Solidarity Is a Process: Talking with Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Josh Kun, and Destin Jenkins


The basic idea behind this conversation is that solidarity is a very, very long-standing concept within and between communities of color—or all communities, really. It’s a conversation that’s central in all of American history and the history of the Americas. But it gained increasing urgency this summer, as we all watched the events unfold from June forward, following George Floyd’s murder.

That sparked a growing conversation about solidarity between African Americans and Latinos here in Chicago as well. In early June there were events where Puerto Ricans and African Americans marched together chanting, “Tu lucha es mi lucha”; but just a couple of days later, during the same time period, there were tensions between Puerto Ricans and African Americans in the city.

But these instances didn’t encapsulate everything that’s behind calls for solidarity or insistence on difference. Sometimes solidarity is taken for granted as the natural outcome of the shared circumstances of our communities. Sometimes it’s seen as an impossibility because of deep cultural and historical rifts. And we also know that solidarity can mean something entirely different for Afro Latinos, who make up a sizable share of the Latino and African American populations.

This conversation seeks to talk about solidarity in a more nuanced way, with three fabulous speakers. The first is Kelly Lytle Hernandez, the Thomas E. Lifka Chair of History at UCLA and the author of Migra! A History of the US Border Patrol and City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles. She’s also the director and principal investigator for Million Dollar Hoods, a university-based, community-driven research project that maps the fiscal and human cost of mass incarceration in Los Angeles.

Our second speaker is Destin Jenkins. He is the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of US History at the University of Chicago. His first book is just about to come out. It’s going to be terrific, so look out for it. It’s called The Bonds of Inequality: Debt and the Making of the American City, and will be published by the University of Chicago Press. He’s also a coeditor of a forthcoming collection called Histories of Racial Capitalism. I should also mention that he is a former editor of the Capitalism section of the magazine Public Books.

And our third speaker is Josh Kun. He is a professor in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and holds the inaugural Chair in Cross-Cultural Communication. He’s the author of Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America; Songs in the Key of Los Angeles; To Live and Dine in LA; Double Vision: The Photography of George Rodriguez; and The Autograph Book of LA: Improvements on the Page of the City. He’s also editor of The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles and coeditor of Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border and Black and Brown in Los Angeles beyond Conflict and Coalition.

Our cosponsors are Public Books and, at Northwestern University, the Latina and Latino Studies Program, Department of African American Studies, and One Book One Northwestern.

—Geraldo Cadava
 
 

Table of Contents

  1. Biographies and Beginnings
  2. Scaling Up Solidarity
  3. Risking for Solidarity
  4. Teaching Solidarity
  5. Broadening Solidarity

1. Biographies and Beginnings

Geraldo Cadava (GC): To start, let me say that I was interested to find, in my own research, Hispanic and African American relations seen through the lens of Republicans and the Republican Party. For example, one of Gerald Ford’s advisors in the mid-1970s said:

Mexican Americans in California and Texas are different from one another and jealous and can be played against one another. But better still, they can be played off against the Negroes to break the monolithic low-class man that goes Democrat, and we should do what we can to show the Chicanos we’ll do more for them and not prefer the Negroes as the Democrats do. … The terrain is ripe for this since the Chicanos are acquiring greater cognizance of their strength and heritage and the fact that they figure last on the minority totem pole.

Then, in 2008, one of Ford’s former administration members, who became the Republican Party chairman in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, said that Chicanos, Mexican Americans, would never vote for an African American. And just today we learned that the head of the Latinos for Trump campaign in Florida is also the national chairman of the Proud Boys. So, these things have led me to wonder, What ends have been served by talk of solidarity or difference?

 

Kelly Lytle Hernandez (KLH): This question of solidarity is certainly the story of my life, and the story of my work is around Black, brown, and Indigenous solidarity work.

