Jeremie Greer, the co-executive director of Liberation in a Generation, talks with D’Atra Jackson of BYP 100 and Mercedes Fulbright of the Texas Working Families Party and the Coalition in Defense of Black Lives Dallas about how to center and support Black leadership in this moment, why we need to build state-wide power, and what it will take to win in the long term. This interview has been edited and condensed. 



Jeremie Greer: How has your work shifted over the past year?

D’Atra Jackson: The needs of our people have increased, which means the needs of our organizing has increased. That includes our mutual aid work, that includes the way that we deal with harm in our communities and in our organizations. So much stuff has happened with the pandemic that we didn't think was possible. Like, it is possible to not give more money to the police. It is possible to give cash directly to people. It is possible to buy people out of jail. That has just shifted what we understand to meet our demands and how can we get clearer about what we are asking for.

Mercedes Fulbright: When George Floyd was killed Memorial Day weekend, just four or five months before that, I was a part of a budget fight, where the language we were using was "reimagine public safety." It was a group of concerned women and non-binary folks of color who were targeting our city council electeds to divest from policing. We were making the case about the need for us to invest in more transformative community safety efforts. The few days after George Floyd was murdered, everything around us shifted. Not only the language but the organizing landscape. 

We saw it as a rupture moment, figuring out what it means to organize through the pandemic and police violence. I had just started at Working Families Party. We spent a lot of time online trying to bring people into our movement, and then there was this opportunity to take to the streets. We did that with 25 million people across the globe. For me, it really did shift how I showed up in organizing. I was so used to self-selecting, finding the folks who knew what we were talking about, finding our people who were concerned about these issues and then taking to the streets. And then finding so many strangers around me who actually believed in the same liberatory future that we had been fighting for.


JG: What did we learn about movement infrastructure this past year? Where is it strong, and where is it weak?

MF: I would say the strengths were seeing women, fems, non-binary Black folks build this global, multi-racial feminist movement and, in turn, being able to block authoritarianism because of that. I think that's something to note; that was a strength, that was a win. Yes, that came through electoral wins, but it also came through shutting shit down. That local organizing was able to respond to the moment through these budget fights and being able to create these tangible, concrete demands that so many people were invited to be a part of.

And then, I would say the weakness within our infrastructure — movement-wide, the right has so much money. They have capital, they have infrastructure, they have the power, and it's in the hands of the few. What they do with money, I think as a movement, we failed to do with people. We have the people, we have the numbers, and yes, this summer's uprising allowed for a mass absorption period into our movement, but what does that look like after things have died down? How do we actually sustain that absorption period that translates into onboarding new organizers and getting them to commit to this protracted struggle?

On the left, we're really big about decentralized structures. Some of us are very anti-hierarchy. It was really hard to figure out how to bring people in and keep them in, to help develop their leadership to build up their capacity to want to stick around beyond just the defund the police moment but actually for the long fight that is ahead towards liberation.

I'm also thinking about the weakness around just having elected officials as our targets and not harnessing the power of the people and making it politically impossible for elected officials to oppose our demands. We lost in Dallas. We were able to defund about seven million, but a few weeks later, they put that money back into the police. I saw that in other major cities as well. On the left, we haven't figured that out in a way that allows us to sustain that mass movement.

DJ: One of the weaknesses that I'll add [is that] I think we need to have more statewide power, and we need to move more statewide strategies. I think there's so many uncovered corners of this country, of people that need to be in our movement; they just don't know where the doorbell is, they don't know where the porch is to sit on. We need to make sure that our campaigns and our work and our reach is more than just the major cities where we already know people.

In Durham, we're a very blue city. With all of the progress that we've made in our Durham Beyond Policing campaign, we have this statewide apparatus that is pushing forward an anti-defund bill. If the municipality decides to decrease the police budget by more than one percent, they will not get access to statewide fundings. We don't have enough power in our movements across the state to actually organize to prevent that from happening. 


JG: What do you think we need to do to really galvanize the power of folks in those places?

DJ: I think that it needs to be multi-layered. We have to have a multi-layered, multi-strategy approach around the statewide work. As a person that was a statewide organizer in North Carolina, I was able to move throughout the state because we have a lot of HBCUs, we have a lot of NAACP chapters, there's a level of infrastructure and there's more major cities that have histories of Black resistance. And not to say that other states don't, but it is to say that infrastructure is really there, is set in the soil of the state, and we need to continue to build multiple types of institutions that help to harness that.

