An Interview with Joey Johnson

Crewing Up in Queens for Rise Up October

October 14, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


This week, had the opportunity to interview Joey Johnson(JJ) who has come to New York City to join the waves of people there working to make happen the events from October 22-24. He is working with a team of people in Jamaica, Queens.


Revolution: I was thinking we should start out by talking a little about Jamaica, Queens. You’ve been out there talking to a lot of people and learning about what the lives of people are like and about their encounters with the police. That’s the place Sean Bell was brutally murdered right before his wedding day and that’s put a certain stamp on that part of New York City.

Joey Johnson: Just to start off, it’s been tremendously exciting. It’s fascinating on one level. Okay, so Jamaica, Queens—you are just kind of like parachuting in and not knowing much about it at all, but learning really quickly. It’s an incredible place. I mean, it’s just teeming with people, as a lot of New York is. I think it’s 98 percent Black. It’s not only African-Americans, so many also from the Caribbean, not just Jamaica but other places in the Caribbean, Africans and Haitians. And in this one area, Jamaica, Queens, where we’ve been concentrating, people tell me it’s a transit hub for a lot of people, a lot of the working poor, proletarians, but also like 30 high schools. It’s fucking mind-blowing. At 3 o’clock every day it’s a wild scene, just teeming with young people.

Stolen lives poster
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And the pig harassment of the people is pretty intense. The pigs roll deep in groups of four in vans and SUVs and on foot. They’re out there and they’re pretty intense, like jacking up these young people and it’s like stop and frisk, whatever they’ve said they’ve done or not done about that—it’s ongoing. It is more like how the Israeli soldiers come at the Palestinian youths and it is not just the brutality but also the humiliation. And there is a deep sentiment out there of loathing all of this; just deep disgust and anger with it. I’ve heard so many stories, including from people who knew Sean Bell. We’ve gotten out somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 palm cards, people readily take them up and take stacks and take up the challenge of distributing them. People tell you things about their own ordeals. I met so many people who themselves have been brutalized, who almost didn’t survive or a friend of theirs was killed.

People tell you stories like this one guy who had fresh bruises on his face and he told me that two days before they busted him for an open container. And he said to them, why are you doing this to me, there’s murderers out here, why you harassing me? And they put him in the squad car and they told him to shut up and he said to them, no, I don’t have to shut up; I have the right to remain silent and I have the right to say what I think about what you’re doing, say what I think. Then they beat him up, they knocked him out, they knocked him unconscious and he doesn’t even remember exactly everything that happened, except that they went at him. And then he woke up in the precinct and they refused to take him in the precinct and they took him to the hospital because he was injured.

People we know, that we’ve met out there and are working with us closely, took us out to where Sean Bell was killed. We talked to people all throughout the neighborhood, like a muffler repair shop, auto mechanics, beauty salons, barbershops. The Sean Bell murder runs deep with the people; it’s like Oscar Grant out in the Bay Area, really egregious. And they named the street after him. They took us out there to show us that and then we canvassed through the whole area talking to people.

I met this young brother, you could tell he was like a star football player. The way he carried himself and he had all his shoulder pads and his helmet, his equipment with him. And he had a lot of suppressed anger about police brutality. And the more you talked to him and pulled it out, him sharing his own stories but then he just talked about how the other kids in the school weren’t going to do anything. And I said to him, well, you got to challenge them, you got to be a leader. In football there are people who are leaders, players who pull the whole team forward. And I said you got to do that in this part of your life.

So that’s what’s out there, but because it’s out there doesn’t mean it will make it to Manhattan on October 24. It’s got to be organized. And I feel like that’s the challenge we face.

Another quick story is, over at this junior college, we met this guy from Haiti, he’s been here like four years. You meet people who’ve been working things out in their own head, going back to Trayvon Martin, just watching all this and seeing that things are going in a bad direction, in society overall. He definitely felt a sense of responsibility to do something about it.

Revolution: You’re pointing to a lot of raw material in people’s experiences, and their anger. Can you talk about the way you are approaching this—to really unleash that potential? One of the things I understand is that you are working to bring to life, and work with a team of people that is building for October 24. Could you talk about that a bit?

