Like you, I was unbelievably excited to hear that Billy Wimsatt was coming out with a new book.
Like you, reading his other books were life-changing experiences. No More Prisons and Bomb the Suburbs helped define and encase my self-education and overall thinking throughout my twenties. Their topics, their tone, their vision, their possibility, their informality.
And like you, I balked when I heard the new book’s title: Please Don’t Bomb The Suburbs. The air out of my excited, inflated balloon. Please don’t bomb the suburbs? What the? Please. don’t. bomb. the. suburbs. Each word seemed to stand on its own, a monument of disappointment to my expectations. Please? Who says please in a book title?! And then continues to put a big Don’t in front of the title of his original book, which was an outright underground classic? It even looks that way on the book cover. His breakthrough graffiti-style Bomb The Suburbs stamped out with a huge PLEASE DON’T. Like he’s reforming himself. The middle-aging bureaucrat censoring the youth activist he once was. Who is this guy? This joker? This poser? What a dork. Sell-out! The usual affronts to my overly sensitive sensibility rattled themselves off in my brain. Sometimes, most of the time, it’s all too easy to be critical, judgmental, self-important, delusional.
I journeyed to my local bookstore armed with a very comfortable amount of skepticism and picked up Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs, ready to be disappointed, let down. Another cult hero turns mainstream. Another shining example of intentionality negated by reality’s circumstance.
But upon reading Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs, I couldn’t help but be impressed by its voice, its content, and its vision, just as much as I had hoped I would be (though I still disdain the book’s title). If Bomb the Suburbs and No More Prisons were books about youth activism, and fighting the power to achieve a revolutionary new society, then Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs is a book for middle-aging youth activists who are still passionate about fighting for a revolutionary new society, but recognize the importance of a visionary long-term, sustained movement in achieving change.
Simply put, Billy Wimsatt has grown up. And not in a bad way, either. And he wants us to grow up, too. Me, and you, and the whole wannabe cool activist youth-ish movement. Because there is more to the progressive change social justice movement than being cool, and being against The System. Real change requires more. Much more indeed.
“What does it mean to be a grown-up at this pivotal moment in history?” wonders Wimsatt. “How do you embrace the good aspects of growing up and leave the bad ones alone? And how do each of us as adults find our calling, live up to our potential, and meet the challenges of our time?”
Yes, Wimsatt is at it again. Sounding the alarm. Rallying the troops. Encouraging the illumination of our better selves. And asking some damn good questions. What does the idealistic progressive youth activist look like pushing forty? I’m not sure. The only visions I could summon were of the burnt-out hippie or the sold-out baby boomer. Peter Pan For President, or Uncle Sam Wants You to Vote for Ebenezer Scrooge. Neither seemed too appealing, or realistic, really, now that I thought about it.
“Right-wing pundits have hijacked the narrative about growing up,” Wimsatt points out. “They love to call progressives and liberals childish, idealistic, immature, naïve, wrong-headed, dangerous, stupid, and unpatriotic.”
There is, of course, a big difference between growing up and giving up. But for progressives, growing up seems synonymous with cynicism. As if it isn’t even possible to work for change without becoming part of the dreaded System. A challenge Wimsatt has confronted in his work as a youth organizer.
“My whole life, I saw myself as fighting against an evil or at least misguided and uncaring system,” he laments. “My heroes were people like James Baldwin, Noam Chomsky, bell hooks, Molly Ivins, Studs Terkel, KRS-One, Malcolm X, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Howard Zinn.
“But … as far as I know,” he continues, “almost none of my major role models growing up were responsible for managing a staff, developing sophisticated campaign strategy, facilitating a group process, building an organizational system, managing a budget, meeting a payroll, winning an election, or getting a piece of legislation passed.”
For the past several years, Wimsatt has been involved with The League of Young Voters, an organization he co-founded (with Adrienne Maree Brown) to help organize young people to re-progressivize the Democrats, or at least the political process, on the Left. He had gone from college-dropout graffiti-writing hip-hop journalist to thirty-something executive director of a non-profit. And the experience has left its mark, for the better.
Eventually, Wimsatt realized that while thinkers and artists are essential parts of articulating a vision, real change often comes in the most unsexy of ways. Written on memos. Chatted up at power lunches. And eventually, signed into the sort of arcane, complicated legalese that rightfully turns most people’s stomachs. All in the honest hope of more effectively fighting an unjust system.
“We have a serious problem, people,” challenges Wimsatt. “It’s called power. We don’t have it. We don’t want it. We think it’s dirty and bad … [but] it is amoral imperative for good people to get power.”
I don’t know if Wimsatt intentionally used the terms moral and power so close to one another in the same sentence, but for most activists, the two terms couldn’t be farther from each other. Power? Aren’t we supposed to “fight the power!”? Isn’t it the powerless that so many of us have been rallied to stand for, or with, or at least not against? Doesn’t power corrupt?
Maybe. But as Bernard Dory points out, “Powerless corrupts too. [And] absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.” You can’t fight power without power. And you can’t ease the suffering of one’s powerlessness without gaining, and using, at least a little power.
“It’s also possible,” suggests Wimsatt, “that the types of people who are attracted to power tend to be the worst kind. That’s why I’m talking to you. You’re the ones who don’t want power. You are uncomfortable with power. You think power is bad and evil. And that’s exactly why you’re the people who I trust to get power and use it for good.”
For Wimsatt, this fear of power inhibits the effectiveness of our (so-called) liberal politicians, as well. “People want to have one-night stands with politicians or the political process, and wonder why they’re not happy in the morning. It’s because true change, like true love, requires steadfast commitment and realistic expectations,” he suggests. “We need to make difficult choices and hold our leaders accountable … [and] we need to make sure we’re expanding the political space to create progressive change, not tearing them down.”
We on the left like to talk about empowerment a lot. But rarely do we empower ourselves, as a movement. Maybe part of the reason is that we’re scared to have the power, or at least too complacent with fighting those who abuse their power.
“We like to think of change as coming from the bottom-up. From the people. From people who had it hard, people who have been most affected by injustice and who have risen up against all odds to fight for themselves and their people …
“But the reality of the magnitude of global corporate and military power is that the most oppressed people can rarely do it by themselves.”
And as our history shows, they rarely have. “Che Guevera was an upper-middle-class kid who was studying to be a doctor,” Wimsatt points out. “Gandhi was a member of an upper caste who studied law in London. Even Karl Marx – Mr. Communism himself – was upper-middle class. Billionaire George Soros has probably done as much to change the prison-industrial complex and racist drug laws as any other living person.”
Maybe, power isn’t so bad after all. And maybe, a little power would go a long way to enabling change.
“1) Be good. 2) Get power. 3) Don’t do stupid things to mess up your life,” suggests Wimsatt. What could be easier, or harder, than that?
“When I was a boy of fourteen,” Mark Twain once quipped, “my father was so ignorant, I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by much he’d learned in seven years.”
And so it is for Billy Wimsatt, youth organizer, activist and author of three groundbreaking books: No More Prisons, Bomb the Suburbs, and most importantly ,Please Don’t Bomb the Suburbs.
I eagerly await his next book. No matter how dorky the title sounds.
(Originally appeared in Counterpunch.)