This is chapter three of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees. It is available via Amazon, if you would like your own copy. In the third chapter Andrej Goldman and Bill Hampton discuss hope, activism, and program.
Andrej, what was most critical for activism to successfully build a lasting, growing, revolutionary movement like RPS?
I remember a talk I heard years back that focused on a case study. The speaker told us that in April of 1968, France had considerable activism but also a vast sea of passivity. Then some modest campus disputes over male and female hours of dorm access erupted. In days the country exploded and for weeks was a revolutionary cauldron of creative energy. The great Paris upheaval. Everyone began delineating the horrors of modern life and fighting for comprehensive change. People rallied, marched, occupied, and fought on a huge scale. France tottered. Yet, in a few months, quiet returned. Unprecedented rebellion succumbed to resurgent passivity.
The speaker asked how we might best explain such sudden turning on and off of gigantic social upheaval? He said one possibility was that ideas about how society works were suddenly widely conveyed, and fueled the uprisings. A bit later the insights melted away and upheaval subsided back into life as usual. The speaker then wondered, however, how a whole society could become suddenly enlightened and then just as suddenly apocalyptically dis-enlightened? Did mass lobotomy eradicate massively injected wisdom?
Rejecting that explanation, the speaker proposed that before May 1968 France’s population had had no hope for a transformed future. During May they had hope. Later, hope dissipated and hope’s exit terminated turmoil. I thought claiming aroused hope was paramount was astute. I agreed pinpointing suddenly learned and equally suddenly forgotten ideas was ridiculous.
But that was then, what about now?
My understanding of then explains why, when you ask what ideas I think aided RPS emerging, I emphasize RPS offering compelling, desirable vision that aroused informed hope.
Suppose we compare the half century extending from 1965 to 2015, to the quarter century extending from 2015 to 2040. What changed so that in the earlier period, despite that at many moments large numbers of people understood or were only a hair away from understanding society’s ills, nonetheless that period never generated sustainable projects for winning a new society – yet now such projects are nearing full success?
Many say it was a recent brilliant insight we didn’t have earlier, or a recent event they didn’t experience earlier. And while I don’t deny the importance of ideas or events, I think RPS activism has been at least as much caused by other factors as by brilliant insights or specific events.
What other factors?
First, hope replaced absence of hope. We went from believing that “there is no attainable alternative,” to believing “there is an attainable alternative.”
Second, we stopped mainly criticizing, rejecting, and denigrating one another and old social relations, and started celebrating, advocating, and supporting one another while proposing new social relations.
Third, we recognized that “united we stand, divided we fall” is not just a catchy slogan but a powerful insight we had to embrace to succeed. One person can have impact. Many people can have more impact. But many people won’t cooperate unless they acknowledge each other’s diverse desires.
Another factor was style versus substance. The former is the clever, emotive impact of words. The latter is the meaning of sentences in paragraphs and arguments. In the half century to 2015, style exceeded substance. The climax was Trump, who paid zero attention to evidence, logic, and even truth, and instead used catch words and slick phrases to stoke passions. But Trump was more culmination than cause. Before Trump, Twitter and Facebook distorted communication into short nuggets that precluded presenting serious evidence and argument. Narcissistic selfie culture bent priorities. Clickbait titles deceived readers. Fake news became policy. Toxicity spread, and finally Trump emerged. So, this change was that, fourth, we tried to reverse the imbalance between style and substance, and that too helped birth RPS.
In sum, enlarged hope, mutual aid-oriented insights, unyielding commitments to develop and share vision, growing desire for organization, and increased emphasis on substance all aided RPS in the last quarter century, where these factors had been far less present in the prior half century.
But that’s all in people’s heads. What about material conditions?
Yes, it’s in people’s heads. Where else should we look for what causes persistent changes to people’s behavior? For centuries material conditions have warranted sustained, revolutionary activism. So why did it recently emerge? Some look toward material conditions. I instead highlight changes in our views and choices. Changes which others can enact as well.
