A memorial to George Floyd in Minneapolis on June 2, 2020. Photograph by Joshua Rashaad McFadden/The New York Times, via Redux.
Keeanga: The New York Times says that 2020 saw the largest protest movement in U.S. history, with polls suggesting that anywhere between 15 million and 26 million people participated in various protests over the summer and into the fall. I think for many people this was viewed as a turning point in the ongoing struggle for racial justice, particularly in the movement for Black lives that had seemed to be in a lull after the election of Donald Trump — 2020 was a kind of wild, roaring affirmation that Black lives matter. There has been very little protest since then, though, certainly nothing on the same scale. So what happened? Why do you think those protests with millions of people on the streets did not produce the kind of change that people thought it would?
Derecka: My frustration with The New York Times calling this the largest movement is that it conflated the number of people going into the streets in the United States with organization. Organizers at Dream Defenders and elsewhere realized that those people weren’t absorbed into organizations in such a way to build campaigns toward eliminating some of the kinds of violence that put them into the streets in the first place. What is exciting is that the 2020 protests also made abolition and defund the police mainstream conversations, which I think is huge. Those ideas were met with a lot of curiosity. A lot of people learned about abolition through podcasts, through tweets, and through articles. Organizations, especially Black organizations, are grappling with what can be done with all of that energy that was on the streets. I think a lot of people were excited about defund and abolition but weren’t necessarily connected to a political home that was able to transform that mobilization into strategic organizing.
And then I think people were just up against a lot, in terms of reforms being offered as a solution. They were up against the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which felt like a real solution that people think at least is something; or they saw that some cities decided to take funds away from the police. They didn’t anticipate that Florida and Texas would try to make it illegal to defund the police and take that power back.
There’s a resource issue, knowing, again, that sometimes we’re up against The New York Times, which let Bill Bratton say that we have “defunded the police,” which isn’t true. Sometimes we’re up against fascists who are banning books; sometimes we’re up against liberal politicians pushing bad policies like community policing. People who tout reform as a more “realistic opportunity” to make social change have resources to push those reforms — more resources than people with more radical ideas about how to change the world. In 2020, I think some people went to the streets because it was anti–police violence but also anti-Trump. Now you have Joe Biden as president. Trump isn’t there anymore as a polarizing figure to resist. And now the new people who were in the streets have to figure out how to fight for causes when Democrats are in office, because there is a lot of “anyone blue will do”— but how do we hold them accountable? How do we push the people we mobilize to think and organize long term, beyond electoral politics?
Olúfẹ́mi: Definitely agree that there’s a resource issue. But I think there’s also a more basic tactical issue. You can protest your way to making an issue politically important and attention-grabbing: People talk about policing more and in more charged ways than 10 years ago. We have the mobilizations in the streets to thank for that progress, obviously alongside the organizers who have been keeping consciousness alive between eruptions.
But there’s still the question of who decides what the issue’s importance means and what systemic responses are going to fly — questions that usually get settled well after the protests themselves have been repressed. And that’s the stage when organization really matters. To me, this is why unions are so crucial to making any of this work — not because they are magic or because every member of every union has perfect politics — but because unions are one example of an organization with strategic options that many other kinds of organizations don’t have. They have a group of people who can decide, in democratic processes, what the group’s demands are — politicians don’t get to pick their favorite protest sign and just decide what the protest is really about, as we’ve seen post-2020. If those demands aren’t met, they can respond by withholding something that the people on the other side of the negotiating table want and need, rather than just writing clarifications insisting that the other side has misunderstood why people were picketing or what “defund” or “abolish” really means.
These are the advantages that explain why unions are so potentially politically powerful and have been crucial to movements for justice historically — why they were so pivotal to dismantling Jim Crow, why Dr. King was shot while he was linking up with them. To be clear, other kinds of organizations can play this kind of role too: attacking banks and politicians with debtors’ unions, going after energy companies with ratepayers’ unions, going after landlords and developers with tenants’ unions.
