‘We Are the Bomb!’ Legendary Hip Hop Artist Boots Riley on Street Sweeping Lyricism
Boots Riley, front man of The Coup, sat down with Jared Ball for an in-depth look into the politics of one of hip-hop's most militant groups
Boots Riley, front man of The Coup, sat down with Jared Ball for an in-depth look into the politics of one of hip-hop's most militant groups
JARED BALL: What’s up world, and welcome to another edition of I Mix What I Like here at the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball. We recently had a chance to sit down with Boots Riley of the legendary band The Coup.
Going back to the early 1990s, Boots and The Coup have been among the most prolific and militant hip-hop groups. From Kill My Landlord in 1993 to Genocide and Juice, Steal This Album, Party Music, Pick A Bigger Weapon, and Sorry to Bother You, The Coup has combined front-driven hip-hop tracks with the heaviest of political critique and confrontation with Boots providing, if you will permit me, a lyrical materialism to the dialectics of Marx and Lenin. On tour now promoting his new book, Tell Homeland Security We Are The Bomb, taken from a lyric in his own song Magic Clap.
Boots Riley visited us in our Baltimore studios for this special edition of I Mix What I Like. This is how it went. Check it out. Enjoy.
Boots Riley. The Coup. Man, thanks for joining us here at the Real News, man.
BOOTS RILEY: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
BALL: Of course. So tell us about the new project, let’s start there. Tell Homeland Security that We’re the Bomb. Tell us about that.
RILEY: Yeah. Tell Homeland Security We Are the Bomb. It’s a lyric from one of my songs. It’s the title of the book. But you know, you could take it in two ways. There’s a few levels, obviously. One, it could be braggadocio. But then, two, we are the thing that’s the threat to the status quo with–the people are the thing they need to be worried about.
BALL: So what is the book about? Tell us what is in it, what will people find when they pick it up and read it?
RILEY: The book is a book of lyrics and anecdotes. It’s all the lyrics to my songs. Stories about–.
BALL: From day one. Going all–your full catalog.
RILEY: Going through the–and with stories about the writings of the songs, or just various things. Stories of things that happened either on the road, or just artistically, or just thoughts about stuff. There’s a couple interviews in there. Adam Mansbach wrote the forward.
BALL: Author, journalist, I believe. Also, Adam is–I know of him from his literary work, I believe, but not–.
RILEY: But yeah, but things like Go the Fuck to Sleep.
BALL: Right. Right. Right.
RILEY: And so he did that and–you know, I really, I wanted something physical out there in the world because nowadays everything’s digital. And you know, like, I used to like to read album covers while I’m listening to the music. And so you make this thing, it has photographs and [inaud.]
BALL: And there was an art to liner notes. Just liner notes in general that–I know some have redone them digitally with the packets that come with the downloads, but there is something I think to the physical nature of flipping through it and reading about what the artist that you’re listening to was thinking when he or she did what they were doing.
RILEY: Yeah. So that made this beautiful book for me.
BALL: So personally, I became a fan of the Coup back in I think it was 1993. Kill My Landlord was the album that I went to pick up. And I believe, I remember it–correct me if you happen to remember. But I have it in, my memory has it that I bought it the day I also bought Funkdoobiest, Which Doobie U B? album. And I was just looking for some new music, and I saw the Coup. I don’t think I had heard anything about what you all were about. I just grabbed the CD. And then when I started listening and reading, you know, the Kill My Landlord was, the title itself was very endearing. I definitely want to hear what they have to say.
But then when you turned–I mean, I heard the West Coast funk. The, the, the black radical Marxist, Leninist, Maoist, class-based analysis that I, at least as I’ve always interpreted it. Talk to me a little bit about that. Those politics that have informed your work all this time. Is it fair to characterize it as I just did, as Marxist, Leninist, Maoist of some sort.
RILEY: Yeah. Whatever name you want to put on it, all those folks added, contributed to it. But it’s a basic idea that has existed for a while, which his the idea that the people should democratically control the wealth that we create with our labor. That’s really simple. Three people make this table right here, and they sell it for $300, and the material only cost $20. It’s no reason that those people should have to share $10 and the person that, that owns the company makes the rest of it. Those three people should share.
