Answering the Call to Fight Injustice: An Interview with Barbara Smith

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) demonstrates for housing justice in Seattle in 1964. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Barbara Smith is one of the leading intellectuals and activists who developed the traditions of Black feminism. A part of a group of Black lesbian socialists, she co-authored the groundbreaking “Combahee River Collective Statement.” A prolific writer, she has published many books and articles that have emphasized the interlocking nature of systems of oppression under capitalism and the necessity of fighting all of them as part of a struggle for collective liberation. But she is no armchair intellectual; she is also an organizer and activist. Tempest’s Ashley Smith interviews her here about her history as a participant and leader in struggles from the civil rights movement to Palestinian solidarity today.

Ashley Smith: In a meeting we were both in, you said that history doesn’t repeat itself but it sometimes rhymes. We are in the midst of one of the largest student revolts since the 1960s. You were part of that great uprising. How did you get involved in it? How did it develop and what did you do in it?

Barbara Smith: I became politically active in the heart of the 1960s during the long Civil Rights Movement. As a teenager in Cleveland, Ohio, I joined the struggle that was centrally focused on school desegregation.

Urban school districts were segregated then and are segregated now. What’s ironic is that my twin sister and I lived in a neighborhood where Black people could buy a house. Our family had moved there because it had really good public schools, probably some of the best in the city. And so, my sister and I went to integrated schools from first grade through 12th.

As teenagers, we were following the civil rights movement. My entire family was from the deep South, from a town in rural Georgia called Dublin. I like to say, kind of jokingly, that my sister and I were the only two Northerners in our house.

The adults in Cleveland’s movement made a priority of getting young people involved. We went right to work to challenge the de facto segregation of almost all neighborhoods and schools in our city.

The city officials, in a typically cynical manner, built new schools in segregated areas so that the color line was upheld and reproduced. This was true of all northern school systems. They would never put a school in an integrated neighborhood.

So, our movement started protesting segregated school construction. One of the actions ended in the tragic death of a white minister named Reverend Bruce Klunder. People had blocked the front of a bulldozer while Reverend Klunder blocked its back.

The driver put the bulldozer in reverse and ran over Reverend Klunder, killing him instantly. He was in his 20s, married, and had young children. His death escalated the movement to a much higher level. In April of 1964, the movement launched a boycott of Cleveland public schools on the east side of the city where Black people lived.

My sister and I joined it. Our family had no issues with us participating in the boycott and in fact I think they expected us to. Our family members were pillars of one of the most prominent Black churches. It was very progressive.

My sister and I were mid-year high school graduates, so we had a lot of time on our hands before college. They made a lot of students graduate mid-year then because the schools were so over-crowded. If your birthday was after a certain point in the fall or even in the late summer, you would have had to start school mid-year and then graduate mid-year.

While we got full-time jobs, we used our spare time to volunteer with CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality). Fortunately, the executive director of CORE was a wonderful woman, a German teacher, who had left teaching in the school district to work for civil rights.

If there had been someone more typical in that leadership role, they might have been dismissive of people like us who didn’t fit the standard profile. They might have said, “What could you do? You’re two teenage girls. What could you possibly do?”

But this teacher saw our potential. We worked in the office, took notes, typed up letters and documents, and also went out canvassing in neighborhoods where the housing quality was poor, whether it was public housing or not. They didn’t send us out by ourselves, but they would send us out with this wonderful person named Chuck, who was blind.

We were a great team. Since Chuck did not have a guide dog, we were his guides and he was our mentor as we rode the bus and walked door to door talking about integration, housing, and other issues in the struggle against racism and inequality.

Already active in the struggle, I went to Mount Holyoke College in the fall of 1965. There were virtually no Black students on my campus. There was a group called the Civil Action Group, which I joined. Most of the Black students already at the school were active in it.

We didn’t have a Black student group or an Afro-American society yet. The focus of the Civil Action Group was civil rights organizing. Already, the movement was turning toward Black nationalism and Black power and also beginning to take up the struggle against the Vietnam War.

We were in a very small, rural town. It felt like being in a Norman Rockwell painting! So, we didn’t have the forces for large rallies locally. But we organized, nonetheless. We held vigils and organized fasts for peace and to stop the war in Vietnam.

