The Highlander Folk School is sacred ground in the South.
It’s possible you’ve never heard of Highlander because it’s not a part of Southern history that is commonly taught. But this social justice training school founded in eastern Tennessee in 1932 had an enormous impact on the South. It’s where Rosa Parks was trained before refusing to give up her seat on the bus. It’s where John Lewis had his first integrated meal. It’s where “We Shall Overcome” became an anthem for the civil rights movement.
The FBI accused Martin Luther King of being a communist due to his time spent there. The state of Tennessee tried to shut them down, seizing their land and kicking them off. But Highlander was reborn as the Highlander Research and Education Center. And for nearly 90 years, they’ve been training Southerners to fight for labor rights, social justice and voting rights, immigrants’ rights, environmental justice, LGBTQ rights and so much more.
This week on the Reckon Interview, we speak with Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, the co-executive director of Highlander and a longtime organizer and activist.
We talk about aspects of the South that get left out of the popular narratives and who it serves to tell certain stories about the South. We also talk about the murder of George Floyd and the Derek Chauvin verdict really means. And what it will take to keep people plugged in and fighting for a better South.
And sign up for The Conversation, a new weekly newsletter to dive deeper into the topics and issues raised on the Reckon Interview.
Below is a transcript of the episode.
John Hammontree: Before we get started, I think we should give our audience kind of a background on who you are, and also who the Highlander Research Center is. It started out as the Highlander Folk School way back in 1932. Walk us through the history, and then how you came to be the co-executive director.
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson: The Highlander Folk School was, like you said, started in 1932 by a handful of folks, most notably to our movement and story, by a man who has been written quite significantly about, Myles Horton, who remained in leadership for decades. And they came together, really, to be intentional, because they were inspired by the folk school movement. Folks that have been doing this work in Denmark, they were inspired by popular education right? In the time they would have a called, like, adult schooling, alternative education, inspired by folks like Paulo Freire II and many others and realize that, like, they can make a special mark, not only doing that as mountain people from Appalachia, rooted in the working class struggle, but also that they could be really, really making a mark by saying, the end all be all isn’t just to make smarter people, right? Or more informed people because more informed people do not necessarily, without intentionality, a world save. But, actually bringing people together to learn new knowledge that could only exist if these folks came and sat in some rocking chairs together and learn from one another and taught one another, and then take that new learning back into communities to change their own material conditions as directly impacted people would actually be the sort of methodology of the Highlander Folk School.
Hammontree: Was it multiracial from the beginning?
Henderson: In its founding, it was not. It was, at least from my recollection, it was all white folks. But again, the reason that I hesitate to say it wasn’t multiracial is because these methodologies weren’t like, you know, indigenous practices of white people necessarily, right? Like, they were again, inspired by folks in the global south who had been practitioners of these things. And so as goes history, and a lot of times these things may have been started but you know, white comrades, but inspired by the, you know, centuries-long practices of communities of color all over the global south, and the US South for that matter.
John Hammontree: Rosa Parks trained there, and Martin Luther King trained there. And John Lewis, Septima Clark, James Bevel, you know, a whole host of people.
Henderson: You know, I think that what’s even more interesting is that like, not only did Ms. Parks train at Highlander before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but Ms. Parks went on to serve on the Board of Directors, right? Septima Clark didn’t just train there. She was a trainer, she was on staff, and she taught hundreds of thousands of black people that have become voters before the internet and cell phones. And then she also went on to serve on the Board of Directors, right? Part of the reason that the Highlander Center still exists almost 90 years later is because of the leadership of these black women in no small part. You know, there are also awesome and funny stories of folks like Andrew Young coming to the school and you know, of John Lewis having his first integrated meal at the Highlander Center, right? So it is true that we’ve had folks from the incredible legacy of black resistance in the 60s and 70s grace our halls. And it’s also true that we’re not a living museum. We do that right now. Like the John Lewises, the Rosa Parks, the Septima Clarks, the Andrew Youngs of the 21st century are also finding rest and respite and great debates and strategy in this next generational cohort of Southern freedom fighters are being trained right now at the Highlander Center.
Hammontree: Has it been hard? You know, in this last year of the pandemic, where people can’t gather in place at the Highlander Center, I assume. How have y’all navigated that and managed to convene people, even when you can’t meet in person?
