, no permanent enemies.”

And when I think about elected officials, that, yes, Gillum is running on a platform that we can believe in, that we can organize around and that will change the material conditions of our people. And I know—I’m going to assume that he knows—that the folks who are rallying and to organize to get him elected will also be there to hold him accountable. Because he actually can’t do everything, even as governor, right? There’s a whole Florida state Legislature. There are entire municipal governments, all kinds of folks. Now, of course, as the governor, he has a certain high level of power and influence. I’m excited about when we can use electoral politics to build the type of grassroots power we need to create alternatives in our communities. And for me, electoral politics is not the final destination. It’s a way along. My good friend Jessica Byrd talks about the various stops on the Underground Railroad and that electoral politics, that these these victories that we have, are stops along the journey that we need to go on, and that they’re not the final destination. And at the same time, they’re necessary stops to make.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, how do you think Trump’s victory has affected grassroots organizing and also the fact that these progressive, left-progressive candidates are coming up in the moment of Trump’s presidency?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yes, yes. So, we’re living in a moment right now. Dr. Barbara Ransby, I listen to her a lot when it comes to politics, and she talks—she’s talked about—

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about who Dr. Ransby is.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: She is a historian. She wrote Ella Baker’s biography. And she’s also, just as importantly, a community organizer. She’s an actual organizer in Chicago. And she talks about the necessity for a defensive strategy right now, in knowing that we are up against opponents both in the White House, in our states, in our cities, that have been moving—they have been moving a 40-, 50-year agenda to strip away any semblance of access to civil and human rights and dignity for our people.

And so, we need to end this time and this moment to have a defensive strategy that says that we’re going to move agendas and support candidates that are going to help us move our agendas in broader society through government, through elected office, right? And so, in doing that, it’s super, super important for us to be clear that conservatives will do pretty much anything. They’re putting children in prisons right now, right? We actually were in action in San Diego not too long ago supporting Mijente and a number of local organizations in San Diego. And so, we have a formidable opponent. And in this moment, we don’t have time to cut corners or act like we don’t need to mount a defense, so that every two seconds we don’t have to react to yet another threat of stripping away abortion care, another threat of closing all of our public schools and turning them over to charter schools, another threat of a hyperincarceration. That’s what this is about in this moment.

Again, electoral politics are not the final destination. And for some people, that’s an uncomfortable thing to hear, right? I envision a world where we are governing beyond the confines of what we have right now. And I don’t have all the answers of what that looks like, but I know that it’s more—it’s not based in profit, it’s not based in wealthy donors, and it’s based in actually what the people and the communities want.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about—we were just talking about governors’ races, but you have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez here in New York. Huge upset victory.


AMY GOODMAN: Proud Democratic Socialist. You have Rashida Tlaib—


AMY GOODMAN: —in Detroit. She’s running unopposed, so we can’t say absolutely—


AMY GOODMAN: —but almost for sure she will become the first Muslim woman in Congress, proud Democratic Socialist. What does those—what do those words mean to you, “Democratic Socialist”? What does that word mean, “socialism”? And the fact that they are entering electoral politics, as they’re being, you know, constantly slammed by Fox—I mean, Alexandria, you would think she was the main host of Fox. Her name is mentioned so many times. And that everyone, she is the reference point. Gillum is the new Alexandria, you know, Ocasio-Cortez. Or it’s just constant—


AMY GOODMAN: They are so threatened by these people.


AMY GOODMAN: Does it even surprise you, though, that they—


AMY GOODMAN: —have traversed from grassroots politics into electoral politics?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: It doesn’t surprise me, the movement of folk. I actually met Rashida Tlaib years ago. And the thing I remember most about her is her fervor. She was actually telling me I needed to run for office in that conversation: “When are you going to run? When are you going to run?”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, that’s our question, coming up.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: That’s a whole other thing. “When are you going to run?” And her fervor for supporting women in running for office, and black and brown women, Muslim women, all kinds of women, and women with a certain set of like actually like progressive and radical politics, to run for office. And so, I’m excited about her victory and then her hopefully entering, of course, entering as a congressperson.