You put, you, you expand that onto a whole economic level and that’s, that’s the basis of it. We make the wealth and we should, we should have control of it.
BALL: Do you–how have you dealt with this issue of race and class? Both in terms of your political work–because you’re also an organizer and an activist beyond, quote-unquote, “just music”. But obviously within the music there is a heavy class analysis, but that is, that is also [seemed] based strongly out of the black experience in this country. And that also, as has, is the case from every album I’ve heard you all put out that, that I think in a great way deals even with political violence as a, as a, as a, as an acceptable tactic or method for people to, to, to incorporate in their struggle.
I’m interested in, in, in how you see all of that, or how you approach or balance race, class, political struggle, organization.
RILEY: It’s, it’s, it’s not a balance. They’re all, they, they need each other. I mean, racism has a utility. It’s not just there and maybe it’s over here, and then class is over here. I mean, the idea of race was created to justify the slave trade. To justify the transatlantic slave trade, to justify chattel slavery. So that, the idea of race was created to make the white working class of Europe feel safe. That hey, this is, we’re enslaving them in this way, not you. Don’t worry, and this is why, you know. And that was the origin of the theory of, of race. And even right now, you know, race has a utility, and it has to do, that utility has to do with how the ruling class needs to exploit the whole working class. And it needs racism against people of color in order to exploit the whole working class. So here’s how that works.
First of all, for capitalism to exist there must be a large group of unemployed people. At least there needs to be a certain percentage of unemployed folks. Because if you have full employment under capitalism, then you don’t, then you don’t even need a union because you can say hey, I want three times more. And they can’t even threaten to fire you. They need to have a reserve army of unemployed workers to threaten the workers that exist right now. That’s just part of the, that’s part of the program. They have to do that, because otherwise wages go up. You have financial publications like Wall Street Journal who are publicly worried when the unemployment rate goes down too much because that means, that means, that means wages go up.
So we know that there has–that unemployment is an inseparable part of capitalism. It cannot function without that. What do we also know about unemployed people? Unemployed people are just like employed people. They need to eat. So if you got a large group of people without jobs that need to eat, they’re going to get jobs in the legal economy. Illegal business is the same as legal business. They both have to regulate themselves and they both use violence to regulate themselves. Violence is something necessary for business.
So if you have a legal business, let’s say a supermarket, and you take a cart of groceries out and don’t pay for it, you are going to be met with a physical force. Now, that physical force may be the security of the supermarket, and it may be the police. The police is who backs up the laws. And they back it up with physical–you have a zoning–even just things like zoning. Like, this is my building, this is my lot right here. Somebody can’t just come build over there because the police are going to come if, if it goes down to it, right? So police are the physical force that regulates legal business.
Illegal business does not have the police. They do not have legal regulations. You cannot go to court and say, your honor. I was supposed to be getting a whole key of cocaine, but this is only 80–this is 80 percent baking soda. I demand restitution. You cannot do that. You can’t go to the zoning commission and say, look, I know this is zoned for three dope dealers over here. But really, the market right here can only take two. Let’s rezone this and get this settled. No. Illegal business doesn’t have the police to regulate it. Illegal business regulates itself. And that takes violence, right. That takes at the very least a show of force to make it happen. It’s always been that way.
So we know certain things. That violence in black communities is a natural outgrowth of capitalism. You will never get rid of that as long as you have capitalism. That, that we, we also know that there then needs to be a way to, to portray that, by the ruling class. The ruling class needs to portray that in some way other than this is a natural outgrowth of capitalism. Because then you start thinking, well, what also is a natural outgrowth of capitalism? Why is that–that means poverty is a natural outgrowth of capitalism. And so what, what the idea that gets put out there is that, okay, these folks are the impoverished ones. And they tell the rest of the working class, you’re not impoverished, they’re impoverished. And their, their, their poverty is caused by their own bad decisions. The poverty is caused because they don’t, you know, study right. They need to learn how to talk to each other. You know, and things like that.
