Interview: Chris Crass

Chris Crass is a longtime organizer, educator, and writer working to build powerful working class-based, feminist, multiracial movements for collective liberation.  He gives talks and leads workshops on campuses and with communities and congregations around the U.S. and Canada, to help support grassroots activists efforts. He balances family with his public political work and believes they are deeply interconnected, as both are about working to bring our vision and values into the world.

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Throughout the 1990s he was an organizer with Food Not Bombs, an economic justice anti-poverty group and network; with them he helped build up the direct action-based anti-capitalist Left internationally.  Building on the successes and challenges of the mass direct action convergences of the global justice movement, most notably in Seattle against the WTO in 1999, he helped launch the Catalyst Project with the support of movement elders and mentors Sharon Martinas, Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.  Catalyst Project combines political education and organizing to develop and support anti-racist politics, leadership, and organizing in white communities and builds dynamic multiracial alliances locally and nationally.

In 2000 he was a co-founder of the Colours of Resistance network, which served as a think tank and clearinghouse of anti-racist feminist analysis and tools for activists in the U.S. and Canada.  After Sept. 11th, 2001, he helped to found the Heads Up Collective which brought together a cadre of white anti-racist organizers to build up the multiracial Left in the San Francisco, Bay Area through alliances between the majority white anti-war movement and locally-based economic and racial justice struggles in communities of color.  He was also a member of the Against Patriarchy Men’s Group that supported men in developing their feminist analysis and their feminist leadership.

He graduated from San Francisco State University in Race, Class, Gender and Power Studies.  Originally from California, he currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his partner Jardana Peacock and their son, River.  He is a Unitarian Universalist and works with faith-based communities to help build up the spiritual Left.  You can find his website here.

 

What experiences did you have that turned you toward organizing?

Growing up, I saw my parents involved in a range of organizations and community efforts. My mom for example joined the PTA of my elementary school when I was kid, in part because my brother and I had learning disabilities and at that time most teachers didn’t know much about learning disabilities and instead of seeing that I needed special help, I was tracked into the slow learners who got less attention and less was expected of them.

So when my 2nd grade teacher told my mom that I likely would never be a good reader, my mom was pissed and she joined the PTA to help make a change in the school. She didn’t want to just get me a tutor or deal with me and my brother’s individual learning, she wanted to the school to be able to serve all the kids with learning disabilities. My dad was also involved in local city government and talked to me about the importance of well funded and resourced parks and recreational facilities in working class communities, like the community he and his brother grew up in.

I wasn’t a red diaper baby, but I was the kid of Kennedy Democrat parents who believed Gandhi, Dr. King, and Cesar Chavez were heroes and that we need to get involved in our communities to improve them. These experiences planted the seeds.

Becoming best friends with an anarchist, listening to political punk rock and working at a local food pantry for working class and poor families were the water that helped those seeds bloom. Mike Rejniak was a 16 year old working class anarchist punk who rocked my world. “There will never be peace as long as there are ruling classes who profit from war,” he said one day in our drama class. We became best friends immediately and started up an anarchist group, began recruiting others, organizing demonstrations against the Gulf War in 1991 and the Rodney King verdict, we affiliated with the national Love and Rage Anarchist Network and set out to make anarchism and left politics the coolest thing at our high school and with young people in the larger area. Punk rock was our soundtrack.

Working at the local food pantry helped turn me towards organizing in a few ways. I first went there because a girl in high school I had a crush on invited me to go with her. And I kept going, for a couple of years. I was reading about anarchist and socialist working class organizing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, I was reading the Communist Manifesto and Emma Goldman’s Living My Life, I was going to large scale anti-war demonstrations and reading about activism in newspapers like Love and Rage, Profane Existence and the Blast, and the food pantry became a weekly routine where I wasn’t just abstractly learning about capitalism and it’s racialized and gendered dimensions, but I was experiencing it as I packed bags of groceries for working class women, mostly of color, to pick up for their families, and where I was making sandwiches for bag lunches for homeless men. I had class anger, and rage and my heart broke over and over again. Our anarchist group started organizing two, three dozen kids from our community to come help out at the food pantry before holidays. It was always the anarchists and the Boy Scouts that would turn out young people. Out of that crew we started up a local Food Not Bombs as we were building up a community of people who believed we needed left anti-capitalist organizations, campaigns, collective mass actions, community counter-institutions, and a fighting movement that was rooted in working class communities, anti-racist, feminist, internationalist and that it needed to be the coolest thing everyone wanted to be part of.

