After the Dialogue:

Observations from the Audience

Updated December 7, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


The following comments are from people who were in the audience at the Dialogue between Cornel West and Bob Avakian on November 15, live and in person at the Riverside Church, and at simulcasts in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. A very wide spectrum of background and views were represented that day. There was unity and determination, but also controversy—between the speakers, and controversy provoked by the fact that both speakers challenged people to break out of the framework through which they see what kind of change is necessary and possible. We are just beginning to get a sense of the impact the event had on people. The following comments are mainly from exit interviews, and are very preliminary responses. They reflect the thinking of those who made them, in response to and provoked by what they saw and heard, not necessarily the views of the speakers. We will post more comments online.

We encourage everyone to watch the entire Dialogue at! While we cannot post all comments sent to, all of them are appreciated and forwarded to the Dialogue organizers.

“I learned we can change this whole damn system that’s guilty as hell”

What I learned from the Dialogue is that we can change this whole damn system that’s guilty as hell. We certainly and most seriously need a revolution so our Black and Latino kids can rise up and be a part of our country instead of ending up dead or locked up because they are separating our families.

(Woman from Ferguson, Missouri)

“A More Scientific Perspective”

I appreciated what Bob Avakian said about putting things to a more scientific perspective—analyzing the way things are, but also looking at solutions to try to rectify, solve those problems. I think that analyzing problems, but also looking for solutions that can be the source of self-determination and overcoming a lot of the oppression, and also the social instability, the social issues, that are placed upon people. I think that’s a real effective way of addressing a lot of those issues. Most surprising to me was how thoroughly they discussed a lot of the problems that exist in today’s society. People who didn’t come missed a very enlightening and informative discussion, and a chance to be amongst a lot of other like-minded, intelligent people.

(Young Black artist)

“A kindness there that was more real time in conversation”

The most important thing was watching two people sit down and discuss, respectfully, and having an end goal. And that appreciation for how they arrive at that end goal is different, but whether it’s through religion or just basic human compassion, it was very exciting. I was probably more familiar with Cornel... I was exposed to him more on public TV; he’s such a character. Not that Bob isn’t, but when you see the REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS! video, he’s so serious in the recording, which is great; I know he’s got a message and he’s only got so much time. But there is an endearing side of his personality and there’s a kindness there that was more real time in conversation, so it was nice. And you’re also seeing him interact with someone, so it’s gonna be different than someone like just going at it.

(A young white woman)

“I try to turn to God... but sometimes I have to change myself”

About Bob Avakian, he’s a very good speaker; he seems like a very educated man. But you know I agree with what he’s saying, though he’s not a real spiritual person. He really don’t turn to God for his answers, not like a lot of other people. A lot of people, even me, I try to turn to God with my answers, my solutions, but sometimes I have to change myself. I agree with some of the things he said. He just wants the system changed. He’s not believing in what’s above. He’s believing that there’s something going on down here on this earth. He wants this system changed and I agree with him. I want to see it changed, too. ’Cause I’ve had my own run-ins with this system. And this system here, I’ve got some good out of it, but there’s a lot of bad. Like when it comes to the police, stuff like this. When they stop me on the street, and ask me all kinds of questions, if you don’t say what they want you to say, you can’t afford to get in an argument with one of them. Another human being, they can argue with me or I can argue with them, and then say, OK, it’s over with, everything’s OK. I go my way and they’ll go theirs. But the police, if I argue with him one time, I might end up getting hurt; could be the last time. I could get hurt or get killed; or end up in jail.

(An older Black man)

“The role of today’s Democratic Party seems to be a stumbling point for some”

To my friend who invited me to the Dialogue. You asked me for my thoughts and here they are:

I have voted in every presidential election since 1972. I have been voting for governors and local representatives for even longer. In the early 1960s I remember freezing in below zero temperatures as my Mom dragged me from door to door, handing out literature in support of John F. Kennedy. Mine was not a “rah rah wave the flag for America” kind of voting, it was more “people must always be part of shaping the system” participation.  

Today, in 2014, I believe the “system” is worse than ever. I believe that participation of the people is more important now than ever. I believe that we cannot wait another minute to make real change.

So on this Election Day, November 4th, I wanted to do something more significant than ever to be part of the solution. No, I did not vote. Instead I booked a flight to New York City and bought a ticket to a dialogue between scholar and philosopher Cornel West and Bob Avakian, leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party. I have come to understand that there is no change coming through the ballot box. People’s participation in the electoral system is not going to shape our common future. We must reexamine our situation, think beyond our daily concerns and commit our lives to working for a better world.

