Chapter 1: First Steps
Juliet Berkman & Andrej Goldman
discuss the first major march, and boycotts.
Juliet Berkman, a militant feminist, born in 1993, you are a workplace and union organizer, who advocates nonviolence and emphasizes organizing people holding contrary views. You have been shadow Secretary of Labor. Do you remember how you first became radical?
My parents were radical in the 1960s so when I entered college, I already had radical beliefs though I hadn’t taken any actions. Trump’s election deeply upset me, but so did many radicals who seemed more bent on preserving their radical credentials than on preventing Trump from winning. Within hours of the election, I got deathly drunk and my dissolution lasted many weeks.
Yes, I drank away days on end. I felt, if society was a mess, why not me too? Trump was off the charts uncouth and extreme. Neo-Nazis rejoiced and rallied. His rootedness in where society appeared to be going scared the hell out of me. Thankfully, a friend intervened and she and the anti-Trump resistance restored my focus.
Can you tell us a few RPS formative events for you?
The first two conventions and the campaign for balanced jobs in 2024, and for the 30-hour work week in 2025. But I also experienced two especially formative personal events not on any map of RPS history.
At a meeting RPS arranged with workers in a defense plant connected with a university where students were opposing military research, I spoke to an assembly of protesting students and defense-oriented employees. I called for closing the offending workplace but didn’t mention the employees’ future livelihoods. I had warfare on my mind, and I called the employees “peace killers” for not joining student protests that sought to terminate their jobs.
I was militantly confident offering my suicidal notion of how workers should express solidarity with students, but by the next day I was depressed and angry at myself for having adopted a stance that ignored the conditions and feelings of those I was trying to reach. Of course the workers dismissed my rhetoric for disdaining their reality. They found me obnoxious. I had to change.
So you turned the bad moment into a good path. What was the second highpoint?
I attended a memorial service for civil rights activists from past years. The music and solidarity transported me until I felt I was in Birmingham. I saw activists risk life and limb. It was a waking dream, I guess, but no less powerful for that. I still wonder how common experiences like that are. The next day I re-read Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham Jail and his more famous Mountaintop speech. King’s words powerfully moved me. I memorized the letter and talk, and later, in jail or choosing to avoid jail, I repeated his words to myself.
What can you tell us about the first signs of RPS?
I had my first RPS feelings at a Detroit rally for a higher minimum wage and reduced police violence. It was a nice day and the rally appeared typical, but I felt something beyond the event’s stated priorities.
Speakers linked class, race, gender, and sexuality to low wages and police violence and vice versa. I had heard those connections before, but the Detroit speakers urged that we had to renovate everything to comprehensively change anything. They sought new organization to raise wages, reduce violence, gain peace, and win new social relations.
But surely those weren’t new thoughts…
At prior rallies and demonstrations and at home with my parents, too, I had often heard similar powerful, inspiring rhetoric, but when sobriety returned, I noticed little follow-up substance. Past events sought short-run gains. Detroit sought more. It said what it wanted, and it meant what it said, and I wanted in.
Many pinpoint the 2020 March on Wall Street as their RPS start. Were you there?
Yes, and the 300,000 strong March on Wall Street addressed income distribution and corporations. It revealed an emergent community defining our local, national and international connections. It delivered focused dissent and excellent demands. A rousing speech called “We Are the Future,” was given. Have you heard it?
“We are a movement for dignity and justice. We support one another. We seek change for all. We are no longer content to operate on the periphery of power, complaining about its abuses. Beyond curtailing evils, we favor returning power to the people in pursuit of new fulfillment.
“We do not solely oppose impoverished budgets, escalating inequality, resurgent racism, sexual predation, assembly line schools, pharmaceutical drug dealing, corporate profiteering, divisive classism, heinous war, hideous repression, OR planetary climate catastrophe. No. We oppose them all.
