Revolution #270, May 27, 2012
In an Atlanta Neighborhood with the BAsics Bus Tour
This is an article from Sunsara Taylor about the beginning of the BAsics Bus Tour in Atlanta, Georgia, posted at basicsbustour.tumblr.com on May 27.
The neighborhood has been completely abandoned. Expanses of lumpy shrubs and deep grass surround it on three sides. On the fourth side, the sun glints off razor wire, row after row of it surrounding a federal prison; men inside are forced to live in captivity, routinely brutalized, insulted and humiliated and forced to do backbreaking labor, often on chain gangs in the Georgia sun. Across a busy street from the lone apartment complex, a tiny parking lot hosts three little shops. No fresh fruits or vegetables are available, but liquor is in abundant supply. Despite the luscious green that surrounds almost everything down here in the South, many of the courtyards of the apartment are filled only with brown dirt. This is where the children play.
The first time we visited this neighborhood, I didn't make it fifteen feet out of our car before a young Black man who had been sitting in the shade on the curb pointed at the poster I carried "That was me," he said. The first time he was beaten by police he was just 15 years old. They held him up against a wall by his neck, hanging and choking him before they worked his whole body over with their fists and batons. "Over there," a slightly older man added as he pointed toward one of the nearby fields. Someone had been killed by police over there just a few months ago.
I told them that I was part of the BAsics Bus Tour, a group of revolutionaries who had come together from across the country to live and travel on an RV through the South to connect people up with Bob Avakian, the leader who has re-envisioned revolution and communism, and to bring people like them into the movement for revolution.
The poster I was holding featured the quotation from Bob Avakian which reads, in part:
"This system, in this country, in the whole history of its treatment of Black people, what has it been?
"First, Slavery... Then, Jim Crow—segregation and Ku Klux Klan terror... And now, The New Jim Crow—police brutality and murder, wholesale criminalization and mass incarceration, and legalized discrimination yet again.
"That's it for this system:
Three strikes and you're out!"
Alongside those words are three pictures. One has an enslaved Black man whose back is welted with thick scars from the slave whip. One shows a Black man hanging by his neck from a tree, surrounded by a mob of white men. The final photo, the one that this man—and many, many others before and since him—pointed to as mirroring his experience, shows a Black man grimacing in pain under the boot of two beefy cops. We walked through this history briefly: how this system was built on the wealth created by slavery; how even after the Civil War, Black people were betrayed by this system and forced back into neo-slavery, share-cropping and KKK terror; and how even after the heroic struggle of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black liberation struggles this system has betrayed Black people once more. Today, we have the New Jim Crow, the slow genocide of mass incarceration, no jobs, no future, and massive police violence.
"This has to end," I said, "and that is what this revolution is about. Things don't have to be this way. We have a way out. The reason we got on this bus to come down to places like this is that all of you, people who need this revolution, have to get into it and be part of it in order for it to succeed."
It wasn't hard to get people talking. Beyond that, they were extremely open to hearing about any kind of revolution that could put an end to all this. After a while, I pointed over to the picnic tables where Clyde Young, a veteran revolutionary communist, was and the group of us walked over to join him.
There were a lot of folks out in the picnic area at the edge of the apartment complex. On my way to Clyde I noticed knots of people grouped up around several other volunteers from this BAsics Bus Tour. This was our first day out. Most of the volunteers on the tour had been at least a little nervous about how we would be received. But immediately people were opening up and talking, sharing stories and listening.
One native Spanish speaker who had joined us for the day and who struggles to fully understand English and to be understood in it, talked about how what we were talking about connected despite the language barrier: "At first, when I was talking, I was worried that the people were not fully listening. Or that they were listening to wait until I was done talking. But then I realized, they were really trying to understand what I was saying. And if they didn't understand me they listened when I tried again. Then, they would tell me what they think. If they didn't say anything at all, I would ask them why they didn't have anything to say."
Being a part of the revolution in beginning ways
Back where I was, after we joined Clyde, one of the men who had been quiet earlier opened up. He told of having been locked down for ten years in the Georgia prisons and having worked on the chain gang. He described forms of torture in the prisons that none of us had heard of. He was not the first man we spoke to that day who, after describing beatings and oppression, added, "There is no way to win." Clyde posed back to him, movingly and firmly, that when people act alone the system is too strong, but if we get organized with the leadership we have and fight the power together that can change. He described the Revolutionary Communist Party and Bob Avakian, stressing that, "This is not an immature Party. This Party has learned from the Black Panther Party and from other revolutionaries, but also gone way beyond them." But, he insisted, people who want to get free have to take responsibility for coming into and building this revolution, "Even if it is in really basic ways."
