Kali Akuno: Organizing for revolution, not crisis avoidance

On election night, 2008, Kali Akuno and Sacajawea Hall were at the CNN building in Atlanta watching the results. Akuno remembers walking back to where they were staying in a quasi-fugue state brought on by the political shock of his life. 

“America done actually let a Negro win the election,” he said. “I never thought I’d see the day. Okay, well, we said ‘Never’ and never is now happening.”

Suddenly a truck rolled up on them.

“A white boy drives up and says, ‘Niggers go home!’ and I thought, ‘I’m still in America,’” he explained with a soft laugh. 

In the weeks that followed, Akuno had an eye on the dramatic spike in gun sales around the country between election night and inauguration day. “That’s when I started blogging at Navigating the Storm and telling people, ‘There’s going to be a reaction. Certain forces are not going to let this stand.’”

Fast forward to our current political season of ravenous, cutthroat gerrymandering and precedent-gutting Supreme Court decisions paving the way for permanent minority rule. Akuno, still watching, still writing, recently published two essays on the future before us: “Shifting Focus: Organizing for Revolution, Not Crisis Avoidance” (with co-authors Brian Drolet and Doug Norberg), and “Some Thoughts on What Can Be Done to withstand the Neo-Confederate/Neo-Fascist Conquest of Power.”

In the second piece, Akuno not only warns of imminent authoritarian control in the US, but predicts it will happen by January 2025.

These pieces have been circulating throughout left and left-adjacent listservs, radio shows, podcasts, and other predominantly, but not exclusively, Black media and organizing spaces, mostly underground and vanguard ones. Impossible to dismiss, the conversations being sparked by Akuno’s analyses are sobering, energizing, and—at the risk of invoking a hoary cliché—a breath of fresh air. 

Akuno lays out a vision for mass mobilizations on a scale commensurate with the existential stakes of the horrific circumstances humanity now finds itself in.

From the not-so-slow boil of climate catastrophe to endless war and militarism, to rising and converging far-right movements around the globe, to neo-feudalist inequality, etc., etc… we all recognize that we’re in trouble right now. But maintaining the status quo at all costs and preserving “democracy as we know it”—which isn’t all that democratic, and can never be within the confines of capitalism—is a grossly inadequate response to the task before us. A political strategy that strives for nothing more than propping up a Democratic party that is always tripping over its feet as it moves further and further to the right is not going to win the day, especially when what is needed is a revolutionary turn, or series of them.

An asthmatic child reared under LA’s smog-choked skies, Akuno remembers when, in the 1990s, California cars and gas became the cleanest in the world—a defining reversal that serves as a historical metaphor: It’s possible to replace the black smoke of capitalism with the clean air of ecosocialism; and it can be done quickly; but we need to do it soon. Late to fatherhood, Akuno is devoted to ensuring that his daughter and son have a livable future in wider communities of care and solidarity, which, he admits, has brought a different kind of urgency to his life’s work.

For The Real News, I caught up with Akuno at the Kuwasi Balagoon Center for Economic Democracy and Sustainable Development in Jackson, Mississippi. Over the course of two exhilarating days in late January, we engaged in intense political conversation. Akuno lays out a vision for mass mobilizations on a scale commensurate with the existential stakes of the horrific circumstances humanity now finds itself in. To all who can hear, he is calling for a widespread stance of non-acquiescence and the adoption of a Pledge of Resistance to prevent what he sees as the impending “conquest” and capture of power by forces on the right. In the selected excerpts from our conversation below, we discuss the dire reality of our moment and the need to fight like hell for a future worth living in—and to remember, always, who and what we are fighting for. (These excerpts represent only a small fraction of our extensive conversation; they have been lightly edited for clarity.) 

“Welcome to Jackson” sign in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. Photo taken on Jan. 27, 2022, by Kwame Shakur.

