Interviews for Resistance: From Resistance to Revolution—It’s Time To Switch to Offense

An organizer talks about what it takes to move from a reactionary position to one where we fight for the power to govern.

Sarah Jaffe May 26, 2017

"Fundamentally, I think part of what we have to do, really, is be clear on what we mean when we talk about a revolution. The word gets thrown around so much," says James Hayes, a trainer with the Ayni Institute. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. Since elec­tion night 2016, the streets of the Unit­ed States have rung with resis­tance. Peo­ple all over the coun­try have wok­en up with the con­vic­tion that they must do some­thing to fight inequal­i­ty in all its forms. But many are won­der­ing what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talk­ing with expe­ri­enced orga­niz­ers, trou­ble­mak­ers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fight­ing for a long time. They’ll be shar­ing their insights on what works, what does­n’t, what’s has changed and what is still the same. 

'What if our people could win? What if we were in charge?'

James Hayes: My name is James Hayes. I am a train­er with the Ayni Insti­tute. I used to be an orga­niz­er with the Ohio Stu­dent Association.

Sarah Jaffe: There are a lot of rea­sons I want­ed to talk to you, but was remind­ed of this [when] you post­ed some­thing on Face­book talk­ing about the need to go beyond Trump, to think beyond Trump, to real­ly think just not about resis­tance, but rev­o­lu­tion, actu­al­ly fun­da­men­tal­ly chang­ing soci­ety. I want­ed to talk a lit­tle bit about that because I think it does occa­sion­al­ly get lost in the wealth of hor­rors that Trump pro­vides us.

James: I think this ques­tion of, How do we move from just being in the mode of resis­tance and rebel­lion to actu­al­ly fig­ur­ing out how we actu­al­ly reor­ga­nize soci­ety?” I think that is the cen­tral ques­tion for our move­ments and for our gen­er­a­tion and for those of us who real­ly want to deal with the fun­da­men­tal prob­lems that pro­duced a Trump pres­i­den­cy in the first place and that are pro­duc­ing these right-wing pop­ulist move­ments all across the world.

Fun­da­men­tal­ly, I think part of what we have to do, real­ly, is be clear on what we mean when we talk about a rev­o­lu­tion. The word gets thrown around so much. That Face­book post that I made the oth­er day, some­one com­ment­ed that Hillary Clinton’s pres­i­den­cy would have been rev­o­lu­tion­ary. I am like, Wow. There are a lot of dif­fer­ent ideas about what a rev­o­lu­tion is.” I just want­ed to open up the con­ver­sa­tion. I also have my own thoughts about how we can get more clear on what it means to fight for rev­o­lu­tion. I think it is prob­a­bly the most cen­tral ques­tion right now because even the cen­trists and the neolib­er­als are part of the resis­tance now and I don’t think we need to try to stop them from tak­ing that title. I think it is actu­al­ly use­ful that they are in that mode and they don’t have a clear vision for how to actu­al­ly fix these problems.

But peo­ple across the coun­try who know that we need health­care for all, we need free col­lege, that we need to deal with inequal­i­ty, and we need to address racism and misog­y­ny, peo­ple have been offer­ing solu­tions for how to fix this coun­try for a long time. We just need to get out of their way.

Sarah: I have been watch­ing all these move­ment groups come up over the last sev­er­al years who real­ly are think­ing much, much big­ger and that doesn’t often get cov­ered. It doesn’t real­ly come across when peo­ple say, This is a group that is fight­ing police bru­tal­i­ty,” and of course you are fight­ing police bru­tal­i­ty every day, but there are also so many big­ger con­ver­sa­tions that are hap­pen­ing that I think need more space in public.

James: So often our move­ments are stuck in a reac­tionary phase and pos­ture because there is so much hap­pen­ing urgent­ly that we have to address, but I think the last sev­er­al years that I have seen move­ments in this coun­try devel­op and there are a lot more peo­ple who are ask­ing very deep ques­tions about How do we actu­al­ly move beyond just being against police bru­tal­i­ty, against racism, and those things?” but real­ly fig­ur­ing out what we’re for and fig­ur­ing out, What is the strat­e­gy to get there?” We def­i­nite­ly need more spaces for that.