“We don’t demand racial solidarity, cultural integrity, gender equity, sexual diversity, life style liberation, political freedom, collective self management, OR economic equity and classlessness. No. We demand it all.”
The speech continued but even those few words reveal where we were headed. Still, if you had told me that thirteen years later I would be Secretary of Labor in a Shadow Government and twelve years thereafter we would celebrate transforming society, I would have laughed. A hundred years, okay. Fifty years, maybe. Twenty five years? Absurd.
My initial RPS sentiment was simple. When someone points a gun at your head and demands your money or your life, you hand him your wallet because his gun makes lone dissent suicide. Similarly, when your capitalist employer demands that you give him your subservience or you get no income, you obey because his power makes lone dissent suicide. I knew that to escape our plight we had to overcome our loneliness and isolation, but I had no inkling how fast collectivity would spread.
Andrej Goldman, born in 1987, you have held various movement jobs and taught in various institutions while writing numerous books and articles. From its start, you have helped author RPS program and vision. Do you remember your radicalization?
In college, I saw economics as a good career choice. I did the discipline’s relatively simple equations, recited its rote answers about supply and demand, and repeated its advisories about government spending and private investment, and after three years of that, I got bored.
I had taken course after course. I had learned to recite acceptable answers to sterile questions. I was a happy idiot masquerading as an informed scholar. But I learned nothing about how corporations really functioned much less about their impact on life. I wasn’t political, much less radical. Just bored.
As a junior, a friend took me to my first demonstration. I wasn’t even curious but then I was surprised to find that I agreed with various speakers and admired their willingness to take a stand. At the same time, taking a stand certainly wasn’t on my agenda. I just watched. Weeks later, and I can’t even tell you why, I wondered why I had watched, admired, and respected, but had not joined the events. That wondering changed my life.
I decided I ought to at least have an informed opinion of the activists and their agendas. I expected I would appreciate their courage and drive, but feel they were confused and wasting their time. I began looking into it, wanting to be fair about it. I started to read – and I guess some would say that that was my undoing. By the time I graduated I had taken some critical courses and read a few books, but it was still only ideas. After graduating, I visited some workplaces and asked people doing rote jobs, and managers too, what their jobs did to them. Their answers propelled my permanent radicalization.
Can you tell us what RPS events most affected you?
I was hugely inspired by the 2021 Schools for the People campaign and, much later, by the 2027 Amazon sit-down strike. During the Schools for the People campaign, I heard parent after parent demand a community center where they could learn and socialize. I heard them demand roses on their tables, not diamonds on their necks.
During the Amazon strike, I lent support and saw the strikers sit down and tell the owners and state that they would not be moved short of their winning dignity and income. I watched the strikers sparkle with energy, compassion, and militancy. I watched them dance and demand. Their passion inspired everyone and I was irretrievably moved.
Returning to the origins of RPS, what role did the early boycotts play?
I was in college, near Boston, still studying abysmal economics, when a Wall Street March speech had called for all those present, their families, their friends, and everyone they could reach out to, to stop buying products from producers of the automatic high velocity weapons prevalent in public mass shootings. The call reverberated across society and sparked activism.
I didn’t own a gun and was never going to buy one. It would be pushing an open door for organizers to talk to me or to anyone I was in school with about not buying from Remington or Glock. People who wanted to work on the gun boycott had to talk to people who owned, or who might soon own, a product from the gun manufacturers. Indeed, it was a wonderful benefit of the campaign that boycott organizers had to bring to gun owners precisely the message gun owners most rejected. Nonetheless, activists started doing just that and, in hindsight, it was a major turning point toward RPS.
Activists had always sought gains for their own constituencies, but allotting energies to those who strongly disagreed started in the early boycott and probably in earlier work battling Trump, too. At any rate, campus boycott activism started when a bunch of students went to Wall Street and heard the call for a boycott of arms dealers and started talking about how to relate to it. We could organize students to boycott producers of automatic weapons, but doing so would be silly. We were not prospective buyers of M-16s and Sig Sauers.
