- Interview by
- Meagan Day
Over the weekend Phillip Agnew appeared on MSNBC to talk about the Bernie Sanders campaign, for which he is a surrogate. “This is a campaign that is not about one person,” he said. “It’s about all of us. And that is the true fear of a billionaire.” He emphasized that when Sanders enters the White House, social movements do, too — and that movement, in Agnew’s view, is far more diverse and more fired up than mainstream media outlets like MSNBC give it credit for.
Agnew is an activist with the Movement for Black Lives and cofounder of the Dream Defenders, an organization dedicated to dismantling the prison system. Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Agnew about the recent history of social movements, Bernie Sanders’s criminal justice platform, why the mainstream media is intent on erasing his enthusiastic support among young women and people of color, and how important it is that Bernie sets democratic socialism as his North Star.
What turned on the light switch for you?
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I have to give a lot of the credit for my politicization to my parents. I learned very early about Fred Hampton, about the Rainbow Coalition. But I first came to organizing in college in 2006, when a young black man named Martin Lee Anderson was murdered in a boot camp detention center in Florida. I was a student at Florida A&M, and with other activists I founded an organization called the Student Coalition for Justice.
After college, I spent four years trying to do this dance with capitalism. I was a business student, and I took a corporate job. I didn’t get back to organizing until the murder of Trayvon Martin, and then an arrest I had that was racially motivated. In 2012, I cofounded the Dream Defenders with fifty young people from across the state and one from New York City, Nelini Stamp.
Were you surprised when the Black Lives Matter protests sparked up in 2014?
No, not at all. Black Lives Matter didn’t come out of nowhere. Before it, there was Hurricane Katrina, the Jena Six, the BP oil spill, Troy Davis, the Occupy movement, Trayvon Martin. We were living in a powder keg, and these moments and the responses to them were building on one another.
These events were not isolated, they were cumulative. For example, when I was working that corporate job and watching Occupy, I started thinking, Damn, I’m becoming a spectator in my life. If Occupy hadn’t happened, I can’t say whether I would have reacted to the murder of Trayvon Martin the way I did.
The support for Barack Obama in 2008 had almost a social movement quality to it. So many people were so enthusiastic and poured their heart and soul into getting him elected. But once he got into office, the movement completely dissipated. He personally was uninterested in fostering it. Would you say that movements grew during his presidency not because of his leadership, but despite it?
Yes, if anything, Barack Obama was a tranquilizer to many people. When activists went to visit him in the White House, he spoke down to us, counseling us on the way he sees change happening. He continues to speak ill of movements since leaving the presidency.
2008 was a moment of mass understanding that the emperor had no clothes. There were young white folks who were graduating from college and having to live with their parents. People who owned homes were losing their houses. There were very clear enemies, people who had created the conditions for the middle class to start feeling a pinch that it hadn’t felt in a long time, while the lower class continued to descend further into poverty and be forgotten. And there was beginning to be a broad understanding that this situation was untenable.
People were looking for something, and a charismatic young black guy running for president was it. And credit where credit is due, Barack Obama’s campaign developed an incredible field program. But unfortunately, the apparatus that was built to elect him was shuttered for three years, and reopened again to reelect him, and then shuttered again. He had no interest in sustaining a social movement.
By contrast, Bernie is all about it. It’s right there in his slogan, “Not Me, Us.” And he doesn’t just mean a mobilizing to get him elected. He says all the time that this movement needs to fight for its demands while he’s in office.
To that end, he has made an effort to build relationships with movements that he doesn’t already have strong ties with. For example, he’s been extremely open to taking up the demands that have been put forward by Black Lives Matter activists, specifically around criminal justice, right?
I’m going to tell you a true story. I had just joined the Bernie Sanders campaign as a surrogate, and I was sent his criminal justice platform when it was already 98 percent complete. So I looked at it, and as I read the Google Doc, I began putting comments in the sidebar for things that I didn’t see reflected. As I read the document, I had to click resolve on all of the comments because they were all referenced later in the Doc.
And as I kept reading, I got emotional. I started calling people who I couldn’t show the platform to yet, and telling them, “You’re going to almost cry when you see it.” There were things on there that we’ve been talking about for years. There were things on there that I hadn’t even thought of.
I have it in front of me. Let’s look at what we have here. Banning for-profit prisons. You know, 100 percent of the juvenile facilities in the state of Florida are private. Making phone calls and other communications free. Unless you’re doing prison work and going inside prisons, you don’t even know how important this is. Ending cash bail. How long has the movement been cobbling together dollars to bail mothers out on Black Mama’s Bail Out Day? A non–law enforcement response system. Abolishing the death penalty. Ending the war on drugs. I could go on.
When we’re talking about the criminal justice system, we’re talking about a system by which capital is able to hide labor that is not being able to be used. Plantation owners at least had a small amount of reason to preserve the life or the ability of a slave to do work. It didn’t mean that they weren’t heinous and brutal, but if a person is a piece of equipment for you, then you have some interest in preserving that equipment. The prison system has no such considerations, and is one of the most evil and inhumane systems that we’ve ever seen in the history of humanity. And Bernie’s talking about tearing it up by the roots.
So to answer your question directly, yes, Bernie’s criminal justice platform responds to the demands of a movement that has been in the streets for the last five years, and also the demands of people who have been working for the last forty or fifty years to end solitary confinement or making sure that kids under eighteen don’t go to jail. His criminal justice platform is an amazing example of a campaign that is responsive to a movement, in a way that Sanders rarely gets credit for.
I am an abolitionist. Bernie’s platform goes farther than any other candidate’s on this issue and, while it is not abolition, it seriously diminishes the power of police and prisons in the lives of our people.