Bill Hampton, born in 1997, you became highly active in anti-racist politics and then in RPS. You focused on city life, transportation, and urban planning and became an inner city activist, a Mayoral candidate, and finally Mayor of New York City. Do you remember first becoming radical?
Under Obama, I had grown horrified at the racist resurgence that birthed Black Lives Matter and sensitized many to Islamaphobia and immigration. Joining the campaign for sanctuary in my local church greatly affected me. Feeling the need to connect with other emerging struggles primed me for RPS. I never said I want to be radical. I want to be revolutionary. Instead, something inside took over, and that was that.
Can you tell us what about RPS most personally moved you?
The first thing that comes to mind was when I was at a sanctuary for immigrants slated to be deported. The site was a church in Texas, with an incredibly courageous pastor, choir, and congregation. Police came and announced they were going to take the immigrant families for deportation. They had their vans and were set to do their duty. They lined up in three rows, ten abreast, facing the church entrance. The Pastor stood atop the Church steps, with maybe 50 congregants, and the full choir. He told the sheriff that to take the immigrant families, the police would have to go through the church’s extended family. He said, and I will never forget, “You will have to assault us. You may even have to kill us. We will not be moved in our minds. We will only be moved in our bodies and only then if you brutalize our limbs into physical silence and shove our trembling husks aside. If you feel that is warranted, come ahead.”
We all simultaneously locked arms and before the police could even process that, the doors of the Church opened to reveal rows and rows of congregants, also with locked arms. You could see the families, in the distance at the pulpit.
This was Selma, the Pettus bridge. It was Birmingham. The sheriff may as well have been Bull Connor reincarnated. Likely most or perhaps all the officers who accompanied the sheriff hoped they would get some action. But two sat down with us. Welcomed, crying, they must have thought they would be unemployed by days’ end, but they sat.
The sheriff knew that breaching our human barrier would only succeed if we crumbled and ran. The Pastor said, no, we won’t run. But the sheriff had so little regard for anyone who could side with immigrants that he felt, of course we would fold. A few big swings of their overlong batons and we would scurry off leaving a clear path to the deportees. So the sheriff gave a two minute warning. The choir began singing. “We shall not be moved, we shall not be moved…” The two minutes passed. The sheriff and his deputies marched into our human barrier. They struck viciously with their long, scary batons. Our singing continued. “Deep in our hearts we know…” As the officers tromped and battered us, we grunted and moaned, but few screamed.
With the choir singing, with more folks from within the church coming out, and with onlookers clearly horrified, incredibly, the defenders, including myself, reached up and embraced our tormentors. Our hugs diminished their capacity for brutal swings. There was an intimacy about it. We weren’t begging. We were understanding. We weren’t fighting fire with fire, but with water. We weren’t fighting racism with racism, but with solidarity.
After a moment, some deputies relented. Then the sheriff did too. He had to. They certainly could have physically demolished us, leaving a battlefield of blasted souls in their wake, but nothing less would take the families, and scorched earth was too much.
At first indication of retreat, the Pastor, bloodied and bent, invited the sheriff and his closest deputies to enter the church. I can still hear him. “You just have to leave your batons and guns with your fellow officers outside. If you will do that, you are welcome to talk to the immigrant families, myself, and others in our space of peace and worship within.”
Tears flowed. Medics aided congregants. Calmly, respectfully, after what seemed like an eternity of just standing there staring at the bloodied Pastor, and in what I will never know but suspect was a shock for the Pastor like for the rest of us, the Sheriff took off his gun, and walked with the Pastor into the Church.
I don’t know what they talked about, but the next day the Sheriff held a brief press conference. “I will no longer recognize federal orders, or any orders at all, to deport immigrants.”
That was the whole thing. It was the shortest, longest, press conference ever. It was also the beginning of the end, not just in Texas and the U.S., but around the world, of the blame the immigrant, beat the immigrant, expel the immigrant, mindset. When those who are paid to impose rule break bread with presumed violators, rule succumbs to resistance. This was such an incredible sight, such an incredible event, so meaningful an occurrence in so many ways, that, I have to name it in answer to your question.
