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Episode Five: Activism in Times of Upheaval

Image of a boarded storefront in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood, featuring graffiti that reads George Floyd isn't a martyr. He's a catalyst! next to the image of a black youth

Soho Mural from the summer of 2020

FULL TRANSCRIPT
Interview recorded in September 2020

KC Trommer (host):

Welcome to Criss Cross: The NYU Gallatin Podcast. I'm your host, KC Trommer. Today's conversation is with longtime activist, Gallatin faculty member, and Center for Artistic Activism co-founder Stephen Duncombe and activist and Gallatin student, Sophie Jones. They share their thoughts on activism and what the social, racial, and economic upheavals of the past year have made possible and the work still ahead. If the COVID-19 pandemic has asked us all to break with our past and to imagine a new world, what could it look like? And how do activists maintain their engagement in the face of so much turbulence? Our conversation was recorded in September, but is, I think you'll find, well worth listening to as we close out 2020.

KC Trommer:
You're working on a book together, your book about artistic activism, is that right, Steve?

Stephen Duncombe:
Yeah. Well, Sophie has been instrumental in being actually the first person to read it through and really give comments on it. This is a book that comes out of, you know, years and years of doing artistic activism. And it really asks the question of how do we know if it works? It's fun, it's exciting, it seems to be of the moment, but in the end, if it doesn't work delivering both concrete objectives and utopian goals, then I'll just go back to knocking on people's doors with a petition in my hand. So, Sophie was great because, you know, while she's very young, she does have a political sophistication that you usually don't find an undergraduate student, so she could read it both for grammar, but also for a political understanding as well. And that was super helpful.

KC Trommer:
What particular perspective? I think that's wonderful... And what were you finding that was unique and what Sophie was able to bring? I'm curious to know.

Stephen Duncombe:
I dunno, Sophie, what did you bring when you were reading it? How were you reading it?

Sophie Jones:
A lot of the time, what I felt like I was bringing was-- reading through your ideas, I was like, is this too convoluted or is there too much excess? And, does it make sense to say again? And I also learned a lot from reading this book, and I think one of the biggest things was, you were wondering if it works and all these different artists have different understanding of like, what does "working" mean?

Stephen Duncombe:
I think in many ways, Sophie was reading it as the ideal audience, which is someone who is an activist, someone who actually has some experience behind her, but is also willing to learn, to become better at what she does. And if it doesn't make sense to her, then it's not going to make sense to my main audience. I'm not writing it for academics. I'm not writing it for Art Forum.

KC Trommer:
So, for the purposes of this podcast, which will live on beyond the moment we're in, I want to say, we are speaking during the week of the Breonna Taylor decision, we're exactly a week away from when Justice Ginsburg died, we're several weeks past the fires in California and on the West Coast. And also, of course, we're seven months into a global pandemic, a little over a month from the election. And in this moment, where literally everything is at stake and everything is on the table --in ways that arguably they may have always been, but now it's undeniably so-- I'm just wondering what you both have seen as compelling, revealing responses. And I would say, you have a banquet of crises to choose from, so speak about whichever one you think has been the most compelling to you in terms of artistic responses that are actually engaging and seem to be fruitful.

Stephen Duncombe:
Sophie, do you wanna start?

Sophie Jones:
Yeah, I think in this particular moment, what has been most inspiring is the care that people have had for one another and the mutual aid that has popped up across the country, across the world, and the ways that people are responding to all of these disasters. This is basically a non-state based disaster response, what people are dealing with right now. And I think that the radical-ness that has come from this moment is incredible. I didn't think that it would come this soon. I think, you know, with the Breonna Taylor decision, people were ready to get out on the streets before the decision was even made because they knew that whatever decision was made would be insufficient. And that was incredible: to see people rise up across the country. I was a little bit disappointed in New York's response, but you know, it's okay. I think that people aren't going to stop going out on the streets. And in terms of artistic activism, I think there could be more in this moment. I think there have been a lot of great art installations, if you could call it that, in terms of graffiti and such across the country. But I think there could be more.