After a while, I turned to a younger man sitting at my end of the table who had also shared his stories of police brutality and terror with me and asked him, "If there was something you could do that would strengthen this revolution, would you do it?" He lowered his voice and spoke very slowly, looking me dead in the eye, "Yes, ma'am... Yes, ma'am... Yes, ma'am." Each time he said it, he sounded more sure. At this point, the former prisoner asked Clyde, "If we get involved in this revolution, will y'all come around and teach us? Will you be with us?" Clyde made clear that this Party will stand with them when they stand up, but we also posed that this revolution is not as strong as it needs to be and this is precisely why people like them need to get involved. From there we explored how to go as far as possible towards this during the three days we were all still in town.
The man suggested a picnic with hotdogs and chips for the children. I'll be honest, Clyde and I both waited to hear his full vision before responding. We don't have the resources, nor is it our mission, to simply bring food to people. Nor are we trying to "lure" people into the revolution with material incentives. But, as we listened to him, it became clear that this guy was serious about learning more and about opening up the space for other people to learn about and relate to this revolution.
One of the deepest lessons on our first day out was the importance of really listening to people and finding the ways for them to contribute to the movement for revolution that they know how to do.
A curious little three-year-old girl wandered over to us. As I was saying hello to her and listening to what she wanted to share, I noticed her mother watching all of us from the next picnic table over all by herself. I waved to her, "Do you want to come over and join us?" She got bashful and made the excuse that there weren't any seats left. This wasn't really the problem and we quickly found room for her; more the problem was that all of this was unfamiliar she needed to be invited. We talked a little, off and on, between the other conversations. Mostly, however, she answered my questions with just a word or two and got quiet again. Rather than trying to push the conversation, I pulled out Revolution newspaper and I told her about the people in the pictures: an eight-year-old girl working at a battery recycling plant in Bangladesh, a Guatemalan man foraging for food in a garbage dump, victims of police brutality, and then Chinese people putting up big character posters during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China during the 1970s, and a photo of Bob Avakian during a speaking tour years ago.
At one point, I told her that a big part of this revolution is winning full liberation of women. I talked about the harm of women being sold to men for sex and prostitution or degraded through pornography, of being denied the right to abortion and being beaten by the men in their lives. She responded with her longest statement to me yet, "Women get beat on a lot around here." After that, she stayed quiet for a long time.
Several times we were interrupted as other volunteers came by to find the portable DVD player and copies of BA's Revolution talk and other materials. They fanned out and shared all this with other knots of people gathered in the park. When the BAsics bus drove by with its banners unfurled, one man's voice filled with excitement, "Is that your bus?" It felt good to be able to say "Yes" and to be able to explain that many hundreds of people around the country had contributed money and effort to making sure this BAsics bus came down to reach them and bring them into the revolution.
Conversations continued to range throughout the afternoon but before it was time for us to go we firmed up our plans for a picnic. Just before I stood up to leave, the young woman who was still sitting quietly next to me said softly, "You need people to bring anything?" It felt good to be able to say "Yes" to that question too. Talking about this revolution with us was clearly something very new to her, something she wasn't sure yet how to do. But it was clear—as she offered to bring hotdogs for the kids—that based on what she had heard so far about this revolution, she wanted to be part of it by doing something that she knew how to do. After that, she saw two volunteers passing a contact sheet between them that other people had signed up on and asked, "Do you want me to put my number on that page?"
The next couple of days were extremely busy getting the bus tour underway—out to a high school several times, to a town hall meeting, to a dinner hosted by a local Caribbean restaurant, together for discussions of BA's works with Clyde Young at Revolution Books, and many hours of sorting materials, making displays, and packing the RV so we'd be ready to hit the road soon.
Coming back for the picnic
When we showed up on Friday, we brought hotdogs and potato chips and drinks for the kids. Once we had arrived, we called all of the contacts we had made the two days before. The former prisoner who had come up with the idea of the picnic came out to greet us. When he saw that we had actually arrived, he went around the park and talked to others to let them know we were cool and were having a revolution picnic. Then, he and another man went to get charcoal and lighter fluid and spent the next couple hours grilling hotdogs for all.
