“Social movements have an unfortunate history of following the leadership of charismatic hero figures,” writes Jordan Flaherty, a social justice organizer, journalist, producer and author. “I’ve come to think of this as the savior mentality; the idea that a hero will come and answer our societal problems, like Superman rescuing Lois Lane, or a fireman rescuing a kitten from a tree.”
In his new book No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality, Flaherty examines how the savior mentality has permeated movements for social justice and been used by the state to undermine gains won by decades of organizing. He traces the history of the savior, reaching all the way back to 1096 CE, when the Pope launched the Crusades under the guise of saving “heathens” (read: Jewish, Muslim and other non-Christian people) to post-Katrina New Orleans where Brandon Darby, who later announced his role as an FBI informant, rose to power and influence among activists seeking to rebuild while wide-eyed Teach for America volunteers displaced seasoned (and unionized) African American teachers.
But No More Heroes isn’t simply about the problems and pitfalls inherent in the savior mentality. While Flaherty documents the numerous ways in which people with the best of intentions confuse charity with solidarity, he also highlights grassroots efforts to build systemic changes that are accountable to the communities most impacted. Some of these movements have been spearheaded by those most directly affected, such as high school students across New Orleans who organized walk-outs to protest the replacing of veteran African American teachers with inexperienced (and predominantly white) Teach for America recruits and punitive school discipline policies, and sex workers fighting both repressive policing and programs that seek to “save” them by arresting them.
Flaherty also explores ways in which organizers have worked together to connect issues. He recounts a 1995 protest against proposed budget cuts for the City University of New York (CUNY) in which he and other CUNY students were arrested for blocking the road to the Battery Park Tunnel connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan. While in jail, he learned that dozens of other groups had simultaneously blocked nearly every entrance into and out of Manhattan. These were not other student organizations, but organizers from ACT-UP protesting cuts to health care, disability rights activists protesting service cuts, activists from CAAAV (then known as Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) and the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights protesting police brutality, and many other groups. These simultaneous direct actions were not accidental; instead, Flaherty explains, the “leadership from each of these organizations had met together and planned this action as a way to build unity in a sometimes fractured movement.”
The recent election underlines the importance, if not urgency, of solidarity organizing and reminds us of the need to avoid the pitfalls of searching for a savior. Flaherty ends on an optimistic note and a call to action, which resonate now more than ever: “The changes we fear are impossible are already growing. We can build a better world, as long as we don’t fall into traps of reform that leave out those who are most in need. If we listen to those who have the most to lose, and stand in principled struggle with those on the bottom, everything is possible.”
Victoria Law: What was your initial reason for writing No More Heroes? Why now?
Jordan Flaherty: I’m very excited by this movement moment we are in, by the protests at Standing Rock, by Black Lives Matter, by the disability justice and Latinx and trans movements, and so much more. And I wanted to create another resource for people who want to support those movements. I work as a journalist, and try to do my work in a way that’s accountable to social movements. One question I ask myself is, what is my role as white, cisgender, male journalist reporting on movements like sex worker rights and Black Lives Matter? One answer is, I can speak to other people coming from positions of privilege, and critique issues that I have seen come up in my own life and work, and in the work of other people with privilege. This savior mentality is something I have seen come up again and again. In US volunteers in Palestine. In post-Katrina Teach For America corps members in New Orleans. In social workers seeking to “save” sex workers through partnering with police to arrest them. I think it’s crucial for people with privilege to confront this savior mentality.
At first glance, one might assume that this is a book directed towards white people. But as I read through it, I realized that that wasn’t necessarily the case. Who are your intended audiences?
One of the first things people say when they hear the topic of this book is that they have people in their lives they want to buy this book for. The first image we have when we think of the savior mentality is a white male, but a wide range of people find themselves in positions of privilege. For example, class privilege, cisgender privilege, the privilege of US citizenship. A working class Black woman organizer I profiled in the book talked about a time when she feels she fell into the savior mentality, and how she worked to address that and change her approach.
At the end of your chapter on the history of saviors, you write, “I think I make fewer mistakes now, or at least different ones, but I hold past mistakes close to my heart, as a reminder to keep asking questions.” Can you share an example?
Honestly, I think I make mistakes every day. Coming from privilege, it’s inevitable. I think I’m really fortunate to have a community around me that often tells me when I am wrong, and helps to hold me accountable. The most important thing is to listen non-defensively and try to make things right. A key example I tell in the book is the story of FBI informant Brandon Darby, and the fact that I didn’t do more to challenge his behavior in New Orleans post-Katrina, when he worked with the organization Common Ground.
You document the way that sexual assaults happening in Common Ground were dismissed and the women who spoke up often driven out. You note, “Many of us, especially those of us socialized as men, do not do enough to speak up against other men who have relationships with women they have power over” and also point out that the people willing to stand up for Brandon Darby against accusations of being an informant (which turned out to be true) had not been willing to do so for the women who spoke up about being assaulted by Darby. Can you talk more about what you’ve seen about the culture of male silence around sexual assault and sexual abuse? And can you tell us how men can work to end this silence — and rape culture — without falling into the savior mindset?
