“We Are On the Cusp of Something Great”: A Black Liberation Organizer on Next Steps for the Movement

An interview with Nikita Mitchell

Nikita MitchellJuly 27, 2020

Demonstrators march down Pennsylvania Avenue near the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., on June 3. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Since the nation erupt­ed after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, Black orga­niz­ers and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers have been work­ing around the clock to chan­nel mass protests into tan­gi­ble vic­to­ries. Niki­ta Mitchell, 26, is nation­al coor­di­na­tor of The Ris­ing Major­i­ty, formed in 2017 by the Move­ment for Black Lives, a coali­tion that includes Black Lives Mat­ter. Ris­ing Major­i­ty is led by Black peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or, and brings social move­ments togeth­er in an anti-racist, anti-cap­i­tal­ist Left for rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy. Niki­ta talked with In These Times in late June from Oak­land, Calif., after anoth­er of many all-nighters. She shared what this moment feels like after years of orga­niz­ing, The Ris­ing Majority’s plan for a hot sum­mer,” how to sus­tain pres­sure for rad­i­cal change and where Biden and Trump fit in.

"The demand to defund the police and fund the people has real traction. It’s not a new demand, but it has become a unified rallying cry."

A lot of orga­niz­ers are telling me they are exhaust­ed try­ing to keep up — the move­ment, the pan­dem­ic. How do you keep going?

NM: As some­one who has been in move­ment com­mu­ni­ties for a long time, it’s deeply inspir­ing to me to see this lev­el of analy­sis, dream­ing, imag­i­na­tion. We are see­ing an accel­er­a­tion of pub­lic con­scious­ness not just in defense of Black lives — I think a lot of that foun­da­tion hap­pened in 2013, 2014, 2015 — but the need to trans­form sys­tems at the root. For me, that’s ener­giz­ing. So is the lev­el of mobi­liza­tion — across the coun­try, glob­al­ly, out of Oak­land. We are on the cusp of some­thing great, some­thing his­toric. It keeps me going when I’m tired.

How long have you been organizing?

NM: I can’t talk about the move­ment with­out talk­ing about my grand­moth­er, Dolores Bosley. She is from Bas­trop, Louisiana. She grew up in a home for folks who worked in a cot­ton mill and for share­crop­pers. She want­ed me to under­stand two things. One, the lega­cy of Black peo­ple. Two, that I am inher­ent­ly valu­able as a per­son. I attribute the seeds of my con­scious­ness to my grandmother.

My way into move­ments was through edu­ca­tion­al jus­tice work in high school, at 14, through a group called Youth Togeth­er. Ever since my fam­i­ly migrat­ed to Oak­land, Castle­mont High School was the high school we all went to, in a his­tor­i­cal­ly Black, Lati­no and Poly­ne­sian com­mu­ni­ty of deep poverty.

One day, they sus­pend­ed 80 stu­dents for a cell phone pol­i­cy — for cell phones drop­ping out of pock­ets, for walk­ing with a phone. That made folks real­ly angry. In addi­tion, out­side cops were brought in to deal with vio­lence, with racial ten­sions, when we knew the solu­tion was not polic­ing. So we land­ed on the mod­el of restora­tive jus­tice. That cam­paign result­ed in a city­wide res­o­lu­tion to have restora­tive jus­tice as the main mod­el of harm reduc­tion in schools.

I kept orga­niz­ing in col­lege. Union orga­niz­ing with UNITE HERE solid­i­fied my com­mit­ment to long-term orga­niz­ing. The thing that got me back into anti-police bru­tal­i­ty work was the start of Black Lives Mat­ter. I got a request, like a secret meet­ing, Black peo­ple come to this loca­tion.” I knew Ali­cia Garza and a few oth­er move­ment founders, and I showed up. That was the begin­ning of the BLM Bay Area chapter.

After years of orga­niz­ing for Black lives, are you sur­prised by the new mass protests? 

NM: A move­ment nev­er dies. There are cycles: Moments where it’s real­ly intense, moments of move­ment-build­ing. So I’m not sur­prised. Con­sid­er the time and con­di­tions: the con­ver­gence of Covid with the con­tin­ued ille­git­i­ma­cy of our gov­ern­ment. Trump and our gov­ern­ment did not pro­tect folks dur­ing Covid, but instead pro­tect­ed cor­po­rate inter­ests. You also have police mur­der­ing Black folks. That felt like the snap­ping of a straw.

But I am excit­ed by the lev­el of mobi­liza­tion. Dal­las has been out for two weeks straight, Min­neapo­lis for a month. I think about Black orga­niz­ing projects in Oak­land. They’ve been work­ing on get­ting police out of schools for a long time, and they are on the precipice of win­ning.

