Interviewing Peter Cabral


In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way. 

By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at http://rps2044.org presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its substance as well.

In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article is named Peter Cabral. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara will seek to avoid undue overlap, no one interview serves as more than a facet of the larger whole.

–Michael Albert

Peter Cabral, you were born in 1978. A militant anti racist activist, you focused in the years before RPS on police violence and prison policy, including inmate organizing. You were active in RPS from its inception and focused much energy on ensuring RPS program and internal culture provided seeds of a racism free intercommunalism. After a time in prison, and not least due to your activism while inside, you became a tireless speaker, organizer, and activist for community affairs and prison and legal change. You served as Secretary of the Interior in RPS shadow government. And with all that, you were was also a professional ballplayer for a time. For a long time before RPS some athletes have stood up for social justice in various ways. But with the emergence of RPS things took a very dramatic turn. I am sure a great deal is like the case for actors and Hollywood. What, in particular, was different?

I only know our experience, not the Hollywood version, at least beyond what Celia relayed. But I would guess perhaps the biggest difference was the pressure felt by athletes to comply with old social norms. I suspect as large as that was for Hollywood folks, it may have been even greater for athletes.

You see, an incredible proportion of successful athletes have come from intensely poor circumstances. Once successful, these athletes support not only themselves, but often large extended families of relatives and friends. Also, the educational background of athletes tends to be less than of Hollywood actors, but their sense of entitlement due to having always been the big star, often from grade school on, and virtually always from high school on, tends to be much higher. Hollywood actors often work their way up through hard times, often having even outsiders, ridiculed, lacking work, sharing apartments, and so on. Athletes, and star athletes in particular, were typically given all kinds of special treatment all along their path. So we have an odd combination. Athletes have lower income origins, often less education and more responsibility for others who they know and by way of them, and also their own past, a greater level of connection to criminality and oppressive culture, plus they have enjoyed a very rewarded path and been constantly bowed to and even worshipped.

So all that, and no doubt other factors too, made athletes’ situations somewhat different. But what made the situations alike was the feelings of immense worth and specialness that success, once attained, conveyed, making both successful actors and successful athletes think they fully deserved their in fact incredibly excessive incomes and stature.

In broad strokes the activist history was similar. Like for Hollywood, a few athletes took the lead when RPS emerged, just as some athletes had not long before related to Black Lives Matter more than other athletes did. But, as with Hollywood, instead of relating only as individuals, and only as support for others, with athletes, like with actors, directors, and so on, involvement after RPS emerged came in the form of creating a range of athletes’ organizations, the big one’s being for on campus organizing by college athletes, and for professional organizing that took place in all the large sports. And then for athletics there was also the neighborhood organizing that occurred around stadiums and their use, and there was the organizing among parents on behalf of their children, and against the cultural deviance of much youth athletics. Then there was also extensive organizing around safety issues, and the organizing for respect and income in semi pro and minor league and other realms. We knew we weren’t going to defeat racism and exploitation by shouting insults at them. We had to organize.

The exact substance was different than for artists, too. Athletes faced very severe work conditions once one took into account their health. This had begun to be recognized with football concussions but grew dramatically with the emergence of RPS, which in turn fueled lots of resistance. That wasn’t true for successful actors. Oscar winners and the many others involved in films didn’t wind up crippled or dead, but athletes did.

For star athletes, also, to begin to renounce the incredible wealth and status that went their way typically meant challenging the logic of sports itself. It led people involved in sports to think about delinking winning competitions due to performing at a higher level than others from getting more income than others. Of course this was no different than delinking output and individual incomes all over the economy, but in the case of athletics it was very graphic.

How did you personally understand the role of athletes in society at the time of the RPS first convention, and how did the emergence of RPS affect your views and choices?

As a successful but rookie ballplayer at the time, I thought we were a cut above. We had worked really hard, with intense focus for years, and we still worked hard to avoid decline. We honed our abilities. We performed under great pressure. We delivered, but some more than others, and I was fine with the idea that income should track those differences in achievement. Of course in time I realized not only that it shouldn’t, but that it didn’t. It tracked, instead, differences in power, which differences in output often but not always helped create.

I also enjoyed all the perks that society’s preoccupation with athletics, and especially with some sports, conveyed, not least access to sexual favors, free goods, endless praise, and so on. Of course it was all a product of a society so socially skewed that it made sense for people to cater to us to try to befriend us or even seduce us – but that only meant, we eventually understood, that the whole system needed to change and not just how we conduct ourselves when reacting to it.

