“The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” James Baldwin, Nothing Personal
It’s the question community organizers, educators and authors Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba seek to answer in their new book about activism, Let This Radicalize You. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself! The exhaustion, isolation, anxiety and grief of the last few years have gotten to me, and some days, I just feel like curling up in a chair, shutting the world out and doing Wordle puzzles.
I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering: when the world is literally burning and flooding, when authoritarian leaders everywhere increase their hold on power, when wars of aggression continue to rage, when sexual violence remains rampant, when control of our body and sexuality is less assured than it was even a few years ago, how can we hang on to hope, and how do we continue the struggle?
Hayes is a member of The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and Kaba was born in New York City to African immigrant parents. Both have focused their activism on ending police violence, abolishing the prison-industrial complex, ending youth incarceration and transforming the US criminal justice system, while pushing for racial and gender justice. They have thought deeply about social movements, and have mentored and supported movement leaders through their writing, research, training and media work. In 2021, Kaba published We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, her groundbreaking book on the urgency of transforming the criminal justice system and abolishing police and prisons. They are radical in the best sense—in the sense of going back to the roots of problems and of solutions. They offer this latest book to activists as a tool to spur the imagination and move “beyond alarm, toward action.” In Kaba’s often quoted words, “let this radicalize you rather than lead you to despair.”
But how can we take action when we feel deep loss, especially after the years of pandemic? “Hope and grief can coexist,” Hayes and Kaba say. But first, we need to grieve, something we don’t typically allow ourselves to do. And we must do it together:
“There is a reason our collective grief has been suppressed with lies and political circus during this pandemic. It’s because there is power in solidarity and collective memorialization, and the powerful are afraid of that empathy and solidarity. This pandemic, like the horrors of the prison system, has demonstrated how harmful it is to human beings to be deprived of connection. We were already being starved of it by the cult of individualism.
The answer is more empathy and connection. The answer is to become an immovable force when we are together and a constellation of power and empathy when we are apart.”
In October 2020, as COVID raged, Hayes and other Chicago organizers planned a week of physically-distanced memorialization, where community members created art that they could post to social media and outside their homes across the city. Dozens of “We Grieve Together” banners—often bearing the names of those who had died—were hung in Chicago neighborhoods. A mixtape of activist speeches was recorded and distributed online, and played outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago, where COVID was killing those behind bars. Loved ones of the imprisoned joined the broadcasting in front of the prison, holding up a giant “We Love You” banner. Prisoners flickered the lights in their cells in response.
These actions, Hayes and Kaba write, offered communities the opportunity to reconnect in a frightening and isolating time, and “create a sense of political communion,” something essential to pushing back against oppression, authoritarianism and state violence. Building relationships, they argue, is critical to the life and action of social movements.
Kaba is well known for her statement that “Hope is a discipline,” as opposed to an indulgence. In Let This Radicalize You, Hayes and Kaba advocate for the practice of “Active Hope” developed by activists Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone:
“[Active Hope] is a process we can apply to any situation, and it involves three steps. First, we take a clear view of reality; second, we identify what we hope for in terms of the direction we’d like things to move in or the values we’d like to see expressed; and third, we take steps to move ourselves or our situation in that direction. Since Active Hope doesn’t require our optimism, we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless.”
Practicing active hope does not require us to minimize the problem, or to believe that everything will work out in the end, argue Hayes and Kaba. “We need only to decide who we are choosing to be and how we are choosing to function in relation to the outcome we desire, and abide by what those decisions demand of us. This practice of hope does not guarantee any victories against long odds, but it does make those victories more possible. Hope, therefore, is not only a source of comfort to the afflicted but also a strategic imperative.” These may be small steps, but they are deliberate steps.
The authors call for explicit “spaces for hope” in activist work: moments when the community or the group comes together to envision a different future, whether through dialogue, art, poetry, direct action or mutual aid. They give examples of these practices and spaces of hope, from the activists with No More Deaths who leave jugs of water in the Sonoran Desert to help Mexico-US cross-border migrants, to Palestinian American organizer Lea Kayali describing how joining a dabke folk dance troupe/reading circle reconnected her to her cultural traditions and “saved her life.” Are we all making space for grief and hope in our work as activists, or in our daily lives as committed citizens? I’m now thinking of proposing something intentional like that, even on a small scale, in gatherings with friends and colleagues: what is one thing you want to see changed in the next year? What is one step you will take to move towards that goal?