So, I grew up on the US-Mexico border during the 1980s and 1990s. This was a time of extraordinary war against immigrants and against Black youth. Growing up as a Black girl in the borderlands, I witnessed what the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and racialized policing in general was doing to my neighbors and my friends and to my loved ones. This was largely within the realm of immigration control. How terrifying deportation was! To have the boys in green patrolling our neighborhoods and snatching people away.

As a Black child, I deeply wanted to understand why that was “okay” in mainstream society. And as I became a teenager and I began to experience the war on drugs, we were the ones being snatched away, right? We were the ones being racially profiled at school and on buses and in malls and at parties. I came to understand that project in new ways.

By the time I was in college, what I wanted to understand was, What was the relationship between these two different regimes of racialized policing and state violence? I spent the last 20 to 30 years of my life trying to figure this all out. I don’t know if I have all the answers yet.

But I’ve tried to think through racial capitalism and the state: how they have framed a certain set of conditions and possibilities, which can look both unique and shared at the same time, for all of our lives. This is solidarity work that I do day in and day out. It is the full commitment of my career and my life to try to figure out the best ways, the most productive ways, for us to move forward with our distinct and our shared freedom journeys.

 

GC: Thank you, Kelly.

Destin Jenkins (DJ): In my own work, I don’t write through the idiom of solidarity; it’s not the thing that I’m directly focused on. But I would like to begin by sharing just a bit about what it means to me.

For me, it starts with, frankly, giving a damn. It means beginning with empathy. I take clues from the small but significant expressions of solidarity during the civil rights movement, when unfamiliar characters leveraged their different privileges and access to resources on behalf of, and in common accord with, those plundered. Today, that might assume the shape of working across racial lines or across citizenship statuses; it can take many different forms. It may take the form of direct research on behalf of someone else, or on behalf of a specific campaign. It could take the form of direct action.

There are, of course, many different traditions of solidarity. There’s one tradition which emphasizes shared experiences. Another which emphasizes similar realities, whether it be economic inequality or voter disenfranchisement. The two are related, but it seems to me that the former is expressly about the weight of the past; it’s about a shared experience rooted in systems of domination, as political theorist Michael Dawson describes it—or, for that matter, in experiences of joy. The tradition of solidarity rooted in a shared reality seems to me to be more about contemporary sociopolitical and economic conditions. But what’s interesting about both traditions is that each turns on the idea that we need to overcome our differences so that we can be victorious in collective struggle.

And of course, there’s another tradition of which I became aware when I was a member of the New York City chapter of BYP (Black Youth Project) 100, and that’s the Black queer feminist tradition. It stresses that we are stronger not despite, but because of, our differences; that we need to sit and wrestle in our differences. It is when we collectively struggle through different modes of oppression that we become stronger.

I’ll give the last word to Audre Lorde. No one can articulate it better than Audre Lorde, in my opinion. She says, in “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “For difference must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark.” Lorde pointed to mutual nondominant differences, within which “lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future.” And so, it’s that latter tradition—not overcoming differences but sitting in those differences—that I want to sit with. It has been on my mind in the wake of the Movement for Black Lives protests this summer.

 

GC: Thank you, Destin.

Josh Kun (JK): To mentally prepare for this event I tried to work out some of my thinking, actually, by making a radio mix that aired earlier today on Artform Radio. It’s a new music platform in Highland Park, in northeast Los Angeles, born in fact out of Black-brown solidarity—if you will, between Adrian Younge and Andrew Lojero. I call the mix Friends and Neighbors, after the Ornette Coleman composition from 1970, which repeats the line: “Friends and neighbors, that’s where it’s at; friends and neighbors, that’s a fact. Hand in hand, hand in hand.” And in between songs by Harry Belafonte and Archie Shepp and Fadul and Jayne Cortez and Anoushka Shankar and many others, I put in clips from conversations with bell hooks, Nina Simone, and Edward Said.

