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Robin D. G. Kelley on 20 Years of “Freedom Dreams”: Occupy & Black Lives Matter Movements, Abolition

Web ExclusiveAugust 31, 2022
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Historian and author Robin D. G. Kelley joins us for an extended Part 2 interview about the 20th anniversary edition of his book, “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination,” about organizations, activists and artists who he says are turning freedom dreams into a practice, from a noun to a verb. “The core idea of the book — that is, that radical movements are sustained by a vision of what they wish to build and not just what they want to tear down — was really taken up by activists and artists and turned into action.” We discuss the 2020 racial justice protests, Occupy Wall Street and the debt forgiveness movement, Black Lives Matter, Obama, the resurgence of fasicsm, and disability justice, which he calls “a framework that embraces abolition. That is to say, it demands nothing less than the overthrow of all forms of ableism and the structures that support it.” His book is newly revised and expanded, with a new introduction and a new foreword by poet Aja Monet. “Poetry is not just pretty words,” notes Kelley. “It is a kind of pulling from the unconscious the deep sense of both pain, suffering, but also our imagination for creating something different.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 of our conversation with Robin D. G. Kelley, professor of history at UCLA, who studies social movements, the author of many books, including Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, published 20 years ago, now out in a revised and expanded anniversary edition.

There is so much to take on here. Professor Kelley, if you can start off by talking about why you felt that a 20th anniversary edition was so important right now, why it is so relevant to what’s happening today?

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY: Sure. You know, I thought about this in the wake of the 2020 protests, and also thinking about Occupy, which was a really significant moment in the history of the last 20 years, and the resurgence of fascism. And to be clear, you know, I write in the new introduction that the core ideas of the book — that is, that radical movements are sustained by a vision of what they wish to build and not just what they want tear down — was really taken up by activists and artists and turned into action.

And it was amazing for me to see, in cities like Jackson, Mississippi, and Detroit, or even to see my own students, you know, for whom I wrote the book, go on to lead a number of these organizations that erupted in the mid-2010s and in 2020. It was also a chance to reflect on the developments of the last 20 years, you know, the shifting political landscape, the extraordinary expansion of a radical vision. You know, there’s so much — we have such an expansive vision, more so now than 20 years ago, in terms of the power of feminist and queer and trans movements, Indigenous movements for decolonization, in climate justice and disability justice. So, it’s really an extraordinary moment.

AMY GOODMAN: You also quote your daughter in this book. Talk about the love letter.

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY: Yes. So, my daughter was 11 when the book came out, and she is probably the person closest to this book. She did an interview. She’s now a professor at Yale University in African American studies and English. And she writes about the way African Americans have turned spaces of enclosure into new commons, into these beautiful spaces of possibility.

And, you know, she did this interview where she talks about the promise of the love letter, that, you know, if we’re going to build a different kind of society, different relationship, it shouldn’t be based on things like citizenship, based on the authority of a state to tell us how to live together, but new ways. And so, the promise of a love letter is one of — that goes way beyond empathy. It’s like saying you send a love letter out with no expectation of a response, because a politics of love, which is actually what Freedom Dreams is built on, is what we actually need. That is, it doesn’t have to be reciprocity. We don’t build solidarity for the sake of getting something back. We build it because we’re together. And that old slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” you know, that’s basically what the love letter is telling us.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about the book coming out 20 years after it was first published, Freedom Dreams. So, it came out before the Obama administration, the first African American president of the United States. And then, of course, we moved into Trump. You wrote in 2017, “Today’s organized protests in the streets and other places of public assembly portend the rise of a police state in the United States. For the past five years, the insurgencies of the Movement for Black Lives and its dozens of allied organizations have warned the country that unless we end racist state-sanctioned violence and the mass caging of Black and brown people, we are headed for a fascist state.” So, talk about that trajectory, from Obama to Trump, and what we’re seeing today with the insurrection, expanded police.

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY: Yeah. Well, I’m probably going to get myself in trouble saying this, but in many ways there’s a kind of dual trajectory. I mean, on the one hand, liberalism wasn’t that helpful for us. You know, Clinton gave us the crime bill. Clinton gave us welfare reform, you know, gave us the deregulation of the financial industry. And some of those same policies continue into the Obama administration, especially around finance and around war, the continuation of the war. So, you know, one of the important lessons about fascism is that liberal regimes, you know, open themselves up to fascist change. They’re not necessarily always a hedge against fascism. And so, yes, it is true that Trump and Trump’s people were a backlash against this Black president, but this Black president basically continued policies that were Bush-era policies, you know? And I think it’s important to remember that.