The event was billed as a discussion about religion and revolution but it was not limited to a narrow interpretation of those topics. Both West and Avakian worked off the principle that things must change. We cannot be afraid to look at the real failures of this current system and we must act together to make the future a better place—for real. We cannot wait for politicians and courts, we must be the change. Religion and revolution can work together for this outcome, they do not need to cancel out each other.

It is difficult to convey all the ideas and insights expressed during the four-hour dialogue. I will share three points that were especially important to me.

1. I am not the only one who is overwhelmed by the scope of the problem.

2. Turning to the ballot box or to a higher power may be the way that some people deal with being overwhelmed but those actions will not bring true change. In addition, people who vote, people who pray, and people who call for direct action should not let these differences separate us. We need to see the common problems and work together for real solutions.

3. Some people have a very hard time letting go of the Democratic Party.

Let me explain.

First, being overwhelmed by the scope of the problem is understandable. Many of the questions from the audience centered on this theme. This is a David and Goliath match. How can the poor and disenfranchised even begin to stand up to the well-oiled, well-armed U.S. government? People watch their sons, their husbands, their families shot down by police and no one is held accountable. People are not safe in their homes. The racial dimensions of mass-incarceration have soared to staggering levels. Audience members seemed to ask the same question in a number of ways: how can we fight these oppressions when we are, in fact, being weighed down by these oppressions?

We cannot do it alone and the struggle will not be easy. There is no short-cut but that cannot deter us. People who suffer abuse daily, people who have spent years in prison, old people who have been fighting for decades, students on campuses, senior citizens who have become fed up, people on the coasts and people in small towns all need to see the same truth. That kind of unity is necessary but it also does not come easy. For me and for others who are just now understanding the scope of the problems it all seems overwhelming. That is understandable but it should not stop us.

Turning to the ballot box or to a higher power may be the way that some people deal with being overwhelmed but those actions bring only short-term relief. Voting will provide an immediate fix to a problem. Turning to prayer and to the Bible may bring immediate comfort to some. Although neither speaker said this directly I came away with the idea that it may make sense for some but the problems still required more direct action.

Voting down a 20-week abortion ban or a "Personhood" amendment is an emergency measure, like triage or an ER visit. You have to stop the bleeding but that is not the end of the problem. Saying a prayer or reading the Bible may ease the pain. It may connect you to family traditions, loved ones, and memories that warm you but prayer will not end the problems of society.

Moreover the fact that some may pray while others do not should NOT divide us. There is room in the present struggle for everyone who wants real transformation and there is room in the future for everyone who wants to commit to a world of equality. Avakian is an Atheist, West is a Christian but they both see similar real-time problems and similar future possibilities. They will not be separated by their differences and neither should we.

Finally, the role of today's Democratic Party seems to be a stumbling point for some. Avakian made the point in several ways: Democrats have not offered any relief, Obama has continued the war policies of Republicans, and Hillary Clinton will be no different. From where I was sitting (in the middle of the main floor) those comments drew the most vocal responses. First, people seemed uncomfortable with talk of real politics at this event. Did he really say "Democrats"? Is he really going to talk about that now? I heard those comments from people around me. In addition some people seemed unwilling to question Obama or Clinton or Kerry. I heard a collective gasp the first time there was a critical comment about Obama. Many supported Avakian's comments but I was also aware of the other reactions. I am sensitive to this right now; I am just getting used to the idea that the Democrats will not save the day. I still remember going door to door for JFK. It is a tender spot, almost a betrayal of some kind. In my heart and in my head I know that the Democrats are not the answer but it is still hard to say it out loud. I picked up on some grumbling because I am just coming to terms with that point myself.

My three "take-away" points are all personal. I am overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, I am just coming to understand that my vote is not going to bring the change we need and that the current cast of characters is actually part of the problem, not the solution. My impressions reflect my point in a personal journey; I know that others in Riverside Church had their own experiences. I know that as time passes I will think of other points and consider other ideas. But the importance of this moment will always stay with me. Rather than being a single, isolated voter alone in a little booth I was one of hundreds, gathered from across the country, together to share questions, concerns, and ideas. Being together and sharing the possibilities is so much better than being alone and in the dark. That is probably the most important thing I took away from this experience.