Henderson: I would remind people that in the 30s, right, these folks were coming to Highlander in the throes of an economic depression, where social distance, you know, was a necessity, because of a thousand different reasons, right, because of lack of access to resources because of other manmade disasters, like Spanish Flus, and, you know, all sorts of stuff. So like, you know, social distance isn’t a new phenomenon to Southern people, to rural people, to poor folks, to folks in communities of color, targeted and marginalized communities. So we have a long history of practicing social solidarity, even while having to be physically distanced from one another. And so was last year hard? Yeah, for a plethora of converging reasons, whether it was COVID-19, or, you know, the cumulative black death that led to the uprisings of 2020, or, you know, economic strife in targeted and marginalized communities, housing crises, all of the things, right? So was last year hard for all of those reasons? Sure. But it wasn’t hard because people couldn’t practice social solidarity, we saw that in throes. And so one of the things that I feel really grateful for is being able to steward an institution like the Highlander Center, which was able to absorb so many people and help them make meaning of the moment, that we were able to flank and support social movements during a time of great crisis. And I think that, to be honest, because of so much of our intentional infrastructure building over the last, particularly five years, becoming our own Internet Service Provider, getting really good at some of the backend things around Zoom, all that happened right before the shelter-in-place. And so it meant that we were in some practice around bringing people together virtually already. So we did we kind of did it all last year. Even though our 186-acre facility in the foothills of the Smokies was technically closed, Highlander was very much open.
Hammontree: I guess it was in 2019, I think, so, you know, even before the trauma of last year, the facility was targeted, presumably, by arsonists who left white power symbols after burning the building down. I know you will never recover all of the archives that were stored there, but, you know, where are you in the rebuilding process for that?
Henderson: What wasn’t lost was any human life. Our people were safe, which was the primary obligation, as safe as they can be in a country where white supremacy is so deeply rooted and so condoned and ignored, but no one was physically harmed beyond some, like, smoke inhalation. And then I would offer that it was our administrative offices. So, it wasn’t like our Workshop Center, where the trainings happen. It wasn’t our library, which is actually where the majority of our archives and books are. What it was, was our administrative office, which meant we lost lots of really critically important documents that we use in our everyday work.
There was an archival room that was processing some of the more contemporary documents from, like, the 80s on which is a significant loss, particularly considering, you know, how much folks focus on the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and then jump to the 2012s, right? Or the 2010s, skip over, like, the really life-saving work that happened in the 80s and 90s that got us to this point. We lost what I would call, like, gifts, greeting cards, thank you notes that we received from folks that had been through our program And so was it devastating? Absolutely. And not just because of what we lost, but because of the intentionality with how we lost it. It wasn’t lost, it was like, intentionally ripped away from us, I think, to do two things. One is to keep movement from having access to that infrastructure, and two, I think, to literally break the spirit of the Highlander way.
And what I’m glad to report is that though, you know, immediately rebuilding the office was not our priority, making sure that our services were still able to do that movement, that accompaniment support work that Highlander does, that training work, that gathering work, that we never stopped. We didn’t stop. We didn’t even stop that weekend, we had a People’s Movement Assembly on site to talk about abolition and central Appalachia of prisons, police and jails, and detention centers. And it was incredibly powerful.
So our work is continued, and we will continue, and this wasn’t the first storm that we’ve ever weathered, right. The Klu Klux Klan has attacked us, the state has attacked us, law enforcement entities have attacked us, you know, white supremacist nationalist paramilitary forces have attacked us. This isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last time, knowing how the white lash works. But what I would offer is that we have excavated the site, you know, recovered as much as we could from the property once it was finally released to us. We haven’t heard from law enforcement agencies from the local level to the federal level since August of 2019.
So I can’t give you any updates about that stuff, the investigation, but I would say that, you know, we are in the process of the architectural design of what the new office will be like, and it looks really beautiful. We’re excited to break ground on it.
Hammontree: And you mentioned that the state had attacked you, the FBI had attacked you. And part of why it went from being known as the Highlander Folk School to the Highlander Research and Education Center, was because the state literally shut it down, seized the property, and y’all were forced to move to a new location.
Henderson: I think the more adequate way to say is that they tried. They tried to get it down. What they did was, you know, work with white supremacists and law enforcement to make up some fake charges against the Highlander Center that would give them the right to revoke our charter, steal our original home from us, which feels important to acknowledge was already stolen land in the first place, right? It was stolen from the indigenous communities that had stewarded that land, and then we were on it, and it was stolen from us. It was twice-stolen land. And now we’re in a little bit of a fight to get it back. But that’s a story for another podcast. But yeah, we want our old land back. And we want to be in right relationship with the community that you know, has lost resources because they didn’t get to govern it in the way that they did govern Highlander, just to be real. But, the long story short of it is that they were able to be successful because of the power of the state and courts.
The Tennessee Supreme Court, they essentially stole from us, you know, decades’ worth of movement infrastructure that had been built. And Myles said, “You can padlock this building, but you can’t padlock an idea.” And quite frankly, this story is always interesting to me, because of the teaching opportunities in the story. It’s not like these folks, were just sitting at Highlander and then, boom, one day the state was like, “You’re closed.” And they were like, “Oh, surprise! We had no idea this was coming.” In fact, it was quite the opposite. These folks had been building, Septima Clark, you mentioned earlier, the world’s greatest teacher. Myles. Bernice Robinson, like all these incredible people knew this attack was coming. And so they were prepared.
