As they stroll down the pedestrian path at Green Lake, chatting and laughing, it’s hard to associate Mara Willaford and Marissa Johnson with the two black liberation activists who stormed the stage, took the microphone from Bernie Sanders and called the audience white supremacists at an August rally in Seattle.
Their actions, self-described as “hella rude,” quickly spurred a nationwide conversation that drifted steadily in and out of local and national media for weeks. The two stayed nearly silent while “think pieces on think pieces on think pieces” — as Willaford calls them — swept the Internet. On volatile online forums and around the water cooler, questions were rehashed: Why Bernie? Why be so disrespectful? Are they real Black Lives Matter activists or secret plants by Hillary Clinton’s campaign? Aren’t they harming their own cause?
Many attacked Johnson’s character (sometimes her Evangelical Christian faith, sometimes her high school support of Sarah Palin that stemmed from tea-party parents), while missing her message altogether. On the eve of the first anniversary of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Willaford and Johnson had a lot to say, and with palpable urgency, to Bernie Sanders and the audience.
They were on the Westlake stage for around 20 minutes, with Johnson addressing the heated racial climate, locally and nationally — mentioning the $210 million Children and Family Justice Center youth jail to be built, the federal investigation of the Seattle Police Department and that Seattle sits on occupied Duwamish land.
She touched upon some harsh realities, like gentrification in the Central District and the disproportionate rate of African-American children who are suspended within the Seattle School District (which was federally investigated in 2013). As of press time, The Guardian’s Counted project has tracked more than 850 citizen deaths by police officers this year alone, a large percentage of those being people of color. All these factors and more contribute to “the emergency black bodies are under,” as Willaford called it.
Do they have regrets? Sure. Willaford will tell you she wishes she’d had a serious discussion with her parents, given the threats they’ve received, and Johnson will tell you she wishes she’d worn a nice plum lipstick. But as far as challenging power structures in a system that doesn’t work for the marginalized, as far as intentionally and strategically upsetting a web of white superiority, white fragility and public figures that associate with Black Lives Matter while refusing to truly dismantle systems that benefit them … that is something they would never apologize for.
You have been very intentional about media that you choose and haven’t done any local interviews until now. Why is that?
MW: Well, I think as far as why Real Change and why we haven’t done any other local interviews is because we just felt like other local media outlets and nationally are really invested in the state apparatus and are really invested in spinning this story in a negative light regardless of what we say. And so it really didn’t make sense with our principles or our strategy to give any explanation to mainstream media outlets. And we do really like the mission of Real Change and that’s why we decided to talk to you.
MJ: I would add to that that this work is not about us. We didn’t feel like it was necessary to try to dictate the conversations.We understand ourselves in the larger scheme as sort of opportunities. We’re political agitators and we’re an opportunity and an occasion for people to have a certain dialogue. People get wrapped up in their personal reputations or whatever and so we could have really gone after that and tried to dictate conversations or be like I’m not funded by, you know, we could have really gone down that road. But all of that was derailment and we didn’t want to dictate the conversation. That’s pretty new for folks: that we saw all the media stuff but we just let it play out.So I think our desire was to not dictate the conversation, recognizing how important it was not that people necessarily got to a certain conclusion but that people went through the process of a conversation and that we were just the spark for that.
Secondarily, we defy all the expectations of what people think that young black women should be and so you see, after the Bernie Sanders thing, even though we’re super unapologetic--all of our actions come out of our deep politic, which we’ve stated publicly every time--people still demanded for us to fit into these mammy-ish tropes of black womanhood that they had. They wanted us to apologize and prove ourselves to be proper, polite and educated So when people were like, we demand an apology. And I’m like we don’t care, pussy poppin’ we had a great day. People are even more infuriated, right, because we resist conforming to those ideas that people put on us so people are like those women look ratchet with their weave and their hair and we’re like, yes.
People called you hood rats.
MJ: Yeah, and I’m like, yes hood rat who just rocked your presidential election. Onto the next. I think our refusal to be confined by the language that people put on us and to even embody those terms so much that they explode, I think that sends people into even more of a tailspin. It’s been really important with our politic around valuing black humanity, and all different types of black humanity that we be unafraid and unapologetic to sort of encompass those spaces where people say that black life isn’t valued because it’s ratchet or uneducated or rude. We’ll be all of those things and still fight for our liberation.
What was the moment that sparked the activism within you guys as black women in Seattle and how has your experience as black women in Seattle impacted you today?
MW: One of the things that we’ve talked about as far as similarity, Marissa grew up in Louisiana, I grew up in Seattle. And we have different backgrounds.
MJ: Totally different.
MW: In a lot of ways but one of the things that we talked about as far as our childhood that we had in common is that both of us grew up with parents that really always told us be whatever you want, do whatever you want, don’t be afraid to question authority, integrity matters more than image.
MW: You know? I think a lot of the gender-based, racialized expectations that are pushed on people, on black women to prove their self-worth, were not really pushed on us in our childhood. Our parents really enforced that you have an inherent self-worth and that what people say about you or what you look like or how much money you make or how many degrees you have doesn’t dictate your worth as a human being. I think that’s one of the reasons why neither of us has ever felt the need to defend ourselves or to worry about our image because it really doesn’t matter. I think we both really have a high sense of purpose and are very driven and so it’s not about fitting into a certain image or expectations that other people have of us.
MJ: The partnership that Mara and I have is really unique within this work. Mara and I really have just sort of organically formed this incredible partnership and I think one of the things that comes out in our work is a high level of trust that’s required to do this work with other people. And we saw that when people first started protesting back in the fall. It was like, we’re out in the streets fighting police violence with people, you’re like, ‘This person would take a bullet for me.’ There’s a certain kind of love and trust that’s built up there. I think that’s another thing that people don’t realize is what kind of: we’re modeling black friendship, black sisterhood, black love for each other in our relationship together. To even do something like the Bernie Sanders thing requires a high level of [trust].
