Interview: Ernesto Aguilar of the Ruckus tour

by John Kawakami Saturday, Mar. 16, 2002 at 5:29 PM
johnk@woodstock.com

On Saturday the 16th, Bring the Ruckus, a revolutionary collective from Arizona, will be making a presentation at Flor Y Canto. Ernesto Aguilar will be at this event. This interview was conducted over email by John Kawakami (johnk@woodstock.com) for the IMC.

error IMC: What's the purpose of this tour?

Ernesto Aguilar: About 18 months ago, the Ruckus collective in Phoenix, Arizona, developed a proposal called "Bring the Ruckus." The proposal made two fairly critical observations. One, that the central task of a revolutionary organization should be to challenge white supremacy, or the power system and dynamic in this society that is supported and maintained by folks who, consciously or subconsciously, classify themselves as white. And two, that we need to build an organization around challenging white supremacy in many manifestations we see around us every day.

The proposal was, in part, rooted in Ruckus' community-based activism in building a politically conscious Copwatch group in Phoenix. That Copwatch, if you contrast it with others, brought an analysis to the table of how police serve white supremacy and work against oppressed people. Ruckus did it in a way few similarly oriented groups have. And they were extremely successful in doing it. In addition, Ruckus spent over a year studying various political tendencies, from feminist movements to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to understand successes and failures, and to develop junctures in which groups could be successful. A great deal of that material is posted on Ruckus' website, which is at www.illegalvoices.org/ruckus/.

Since then, there has been a lot of feedback on the proposal -- good, bad, constructive, not-so-constructive, you name it. Everyone's got an opinion. To their credit, Ruckus organizers have basically said, 'hey, if you grasp the idea here and where we're going, even if you don't completely agree, dialogue with us, put in work together and let's see how we can unite around this effort.' They have held meetings at the last Strategic Resistance conference and other events -- recently the National Conference on Organized Resistance -- as well as made what I think is a pretty real effort in finding out what people think, what they see needs to happen and how they picture this growing. I found that approach refreshing. Put simply, it's about being open, and understanding our diverse views and cultures, but trying to figure out where we can unite. I think others liked that too, and the proposal gained momentum.

The purpose of the "Fight the Power, Build the Power" tour is essentially to build with those with whom Ruckus has dialogued the last year and a half, as well as to take these discussions to a new audience, and to do so in a face-to-face, interactive way. I was asked to speak because of my work over the years as an organizer and because Ruckus felt I brought some insight on issues of white supremacy.

More than a speaking tour, I like to look at this as a learning tour. A comrade once told me that activists dedicate themselves to a cause, and believe that they have the answers; which the people need. Organizers dedicate themselves to a people and put their faith in who they are working with, and realize that those people most effected by oppression have the best answer for how to subvert that oppression. We're coming out to learn from people -- what they think, what they feel is important, and how they feel this kind of effort relates to themselves.

IMC: What's your relationship to Bring the Ruckus and their politics?

EA: Around the time the Bring the Ruckus proposal was released, I was approached by Joel Olson, a longtime comrade, and asked for feedback in the proposal. That's the kind of approach Ruckus took -- go to people, then get their honest comments and criticisms.

While I certainly had some comments and criticisms of the proposal at the time, I thought it was essentially a sound document. I was also impressed with the fact that Ruckus had done real street-level work as well as political study to come up with the document. I've seen lots of complaints about the doc over the year, but it's surprising how few have real alternatives /and/ have done grassroots organizing and political education to demonstrate the effectiveness of one's ideals. And that's no disrespect to anyone at all. I've just been organizing for some time, and I've seen as many chicken-in-every-pot radical promises and 'working class'-'ruling class' pontificating as anyone else. To say I was a little cynical about the 31 flavors of reportedly revolutionary politics is a major understatement. Again, not popping off on anyone. But I think that what I'm saying goes for a lot of people. Everybody's got promises and big ideas, but it takes something practical to make it happen. That's what raised my interest in Ruckus.

Today, I consider myself supportive of the general efforts Ruckus makes, just as I support all my brothers and sisters seeking to be free and to unlearn the miseducation with which this poisoned society has brainwashed us. And I encourage people to dialogue and learn more. And if you can find a little unity, I encourage people to get more involved. Nobody stakes out a position against white supremacy and white privilege -- a position which arguably gets you diseed by allegedly progressive people and worse by the state, which always has a surplus of smallpox-infested blankets and hollow points to go around -- because one's trying to be popular.

IMC: The draft proposal by the Ruckus collective seems to be heavily weighted toward identity issues, and puts White Power as its first issue. What about class and economic issues?

EA: I've been fortunate enough to dialogue with many people about the document. Perhaps because I'm not involved in Ruckus, people are pretty honest with me about their disagreements. The question about focusing on white supremacy is a common one. Maybe that's because it's so new to the folks who often see the document. Maybe it's because many radicals are oriented toward looking at politics through some layer of a Marxist lens. I'm not sure, and maybe Ruckus folks would be better to ask about disagreements they hear.

I think politics are a reflection of people's lives. The food, clothing, shelter and freedom my people have in the barrio where I grew up, where the white kids in rural West Virginia live or even where an immigrant working tables for cash in Florida to survive directly relates to the highest positions of power and control in this country. The fact that young Black men and Mexicanos are the kids pulled over and photographed as gang members, while the white kids in a different part of town aren't relates to race, class, gender -- particularly when you bear in mind how women of color are outrageously represented in prisons -- and economics. But foremost it's a function of a white supremacist power system. And I don't think pointing that out denies how important economics and class are to this society. Both are essential to understand.

As you get to know me personally, one thing you'll learn is I tend to shy away from movement terms. 'Identity politics' as a term, over the last few years, has been used primarily as a derisive phrase. It's often used by well-intentioned people to pit oppressions against one another, and it's fair to start calling that out more. Over the years, everything from the Black Panther Party to anarchist people of color have been accused of carrying the 'identity politics' banner at the cost of the class banner or the economic oppression banner, and what have you. Unfortunately, by using this kind of logic, we unconsciously start to engage in the hypercompetitiveness and duality that this society relies upon.

Traci Harris, one of the speakers on the tour, recently pointed out something bell hooks said on this. We are socialized to think in terms of opposition rather than compatibility. This competitive thought process leads to a misconception that one is a feminist -- or, in this case, one who addresses white supremacy or revolutionary politics -- because you are not something else. bell hooks, as those who've read her work will recall, recognizes this society is white supremacist, capitalist and patriarchal, and that such understandings are compatible rather than operate as movements competing for first place.

What I try to emphasize to people is that, as you read history, you'll see that white supremacy is not purely an issue that solely affects people of color of even white people, but which is intimately wrapped around every strata -- labor, economics, law, education, gender relations, entertainment, religion, war and virtually every facet of society. You cannot talk class and not talk about white supremacy, I think. You can't talk about economics and recognize the role white supremacy plays in that -- whether that's Manifest Destiny or whether it's today's globalization stamping out lives, labor and culture .White supremacy, in its hundreds of years of development, has evolved to the extent where people barely recognize how profoundly it impacts us to this moment in history. And perhaps, that's been it's greatest success of all. Our collective struggle -- whether you're working around labor issues, prisons, immigration, earth liberation or whatever -- is one against a white supremacist power system. Ruckus is only an expression of resistance to that genocide, and I hope we continue to grow.