Let’s talk about win­ning. What is winnable now?

NM: The demand to defund the police and fund the peo­ple has real trac­tion. It’s not a new demand, but it has become a uni­fied ral­ly­ing cry. What it means is lit­er­al­ly pulling all the funds from polic­ing and mov­ing that to pro­grams that actu­al­ly ensure com­mu­ni­ty health.

For The Ris­ing Major­i­ty, our plat­form is rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy — so it’s not enough to just move mon­ey from police to pro­grams for the peo­ple. Com­mu­ni­ty con­trol is a key part of sus­tain­ing that shift. As the move­ment gets orga­nized, com­mu­ni­ty con­trol and par­tic­i­pa­to­ry bud­get­ing become addi­tion­al demands.

What kind of pro­grams need investment? 

NM: That’s a hard ques­tion — it requires the peo­ple. This is part of why par­tic­i­pa­to­ry bud­gets are such a cool thing.

Per­son­al­ly, when I think about com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty and well­ness, I think about qual­i­ty jobs that don’t sup­port cap­i­tal­ist inter­ests — green jobs, col­lec­tives. A reimag­in­ing of what our eco­nom­ic sys­tem could look like. Coun­selors in schools. Mak­ing sure every young per­son has food. What if food and hous­ing inse­cu­ri­ty were not some­thing which, every day, you have to wake up and nav­i­gate? Health­care — Democ­rats talk about uni­ver­sal health­care, but Covid-19 illu­mi­nat­ed the real fail­ures of our system.

Alter­na­tives to polic­ing — what excites you there? 

NM: I now believe in trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice. Restora­tive jus­tice is an impor­tant frame­work with use­ful tools, but it aims to get back to nor­mal.” For Black peo­ple, poor folks, queer folks, trans and non­bi­na­ry peo­ple, nor­mal is still a site of violence.

Trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice asks: What actu­al­ly needs to shift, so vio­lence and harm for a par­tic­u­lar per­son or com­mu­ni­ty doesn’t remain pos­si­ble in the same way?

A good friend of mine trained me on restora­tive jus­tice grow­ing up. His sis­ter was mur­dered in the height of him talk­ing about restora­tive jus­tice. It would have been real­ly easy for him to resort to vio­lence, includ­ing the vio­lence of lock­ing the guy up. What he decid­ed to do was cre­ate a restora­tive jus­tice process.

This person’s moth­er came to meet with my friend’s moth­er. They had con­ver­sa­tions about not just the crime, not just the vio­lence, but how their chil­dren got to the place they’re in. They talked about fam­i­ly and sto­ries and pover­ty, and hous­ing inse­cu­ri­ty, and how all of those things led up to the mur­der. My friend’s moth­er then went to meet the guy who mur­dered her daugh­ter. After some time, they had a real con­ver­sa­tion about the harm that was caused. Jus­tice can’t hap­pen out­side the peo­ple direct­ly affected.

None of that takes away the fact that her daugh­ter was mur­dered, the sad­ness, the rage. What it did do was cre­ate an open­ing for jus­tice in a way the cur­rent sys­tem would nev­er allow.

What hap­pened on the crim­i­nal jus­tice side? 

NM: You don’t real­ly have a choice about the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, unfor­tu­nate­ly. He end­ed up going to prison, which — accord­ing to my friend — felt emp­ty after the process they went through. My friend’s moth­er and this per­son had a rela­tion­ship — a ten­u­ous one, for sure, but a rela­tion­ship — and so pun­ish­ment felt emp­ty and not about jus­tice, for any­one. The sys­tem is still a site of ter­ror and con­trol. We need to reimag­ine how we deal with harm and say unapolo­get­i­cal­ly that pris­ons are not the way to do that.

And that’s hard to hold, you know, for peo­ple talk­ing about defund­ing the police — that, in a sit­u­a­tion with no police and no pris­ons, jus­tice will be more inti­mate. That feels dif­fi­cult for me, as a sur­vivor of sex­u­al vio­lence, to be like: How do I have a con­ver­sa­tion about jus­tice that looks some­one direct­ly in the eye? I go back to this all the time. What does it look like to take away these sys­tems that aren’t set up for jus­tice for any­one, and have a real com­mu­ni­ty process?

A lot of these solu­tions are local, where much of the police bud­get is con­trolled. What do you see on a broad­er, nation­al level?