Stephen Duncombe:
So maybe picking up a little bit where was Sophie was going with this about the wonderful, inspiring murals, but one wonders how much impact they have, when they're up for a month until Louis Vuitton opens again and takes them all down. And believe me, they were inspiring. I mean, to see the hyper rich leave lower Manhattan and see all this artistic expression happening on the streets was really --it warmed my heart. As I've been telling my kids, "we're going back to New York in the eighties!" But I also have been really impressed --we were lucky enough (and the "we" in this case being the Center for Artistic Activism) to get some funding from a foundation to directly apply to issues around the upcoming election and literally the two-month turnaround time. And so what we did is we put out a call for artists, but we gave them very concrete objectives that their work needed to address. Things like combating voter suppression, recruiting poll workers, and information about mail-in for each different region. We really recruited heavily out of places like North Carolina and Georgia, Wisconsin, and other swing States. What was really nice is to see these artists really take their talent, but also think very practically about outcomes. Which is like, how can I use circus performers? One of the big ones we funded was circus performers. How can we actually use circus performers to drive up attendance at the polls? Or, another project out of Detroit was how can we recruit food trucks and food truck operators to do the on-the-ground work of education about where polls are and what the hours of polls are, and also about mail-ins? I think this is where Sophie and I totally agree with one another: this moment will pass, the general crisis is not going to pass. I think that art is good when it can respond to a particular moment, art is good when it can deliver on particular concrete objectives, but art is great when it helps us imagine that a different world is possible, and not just help us imagine it, but create scenarios in which we can feel it, we can experience it. We think about a great art exhibit--or a great movie for all that matter--is when you lose yourself. And that world becomes yours, if only for an hour or two. Well, that's the sort of transformative experience that we need to be able to present to people if we're going to build a fundamentally different world. Politics isn't about knowing, it's about feeling and acting. And that's why the artistic approach can be very affective as well as effective.

KC Trommer:
Well, and in this moment, it feels to me, everything is on the table, and it does feel like right now is the time to say, "what is the world that we would rather live in, learning what we've learned from what's happening now and imagining, because it is a long-game proposition, activism and change, what is possible?" And what are each of you thinking is possible? What would you like to see continue?

Sophie Jones:
I think if you could apply what Steve is talking about in terms of specific art projects, or artistic protests, to City Hall and the world that people live during that month was basically a utopia. It was, of course it had a lot of negative things that happened during the course of the month, but people actually were able to understand an alternative during that time, trying the alternative on for size and think about what could happen post-revolution, for example. Or coming out of this moment, people were actually able to engage in the political realm without having to worry about meeting their basic needs because they were met for them. The community was taking care of each other. They were feeding each other. There was medical care. There was PPE. There was a laundry station. And there was art, there was a ton of art. And I think, also. people were able to find joy in that moment, which is really a difficult thing to find right now. And through all that, the prospect of another world felt possible. I know this probably sounds very similar to Occupy Wall Street, which I wasn't at, but very parallel projects that happened that I think are important for realizing that something else can be.

Stephen Duncombe:
As you were talking, Sophie, of course, I was thinking about Occupy Wall Street, and I also love how you kind of introduced the occupation of City Hall in 2020 as kind of a performance art project. That lived experience to me, that's what Occupy Wall Street was. It was a big performance. It was a performance of the world that we'd like to bring into being. In fact, when people forgot that it was a performance, that things got a little hairy, because then it became about just protecting the park from the police, as opposed to exploring what is the world that we want to have with our alternative libraries and alternative social arrangements and so on and so forth. I think that's super key to have these sort of protests as performances. I want to pick up on something, you said KC, which was well, what is the world that we would like? So I'll give mine before we go back to Sophie, but in some ways, one of the things I learned from Thomas More's Utopia is that what Thomas More's Utopia does is it creates a world and then it takes it away by saying "it's no place." And there's many, many little aspects of the book. And when he's continually undercutting the very world that he's built up and this is what's puzzled, utopian scholars, like 500 years when I read it, I was like, "Oh, I know what he's doing." Not because I'm smarter at all, but because as an activist, you always have to be careful about putting forth your vision and other people following your idea. So what More does is he puts forth his idea and then says, "Yeah, but don't believe it. If you're going to dream about this and you want to build something, you have to dream about it and build it yourself." And I think that's something all utopians need to recognize. Marx, for example, was always notoriously reluctant to talk about what the new world would be like. His point being that the only way we know what the new world will be like is because we're stuck in the old world and so maybe we'll flip it on its head, but we will know what the new world will be like as we build the new world. And so these sort of experiments like occupying City Hall or Occupy Wall Street or performative art piece give us glimpses and they give us some sort of motivations, but what that new is going to be will be a collective imagination and a collective project. And we'll know it when we get there and hopefully we'll keep moving it on.

Sophie Jones:
Is there anything in that world that you would like to see, Steve, or are you completely trusting in your collective utopians?