Another person we called was a woman, Mikaya, who had read sections of BAsics two days before. The volunteer told her we could only stick around for about an hour, so when she came to join us she was literally running to be sure that she didn't miss us. She pulled money out of her pockets and her shoe and counted up ten dollars, insisting—out of breath—that she wanted "that book."
There were a lot of things Mikaya didn't know about the world, things that have been kept from her and from people like her. One thing she had a very deep sense of is that all of us are trained to think certain ways because of the way we are brought up. She had a very deep and basic sense that people could be different if they could be taught a different way.
She told a story to one of our volunteers as part of explaining what she finds so disturbing about the way people act. The story was from her experience riding the city bus just a few days before. An older woman had been getting on the bus when a group of young guys ran past her and knocked her over. Mikaya caught the older woman and helped her to her seat. But then she called the police on the young guys, "And the police caught them and they got what they deserved."
Our volunteer told her, "I liked everything about that story, except for when you called the police." Our volunteer pulled out BAsics 1:24 about how the role of the police is not to protect and serve the people, but to protect and serve the system that rules over the people. Our volunteer spoke about how people shouldn't call on the police to further oppress and brutalize anyone. "Okay," this volunteer later told me, "'Now we are going to have to have some kind of struggle,' I thought to myself."
But instead, Mikaya looked at our volunteer and said, "See, this is why we need people like you to come out here and talk to us. I learned something from you just now. In the future I am not going to do that anymore." The volunteer and Mikaya talked for over an hour. Among other things, they went through the Twelve Ways That YOU Can Be Part of Building the Movement for Revolution—Right Now. The woman took a big stack of palm cards with the BA quote 1:13 and explained her plans to "Leave them on the bus, in the washroom, in the library," and other places. She also got the Bob Avakian DVD sampler and gave our volunteer a big hug before leaving at the end.
I spent my time for a while with a big group of kids and three teenagers who seemed to be watching them. The young woman dressed and carried herself with a lot of defiance and was the most vocal. She said they had already been saying among themselves that one of the kids looked a lot like Trayvon Martin. "It could've been him," she said, with her arm around a seven-year-old. Another teenager took off his hat and showed scars across his entire skull from when a group of police beat him with handcuffs as well as a bullet wound from them just above his temple.
At the other side of the table, a young Black man named Kamau (the brother of the young woman who was the first to greet us) chimed in that he knew about Emmett Till. He wouldn't say much more than that, so I went around and sat next to him. "We need a revolution to put an end to this," I posed. "I know, I'm already with you." He didn't mean he was actually with us. The way he said it came off more like he was telling me he already knew anything I could bring to him. I encouraged his sentiment, but then got into what it would actually take to go up against and defeat the system that rules over us, the significance of BA's leadership and the need to get organized into the revolution. I opened up to the section in BAsics on strategy, the three conditions that come together for a revolutionary crisis and the dimensions of hastening and preparing for that time. In particular I emphasized the importance of fighting the power and transforming the people for revolution. He seemed to get more interested and open so I handed him the book and said, "Look it over for a while," and gave him some space.
About half an hour later, I returned and Kamau had read most of the first chapter. When I asked what he thought of it, he said his favorite was quote 1:11: "Determination decides who makes it out of the ghetto—now there is a tired old cliché, at its worst, on every level. This is like looking at the millions of people being put through a meatgrinder and instead of focusing on the fact that the great majority are chewed to pieces, concentrating instead on the few who slip through in one piece and then on top of it all, using this to say that 'the meatgrinder works'!"
As he had read a good portion of the first chapter, I thought it would be important to show him a little of the later chapters. First, I wanted to give him a sense of not only what we are condemning but also what we are envisioning for the future. I read him BAsics 2:8 about creating a whole different art and culture. The part he most responded to was when BA said, "...enough of this 'bitches and ho's' and SWAT teams kicking down doors. Enough of this 'get low' bullshit. And how come it's always the women that have to get low?..." He looked over at his sister and said he knows that a lot of times women don't get treated with respect.
I flipped to BAsics 5:5 where BA says, "The 'Bible Belt' in the U.S. is also the Lynching Belt." He nodded in agreement and cracked a little bit of a smile. When I asked if he believed in god he mumbled something unintelligible about church and god and nodded his head half-heartedly. I said that we, as communist revolutionaries, recognize that god doesn't exist. We don't believe in him. "Yeah," he said much louder and more clearly, "Me neither."
