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maurice ‘moe’ mitchell: an afropunk in national politics

January 3, 2020
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At the onset of 2020 — and on the verge of all the risky circumstances this upcoming year holds for the planet, for America, and for the AFROPUNK community — few people embody the moment’s potential like Maurice “Moe” Mitchell. Not least because Mitchell’s history is also our history. It is a journey fueled by an intertwining of radical social, political and musical idealism, and rejecting the failed ideas of the status quo while looking to Black liberation as a model for what can be achieved. AFROPUNK has been lucky enough to be a stop on Moe’s route, to follow it closely, and now we are joining him for this next stage.

Currently, Maurice Mitchell is best known as the National Director of the Working Families Party (WFP), a two-decades-old political party that corporate media at times mistakes for the Democrats’ left-wing, but is a truly independent entity, with a strong progressive voice for a range of underprivileged communities and around issues of criminal justice. In short, while we do not endorse any political parties outright, we fuck with WFP — especially in Brooklyn (AFROPUNK’s home) and in the state of New York — and have cheered on its successes in local and state elections.

Yet, before Mitchell was a nationally respected activist and organizer who played a key role in the Movement for Black Lives, he was the singer of Cipher, a hardcore band that was featured in James Spooner’s 2003 documentary, Afro-Punk, and that has appeared on the AFROPUNK Brooklyn stage on multiple occasions. So it is hardly a stretch to call Moe’s truth, our truth. He is applying lessons learned as a Long Island punk rock kid and as Howard University student activist to his mission to remake the system’s structure. And he has never given up on his original ideals — a strategy AFROPUNK attempts to apply every damn day. 

Moe Mitchell has gained strength in the struggle, and he keeps getting stronger. Since it is exactly the kind of strength we’re gonna need in 2020, we thought this would be a good time to present this interview we conducted with Moe in late November. It is specific to the moment and the issues we are facing, but also broadly philosophic to our global circumstances. It is a worthy read, full of ideas to sprinkle on your resolutions and rest next to the ballot, and the marching boots. 

First off, you went from playing in a punk band to being the chairman of a somewhat revolutionary political party. Can you talk a little bit about that journey and layout a few of the skills of your former occupation that come in handy in your current one?

I didn’t really make a journey from hardcore musician to organizer; I was always both from an early age. I have two callings in my life: the artistic and political. And they’re both about raising consciousness. At Howard, I’d lead a protest against police violence during the day and then travel to eastern Pennsylvania to play with Earth Crisis. That was my life in 1998.

But what I can say is that the skills and the worldview I developed in the hardcore scene have been fundamental to my career as an organizer. The DIY spirit is strong in me. It’s how I tackle problems that I encounter in organizing and politics. I don’t wait for permission or validation before I decide to do something. As teenagers, we were making 7” singles and putting together national tours. We did what we thought was necessary to reach the audience of people we wanted to reach and have a conversation with them, and we didn’t wait for a manager to tell us to do it. 

Similarly, if I waited for validation as director of the WFP, Kendra Brooks would not be the first third-party city councilperson in the history of Philadelphia. Kendra’s election was a punk rock political statement. 

Punk is about trying to articulate your authentic voice despite whatever limitations or boundaries other people try to put on you. That’s what we’re trying to achieve with the WFP — giving people the power to articulate their own voice and will despite the constraints of our racist, sexist, capitalist caste system. The WFP is fighting for a world where we can all be free, and there’s nothing more punk than that. 

By mainstream standards, the Working Families Party platform is considered to be left of center — though I think many of us simply consider it to be modern and full of humane proposals. Talk a little bit about the central tenets of the WFP, and how you think they fit in modern American society?

Forget left and right. We’re coming from the bottom, to take the top. Most everyday people, no matter what political label you apply to yourself, are in the 99 percent. The WFP’s job is to organize those people and take on the oligarchs who have led our country and our world to the brink on every level. We think that leadership should come from the grassroots, not the aggressively mediocre elite who feel entitled to lead because they always have. We are committed to challenging their unchecked privilege and power. 

And when you explain it to people, it’s common sense. Would you rather be in solidarity with people who share your problems, or with the billionaire class who created those problems for all of us? People try and make so-called left-wing solutions seem scary or fringe. But what I’ve found is that if you give working people safety to think collectively about solutions to their problems, they will come to the same conclusions that we need to get together and support one another, because life is really hard. And it’s not our fault that life is really hard, because the people at the top are making it much harder than it needs to be. Our job is to make sure that everyday people don’t blame themselves, or their neighbors, for structural problems. We need to properly identify the man-made structures that enforce our violent, pernicious caste system.  

We are in a moment of crisis. We don’t have the luxury of opining. We have to rally and organize. There is no Plan B, and there are no smart, Ivy League-educated class of tacticians and bureaucrats swooping in to save us. In fact, they’re the ones who brought us to this place. 

Who are some of the revolutionary figures (in history, in politics, in culture) that you have looked to in your past — and maybe whom you currently reference — for inspiration?