So we too had our consciousness raising and sharing of insights, like the Hollywood folks did. And for us too, it was partly, as it was for them, about becoming confident representing RPS type views, but it was also about learning to deal with our ridiculous incomes and with the media. And, indeed, much of the early shift in athlete’s choices was manifested on those levels – with athletes giving away lots more money, really a huge chunk of their incomes, not only to charities they liked, but literally to RPS and to other radical political and social projects. I remember talking with other athletes about such matters as among the first times in my life I was actually considering the world around me, and my relations to it, and making informed judgements.

So I would say RPS propelled all that and more, though I think it is fair to say that the reverse occurred too. Athletes propelled RPS.

What were some of the key events, do you think, from the RPS convention to now, in the emergence of a new kind of athlete and athletics?

Of course the boycotts by football players and the political actions of basketball players were big events, but I think in some ways the organizing among student athletes was even more important because it became so quickly rooted in organization and militance, and it provided a model for the pros easily as much as vice versa. When I was invited to talk with student athletes on college campuses I easily learned as much from the exchanges as they did.

I don’t think any of this was unique though I think a case might be made that the first step was when the Quarterback, Colin Kaepernik, opposed police violence by refusing to stand for the National Anthem. That prodded so much soul searching, and then he started giving significant sums to organizations with similar agendas and his teammates heavily praised his choices. But I think what was key was rather than one thing happening and another thing happening and no connection occurring, when each event and project began to see itself as part of a larger on going process that was all of them together. This not only strengthened each individual effort, it broadened each.

While an event or project might be about mainly race, gender, class, or some very specific practice or policy, by seeing all of it as connected, participants in each aspect began to actively support the rest, and to learn from the rest. Soon athletes were not pursuing an agenda solely rooted in their own personal experience, but an overarching larger agenda. I think that that was arguably the main early RPS contribution. And of course before long RPS vision and practice began to inform athlete’s perceptions and aspirations, so the impact became far greater and more direct.

Do you think the Olympics battles were a large factor?

Absolutely. On the one hand, there was the tendency of lots of athletes to bring social concerns into the Olympics starting really strongly in 2020 and then with overwhelming centrality in 2024. But perhaps even greater was the growing trend for athletes to fraternize, I guess you might call it, and shun the crazy glorification and commercialization. The participants began to take back sports for those doing it and appreciating it, by taking it away from those selling it and profiting off it.

And then the other tremendous issue, of course, was the gigantic harm the Olympics as a mega event did to the cities that hosted it. Rio’s travails, on top of those of Athens and London, became so obvious and so pronounced for the bulk of their citizens, that the constant clamors by elites to get games so they could profit became swamped by the quite correct beliefs of populations that it would be at their expense. That athletes supported the communities strenuously, to the point of saying they would no longer participate if the events gutted sponsoring cities was moving and exemplary. So the movement to have the games be held in a whole bunch of cities, each hosting only some single component or other, and each using only venues and spaces based on existing structures or built at international expense and in a manner designed to be of lasting local value, grew overwhelming.

And, yes, at first people complained that with gymnastics in one city, track and field in another, swimming in another, and so on, there would be no single gathering of all the athletes – 10,000 or more – in one place. We would lose some of the scope of the opening and closing TV events. And that was true. But we would gain a sane and locally beneficial and human rather than profit oriented set of events. It was basically conducting world championships in a host of events all in the same three week period at many venues world wide, rather then conducting them in many venues, all newly constructed, with no future purpose, in one city.

The battle for that, like almost every other battle once the proposals of RPS existed, was, indeed, partly a battle for going toward RPS. But it was also, undeniably, beneficial and sensible in the present, and indeed, necessary in the present to avoid all manner of catastrophe, so it won in the present, as well as helping push toward RPS in the future.

How do you think full RPS success in the future will alter athletics for athletes and for fans? 

I don’t think the way we view a contest or achievement in itself will alter very much. A beautiful shot or hit, a timely catch, a great race, will still uplift us. What will change is our view of the people. We will still admire great artistry and focus, but we will no longer think a person should be made rich on account of it. If it is morally and economically sound for income to be for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, and for people to do balanced jobs, and for producers and consumers to decide what is produced cooperatively, then that applies not only to assembly work but to athletes too. And that means an end to all the incredibly inflated incomes and perks.