And even, you know, and it’s not even just the right wing that puts this forward. Even nonprofit organizations come and say, there’s all this violence in the street. We need to teach people how to learn how to be men. Or we need to teach people to learn how to talk to each other nicely. We need to teach people how to learn how to wear the right color tie to a job interview. And this will solve all of these things. And the truth is a lot of those people in those organizations know better. They just need a job, and the foundations are paying for this certain line to be put out there, right. And, and–so we have this idea of what causes poverty and what causes the conditions that people are living in, and that idea that keeps getting pushed is this racist idea that, that it’s caused by the bad decisions–.
And, and that’s not even just put out by white people. That idea is put out by people that, that, that’s put out by conscious rappers. That’s put out by rappers that might be classified as gangster rappers. This whole pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality which is saying, look, you know, you have this ability. You’re, you’re fucking up. You are fucking up, and get yourself together, you know. So–.
BALL: I can’t help but–to catch the pun that it should be by these boots that we pull ourselves up, right? But I mean, in terms of–but, to add [a little] to the point–but if we follow this line of reasoning that you’re talking about in terms of, of collective redress of institutional oppression, capitalism, it would be a process by which we all could pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
RILEY: Yeah. Well, our boots–that would, that would mean–.
BALL: Meaning, meaning Boots Riley’s analysis, yeah, that’s what I mean.
RILEY: That would mean destroying the [system]. That would mean destroying the system. So, so the utility in that image, though, is that all of a sudden you have the rest of the working class who thinks okay, poverty comes from bad decisions. I know this because I’m looking how, at how people of color are, you know, they–I don’t know about that. So you might have a white dude who makes $21,000 a year being like, well, I’m middle class. And you know, and, and identifying with the police that are keeping down the savages. Right? And identifying, therefore, identifying with this whole idea that, that the system works for the working class. Right?
So it has a utility. You aren’t going to get rid of racism until you get rid of the need for the racism in the first place. Racism makes a lot of money. Because they don’t have to then oppress the whole working class. They don’t have to hold back the whole working class in the same way. It’s a lot cheaper. Right? So the, that’s the point. It’s intrinsically linked, but you aren’t going to be able to handle that until you start engaging in class struggle.
BALL: Part of the reason for my question was that, that I’ve, I’ve seen you over the years. You, you know, obviously there are a lot of different nationalisms in, in and out of hip-hop, in the black community, in various wings of political struggle. I’ve seen you at times even come into some, some degree of conflict with people who question, you know, well, why should we be on this Marxist line? Or why should we be in this, this class line and not this race-first line. So in part, that was where I wanted to have, give you a chance to more fully explain where you’re coming from and let people hear that. Because even for those of us, me admittedly, who, who start with a race-first analysis are frustrated with the absence of class. And the, and the, the, the, the times when folks in and out of hip-hop are unwilling to deal with either class, or some of the thinkers that have influenced you, black, white, or other, that I think are important as well. So I, I just wanted to have you respond a little bit to that.
RILEY: Well, okay. Beyond what I just said right there which is part of that answer, let’s think about what creates culture. All right, because culture is definitely intrinsically part of who, if you want to say one particular race or ethnicity is. What creates culture is what people do while they’re surviving. Right? It’s, it’s–it comes from where they are, what they have to do to survive, and all those things that go around it. It’s going to be different depending on where–fishing villages create fishing songs, right. You try to teach a fishing village an agricultural song, they might think it’s catchy. They might even sing along sometimes. But, but they’re–it’s not going to make them start all of a sudden digging up the ground, right. And, and so what is–what is the basis of who we are has to do with how we survive. How we make money. Right.
So, which brings us back to making this table. Right? So if how we make money is that we make this table and we hand it all to the ruling class, that aspect of us is creating a largest–the largest part of our culture. Right. So there is–so, so without handling that, we can’t handle anything else. We can’t handle how we, with the $30 we get from this table, how we divide that up amongst each other. Well, why aren’t you spending your 30 cents with me instead of spending it over there, and nobody’s looking at the, the rest of the $250 that were handed to the ruling class, right?
And so that’s what some of that, the cultural nationalism, does. Is it says, okay, we three people made this table, and they’re getting very little, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that those folks need to work together more. That’s true, they need to work together more. But what do they need to work together to do? They need to work together to get rid of that economic model where they’re given $250–the thing that they created. Because this table without the labor is worth about $2 at the most. You know. And just the raw materials. And even those raw materials, somebody dug them out of the ground, right?