The book contains many other provocative ideas, like refusing to abandon those that our economic and legal systems have deemed disposable, such as incarcerated persons or the unhoused. The authors describe how these individuals create their own networks of support in prison or on the street, and find joy in unlikely moments. “Unfortunately, we are living in an era where refusing to abandon people can be a revolutionary act. It could also be the key to our collective survival.”
We cannot survive alone, despite the powerful forces that seek to divide us and make us suspicious of one another, assert Hayes and Kaba. Using the examples of the Twin Towers on 9/11, of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, and of COVID, the authors underscore how mutual aid, in times of crisis, is often the only help forthcoming: “Like an electrical current that reactivates a stopped heart, crisis can create a social defibrillation that re-enlivens our connectedness to other human beings and allows our compassion, imaginations, and political will to flow more freely.” I remember very clearly the way New Yorkers helped each other out of the Twin Towers on 9/11, with some folks actually carrying their colleagues in wheelchairs down multiple flights of stairs in the dark. It was spontaneous, beautiful, and deeply moving.
Amid the suffering and confusion of the early weeks of the COVID pandemic and the failure of the Trump Administration to respond, “we saw a side of humanity that is rarely featured in postapocalyptic films, which often depict an ‘every man for himself’ response to catastrophe. In the spring of 2020, an unprecedented number of people organized mutual aid efforts to help their neighbors survive… From delivering groceries and medicine to helping people access remote therapy after the loss of loved ones, people across the country devised ways to care for one another. Grassroots groups redistributed millions of dollars to people who were struggling. Empty refrigerators were stocked. Countless people in crisis were met with compassion and assistance. In a society where we are taught to fear each other, many were moved by the realization that we were and are each other’s best hope amid catastrophe.” Rather than distrust and fear our neighbors, or assume they were taking something from us, we extended help. Care is a powerful force that we can harness for change.
The kind, ordinary people in small boats who rescued the elderly and animals stranded by Russia’s recent destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine exemplify that commitment. We can and must refuse to abandon.
Hayes and Kaba also take us through a thought-provoking discussion about the question of “violence” in progressive social movements: the fact that these movements are instantly attacked and discredited if there is destruction of property during protests, even as the repressive apparatus of the state exerts often extreme violence with impunity against these very protesters and marginalized communities. Not an easy question for organizers to think through! Hayes and Kaba are explicitly committed to non-violence, but they find that commitment is not protective in a context of growing state violence. Drawing from the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, they analyze what exactly is meant when social movements are labeled as violent:
“Popular definitions of violence tend to include property destruction. But under these definitions, the destruction of property is usually viewed as violent only if it disrupts profit or the maintenance of wealth. If food is destroyed because it cannot be sold while people go hungry, that is not considered violent under the norms of capitalism. If a person’s belongings are tossed on a sidewalk during an eviction and consequently destroyed, that is likewise not considered violent according to the norms of this society. Those destructive acts are part of the ‘order of things.’”
“If your tactics disrupt the order of things under capitalism, you may well be accused of violence, because ‘violence’ is an elastic term often deploy to vilify people who threaten the status quo. Conditions that the state characterizes as ‘peaceful’ are, in reality, quite violent. Even as people experience the violence of poverty, the torture of imprisonment, the brutality of policing, the denial of health care, and many other violent functions of this system, we are told we are experiencing peace, so long as everyone is cooperating. When state actors refer to ‘peace,’ they are actually talking about order. And when they refer to ‘peaceful protest,’ they are talking about cooperative protest that obediently stays within the lines drawn by the state. The more uncooperative you are, the more you will be accused of aggression and violence.”
The authors add, “The violence of the state in response to protest is rarely scrutinized to the degree that [progressive] protesters are scrutinized. The idea that if you are defiant in the face of authority you should expect to incur its wrath is firmly entrenched in our culture. When people who defy police are abused, we often hear people ask, ‘What did they think was going to happen?’… Protesters are expected to absorb violence but never inflict it—to function as shock absorbers to be acted upon, whose sympathetic value is nullified by any deviation from that standard. This expectation briefly wavered during the height of the George Floyd protests, striking fear into the hearts of public officials, but largely restabilized over time.”