And so, when I think about the word “socialism,” I actually look to the black feminists in my life who are socialist, and knowing that be it Barbara Smith or N’Tanya Lee at LeftRoots or Jamala Rogers, who is the executive director of Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis, and how black feminists have articulated socialism for, what I want to say, decades, well over decades, one that doesn’t say that class—that we can move a class-only strategy, and that socialism, absent of dismantling gender-based oppression, absent of dismantling white supremacy and anti-supremacy, is actually not socialism. That’s something else. But socialism, if we’re about building, to me, and how I’m understanding from my comrades at LeftRoots, a 21st century socialism, it is, yes, about workers controlling the means of production and us radically organizing the society that we live in, so that we have more collective-based choices and that we’re in right relationship with each other and the land that we live on, right? And so we can’t have the old stale, pale, white and male socialism that everybody thinks is the thing, when we have people like Claudia Jones, who was left of Karl Marx. She was a black woman who was exiled out of the U.S., right? And she was a Marxist and a feminist, and she was black. And this was decades ago. And so, I think there’s so much for black feminists to reclaim in socialism, given our tradition and what work is happening right now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the things, the arguments that you make in your book, is a defense of identity politics. So, and we’re just talking now—the title of your book, “black, queer, feminist.” We’ve just spoken of Rashida Tlaib as a Muslim woman, potentially the first one to enter Congress. Now, could you talk about why you think identity politics is important and needs to be defended, and also how it’s come under attack by both members of both the Democratic and Republican parties, and, in particular, by Democrats following Trump’s victory?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yes. So, in 2016, no less than—what?—two or three days or so, definitely less than a week, after 45’s victory and Hillary Clinton’s defeat, there were articles by various liberals, who once supported identity politics, saying that identity politics were the reason why Hillary Clinton lost the election. They didn’t point to all the other things that actually were in play here, but blaming identity politics.

What they missed in 2016, and what people continue to miss, is that identity politics are older than this country and that white men, particularly slaveholders, other property owners, the Ku Klux Klan, have always engaged in identity politics. The identity—and identity politics is when people connect their lived experiences, who they are, how they identify, to their values and the actions they take out in the world. And so, white men have done that for centuries. Now, when we do it, when black folks do it, brown folks do it, migrants, immigrants do it, LGBTQ folks do it, it’s a problem.

And so, the identity politics that I work through are those that the Combahee River Collective talked about in 1977, which was a collective of black feminists, including black lesbians, and they talked about the place that they organize from. The best place for them to organize from was out of their own experiences and out of their identity. And they didn’t stop short of saying, “Because I identify as this, I’m automatically radical.” No, identity isn’t enough. The politics, what are your values, what are the actions that you take to live out your values in the world, those two combined, when they’re grounded—and, for me, radical black feminism and also these radical black LGBTQ movements and various movements across the world, those are the kind of identity politics that I believe in, not ones that actually seek to restrict the freedoms and the dignity of other people, but ones that actually give us more room and expand how we understand what it means to be a human being with our dignity.

AMY GOODMAN: Charlene Carruthers, one of the commitments you ask organizers to make is to combat liberalism through principled struggle.


AMY GOODMAN: What is liberalism?


AMY GOODMAN: What kind of world are you trying to create?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: So, when I talk about combating liberalism through principled struggle, it’s a combination, again. I have to say, this book is going give me all kinds of trouble, some of the stuff that I talk about. It comes from the The Little Red Book from Mao Zedong. And talking about how in our movements, that we oftentimes let things slide because someone is a friend, or we know something wrong is happening, we know that this thing is not the right thing, and we’re silent, we don’t say something. And when sometimes the principled struggle piece, which I also get from N’Tanya Lee, is one about when we struggle, when we have conflict, are we honest with each other? Are we straightforward? Are we direct? Do I pick up the phone and call you or the person who I know—a person that I know you’re accountable to, right? Or do I just get on social media and say what I’m going to say, but we never have a direct conversation, or I never have a direct conversation with someone who you’re accountable to, because I don’t feel safe talking to you in this moment?

And so, it’s about how we show up. Because I always go back—and I talk about it in the book—I believe it was 1969, when two members of the Black Panther Party, Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, were shot and killed during a meeting after the COINTELPRO actually incited conflict between the two.

AMY GOODMAN: COINTELPRO being the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yeah, the FBI—yes, the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program sent letters to the US Organization and the Black Panther Party saying that the other—the respective organization was going to assassinate someone from the other organization. And they were—it was rumors.

AMY GOODMAN: So each one thought the other was going to assassinate him.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yeah, these were rumors. And unchecked rumors can lead to death. They can lead to death. And it’s that serious, right? And they should still be here. That doesn’t mean that organizations can’t have conflict or disagreements. Because—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain what happened in that case.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yeah. So, in that case—when they died?

