Since Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds came out in 2017, it has spread through communities as both a way of uplifting adaptive and interdependent strategies that are already working, and an invitation to experiment with organizing that centers relationship and possibility. In the following conversation—which took place in early October—Andrea Ritchie sits down with Emergent Strategy author adrienne maree brown to discuss Ritchie’s new book Practicing New Worlds: Abolition and Emergent Strategies, the latest in the Emergent Strategy Series with AK Press, now available.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
adrienne maree brown: Andrea, can you share a bit of your early journey around Practicing New Worlds? What was the genesis, or “aha!” moment behind this book?
Andrea Ritchie: In 2019 the American Studies Association Conference [ASA] was happening in Hawai‘i, and I heard from our shared beloved Amanda Alexander that she was going, and that you were going to be the artist in residence… I reached out to our friend Scott Kurashige, who was, I think, the president of ASA that year, and said, “Hey, is there any way I can be part of this conversation about adrienne’s work?” And he said, “Yes, sure, we’ll put you on a panel. You can talk about how emergent strategies or adrienne’s work has been useful to activists and organizers.” And I thought, oh, easy, I’ll just go into Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. I’ll hit “Control + F,” find the word “abolition,” string together all the ways it’s mentioned and how I see emergent strategies operating in abolitionist organizing in a talk, and then go swim with the dolphins. And then… I realized the word “abolition” actually doesn’t appear in [Emergent Strategy], even though I know, obviously, because of who you are and who we are, and the work that it came out of, that was the kind of organizing it came out of. So then I ended up having to sort of figure out a talk…
I took each principle and thought about how it applied to abolitionist organizing that I’ve seen—or how I’ve seen it emerge in abolitionist organizing—[and] about how important Pleasure Activism had been in addressing what you always said to me, something like, “You’re doing great work. You just look miserable doing it.” Which I was. And about how visionary fiction, Octavia’s Brood particularly, had exploded my mind and heart. So I put all that together in a talk, and then somehow, put on the kind of dress that I would never wear—I mean, it’s a beautiful dress, it’s just [that] I don’t feel like I can pull that kind of thing off often, but I just felt like that day, I could. And then I just came and gave this talk unlike any other talk I’d ever given, and then was like, OK, great, so now I’m gonna go swim with the dolphins. And you and Charles Weigl [from AK Press said], “Oh, that should be in the world, that should be a pamphlet.” At the time I said I was flattered, but I didn’t have capacity to take on any new writing projects.
And then 2020 happened. And it just it felt like it would be a helpful offering to folks who came into a greater understanding of abolition, or knowledge or awareness of abolition, in 2020, but understood it as a policy or budget fight, who were thinking it meant we should end qualified immunity, or pass a law to do a thing, or find one cookie-cutter program and we’ll replicate it across the country as a quote-unquote “alternative to police.” And I thought, I’ve learned some lessons over the last 30 years about what it takes to practice abolitionist futures, and let me try and fast-forward you through those so we can get to where we’re going faster, because it’s crisis time now. And also to lift up lineages of this work that people of this generation are not aware of. And to invite all of us who have been doing abolitionist organizing to lean into what emergent strategies teach us about how change happens. That’s how this 400-page “pamphlet” came to be, about four years later.
brown: I’m really grateful that we didn’t hold ourselves to the container of “pamphlet.” … I feel like you have become one of the most trustworthy voices around abolition in practice. Practicing New Worlds feels like a departure from anything you’ve ever done. For me as someone who’s known you for so long, I was most excited about how much you’re sharing about yourself and your fears and your frailties, and the story of your own ongoing education and radicalization. You wrote that working on this book brought up a lot of vulnerability and exposure that you had not necessarily experienced with other projects. What changed in you and around us for you to shift gears in that way?
