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Photo: Chris Dilworth at a July 2020 protest against evictions and police terror.
The following is a transcript from a speech originally delivered at DePauw University as part of their 2020 Compton Lecture Series. In his speech, Chris Dilworth discusses the origins of the ANSWER Coalition, the evolution of our work, and our perspective on the movement against police terror and state violence. We would like to thank the DePauw University Peace and Conflict Studies program for organizing the event, the Africana Studies and Education Studies departments for co-sponsoring it, and the Johnson and Wright Fund for their supporting it financially.
Chris Dilworth is an organizer with the ANSWER Coalition in Indianapolis. He was born and raised in Indianapolis and is a graduate of Indiana University’s Moore School of Law. Before matriculating into law school, Chris was homeless after his father lost his life to ALS and the lack of healthcare coverage drove his family into deep financial precarity. He currently practices real estate and finance law in the city. Before this he actually did a brief stint as a prosecutor in Marion County. where he tried to keep as many people out of the system as possible, and that ultimately ended up with him leaving that profession. Chris is also a veteran of the US Air Force and, as you’ll hear tonight he’s effectively quote-unquote “switched sides,” so to speak, and is now an active member in the anti-war movement. All of these experiences led to an increasingly profound anger at racism, capitalism, and imperialism and drove him to figure out the most effective ways to fight these systems.
CHRIS: First, thank you to Derek, thank you to DePauw for hosting this and hearing from actual voices that are on the ground that are typically ignored in favor of celebrity voices who are politically immature and don’t have the on-the-ground experience. Thank you to Timi and Leah and Kyra for the wonderful words that you spoke. I’m going to speak a little bit about the history of the ANSWER Coalition and then I’ll go a little bit over this historical malnourishment that previous speakers have discussed.
The ANSWER Coalition was formed just a few days after the September 11th terror attacks. This was a paradigm shift, a watershed moment in politics. Prior to 9/11, and many of you are probably too young to remember, but George W. Bush was the President at that time and he had a very low approval rating, somewhere around ten, fifteen percent. After the terrorist attacks, this “rally around the flag” mentality came about and his approval rating shot up to around ninety. This rise in approval rating coincided with a decrease in the support for social movements at the time. The anti-globalization movement that included the famous Battle of Seattle in 1999, that was quickly subdued; many peace and anti-war groups called off demonstrations, because if you had a demonstration, you were demonized, you were called “un-American.” Now, we knew that these terrorist attacks would bring a new phase of imperialist aggression, and with it new and intensified campaigns of racism to justify war, and so we felt it was crucial to form an organization right away to fight this and that’s why we named the group ANSWER: Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. We had our first demonstration a few weeks later. It was kind of small, but it grew over time.
Just to be clear, this war in Iraq was really just a continuation of previous wars in Iraq, starting from the late 1980s. You can go back to the Shah of Iran, with Mohammad Mosaddegh being overthrown in 1953, who had a secular government and a revolution in 1953 whereabout they told the American corporations to get out of their country so that they could use the oil profits to benefit their people. The American corporations didn’t like that, so they overthrew him.
But it was interesting, when the Iraq War broke out, because it showed the limit of debate in this country. There was a partisan split over how they would justify going to war. The consensus was that, yes, we had to overthrow this country, we had to overthrow them, that was bipartisan, but, “How are we going to do it?” There was no, “War is immoral. Killing innocent people is bad and we shouldn’t do that.” There was a huge outpouring and opposition to the war, so over the next few years we organized some of the largest anti-war demonstrations in history. We always forefronted the ways in which racism and white supremacy supported justifications for war. It truly undergirds these justifications, because if you understand that our foreign policy is typically just the international expression of white supremacy here at home. If you just think about it, when was the last time the US invaded and overthrew a white country that had a white leader?
To whip up these justifications for war, we see this pattern every time: you demonize the leader of a people, of their country; you demonize the people, you say they’re brainwashed; and you hurl accusations of human rights abuses, and the only way to save those people is to deliver these “freedom bombs” that are going to kill in maim people and drop depleted uranium so that nothing can grow and that there’s birth defects that result for generations. Eduardo Galeano said, “every time the US ‘saves’ a country, it leaves it either an asylum or a cemetery.” I find that to be a very profound statement, because if you look at the history of these wars, what’s left in its wake is precisely that.