Stephen Duncombe:
Well, I'd like to see us have an environment we could live in. That would help. You know, "sustainable" doesn't even get at the beginning of it. It's not just to be "sustainable," it's kind of a rebirth of our relationship between people and nature and, you know, radical equality and probably not all that different than most of us feel. I think that's what's interesting. I think, yes, there's some people who say "My dream is where there's a great hierarchy and people are above and people are below. And where we [are] belching smoke," but most people's dreams are probably similar how we imagine those dreams. I can only have that dream if I retreat to the woods of Idaho and a compound versus I can have that dream in a city like New York City if I take care of my neighbors, that's, what's different, but I think our dreams are remarkably similar.

KC Trommer:
In the sense of wanting to live in some kind of harmonious cooperative, reasonably safe space?

Stephen Duncombe:
Yeah, exactly.

KC Trommer:
That doesn't seem--again, that seems like that should be the bare minimum and not the very, very bottom from from which we should start.

Stephen Duncombe:
Well, Sophie, and then KC, what would you imagine in this new world?

Sophie Jones:
I see a world where everybody has agency. I think that's most important. I see a world without coercion. I think I would like to see a slower world where people aren't so focused on progress and next steps and beating themselves to the early hours of the morning doing work. I would like to see a world where people can really connect with one another and they can focus on those connections and they're not bogged down and having to put food on the table or find a way to provide health care for their families and where we're living closer to the land. I would like to see people and animals, where no being has power over any other. And then, I think this is a good anecdote. My comrade Victoria, who's one of the main organizers at City Hall was asked this question of what are we going to do with all the police precincts when the revolution is over. And she answered that we're going to use them for daycare centers. I think that's a really good vision or a path to where we can get to through this work.

KC Trommer:
I think for me as a New Yorker and the kind of leveling that's happened emotionally--I'm not happy about the financial leveling that's happened-- but the emotional leveling that's happened as a result of this has been quite painful for a lot of people, but I think [it's] also a good audit for everyone to think; what actually matters? Who matters to me, who can I count on? What matters, what do I really need? You know, what do I need? And I think what I want and imagine is just to kind of get rid of the--put the lie to the American individualism and to just cancel that notion, which is so destructive and it pits us against each other. And to just recognize that none of us, none of us, do anything on our own and we're all here by the grace of other people. That's kind of my long, complicated answer.

Stephen Duncombe:
No, that's beautiful.

KC Trommer:
So, in thinking about activism as a long game, what advice do both of you have, has having been engaged and continue to be engaged while we're dealing with this feeling, feelings of despair, dread, and also potential burnout because people, you know, once they start doing things can sometimes quickly burn through their reservoirs.

Stephen Duncombe:
So I had the good fortune to grow up in an activist family. My father was an activist, starting when he was in his twenties and working on anti-Apartheid in 1948, a long time ago. He was a minister and very involved in the Civil Rights movement, and so on. And he died when he was mid-eighties, still being an activist, but there was whole years where he took a break. One of the things that always worries me when I see young activists is that they're so full tilt that I'm like, "that's great, but remember, we don't need you for three years, we need you for about 60 years." And so I'm really struck with what Sophie said about slowing down. It's really the Tortoise and the Hare. We need more tortoises. Yes, you do have to go out there and be active. You also gotta get your mani pedi, you have to exercise, you have to have relationships. You have to, if you want to, raise children. You have to go watch silly romcom movies, and then, tomorrow, you go out and get back on the streets. This is important for a number of reasons: one, for self care which is you got to take care of yourself before you can think about anything else. Another minister friend of my father's once said to me, "You know, people always misunderstand 'love thy neighbor like you love yourself.' You got to love yourself first before you can actually extend that love out to the neighbor." The other thing is that the point of activism is to convince other people who aren't activists to become activists or to become involved and to become engaged. And so, it's super important as a modeling, because one of the things that activists do is that you model what an activist life could be like is to model a well-balanced life. So they can say, "Yeah, I could be involved. Yeah. I could be an activist and I could be a great mom.

Sophie Jones:
I feel like I probably have not lived the best model for how to be an activist, especially this summer, as I let all my basic needs go out the window (meaning and sleep and food and I was surviving on Cliff Bars for three months) But, you know, I learned my lessons, and I think that what was most important (or one of the most important lessons I learned) is through feeling really guilty a lot of the time for not being in a place and maybe thinking, "Oh, if I was there, could I have done something different?" Or "should I be there? All my friends are getting arrested. I should be there. And here I am at home." Learning that the people that are on the ground are really smart and you have to be able to trust them and they have to be able to trust that you're doing something that will also push the movement forward. So taking time for yourself is part of this work. And I think building that trust and replacing guilt with trust for your comrades and in all of this work is really important.

KC Trommer:
I think that's really beautifully said. And that trusting is also not only about what you, as an individual ,are contributing, and that your contribution is part of a larger movement and and conversation. That's wonderful. That's a wonderful way to think about it.