So, this is bell hooks. She said, “We need to stop thinking in terms of a tribe, of the bounded sense of love. One of my deepest struggles,” she says, “in my own life around love is with people who really turn me off, with people who I don’t want to include in the circle of compassion. That to me is the challenge. It’s not hard to love the people we like. The challenge of love is to extend belonging to someone we may not even know, someone who may actually have hurt us. The true belonging is the belonging that is inclusive, that doesn’t make me choose people who are like me to care about.”

Nina Simone: “All I’m trying to do all the time is just open people up so they can feel themselves and let themselves be open to somebody else.”

And finally, Edward Said, where he’s talking about the influence of Antonio Gramsci on his thinking: “The most interesting human task … [is] to understand my history in terms of other people’s history … to move beyond, to generalize one’s own individual experience to the experience of others. I think the great goal is, in fact, to become someone else. To transform itself from a unitary identity to an identity that includes the other without suppressing the difference. That, [Antonio Gramsci] says, is the great goal.”

There’s many, many ways to define solidarity, many ways to contextualize it. But, for me personally, the core of solidarity, or maybe a precondition of solidarity, is this notion that all three of those quotes speak to. That is: the necessity to move beyond oneself, to walk alongside another, to stand beside someone outside yourself, to explore a kinship—to evoke Édouard Glissant—a kinship that goes beyond the filial. Or, Toni Morrison said, “To refuse the prison of ‘I’ and choose the open spaces of ‘we.’”

And yet, to choose that—to open up a “we” beyond the “I” to someone else, as a means of letting that someone in—that’s an act that requires a ton of risk and vulnerability. For example, there’s the chance that one’s camaraderie is not actually needed, or wanted. And it risks, inevitably, some loss.

So, as the title for this conversation points out—and I agree and I love the title—solidarity is not a thing. There’s no formula, no exact science. There is process, and I just want to very quickly name what might be three key steps in that process.

First would be a recognition of interconnectedness or “interbeing,” as Thich Nhat Hanh said, yet a simultaneous recognition that interbeing is fraught with tensions. That we all bring something different to the table. We come from diverging histories and different experiences of marginalization and oppression and privilege. We all have different relations to violence and precarity. Lorraine Hansberry said that the roots of universal solidarity are not predictable. We all have agendas and biases and interests that may cloud and challenge the dream of the interconnected. And one way to do that work—something that’s key to solidarity—is always to listen. Knowing when not to talk and when to just take in and receive suffering or outrage or anger or demands or emancipatory visions of another. So that listening becomes a tool of radical compassion.

Second would be turning interconnectedness—turning what we hear and the cries of the world, to echo both Glissant and the Chinese bodhisattva Guanyin—into understanding. But understanding in that term’s original sense: to stand amongst others or alongside someone else. Even if their agendas clash with ours, even if we do not think alike, we can still think together in the name of justice or peace or equality or life in the face of death. Judith Butler called it the recognition of “the radical equality of the grievable”; or, put in one of many other ways, a recognition that Black lives matter, even if—or, indeed, especially if—one is not Black.

And third, realizing that standing alongside someone who is not ourselves is not transactional. It is not a market exchange, as Robin D. G. Kelley recently put it, but carries with it a dangerous altruism, as Dr. King put it. Solidarity carries great risk; by standing with another, there’s a danger that we may ourselves be hurt, that we may receive nothing in return. We need to embrace that risk, even celebrate it and argue for it, to fully stand in solidarity with someone else.

 

Jump to: Biographies and Beginnings, Scaling Up Solidarity, Risking for Solidarity, Teaching Solidarity, Broadening Solidarity

 
 

2. Scaling Up Solidarity

GC: Are there particular scales at which solidarity can work? All three of you described it as an almost intimate process of empathy, as understanding another human being and walking alongside another person. So, in our daily lives as individuals, where can we do solidarity? Is solidarity something that really works best, or that can only work at all, among a small group of people? What about in a state, in a nation? At what level does solidarity break down?