So without looking at it, then, then we end up coming with the model where we try to get somebody else to be on top, taking the $250. Oh, that person, he’s black. He took my $250 for this table I made, and everything’s all good. You know, and they’re paying, you know–they wear nice colored suits, and you know, drive the kind of car I would want to drive. So it’s all good.
BALL: Absolutely. Yeah.
RILEY: I mean, if, if race-first was a thing then Nigeria would be golden right now.
BALL: Sure, sure.
BALL: First, not last, or only, would be my point. But–not that, you know, if–and that’s sort of my point. That even where I, where I recognize the value in a race-first analysis, it can’t be only and it can’t be last. Because then this question never gets dealt with. Or the, or the, the, the cooperation with the rest of the people on the planet never gets properly dealt with. So I definitely appreciate your, your, your response there.
I want to back up for second, because I, I, I wanted to, to focus on the group the Coup at least for a brief moment here. When you first come out–because one of the, the–you know, I took a group of students a couple years ago to see a J Dilla show, and they said that was the first time in their life that they got to–a tribute, a DJ tribute show to J Dilla. They said this is the first time they saw DJs performing life with hip-hop. And I was struck by that. I thought I was aware of, of the disconnect generationally and issues around commercial impact and dah-dah-dah-dah-dah. But that, that statement struck me. And going back to, to the beginnings as I understand them of the Coup, you had not only a DJ as center, central, rather, but it was, but Pam the Funkstress. I think the fact that she is a black woman DJ central with the Coup at least at the beginning was very powerful, for those of us just to see it without even then anything being said about it. Could you talk about the Coup as it was originally formed, and where the band stands now?
RILEY: Yeah. So, Pam the Funkstress was a well known DJ in the Bay Area. She used to DJ for [Sapphire]. She was part of a group called Funklab Allstars, a matter of fact there’s video people could see on YouTube, their stuff.
BALL: That’s right, that’s right.
RILEY: When I met her at Tupac’s album release party, she was DJing that [thing]. So she was a known party DJ and a known battle DJ. And so we already actually had our deal that we had got, you know, we had put out an independent EP with another D–with another DJ who didn’t want to keep doing it. My boy DJ [O]. And we, we got a deal with Wild Pitch. And so we approached Pam and we were like, you know, we brought her on.
And Pam was, is a phenomenal DJ. If you could see some DMC battles of her in the–.
BALL: Oh yeah, absolutely.
RILEY: In the ’90s. But she stopped doing that because she wanted to do the DMC battles because of her friends that she came up with. She–that were males, that were DJs. But then she started winning the battles and they would be mad. Like, so they would be mad. Oh, fuck that. She just won, that’s ’cause she’s a girl. All that type of stuff. So she would win and be crying, because she only did that to be down. And that made her even more of a pariah. So you know, she kept doing that.
There was a period of time after Genocide and Juice that–which was, Genocide and Juice came out in ’94, but really ’95. And we–after Genocide and Juice I quit doing music. Because of a number of things that, you know. But we–I started an organization called the Young Comrades. And a few years went past, and Young Comrades, this all got started doing Steal This Album. And once Steal This Album was done, we realized we had taken too long of a break. And actually, hip-hop had changed by then, too. That had had to do with, every city had bans on hip-hop shows in the mid-’90s, and that changed a lot of the playing ground.
So, but we went back and we realized we had to just cover a lot of ground again and get out there. And it was going to be, was going to be smaller shows. During the time that I, I’d stopped doing music, Pam had gained ownership of Piccadilly Catering and Restaurant, and she was doing, she–she had Sunday brunches, and, and was catering to all the, a lot of Silicon Valley companies. And on the weekends she was doing weddings. So let’s just say she was making a lot more than we could make on tour. And so she was just like, I can’t do it. You know, like, can’t pass up $10,000 on a weekend to do two weddings to come make a few hundred dollars on the [thing]. So we started touring without her. So–and that’s been since ’99.
BALL: Wow, it doesn’t feel that long. But–yeah, yeah.