I was at MIT and we wondered why confine ourselves to boycotting manufacturers of hand-held weapons? Individual students didn’t buy tanks or missile systems but MIT has contracts with tank and missile builders. Why not organize students to resist militarizing local and campus police and to resist all campus complicity with war? We consulted organizers of the BDS boycott to aid Palestinians, and also the earlier boycott around South African Apartheid, and we even studied the still earlier grape boycott in the U.S. We demanded that MIT not seek war profits for investors, but social justice for humanity. We urged fellow students to agree that war and war complicity were wrong.
Success can’t have been easy. What were the main obstacles?
Some students believed that there were just wars and that U.S. interventions were selfless. To counter that we offered well known evidence showing the economic and geopolitical motivations and cruel callousness of war.
Other students noted that for MIT to end war research would mean budgetary suicide and neither they nor faculty wanted MIT closed. We saw that to grow, we had to show the moral failings of militarism but also propose how to survive without it. We proposed transition to climate and peace research paid for by revised government budgets and punitive taxes on arms producers.
I remember endlessly discussing how to win over hesitant students. We made it hard for administrators to oppose our calls for greater attention to global warming. We made it hard for them to reject focusing research on new energy sources and on various health campaigns and social innovations. We left them no way to refute our rejection of weapons research.
What was your personal experience of the boycott?
I worked a lot on social media and also helped arrange face-to-face dorm meetings. I worked on teach-ins, organized rallies, and helped occupy labs. I also researched similar efforts during the late 1960s because I knew that that tumultuous period did not prevent, decades later, Trumpism, and I worried that our effort might also grow large only to later dissipate. One of our priorities became trying to clarify past errors so we could do better.
How did your boycott differ from earlier efforts?
We faced some difficult periods but our campaign grew and soon we had a national boycott of manufacturers selling assault rifles and also our campus boycott of war research and military relations that spread from MIT to Johns Hopkins, to Stanford, to Cal Tech, as the first few military-connected schools involved.
What did the boycott’s growth feel like?
Schools with fewer Pentagon ties had smaller battles, but the overall campaign kept spreading and growing. I knew we were winning when to support the boycott indicated student responsibility. We didn’t shame people who disagreed with us, we celebrated whoever joined us. Before long, cross-campus solidarity provoked citywide demonstrations.
Movements on different campuses shared lessons and lent each other support. After two years we held a rally culminating in a sit-in at MIT that attracted over 50,000 students from all over the Boston area. When even more attended a subsequent rally and sit-in at Harvard, and when Northeastern and Boston University then held simultaneous campus-wide strikes, we realized we were not going to be stopped unless we undermined ourselves, and we were steadfastly committed to avoiding that.
Our movement went from opposing war research, to opposing war per se and U.S. Foreign policy. We went from railing against drone policy and drone manufacture and research as murderous immorality, to railing against all wars as outgrowths of imperial profit seeking and geopolitical coercion.
Can you tell us about some of the “difficult moments”?
One hard step was to discover and reveal the research. Students had tough class schedules and few resources and each research project was isolated from the rest and from general visibility.
In that context, a few daring students snuck into a secret site, took pictures, and stole revealing documents. They proved MIT was a big corporation loyally and greedily designing drone, surveillance, and missile technology for repressing domestic and foreign populations. Students elsewhere adopted similar tactics. Once we had incriminating information, we escalated our activism.
Have you read the Whitman poem that references seeing the universe in a grain of sand? I read something like that from a famous scientist, Richard Feynman, who said nature uses only the longest threads, so each small piece reveals the organization of the entire tapestry. In the same way, each radical campaign taught a remarkable amount relevant to all radical campaigns.
For example, I remember how knowledgeable, highly logical, and even socially concerned liberal officials, swept aside contrary evidence so they could admire themselves in their mirrors, oblivious to their own murderous culpability.
But not all administrators were liberal, were they?