People who for part of their contribution to society work as athletes are just people, sometimes with inordinate physical and mental gifts, to be sure, but without any reason to receive additional blessings based on their having those innate assets.

Beyond those key changes, many people have been exploring the nature of non competitive sports and even considering what competition now involves and should involve in the new society we are building. Some of that is still to be resolved, no doubt. But the basics we know, and excellence and accomplishment will persist even as giant rewards for excellence and accomplishment will fade and ultimately disappear.

Peter, do you remember your radicalization?

A friend of mine was shot and killed in a drive by. Another friend became a gang member and surely was on the shooting end in some engagements before he too died by bullet. I spent some time in a gang. It was basically a route to having close allies, to having a team who had your back and vice versa. It was also a path to some financial well being. In these ways it made sense. If you live in a condition of exclusion from the broad society, then you take your talents where you can best put them to use.

After my friend died I was uneasy. But it wasn’t yet enough to break me out of my then life path which seemed to me my only possible life path. But visiting friends in prison and hearing stories of their arrests and prosecution began eating at me. I went to court a few times, and I just watched. It was horrifying. Then I got arrested, wrongly, but it wouldn’t have mattered either way. Because it wasn’t bitterness or anger at the wrongful incarceration, overturned after not too long, that drove me to political awareness. It was the incredible reality that prison was a school for crime. That it had little or nothing to do with reducing injustice. That it was about control and profit.

At any rate, the combination of my horror at the legal system and my overall sensitivity to racism in all aspects of life, opened me to trying to better understand my lot and society. And from that point on, the rest was running downhill. I discovered I had a talent for explaining, hearing, and relating to others. Being an organizer, public speaker, and activist came naturally. I put my new talents to use where they could do most good.

You were very active in early work around prisons, how do you see these matters?

When I went to prison I was arrested on trumped up charges and my incarceration was overturned after I served six years. So I was obviously familiar, first hand, with that kind of insanely vile injustice – the incarceration of innocence – which, I should say, isn’t always a matter of trumped up charges, but is often due to bureaucratic pressure, racism, and laws that punish victimless “crimes” with prison terms.

But the truth was, on entering prison I didn’t have a good idea what to expect. My knowledge was limited to TV and movie images and a few discussions. I realized, in time, that plenty of inmates were innocent, tons were over sentenced, and even for people guilty of serious criminal acts against other people, most were molded by prison not into potentially better citizens, but into more callous and effective criminals.

So I saw injustice and horribly harsh mistreatment of the innocent and near innocent, but I also saw an insane and unnecessary transformation of many inmates into what they had not been before, incorrigible lifetime criminals.

My initial preoccupation was survival. I had to learn how to get by, how to relate, how to navigate a foreign world. I had to gain friends who I could relate to, keep sane with, and work with. Next came modest attempts to build our numbers. We began to share texts which came from RPS. We began writing to other prisoners in other prisons about our experiences and reading about and discussing theirs.

By 2026 we were ready to make some noise. We didn’t have much idea what it could achieve, though we knew what we wanted, but nonetheless, we called a one day strike. Turnout was enormous. Prison labor is close to slave labor. You work at command, constantly anticipating violent repression. You get back for your efforts subsistence. Your every breath is overseen.

While the one day strike was for demands about prison relations, in the week following, celebrating our scale, we thought, wait a minute, why not strike for a living wage too. And why not start to work toward our participation in the decisions that impact us? We could seek that to improve our current lives, but if we were supposed to eventually leave prison as citizens, also to prepare for that by developing worthy citizen-like habits instead of becoming highly adept at smuggling stuff around the prison and running extortion rackets. Why not begin implementing self government.

So that was the grounds on which we then began a more sustained prison work strike that addressed the behavior of guards, rules for visiting, availability of books and internet and other means of communications, and opportunities to conduct our own classes, as well as the status of our wages, conditions, and rights.

The strike, as everyone knows, spread quickly from prison to prison and the support from without was enormous. Repression, as per our plans, was made ineffective. It wasn’t that the guards couldn’t brutalize us into temporary submission. They could, and they did, often. But we didn’t fight back. And that not only won us tremendous support from outside, but also limited the violence we had to endure. We would back off, seemingly lose, and within days be back on strike, just as we had been before. I don’t know if it had an effect, but the night before the first strike the prison movie had been Cool Hand Luke. That was a big mistake. We took Luke one better. We did it together.

