Culture

Phillip Agnew, Co-Founder Of The Dream Defenders, On The Power Of Protest

“I asked Harry Belafonte, I said ‘Give me the blueprint’,” says Talib Kweli in the latest episode of his UPROXX show People’s Party, recalling a conversation he had with the legendary musician about the modern protest movement. “I don’t remember the exact question I asked him but he was like, ‘Look, I’m in my 80s, you need to go holler at Phil Agnew.'”

So began a fast friendship between two passionate organizers and activists — with Kweli deeply involved in the protests in Ferguson and Agnew busy launching The Dream Defenders in southern Florida. Fast forward a half-decade, and Agnew has stepped away from the organization he helped create and is now serving as a National Surrogate for Bernie Sanders, while also running Miami’s Smoke Signals Studio with his partner, the poet Aja Monet. Still, his connection to community organizing, protest movements, and activism remain as strong as ever.

In this episode of People’s Party, Agnew, Kweli, and co-host Jasmin Leigh discussed their shared reverence for the work done by the Occupy movement and the power of activism to create meaningful change. Seeking to dive deeper into that aspect of the conversation, I called Phil to talk about how to measure success in activism and where he draws inspiration and hope.

One thing that I’ve been trying to talk about in recent years, something that you really keyed on in your episode of our show, is the power of protest to change the world. I think you have a very keen insight into that. Where did that understanding — that protest can make a huge impact — start for you?

I think… being a part of them. On some level there’s my childhood — growing up in church, growing up seeing and being a part of a number of youth groups, et cetera, including, NAACP — and watching how those movements were able to move and shift the terrain. That’s one piece. But it was cemented in college, being a part of a movement at this time called Justice for Martin Lee Anderson, this young man who was murdered at a boot camp in 2006.

Being a part of that experience — and seeing hundreds of thousands of college kids coming out demanding justice for this young man in the face of a governor who wasn’t even in his office during much of that period — we started to sit-in at the office. It was clear that they weren’t going to do anything, but we were able to make some things happen. So my personal experience over and over with being a part of protests, being a part of organized, strategic social movements is what really makes me super confident in it.

You mentioned on the show that you saw Occupy, you saw that movements were kind of getting mainstream attention. I guess one of the questions that I always get when I write about the power of protest is people say, “Well it didn’t lead to legislation within five months!” or something. And I think one of the things that I try to help people wrap their heads around is no, this is part of a bigger system that does absolutely lead to, first, a mental shift and then a more measurable shift.

First of all, I don’t think legislation is the measure of success for social movements. If they were … I’m not going to even go there. It’s not the measure of success —

It is one measure of success, but in a lot of ways what social movements do is educate people for generations to come. So you’re educating people and giving them a clear analysis of the current conditions, the context of how we got there. You’re showing people the power of coming together, which is really a seismic shift in the US where people are now more individual than ever. You are shifting the cultural and narrative conversation of a country. And you can’t deny that what social movements have been able to do as far as changing the language, the tone, the tenor, the perspective of a number of issues that we are facing, how that results in pretty much the entirety of the more popular wings of the Democratic primary right now. They’re all responding to what social movements have done.

One thing that I say is that legislation and policy never change culture. Culture changes policy. And so we had a number of laws that have passed including voting rights, Civil Rights Act, 13th Amendments, et cetera, that have been passed that have been incredibly powerful and changed people’s lives, but in a lot of ways didn’t change the culture of our country. And so for me, I look at social movements as those essential elements that move the country forward and then the legislation follows. And it would be foolish in many times to think that the legislature would happen within five months of anything.

It takes years, but that’s the generational shift that you see through social movements.

In my perception, and I’m just perceiving things and could be wrong, it feels like the history of many black-led social movements in the United States comes with a lot of white discomfort, right? That the very notion of black power has historically created a lot of white discomfort. Do you feel like the past 10 years that your work with the Dream Defenders and Kweli’s work in Ferguson, et cetera, that there has been a wing of white America who has been able to grapple with the ugly history of white America while still … I don’t know, while still feeling like they’re an engaged part of the movement?

I have an answer, but I don’t want to go on and on. I think the notion of black power in this country has always struck at the core of what was this country was all about. And this country has always been about white supremacy and the dominance of white people, specifically white men in this country, and so every time the notion of black power comes up, it scares a lot of people. I think, one, because uproots, as I said, essential tenant of what this country was founded on.