Ritchie: I mean, it’s definitely been a progression. The first book I ever co-wrote, Queer (In)Justice, was just like, just the facts, ma’am, [with] nothing of myself in it really, except for references to projects I’ve been a part of… And then, when I was writing Invisible No More, I think both you and Mariame [Kaba] really invited me to situate myself in it more. And so I told a story, in Invisible No More, about my own experience of police violence [that] I’d never fully told anyone, really… And then, right up until manuscript submission, I was like, am I going delete this?! I can’t have this out in the world… And I remember that the day before Invisible No More was gonna hit bookstores, I was going to see like a Violent Femmes show or something in Chicago, and we were standing in line to get in and [I] suddenly doubled over in a full-on panic attack, because I was thinking, it’s already out… there’s so much of me that is about to land in a bookstore somewhere, and I no longer control who’s reading it. And then, you know, we did some more of that in No More Police. And I think people have really appreciated how we talked about our own learnings and changing and shifting… You know, where we had gone down particular roads that we now recognize were not on the path to abolitionist horizons. So I think it’s been a progression, and it’s been encouraged by people like you and Mariame and others.
So I think that I wanted to, again, sort of share with folks who know me as a Capricorn, and as someone who’s all about the analysis and the business of organizing and getting things done, that we have to bring our whole selves to the work.
brown: Yeah, otherwise the work doesn’t work. And actually, it could go very awry.
Ritchie: Exactly. And so that’s what happened, I think. Also, the last thing I’ll say about that is, it’s the urgency of the moment. In 2020 I often said that it feels like this is a final exam for organizers of my generation: Here’s a pandemic with some mass criminalization going on that is also placing the effects of organized abandonment and neoliberalism in very sharp relief. And now we’re gonna throw in an uprising with abolitionist demands of a scope and scale that you’ve never seen before in your lifetime. Oh, and here’s a dramatic rise of authoritarianism and fascism, and also the sky’s on fire… new questions, new conditions, new realities compressed into one year. …
It really felt like, we need to get it together, we need to figure out how to show up to this moment in history, this portal into the future. We need to bring everything that we’ve learned, our sharpest analysis, every possible tool to the table. Because we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing. Look at where we are and look at what’s coming. And I think for me, that’s what this book is. Everything else I’ve written has been about what I know. This is about writing what I don’t know, but just hurling my best thinking into the future in the hopes that it’s helpful. …
brown: Everything you’re saying feels very resonant with my own experiences of stepping off the path of what I was trained to do and be, and how to function as an organizer… that feeling of precarity, of like, I’m out on a branch here. And who’s gonna come out with me over here? … The tree is dying from within, and we need to get to a different tree, or we need to get to a different place. So it does feel like that crossing of a threshold. And it makes me want to ask you, can you share a before-and-after experience regarding emergent strategy and your own advocacy, your own organizing?
Ritchie: I was introduced to emergent strategies through your book, Emergent Strategy, around the time when the things that I had been pursuing—not because I thought they were the solution, but because I thought they were a way of doing harm reduction and getting us closer to abolition—it just became apparent in so many ways that they were not working. And then here was this book that was like, here is another way: You might think about shaping change rather than just responding to it. And I was like, “Oh, let me learn about that.” It was because, you know, it came out in 2017, right when 45 [former President Donald Trump] came into power, and I had been working on getting all these policies changed at the DOJ [Department of Justice] around how police interact. … I didn’t think at the time that any of those policies would fix policing, I was just trying to stop the cops from doing as much harm by taking some power away from them while someone else did some visionary work to get us to the new thing. In other words, other people were supposed to make the plan for bringing abolition into being, I was just trying to reduce harm while they did that.
And then the minute 45 stepped into power, everything we had done at the federal level, at the local level, everything crumbled. It no longer existed. And then, you know, at the same time the same harms were happening to people all over the country and were intensifying.
And you know, this is the conversation I’ve had with other people who did this kind of harm reduction policy work over the years—we were like, this is actually not working, people. We thought we would try it. We tried. It is not working—people are still experiencing the exact same forms of police violence. The number of police killings increases over time, even as we try and take power and resources away from [the police].
And so I think I—and many other people—[was] ready to learn about ways of changing things that don’t require us to run our visions of abolition through the policymaking machine of the carceral state. I’m not saying we don’t do some policy work to try to change immediate conditions and put all of us in a better position to build and fight for the future we long for. But that’s the tip [of] the iceberg—at the bottom of the iceberg was the piece that you and others have been highlighting, the transformation that takes place at the level of relationships, communities, networks, translocally and transnationally towards new economic relations, new social relations, new ways of building safety and well-being and thriving and community. So that’s what shifted for me, that’s now where most of my work focuses. What writing this book really helped me see is that over time, more and more of my work has been about building critical connections, holding communities of practice, and building networks that hopefully will join into systems of influence.