What we did at ANSWER was we set up chapters across the country, and our focus certainly was war and the occupation at that time, but we didn’t view the war as just something that happened outside the US. There is also war going on inside the US, and that is that there is a war on Black America right now, and there has been since the inception of this country. We’ve always been very deeply involved in the struggle against racist police terror and mass incarceration. Our organizing philosophy is based around articulating and showing these connections between different wars and different oppressions. Not just theoretically, but practically. In other words, what we want to do is expose these links and show you that there are links between these struggles that allow us to form united fronts, so when one movement declines we can take that momentum from that movement and transfer it into another, highlighting the connections between them.
That means that we have to organize, as opposed to mobilize and being spontaneous. You see, there’s a dialectical relationship between spontaneity and organization, and what I mean by that is that there is a tension and an inter-connectedness between the two. Mass uprisings and rebellions, they’re spontaneous. We can’t predict them, we can’t control them. They’ll fizzle out over time if there’s no organization. But it is an important part, because these spontaneous rebellions can build into organization. When an injustice happens, it’s very easy to get people to mobilize. Someone loses their job unjustly, someone gets murdered unjustly—it’s easy to get people to mobilize against that particular injustice. But in order to bring about the change that we want, to bring about the presence of justice and progress, we need sustained organization against the entire system. That is to say, we need to connect the single instances of injustice that bring us here to the system as a whole that enable these injustices to continue to happen.
I’ll give another example that’s relevant to today: the war against Libya that happened in 2011. Libya was a sovereign, independent country led by a government that certainly had a history of some oppression, and you could make critiques of them, but they also had massive support internally. What’s really interesting about it is that it took place under President Obama, so what you had was that the first Black Ppresident of the US launched a war against an African country—the most prosperous African nation on the continent—and I think that there is a lot, we could probably go on very long about that, about the implications of that, but I just want you to think about that. Colonel Gaddafi had been demonized for a very long time. For decades in the US press. It was difficult to build up an opposition to going to war in Libya. He was fear-mongered, right? This is what happens. Everything is about fear: “Be afraid of this! Be afraid of the Black person! Be afraid of the immigrant! Be afraid of going to hell!” so, you’re feared into doing everything. The media was always saying, “Gaddafi’s this, Gaddafi that. Gaddafi is under your bed. Gaddafi gonna get your mama.” But if you just think about this critically, how does a country with a population of six million people and a ragtag army of 50,000 pose a threat to the most powerful country in the world? How can they possibly threaten America? Think about that. We have to ask why.
The ANSWER Coalition brought together as many forces as we could to not only have protests, but to raise consciousness, so we had this speaking tour called Eyewitness: Libya. One other thing, racism really did play a very large part in the propaganda against Gaddafi, just to be sure. There was always about this hiring of African mercenaries to repress the opposition. The opposition, by the way, was armed to the teeth from the beginning. They had ties to the previous colonial government, they were supported by the US and NATO, France, and Italy, which were all former colonial powers.
The reason why darker-skinned Africans from the south of the continent joined in support of the government was because Gaddafi was a pan-Africanist. He did his best to support and offer help to migrants all over Africa. Libya was the most prosperous, rich, wealthiest African nation. It had the world’s only direct democracy, which is a stark contrast from it being the poorest nation when Gaddafi took power in 1967. In fact, prior to the bombing, Libya had the highest human development index, the lowest infant mortality rate, and the highest life expectancy in all of Africa. Why would you want to destroy that? Those are good things. Is it possible that we can learn something from that? That there is something to be gained from that? How did they do it? Maybe we can learn, but America doesn’t ask those questions. If you don’t take our form of government, then yours has to go.
After Libya was destroyed, today you currently have African migrants being sold as slaves and there are warring factions jostling over control. What did we bring Libya? Slavery. We brought them nothing but slavery and impoverishment. Death and destruction. There’s no freedom there. This same racist link of demonization and white supremacy and war is evident in the struggles here. The victims of racist police violence in America are demonized before and after the fact. You suffer two deaths if you’re killed: once, by the police, someone immediately goes to the internet tries to find all the bad things you did, “Oh, he stole a pencil when he was seventeen years old, he deserved to die!”
