exclusive interview (part 2): boots riley of the coup talks revolution, new album

October 29, 2012

Boots Riley is the outspoken frontman for Oakland revolutionary hip-hop group The Coup. Since their 1993 debut, Kill My Landlord, Boots has become known as much for his activism and revolutionary politics as his music. He founded Street Sweeper Social Club with Tom Morello in 2006, and has been an active and outspoken member of Occupy Oakland. The Coup’s latest record Sorry To Bother You drops October 30th.
As Afropunk’s resident Occupier, I talked to Boots about his views on radical / revolutionary politics, and the future of the Occupy movement. Check out Part 1 of our interview here.

Interview by Nathan Leigh

You’ve been an outspoken community activist since before you were a musician. How do you see your music intersecting with your activism?

I make music and songs about things that I’m passionate about. You know, and these issues are things that I’m passionate about. I want to help make a movement in which people can change the world around them. And have control over the world around them. I think that music is about engaging in life. You’re here and now. You’re thinking about the details of the world, and it helps you to be here and now. You’re not thinking about yesterday. You’re thinking about these emotions and these feelings.

Similarly, being involved in changing the world is a real way—a more complete way of engaging in the world. Because otherwise, you’re just watching. You’re just seeing the world go by. The best way to engage with the world is to reach out and touch it and change something. So I think that’s the big connection. I love music because it engages me. I want to be engaged with life. I don’t want to miss it. And that’s why I want to help make a movement that can change the world.


What has your involvement with Occupy Oakland been? Are you part of any working groups or affinity groups?

Right now, I’m not. Right now, I help out a couple places here and there. Make announcements, let folks know what’s happening. But for the past couple months I’ve been working on all these projects, one of which being the baby that was just born.


So you didn’t go to the year anniversary celebration that just happened?

No, I didn’t. But I’ve been at things recently. I’m about to leave for two months, so I’m trying to spend time with my kids.


A year in, what are your thoughts on the Occupy movement, and it’s future?

I think that the whole Occupy Wall Street movement injected a much needed class analysis into the problems that everyone already knew was here. So for the first time people are talking about the actual system of capitalism, and the idea that there is a ruling class—or as it’s called the 1%—and the working class. And there’s a relationship between the wealth that the 1% has and the 99%. The 99% produces the wealth for the 1%. What it has also done is creating militant strategy for creating change. It’s put strikes and shutdowns back on the table. Without the Occupy movement, you wouldn’t have seen, for instance, the large scale strike that they had in Canada just recently.


Or the Walmart Strike.

Yeah, the Walmart strike, or the Chicago teacher’s strike may not have been able to be as militant as it was had the precedent not already been set. So things are growing in that way. People are looking at solutions to many of the already identified problems as something that can be leveraged through collective work stoppages. Through withholding labor. And that changes the game entirely. And it’s growing. People are accepting the idea of militant struggle.


Well speaking of militant struggle, there was some controversy about your Facebook post about black bloc tactics the other day. First off, since there’s even some disagreements even among activists what black bloc even means, how do you define black bloc?

[A solid history and explanation of Black Bloc Tactics via Portland Occupier]

Well, in this case, I’m speaking of specific things. Mainly breaking people’s windows—people’s car windows. So that’s what I’m talking about with that particular tactic. I’ve been pushing a long time for when people have helmets and shields and are able to push past the police block. Well, first you have to have a lot of people there. So obviously other work has to be going on. But that idea opens up huge space to do other sorts of actions, and to protect yourself from the onslaught of rubber bullets and things like that. So that is actually part of a black bloc tactic. And I think that could definitely be used in strikes. You know, as you see with the Walmart thing, they brought out the armored police vehicles, and at a certain point to have a strike line that keeps out scabs, you’re going to have those kinds of tactics. Whether they’re called black bloc or not, I don’t care or know.

But the main point of my thing was that what is needed is campaigns in which we work with the community to collectivize their individual struggles against the system. To show that there are collective militant direct action ways to effect material things in their lives. To help get higher wages, better housing conditions, and things like that. To stop evictions. I think that when you do that, then you gain people’s trust. When you do that, then you have to work with people and know them. And in that way folks can be radicalized.

So that’s what it’s talking about. It’s not so much about just what happens at an event or a march, but what happens in between. Because what happens in between will dictate what you think is going to work at that march or event. So what I was pointing out is that some folks think that even if they’re not down with those tactics, there’s this thing—even in the non-violent community— that a movement is about marches or big events. But what this is really saying is that a movement is about building this mass movement that’s built on people fighting and struggling together around standards of living issues.


What do you think are the most effective revolutionary tactics?

Well, what has to happen are strikes and shutdowns that first demand short-term things, such as higher wages and stopping foreclosures and evictions. That’s first. What that will do then, is build up a grouping. As that goes, that movement can turn revolutionary. So what do I think is the best revolutionary tactic? It’s different in every time, every place, and every situation. There’s no way for anyone to say what the best revolutionary tactics are. period. But all you can say is “based on what I’m seeing around me, this is working or this isn’t working.” You have to have an analysis. It’s different in different places.

