M Adams and Karma Chavez (Undercommoning Encounter 001, June 4 2015)

On June 4, 2015, Undercommoning held its inaugural workshop in Madison, Wisconsin. The closing session was our first Encounter session with M Adams and Karma Chavez, moderated by Thea Sircar.

What is the role of university workers in supporting undercommoning and radical resistance occurring in our communities? How can we appropriate the resources of the university to take action beyond campus? How do non-black allies stand with those involved in radical black struggles?

M. Adams is an organizer based in Madison, Wisconsin, and part of Young, Gifted, and Black and Freedom, Inc. M is a co-author of “Forward from Ferguson” (September 2014) and the author of a forthcoming, yet to be titled, book.

Karma R. Chavez is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Arts and affiliate in the Program in Chican@ and Latin@ Studies and the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the
University of Wisconsin, Madison and author of Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities (University of Illinois Press, 2013). Karma is also co-founder of the Queer Migration Research Network, a member of the radical queer collective Against Equality, and Wednesday’s host of the radio program, “A Public Affair” on 89.9 FM WORT (Madison).


A transcription of the encounter:

[partial – added on June 8, 2016]


Interview of Karma Chávez and M. Adams by Thea Sircar 


Thea: I am coming from Los Angeles, where I am studying and trying to do political theory. We are here at the final session of the Undercommoning workshop. I will be moderating and asking some questions to our speakers. I’m here with Karma Chávez, who is an associate professor here at UW Madison in the programs in Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture and Chicano/Latino Studies. She’s part of Madison Mutual Drift and also works on Queer Migration Studies. We’re very happy to have her here. I just found out that she has previously interviewed M, so I’m here to sort of get them started, which I’m really glad to do. M Adams is here. She is part of Freedom Inc. as well as the Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition here in Madison. She is also the co-author of a manual for organizing called Forward From Ferguson. We’re really happy to have her here today. Is there anything else you’d like to plug?


Adams: My book is coming out! We’re working on the title, but in probably a month myself and Max Rameau are writing a book about community control over police. …


Thea: That book sounds like it is on a topic that you have been advocating for a lot, this question of having community control over police. You’ve been making specific demands in the campaign here in Madison for community control over the current policing strategies. And you’ve gotten a lot of resistance from the police chief, Koval. Young, Gifted and Black (YGB) wrote an open letter to Koval and then he wrote back this pretty nasty response and essentially was ridiculing these ideas. So, I’m wondering where do you go from that? Once you’ve made demands that are actually trying to shift the terms of the conversation, and you get this institutional pushback, what are the next steps after that for YGB or other community groups?


M: Koval’s response did not deter us in any way. In fact, it really didn’t matter what he said. He could have been like, ‘this is terrible, we’re gonna come and beat you all,’ or he could have been like, ‘great!’ No matter what he had said, our analysis of the issue was still the same. What we understand is the fundamental issue here: what accounts for the disparate amount of police murders to the black community, the one every 28 hours statistic, is a lack of black political power. In this instance, specifically, over the police. We know that the police are an occupying force in our community, and in order to stop the police murders, we have to end the occupying force. We know it’s due to power because if it were not we would see the same thing happening to the white community at the same rate. So, the fact that he was resistant to it didn’t mean anything. It just further demonstrated the need for us to develop power. The fact that black people, the fact that civilians or non-police members could say, ‘hey, we actually wanna have a say over the police,’ and to see such stark and abrupt resistance really demonstrates that we actually don’t have any power. So, our analysis is the same, and we will continue to organize and demand and shift power.


Thea: So, Karma you’ve also been thinking about the ways of shifting power from those who are characterized in a certain way or excluded from these terms that we use to describe things as nice, like ‘giving rights,’ ‘giving citizenship.’ I wonder if you could speak in your work to how you see power-shifting. What’s the relationships between shifting-power, in terms of how we talk about these things, and tying it to action, to these organizational things?