 

JK: Right now, for better or worse, I keep thinking there’s a precondition: at any level, one has to be ready. I don’t know how one gets ready, necessarily. But I do think it’s a practice. It’s work. I don’t know if that’s a necessary first step for organizing work or political work, but I imagine that it is.

 

DJ: Solidarity has to work on multiple scales: the interpersonal, the household, whatever your particular unit of analysis. But perhaps the question of space and medium are more pressing than that of scale.

I’ll give an example. I attended a memorable concert just as COVID‑19 was beginning to disrupt so much of our daily lives. I can’t believe I’m giving a shout-out to Griselda Records, a hip-hop crew from Buffalo, New York, but there it is. I got a chance to see these guys perform in the extremely segregated city of Chicago. I was amazed to look around the concert hall to see brothers, sisters, Puerto Ricans, and so many others. We sang the lyrics in unison.

Consumption is the elephant in the room. In this case, solidarity was predicated on consumption (purchasing tickets, merchandise, and beverages). But I do think that space really matters: all of us being in a particular setting and engaging in a shared set of practices. Beyond the concert itself, I think about the albums produced by Griselda Records, and songs which feature guest appearances from Dominican American artists. All of this is to say that collective gathering in the space of a concert hall and, of course, music itself, are means through which solidarity can develop.

So, I’m not sure it’s only scale. Scale, space, and the medium through which ideas are expressed may contain the seeds of solidarity.

KLH: This is great. I’m running things through my head as I’m listening to everyone. And what I’m coming to is the incredible importance of the discrete and the daily and the mundane acts of solidarity. For example, always being with my students and encouraging them to take those steps in the everyday world. To ensure that they don’t get overwhelmed, perhaps by thinking, But I’m not living in this phenomenal moment and I can’t make a big stand, so solidarity can’t happen at the lower levels. To show them that you’ve got to practice it, that you have got to build up the strength so that muscle will be ready when you need it.

We are living at this historical turning point, in this phenomenal moment. And yet, I don’t know if it’s actually that easy to scale up. What will it take? What practices do we need to engage in, to make sure that we can move from the mundane to the phenomenal?

I don’t know if I have an answer for that. Maybe culture is a big piece of it; maybe it’s the practice of collectivity, collective solidarity.

What I want to stay with for a moment, however, is the difficulty of moving across registers and across scales from the mundane to the large, from the large back to the mundane. What I’ve been experiencing and witnessing a lot in the last couple of months when this really incredible moment fell upon us, or exploded, is the difficulty, for many of us who have been operating on one side or the other, of making that shift. Great theorists, for example, doing incredible abstract work at the high level to large audiences, yet struggling to do the mundane work. And then there are the people who have been doing the ground-level work, at the level of the mundane, who are struggling to interject themselves into this larger moment.

How do we help each other in that process? What skills can we help one another learn and build up? On the ground right now, I’m witnessing that difficulty of scale, of switching the register.

 

Jump to: Biographies and Beginnings, Scaling Up Solidarity, Risking for Solidarity, Teaching Solidarity, Broadening Solidarity

 
 

3. Risking for Solidarity

GC: What are the risks of solidarity? What’s at risk in acting in solidarity with someone else?

 

JK: One can lose something. In order to support somebody else, one must be ready to lose something. There’s that old saying: your principles don’t matter until they cost you something.

And there is something to lose in stepping up. It’s one thing to say one is “in solidarity” or sign an email “in solidarity.” But it’s very different to then literally put your body on the line for somebody else. Or to step down from a job, or refuse a check, or pass over an opportunity, or devote time. Sacrifice of some sort can be crucial for doing solidarity work.

 

KLH: This is totally true; you still have to be vulnerable and willing to risk. But it’s also funny, because I’ve actually been thinking, in the opposite direction, about the vulnerability of receiving solidarity.