I should add the event changed me in another major way. Before, I had always been afraid of and hated cops. I knew their worst side firsthand. To me, my family, my friends, cops spelled danger and even death. I used the epithet “pig” more than “officer.” I saw only one way to deal with them: fight fire with fire, eye to eye, toe to toe.
The sanctuary didn’t make me a pacifist, but it did make me reassess defaming people and reconsider what made tactical sense. The sheriff was an archetype cop, but we disarmed him. Non violence plus compassion beat what would have totally demolished any attempt by us to fight back. I learned that instead of violence being first resort, it had to be last. I learned there was a huge burden of proof on being violent and even on creating conditions leading to violence. I learned police could be turned our way. Indeed, they had to be.
With such powerful events happening, how did RPS program emerge?
I think program became a natural focus to expand events like the above. It emerged against the backdrop of the Sanders campaign and the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements, as well as related efforts in Greece, Spain, Turkey, Portugal, South Africa, and the Corbyn experience in the UK and the huge women’s demonstrations against Trump. I had myself been hugely affected by Occupy and very involved in it, and also by the Venezuelan experience, and Greek and Spanish uprisings.
Trump’s victory was traumatic. Before long, he was appointing climate deniers, vicious racists and misogynists, and even overt fascists. His administration propelled an orgy of right-wing excess made even worse by fears the country wanted it, or would at least accept it, though we soon saw the country did not want it and would not accept it, when millions rebelled against austerity, racism, war, and global warming. Still, the anti Trump surge could either fizzle back into business as usual pre Trump for lacking positive focus and wide solidarity, or it could move toward encompassing program and organization. The latter happened, though it wasn’t an easy path.
How did program emerge and why was it hard to achieve?
First, there was already program proposed by the Sanders campaign and almost simultaneously Black Lives Matter rebounded from largely ignoring program to seriously and excellently offering it. But if you look back, you will see that most people, even on the left, were still unimpressed with program. The same thing was evidenced when the massive women’s marches offered program. Dozens of essays addressing Trump’s tweeter insanities appeared for every one that addressed the BLM or Women’s program or any positive program at all.
That must have been extremely frustrating…
Yes, but it wasn’t new. It continued a long-time failing into our new context. At any rate, the resistance to Trump clearly needed a more substantive, forward looking orientation. It wasn’t that people weren’t asking what’s next and how do we persist. It was that even that discussion rarely included positive program, visionary substance, and encompassing organization. People regularly addressed important immediate details, but rarely longer run aims and methods.
In response to Trump trying to hugely escalate deportation, activists organized sanctuaries. Even earlier were the airport demonstrations. Then I remember a mosque burning in Texas followed by a temple handing over its keys to the Moslems left without their place of worship. Incredible things like that happened over and over, but tying together the disparate sentiments and actions into lasting positive program was difficult.
To expand the reaction to Trumps’ anti immigrant efforts, activists created local sanctuaries in churches and universities and even in some private homes where people offered to harbor deportees to protect them. One solidarity slogan was, “If you take our friends, you have to take us, and neither they nor we are going without a fight.”
Venues like churches and campus centers provided housing and protection and when deportation authorities even sneezed at such venues, masses of supporters situated themselves to block police entry. During the days and nights of the sanctuaries, we held teach ins and cultural events to build support and develop trust. This activism kept spreading until groups of major athletes welcomed immigrants into sports arenas the same way the New Orleans Saints arena had been used to house Hurricane Katrina victims, years before. This, unsurprisingly, stopped Trump’s deportation schemes cold and also created a mutual aid mindset that had been absent in some other anti-Trump activism.
Another effective choice was our response to white supremacist, war mongering, climate denying, Cabinet members. We first exposed their views, then proposed progressives for their posts, and explained clearly how they would be better. We even rallied where the appointees worked, lived, and worshipped. I remember the shock to us and them of our going into their rich neighborhoods and demonstrating at their homes. First we did it in groups of thirty to forty and cops quickly cleared us out. Then we got smarter and held rallies in poor neighborhoods and city centers in their towns. From the rallies we collectively marched to their homes. We were peaceful, but there were often hundreds or even thousands of us. The cabinet members wanted us driven off, but imagine the impact of doing so on their neighbors. Just telling us to leave wouldn’t work. What next. Gas suburbia? Then we started inviting kids from nearby homes to join us, and in a few cases even kids of the cabinet members we were confronting. Imagine their subsequent family dinners.