Two, because what comes with a white supremacist doctrine is the notion of scarcity. And so this fear that if another group, especially a group of people who were never supposed to have or be entitled to what this country is about, begins to rise up that begins to feel like they’re going to take something from another group, specifically white men, white people. And so there’s fear that comes up there. And then the third is I think there is a fear that the white supremacist scarcity ideology is a very brutal, and very mean and very oppressive ideology. And there’s a fear that should another “group of people” “rise up” and kind of seek humanity and dignity that we will, in turn, treat white people in the way that they have treated black folks and poor people in this country since it was founded.

And I mean that just very generally, not specifically, I’m sure you know that.

Yes.

So I think those fears are all wound up in this feeling that their world, white supremacists’ world, is going to be uprooted to a deep, deep in an irreversible way. And it is. The world is shifting and the world is changing. And maybe to more directly answer your question, I don’t know that this generation of white folks are anymore race-conscious or privilege-conscious than previous generations.

What I do know is that with the internet, with social media, et cetera, it is harder for this generation to feign ignorance than previous generations. And so it’s harder for a white person in this country to say that they had no idea about police brutality, no idea of how the plight of domestic workers, or human trafficking. It’s just way harder for people to feign ignorance and so I do think there’s a dam that is breaking. I don’t know if it’s happening faster than previous generations, but I do know that it feels a lot harder to hide behind ignorance.

So as we step into this new era that you’re describing, we’re also seeing — in Charlottesville and in all of Trumpism — the fear that it creates in so many people who have a vested interest in white supremacy. But, and again these are my perceptions as a white man, it also feels like we’ve seen the seeds of hope in some ways. When you’re out on the front lines, when you’re part of protest movements, when you’re advocating for Bernie Sanders as a national surrogate, are you seeing whether it’s generationally, whether it can be defined along political lines, whether it can be defined along whatever lines you’re seeing it defined along — Are you seeing a lot of good cause for hope for the future?

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

So if you look internationally, whether it be Chile, or Haiti, or Bolivia, there have been people who are rising up in a way that we haven’t seen in generations. It’s happened before, but we’re reaching a point similar in my opinion, to other times in history, the anti-colonial movements in Africa of the ’50s and ’60s, South America, where there is an international level of solidarity that gives anybody who’s in the movement reason for hope because we’re now starting to break down this belief that each of our nations are independent of one another, that a domestic victory here is sufficient. And so I’m seeing a lot of hope in the connection between folks internationally and the work that is happening between Palestine and the US, et cetera.

So there’s a lot of cause for hope there. At the risk of sounding too excited about electoral politics, I think the fact that we have on the American Presidential stage a candidate who talks proudly about being a democratic socialist, which — socialism has been banished from the American lexicon since McCarthy — and for that to be on the stage is an encouraging signal and sign for him to even bring up the Palestinian people is an encouraging sign of what possibilities there are even in the electoral realm.

And then lastly I would say if you’re an organizer, people are winning incredible statewide victories and citywide victories, not just running for office, but changing policies on their citywide levels. There are things that happened in Atlanta, there are things that happened in the Bay area and there are even things that have happened in New York and some of these other cities where there’s been incredible progress. So there’s a lot of hope and a lot of it can be seen internationally, nationally, and locally.

In light of that — “the case for optimism,” as it were — if a young person comes up to you and … I’m sure you could answer this question a variety of ways, whether it was a trans person, a white male, a black woman, et cetera, et cetera. We could go through every answer and I don’t want to make you do all of that, but let’s just start with the fact that they’re young. If a 19, 20-year-old comes up to you and says, “I want to be part of building a better world. I want to be part of changing our country. I believe these core tenets that you have espoused throughout your career,” where do you point them? What do you say to them? How do you tell them to get involved?

I would ask them where they live and I would ask them to look for an organization that was doing work in the community. For me, it has to be local. People are always looking for a national, or a saviors, or figureheads, or celebrities, or now celebrities and influencers. But I would immediately point them to finding a local organization and try to help them because those are the people who are going to do the work and be there beyond the cameras, et cetera.

I would also ask them what they’re reading and give them Assata: An Autobiography. I would recommend they read up on the Black Panthers and help pick any number of texts for them — because I think the reading is such a big part of them deciding not only what organization they want to join, but whether that organization is actually living up to their values.

That’s where I’d say to start. I’m assuming already very literally that if they’re coming to me and wanting to join me that I don’t have to preach to the choir and inspire them, they’ve already been inspired by something in the world. And so for me, it’s “join an organization” or start an organization. Because I think organizations are the only vehicle for the deep level of transformation that we need.

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