Web Only / Features » January 26, 2017
Interviews for Resistance: Biola Jeje of BYP100 on Why Direct Action Is So Powerful Right Now
It’s not enough to protest. We must “put our bodies on the line.”
"A lot of people really can’t see that another world is possible. We need to show them that it is in the realm of possibility before they can even consider it. That is why we need to be more visionary. We need to show what is possible."
Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. In this series, we talk with organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who are working both to challenge the Trump administration and the circumstances that created it. It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequality are impossible to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sexist and xenophobic violence. But around the country, people are doing the hard work of fighting back and coming together to plan for what comes next. This series will introduce you to some of them.
Biola Jeje is a member of Black Youth Project 100. She was part of one of the blockades at the inauguration Friday. Here, she talks about the power of direct action and the future of organizing. Her interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Jaffe: Can you tell us a little bit about the action?
Biola Jeje: Sure. We were in front of one of the 17 checkpoints that were feeding people into the inauguration. We were one of 12 that were shut down. It was a group of us, of black folks, who chained ourselves to each other and to one of the barricades, after which they decided to shut down the checkpoint.
SJ: How long were you chained up there?
BJ: A couple of hours.
SJ: Tell me about the decision to use direct action in this way.
BJ: I immediately thought of the James Baldwin quote about needing to put our bodies on the line to make sure the gears don’t work. That was the ethos around why folks decided to use direct action. As we can see now that Trump is in office, one of the first things he signed after getting into office was the gag order for any health services [that receive US funding overseas] that even give you information about abortion. He can have millions of people out in the streets talking about women’s rights, but he will go ahead and sign paperwork that means so many will die due to not having access to safe abortions. I think what we have already seen is the need for really looking at how we shut down the ways that he can enact these policies. I think that is going to take a lot of people coming out.
SJ: Obviously, one of the things that Trump has made a very strong point on is policing. What is the future for this kind of action and for the Movement for Black Lives, in particular?
BJ: I know they are going to try to quell people’s resistance to these policies. I know that repression is what they are planning. I think we are going to need to be bolder about really articulating the politics we want to see. What I found really inspiring about the J20 action was being in a crowd of hundreds of people who were from different movements, there were different identities, but we are all calling for the end to white supremacy. That, I think, is going to be super, super important.
With this whole election, even with the Women’s March, I bet a lot of those people who were there probably voted for Trump. They didn’t think that they needed to assert their rights, even though he was attacking some people. I think people felt like some rights were still a given and they are seeing that they are not. That speaks to the fact that we really need to be bolder in our assertions of what we want and what our values really are. I think for a lot of this population, people felt that it was understood. As a black person, I knew that was BS.
I think for the broader movement and for the Movement for Black Lives, trying to just use your politics to just hopefully get someone else on your side isn’t going to be helpful, because I think it is that kind of wishy-washiness that people think others still believe what they do. No, no, no. We need them to prove it. We need people to really assert it. I think that is what makes direct action so powerful, is that you find those people in those moments. I think a lot of us are looking for each other in this time.
SJ: You find the people who are willing to take those risks? Is that what you mean?
BJ: Yes, to take those risks. Also, through direct action other people see that this is a value that a lot of other people feel strongly about. I am thinking about for a lot of people who may feel scared to say something out loud, it's important to see. I am not from the South, but I can imagine what seeing Bree Newsome just climb up the flagpole and take down the Confederate flag could have done for a lot of people. It is almost like lifting up this mental veil of, “Why was that up there that long to begin with? Yes, rip it down.” For a lot of people who aren’t activists it can still be pretty moving.
SJ: The J20 actions were immediately followed by millions of people in the streets for the Women’s March the next day. It was an interesting contrast on one hand, but also it almost laid a groundwork for people to think about what they can do next after they take part in this big permitted march.
BJ: Yes, I think for a lot of the folks who came out for the Women’s March, that probably was something that crossed their mind. The organizing was so separate—with the Women’s March the next action that the organizers of the Women’s March had was to [send postcards to] your representative.
Direct action, something that is something targeted with a clear message, can help show people what other ideas are out there that align with their values and politics. I have no idea how the larger marches are planning on engaging people and bringing people to a clearer sense of how we could actually design a system that actually reflects our values. I don’t know if that was in the planning for after.
I am not sure how someone goes from the Women’s March to direct action, frankly. I think the thing that would be closest would be the 350.org arrests that happened in Washington [against the Keystone XL pipeline]. That was people who decided to get arrested for climate change. Maybe that might be a thing that they could do. Because I think that the 350 action reached a similar population of liberal, New York Times-subscribing, majority-white people who aren't seeing themselves as activists, yet who would actually take action to do something. I am not sure if the Women’s March is there yet, in that sense, but I think that is an avenue to go.
SJ: One of the things that I think about a lot in terms of people getting comfortable with taking risks is the steps that people have to go through before they are willing to chain themselves to a barricade at Donald Trump’s inauguration. Could you talk about how that process went for you as a young organizer thinking about doing things like this for the first time, and how you got over the different fears that you had?
BJ: It is almost a question of “How are you organizing different people to that space?”
I think really having a sense that your community is with you is super important for a lot of people. It was super important for me. Throughout my experience I did have a lot of anxiety, but that is also just kind of my default at this point. But, I felt like the folks who were organizing the actions, D.C. local organizers don’t get enough credit and definitely don’t get enough appreciation for the work that they have been doing for years in D.C. I think the way that they were able to hold the space [at the inauguration] was really indicative of that, of the amount of intelligent organizing that has been going on and the folks who have consistently been showing up and consistently been creating space for these ideas and for people who want to get involved. That helped me feel super grounded.