After the elec­tion it became even hard­er to have that space because of how press­ing every­thing was. Then, after the inau­gu­ra­tion, Trump starts sign­ing all these exec­u­tive orders one after the oth­er and we saw peo­ple jump­ing into the streets, but now the resis­tance is still strong and with the fir­ing of [FBI Direc­tor James] Comey it is get­ting stronger, even. But this ques­tion of How do we actu­al­ly move for­ward?” isn’t real­ly being addressed. Even in the move­ments, I think part of what is going to have to hap­pen is our social move­ment lead­ers are going to have to start tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for answer­ing that ques­tion and then also fight­ing to have the pow­er to gov­ern soci­ety, to actu­al­ly put those answers into motion, rather than just sort of being in the social move­ment space forever.

Sarah: It is inter­est­ing because we are get­ting to this point, both because of Trump and also just because of the matu­ri­ty of the move­ments over the last sev­er­al years, peo­ple are think­ing seri­ous­ly about, What would it look like if we took pow­er?” Bernie Sanders had a lot of flaws, but also pre­sent­ed this moment to think about, What if our peo­ple could win? What if we were in charge?”

James: Yes, def­i­nite­ly. For me, the day after the elec­tion I was just kick­ing myself that I didn’t do more per­son­al­ly and also as a par­tic­i­pant and leader in that move­ment to push us to engage even more with the elec­tion and the Sanders cam­paign in the pri­ma­ry. I wasn’t real­ly sold on him as a per­son, as a can­di­date, but after the elec­tion I was think­ing, Wow, Bernie came so close,” and start­ed to reassess how I want­ed to engage ques­tions around elec­toral pol­i­tics and what not in the future, because hav­ing a Bernie Sanders pres­i­den­cy — which we hon­est­ly could have had because the times we are in right now are so dif­fer­ent than what I expect­ed at the begin­ning of the election.

I don’t think I ful­ly appre­ci­at­ed how ripe these times are for pop­ulist polit­i­cal cam­paigns. I think part of that is due to how suc­cess­ful the move­ments have been at polar­iz­ing soci­ety and expos­ing the deep prob­lems like the elites and the tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment doesn’t have any answers for. And Bernie Sanders was the best that we had to try to address some of these things. Hope­ful­ly mov­ing for­ward, we con­tin­ue to find oth­er folks to run, but it is look­ing like 2020 is going to be real­ly slim in terms of peo­ple to support.

Sarah: You work with a cou­ple of nation­al orga­ni­za­tions that are think­ing about and work­ing on social move­ment strate­gies. I would love to hear a lit­tle bit about that work that you have been doing.

James: I have been work­ing with the Ayni Insti­tute, which is a train­ing insti­tute that sup­ports a cou­ple dif­fer­ent train­ing pro­grams and com­mu­ni­ties of prac­tice. The train­ing pro­grams that we sup­port that is doing the most work I would say is the Momen­tum” train­ing pro­gram, which is real­ly look­ing at, How do we cre­ate mass pop­u­lar social move­ments that can give par­tic­i­pants what they need to main­tain a bal­ance of auton­o­my and uni­ty so that we can grow in a dis­trib­uted, decen­tral­ized way, but have a set of prin­ci­ples and what we call DNA to real­ly help guide the move­ment?” A lot of the think­ing has been influ­enced by civ­il resis­tance the­o­ry and some of the folks from strug­gles like Otpor in Ser­bia and the writ­ings of Eri­ca Chenoweth and a lot of folks, but in the last cou­ple of years, there has also been groups in the coun­try such as Cosecha and IfNot­Now, which have launched based on Momen­tum the­o­ry, the Momen­tum frame­works and also have gone through a process to devel­op their own DNA.

