Building a nonviolent revolution against injustice: A conversation with Michelle Alexander

Below is an excerpt from a plenary session at the recent Ending mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow conference at Pendle Hill. Michelle Alexander was interviewed by Daniel Hunter and Jondhi Harrell. This excerpt has been edited for focus and for the written page, so that it flows more easily. Watch the video below to hear the full, very rich conversation.

Daniel Hunter is an organizer and strategist with Training for Change, an activist training organization.  He’s in demand around the world for his expertise in organizing and direct action, having trained tens of thousands of activists in more than a dozen countries.  He is the author of Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: an organizing guide

Jondhi Harrell is the founder and executive director of The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC) in Philadelphia, which offers comprehensive services for formerly incarcerated individuals.  Upon his release in 2009 after 25 years in federal custody, he completed his B.S. in Human Service Management and is currently enrolled in Temple University’s Masters of Social Work program.  He is co-clerk of the Germantown Friends Peace & Social Justice Committee, serves on the National Committee of Alternatives to Violence Re-Entry Program, and is an organizer for the Formerly Incarcerated and Families Working Group/Decarcerate PA.

Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, a civil rights advocate and a writer.

The conference itself was powerfully centered on the voices of returning citizens, people currently incarcerated, and their families. There was deep consideration of the issues and how to move forward together strategically. This interview laid the ground for powerful conversations and action planning throughout the conference. Lucy

“What does it mean, individually and collectively, to create a strategic, nonviolent revolution against injustice - not only against the prison system, but against America's recurring forms of racialized social control?” Michelle Alexander

Jondhi Harrell & Michelle Alexander at Pendle Hill, photo by Joe Hulihan

Daniel Hunter: Baltimore is on our minds, We are carrying our brothers and sisters in the streets and who are in jail in our hearts. One thing that seems important to figure out is how we support this movement to develop more strategic thinking, as well as expression of emotion. How do you see the expression of emotion, anger and rage in the streets of Baltimore, and how do you see strategy to move this massive system of mass incarceration? How do you see those two sitting hand-in-hand together?

Michelle Alexander: Like everybody in this room, I’ve been heartbroken over what I’ve seen happen to Freddie Gray and I’ve also been hugely inspired by the thousands of people who have taken to the streets and inspired by many of the young people who really were willing to speak and be honest about how they feel and their own rage and pain.

Last night there was a New York Times article called, “We are all Freddie Gray now.” I was surprised the NYT published it because it was written by a man who was basically arguing for violence. He had grown up in Baltimore and knew all too well the brutality of the police, he and his family were victims of police violence. He and many other young people are looking at the protests that have occurred around the country that were nonviolent, but yielded little in terms of results.

He was asking, “Why should we just keep holding hands with pastors and marching in the streets, when nothing ever seems to change?” We go home and weeks or days later, there is another killing, another tragedy.  Isn’t time to say to elected leaders in Baltimore, “Do the right thing and deal with the police or we will burn this city down.”

I was grateful the Times ran the piece because it was such an honest expression of what so many people are feeling, being tired, feeling we’ve been through this before, being nonviolent, holding hands with the pastors only to watch it play out over and over again.

My feeling is that this sense so many people have that we’ve been trying nonviolence for a long time and it hasn’t worked rests on a false conception. The nonviolent strategies and activists that so many people were committed to, especially at the end of King’s life, is not what has been going on over the last four years. It’s time for us to have an honest conversation about what it means to build a truly strategic, nonviolent revolution against injustice.  Rather than being in the streets again because we’re mad about the last thing that has happened. Those are two different things.

It’s necessary to take to the streets and protest when a tragedy occurs. We do need to find a way to transition from protest politics, reacting when bad things happen, to how do we build a truly strategic, nonviolent revolution not just to end mass incarceration, or to cut our prison population by half, but ultimately a revolution that will break this nation’s habit of creating these massive systems of racial and social control.

Eastern State Penitentiary by Lucy Duncan

We are in a different place than we were five years ago. When my book was first released, no one wanted to talk about this stuff, Obama was just elected and we were awash in post racialism and all of that. But there have been a number of developments especially the uprising in Ferguson, which we really will need to look back at as a turning point for this movement as a whole.

Over the past five years, we’ve had politicians across the political spectrum saying maybe we need to reconsider this system of mass incarceration because we don’t want to raise taxes on the predominantly white middle class. Hilary Clinton is now portraying herself as a champion of the movement to end mass incarceration when the Clinton administration was a primary architect of the current system of racial and social control.

We are at a critically important moment when people are awake and they’re angry and there is a space politically for a meaningful conversation about what’s necessary. But we have got to move out of the space of just analyzing the problem, though that’s important too. We have to begin to have the hard conversation: if we are going to build a radical movement that has the hope and promise to dismantle the system and create something new, what do we need to do it? What needs to happen in our places of worship, what needs to happen in our communities, what needs to happen on our street corners, what needs to happen in our schools? What infrastructure needs to be created?