But the difference is that these wars take place here, and you see them every day and you can see and feel their effects. From our perspective, the police in the US have a similar role to the military abroad. The military occupies oppressed countries across the world while the police occupy oppressed nations and neighborhoods in the US. Under the Geneva Convention, any occupied people have a right to resist the occupation by any means necessary.
It was actually my favorite comedian of all time, George Carlin, who once said that “Americans are very warlike people.” This is a bit he had on HBO: “Americans are very warlike people. We love war, and we’re good at it because we have so much practice. We go to war all the time,” and he says that “Our main job now is to bomb brown people. If you got some brown people, you better tell them to watch out!” One of the last questions he asked in it, which I referred to earlier, is, “When’s the last time we bombed white people?” He goes even further, and he talks about how he was against the war. Even against the war against Libya, the desire for war against Libya back then, he talks about all this. It’s funny because he was also demonized for speaking out against a lot of this while he was alive. He was joking but he was also telling the truth, and there’s a lot of truth to be unearthed there.
If you can make the link that Black and brown people are colonized and terrorized within the US borders vis-à-vis white supremacy, for everyone to see, and it continues on, then how do you think the Black and brown people outside of the US borders—the Black and brown folks on the periphery—how do you think that they fare? How do you think that they fare when they’re occupied and it’s not shown on the media? The point is, white supremacy doesn’t end at the US’s borders. White supremacy doesn’t just get to the border and say, “Well, maybe I’ll stay here. I don’t want to go overseas. I don’t feel like it today.” It doesn’t stop here. It’s global, it’s worldwide and this is why we don’t participate in demonization of victims of war, their leaders, or their countries. We may have critiques, but when there’s war going on and people are dying, what is a critique doing other than justifying the racist logic that justified war in the first place?
Now, if we think about this domestically, whenever someone is murdered—a Black person or really anyone, but especially Black people—there’s always this argument over, “he had a knife” or “he had a gun.” And these are important questions, especially for legal proceedings and for figuring out the truth, but as we often see, the murder of Black people is always given a justification. It is because the very color of our skin has been masculinized and weaponized and used to justify racist terror since time immemorial. This doesn’t just happen to Black people. There was the recent case, well, not recent, but the cops just got off recently: a white guy who was in a hallway, on his knees; the cops were giving him directions and commands and he tried to follow them. I think he didn’t do one command and they just killed him. And they got off. They’re always “justified,” no matter what happens, they are “justified.”
We say that the people in Iraq have the right to resist foreign occupiers and the people in Black neighborhoods have the right to resist foreign occupiers as well. Resistance is justified when people are occupied. James Baldwin wrote an essay called, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” I suggest that everybody read that if you can. It’s very profound. But in it, he says, “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.”
This doesn’t mean we encourage violence or anything like that. It just means that we fight to promote the idea that resistance is justified. If the cops are murdering and occupying your community, murdering Black people with impunity, is it wrong to fight back? If they’ve targeted your community and guns are drawn on your people, is it wrong to engage in armed resistance? Or should they just allow their mothers and brothers and fathers and sisters to be killed without justice? Ask yourself that. We need to change how we understand violence. Everyone’s against violence. That’s a very easy bar. It’s very easy. I would love for there to be no violence. This is precisely what I seek. However, there tends to be a very singular focus on a particular type of violence, and it’s usually those who are reacting to injustice being demonized as “violent.” There’s this focus on the protesters, instead of focusing on what they’re protesting about, because if you focus on what they’re talking about, then you might have to do something about that.
But let me ask you this: is it not violent that children go to sleep hungry every night? Is it not violence that 60,000 people in this country die every year because healthcare is so expensive? And they can’t afford it? Is it not violent that there are almost 200,000 deaths from COVID-19? Is it not violent that a single mother working at Walmart pays a higher percentage in taxes than Walmart actually does? Is it not violent that millionaires and billionaires and corporations have amassed billions and millions more during this crisis, while regular folks are losing their jobs, losing their homes? Is it not violence that the majority of the prison population is Black and brown men from poor and working-class families? Rich people rarely go to prison. This is true. There was the case of the kid who literally got off because he had “affluenza”—killed four people, manslaughter, had “affluenza.” He was too rich to understand the consequences of his actions. Now, if that isn’t absurd, I don’t know what is. If that isn’t violence, I don’t know what is.