JJ: The team is really exciting. I hooked up with a guy who has been doing Stop Mass Incarceration [work]. He’s been in and out, busy with other projects, but he’s put quite a lot of time into this. We’ve done a lot together and he’s really motivated around it. And then there’s other people including some young Black men in their early 20s and a Latino in his early 30s who’s an Iraq vet. He really wants to do something meaningful with his life after he’s seen what this system has done to people around the world and here.

So I’m very excited about the team. People come in and out, there’s different challenges, but when we crew up together it’s really good, we go together, we go to the transit hub, we go to the schools. And when we’ve been out there—it’s not only that they harass the masses, but the pigs have been pretty belligerent, they’ve harassed us quite a bit. They stop their patrol cars in the middle of an intersection, blocking traffic to sit there and stare at us. We just keep doing what we’re doing and don’t get baited, don’t get drawn into it, we call it out and all that. But one day, and they were like, “clear the sidewalk, clear the sidewalk” and they’re right up behind us doing that shit; and wow, this was on a whole other level, they don’t want us connecting with these young people. Or they come up asking can they have a palm card and we agitate loudly for all the masses to hear, “No they ain’t for you!” And then a while later they will be across the street holding up a palm card. They are really petty pigs like that. But all this has also been drawing the masses to us, people don’t like us being harassed like this. It is what they too have endured.

One day we were out there and our crew had just started doing mass distribution at this transit hub and a couple of masses joined with us right on the spot and one of them, a Jamaican brother, was doing some agitation and he was pretty good, he was hitting the points. So the pigs come up, about five of them, and do like a half circle to intimidate people, people coming up the escalator from the subway. But these guys don’t fade away, they just keep doing what they doing. That’s part of what’s going on out there too.

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Back to the team. I think people are getting cohesion, working together and talking and walking through and seeing the basis for this; and then it was really special, three people from our team—including two people who are newer to the team, came to the night at Columbia [on October 7] and this was like: whoa!

I feel like that event helped catapult a lot of things, opened a lot of people’s horizons and a lot of doors much wider because the way the student organizations and the groupings of people that took it up out there, the students. The speeches were all incredible. Eve Ensler, Carl Dix, Nicholas Heyward—everybody who was on the panel hit hard. But I was also really moved by the students—you could tell they were moved, as never before, with a sense of purpose.

We’ve gone to a couple of colleges in Jamaica. We’ve made some progress at one college because we met a professor and another woman who is some kind of administrator and has all these connections with different professors. She was really enthusiastic but then you know how things can drag out and other things come up and they don’t get back to you. But as soon as that event happened at Columbia, I shot that back at her. She told me this whole story, though, about how she took it to her students; she really wanted to involve them. And they had a debate about gun violence versus Rise Up October—which one should they take up as their capstone project, which is like their school-year project. And gun violence narrowly won the vote. So then I responded with an email and I used that thing about crime among the people from—the Reality Check article; I sent that to her and said I really wished I would have been there for that discussion because the system is responsible for both of these things; it’s not one versus the other. They enforce these conditions, they’re responsible for both of them. So she goes, okay, we got to make something happen. It’s like that letter in the paper where someone was dialoging and so then the person responded to them, they went to their friends and then said maybe this is too extreme, we should do something more reasonable. So then the person working with them wrote a whole response.

5 Stops

Well, that’s what I did around this, I challenged them around it. So she was like, I don’t know if we can do this in two weeks, maybe we’ll do this as an after event in November. And I was like, no, no, no—too much urgency here. It’ll really make a difference if you do something for it, to open up to let these students know. I said, look you don’t have to carry it all by yourself. She said, I’m an adjunct professor, I don’t really have that much standing here. I said, go to this other woman in the department who was really enthusiastic. So then she called her afterwards and she emailed me afterwards and said we’re having a teach-in on October 21 and I said righteous, that’s great. But it’s a good example of not accommodating, but challenging people and working through the obstacles together.

