by Harriet Lennon
Offering my take on RPS/2044, I should acknowledge that I was one of the book’s eighteen interviewees and, from the organization’s start, an avid member. My addressing the book may seem awkward, but that’s par for me. Consider it narcissistic if you like, or perhaps merely forthright.
Miguel Guevara wanted to hear my views, and I happily consented. But I wasn’t particularly excited by my contribution and doubted Miguel would use it. However, a year later, I received the finished book and a note of thanks. I had lived through the times and knew many of the other Interviewees and the experiences they recounted. Feeling no need to read their words, I set the book aside.
A few months passed and I got the flu. I hate watching video during the day and by chance read RPS/2044 for diversion. I saw after a few chapters that the book would be very useful for someone just getting going on activism and even better for anyone who doubted prospects for winning or was unsure what winning could mean.
Over lunch I read on, and it turned out the book was also useful for an unrelentingly committed veteran like myself, not for reliving glory days or enjoying a subtle selfie, but because thirty six eyes and eighteen voices give eighteen angles, slants, and takes, and eighteen is more than one.
Even for someone involved, it turned out RPS/2044 didn’t get redundant. We interviewees told how got involved and became and retained confidence, how we got radical and used language to communicate and not alienate, how we simultaneously sought reforms and revolution, and how we navigated the ills of violence. We overwhelmingly agreed on all that, though we took different paths to our similar ends, and recounted different nuances.
Considering RPS roots, we evaluated the motives at work in the 2016 election and its 2017 Resist Trump aftermath. We offered related, compatible, mutually enhancing insights on RPS start-up, discussed early rallies and events, described conventions, explained chapter building, recalled demands, explored thoughts, and revealed visions. We recounted successful but also compromised electoral work undertaken to alter old or to model new, as well as to win and use elected offices.
We reported the means and results of our consciousness raising work, described how we contested for race, gender, class, and environmental demands, and examined how we constructed shadow and alternative institutions to plant seeds of future habits, deeds, and projects.
Throughout Guevara’s oral history, my fellow interviewees and I described our journeys into and through RPS, including how we became revolutionaries, our misgivings, and why we persisted. We shared with Miguel Guevara criticism and praise. We recounted warnings and celebrations.
As I read RPS/2044, I felt proud that our in-person descriptions of events transformed otherwise dry claims into heartfelt evidentiary testimony. Yet RPS/2044 is not a call to do as we did. Each respondent recognized the contextual dependency of each event and project in our timeline, whether sanctuaries, boycotts, marches, strikes, occupations, or elections. We workers, athlete, doctor, nurse, actor, priest, judge, cultures, genders, and classes among the book’s principle persona all described RPS as we experienced it, south, north, west, east, center and coast, and about it all we emphasized the contextual dependency of our efforts. I believed and I still believe RPS’s values are suitable and even inevitable for modern human liberation. I believed and still believe no one can end run equity, downplay justice, bypass self management, sacrifice solidarity, or underestimate diversity, sustainability, or peace, and win a worthy world.
Less obviously, and more instructively, I also concluded my fellow interviewees’ words showed the centrality of RPS’s institutional vision for RPS’s timeline. But even beyond that, what I got from hearing RPS history from so many voices and especially from hearing about parts of the journey that were pivotal to other participants, yet peripheral or even unknown to me, was that the path from the past to a revolutionized future isn’t, in fact, one path. At every turn, different steps were not just possible, they were likely.
Rerun the tape starting in 2017 100 times, and the shape of our path would be different each time. A modest change at the outset, would often snowball into major differences not far down the road.
Maybe a few reruns would attain success even faster than we did in our own history. Perhaps a comparable number of rerun histories would not succeed at all, falling to internal flaws or suffering massive war, climate collapse, plague, or other dystopian calamities of the sort so many people so oddly like to write or read. But beyond those possibilities, I would guess that most reruns would lead to liberty like ours did, but take longer than we took due to making different choices, encountering different frictions, or provoking different responses.
Given all that, my main thought on the oral history RPS/2044, and my main hope for it, is that it makes the ringing of revolution plausible, tangible, and able to generate and inform successful activism.
I tried to read RPS/2044 not as the participant I have been, but as the curious and worried teenager I was over a quarter century ago, and, in that persona, I found it highly provocative. It didn’t strike me as a how-to-do-it book. It seemed instead a how-to-conceive-it, how-to-refine-it, and how-to-work-on-it-for-yourself-along-with-others-book.
In that sense, RPS/2044 seemed relevant not only as an oral history, looking back, but as a facilitator of creative rebellion and revolution, looking forward. A work in progress.
Finally, as a taste of the book’s content that I think I can legitimately make available, hoping it may spur you to read more, here is the first exchange Miguel Guevara included with me in the book.
Harriet, born in 2000, you have been a grassroots organizer and a trainer for other organizers. You started your activism in local communities fighting evictions and, at the same time, developing consciousness of larger scale demands and campaigns. You became active with food organizing and delivery. You were always a protector, advocate, and empower-er of the defenseless. You got involved in housing issues a bit later than Cynthia (Cynthia Parks another interviewee with a section right before this one), and with a different focus, right?
