A fixture in the fight against racial disparities in Madison, M Adams is co-executive director of Freedom Inc., a Black and Southeast Asian non-profit organization working to counter root causes of violence, poverty, racism and discrimination. Many know Freedom Inc. for its vocal campaign to remove police from schools, but much of the organization’s work is about youth development and supporting survivors of gender-based violence.
To what extent do you think that Madison residents understand about Freedom Inc. and its goals, and what are they missing?
Wow, that's an important question. The people we work with I think really get us. They can see the broad swath of an intervention as we make inside the communities in order to improve our communities. I think the broader, bigger public Madison, I think they only get to see our resistance work, which we think is fine and important, but they get to see it from how it's being reported and not because they're able to talk with us, interact with us and understand our thinking. And I don't think they also see the other work that we do in addition to challenging power.
For example, one of our biggest buckets of work is actually in ending gender-based violence. So we do a lot of work to stop domestic violence, sexual violence, child abuse, elder abuse and a host of other things.
And because we do this work, we actually are looking for deep solutions to some of the most heinous forms of violence. So when people say to us, “You just want rapists to be free,” we're like, “Oh, you misunderstand our work.” We are the people who work with people in their homes, work with survivors. We see the terrible violence, and we ourselves are also survivors of this terrible violence, so we don't come to this from merely a rhetorical place. We come to it from a lived experience, and we come to it as Black and brown people, as women and girls, as queer, trans and intersex people who are seeking safety for ourselves right now.
And I think if people knew that about us, for example, then they would better understand some of our analysis. So we think about what does it actually mean for Black survivors to restore, for Black survivors to be healing and moving to wholeness. We've seen so many examples of Black women, mothers, queer folks, calling the police for help and then they also get arrested. We've seen countless examples of how Black survivors have been sexually assaulted or mistreated or, or demonized by the police and so they don't even want to report it all together.
I think people may characterize us as people who are just resisting for the sake of resisting. No, we are actually trying to better our lives. We're actually trying to improve our communities and we invest heavily in that.
What are media outlets getting wrong about this movement?
I think in some ways we have a different value system than some of the media. We value all Black people's lives. Period. We think that Black people should be able to live without being murdered, and Black people should have what they need to live. And because that is what we value, if we were reporting on (recent events), we would have been reporting on the Black woman who was assaulted by the white vigilantes. We would have been reporting about the number of cars driven by white people who had been attempting to run over protesters. We would have been reporting on the amount of militarized militia-like white nationalists who are threatening Black lives. And we would have pointed out how here we have a huge police department who says that it's concerned about safety wellness and these things have been happening and they have not done anything about those things, but they have showed up to arrest and detain and beat and injure Black people who they think maybe broke a piece of glass.
That is how we would have reported it because our center would have been what is happening to the lives of Black people. They are reporting on if a statue lives and not if a Black person lives. They are reporting on Black people being outraged that they keep getting hit by cars, but they're not focusing on the cars.
I’ve heard you talk in other interviews about how you view your activism work as “movement science.” Can you tell me about that?
We can observe both history and current conditions to distill lessons, to distill theories, to distill other analytical ways of understanding how social change happens. We apply those lessons to developing strategies here locally and also nationally to advance change for all oppressed communities, but focusing here on Black communities. And so what that means is, when we are organizing, what brings us out there may be our lived experiences and our emotions, but what determines our strategies or next steps, is an assessment.
So, let us observe the civil rights movement for example. People think about the civil rights movement as being effective in changing the hearts and minds of people, but actually the reason why the sit-ins were successful is because of the financial cost on the establishment. The reason why the bus boycotts were successful is because of the financial cost to the establishment, because black people on the busing systems were a significant portion of how the bus systems were able to operate.