AMY GOODMAN: That they both died.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yeah, they both died. They both died. They were shot and killed in a meeting between the two organizations, after this rumor had been spread by the federal government, by the FBI. And, you know, I don’t want it to get to that state in our movement today. I don’t want it to get to that point where someone actually loses their life, someone’s life is taken, because we’re not having—we’re not engaged in principled struggle with each other.

And I’m not perfect. I want to be real clear, I’m not on some high horse, some person who always shows up principally in all situations. Principled struggle is that: It is struggle. Right? And we have to create these containers where we are able to hold ourselves as individuals, and also containers where we create communities, where we can actually create real communities of care, where people can do self work.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But what do you see as the failures of liberalism in that regard?


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Because people who defend it say that it does all that.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Oh, yeah. So, liberalism in a political context, when we’re talking about government, political parties, it’s this—it sounds good on face value. It’s about equality, people having access to things, freedoms, all of that. The thing is, I know everyone’s seen those graphics on the internet with like the little people with their arms up, and they’re standing at these different things. What I’m interested in is equity and justice. I’m not trying to just be equal to white men. It’s a liberal idea for us to lean in. It’s a liberal idea for us to just want to like become millionaires or become wealthy just like white men, right? That’s not what I’m after. It’s a liberal idea for us to not be really clear that we want nothing short of transformation. Because liberalism is about tinkering around enough of the system and not actually getting at the root, as Ella Baker would talk about, and upending the system and turning it into something that actually improves our material needs, not just in the short term, but in the long term.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, as we talk, there’s a school strike happening throughout Washington state, and it’s spreading even further. And among their demands are not just increased salary, but increased school funding and fighting inequality in the schools.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yes, yes, yes. So I think that’s super important. And it oftentimes take people—it takes folks being fed up enough, like really fed up. Something has to tip the scale for folks to take action and make demands that are bold demands. Because our opponents are not afraid to make bold demands. Betsy DeVos is not afraid to make bold moves, bold demands. And so why are those of us on this side afraid to say, “We want fully funded education, public education,” while we have other folks who are saying, “Actually, I want to dismantle this, and I’m going to do it. I’m going to do the things that I can do, within my power, to dismantle this thing that you have”?

And so, what liberalism tells us is that we want 10 percent of our schools to receive more funding, or 20 percent or 30 percent of our schools receive more funding. What we actually need is to recognize the however many years of divestment, the inequities, that the schools in Washington state have experienced, and not just equally fund them with the schools that haven’t been divested from, but they likely need even more funding, more resources, more support, because they’ve been behind, here—right?—or just below here, not receiving the kinds of resources that they need, while other folks are over here. So, if we just get at—it’s not just about getting here. It’s about—there’s a lot—it’s a higher way, a longer way to go, to get to where people want to get to and where we need to be.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask about your own—you talked earlier about—we were talking about identity politics and how part of that is using your lived experience to—you know, to inform your politics and your work. So, could you say a little bit about your own lived experience, growing up—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: —in Chicago, of course?


NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, you talk about this identity—black, queer, feminist.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: But how did that come about in the context of growing up in Chicago? And then we also want to ask you—of course, the other person who grew up in Chicago is President Obama—


NERMEEN SHAIKH: —your assessment of him.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yes. So, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, and my parents are the children of black women who migrated from Mississippi. And so, from the way I talk to the way I understand food and so many like ways of being are what has come up with—what was it?—millions of black people who migrated from the South during the Great Migration, and from the people who stayed, the people who didn’t migrate. And so, for me, for a very long time, I was clear in my consciousness—

AMY GOODMAN: Where did your parents come from?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Oh, Chicago. My grandparents migrated from Mississippi. And so, for years, I was super conscious of being black. When I went to college, I went to a predominantly white institution, and I knew about being black. And obviously I knew I was a woman. But it was later in college where I was actually introduced to feminism. And I didn’t meet my first like out black feminist, Dr. Venus Evans-Winters, until I was a senior in college. And so I didn’t read black feminist texts, really, at least not knowingly, when I was in college. It was through movement that I came—that I really came into feminism, and specifically radical black feminism. I read a lot, but I never feel as well-read as other people do. Like I never feel that way. I feel like I’m behind. And there are entire books that people would, I don’t know, burn me at the stake for because I haven’t read it, I haven’t read them. I don’t know that stuff.