Perhaps our most effective anti-Trump project was responding to enlarged military and police budgets by positively pointing out better ways to spend the funds and demanding changes in police structure, policy, and community oversight and control, all echoing earlier BLM efforts, and in using military bases to build low income housing funded by military budgets. Fighting to earmark the first houses to soldiers who built them did wonders for outreach.
We also invited and welcomed police into neighborhood and even household meetings to discuss how to create safer communities and avoid racist policing. We went to military bases and police stations and organized. Of course, it all took time and we had to overcome a lot of our own fear and very real and aggressive anger, but I think these endeavors helped the anti-Trump resistance not just restrain Trump, but also move toward RPS activism.
We understood that we had to find worthy things to demand and effective ways to fight which appealed to every crucial constituency and polarized no worthy constituency away from progressive participation. Of course, after Trump was beaten by Warren in 2020, and once momentum had grown and a degree of coherence and clarity had emerged, we began to build grassroots neighborhood and workplace assemblies. Warren may well have been not only our first woman president but our first honest President. She wasn’t RPS born, but nor was she aggressively anti RPS.
But pre- and post-Warren, we also needed organization. I remember when Trump won I wondered, for the next four years should we only have disparate, disconnected movements about all manner of separate issues, overwhelmingly aimed only at preventing reaction? Or should we have at least one overarching, multi-issue, multi-tactic organization emphasizing proposing, organizing for, and trying to win wide ranging elements of positive program and vision?
I remember debating whether a new visionary organization should look like those we had seen in the past, or if we needed to conceive and implement powerful new ways to welcome and enhance diversity, celebrate and practice collective self management, and chastise and structurally guard against arrogant, sectarian, apocalyptic, and especially too narrow, in-grown organizing. Our answers fed the momentum that created RPS. But it wasn’t simple or quick. There was so much passionate anger, so much defensiveness, so much chaos, and so much skepticism, that at first it was very hard to get coherent results.
One striking aspect of those times was that many activists opposed having any program at all. They didn’t resist specifics of program, rather they feared that highlighting program or anything intellectually substantive would lead to the most verbal, confident, least time pressured, and best educated activists dominating discussions and governing outcomes.
People didn’t want program to protect participation? Please explain.
Activists intuitively understood the negative implications of elevating what we later called the coordinator class of managers, doctors, lawyers, et. al., but back then resistance to coordinator elitism often deteriorated into resisting thought itself. Distancing from evaluation and exploration obstructed dealing with the substance of movement goals and structure, but the sentiment driving it was not anti-intellectualism. Rather, we resisted leaders monopolizing decision making, and our resistance, even if not how we expressed it, was warranted.
I remember heated arguments where the polished “advocates of reason” would encounter opposition that for all the world looked to be rejecting reason itself, and even rejecting thinking, rather than only rejecting perverse thinking that advanced narrow interests.
What finally made the underlying truth pretty clear was to see who lined up where. The battle wasn’t pretty, and it didn’t resolve quickly, but, over a period of years we made major progress, though even now the issues are still resolving. The gain for RPS’s future from analyzing this phenomenon was RPS deciding early on that our sometimes seemingly “anti intellectual” dynamic was mainly about or could be made to be mainly about class interests, not rejecting thought.
And what became of seeking program?
As calls for program grew, we built momentum to reduce inequality by raising the minimum wage. We sought increased taxes on the rich, a program that had become real, earlier, in Seattle. We sought to shorten the work week to attain full employment and generate more leisure.
We sought free health care for all, desirable housing for all, and enriched schooling for all, including cancelling student debt and making higher education free. We sought free day care for all. We sought to reorient government spending from war and social control to housing, health care, education, infrastructure, and vastly expanded social services. We didn’t have demands for new underlying institutions, but our pursuits fostered discussions that propelled such desires.