Peter, can you remember an event or campaign or whatever else, actually, during the period of RPS growth, that was particularly personally meaningful for your own history?

Oh, there were so many things, mainly the sports organizing, like the Olympic Campaigns and especially the athletes’ boycotts for Community Safety, and then the prison and legal organizing, like the Community Control of Police Campaign and the Legal Workers Conference – because I was so much closer to the sports and legal work than to other RPS efforts. But for something a bit less public, and much much earlier, I remember when I was in college, so it was still over a decade before RPS, I was an athlete but also a fan. And I heard a talk, an interview, I think, that Noam Chomsky did in which he was talking about sports and its role. There was a lot I found interesting in it, but one moment in particular had a huge effect on me.

Chomsky described viewing people rooting incredibly passionately for a sports team, when he was himself much younger, and his not being able to understand. They don’t know anyone involved, he thought. They had no close connections with any of the players on either team. Yet they became invested as if their lives were at stake. How could that happen? Why did that happen?

I thought about it a lot. It was true for me. I could be at a college sports event, or watching a pro sports event, and know no one on the field, know nothing about anyone on the field beyond their talent level, and could even have very little discernibly in common with any of them (and many other fans would have virtually nothing in common), and yet be incredibly vested in “my team’s” fortunes. I, like so many others, would even say we – as in “we did this, we got such and such a new player, we looked good,” or “the refs screwed us” (never them), despite my having zero connection to it.

Was there a healthy aspect? What were the unhealthy aspects? It got me thinking and I believe it had a major long term effect on my relations to sports and my understanding of how people formed and defended stances based on logic and evidence, sometimes, or to some extent, but often based on other things entirely.

To get back on current topic, can you talk about the situation around the initial race focus, police repression of Blacks and other minorities?

You can imagine how volatile that was. People were being killed on the streets often for no offense at all, sometimes for minor violations. It felt like and in its social implications it was in fact a new kind of lynching. After all, lynching was a way to discipline the entire slave community. It sought to induce fear in them, and to simultaneously induce a kind of bloodlust in the public – also ironically often rooted in fear. How different was police execution of young Blacks in the streets?

Fear put residents of black neighborhoods constantly on guard to avoid irking police. Drones flying over communities had a similar impact. Life was conducted by navigating even your own streets to avoid persecution. And it wasn’t just killings that induced fear. So did getting stopped, frisked, and arrested for being Black. U.S. Incarceration rates were unique in the developed world, and they were worst for minorities.

How do you deal with a community that has a quarter of its population, and sometimes more, in jail or no parole? It is not easy. Especially once you take into account more of the situation. The communities were incredibly impoverished. Unemployment was at depression level. Yet everyone knew about one means to get by reasonably well, albeit with incredible risk. Gun running and drug dealing. For decades drugs flowed into poor communities, particularly black communities. With drugs came guns. So when police expressed fear, that too wasn’t entirely make believe. There was real danger and of course society fed it, not only with stereotypes, but with gun policies that armed drug dealers and anyone who wanted to fire away. It got so that every little dispute held the danger of a gun emerging. And laws, incredibly, began to allow guns in public spaces, and even in schools.

So the only solution, ultimately, was to raise incomes and opportunities, and to eliminate all the guns and drug dealing by eliminating their sources. But that wasn’t going to happen overnight and meanwhile the constant tension and fear and the violence from the police and all the incarcerations were creating an environment that to many looked like a hellish spiral of no return.

And then something happened. First lots of notable blacks, particularly athletes of renown, got really upset and decided they had to act. So they started to speak out, to bemoan the situation, and even to protest it. Remember the sit downs during the national anthem? But of course lone acts weren’t going to achieve much unless there followed a huge growth in participation.

And then, suddenly, after a Trump induced lull, there was a press conference of various athletes – not revolutionaries – very rich people. But their relatives were getting shot, becoming addicted, living in fear of police patrols, and getting sick, as well, at what some of their “brothers in arms” were doing.

So the athletes said we will not play in any city until there is an all day meeting, organized by us, in that city, between police and with community residents and leaders, with ourselves chairing, to discuss new norms and procedures for community safety – and until that kind of negotiation reaches a program which is implemented. And then we will only play in the city, when the community says it is safe for them, and they want us to do so.