Out of those struggles I went on to become active in the feminist and LGBTQ movements. And thinking about their interaction led me to Black feminism and the Combahee River Collective and our statement about the interlocking systems of oppression and the need to fight against all of them as part of our struggle for collective liberation.

AS: The Black freedom struggle set in motion the whole chain of radicalism in the 1960s. Black Lives Matter along with Occupy and a whole wave of struggles from teacher strikes to Bernie Sanders’ campaigns and Women’s Marches have all seemed to flow into Palestine solidarity as a point of profound convergence. What is similar and different between the process of radicalization in the 1960s and today?

BS: I hesitate in some ways and just to make clear that these are not in any way definitive thoughts. These are observations in the midst of a dynamic movement. What we’ve been through as organizers since October 7 feels pretty unprecedented to me in my lifetime.

That includes the struggle to end the war in Vietnam. Although the body count in Vietnam was much higher than what we have seen in Gaza, and the conditions were quite different.

The war in Vietnam was a war and civilians were being killed and napalmed, but it wasn’t under an occupation. Palestine has been under the [Israeli] occupation since 1948. The West Bank has been occupied since 1967 and Gaza has been under siege since 2007, essentially turning it into an open-air prison.

Then in the wake of Hamas’ October 7 attack, the Israeli government launched a genocidal war on Gaza. I say the Israeli government, because I think it’s really important to make distinctions between the government and the people.

Remember, before October 7 there was quite a vibrant movement against Netanyahu’s regime. People were protesting its attempt to abolish the court system so that he could rule with impunity.

But Netanyahu has used October 7 to galvanize his base and justify genocide in Gaza. He even said that if Biden pauses shipment of the 2,000-pound bombs, we will fight with our fingernails.

He will not relent in his declared aim to get rid of Hamas, under the illusion that that will make people in Israel safe. He cannot achieve that goal and wiping out people in Gaza will certainly not make Israelis safer.

So, the wars are different, the period is different, and the political dynamics of the movement are different. I was in college at the height of the 1960s. My campus transformed during those years.

The student movement at that time was shaped by the contrast between the new Left versus the old Left. I had the opportunity to meet people who had been in the old Left, people who were middle-aged or elders at that time.

Because there was no Internet, there was no way of getting information except through books, articles, and newspapers. The new Left valued studying and reading. It was like a litmus test.

If we met someone–it might even be somebody you were interested in dating– we asked each other what we had been reading. Have you read Frantz Fanon? Have you read Herbert Marcuse? What about Karl Marx? There was an assumed reading list that serious politicos were expected at least to have dipped into.

I don’t think it’s like that now. People in my generation, not to be ageist, talk about how we can get our younger generations more interested in studying and engaging with theory, analysis, and history.

The old Left and its movements still influenced us—the struggle in the 1930s for unionization and workers’ rights. And of course, the Black freedom struggles of that period like the Scottsboro Boys. All of that was part of the emotional, social, and political context that affected how we thought about the world.

But there was a different experience then between Black and white activists. I knew this from first-hand experience. In the 1960s, young Black people were not rebelling against our parents. We did not think that our parents were the root of the problems. We knew that racism was the root of the problem, and our parents were being victimized by that as well.

Young white activists were rebelling against how they were raised. To be honest, if I was raised the way they were, I’d have been rebelling too. Of course, some Black people were rebelling against their parents, particularly those from the Black bourgeoisie.

But my sister and I, like most Black people at the time, were from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds. We didn’t have a lot of money and went to college on a complete scholarship.

Today’s rebelliousness I don’t think has much to do with rebellion against parents. Activists today are focused more on systemic problems across the board. I have joined all the recent waves of the new movement since Occupy through Black Lives Matter (BLM) to Palestine solidarity today.

I participated in Occupy right outside of City Hall in Albany, New York. Those were some of my happiest days as an elected member of the Albany Common Council. I would go to Council meetings, which all too often were like watching paint dry.

After these meetings, I would go outside to Occupy, and it was like a breath of fresh air. I wasn’t on the Common Council primarily to do legislation per se, but to make change and represent my Black working-class community. So, it was the struggle outside of City Hall like Occupy and BLM that were much more compelling for me.