Karma: So, I’ve been this last week leading a seminar, allegedly, on rhetorics of citizenship, for the Rhetoric Society of America Institute, which is here on campus. I’ve been asked to do this. So, I’m the sort of anti-citizenship person in my field. <laughter> When I was asked to do it, I was like, sure, but it won’t be your ordinary sort of thing. It’s sort of interesting because most of the people who sign up for the seminar are folks who love to look at how people appeal to citizenship and the power of appealing to citizenship. I’ve been reading Frank Wilderson, Amy Brandzel, Glen Coulthard, a lot of folks who are making these really important critiques about the necessity of thinking outside of those logics. And so, for me as a rhetoric scholar, I’m always thinking about how we’re being framed by the way we use language. We [speaking to M Adams] think about these things in the stuff we talk about all the time. That’s not unique to what we do, but I do think it matters. I think on a local level, some of the things we’ve been doing — holding debates, talking about issues of jail and policing — it’s like, how do you shift the terms, because that then does shift the way that people engage with those issues.


Thea: So, it sounds like actually taking the conversation into the community is one way to do this. How do you both approach speaking to people within your and other allied or accomplicing communities who are still using these old terms and even relying on them?


Karma: Well, I mean, M loves the term ‘human rights,’ so… <laughter> we have the debate all the time. ‘Human rights,’ it has a kind of power to it. All these terms do. ‘Citizenship’ has a kind of power to it. Or even just the general question of rights: how do we ask for something without asking in the language of rights, or without asking in the language of recognition? And I think it’s important for everyone impacted, not just those of us who are in the ivory tower, to think about, what are other languages will resonate? I think that’s what’s cool about the concept of community control of police that YGB and M and Max have been talking about, because everyone loves to talk about ‘community policing,’ so it’s kind of like you flip that language a bit. And get people to think about why what seems like a simple difference is actually significant.


Thea: I’d love to hear about how you, M., and your comrades think about the place or space where you’re doing that, in thinking through the effects of these kinds of flips or inversions or overturning or coming from the other side of a debate, putting the debate in different terms. So, we’ve been talking today a lot about the university as this place where maybe we can try to have this sort of criminal or fugitive relationship, even though it is this very oppressive structure. So, how do you think about where you’re doing that? Do you think it’s important to do that in both places that are heavily governed and places that are less heavily governed? Or is there a really specific strategy that you’re following?


M: Yes, it is a strategy. So, in Madison, to speak frankly, we see our work as being part of a broader Black Liberation struggle. How do you organize a black liberation campaign in a majority white city where people proclaim themselves as liberal and progressive, where there are very little resources afforded to your community and the ones that are are by people who have bought into mainstream ideas and ideals? My sense of what my campaign or the different tactics or how to talk about it, in a sense, is different from the terrain that Huey P. Newton faced, in the 70s, in a majority black city, where the issues were made very clear, at least by the majority of the people in that city. In a way, essentially we’re running a couple different campaigns at the same time – or rather, we have a couple different layers to the campaign. We don’t think of ourselves as the Other. We think that we, our community, is the primary. So, then the obvious and important work is in the black community. We think ultimately we will free ourselves, and we’re not waiting on white people to free us. That’s the important work for us. That’s the center of the work. With the work we’re doing in the community, I don’t have to do a lot of convincing. In a sense, it’s a different conversation. This is not to say that you don’t have to build up people’s political analysis. It’s not to say that you don’t have to get people to sharpen how they understand root causes. But I just don’t have to convince people that there’s overpolicing. You know, police issues and prison issues are like the essential black issue. You don’t have to convince people that this is the issue and that this is happening. So, we don’t have to do a lot of that work there. But certainly building up how people see themselves and working on empowerment and study is a lot of the work there.


Now, how we cross over, or how we appeal to the white majority, which includes the university, is a whole different thing. This city prides itself on the amount of intellectual capital here. So, everybody’s like, oh, we can think it through, we can write it out, put it in the paper, talk about it, come to the meeting. The university is like, oh we’ll do a speaker series or forum on it. Reports. Reports. Don’t forget reports… on the issues. So, there is a lot of work that we have to do intellectually. Both thinking about rhetoric, in terms of how to talk about it. What they view as a hard race line in certain spaces, people will be put off, and be like, ‘oh what about us?’ – from the white people, as if you’re saying that you’re gonna do something to the white people or whatever. There’s a bit of that that has to happen. But for us, what’s important is to speak to our principled beliefs. So, in whatever space you’ll hear us saying the exact same analysis. And I think that’s important. Although we may be able to draw on different examples in different communities, though we may present different information from different perspectives, it is still the same analysis. I think that’s what makes us different from other people who sell out.