Over the last four months, people have been coming to the Black Lives Matter movement for the first time. And I think about how difficult it has been for myself and for others to receive solidarity. There is a risk: If we open up to tell more inclusive stories in these new ways, how might that shift focus in this moment? That’s been a big question. A hard question that we’ve got to grapple with.

 

GC: When you talk about the difficulty of receiving solidarity, do you mean the possible expectations that receiving that solidarity sets up for the future? As well as the risk of disappointment?

 

KLH: That’s certainly it. And the ways in which moves toward solidarity could shift focus off of Black life in this moment.

For someone who has been in the practice of doing the work of solidarity by telling Latino stories, and trying to do that for Black audiences and for others, the script certainly got flipped. Trying to allow myself to truly accept and embrace genuine solidarity—and I do believe it’s genuine, what has been coming to us in the last couple of months—has been difficult. It’s taken a certain level of vulnerability and risk, and I certainly have been rewarded by it.

I’m feeling pretty good at this moment. I know that the forces are rallying against us, I know that’s true. But the work we have been doing together … The BREATHE Act just dropped yesterday, and it’s an extraordinary piece of legislation born of and intended for solidarity. We’ve been doing that work.

GC: Can you tell us a little bit about what the BREATHE Act is?

 

KLH:  The BREATHE Act is the piece of federal legislation that gives life to the Movement for Black Lives. It’s been worked on collectively for the last several months, led by M4BL’s Electoral Justice Project

The act leads with defunding the federal police apparatus. It includes processes of reparation for Native and Indigenous communities, for people who have suffered from deportation and their families, for those victims of police violence, for Black folks across the entire span of American history. It’s a pretty comprehensive piece of legislation that is a solidarity move. It’s about 128 pages, and I encourage everybody to read every page. It’s a pretty extraordinary vision document for BIPOC communities at this moment.

 

DJ: I want to go back to this point about the risks of solidarity, this idea that it may cost you. I want to ask about the principles on which solidarity rests. For me, the stumbling block of solidarity historically and in the present—perhaps the greatest and biggest stumbling block—is opting for and investing in whiteness.

That act, that project of investing in whiteness and all that it entails (securing illicit advantages and depriving others of life-saving resources) militates against solidarity with Black folks. One expression of solidarity would entail a massive divestment among those phenotypically “read” as white from the social, political, and economic complex of whiteness.

It’s one thing to think about individual expressions of solidarity. It’s another thing to divest from the structures that are antithetical to Black life. That costs a great deal for those who are invested in, and who have inherited, illicit white racial advantages (as the political philosopher Charles Mills highlights in his work).

 

JK: Some of the work I’m doing now is in a different direction. I am working on a project about musical reparations with the Black Music Action Coalition—royalty justice and royalty equity work. We are trying to do a longitudinal study while formulating specific direct actions toward addressing royalty justice for Black musicians.

And, to Destin’s point, one of the roadblocks that we keep hitting is the knowledge that the divestment that is required by major record labels is so massive. Our big worry is that we can get all of this ammunition ready, and all the right people in the room, but the sheer number of millions of dollars that we’re talking about will be too big to move the corporate needle toward real justice. It’s not just Prince’s back catalog we’re talking about. We believe that the back catalog of all major labels requires a commitment that goes beyond an Instagram post about the value of Black lives to the recording industry, and that actually opens up the coffers and rewrites the contracts and redistributes the wealth.

 

Jump to: Biographies and Beginnings, Scaling Up Solidarity, Risking for Solidarity, Teaching Solidarity, Broadening Solidarity

 
 

4. Teaching Solidarity

GC: One audience member asked, “How do you all think ideas of scarcity come into play?” The question refers to the possibility that a lot of empathy or understanding amongst minority groups often comes from a view of scarcity, in that it is either you or me, versus a view of abundance, in that there is enough space for all of us and we need to help each other move forward. I guess I would just add that maybe the sense of scarcity, and the sense that you have to give something up in order for someone else to have it, might very well depend on the context. If there are two people fighting for one job, or if water is scarce in a region, then those might be two different ideas of scarcity. But the general question is: How do you all think ideas of scarcity come into play?