The Occupy encampment was just across the street from City Hall and the New York State Capitol. I would go there and join people of color meetings. It was just great until the city shut it down one day in December.

Occupy had an anti-capitalist stance without articulating it. In some ways, it really was getting at the bottom line of what makes the society unjust, which is the economic disparity—the great gaps in income. But it wasn’t saying that we need to build a socialist society.

I supported Black Lives Matter when it burst onto the scene. It is the Black liberation movement of our era. It’s different from the Civil Rights Movement. Although it has a number of things on its agenda, it is focused on a particular aspect of white supremacy—police brutality and the criminal injustice system.

I have nothing except praise for what people of younger generations are trying to do from Occupy on through BLM to Palestine solidarity today. The solidarity with Palestine is simply amazing, especially the student encampments.

It has transformed politics in this country. Six months into this genocide, my Jewish Voice for Peace chapter was exhausted. We never thought this war on Gaza was going to go on so long.

Then at the end of March all of a sudden an encampment popped up first at Columbia; then they spread all over the United States and around the world. Before that, our movement had been demanding a ceasefire, which is of course essential, but the encampments upped the ante by demanding university divestment and an academic boycott.

I went to some events at the encampments, but not too many, because of my mobility issues. I’m not prepared to stand for a long time these days let alone engage in defense of encampments against police.

But I try to be at as many as I can. It matters to show up. When history speaks, when we are called upon, you either answer or you don’t. I’ve always been a person who answered the call to fight injustice on any and every issue as best I could and can.

I went to the mobilization at the University of Albany as well as a number of demonstrations at the Capitol. I went to a May Day rally to stop the genocide organized by our BLM in Saratoga, New York. I have nothing but joy with the connections that I have made during this period, working on all these connected issues.

AS: You have been intimately involved in the Palestine solidarity movement in Albany, New York. How has it developed? What have been the key events and turning points in the struggle so far?

BS: I have been working pretty much nonstop on the liberation of the Palestinian people since October. Not that anybody outside can make that happen, but we can definitely support their struggle.

I have been an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace since 2019, well before Israel’s current genocidal war. I have been part of organizing for Palestinian rights in Albany ever since I moved here 40 years ago in 1984. I’ve been affiliated with the Palestinian Rights Committee.

I went to their regular protests in front of what used to be an armory in downtown Albany. Those were the years when I was running Kitchen Table Press, a publisher for women of color, so I didn’t have a lot of time to be in a lot of groups.

But I was in a feminist group that we started that was explicitly focused on fighting racism called the Feminist Action Network. We were doing very different kinds of work than most so-called feminist groups do because we had an explicit anti-racist agenda.

All of this flowed together after 9/11 when we formed the Stand for Peace Coalition to stop the war on Iraq. Everyone in Albany’s progressive community came together. For a city of our size of less than 100,000 people, we have a pretty large progressive community.

Maybe our progressive community is so big because it’s the state capital or because it has a major university. But we’re up against a mainstream political culture run by the Democratic Party machine that is conservative.

When our Stand for Peace Coalition came together, we rowdy feminists had questions about why there were so few people of color in this organizing. We raised the question with pretty familiar white male activists and some women as well.

They had no idea what we were talking about or why. They said, “What difference does it make? We just want people to be for peace and opposed to the war in Iraq. What difference does it make whether we have people of color here or not!” What?

So, we started a sub-group of the Coalition made up of white women and women of color called the Stand for Peace Anti-Racism Committee. It actually stayed together longer than the Coalition itself.

One of the things we prioritized in the Stand for Peace Anti-Racism Committee was to connect with the Muslim, Central Asian, and Arab American communities because we knew that they were under attack.

One of the things that we did that I loved was that every so often we would go to restaurants owned by people in the Muslim community whether they were Middle Eastern or South Asian. We’d have these wonderful dinners with like 20 children running around.

We made a priority of connecting with women in the Muslim community. Through that work, we started the Capital District Coalition Against Islamophobia in the 2010s, in the time right before Trump. Luckily, when he came to power, we already had an organization to oppose his Muslim ban. We did some major actions.

This work led me to focus on Palestine and to join Jewish Voice for Peace. It is, of course, an anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian organization. We had an incredible seder in the spring of 2019, which was attended by 200 people, and we were looking forward to having another one, but COVID interrupted those plans.