MF: The state power piece is so important because the right is so good about harnessing their power. ALEC is so good about creating model legislation and then shopping it around, knowing that there is Republican power that allows them to easily pass these things, like anti-protest bills. 

In Texas, our governor said last summer, "I will freeze property taxes,” which will impact our schools, it will impact our streets, it will impact so many things that people actually need. It forced elected officials to shrink [from defunding the police]. We didn't have a response to that because we were so focused on the local piece that we didn't have the opportunity to think about what it looks like for our governor to try to chop us at the knees. And so, I do think it's important that we continue to build out these cross-movement organizing opportunities and invite more people of different backgrounds and different walks of life to be a part of this fight because it is literally going to take us harnessing the power of the people in order to beat the Republicans.


JG: What do you think is needed to nourish that type of infrastructure?

MF: I would start with trust building, for sure. When we talk about inviting people from all walks of life and different life experiences, it's going to require deep relationship building, alongside explicitly naming and confronting anti-Blackness and racism within our movement. We actually have to create the containers and spaces that allow us to not only embody but model the type of world we want to see. 

Also, investments in base-building organizing. How do we build the capacity of more people to come into our movement? What the left has is people, and we need to do what the right does with money, with people. In doing so, it is going to require us to understand that folks are going to come with different theories of change. But if we can see Black liberation as our North Star, different approaches should be able to be used in our movement because we actually need it.

DJ: Grace and James Lee Boggs talk about our reliance on spontaneity being a form of liberalism. When I think about liberation and when I think about it existing, to me, it looks like permanently organized communities. And so, I think our movements — and I'm saying this as a person that came into movement in an uprising moment — our organizations and our strategies cannot rely on those spontaneous moments where there's people out in the streets. I'm over that. I'm past that romantic idea around a revolution and around what liberation looks like; people being out on the streets just doing whatever. That's not a revolution; that's a rebellion. It's uprising. That’s a movie that somebody wrote, and paid for, but it is not a reality. I think that our strategies have to be for the long term, which means that they have to be deep. They have to be embedded in what we see as community and how we want to feel when we're in community, but also that the apparatuses that make decisions over our lives needs to go. Capitalism is what needs to go. We're just not going to solve that in one march or in one summer. It's being called into question all the time, but we just need more calculation and less rhetoric. 


JG: In reflecting back to the summer, one of the things we saw was public support from mainstream, let's say white institutions, whether it was corporate America, whether it was philanthropy, whether it was the non-profit sector, about wanting to support Black leadership. Which sounds good, it's something we've been asking for. What does actual support of Black leadership look like? 

DJ: It's hard for me to take myself out of this question because I'm a person that's leading an organization — and a national one and a Black one and a super Black one and all the things. I think that the way that we've constructed our organizations is actually a setup. I'm in it, and I'm going to ride this thing out, but it's challenging in a way that only really comes up in these heightened moments of spontaneity, of uprising, of economic disheveledness.

That is where the real accountability comes from. Adrienne Brown talks about this, the high accountability and low support of Black leaders, Black women leaders, Black queer and trans leaders of our movements. The support actually looks like not having these traditional structures of one person in charge. It just doesn't work for organizations that are interested in leading movements. It requires a different level of accountability to the base. In order to have accountability to the base, you have to be able to have a relationship with the base. In order to do that, that means that all of the other shit that comes with being a Black leader, it needs to be held somewhere else or it needs to not exist.

I would consider myself a local organizer still, here in Durham. I have to decide between being a local organizer and being a director, and I actually can't do both well. I really want to be an organizer because that's who I am. I think that the support for Black organizing is just not enough. The level of self-doubt that you hold because you're holding the weight of a movement and a movement organization on your shoulders, there's no amount of training or coaching that could take that feeling away from you. 

I think just the added pressure of history and being present for a historic moment, and every action, every interview you do, every grant report you're a part of, all of the ways that we are keeping track of what this moment is — and, at the same time, you're trying to figure out how to support lots and lots and lots of other people. 

There needs to be more collective responsibility. Like, I am going to support Mercedes because I know me supporting Mercedes means that her base is supported, that means that the people that she's training are supported, the people that she's bringing up in this movement work are supported. You supporting me means that my staff gets supported, it means that my organizing work that I love here in Durham also gets an opportunity to be supported. It just means a lot for the relationships that we're in.

