Displacement, genocide, and climate crimes. Is that a laundry list or a web of connected crisis. Our next guest has been helping people's movements make the links for decades now. He's Eric Mann of the Labor Community Strategy Center right here in Los Angeles.
Laura Flanders: Displacement, genocide, and climate crimes. Is that a laundry list or a web of connected crisis. Our next guest has been helping peoples movements make the links for decades now. He's Eric Mann of the Labor Community Strategy Center right here in Los Angeles.
He's also the author of a slew of books including L.A.'s Lethal Air: Taking on General Motors, Playbook for Progressives: the 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer, and Katrina's Legacy: White Racism and Black Reconstruction in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. He's working on a new addition. He's host of KPFK, Pacifica's Voices from the Front Lines, welcome to the program, Eric. Glad to have you.
Eric Mann: Thank you, Laura, it's fun to be with you.
Laura Flanders: I was reminded, going back to one of your many books that you got your start just listening to a speech, listening to someone talk. Who was that?
Eric Mann: Well there were a series of them. One the things I was thinking about was how a lot of young people will say, "Hey man are you into spoken word?" I say "you didn't invent spoken word, I hate to break it to you, Malcolm and Martin Luther King." Yes, my life was changed. I was at Cornell University, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn and Long Island. I thought I was going to be a big democratic party loser in retrospect. This young black man from SNICC came up and said, "We want you to picket the Woolworth's." They wanted us to boycott in Ithaca, New York and I was of course ready.
Then he said, "But then he said but the problem is you white people. You think you're going to just go down to Woolworth and help me. You think I want to die for a sandwich? You think my life is just about a sandwich? What are you doing with your life?"
And I went, "Wait a minute. I was coming here to help you, what are you telling me?"
The concept of being challenged, which I think is critical to how I work now, to pose a moral challenge to create some uncomfortableness in the human psyche and I went home and kept saying, almost like sounding like a classic white liberal, "Who are you to tell me what to do? I'm just going to ..." And the next morning I woke up and said, "I want to get out of Cornell, I want to get out of this whole scene."
I had been working in the South Bronx with young Black and Puerto Rican kids. I realized that's where I want to go, that's where I want to make my life. That man started asking me to go to Woolworth and he said, "Who wants to join the civil rights revolution?" Contrary to theory that this was all soft stuff. I went to work for the Congress of Racial Equality when I got out of college. Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were killed just before I joined and that's been the rest of my life.
Laura Flanders: There's so much in what you just said. The personal experience, the revolutionary vision, the changing of the 'he to we,' that's what you teach at the Strategy Center. How did you get started?
Eric Mann: I come out of a Jewish socialist, somewhat anti-communist tradition, not me, but that's what I come out of. Very strong anti-fascist ... It's a joke, but I say that the fascists bastards were the first words that came out of my life because that's all I kept hearing about fascists, Jews, and genocide.
I'm very proud of my parents for not ... Five years old I was thinking about people starving in Europe. I didn't know what Europe was. There's a world made up of Goyam who attack us and put us in concentration camps and we've got to fight them. That was the main point my mom said, "stand up to those anti-Semites, don't let them push us around." Then when I met the Black movement I said, "Oh, I thought Jews were assertive. This is the ultimate assertion, the ultimate anger," and what I didn't get before was a revolutionary theory of change.
When I joined the movement it was all about, "Do you know about Africa?" "No." Then, "We're part of the Indians," "Oh yeah, and this country is wrong, this country is fundamentally wrong, it's built on the wrong foundations. It's built on genocide." I didn't come up with the word. I said, "Wait, genocide, just like what happened ... I remember genocide, it's what my parents taught me about." Quickly I got it, Jews, Blacks, Native Americans, the world, people starving. If you know, King went to Divinity School, he's doctor of Divinity. He studied Marx, Niebhur, Martin Buber. The Black movement was very philosophical and very worldview-oriented. That's what I teach at the strategy center. We're trying to change the world, whether on buses ...
Right now we're doing ... Ashley Franklin's doing some amazing organizing in the high schools with young Black kids.
Just last night I was saying, "We have to raise your practice to a level of theory." She's doing teaching with young kids who do not operate off a lot of paradigms that I worked off. Books don't work too well, long theoretical talks do work, but combined with things she's trying to figure out. I'm sitting down with her and saying, "We have to write a book about what you understand." She's doing at the microlevel teaching theory.
Laura Flanders: We've had another one of your, I don't want to say protégées-- but colleagues on our program recently. Patrisse Cullors, from Black Lives Matter, who talked about coming up through the Bus Rider's Union. If you could say one thing about how you've ... What you've learned about creating leadership, about seeing leadership, drawing out leadership is probably how you would put it. What is it? How do you make an atmosphere, an environment that cultivates the leadership qualities in people?