During the worst of the pandemic, we stopped being very active. Some people made the transition to Zoom meetings, but our JVP did not do very well. Some people had illnesses, some sadly passed away, and others got new jobs and moved away.

So, it dwindled to a small group that would every so often meet with our congressperson. We met with the mayor of Albany who had gone to Israel to try and educate her. But the chapter really wasn’t growing or vital.

After October 7 and the start of Israel’s genocidal war, suddenly dozens and dozens of young people whom we had never met before joined the organization. They have remade our chapter, indeed, remade JVP as a whole organization.

One of our leaders, a founding member of JVP, would go with these new members to protest after protest with a sign-up sheet and register new members. Our chapter has grown in leaps and bounds.

We now have subcommittees of all sorts. We have an events committee, we have communications, and many more. I was the point person for a committee that organized a Black History Month event sponsored by JVP. That was, I think, pretty unique for JVPs around the country.

We mostly plan events like screening the film “Israelism.” Our most recent event was a seder, which was actually an event in solidarity with Palestine. It was outside next to a statue of Moses in Washington Park and drew a couple hundred people.

It had the atmosphere of a seder, which is of course a serious annual holiday. Our chapter wrote our own Haggadah emphasizing our collective struggle for liberation.

Our most significant achievement to this point was the passing of a ceasefire resolution in the Albany Common Council, the first one in all of New York State. We worked with members of the Muslim community based on all the years of previous collaboration to bring the resolution forward.

We had a core group that worked on it night and day from early December until we passed it in January. We had two Council members, one who had introduced the legislation and the other who co-sponsored it.

There were all kinds of shenanigans, and that’s a nice word, on the part of the Common Council. It was just a mess. One of the things that I felt so great about is that, as a former Council member, I knew what their tricks might be and could explain to our team how to use their tactics against them.

We brought hundreds of people to City Hall to the second council meeting in December, the last one of the 2023 calendar year. Unsurprisingly we made little headway on the resolution. So, we were determined to be better prepared for the next one in January 2024. One of our members, who’s a part of the Muslim community, said we need to get five hundred people to turn out to the next one.

I thought, oh yeah, five hundred people, that’s a heavy lift to persuade people to leave their couches and their comfortable heated homes for City Hall. So, our planning meeting was tasked with an enormous project.

I said that we needed to do something that the Council was not expecting like, maybe, a newspaper ad. Everyone thought that was a great idea and collaborated to make it happen. We launched a GoFundMe campaign to pay for it and one week later, we had a full-page ad in The Times Union in print and online that said, “Cease Fire Now!”

Over 20 organizations, including labor unions and Muslim groups, signed on to the ad. That helped us rally people to come to City Hall. When we all got to the Council meeting in January, it was standing room only with the crowd inside with more outside the door in the corridor. We had too many people to fit into the Council chamber.

Amazingly, people brought copies of the print ad and held it up like a placard during the meeting. They lined up to testify and they were all so eloquent. But we faced some serious opposition.

We have a committed Zionist on the Common Council. She’s the only Jewish member and had pushed the Council to pass a pro-Israeli resolution in their first meeting after October 7. There was no vetting. They just declared that they stood with the state of Israel.

Astonishingly, the Council had the gall to then declare when faced with our push for a ceasefire resolution that they didn’t deal with international issues. But in the past, they had passed several resolutions on such issues from one declaring support for Israel to another one on Ireland.

They used a terrible incident of someone brandishing a gun in front of a synagogue and saying something about Palestine as another reason not to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire. The Zionist rabbis backed them up.

But the combination of the horror of the war, our pressure, and the enormous shift in public opinion enabled us to win a ceasefire resolution. Since then, we have continued to organize in several working groups dedicated to all sorts of projects.

We have one called our cross-pollination group. It brings together groups and communities of all sorts for social events and actions. One of my favorites was an Iftar during Ramadan that brought together people from the Muslim community with JVP and BLM.

Such interlaced connections would be hard to imagine before this period. Of course, some of these connections existed. After all, we call our small city of Albany, “Smallbany.” People in our activist community know each other well. But this moment has deepened such solidarity and expanded it in ways we could never have imagined.

AS: What are your thoughts about the student encampments and their significance?

