On February 11th, The Point hosted a panel that brought together Bill Ayers, Janaé Bonsu and Charles W. Mills to examine the guiding question “What is protest for?” and to discuss how direct action relates to philosophy and electoral politics. The panelists invoked works by everyone from Plato to Barney Frank to Assata Shakur. Below we have compiled a loose syllabus for further reading; these are texts we think connect to the themes of that talk and that we hope will continue the conversation started at the panel.
“Shifting my gaze back down to the dancing eyes of my oldest child, I explained that we were here for Trayvon, to uplift him, to be his hedge of protection, even in death. As we stood for Trayvon, I came to understand that we also stood for my children.”
Rules for Radicals
“As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be—it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be.”
“Of all those fugitive days—of all those terrible, exquisite years—I regret nothing for myself; I am sorry only to those who are perpetually blind to the cruel side of the world, who never feel stirred to fight for something infinite, for humanity itself.”
“The ‘American Dream’ of meritocracy has never guaranteed prosperity for Black people in America.”
“Such a preference for demonstrative over electoral politics was often reinforced by a badly flawed reading of the careers of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They did rely on marches, sit-ins, and other forms of physical protest to put moral pressure on their opponents … But neither of these great leaders chose this route in preference to using the votes of their millions of followers to gain their ends. They engaged in direct action precisely because this was the only method available to them.”
The Beautiful Struggle
“To be a black male is to be always at war, and no flight to the county can save us, because even there we are met by the assumption of violence, by the specter of who we might turn on next.”
“In the manipulated public sphere an acclamation-prone mood comes to predominate, an opinion climate instead of a public opinion.”
“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”
The Art of Moral Protest
[James M. Jasper]
“Emotions give ideas, ideologies, identities, and even interests their power to motivate. Just as they must respond to cognitive grids and moral visions, movement organizers and participants appeal to and build upon pre-existing affects and emotional responses such as fear, outrage, even love.”
“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
The Racial Contract
[Charles W. Mills]
“White moral theory’s debates on justice in the state must therefore inevitably have a somewhat farcical air, since they ignore the central injustice on which the state rests.”
“Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him out of two evils to choose the least.”
Charles W. Mills: Philosophers don’t like to get their hands dirty. This goes back to Plato’s Republic, where the idea is that philosophers are the guardian class who play a supervisory role. I don’t think I could successfully sell that to anyone here, but the idea is that philosophers should not be thought of as entirely useless.
“The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you. Who did what to whom on which day? Who said that? She said what? What did he just do?”
A Theory of Justice
Charles W. Mills: Unfortunately, the way philosophy has developed over the past forty years or so is in such a way that social justice stuff has focused on what John Rawls calls a “well-ordered society,” a society of perfect justice. And while this might seem innocuous or even something that’s positive, what it has effectively done is basically bracket questions of corrective justice for unjust societies. If you think about it, you’ll see that’s the situation we’re always in. It’s not the case that anybody on the planet is in a perfectly just society; we’re always in unjust societies, so the priority should be what guidelines are most useful for us for correcting existing injustices.
Assata: An Autobiography
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
[Malcolm X and Alex Haley]
Janaé Bonsu: The autobiography of Assata Shakur and The Autobiography of Malcolm X changed my life. Especially the autobiography of Assata Shakur. After reading that, I felt alive. So I would probably start with those two. That was my gateway into being politicized, so to speak.
“That the protestors in Ferguson were met with such an enthusiastic and imitative response across the country signals the thawing out of the black protest tradition and a rejection of more conciliatory and consensus-oriented conceptions of black politics. Once again, extraordinary effort is being devoted to building militant, independent social movements with organized African-American participation, capable of transcending the limits of conventional electoral politics and effectively channeling black rage and resentment.”
Civil Disobedience: Solitude and Life without Principle
[Henry David Thoreau]
“It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty of disobedience to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if I were worth less in that case.”
Bill Ayers: Look, I brought all of these books here for no reason, because I don’t want to be without them. What if the place falls in? I’d want something to read.