I’ll give you four. First is Malcolm X, for his integrity and his willingness to follow his truth even though it cost him his life. Second is Nina Simone. I think Nina’s approach was very punk: uncompromising politically and artistically, even though it came at a great cost. At a time of great strife, she declined to take the most popular path and chose instead the one that most deeply aligned with her sense of self as an artist and as a cultural organizer. Other artists can learn from that. Next is Ella Baker, who was a driving force behind so many movements, yet who people don’t know about the way they know about Martin Luther King. I admire her commitment to the struggle and her emphasis on the mentorship of younger organizers. Ella was a high-impact, low-ego guru. Finally, there’s Bayard Rustin. He was the architect of the 1963 March on Washington and the intellectual force behind MLK. He was a queer Black man working alongside a Baptist minister and a lot of other straight men and women. 

In all four cases, what stands out for me is their humanity. None of these people’s politics are perfect. And that’s helpful for me to remember because I’m not perfect and my politics aren’t perfect. Even the best of us are always developing and growing. 

We live in very odd political times at the moment. Some issues and ideas that were not long ago considered taboo — reparations, American socialism (and on the flipside, American fascism), capitalism — seem to actually be in vogue and up for discussion. Philosophical question: What constitutes a revolutionary position in today’s America? 

I think we’re in exciting times when everyday people are rethinking whether or not neoliberal capitalism is truly the economic system it’s all cracked up to be, and we’re having a serious conversation about reparations. We are in a populist moment when elite opinion is fading and regular people are asking questions. [Mega-rich families like] the Sacklers, DeVoses, Trumps, and the wealthy folks that bought their way into Ivy League school each tell a unique story of elite incompetence. Folks around the world are engaged in popular uprisings. This is an opening for the seeding of a truly revolutionary moment.

However, I want to qualify that. Strictly speaking, most of the conversations happening right now don’t involve truly revolutionary politics. On the debate stage, even the most left candidates aren’t talking revolution. They aren’t even talking about a political revolution where we bring a totally different system online to replace the one we’re under. It would be cool if they were! But right now we have three basic trajectories: inching closer to neofascism, recommitting to the failed neoliberal consensus of the past 40 years, or trodding the path towards a social democracy like Northern European economies. None of these paths is necessarily a revolutionary path. 

Now, to even get to social democracy, we need people to engage in a multitude of tactics and have a multitude of positions — some of them revolutionary. There is absolutely a role for people who are advancing a revolutionary line to expand the boundaries of the possible. On top of setting the pace and expanding our imaginations, it gives room for electoral organizers like folks with WFP to achieve the most transformational victories possible. 

Not all change will move us in the direction of social democracy. Some of it will simply reinforce the status quo, locking us in and releasing the pressure that folks fomenting revolution have built up. And not all revolution is necessarily a good thing. Most revolutions are progressive or start that way, but they can often be co-opted. If you create a popular uprising that provides an opportunity for revolutionary change, the most organized force will fill the vacuum. Often that can be retrograde or corporate. The Iranian revolution and, more recently, Egypt following the protests at Tahrir Square are good case studies. 

My north star is not simply whether or not the change is revolutionary, it’s whether the revolution creates the type of society we want — the kind where everyone in their very limited time on earth has access to joy and pleasure, without anxiety or stress over their most basic needs. We are light-years from that. Thirty-thousand children die every day who don’t need to. 

Now, to get to that type of society, there’s no question that we need a revolution. We have to articulate that north star and work backward to figure out the tactics and strategies we need to adopt to make that happen. The more transformative and revolutionary your ideas, the more organizing you’ll need to do to make it a reality. If you can build a significant population of everyday people to demand transformational change, it can happen very rapidly. When it happens very, very rapidly, you have yourself a revolution. It is rare and glorious — a political earthquake.

But there are no shortcuts to building that critical mass. You can’t tweet or philosophize your way there. You need to organize people. The difference between a revolutionary idea and a revolutionary project is one’s commitment to do the organizing and sacrifice for the organizing. 

In 2020, the AFROPUNK motto is “Strength in Struggle” — does that phrase mean anything to you, or evoke anything in particular?

To me, that sounds like a challenge. Our world is in crisis. How are we going to respond?  We’re seeing popular uprisings connected to austerity and climate. We’re seeing the rising tide of white nationalism and neofascism. The clock is ticking for this planet of ours. The neoliberal order has failed in every way imaginable. 

It’s reasonable for everyday people to respond by settling into despair and cynicism and in fact the powers that be would vastly prefer it. The question is, in this moment of struggle, can we get past apathy and adopt a posture of strength and solidarity? Will the solidarity of whiteness overrule the potential for class solidarity, or could we see a truly multiracial re-alignment in our politics and our society? If we get there, we will get through this moment of struggle and get to a place where everyday people can have a decent life, no matter what you look like, where you come from, who you love, or how much money is in your pocket. I believe that future is attainable. 


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