 

DJ: I’d begin from the standpoint that scarcity is artificial. It is a product of racial capitalism. To say that it is artificial is not to say it is “false” or feigned, but to insist that scarcity is the outcome of choices made, every day—by municipal governments, for instance—to retrench the local public sector in ways that reduce employment opportunities.

Scarcity is produced and reproduced. Beginning from that position compels us to dismantle the very structures that produce scarcity.

 

GC: You three are all teachers, too. Hearing you talk makes me think that I’ve been teaching about solidarity all wrong.

In my Latino history classes, for example, solidarity comes up at many different moments, such as Reies Lopez Tijerina and the Poor People’s March and Los Siete de la Raza meeting with Black Panthers in Oakland, those kinds of things. Or I’ll talk about the Mendez v. Westminster case and the important precedent that it sets for brown people.

These examples have a way of demonstrating interconnection, but in some ways the personal, intimate dynamics that you guys are talking about—risk and vulnerability and a potential sense of loss, and giving something up and walking alongside someone and trying to walk in another’s shoes—aren’t quite captured by stories about Reies Lopez Tijerina and the Poor People’s March, or Mendez v. Westminster and Brown v. Board. After hearing your thoughts, these feel merely anecdotal, at least how I’ve been teaching them.

But the question is, How do you as teachers try to go about teaching solidarity? Something Kelly said before the event is that solidarity could be a method: a research method and a writing method. How do you teach solidarity?

 

KLH: It’s been so important to develop empathy through deep knowledge of Latinx communities, in a historical sense: who you are and where you come from, how we ended up in this space together, how we ended up confronting these shared conditions together. It was always really important to me to learn those histories at the deepest and most intimate levels possible, to help frame my own empathy and solidarity.

So, for me, that’s part of the practice: studying outside of my embodied identity. Constantly being thirsty and hungry to learn stories within and outside of myself.

That’s part of the method. It began with Black and brown solidarity, because that was my world. But it certainly has expanded, as my world has grown and I’ve grown up and the world has changed. I’ve always remained curious about the many friends and neighbors and loved ones, and all their emerging identities—those which we couldn’t see or acknowledge publicly until the last 10 to 15 years. (I’m speaking specifically about gender identity, which has emerged as one of the most powerful ways to understand the history of inequity in the world.) That’s the method: staying open, staying curious about and always learning new histories and new stories.

GC: Kelly, you wrote a short essay in the Western Historical Quarterly about borderlands and transnational history and research. I still teach this to grad students who work in these fields, because it left an impression on me. There has long been a debate in borderlands history about whether you have to do research in another country, whether you have to speak another language, in order to be a truly transnational borderlands historian. But you took it one step further. The other thing you said is that it’s important to form professional relationships with people who work in the other country you’re studying. So, don’t just go there for a couple of months, study in a library, look at some things, and then leave. Instead, form lasting relationships with the people you meet and work alongside. That was the first thing that popped into my mind about solidarity as a methodology. So, one observation is that you have been thinking about this for a long time, because that article was a few years ago at this point.

So, what about other thoughts from Josh and Destin? Do you two have ideas about teaching?

 

DJ: To me the question is: What’s the point of solidarity? The point of solidarity, as I understand it, is personal transformation; developing an analysis and engaging with other people, so you yourself can be transformed. It’s not an abstract thing; it’s not only what you create to put out there in the world, without personal transformation.

At the same time, I find myself focusing less on explicit instances of solidarity and more on directing students’ attention to the institutions about which we know little, and which have outsized power over our lives. I try to encourage my students to think about and identify decisive points on which social movements of today and tomorrow may push. Indeed, identifying how systems of domination actually work is foundational to overcoming those systems.

