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By Every Means Necessary: Southern Progressives Are Shaking Up Politics

When you live in the rural South, your story rarely makes the news, but Southern activists are shaking things up, with their votes, and their broadband transmitter too.

This week, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson and Rev. Allyn Maxfield-Steele the co-directors of the revered civil rights school, the Highlander Center, talk about blue waves, black women and broadband. And we revisit Detroit, where residents denied affordable internet meshed servers to serve their neighbors, one rooftop at a time.

 

 


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Ash-Lee:    Yeah, and to be quite frank, the idea of the blue wave, right, it’s like we’re not just trying to build up a Democratic party, what we’re trying to do is build independent political power for our folks.

 

Laura Flanders:    Now was that just you?

 

Ash-Lee:    No, I think that’s the movement for black lives, I think that’s the Southern Movement Assembly, right, we have a whole tier of our work around building participatory democracy and movement governance. And so I think all of that is harm reduction. I think most of us are not confused that the state never has done a whole hell of a lot for us. I think what we are sure of is that we can’t afford to throw away tactics, right? When me elders and ancestors said by any means necessary, they meant by all the means.

 

Laura Flanders:    Right.

 

Ash-Lee:    Right? Everything in my tactical toolbox, because the state, the white right, those folks are using every tactic that they’ve got, right? So we’ve got to meet sophistication with sophistication as Willy Baptiste says. And I think that that means that we have to have like an electoral justice project, or the movement for black lives, it’s got fellows all over the south and all over the country that are winning campaigns, it means that we’re beating down the doors, and like doing the harm reduction work in progressive policy land. But it also means building alternatives to the thing that’s harming us.

 

Laura Flanders:    So to go back to the history for a little bit, the 1930s when the Highlander Center was started, I think there has … we have seen a real change in how we understand the struggle. And if you go back to that period, it felt like it was a very broad agenda. When you talk about building an independent movement, it was also a broad building a new south. Not just maybe passing a few laws or getting a few people elected. And yet that seems to be so often what we’ve been sort of shrunk back down to, people on the left, or with the critique of the right.

 

Laura Flanders:    Where do you stand now about where the lines of struggle are, and particularly on economics? I mean in the 1930s there was an economic agenda change in mind that has been kind of studiously propaganda’d out of our … out of our thinking.

 

Allyn:    I think that’s real. Yeah, I think when we started, it was about transforming the social leaning economic order. And that’s the same thing we’re doing now, whatever we’re inheriting. I think that when you get into the question of what the role of Highlander has been has been to help people develop different kind of relationships, and different kind of arrangements so that we could replicate the democratic practice that we’re … lower case D democratic practice that we’re in in this particular space toward … what it means to build a different kind of state, or what it means to build a different kind of society.

 

Allyn:    So I think that where the things are … kind of to your question around like what’s the line-

 

Laura Flanders:    I’m just thinking like the 30s, the Highlander Center had people from the communist party, had socialists-

 

Allyn:    Sure.

 

Laura Flanders:    Had organized parties of the left that have been studiously wiped out, were wiped out in the decades since, and the ideas-

 

Allyn:    That’s a good question.

 

Laura Flanders:    Of transformation have been radically changed in that period, too.

Ash-Lee:    Yeah, and to be quite frank, the idea of the blue wave, right, it’s like we’re not just trying to build up a Democratic party, what we’re trying to do is build independent political power for our folks.

Laura Flanders:    Now was that just you?

 

Ash-Lee:    No, I think that’s the movement for black lives, I think that’s the Southern Movement Assembly, right, we have a whole tier of our work around building participatory democracy and movement governance. And so I think all of that is harm reduction. I think most of us are not confused that the state never has done a whole hell of a lot for us. I think what we are sure of is that we can’t afford to throw away tactics, right? When me elders and ancestors said by any means necessary, they meant by all the means.

 

Laura Flanders:    Right.

 

Ash-Lee:    Right? Everything in my tactical toolbox, because the state, the white right, those folks are using every tactic that they’ve got, right? So we’ve got to meet sophistication with sophistication as Willy Baptiste says. And I think that that means that we have to have like an electoral justice project, or the movement for black lives, it’s got fellows all over the south and all over the country that are winning campaigns, it means that we’re beating down the doors, and like doing the harm reduction work in progressive policy land. But it also means building alternatives to the thing that’s harming us.