We looked at BAsics 4:20, "Every religion in the world believes that every other religion is superstition. And they're all correct." This brought an actual laugh out of Kamau. Next, I turned to BAsics 4:18, "Let's call this what it is—it is a slave mentality, with which people are being indoctrinated. All this 'thank you Jesus!' is a slave mentality." Kamau got quiet, so I said, "Those are very strong words. What do you think of them?" He thought for a minute and then responded, "Yeah, I think that is true, too. People are always praying to Jesus and thanking Jesus but I don't see Jesus doing anything to help us out."
It was at this point that the kids on the other side of the picnic table came tumbling over to our side. One of them had a copy of BAsics and all of them were crowding around, vying for the chance to read some of the words out loud to me or to Kamau. Kamau called one of them over, turned the page to BAsics 1:11 (about the meatgrinder) and put his arm around a younger child, encouraging and correcting him as he read. "It's important to keep reading," Kamau told the child as he struggled through his words, "Plus, this stuff is true."
Struggling over abortion, violence against women and women's liberation
Over at another picnic table I saw two teenage Black women sitting by themselves taking in the words of Bob Avakian that were playing over the BAsics bus loudspeakers, so I left Kamau with the kids reading again and went to visit.
Kayden had shiny nearly fluorescent green eyeliner on her top lids. When I asked what she thought of BA's words so far she snapped back, "He offended me." When I inquired why that was she responded, "He said that we just don't have any future like we don't have any choice in the matter. That offends me." First, I asked, "Well, is it true or not true that many, many people are destined for lives of oppression and struggle just because of where they are born?" She didn't like that question and wouldn't respond. Her friend, Krystal, remained quiet as well.
I read BAsics 1:10 about the way that women are condemned to lives of brutality and oppression, degradation and objectification, denial of reproductive rights and so much more throughout the world but including here in the U.S. At first, neither of them would respond at all. "I realize that is a lot," I said, "so let's take it one part at a time." I went back to the part about "and all too often brutalized by those who are supposed to be their most intimate lovers." Both friends burst out laughing. For a long time, the more questions I asked the harder they laughed.
Finally, Krystal said, "We're laughing because her boyfriend beat her."
Kayden snapped back, "Yeah, he beat me. I don't mind. It just makes me stronger." She said it with defiance; as if complaining about being beaten was a sign of weakness (nowhere did she seem to consider the option of NOT being beaten).
I explained that a big part of the revolution is the fight for women to be treated as full human beings, equal in every way to men: women shouldn't be raped, they shouldn't be beaten, they shouldn't be forced into prostitution or pornography to be used and degraded by men Women should have the right to get an abortion or use birth control or have sex without being judged.
The more I said, the more infectiously Krystal and Kayden laughed. I persevered, though, insisting that women can think just like men, can do any kind of work men can do and deserve to be treated the same as men. Also, men can be—and ought to be—just as sensitive as women can be, they can take care of kids just like women and they should never hit or rape a woman. This time, though, they both began to get more serious. They didn't speak yet, but they did quiet down and were clearly listening closely.
"Okay," I said, "What about this part? What about where BA talks about how women should be able to get abortions and use birth control? Part of this revolution is making sure that women can get abortions if they want and that they are never forced to have children when they don't want to have a kid."
This got them talking again. Kayden started lecturing me about how its "wrong for a woman to kill her baby." She said abortion was a "sin" and a few things about how only bad women get abortions. Before I had a chance to respond, Krystal shot back at her, "If I don't want a baby I am going to kill it. I don't care, that is my choice. Why I'm gonna have a kid when I can't take care of a kid. What about women who don't have no job or no man? What about women who don't have no home? She can't have a baby."
The three of us explored this topic quite deeply. I united with what Krystal said, but also explained the fact that fetuses are different than babies. A fetus is a part of a woman's body; it is not yet a person. It has the potential to become a person, but until it is born it is just part of a woman and it is up to her what she wants to do with it. Krystal continued to fight with her friend, insisting ferociously that women should be able to get abortions. At one point, Krystal got Kayden to agree that if the man won't stick around the woman shouldn't be forced to raise a baby by herself.
Throughout it all, while I struggled with them both, I repeatedly felt the need to struggle most against what Kayden was saying, particularly a lot of the judgment she was heaping on women and a lot of the religious views of women needing to submit to men. The debate got quite ferocious until, at one point, Kayden sort of shut down and stopped talking. Finally she looked at me and accused, "How come you are agreeing with everything she says but when I talk you are never agreeing."