So it’s working in different spheres. We’re doing the work at the transit hub with all these thousands of basic masses. Many places you have to scratch to find concentrations of people, here it’s like how do you not get lost in the multitudes. There’s that at the transit hub and then there’s the colleges; both of these things are going on.

The team has gone out to the colleges. We’ll go to a school and people will say hit the cafeteria, let’s hit the departments. Maybe someone will say, we should go to the administration first and it’s like nah, nah. Let’s go to the student organizations and to the departments, because sometimes you just walk through the departments and you see what’s on the professor’s door. Like at another college, we found a professor who wrote about the Central Park 5 and the media bias against them. On another door there was a guy who made a film about the Amistad rebellion. So we’re trying to follow up with them. We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire, to try to bring forth. And then we’ve gone to the meetings of kind of the equivalent of the Black Student Union or different groups to try and involve them.

Revolution: It’s an important dynamic that is being set into motion... in the sense of, on the one hand, going out very broadly to people on the bottom and drawing them forward to stop police terror. And there’s a dynamic between that and drawing forward broader forces. You have different people from different places seeing other people in motion—the broader forces are moved when people on the bottom move and they learn about the reality of what goes on every day in this country. And then, it’s also true that people on the bottom feel like they have some backing when they see other people stepping into the fight, standing up, and they see there is this whole broader section of society, and it gives people breathing room to step into larger things. You do get a feel for how this is a societal wide thing, even as this is full of contradiction and struggle.

JJ: We’ve gotten down with a pastor who’s got a small congregation, but who’s got a lot of respect, standing in the community out there because of fighting for a long time against stop and frisk. This pastor’s known Stop Mass Incarceration for some time and appreciated the Call [from Carl Dix and Cornel West] but did initially have a view that things need to happen in Queens because of all the ugly the police are doing to the people there. But then I said, but look, things need to happen in Dayton, Ohio. But on this day, people need to be in New York City in Manhattan, we have to bring all this together.

That’s the whole point, instead of people being isolated in their own cities or communities, this is unprecedented, there’s never been a coming together of hundreds of family members who all share one thing in common, they all lost a loved one to murder at the hands of the police. This is unprecedented. And then the pastor got the vision of the Call and readily endorsed it and said, “You all have commissioned me. It feels like we were blessed to do this.” That’s the framework the pastor is coming from.

So the pastor right away set up a meeting between us and a stop the violence group that’s more focused on the gang violence—but they see the need to deal with this as well.

Then the pastor took out a front-page ad in a community newspaper and the Rise Up October poster is going to be right on the front page of the paper and it has a distribution of 40,000 or something like that.

And the pastor’s calling for a meeting and for support with 125 pastors, and doing a mailing, and we’re trying to do it with them. Then one of the other team members was going out to another church today to get out the palm cards and talk to people and get the right connections.

You can do a lot in a couple of weeks actually.

Revolution: Well, you are getting a certain, as we used to say, calculus going. I would like to get a little better understanding of the people who are stepping forward because that makes a huge difference, the people in the community who are stepping forward, going out to the churches. You’ve met these people but then what’s the process of their being integrated into this team? I realize it’s not 24-7 for everybody, but they’re being part of a certain collective team.

JJ: One person who is part of the team said, after we had been running together for two-three days, I still don’t understand and nobody has actually explained it to me, how a march is going to make a difference. Because we’re going to do this on October 24 and on October 25 the police are still going to be killing people.

So we came at it from a number of different angles. I said, look, you got to pull back the lens. I can’t remember exactly, but some of the different points I made was what difference has it made that people stood up, going back to Ferguson, and what happened here after the grand jury decisions around Eric Garner and Michael Brown—what happened all over the country. The tens of thousands of people that stood up and went into the streets and blocked bridges and blocked freeways and did these die-ins to symbolize the thousands of stolen lives, people murdered by the police. And then in Baltimore people rose up the way they did. What difference has it made? I said it’s forced millions of people to confront this, who otherwise would have been either oblivious or indifferent or uninformed, whatever you want to say. Across society, it has put the way the police are brutalizing and murdering people before people——in a way it hasn’t been for decades.