Like Mara said, our reputations, our futures and stuff are aligned and you don’t have communication through a lot of that. You really do have to trust the other person. And so it’s a high level of trust there but even in the aftermath of the Bernie Sanders thing, I had Mara come over one night and I was like, ‘I need you to help me take out my braids’ and she stayed up with me till 3:00am a few days after. We’re both sleep-deprived just taking out my braids and we’re talking. That trust and that care is really central to our work and something that Mara said kind of came out of our childhoods but that we’ve developed organically together.
But we come from such different religious, political--I mean, we’re so different and we literally met out on the streets after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. So it’s interesting, we haven’t known each other very long. I still go to church every single Sunday in the midst of all this stuff, you know. But it’s really all about the work for us, this is not a game.
MJ: So as much as we have a great friendship and a great partnership, this is not a social club. And so I actually don’t care if you’re a different religion than me, I don’t care if you have a different sexual orientation, I don’t care if we grew up differently. Are you trying to get free like me or not? And so me and Mara have a lot of differences and we learn a lot about each other but we’ve always been, like, ‘Okay, well, that doesn’t matter ‘cause we’re trying to get free.’ So a lot of the superficial, petty stuff that people are wrapped up in, we don’t care.
MW: Pay it no mind.
MJ: Yeah, we don’t care but I think that comes from like Mara said, having a high sense of purpose and being really focused on that.
Can you recall when you started questioning the system, when you started moving towards activism?
MW: I hate this question [laughs].
You do, why?
MW: [Laughs] people just ask it every time.
You know why, though, it’s because a lot of people don’t. There are so many people who don’t end up questioning the system.
MW: Right, okay, yeah.
I always want to know because what makes a difference between someone who does something and someone who doesn’t, that’s why I ask, if that’s fair.
MJ: I would say that it’s been a lifetime of formation that gets you to this point. And I think some of those things are negative things and experiences, like I’ve grown up all my life under white supremacy so when you’re like, when did you learn not to trust the system, I’m like, black kids not trusting the system, what. And part of it is negative things, part of it is positive things, having certain privileges, me and Mara have talked about this, that gives us more space to do certain work that other people can’t do because they’ll be more heavily penalized than us or whatever. For instance, I work independently and so I don’t have to worry if I’m seen out at a protest and the media gets my picture that I’m going to lose my job. So that’s a privilege that I have that’s given me more space to do some things that maybe, if somebody works for a corporation or something, they can’t necessarily do that. I think there’s been negative and positive things that have contributed to making us the people that act and do. But for me, my motivation and I’ve been really clear about this and people don’t like it, my motivations are primarily religious [laughs].
I’m evangelical Christian and I feel really compelled by the Christian faith that I have that white supremacy is sin and I’m either complicit in that or I’m striving against it. And so for me, religiously, it’s pretty clear cut and that’s my motivation. I think faith is a huge part of our work in general, which is funny because we are totally different religious backgrounds. But faith is a key part of how we do things, we have to be able to imagine a world that’s different than the one that we’re in and believe that it’s real. So even with the Bernie Sanders thing, that is the most ridiculous, when you look at a press release and you see that Bernie Sanders is coming to Seattle and I literally didn’t even read the article, I called Mara and I’m like, Bernie Sanders is coming to Seattle. And we both knew that we had to respond.
Everything we do requires a lot of faith that’s supernatural, it’s from our ancestors. I’ll say it’s from Jesus, and we’ll both say it’s from all of the above. Every single higher power possible has to be involved because how do these things happen? So really, [it’s] having faith to see and imagine a world that is different than the one that we’re in and then live into that faith. We act as though the world that we want is created and that throws people off and sends people into a tailspin. A lot of times you can go into a situation and be like “I’m going to fight to try to change this.” We don’t.
MW: We just flip the tables. Pull out the rug from underneath.
MJ: We go in and we’re like, how would we behave if we were creatures who were really raised and lived and came from the world that we wanted to be in? How would we react being dropped into this mess? I think part of that step is really having faith, whether that comes from a divine power or whatever, freedom, revolution is possible, faith that other people are going to come through, faith that these things that orient themselves and seem like random things together that they’re all gonna happen in our favor. But a lot of people are really just driven by fear. You look at the situation with Bernie Sanders--even if you get an idea, you come up with all these rational reasons for why something like that’s not possible or all the backlash or whatever. And so I think people’s rationale actually keeps them from stepping out in faith to go out and literally create a new world that doesn’t exist. And I recognize that that sounds utterly foolish [laughs].
MW: I went to Roosevelt High School but before that, before I was 14, I didn’t go to school at all. And so I think even though, that was not a political act for them, you know, they’re pretty average Seattleites. But the amount of independence that I had and the amount of time with myself to explore my interests or have people dictate for me how I spent my day, I didn’t have someone say bell rings, get up, bell rings, sit down, bell rings, do art, bell rings, do recess. I wasn’t micromanaged like a sheep as much at such a young age and so I think that gave me an innate sense of self-assurance, which I think school and other things in our society, like sports, they really teach you to be extrinsically motivated, whether it’s through trophies or money or degrees or there’s all this status stuff. Like, ‘If you don’t do this, then you’re not a good kid, the teacher won’t like you or you won’t get that pat on the back or that gold star or the high grade or whatever.’ And so people spend their whole lives chasing after money and affirmations and these really empty socially constructed concepts that are meaningless. And so I think that self-assurance has helped me a lot in questioning the system and really facing it head on. Yes, spirituality is definitely a big part of the work for both of us, and I think that’s one of the reasons why we work so well together,that we view liberation as a collective process. And I don’t want to say that we don’t have the same internalized shit that other people have or that we didn’t or don’t have internalized thinking, but I think a lot of it has honestly been beaten out of us in our pursuit of this work because really, our egos and images have really been dragged through the mud.
MJ: Yeah, there’s no ego left, that’s gone. We took care of that. Reputation burns up in flames [laughs].
