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“Freedom Dreams”: Historian Robin D. G. Kelley on 20th Anniversary of His Book & Why Movements Matter

StoryAugust 31, 2022
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On the last day of Black August, as President Biden calls for an assault weapons ban and more funding for police, we speak with UCLA professor Robin D. G. Kelley, who recently published the revised and expanded 20th anniversary edition of his book “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination,” with an added foreword by poet Aja Monet. The new edition was inspired by the Black Lives Matter uprisings in 2020 and covers topics from critical race theory to state militarism that Kelley says “continues to this day.” Kelley says the book’s legacy conveys that “we don’t have the luxury to just fight for reform. We can’t survive that way. We’ve got to fight for revolutionary change.”

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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, with Juan González.

In a speech Tuesday in Pennsylvania promoting his Safer America Plan, President Biden called for an assault weapons ban and for the hiring of 100,000 more law enforcement officers nationwide.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: When it comes to public safety in this nation, the answer is not “defund the police,” it’s “fund the police.” Fund the police.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on this last day of Black August, we spend the rest of the hour with UCLA professor Robin D. G. Kelley, who’s just published the 20th anniversary revised and expanded edition of his book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, with a new foreword by poet Aja Monet. In it, Kelley writes about organizations, activists and artists who are turning freedom dreams into a practice, from a noun to verb.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: As we do this show today, from the flooding of an American city and the lack of water access in the majority-Black city of Jackson to the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq to the calling for more funding for police and an assault weapons ban, your thoughts?

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY: OK, let’s begin with where you started — that is, this plan on the part of Biden. We knew this was coming. It was his campaign promise, adding 100,000 more cops. It echoes the Clinton-era crime bill, this call for community policing, which, you know, we can’t be fooled. Community policing grows out of “broken windows” policing, which involves targeting Black and Brown residents with surveillance, harassment, using predictive technologies for policing. And think about what would have happened had $37 billion went into things that people need to make them safer, like housing, healthcare, environmental protections, jobs.

But let me just say, one, this is not a glimmer of hope. I’m not making a case — you know, but I’m making a case that despite the Biden people’s opposition to defund, there’s an element of it that was a response. That is, you know, $15 billion of grants for nonpolice first responders for mental health crises. Let’s see how this is going to turn out. I’m not sure. But clearly, movements make a difference. And this is part of the argument of Freedom Dreams, that movements do make a difference, especially when you think beyond the immediate needs to something bigger.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Robin Kelley, can you talk about what are the — what’s new in the edition that you put out now in terms of the revisions? Clearly, a lot has happened in 20 years. Your book first came out in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the beginning of the Iraq War. Since then, we’ve had the Black Spring of 2020, when millions of people all around the world rising up after the killing of George Floyd. But we’ve also had the rise of what I like to call the diversity, equity and inclusion industry, DEI, the DEI industry, that has sought to co-opt the radical nature of this movement that arose in 2020. Talk about those things and also what you feel is the most important new aspect of the new edition of your book.

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY: OK. Well, that’s — let me start by talking about what — where we were and where we are. You know, I mean, I should say that the inspiration to put out this new edition was spring 2020. I mean, the fact is, the book didn’t go out of print; it continued to sort of exist in the ether and was really important among organizers.

But let’s go back. So, on the one hand, back in 2000, 2001, you know, it felt like the Bush-Cheney election derailed a lot of our movements, despite the fact that we witnessed the largest antiwar protests in history, you know? And I was in New York City during 9/11, and I remember the Islamophobia. I remember the real uncritical celebration of cops as first responders. And keep in mind, this is right after, in the wake of the Cincinnati rebellion in April 2001, after the killing of Timothy Thomas. This is in the wake of the Amadou Diallo protests around the acquittal of the cops who killed — again, these two, both cases, unarmed Black men. And, you know, Cincinnati looked like Ferguson. It was like a precursor in many ways. So, we’re out here protesting Bush-era militarism. That militarism continues to escalate, despite the claims that there’s an end to the war on terror. You know, your last guest talked about this continuation of these wars. And militarism continues to this day. Sometimes it takes on the form of, you know, U.S. support for Israeli occupation of Palestine. It takes on the form of the expansion of troops in Africa, you know, through AFRICOM. So, a lot of what we were fighting for then — or, fighting against, still exists, still persists. So, I think that’s important.

The other side, in thinking about the whole attacks on critical race theory, it’s an interesting problem, because what I can say briefly is that the latest wave of intellectual McCarthyism, the sort of attacks on CRT, is not really attacks on critical race theory, it’s attacks on liberal multiculturalism. And it’s interesting that — you know, it relates to Freedom Dreams in that the backlash is a backlash to a movement, and not necessarily a backlash to, say, President Obama. It’s driven by white heteropatriarchal nationalism, which was there in 2000, persists throughout the 21st century, and it uses the racially coded language of anti-wokeness. “Anti-wokeness,” DeSantis’s use of that term is not an accident. It’s supposed to signal something. But it works. It works because it convinces a large segment of the country that the real threat to their lives are nonwhite people, queer people and our history. You know, this is the real existential threat, not privatized healthcare, not climate catastrophe, not crimes of the state, not global recession, not food and housing insecurity, not the threat of war with China, not economic policies that make the rich richer, you know, like this CHIPS bill, so that rich people could buy Black and queer art, as a fun right-wing causes.

So, you know, in many ways, if there’s a basic sort of lesson that Freedom Dreams continues to sort of convey and that the movements that erupted since then have actually taken up and expanded, it is that we don’t have the luxury to just fight for reform. We can’t survive that way. We’ve got to fight for revolutionary change. That’s the only way we’ll survive as a planet. And the only way to do that is to think beyond the immediate needs and concerns and crisis that are right in front of us.

AMY GOODMAN: You have the Detroit activist and philosopher, the late, great Grace Lee Boggs, really at the center of your book, Freedom Dreams, so deeply involved with the Black power, labor, environmental justice and feminist movements. Before her death at the age of 100 in 2015, she was a frequent guest on Democracy Now! I wanted to turn to her in 2010.

GRACE LEE BOGGS: People are beginning to say the only way to survive is by taking care of one another, by recreating our relationships to one another, that we have created a society, over the last period, in particular, where each of us is pursuing self-interest. We have devolved as human beings.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about why Grace Lee Boggs’ activism, politics and philosophy is so important to you and so central in Freedom Dreams, Professor Kelley.

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY: She is the center of the book. She is the inspiration, in many ways, for Freedom Dreams. You know, we go back to like 1992, and she started this debate with me about, you know, you need to read Dr. King, you need to pay attention to people’s needs beyond protest. Like, how do you build the society we’re trying to establish in time, in the present, as opposed to just continuing to fight for reform? And so, we had this ongoing debate, and she forced me to rethink some things. Even after Freedom Dreams came out, she had more critiques, of course.

And so, I end the book with an epilogue that has a very substantial section on what is being built in Detroit right now as a result of the Boggs Center and the work that Grace and Jimmy Boggs did. And so, that’s a really important part of the story, saying that freedom dreamers are basically building that society of creating new human beings, new ways of being together that don’t fall into the same old trap of, you know, the Marxist seizing state power.

AMY GOODMAN: Robin, we have to end, but we’re going to do a post-show and post it at democracynow.org. Professor Robin D. G. Kelley, his new book, 20th anniversary edition, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.

A very happy birthday to Hany Massoud! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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