 

JK: I usually start with stories—episodes, moments, histories. I’m very drawn to stories, to individual stories. I’m drawn, especially in a teaching environment and undergraduate classroom environment, to using those individual stories—of a song, an album, a musical collaboration—as a way to get students interested in a particular person or political moment, and to then scale up to the larger structural questions.

 

Jump to: Biographies and Beginnings, Scaling Up Solidarity, Risking for Solidarity, Teaching Solidarity, Broadening Solidarity

 
 

5. Broadening Solidarity

JK: This leads to a question that I want to ask Kelly. Recently the actor and playwright Roger Guenveur Smith, a wonderful LA-based African American actor, performer, and monologist, performed a new piece about Otto Frank, the Jewish German businessman and father of Anne Frank. In the performance, Smith reimagines Otto Frank’s story, and at one point, riffing off Trump’s recent quip about seeing “that beautiful barbed wire going up,” Smith references “barbed wire that extends across the next century.”

And that phrase has been in my head. What would it mean to follow barbed wire across a century? To follow barbed wire where it goes? So, I start thinking about internment camps like Guantánamo, I start thinking about the barbed wire at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown LA. The surplus barbed-wire stockpiles up and down the US-Mexico border. The barbed-wire refugee camps, the barbed wire at Adelanto, where COVID is running rampant through an incarcerated immigrant population from Jamaica, Kenya, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Nepal, and beyond.

This leads to my question. Kelly, your work has been so influential and so helpful in understanding all these different structures and processes. Like with your first book, Migra!, on the Border Patrol, and also in City of Inmates, which so beautifully brings together discussions that are often siloed between the “prison system” in the United States and the immigrant prison system known as the “detention system” in the United States.

What’s your sense on the ground of how those two ways of thinking are developing? Are they fully converged at this point? Within the Black Lives Matter movement in particular, are there conversations happening around immigration prisons and the larger prison-abolition movement?

 

KLH: I’m so glad you asked that question. From my vantage point and from the work that I’ve been doing, absolutely there’s a deep sense of the impact of the immigration regime upon Black life, with Black folks having the highest deportation rates in the country.

But there’s also an acknowledgement of the size and the scale and the impact of the immigration regime as one of the pillars of oppression for all of us. So long as it’s possible to hold certain populations adrift from the Constitution, it’s possible for any of us to be held adrift from the Constitution.

There is a set of cases now in the federal court system across the country that is challenging the criminalization of immigration. Those are engaging in deep historical analysis about how we got to the criminalization of border crossings and about the importance of anti-Blackness in that history and in that work.

So, yes, it’s definitely happening. Thank goodness for all the organizers and the academics and the scholars who have been laying the foundation for that work. But this notion of following the barbed wire across the 20th and 21st centuries is really quite striking. I would pull it backward as well, into the 19th century. So that we can consider reservations, and all the human histories of barbed wire. But also the animal histories, the ways in which animal control has been a big part of the story of fencing, and barbed wire in particular, and confinement. (Mary Mendoza is doing some phenomenal work in this area, along with many others.) But I just love that notion. I’m going to carry that with me for quite some time. Thank you for sharing that with us.

GC: We have an audience question that says, “Destin, do you mind elaborating on some of those moments you teach when social movements have challenged institutions? And other panelists, what are some examples that you find instructive in thinking about solidarity?”

 

DJ: We can take San Francisco during the mid-1960s. It’s the first time when matters of municipal-bond finance (how cities fund infrastructure and social services) became a highly contentious source of public discussion. I note how Black San Franciscans insisted on—in fact, declared that—they would no longer support bond issues without increased job opportunities.

So, they’re leveraging their identities as taxpayers, and as debt servicers, in order to reconfigure dominant modes of political governance in the city and the distribution of opportunities. It’s around the same time that you have folks in the city’s Chinatown launch legal action against the city’s unequal spending priorities.