Thea: Right, and it seems that’s super important, because having a layered approach allows for flexibility. You can move from one to the other when you need to, and you can respond to the different kinds of really horrible nonsense that the police, government, state, and university are throwing at you. But that consistency in message and aim and drive is really crucial. I have to ask, when you’re talking to a room where there isn’t anyone else who’s black here, that I know of, someone else might identify as black, but the university is a space that is becoming increasingly whitewashed. I teach at the University of California, Los Angeles, and there’s a couple of dozen black students in a campus of 35,000, and that’s in a city with a really large African-American population [editors note: overall undergrad enrollment of students classified as African-American or Black is 1,189 out of 29,663 as of Fall 2014.]. So, what do you say, in terms of this self-educating, to a room like this, of people who want to do that kind of self-educating and who maybe don’t know what to do or where to go with that?


M: I think there are a lot of good resources available. I always point people to Malcolm X, I think he had one of the sharpest analyses around, in terms of understanding the need for the black community to have power as a way of solving and talking about some of the root issues. I keep emphasizing the importance of looking at root issues as opposed to surface issues. And not to say that surface issues aren’t important. People are impacted by the way these systems show up, so I think they’re important to address. But I emphasize again, X, Angela Davis, even the African Socialist People’s Party has a really good analysis around what the root issues are. So, look there to study. But, the other thing, see the university has a lot of resources. So, I think the university should pay people like me or other people like Max Rameau or YGB and Freedom Inc to come in and spit some of this analysis. It’s there, it’s alive, it’s in the community. We also have to change the way we understand expertise around particular issues. Why are we studying and believing in white guys who don’t even talk to black people about the black experience and not the black people who are saying I’m black and this is my experience? Even changing who we see as experts and what we see as credible information or credible expertise.


I also think the university as a system should take a position in political matters. Too often the university sits still with this idea that we should act with neutrality, and there’s actually no neutrality. Not saying anything when things are extremely hostile is allowing hostility to take place. Therefore, I think there’s a commission of the hostility. So, the university is the university, and not Pepsi, and not some random corporation – not because they don’t both have space or a lot people, but the university is the university because of its intellectual capital, because of its place in the city or the universe as a place to think. People at the university should use that position to be on the side of justice. The University of Wisconsin-Madison should say there is racism in this police department and the fundamental issue is that black people do not have control or power as it relates to the police, therefore there’s no ability to hold the police accountable, and therefore it is the university’s researched opinion to have community control of the police. Or whatever. But the university should have a political position on political matters — and I think that’s the biggest thing people can do who are part of these spaces, who have all of these letters behind their name, who have the social capital to be able to say things and people listen.


Thea: Karma, do you want to speak to that as someone who is a member of the university but is also really committed to this making visible thing too?


Karma: Yeah, I think we are meeting concurrently with the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin right now, who are making decisions about our lives. I think for people like me in particular, now more than ever, whether I end up being protected by tenure or not, it’s important to stake out those positions. And not just stake out those positions, because right now it’s really cool for some people to support Young, Gifted, and Black. So, not just nominally to be the one who is interviewed by the newspaper because you study something related and then act like you’re an expert, but to really put your own neck on the line, I think, is important, too. And create lots of space. We’ve partnered a lot this year – and we could have done a lot more – to create space to shift expertise at the university; to try to make this space also familiar for black folks, for example, and to make white people more uncomfortable, which we do, I think, when we have an event. They always bring out extra police for us now.


Thea: That’s a good sign that you’re doing something right.


Karma: Yeah, I think the university operates on a logic of fear right now, and this is nationwide. For me, I always say to people, if I lose my job at the university, I can probably serve coffee. I have a skill set. When we wrap too much of ourselves into this as an identity and not as just a job, then I think we become fearful of losing it. People like me are, what is it, like 2 or what percentage of people that are tenured at universities. And we need to be willing to give that privilege up. We really do. And that’s scary to do. I mentioned this to some of these folks in this citizenship seminar. And they were like, if the university isn’t what it is, then what would it be? And I was like, well that’s a good question.