I’m someone who is always hosting convenings, always fostering cross-movement conversations, always building translocal networks, and always trying to offer a synthesis, weaving things together through writing. But I didn’t really understand my work as a body of work in that way. Now I see more clearly what I’m doing, and now I lean way more into that; that’s now 90% of my work. So that’s kind of the before and after as it was shaped by conditions, by learning alongside abolitionist organizers. I appreciate that you took the risk of going out on a limb and dropping something into the universe at exactly the right time for us to think differently about how change happens.
brown: I really appreciate you, you naming it, the back-and-forth of it. Because for me, I was like, I’m noticing a pattern of shift in the ways that we’re working, and I’m noticing that the stuff that seems to be most impactful is in this relational network space. To me there’s a real echo chamber, right? And I tell people that over and over again. I didn’t make this up. This is it, it is, and we can bring more of our attention here. And you’re one of the most exciting people for me to ever engage with it, because of that Capricorn nature, because of the order with which you have approached things. You’re not gonna just run out on the limb like, “I don’t know. Let’s see what happens. Oh, oop! It fell down.” You’re like, “Hold on! I’m going to check if that limb can hold us,”—and both things are needed, right? Then, there’s a dance where it’s like, “OK, we’re both out on this limb, and, because you’re here, I know that the limb is actually pretty solid. Now I can keep going.”
Ritchie: Emergent strategies are rooted in complexity science, which is science, right? I think that’s the part that folks maybe didn’t get, folks who are like, oh, this is just woo. No, it’s actually science. And we might be like the ants in the ant society who don’t totally understand the way the system works. But ant societies, as scientists have found, are some of the most impactful systems on Earth because of how they move and how they operate. And so there’s rigor to this. And there’s also rigor to this idea of experimenting, iterating, adapting.
And then you and I have also talked about this sort of branch of emergent strategies that I came across in which business people recognized that this is actually how things work in capitalism also. But there’s been a rigor [to] how people have studied it.
And so, you know, I have an undergrad degree in science, which some people know. So that part was very appealing to me, too, because it’s actually very rigorous, in terms of thinking about it that way, and making applications. And also, you know, we need to be rigorous in those applications. We’re not actually mushrooms, and mushrooms actually take 10,000 years to detoxify things, it’s not something that happens overnight. And you know, ants are cool, and we’re not ants, you know. I think that has maybe been one of the most misunderstood aspects of emergent strategy—that piece where people heard, “Oh, be a mushroom,” and they were like, Hmm, I don’t know.
brown: Right, it was, “Look at how [a] mushroom is deeply being itself and serving its function.” And think about the fact that we actually co-evolved with mushrooms, and that we have a function. And what is our function, and what can we borrow from them? Or how can we rely on them, right? Mushrooms are not trees, but they help trees, and they could help us, you know, like trees can help us. We could help them.
This idea is relationship, which I feel includes the successful interventions and the abolitionist projects that you uplift in this book. To me, being able to look at all these different projects that are using emergent strategy is a way that we get to see in real time, like, oh, this is how this relationality works. This is what the adaptations look like. This is what it looks like in practice.
So I wanted to ask you, as you interviewed activists, fellow folks in organizing work, what stood out to you about the challenges they shared in their work? What were the lessons that you feel resonated with you? And were there any surprises?
Ritchie: I think that, initially, people would ask, “Well, what do you want to talk about?” Cause they were worried it was going to be the woo, and they are organizers facing material conditions in their communities that they’re serious about like a heart attack. And they were like, “I don’t know if I can go to ‘be like starlings’ with you.” And I was like, “No, I wanna talk about these characteristics of abolitionist organizing.” I think what was surprising for me was how many people who I know to be rigorous, abolitionist organizers, were like, “Oh, absolutely. That’s definitely part of how the work happens.” Of course, all these principles are exactly how abolitionist organizing happens. And how much people were identifying with the principles, and how they apply [to their work]. So I think that’s what stood out to me. And how much people are excited by the back-and-forth between imagination and action, and thinking about how starved we are—how much policing and carcerality have disciplined our imaginations—and finding ways outside of that and breaking through that.
