On mass incarceration, movement building and racism: A conversation with Daniel Hunter

Daniel Hunter is an organizer and strategist with Training for Change, an activist training organization. He’s sought all over the globe for his expertise in organizing and direct action, having trained tens of thousands of activists in over a dozen countries. He is the author of the organizing manual Building the Movement to end the New Jim Crow. He previously authored a compelling narrative bringing to life the vibrancy of direct action campaigning in Strategy and Soul. He is also a contributor to the books Beautiful Trouble and We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America. I’ve gotten to know him through activist circles in Philadelphia and think he is a critical voice supporting powerful, vital action for change worldwide. He participated in the conference on mass incarceration at Pendle Hill in May offering tools for building campaigns, and, with Jondhi Harrell, interviewed Michelle Alexander there. Except for pictures of Daniel and his book, all images are from AFSC's Humanize, not Militiarize exhibit. - Lucy

Pulling the knife out all the way

Lucy Duncan (LD): Recently there have been some significant victories in the movement to end mass incarceration: in November Obama issued an executive order banning the box for federal employees, in September California made an historic agreement ending solitary confinement except in extreme situations, and more and more public officials are taking a stand against mass incarceration. What’s hopeful for the movement and what are the obstacles still ahead?

Daniel Hunter (DH): Malcolm X said, “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull out the knife.” Of course these are good and important steps along the road. If they truly are steps, Obama should be congratulated and the California justice system should be celebrated.

But I think it’s important to recognize a couple things. Obama may have put the ink on the executive order, but he did not make it happen. It’s been a long movement of many hundreds of thousands of people who put their lives and hearts on the line to make that executive action happen. Same with California and other wins that are happening.

For those of us who are in the movement and for those of us watching the movement, what’s important is the question of where these steps lead next.

I think we have to do three things. 

One, We have to thank the people who made this happen, which is not Obama but is All of Us or None and other grassroots organizations who have been working on this for so  many years.

Two, we have to raise the question of where we go from here and think about what’s the next immediate win that’s right in front of us.

And three, we have to deepen our analysis, our commitment, to make this about not just pulling the knife out two inches, but how do we change this system and the embedded nature of believing there are throwaway people whose lives we can ruin because they are criminals, because they are second class people.

Grow community connections by Eva Nagao

What is the vision here?

L.D.: Earlier this year at the Ending Mass Incarceration conference at Pendle Hill, Michelle Alexander asked a question that guided a lot of the conversation: “What does it mean, individually and collectively, to create a strategic, nonviolent revolution against injustice, not only against the prison system, but against the United States’ recurring forms of racialized social control?” What does it take for movement people to take this seriously and build the movement she’s describing across our differences and ignite and sustain not just reformation but revolution and transformation? Where do you see the promise for such a movement?

D.H: The promise for the movement is from everyone who’s weeping for a child, for every kid who is hoping and praying their father and mother will get out. That’s where movements start, in the pain, anger, and frustration with a system that is corrupt and vile. There is always hope in movement life.

Right now we have lots of people trying out different things which is one of the qualities that movements need. I think a lot about the 1930s and 1940s in the Civil Rights movement and even the 1890s and 1900s and 1920s where there were rabid and sometimes fierce and sometimes painful conversations about where do black people want to go. Do we want to set our eyes on the armed African uprisings that were in their nascent form?? Do we want to emulate Gandhi? What is the goal we want to achieve? Integration? Or heading back to Africa and getting out of this country that clearly doesn’t care about us?

Those debates were waged in books and articles but they were also discussed on street corners where organizers and leaders would use persuasive tactics to shift people in one direction or another. We’re in that space right now with different movement leaders articulating different directions. I think the question that we need to ask ourselves, our leaders, and the folks who are organizing is, “What is the vision here?” I’m always struck by the quote, “Where there is no vision, the people will perish.” (Proverbs 29:18).

I cannot be moved by Marcellous Lovelace

The movement way: What is most at the heart?

