Interview #2: Rob McBride
Interview #2: Robert McBride
Rob McBride's political engagement began in high school with his opposition to McCarthyism and HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee) and support of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
He was further radicalized in the student movement of the 60s, especially in solidarity with the Black Liberation Movement and the Vietnamese war for liberation. He has combined political defense work with liberatory politics since the attacks on the Black Panther Party, on the American Indian Movement, on the Puerto Rican independence movement, and on war resisters.
He has worked with the Weather Underground, Prairie Fire, and Catalyst and brings personal experience with having loved ones imprisoned.
Question 1: Can you tell me about a particularly inspiring experience in anti-racist activism for you?
Robert McBride [RM]: One of the biggest inspirations was the victory of the Vietnamese over the US and that still resonates with me today. It was a long time coming, towards the end we knew they'd win but then seeing it, and seeing it so dramatic, was deeply inspiring. And it was inspiring, not only personally because I'd been so involved in opposing the war and supporting the Vietnamese, but of course we all knew that all these other comrades around the world were celebrating at the same time. So, I was in San Francisco then and we just turned out to the streets and had a very celebratory kind of march.
In terms of what's more conventionally understood as anti-racism, I draw inspiration from the history. Recently reading a lot about Black Reconstruction and Black participation in the Civil War was very inspiring. [Also] visiting Harper's Ferry […] was highly inspiring; I definitely recommend you do it. The park service has done a really good job of preserving and there's a lot of good information about John Brown and his collaborators and the, I think it was called the firehouse, the small brick structure where Brown and his fellow soldiers made their last stand, that's pretty completely preserved and it's very simple. When we were there, there was a Black family visiting and they were ahead of us and they took off their shoes to go in. And we talked about what that meant in terms of hallowed ground. It made a big impression and yeah, it was inspiring.
That question also makes me think of all the questions going around about hope, as something that keeps people going. And I like to have hope whenever it comes up and I do, sometimes, but I do not feel that hope is necessary for political commitment. Mostly it's just determination, rather than hope. The phrase that I have over my desk and that comes to mind all the time, is just simply, “Never give up”.
[…] Also, I was reading about Walter Benjamin [and] I think in one of Benjamin's writings he says that, and he is speaking personally, that what drives people like him in terms of political commitment is not so much a vision of future of the society but rather horror at the crimes of the past. And that's a lot true for me. It's like, I don't know what's coming but I don't want it to be like the past.
Question 2: What would you say to younger, anti-racist activists in this political time and place?
RM: Well, I wish that I had come up in a time when I could have found older mentors. I found a little bit of mentorship from a couple of professors at Dartmouth and from one in Madison but they weren't really activists, I mean they were great people and I appreciated them but it wasn't really mentoring and it's true that we as a generation were arrogant, for sure, like coming up with that slogan [“Never trust someone over thirty”]. But we as anti-war and anti-racist activists were being denounced by practically all of the older Leftists, they were really angry at us and denouncing us for bringing NLF, Vietnamese flags to anti-war demonstrations, saying that that was inflammatory and that we couldn't support communists, and of course, when we started breaking windows and things like that, they really denounced us... so it was not one-sided, that split between younger and older Leftists, and I think that our arrogance was in large in response to their criticizing of us.
One other thing which I see too much resistance to among many activists is travel. People need to travel. Very widely, anywhere, everywhere. We were told by our political leaders, white political anti-imperialist leaders, to not visit Puerto Rico, because we had to trust leader-to-leader communication between Puerto Rican leadership and solidarity leadership. As we got to know Puerto Rican comrades, they were shocked that that had ever been the line, even though so me of their own leaders had supported it, they hadn't talked about it. And if you can visit and connect with friends and comrades, that's the best, you get to see it. So, you know, we really need to build an international network of resistance and you can't do that without travel. So I would say take time, make time, [and] it doesn't have to be folded into an activist program. And of course, read, read, read, read, read, read.
I'll tell you about one thing that bugs me, that I've been hearing from not especially younger comrades, I mean like comrades in their forties and fifties who say, we need a strategy, and that gives me chills because needing a strategy implies an organization leading it and coming up with it. We need strategy, we need strategic thinking, very much so, we need many people thinking about different strategies. I don't think we need a party-led movement, I think we need a movement of movements. In terms of leadership, I certainly haven't grasped it deeply enough but the Zapatista notion of leading from behind seems to me extremely important. It doesn't translate immediately or easily into a white supremacist culture but nonetheless it's really a different idea than the Leninist notion of leading from above.
Now that you've loosened me up, one other thing that I've been very late to recognize but I do want to share is that I think it's important to extend our view, our critique, of society from a focus on capitalism to a focus on class society. When I say either one of those terms, I also mean their intersection with patriarchy and racism and colonialism but what I want to emphasize is that there is not a sharp distinction between feudalism and capitalism for example and you can go far back and the intersection of class, patriarchy, militarism, conquest, othering of those conquered is very familiar to today and influences us. So I think that should give us some patience about the process we're involved in and some tolerance and many implications for strategy. So it's not just about getting history right but if we see history as long and involved, it allows us to be better at figuring out what to do now and what do expect.
Question 3: What is your greatest hope for the next generation of anti-racist activists?
RM: Much, much, much deeper intersectionality. Some people have approached intersectionality in a kind of simplistic way that is just a Venn diagram but racism and patriarchy are fused at the very beginning and have been all the way through - and class and militarism. Militarism often gets separated out as like, the anti-war movement will go deal with that, but racism has always been militarist and patriarchy has always been militarist, integral, and the militarism is tied with conquest, so besides a problem of seeing intersectionality as additive oppressions, we have to go beyond class, race, gender to include colonialism and militarism and we have a very long ways to go in terms of understanding that. My own bent always is towards study groups, of course, but I think it will also be more effective if we can get artists and musicians to deal with it, but whatever people can do.
[M]usic reaches more people than books and that's very important but music is also creative and so if you're addressing problems with music you have to come up with a creative way of doing it - it's about a more imaginative, a fuller, a different way of looking at the problems and looking at the steps to take. Recently, I've been learning how important the Blues have been in opposing white supremacy, starting in Mississippi at the overthrow of Reconstruction up through today and then how it's spread into R&B, how it's linked to jazz, and now of course, rap and hip hop, and so understanding that long history is important in music just as it is in straight politics.
The only other thought I have now about hoping for the future has to do with the importance of radical imagination. And that is something often overlooked, though I am very happy that young generations, younger than me, have more of that than my generation which reacted much more in a policy-oriented kind of way. You know, when we look at what victories have been accomplished, there's been a lot of victory in creating a more radical imagination, you know whether that be Sun Ra in jazz or all of the writers that we love, etc.