I bring that up to say, yes, shifting hearts and minds is important and engaging people is important, but they were able to be successful because they had a scientific understanding of what actually was driving society. What was motivating society was a set of racial white supremacist attitudes and beliefs, and they realized that they couldn't change every individual person's mind, but what they could do is make it more costly for racist white supremacy ideas to be the norm. So it wasn't that when they won all of a sudden white people went outside the next day and said, “Oh, we love Black people.” In fact, many of them were upset. And you can look at a number of documented (incidents of) white supremacist violence against Black communities as a result of some of this important work done in Jim Crow.
And so when we approach these questions here, we are thinking scientifically,“How do we go about bringing forth some of the changes that we want to see?” which is why we invest our energies and our resources into developing people power. We will not be able to out-resource the state. We will not be allowed to out-resource large corporations. I think this is perhaps why so many people are resistant or fearful of the movements, because our leading resource is our ability to develop radical thinkers, to cultivate a skill set of Black people who've been pushed on the margins, who've been forgotten. Our resource is our ability to activate our folks to become their own champions of change and to no longer wait for other people to do for them.
So now, thinking about the policing questions from a science perspective, I think when people are focused on how they only feel about policing, then it's easy to wind up doing things that we think will change somebody's heart and hope that the changing of their heart will then help them see your humanity. And I understand why people do that because I think to be Black is to know how everything around you seeks to make you feel less than human or seeks to go against your humanity.
A scientific perspective on the policing question — it's almost like a physics. What physics seeks to do is to explain the universe in as few laws as possible. So, a physics perspective, a scientific perspective would say, “What is the fundamental root that allows this thing to happen?”
We have assessed the fundamental issue as to why the police are able to murder Black people with impunity is because Black people do not have the power over police. Other people have tried to answer this question by saying, “The issue is that we’re not transparent.” Well, the footage is there. We've seen hundreds of hours of Black people being murdered. Things are transparent. We all saw George Floyd's video. We know what happened. Some people have fought for body cameras and we still see police murdering black people.
Now let's explore this accountability question. People cannot be accountable to something that does not have power over them. If you do not have power over something, you can suggest, you can recommend, you can hope, you can beg, you can plead. But you cannot make them accountable. We recognize the fundamental issue we're experiencing is that we did not have power over the police. Stokely Carmichael, a Black freedom fighter, once said, “If a white man wants to lynch me, that's his problem. If a white man has the power to lynch me, that's my problem.” Racism is not just attitudes — it’s power.
Black people as a class, we don’t have the power to regulate the police. If I'm here with my child and a police officer busts in here and they grab her and they beat her, there's actually nothing I can do. You can't stop them. You can’t out-weapon them. The law doesn't back you up to intervene. This is the thing about George Floyd. Had one of those people intervened and tried to defend him, they would have been murdered also. That's the unspoken thing: You can't actually do anything about this.
The Black community has a relationship inside of America as a domestic colony, and it's not just in regards to policing but it's really in every sector of our lives. We don't have the power to house ourselves. We don't have the power to provide employment. We don't have the power to feed ourselves. What I mean by power isn't access, isn’t influence. What I mean is, as a group of people we can’t determine it.
When crack was put into our communities and our communities used it, there was a War on Drugs waged against us led to the worst mass incarceration rates in the country, in the history of the world. When white people have drug abuse issues, it's a public health issue, and state senators are saying we’ve got to protect people around meth, and people are voting to keep Obamacare in practice because they realize that maybe their grandkids have a drug issue, and they may need it to combat meth. The difference between the two is, in one instance, the community affected by it had the power to determine the solution.
The fundamental issue is power, which is why we have scientifically said the way that we're going to solve this issue is for Black people to have community control of the police.
What would it mean if the public viewed protesting or disrupting meetings not as a bunch of people being outraged, but as a calculated means of making change?
I'll just frankly say: It's who's doing (the protesting) that's the problem. Madison prides itself in being a liberal bastion, being progressive, and so many people here love to associate themselves with the anti-war movement and the resistance that took place, including former mayor Paul Soglin. That's a lot of people's claim to fame. We believe in change.
