Interview #3: Donna Willmott
Interview #3: Donna Willmott
Biography: Donna Willmott is a member of Catalyst Project whose political roots are in the militant, anti-imperialist organizations of the 1960s, working to end the war in Vietnam, supporting Third World liberation movements at home and abroad, and challenging patriarchy in its many forms.
As a young activist, she was part of the Weather Underground Organization, and throughout her life has continued to work against white supremacy and in support of self-determination for Black people and other people of color.
Donna was incarcerated in the mid-90’s for activities in support of the Puerto Rican Independence movement and much of her organizing has focused on challenging state violence, supporting political prisoners and others subject to political repression.
Question 1: Can you tell me about a particularly inspiring experience in anti-racist activism for you?
Donna Willmott [DW]: I have been thinking about this question and one of the things that came to mind was the historic hunger strike in the California prisons in 2013, that was undertaken by prisoners to expose the conditions of solitary confinement,and to demand changes. There had been two other hunger strikes before then; the 2013 one was the biggest, some 30,000 prisoners participated in the early days of it. It was one of the most amazing organizing efforts that I have ever seen, and for white folks who participated supported the strikers I think it was a really transforming thing.
It was led by long-term prisoners in solitary confinement in the Secure Housing Units [SHU] - an incredible organizing effort by people living under the most draconian living conditions that you could imagine, where people are separated from other human beings, confined to a cell 23 and a half hours a day. Solitary is an attempt by the Department of Corrections to break people's spirit, to keep them from organizing with each other, to try to stop radical, revolutionary organizing in the prisons; this is why the SHU was built. This hunger strike, called by radical Black and Brown prisoners as well as a progressive white prisoner, was historic for many reasons, the cross-racial unity being especially significant. On a human level, it was incredibly moving because of the sacrifice that people undertook to have their demands met – some people fasted for 60 days and were on the verge of dying.
I think it was a political earthquake in California because this reality that had been hidden from so many people was inescapable; it was in the public eye, people had to pay attention to it. The prisoners’ demands were in some ways quite minimal: eliminating group punishment, changing the criteria for classifying someone as a gang member, ending indefinite long-term solitary, providing adequate food, providing adequate programming. These were demands that could have easily been met by the Department of Corrections. But it took people to almost dying to shake the foundations around the whole program of solitary confinement.
For newer white folks who were in the beginning stages of anti-racist practice, supporting the strikers offered some challenges and some opportunities to shift their thinking. I think a lot of people are well-intentioned, they come to this work because they see these injustices and they want to help. But if you were going to be part of supporting this hunger strike, you had to accept terms that were different than a lot of ways people typically engage with support for prisoners. This was a self-determined struggle by people who had done decades in solitary. They developed a set of demands, despite their isolation, they were building unity inside, they were clearly in leadership of this, it was their struggle and there wasn't anyone else who could tell them what was best to do. Imprisoned people were taking their destiny in their hands and saying “We are going to the wall for this”.
For people who were coming to support with a social-worker mentality, this really flipped the script. These were not victims, they had agency, this was self-determination. The terms of support and solidarity had to be based on respect for the leadership inside as well as their family members, mostly women of color on the outside working tirelessly to support the demands of their loved ones. So, I think it was a lesson to white folks to have some humility and remember that it's not your place to try to set the terms for how people struggle.
So I think it's just one of those important examples of the ways that people change in the process of struggle, when you're actually out there, putting yourself in situations where you have to go through some changes yourself.
And I feel like it's really important for white people who want to be anti-racist to find their stake in the struggle; you have to find why you're there, you can't do it for somebody else. I think the thing about the hunger strike was that it made people look at not only what is their government was doing, but why. Why did the state consider these people such a threat? Why did they find it necessary to isolate them, put them in the most inhumane conditions, under really torturous conditions? It made people look at our collective history, and it was an invitation to respond in a principled way to the leadership of people who were willing to give their lives to end this inhumane and torturous system.
It was one of the most moving things that I've ever been witness to and I think it changed a lot of people's lives. I think some people look at it and say it was really the lawsuit that wound up releasing 1,600 people from solitary. And yes the lawsuit played a role, but it was the men, it was the struggle of the people inside that set the terms for this; there was no way you could avoid seeing that. You couldn't just see it as a legal struggle.
Question 2: What would you say to younger, anti-racist activists in this political time and place?
DW: I think one of the biggest lessons for me in having been doing this work for all of my adult life - over 50 years - is believing in your heart and soul that this is a life-long struggle. There are so many things that we're fighting against now that are the same things that I starting fighting when I was 18 years old. I think it's easy to start to get cynical and say, “Well, we tried, we tried, we tried, and look around us - we haven't won, or we've won a little bit but not enough.” But I think it’s essential to struggle against the discouragement and the cynicism, to believing that this is our life's work. We may not see a lot of victories in our lifetime but it doesn't mean that it's not worth it, because we are part of a river of history. We are here because the people who came before us fought hard and we are here for the people who are coming after us, the ones that we will never meet. I see whatever we do as contributing to that forward motion in spite of the defeats and in spite of the setbacks, because this is how it goes. It’s such a part of US culture, and part of racial and class privilege, to want what we want when we want it, to expect immediate results. The struggle for social justice is not like that, so challenging some of those ideas is essential if we’re in this for the long haul.