I said, that’s really important! Don’t take that for granted just because we have that. If that wasn’t important then why are the authorities trying so hard to shut it down, rule it out of order, de-legitimize the movement with all this bullshit about how Black Lives Matter is a hate group and the protests are causing cops to get shot. And I told him about the piece Larry Wilmore did on the Nightly Show, about how that’s a total propaganda of the system, that actually less cops have been shot in 2015 than in decades, and how it’s just a whole thing that they’re running on people to try to de-legitimize the movement that has arisen. You know, it’s amazing, you have people like Anderson Cooper or Don Lemon, they never liked the uprising of the masses from Ferguson going forward but it’s like when Katrina happened, they weep a little, but look how readily they want to turn out the lights on this movement against police brutality and terror. It’s like Bob Avakian says about Anderson Cooper and his “keeping them honest” bullshit, where is it now?

And people have to see that. That’s the point in the editorial about the situation’s not static: “Either the protests and resistance will be repressed or derailed and the controversy shut down, with the horrors not only staying in place but intensifying... or people will come forth in much greater numbers and determination than before, and seriously change the terms of how all of society looks at this and acts on it. There is a way to do that, to fight this, right now, and to take this fight to a higher level. This October 24 in New York City thousands and thousands will pour into the streets, insisting to the world and the country: THIS MUST STOP!” I’ve been using the 3 Points a lot—I’ll show you my copy, it’s all ragged... you can’t underestimate how you have to set the orientation, and then reset the orientation. You set the orientation and then you go out and get hit with things and then you need to reset the orientation. And people thank you for reading it, resetting the orientation.

And then I told him, look, we have to rock this New Jim Crow and this intensifying police terror back on its heels and challenge people with the urgency of it. And I told him my own understanding as a revolutionary communist that we have to sweep away the whole system of capitalism and imperialism so we get to the underlying system that is responsible for this mass incarceration and police terror, criminalizing whole generations, and so many other crimes against humanity around the world—I like the way that comrade Carl [Dix] connected all this at Columbia University, including that we have a revolutionary leader in Bob Avakian, in BA, that has forged a strategy for a revolution in this country and has brought forward a new synthesis of revolution and communism, a society we would want to live in. And some people have bought BAsics off of just reading the quotes from BA about the real role of the police, or the Key Concentrations of Social Contradictions, and the Strategy for Revolution. And people are reading Revolution newspaper. But then you have to also come back to the point, that is an ongoing and important discussion and regardless of what people think about that, they got to see the moment we’re in right now. The powers that be want to shut this controversy down and get back to the business as usual of killing with impunity. So what are we gonna do.

Revolution: So do you think he’s more fully seeing why this needs to happen?

JJ: I don’t think it’s all straight line but I think there’s forward momentum. And some people they come forward and then they disappear for a little bit. We met this one guy who worked with us for one day who’s what’s called a “lite feet” dancer on the subway trains, and they get harassed by the police. He was only with the team one day and then I think he got some pushback, as they say, some opposition from his, he called it the “old heads” who said they ain’t with the marches, they want something more militant.

But I told the young brother, we actually need revolution and have a strategy, but that involves “fighting the power and transforming the people for revolution” today if you want to even have a chance to get to a revolution. And this just ain’t any ole march, hundreds of family members of people killed by the police are coming from all over the country to NYC to march and tell the world that the police are terrorizing Black and Latino communities in this country. But I don’t know if they get that.

But we just need to persevere with these youths. I mean, they get harassed, there’s a whole thing that goes on with them—where they get enough citations and they can get banned from the subway and that’s like a fucking death sentence, how are you supposed to do anything in NYC if you are banned from the trains? And they’re just phenomenal dancers.

Revolution: So how do you see things unfolding, with two weeks to go? There is time to go all-out even as you are focusing on bringing people together and organizing for people to go together to October 24.

JJ: Oh, the church pastor wants a bus or in some way have an organized way for people from Queens to come into Manhattan, like a delegation. So they’re really trying to get this mailing out to these other pastors. They called a meeting with them before around this police brutality shit. They sent out a mailing to 125 and 20 showed up and I said, that’s good, we can roll with that.