It is real­ly amaz­ing to watch how fast each of those move­ments have grown in terms of their mem­ber­ship and their lead­er­ship and types of actions that they are able to take on. I am real­ly excit­ed about Momen­tum. We just fin­ished doing a Momen­tum train­ing at the end of Feb­ru­ary for about 95 lead­ers from across the Move­ment for Black Lives and it was real­ly a spe­cial expe­ri­ence. I am real­ly excit­ed to see what comes out of some of those con­ver­sa­tions that we had just a cou­ple meet­ings ago.

Sarah: You also men­tioned that you have been work­ing with AllOfUs.

James: Yes, I’ve been work­ing with AllO­fUs, which is a project that is being pulled togeth­er by a lot of peo­ple who’ve been com­ing out of the social move­ments that we’ve seen arise over the last sev­er­al years, peo­ple who see the lim­i­ta­tions and also the strengths of social move­ments and real­ly want to fig­ure out how do we take on the chal­lenge of win­ning pow­er so we can gov­ern and not just being on the out­side look­ing in, protest­ing, but actu­al­ly take over so we can set the direc­tion of the coun­try mov­ing forward.

Part of what is dri­ving the team to come togeth­er is a desire to real­ly reclaim the iden­ti­ty of the coun­try and there’s been a lot of con­ver­sa­tion about how we need to resist Trump, we need to resist Trump. There was an inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion that Michelle Alexan­der was a part of, she named Trump as the resis­tance in oppo­si­tion to all of the pro­gres­sive forces through­out the his­to­ry of the coun­try that have been real­ly push­ing to make true those words on parch­ment that say lib­er­ty and jus­tice for all, that all human beings are cre­at­ed equal, that this is a coun­try that could be home for every­body who calls it home.

That’s what real­ly excites me the most, I feel like the left has ced­ed this idea of the coun­try to the right wing and to the worst ele­ments of the nation, and we’ve just sort of tak­en as fact that the nation start­ed in slav­ery and geno­cide and can’t be redeemed. But we actu­al­ly think that there, at the begin­ning of the coun­try, was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary promise that has yet to be ful­filled and that’s the major task of our gen­er­a­tion today and suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions to come is to keep fig­ur­ing out how do we ful­fil the rev­o­lu­tion­ary promise of Amer­i­ca, and defeat Don­ald Trump in the meantime.

Sarah: The ques­tions of pow­er and insti­tu­tion build­ing are ones that have been fraught for a lot of peo­ple on the left and par­tic­u­lar­ly elec­toral pol­i­tics. It is inter­est­ing to see the way that is shift­ing. Speak­ing of pow­er in your com­mu­ni­ties, talk about some of the work that has been going on in Ohio where you are. I guess we can start with policing.

James: In Colum­bus, just this past week­end, we actu­al­ly had about 500 peo­ple come down from all over the state. There was a march orga­nized by a bunch of dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions around racial jus­tice. Folks went to the governor’s man­sion, where the gov­er­nor doesn’t actu­al­ly live, but the tax­pay­ers still pay to have the lawn cut and all of that, to deliv­er this mes­sage from sev­er­al moth­ers of young men who had been mur­dered by police in the last year who were there.

There have been sev­er­al pret­ty high-pro­file police mur­ders in Colum­bus. They haven’t broke nation­al­ly, but in the city a lot of peo­ple are talk­ing about them. Thir­teen-year-old Tyre King was mur­dered in Sep­tem­ber. Twen­ty-three-year-old Hen­ry Green was mur­dered last June. In Jan­u­ary of this year, Jaron Thomas was mur­dered. Jaron Thomas was the man who was call­ing 911 for help. He was call­ing for help because he was hav­ing a schiz­o­phrenic episode and he told them that. When the ambu­lance showed up there were also mul­ti­ple cruis­ers who showed up, as well. He end­ed up in a coma after the police beat him and died in the hos­pi­tal lat­er. A few weeks after that, over 100,000 dash­cam videos were erased or lost or mis­placed, nev­er to be found again. Then, the cop who shot and killed 23-year-old Hen­ry Green last sum­mer, just a cou­ple of weeks ago, he was not indict­ed after a grand jury con­vened for a lit­tle while in that inves­ti­ga­tion. Then, a week after he was found to not need to go to tri­al, he was caught on cam­era stomp­ing anoth­er man’s head into the ground while he was already hand­cuffed. Now, peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty are call­ing for him to be fired, as well as the offi­cer who killed Tyre King.