MW: That has been painful and mind-blowing to watch, absolutely, but I think it has been necessary for us to develop as people and leaders to shred any need to have a good image, ‘because I just don’t think that’s the kind of leaders that we are. And I don’t think that’s our path and that’s okay. But liberation is really collective in that struggles from the past and things our elders have done in the past influences the context that we’re working under now and what we do, how we react in every instance, how we treat each other and other people in the movement and our community, that lays a groundwork for people in the future for future struggles of future generations. I think there’s a certain mentality that we have that influences all the work we do and how we engage into every space that we go into,
MJ: Yeah. And I think that key that we don’t see this as just a political, cultural, logical problem but a spiritual problem is a huge one and so spiritual practices for us, healing, caring and loving for people, that’s all just as important. It’s probably more important than whether some politician changes their view on X, Y, Z. And so I think that’s a lot of why people don’t understand us is they think that this is just a political war but we also understand the problem that we’re in is a deeply spiritual problem, too, and so it’s going to require…
MW: And mental and emotional,
MJ: And mental and emotional and all those things so it’s going to require work on all those different levels, um, holistic work on all those different levels to really get free in the way we want.
I also love Sarah Palin [laughs]. “Let’s talk about Sarah Palin,” headline. Marissa says I love Sarah Palin. I did at the time, ‘cause I was, like, these elections are bullshit and he’s a black man, but he’s a man, but at least she’s a woman. That was really my profound rationale.
MW: High school analysis.
MJ: Yeah, I was in a really white community and I was, like, yeah, she’s kind of fucked up but she’s a woman and I would love to see a woman ‘cause these men are messed up.
So much of the aftermath was about your character and whether you at some point when you were 15 and 16 or whatever supported Sarah Palin and like you said multiple times in interviews, nobody engaged with the content of what you said. Like, I made these statements about Seattle and nobody’s engaged. So anyway, the point is that we would really like to talk about that a lot and about Black Lives Matter in Seattle and about black liberation in Seattle locally and nationally, the work that you do beyond that. But we do want to ask a few questions about the event just because it is what brought a lot of these issues onto the national forefront.
MW: Yeah, well, I’ll just speak a little bit for a second to the media’s fixation on Marissa’s personality. ‘Cause it’s really interesting, I think that the media was not prepared with strategies on how to deal with us in terms of neither one of us being very credentialed activists, we’re not celebrity activists, we don’t have a law degree, we’re not the typical movement people that you see being visible in the movement. And so I think that explains some of the reasons why they fixated on her personality but also because she doesn’t make any sense on paper. It doesn’t make sense that someone with this, like, really militant, radical political views would be an evangelical Christian. People aren’t able to match our really unapologetic, blatant, bold femininity with our serious political views and then with our maybe seemingly like woo-woo spirituality. The different parts of us are very contradictory and I think Marissa’s a little bit older than me and has been a little bit more visible in the past and so I think they had more to grab onto with her and so they really just ran with it. But I think a lot of it is those contradictions because a lot of people in our society quite honestly are cookie cutter in one way or another, like, they are a stereotype [laughs].
MW: So I think it’s a lot of her contractions, like, we’re both very multifaceted people and I think there’s actual receipts on Marissa being multifaceted and so I think that really bothers people that they don’t know how to pinpoint her, that they don’t know how to stereotype her because she has a foot in different circles and that really upsets people.
I think that’s really, it was funny because people were, like, ‘We know you’re disingenuous because you saw you’re a Christian and Christians are hateful homophobes.’ And I’m like, okay, cool and then on the flip side, people are wanting me to denounce my Christianity so people actually didn’t care, they wanted it one way or the other. It was a lot of non-Christian folks who couldn’t accept my Christianity, which is very telling that everybody’s willing to talk about Kim Davis as a Christian figure. But I say I’m Christian and people can’t embrace me as a Christian figure. They either have to be like she’s not legitimate about her BLM work or she’s not Christian, she can’t be both. But it’s not like people had a preference one way or the other, like Mara said. It was just the box, they needed me to fit into one box.
So it was interesting when I was, like, when we did the interview, I could tell they were ready for me to be like, yeah, I used to be Christian, I grew up that way but now I’m not and I was like, yeah, actually, I’m a Christian extremist, I do this because of my Christianity. And they were like, okay, that’s gonna be a sound bite. All right, yeah.
A lot of people think change is going to happen through elections, but how is that going to happen when you’re existing within a system that isn’t meant to work for you in the first place? Can you speak more on the holistic approach to change, and what you think needs to be done in Seattle and on a national level?
MW: It’s funny, people will have this very specific view of what needs to happen and how it needs to happen and then they try to insert that into spaces. And I think me and Marissa are more instigators and agitators, and so we find a lot of value in what everyone’s doing. People have different skillsets and interests and capacities and abilities, and I think we really want to honor everyone in our community that’s doing work. Whether it’s the work that I would do or not, it’s really valuable. But I think we did this huge national action, right, and then we just kind of walked away, like, mic drop. We didn’t talk to media and so I think that really highlights our attitude towards this work is that we do it on our own terms and in our way and so we’re not trying to dictate how anyone else does their work and we’re certainly not going to have other people put their ideologies onto us.
MJ: Going off that, I would say our focus in what we do is agitation work. Sometimes that’s radicalizing people and bringing people to agree with your point. But sometimes, it’s just a clarifying measure, right, and that was the best thing that came out of the Bernie Sanders thing is you got to see where everyone was at, good or bad. And that information is really useful moving forward ‘because you need to know who the snakes are to put it lightly. People misinterpret the work that we do ‘cause a lot of how black people have been pressured to do this work is really catering to the white gaze and catering toward, like, we need to educate white people, we need to bring white people to a certain place. And we know by virtue of who we are that you’re gonna have to change one way or another. You’re either gonna hunker down in your views even more, or you’re going to be in some way radicalized by our presence, but our ultimate goal is to reveal what’s already present. And so that means, we could have a lot of negative coverage about an action and think, that’s really great ‘cause now you know exactly which one of your politicians, your neighbors, your best friends are racist and who’s not. And so, I think that’s probably the biggest misconception that people have about our work is “They’re not educating people or bringing them along.” It’s like OK, our education is actually holistic, and it’s tough love. It gets results real fast. Super fast. But it’s not going to look how you want it to.