And so I think the issue is who’s doing it. When game day happens and there's hundreds of thousands of people and they're getting drunk and doing all kinds of shit they're not supposed to do according to the law, nothing happens. They don't get seen as criminal. Who knows why they're mad? They feel justified in their anger that Michigan beat us. But they get the ability to act up, to throw garbage cans, to do all kinds of stuff, right?
And this is what we said about our young folks who attended school board meetings and have been doing that for a few years, for hundreds of meetings, who were there trying to speak, trying to beg the school board to give them time to do presentations and all this other stuff. They were ignored, they were not looked at, not respected. And then when they took action, it became a public issue. That's the science: When you take the action, people actually listen, whether or not they like it.
If we were white, if those young people who were doing that work were white, they would be seen as leaders. When some of these young folks started with they were in middle school, and they were learning how to read policy. Middle schools don’t even teach that; we taught that. We'd be seen as people with an incredible education program. There would have been a resolution at the city, a headline in the newspaper: “Freedom Inc. develops our next wave of leaders.” So much of it is just really, frankly, who the people are.
It seems like we're seeing certain things that were treated as radical now being seen by more people as worth considering. How does something move from radical to reasonable? Do you feel like we're seeing that shift happen?
Yes, this moment is historic for a number of reasons. And one of those reasons is because the intellectual leap between where people were in 2014, around the murder of Michael Brown and what the common person, the everyday person was saying should happen to what people are saying now is the sort of development that happens across a lifetime. So we have people who in 2014 were like, “Oh, we just need more body cameras, and the police are good” now saying, “Defund them. Take away their money. They're doing terrible. Get them out of here.” And these are common everyday people. So I think that is very important.
Why that has happened is because of the social movements. The last six years has been filled with the Movement for Black Lives, which is an ecosystem of over 100 Black-led organizations. We, for the last six years have been inside of our communities, engaging our communities, and fighting alongside our communities to advance change.
And it's been through that process that we have invited in people's radical imaginations. We have invited in people's scientific assessment. We have asked the hard questions. And I think it is through that grassroots work that audacity to dream has become more popularized. Hopefully what we have done as a movement is to inspire people to say you do not have to fit into the confines of what they're asking you now. You get to be queer in your thinking. You get to imagine something that does not exist and propose it for your folks. You get to fight for it, you get to build, you get to shape it.
With respect to the current movement, what most worries you, and what gives you hope?
The worry is that we will fail the potential of this moment. We are at a historic time where we could fundamentally restructure society. We have an opportunity to become abolitionist as a society, which means we will not seek to use prisons and police to solve our social issues.
Now that brings me to the hope. We have a hope to be abolitionist. We have a hope to say that instead of locking up homeless people and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to keep somebody in prison, we're going to put that money into housing and create real housing opportunities. We have an opportunity right now to affirm that Black lives indeed matter by saying that instead of paying somebody with a gun and a Taser to patrol the schools, we're going to bring in social workers, or, better yet, we're actually going to better fund education altogether.
We spend over $100 hundred billion a year in this country in policing. Imagine if we put that in education alone. Madison spends a little over $80 million a year on the Madison police department. Imagine if we put that in education. Imagine if we said we're going to house people, feed people, provide health care. We're just going to do it. We're going to really strongly address these racial disparities.
So my worry is that we will not move to advancing what should be, that instead we will be fear-driven. We will be unscientific and we will cower under the face of pressure and not do what is needed. My hope is that we can meet the radical potential of this time and create the world we deserve. And my hope is that we can actually build a world that centers Black people. And what we know is that if you build a world that is good for Black people, it will be good for all people. Because scientifically, if you save the person at the bottom, in order to save them, you have to knock down all the things on top of them. That will invariably save people who are in different socioeconomic, political statuses. So if you advance freedom for the most marginalized, you will have to defeat every system of oppression, which will be liberatory for all people. So that is what's at stake here.
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