Eric Mann: Patrisse and Ashley are two interesting contrasts and our third is Barbara Lott-Holland who is the associate director of the Strategy Center. She came out of the Bus Riders Union, she grew up in South L.A., she's more my age than Patrisse and Ashley is, but they're three, all Black women, and interesting differences. Patrisse wants the stage and somebody that wants to occupy it, Barbara and Ashley do not.
And yet, they're all major, major figures, so they all have their different styles of how they operate. You work with each person to say, "You need to lead." That's the main point. I only have an army of generals. There's no privates, there's no lieutenants. You start as a private, you do, but the goal is I'm getting you to be a general.
This is what my school's about. That's what SNCC did, and CORE did. So many, if you think about the Panthers and how many leaders they generate. When you come to the Strategy Center, it's very demanding.
As I say, you're not supposed to be liked, it's not fun, you're supposed to be very introspective, you're supposed to be down on yourself a lot because we're not winning, we don't want all this false triumphalism, but we're going to win, but only if we look squarely at what the challenge is. What I've been training is life is fundamentally an existential, philosophical engagement, and the revolution becomes your life.
Let's check in on that revolution. While we're probably broadcasting this interview you will probably be in Paris for the COP21 Climate Summit. Talk a bit about, A) Why you've chosen to get so involved in that summit, and B) Some of the backstory on the protest, whose involved, and what they hope to get out of it. How does it relate to what you're doing at the Center, for starters?
Eric Mann: My work right now is at the fulcrum of the Black Movement and climate. Not to the exclusion of, but to give a focus and clarity, even to my own life now. The Black movement because I see it through Martin Delany, through Frederick Douglass, through Robert D.G. Kelley whose one of my closest friends and comrades. He just had the 25th anniversary of Hammer and Hoe, an amazing book about the Black communist party in Alabama.
Laura Flanders: Also a guest on this program.
Eric Mann: Great. We have a lot of mutual friends and common taste. The Black Movement, not because it's the most oppressed, but because it's the most philosophically advanced and it has a history of reaching out. If you ask every gay, woman, Latino, Asian, White, in the '60s, "What drove you?" They would say, "The Black movement woke me up to not just my own oppression ..." but I remember John Scaglione ... I said, "How did you come up with the idea of the Gay Liberation Fund?" He says, "Why do you think we called it that? Because we believed in the National Liberation Fund of Vietnam. We weren't just wanting gay marriage, we wanted to overthrow the government as part of being queer."
I come out of the tradition where wherever you started we're all trying to make the same revolution. We had maybe a little of divisions of labor, but we only were trying to be generalists There's nothing more general than the climate. I'm convinced ... I hope it's not ... I've been convinced that we're talking decades of the most revolutionary change in the history of the planet. Here's an example ... At 2040 they're talking about a tipping point in Los Angeles. At 2048 where if we don't stop it it's going to be floods, droughts, heat waves. The UN is the arena where I think the critical fight is taking place.
Laura Flanders: Two quick questions, one is how do you go from the general to the specific, because you've talked in the past about how you organized bus riders because that's the daily, up-close experience, and then you connect to the other aspects of a person's life to build the revolutionary cohort that you described that you work with at the centers. How do you go to something close to someone's life and then something so abstract to, as many years from now there will be floods. Secondly, how do you make impact on organizations like the United Nations. You have to say, we haven't had good luck so far.
Eric Mann: I can't answer all the questions but I'll tell you those that are right questions and I'll tell you the best answers I have. When we go on the bus now we say to people we have three demands we want you to understand, 1) President Obama must cut U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases by 50% of 1990 levels by 2025. 2) President Obama must contribute $10 billion to the Green Climate Fund to move money to the third world because we're the cause of the problem, and 3rd) President Obama must end the 1033 program, which is a defense department program that gives tanks and weapons to the police department to suppress us.
We're not asking anymore, frankly, about the bus fare.
People get it pretty quick, "Let's start with the first one, what's going on?" "Did you know about this Paris conference?" "No, nobody ever asked me." "Of course, we're here to get you in South L.A." "President Obama, how can we influence him?" "I do not have a clue." That man is in a teflon protection, not just from the Democratic party, but from many forces in the Black community who correctly, because of the racist treatment of this president, feel this is not the time.
Laura Flanders: The conference, we talk about the Paris conference will be insulated, also, physically as well as anything else. It's not happening near the Arc de Triomphe or anything.