It also shows us what trouble we’re in now that unions are on the defensive. Less than three months after President Biden signed a bill shutting down the rail workers unions’ strike, there was a catastrophic derailment outside of East Palestine, Ohio, that spilled potentially deadly toxins into the air. Train safety had been one of the major issues the unions were pushing for. But corporations like Norfolk Southern, the rail company responsible for the derailment, continue to prioritize profit. At this point of the climate crisis, who really thinks this is going to be the last environmental disaster enabled by protecting big business’s right to risk all of our lives?
The important part is being able to decide on and build power together, and to do so by using leverage and not just expressing displeasure to people who don’t care. The stronger the organizations are that can do that, the better off we’ll be. Exactly like Derecka said: It’s organization that lets you do this in a stable way alongside and in between spontaneous uprisings.
Keeanga: I want to ask about the resistance. Some of what you all describe are internal debates within the given movement. Should we accept the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act as some means of change, or do we need to do something more radical? So there are those debates. But there’s also tremendous resistance from the right. I’m wondering if you could talk about that, because even as 2020 looked like a high point of resistance to the ineptitude of the response to the pandemic — and to this monumental racism — it also was a moment of mobilization for the right that has gathered momentum in the months since. Most of that looks like the attacks on what they describe as critical race theory, which is part of a discussion about institutional or systemic racism. The attacks on the 1619 Project, which is being literally banned in schools in some states. Derecka, you mentioned the Dream Defenders, who are based in Florida, where Ron DeSantis has created what historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad has described as a laboratory of fascism. A lot of those political attacks have been directed at either trans teenagers or the study of Black people, Black history, anything about contemporary Black America. What do you think the right is doing? Why have this particular response, and what do you think is significant about it?
Derecka: When the Muslim ban happened in 2017, do you remember the protests? Another thing also happened that I thought was very fascinating. Donations to the A.C.L.U. exploded. Legal organizations became the vanguard for how to resist white supremacy. If you look at these bans targeting queer and trans kids and families, who are prevented from getting gender-affirming care, the way that people are responding is to outsource the resistance to lawyers and have them go fight: donate, sue in court, threaten to file an injunction. I think that outsourcing resistance lets fascism flourish because then it becomes a problem that we are not confronting with mass mobilization and organization. Instead we’re telling people to let lawyers, legislatures, and the courts work it out.
Do we need a legal strategy? Of course. But we need mass resistance by everyday people. We need to go to the libraries where people are banning books to say, “Absolutely not. We’re not going to allow this.” We need strategic, disruptive, direct action. We need protests to push back and to show in numbers that this is wrong. I fear that we now just expect a lot of lawyers to do that work. That makes me particularly nervous because the right wing has taken over the courts and several facets of government. You have lawyers who are afraid to bring lawsuits in federal court because of the Supreme Court. How do we reconcile that with what’s been happening since 2017 — the urge to simply donate to the Legal Defense Fund, donate to the A.C.L.U., donate to other legal organizations to go fight — instead of the kind of mass mobilizing we experienced in 2020 as forms of broader resistance to what’s happening?
And along with the anti-trans bills, alongside banning critical race theory, we have also witnessed since 2014, when Michael Brown was killed, the criminalization of dissent, the introduction of laws to remove access to health care and food stamps for people who decide to go and protest. Some states have passed legislation that have enhanced protections for police, so that police have become essentially a protected class. We are up against states criminalizing dissent, and states banning and criminalizing the ideas that encourage people to think differently and act more courageously about the world, all while Biden calls on Congress and states to give more money to the police and increase the number of cops on the streets by 100,000. Who do you think will be enforcing the criminalization?