MW: We are super confrontational and unapologetic and entirely uncompromising. I think people will try and put their reformist views about how politics work onto actions that we’ve done, and they don’t really have a framework. We’re not trying to dialogue with our oppressors about the state of emergency that black bodies are under in this country and globally.
MJ: Anything we need to know about them we can Google. What do you need to ask a politician a question about? You can literally look up their track record. If I’m going to engage a politician, I’m literally gonna usurp their power, and that’s what you saw happen at the Bernie Sanders action, and that’s why people had such a visceral response: because it was not an informational action, it was a power flip.
MW: And people at the action, the organizers of the event and the Bernie Sanders staffers, they really had no framework for how to react in that situation because they kept trying to compromise with us.
MJ: And negotiate. They were, like, we’ll give you the mic after…
MW: Right, and that’s not.
MJ: And we’re like, that’s cute.
MW: And that’s not, I mean, I think this country has tried to for 40, 50 years avoid talking about race. Like, okay, we killed MLK and now, we gave you the Voter’s Rights Act and we’re just going to like…
MJ: I mean, we took it back. We took the Voter’s Right Act back.
MW: Right, but we’re just going to pretend that we’re in this colorblind society now and I think on that Saturday afternoon, we’re just like, nope. So I think the action was not about Bernie Sanders but by pushing him up against a wall and kind of shoving him off the stage, it really –
MJ: Which, to be clear, he pushed me first.
MW: That’s true, that’s true.
MJ: He chest bumped me and then I pushed him back and then security jumped in the middle and you can quote me on that. [Laughs]
MW: [Laughs] I think we did force that conversation and I think there’s something about forcing black women forcing anything that really upsets people. And people’s reaction to the action was so visceral. And I think if you look at the pictures from the action –
MJ: It was feelings, feelings, feelings.
MW: If you watch the video, I understand why it made people so uncomfortable. Like, it’s so charged, I understand why it really hit a nerve in the country because we’re so black and so femme.
MJ: We’re hella rude.
MW: So rude. I mean, people were just like, those hood rats just got up there and we’re like, yeah, that’s exactly what we did.
MJ: Bernie moves off and I go to talk and I’m literally watching myself, I watched it last week and I was watching myself and I literally grab the mic and I’m like, to him, and like, going away and go into, like, literally roll my eyes. I had to tell this organizer, I stick my hand up in his face, get out my face. Like, Mara at one point, when the organizer, when she was like, you’re going to let her speak, she puts her arm up on his shoulder and you see a photo of her there. It’s just foolishness, it’s just crazy but like I said, that comes out of our deep politic of believing that we are worthy, our people are worthy, the time is now.We will not settle for anything less than full liberation and full recompense, right, for what’s happened to black folks. So yeah, I’m gonna stick my arm on your shoulder, I’m gonna clap back in your face, I’m gonna snap, I’m gonna yell, I’m gonna roll my eyes, because this ground that you walk on is paved with our ancestor’s blood, sweat, tears, torture, genocide, slavery past and present. So don’t act like I don’t own every single shirt that you have in your closet, like my ancestors didn’t make that. We really have a deep sense of what’s due to us.
MW: It’s wild that people are really so asleep that they don’t even have any understanding, like a lot of people would say things to us like, “Well, I loved your action, but you didn’t give him a chance to explain or respond.” It’s like, first of all, he was handed the mic three times, he handed it right back ‘cause he couldn’t hang. So that’s on him. But second of all, how many times do you need this country to throw you down on the ground and kick you in the face before you’re done? I think a lot of people really eat up this story that the Democrats feed us of, like, they treat us like sheep, like, they’ll just herd us around and they’ll be like, no, but if you refuse to be herded, then we’re gonna feed you to the Republicans and they’ll eat you alive. And so people really are so fear-based in the way that they live their lives that people constantly pander to the Democrats and wanting to reform them to be better. And it’s like, no, they have the same neoliberal politics that the Republicans have and it’s really, like Marissa was saying, built on genocide and our continued enslavement. And so there’s nothing to dialogue about.
MJ: The only question I have for Hillary is when she’s gonna personally write my reparations check. That is the literally the only question.
MLK talks about the white moderate who’s more concerned with order being the biggest threat to freedom. Why do you believe that the idea of exposing the left, and this group of progressive white Seattleites, is important ?
MW: I have a first thought. I think about the press release that we put out with our action which really details talking a lot about the white moderate. But one of the things that we said in there is that they’ve used black liberation movements and the Black Lives Matter movement as a way for them to be relevant. And so they’ve consumed BLM as a brand to make themselves look cool. I mean, damn, Donald Trump was talking about us three weeks after our action, talking about those girls, it’s like, they talk about BLM and black liberation to be relevant and yet, they refuse to denounce or dismantle any of the white supremacist ways that they are in. So I don’t think we really have an analysis that white folks, that there is a moderate. I think MLK was actually wrong on that way, I’m like, getting punched in the face while somebody’s calling you baby isn’t any better than getting punched in the face while somebody’s calling you bitch. Like, so I think –
MW: That’s quite the quote [laughs].
MJ: [Laughs] We don’t even have an analysis and in a lot of ways for us, under those terms, it’s like, if you punch me in the face and you’re like, you’re a bitch, at least that makes sense. If you’re punching me in the face, and you’re like, I love you, you’re my beau, that’s more even psychologically abusive for someone to say that they love you or care about you and be violent towards you than the person that’s explicit. And so –
MJ: I don’t think we have an analysis that anybody’s moderate but even that, I guess the Democrats and the liberals, they’re worse than the Republicans, ‘cause at least the Republicans. ‘Cause at least the Republicans are not trying to listen to rap music, they’re not trying to have my dreadlocks, they’re not trying to infiltrate all my meetings, they’re not trying to come and be in my space and wear the same clothes as me and whatever. They may hate me. But the Democrats are the worst. They’re like, we’re gonna pretend like we’re black.
