What Interstate 80 Taught Me About Fighting for Justice

What I learned on the highways of North America made me a good organizer. It would set the tone for how I would grow into a being a movement strategist and community artist. The best training I could have hoped for. In my teen years and early twenties I racked up a good 26,000 miles hitchhiking the roads of the US and Canada. I wasn’t a drifter. Roads were just the connecting lines between points of interest and hitching, a cheap way to move along them.

I was already an activist. Born into the anti-colonial struggle in Puerto Rico, I arrived in Chicago in turbulent, fast-moving times. At fifteen I had left home and I dropped out of high school soon after. When the police killed Fred Hampton, the Chairman of the local Black Panther chapter, I stepped into the world of organizing and activism. By the time I was on the road I had some pretty radical ideas in my head. Whatever illusions may have held sway in the urban enclaves of activism, the road was a reminder that not all of the USA was thrilled about the movements that were shaking the country and disturbing the peace. Nixon’s silent majority was a reality.

I set two ground rules to inform my conduct in this uncertain landscape: 1) I would not lie about what I believed, and 2) I would not get myself killed. You may notice the inherent tension between these goals.

Drivers want to talk, to stay awake through the hundreds of miles of white lines, mile markers and the tail lights of semi-trailers. I would talk my way across the country many times over. This was my male experience, of course. Whatever vigilance I had to maintain was multiplied many times over for the sisters with whom I shared the road. Their strategies for self-protection reflected the particular dangers they faced.

Here’s how it worked. I’m picked up by a retired Army colonel who used to hitch home on leave when he was a GI. He’s repaying his debt for all those rides. He’s pro-war, anti-feminist, and racist. He doesn’t hate Black folk; he just thinks they should quit complaining and work hard like his daddy taught him. Nothing comes for free. I become a geologist, digging down past the crusts of attitude and resentment and inherited assumption until I can find a layer where my feet can find traction. It’s always there. It might be that wants his children, who he loves fiercely, to grow up in a better world than he did, but he doesn’t see it happening. It might be that the country he was taught to revere is becoming unrecognizable, its moral strength eroding, its symbols scorned, and its complexion changing. Whatever it is, it is the bedrock on which are piled all the sedimentary layers of narrative, of toxic explanations and corroborating experiences: dark folks are crossing borders and demanding handouts, perverts are undermining religious values, enemies are smoldering with hatred of our hard-won freedoms. The important thing is I’ve found the bedrock.

Now we can swap stories. We can talk about his eldest daughter and her bad choices (it’s amazing how folks will pour their heart out to a stranger they’ll never see again!). When I commiserate about his girl it gets his attention. Now he’s curious about this wisp of a kid that, unexpectedly, seems to “get it.” I can bring up the friends with similar dilemmas for comparison; only my friends would be Puerto Rican, or gay, or poor – people he wouldn’t think of as having similar issues. Or maybe the issues are different but I can describe them as an insider. Now we’re talking politics but in the language of the personal.

Hurtling down the highways of a continent I learned to listen with compassion to the dreams and fears of my presumed enemies; to the secret ambitions of people from worlds I thought I knew; and the private fascinations of curious, worried and determined humans from all corners of the social fabric. Each with their wounds to bear. Each with their own kind of integrity. All of them sculpted – like the land through which we travelled – by the harsh forces of history; the clearing of forests, the burning of villages, the brutality of forced labor, the hard-won rights and deeply held solidarities. For some, these ghosts lurked just beneath the surface, desperate for a voice. In others they were just as desperately suppressed and denied. I came to see that people thirst for validation almost more than for water: to be seen, heard, respected. That, by itself, can make impossible discussions possible. It’s the nutrient for which my art is just the delivery system.

Soon after I arrived in Chicago the Panthers (led by Chairman Fred) began courting the Young Patriots, a white street gang born of the Appalachian migrant stream. These guys wore Confederate flags on their jackets and had relatives back home in the Klan. Instead of dismissing them as hopeless bigots the Panthers sought to find out why they were hurting. They started shooting pool in their bars, attending their parole hearings. Eventually they’d be organizing joint community forums on police brutality and marching together on City Hall to demand affordable housing.

How different this approach is from the Democratic Party strategy of courting white conservative swing voters by pandering to their prejudices. The Panthers didn’t hate on the Patriots and they didn’t pander. They made them a better offer.

You can try it at home. One of the benefits of extended families is that they force us into relationship with people whose views we can’t stand. Kind of like being a captive audience in the passenger seat. If you want to change hearts and minds, learn to listen deeply to your politically alien relatives, then practice speaking your truth but in their language. They’re your best teachers.

All hate has the same source. It’s the fear that something you hold precious is threatened. If you are just looking for a chance to vent your frustrations then by all means, meet hatred with hatred and insult with insult. If you want to win, on the other hand, that won’t help. Instead of getting hooked by the hate, make it an object of study. Figure out what that precious, vulnerable thing is that’s being protected and offer to help protect it. This is a simple – but not an easy – formula and it may not weaken your enemies’ resolve – but it’ll reach their children.

Don’t think I’m a soft touch. I know what battle lines are. I know that powerful vested interests will cling to their privilege no matter the cost – especially if the cost is borne by others. In the end, though, the struggle for justice is not about fighting “bad guys.” (Life isn’t Star Wars.) It’s about restoring balances. The people who will be hurled against us will fight with all the determination that fear imposes. Count on me to have your back if you get targeted. But if you start ridiculing their education, disparaging their trailer park or pick-up truck ways or mocking their born-again faith – you’re going to have to go through me.

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