Yes, I was in school. I was thinking about social change but not yet seeking it and I began to wonder about housing. First, what could improve the living situation in large apartment complexes? Everyone was fragmented. There were few shared agendas. Landlords dominated. There had to be options worth pursuing.
Second, I wondered whether some broad national policy could increase affordable housing.
I started meeting with friends to discuss ideas. We visited housing activists and tenants’ rights groups and encountered many people already in or about to join RPS, so my friends and I joined too.
So joining wasn’t a major life decision to angst over?
Not remotely. We were sitting around talking, and we noted that people we liked were in RPS. and so we joined. RPS’s short term benefits attracted us.
Our talks hatched two plans that were later adopted as part of RPS housing program. The first was a massive expansion of organizing in apartment complexes. We helped renters see themselves as a collective force able to control their circumstances. We would visit an apartment complex, make friends, and hear about issues and problems. Then we would make tentative suggestions and help implement modest gains. For example, sometimes elderly tenants would be on a high floor they had difficulty getting to and we would arrange an apartment swap with younger tenants from a more accessible floor. Such self-organized events displayed sympathy and a desire for overall fairness.
How did you get folks to do it?
We reached out to student tenants in places where one or more were already in RPS. Before long we approached families. We offered a bit of modesty, a bit of social engagement, and a lot of listening.
Gains that residents could themselves enact, such as making aesthetic changes in corridors, were excellent because they quickly revealed potential. Once we had some trust and excitement built up, we helped people set up tenants’ food co-ops to reduce costs and time spent shopping. With the same logic, we helped set up collective approaches for handling day care and laundry. Folks with kids who worked double shifts couldn’t be active, so freeing people’s time became crucial. We started holding parties and hosting group events. In time, there arose the idea that maybe tenants didn’t have to each individually own things that they would only rarely use but that were important to have available when the need arose. Perhaps people could share. It was like setting up a lending library – but not just for books. Such projects saved time and money, and built trust. New friendships brightened lives and foreshadowed greater gains.
Did you do this type work?
Yes, I was a tenant and organized in my complex, but the work didn’t come easily for me. I wasn’t a person who enters a room and immediately relates to everyone. I was shy, quiet, and not well-suited to talking with folks. Like most women I feared knocking on doors, having a man answer, and going in to talk. But I knew how much it might matter, so occasionally I did it though typically we went door to door in teams, especially for first encounters.
Once we had more trust among residents, dealing collectively with reducing drugs and sexual and spouse abuse became another focus. The idea that people could publicly talk about such horrible personal violations and collectively take steps to reduce them was at first inconceivable. Yet it didn’t take long for our solutions to simpler issues to mature into giving attention to more complex ones.
As collectivism and mutual aid developed, we sought ways to adjudicate disputes, allocate resources, and win lower rents and timely repairs. We realized our apartment complex was a small society amidst others, quite like a neighborhood amidst other neighborhoods, or even a country amidst other countries.
Didn’t you also get involved in broader national campaigns?
Yes, we wondered how we could build high-quality, affordable housing in non-exploitative ways featuring exemplary distribution. Who would do the work? Why would they do it? With what financing? Who would get the product?
As our group discussed these questions we thought about enlisting participation from people who had great unmet needs and under-utilized capacities. Instead of learning how to kill with blind discipline in the military, and instead of learning how to gain more advanced criminal skills to use after release from prison into a society that stigmatized their reentry, why couldn’t soldiers and inmates learn useful skills, cooperate at work, and make their own decisions while generating a much-needed product? We began RPS’s campaign to transform military bases and prisons to soldiers and inmates constructing low-income, high-quality housing, including giving soldiers and inmates, once they left the military or prison, first claim on houses they had helped build, with other recipients being young people, homeless people, and others in need.
Organizing began partly in communities, partly in the military and prisons. RPS members reached out to prison and military families, to people working with those constituencies, and to neighborhoods around bases and prisons. I remember hearing how setting up coffee shops around military bases was a tactic used during the Vietnam war to talk with soldiers about resisting. I also remember working with prisoners’ groups, and visiting inside prisons to talk about our conversion campaign. The interactions were incredibly moving as we met and talked with young and often poor soldiers being used as war fodder, on the one hand, and with diverse people being punished sometimes for real crimes but often for trying to survive, on the other hand. They warmed not just to getting a home on release, but also to playing a powerful positive social role.
It was tumultuous, as we all knew it would be, but it had so many benefits we didn’t gain a good grasp of their full scope until later.
The last major campaign focused on motels and hotels, didn’t it?
We realized the number of empty rooms in hotels and motels, on average, at any moment, was roughly the same as the number of homeless people nationally, about 8 million. We decided to build a campaign around the idea that we should have housing for all before anyone could occupy dwellings that were not their own. This started by saying that all buildings that provided temporary housing for travelers should allot 20% of their rooms to permanent residents at a low income rental rate. There were lots of details, but the idea was clear enough. Luxury had to come after necessity. Of course later everything about hotels, motels, and income for housing would change as RPS progressed and more housing was built, but short of that, the partial opening of various private motels and hotels to low income residency bettered the circumstances of deserving constituencies and elevated values and practices that prepared people for winning further advances.