There were moments where we could tell that the police would be coming through and then, we just organized all white people to go there to use their white privilege to keep black bodies safe. I think it is having that line of support, that jail support will be there. People will be there. You are not alone in this. That is the thing that was, for me, the most transformative, because I think the fear is that you are going to put yourself out there and then whatever happens, you are on your own. The state is a very isolating place. We need to figure out how to more broadly move past that, to really create the sense that “We are actually the majority here and we are in solidarity with each other and we will be there to support each other as we take these braver steps to create a society where our values are reflected.”
SJ: I think one of the first things that comes out of a big weekend of protests and actions is that people can see that they are not alone. Looking at all of these people who came out for the march who are declaring themselves as part of the resistance, how do you look at that as an organizer and think about trying to bring new people into the movement?
BJ: We often think about organizing in terms of some people who agree with us, some who maybe are indifferent to us, and then those who are super opposed to us. Folks who are close to the agree with us part/indifferent part—that is what I thought the march really was geared to.
I think it is going to take a lot of work. It is going to take a lot of white women educating themselves about their privileges and then going out and educating other white women about their privileges and intersectionality so that black women/other women of color don’t have to. There is no structure to deal with the expectation that as an oppressed person I have to teach you about my oppression while also trying to deal with it. That is labor intensive and hard. I think that is going to be one of the major things we need to figure out how to organize around in order for this work to move forward. This is something that’s time has come. I was thinking about the feminist movements and all the different ways in how women of color have always been talking about this inequity within this movement space. I feel like now it is really coming to a head. I think that is probably really the first place we go.
SJ: That has certainly been a topic of conversation since the Women's March, talking people through the difference between how the police treat mass marches of black people and how they treat mass marches of mostly white people. That A) you might have gotten arrested if you were not a white woman and B) people might have to get arrested in order to move things forward. I would love to hear what you think about some of that.
BJ: I feel like the place we are in politically right now is one that has been made possible by decades of planning by the Right. I think we need to frame this more long-term. What we are trying to do is a lot of education while also organizing, while also protecting people, is really showing people that the way our values are set up aren’t being reflected and it is going take, for a lot of people, personal transformation work. I think we need to honor that.
I guess, to your point, I think the beauty of intersectionality is being able to show the other different systems that are at play outside of just the single issue of being a woman. I think my gut reaction is, yes, that is why I want other white women to have those conversations with each other, because that frustrates me to no end. It is like, “Oh, see, you don’t need to do this in order to get that.” It is like, “Well, you have also had this. You are also throwing the word ‘pussy’ around and completely throwing trans women under the bus or into a position where they feel like their identity isn’t being reflected in the space. You really don’t understand the different layers of violence that are at play right now.”
Like I was saying before about the decades and decades of work that the Right took into this moment—we need to see it as long-term work that we are doing. It is not a three-month campaign to intersectionalize everyone. This is long-term deep transformational work that we know should outlive us.
SJ: When you are thinking about what a broad coalition to not only resist but to, as you were saying, create a society that actually works for most people, what does that feel like to you and what is missing from what is already going on?
BJ: My gut reaction to that is needing to actually be funneling resources into the self-determination of oppressed peoples. Dealing with the nebulous and often even predatory nature of the non-profit industrial complex. Like we need to deal with the fact that the folks that have the resources to organize right now might just be telling people to call their legislator or wait another four years before you make a decision and not be actually organizing and developing leadership in people because they don’t have to, they don’t want to, and they can stay in power anyway. It doesn’t deprive them of anything. I think right now we need to be putting resources into structures and ideas that actually do that [organizing] work.
SJ: This brings us back around to the direct action question. There are going to be many, many moments over the next several months, where having people in the streets, where having people putting bodies on the line is going to be the only thing that can make a difference. Thinking about, again, the question of risk, how do people talk about it honestly without scaring everybody away?
BJ: That is where feeling like you are part of something greater than yourself is important. It is dependent for people on who they are doing it for. Some people are only going to do it for their union brothers and sisters, or people of the same race as them, or some people are only going to do it for the environment. It connects to how seriously they take this value and understand that they are doing it in community with other people who have that same value.
I think connecting that thread is how you help people understand their place in this, the need for them to take that step, because it is helping them step into their ability to assert that this is what they want in the world and to understand that we all need to do it together. It is scary, but we need to help each other move past fear.
SJ: We are talking here about resisting Trump, but you keep talking about the need to think about the long term plan, the need to think about what comes next, the need to think about a vision for the future. To close out, would you make the case for why we should not be only defensive for the next four years?
BJ: I think we shouldn’t only be defensive because we have a lot of answers we need to be generating at the same time. We can say right now, “We don’t want to get rid of Obamacare, or, we don’t want whatever plan that the Republicans are going to come up with to put in its place,” but if we don’t have a better option, if we don’t have structures that people would actually want, then we are not coming from a place of power. We are not coming from the vantage point of having the better idea.
I think right now we are in a space where a lot of people cannot envision a world that is different than what it is now. That is probably thanks to our really, really robust education system. And I mean that in terms of “robust” as an “alternative fact.” A lot of people really can’t see that another world is possible. We need to show them that it is in the realm of possibility before they can even consider it. That is why we need to be more visionary. We need to show what is possible. Otherwise, I think a lot of people are just not going to be moved to act. I think of the Harriet Tubman quote of, “I could have freed more slaves if only they had known they were slaves.” I think about that in terms of “If only they had known how beautiful freedom would be.”
SJ: How can people keep up with your work?
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast.
Sarah Jaffe is a former staff writer at In These Times and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.
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