Thea: Look around!


Karma: Yeah, so it’s very matter of fact for me. You should do the work. If you have the space, if you have the resources, you give the resources. It’s very simple actually.


Thea: Are there resources that either of you are using in ways that have surprised you? We were talking earlier today about Moten and Harney’s idea that what we need is not a toolbox but a toybox, to be able to repurpose things – to turn situations that seem like they are set up for one kind of outcome into a different kind of situation. To use the so-called skills or tools that we have out of whatever training we’ve gotten to actually kind of play in ways that surprise the system, that push back against it. Are there ways in which either of you see what you’re doing as that kind of work?


Karma: Probably in a variety of ways. The debates that we posted where M beats people who are allegedly more expert. That’s one way to use a seemingly very Oxford-style debate. It’s an uppity sort of thing – using it in other ways. The other thing, very simply, is just de-railing every public meeting you [M.] possibly can this year. That’s actually shifted the whole nature of the discourse.


M: We as African people in the United States have always had to use whatever was around us in tons of creative ways to further the struggle. So, I agree with that. I do have a small challenge to that. We have a toybox but we also want tools. The same laptop you’ve got, we want one too. You get a check, we want a check. We also want decent quality whatever. So, of course we’re going to be creative, of course we use all things available to us, but one of the ways that plays out, although it may not be the intent of what was written, is that we get thrown scraps and have to figure out how to make do with it, while everybody else gets real serious tools. So, yeah, we’ve used the university. Some people say I have an office in the Elvehjem [building on UW’s campus] because I’m there so much. We use the university in whatever way. So, I’m definitely, in studying Malcolm, seeing that he did the Oxford style debates, and looking for the university, to use its intellectual capital to be able to do things like that. We’ve also worked with different folks at the university to host panels on different issues. We did one not too long ago on violence and social movements. Given talks there. So certainly using all of the resources there. Getting people to print for us. We need things printed for free. Getting people to bring us in as speakers. Using space. Trying to get grad students or students to give us some of their time, to participate, building with students as part of the social movements – having them be involved. So we’ve used the university in a lot of different ways. We are looking to see what can we access of the space in the Southside, for example, which is a space set up by the university – we use that for a lot of our programming and our meetings and things. And we’re always looking for more ways to be creative – for more resources that we could bring into the movement. And we did a speaker series at the university, a Black Lives Matter speaker series. That was another way we got the university to do what they do, which is to pay people to come in and talk, specifically on our issues, but we were able to mobilize our communities to be part of it. So, we were able to get poor black people here who would normally never see Beth Ritchie or never see some of these speakers, to be able to see them and to interact and participate with them.


Thea: And of course, one of the things we talked about earlier, is that there are people of color in universities, but they’re just usually invisible and they may not be standing in front of a classroom. They might be coming in afterwards to pick up all the crap everybody left. So, do you have thoughts on specifically what it looks like to have more cross-status alliances? One of the universities someone here is at, they’re struggling for a living wage, and that’s caused a lot of cross-status conversations to happen. What do you think of the role of something like that?


Karma: I think one of the hardest things is for faculty to see themselves as workers. I say this all the time, that as long as university professors like me make the kinds of salaries that we do and get the red carpet the way that we do, it’s amazing to listen to faculty on this campus complain about how low their salaries are compared to their peers. I’m like, I know who you mean by your peers, but… So, faculty don’t imagine themselves as workers. They imagine themselves as… I don’t know what they think of themselves as. Professors are a different thing apparently. And so, there’s very little space often to build these connections. So, even with everything that’s been going on with dismantling the University of Wisconsin, of UW-Madison faculty who’ve showed up for things or been vocal about these things, it’s been about the same five people. And I think there’s, what, 2000 faculty on this campus. People who are in the classified staff unions and the teaching assistants association, these other folks, who have to see themselves as workers, who aren’t as comfortable as I am, are there regularly. I see very little space to make those connections. It’s something I think about a lot. And I’ve been not thinking as much about the institution in that way as I’ve been trying to support the work M is doing. But I think it’s vital to think about it in those ways.