 

Who would you consider your social justice heroes and why?

My initial heroes were the Chicago anarchist leaders of the labor movement in the 1880s who were organizing tens of thousands of working people and families into a militant labor movement that fought the bosses, dreamed of a democratic commonwealth, and united revolutionary aspirations with reform oriented struggles for the 8 hour work day, the right to form a union, and better pay. These were people like Lucy and Albert Parsons, and August Spies. In addition to picket lines, strikes, and mass rallies, they also organized ice cream socials for families and kids, socialist ballroom dances, athletic and social clubs. I was inspired by the culture of solidarity, the vision of socialist and free society, and the strategy of counter-hegemonic reform fights (meaning they not only demanded an 8 hour day, but challenged the legitimacy of economic inequality and capitalism as a whole).

Later, after years of activism, with lots of questions about how to build effective movements, I started reading about the Southern Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. While there is a lot to learn from and be inspired by, I was particularly attracted to a cadre of organizers who developed a kind of Southern populist socialist orientation and profoundly influenced the movement. People like Ella Baker, Anne and Carl Braden, Myles and Zilphia Horton, and Septima Clark. They had a non-dogmatic, broad socialist vision of what kind of society we’re working towards, a class analysis of how power is organized, and a deeply democratic belief in the capacity of everyday people to make sense of complex reality, take courageous action, and ultimately govern society (not in a vision of everyday people running congress, but more in everyday people taking over local, regional and ultimately national positions of power in ever facet of society, and simultaneously transforming how power is organized, overall, away from authoritarian hierarchical models, towards egalitarian forms of governing and running society).

They operated from really inspiring, based in experience, ideas about how education, activism, culture, and change all worked together. They believed in the need for conscious leaders and organizers to help build up organizations, campaigns, and educational programs, but that everyday people could be their own leaders and that together we build people powered movements rooted in communities, that can change society. They believed in the importance of multi-pronged strategy that included legal, legislative, reform change, but emphasized the necessity of mass direct action, community empowerment through organizing, and that our goals must include building up democratic grassroots power so that we don’t just change a law or policy, but we shift power in a way that helps working class communities fight for more after this particular struggle has been won.

This tradition of Southern organizing continues today and it’s one of the reasons I love living in the South.

 

What gives you hope for the future?

We live in times where, like in Lord of the Rings, where it seems like Mordor and the forces of evil are about to eliminate all hope and burn the world down. We face the fossil fuel capitalist economy-based crisis of climate chaos/change, the fast track of overall ecological destruction that an economic order that turns everything and everyone into a commodity to either be extracted or used up, the crisis of global economic inequality that subjects millions to premature death and permanent debt, and the spiritual crisis of our society in the U.S. in the face of all of this. But we are also in the courageous times that Samwise Gamgee reminds us and Frodo about, that even in dark times when it seemed all hope was lost, there was still some good in the world and it’s worth fighting for.

 

I have a lot of hope for the future. One of my spiritual practices is to regularly call forward the memory of past movements, of past movement ancestors and imagine moments when they felt overwhelmed, scared, hopeless, and call forward their courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I sit in gratitude for the legacies, traditions, victories, mistakes, and lessons we have today because of their efforts. A spiritual connection to these histories helps guide me and ground me. That said, there are powerful efforts all around us that give me hope.  I’m just going to lift up a few.

There are more out LGBTQ people in the world today then any other time in history and the influence of queer liberation is helping shift thinking on family, community, sexuality, gender, culture and politics around the world.

There are more men influenced by feminism, womanism, and women’s liberation then at any other point in history. While in no way am I saying that the violence of misogyny and structural inequality of patriarchy are crumbling, I do believe that there are millions of men around the world who embrace, consciously or not, aspects of feminist values, promote them and practice them. For example, as a dad, I feel the impact of feminism all the time. Feminism has called on dads to me much more involved in the emotional lives of their kids and in the reproductive labor of the family. Every time I kiss my son and tell him how much I love him, I thank feminism for helping make space for men to be emotionally alive.

With both of these, advances in queer and feminist liberation, I’m not saying the days of heteropatriarchy are numbered (at least not yet), but that tremendous gains have been made, and that we have much more to build on today, as a result. It is vital that we hold on to, regularly claim and name past victories and gains. Far too often on the left, we seize victory and put it into the jaws of defeat, focusing almost exclusively on what wasn’t won, forget what was won. Perfectionism is poison that sets us up to always feel like failures. We have to be sophisticated and see the positives as well as the negatives, the gains and the setbacks.