And it's important as a white anti-racist organizer to take a developmental approach to other white people and to understand the ways that it takes people a while to change. It's not to say don't challenge and don't have high expectations but to also realize that none of us were born with these politics, someone taught us. I know in my life it's mostly been people of color who taught me but it's also been other white anti-racist organizers. I feel like it's really important to not turn our backs on other white people and I think that's a very common phenomenon in our movements. We see the racism and we see the effects of living in a white-settler colonial society and we're repulsed by that. We often start to see ourselves as the good white people and so we want to dissociate from other white folks because of our own guilt and shame. I feel like one of the things that we are called to do as we are invited into this movement is to not leave other folks behind. To not see ourselves as a select few who are really the ones who are down for the struggle, but to envision a big, resistant, resilient movement. That means it's going to be messy sometimes and it means that not everybody is going to come along with us but I think we need to be skilled about building principled alliances as part of a developmental process and giving people the room and the support to change.
In terms of this political moment, it's really hard, it's a really difficult moment politically. We are not the first ones to face really ugly forms of racism that have deep roots, historical roots, but the mask is off now and white supremacists feel very free and entitled to do what they're going to do. We need to remember that this is not the first time, and people have always found ways to resist. Indigenous people have resisted genocide and are here and are fighting for their sovereignty and for their culture and for their sacred sites. People have survived fucking genocide, people have survived enslavement, people have found ways collectively to not just survive but to carve a path to liberation and we're part of that, if we really respond with full hearts. We e are invited into a movement that will change our lives and will make us be part of a world-wide desire for something really different. It's a long struggle and we don't always get to set the terms of what it's going to look like but in a certain way we don't have a choice. We have to stand up to what's happening and what's being done in our name; once you say this is where my heart is, you have to keep going.
Question 3: What is your greatest hope for the next generation of anti-racist activists?
DW: I think that one of my greatest hopes is that the strategies that are developed are really rooted in our history. I think your generation has definitely made some advances - there's such strong leadership from women and trans people of color that has really changed the the way that a lot of organizing happens. I feel like that's an incredible strength and I think that's something to nourish and build on, to really support and elevate that leadership because it's also going to come under fierce attack. It has already and there's going to be more of that.
I would say that also having an international perspective is one of my hopes for the next generation of activists. It’s not always a strength in the US movement, we tend to be border-bound in our thinking. Having a solid analysis of colonialism, of imperialism, that's really the foundation of any successful strategy that emerges. We have to be part of actively promoting and defending the right to self-determination, that's a bottom line. I 'm not saying that if you win that and then everything else falls into place but I think it's completely foundational. We have to look at the history of colonialism and white supremacy and grounding whatever we're building for the future in a clear look at that history, understanding the ways that it plays out again and again and again.
Another thing that has been an advance in the last twenty or thirty years is a much more intersectional analysis. I think it's very very important to understand the un-break-apart-ability of the struggle against patriarchy and the struggle against white supremacy and class struggle. Those things are totally bound up together. When I consider the reality that after 40 years of anti-colonial struggles in which people sacrificed so much there have been many failures and setbacks. Part of the failures were due to the strength of imperialism, but we have to look hard as well at the internal weaknesses, the failure to really address patriarchy and take seriously the liberation of women as foundational to a liberated society. I think about Nicaragua where the failure to incorporate the Indigenous and Black populations into their strategy meant real losses for their movement. Having a deeply intersectional analysis makes all the difference in terms of being able to chart a path to a fuller liberatory process. It's not about being cynical, it's not about “oh, they fought and they lost,” but it's the idea that they fought, they won state power but there were real issues, they didn't win their vision… yet. And I guess the key word is yet. It’s not over but we have to not be afraid to look at those [histories] and draw lessons and not romanticize what a revolutionary process is, because it's not a straight line. It's messy, we're human, and we're also living in a time of what I hope is a decline of empire but it's not quite declining fast enough.
It's a really difficult time and I feel like the basic questions of the survival of the planet, of what imperialism has done to the entire planet are critical.. And then there's lots of hope, I think, or seeds of hope. There are people all around the world who are saying “Hell no!” and are giving everything they have to this, to build a different kind of world. And we have to be able to say to each other, “This is really freaking hard and that's okay.”
[It's so important to] have a sense of history, that we are part of historical movement that is, we're part of a river of history. I think about both the looking back and the looking forward and the importance of radical imagination, the importance of holding on to a vision of what we think is possible, and really letting ourselves like go for it. To be able to say, “This is really the world that I want!” I want a world where everybody has their basic needs met, where everybody has food and clothing and shelter and clean water and clean air to breathe - and I also want us to have art and culture and creativity and joy and everybody should know how to dance and everybody should [laughs] know how to sing and drum and have a spiritual life., That's like part of the world that we want to create, and we should all have our intellectual abilities cultivated and not feel like that's just for a privileged few. It's a human desire to think deeply, to reflect, and we have to create conditions where we can do that with each other. In this period where there is so much defending of what we've won, but if we get trapped in just a defensive posture, we're sunk. We have to imagine the world that we want and imagine how what we’re doing today relates to that and that it's not this far off dream. We have to dream big and be visionary, and all the steps we take everyday need to be aligned with that really radical, creative vision of what's possible.