That’s one way in which you have folks on the ground challenging dominant practices. I wouldn’t quite call it “resistance.” Rather, it’s a revolt against the prevailing distribution of funds, which to me is different from resisting the very linkage between infrastructure and finance capitalism. But this example is useful for thinking about the bottom-up pressures on the distribution of life chances. Because when you talk about schools, parks, and so forth, that’s really what’s at stake.

 

JK: I don’t know if these are the right examples to answer the question. But I’ll throw out a couple that have been in my head recently. There is Trump’s action to end Temporary Protected Status, and to deport thousands and thousands of families who had been living in the US under the TPS designation. Fighting against that action are a number of immigrant and labor organizations, particularly here in Southern California, from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network to the ACLU of Southern California, and many others who created the TPS National Alliance. As we speak today, these organizations are on a nationwide bus tour with a number of TPS families. And the name of the bus, La Libertad (Freedom), is actually a nod to the Freedom Riders. It’s one example, I think, of how contemporary movements are consciously seeing fights around deportation speak to and extend civil-rights histories and earlier social-movement histories.

Another example: Emily Jacir, the Palestinian artist, once did a piece called From Texas with Love. She shot it in the West Texas desert, but it was actually about Palestine under Israeli occupation. In the piece, she asked multiple Palestinians this question: If you could drive across Palestine and across the state of Israel—without any checkpoints, without being stopped, without being frisked, without being detained or jailed—what song would you listen to? What song would you listen to if you could move freely?

That is a question and an exercise that I think about every day, and that I try to think about with my students. As someone who writes about and studies music, I always get into that trap of asking, What can music really do? I have good answers, I can convince you of lots of things; but at the end of the day, if I’m being honest, I worry about that larger structural question all the time. What can a song truly transform and how can a song truly create freedom?

Music’s role in the organizing that we’re talking about, in the solidarity that we’re talking about, in the transformation of domination and white supremacy that we’re talking about: I believe in my heart that music has always been a key hammer chipping away and knocking all that down. But I must also always remain skeptical. I must always complicate any easy claims of music as automatic resistance and opposition, no matter how much I believe them in my heart. I want to always challenge myself that I need to keep learning more.

KLH: I just always love talking to Josh and really considering the culture work that he’s doing. I always think about the systems of domination, and I get to listen to Josh, and I realize, oh, there’s joy in the world too, thank God. [Laughter] Right?

But in terms of solidarity, I often teach the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. It’s an incredible example of the long arc of solidarity, which moves from Black and white tenant farmers and sharecroppers working together in the Jim Crow South, then migrates across the country and becomes the National Farm Labor Union, and then becomes the United Farm Workers. The union just becomes an extraordinary history linking Black, brown, Indigenous, and Filipino farm workers across space and time. That’s one of the stories I often tell: how, across decades, the conditions of Black life set the conditions of struggle for all of us, and then we all had to fight back together.

But today I am thinking about the solidarity work that we had to do to get the California governor to sign the nation’s first reparations-commission bill yesterday. I certainly want to thank all of our supporters across the state of California, all of the caucuses, the Latino caucus, the API caucus, the leadership of the Black caucus—everyone that made this possible. In a state like California, you need solidarity work to be able to move anything for Black life. California is now going to spend the next year thinking about Black history and the methods to redress deep harm.

For the commission, there’s more work to be done in unveiling, uncovering, unmasking, and sharing the histories of the Black condition and how we got to our current crisis. But I want to really just acknowledge the solidarity work it took to get the governor to this moment. So, thank you to California, you made it happen.

 

Jump to: Biographies and Beginnings, Scaling Up Solidarity, Risking for Solidarity, Teaching Solidarity, Broadening Solidarity

 
 

This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadavaicon

Featured image: Black Lives Matter Protest in Washington, DC, June 6, 2020. Photograph by Koshu Kunii / Unsplash



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