Olúfẹ́mi: It’s also worth pointing out that what we’ve seen on the right are just the latest outcomes of an extremely long-term organizing strategy. Derecka, you mention the takeover of the courts — the Federalist Society started incubating the legal careers of the people who would control the Supreme Court decades ago — for at least one justice, as early as the 1980s. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, formed in the early 1970s and has been laying the groundwork since then to mobilize police violence against the exact kinds of protest that Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, also known as Tortuguita — a forest defender who was killed by state troopers in January — and comrades were doing in Atlanta against Cop City. The right wing is ahead of us by decades, not just by dollars.
Keeanga: But what do we do? I had not thought about the way the different levels of governing are working here — Trump spent the entirety of his presidency packing the courts with young conservatives, unqualified right-wing judges, who are just there on ideological missions. Then you see Republicans across the country just doing blatantly unconstitutional, illegal things, in hopes of sparking lawsuits that go to these corrupt courts, taking a local issue and making it national. And then the only recourse within this framework is to the reactionary, undemocratic, monarchical Supreme Court. It seems like liberals have played right into this by deciding, We’re just going to sue, we’re going to file a lawsuit here and file a lawsuit there. It is a sophisticated web that has entangled people who think that because these things are so outrageously unconstitutional, of course we must challenge them and get them off the books. But instead it becomes more complicated because of the shape of the judiciary. So what do we do?
Derecka: In early February, I had an event with Amna Akbar, Bernard Harcourt, and Cornel West. We discussed Dr. West’s law-review article on the role of lawyers and progressive social movements that he published in the 1990s. What he says in that piece is that lawyers need to continue to fight defensively, to protect and safeguard the rights that we have struggled to secure over time, and remind people about the suffering that we had before those rights. But we, lawyers and the public, have to understand that litigation is not the most radical intervention we all can make; it’s just a very specific role for some lawyers to protect what we already have. To me, it makes a clear case for movement lawyers to be supportive of and in political homes with grassroots organizations who engage in mass resistance to state violence. But we also need to do what Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs call us to do, which is to project — and then build — the alternate vision of the society that we want. I’ve been thinking about that over the past couple of weeks. I think broadly, for people who care about freedom and justice, we can’t be afraid and should be encouraged to be more explicit in our bold ideas about the society that we deserve.
We have to identify and condemn hypocrisy and the criminalization of our ideas. When I hear liberal and corporate Democrats criticize defunding the police and abolition because they say they are losing electoral seats — and go on to sign resolutions that condemn socialism — it’s as if they almost blatantly ignore that whatever sort of language or narratives they use in their campaigns, the right is going to paint it as the most radical thing ever. You cancel a measly $10,000 in student debt, it’s “socialism,” so you may as well just cancel it all — it can’t be that much more “socialist,” right? But Dems pretend that student-debt cancellation and abolition are narrative issues; they hide behind language to obscure why they don’t support the substantive reasons that lead members of the public to organize for these causes. They are not interested in social transformation, and they benefit personally, professionally, and politically from the status quo. So we must be much more energetic, powerful, strategic, experimental, and organized.
We need to continue to explicitly name the radical ideas that we’re struggling for and to take time, as many organizations do, to be in conversation with the public through political and popular education; through art in various mediums; through media that explains what we mean when we say socialism, abolition, feminism, internationalism. We’re struggling and fighting for these concepts, right? So what are they? Why do they exist? Where are people experimenting with them? We need to use these spectacular incidents of violence that have brought people to the street as an opportunity for everyday door knocking, canvassing, and reaching out to people to strengthen our bases. This is why I’m so excited about what Dream Defenders is building, because we need a national membership-based organization that organizes people and invites them to think more critically about politics and what they could be. They can go on to put pressure on the establishment through electoral politics, through protests, through mutual aid, and building alternatives.