One of the frustrations I’ve had as I’ve gone around the country speaking - speaking in prisons, speaking in juvenile detention centers, speaking in churches, speaking at judicial conferences, speaking at all these different places and everywhere I go - people say, “I want to join the movement, what do I do?” Right now there is a not a single national organization, not one, with deep grassroots connections to local communities that is focused like a laser on ending mass incarceration in America.

So when people say they want to join a movement, they often have no idea what’s going on in their own communities. There is incredible work going on in communities all over, there is incredible work going on in Philadelphia, but people lack awareness of what’s happening. It often feels disconnected, and there is no infrastructure.

There are Membership-based organizations based on ending mass criminalization and disposal of generations of poor communities and communities of color, but people don’t know how to connect and join. 

We don’t have to replicate what was done before, it’s a new era. How do we build a movement that has revolutionary potential?

Eastern State Penitentiary, photo by Lucy Duncan

Jondhi Harrell: President Obama recently called the protestors in Baltimore thugs and criminals. I was very disappointed in that language, I expected more of him. This is typical of the thinking not just of national leaders, but local leaders as well.

I was just invited to a community policing meeting with the mayor of Philadelphia and the commissioners and various organizations. When it came time to speak, I looked around and said, “You’ve got the wrong people in this room.” It was so many pastors and activists and community organizations that the young people do not listen to. 

How do we connect the real voices in the community? I’ll give you an example: we had a meeting at the Friends Center where we had political forum for candidates to speak. Across the hallway in the other room we had the Black Lives Matter people and they would not cross the hall to talk with the politicians.  How do we make those connections?

Michelle Alexander: First, I share your deep disappointment with the use of the word “thug” by President Obama, by the mayor of Baltimore, by so many folks who have gotten so accustomed to being able to dismiss entire populations just by a label: they’re “thugs,” they’re “felons,” they’re “criminals,” or “repeat offender,” or “gang banger.” These labels are meant to trigger a mental switch in our brain, so we stop caring, stop listening and allow law enforcement to do whatever they do and give them a wide berth to do it.

We have to be very conscious that we don’t use language ourselves that has the same effect. I used the word “ex-offender” in my book; that is not language I would use today. I think in so many ways formerly incarcerated people and their families have done such an enormous service to the movement by challenging those of us who think we are standing in solidarity about our language, about the way we talk, think and frame the issues we’re engaged in.

Eastern State Penitentiary, photo by Lucy Duncan

In terms of trying to get young people and political leaders in the same room and connected, I have very mixed feelings about it. I think young people are entitled to their distrust. I don’t necessarily think the answer is for young people and the prevailing political establishment to sit down and work their issues out and for everyone to feel heard.

I’m always for dialogue and for trying to get increased understanding, but I think there are often attempts by politicians and others to say, “Well, we want to talk to young people and hear from them,” but there is almost a co-optation that takes place of young people’s anger and resentment. Rather than giving young people a role or voice or some power, they feel, "As long as they feel heard I can go on with the work we are doing with business as usual."

I look at what has been going on in Baltimore, as well as what the Democratic party has been doing for the last few decades and I say, “Why would I, as a young person, trust the current Democratic establishment to hear me, to take my concerns seriously?”

I’m for dialogue, but I also think the time has come for young people and others to think seriously about building alternatives to the current political parties and building power and strength outside of the current political machine that runs cities like Baltimore.

Jondhi Harrell: What would that look like?

Eastern State Penitentiary, photo by Lucy Duncan

Michelle Alexander: I certainly don’t have a blueprint for it. Many of the young people and others - pastors, old folks, veterans from previous movements and others - are tired of business as usual. They are willing to get serious about developing alternatives.

But I think we ought to explore more seriously than we have in the past building alternative parties. It seems too challenging or pie in the sky to run a presidential candidate who isn’t a Democrat or Republican. You need billions of dollars to do so. But on a local level, it’s possible for people in communities to begin to organize, to take over school boards and city councils, and begin to build power outside of the prevailing machine. I think it’s something that needs to be explored.

Too often we wag our fingers and shame people in poor communities of color or young people for not getting out to vote. We say, “You can’t complain if you don’t get out to vote.” And they look at who’s running and who’s running the local machine and they say, “Why, why should I support this?”

One thing we need to consider is building real alternatives, so we’re not asking people to meet with their legislature or sign a petition or to support another Democrat that is hooked into the larger machine.

Watch the whole interview to hear more analysis and advice for building a movement to end the New Jim Crow. Videography for TCRC by Natasha Cohen-Carroll.