And so—and then my queerness, right? I think black people are inherently queer, frankly. I think black folks are queer, in a sense that we’re different. We are—we make things different. We’re expansive. We don’t fit into one simple box like one single thing. We’re super—we have multitudes. We’re very diverse. And then you have queer as like a sexual identity, right? A sexual orientation identity. And so, for me, when—as I continue to grow in my own queerness politically, as some people think, and then also when it comes to like how I relate to people, it is political for me. It is a part of my politics, Like I remember—I remember, like I was alive. I wasn’t alive. But, you know, there was a whole wave when lesbianism was a politic, like women loving women, or I’m a lesbian because this is my particular politic. And so, you know, I have a partner. She’s a woman. And she’s also an organizer. And so, like, who we love, how we love—

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve also interviewed her on Democracy Now!, if in fact—

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Mary Hooks. Mary Hooks from Southerners On New Ground.

AMY GOODMAN: Bailing Black Mamas Out.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yes, Bailing Black Mamas Out. And so—

AMY GOODMAN: For Mother’s Day.


AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, beyond.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Of course. And so, our values are connected to that. Like I’m not just queer because I happen to be in a relationship with another black woman, or I’ve been in relationships. It is about my values. How do I treat the women in my life? How do I treat the trans folk in my life, the gender-nonconforming folk, the straight folks in my life? How do I treat children? All those things matter. Like, identity is super important. And how does that actually—how it actually informs how you treat people and how you show up in the world is also important. So…

AMY GOODMAN: What about President Obama?


AMY GOODMAN: You’re a fellow Chicagoan.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yes. So, I mean, BYP100, we’re actually a part of a campaign right now fighting for a community benefits agreement, calling on the city of Chicago, the Obama Presidential Center and the University of Chicago to say that if we’re going to invest millions, millions upon millions of dollars, into the Obama Presidential Center, that we actually have to ensure that it benefits, and not—it doesn’t tear down the community that it’s being built in. And I live in South Shore, and not in the immediate area of where they’re going to build the Presidential Center, but in the adjacent community.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to clarify, for people who aren’t clear—


AMY GOODMAN: —you know, every president has a big library and center.


AMY GOODMAN: And President Obama’s is going to be in Chicago.


AMY GOODMAN: Run by the University of Chicago?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: It won’t be run by the University of Chicago, but the University of Chicago stands to benefit from the building of the Obama Presidential Center. We have been fighting the University of Chicago for a long time for various things. You know, there are a group of young folks and organizations, STOP and FLY, that won the trauma center victory in Chicago, fighting against the University of Chicago to build a high-level trauma center. So, it’s nothing new.

And when I think about President Barack Obama and the narrative of his legacy that gets to—that is able to be told, my question to him and everyone who is able to celebrate like all of his successes is: Why—if we can celebrate the success of the president, why can we not look to the things, the actions, that he and his administration have taken that actually haven’t been a benefit to our community? And if the presidential—Obama Presidential Center is built in Chicago without a community benefits agreement—and this campaign is being led by KOCO, a number of organizations in Chicago. There’s a whole coalition that we’re a part of.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, community benefits?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Community benefits, so that means jobs. So, who’s going to be employed to build it? What kind of housing is going to be built in the area? Right? Who—how are the rents or the costs in that neighborhood going to be raised or not raised as a result of it? Right? All of those things are in the agreement. We even are working on a piece of the agreement around policing, because with that presidential center, one can imagine that they will increase police presence. And our communities in that area, in Woodlawn, in Jackson Park, in South Shore, we don’t need more police. We have a lot of police, and they’re not actually keeping us safe in our communities. And so, if that center is built and there is no community benefits agreement, our communities will absolutely suffer. And that’s why the community benefits coalition of—Community Benefits Agreement Coalition is working hard to make sure that that happens.

AMY GOODMAN: And your assessment of his presidency? Go from President Obama—


AMY GOODMAN: —to President Trump.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yeah. So, you know, this is why it’s really important to me that we do the work to not just focus on candidates, and like actually focus on issues, because I was excited when he was elected. I was living in St. Louis at the time, in school there, and I was excited. I was optimistic. I was fired up and ready to go, just like everyone else. And then we enter eight years where we have unprecedented healthcare reform that’s passed. We have a super diverse White House. We have people doing really good work in the White House. And at the same time, we had the highest rate of undocumented people being deported, under this administration, in the country’s history.

