Upski Grows Up: No Bombs, Please

Activist and author Billy Wimsatt explains why the ‘burbs shouldn’t be bombed after all.

Maysan Haydar

“The left has been good at critiquing power and throwing rocks,” says Wimsatt. “But what about building power?”

Billy Upski” Wimsatt began writing his first book, Bomb the Suburbs, as a teenager in Chicago, and it was published in 1994 when he was 21. His second book, No More Prisons, came out when he was 25. For the former, he received enthusiastic and widespread praise,ranging from Tupac Shakur to the Utne Reader. Wimsatt has just released his third book, Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs (Akashic), a sober and funny assessment of where activism is and where it needs to go.

The left is throwing Obama overboard almost as hard as the right. It’s like the Civil War is going on, and folks are sitting around critiquing Abe Lincoln.

What are your goals for Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs?

I have three goals: 1) Tell the untold adventure story of the past 25 years of cultural and political movement building in the United States. Howard Zinn isn’t with us anymore. My generation needs to tell its own history! 2) Evangelize for responsible adulthood as central to progressive change. Growing up is not a right-wing conspiracy. Being responsible adults is core to the change we want to see; and 3) Spark a conversation about the super movement we have the opportunity to build over the next 25 years, using 21st-century tools. We have a huge opportunity if we seize it!

Are you targeting the initial readers of your other books, who are now in their 30s and 40s?

Yes. It’s speaking simultaneously to my generation, Gen X, to the young whippersnappers, and to the baby boomers whose footsteps we’re walking in.

What accounts for the subdued attitude in your new book?

The world has changed a lot in the 16 years since Bomb the Suburbs. The suburbs have changed – they’re more like cities. Cities have become more like suburbs. Social change is complex. We need to love the suburbs. We need to grow up. The left has been good at critiquing power and throwing rocks. But what about building power? What about governing? We’re good at critiquing leaders. But do we know how to support a leader? It’s safer to be pure, pissed off, and powerless. It’s our responsibility to build a majority to actually turn the Titanic, not just to be mad that we’re headed toward an iceberg.

What do you make of the current 20-somethings? The teens?

The youngest generation, the millennial generation, is the most progressive generation in recorded history – at least in terms of voting. Even before Obama, in 2006, 18 to 30-year-olds voted for Democrats and against Republicans by 22 points. In 2008, it was 34 points. We need to support them to keep that trend going. The millennials get it. They are the ones who are getting left with the consequences of an overextended empire, a casino economy and melting icebergs. They are our greatest hope. Over the coming decades, the progressive electorate can totally transform our politics. But right now they’re completely screwed with Depression-level joblessness. Our job as adults is to support them any way we can!

Do things have to get worse before they get better?

Throughout history, downward spirals beget more downward spirals. We kill the Native Americans. Then we kill them some more. We kill the trees. Then we kill them some more. Africa is colonized. People rebelled. Now we have a post-colonial system that replicates the old problems. Even if there were a revolution, you still run into the problem of scale and management. How does one run a county of 300 million people? Most would-be revolutionaries, once in power, couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag.

On the bright side, upward spirals beget upward spiral. Every good thing we do sends forth positive ripples.

The left is throwing Obama overboard almost as hard as the right. It’s like the Civil War is going on, and folks are sitting around critiquing Abe Lincoln. Does Lincoln need pushing? Yes. But he also needs us to back him up.

Major cities have had major crime rates drop in their downtown and gentrified areas, and rise in some outer neighborhoods. What effect is this having?

A huge segment of the population is set up to fail, and thrown away. The major focus of the past 20 years has been to make cities attractive to white people, upper-middle class people and companies. This isn’t all bad. We need diverse, vibrant cities that include rich white people. Chicago had 3.5 million people in 1950. From 1950 to 1990 we lost over 700,000 people! So it’s good to repopulate. The question is: Do we use that added revenue to transform oppressed communities?

Moving poor people around disturbs delicate ecosystems like gang turfs, which increases people killing each other. We fix it by investing in young people and local neighborhood leaders, including gang leaders. Partnering with gang leaders to become positive youth leaders has to be part of the solution. A lot of times they are the only ones who have the credibility to stop these hotheaded young kids from shooting each other. In the 1960s, community organizations partnered with gang leaders like the Conservative Vice Lords on the West Side to channel their anger in a different way and create positive outlets for kids. That’s something we need more of.

With the recent Islamophobia and other hate rhetoric coming from the extreme Right, why isn’t a parallel being made with other xenophobic, misogynistic, violent groups, like the ones we fight in the War on Terror”?

I don’t know. As my grandmother would say, the right wing is meshugana [crazy]. We need to expose and oppose right-wing meshuganas in all countries, whether in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or the United States. The real conflict is between right-wing meshuganas in all these countries and everyone else. The vast majority of people want peace. 

In your years of activism, what is your biggest regret?

Regret is easy: I would have gone to Florida in 2000 and organized 538 more people to vote for Al Gore. It sounds funny, but one person who went to Florida in 2000 and organized 1,000 more voters could have single-handedly stopped the Iraq war. Not to mention the trillion-dollar debt from Bush tax-cuts, and the 5-4 decision in Citizens United. There’s no way Al Gore would have appointed Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court. That’s why I’m pulling out all the stops and screaming All Hands On Deck – we can’t afford to let the right wing take over again.”

You have a three-part prescription for what people ought to do with their lives. Part of the problem with socially conscious youth is a sense of both responsibility and entitlement to do what they feel is right and what they enjoy. How do we convince people to take traditional job tracks toward power?

Ha! Three Rules is what I call them: Be Good. Get Power. Don’t Do Anything Stupid To Mess Up Your Life.” People seem to like the idea of good people getting power. It’s a mind-bender. All our lives, we’ve been warned that: Power corrupts.” So our solution had been to not have too much power. We learned to critique people in power. And our critiques are generally accurate. There’s one problem. You can’t build a better country through critique. We never learned to get power or build power. That’s part of why we constantly lose, we’re committed to losing so we can stay pure.

What do you think of the idea of agree-to-disagree with regard to political stances?

Let’s be clear. We are in an all-out-war for the soul and control of this country. So it’s a little hard to talk over the gunfire. There is a time to fight and a time to negotiate. Groups like the Coffee Party and Transpartisan Alliance are doing an admirable job promoting civil discussion and understanding. A Coffee Party organizer in Texas co-wrote an op-ed with a Tea Party leader. They agreed on a lot – like getting money out of politics.

The best approach is three-fold: First you win. Second, you replace bad people with mediocre people, and mediocre people with good people. Third, then you negotiate from a position of strength. You follow Bill Ury’s classic instructions in Getting to Yes: You argue based on interests, not positions. You get to know people as people. You respect and listen to the other person. Right-wing folks are often the most wonderful people. I hitchhiked all over this country, and I’ve gotten dozens of rides from right-wingers who picked me up and fed me. We owe everyone human decency and respect, including Beck and Palin. 

Maysan Haydar, a contributor to Body Outlaws: Rewriting the Rules of Beauty and Body Image (Seal Press), is In These Times’ copy editor.
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