(A woman who flew into New York for the Dialogue)


“Don’t judge a book by its cover”

What struck me as most important was that two people from two different views can actually come together and express theirselves and come to a common agreement, and while disagreeing, that we’re all in the movement for the same fight. And it wasn’t too much beatin’ around the bush, there were actual answers for the questions that we had. I would say to someone who hasn’t seen this, don’t judge a book by its cover, because you have a history of communism and atheism, don’t judge by the cover. You have to first figure out why this is happening and what the solution is to the problem. There’s some shit in taking this on you need to hear and listen and learn.

(Young poet from Ferguson)

“They weren’t talking like Americans...”

What I loved is [Cornel West and Bob Avakian] proved to me that people can come together to change the world—and I mean all kinds of people from all walks of life. And I think they drew the crowd they did because they weren’t talking like Americans. They were talking like and for the world’s people.

(A Black student from the City University of New York who brought five people to the Dialogue)

“The one thing that kind of stuck out was Bob Avakian’s approach to understanding—a scientific approach...”

What was important was that we all need to get involved for the common good against this injustice and exploitation and oppression in America and around the world. And it takes an active understanding of knowing people’s differences as well as the common good that the masses need to agree upon.

The one thing that kind of stuck out was Bob Avakian’s approach to understanding—a scientific approach—digging into the depths of understanding reality and the relationship of that to a scientific social agreement or unanimity agreement among the world. That is needed to be understood.

I have a fight with my faith and the church, so stepping out in the social arena and working with people against the injustices, a lot of them believe we gotta give man what is man and let God take control of what God has control of. But what I think about what Avakian is saying is God has already given us the will and the choice to stand for what he has already instituted in his word as well as in our consciousness of what is right. So we need to take that will and that choice and be active against that which we know is definitely wrong and definitely against society as a whole.

(A Black man active in the struggle against police brutality)

“Depth and concern about the conditions of women in the world...”

I’ve never heard anyone—man or woman—talk with such depth and concern about the conditions of women in the world like Bob Avakian did in this event. I found myself crying and standing up in applause in what seemed to be inappropriate times in recognition of this. He spoke with the same conviction in regards to Palestinians when he explained that the Democrats—not one of them—said a word about the massacre in Gaza by the Israelis.

(A woman from Europe who was raised Muslim)

“I was really impressed with his radical, militant, ‘I don’t care, I will tell you’ perspective...”

For a long time, I’ve been following Cornel West. Bob Avakian is pretty new to me. I really liked it and it’s something I follow closely. To see the line around Riverside Church was most empowering. A point of view I share very much was expressed in ways I’m not capable of expressing. So I really, really enjoyed it.

Bob Avakian really, really impressed me. I was annoyed with people asking him to stop. It was a bit long, I must admit that, but I was really impressed with his radical, militant, “I don’t care, I will tell you” perspective. I think we need more of that. This nation is in fact fucking imperialist. Fact of the matter is I am an immigrant (from the Islands). To dream of a future where there are no immigrants. When people have that conversation—when they have that immigrant conversation—when you look at the immigrant population, you need to ask yourself why are they here—why I left my country? I left my mother who works seven days a week to try to survive. “That is why I’m working at this table to serve you, sir.”

It’s spectacular. We need to have more comings together like this. We need to have more lines wrapped around buildings in the middle of winter a few days before Thanksgiving when so many people won’t have food on their table. My message to those who did not come would go a little like that.

(Woman poet in mid-20s)

“We need to go to a spiritual foundation...”

I don’t really believe in Bob’s views because I’m a man of the Lord and I love Jesus and I love the Holy Spirit. I love the way it leads me. With Bob, I think his message was typical—hey, we can do it through science, just like they have been trying to do for years. And that hasn’t worked. We need to go to a spiritual foundation. And as a Generation Xer, I intend to advance the knowledge of understanding the fundamental ingredients of open-mindedness, possibilities and freedom of thought. And that way all the Generation Xers are about to bloom and we are about to be burst.

Science has tried to attribute and contribute in a way that’s bigger than humanity, bigger than ourselves, meaning that it can reach to the heavens. It can reach beyond God. That’s what science is... Science does one thing, and faith does another thing. As you see, Cornel West explained when you take the familiar for the unfamiliar and the known for the unknown, you don’t choose science any longer. You know a power greater than yourself, and it’s called the Holy Spirit. And this is what you take before science once you become a believer of that. Now most of the time man believes in science. A man is like, “Oh, I can fix this. I can be better than this so-called God. And the only thing that kind of messes that up is a person that does not know how to get in touch with Jesus Christ, God Almighty, the Holy Spirit and the teacher.”