Sophie Jones:
Yeah. As an example, I'm in a bike group that has been really active in the protests and we were doing a bike training day and we were far away and all of our other bike group friends were being arrested at the ICE protests. And nearly all the bikers in the city were arrested that day. And we were all feeling really guilty being away from that, but discussed this and about how, what we were doing was actually going to be really helpful because obviously, the people on the ground maybe didn't have a strategy or needed a strategy more than more than they thought they had. And, of course, they went into it knowing the risk, and we have to trust that they went into it knowing that risk, but also realizing that strategy is really important in a time like this when the police state is really cracking down.

Stephen Duncombe:
I just want to follow up on something Sophie said, which is about strategy. So strategy is about extending activism over a long period. You think about the Civil Rights movement and everybody thinks, "Oh yeah, 64 and 65 the March on Washington and then the Civil Rights act was passed. That was '64, and Boom!" And then, we say, "Well, wait a second. When was the Montgomery Bus Boycott Rosa Parks held and organized?" "Oh, that was in the 1950s?" "Wait when was CORE doing organizing?" "Oh, that was the 1940s?" And you realize that the Civil Rights movement, to get to the point of the March on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, was 20-30 years (and if you want to go back maybe 130 years) in the making, because it was a long-term strategy. Activism is immediate; I'm angry. I go out on the street. That's great; that doesn't change history. Activism in the service of an objective that are linked by strategy does change history, but that is a long process. Being able to think of not just your own life as an activist as a long process, but activism itself as a long process, is not only healthy, but it's what makes for effective social change.

KC Trommer:
I do think it goes back to not just thinking of yourself as--this is the problem of performative activism or, you know, showing up at the protest to be at the protest or doing it for the sake of being able to take a picture of yourself or to say that you were there or, you know, to contribute by being a warm body in the flow of humanity.

Stephen Duncombe:
If it stays at that level, it's about you, it's not about your comrades and it's not about changing history. And that is a movement that is very difficult for, I think, young activists, and I'd love to hear what Sophie has to say, to move from the personal; I'm angry. I'm upset. I'm guilty to using that anger in the service of some sort of more long-term plan. I guess my question is; when I was a young activist, it was about myself, my anger, my whatever that motivated me. But if it stays in that place, I'm not interested in long-term, I'm just interested in expressing what I feel at this moment. And I guess the question is, since you're closer to that place, how have you navigated that movement from "I'm in this because I feel" to "I'm in this because we need to do X, Y, and Z."

Sophie Jones:
Yeah, this is something that I've been thinking about a lot recently is this question of why I'm doing this. And I think it comes from a place of severe pessimism of I'm out here, but I'm also very pessimistic about any success that might come out of it. And I've gotten to this place of being really unable to see any sort of future, which is really hard to deal with. I was talking to another friend and they were like, "well, if you don't see any future, why are you out on the streets, you know?" And I was like, "well, because engaging in it feels better than engaging in the alternative, which is just abiding by the capitalist norms." I think through engaging in it, I've met so many people and have just become so inspired by the care that people have had for each other. And I think that's really, what's been keeping me going; is that if we can feel this way in such an intense moment and everything is so disheartening in the world, but we can find joy together through engaging in this process, there has to be some good that will come out of it. It might be short-term, and there might be small local successes, but through all of the successes, I think we're all finding a lot of joy. And even if, even if the success is just we were able to provide our comrades dinner tonight, maybe they wouldn't have access to it otherwise. Or we were able to provide a place for people to sleep. I think that's what's keeping me going, is to see those people connect in that way and see those people feel safe in that way when the world is just falling apart. I think that's what's been keeping me going.

Stephen Duncombe:
You know, the great theorist and activist Antonio Gramsci once said "To be a good activist, you need pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will in equal measure." What you just described, Sophie, is really about the pessimism of the intellect: I can't see a future. But the optimism of the will, of being with these other people and feeling the sense of joy and the joy that you're creating. And maybe one carries that duality with them throughout your entire experience as an activist. And one doesn't replace the other. It's the combination which makes you both a good critical thinker, but also a passionate activist.

KC Trommer:
Activism is only, in some ways, only as good as the people you can bring into the conversation who might reluctantly not want to engage. And, inasmuch as anybody could be ambivalent about this moment or not want to be engaged, what are your bids for invitations to those who are reticent to engage, even if they don't want to engage in a very public or overt way. How are you managing those invitations, if you are? You might not have the energy for that.