This is such an important question. Men need to challenge other men about sexual assault and abuse, just as white people need to talk to each other about racism and white supremacy. It’s really easy, and we get a lot of points, for talking to women about how we are against patriarchy. It’s like the old joke: “A male feminist walks into a bar … because it was set so low.” We need to have more difficult conversations.
I think even when we do condemn sexual assault and abuse, there is not enough speaking out about people abusing their positions of power. In the book, I also talk about professors abusing their position with their students. It’s ironic that many corporations that are destroying our communities and planet have policies on harassment, while many of our movement organizations do not. And this silence has pushed a lot of women out of our movements.
I want to lift up men that are speaking out about patriarchy in public ways. For example, Damon Young at verysmartbrothas.com. And Chris Crass was maybe one of the first men I saw speak honestly and powerfully about his own struggles around sexism. This book also talks a lot about Hollywood and other popular culture, and in that spirit, I want to shout out the recent film Captain Fantastic. It has a scene of a father talking to his son about consent — something I don’t think I’ve ever seen on film before. We need more stories like that in our popular culture.
You also note that, while Darby may have been paid by the state for his disruptive role, “most of those who do the most damage are not paid by the state to disrupt, we just think we know what is best. Or we see the actions of someone like Darby and we stay silent, because we have bought into the idea of a savior, and he seems to look the part.” Can you elaborate more on this and ways that people can speak up before the damage becomes too great?
Our schools mostly teach this “Great Man” theory of history. That President Lincoln ended slavery, or Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were responsible for the civil rights movement. Then, even in progressive films, it’s almost always the lone hero saving the day. We are not taught enough about collective struggles. Living in New Orleans, I’ve been fortunate to spend time with civil rights movement activists who avoided headlines and instead stayed in the grassroots. People like Curtis Muhammad, Jerome Smith and Dodie Smith-Simmons. We need to learn these stories and teach these histories. I’m also really inspired by the visionary fiction movement, and authors like Walidah Imarisha, who are helping us to envision better stories that lead to a better world. Once we learn what real revolutionary change looks like, we won’t be fooled by heroes and saviors. Until that time, my main advice is to listen to the communities most affected by your work, and help amplify their concerns.
You write about the Catalyst Project’s 2014 online guide for activists of privilege seeking to shift their culture and organizing to support the Movement for Black Lives. Can you tell readers more about that?
I love the work of Catalyst Project — which also played an important role in New Orleans post-Katrina, working to challenge racism among white volunteers who came to help rebuild the city. They also have a training program for white antiracists called the Anne Braden training program. Also, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) has done great work in organizing white solidarity with Black Lives Matter. I think many of the people radicalized during the time of Occupy Wall Street have been seeking to have more of a race and gender analysis, and I really appreciate folks like Catalyst that have helped white activists build that analysis.
Tell us about some other hopeful examples of organizing.
One of the best parts of writing this book was that I got to speak to so many brilliant people who are thinking and writing and taking action. I talked to Caitlin Breedlove about her lessons from her work with SONG and Standing On The Side of Love, and Alicia Garza about her work with Black Lives Matter and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. I was able to spend time with Monica Jones as she organized for sex workers’ rights in Phoenix, Tara Burns as she did similar work in Alaska, and Diné youth fighting genocide in their homeland. I’m also inspired by the organizing happening behind bars, and so grateful to you for your work to raise awareness of the organizing led by women prisoners. My hope with this book is to spread the lessons from these brilliant folks, and many more.
Given that the election has now assured us that the upper echelons of power have swung from hope and change to reactionary and racist, can you talk about the role of organizing and what we need to keep in mind about the savior mentality as we move forward?
I think one thing this election has made clear is that white people who believe in racial justice have either been doing the wrong things, or not been doing enough. It’s definitely caused me to look at my life and the organizing I do. I think long and hard about how I can improve my work, and up my game. I think about the words of organizers with the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, an antiracist training organization based in New Orleans. They say, if you’re improving your organizing skills, but you’re not also challenging racism, then you end up just becoming a more skillful racist. So my question for people with privilege, and especially other white people is, given that white people elected Trump, what can we do to challenge and organize in our communities more effectively? How can we challenge white supremacy in all aspects of our lives?
No More Heroes provides concrete examples of ways in which people have successfully organized to challenge racism and repression. Sadly, these conversations are needed more than ever right now.
Victoria Law is a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. Her first book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, examines organizing in women’s jails and prisons across the country. She writes regularly for Truthout and is a contributor to the anthology Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Her next book, co-written with Maya Schenwar, critically examines proposed “alternatives” to incarceration and explores creative and far-reaching solutions to truly end mass incarceration. She is also the proud parent of a New York City high school student. Find more of her work at victorialaw.net.