Frances Madeson: This is the ninth time in the last two years that I’ve interviewed you for stories about your initiatives in West Jackson with respect to food sovereignty, personal protective equipment (PPE) production, mutual aid during the 2020 water emergency, leadership in national political formations like the People’s Strike, and regional mutual aid efforts post-Hurricane Ida

Living in the South like you—in my case, in the central Louisiana Bible Belt—I take the warnings expressed in these white papers you authored and co-authored in Navigating the Storm very seriously, and am already taking many of the practical suggestions, especially with respect to self defense and community defense. 

But Kali, I have to ask you point blank: Is all this a bunch of coded language for “Get ready for a gun fight, y’all”?

Kali Akuno: We need to be very clear: We are not going to outgun or out-bullet the right; it is not going to happen. The day the left even thought about trying to do that passed about a hundred years ago, if not longer. 

The right to bear arms has been very limited in this country from day one, and militias were really slave catching institutions. Indigenous and African people didn’t have the same fire power, so the settlers had a clear advantage, and that’s an advantage that has never been surrendered.

It’s true that some of the tools for self-defense that I’m talking about are weapons. I am a proponent of our people arming themselves and learning the skills they need to use the weapons properly, store them and treat them properly, with respect. But mine is a self-defense orientation, one of always being in a very defensive posture.

As a Black person, I’ll gladly put down all my weapons when the state gives up its weapons. Otherwise, you’re just trying to make me helpless. And I’m here in North America as the direct result of a tragic history… I’m here because folks who had perfected war on each other in Europe for a couple of centuries came with some better weapons than what my ancestors possessed in West Africa, and they used those weapons to enslave and colonize us. It wasn’t because they were a superior organization or culture. They had a little advantage and they used it to the maximum extent. And so people were defenseless—and they got captured on the basis of being defenseless. I know that, and I’m aware of this history. So, to the greatest extent possible, I’m not gonna be defenseless again.

“We need to be very clear: We are not going to outgun or out-bullet the right; it is not going to happen. The day the left even thought about trying to do that passed about a hundred years ago, if not longer.”

Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson

Our real protection, however, is going to be our unity, a unity grounded in political clarity. We need to be clear that capitalism can’t be reformed, that bourgeois democracy is an illusion, that race and gender are tools of division in class-based societies, and that there is only one planet with a limited amount of resources that we have to steward with extreme care. Acting on this clarity must be the basis of our unity in action. We have to be determined to break the status quo and create a new set of relations, a new society, based on eliminating hierarchy, exploitation, and extraction, and to speak and act with this purpose and try to move as many people as can be moved in our direction. That’s all we got at the end of the day. 

FM: Let’s pray it’s enough… I know you’ve been tracking these reactionary forces for a long time now, seeking out their discourse on low-frequency AM talk radio—“learning to respect your enemies,” as you say. 

But why does it feel like they’re pulling out all the stops right now? And how can we possibly fight against the threat posed by the ascendancy of the reactionary right and fight for global climate mitigation at the same time?

KA: I don’t see them as separate at all. They’re the same fight.

For all the ire I have for Elon Musk, I appreciate the candor as he presents his fanciful ideas. He’s very clear: “I’m going to Mars because humanity’s about to go extinct. I’m not investing anything much in fixing this planet, or changing anything, and so I’m leaving.” It’s a smash and grab operation… 

Those who have been in control most of the last 500 years see the end of the road, and instead of pretending they’ll be willing to share, their stance is: “We’re going to batten down the hatches, take everything that can be taken, and hoard it for ourselves—gonna build the biggest walls, fortified houses, bunkers, trenches, whole regions like the Great Redoubt up in Idaho.”

This is the forward column of neo-fascist politics—and why it’s being given so much license and legitimacy. It is a direct response to capital’s exhaustion because of the limitations being imposed upon it by climate change.

Bourgeois democracy is a con game of pretending we have rights and we have access. For those of us who lived in North America and Western Europe, the last 70 years have been a remarkable series of bread and circuses. But the circuses are becoming stale and recycled, and there’s less and less bread. 