We have to train people to engage in all kinds of direct action, train people to vote, train people to run for office, and train people to organize. These are not my ideas. These are the conversations I’m having with other organizers, with other human rights lawyers, with scholars, with artists, because not only do we have to think about what we need to do, we have to take the risk and go experiment and try it! And then evaluate, and try again. It is an iterative process. But I think one beauty of that, part of the Black radical tradition that makes me and my work possible, is knowing that we’re not doing that alone. We have to do that not only with people across state borders but in deep solidarity with people who are resisting other kinds of fascism across international borders and learn from their struggles — be in conversation with and think critically about what’s happening in India, in Brazil, in South Africa. We have to be ready to understand and also see ourselves as students of movements who are rejecting the kinds of fascism and neoliberalism that we see in other parts of the world and who are embracing new kinds of relationships and potential futures for us all.
Olúfẹ́mi: It’s a tough predicament. Unlike the people whose interests they’re protecting, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the short term to focus only on the long game — the movement is fighting against murder and caging and evictions and deportations, not the very livable disappointment of getting stuck in a job at a lower federal court. But I think we can probably all agree that the legal organizations, whether the Legal Defense Fund or A.C.L.U., are not the organizations that are going to get us over the finish line. So it’s worth figuring out which fights can do double duty — which organizations we can support that will help build long-term power while and through fighting the needed short-term campaigns. I’m glad that we get to hear from KC Tenants in this issue, because that definitely seems like the kind of organizing that could do both.
Keeanga: I’m teaching a course on the civil rights movement right now, so I’ve been reading a lot about tactical questions, questions of strategy and social movements. The legal strategy versus the mass movement was so profound in the civil rights movement. The N.A.A.C.P., of course, championed a legal strategy that targeted Jim Crow laws; just the whole legal edifice in the South was an affront to the 14th Amendment. So the N.A.A.C.P. believed that the movement should let the lawsuits work their way through the courts to have a more secure victory. But King, and the activists in SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], argued that the legal strategy makes no sense without a mass movement. In other words the 14th Amendment had been the 14th Amendment for nearly 100 years by 1965. And that didn’t matter, even after the Voting Rights Act. Often histories of the civil rights movement or this period of the 1960s almost immediately pivot outside the South after the Voting Rights Act — we go elsewhere, we go to Watts, we go to the urban rebellions in the North. But if we stay in the South, you see that even though the law changed, there was not the kind of transformation where the law was this on Tuesday, and on Wednesday all the new regulations went into effect. And we thought we overcame; we were singing “We Shall Overcome.” The law doesn’t matter if people aren’t on the ground, making its enforcement reality. King makes a particular point: that the legal strategy relies on the passivity of those who are most impacted by these decisions. Because you’re telling people to wait for the courts to solve this question, wait for the law to change. And meanwhile, you know, life is hard on the ground. I think those are powerful points.
I also think that part of the power of the protests against the Muslim ban in the winter and spring of 2017 was not just that people weren’t just sitting around waiting for lawyers, even though that may have eventually been the result, but that it did three things. One, it showed the authorities that no, you can’t just get away with this. Two, it forces the mainstream media to have not just this kind of surface, drive-by coverage but a deeper engagement with the issues bringing all of these contradictions to the surface, the main one being that we are supposed to be a country founded on religious freedom. Protests create the conditions so that people are able to see the contradictions that usually exist beneath the surface. And then third, and perhaps most importantly, is that it imbues a sense of confidence among those of us who are horrified about what the state is doing. Because it can absolutely seem overwhelming if you’re just sitting with your newspaper or watching the news. And seeing people do blatantly illegal things. This is supposed to be a country based on religious freedom, right? That is one of the core tenets in the Bill of Rights: freedom of religious association. There is no state-sanctioned religion; you’re free to practice whatever your religion is. You know this, but if there’s no one doing anything to protect it, it feels like maybe I’m not sure about what I know. Maybe no one cares, or maybe this is just the fate of our society. But when you see hundreds and then thousands of people protesting, it affirms that you know what you know. And it is a way to encourage resistance; it is a way for people to build confidence. It is a way of demonstrating that we are many. And so I feel like that combination of things is part of what we need now. I completely hadn’t thought about it until you said it, but this whole idea that we’re just going to fight this out in the courts isn’t enough.