RILEY: Yeah. I mean, because she’s been part of it still, you know.
BALL: Right, right, right.
RILEY: But–and so yeah, that’s basically how that went [down].
BALL: And now the band is–how is it constituted now? Because I, I saw a show–yeah, yeah, yeah.
RILEY: So there’s six of us on stage. There’s me, Silk-E, who’s like a young Tina Turner. She started–she, she actually had an album out as a rapper first. So when I first heard her singing I was like, oh, there’s a rapper named Silk-E, too. But you know, that was her.
BALL: That’s me, yeah.
RILEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And–.
BALL: I got to see a show you all did with–where she performed with you a couple years ago out in College Park, Maryland. And my daughter got to meet you all, and meet her. And was very inspired by her. She’s an aspiring, wanna-be superstar, whatever. So she saw the performance and was like, I want to be like her. So I was like, well then be like her, in a band like that.
RILEY: Yeah. So yeah, we–base, drums, guitar, keys. You know, I like to say it’s like the Clash mixed with Sly and the Family Stone.
BALL: That’s what’s up. Now how does this–because this, because this is still separate from Street Sweeper Social Club.
RILEY: Yeah, Street Sweeper–.
BALL: Which was another musical form of—right.
RILEY: So there’s a very thin line between funk and rock, right? Matter of fact, George Clinton, I saw this interview in Rolling Stone or something from the ’70s where you know, Parliament Funkadelic we think of as the epitome of black music.
RILEY: We think of it, like, that’s blackness.
BALL: That’s right. That’s right.
RILEY: But he was saying that that was considered white music back then.
BALL: That’s right. That’s right.
RILEY: There’s a, you know, that distortion that you hear Jimi Hendrix doing was just a little step off from what, from what the Chess Records blues do.
BALL: That’s right. That’s right.
RILEY: So–and you know, obviously there’s way more connections than that. So we’ve always gone the line, on one side of the line between funk and rock. Street Sweeper Social Club is on the other side of that line, right. So there’s Tom Morello plays grooves, and so it was easier to write to than some other–because it’s, it’s basically what he’s–those riffs are baseline grooves.
BALL: And all of these names to these formations are fantastic. I mean, just, just–yeah.
RILEY: Yeah. Exactly.
BALL: You know, the Coup, Street Sweeper Social Club, the Young Comrades. Everything you–I love, I love the sound of all of that.
RILEY: Yeah. Well.
BALL: And where–and where does that come from? The Street Sweeper Social Club name come from?
RILEY: Well, a street sweeper is an automatic machine gun that shoot–instead of shooting bullets shoots shotgun shells. So very deadly weapon. And I think I saw something where even the NRA was okay with it being banned. Main–mainly because it messed up the hunting season for them, because people were just shooting all over the place. But it was originally such, such a dastardly weapon. It was originally made in the ’80s by a U.S. company to sell to South African police. So, you know. An evil purpose for it. And you know, but basically the idea was, you know, our music is a deadly weapon. You know.
BALL: That’s what’s up. So I only have a couple minutes left here. And there are two piece–two things I want to ask you very quickly if I can. One is you mentioned Jimi Hendrix. And going back in preparation for this, this interview, I went back through the catalog and was reminded of the great track you did with Dead Prez, Get Up.
I’ve heard M-1 from Dead Prez make this point, I’ve heard Jimi Hendrix make this point, Bob Marley made this point. Several others who I probably can’t remember off the top of my name–off the top of my head made this point. That their style of music, and the content politically of their music, because of the structure of genres, of a commercial industry, of, of a broader media political environment, was not reaching black communities in ways that they would have wanted it to. And I’m wondering if you have had a similar experience, or have similar concerns, that all this great music you produce that does come out of, of, of hip-hop blues rock, a very black cultural aesthetic and experience, doesn’t reach black communities enough. Does, does…
RILEY: Yeah. Well, I would say that we have to look at it like this, first of all. All the music that we think is black music, it is. But it is marketed. It is mainly consumed by white people. I don’t care what you’re selling here, whether you’re selling shoes, whether you’re selling, you know, Jay-Z, you know, Meek Mill, whoever. The, the big population in the United States is white people. And there’s certain music, there’s certain things that the way that it’s sold to white people is that hey, listen to this because it’s the real black music.