When that happens, and it’s clear that it’s happening (and the “public” is clear that it’s happening), the option becomes: “Rather than pretend that I’m going to distribute anything, I’m going to justify why I should continue to have it all and the rest of you should have nothing, and if that comes at the end of a whip or a belt or a bullet, so be it.” That’s the politics we’re living in right now.

FM: You’re talking about a 16th-century Inquisition mindset but with 21st-century technologies and apparatuses to enforce it?

KA: Let’s think about what it means to go back to the 16th century. First of all, it’s a Western reference—things were not so fucked up in other places during that time. But for folks who were in Europe and the Americas under Europe’s colonial domination, the vast majority of people were ruled directly by feudal lords. The vast majority of us were in some form of unfree labor or were indentured servants. Religious freedom didn’t exist. There were no human rights, no civil rights, there was patriarchy with absolute rule of certain men over everyone. 

“We need to be clear that capitalism can’t be reformed, that bourgeois democracy is an illusion, that race and gender are tools of division in class-based societies, and that there is only one planet with a limited amount of resources that we have to steward with extreme care. Acting on this clarity must be the basis of our unity in action.”

Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson

The lord of the land ruled over everybody, and he passed that down to other men and said, “You control your women and children. Women are supposed to be childbearing vessels obedient to their husbands and sons to propagate their line and legacy.” That was the framework, and that’s what they want to go back to.

A world where power and authority is highly concentrated and there’s a natural pecking order—established along race, class, and gender lines—where everybody is situated in their place and not thinking that they can be equal to their lords and masters… that’s straight up where they want to take us. They don’t just want absolute power, they want deference. We have to be prepared for the worst.

FM: The “worst” meaning terror as they intensify the use of the state’s institutions to consolidate their power?

KA: We are in a stage now, I would argue, where terror is part of the point. They want people scared, frightened, and intimidated because they think it will help put people back in their place in the grand hierarchy of white supremacy. They mean for it to be vicious and in your face. 

The viciousness is going to be played out, and it’s already being played out, on the state level, where Trumpian candidates and loyalists are trying to become top election officials and control the system. Terror is going to be when they invalidate a couple of million votes in every single state and say, “I’m not gonna count them,” or “I’m going to throw them out,” and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. 

Terror is DeSantis’ election police idea. Election police? You have a police force to monitor elections… what does that really mean? That’s terror. It’s going to go from “Show me your ID” to “You don’t belong here.” They’re going to put all the voting stations in the whitest part of town and set up barricades and checkpoints and you’re gonna have to prove you’re not a felon and you’re a citizen. 

If they get the sweep in Congress in November, which I think they will, think of all of the repressive measures that the states will wanna take then. At that point, they can do anything they want at the “states’ rights” level to start terrorizing our communities through what appears to be democratic means. Those opposing them are going to have to make their arguments to Trump’s Supreme Court.

If the Supreme Court goes along with the (slave catcher) abortion law in Texas, other states will follow. The Texas law, in effect, says, “I don’t care where the hell you got the abortion. I’m putting you and all the people who supported you, even if I’ve got the scantest of evidence—all y’all are going to prison and can be prosecuted.” 

Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, stands in front of CJ’s Ewing Street Community Garden in West Jackson, Mississippi, on Jan. 27, 2022. Photo by Kwame Shakur.

As soon as that gets held up in the courts, and I think it will soon,  after they make their final decision on that, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia… the states of the confederacy and their cousins in the Midwest… I don’t think they’re gonna stop with abortion with that logic. 

I think one of the big targets that they’ll go for next is anybody who aids and abets an immigrant, so all your sanctuary cities and rights and protections; then they’ll go after folks with felonies, any priors; they got a list of things. The thing about that Texas abortion law is it’s mob justice, it’s straight up mob justice, this is what I mean by the terror. They are setting up the conditions for the terror that’s coming.