Thea: I want to ask you, M, about this question of moving from small scale to larger scale organizing. So, you mentioned earlier that YGB is part of this national Black Liberation movement, maybe even an international one, and so much of the organizing is happening on this very local level because of the specific situation that y’all are in, in Madison. We have from the conversation today a lot of ideas of individual things that people can do, but thinking really about blowing stuff up and making this kind of thing happen in more places and in bigger ways.


M: I think a couple things. Having a local campaign doesn’t mean that your campaign doesn’t address bigger issues and that the impact of that campaign won’t be national. In fact, any major movement has to have people fighting somewhere. Whether it be the Montgomery bus boycotts, which were in Montgomery, and then other places picked it up. But it had started in a particular place, and what allowed it to grow to scale, in a sense, was the demands and the root analysis of the issues. Had the demands of the bus boycotts been ‘we want nicer segregation in Montgomery,’ then it wouldn’t have had an impact in Louisiana and other places. But seeing as how they eventually grew to understand that it should have a root analysis of the issues, and therefore the demands were very large in scale, in terms of what they would actually win. So, that’s what allows our work in Madison here to transcend and be relevant in Ferguson and Florida and some other part of the world. Our demands and our analysis of the issues are specific to Madison in that it’s happening here but it’s not limited to Madison. When campaigns do that, that allows the link-up, that allows for other people to participate in a bigger way.


I think the biggest thing to do, in terms of how to link up, is to make sure that your work is transformative and that your demand isn’t just transactional. So, if your demand is just we want this one particular thing and it doesn’t shift anything, and it’s just going to stay local. Even if it’s statewide — perfect example: you remember 2011, ‘kill the bill,’ everybody at the capitol. The demands of that mobilization was transactional. Had they won, there wouldn’t have been any shift in power. None at all. And therefore the implication of winning here has nothing to do with Minnesota. You had a hundred thousand people, and if they had all won something it wouldn’t have changed California, because what they wanted wouldn’t actually shift anything. But if they’d all been there, fighting for some broader or deeper workers rights, then that would have impacted Florida, Minnesota, and so many other places. So, I think that’s the importance of having demands that are transformative, which results in fundamental shifts in society. That’s the key to making it macro even if you begin to fight it locally.


Thea: I actually want to hear more about that, maybe specifically with policing and prisons. So, one of the demands has been to release people…


M: Free the 350!


Thea: Exactly. So, with that example – it’s not small because the system doesn’t want to do it, but it is a local action here. It’s small numbers compared to the many who are incarcerated nationwide who should not be. So, how does even that reverse the logic?


M: So, it’s local in the specific number that we’re asking for here in Madison, but in the analysis it’s global, in what the root issue is and how it impacts people around the world. Free the 350 is our second demand of the Build the People, Not the Jail campaign. In short, Dane County has about 5% black people and the jail is about 50% black. If there was no structural racism in the jails, then you should expect that the jail demographics would mirror or match the county’s demographic. So, the jail population should only be 5% black. On any given day, there’s about 800 people in jail and 400 of them are black, whereas only 50 or 40 of them if Dane County is serious about ending racial disparities in the jail. The only way to do it is to let out 350 black people, who we know are incarcerated due to crimes of poverty. And if you don’t do that, you’ve gotta lock up like 6000 white people — which we’re not advocating for, but I say that number because 6000 feels very big. That’s how big 350 is proportionately to our community. So that is a big number for us. The local, specific piece about Madison is the number, but the idea of getting people out of jail and that jail shouldn’t be functioning as a poor house and that jail is set up as a capitalistic structure, that has global implications. So, anybody could develop a Free the 350 campaign. It might be Free the 900,260… whatever the number in whatever the place in the world, it’s still the same idea, the analysis of the issues is still the same. That allows us to have very specific challenges and demands to the city but to be linked up to a broader struggle of black liberation.


Thea: That makes a lot of sense. But I’m also wondering — and this gets back to the question of the term ‘human rights’ too — so, when you use the kind of proportional logic and say the jail population should reflect the overall population, that still doesn’t say maybe no one should be in jail. You’re not avoiding saying that. So, it’s a step along this path. But, how do you wrestle with using terms like these proportionality ideas or human rights to push back against the system while also recognizing the downsides of them?