And so, I believe that we have to contend both with the successes of his administration and the failures. And it’s not easy. I mean, you know, the imagery of Michelle Obama and their daughters, and the work of Michelle Obama, because she wasn’t always first lady—she did work before she entered the White House as first lady—it’s inspiring. And I know that it’s inspired black folks and all kinds of folks across the world. And I just implore us to contend with the things that didn’t go well for our people. Just like people would say, “He’s not the president of black America,” I guarantee you one thing, and what I saw, is that people from all groups were lobbying that administration for eight years, demanding—whether or not they voted for him. Black women voted in astronomical numbers. Black women—were it not for black women, Barack Obama wouldn’t have been elected two times in a row. It just wouldn’t have happened, as president, right? And so, we have every right. A comrade, Gopal Dayaneni from Movement Generation, talks about, if it’s the right thing to do, we have every right to do it. And in regards to Barack Obama, his presidency, there were a lot of things we had a right to do, but we didn’t take up the right to actually do it.

And now, we’re in this presidency with Donald Trump. And he is—oh, my gosh—he’s moving an agenda that has been in the works for decades. And he is a part of, intentionally or unintentionally, a broader base of—a coalition of people, who are both organized and disorganized, who are actively stripping away every semblance—or working to strip away every semblance of human rights and civil rights that we have in this country. And it is a state—it is urgent. It is a state of emergency, and it’s not something to play around with. And I think—I remember how I showed up in 2016. And I actually think I should have showed up differently in 2016. I should have taken it a little—not just a little, a lot more seriously, that this person could be elected, because they, be it the Supreme Court justice that he may be able to appoint in his tenure, or be it the—and, consequently, impact, be it Roe v. Wade or other pieces, cornerstones of what people like to call a democracy in this country, that’s something that we have to fight at every single step against happening.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, how do you—how do you understand Trump being elected right after Obama serving two terms as president?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: So, I understand that is not just white anxiety over the economy, but a huge fear of losing power, of losing identity, as losing privilege in this country, and knowing that we have a growing majority of black and brown folk and other folk in this country, and that after having—some people have called it like a whitelash, a backlash, things like that. But this is a highly reactionary moment for people.

And what I wish was happening was that people saw that actually Donald Trump is not acting in the best interests of poor white folks. He’s not acting in the best interests of—and poor white folks weren’t the folks who got him elected. Middle-class and upper-class and upper-middle-class white people got him elected. And so, they were voting within their best interests, because they understood that—and they understand that he’s not acting in the interests of working-class or poor white people. And so, that’s what I would love to see happen, is for the folks in Appalachia, for the folks in other parts of the country, the folks in the Midwest, to see that the emperor absolutely, indeed, has no clothes, that he’s not here for you, that his agenda will not actually benefit your life in the way that it should.

And so, I think his election was, folks had—one, they were tired of this black man in office, and everything that he represented, and they wanted something that was completely different. They absolutely, the media and other folks, stoked sexist tropes about Hillary Clinton during the election, and so it fed a certain thing, a certain level of anxiety that people hold, and also, quite frankly, a deep level of just institutional racism that exists in this country. And they heard the messages of Donald Trump, and they said, “You know what? I agree with him,” or, “You know what? He’s not serious. He’s not completely serious. But he’s got to do better than that guy. He’s going to put more money in my pockets.” And that’s not actually happening for the people who actually need it the most.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you consider this a hopeful time, Charlene?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: I’m an organizer. And so, for me, all times are troubling. They’re always troubling. And there’s always hope at the same time. I’m optimistic. If I weren’t optimistic about the possibility of now, the possibility of people running for office on radical agendas, the possibility of the young people who are organizing across this country, the folks who have gotten back in the movement after decades, I couldn’t do—I couldn’t do the work. And it’s seeing people take action, be it what people perceive as small actions or major actions, that gets me up in the morning. And as I continue to talk with people across the country about this book, about this work, about our movement, I’m excited to wrestle with these ideas with folks. Everybody doesn’t have to agree with me. I’m cool with that. But I do want people to wrestle and struggle with the ideas.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one last thing.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: You said earlier—you talked about being a Marxist. And then you just spoke on—you just spoke about the fact that poor white people who voted for Trump were voting against their own interests, because he’s not going to do anything for them. Now, Marx called that false consciousness. So let me ask Amy’s question in another way, which is to say: Do you see it as a hopeful moment now, given the fact that people like Andrew Gillum and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and all of the other progressive candidates we’ve been speaking of, that people are now voting for their interests?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Mm-hmm. I think that people are organizing for their interests and voting for their interests, right? And I’m a—I mean, I’m a black woman. We voted for our interests in Alabama. We voted for our interests in Virginia. We voted for our interests in 2016. We showed up. And we continue to show up over and over again. And so there’s a certain group of people in this country who have a muscle around engaging in elections, engaging in civil rights, human rights work, black liberation work. And there’s also a group of people or groups of folks who are starting to exercise their muscle, who are learning how to do this thing, how to vote, and then also know that that muscle has to be exercised after you vote, like engaging in the process in an ongoing manner, that really, really matters to us in 2016, 2018, 2020 and beyond.