My biggest fear is the absolute physical terror that they will unleash once they consolidate power. They have been highly successful at twisting notions of “liberty” on their head to venerate this idea of a kind of lone-wolf interrupter or redeemer. Sanctioned vigilantism, basically. A lot of the violence in the early days won’t be like gray coats, it’ll be like lone-wolf shooters who come into our communities hunting folks, or random terror. I think we’re gonna have a lot of that. 

FM: I’ve heard you say that the 74 million people who voted for Trump in 2020 (more votes than Obama ever got) haven’t gone anywhere. Presumably, those aren’t the citizens whose votes are going to be suppressed, either. So how do we fracture that base and pry some of those folks off to join us in common cause, electorally and otherwise—to join us in mass mobilizations?

KA: With Occupy, the Michael Brown and George Floyd rebellions… we’ve got enough experience in the last 10 years to build upon. What we don’t have is organization, unfortunately. 

What does organization mean? Organization means if me and you want to call an action and we have a list of 10 people, we know how many of the 10 people are going to show up to take the action. Why? Because we built some structures, some commitments, some promises and protocols to guarantee that people will act in a particular way. We don’t have that right now. 

“A world where power and authority is highly concentrated and there’s a natural pecking order—established along race, class, and gender lines—where everybody is situated in their place and not thinking that they can be equal to their lords and masters… that’s straight up where they want to take us. They don’t just want absolute power, they want deference. We have to be prepared for the worst.”

Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson

But we’ve seen that there’s a generation—intergenerational too, in fact—that’s willing to put their bodies on the line and go for broke; and we’re gonna need that en masse. 

It’s not out of the realm of millions of people’s experience, so it’s not impossible that something like that can emerge—not at all. I think part of this acceleration is coming from the fact that the right knows that.

Understand that they see equivalence in their mind between how the state didn’t put the hammer down on the George Floyd Rebellion and January 6. Whether it’s right or wrong, or you agree or not, at least you have to understand that what they saw was a rebellion, and they felt threatened. For them, Kyle Rittenhouse is not some cold vicious killer… I think he is… but for them, this was somebody who was protecting the integrity of the country against this rebellion. 

So, if we’re going to fracture their base, we have to try to understand and study how some of them—or as many of them as possible—think, because without that you don’t know where you can intervene. Maybe this argument is beyond the pale and, if people believe that, I’m not going to be able to move them, but this one over here? There’s some common ground here. 

Folks on the right need to come to understand that the people in the streets in 2020 weren’t just out there because they wanted to be out there. It takes courage to stand up against a force that you know has the right to kill you, with impunity. We can’t be afraid to engage in hard conversations, and we also have to take people’s fears and concerns to be real—and then, if that’s real, we’ve got to figure out what the solution is.

Some people argue about this in terms of “white replacement fear” theory. Well, I have a fear about Black genocide. I can understand part of what your issue is. I think your version of history is totally, profoundly distorted because you are the ones doing the killing, but alright, you don’t wanna disappear, I don’t wanna disappear. What’s the common ground? I can acknowledge your angst, how do we overcome your angst? 

A pedestrian passes by an empty, derelict lot in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, on Jan. 27, 2022. Photo by Kwame Shakur.

I won’t be mad at you if you recognize and do some things to get off my neck. I’ve been here with you this long, I’ve been mad this long, but I ain’t trying to kill you, not like how you went at us. So maybe there’s some things you can learn about us, and living with us, under these conditions…?

I would also argue for a clear economic-focused program on the local level. This goes back to some of what we were trying to do in the Jackson-Kush Plan, trying to advocate for radical municipalist projects: come up with your own local nationalization programs, start assuming control and creating more commons, forcing local taxes and forcing local rules, and start with some major redistributive programs. There’s some cities that have enough power to do that.

FM: I honestly don’t know whether to be more frightened or pissed.

KA: Right now, you should be angry. Much as there is fear, there should be righteous anger.