At this point, I took a step back. Kayden was laying out a lot of extremely backwards thinking, but she was just 16 years old and she was hearing a lot of stuff for the first time that was challenging a lot of what she had been raised to believe her entire life. "That's not true," I responded, "I agreed with you when you said women shouldn't have to have a baby if the daddy isn't around." I waited until she acknowledged this to make sure she understood I wasn't just picking on her, but then I continued by explaining that there were actually a lot of things she said which I not only disagree with but which I think are harmful. "Disagreeing with you is different than disrespecting you," I explained. "I wouldn't take the time to listen to you or to tell you what I think of what you are saying—not only when I agree but also when I disagree—if I didn't respect you. I respect that you are speaking your mind and I respect that you are talking with me and listening to me even though you disagree with a lot of what I am saying. We need more of this. But then we also have to look at what happens to real people based on the ideas we are saying." She remained tense through the discussion that followed, but did relax a little and open up again as we got further into what happens to women who are forced to have children against their will.
As if it would settle the argument, Kayden invoked her own experience, saying, "I was a mistake, but my momma had me. If she had an abortion I wouldn't be here right now." Once again, Krystal responded first, "I was a mistake, too. That's why I would get an abortion. I would never put a child through what I went through." While she never elaborated fully, later I got a sense of what she was getting at when she explained, "I hate my name, its not unique to me. My sister gave it to me. My mother didn't even name me."
At a certain point, probably to change the subject and because she did feel on the defensive, she began making fun of me a little. Implying that I was foolish and hadn't realized what kind of neighborhood we had come to, she said, "You came to the worst neighborhood of the worst area in all of Atlanta. Nobody comes down here!" "Actually, that's exactly why we came here. Because people here need revolution and need to get into this revolution. You have a very big role you can play in all this," I responded.
Kayden wasn't ready for all that. She said goodbye and wandered to a far away table. Krystal, however, responded differently, by asking what exactly she could do. We went over the Twelve Things You Can Do, circling the website to revolutiontalk.net for her to go watch more and giving her a stack of palm cards to leave everywhere she thinks people will see them. When I asked if she would speak on camera about what she thought of this revolution so far, she smiled ear to ear, jumped out of her seat and asked where she should stand. After that, she repeated for the camera much of what she had told me about why she thought abortion was so important for women and how she felt men shouldn't get more stuff or rights than women. She ended by taking up my suggestion to say into the camera, "I'm one of the thousands working on the revolution."
* * * * *
This is how the afternoon wound on. Lots of people mixing it up with the revolutionaries, listening to and reading the words of Bob Avakian (more than once, I was told, people walking by asked the folks who were stationed in the RV who it was they were listening to and left with stacks of palm cards), and filling up on hotdogs and other picnic food. Volunteers of the bus tour and people from the neighborhood both got a chance to get into things deeply with Clyde Young as well.
Not all of us made it back to the park for the picnic; some of us were out at a local high school and others were busy packing for the days ahead on the road. But one of the people who met us the first day made a point of asking after the Spanish speaker who had first introduced him to Bob Avakian. Before leaving a few volunteers and Clyde wrapped up with the men from the neighborhood who'd been doing all the cooking, revisiting the question of staying connected to, and deepening their involvement in, the movement for revolution and thanked them for doing all the cooking. For their part, the men expressed a commitment to be part of working on the revolution and insisted that cooking for this barbeque had been "a privilege."
A "PS": In all of our reporting from the BAsics Bus Tour, we have changed people's names so as to protect their privacy. In this case, I was especially pleased to have caught up with Krystal and Kayden on the final day of our Tour after we returned to Atlanta from our broader travels. They were even more bubbly and laughing as the first time, but this time it was with warmth and not with nervousness. We greeted each other with big hugs. This time, Kayden was wearing bright pink eye shadow with matching bright pink highlights in her hair. I told them that I had written about them and that, especially since Krystal hated her given name so deeply, I wanted them to pick their own names for this article. Krystal loved the idea, but couldn't come up with anything. Her best friend, despite the fierce arguments they have continued to hold over the abortion and revolution since the time I saw them, looked over at her with love and said, "Krystal." With great satisfaction and wide grins, they took a new stack of palm-cards (Krystal had used the first stack up completely in the last week) and made plans to join us at this afternoon's culmination celebration in Little Five Points.
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