There’s a book called Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick. And where he’s talking about Stax Records and how him and his friends up in Boston thought that okay, Motown is obviously the, the music that’s black music made for white people, and it’s cleaned up, and this. But Stax Records, that’s the real gritty stuff and that’s what black people are listening to, and so on and so forth. But what he found through this book where he interviews all the artists, all the producers, musicians, record label owners, was that no, we were making music to sell. And we knew that white kids would eat this up. And, and, and I’m paraphrasing. But basically they eat the authenticity up. Right.
So then it comes back–this is the stuff that can get popular. And then it gets–is able to get on the radio, and it’s sold back to black folks. So it’s not really what black folks would auth–.
BALL: That’s right.
RILEY: Authentically like. However, it is the stuff with the authentic label on it that will sell more. Because if you’re only selling to black folks you’re not going to sell that many records. It’s not going to get on the radio in the first place. So what would–you know, you even look at it like this. With, with Eminem. They, they knew, he was signed to Interscope way before he was with Dr. Dre. But they knew that they couldn’t sell a white boy to white people.
BALL: That’s right. That’s right. That’s, that’s right.
RILEY: And so they had to have him have a, had to have a co-[sign]. So he–so, so they hooked him up with Dre, and that was the deal that was done there. And it was, look at Black Eyed Peas. It was, they already had Fergie signed. And they, they felt like, okay, to sell this we got to get some some black folks with you. Right? So that’s how that works.
How do you get–the other question comes with maybe how the black community is tied to radio, because that makes a certain gatekeeper. And it wasn’t always like that, even like 30 years ago when hip-hop was coming out. Like, you were a mark if you were listening to the radio, had the radio blasting loud in your car. Like, nobody was doing that. You had tapes. Like, if somebody came up, it’s 1:06 KMEL–you’d be like, what the [fuck], what are they doing? Like, but then what happened was, then the radio started playing the music that we liked. So, so they started playing the local music, and then all of a sudden everybody was like, oh, I know how to get played on KMEL, so on and so forth. And KMEL is the local radio station in the Bay Area.
But–and, and then all the focus started switching. So then ten years later when the radio stations stop playing local–the local radio station in the Bay Area stopped playing local music. All those artists, they didn’t even know how to get to their fans, whereas before we would go there, put up posters all around. We knew the places to go, who to have play your music. That’s not even known. People don’t even know how to get their music directly to their audience anymore. The most that they do, put it up on YouTube. Put something out on Twitter. So on and so forth. But it, there–it’s not getting there, so they have to go through these other gatekeepers in order to, to, to even get to their own community.
So yes, that’s the long, roundabout way of saying, you know, we’ve–we’ve never been able to get on the radio. Like, we had the number one requested song on a few radio stations because of the video. And those radio stations said, well, we just think it’s the Coup fans calling. Of course, yes it is. But [was] even when we had some money trying to pay people to get it on there, we couldn’t get on there.
So, that is not going–that’s, that’s just, we already know that’s not going to be a route that we can take.
BALL: We don’t have time to get into it but I just want to put that out there. But–the point you just made about payola not even being able to be, not even having–the point you were making about payola not being able to be workable for you explains the social aspect of capitalism that, that it’s not always just about money. In fact, money is itself a social construct meant to manipulate people. And that’s why it doesn’t work–.
RILEY: But it is about money, because–.
BALL: But only to the extent–.
RILEY: The, the mon–the, the movement they’re worried about building will lose them a lot more money than the whatever, $10,000 that that radio station can get.
BALL: No question, no question. So finally, just very quickly, a lot of people are talking about next year’s presidential elections. I got to ask you–.
BALL: So what do you think about that? Are you at all moved by what some–you know, some are calling the Bernie Sanders campaign a progressive, even a political revolution, as one commentator–like, where are you with all of that?