They, Ms. Clark and others worked with Dorothy Cotton, and others from the SCLC, from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And they literally were like, yo, “The state’s about to get us. So, we’re going to transfer this program and these resources around citizenship schools over to SCLC. Y’all hold that program and keep the work moving as they come for us.” And then they were like, “Okay, we clearly aren’t going to be able to stay in Monteagle and Summerfield, our original home, which, if you know Tennessee, is kind of in the mountain between Chattanooga and Nashville, and so they started looking at Knoxville, found a spot, and that’s how we became the Highlander Research and Education Center. It wasn’t because we became a new organization, it was because we took our old organization and put a new name on it to continue to work.
So the state wished they shut us down.
But actually, what they did was, you know, just create the next the next generational wave of what Highlander’s work would be. You know, and I want to be clear, there’s only one Highlander Research and Education Center and the Highlander Folk School, that’s the same damn thing. And there’s nothing like it, and there can’t be, and that’s actually okay. Because the goal isn’t for there to be just a billion Highlanders, though I think Myles would say let a million flowers blossom, right? I think what he would say, and what we say every day to our colleagues and comrades all over the world that want to start their own Highlander’s of the West, or the Midwest, or the Northeast, or this place, or that place, is actually people are already doing popular education, wherever you are.
So it should be unique to that place, just in the way that Highlander is really unique to the South, is unique to Appalachia, is unique to Tennessee. You know, this place-based organizing really, really matters. It’s the secret in the sauce of how we do the work where we’re from. And that’s critically important for anybody that’s also really excited about getting down into, like, popular education and making these lifelong commitments to leadership development and training, and excellence in these methodologies, which we think in action actually change the world, that it matters to do it in a way that’s really unique to the people that you work with and the place that you’re from.
Hammontree: Yeah, it’s really powerful, though, the way that you phrase that and, you know, thinking about it as a place that’s so rooted in the South, but like you said, change the world. I mean, a lot of the things that we very commonly associate with the Civil Rights Movement from the voter education drives, to even the singing of “We Shall Overcome”, have some roots there in Appalachia in Tennessee, and I don’t want to overstate it and make it seem like the Civil Rights Movement was some grand black and white movement together. You know, it was a very select few of white people who were down with the struggle. But it is interesting that we have completely stripped that part of the story out, maybe because it was inconvenient to, you know, the state of Tennessee or to the FBI. We’ve been learning more, and by we, I mean, popular culture has been more willingly embracing stories about the FBI targeting, you know, Fred Hampton, in Judas and the black Messiah, or MLK in MLK FBI, the documentary that also came out last year. And part of the way that the FBI targeted Martin Luther King was because of his affiliation with Highlander,
Henderson: The communist training school.
Hammontree: Communist training school. That’s right.
Henderson: Yeah, Myles. Myles was often, I didn’t ever get to meet Myles, but from the stories that I’ve heard from other Highlander leaders is that Myles would often get asked about whether or not it was a communist training school. There’s even, my favorite, is this political cartoon that I think came out in The Tennessean, I can’t remember what year, but it was like, a hollow tree trunk with little eyeballs peeking out of the tree, and all around it, it says “questionable activities.” It’s been me and my co-executive director, Robert Allen Maxwell Steele’s favorite political cartoon about Highlander. We’re gonna start a bar/church called Questionable Activities after we finish our work at Highlander.
But yeah, Myles would get asked like, is this a communist training school? And Myles would say, “We’re left of that.” You know, it’s a multi-ideological space, that’s, again, also the secret of the sauce. We’re not telling people what to think, we’re telling them how to think like an organizer, question everything, come up with your own! Right? Like, this is an opportunity to be in the popular education spiral where you actually are making meaning of what’s happening. You’re seeing patterns. You’re adding more information. You’re practicing. You’re summing it up, you’re creating new theories of change.
And that’s actually, you know, when people are like, well, what is Highlander doing now? It’s like we’re doing the same thing we’ve been doing since 1932, bringing people together across difference to figure shit out. That’s all we do. We do that through trainings and leadership development. We do that through deep participatory practices. We do that through movement accompaniment and support. So, you know, it’s also to one of your previous questions a part of why we were still able to do so much work in 2020, because we don’t see our work is bound just by the 186 acres, we’ve been doing fieldwork on the ground with folks, as well, since 1932. Making sure we would accompany other grassroots struggles that were happening in Georgia and Mississippi and Texas and Florida and North Carolina and South Carolina. And making sure that we were doing philanthropic organizing to move as many resources down to the South as possible.