Mostly they were, but a significant minority of right-wing officials openly celebrated their militarism and a few caring officials allied with us. I remember finding the staunch right wingers’ absence of hypocrisy easier to stand than the more prevalent liberals’ self delusions. At least with the right-wingers, what you got was what they said, albeit what they said was vile.
What key lessons did you take from the boycotts?
I mainly learned a lot about the mindset of students who balked at joining the effort. Discussions would last hours, as students offered first one rationale for not joining, then another. The weapons weren’t really offensive, they would say. Or they won’t be used. Or we need them to preserve peace. Or, most strange, when used they will provoke dissent.
Did you keep your temper facing those responses?
Sadly, I often got prickly hearing self-serving rationalizations about death-dealing weaponry, but as we overcame each rationale with evidence, we got closer and closer to the heart of the matter with each student we talked to. From campaign to campaign, in one dorm and then the next, on one campus and then the next, students resisting boycott appeals would ultimately tell us, “Okay, you are right about the facts. You are right about the ethics. But resisting will achieve nothing.” We heard it over and over. “You are right, but you will fail, and failing isn’t worth my time.”
How did you deal with that?
We would patiently explain how attracting enough informed and committed support could win until we convinced students it would be senseless for administrators to preserve war research for “patriotic,” greed, or budgetary reasons when doing so would cause students and faculty to permanently close their institutions. But even then most students resisted our call. “I am still not going to join you, because even if you eliminate war research here, it will be done elsewhere. Even if you have lots and lots of people in many places, it will still come back somewhere and eventually everywhere. People are greedy. People are violent. There is no stopping war. There is no reversing injustice.”
Looking back, it seems as if young folks were jaded and beaten old folks…
Yes, back then sometimes college did feel like an old folks home. At bottom, hopelessness fueled almost all student reticence though students admitted it only after we overcame other rationales. Only then, when all else was rebutted, students would finally say, “Human nature sucks. We are all fucked. You should make the best of it. Play along. Change is impossible.”
I looked into past movements to find this was nothing new. Deep-rooted despair had impeded earlier change too. For example, sixties cynicism, though it was severely challenged and shaken, had ultimately retained command. Fifty years later we had to do better.
Where does such cynical despair come from?
Upbringing and schooling tenaciously drum in defeatist attitudes and society’s roles reinforce them. Defeatism and greed become attractive short-term responses to inequalities. Being cynical about winning change not only bolsters people who think they are going to be well off, it also colonizes people destined for low income, low status, and debilitating circumstances. From our campus experiences, we soon realized that in communities, workplaces, and everywhere else, people considered suffering inevitable. I began to see escaping cynicism as essential to becoming radical.
Juliet earlier told me how the anti-Trump resistance helped her escape her demons, Was that more generally true, too?
For some people, yes, but writ large – I don’t think so. Anti Trumpism sought to remove an aberration not challenge people’s deeper cynicism. It spurred great motion. It was a rip in the tide of hopelessness. It had moments of elation, hope, and fierce struggle, but it provided no glue to hold it all together. Its moments didn’t persist. Each rip was too partial. Its activism sought small gains against deviant horrors, not huge gains against the whole social order.
Many of us saw we had to go beyond warding off reactionary evils and even during anti-Trump resistance, we sought to create hope for a new society, but it took years for such sentiments to define what most activists daily did. The anti Trump resistance way more often elevated liberal than radical views.
Did you take other lessons from the boycott? Did anything surprise you?
We fought to get our universities to stop supporting military agendas but we knew victory wouldn’t end murderous research. Schools would spin off labs by making them private corporate firms. We called that trend a massive version of “not in my backyard” you don’t put that crap – but, okay, you can keep it in its current building as long as you legally disown it while it keeps right on operating as in the past.
Aren’t you being a bit hard on students trying to move the tools of war off their campuses? Wasn’t it good they did so?