So, when I talk about the threat of fascism, I am talking about something that is some ways new under Trump, but I’m also talking about something that’s very old and rooted in American history, the fact that we’ve been here before, that Jim Crow itself is a system of fascism, when you think about the denial of basic rights for whole groups of people, the way in which race is operating as a kind of nationalism against some kind of enemy threat, the corralling of human beings in ghettos. I mean, this is what we’ve been facing for a long time.

But part of what makes me hopeful is that the same organizing efforts against — right? — the Obama administration, against the Obama years, in terms of the height of anti-police protests, is the same force that could basically be the hedge against fascism. The question is: Where are we going to stand? How are we going to support them? And how are we going to move beyond simply, you know, trying to put another liberal in office to continue the status quo, to doing something radically different, something that’s more abolitionist?

AMY GOODMAN: So, what about that, following up on the Obama administration? You have, right at the — after he was reelected in 2013, these three remarkable women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — creating this Black-centered, feminist political movement with the social media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Of course, it came right after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. But what that meant and where that is today? And address this issue of white supremacy that we are seeing, even under Trump and Biden, the intelligence community, the Department of Justice recognizing white supremacy is the greatest domestic violence threat we face today.

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY: Right. Well, let’s take the first one. That was an extraordinary moment. And yes, Black Lives Matter was important. It was part of a whole wave of movements — We Charge Genocide in Chicago, Assata’s Daughters, the rebellion in Ferguson, which was separate from Black Lives Matter. I mean, it was really a kind of insurgent movement saying an end to state violence as we know it. But it was also an insurgent movement against white supremacy, though it didn’t always take the form of the Klan or the Nazis. It took the form of the police. It took the form of state policies and right-wing state legislatures passing laws that made protest a crime, you know? I mean, we saw this.

When we think about the problem of white supremacy, it is the perennial problem, from before the founding of the nation. And, you know, when we think about, for example, the anti-Klan movement, the modern anti-Klan movement in the 1970s and '80s emerges where? It emerges in prisons, where prisoners are saying, “We've got wardens and guards who are Klansmen, and we need to fight them.” And it expands across the country. And I think we have to keep remembering that over and over again, because some of the same people who end up being elected to office are the — in some ways, the political offspring of the Klan and the Nazis and white supremacist organizations of the '70s, ’80s and ’90s. And then, you know, you know, because you've covered this so well, how many cases of racial violence, whether it’s against Sikhs, against Black people, against undocumented immigrants, that we’ve seen every year. Every year, you know? And we keep coming back to this question of, “Oh, well, we’ve got to deal with assault weapons.” That is important, but it doesn’t solve the problem of continuing and sanctioned white supremacist violence.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you talk about turning nouns into verbs. And I wanted to go to what happened last week, President Biden signing an executive order for student debt relief, that could help more than 40 million borrowers by canceling up to $20,000 of their federal loans. We spoke to Astra Taylor, co-director of the Debt Collective, a union for debtors that grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement and helped push for full relief. This is what she said.

ASTRA TAYLOR: Social progress means that other people do not have to suffer through something that previous generations did. And the fact is, polling shows that most people have that attitude. Most people are not as selfish and cynical as Mitch McConnell. In fact, student debt cancellation is more popular with people who didn’t go to college than people who did, probably because they understand that the costs are rising so fast, they’re prohibitive. So, this is something people are really celebrating.

AMY GOODMAN: You referenced, in the first part of our conversation, the significance of what happened 10 years ago in this country, Occupy, in 2011. Very much the Debt Collective sort of comes out of that tradition. If you could talk about — while it’s the president who announces, and many thought it didn’t go half far enough, to say the least, so many of these decisions, obviously, start with grassroots movements.

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY: No question. I mean, Occupy, the Debt Collective, the work that’s being done, that’s been being done for years, forced the Biden administration to come to this conclusion. He had to campaign around it, because it was so important, and the fact that the Debt Collective had some victories, you know, around Corinthian and some of the sort of for-profit colleges.

And let me just add one other thing. You know, this myth that somehow student loan debt is the debt of the elite, when in fact so much that debt is tied to for-profit colleges, that got federal sanction to basically take veterans’ money, to take the money of families who receive welfare, in order to somehow obtain a skill and go to these specialized colleges, and with no promise of anything, no promise of a job, except for greater debt. And that’s much of the debt that’s being cancelled. And it’s still not enough, as you’re saying.