People have to have a healthy fear of what’s coming on. I keep going back to my kids. I tell them it’s okay to be afraid, but not to be paralyzed by it.

Use the heightened awareness it brings, don’t try to suppress it. See it for what it is and what it’s enabling you to do. Because people can do some remarkable things when they’re scared—they can run faster, jump higher. There’s a whole bunch of things you thought you couldn’t do, but with a certain amount of fear as motivation you find out you can perform some minor miracles.

In the broader sense, how do we channel this healthy fear that we need to have about what we see being organized in front of our faces every day, and see it for what it is? The Haitian Revolution is one of those glaring points where people just got to a point when they said, “Enough. We’re not going back to just some form of servitude, and if all of us gotta die then so be it.” And that’s the determination that they came to: “If they’re gonna kill all of us, then so be it, but we’re not going back.” 

If we’re serious about freedom and all it entails, then we have to get to a point where we know we’re not going back to the 1950s. It’s just not happening. That’s the attitude we have to start cultivating in this next generation. Understanding what the stakes are. And that’s why I’m somewhat hopeful because we saw some of that last year.  

“People have to have a healthy fear of what’s coming on. I keep going back to my kids. I tell them it’s okay to be afraid, but not to be paralyzed by it.”

Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson

The most important point is to take the moment seriously.

When shit gets real, then you will get real. You’ll start developing resources and survival skills that you didn’t even know you had the capability for.

FM: You got anything else to go with that healthy fear?

KA: Yeah, I do. People are acquiescing to the attacks on their political rights and not engaging the electoral system consistently or enthusiastically, but I don’t think at the end of the day people will acquiesce with their material standard of life. 

Once it becomes clear that that’s not fully just reserved for Black folks in urban environments and migrants without papers, but to millions of people who thought they were protected and shielded in some way who are now being dispossessed because they voted for a Democrat, it’s going to hit home in a different way. There’s that Ice Cube movie where there’s that old line: “Playing with my money is like playing with my emotions.”

FM: But a lot of people who should know better by now still seem to think we can just vote our way out of this.

KA: [Laughs.] We are creatures of habit. And I don’t care what people say… to a certain extent, we’re creatures of faith too. People have a tremendous amount of faith in this institution (the liberals do, in particular), so making an argument to them that they’re wasting their time doing good voter mobilization drives… no.

So, okay, that’s one of the tools, and in some states that’s going to work—still mainly on the coast. If New York can stay in your hands, we’re gonna need that. If New Jersey can stay in your hands, we’re gonna need that. Some of New England? We’re gonna need that too. We’re gonna need areas to operate within.

You gotta recognize that everything else in the middle is gone for the most part. So wherever it can work, let it work. But you need to recognize that where it doesn’t work we’re gonna have to rely on some other things—that’s what I mean by “all of the tools in the tool kit.” The biggest thing… the two principles most needed are clarity and vision… and, from that, building a mass movement that has the power to disrupt business as usual, bringing the economic engines of this empire to a halt. 

Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, stands outside CJ’s Ida B. Wells Plaza in West Jackson, Mississippi, on Jan. 27, 2022. Photo by Kwame Shakur.

Don’t see voting as a tool that will carry forward a program and a vision for you. You need people who are in there to keep the rough and sharp edges at bay. And open up as much space as possible for the social movement to organize itself, and to then execute its own programs, providing some aspects of structural support when needed, but more or less just kind of getting out of the way to a certain extent.

I’m one who believes that being a Leftist means that we have to be the champions of democracy—I firmly believe that and uphold that principle. But I always tell people that being a champion of democracy does not mean that I have to accept or work with any institutions as they currently exist, that I have to accept the institutions as they currently exist or uphold any of their rituals. 

Democracy starts with any engagement I have with another human being; that’s where real democratic practice starts.

Frances Madeson

Frances Madeson writes about liberation struggles and the arts that inspire them. She is the author of the comic political novel Cooperative Village. Follow her on Twitter @FrancesMadeson.