M: So, a couple things: I am a prison abolitionist. We are prison abolitionists. We’re not secret about it. This goes back to one of your first questions: how do you wage revolution in a city where people aren’t waging revolution? What can you say, how do you say it, how do you talk about it? To us, we still have the same root analysis: that jail is inhumane, that nobody should be in jail. However, given the particular context at this particular time, with the research available to us, we were able to find a particular point that we could galvanize a majority white group of people around. It was entirely strategic. So, absolutely, I think everybody should be let out. But I know that if I just have a campaign that says let people out of jail it’s gonna be just us seventeen in this room who are gonna show up. So, we’re not conceding around our beliefs on prison abolition, but starting there and beginning to shift the narrative allows us to say more things. For example, when Matt Kenny was not indicted or criminally charged for the murder of Tony Robinson, him not being charged created another texture that we were able to use in the city that said ‘hey, if people like Matt Kenny who commit the worst of crimes, murdering of unarmed children, don’t go to jail, then nobody should.’ Now, it’s not that we’re saying that if he did then jail should exist. But different things allow us to take different angles to be able to add different texture that shifts people’s consciousness around it. So, now we’ve got people that wasn’t even thinking about jail a year ago talking about, ‘oh, I don’t think it should be a poor house either. People shouldn’t be in jail cause their poor.’ Or I’ve got people asking me, ‘oh, what did you mean by crime is a construct?’ So, it allowed us that narrative that we geniusly crafted — I think we’re geniuses — it allowed us to be able to have some of these conversations in a broad context, in a very simple way, without relying on jargon.


Thea: It’s looking for cracks. Well, I want to open us up for questions from our audience…


Construct, so it allowed us, that narrative that we genious-ly crafted–I think we’re geniuses–

Thea: I agree

M: Allowed us to begin to have these conversations


M: Mm hm.

Thea: Well I want to open it up for questions from our audience and group, since we have a good amount of time left I think for that…… If you have questions, we’ll give it to you and you can speak into it, so we have a recording for our, for posterity. So Nora has been sitting there


Nora: So I’m super happy that Karma and M are here to answer this and I guess that my basic question is, is the public at all an idea that we can invest in, given that we’re obviously in what’s been called a higher ed crisis in Wisconsin and a lot of the rhetoric that’s been used around that is that oh, the University is a public good and there’s been this idea of sifting and winnowing. And we have the Wisconsin idea and it was such a wonderful thing. And you know that all this stuff is bound up with the public as this kind of accessible good. And then on the other what YGB has done so effectively here has been to talk consistently about state violence and yet people in the university never talk about the relationship between the university and state violence. Obviously the university is a space of exclusion as it relates to race and to class. So in both of your perspectives, is the public an idea that we can invest in at all anymore? I guess the second question is, what is the relationship between the public and state violence and is the public just a way to not talk about state violence?


Karma: I guess I’d say that basically I’ve been thinking about this a lot, not surprisingly, lately. I’ll say briefly that I think the progressive idea of Wisconsin was built on white supremacy. So when we want to preserve the status quo that is the Wisconsin idea. So if that’s the kind of public good that we want to preserve obviously I’m not into it. My own point of view is that the University is a site of state violence. Do I want to preserve the possibility for every kid to get a good education? Of course. Preserve is the wrong word. Do I want that to be a possibility? Of course. I think there are better ways we can do it and I don’t know it requires a notion of the public, but I don’t know what it requires. It does for sure require an analysis of state violence and of how this state, in its idea of itself, is premised on white supremacy.