Well, that was absolutely incredible. It wasn’t just about temporary media visibility raising some more consciousness. It was about results. And it wasn’t going to go away. Either there was a solution for a city, or that city was going to suffer huge losses and public bedlam, and, as well, become a public pariah.

Impressively, the demand was delivered without anger, without recrimination, as both a plea and a plan to solve a bad situation for all concerned. These athletes not only delivered this call – which was rapidly supported by steadily more players in diverse sports – they also went to the cities and in the absence of meetings and plans, literally marched on city hall with huge numbers of people, first mostly black, but then more and more diverse.

Of course at first there was a giant outcry against these athletes. They are rich jocks. Who are they to dictate to us? Who are they to – wait, withhold their own labor? Protest injustice? Call for cooperation and discussion leading to a plan good for communities and for police safety too? The athletes were so prominent and visibility was so high that the real agendas became visible and hysteria was muted.

How do you think it started? Why did it happen? After all, this could have been done any time for decades?

I think often we don’t understand how hard it is to think outside the box and to even have an idea like what those athletes started. And then, we also don’t get just how hard it is to march to the beat of a different drummer enduring the hostility and isolation, and, for people like these, the family and neighbor and workmate pressures, and also, it must be said, the potential loss of jobs and income. But as to how it got going, I have to say, I think the key cause, looking back, and thinking over the prior period, was quite ironic.

When the quarterback of the San Francisco football team had earlier, and before RPS, refused to stand for the national anthem two very important things happened. First, though he was initially excoriated, actually, and surprisingly to many, it was just a few days before his calm reasoning and obvious passion began to win support, including from other athletes. It wasn’t Armageddon for him. And he wasn’t a really major star. He wasn’t at that time essential to the team, and therefore he could have been cut at only modest loss. But he wasn’t cut then. Sometimes people’s fear exceeds real risk, and athletes noticed, I think.

But the even bigger thing, the ironic thing, was that the local police department threatened to not send cops to games as security if the quarterback, his name was Colin Kapaernik, kept up with not standing for the anthem. Set aside how ludicrous the attacks on him were. After all, the NFL was routinely employing people who had violently abused spouses among other horrible actions, and had policies that were literally treating players like expendable cogs – causing them to have brain injuries that shortened and impoverished their post football lives, but it was outraged about an athlete admirably taking a stand against injustice. The hypocrisy was so evident no one could miss it. And yet, I suspect that wasn’t the key to the later emergence of athletes for community safety. No, that honor probably goes to the police threatening to not do their jobs. Hold on, people thought, if the police can refuse to protect events because they don’t like being criticized, why can’t we refuse to play at the events, because we don’t like our families, friends, and ourselves having to live and sometimes die in fear? You think that thought for a while, slowly percolating it, and you get angry enough, and, well…some take a big step.

So, what did they win?

Four things relatively quickly in city after city, and then nationally. Gun control laws that shut down distribution points and constrained production. Prosecution for drug violations shifted from incarceration toward rehabilitation, including rapid turnover of currently held prisoners who were in jail for non violent offenses. Regular events for whole police forces with communities and local sports teams surfaced and included setting up sports leagues, and holding picnics and then, as musicians got involved, concerts too, with affordable prices and the funds donated back to communities. It was a bottom up series of actions and choices that avoided politicians. And of course, as you know, it kept percolating new implications, for example, for sharing the costs of athletic events and for making social use of revenues. And then, with new levels of mutual understanding and trust, and vastly increased police rejection of thuggery in the ranks, came community control of police, plus new training, as well.

And it all fed into the larger issues of income distribution, job definition, and the like. Not to mention leading to reevaluating the whole approach to sports – something the athletes certainly didn’t initially have in mind, including the level of remuneration, the health aspects, and so on.

An issue around which there was much disagreement as RPS was getting started was whether or not to use violence in seeking change. Can you explain what the contending views were?

On one side people said the existing system will not be overcome without elites seeking to defend their advantages, including with force. For that reason, unless we are prepared to overcome violent repression with greater violence in reply, we will ultimately be crushed. Therefore, we have to become both psychologically and materially capable of effectively deploying violence. But that won’t happen overnight or automatically when needed. Preparedness requires getting tools that violence needs, and becoming adept and confident using them. So, we have to incorporate the need for preparedness into our calculations. We have to pursue our organizing and winning of reforms and our building of institutions in ways that also make us better able to beat back violent repression, since otherwise we will ultimately succumb to it, no matter how good we are at other activities. And I should say, this was my view at the outset.