Revolution: The experience you’re describing is interesting, because you could contrast it with the approach of: well, the church wants to bring a bus but we don’t have enough money. Instead the approach is, they don’t have enough money to cover it, so let’s reach out to other ministers. If you’re starting from the need and the basis that you’re describing about the vision—the police are really an occupying army—and the basis to reach out broadly to ministers who care about their parishioners, and you can see how things could go to a whole different level, because you’re looking at these challenges as, not “shoot, we don’t have a bus,” but we can get a bus if we expand the movement. You didn’t have a team when you started, but you started with who you got and organize others.

JJ: I think it means keep coming back to “Why There Must Be a Truly MASSIVE Outpouring Against Police Murder on October 24 and Why YOU Are Needed” in terms of the urgency and the stakes and what it says about what difference it will make for people to throw in, the last point: “In fact, this can only happen on the scale and scope that is absolutely necessary if many people throw in on this, now—people who have been fighting this, as well as people who are just now coming to the fight.” The whole third point.

Revolution: There is a certain scope to what you’re doing. It’s not an approach of one by one by one. But actually how do we reach out broadly and then when people who step into it, they reach out to another 125 ministers, the professor at the college gets with another professor to organize a teach-in. There’s a certain geometric progression as opposed to one by one. From what you’re describing, you’ve gone out very broadly, connected with all different kinds of people and then the people who have stepped forward themselves have taken more responsibility for making October 24 what it needs to be. There was this outpouring and then the powers that be have hit back and now there’s the question of taking the initiative and taking things to a whole other level. In other words, it’s the people who are really passionate about this and growing numbers of people who are saying no, we’re going to step out and say this must stop. There’s a certain quality to it beyond, it’s not just a continuation of what’s happened but a qualitative step beyond what has happened before. And that will have an impact. This is taking the offensive in a certain way; it’s not just responding to the latest thing, as important as that is, and that’s very important. But it’s taking the offensive that’s what you’ve been taking out to people, what difference this is going to make. No, you’re not going to stop police brutality ultimately without revolution, we know that. But this could be a big step in building the movement for revolution even as it will rock them back on their heels, that’s a fact.

Revolution: You mentioned people are reading BAsics and Revolution newspaper...

JJ: Yes, we have gotten out a lot of issues of Revolution—we could be getting out more. And with the team, I’m really struggling, hey, you need to go to every day. I mean, people have these smart phones—I mean, yes, we need to get to a situation where millions are going to, but especially when we are in battle like this, people that have stepped forward to join these teams, we need to more strongly encourage and challenge people they need to go daily because there is so much reporting, including articles that really help people see the basis to do more. It is the “grasp revolution, promote production” versus just “production, production, production”—fuck that. They can go to and see the short clips from BA from Revolution—Nothing Less!


Learn more about BAsics

And yes, BAsics often sells itself. It walks away from you [if you] open it up and show them the quote about the role of the police, ask them to read the quote aloud, and also the Statement on Strategy, when you tell people, hey, look, there’s actually a strategy. To be honest, we should be doing more of all this because it is about keeping in mind the strategic needs of the masses. It ain’t all just about this battle. People really do need to become emancipators of humanity. And they need the science of communism to do that. I mentioned earlier that a person bought BAsics off the quote, 3:30:

Some Principles for Building a Movement for Revolution

At every point, we must be searching out the key concentrations of social contradictions and the methods and forms which can strengthen the political consciousness of the masses, as well as their fighting capacity and organization in carrying out political resistance against the crimes of this system; which can increasingly bring the necessity, and the possibility, of a radically different world to life for growing numbers of people; and which can strengthen the understanding and determination of the advanced, revolutionary-minded masses in particular to take up our strategic objectives not merely as far-off and essentially abstract goals (or ideals) but as things to be actively striven for and built toward.

The objective and orientation must be to carry out work which, together with the development of the objective situation, can transform the political terrain, so that the legitimacy of the established order, and the right and ability of the ruling class to rule, is called into question, in an acute and active sense, throughout society; so that resistance to this system becomes increasingly broad, deep and determined; so that the “pole” and the organized vanguard force of revolutionary communism is greatly strengthened; and so that, at the decisive time, this advanced force is able to lead the struggle of millions, and tens of millions, to make revolution.