BS: The encampments spotlighted the contradictions in our society, between the students’ demand for an end to this war and the violent, repressive response from the establishment. I watched the confrontation at Columbia on TV. It was shocking to behold.

First students at Columbia and then all over the country just peacefully occupied their college greens. They were then met with police repression sometimes in the most brutal fashion. At Columbia, the police stormed Hamilton Hall with a twenty-first-century siege engine and brutalized and arrested scores of students.

The idealism of these young people is extraordinary and special. Having been one of those people at one time, I remember back to what we used to do, but can’t do now. I would if I could, but I can’t climb into windows or run from the police anymore. But I support and admire what they’re doing.

The youth are the future. Why? Because the youngest have not yet fully absorbed and even better yet have rejected all the oppressions. There’s not a baby in the world ever born as a card-carrying racist, homophobe, elitist, capitalist exploiter or whatever.

Even royal babies are just like all the other babies until they find out where they are living, in Kensington Palace. Only once they’ve absorbed their privileged position with all its prejudices do they become defenders of the established order.

Until then they’re just like all babies—interested, curious, and playful. They don’t have a whole portfolio of carefully adopted and rigid beliefs. That only comes with socialization.

Many young people who are in college today, not the majority by any means, but enough of them have brought a new passion for solidarity and justice to the table. It’s wonderful and it’s expanded globally. As we used to say, La luta continua, the struggle continues.

They have challenged all those who say the situation in Israel Palestine is complicated. It’s not complicated for the students in the encampments and it’s not for me. People are dying, people are being annihilated, people are being starved, people don’t have clean water to drink, and people don’t have sanitation.

And doctors don’t have anesthesia for operations. All I could think is, what’s it like to be a six-year-old and having your limbs cut off with no anesthesia? What trauma will last for that child if they survive? But 15 thousand children have not survived.

Who on earth can defend such horrific crimes against humanity? Anyone who is in favor of the policies of the Israeli regime at this point have lost their moral compass. The “buts” that fill their sentences are just appalling.

I know which side I’m on when it comes to oppression. I’m always with the oppressed. I’m a Black person living in the United States, the belly of the beast, and I understand what side needs to be treated as full human beings. The Palestinians.

I haven’t been to Palestine, but I know people in this group, the National Council of Elders, which is made up of all sorts of leaders from SNCC and other organizations from the civil rights and peace movements. Many of them have visited the occupied territories.

One of them, Zoharah Gwendolyn Simmons, who was in SNCC, converted to Islam, got a PhD in Islamic Studies, lived in Jordan, and went to Palestine several times. She grew up under Jim Crow in Memphis, Tennessee. I know of other people from South Africa who lived under apartheid and have visited Gaza.

All these people who experienced Jim Crow in the United States and South African apartheid say they have never seen anything as bad. They all say that Israeli apartheid is far worse. I absolutely believe my siblings in the movement.

We’re at the start of a new, long struggle to get rid of Israeli apartheid. But we’re seeing a paradigm shift today and the students have led the way into a new era. This struggle in solidarity with Palestine is going to impact all our movements and make them all stronger.

AS: One of the most shocking things we have witnessed is the repressive and sometimes brutal response to the encampments, not only by Republicans and conservative leaders of school administrations, but also by the Democrats and liberal administrators. They have all unleashed police on protestors. What explains the bipartisan nature and brutality of the crackdown?

BS: I watched the crackdown unfold and couldn’t help but think of my own experience in the late 1960s. During that period, I was in New York City studying at the New School for Social Research during my junior year.

It was my junior year abroad. I left bucolic Mount Holyoke for something I was more familiar with—urban America. I got to go to the city I had been dreaming about ever since I saw its skyline on our black-and-white TV in the early 1950s.

At the New School College, we had young radical professors who closed the school in solidarity with Columbia when students went out on strike.

I was part of the movement, but as a Black woman I felt marginalized among the white student Left I was around. So, although I was definitely down with SDS, I was not a part of it because if you were Black there were limits to what you were supposed to be interested in.

After college, I started graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall of 1969. Some of the Black nationalists on campus harshly criticized me because I was active in advocating for an end to the war in Vietnam, which was peaking toward a major mobilization in November of 1969.