Yes, because rather than settling for cosmetic changes, we realized our movements had to transcend campuses and take on private corporations. Today MIT, Stanford, and Cal Tech. Tomorrow, not only the spinoffs, but also the NSA and Boeing. Instead of confining our experience to campuses, we talked with workers at war-connected companies. Instead of trying to get war-involved firms to stop cold and therefore go out of business, we confronted war firms with demands to do socially desirable work in place of war work, and simultaneously demanded that Congress re-assign funds from military to social use.
Thinking deeper, we began to realize resistance to our anti-militarist demands reflected factors beyond war fighting. Would our economy produce tanks or quality affordable housing? Drones or ecologically sound infrastructure? Aircraft carriers or renewable energy sources? Missiles or efficient public transport? Would government spend on war or on education, housing, infrastructure, and health?
We wondered why society pursued militarist production over humanist production and concluded that preserving military spending must ward off a threat. We knew the threat wasn’t an external enemy, that was nonsense. We realized that redistributing wealth from military to social use must be way worse for those in power than producing weapons that benefitted only those who directly profited off their production.
Did you determine why spending on public well being was more dangerous to elites than spending on weapons?
We assumed that those who favored war production didn’t build tanks rather than schools because they literally preferred killing to learning. We knew that shifting war-related firms to socially valuable production could enlarge their workforces and even their revenues. The government could pay for a transit system, schools, and hospitals just like it could pay for a missile system. Private firms could receive payments in either case.
Sherlock Holmes advises detectives to rule out all but one explanation, and settle on what is left. We settled on the idea that war production reduces the government acting on behalf of the population and that that curbs two effects elites desperately feared. First, enlarged government social spending reduces conditions of instability and poverty. That, in turn empowers workers and insures them against threats of firing. And that increases workers’ ability to win greater gains. Second, social spending establishes the anti-elite idea that the government ought to benefit the whole population. With that established, people start demanding what they want. I remember how seeing these two points made capitalism’s disgusting logic more real to me.
Did you take any more personal lessons?
I gave a public talk at a university in Florida about the boycott of military work and people asked lots of questions about private guns. I remember, after the talk, on the way out, being accosted by a charismatic student advocate of open carry who wanted students freed to bring handguns to classes. We argued and before long twenty people were listening and tossing in comments.
After awhile, I realized that at bottom, the gun advocate took for granted permanently abysmal societal conditions. He felt that at any moment some maniac could unholster a gun and start shooting people. Having this view, the gun advocate believed in a miniature version of the old notion of mutually assured destruction in which gargantuan stores of nuclear weaponry on both sides meant neither Russia nor the U.S. could use what they had without being annihilated. Similarly, my gun advocating adversary believed that if most students carried hand guns, no bully could impose his will. Even a crazy student hell bent on murder couldn’t do much harm before succumbing. For me to point out that he was ignoring that open carry would unleash crazy fear often escalating what would otherwise be moderate disputes into violent catastrophes missed his point. The gun advocate took violent catastrophe as his baseline. In his view, that was unavoidable. He thought he was reducing the fallout.
I realized then that gun advocates believed society was headed to hell in a hand cart with no significant renovation possible. They weren’t being academic. They weren’t posing a hypothetical. They felt social corruption couldn’t be averted and reversed, and they thus favored a mutual assured destruction logic.
I couldn’t win a trivially simple and limited issue – students carrying guns in classes would be horrible for everyone – without first winning a bigger issue, that society did not have to keep devolving into a kill or be killed danger land.
Leaving Florida to return home, I replayed the confrontation in my mind and realized the lesson was general. When people expect horrible circumstances to only get worse, things that are insane when considered in light of positive social prospects can seem perfectly sensible and even necessary for self defense. If you believe social sanity is unattainable, you sensibly adopt the most effective “insane approach” you can find. Often, people took that path based on flawed assumptions, not evil intent. Learning this stood me in good stead when I would later try to communicate past gigantic chasms of programmatic difference.