NM: One key oppor­tu­ni­ty is the stim­u­lus pack­ages. In the mid­dle of a pan­dem­ic where 125,000 folks have died and 33 mil­lion peo­ple lost jobs, the stim­u­lus pack­age ear­marked $850 mil­lion to pub­lic safe­ty.” We know, for white suprema­cists and cap­i­tal­ists, that pub­lic safe­ty” means police bud­gets and ICE deten­tion cen­ters, when folks need Covid test­ing, rent can­cel­la­tions and freezes, employ­ment sup­port. So a fed­er­al tar­get for us is the stim­u­lus pack­ages com­ing up, as a place we can actu­al­ly redi­rect funds to the people.

The sec­ond thing we’ve been talk­ing is divest­ment from white suprema­cy, racial cap­i­tal­ism and anti-Black­ness. Some of the analy­sis we’re work­ing toward is how state­sanc­tioned vio­lence and ter­ror are pro­tect­ed and enabled by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. So let’s talk about defund­ing mil­i­ta­rized forces domes­ti­cal­ly and abroad — because the func­tion of those sys­tems is ulti­mate­ly to pro­tect cap­i­tal and white suprema­cy. And we under­stand Trump as a fig­ure­head of this in this moment. For exam­ple, when Trump threat­ened to call in the mil­i­tary on pro­test­ers to defend prop­er­ty. As if that Tar­get build­ing is more impor­tant than a liv­ing, breath­ing soul.

Trump is not the first, but he is dan­ger­ous. So we’re also think­ing about how to call out the ille­git­i­ma­cy of gov­ern­ment in this moment. When we ask, What does it mean to fund the peo­ple?” You under­stand that con­cept; I under­stand that con­cept; Trump will nev­er under­stand. His vest­ed inter­ests put him against the people.

So are we talk­ing about cam­paign­ing against Trump here? 

NM: That’s a direct ques­tion! (laughs) The Ris­ing Major­i­ty and the Move­ment for Black Lives are talk­ing about mobi­liza­tion that calls out Trump as the fig­ure­head. We are unapolo­getic that he and his folks down the bal­lot need to go. And we’re clear we need to do that work with­in our ecosys­tem. What’s required to get Trump out is sus­tained mobi­liza­tion, but sus­tained mobi­liza­tion should not be just about get­ting him out. It’s clear we need a nation­wide cam­paign to defund the police and to fund the people.

And then there’s Biden. (laughs) Oh, Biden. It’s not like Biden is that much bet­ter. Biden has sim­i­lar inter­ests to Trump, right? But he has a dif­fer­ent game plan for which way to enact vio­lence on our peo­ple. He’s a neolib­er­al can­di­date, and we have expe­ri­enced the impact of neoliberalism.

What do you say to Biden’s police reform pro­pos­als: choke­holds, racial bias train­ing, com­mu­ni­ty policing? 

NM: They are a dis­re­spect to the peo­ple who lost peo­ple to police bru­tal­i­ty. A dis­re­spect to the peo­ple being bru­tal­ly, bru­tal­ly repressed by police. It’s a dis­re­spect to say to peo­ple mak­ing a clear demand to defund, We’re going to give you a reform!” If that is not neolib­er­al­ism… (laughs)

Biden’s going to try to give con­ces­sions to the peo­ple— some of which may seem like harm reduc­tion because now you won’t get choked out” — but a con­ces­sion that does not actu­al­ly trans­form the sys­tems that enable vio­lence is a con­ces­sion our move­ment should question.

It’s a chal­lenge. We’ve been sold a dream that the Civ­il Rights Act was a pin­na­cle; it’s not. How do we invest in a long-term, proac­tive strug­gle? Come Trump or Biden, that’s the work of movement.

How are move­ments engag­ing and edu­cat­ing all these new protesters? 

NM: When the mobi­liza­tions real­ly began heat­ing up, The Ris­ing Major­i­ty did a polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion pro­gram. We had a vir­tu­al ses­sion with Angela Davis, Jami­la Woods, N’Tanya Lee from Left­Roots, Kay­la Reed from Action St. Louis, Karis­sa Lewis from Move­ment for Black Lives, Tim­my Rose from Dis­senters and Greisa Martínez Rosas from Unit­ed We Dream. That teach-in had about 360,000 views, so I think folks are hun­gry to be out on the streets, to make mean­ing in this moment. Edu­ca­tion is some of what this move­ment will be up to in the next few weeks.

How do we sus­tain pres­sure for change? Can street protests persist? 

NM: We need a com­bi­na­tion of tac­tics. We at The Ris­ing Major­i­ty are call­ing for a hot sum­mer” of intense orga­niz­ing. We also know folks will get tired: We need orga­ni­za­tions to hold sus­tained ener­gy for a long-term, proac­tive struggle.

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