Still, most people’s responses to queries about program remained disjointed. We would discuss one programmatic idea or another. Do we like this or that. One project or organization would latch onto one aim with gusto. Another project or organization would latch onto a different aim with equal gusto. No one strayed far from prior priorities. Few adopted broad program.
Trump’s victory stalled positive program by causing most activists to focus on fighting reaction, but it didn’t end program. An example was the massive women’s rallies during Trump’s inauguration. Left Liberals and even more mainstream democrats were prominent, which they needed to be. The danger was that they alone would define directions. But lots of women not only wanted massive participation but also understood the need to develop broad and deep program, and their efforts in seeking both scale and substance were exemplary.
At any rate, that was the state of dissent when some people began to pursue what would become RPS. We proposed shared program and shared vision. We proposed an organization able to flexibly pursue and refine its commitments. We hoped that while single issue movements and highly focussed organizations would each and all persist and retain their priorities, they would also sign on to an overarching agenda and lend their support to all its components.
It wasn’t just that we wanted good programmatic ideas or demands. Those existed. It was that we needed to meaningfully share good program so we all supported campaigns not only for the one or two aspects that were immediately most meaningful to us due to our own past priorities or current ties, but supported all aspects to foster real mutual aid and solidarity and to make each aspect stronger than it would be without partnerships. Those who focused most on war would aid those who focused most on immigration would aid those who focused most on global warming, and so on, in a web of emerging mutual aid.
Bill, I wonder if you could tell us what were the obstacles to successful organizing before RPS. What failings did RPS have to correct to succeed?
A lot of factors had been interfering with movements succeeding. For example, society debilitates us and most people didn’t have sufficient mental or other health support to participate well. Oppression even harms our ability to cooperate and think clearly, which makes it difficult to work collectively and be strategic, and, sadly, makes it all too easy to lash out at one another. Many people would use left spaces – meetings, forums, and workshops – to “act out” their issues and feelings of desperation. RPS needed to help members reduce and eliminate those difficulties.
Racism, sexism, and classism in our operations was another obstacle. We grow up in society and are schooled by it, not just in schools, but in all the roles we occupy each day. It isn’t our fault, but we pick up many habits that destroy unity and clarity. Sometimes we do oppressive things, sometimes we are too passive. Before RPS, we had few non-shaming ways to learn new behaviors. People felt their choice to be 1) feel constantly ashamed and scared that you might behave badly and be attacked for it, or 2) quit. RPS needed to dismantle oppressive systems in society while it simultaneously provided ways for movement members to feel safe from attack and able to change.
Defeatism was rampant and severely debilitating to activism in a host of ways. If we think at some deep level there is no alternative, we have no motivation to be serious and careful in addressing events. We may try to please friends, or maybe to win something short term while ignoring long term prospects. We may try to punish opponents, or to prove our worth more than to win a new system. We may posture to appear radical. Similarly, since it is easier and more pleasurable to talk to people who like us than to reach out to those who disagree with us – we might become insular. RPS needed to generate and share vision and strategy able to sustain hope and ward off such habits.
Another problem was that while people realized it was important to organize and be democratic, we didn’t understand what either required. Too often we didn’t create channels for new recruits to participate in theory and strategy. We wrote for graduate students or for people who already knew what “the left” was and knew its jargon. Left writers wrote for other (highly educated) leftists. Why didn’t we write for working people? It was because we got no recognition for that. And why didn’t we write in a way that showed we actually wanted to be understood? Perhaps it was because we didn’t want to be understood?
I’m not suggesting dumbing down. I’m suggesting not making our work less accessible than it could be, which was what we very often did. More, too much of our writing, and speaking, even when it was accessible, just railed against society or even against other leftists, rather than advocating anything positive. When non leftists read us, they typically didn’t know what we were talking about or did know and wondered why we were bothering to say the same negative things over and over. Hell, I often wondered whether most of the people writing knew what they were talking about other than when it was just obscurely enumerating the ills of society which their readers knew too. RPS had to get positive and get accessible.