L.D.: That makes me think about Israel Palestine and the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). So many civil society organizations unified with that strategy and many of them hold a vision for a one state solution, for a state that is based on equality.  The unity and clarity in that call seems to me to be very powerful and effective. But it also seems true that small groups who carry different visions can still get a lot done together in the same movement. Do people need to come together with a unified request or strategy or can movements still be effective with many small groups forming their own campaigns?

D. H.: At some point it needs to happen. In order for big system change, we’ve got to get on a similar page. We’ve got to be ready for that mass moment. Many people think that looks like organizing a big march and doing the march on Washington. As beautiful as that is, the march on Washington only makes sense in the context of ongoing, active resistance. Otherwise it’s purely symbolic.

Many movements have been influenced by public relations companies and the way PR companies and businesses think.  Businesses want you to buy their product whether it works or not, whether it’s good or not. Movements can sometimes risk not having the political fights we need to have and instead have more symbolic calls for action. By virtue of being a coalition, coalition demands can become watered down. 

The movement way asks for the thing that is most passionate, most at the heart, most at the crux of the issue. There is an organizer out of Canada named Cam Fenton who wrote an article for Waging Nonviolence who said, “We should not build a big tent. When we build a big tent, we look up to what is the most in common with everyone else.” What we come up with is very generic, general statements like justice and freedom and peace and equality for everyone.

She says that the way we should organize is to look down. What are the fractures, the pains in our lives, the things that are dirty and nasty and ugly and painful caused by the system we are fighting against? Rather than looking up to the big tent, let’s look down and talk about the fractures and the places where we are disconnected and suffering. Absolutely we need to build a mass movement. But we need to do it in a way that doesn’t result in generic demands. Generic may be another word for politically acceptable or acceptable to the mainstream or something you can sell to politicians or to the business establishment. 

Movements shouldn’t be about trying to sell the idea. Movements should be about recapturing the vibrancy, the heart, the energy, the love, the pain, the suffering. If we aren’t talking about pain and suffering along with our goals, then we’re not talking about the issue and at every moment we should be talking about the issue.

Building the movement to end the New Jim Crow book cover

What we can do to end the New Jim Crow

L.D.: Tell me about your book Building the Movement to end the New Jim Crow. How did it come about?  

D.H.: How I got into it was one of those bizarre experiences. Chris Moore-Backman, Vincent Harding, Michelle Alexander, and I got on a phone call, and I talked about how this resource could be useful as a companion piece to Michelle’s book, The New Jim Crow, and the study guide they produced to go along with it. Mostly I wanted to offer a book that picked up where Michelle’s book left off, specifically, “What do we do?”

As we discussed earlier, there is no singular answer to that. The answer to that question is related to a lot of other factors: who we know, what our position is, what local groups are already working on the issue, our geographical position, what formerly incarcerated are working on, etc. But there were principles, guides, and stories that I wanted to put out.  What I tried to do with the book was to tell stories from different parts of the movement, in different locations, and show some of the principles for action in this movement at this time.

Raising the eyesight of the movement: Creating campaigns

L.D.: For those wanting to develop campaigns, what advice would you offer? Can you tell me about inspiring campaigns or efforts you discovered in your research for the book?

D.H.: The thing that I wanted people to learn most in this book, more than anything else, is how to create their own campaign. By that I mean local, winnable campaigns with dramatically interesting goals that can change the way people think about the issues. I support the creation of campaigns that shift the power relationships and recruit more and more people. Most campaigns need to do that locally. National campaigns will do a top roots approach rather than building up the grassroots. Local campaigns offer a way to build meaningful relationships between those that are formerly incarcerated and those that aren’t. They create sticky relationships that form the basis for ongoing work.

The Ban the Box campaign is a great example of an issue that focused entirely on local campaigns, mostly local governments. Target was their first business win. But it wasn’t until a year ago when Dorothy Nunn, one of the organizers, began saying it’s time for an executive order. You have to build the grassroots power base in order to win the national base. If you start at the national level, you’ll just do top roots. You’ll try to win using political connections and such. That’s not what they did.