Sophie Jones:
It's hard. You know, I think a lot of people in my life aren't engaged and I've come to be okay with it. There are so many people who are wanting to engage and if you're hesitant or maybe not ready, or just haven't come to terms with that being the helpful thing for you to do, you probably won't be really helpful out on the ground. And maybe you're more helpful doing the things that you've spent your life doing. And that's also okay. I think to be an activist or to engage in activism, there has to be some sort of fire. You have to be ready to jump in. And of course, activism comes in so many different forms. It doesn't mean like you have to be out on the front lines. I think that's been really inspiring to see all the different forms it's taken over the past few months of people hosting teach-ins or people sitting at home on police scanners, or people just like going out and giving food to people in their community.

KC Trommer:
Engaging in the ways in which they can engage.  

Sophie Jones:
And I think any small sort of engagement will really draw somebody further into it. You give one person food, and next thing you know, you're out on the front lines of the protests. I was talking to somebody recently who is engaged in healing practices. And they were like, "I don't know how to get engaged in this moment." And I was like, "Well, that seems like something that would be really useful. I think a lot of people would really, really need right now." And I think that's something that the movement's lacking is accountability, processes and healing processes, and how to deal with conflict. And so, I think bringing in your own passions into the movement and using those towards furthering it is really important.

Stephen Duncombe:
That's nice. I think the invitation is key. I mean, if we're going to build a movement, we have to invite other people in. And I think, as Sophie pointed out, they can come in as who they are. I think the most important thing activists need to learn is: you need to meet people where they are not where you think they should be. And that is what kind of bothers me about the thing that's been part of activism for years and years and years, we just see it now more because of social media, but the virtue posturing. And the I'm-more-woke-than-you culture which is really about not bringing people in, but actually closing people out. And I think that to be an activist is to do exactly the opposite, which is to say, "I don't understand you. I actually don't know where you're coming from. Let me get to know you, let me try to figure out where you are and see what I can say." Act in a certain way that you feel comfortable with in order to draw you into my world. Part of being an activist is always trying to meet people where they are, understand who they are, and then trying to bring them in. If you're not doing that, you're not being serious about what you're doing. It's just about you and your posturing at that point.

Sophie Jones:
Steve, I think now might be a good time to drop your Lenin and the police quote.

Stephen Duncombe:
Oh yes. Back in the nineties, I was part of a group, Reclaim the Streets. We got infiltrated by so many police. At one time, we had two local police and two federal police as part of our group. And someone told me this, he said, Lenin, VI Lenin was once to asked, "Well, what do you do with police spies?" And his response was: "We put them to work!" So instead of getting too upset about these policemen we're like, "Hey, you got a car? Can you drive us to such and such?"

KC Trommer:
We know you have a car; we're paying for your car.

Stephen Duncombe:
Could you put on the lights? In any case, we never tried to recruit them because we figured it was impossible. And at a certain point, We outed them and said they had to leave. But you know, part of it was trying to, you know--

KC Trommer:

Once you got all your traffic tickets cleared. One question I want to see if there's something surprising, that's come out of COVID or out of the political upheaval. Just a surprising thing. I mean, for my part at the beginning of all the COVID, I just thought: at the end of this (which is, you know, there's no terminus that we know of) but I thought maybe everybody's really going to see how beautiful (this is the ridiculous optimist in me) I was like: maybe everyone is going to see how beautiful everyone else is when you're denied the ability to see and be with people. Maybe when we're finally able to be together, we can just behold each other. All this ugliness has ensued because we don't see each other really. That was my pandemic, early pandemic thought.

Stephen Duncombe:

It is a great leveler. American individualism is really one of the things which is destroying our society and destroying the natural world. And now it's been exported so it's not just American individualism, it's global individualism. The great thing about the pandemic is: oh, guess what? We're not individuals. We're all connected like it or not. And so I'm hoping some of that continues on after the pandemic, this understanding that I am connected to you and you are connected to me.

KC Trommer
Thank you for listening to Criss Cross: The NYU Gallatin Podcast. You can learn more about Steve and Sophie on our show page on the Gallatin website, our theme music is a sample of Thelonious Monk's Criss-Cross. Hannah Beal is our sound editor and we had assistance from Gallatin Communications Assistant Lau Guzmán. We're always looking for stories of collaboration at Gallatin. So if you have one to share, please email me, KC Trommer at kctrommer@nyu.edu or record and send me a voice memo to that same address. If you liked what you heard today, please spread the word and subscribe on Spotify or Apple podcasts or tune in on Gallatin site. Past conversations include talks with Gallatin faculty members Eugenia Kisin, Matt Stanley, George Shulman, Kwami Coleman, and their collaborators. Take good care.