On the other side, people replied that the existing system could not be overcome on the terrain of violent confrontation. The left was not going to out military the military. It would never out violence the training, mindset, and tools of state repression. Futile attempts to do so would make military agencies more aggressive even while would also distorting our own values.

If we escalated from warding off blows at rallies with our arms to using sticks or shields, they would hit us with weapons that break sticks and shields. If we escalated to throwing rocks or molotov cocktails, they would use guns. If we picked up guns, they would use tanks. Violence was and would always be their terrain. So unless we could find a way to win that did not rely on violence, we would lose. We had to become capable of deploying non violence effectively, both psychologically and materially. We had to organize, win reforms, and build alternative institutions in ways that made us steadily better able to deploy non violent struggle.

The dispute wasn’t academic. It wasn’t about some distant crunch time battle. If the path to a new society ultimately required sufficient violence to overcome the police and military, then getting ready for that was essential. No time like the present. But if the path to a new society had to avoid violence, then from now onward, being sure to avoid that path was sensible.

What was the RPS solution that permitted people to operate well together?

This dispute could not end in a simple compromise. For one side violence was necessary, and because they deemed it necessary, they also typically deemed it positive and even virtuous. For the other side violence was anathema, and because they deemed it anathema, they also typically deemed it negative and even immoral. The difference was undeniably wide.

That violence was terrain the state dominated and would inexorably win was so evident as to be irrefutable unless one felt, wait, if we let that view prevail then we will not prepare to be violent, and we will lose, so we must reject that observation despite its obvious validity. I realized eventually that that was my own mindset. I was so focused on police violence that I had myself endured and that I took it for granted, and I took fighting back for granted as well. I was unable to admit that to do so was suicidal. It seemed cowardly to think that, and just pointing at their preparedness, arms, and mindset in contrast to ours wasn’t enough to convince me otherwise, though it should have been. And there were a lot of folks like me. Our reaction to violence and coercion was to think we must fight back on the same terms or we are beaten.

So for those arguing against a positive place for violence, beyond some modest exceptions, to reach those favoring violence like myself, they had to explain how non violence could win. And that was the RPS approach. RPS claimed that while fighting with the state on the field of violence was suicidal, creating conditions in which the state could not deploy violence without suffering more than if they did not employ violence could win. And so that became RPS logic.

The task regarding violence was to reduce the state’s ability to deploy it, either directly by measures won against the state that limited its options, such as demilitarizing police and winning civilian community control over police, or indirectly by creating conditions wherein violent repression would do more to aid and enlarge activism than it would do to repress and diminish activism.

You mention exceptions – what was that about?

Consider a strike. Suppose strike breakers, called scabs, prepare to bully their way through the picket line. Locking arms against that, and swinging back at assaults, would be an example of violence that RPS felt warranted and potentially effective. Similarly, suppose we occupy some building and create a blockade of supporters to keep cops or others from entering, albeit non violently. Or at times burning down some hated target would, if you would even call that violence, be an exception. But by and large we understood that events, projects, and actions had to continually enlarge support for dissent, resistance, and struggle, and not diminish it. This meant both attracting and holding allies, and also developing and preserving mindsets and behavior patterns that could persist. That was our overarching understanding.

Was there a turning point where you felt this battle was won?

As a stance it was official policy starting with the second convention. So I guess you might say it was won then. But in fact, well after that there were plenty of RPS folks who felt great internal pressure to fight violence with violence and who kept making the case to do so. I think that perspective really collapsed when street gangs in various communities began to undertake political commitments and adopted two surprising policies.

First, they turned in their guns and began to support civilian control of police. And, second, and perhaps even more critical, they began urging their members to apply for jobs within the police, and not long after, RPS acknowledged that as a highly respected path to take. The idea was simple. One way to reduce the effectivity of police or military violence was to create a public situation in which it would entrench and widen dissent thereby making it a counterproductive tactic for the state. But a second way was for those who were fit to do so to join the police and the military and begin transforming them from within, as workers battling for changed relations do in other workplaces.

We had all heard about the incredible success of anti war activists doing this decades earlier during the Vietnam war, and it was surprising how long it took to see the obvious relevance to our own time. Not just anyone could join the police and maintain a steadfast commitment to social activism and RPS program, but for those who could do it – emotionally and also physically – it was clearly a far more effective choice and more courageous too, than going to a sports shop and buying a rifle and practicing shooting tin cans playing at preparing for confrontations which would, if they ever happened, end in defeat.