There is a lot of orga­niz­ing going on both around the issue and sig­nif­i­cant issue-based cam­paign­ing and protest­ing and move­ment build­ing work, but also, there is actu­al­ly an elec­toral chal­lenge hap­pen­ing in the city. There is a group here called Yes We Can that is run­ning folks for city coun­cil against the estab­lish­ment incum­bent Democ­rats. It is a real­ly excit­ing time in the city because while we have a lot of the move­ment work going on and peo­ple are mobi­liz­ing, we also have this very real elec­toral threat and there is a nice move­ment ecol­o­gy devel­op­ing in the city with a lot of dif­fer­ent types of orga­ni­za­tions sup­port­ing each other.

It is excit­ing to see even in the midst of all the tragedies that con­tin­ue to hap­pen here, the way peo­ple are find­ing cre­ative ways to come togeth­er and fight. There is so much resilience in this com­mu­ni­ty. Hon­est­ly, every­thing in this coun­try is so crazy, but the com­mu­ni­ty here real­ly grounds me and helps me remem­ber that we always have to keep fighting. 

Sarah: Can you talk a lit­tle bit more about the Yes We Can effort and the grap­pling with local elec­toral politics?

James: In my city there has been one per­son in my life­time who has run for city coun­cil and is not an incum­bent and won. Every­one else, they were either appoint­ed to be on city coun­cil if it is their first time and some­body steps down and they get appoint­ed so in their first elec­tion, they actu­al­ly run as an incum­bent. There is real­ly a hege­mo­ny of the sam­ple bal­lot here, where if you are on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s sam­ple bal­lot and they say, These are our endorsed can­di­dates,” then you win. If you are not, you lose.

There is a real­ly high bar of entry into local pol­i­tics here if you are not part of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment, you haven’t wait­ed your turn and been picked. So what is hap­pen­ing with Yes We Can is real­ly excit­ing because for the first time in the last 20 years there is actu­al­ly a chance to see some peo­ple run with real vision for how to help the city and not just the city, but is con­nect­ed to a nation­al strat­e­gy about, How do we fight back against Trump’s Amer­i­ca?” because in Ohio we have already been deal­ing with Trump’s Amer­i­ca with our state leg­is­la­ture. Then, also, Colum­bus is such a pro­gres­sive city, cer­tain­ly in com­par­i­son with the rest of the state, but there is still so much that hap­pens here. On the same night that the may­or and city coun­cil mem­bers declared the city a sanc­tu­ary city, there was a 4,000-person protest at the state house where peo­ple were protest­ing the Mus­lim ban. Lat­er, a bunch of us, includ­ing myself, we got maced.” There were a bunch of Mus­lim youth, Soma­li refugees — we have a huge Soma­li pop­u­la­tion here in Colum­bus. A lot of young Mus­lim kids are out just stand­ing against the Mus­lim ban and a few hours after the city was declared a sanc­tu­ary city, we were all maced. That serves to illus­trate the kinds of issues that are ripe in the city.

Yes We Can — they had the pri­ma­ry on May 2nd. All of their can­di­dates, they are run­ning for city coun­cil and also for school board, and all of the can­di­dates made it through the pri­ma­ry and are going to be fac­ing off against the incum­bents in the gen­er­al elec­tion. I think things are going to get real­ly inter­est­ing here, personally.

Sarah: The ques­tion of pri­ma­ry­ing Democ­rats seemed to come up a lot in ear­ly days around Trump’s Cab­i­net being con­firmed and cer­tain peo­ple vot­ing for Trump’s Cab­i­net nom­i­nees. But then these days, because of Trump, it seems like there is a dou­bling down of crit­i­cism of peo­ple who dare to sug­gest that Democ­rats might also be part of the prob­lem. I won­der if you have been expe­ri­enc­ing any of that.