M: One of the defining features of the state is that they have the violence upon violence. And because of that, they can do whatever they want to do, and if you do it, you’re violence but if they do it, they’re maintaining order, or culture, or law, or righteousness, or goodwill, whatever words they’re using. That being said, since the state has the monopoly on violence, then when the state, the public, the state, is not educating black children, is funneling them or forcing them into prisons, and is kicking a whole group of people out, is participating in cultural genocide and a whole host of other things. Then the state is not recognizing itself as violence. So I do not expect the university to recognize itself–as it currently exists–to recognize itself as a violent entity no more than I expect the police to step outside and say, “you know what, we’re pretty violent! We should probably stop that.” You know, I mean I don’t expect that out of them. So should we invest in the public? Ehh, I think we should invest in communities. So when I hear people talk about the public or common good or things like that, I think people are talking about institutions and things that are not people. We should invest in people. Here I’m gonna drop the “human rights” and education is a human right. The investment in people would ultimately build a strong, good school. But you can have what is considered the strong good school and have people who are being killed, murdered and not invested in, so I’m not against education; I think education is very important. We should be investing in education, but we should be investing in just education, which means it is equitable, which means it is accessible to everybody, which means it is not participating in the violence that is continually being committed against communities. So I hope that answers your question. Our slogan at Freedom, Inc, is that “our community is our campaign” so we think about what works best for communities then we’ll build a good public.


T: I’ll keep a stack or queue so let me know if you want to ask a question. We’ll start here and then go to the back.

So I have two questions, one is I guess mainly for M: a lot of the protests I’ve been to, what has struck me about them in particular is how youthful they are. So we have those pictures of the day the walkout happened with all the high schools. Kids just flooded the capital. I’ve never seen so many people under the age of eighteen at a protest before. Which is saying something. That’s really impressive. So I wanna highlight that and ask you to talk a little bit about you know how you see–what is the importance of the work you are doing? Is it driven by, I mean Tony Robinson was well-known throughout the high schools in the city because he was a recent graduate, he had gone to a few different high school, obvious you know, the kids had a relationship with him. But what is your, sort of approach, to youth organizing at that level. And the other was just a smaller thing, going back to something that was said earlier about the rhetoric of rights, and what do we mean when we talk about rights. And here is something that might work with Bad River Tribe up north, around the mines. One of the things various people, [Chairman Mike Williams?] and various up there make, you know, treaty rights , in their case, you know we’re talking about indigenous treaty rights in the state of Wisconsin, you know territories in the north of the state, you know treaty rights were not given, they were not something that the state of Wisconsin gave to the Ojibwe people they were something that the state of Wisconsin had to be forced to acknowledge, that they existed, that they were preserved, maintained by the treaties with the U.S. although those treaties were a wholesale theft of a lot of land resources, there were certain rights that they maintained and. those rights were not, you know, given back, they were taken, the state was forced to acknowledge that. So short of that shift in frame, how does that map onto the struggle that young, gifted and black and freedom inc are facing in Madison and demanding the right not to be locked up and killed by the police?


M.: So just the usage of the word rights implies that it’s a relationship to a state, that that state has some particular power, usually judicial, right? So we say I have the “right” to something, there’s the expectation, given current government structures, that if somebody violates that right then it would upheld by the state or the court of law. So we’re already in trouble, with using the word. Problem is, If I say I got a human “blah blah blah” you go, “What’s blah blah blah?” and then I have to spend all this time explaining “blah blah blah” and then to not call it a right leaves out the power built behind what rights mean to people in this particular land, or in the world, really. In the world, in this context, in this historical moment. So we’re already limited, which is what I do think you’re getting at. We’re already limited where we use the word “right”. We’re already giving some sort of a power to a state that can judge or some judiciary power that’s supposed to acknowledge, and therefore respect, the thing that I’m going to say. Now when I first learned of human rights, going to your point  around “nobody has to give it to you” when I first learned of human rights, they were not called human rights. They were things that my Grandmother said, they were values, they were beliefs, they were ways that she lived her life. I remember being very young and hearing her saying things like “you know it don’t make no sense folks sleeping out in the alley like that” or “they ought to give those folks some jobs” or “why isn’t there ain’t never no money?” or ….” I remember her saying what SHE thought should be and what she thought the world should be like and what SHE felt not having another word, what she felt her rights were. So that’s my first entry point into human rights. Then when I learned about it, I didn’t learn about the United Nations until some time. I learned from listening to Malcom, from reading and from studying and from hearing him and him talking about what our rights were as black people. There ain’t nobody got to give us nothing. We was going to take it, we were going to assert it. Now when I talk about human rights, that’s what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about the legal body. I’m talking about a word that has a certain history……[gap] I don’t have another word.

[Q&A conversation continues…]


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