The economic justice struggles around the world are inspiring and here in the U.S. the organizing to raise the minimum wage is hopeful. There are more and more statewide struggles to win universal health care, modeled after the successful efforts of the Vermont Workers Center, who won universal health care a few years ago. Following the Vermont victory, efforts in Maine, Pennsylvania, Maryland and elsewhere are leveraging resources in the cities to help build statewide organizations that can help support and unite leaders and activists from rural areas, small towns, suburbs and cities. Furthermore, these campaigns are helping unite people across structural divisions of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and citizenship, to fight for shared goals. This is also happening with the National Domestic Worker Alliance and their allies like Hand in Hand which is organizing employers of domestic workers. This has led to successful statewide organizing to win Domestic Worker Bill of Rights legislation in New York, California, Hawaii, and most recently in Massachusetts.

I think these kinds of economic-based statewide struggles have the potential of generating a culture of solidarity that recognizes differences between people, particularly those based on historical and structural inequality, but is also able to transcend “difference as division” and create a “rainbow of humanity” with shared goals and aspirations for justice, dignity for all people, and respect for the earth.

But it’s not just struggles based in economic issues alone that is doing this. One of the other great sources of hope for me is the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina that is building a similar culture of solidarity that still recognizes the structural and historical divisions and has created a powerful shared agenda for education, reproductive rights, health care, living wage, and LGBTQ freedom. Moral Mondays came out of a longstanding coalition of community, faith-based and labor groups led by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. It has grown over the years into a mass movement, with over 1000 people having committed civil disobedience, regular demonstrations of thousands of people calling for this broad-based set of demands, and in February of this year, there was a Mass Moral Monday march with over 75,000 people, the largest demonstration in the South since the 1960s.

On a more personal level I have hope in the beloved community of my family, friends and comrades and from my Unitarian Universalist faith tradition and movement.

 

What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social justice in the future?

The U.S. left has a strong aversion to power. Many of us see power as something to avoid, something that always corrupts, something that we must always be in opposition to. I think we need to be moving towards a flexible and experimental approach to winning, creating, and exercising power to help govern our communities, families, workplaces, schools and overall society to help achieve a Left agenda of racial, gender, economic, disability, immigrant, environmental and social justice.

I know that there are many reasons, historically and today, for the general aversion or outright denunciation of power, but I think it is one of the most significant obstacles to social justice that we face, and that we also have a high level of influence over (as oppose to say, the obstacle of the ruling logic of neoliberalism and the state as maintainer and defender of ruling class interests). I am influenced by both the Chicago anarchism of the 8 hour day movement in the 1880s and the Southern populist socialist tradition of the 1950s and 60s that I discussed previously. So when I think of power, I think about it in terms of struggling to both exercise existing power to achieve left goals and creating democratic grassroots power, simultaneously.

For example, in Jackson, Mississippi, the recent successful effort to elect a radical Black activist, Chokwe Lumumba to Mayor. The local movement didn’t just focus on getting him elected, his campaign for office came out of community organizing that created people’s assemblies where a plan for Jackson was developed. This plan included a vision of new cooperative economic institutions, and when Lumumba was elected mayor, victory also meant moving forward on worker cooperatives and other community-based efforts. This exciting and powerful experiment, in the largest city in Mississippi, has tragically been set back with Lumumba’s passing, in his first year in office.

In addition to electoral efforts, I think it’s vital that people on the Left occupy leadership positions (formal and informal) throughout our communities, schools, places of worship and society. It’s inspiring hearing about experiences of friends who are teachers or have served in leadership positions at their kids schools, friends building successful worker cooperatives, who are ministers or lay leaders of churches, or are playing important roles in the fast food worker organizing efforts and in the Moral Monday movement. The key, I believe, is that people need to take on those roles and positions with an understanding that what they are doing is part of a larger movement effort. An understanding that we are part of a larger team of people working for structural change and that we can only do it, by many of us working together, through many different avenues.

I know there are great risks, challenges, and difficulties with both exercising existing power and creating new liberatory power, but we need to greatly expand our sense of what is politically possible, and organize with the goal of making what’s currently politically, economically, and culturally impossible, possible. People’s power and grassroots movements are what makes liberatory change possible.