MW: You have to explain to us so that –
MJ: They’re all Rachel Dolezal, basically.
MW: We can help you and we want to, yeah.
MJ: So yeah, the white moderate [laughs].
MW: I mean, I think the white moderate, the white liberal, the white leftist is definitely a problem but I think so are black folks that are –
MJ: Well, okay, she’s going there,
MW: Benefitting and reliant on –
MJ: Okay, she’s going there.
MW: On those structures so I think cooptation of the movement –
MJ: [Laughs], yes.
MW: Is a huge problem, whether it be Jesse Jackson or it be the white liberal. So I think cooptation is a huge problem and like Marissa was saying, all non-black folks have always used black struggles as a reference point, black suffering is either a comparison, like people will talk about how poorly their demographic and they’ll compare it to the way that black folks are treated or people always use black struggles as a way to amplify their cause instead of actually supporting and giving involved in black struggle. There’s a quote from Fred Hampton that I’ve been thinking about a lot that’s, “Peace to you if you’re willing to fight for it,” and I think that’s really words to live by, because I think our action revealed how people want this peace without justice. People fundamentally will support things like Black Lives Matter until it’s not benefitting them or it’s confronting them. So people think that they shouldn’t be inconvenienced personally, that they should still have all the same benefits and the same complicity and the same comfort.
MW: People don’t even want to be made uncomfortable by what’s going on and I think we’re really getting to a point where that’s not going to be an option for people anymore. And so it does force people to pick sides.
MJ: We are requiring for people to do self-assessment, we are requiring for people to dismantle oppressive systems that they participate in and that they’re a part of. But what I think people don’t recognize is that that’s a process that me and Mara have had to do in our own lives. We do that by modeling that for people, so we have to be willing to talk about our own privileges, how we participate in ableist, patriarchal, If I, a black woman, can throw my body out in front of somebody who is more marginalized than me, then what is your excuse for not throwing your body in front of mine, you know. So I think a lot of times, people can miss that and act like we’re asking something. If anything, we’re more vulnerable and we’re still doing that process and so we’re wanting to bring everybody down through that process, all the way down to the lowest common denominator of the most marginalized person, are we all going through a process of dismantling. But we at least at this point and the people that we surround ourselves, we embrace, right, that process of decolonizing and dismantling but it’s not that we’re somehow not subject to it or we’re not having to go through change or being checked in our own oppressive behaviors.
MW: I think a lot of times, people will react very negatively to our high expectations of them. But one, we don’t expect anything from anyone that we don’t expect of ourselves. But also, that’s an act of love when you do that, that’s recognizing somebody’s humanity. Because whiteness is very dehumanizing, patriarchy is very dehumanizing, and so when you’re confronting that and you’re trying to beat that out of somebody, that’s an act of love because you’re saying, “I think that you’re better than this.” You’re not acting like a fucking human, you’re not treating other people like human beings but I think you’re better than, we can and we must and I’m gonna make you do better than that right now.
MW: Not tomorrow, not, like, in five minutes, right now. Or you’re gonna fall over because I’m going to push you.
MJ: Yeah [laughs].
MW: Like, that’s our politics.
MJ: Well, and I have a quote that I say a lot that I think is relevant to that is white supremacy: “White supremacy is death and the one who calls you out of from death is a blessing.” And that “one” is black women, usually. So people are like, you’re so mean, you were pulling on my arm. I’m like, yeah, ‘cause you’re drowning. I’m trying to pull you into this frickin’ boat. So you can sit there and talk about how your arm hurts or you can be like, “Thank you for not letting me drown in the water.” I think that’s kind of how we think about the work that we do. We’re like, yes, I’m hurting your arm, yes, I’m pulling on your arm because I have an analysis that you’re dying and you’re just, like, oh, look at all this water, I’m drinking it, it’s so great. No, you’re gonna drown.
MW: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
Would you have done anything differently on the infamous day?
MJ: We have never talked about this,
MW: We knew that the action would be huge, like, we knew it would be national news and very controversial and that the environment that we were going into was going to be very hostile and stuff like that. We had done a lot of mental and emotional prep beforehand and we had run a lot of scenarios past each other. But I don’t think we had any way of knowing that it was going to be what it was. It was huge, it was really, for a singular action, it’s had more national attention than any other action that’s happened in the movement where a black person didn’t have to die.
MJ: The most pacifist to date within BLM that’s created this much conversation. Literally, the most nonviolent. It’s really funny. It was actually super respectful, there was no cursing, there was no nudity, no one died, nothing got stolen, no buildings got set on fire, those are all things that I’m a fan of by the way, but none of those things happened. It was literally 30 minute stump speech about Medicare and Medicaid. And yet it did all this work so I think rudeness is a way.
MW: I think the one thing that we would have done differently is that we did not warn our parents. We knew our faces would be in the media but I don’t think we realized that we would be physically targeted as much as we would. Like, we had people coming to our houses, people came to my parents’ house and knocked on the door and my parents’ home phone was getting all these threatening phone calls and my dad’s work information was put online and all these things.
But I think had we known how big of a reaction that action was going to have, then we would have spent more time having those conversations.
MJ: Uh-huh. I think in general, every time I go back and watch the video of the action, it’s super divine and supernatural.
MW: Yes, yes.
MJ: I mean, Bernie Sanders literally the only that he gets out, and we did not time this, did not know, he literally says –”I’m so happy to be in Seattle, the most liberal city –”
MW: No, he says, “Thank you, Seattle…
MW/MJ: For being the progressive city…”
MW: “In the nation.”
