interview: socialist alternative activist and formidable fox news opponent darletta scruggs talks student debt crisis, worker’s rights, and changing the system

August 19, 2016

Last week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Chicago-based activist and organizer Darletta Scruggs. Back in April, Scruggs drew national attention after challenging and shutting down Fox News host Neil Cavuto during a conversation (below) about student loan debt, higher education, access, and governmental corruption. The Socialist Alternative and Million Student March-affiliated activist spoke honestly about federal and state government’s investments in the school-to-prison pipeline and the sinister behind-the-scenes collusions that empowers educational institutions and the folks who run them while sabotaging an entire generation of young people.

By Erin White*, AFROPUNK contributor

Erin White: Can you tell me a little bit about how you became politically active?
Darletta Scruggs: I started getting politically active about two years ago I joined an organization called Socialist Alternative and my introduction to organizing was around the $15 minimum wage, and it just kinda spun off from there. And connecting the root of all these obstacles of oppression and inequality that I had been seeing my entire life growing up on the South Side of Chicago. And connecting that to a systemic issue. From there, I just committed a lot of my time to organizing. The more radicalizing moment that got me into organizing was Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow”. I highly recommend anyone who hasn’t to read that book. It has so much information about the root of exploitation, particularly around police violence and mass incarceration. It was so informative for me. Reading that book, there was no way I could ignore what I knew, after reading her book.

EW: I learned that [at one point] you were working for a security truck company and were pushing organization efforts forward, as far as unionizing. Can you tell me about that experience?

DS: Sure. Like everyone I have to sell my labor to eat, so I had to have a job. I got a job working as a manager for Brink’s inc. Literally delivering money at the doorstep of the capitalists, as I like to say. [And] I worked 50+ hours a week. A lot of my time spent there was watching workers, you know, being exploited. Myself, of course, being exploited, but because I was management, the law said I wasn’t technically a worker[…]It’s an intense job. You’re out in the element, the conditions of the weather. You’re subject to security risk at all times. I mean, it’s not an easy job. Workers have been killed due to robberies. Because people know what’s in those trucks. A lot of these workers put their lives out there, as well as their health. And a lot of them don’t make $15/hour. And for me that was just absurd because I’m well aware of how much money this international corporation makes, the fact that they’re unwilling to pay their workers a living wage, but then they were cutting back on all of the benefits that they have earned. Cutting back on health care, cutting back on 401ks, cutting back on vacation time that was earned by workers who have been working for ten plus years and now all of that accrued vacation time, you know, four weeks or three weeks, was just taken away from them.

I’d seen the revenue that they were taking in and it just didn’t match.

I encouraged the workers to go on strike and conduct a union drive and the union drive, unfortunately, we lost by 10 votes and I was fired in the process, so I didn’t have the ability to work on-premises. You know, it was this huge, huge propaganda, and kinda just bullying of the employees. They had corporate come down. It was intimidation, it was bribery tactics, and they were able to successfully block these workers from getting their union.

EW: During the unionizing effort, was there any pushback from employees themselves? In recent years, we’ve seen workers in states like Michigan fighting against the unions. And I’m not really sure unionizing is something on the forefront of most young people’s mind, even young people who are politically aware and feel that they are anti-capitalist. How would you sell unions to them?
DS: I mean, that was a difficulty that I was faced with. A lot of the workers there were young. Young men or color, mostly. And they didn’t understand what a union was. And it’s not their fault.

Unions actually do good for workers. History has shown us [at the height of unionizing] wages were better. Working conditions were better. Those are statistical facts. Now that we have a union bureaucracy and union mis-leadership, that has totally sold out its membership, that needs to be said. We have to be truthful and face facts that a lot of these union presidents and top union officials make six-figures or more. They’re going to the same country clubs where these politicians are rolling back worker’s rights and are attacking unions with anti-union and labor laws. So, they’re sitting at the same tables with these people, claiming that they are negotiating on behalf of the workers, but we are not seeing this. We’re constantly seeing concessions and cuts.

Union density has significantly declined. And I think the way we need to tackle this is that the rank and file membership has to get organized and collective use their power to get rid of the mis-leadership. It has to be activity from workers who do the job everyday and understand their need to actually be the ones participating in these conversations. There has to be a removal of the mis-leadership unions. Or, a creation of new unions, new institutions.

EW: What is Million Student March?
DS: Million Student March was a collective that was originally launched with students in Boston who were member of Socialist Alternative. Basically, they were taking on the call that Bernie Sander’s had said that if a million students were to march on Washington, we would see a significant change around the topic of higher education. Now, we didn’t have the means to get a million people to Washington, but it really made the students (Elan and Keely) want to really do something. They wanted to take that call and bring it into action. And they launched Million Student March. Essentially, it was a national day of action on local campuses and the first one was hugely successful because there’s been a huge void in a lot of student organizing and student work, and yet records show that students are more likely to protest and demonstrate in direct action than in the 1960s. So it just got huge support around the campus. And the conversation of student debt has really been put at the forefront because of the Presidential Election and because of the increase and rise of student movements. So we were able to connect with different organizations for the first round (Nov 12) because of the huge success we want to continue to have a second day of action, but during this time we wanted to expose and connect more with the issues of black and brown students on campus because it [the experience] is different than a white student. We collaborated with Black Liberation Collective was doing a lot of organizing in relation to what was happening around North Carolina.