In addition to challenges of power, we also need to continue to develop and experiment with successful ways to organize as united people in ways that address, challenge, and transcend divisions of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, citizenship and unequal structural power. In the past 10-15 years, there have been some significant advances in the movement that have helped make awareness and consciousness about privilege, oppression and power much more wide spread. There are real strengths to what is often under the umbrella of anti-oppression politics. And anti-oppression politics are an important part of the overall development people, our organizations and our movement needs to go through. However there is often a tendency to focus on language, behavior, inter-personal and group dynamics, in ways that usually acknowledge historical and structural power, but often lose focus on larger efforts to create systemic change. Often anti-oppression politics calls for people who experience privilege on some axis of power to be allies to those who are oppressed, and again this is often focused on interactions between people and efforts of small numbers of people. This is all very important work in the early stages of becoming activists, but it must be connected to organizing efforts with a wide range of people, so we don’t end up creating small activist scenes where the goal is more on “being the best anti-racist” or the “most radical”, versus, learning how to effectively work on campaigns, in coalitions, in community to create change.

Where anti-oppression often focuses on language, behavior, recognizing privilege, group dynamics, and how people can be allies, a collective liberation vision and strategy focuses on the question of how people structurally divided can come together to generate powerful transformative movements for systemic change, that creates new forms of democratic power and identities in the process. Anti-oppression work is vital but needs to be part of larger process of growth and development, with multiple stages of struggle, that includes countering oppressions work, and also includes work to develop liberatory power, cultures of solidarity and movements that can change society. All of this work goes hand in hand. I believe change is dialectical or developmental, and that we learn a tremendous amount by putting our ideas into practice with others. I think we need to do more experimenting with what collective liberation strategy and politics can look like. That’s one of the primary goals in my book Towards Collective Liberation: anti-racist organizing, feminist praxis and movement building strategy.

 

What books would you recommend people look at for social change and why?

I’ve Got the Light of Freedom by Charles Payne is an incredible book drawing out lessons from the organizing tradition of Ella Baker, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi. This book has been defining in my understanding of successful and effective organizing.

We Make the Road by Walking is a dialogue between Myles Horton and Paulo Freire on popular education and social change. It explores more of the ideas of how to unite education and activism to help develop democratic movements to change society and in the process develop the capacity of everyday people to govern.

Feminist Theory From Margin to Center by bell hooks is a great introduction to women of color feminism or anti-racist feminism. This book is a great place to start, but make sure you read her essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom” in her book Outlaw Culture. This is one of the most important essays I’ve ever read as it outlines a vision of left politics rooted in an ethic of love and is where I first read the term collective liberation, which then became the basis for a lot of my thinking about interconnected struggles for liberation.

 Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements by Chris Dixon is an absolutely vital book for activists today. Based on interviews around the U.S. and Canada, this book draws out key insights and lessons from the politics, visions, strategies and experiences of some of the most important Left efforts over the past decade. This book is coming out in August, but you can order it here.

 

Are there any movies you recommend for teaching about social justice and change?

Absolutely. I trace some of my early radical activism to the Star Wars movie. I was won over to the rebel alliance and the fight against empire at an early age!

I do actually think there are a lot of great lessons about organizing in a lot of popular movies. Friends of mine in Louisville, Kentucky, Attica and Advocate Scott after make a list, top ten lessons for organizing, after seeing movies like The Hobbit, or Transformers. I’ve done that for a long time as well with movies like Dirty Dancing, Foot Loose, and Flash Dance (or the trifecta of working class struggle dance movies). Of my top favorites, the Harry Potter series is up there.

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Hermione Granger is the Ella Baker of the wizarding world, Dumbledore’s Army teaches us much the process of supporting people to become activists, to develop their skills, confidence and analysis and become leaders. I recently wrote an essay on lessons from Harry Potter for social justice organizing, which you can read here.

There are lots documentaries out there that teach important lessons for organizing. Documentaries that I highly recommend are: Eyes on the Prize about the Civil Rights movement, Ballot Measure #9 about the organizing in Oregon in the early 90s against an anti-LGBTQ ballot measure, Southern Patriot about white anti-racist legend Anne Braden, Freedom on My Mind about the organizing in Mississippi in the 60s, and This is What Democracy Looks Like about the mass direct action convergence of movements against the World Trade Organization in Seattle 1999.

Norma Rae, Milk, and Stand and Deliver are inspiring and powerful and the labor classics Salt of the Earth and Matewan include a lot of useful organizing lessons.

That said, I love movies, and think almost any movie that calls forward our love for others, our love for the sacredness of life, that nourishes and inspires you, will contain some lessons for organizing, in that one of the key goals of organizing is helping people come alive, into their own power and into connection and community with others, which many movies and stories speak to. Then we have the challenge and opportunity of bring people together, in their own power, to work towards collective liberation.

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