We have to learn to ask, “Why?” Why is our collective understanding of violence so narrow and myopic? Why are things this way? Why have they been this way for so long? Who benefits from them being this way? And when we ask “why,” we have to engage in a radical analysis to understand and make the proper connections. If we can concede the fact that we live in a racist social system, and racism is violence, then the violence has always been here. It goes on unchallenged and unabated. So when there’s a fuss made about Black people defending themselves against a racist system that has the monopoly on violence, well, it’s just a stance against self-defense and the right to assert your humanity. This is why we need to engage in a radical analysis.
Much is made of this term in the media, “radical right,” but let’s just analyze this term briefly. The term “radical,” as a qualifier in politics, has been too often misunderstood to mean horrible and violent extremism, or extremists who menace everything good and decent in human life. It’s a dangerous -ism, or a creature who ought to be put out of the way by any and every force possible. As used here, the term “radical” simply means its original signification, that is, “of or pertaining to the root,” as derived from the Latin “radix” meaning “root.” Hence, “radical” refers to a program or an advocate of a program which proposes basic change in the economic, social, and political order by addressing root causes.
Currently the way we address issues in the US is teleologically. That is to say we address issues from their effects, rather than their causes. For example: “There is a crime. The crime happened. We need to solve the crime, and we that’s how we address the crime.” You cannot solve crime without addressing the underlying reason why that crime happened. So, if somebody stole some food, then you have to address poverty. You cannot address crime without addressing poverty. You have to address the reasons why that crime happened so that that crime will not happen again. But, because we don’t address the root causes crime continues.
With this understanding, “radical,” say, in relation to chattel slavery, was someone who advocated not merely partial measures to limit slaveholders punishments of slaves that, “Well, you can only whip them five times instead of ten,” or require an increase of food and clothing for their slaves, but it was somebody who demanded a total abolition of the system of slavery. Ask yourself, would anyone today be against abolishing slavery because “it’s too radical an idea”? To be clear, there was a faction of people who were reformers. They wanted to reform slavery and just make it a little bit nicer. They believed you could do that. Ask yourself why.
All I can do is tell you how these, what these things are. This is the evidence. Black people are murdered by police. This is reality. It is this very reality that must be constantly obfuscated and misrepresented in the media by, as my comrade Timi said, by positioning “good” protesters versus “bad” ones, “peaceful” protesters versus “violent” ones, Black protesters versus white ones—because this is what has been done historically to divide white working-class and Black working-class people. They want to undermine this movement because they know that if you come together as a powerful force, there’s nothing that will be able to stop us from changing the world how we want it to be changed. And, to be clear, there’s been a lot of great allyship from our white brothers and sisters at the protests and I pray for those who have lost their lives. Those people are heroes.
I say all that to say this: Reality is radical. When we say millions of Americans do not or cannot access healthcare because it is too expensive and 60,000 people die every year because of that, this is not some left-wing, radical, Marxist ideology. This is reality. This is a fact. Reality is radical. Reality is extreme. It’s extreme that Black people are murdered by police officers and justice is never delivered. It’s not some left-wing, radical idea that the majority of Americans are drowning in debt without sufficient job prospects. We have to learn to ask why.
Why is it seen as radical to want to end racism? Why is it seen as radical, bad, or wrong to want people to live full lives without hunger or want? Why is it radical to want people to get an education without a lifetime of debt? I think it’s extreme that people die from the inability to afford insulin and they ration insulin. I think it’s extreme that insulin costs $1 to make, but people are charged $1,600. It has somehow been flipped, that it’s extreme to oppose these things. It’s seen as radical to want to be treated as a human being and not like a dog.
I’ll wrap up here briefly. It is those who oppose us, those whose power and interest would be affected by attenuating these maladies, who have to finesse and reframe these demands as crazy and unrealistic. We have to ask why. We have to change the framework in which we think about and understand all of this, because it’s all interconnected and we cannot decouple any of these issues from one another. Please remember, we have to ask: “Why?”