Reparations Now! by The Radical Education Project

One of the more interesting wins I’ve heard of came out of Chicago where a group of men were tortured in prison. This became known and widely understood. For a while the organizers said, “Let’s work on this as a legal issue, like Trayvon Martin. Let’s go to the legal system and say to the DA, we want you to do your job, we want you to prosecute.” After a period of time, they switched strategies and said, “Why would we expect a corrupt, rotting institution to protect our rights when it has clearly shown that it does not have any interest in doing so? Instead of doing that, let’s this as a political issue and put this on the doorstep of city council.”

So they demanded that city council make this right. They called it “reparations.” They wanted reparations for what was done. Their demands were not, “we want everybody to be prosecuted.” Their demands were more far reaching than that. They demanded money for compensation, but they went more widely and said we want this incident of brutality to be taught in every 8th and 10th grade in the public school system. We want our kids and our grandkids to get free college tuition for Chicago Community College. We want there to be a monument that honors and documents this incident. They shifted it from, did the prison guard do this or not, should they put him in jail or not, to an issue of justice at a generational level.

That demand is highly replicable. Wherever police are found to be violating and killing innocent black lives, men and women, this is a different way of framing our demands. We can abandon the justice system that has abandoned us a long time ago and stop pretending we can get justice out of it. Instead, we can make it a political issue and frame it in such a way that it gains a broader frame than a single incident. The way those demands were constructed is replicable, and that is the kind of thing that can help raise the eyesight of the movement so that we are not stuck with the idea that what we need to do is put police in prison. I don’t think that is actually what leaders have been asking for, but it’s how it resonates out with the broader public.

Ferguson is everywhere, image by ARRT!

Addressing racism

L.D.: You wrote one chapter of the book addressing racism, “Toward Building a Transformational Movement,” then left it out. Can you tell me a little about what was in that chapter and how addressing white supremacy intersects with the movement to end mass incarceration and the carceral system?

D.H.: My civil rights professor, Dr. Phyllis Boanes, was known for asking provocative, tough questions of people. During one of these sessions where she was asking tough questions, one of the students said, “Look, racism has always been with us and it will always be with us. You just can’t get rid of prejudice.” She shot back, as an historian would, “You may be right about prejudice always existing, but racism as a structural institution has a beginning point and you can trace it.” When we trace it back it leads directly to the African slave trade, the full on disenfranchisement of a group of people who were seen as subhuman at a systemic level starting around the late 1400s and rocketing up through the 1500s and 1600s with “whites” being considered superior to other races (I say “whites” in quotes because the concept of whiteness hadn’t quite emerged yet). There had always been slaves, but there had never been anything on this scale before. You can see our whole economic system being built on black slavery.

In many ways you could understand racism as a way to uphold an economic system. And from that perspective, dealing with the problems of mass incarceration is dealing with the outcomes of an economic order that presupposes that some people are disposable. Naomi Klein talks about sacrifice zones, that there are places on the planet that are okay to be sacrificed.  The tar sands in Alberta are okay to become wastelands, perhaps not forever, but for a very long time. But that also means that the people who live there are also sacrificed.

That concept of sacrifice is how the economic engine that this society worships operates. It creates people that are sacrificed. Kids in China that are pulling electronics apart to get mercury and wires that are known to be toxic to them. Adults in the Maquiladora in the north part of Mexico working extremely long hours without bathroom breaks who will be fired and blacklisted if they try to unionize. It applies to many people in the US, most notably the poor and working class. When we talk about racism, that’s what we are talking about. Race determines, simply by skin color, which people will be in a sacrifice zone.

Given that context, there are a number of things we can do. I’ve been very inspired by some of the work to help us disentangle the way we set people up to be sacrificed. We need to get that out of our system sufficiently so that we can work together in a movement context, so that we can envision new institutions that can put us all in the same boat. Economic systems that are built on separation – there’s a 1st class and a 2nd class – guarantee that we are setting ourselves up for sacrifice. If we say that there are basic rights, like access to healthcare, then we’ll all be in the same boat. We don’t have to have the situation we have now where some people’s health is absolutely ignored. Whenever people talk about getting in the same boat together, racism rears its ugly head as one of the ways to keep people from doing that.

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