Y’all know only 4% of philanthropic dollars in the country come to the South, the largest geographic region in the United States where the highest concentration of Black people live? For all the folks that are like, “Yeah, but it’s so backwards and homophobic.” It’s also where the most LGBTQIA+ people live in the country. The South. So, you know, I think some of our work is around decoding people’s mythologies around the phenomenon that is the South, right?
“As goes the South, so goes the nation,” is not an opinion. It’s a fundamental fact. If you didn’t believe that before 2020, I surely hope you paid attention, because we literally saved this country, once again, from the throes of fascism, from white nationalism, from draconian practices and authoritarianism. Right? It was Georgia, it was South Carolina, even the places that haven’t flipped all the way yet but soon will like Texas and Florida, these folks made all the difference. And if that wasn’t true enough, the 117th Congress is as progressive as it is because folks in Missouri, folks in Georgia, really made a way out of no way. And if that wasn’t even true, it’s quite literal that DC is below the Mason Dixon line. That these folks very literally don’t have statehood, as Southerners, and as the nation’s capital.
So, I think that we’re in a fight, you know, as the South continues to be for centuries, for the sake of the democracy of this place. And I think, you know, we’re showing that like, we have a history of winning, right? That the story of the South isn’t, and the story of Highlander certainly isn’t just that they’re resilient, they can take a good punch, or that you know, everything bad in terms of frontline struggles converges here, though some of that is scientifically true. The story is that our people continue to be the tip of the spear in terms of making radical change in this country. Abolition started here. Labor movement started here. Voter democracy and self- governance started here. We are the inheritors of that legacy.
I think we have to start thinking about why we’re pointing the camera at the South. And is it because we’re trying to learn from the best practices that have saved this country over and over again? Or is it to continue the mythology that the South is the problem for all of the things in the US, which is just quantifiably untrue. If we look at the leadership even of this country, right, where’s Ronald Reagan from?
Hammontree: California. Yeah.
Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson: We didn’t do, that, right? Where’s Donald Trump from? He’s from Queens. We gave this country Stacey Abrams and Jimmy Carter. So not to say we’re all clean, right. We are also impacted by the multiple converging systems of oppression. That’s true. There is white supremacy here. There is like capitalist extraction here. There is, you know, homophobia and xenophobia and all of the things here, but guess what? That shit is kind of everywhere.
Hammontree: Coming up after the break, we talk with Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson about the truth about Appalachia and the Derrick Chauvin verdict.
Hammontree: Let’s talk a little bit about you. And also, you know, you were talking about the mythology of what the South is, and you proudly identify as Afro-Latin. And I’m just kind of guessing that that might have something to do with the fact that in the American imagination, Appalachia is almost exclusively coded as white, you know, it’s the Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance, Beverly Hillbillies…
Henderson: Like, even white people in Appalachia don’t like JD Vance. Yeah, I do it on purpose. Again, it’s like to decode a place that I call home. You know, I think like my question consistently to people who aren’t as familiar with the South, and particularly aren’t familiar with this region inside the region of Appalachia is, you know, who does it serve to continue to amplify these narratives of what you think Appalachia in the South is? Does it serve the social good? Or does it serve the folks that are trying to continue to keep Appalachia as its extractive, you know, place of profit? Who does it benefit to keep thinking about Appalachia as white when the Black population, the indigenous population, the Latinx population, Asian and Asian American population isn’t insignificant, right? We exist. In fact, if I started talking about famous people, you would know some of them. If I was like, yo, Bessie Smith is an Appalachian. Nikki Giovanni is the Appalachian. Usher Raymond, right? Ain’t got to be like super woke people. Usher Raymond.
Hammontree: Randy Moss.
Henderson: Venus Lacy, the basketball Olympian. These people are from Appalachia. And that’s just a couple!
If I told you like, the Communist Party used to have three headquarters back in the day, like early 1900s, right. And they had one in California, you’d be like duh. There’s one in New York, you’d be like, duh. And the third was in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Appalachia, like, right at the nexus of Appalachia and in the Black Belt South.
So again, it’s like, who does this serve to keep telling this bogus story? That the only thing that you can think about when you hear Appalachia is white, and the only thing you can think about Southern is backwards? When we actually are the inheritors of a radical legacy of resistance.
And quite frankly, I think that’s what politicizes so many of us as we realize that white supremacy and capitalism, coastal elitism, etc. has dismembered us from our inheritance for no good reason, but to concentrate the wealth and power of a small minority of white dudes somewhere that ain’t even here. And then folks get power in proximity to those white guys by continuing to keep the story gone. So, it’s not shocking when people are like, “Oh, I don’t know about Highlander!” Because I grew up two hours away, and I didn’t know about it, and I came from a movement family. Twelve years of schooling did not teach me about the Highlander Center. And it was founded, like, 45 minutes from me.