But I would like to go further back to suggest another key turning point that isn’t really discussed much, and isn’t the kind of thing most leftists even acknowledge as at all important, much less critically important.

When football in the U.S. became embroiled in controversy about the damage play did to the athletes, particularly via concussions, it was good, but it could have just petered out. When the anthem protests began, which was, after all, largely about police violence, a new dimension was added. And then there was controversy about violence against women by players. Pile on Trump’s misogyny and together all this exploded the situation.

Suddenly, and this was well before RPS existed and was I think a part of the multifaceted events that paved the way for RPS, you had people all over society discussing violence in diverse forms, and particularly violence against women. Sports shows on radio had commentators blasting the NFL not only for its hypocrisies and violence, but even taking up its connection to the military and police, and its fostering of an alcohol permeated culture by its ads. It isn’t always easy to calculate the impact of a reform struggle. Whether it wins anything at all. The impact of its winning on people. And mostly whether it establishes grounds upon which to win more. But this is perhaps a good example, though likely largely inadvertent, of the positive possibilities.

With the exception of Kaepernick and some others protesting police violence, those addressing the culture of violence against women or the sacrifice of player health had as their focus only what they were explicitly addressing. But the percolating impact not only on the future of the sport, or the national attitudes against misogyny, went deeper and broader. When a sport show literally suggests, as some did, that fans should perhaps boycott watching football until there were changes, or that teams should be forced to stop their alcohol commercials, seeds are laid regarding what is possible and worthy behavior in pursuit of change, and regarding violence per se. I think such seeds contributed to RPS emerging.

Demands to abolish football, much less if accompanied by threats of violence if it wasn’t done, or that were made disdainfully of more limited reforms to protect the health of players or to reduce and eliminate sexist violations off field, would have had no broader percolating ramifications, and would have won precisely nothing. But more limited calls coming from players, fans, sport writers, and on air announcers, sparked sports audiences and participants toward new awareness, won some gains that mattered, and laid seeds to seek and win more. I think the emerging mentality was a significant factor influencing RPS attitudes and choices and of course continuing activism in sports, by participants and fans alike.

Peter, what about vision for issues of culture? How did RPS thinking proceed about vision for that?

We knew we would not be magically reborn in a desirable society, free of our past and unaware of our historical roots. On the contrary, we knew our historical memory, our continuing sensitivity to past and present social process, and our persistent understanding of our own and of our society’s history would all very likely be enhanced during the process of reaching a desirable society. Rather than our diverse cultural roots becoming submerged, therefore, on the road to a better world, we believed they would persist and even grow in our awareness.

So we knew that instead of homogenizing cultures, in the transition to a better world we would have to appreciate the historical contributions of different communities more than ever before, including guaranteeing them greater rather than lesser means for their further development. Our task was to respect and celebrate cultural communities, but also avoid their having destructive mutual hostilities.

Trying to erase the horrors of genocide, imperialism, racism, jingoism, ethnocentrism, and religious persecution by attempting to integrate distinct historical communities into one cultural niche had earlier proved almost as destructive as the nightmares this approach sought to expunge. So we knew we had to reject that homogenizing approach. Indeed, this insight was one source of the RPS prioritization of diversity as a value.

We also knew from history and our own life lessons that “cultural homogenization” – whether racist, fundamentalist, or even leftist – ignored the positive aspects of cultural differences that give people a sense of who they are and where they come from. We knew cultural homogenization offered few opportunities for variety and cultural self-management, and heightened exactly the community anxieties and antagonisms it said it wanted to overcome.

We also knew, however, also not least from our own experiences, that in a competitive and otherwise mutually hostile environment, religious, racial, ethnic, and national communities often developed into sectarian camps, each concerned first and foremost with defending itself from real and imagined threats, including even waging war on others to do so.

Even so, we knew the presence of racial and other cultural hierarchies throughout society and history no more meant we should eliminate cultural diversity than the existence of gender, sexual, economic, or political hierarchies meant we should eliminate diversity in those realms. The task we faced was to implement change that would remove cultural oppression and achieve liberating conditions, but respect and preserve diversity.

Dominant community groups have always rationalized their positions of privilege with myths about their own superiority and the presumed inferiority of those they oppress. Such materially motivated myths in time have always attained a life of their own transcending material relations. The effects could be brutal.