I remember when the Movement for Black Lives platform came out in 2016. It called for not just an overhaul of the criminal justice system in all the ways that you mentioned, but also things like workers’ rights, progressive taxes, and universal social programs. And these are the things Bernie campaigns on, more aggressively than anybody else.
And yet I’m struck by the fact that not every activist behind every group that signed onto that platform is behind Bernie Sanders right now. Why do you think that is, and what would you say to Black Lives Matter activists to get them on board with Bernie?
To me, it’s clear that Bernie Sanders has the most revolutionary presidential platform that we’ve seen in the history of major US presidential campaigns.
I left Dream Defenders a year ago and entered a period of trying to figure out what to do next to make a contribution. I looked at presidential politics, and the only campaign that I felt I could support and participate in was the one that I felt could help create fertile conditions for social movements. That was Bernie’s campaign. I’m aligned with the politics, the principles, the platform, the policies. But more than that, I realize his campaign has the potential to contribute to building strong social movements over the next decades.
There are a lot of reasons why people end up making different political judgments. For example, some people might make their decisions based on the access that a candidate has afforded them during campaign time. But when I’m looking at a candidate, I’m not looking at what they can do for me. I’m looking at what they can do for the masses of working-class people in this country. We should be supporting the campaign that puts us in the best position to build strong social movements across class, race, gender, geography, sexuality, disability, and religion. And that’s Bernie’s campaign.
There may be some differences of opinion and endorsements among the leaders of the loose umbrella that we call Black Lives Matter, but I don’t think there’s as much difference of opinion among the people, and I think the facts are going to bear that out once we start voting.
Among young black women, according to an Essence magazine survey, Bernie Sanders ranks number one. The top four economic issues that matter to black families, according to the Black Census Project which was led by Alicia Garza, are jobs, health care, college, and housing. These are issues that resonate with black people, and these are the issues that Sanders talks about consistently, every time he gets the microphone or the platform.
In the mainstream media, we constantly hear misrepresentations of Bernie’s base, particularly the erasure of women and people of color. What do you think the intended effect of that erasure is? And do you see your role as a surrogate as correcting for that to some extent?
Let me answer that second one first. Absolutely. I see my role in the campaign as affirming the existence and experience of the young black people specifically who respond to this campaign, who adore this campaign, who are a part of this campaign.
I’ve had the opportunity to walk around with Bernie. We’ve gone to projects, we’ve gone to barber shops, we’ve gone to beauty salons, we’ve gone to bus stops, we’ve gone to community centers, community colleges, black colleges. And the response to him is almost unanimously, thank you. It’s not because we’re talking about the coolest white guy ever. We’re talking about somebody who people know is going to fight with them to make their lives better.
The erasure of women and people of color from the Bernie Sanders campaign’s base is one of the biggest national gaslighting projects that we’ve ever seen in a presidential election. I think we both know why mainstream media doesn’t want it to get out. The powerful have an investment in convincing people to vote against their own self-interest, or convincing them that they’re crazy, that they lack strategy, that they lack pragmatism, that they lack context.
We’ve got a duty to flex our muscle now and show the power of an idea whose time has come, and the power of the movements that brought us here.
When I was canvassing for Bernie recently, I had an experience that was illuminating. I was walking up the block and saw two neighbors who live across the street from each other waving at each other. They clearly had a good, friendly relationship. One was a black woman who lived in a small apartment, and the others were a white family living in a pretty nice house.
So I spoke to the black woman, and she told me she was all in on Bernie Sanders, and we talked for about ten minutes about how enthusiastic she was. And then I went across the street, and her neighbors told me they didn’t support Bernie because they didn’t want another old white guy in office. They were considering supporting Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren for that reason.
They seemed satisfied with their answer. I even suspected maybe they felt like they were being good allies to people like their neighbor across the street. I was tempted to invite their neighbor over to their house so they could hear what she had to say.
I’ve heard many people say: I don’t want to elect another white guy into the White House. Well, I don’t want to elect another smooth-talking black guy into the White House who spends eight years dropping bombs and deporting people.
There’s a patronizing type of allyship that’s pervasive in this iteration of the movement which allows white people to deflect responsibility. It doesn’t strengthen us politically, it doesn’t enhance our discourse, and it’s something that we really have to push back on.
It’s important to emphasize that the Bernie campaign is not about one person. People are under the assumption that only one person comes into the White House because that is what every other campaign says: I am going to change things for you.
The Bernie campaign says that we are going to change things. It happens to be an older white guy who is bringing forth that message, but that’s what we have. I’m not gonna allow for a shallow form of identity politics to deny the fact that there is no other candidate — black or white, man or woman — who is trying to create the political conditions that we need going forward.
Elizabeth Warren calls herself a “capitalist to my bones,” and Bernie Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist. You’ll hear people say they’re both just progressives and they’re basically indistinguishable from each other, so it doesn’t matter. But to my mind, it takes an incredible amount of courage — and a different set of political goals and priorities — to call yourself a democratic socialist in a capitalist society, and in doing so level an indictment against capitalism and create the potential for imagining new political possibilities. How important is that difference?
It’s extremely important, and we’re seeing that solely in the Sanders campaign. This is between Sanders and the rest of the Democrats, in my opinion. Many of the other candidates seek to offer cosmetic fixes to the capitalist system, but we’ve got to advance an agenda that strikes at the very heart of it.
We’ve been talking about this a lot in the campaign recently, no imitations and no limitations. And there can be no imitation of somebody who is intentional about using a word that has been banished by McCarthyism from our language, and building a movement that supports its return.
I want to be aligned with somebody whose North Star is the replacement of capitalism with a different type of economic system, a reorganization of our society and our values. That’s what you get with the Sanders campaign. With the others, the North Star is to curtail the excesses of capital, but at the same time to protect it.