That was intentional, it is intentional that the state and the folks that are not trying to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice continue to keep us dismembered from this inheritance. And I think that it is incumbent on all the folks of goodwill to actually start busting up these mythologies. Busting up these false dichotomies and recognizing the dialectic that multiple things can be true at once. Places can be marginalized and targeted, and that places can be joyful and resilient and great sites of radical resistance. And I imagine that if we did that, folks would learn a lot about how to win, and about how to sustain those wins from Appalachians and Southerners.
Hammontree: You grew up in activism. Your mom was a Panther, and you were talking about, you know, those dichotomies. We tend to think, you know, in American schools that the Panthers were a northern and western urban movement, that it was Oakland and Chicago and New York and that the southern Civil Rights Movement was SCLC. And that’s not to say it wasn’t those things, but these things were in constant conversation with each other. Your mother was a Panther in Chattanooga.
Henderson: My mom is from Summit, Tennessee, which is just outside of Chattanooga, and she went to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, what I would call the “real” UT, no shade to my Texas fam. But yeah, she went to school there and, as I’m sure your listeners know, Nikki Giovanni is from there. And so my mom would say that, you know, the Panthers never stop. So I think my mom would say she is a Black Panther.
I mean, what’s interesting to me is even then the story of the origin of the Black Panther Party starts well before Californians, you know, started building up chapters. I think about the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, LCFO, you know, some people know it as Lowndes County Freedom Party, but I grew up knowing it as the Black Panther Party. I remember being like, sort of shocked and disgusted when people told me that the Black Panther Party started in Oakland. I was like, that’s just not true.
That’s not true. That’s not true. That’s not true. Like, you know? I remember John Hewlett! I remember Glenn Patton. I remember Kwame Ture, you know? I remember the cussin’ preacher Fred Shuttlesworth, like these folks I knew! Or, had had recollection of – the stories of my mother and her comrades talking about this great inheritance that I should be proud of. I remember the snarky conversations that I eavesdropped on about
Alabamians being like, “Yeah, we didn’t need SNCC to come down here. We already had infrastructure, you know what I’m saying? Which is also a contradiction, right? Because SNCC was already there. So it’s like, you know, I remember hearing stories about these Black people that were creating independent political parties, and just how powerful that made me feel how rageful it made me feel that there wasn’t like a mass knowing of this – that felt like stolen information. It’s like, yeah, they don’t have to steal our bodies anymore.
They keep us away from the stories that actually keep us powerful. And they steal our bodies, both things. And so when I think about even the Black Panther Party, or SNCC, or, you know, the student organizing committees, or, you know, like all of this radical history. When I say radical, I don’t just mean like lefty, I mean, like, to getting to the root causes of the bad stuff so that we can unroot it, not just chop it off. I think about Southern stories.
What it meant that Huey and others had to ask permission to use the ideology and the branding, for lack of a better word, of the Black Panther Party. Why does that matter? I think it matters because it shows so many things. Right? One, it shows the power, the style of the South. Lots of good things grow here. But secondly, it shows how much there’s actually cooperation. Again, before the internet, before cell phones were easily available, before we were just, you know, able to be in touch and online all the time, these folks actually were figuring out innovative ways to be in relationship with each other that built more infrastructure.
And that that infrastructure was rooted in relationship and debate and principled struggle and sharing resources – low ego, high impact, great, and imperfect and not without conflict, and not, you know, always the most principled conflict, but ere were literally ways of working together that shifted material conditions of Black people all over this country and then globally. A lot of these organizations weren’t just focused on the US. So, there’s so many lessons to learn about how to build an infrastructure. It wasn’t that they got to a national party just by building from the top down.
They built national movements and national political organizations through making sure that there were really strong local organizations that were in relationship with each other that could figure out what, I think, the Movement for Black Lives is attempting to figure out right now, which is if we come together, across our differences, what are the impossible things that we can make possible if we do it together? Right? What are the things that are unique to where we are that we have to do as locals, but what are the things that regionally and nationally and internationally we might be able to make possible if we, for lack of a better metaphor, became like Captain Planet with our powers combined? With our powers combined, and how we do that work were all under heaven remains intact.
That’s the lessons that I pulled from having been, you know, under the tutelage of folks in the Black Panther Party, the Bew African People’s Organization. Thinking about, you know, folks in SNCC and SCLC, is that, humans are human, humans are human, and imperfect. And so perfection is not required to do this work. But deep accountability being rooted in somebody’s community, being accountable to somebody actually really is. And that if you do that, that there’s grace and abundance for when you mess up, but you’ve got to be disciplined and rigorous and excellent in this work.
One, because Black people and marginalized and targeted people deserve to feel what it feels like to be excellent in service of our communities and transformed in the service of that work, as Mary Hooks said, in the “Mandate for Black people in this Time,” but also because our people deserve it. Our people deserve our excellence in this work, so that we win and sustain those wins, and don’t ever have to fight like this again. That’s to me, some of the great lessons other than, you know, Southerners are just awesome and amazing.