Because this brother said, I go to people where they’re at, when people say they feel strongly about lack of good housing and education, and he said, this is about that.

And I said, it is about that, but look, the ability of the police to just murder you just wantonly, with impunity, for them to just arbitrarily be able to just take your life, all that other stuff is foul and is part of the conditions of life that this system enforces on millions of people and the oppression of whole peoples. But I said, this is a concentration of all that, for them to just be able to arbitrarily take your life and nothing to come of it. And I said, this is something that the RCP has actually scientifically determined that this is a fault line, a key concentration of social contradictions is the way that the police enforce these relations of oppression and exploitation; the conditions of life that the system is determined to keep people in. That’s it right there. So off of that people are buying and reading BAsics.

I think there’s a lot more work to be done around that. I like the way that Carl did it at Columbia when he talked about all these horrors that the system does all over the planet. Murder by the police doesn’t stand alone, it’s part of what they do all over the planet, this is what they do. People suffering horribly and unnecessarily. Whether it’s all these millions who have been murdered and displaced, the whole refugee crisis in Europe because of these imperialists, overwhelmingly the U.S. empire upending the whole entire Middle East, the whole arc of countries from Pakistan to Tunisia and everywhere in between, for oil, power, and empire. All this blood-thirstiness between the U.S. and Russia over Syria; or the whole global degradation of women, destroying the global environment. All of this is why the system needs to be swept away. So people are engaging with it.

Someone was saying to me you can tell by the way Carl carries himself, he’s been through it, the way he carries himself and the way he talks to people, he’s been through it, he’s been tested as a leader for decades now. And coming from his experiences in the military and refusing to fight and going to prison for that, refusing to fight in Vietnam and going to prison for that and he’s still at it today. So I have a lot of admiration for him. But you know he’s also out on that panel working with people coming from a different framework, different beliefs and he’s worked hard at learning how to do that for a long time now. He’s very adept at how to do that. That’s part of leading as well. So I think people are impressed by that. They know this movement’s got legs, it’s got a real foundation and real substance.

"What if?...."

Watch the whole film

But I honestly think we need to find the ways for these young and older new fighters who are coming forward to find out more about the movement for revolution and the strategic leadership that we have in BA. I’m sorry people, but this system that has lied to you about so many other things of importance has lied to you about something of the greatest importance, the path to the emancipation of humanity. That is the project BA has been working on. So I think we need to do better at that.

In the brief street encounters we have, will thousands of people make that extra effort to get the newspaper in their hands, text people those links to key articles [on] or even just the memes, get people into BAsics and the films of BA? People should think about this in these days of vacuous and worse imperialist presidential “debates.” the competing packages of deadly poison being sold and the need to get BA and the movement for revolution way out there. That is the leading edge of what we need to be doing as we are fighting the power, and transforming the people, for revolution. That scientifically how something as important as Rise Up October can really contribute to the Three Prepares of preparing the ground, preparing the people, and preparing the vanguard for revolution.

Revolution: My last question: Why did you volunteer to come to New York?

JJ: Are you crazy? I’d come in a heartbeat. I love New York. I love the masses, and how everything is compressed here in one place. I would come here at every opportunity, at every chance. But this is a particular movement around police terror and the need to stop it. I think it is really a wise call, to call for this national march in New York because people have been fighting in every other area of the country—people have a sentiment we need to do more here, be it San Jose, California, or Dallas or St. Louis or Columbus, Georgia.

But I think the call to concentrate in New York City means we can put this in front of the world. It’s a big challenge because you got to do a lot in a place like New York in order to break through on that level. It’s an international city, international media is here, it’s the financial capital of the empire. It’s a big concentration of oppressed people in this city, as well as people from other strata who empathize and don’t like that oppression. That’s all concentrated here. But to break through on the level that we need to break through on is going to require a lot, so that’s what we’re racing to come from behind on.




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