We [Million Student March] added a demand of a $15 minimum wage for all student workers and campus workers, and the eradication of all student debt, and free, public community colleges and universities. And, we added a fourth demand of divestment from private prisons from all of these universities because we wanted to draw a direct connection of investment in the criminality of black and brown youth and the school and prison pipeline to the struggles of racism students face on campuses as well as the debt that they have to take out in order to achieve an education. So, you know there’s a lot of information that people don’t know in regards to how easy it would be to provide college education in the US, but it’s just an unwillingness to do it from the leaders from the institutions, from these institutions because their main focus is on profit.

EW: Affordability wise, or realistic re-pay-ability wise, do you think that all student lending is predatory?
DS: Yes, absolutely. I mean the massive amount of money. We have a 1.3 trillion dollar student debt bubble. The student debt crisis. Students have more debt than credit card debts and mortgages. It is definitely essential these selling you education and selling you this idea, a dream, that if you get this piece of paper you can go on and make six-figures, you can go on and get that good job at a corporation and what happens is the opposite. Because the jobs that are being created, these non-union jobs, so you take all this debt out and you go into the work force and you can’t afford to pay back these loans. Millennials can’t afford to live on their own or buy houses, they’re stuck at home because of the crisis of capitalism and because of the amount of debt students are forced to take out to get an education. So it’s no reason, realistically, outside of the need for profit, to actually charge for education—it should be a public good. And we can see the fact that public education in places like Chicago and Baltimore and so on, being attacked and the teacher’s unions being attacked, we can see that it’s not so much the inability to provide public education, but it is a need to monetize it so that certain individuals can profit off of that.

EW: If the governmental intervention in the way of providing affordable, if not totally completely free education for everybody, what is the next step for young people who are just trying to survive capitalism? Do we forgo higher education all together? Do you think there are alternative options?
DS: I mean I think there has to be a fundamental transformation in the way we view our society. The idea of “surviving capitalism”…I think current events are showing us that most of us aren’t surviving very well. That that’s not an options. In my opinion, to just go through the motions day-to-day and hope that they get better—they won’t. The fact is, when it comes to our government, we need to take back our government. We don’t own our government, big corporations own our government. But we can see through the policies that are being passed, and the wars that we’re steady being involved in, and imperialist intervention. And the lobbying that happens in our government, we know who they’re representing and we know it’s not us. So we have to take control of these institutions or build our own institutions.

And the fact that, when it comes to education, yes, we still have to participate in it. I’m not saying that those shouldn’t go to college. I, myself, did not have ability to go to college because of my economic position, so I did not have the luxury of making the decision to engage in capitalism, I was structured out of it. So, those that participate, yes, but we also have to understand that we have to be active in grassroots organizing and building organization or whatever to fight against it because there’s no need for it. So it’s not enough for individuals to look at is as individual, we have to start working collectively and say that this is acting against my own interests. Because now I have to take out debt and maybe it’s not so bad for me, but why do I have to take out this debt. What is the reason for this? And we have to question that. So I would say, go to college, receive education, but understand that there has to be organizing efforts, there has to be engagement and participation. We have to question society and those that control it, and be actively changing it.

11 state in this country spend more money—that’s public money, taxpayer money—investing in private prisons than they do in public universities and colleges. Then we have insurance companies and 401k providers that invest money, the largest investors in private prisons are 401k providers. So, that information we need to know because once we know where the money is going, then we can answer the question of, can we just go through the motions day to day? And hope it gets better. Can we survive capitalism and just hope we don’t become subjected to the oppression and exploitation is rooted in the fundamental logic of capitalism. Which is why we see investment in prison and not public education. There’s a reason for that and it’s because the logic of the system requires it.

EW: Do you think it matters who wins the 2016, at this point Presidential Election?
DS: It absolutely does. In the sense of there are real dangers. I mean, I know a Donald Trump presidency really scares people—and it should—because he’s a dangerous, erratic person who shouldn’t hold that kind of position.The fact that he’s able to run makes me question the entire system.

What we also have to bare in mind that, regardless of who’s in office, what our duties are and that our jobs don’t change. We have to get active to counter this. We don’t have control of these political parties. We don’t have control over these institutions. Myself, I am gonna vote independent because I think the Democratic Party largely is not representative of my needs. Living in Chicago, I can see the devastating affects of the policies that a lot of Democratic party politicians have passed. I can’t engage in those parties because I know. But regardless of who you vote for, there needs to be a getting active in some type of movement or some type of organization. Whether that be Million Student March if students wanna get involved in that we’ll have a tour starting on college campuses, so there will be information about that. Or, if you’re interested in getting involved in Socialist Alternative. Whatever the case is, we need people to start getting involved on the issues and participating, because as long as we stand aside and let the powers that be control and dictate what they think is important and what they want to do, our interests will never be represented. So, this election is proof that we have to build our own institutions and we have to take back control over our government.


*Erin White is an Atlanta-based writer and AFROPUNK’s editorial and social media assistant. You can follow her on Tumblr or friend her on Facebook. Have a pitch or an inquiry? Shoot her an email at erin@afropunk.com.