I faced challenges as a Black woman because the colleges and universities were still in the process of desegregating. But even the most ridiculous of these institutions could not help but be impacted by the zeitgeist of the times, by the cascading social and political movements of that era.

Every night when administrators of colleges and universities went home, they were seeing Black people beaten by police and attacked by police dogs. Remember, the 1963 March on Washington had happened, the anti-war movement was reaching a crescendo, a new women’s movement was starting, and Martin Luther King had just been assassinated.

The university bosses were impacted by this climate. They were also shaped by a political consensus around the social welfare state forged out of the New Deal. But that didn’t stop Columbia from building its gymnasium in Harlem and displacing all of those Black families.

So, the conflict remained intense between the radicalizing students and their administrations on a whole number of issues. At Columbia, students shut down the school in 1968. They detained administrators in their offices, they occupied whole parts of the campus, and they held Hamilton Hall for about a week.

The whole scenario in 2024 is different. This year, students at Columbia held Hamilton Hall for less than 24 hours. Today, the people who head up these institutions are products of the backlash that began with Nixon and peaked with Reagan.

Nixon came in with an agenda to roll back every single gain of the twentieth century. While Nixon’s government fell apart in disgrace after Watergate, he set the direction for a counter-offensive that would culminate in Reagan’s all-out attack on workers and oppressed people.

Today’s administrators are products of that era of backlash and corporate greed. They head up institutions that are thoroughly neoliberalized and preoccupied with the financial bottom line and efficiency.

Their chief priority is fundraising and pleasing their capitalist donors, not enhancing knowledge or improving culture. As a result, liberal arts are being cut and even eliminated.

So, like the capitalists who control them, they are absolutely hostile to those below them—professors, students, and staff. That is one reason for the ferocity of their crackdown on the encampments.

Another reason is the nature of the student activists who are participating in the protests. Unlike in the 1960s, when campuses were still mostly segregated, today they are much more multiracial and multi-gendered. So, the administrators responded to them like the city bosses and police did to Black Lives Matter, with brutal repression.

AS: It seems that we are in the midst of a New McCarthyism with far-right GOP leaders like Representative Elise Stefanik holding hearings in the House, grilling college presidents, and pushing for legislation that essentially criminalizes criticism of the state of Israel. Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims as well as their allies have been canceled, fired, denied promotion, and disciplined. What explains the ferocity of this backlash against people calling for an end to genocide and for equality, justice, and democratic rights for Palestinians?

BS: These hearings could have been organized by the House Un-American Activities Committee. They have grilled university president after university president, pressuring them to escalate the crackdown they have already ordered.

They went after Claudine Gay in particular. She has been justifiably criticized for adapting to the right’s charge against the movement being antisemitic and for not being an outspoken proponent of liberation for Palestine.

Now, what would we expect from the president of the most elite university in the entire nation? But I have issues about how they went after her, the first Black woman president of Harvard. Politicians, donors, and alumni did everything possible to bring her down.

This is undoubtedly a new and racist McCarthyism. Everything old is new again. I lived through the McCarthy era as a kid in elementary school. I remember when the Rosenbergs were executed. Our family paid attention to the news, and we talked about it.

My sister and I were around the same age as the Rosenbergs’ two sons, the Meeropol brothers. Both of us asked our family, how can they kill those two boys’ parents? They’re allowed to kill somebody’s parents?

We didn’t know then that we would lose our mother three years after the Meeropol boys lost their parents. Our mother died of a disease. So, I’ve always felt a bond with those kids out of that horrific experience of loss. At least my mother’s death was not the decision of a completely evil state. She died of supposedly natural causes.

Her death led my sister to get a master’s degree in public health from Yale specifically focusing on Black women’s health. She is very aware of the disparate outcomes for Black people suffering from diseases compared to whites.

My mother died as a result of rheumatic fever, something one of my favorite college professors, a white man, had and survived. My mother had been long gone by the time I met him. Given the lack of access to health care in rural Georgia in the 1920s when she contracted rheumatic fever as a child, her death was not simply from “natural causes.”

But no one sentenced her to death as the state did with the Rosenbergs. And she wasn’t wantonly killed by the state like Black people are murdered by police mostly in our cities. Those killed by the state, if they are not children themselves, leave behind orphans and bereft loved ones. So, when I speak of McCarthyism, I speak from experience across generations.