Hammontree: And sometimes, you know, I mean, that infrastructure that’s being built outside of the political system last and endures, maybe all the time more than the political system itself. You know, I’m thinking of Alabama, where it’s no secret that the Democratic Party infrastructure in the state has collapsed in the last several decades, you know, it’s starting to rebuild itself. And I’m not trying to advocate political party one way or the other. But, in 2017, back in Lowndes County, a woman named Perman Hardy, you know, carried on that legacy of the movement in Lowndes County and turned out every single person that she could in that county, and it led to, you know, one of the most shocking elections in American political history, I think, with Doug Jones winning that race there, and certainly the same work that Stacey Abrams, and so many other activists and organizers have done in Georgia, she was obviously part of the political establishment, but you know, others there building off of that legacy from the Civil Rights Movement and earlier.
Henderson: Yeah, I think there’s a great debate about how connected to that politically. I think it’s a debate. I think there’s like a quantifiable, concrete assessment of concrete conditions that I think would prove some disagreement to that argument that Stacey is a part of the establishment. In fact, I think, if the democrats had had it their way, you know, a white woman named Stacy would have been intention. But I want to be clear, to me, it’s like a two-party system is not democratic, right? Boom, done. Band-aid ripped. So I don’t like particularly either one of them at any given moment.
And I think there’s something to this thing about being shocked, so I want to go back to that. Because, actually, those of us that were down here that had our nose to the ground were not shocked at all when Alabama shifted, in part because we knew the people. So when the results were coming in, and people were like, “Oh, no, Alabama’s gonna mess this up.” We knew that the five remaining counties were these Black, country counties where Black people showed up and showed out, and not because they were particularly fans of Doug Jones. It wasn’t about him. They didn’t think that he was the great white hope or, like, the Savior that was going to come save us, just like Black people who saved us again in this presidential election, who led this multi-racial cross sector, working class-rooted movement that ushered Joe Biden and Kamala Harris into the White House. That wasn’t because we were looking for a savior. It was because we were voting for conditions. We were voting to control the conditions that we were going to continue to fight in, and that’s what folks did in Alabama.
That’s what folks did in Georgia. That’s what all of us did collectively in November of 2020. So I want to shout out folks like Rukia Lumumba and Kayla Reed and particularly Jessica Byrd, you know, who had been popularizing this praxis, really, around electoral justice. I want to shout out folks like Maurice Mitchell, my party leader, folks who literally are doing everything in their power to say, “Listen, when our elders and ancestors said by any means necessary, they meant by all the means.” That includes this weird and janky governance process, and we can build alternatives, but we also have to do the harm reduction work that we need to do right now. And that doesn’t mean that we do that at the expense of the alternative, that we can figure out a way to do both. And it doesn’t mean that everybody has to get down, right?
I’m not saying that everybody has to stop focusing on other things come over here and focus on voting, though I do think November of 2020 got dangerously close to being one of those “suck it up and just do it for the sake of not having to be in a fascist authoritarian regime” again. But I do think that we need to be building more and more multi-tactical strategies, right, that include organizing and base building, that include shutting shit down through direct action, that include political education through popular education, that include electoral justice, that include policy and advocacy work.
And quite frankly, I think what we’ve seen with the Movement for Black Lives is that when we are at the helm of developing those multi-tactical strategies, they really can be rooted in our values and create some accountability mechanisms. So not just, you know, get sucked into the Master’s house.
Hammontree: Thinking about those multiple paths, in the last year, because of the compounding number of Black people killed by the police, you know, not just in the last decade, but since the beginning of police in this country. But you know, it does seem that for a lot of white Americans, in particular, George Floyd and the trial of Derek Chauvin was a turning point. You know, I don’t want to be too hyperbolic either way talking about the Chauvin result, because it was significant, you know, the first time that a white cop had ever been prosecuted for killing a Black person in Minnesota, that is a significant milestone. But it also feels like there is concern that that might serve as a bookend to a lot of people’s spirit of awareness and radicalization in the last year. Ok well, George Floyd. Derek Chauvin. Book over. How do you keep people engaged and involved in accountability and police reform or police abolition or police defunding and other systemic change moving forward?
Henderson: I mean, I think a couple things. One is, we need to get more comfortable just saying what it was right? Like, it wasn’t justice. The only justice is George fully being here, happy and healthy, with all of his needs met. That’s the world that we’re trying to build to. Not just a world that grieves when Black people are murdered by police officers with impunity, but to build a world where Black people can thrive, and because of that, everybody thrives. We know that what’s good for Black people actually is good for everybody. That’s what collective liberation literally means. And what the science shows. We fight, we get affirmative action passed, and the greatest beneficiary is white women, right? We know what’s good for Black people is good for other people.