MJ: Yes, and then –
MJ: Black Lives Matter. He doesn’t say shit the whole rest of the time because two, it was just, everything about it, a lot of things that happened on that stage were planned. A lot of things were not scripted, they were not in our plans, they were just adjusting to what happened in the moment. And so I think to watch it afterwards, it really is a piece of art that, like, I just think it’s just something that transcended anything we could have planned out beforehand. I just wish my makeup would have been a little more together.I could have gone with a more bold lipstick I was thinking after the fact. I like that I had the cross earrings because I didn’t want to do the Nicki Minaj ‘cause I knew media would try to blur it out but I thought, I wasn’t thinking –
MW: I gave her earrings and Nicki Minaj, that anaconda.
MJ: Yeah, so they have, like, ass and everything. And so but I just didn’t put a whole lot of thought into my makeup in terms of, like, I should have had a nice plum lipstick [laughs].
And the press release is great, but there’s one of the phrasings that we have in there, this buzzword “accountability,” holding politicians accountable. I think some of the language that has been associated with us has been conflated with this really popular politic within the movement of people that want to reform the Democratic Party and want to force the politicians to adopt the language of the movement to somehow better serve black lives or something like that.
To me, it’s ridiculous because there’s no room within the current system for either party to serve black lives in a way that is humanizing or in a way that is beneficial. So in any of that language of holding politicians accountable or anything like that, you’re really just asking for cooptation, right? You’re really just asking for them to start coopting the movement and using a lot of the language that we use and with that, you don’t just have the Democratic Party coopting the movement, but you have big NGOs and NGO personalities and celebrity activists and academics and academia doing the exact same thing. And then before you know it, where did the movement go? Well, it got swept up into those spaces. And so, I think we’re very critical of that and very resistant to that, and I don’t know if people always pick up on that about our politics.
MJ: But we’ll clarify that in the future
Did the crowd react the way you expected them to?
MJ: Part of what we talk about faith and not being fear-based is it’s like, we actually can’t really spend a lot of time in being fearful or being worried about consequences and stuff like and dwelling on that. Although those are all real realities, we need to trust each other and be able to respond in the moment and we’re really good at keeping people safe in the moment. But we had conversations about it but we didn’t know what was going to happen but we also couldn’t dwell because had we dwelt on all those things, we would have never done our action. WMJ: We’re of differing opinions. I remember Mara thought that they would be more volatile; and I’m sorry, I think too much of people and I thought, you know what, Bernie’s campaign, these people will not be this stupid after Netroots, politically. What they will do is they will take advantage of the political moment, they’ll step back, they’ll let us talk and then they’ll make it into this great win for Bernie Sanders: cooptation. And then Bernie Sanders would get all this great press about, “Look at how embracing he’s being of BLM” and imagine, that would have been an amazing story for him had that been how shit went down. “White liberals rally onto two young black girls” who, you know, that would have been a great story, that would have been the most basic story.
MW: He would have a receipt that’s newer than his MLK days. But people aren’t as strategic as us.
MJ: Yeah, and then people would have been like what did you do for black liberation? He wouldn’t have been, like, I marched with King, he would be like, look, Mara and Marissa are my homies and I’m down with BLM. So I honestly thought it’s pretty clear cut politically, no one would ever be so stupid to take any action against us or be angry against us given what would be a political campaign for Bernie’s campaign.
MW: He didn’t have a good PR coach, obviously,
MJ: I personally was less prepared because I wasn’t expecting any violence, not because I don’t think that folks are white supremacists because I do think they’re white supremacists, there are today, tomorrow and hopefully they’ll stop being white supremacists before Jesus comes back but I don’t know. Not because they’re not white supremacists but out of their own self interest, I thought that folks wouldn’t be that violent.
MJ: No, they’re really not and so they just caught up all in their feelings, they missed the political opportunity to co-opt our movement and they actually just did us a bunch of favors in that action. The audience actually is the real MVP because had they listened to us or anything, it would not have had the same story.
MW: It’s interesting because people that don’t live in Seattle or the PNW really took more time to understand the action because they didn’t have as much of a context. So I think it’s really important that the action happened in Seattle because Bernie Sanders very much does represent the politics, the liberal leftist politics that are very prominent and dominating in Seattle. And those are the exact politics that we fight against every day ‘because the major and other entities are very much – shout out Ed Murray –
MJ: Yes, quote that. Shout out Ed Murray, Marissa Johnson, she sees you. She sees you, about to come say hello real soon.
MW: So I think there was no question for us, it wasn’t just significant that we’re BLM activists but that we live in Seattle and that the community work that we do is based here where the politics that Bernie has is the politics that we’re fighting against and the politics that’s really holding back what we’re fighting for whether it be in Seattle Public Schools, gentrification in the city and those things.
MJ: It’s all liberals doing those things.
MJ: Oh, no, they’re scared. Well, he [Mayor Ed Murray] was scared of me way before this action ‘cause I chased him out of an event Langston Hughes back in December and told him that the police were brutalizing us out in the streets in protests and he told me I should call President Obama about that one. So he already didn’t like my ass and that’s the funny thing is all these local politicians, it’s like the national news happens but every single local politician has seen our faces from the city council shutdowns, like, that’s always been us. So they already knew so I’m sure they were watching the whole thing being like, oh, Bernie, don't’ tell them they can’t do something. I just imagine like Ed Murray –
MW: Right, no, we ran King County Council out of their own meetings –
MJ: Oh, yeah, clapped back in Tim Burgess’s face months ago.
MW: Right, we’re very consistent.
MJ: Yeah, so I don’t think any of them were surprised. None of them said anything about the action and I know they were asked by reporters and stuff like that.
MW: Well, a number of politicians did but not like people like Ed Murray, not the white, more mainstream –
MJ: Yes, not the white liberals. They were real, we’re gonna keep a lid on it because it is election season and I think no one wants to deal with angry black women.
MW: Also, shout out to Kshama Sawant for not commenting.