Derecka: It’s not something we can just litigate or legislate our way out of, as you both have acknowledged. I’ve been frustrated with the silence of a lot of the popular leadership in the Democratic Party — not surprised, because they are the leadership of the Democratic Party, but frustrated because they are further proof why we need mass public resistance and can’t simply vote our way out of this problem either. For example, as a gesture toward countering the fascist and racist critical race theory bans, why aren’t liberal Democrats rushing to affirm the thing that’s been banned by Republicans? Grants from the Biden administration to affirm racial justice in our schools — where’s that? Where’s that program? What resolutions are being passed to highlight the importance of Black study? Why is this the time to pass a resolution to condemn socialism? Where’s the resolution at least acknowledging “diversity” in educational thought? Because the banning of books and ideas, in addition to the silence coming from the Democratic Party, leaves even liberals feeling isolated and overwhelmed that this is happening. But when the masses are being told that the right way to approach this is to “go vote” or “go sue,” they are implicitly being told not to “go resist,” “go fight.” But that’s what we all need to do — go fight.
Keeanga: This is where the liberal political establishment and the conservative establishment often intersect. The Democrats are more than willing to criticize DeSantis for his authoritarianism, but they don’t actually want to talk about the content of what is being banned. They don’t want to talk about critical race theory. They don’t want to talk about African American studies. They don’t want to talk about Black feminism. They don’t want to talk about the Movement for Black Lives, because it brings to the surface the same issues that the Republicans also want to avoid. Because if we deal seriously with Black history, with African American history, and nearly 300 years of slavery, 100 years of legal subjugation, maybe these Black people have a point about redress. Maybe they have a point about reparations, and maybe they have a point about the need for programmatic institutional interventions to repair the inevitable harm and financial devastation that would come from nearly 300 years of slavery and 100 years of legal subjugation. Neither party is interested in having that conversation, because that’s a trillion-dollar conversation. More than a trillion dollars goes to the military now. It doesn’t go to reparations; it doesn’t go to housing, health care, education, and all of the forms of redress that are owed as a result of nearly 400 years of legalized oppression and exploitation. So neither one wants to talk about it.
Derecka: And what we get instead is, “Look at this Black woman I put on the Supreme Court. Look at my vice president, look at what I do for Black people” — which is through these individual appointments of Black people —“look at my press secretary.”
Olúfẹ́mi: It’s a hell of a lot cheaper.
Keeanga: Or it’s Juneteenth.
Derecka: Yeah! “Look, here’s a holiday. I’ve surrounded myself with all of these Black women, surely I hear you. And I’m committed to this.” I think it’s important that we continue to polarize people who support the Democratic Party around these issues. We should help reveal how racial representation and political power are actually dichotomies presented by the Democratic Party. Do you want a Black Supreme Court justice? Or do you want student-debt cancellation for HBCU students? Because Biden promised both and reneged on the latter. Do you want him to choose a Black woman running mate so that he can keep your votes, or do you want him to champion universal health care so that you can keep your life? Do you want an additional 100,000 diverse cops on the streets? Or do you want investment and the proper infrastructure in your neighborhood to keep you and your community safe?
Biden is not the only target. We experience this directly with Black politicians, too, who are willing and excited to play into a certain kind of racial-representation politics in exchange for more transformative demands. Keeanga, you write about this so well. I think that’s such an excellent point. We have to continue to remind each other what we are owed, what we deserve, and what we can build together.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a co-founder of Hammer & Hope and the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership” and “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation” and the editor of “How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective.” She is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” and a Guggenheim fellowship.
Derecka Purnell is a human rights lawyer, writer, and author of "Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom." She works to end police and prison violence by providing legal assistance, research, and training in community-based organizations through an abolitionist framework. She is currently a columnist at The Guardian and a Scholar-in-Residence at Columbia Law School.