And so, that’s exciting to me, because it gives folks like me, who have ideas that other folks may think are impossible—people are talking about prison abolition in this moment. I didn’t come up with the idea. When folks were talking about prison abolition decades ago, people believed it was impossible. And now we have articles in major media outlets that are saying abolish prisons. That’s the work. And so, folks like me should use this as an opportunity to come in—right?—and work alongside people who may or may not agree with us, may not hold all of our politics, and see it as an opportunity to bring folks up, expand the politic and expand the narrative.

AMY GOODMAN: Some have said every prison is a Confederate monument. Explain what prison abolition is.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yes. So, I learned about prison abolition from folks like Mariame Kaba, Asha Ransby-Sporn, Ruthie Gilmore, as a politic and as also—and critical resistance, that it is a long-term movement towards abolishing the prison-industrial complex and replacing it with alternatives that are not grounded in punishment, not grounded in incarceration.

And so, prison abolition, or the abolition of the prison-industrial complex, is, yes, let’s get rid of these things, and we have a responsibility, because—very simple story. Someone breaks into your car. What do you do? How—or they steal your car? What do you do? I’ve had my car stolen before. If I call the police, they’re actually not likely going to get my car back. But if we have the types of communities that actually look out for one another, that know what’s going on and know who stole that car, I want to have a conversation with the person who stole my car, and I want my car back. That’s what I want, because locking them up is not going to get me my car back. It might make me feel temporarily good.

Well, what are the alternatives that we can build when someone is in a mental health crisis? Police officers are not trained crisis interventionists. So what if a social worker responded? What if a rape crisis counselor responded in the middle of a crisis? What if we actually had those resources in our communities? That’s what abolition is about. It’s about doing that thinking, that tough thinking. What do—what are we doing right now with people who kill people? What are we doing right now with people who act—who commit acts of—

AMY GOODMAN: Who rape people?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: —who rape people? They’re in our communities right now. They’re on the streets right now. They’re not all in prison. And so, prison is not the solution for dealing with even the most difficult things in our society. So, as abolitionists, we have a duty to do the hard thinking and the hard work to think about what are going to be the alternatives. And I don’t have all the answers, but I’m committed to figuring it out.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re stepping down as head of BYP100—


AMY GOODMAN: —Black Youth Project 100, at the end of the year.


AMY GOODMAN: You made that announcement.


AMY GOODMAN: What are your plans?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Yeah, so, first, I’m excited about our incoming co-directors, and I hope they get to talk to you one day on Democracy Now!, D’atra Jackson and Janae Bonsu. I’m really excited for them.

And as I think about myself, I’m excited about myself and what I’m going to do. I’ll be on this book tour for quite some time. I want to teach. I want to build an actual center for leadership development in Chicago, where we can train organizers and activists and strategic communicators. I’m really excited about the opportunity or the prospect of training folks how to do the things that they’re most passionate about, and sharpening each other in a broader community.

And then, one thing that may be surprising to people is I love food. I love cooking. And so, I actually want to do that for a while. Like, I can tell you the best restaurants to go to in most places in the country and some in the world. And so, I want to engage people in conversations over the plate, because what’s on our plate is inherently political. And you can politicize people over talking about how a curry landed in Trinidad, and talk about migration and politics in a way that doesn’t hit them over the head like conversations about abolition and political candidates and elections and things like that. And so, I want to dig into that and have some fun and travel a bit and do some education and building with people around food.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for spending this time with us. Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100, outgoing director, as she expands her horizons even further. Her new book, it’s just out. It’s titled Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements. And we’re going to link to two things: your book tour, as you travel around the country—you’re headed to?

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: I’m headed to Atlanta next, and I’ll be at the Strand tonight.

AMY GOODMAN: And we are going to link to your recommendation of restaurants in this country and around the country.


AMY GOODMAN: And your favorite food, all of those things.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: OK! Sounds great. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Charlene Carruthers, thanks so much for joining us.


AMY GOODMAN: To see Part 1 of our discussion with Charlene, you can go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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