If I had a friend that wasn’t able to make it, I would tell him that both made very important points, and the whole program was a dialogue with two gentlemen who have been in the civil rights movement, who have been revolutionaries, who have been visionaries, who have been leaders of their own thoughts, of their own views, of their own opinions. They have been through storms and correction, and many many, detours of obstacles. They both have touched the ground of their own emptiness, and they have given us a message of hope.

(An activist who has been arrested dozens of times and served time in jail for activism)

“The creativity of the human spirit is something that needs to be allowed to flourish...”

BA said something that I didn’t expect, but something that touched a very unique chord in my heart. He began talking about the recent comet landing and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake as being just as important as all of the arts.

This comparison of science and arts, placing them on equal footing and as interchangeable manifestation of human motivational needs hit me particularly close. I recall at one point trying (with little success) to convince one of my professors that science is also an art. Hearing BA validate this sentiment was refreshing and I wish I could have been as eloquent as him when addressing this professor. The creativity of the human spirit is something that needs to be allowed to flourish. Without this, we cannot be fully human. This is what a revolutionary society needs.

(White male, graduate student)

“This is not a game...”

People were hearing things said to a large group from two people who were speaking without any self-aggrandizement. That’s rare. Everyone around me had strong reactions to BA’s remarks about the Democratic Party—how he knew there were people in the audience who had been taken in and voted for Obama, and he explained what the Democrats are actually responsible for, how they’re part of the problem. One friend described this section as “brilliant, masterly.” People don’t hear the truth spoken very often, not just the truth, but why things happen. And that night they heard that about a lot of things.” The Dialogue itself was amazing. Magical is a good word for it. There was so much unity, not just ideologically, but they were working together.

Both were strong and confident, not just in themselves but for a better world. This was very real, and infectious just watching them function together. But it was not like they were larger than life. They were heroes and two people talking with great intelligence and passion.

BA repeated several times, “This is not a game, we’re very serious about this.” I think that’s important, and maybe the “headline” for what happened.

(A woman who has been a supporter of BA for many years)

“I didn’t know that Bob Avakian was a Caucasian male...”

What surprised me was that, first, I didn’t know that Bob Avakian was a Caucasian male, and it surprised me that he spoke the truth like that, because usually a lot of Caucasian people wouldn’t do that, 'cause they don’t want people to know the truth, you know? And I feel like he really broke it down, and that was just really interesting, because the way they broke the subjects and the situations down I really understood it, and I feel like it’ll change things, change the world.

(Young Black woman from Chicago)

“Both speakers talked about the struggle of gay people with real substance...”

Both speakers talked about the struggle of gay people with real substance, they made sure to bring that in. I was surprised in a positive way, given the audience in Harlem where it might not be so popular, that they made a point of talking about this.

(A young artist)

“All the information about WHY most of our Black people are getting killed for no reason”

They said it’s always the Black people that get killed for no reason. What surprised me? Knowing that it’s always us—like my brother who was killed by police. You shoulda came because it gives you all the information about WHY most of our black people are getting killed for no reason.”

(Twelve-year-old Black youth from Chicago)

“We need to give more thought to how people live while they are here and not pie in the sky.”

I’m a Christian. One of the things that struck me listening to the communist is that much of what he said is at the heart of, is foundational to Christianity, in terms of the Kingdom of God. The unfortunate thing about it is that the Christian religion gets a lot of criticism because we think a great deal about the pie in the sky by and by, thinking about a different world and getting the pie in the sky by and by. The reality is I don’t care if this is scientific or unscientific, this is a world full of people. One of the things I like to say to young people is part of the reason that a lot of these people get caught up in all these rituals they get caught up in it and can’t let it go. Because they’re thinking and acting like everything in this world is going to be forever. The graveyard in every society is an object lesson that nobody in this world is going to stay here and this world is not forever. But we need to give more thought to how people live while they are here and not pie in the sky.

(Black man in his sixties)


I was delighted that my question was one of those selected to be posed to BA and Cornel. I don’t think either gentleman had heard that one before. Cornel’s answer was predictable (“God is not a concept, God is love”) though I have to say, “love” is a concept, too. I think BA might agree with Lennon’s “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” once he ponders it a bit.

Unfortunately, “religion” comprised about 10 percent of the dialogue whereas race and class struggle occupied 90 percent of the dialogue. This was too bad since I came more to hear the former more than the latter, though I understand why race and class struggle matter. I also understand why it would have been hard to focus on BA and Cornel’s differences when they obviously find support in each other’s views.