And, you know, the other thing just to keep in mind is that we have conservatives who call themselves Christians, who don’t know the Bible, because in Jubilee, you know, debt cancellation is part of the biblical injunction. You’re supposed to cancel debts, you know, periodically. That is part of it. And I just wish the right would read their Bible, because, you know, maybe they would support this as a biblical move. I mean, I’m an atheist, but still, I read my Bible.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the things you talk about, Professor Kelley, in your book, is that when you first published it and wrote it 20 years ago, you didn’t address the disability rights movement. Can you talk about why you feel that is so important to understand today?

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY: Yes, and specifically disability justice. It’s a framework that embraces abolition. And that is to say, it demands nothing less than the overthrow of all forms of ableism, you know, and the structures that support it. So, the difference between disability justice and disability rights is that disability justice says, you know, we’ve got to deal with racism, sexism, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, that these are the forms of oppression that make even disability differential. And so, if you think about the way that we responded to the COVID-19 crisis, for example, and to this day how we’re still responding to it, that disabled people who are Black and Brown and poor, undocumented, Indigenous, queer, gender nonconforming, they’re the ones that end up getting differential care, sometimes less care, sometimes inhumane care. They’re the ones who end up incarcerated, end up homeless, end up jobless, housing insecure. And that’s what disability justice tells us.

And for me, I was forced to really come to terms with it by a number of folks who really were involved in the disability justice movement, who really forced me to think deeper about, like, what is a radical freedom dream, you know? Aurora Levins Morales, for example, is one who’s a really important disability justice activist who really kind of pulled my coattails on this.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Robin Kelley, your foreword is written by Aja Monet, the poet. Talk about the importance of poetry and art in a new vision of the world.

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY: Well, that foreword is so beautiful, it brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. And Aja Monet specifically, as a poet and activist, embodies everything that Freedom Dreams tried to be, you know, because part of what the book argues, or a central part of what the book argues, is that we need to think like poets, that poetry, as Aimé Césaire talks about, is not just, you know, pretty words. It’s not simply trying to find the right metaphors. It was a splattering. It’s a kind of pulling from the unconscious the deep sense of both pain, suffering, but also our imagination for creating something different.

And one of the things I felt like social movements needed, or lacked, at least, at that moment was, this scramble to deal with crises every day made it difficult to stop and think like poets. And one of the things I added to the book was an epilogue that I wrote originally for the book, that I decided not to put in, which describes what I call a poetarian revolution. And so people could read that in the book. But the key thing is that poets — or, poetry is not something that is the reserve of professionals. It is something that we all do, we all practice. And in order to find our way to the New World, we’ve got to be able to think like and dream like poets, because that is the dream that we can’t see in the same tangible way. It’s the one that we build, not blindly, but with our eyes wide open.

AMY GOODMAN: Aja Monet writes, “Robin D. G. Kelley is a cartographer of a past present future.” On Thursday night, President Biden will be giving an address in Philadelphia, that has been described as “the battle for the soul of the nation” and “the fight for democracy.” What would you like to hear him address?

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY: Whoo, that’s a hard question, because I — well, let me — let’s — let me just try to answer it this way: what I’d like to hear him address, as opposed to what I expect. I’d love for him to talk about the long game in terms of what democracy should be. Democracy shouldn’t simply be money in politics, electing officials who then speak for us or speak for whoever’s giving them the money. Democracy should be participatory. Democracy should be economic.

In other words, imagine Biden saying, “You know what? Debt cancellation is the most democratic thing we can do to create a fair chance for everyone to succeed. Single-payer healthcare is the most democratic thing we could do to create a fair opportunity for people to get decent care. The abolition of policing and replacing police with something that is actually safer and kinder is the best thing we could do. Open the prisons and the jails, that’s the most democratic thing we can do.” You know, that’s what I would love to hear Biden say. But, look, I’m not holding my breath. And it’s the movements that build the agenda, not our presidents.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. Robin D. G. Kelley, author of many books, including Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. It was published 20 years ago. It’s now out in a revised and expanded 20th anniversary edition.

And I’ll end with the words of the poet Aja Monet in her foreword to this book. Her poem:

Where ever we are going
We are there
Whoever we will be
We have been

Part 1 of our discussion with Professor Kelley at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us

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