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.”

Sarah Jaffe January 26, 2017

We need to act while the window of opportunity is still open. We have precious months in which to build power to fight. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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.

"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."

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?

BJ: I would say fol­low @BYP_100, and go to their web­site at byp100​.org. Then, in terms of my work, I am on Twit­ter @BiolaJeje.

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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