How did state authorities “restabilize” the order of things? Since 2021, Republican lawmakers in at least 34 US states have put forward broad anti-protest bills. These bills would increase penalties for tearing down monuments, blocking sidewalks, and writing or drawing on someone’s property—all common, nonviolent protest tactics. Florida’s so-called anti-riot law, adopted in 2021, would even criminalize anyone’s presence at a protest that turns violent, whether or not that person participated in the violence. It would deny bail to anyone arrested during such a protest before their first court appearance, leaving them in jail for long periods of time; and provide a defense to motorists who strike protesters with cars—an anti-protest tactic that has become a right-wing meme on social media. Florida’s law is currently suspended while it is being challenged in court by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, among others, but it's part of a growing trend.
Hayes and Kaba outline several other examples of growing state violence against peaceful protest and direct action from around the world, such as militarized attacks on environmental activists and Indigenous-led efforts to protect land and water, the criminalization of those who save drowning migrants in the Mediterranean or the incarceration of those who write poetry in support of Palestinian liberation. To those I’d add recent laws that ramp up the state surveillance of protests in France or ban protests considered “static or noisy” (what demonstration isn’t?) in the UK.
Hayes and Kaba nevertheless urge activists to resist co-optation however they can. “If you choose to disrupt these systems, passively, destructively, or by way of extending mutual aid, the concept of violence may be stretched and manipulated by the powerful to encompass your work. That is why we must not allow the frameworks of the powerful to define the bounds of morality in our politics and action.” As historian and scholar of authoritarianism Timothy Snyder advised in 2016, when Trump was coming to power, “Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism.’ Be alive to the fatal notions of ‘exception’ and ‘emergency.’”
Hayes and Kaba are also aware of the struggles inside progressive social movements. They have words of wisdom for leaders of these movements. Do not let yourself be “pedestaled,” they write, because “a movement structure that relies too heavily on hyped-up individuals is highly vulnerable” to co-optation, discreditation and destruction. “It is dehumanizing to pedestal people, for a number of reasons. It erases the wholeness of their being, papering over the truth of their life, work, and beliefs with fantasy and adulation. It also sets people up to be dismissed or widely condemned when they are inevitably wrong about something, because those moments will always come, for all of us. No one’s politics are infallible, and we all have terrible days when we say or do the wrong thing, even if we believe the right things. The idealization of individual leaders can also encourage us to embrace ideas that are harmful or to excuse behavior that should be challenged.”
The authors warn us against a very common phenomenon in social movements: the sudden elevation of one or the other group of leaders, whether youth, women, Black or Indigenous people. “People who are understandably impatient for large-scale change often want to believe that there’s a shortcut: that one group, movement, or demographic is the truth and the way and that merely cheering on that contingent will spur a revolution. This places undue pressure on whatever group or demographic is being fetishized as a savior troupe. While there are moments when it makes sense for us to take leadership from particular groups, particularly when the struggle at hand centers on their lives, land, or water, there is no one group—and certainly no one person—who can defeat capitalism, end imperialism, or bring down white supremacy alone. Attaching oneself to such fantasies may feel like solidarity to some, but in reality it is dehumanizing, nonstrategic, and an abdication of one’s responsibility to forge struggle.”
They also urge leaders to “respect their season,” to know when they need to withdraw and rest, even though our society frowns upon slowing down and being “unproductive.” They also advise leaders to be alert to the possibility that a project or an organization has run its course, although that may be seen as a mark of failure: “it can be helpful to think of the groups… we create as having life cycles.” They go on to say “letting go can be a beautiful thing. Honoring what a group or project has accomplished and what it has meant to us while preserving its history and, most importantly, carrying its lessons forward, can be an emotional process, but not everything in organizing is about fighting tooth and nail… The end of one project can mean the beginning of new dreams and schemes about how to remake the world.” This gave me much to think about, as I reflected on the projects and organizations I let go of over the years, willingly or not, and the new endeavors I joined as a result.
If you’re an activist or want to be one, if you’re engaged in social justice work in some form or another or are concerned about our future, if you feel despair at the state of our world, let yourself be educated and inspired by this hard-hitting yet compassionate book.
In radical and hopeful solidarity,