BA needs to listen a little more with his audience—there were people all around us who were chanting “Give us Cornel!” I’m used to sitting in long lectures, but I’m guessing many there who were more familiar with Cornel than BA would have been shocked if they expected equal time for both.

The above critique aside, I thought both did a marvelous job of communicating their fundamental tenets and we all came away thinking, “Imagine.”

(A Columbia University professor)

“Avakian’s approach to ‘salad-bar Christianity’”

I feel there was an important subtle shift in Avakian’s expression of unity-struggle-unity with the religious. In Away With All Gods! and other previous criticisms of religion, I hear BA more blanketly dismissing the “salad-bar” Christianity, compared to what sounded in the Dialogue like a more embracing stance of accepting this approach when it is in the context of creating a movement for revolution. Others that I spoke to were surprised to hear BA say that he would rather walk with brother West than some other atheists. This didn’t surprise me, but the nuanced critical acceptance in Avakian’s speech was a significant emergence: “I don’t think we need God, but I do think the people need a lot more soul.”

Cornel shared his sentiment that Ferguson might be just the first of a wave of rebellions, more a righteous hope than a prophetic statement. This raised my eyebrows and my spirit.

To play off the Katt Williams comedy routine, where he proclaims to his friends and family (the ones that aren’t working all day or otherwise committed to some pursuit)—“If you aren’t smoking weed, then I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?!!” The thing he is riffing on and hammering home in the routine is that there are ways in which altering your consciousness can be uplifting and lead to insight. And in a more provocative way, I want to express to my friends and family (all 10 of them, most of which are working or strongly focused)—firstly, if you aren’t engaging the need for revolution then WTF. Secondly, because more and more persons in the U.S. are, the Dialogue of 2,000 at Riverside, the national response to O22, and the masses making Ferguson an international issue, can be the beginnings of a movement. Thirdly, we need you to be “presente.”

“It opened my eyes...”

The Dialogue was very, very motivational. I was very inspired by Bob A. breaking down how serious it is that we need a movement for revolution. When Mr. Bobby broke down the reason we are in the predicament we are in today it opened my eyes and I really, really realized we need Revolution—Nothing Else.

(A Black middle-aged woman in Revolution Club)

“As a Christian myself, I had to think about my own views...”

And as a Christian myself, I had to think about my own views. Especially with the first speaker. He helped me to look more critically at my own position and that’s very helpful. Whether you are going to believe in all he’s saying or not, it’s helpful to have your thinking tested. When Malcolm X spoke to a Christian audience, he would tell them that we are not oppressed because of what God we believe in, or because we are Methodist, or Baptist, or Muslim, we are oppressed because we are Black. I think they [BA and Cornel West] are able to work together because they are both genuinely opposed to that oppression.

(A Black student who attends Union Theological Seminary, where Cornel West lectures)

“On the question of violence...”

From the first time on hearing the topic that was going to be discussed by these two highly regarded public intellectuals, I got excited. These two men, coming from different perspectives, reached similar conclusions, which proves to me the seriousness of the world situation and the need for drastic solutions.

Having never been to NYC also motivated me to want to step out of my comfort zone and make arrangements to get off of work so I could participate. Having got the days off, I then had to think about the bus ride itself, which was a long one. I threw out my expectations and trepidations and figured I could handle the close quarters. I was not disappointed. Even though I am an introvert and not the most sociable person in the world, the youthful energy and intensely interesting conversations swirling all around me kept me engaged and connected to the group. The bus ride was great! On the whole, the trip was well organized and planned out, even though there were a few glitches. When we arrived in NYC and into the church for the lecture, I was ready. It took me a second for my ears to adjust to the sound in the hall which was very echoey, but once that happened, I was not disappointed.

The energy and articulation by both men confirmed my feelings that they are committed to trying to create a new and better society. Cornel West won’t allow his religion and belief in God to keep him from the critical analysis of the problems confronting society. Bob Avakian let it be known that he’s serious about revolution and not playing around. On the question of violence, he was clear that he’s not advocating anything except whatever is necessary to wrest power from the capitalist class, which won’t turn it over willingly. I only wish there was a moderator to kind of expand the question and answer portion of the program, but there was only so much time available.

(Author unknown)

“Openness and sense of humor...”

They really brought home that, in fact, the system itself cannot be expected to produce anything but what it has. Most surprising was the openness and sense of humor, and self-criticism they made by both Cornel West and Bob Avakian. To those who didn’t come, I would definitely say you’ve got to watch this when it becomes—I hope—available for viewing.

(A Black woman from Los Angeles)

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