Speaking across generations is vital. Those of us engaged in revolutionary political work have to unite all different kinds of people, including people of different ages. This young generation of activists is so much more diverse than ours was.

I grew up in a Black-white dichotomy. My college years were a Black-white dichotomy. For a long time after that, it was a Black-white dichotomy. But as a result of all our struggles the new generation is much more diverse and much more aware of the intersectional nature of our collective fight for liberation. That is heartwarming for me as a Black, anti-racist, feminist, lesbian.

Our new LBGTQ+ movement has benefitted from all this diversity. It is not so mono-issue. Mono this or mono that politics is now a thing of the past. Today’s radicals are so much more open to the incredible diversity of human beings.

Today’s new right that is driving these new McCarthyite hearings want to roll all that back. They want to restore all the old binaries, all the old hierarchies, all the old divisions. That’s what’s behind their slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Please don’t Make America Great Again. Please don’t. I’ve already been through that. I don’t want to live through that again.

AS: The current struggle is playing a profound role in the shaping of a new Left in this country. Coming out of the 1960s radicalization, you as part of the Combahee River Collective emphasized in your Statement and work the importance of understanding interlocking systems of oppression and the necessity of an intersectional approach to resisting and changing them. How do you think this is useful for today’s Left? Has it become their common sense? Or is there work to be done?

BS: There’s always work to be done. We’re mortals and we’re still trapped in this capitalist society and the oppressions and divisions it breeds. None of us are free from it yet. So, we all need to engage in collective, intersectional struggle till we’re all free.

In this struggle, we need as I and many others have said a collective intelligence. You cannot solve social problems as an individual. It’s not possible. Our problems are the product of our society and especially its capitalist economy.

Our problems are ones of political economy. The only way we overcome these and find solutions is by joining together in struggle, sharing what each of us brings to whatever the issue is, and creating a collective intelligence capable of transforming our world.

Humor plays an important role in this process. It can help us to relate to each other when we’re dealing with dire situations. You generally don’t joke with people you don’t like. This has been part of our dynamics within our local groups organizing for Palestine. Humor can be a way of showing kindness. It’s been a part of every healthy movement I’ve ever been part of.

Part of that collective intelligence is face-to-face organizing in meetings. Don’t just do slogans. Don’t just think that because you get a certain number of likes on whatever social media platform you’re on that you’ve done the organizing.

You have to be organized and meeting with people. I’m a member of DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) here in Albany. It functions pretty well and has taken some different stances than some other DSAs, including national. It’s a good organization.

There is a housing committee in DSA. Some of us are in another group that also works on housing that’s called the Albany Justice Coalition that includes some of the same DSA members. DSA has led the way in doing canvassing around legislation for housing rights.

They go out once a month and door-knock in the neighborhood that I used to live in and that I represented on the Common Council. That’s organizing. They are talking to people and asking them what are the problems you have day to day?

And they tell tenants that if this housing bill gets passed, you will be able to have protections against what your landlord might do. They’re both doing political education and they’re finding out what’s the situation here on the ground.

This movement for a ceasefire, an end to this genocide, and for Palestinian liberation is grassroots organizing. That’s what I want people to understand. It’s not just being cute and having a following on a static medium, which is your computer or your phone.

It’s about knowing people, meeting people where they’re at, and finding out if there is anything that my little mind or my little body can do that could perhaps help your situation to be different than it is. The most wonderful thing is when people get this and mobilize on their own to change their life circumstances, stand up and fight, and speak truth to power.

One of the most important things to do when we face some of the most intractable problems like the assault on reproductive justice is to look for our opponent’s vulnerabilities. What are their weak points we can exploit to change the power dynamics?

Within our own movement, we have to make sure we are empowering oppressed people. In the mid-1970s, I was involved in a campaign against sterilization abuse in Boston. We noticed that there were no guidelines for people facing the problem, so we just wrote guidelines ourselves and publicized them ourselves.

In Albany during the late 1980s, our anti-racist feminist group noticed that a new shelter for women who were experiencing battering, or domestic violence, had hired an all-white staff. That was typical of the white feminist movement.