A lot of people associate guerrilla warfare with revolution, for instance—as a fighting style. However in China, guerrilla warfare wouldn’t have worked. But what did work was just masses of people marching through, like “Fuck you, we got hella people. You’re done with.” Obviously I’m being very simplistic. But there’s different things that happen in different terrains. And you have to know the terrain first. And part of what helps you to know the terrain is to work with people where they are. Too often revolutionaries think that certain kinds of struggles are reformist. But the idea is that it’s not about reform or revolution. That’s an idea that came about in the 60’s. But what it always had been by revolutionaries—by people who actually made revolution—is reform and revolution. You show that masses can make changes through large numbers in direct action. And you show that we have to keep change in there and we have to change the system.

So at some point, workers will take over the places of business that the corporations own. And at that point, either large numbers of the military will fight against them, or they’ll join their actual relatives. Cause that’ll be their cousins and things like that. And there will be a fight, you know.


So do you think that sort of conflict is inevitable? Or do you see there being a room for any sort of Gandhian revolution?

Well conflict is happening already. And there’s a myth about the whole Gandhian revolution. You know, British imperialism was defeated over a long period of time. And even while Gandhi was around, there was violent clashes happening. The whole history of India in the 20th century included people fighting and battling for independence. So Gandhi is used to mean “pacifism,” but Indian independence was not won through pacifism. Even the re-emergence of yoga in the 20th century was because there was this idea that Indian men were being portrayed as passive. And they wanted to bring forth something in their culture that had to do with being physically fit. These were things that were practiced before, but they were ancient. And it got brought out with the idea that “we need to promote things in our culture that have to do with the fact that we can be physically fit.” And even though they originally were thing that had to do with stretching so you could be in the right place of mind to meditate. They were brought back as part of a campaign that “we need to fight and win.”


There’s a lot of talk right now in activist circles about the election and electoral politics in general. What are your feelings on electoral politics? Do you believe elections have the power to promote positive social change?

If you mean, specifically around candidates? No. Here’s the thing. If you have a militant mass movement, you can make any politician do what you want them to do. If you don’t have a militant mass movement going on, you can have the most supposedly progressive politicians that will have to have no choice but to cower under the large movement that’s there—which is capitalism. For instance, affirmative action came into being under Nixon. Nixon is a right winger. He didn’t do it because he had a good day and felt good about people of color. He did it because there were revolutions going on all over the world, and in the United States people were in the streets. There were movements going, and profit was being stopped.

So it didn’t come from people saying “we gotta get the right person.” That’s something that’s only come around since the 60’s. For the left to be “our answer is to get the right person in office.” And that’s happened since the 60’s, since before that you had the Communist Party organizing in the 20’s and the 30’s. Millions of people in the streets. You had places like Montana and Utah, which were considered by the FBI hotbeds of communist activity. You had militant strikes happening. People sitting down and taking over—occupying, as it was called—occupying factories. Striking at mines. Things like that  going on all over the place. And that’s how the New Deal came in. It didn’t happen because people who knew that capitalism should be defeated decided to put their efforts into electing FDR. This a new sort of revisionist idea of why voting rights were fought for in the first place. They were fought for only as a means towards freedom. The thing is that the elections deteriorate movements. Because there is this finite goal. It’s easy for one to say “well, we should support the elections and we should do other movements.” However, you do that—you put your energy into that—and there’s no movement after it. We saw that in 2004 with the anti-war movement turning in to a pro-Kerry movement. Then it was decimated afterward. All those anti-war groups turned their efforts into getting Kerry in, even though he wasn’t anti-war. Then, it built up again, and then all those anti-war groups turned into pro-Obama groups. And at that time people were like “Look at all the networks that are being created! And all these grassroots this-and-that!” A lot of work went into it. People put a lot of time into that. And then after the election: gone. Right?



So the real thing that we can teach people is to not put hopes in electing someone. But to make a movement that instead of begging the puppets to change something, actually cripples the puppet masters. And they’ll make the puppets dance however you want them to. Even if you’re only looking for some quick reforms, those quick reforms are only going to happen if you are spending your time building a movement, instead of building an election campaign.


What would a Boots Riley presidency look like?

Well, that’s the whole point! The president doesn’t have the power to do anything! [Laughs] The ruling class controls all of the elected officials, and that job is a function. And it’s function is to carry out the ruling classes goals. So what would it be like? A Boots Riley presidency would probably look not much different than any other presidency you’ve ever seen. And exactly why the president that’s in office doesn’t look much different from any other president you’ve seen. There’s a little difference between Democrats and Republicans—very tiny. But the reason that that’s not worth celebrating is the fact that getting those folks in office means quelling a movement.


So there’s no hope of a Boots Riley / Jello Biafra Green Party ticket in 2016?

[Laughs] No.