Eric Mann: No, but the good thing is that we're going to go ... We're working in two structures. One is called the Global Network for Demanding Climate Change Now. That's inside the UN. They are the fight, and so we're getting a document that all the governments can agree on and it's not ... I will tell you, spoiler alert, it's not going to happen. Our goal is to make President Obama uncomfortable in Paris at a time when he's trying to have a love fest and a coronation.
Laura Flanders: Sort of like a legacy moment.
Eric Mann: A legacy moment. We want to say to people, "Can you get 1990 as a number? 50% as a number? And now as a number?"
Laura Flanders: Will there be clear demands from this conference? From this set of protests in a way that there weren't in New York at the Climate Justice March?
Eric Mann: I think what the Strategy Center's trying to do, because I'm going to Paris, and then I'm going to be going to Berne and we're going to go to Paris again. Inside the protesters, our main consciousness struggle is guess what, white Europeans are not at the center of the world. The demands must be for the third world, primarily. Inside the UN the demand is get the president of the United States and the EU to come to terms with this 50% reduction. I don't believe either will be successful in the sense of winning the majority, but they will change the terms of the debate if we're successful.
Laura Flanders: Is there a danger that you get so many people so focused on an issue that's so far away from them, their home, that they spend all this money and time going to try to be heard in the streets just outside Paris, instead of working where they live?
Eric Mann: We're organizing in South L.A. and we're building this movement in South L.A. to make demands on the president now in South L.A. You're absolutely right. Paris is where he's going to be. I'm not going to ... Five of us are going to Paris and make the president ... No. If we can make, before he leaves office, South L.A. a place where he is uncomfortable and where South L.A. says, "We are onto you, President Obama, you still are putting tanks in our community, you're about to destroy L.A. That's the uphill battle, but that's the core of my work.
Laura Flanders: And the military equipment coming to police departments around the country isn't good for the environment either.
Eric Mann: That's correct.
Laura Flanders: Part of the research you've done.
Eric Mann: Just one more thing, what you're absolutely right about is the challenge, is can we change grassroots organizing to do bigger picture demands?
Laura Flanders: I have to say, you've been in this a long time, there have been a lot of crises of capitalism. Neo-liberalism seems to be our economic system of capital first, seems to be as strong as ever, instability not withstanding. How do we change that?
Eric Mann: I think one of my weaknesses is I don't focus as much on the economic base as I should because I have an aversion to how people keep talking about economics separate from race, separate from military, separate from imperialism. I understand imperialism at it's core as an economic system, I understand it's the higher stage of capitalism as Lennon said. I also know it's a racist, Euro-centric, Christian, sadistic system that started in an economic base but it's behavior goes beyond a simply, "This is the economy and therefore they do bad things."
Why are there a million Black people in prison? It's not just because of capitalism. It's the specific evolution of capitalism in the United States to be a sadistic, racist, imperialist system. Yes, I think ...
Laura Flanders: Don't forget the patriarchy.
Eric Mann: I do forget the patriarchy, too often. I mean it. It is a patriarchal system. The colonization of women ... I am reading Maria Reeves and I am trying to up my game on that.
Laura Flanders: Good, good. We'll check back in with you.
Eric Mann: Next time it won't happen again. I am working on that. I work, obviously ... I think that's absolutely right. The colonization ... I think Maria Reeves and Vandana Shiva have done some interesting work around something that I'm still trying to learn about: The relationship of colonization, imperialism, suppression of women, exploitation of women.
Laura Flanders: Comes back to how do you treat your mother.
Eric Mann: My mom treated me real good, and I treated her real good. She's the central moral force in my life. I think about her every day.
Laura Flanders: Her work was largely mostly unpaid.
Eric Mann: Yeah. My wife, Leanne Hurst has been pushing very hard on patriarchy.
Laura Flanders: It's great talking to you, Eric. Finally I can't let you go without talking about why the centrality of New Orleans, what we learned from Katrina, we've only got about a minute but you keep going back there, so do we. Why?
Eric Mann: There's 100,000 Black people missing from New Orleans.
If that's not a genocidal climate crime, you tell me what is. What's terrifying is the country's acceptance of something as enormous, as if that's a past experience.
I will not die before we demand and get those 100,000 black people back to New Orleans. I don't like when something happens and people talk about it in the past.
The right never gives up. We have to get 100,000 Black people back to New Orleans.
Laura Flanders: You can find out more about the Labor Community Strategy Center, and all of the work of the incredible people Eric is working with, thanks thanks so much for all you do and for coming onto the program.
Eric Mann: Thanks Laura.