A related issue was the left being anti-religious, anti-country, and anti- most everything else working class people liked, like religion, race car driving, country music, and fast food. This was a big issue, of course, and extended right into left organization and program reflecting academic and professional values and aims far more than working class values and aims. RPS had to reverse all that.
Still another problem was that we operated in what some called “isolated silos.” Organizations wasted lots of time and money by not coordinating and collectivizing. It was like suburbs where everyone had their own washer-dryer, sit-down lawn mower, and two-car garage. Each movement had its own separate promotion, bookkeeping, communications, data base manager, fundraising, residence, etc. So movement budgets replicated purchasing all that stuff, leaving less for actual work. And then, in silo mode, each acted without coordinating with the rest, severely diminishing overall impact. RPS needed to find ways to bring issues and campaigns into mutual support.
Infatuation with violence was another problem as was susceptibility to liberalism, hostility to reforms, and denigration of folks who weren’t yet as wise as oneself. RPS had to turn all that around, too.
You get the idea. There was plenty to fix. But that was good news. If everything before RPS had been fine, RPS couldn’t have done better than those who preceded it, and wouldn’t have had any more success than them.
We will see about these various issues and how RPS related to them as we go along, I am sure, but I would like to ask you a little more about one, even now, to avoid it leaving a wrong impression. When you describe the difficulty of organizing given people’s emotional and behavioral baggage getting in the way, it almost sounds like you think the left needed to have lots of psychiatrists on board…
Not shrinks, more like collective supportive attention to all the baggage we drag around. Here are some steps I saw taken by RPS.
People were given a chance to tell their story. Everyone listened. Tears happened. People got heard. Perhaps people got a hug but the point was we all saw the full person. We could remember that the person had all that going on. It generated new levels of respect and connection, and not just a utilitarian connection based on what a person “will get done.” People felt less needy and more present, more able to think and engage because they got seen and heard. It took time to hear a story, and you had to develop some trust first – a good thing – but it ultimately saved time because the person would then be more functional. Over time, everyone got a turn, but it wasn’t forced. People told their stories when ready. Relationships got built. People felt more compassion for each other which prompted sticking to the tasks at hand and showing up for each other.
Another version of addressing this issue was that at the beginning of a meeting, there would be time for people, if they wanted, to do one-on-ones or “pair shares,” where they just said how they were doing, or they said something was going well or something was not going well. Or they said what they hoped to get out of the meeting. One person listened and perhaps asked questions to prompt the other person to say more. Of course it was possible to turn these approaches into shaming or make them intrusive. Smash or be smashed. But more often I saw it be hugely beneficial.
People got their feelings out in the pair share and then didn’t have to take up the time of everyone in the meeting to air them. When it worked, it was win win. Healing took place and people and meetings became more effective.
One more question before moving on, if you would. You described that pre-RPS many leftists wrote and spoke in unnecessarily obscure ways. It is so obvious why that would fail, I wonder, why did it exist at all? Why would anyone communicate in ways that alienated essential constituencies?
My reaction was like yours. This was suicidal. Why do it? I asked some writers and while a few said it was the only way to deal with intrinsically complex matters – which was self-serving nonsense – most said, roughly, “if I don’t dress up my writing like that I will be ignored. Faculty, publishers, and even certain audiences consider it mandatory to use that language to demonstrate preparedness and competence. Write or even speak plainly and you appear unprepared, unversed, unprofessional, and even ignorant. The people who buy, review, and publish books expect obtuseness. They talk up ideas or they dismiss them. I have to impress those people to reach anyone else.”
In context, it therefore made personal and even social sense to be intentionally obscure, just like passively working as a wage slave makes perfect sense as long as you believe replacing wage slavery is impossible and you need to eat. Writing and speaking in obscurantist jargon at the expense of comprehensibility and even coherence made sense as long as you believed it was the only way to be graduated with honors, published, celebrated, or even to be heard at all. And if you did it a lot, it became a kind of reflex. And you would not just do it, but defend doing it and see criticisms as ignorant or even anti-knowledge.