MJ: Yeah, shout out to Kshama ‘cause Kshama didn’t say shit and still refuses to say shit.
MW: Yeah, she knows she’s in a lose-lose if she comments.
MJ: But also shout out Seattle Public Schools, there’s basically no non racist institutions in Seattle so it’s probably shorter to make a list of non racist ones. But I think he definitely knows, I mean, he’s not in election season currently but I think he knows that he’s just like every other politician. Like, he hasn’t come through for black folks in Seattle and he’s really let them suffer a lot and has participated in their suffering here in Seattle. So we just let him know that we see that. But black folks in the city in general see that.
What do you see as the most urgent issues on a local level in Seattle?
MW: I think the issue that we’re both the most focused on is this issue of anti-blackness and our analysis is very much that that’s not just a national issue but a global issue. So I think for us, we definitely do a lot of support work for all the local organizing, whether it be around the school district or gentrification or different arts projects that people do that are about affirming blackness and different youth programs and things like that. Those are all great and necessary, and the reason we support them is because they perpetuate black self-determination and they fight against the system of anti-blackness.
I think you could have us anywhere in the world and that would be the root of what we’re fighting against because white supremacy and capitalism and all those other systems of oppression are all rooted in anti-blackness. And so anywhere we go, that’s what we’re going to be about.
MJ: I think one of the big trappings of Black Lives Matter, as it’s been branded right now, is around police brutality. But really, there are large systems and ecosystems of white supremacy and anti-blackness where it doesn’t make sense to talk about which issue is primary when there’s a whole confluence. It’s kind of like in your body. It’s like, okay, cool, well, if your liver’s failing, it doesn’t matter that your heart is okay or average or whatever. If your lungs stop or your heart stops, either one, it doesn’t really matter, you’re still dead. So I think taking a holistic approach where we have an understanding that the school-to-prison pipeline and that prisons are a form of slavery and that people come through the police state a lot, that gentrification happens through the police state but also through capitalism. So we understand all these things as so intertwined that I don’t that we can really prioritize policy or campaigns.
MW: They’re all so connected, too. So gender-based violence within the black community is just as important of an issue as police brutality, and it’s a cycle between poverty and other violent things that black folks experience in this country. I’m not gonna say, oh, we shouldn’t support this person that’s doing this great youth program because we should be over here fighting police brutality. No, they’re actually very connected things and both need to happen so everybody should be doing their part in whatever skills or capacity or ability they have.
MJ: And supporting other people’s work and not undermining I think is a big thing. So unless white institutions are using or manipulating certain powerful figures, we don’t undermine other people’s work, and we try to support in ways that we can. But one of the biggest ways that we support is by leveraging our different positionalities and positions in society. For instance, if there were massive walkouts that happened again in Seattle, one of the things that [they] try to leverage with the high schoolers is they say, “Oh, well, you’re going to have an unexcused absence if you do this walkout.” That’s significant because in Washington state, students go to juvi for truancy so that feeds directly into the school-to-prison pipeline. Well, what community members can do is they can say, “Fine, we’re gonna flood the superintendent’s office until you excuse all these students’ absences.” So [they are] leveraging the consequences against each other to come in and support from different places.
Why is agitation important, because the criticism so often is “Why did you attack Bernie, he’s the best option you’ve got.” And your response has been, “If he’s the best option we’ve got, then we want to burn the system.”
MJ: Whatever your sphere of influence is, everybody should be agitating. Right, if you’re not agitating, you’re complicit and what that means contextually, based off of where you’re at, what your skillset is, whatever, is gonna look different. There’s a billion things you can do. Are you bringing activists in your city food? Are you giving them rides to places? I’ve told Christians in my community, “Are you coming out and praying for people while they’re out protesting?”
I think one of the most important things is people are always trying to go out and create something new, and I really think, particularly for white people and people in positions of privilege and power, you really need to be taking the Socratic oath and thinking first, “Do no harm.” So what does it look like to go back through your lifestyle and all the things that you’re doing and do harm reduction first. I’m like, if the white people around me could just not actively violently harm me all the time, that would actually be supporting the movement a whole lot.
Why you choose to not work within the system and why is agitation important to you?
MJ: I would say actually, we do work within in the system.
MW: I’m looking at you like what?
MJ: We totally do work within the system. We go into the system, we take our shoes off, we put our feet up on your couch, we get all comfortable, we’re rubbing our feet on your couch, we’re rubbing our hair –
MW: Drinking your wine.
MJ: We’re twerking in your system, I mean, it would be easier for everyone if we just went away. But instead and that’s part of the Bernie thing, we’re going to go in and we’re going to create something new and usurp the space. We don’t legitimize the system,
MW: We really are good at commandeering spaces and repurposing them so if that means, like, if county council is on some fuck shit and they’re about to vote –
MJ: And, please, we do mean fuck shit,
MW: Yeah [laughs].
MW: And they’re about to vote in favor of the youth jail or something like that and we’re like, this is some fuck shit, then not only are we going to drive them out of their own meeting but we’re also going to repurpose that space and make it a community forum.
MJ: Which we’ve done before.
MW: Where people can just get up and say what they want or whatever and so that’s kind of what we do.
MJ: Yeah, so we force ourselves into space and I think one thing that we touched on with the agitation like in the system versus agitation, like, that is a really false dichotomy.
MW: Our interest is always, and I guess for me, this comes out of my religious beliefs, too, but it’s like, whatever your sphere of influence is, everybody should be agitating. Right, if you’re not agitating, you’re complicit and what that means contextually based off of where you’re at, what your skillset is, whatever, is gonna look different. But if you’re looking at your sphere of influence and you’re not agitating at all, you’re fucked up. But what that might mean is that people are like, well, I can’t go out to a protest because what about my job, blah blah blah.
MW: You should be agitating at your job, what the hell are you doing at your job?