We had a frustrating meeting with the shelter organizers. We made the point that a lot of people who were going to use the shelter were going to be women of color, and that they needed staff who were like them, but they didn’t hear what we were saying.

So, you know what we did? We wrote our own job description, and we circulated it in the city. As a result, several women of color applied and got staff positions. We took the approach that if they can’t figure it out, we’ll just take action ourselves.

In the current movement, one of my favorite examples of exploiting our opponent’s weakness was the bridge and tunnel shut-down in New York City. It was the right people, at the right place, at the right time. And it made a statement.

A couple of friends of mine have a son in New York who’s right at the center of all this activism. I’ve known him since he was a child. He was one of the people perching on a high balcony at one of the actions when they occupied Grand Central Station.

I asked his mother: Did you tell him not to do that again? But I was just joking. I take great joy in seeing a new generation spread their wings. They are playing a leading role in this great new movement we have created in solidarity with Palestine.

AS: Solidarity with Palestine has brought together many wings of today’s radicalization, including sections of the trade union movement. The higher education workers in California voting to go out on strike against police brutality and in solidarity with the Palestinian movement is a profound example of the intersectional nature of the struggle for liberation. What has been its impact on our social and labor movements?

BS: The best example of its impact has been the UAW. The fact that this major industrial union called for a ceasefire is a breakthrough. Others have followed their lead. The union movement in this country is not where we would like it to be, but it’s definitely different from where it was, say, in the, in the moribund 1980s and 1990s.

The movement in solidarity with Palestine has profoundly impacted working-class communities inside and outside unions, especially people of color in the working class. I’ve experienced this personally at the mosque here in downtown Albany, which is where working-class Muslims in that neighborhood go to worship.

Most of the meetings of our Coalition against Islamophobia were in that mosque. It was an intersectional space. It’s where a lot of people of African heritage and African Americans worship. So, it’s a racially diverse mosque.

All that has flowed into the broader solidarity movement with Palestine. It really does feel like a point of convergence for Palestinians, people of color, Arabs, Muslims, Jews, and white activists as well. It is a sign of hope for our collective future.

AS: One of the positive developments of the new Left that is forming is opposition to US imperialism. We have been collaborating together in the Ukraine Solidarity Network where we have tried to put forward a principled position of solidarity with all struggles for national liberation and self-determination against all imperialisms, whether that of the US or China or Russia. We have put forward the slogan, “From Ukraine to Palestine, Occupation is a Crime.” That seems exceptional on the Left, with many instead practicing selective solidarity, supporting this or that struggle but not all of them. What explains this? Why is it a problem? What do you think should be done about it?

BS: I try to practice solidarity without exception. So, I have these two buttons that I wear at protests, one for Ukraine and another for Palestine. And I just don’t wear those buttons. I speak about the connectedness of the struggles against imperialism of all sorts.

At the May Day event in our area, I talked about the struggle for a free Palestine and a free Ukraine. I explained why we need to oppose Israel’s genocidal war and Russia’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine.

I told the crowd that I was a member of the Ukraine Solidarity Capital District and that we were working in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and people applauded. That gave me confidence that we can and must oppose occupation from Ukraine to Palestine as part of a common struggle for collective liberation.

I really don’t understand why some on the Left cannot see it that way. How can people be in solidarity with Ukraine but not Palestine? And how can people be in solidarity with Palestine but not Ukraine?

That kind of politics, which is very different from mine, leads them to selective solidarity. Several of us here in Albany reject that approach and have joined the movement in support of both Palestine and Ukraine.

I think the key to such politics—solidarity without exception—is listening to the people impacted, in this case, the Palestinians and Ukrainians, and taking a lead from them, their experience, and their analysis. That’s in keeping with what Tempest I think calls socialism from below.

That means always siding with listening to the people who are experiencing oppression and exploitation. Who would be surprised by me saying that? Listen to the Black person, listen to the Palestinians, listen to the Ukrainians, listen to the Muslims, listen to the queer people, listen to workers.

That may sound simplistic, but I think it provides a reliable moral and political compass to find our way forward in this complex world in our struggle for collective liberation.

This piece first appeared at The Tempest.

Ashley Smith is a socialist writer and activist in Burlington, Vermont. He has written for various publications including Harper’s, Truthout, Jacobin, and New Politics.