James: With­out a doubt. I haven’t been real­ly involved in the Yes We Can cam­paign­ing, but I have seen both peo­ple say­ing, Don’t come after us,” but also peo­ple say­ing, You are not even a Demo­c­rat. You have all these oth­er ideas.” It is the Democ­rats nar­row­ing their own base of sup­port. It is not very log­i­cal pol­i­tics. You want to have more peo­ple on your team.

I see it all over the place. It is part of the rea­son I wrote that Face­book post the oth­er day about need­ing to dis­tin­guish between the resis­tance and the rev­o­lu­tion, because these folks who don’t want to deal with the idea that Democ­rats might be part of the prob­lem, they just want to take us back to the world of Barack Oba­ma. A world where Guan­tanamo is still open, where we are still involved in mul­ti­ple wars, where we bail out the banks and don’t bail out home­own­ers, where black peo­ple are being shot down every two weeks on Face­book Live and it is fine. That is the world they want to go to and want to live in and want to stay in. They don’t want to deal with the fact that we have to move forward.

The thing is, it doesn’t even mat­ter what they want. We are mov­ing for­ward regard­less of whether they want to deal with these issue or not. But, it is just emblem­at­ic of the issues of mediocre lead­er­ship from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty across the board. I know because I used to work — my first job in this whole thing, I was a page in the state­house. I was like, Man, I like all these peo­ple. I don’t think they are bad peo­ple, but mediocre leadership.”

Sarah: Going for­ward, think­ing about specif­i­cal­ly elec­toral pol­i­tics, some of the things we have seen this year. We have seen Chok­we Antar Lumum­ba get through the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry in Jack­son, khalid kamau in Geor­gia. I am won­der­ing what you are think­ing about elec­toral pol­i­tics mov­ing forward.

James: A cou­ple of years ago I would have said, No, I would nev­er run for office.” Now I am sort of reassess­ing a lot of things. I def­i­nite­ly think the folks at Yes We Can have done a great job in our city. In oth­er cities, there are folks who are doing the same thing. I think there are also ways to use elec­toral pol­i­tics to engage peo­ple around issues, using bal­lot ini­tia­tives. I know there is a lot of inter­est in bring­ing bal­lot ini­tia­tives to the state that we can use to real­ly build new alliances with dif­fer­ent types of folks, par­tic­u­lar­ly around crim­i­nal jus­tice reform. One in six peo­ple in the state of Ohio has a fam­i­ly mem­ber who is incar­cer­at­ed or has been incar­cer­at­ed or them­selves have been incar­cer­at­ed. It is an issue that affects so many people.

So we were look­ing at stuff like Prop 47 in Cal­i­for­nia and think­ing, Would there be an abil­i­ty to do some­thing like that in this state in 2018?” Part of why we want to do that, too, is because in 2018 is when we have the governor’s race in the state of Ohio. If a Repub­li­can wins, I will prob­a­bly end up mov­ing from the state because it will prob­a­bly be until 2030 until we can actu­al­ly do some­thing about the ger­ry­man­dered dis­tricts. There is a lot on the line right now in my state. I think there will be peo­ple run­ning for office. I think we can have peo­ple run for Con­gress and run for Sen­ate and maybe not in Ohio — our Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tor is pret­ty good, rel­a­tive­ly, but maybe we should pri­ma­ry them all.

Sarah: How can peo­ple keep up with you and your work and sign up to get some of your trainings?

James: Peo­ple can go to the web­site, it is ayni.institute and check out any upcom­ing train­ings that are avail­able. The next train­ing that we are doing is in July. It is going to be a four-day train­ing called Move­ment Ecol­o­gy. It is going to be very excit­ing. Folks should also check out @TimeForAllOfUs on Twit­ter and also on Face­book. I don’t real­ly get on social media much myself, but my Twit­ter is @ContrabandJames. Those are the best ways to keep up with me right now.

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 on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission. 

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.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH