After releasing No More Prisons, Wimsatt spent the aughts consulting for progressive organizations and also starting new organizations, such as the League of Young Voters (which mobilizes young adults to become involved in the political process) and Generational Alliance (a collaborative effort between 15 national youth organizations to influence policies affecting young people). This year he founded All Hands on Deck—a consulting firm with offices in Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago that helps progressive groups and elected officials with strategy and organizing efforts. Through the firm, he's organizing a new campaign, the 12 Week Plan, to mobilize people to participate in this year's mid-term elections. In addition to consulting, Wimsatt's also a fellow at the Movement Strategy Center, a not-for-profit "movement building" organization based in Oakland, California.
Wimsatt is mini-touring his hometown this week to promote his new book. Yesterday he appeared at Quimby's, tonight he's reading at 57th Street Books at 6:30 PM, and tomorrow he'll be at the Chicago Urban Art Society for a signing and reading event that begins at 6 PM. We caught up with him by telephone.
So, now you don't want us to bomb the suburbs anymore. What has changed?
I wrote Bomb the Suburbs before the Oklahoma City bombing, and before September 11. It was a cute thing back then, when it was just referring to graffiti.
Also, the suburbs aren't what they used to be! And cities aren't what they used to be. In the last 16 years, since Suburbs came out, the suburbs have gotten a lot more diverse, and with a lot more poor people. Chicago has dramatically gentrified, and it's because of those people who used to live in the suburbs with the big-box stores. I come to Chicago and I'm like, 'where did all of these white people come from?'
In the book, you mention that progressive activism is happening in America's suburbs.
It is. For instance, there are interesting things going on in Naperville—I can't tell you the specifics (laughs)—but I hear about it. I hear about things in Schaumburg. The world is more complex, and our generation has grown up. The suburbs are what’s going to determine the future of our country.
There are literally millions of us who have been involved in some sort of political movement, whether it was anti-war demonstrations, protesting against the World Trade Organization or the Iraq war or for immigrants’ rights. And now we’ve grown up and we’re just surviving as adults, so the subtitle of the book is kind of its big idea: that we are building as adults a super-movement, in small ways. So much of the book is telling the stories of the progress we’ve actually made over the last 20 years—our generation has achieved a tremendous amount.
In the book, you talk about President Barack Obama's presidential campaign, the success of which was largely the result of young people voting. Why do you think we haven't seen that same energy as we head into the midterms?
We’re in a bit of a demoralized lull period right now, but the overall trend is that this is the most progressive generation in recorded history, and if we can keep going like this, electing Obama will serve as just the beginning.
What needs to happen to create this progressive revolution, if you can call it that?
What we need now are a million people to step up and be their own mini-Obamas—progressive change agents who are not afraid to build or have power, who want to do more than be critical and pissed off. And who want to take responsibility, as adults, both in their personal lives and in governing.
You talk about Chicago a lot—Mayor Harold Washington’s rise to power in the 1980s, the local house music, gang culture. How much do you think growing up here influenced your political views?
The independent political movement in Chicago was critical to Obama’s rise and the Washington election as well, and it’s a model for what we’re trying to do. And as people of color become a majority, we’re going to have more and more opportunities to create Harold Washington-type coalitions everywhere—including the suburbs. Our goal this fall is to not get set back 20 paces in a right-wing takeover.
You also talk briefly about your "New York Times fiasco," when N.R. Kleinfield profiled you for a 2000 article on race and hip-hop. (In his book, Wimsatt writes: "[Kleinfield] told me I must be the most committed antiracist white person he could possibly imagine ... 'Oh no,' I told him. 'I'm just as racist as any other white person.'" The result, Wimsatt says, was that "[by] the time he was through with me, he had painted a thoroughly convincing portrait of a confused David Duke-type cartoon character who mocked and exploited black people and black culture.") You say you lost friends over the profile, and also wrote a 15-page public response. I found a much shorter "open letter to the New York Times" attributed to you on the website of hip-hop journalist Davey D. What ever happened?
They didn't print my letter, and I guess I moved on with my life. People forgot about it. And, yeah. It was a painful episode that I learned a lot from.
Did the writer ever respond to you?
I called the reporter, who left me a message—it was fairly short and defensive. And I did not call back or respond. Essentially what I did was beyond stupid.
What do you mean by that?
In short, I tried to make myself look bad and racist to the New York Times. I didn't think there would be a disastrous outcome. I totally trusted this guy, and my whole approach to the writer had been to be as self-critical and publicly vulnerable as possible as a way of opening up space for people to reflect on themselves.
How do you think that experience affected you?
Any time you go through something challenging, it's an opportunity to deepen our compassion. I think it succeeded in doing that for me.
Speaking of compassion, you take an empathic approach in talking about President Barack Obama, who has disappointed various factions in the progressive community. Have you gotten any criticism from Obama's detractors?
People are listing things that are wrong with the Obama administration. And there are plenty of things wrong. I agree that we need to push the administration on things. But we also have to have a grown-up set of expectations about it. It’s like, people are saying, “I voted, and things didn’t change.” To me, it’s like saying, “I planted a community garden, and McDonald’s didn’t change.”
Obama asked us to build a movement to dramatically change things, and we did somewhat. But frankly, we let the right-wing unorganize us. And so if we want more change, we have to create more power, more money, and more media.
How will that happen?
We have to become the most powerful interest group. More powerful than Wall Street and the military-industrial complex. The way we do that is to create a narrative—a story that is about realistic change over the next 30 years— and organize a lot of people around it.
You spent much of the aughts promoting voting, after voting for the first time at age 27. How did that happen?
I got big into the voting thing because people who I agree with politically were like, ‘we’ll do everything but vote. We’ll protest, we’ll plant community gardens, we’ll do community organizing, but we won’t vote because that’s selling out.’ I was like, whoa, there’s this totally unused opportunity we have.
What do you think about Mayor Richard Daley’s decision not to run for reelection?
I think this is one of the things we’re going to be talking about at my events—it’s an amazing moment to come home and get to strategize with a couple of young change agents in the city about how we really show up in this moment. Because a couple hundred people who get organized—and not just young people, but people who care about the city—could determine the outcome of who becomes the next mayor of my beloved city. And it’s anyone’s guess right now.
Do you have a favorite potential candidate?
I don’t, but I think young progressive Chicagoans putting their heads together and deciding who they want to support will make a huge difference. It's a golden opportunity like we haven't seen since the 1980s.