RILEY: Well, here’s the thing. This is–this is something that we go through every few years, that there’s some big movement bubbling up but–so for instance, there was a big anti-war movement, the anti-Iraq war movement in the early 2000s. That got, that, that turned into the pro-Kerry movement, even though he wasn’t against the war. Then later on another–then it had to rebuild again. And go from scratch, almost. And another anti-war movement built up and that got turned into the pro-Obama movement. My family was very much involved in that, and like, talking about oh, there’s a grassroots network being built, and you know–and there was. It took a lot to make that happen. A lot of people spent a lot of time on that, and made networks and stuff like that.
Each time after the election is, happens, it’s over with. And the reason is, is because you–because you’re telling people that this person is a game changer. It’s going to change your life. And you–so there’s no need for a movement. There’s only a need to try to get this person–and when the election is over it’s over with. But the truth is, is that the, that we know that the politicians aren’t the one–the politicians have very little wiggle room. They have a little bit. So if they’re, you know, a good politician they could do a little bit. But that’s, that little bit that they could possibly do is far outweighed by the decimation to social movements that happen.
I mean, Bernie Sanders is an answer to the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter movement, and what has happened with all that controversy has posited him as being someone answering this. And so all of this energy that’s going from these movements ends up turning into being about elections. And it makes sense to a lot of people, because what happens is you, you have all these demonstrations and people like [who], I’m against police brutality. I’m, you know, whatever I’m against. I’m against the 1 percent. This and that I’m that–and it’s just demonstrations. And they’re like, well, what can that do? And we say, well, what you need to do is let your voice be heard, get out in the street.
And really, that’s not for real. That’s not all we need to do. You know, we’re lying to people when we say that, and part of the reason is we don’t really have the answer. And saying to people that we get out in the street, we let our voice be heard, and then those in power would just, you know, be like oh, I’m sorry. You know, I don’t want to–I don’t want people to know I’m not answering you. So they’ll answer and change something. That’s not really–we call that a spectacle. It’s showing stuff, but the, the, the left has, has confined itself to spectacle. Main, only, since the ’60s. It didn’t used to always be like that. But since the ’60s it’s been all about spectacle.
Which is not much different than voting. Like, we let our voice be heard. We’re going to make a change. Let your voice be heard through the vote. So it’s an easy thing. But that’s not, that’s a recent, in the last 50 years, that’s a recent thing. The left didn’t used to be that way. In the ’20s and ’30s there was a, there were, there were, were mass radical militant labor movements happening. In, in the Midwest people were occupying factories and getting their demands met. In the, in the mining towns in Montana, Colorado, Alabama, there were militant fights going on. And by militant I mean with guns. Like, miners fighting corporate paid thugs with guns and shooting it out. There was a big thing–there were hotbeds of Communist activity all around. In the ’20s and ’30s–okay. There was a million card-carrying Communists, and the U.S. was afraid there was going to be a revolution. That’s how the New Deal came about. It didn’t come about because people campaigned for FDR. It came about because they were scared that there was a revolutionary movement coming about that could withhold labor, that could have strikes and shut industry down.
The Communist movement after that went underground to support the U.S. fighting against Hitler. They went underground and were secretive for 10, 15 years. Then the McCarthy era was able to come and say hey, look at these people, these revolutionaries. They’re not telling you who they are, they’re dishonest. And that combined with Stalin’s atrocities, with Stalin, made that movement break up into all these little things that became the new left, who then focused on students, and in cities, instead of where it had been and moved that away from wage struggles. Moved it away from radicals organizing wage struggles where they said, where the demonstrations were like, we got 100,00 people in the street, and tomorrow we can shut down your industry. And that was why it was called a demonstration. It was only a demonstration of power.
Now, demonstrations are the be-all, end-all. We get them in the streets and we don’t have an answer for what we’re going to do next. So this is why these movements have to be attached to actual–to a mass radical labor movement that can shut down industry. And I’m not talking about the 7 percent of people that are in labor unions right now. I’m talking about the rest of them. When we do that then we can have some change. Voting is not going to be making the ruling class make the changes we need.
BALL: Boots Riley, thank you very much. Title of the new book.
RILEY: Tell Homeland Security We Are the Bomb. It’s on Haymarket Books, or you can get it at any bookstore, you can get it on Amazon or find another route to get it online.
BALL: Thank you very much,. Thank you.
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