MF: I appreciate you saying that, Dee Dee, because that came up for me, and I think it's important to acknowledge that and not have shame around the fact that, y’all, I can't care for everybody. I can love you, and I will. Collective care is the future mantra that we're trying to get to in our movement around abolition, and building alternatives also requires us to understand that there are however many billion people in the world, and our structures should be able to scale to take care of all of those people.

To the question, how do we center and support Black leadership, I do believe it's about prioritizing our care. This world's not designed for Black people to thrive, so what are the ways that we're able to intentionally support Black folks? To me, that's through our leadership development. I think it's important that we are committed to the political consciousness and development of our people as Black folks. The visions and dreams that we have about our future should absolutely come from Black people, and it should come from a place of thriving and not just surviving. 


JG: What does a vision of safety for Black people look like that replaces policing and imprisonment?

MF: I think about little Mercedes and the fact that she grew up without her mother because she was in and out of jail, and that my mother, from the court documents and statements that I read, lived a childhood of abuse and trauma that translated into drug addiction and surviving many systems that failed her and never looked at her as someone that should be protected, given opportunities to restart her life. That is how I've been able to think about the world of what safety looks like because of all the many gaps and missed opportunities to take care of women like her and children like me.

For me, that's living wages. Diversion programs. Emergency and safety responses that are de-coupled from law enforcement. I think about the police showing up when I was nine months old, one year old, and it would be in response to domestic violence happening in the home. That's how she ended up in jail, and I ended up in a foster care system and actually needing emergency responses that didn't require someone with a gun that said, "You know what? You're going to sit in a cage because you're a survivor of domestic abuse." Universal health care, including mental care, counseling. Again, programs for folks who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. I think for many of us who have survived these systems, mental health care has to be at the forefront of the things that we demand. I think universal basic income is a part of a vision for safety. As I think about this question, I'm also curious about what foreign policy looks like when we talk about replacing policing and imprisonment. A world without borders. 

DJ: I think safety can only happen in being organized. And, again, in my vision of liberation, it looks like permanently organized communities. How do we get our base, our communities, our people to know our neighbors as much as we know how to get a stop sign on our street, as much as we know if there's a pothole on the street, as much as we know the history of the Black resistance in the place that we live in, as much as we know what our kids are being taught at school.

I'm naming things that are outside of the police for a reason, because I want to manifest it, that futures generations will look back on this moment and won't be able to imagine the types of interactions that we've had with the police, in the same way that we can't imagine something outside of a forty-hour work week. It just wouldn't even be understandable.


JG: What's being said but remains unheard?

MF: I've been reading James and Grace Lee Boggs's book, Revolution and Evolution In the Twentieth Century. They [say] that more valuable than those who have died for the revolution are those who would give the rest of their lives to it. What I've seen over the last year is this romanticization around the martyrdom and death of our freedom fighters, with this expectation that we must do the same in order to achieve liberation. I've really been pushing back on this notion because I know that millions of people showed up in the streets because, one, they were tired of seeing the death of Black people, but also they stayed in the streets because we were offering them a life-affirming demand, a life-affirming future.

I think it's important for organizers, especially new organizers that came up through the uprising, [to understand] that movement isn't a claim to notoriety, it's not a trend, it's not for visibility, for retweets and likes on the internet, but it really is and should be a commitment to a protracted struggle, towards liberation, for the collective and not about the individual.

When we say abolition, that also requires us to kill the cop in our head, so that when cops don't exist, we're not recreating them in this new world. We also [must] contend for power as we're building an alternative. We can't just have alternatives that don't actually contend for power.

DJ: I think we need better ways to engage with our own contradictions, and maybe this goes to the cop in the head. Our movements are full of very idealistic people. There's a vision, there's a future that we see, and we want to see it now. We want to see that we're not doing this for nothing, that we're doing this for the sake of the future, and the visions that we have, and the future that we deserve.

There's a real lack of baseline: how we talk to each other, how we disagree with each other, which requires deep trust and political trust. We get to political trust by being in debates with each other, by being in disagreements with each other. We have to love each other more than we hate our oppressors, more than we hate the state, more than we hate what we're going through. I think that requires more practice for us. We just need more spaces, more opportunities to practice being in disagreement with each other and in contradictions around what we're trying to do. Do we build deeper? Do we build wider? Do we stay local? Do we go national? All of those things are debates; they're all debatable. There's no right answer. But we need the spaces to actually learn how to navigate them. 


​Read the entire issue.


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