 

Laura Flanders:    So to go back to the history for a little bit, the 1930s when the Highlander Center was started, I think there has … we have seen a real change in how we understand the struggle. And if you go back to that period, it felt like it was a very broad agenda. When you talk about building an independent movement, it was also a broad building a new south. Not just maybe passing a few laws or getting a few people elected. And yet that seems to be so often what we’ve been sort of shrunk back down to, people on the left, or with the critique of the right.

 

Laura Flanders:    Where do you stand now about where the lines of struggle are, and particularly on economics? I mean in the 1930s there was an economic agenda change in mind that has been kind of studiously propaganda’d out of our … out of our thinking.

 

Allyn:    I think that’s real. Yeah, I think when we started, it was about transforming the social leaning economic order. And that’s the same thing we’re doing now, whatever we’re inheriting. I think that when you get into the question of what the role of Highlander has been has been to help people develop different kind of relationships, and different kind of arrangements so that we could replicate the democratic practice that we’re … lower case D democratic practice that we’re in in this particular space toward … what it means to build a different kind of state, or what it means to build a different kind of society.

 

Allyn:    So I think that where the things are … kind of to your question around like what’s the line-

 

Laura Flanders:    I’m just thinking like the 30s, the Highlander Center had people from the communist party, had socialists-

 

Allyn:    Sure.

 

Laura Flanders:    Had organized parties of the left that have been studiously wiped out, were wiped out in the decades since, and the ideas-

 

Laura Flanders:    Of transformation have been radically changed in that period, too.

 

Ash-Lee:    Yeah, I mean I think … I feel excited about this conversation because I think it’s an opportunity to highlight some good stuff that I’ve been saying. So for example, the West Virginia teacher’s strike. Right. So people would’ve said that that was impossible.

 

Laura Flanders:    Correct.

 

Ash-Lee:    They definitely would’ve said a wildcat strike is.

 

Laura Flanders:    For sure.

 

Ash-Lee:    Right, for sure. And they would’ve said that West Virginia’s Trump country. Those people vote against their best interests, they … believe the myth that Trump is going to bring coal back, their understanding of the economy is super backward, it’s a monopoly, yada, yada, right?

 

Laura Flanders:    They’re all white people, don’t forget that part.

 

Ash-Lee:    They’re all straight white people at that.

 

Allyn:    Yep, only straight white people.

 

Ash-Lee:    And yeah, and so like look at what happened, right? And I think that what’s beautiful isn’t just that like these teachers said, “Enough.”

 

Laura Flanders:    In a non-union state.

 

Ash-Lee:    In a right to work state, their young people supported, the families of those young people supported, the community supported. But then when the union sold out, if that’s the narrative of what happened, they were like, “Oh no, that’s not what we said we wanted,” and they continue to strike.

 

Laura Flanders:    Right, we didn’t just want a bit for us.

 

Ash-Lee:    Right. We’re talking about the whole economic infrastructure.

 

Laura Flanders:    Wages for the whole public infrastructure.

Ash-Lee:    Right? And so I think that shows us a couple of things. One is it tells us that everything that they’re telling us about Appalachia, particularly West Virginia under a microscope is not true. Secondly what it tells me is that like the conversations that I heard, especially from the young people that were getting involved in the strike, wasn’t just like, “Oh, I love the Democratic party,” or, “I love Democratic Socialism,” quite frankly. It was, “My granddad was a UMW member, and I remember him going out on strike, and that’s my legacy.”

 

So even if they don’t understand everything, all the details of like why capitalism is terrible, why like these other economic alternatives are more possible and better for them, what they know is that they’re connected to a radical legacy of resistance that they’re … like what Allyn said, they’re literally remembering what’s been stolen from them.

 

And so I think that that’s why like black people that were disengaged and like … not apathetic, but … not hopeful about electoral work working, because quite frankly, it didn’t. It worked exactly like it’s supposed to, to keep them disenfranchised. They were like, “I believe Stacey, and like my grandmamma like waiting in line for four hours, like who am I to complain?”

Laura Flanders:    Right.

Ash-Lee:    There’s like a literal remembering that’s happening with a new generation of the stewards of the Southern Freedom Movement, and we’re seeing that rise.

 

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