Finally, all these housing approaches benefitted the people doing the activity, benefitted the recipients of the products, benefitted society writ large, and strengthened various constituencies with skills, dispositions, and interconnections suited to winning still more gains.
Can you remember some pivotal moment or moments during the emergence of RPS that greatly affected you?
Here is one from my time tenant organizing. I called on an elderly couple, the Posners, to ask if they would be interested in very carefully swapping apartments with someone from the first floor so they would no longer have to walk up three flights. They looked at me after getting me some tea and cookies and the gentleman was clearly moved. The woman explained that for two years climbing the stairs had been devastating for her husband, which meant he very rarely went out, and also quite difficult for her. He had worked assembly and his legs were bad. She was, in her own words, long-lived lungs on long-lived legs.
So we talked and they told me about themselves and vice versa and it was striking to hear that they were surprised that it had never even occurred to them to see if anyone would make the switch for them and more so, that no one had ever spontaneously offered.
I took from it not just making new friends and the pleasure of having helped them, but a deep understanding of the incredible extent to which society twists us all so far from human sympathy and respect that we take callous isolation for granted. We don’t question it. We don’t even admit it. We quietly endure while waltzing by it. I realized that to have strong activism we had to overcome the near universal assumption of inevitable isolation and that even switching rooms could spur important consciousness raising.
Going another step back, born in 2000, when did you become radical? What caused it?
I was 19, in community college and had heard various progressive formulations, particularly about racism and global warming, but much else too. I was sympathetic, I guess you might say, but more into music, films, boys, and social media. One night I was talking with a new friend who turned out to be very radical. She was telling me about the then recent Wall Street march and arguing for doing more, including on our campus. After about an hour of describing her aims and expectations, she said, “please don’t take this wrong, but I wonder why you come at every issue assuming indignity is permanent? Why don’t you entertain the possibility of anything else? Why does all your thinking go into navigating current circumstances, and none into seeking change, even as you seem to pretty much accept that things are horrible”?
Her question didn’t have any impact in the moment, but later I began thinking about it. Did I rule out change and take for granted horrible existing relations like I defended scientific theories against lunatic heresy? I almost settled on that being the answer, but my friend pointed out that no scientist would assume cancer was incurable at the outset of considering what to do about it, though a beneficiary of exorbitant fees for cancer treatment might. No engineer would assume a bridge couldn’t span the Hudson River at the outset of trying to connect cities on either side, though someone wanting to maintain separation might. Hearing a proposed cancer cure, or a proposed bridge design, unless you had some axe to grind getting in the way of reason, you might carefully question the proposal, but you would want your doubts to be wrong. You would not hope to be right. Well, this ate at me. What was my axe to grind? Of course, radical views still had to win me over, but a big obstacle had disappeared and before long I was RPS bound.
All this made me see that everyone takes for granted that young people more easily become radical than older people. But why is that? I heard commentators point to the pressures of earning income, having family, toeing the line, but while that explained why young radicals often lose their views as they age, albeit never realizing just how profound a critique of society’s roles that was, for me it didn’t convincingly explain why a young person was more likely than an older person, all else equal, to become radical in the first place. What was it about being older that made one less open to becoming radical?
I decided my experience showed that young or old, to become radical requires at least implicitly recognizing that earlier you had been wrong. The older you are, the more of your life you have to admit was mistaken. If I was thirty when the conversation that began my radicalization occurred, I doubt it would have been enough. I would have been too defensive and this gave me great respect for radical longevity, and even more so for becoming radical later in life.
One last comment. There is a web site for RPS/2044 at www.rps2044.org. It has lots of material, testimonials, and reactions (including this one you are reading). It welcomes comments and forum posts, and it also has a special feature that I particularly want to welcome you to use.
On a page about the interviewees, each of us has a brief bio, a link to our unedited verbatim initial interview, a link for users to submit questions to us, and a link for each of us to a page listing your questions and our answers. Perhaps you will partake of that option and even send a question or two to me. I hope to meet you by that path.
Here, then, indicatively, are the first two questions I have been asked – my answers are online.
Jill Sussman asks: Harriet, at times RPS success seems to owe more to momentum than merit. You describe joining without much examination, based on others having joined. Was that common?
Henrik Hansen: Harriet, In your interview you say that: “I wasn’t the kind of person who goes into a room and immediately relates to people. I didn’t quickly create bonds. I was more like most people. Shy, quiet, not well suited to talking with folks I didn’t know.” How did that change? How did you get beyond the idea that neighbours shouldn’t talk? How did the first neighbours react to activists trying to organize? Because people are both quiet and shy, how did you manage to engage them in the beginning? Finally, what is your suggestion for any radical who wants to organize his apartment complex, but is too shy/afraid to actually start?