We knew, for example, that some sectors within oppressed communities internalized myths of their inferiority and attempted to imitate or at least accommodate dominant cultures. Others in oppressed communities defended the integrity of their own cultural traditions while combating as best they could the racist ideologies used to justify their oppression.

So what was to be the solution?

RPS concluded that cultural salvation does not lie in trying to obliterate the distinctions between communities but in eliminating racist institutions, dispelling racist ideologies, and changing the environments within which historical communities interrelate so that such communities can maintain and celebrate difference without violating solidarity and without fear of subjugation.

We called the RPS alternative to racism, ethnocentrism, religious bigotry and other forms of community oppression “intercommunalism” paying homage all the way back to the Black resistance movements of the late 1960s. Intercommunalism emphasizes respecting and preserving the multiplicity of community forms we are historically blessed with by guaranteeing each community sufficient material and social resources to confidently reproduce itself.

Not only does each cultural community possess particular wisdoms that are unique products of its own historical experience, but the interaction of different cultures via intercommunalist relations enhances the internal characteristics of each and provides a richness that no single approach could ever hope to attain. The point is we must replace negative intercommunity relations with positive ones. The key is we must eliminate any threat of cultural extinction that so many communities fear by guaranteeing that every community has the means necessary to carry on their traditions, languages, and self definitions.

In accord with self-management, RPS realized that individuals should be free to choose the cultural communities they prefer rather than elders or others defining their choices for them, particularly on the basis of prejudice.

We in RPS also realized that while those outside a community should be free to criticize cultural practices that in their opinion violate humane norms, external intervention that goes beyond criticism should not be permitted, except to guarantee that all members of every community have the right of dissent and to leave without incurring any material or broader social loss.

Most important, RPS realized that until a lengthy history of autonomy and solidarity overcomes suspicion and fear between communities, the choice of which community should give ground in disputes between two communities should be the one which is more powerful and least threatened.

Intercommunalism of the sort envisioned here, therefore, would make it incumbent on the more powerful community with less reason to fear domination to unilaterally begin the process of de-escalating disputes. This simple rule is obvious and reasonable, despite being seldom practiced. When need be, oversight and enforcement could occur by way of an intercommunal legal apparatus specializing in conflict resolution (of course itself including balanced job complexes and equitable remuneration, etc.).

The RPS intercommunalist goal was therefore to create an environment in which no community would feel threatened so that each community would feel free to learn from and share with others. But given the historical legacy of negative intercommunity relations, RPS knew it would be delusional to believe this could be achieved overnight. Perhaps even more so than in other areas, intercommunalist relations would have to be constructed, step by step, until a different historical legacy and set of behavioral expectations prevails. Nor would it always be easy to decide what constitutes the “necessary means” that communities should be guaranteed for cultural reproduction, or exactly what development free from “unwarranted outside interference” means in particular situations.

But it seemed and still seems certain that every community should be guaranteed sufficient material and communication means to self-define and self-develop its own cultural traditions, and to represent its culture to all other communities in the context of limited aggregate means and equal rights to those means for all–just as all of its members, by virtue of participatory economic, political, and kin relations, should be equitably remunerated and comparably self-managing.

Was there a minority or dissenting view in RPS?

Yes, or perhaps I should say, sort of. The vision was so flexible and has always remained open to refinement and improvement to such an extent, that there really wasn’t a problem with it as a goal. Rather, the concern was, and it still exists, couldn’t this all become rhetorical but not actual? Couldn’t it even become cooptive without really dealing with the full dynamics of racism, religious bigotry, and the like?

People who worried about this said, look, with economics, for example, we are proposing specific institutions whose character is such that operating within them guarantees attaining the preferred values they are chosen to reach. If we win the institutions, we are going to reach the conditions we seek. But with community and race, this is much less clear. There is nothing comparable to, say, balanced job complexes or participatory planning. We have only the injunction that folks should abide certain rules and norms, and that communities should be protected and provided means to persist. It sounds fine, but some would claim we already have that much, and it isn’t working. So we worry that we may need more.

The reply was, okay, what is the more we need? Surely you don’t want some kind of ghettoization of different communities, and, other than that, what features do you think we can and should add to the intercommunalist vision?

So the upshot has been to agree on the vision, to agree that its continual assessment for effectivity is essential, and to agree that if it seemed to fall short, we would have to find refinements or improvements to do better.

Leave a comment