So, it wasn’t justice.
You know, I think there’s a great debate happening about if it was accountability or not, who gets to decide if it’s by the definition of the state, it’s likely a pretty light lift. It’s that accountability is consequences for action. So, he was convicted, and we’ll see what happens with the sentencing in a few weeks. But I think most of us, particularly in social movements, believe in a higher bar for accountability. That accountability has to be like truth and justice. You have to get there before it feels like accountability, there has to be repair for the harm, and how do you repair this kind of harm? Chauvin has not said like, “Yeah, I did it, and I’m sorry.” He hasn’t even said, “I’m sorry.” You know what I mean?
So, I think I think we’re in a tussle around what accountability is and means and who gets to decide? And I think there’s some great abolitionists, folks like Mariame Kaba and others who have been saying, “What this is, is punishment. Chauvin is being punished.” As abolitionists, it sometimes it can make us feel uncomfortable about how that makes us feel. So I think what we can argue that this was a demonstration of power. The movement made it politically impossible for the state not to concede that this one white man is a bad apple. And that’s where the anxieties bubble up around “Will this be the bookend?” to your point, John.
Is this just going to be their one platinum band-aid they concede one of their pawns for the sake of the long game to hold the structure of policing and imprisonment in this country as a status quo? So to your point, really, how do we do then continue to keep people putting pressure on the system. Not because it’s broken. This system is working exactly as it was designed to, y’all. I don’t know how many times we have to keep doing this cycle of cop kills black person, activists say, well, the origin of policing in this country is rooted in the literal enslavement of African bodies because policing is the militarized arm of the Jim Crow Law, literally works hand in hand with organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.
And in a 21st century context, we’ve got so much data from folks like Political Research Associates and others, Change Lab, so many other organizations, Western State Center, the Highlander Center saying very clearly there is evidence that law enforcement, municipal police departments, sheriff’s departments, military veterans, fire departments are being recruited into white supremacist organizations. They are working with far-right groups. It’s just true. The data proves it. They are infiltrating social movements to be provocateurs, there’s decades worth of intelligence around this. So this system is not broken. It’s working literally as it was designed to and is being funded to the tune of billions with a ‘B’ dollars a year, millions of dollars a day, millions of dollars every day.
So how do we encourage people to continue to put pressure on a system to reform it? Reform is not my jam. I do believe in harm reduction. So as long as it’s a reform that stops the harm and doesn’t do any more harm or transfer harm, I can get down to some degree. But what I know we can’t continue doing is putting platinum band-aids on a sinking ship. And the ship of punitive bureaucracy, it’s going to sink. It’s going to sink because it cannot work in a free and democratic society. It cannot. Punishment doesn’t reform people. It’s really that simple.
And sending police officers with guns, who are not trained to come and deal with every social issue in a community, especially when what they are trained to believe is that they are at war, that their job is dangerous that people want to get them, they will kill me and live to fight another day. So to me the opportunity then, John, is that we have to have a conversation about radically imagining what a world beyond policing could look like. And if you’re not there yet, you’re like, oh, defund scares me, how would you keep me safe, etc. But that’s, actually, we don’t even start there.
We can start with like, how much is your city, is your county, is your state, is this country spending on policing where you live? And how much money is that compared to how much money they’re spending on affordable housing? How much money they’re spending on, you know, adequate, culturally relevant education and public education? How much money they’re spending on making sure folks have access to health care and living wage jobs? How much they’re spending to make sure that your community, you know, I’m a Southerner, these manmade climate disasters are getting worse and worse by the second, how much are they spending to be ready and capable to respond and recover from that? How much money are they spending on basic infrastructure, so you don’t have potholes? So that you can live in an equitable, sustainable, and healthy community?
Because what I bet is that they’re spending pennies to the dollar of what they’re giving to policing. And almost every community in this country, I would make that bet. And then what I would tell you is that there’s communities that are saying there’s another way that we could divest resources from a system that is extractive and not working for all people, which is exactly as it was designed to work. We can invest those dollars into those things that you believe will help you create a healthy and a sustainable and equitable community. And what I know for sure, my dad would say “what I know good,” what I know good is that if we actually we’re investing billions of dollars a day into those things, those things that are good for communities, we would get a thousand miles ahead of any harm that would create a need for a police officer in the first place. As Andrea Ritchie says, that’s the goal.
How do we get a thousand miles ahead of the harm? How do we get a thousand miles ahead of the mental health crisis? How do we get a thousand miles ahead of the gender-based violence? How do we get a thousand miles ahead from the poverty that would create the conditions in which I had to steal from somebody in the first place? How do we get to the place of having enough resources ahead of the home that we could stop the violent conflict in the first place? Because what we know is that cops don’t close cases. What we know is cops don’t prevent harm, they get called after a harm is committed. Right? What we saw on January 6th, is that cops don’t necessarily keep you safe, they hand walk out the insurrectionists. They move the barricade to allow the insurrectionists. This isn’t just about a bad apple. My comrades would say the whole damn system is guilty as hell.