MJ: Or there’s a billion things you can do. Are you bringing activists in your city food? Are you giving them rides to places? I’ve told Christians in my community, are you coming out and praying for people while they’re out protesting? Are you creating spaces, there’s a billion things you can do. And I think one of the most important things is people are always trying to go out and create something new and I really think particularly for white people and people in positions of privilege and power, you really need to be taking the Socratic oath and thinking first, do no harm. So what does it look like to go back through your lifestyle and all the things that you’re doing and do harm reduction first. I’m like, if the white people around me could just not actively violently harm me all the time, that would actually be supporting the movement a whole lot. I actually don’t want you to come to a protest, I just don’t want you to be fucked up to me when I go to go to church. So I think in that realm, it’s about people’s level of influence and, like, are people choosing different places where they’re saying, okay, I’m not going to participate in harm and anti-blackness that happens. But a lot of times, people say ‘I just have to do this, blah blah blah.’No, We’re all going to be held accountable for our roles in different systems. do
‘Cause me and Mara even acknowledge, like, we’re problematic, we’re anti-capitalist, I still gotta pay my bills and drive my car and whatever. So making assessments based off of where they’re at and agitating within their system but I think also, we have a recognition that to get free requires sacrifice. Period. There will be losses. There is no path to freedom, there is no path to healing where nobody has to give up anything. People like to idealize the past and our ancestors sacrifices, there’s a lot of people’s sacrifices who actually, they were in vain and they didn’t realize anything. And there’s a lot of people who made sacrifices and lost things, time, loved ones, jobs, opportunities and they never saw the fruits of their labor and so we also have an understanding that if you’re really down about this work, you have to really be able to give up stuff and sacrifice, all of us without ever knowing if you’re ever going to see the fruit of that labor. You might lose your job, that’s how serious this is. This is not a game, yeah, you might lose your house, you might killed by the police. Yeah, this is not a joke to us.
Is there anything that you would really want people to know or that you feel that people keep missing about your activism?
MW: Maybe this is ironic that I’m going to say this in an interview, publically, but I love the misconceptions, I think it’s great. I mean, people always talk about me and Marissa as these very young, misguided, emotional, young girls, and I love it. I’m just really curious to see how long that will continue to be a thing. Right, ‘cause people never give us any agency over our actions at all or talk about our strategy or our politics. I think it’s much easier for them to just say well, they’re just misguided and emotional, and hysterical even. And so, I think that actually allows a lot of leverage for us and a lot of freedom for us to continue to be very precise and strategic but not be interpreted as precise and strategic. So instead of trying to defend or clarify a lot of those misconceptions that people have, I think we actually just take note. Like, oh, that’s where the nation is right now that they don’t understand this about the movement, they’re not seeing this trend. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s more just information. It gives us more knowledge about where people are at, and then we can use that information to inform our strategy more.
MJ: I think to know, well, this will become more clear in the future but we’ve certainly for months now become this sort of dissenting voice within the Black Lives Matter movement and the national organization. So we’re definitely an outlier and agitators even within the network itself. And I think one thing that’s really important to us and part of this has come out in our media strategy is that like what Mara said with the cooptation stuff, we recognize that there are a lot of really prominent figures and talking heads even within BLM of people who go and do media and speaking engagements and that’s the extent of their work is talking about the work. But we also recognize that there are a lot of people on the ground doing the work who aren’t in those spaces and so we’re always trying to work really hard to think about how to create space for people who are doing work on the ground to sort of punch through this ceiling that’s really just jam-packed right now with a lot of celebrity activists now that BLM has become really, really trendy. And so that’s part of the issue that people had, like Mara said, in interpreting us is that they’re used to how prominent figures within the movement will respond to them, will do their media engagement. And this was really a moment where I think we did work on the ground that was very localized or whatever but then we also were able to control our narrative after it and not feed into trying to become like some of the more prominent public figures that people see right now.
Are you talking about Shaun King, Deray and all these [outspoken, well-known activist] people?
MJ: Even more, okay, so…
MW: Yes, all them, those are great examples.
MJ: Those are great examples.
MW: It’s an endless list but those are great examples. I mean, it’s really interesting because I think when you look at things in the movement that have had the biggest media uproar whether it be Black Friday or Baltimore or Ferguson or what we did, those are all things that were done, for the most part, people that were young, not credentialed or recognized or visible or known going and putting their bodies out on the line.And then you get these public figures that I think exist within our network of Black Lives Matter but also within other orgs that then will go and do this tap-dancing for the white gaze, talking to mainstream media and trying to legitimize those actions. And it’s like, those actions are pure, those actions are resistance in and of itself as legitimate. We don’t need those people to speak for us and in a lot of ways, I think that those public figures can be a liability because one, they usually come from backgrounds that are more privileged, right, they’ll be the black middle class, they’ll be NGO-type people. So it’s really problematic for them to be speaking for kids in Ferguson, for example. But also, a lot of times, their politics are more reformist and are more compromising and are politics that make the movement prone to cooptation.
MJ: I actually think moving forward, you’ll see a lot more splits and splinters. And you will be able to see clearly where people’s politics differ ‘because I think up to this point in BLM, it’s been sort of presented as a monolith, right. So people will rally around “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”
Well, a year later, what you find out is some of those people mean, “Shut down that meeting until you can get a black Democrat in the office,” and some people mean, “Shut that meeting down until you can get a socialist in office.” And then some people mean, “Shut that down until you can have your own black state,” and then some people mean, “Shut it down until America is dismantled and everybody gets to decide what they want for themselves, and shut it down indefinitely.”
MW: People can use a lot of the same rhetoric and the same buzz words and language and mean totally different things.
What do you mean when you say it?
MJ: I mean, we’re of the by-any-means-necessary vein, and we literally do mean by any means necessary, so we’re never going to be meeting with politicians, ever. Ever, ever, ever. We want the dismantling of this American capitalistic, patriarchal society. Full dismantling, and anything other than that is just a stepping stone. So we really mean, “Shut it down.” I think it’s just really important for folks to know that we’re literally in training camp right now.
This is the very beginning.