I would offer is a metaphor like a tree, right? It’s a rotten tree, and it’s rotten down to the roots. The origin, the life, the life-giving energy for this tree is so deeply entangled in white nationalism, white supremacy, capitalism. Profit over people, right? This generates money. Look at the Ferguson Report, this generates money. These tickets, these losses, these civil suits are coming out of your taxpayer dollars, not the police budget, which is also your taxpayer dollars. It’s in addition to “the roots are bad,” so by the time you get to the apples, it’s not shocking that they’re rotten, that they’re bad, because everything about the tree is connected to some foolishness that ain’t good for our people.
So my hope isn’t just that you get stuck in real reasonable questions around “Well, but then what? But then what? But then what?” And that you actually lean into a positionality of thinking about what are the times in your life where you felt safe? What did you have, right? Who was there? How did you feel? What were the conditions that made you feel safe, and let’s expand those to everybody! Because everybody deserves to feel safe. It’s actually your right as a human on this planet.
And if we moved away from thinking about public safety as policing and thought about it in how do we resource things that actually keep people safe in the first place? We’d actually be living in the world we want to be. There’s absolutely evidence of the incredible power of organizing under this message. You can go to defundthepolice.org. You can check out Interrupting Criminalization, you can go to the m4bl.org website, and you can see examples of folks all over the US and Canada that are currently implementing policy that defund the police. Right? That’re thinking about alternatives to policing. That’re thinking about demilitarizing police. That are thinking about decriminalization of things that are laws that were passed to criminalize culture and identity, to criminalize blackness and poverty, to criminalize dissent, like what we saw DeSantis do in Florida around these really janky protest bills that make it a felony to protest.
Just basic human rights. I’m not even just talking about the things that are sometimes controversial, like drugs, even though I agree with that. How do we start moving in a way that is, is thinking about technology and surveillance and taking those tools of oppression out of the hands of folks that are using it to oppress, and then start thinking about how we actually pass laws that are toward our benefit? So, you know, I’m sure people have heard about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Bill, what I would argue to our colleagues on the hill and to anyone who is supportive of that bill is that it’s a flawed framework. And even in the name, there’s no such thing as justice in policing. And quite frankly, it centers the needs of police over the very communities that called for justice for George Floyd in the first place.
It’s oxymoronic. It’s not even contradictory. It’s contrary. Those two things never come back together again. What we need is the BREATHE Act. What we need is a federal omnibus bill to actually divest resources from policing and incarceration in this country. And when I say police and incarceration, I mean, all of it. I mean your local cops. I mean the state police. I mean military functions, right? I mean ICE agents and Customs and Border Patrol. I mean jails and prisons – public, private. I mean detention centers, juvie. I’m talking about all of it.
And we need that bill to then also incentivize and create new avenues for resources to support the alternatives. Breathe actually also goes a step beyond and says, like, we will not only divest those dollars, right, we will generate those new avenues of resources and continue to incentivize states to move and municipalities to move further and further from policing and incarceration, the carceral state. And we’ll go a step beyond that to say we’ll also create some avenues for accountability for elected officials and others in this bill, to not just continue to make really, really great soundbite promises, but actually hold them to it. We need a bill that is bold, and we need champions that are bold in this moment.
And so you know, Justice in Policing Act is a step, I suppose, but it really feels like 1990 solutions to a 2021 problem that we know no longer work, and it’ll quite frankly put another billion dollars into policing in this country. When you say you want more training, you want more body cams, you want all those things that cost money, and we know those solutions don’t work. We know that banning no-knock warrants did not keep Breanna Taylor alive. We know that implicit bias trainings didn’t stop George Floyd from being murdered, even though chokeholds and stuff are banned. S
o we have to actually be bold in this moment, if we want to keep our people safe. I think we are in danger, as Mervyn Marcano says sometimes, of becoming really good at grieving the deaths of black people, but not being really good at keeping black people alive. And I think that the Breathe Act actually takes us out of that cycle. And we’ve seen it be successful. Illinois already said, “You know what? We’re not going to wait for the Fed to get this right. We’re not going to wait for Congress, we’re going to pass this on the state level.”
Shout out to the Breathe Illinois team and equity and transformation in particular for getting that passed. And we’re seeing other states all over the country start to engage with passing it on the state level as well. While we’re also seeing you know, hundreds of thousands of people come together and say, “Hey, we want to be community co-sponsors of the Breath Act.” And if you haven’t seen it, you should go to BreathAct.org.
Get involved with Highlander Research and Education Center and learn more about Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson’s work at highlandercenter.org