I think every abolitionist organizer will tell you that one of our greatest limitations when we’re out in community talking about building abolitionist futures is our imagination. We’re looking for an alternative to police that kind of looks like police: It’s a number you call, and they come, and they’ll deal with it somehow that won’t involve me having to transform anything about my relationships, my connections, the way I am inside, outside the conditions we live under. But that’s what transformative justice teaches us is necessary.
I think people were geeked about some of the imagination stuff in the book. They were excited about the Wakanda Dream Lab pieces. People were so affirming of me practicing my little visionary fiction practice, which came from the same places that I was talking about earlier: It’s 2020. I’m in my living room in New York. The world is ending, clearly. And again, it’s the final exam, right? Like, what are you gonna do at the end of the world, Gen X organizer? And I found the prompts that you were posting really generative, and a place to channel that energy in those moments, and I produced things that I was surprised by. And I think that was [proof that] emergent strategies create new possibilities. And there’s always a surprise.
brown: Folks, if you’re reading along and you’re like, “Wait, what is Andrea talking about, ‘In 2020 when the pandemic started?’” There’s this practice. Called #Nanowrimo and #Napowrimo. I think … in November is national novel-writing month, and then in April is national poetry-writing month, and so for national poetry-writing month [#Napowrimo] in 2020, I posted a series of prompts on Instagram that were trying to help people engage their imaginations around the pandemic.
And it was totally because I needed to do that. I was like, I am in despair. I need to write my way out of despair. That’s the only way I ever know how to get out of despair is to write and to reach out to people, you know.
And so Andrea wrote this gorgeous piece of fiction—not only one. I’m guessing that there’s more fiction—are you about to hold up a whole book of fiction?
Ritchie: No, absolutely not. This is the first time any of my fiction’s been published, and I’m terrified about people reading it.
brown: It’s huge. I’m so proud of you for doing it, and I’m so proud of you, for even engaging the prompts. That’s one of the most interesting things to me is getting people who don’t think of themselves as writers to write, getting people who don’t think of themselves as poets to write a poem, to be like, this is in all of us. It’s where we have been encouraged to turn and look and see ourselves, right?
I wanna pivot a little bit because I wanna talk about Grace and Detroit a little bit. So Grace Lee Boggs is a beloved teacher of both of ours. I love Grace. I moved to Detroit in large part because of her. You’ve now been living in Detroit for a few years, and you were there during a lot of the writing of this book, and it makes me curious how this beloved city of Detroit shows up in Practicing New Worlds, literally and figuratively.
Ritchie: This book went through so many iterations. First of all, there was a talk, and then I interviewed a few folks, and then made the talk into something that was closer to a pamphlet and sent it to some people, and people were like, “You need to explain what this is to people who don’t understand both about abolition and about emergent strategy.” And then I was writing it again.
brown: I’m so glad you did that, because when you sent it to me, since I’m steeped in it, I was like “Perfect, great! Send it to the printer!” You were like, “I sent it to some other people, and they don’t understand it.”
Ritchie: So conditions changed, and it kept iterating as white supremacist violence and authoritarianism and fascism were on the rise. I remember sitting there during the January 6 insurrection and thinking, I can’t be like, “Be like butterflies!” And I know that’s not what emergent strategies—or the book Emergent Strategy—say, but I just wanted to get real…
brown: You know, it’s something that I’ve been learning or reflecting on, and taking accountability around myself, because I am like a butterfly. I am like a light goddess, love goddess, you know, and I take feeling and that kind of stuff really seriously. And I think that there’s a way that, because Emergent Strategy came through me, that people were like, “Whoa.” And I’m like, I’m also dead serious about what we’re doing. Butterflies are not just interesting to me in and of themselves, they’re interesting because I’m so scared to become a goopy, cocooned creature, and to let go of everything I know to become something else. But I think that’s what we as a society have to do. So then it becomes interesting, right? It’s always a trip to me when people are like, “Yeah, make it easy.” And I’m like, birds coast when they can, because they’re gonna go from Canada to Mexico on their wings. Maurice Moe Mitchell and I have been also trying to work on some of this course-correction. I think it comes out a little bit in the piece that he wrote on movements. Let’s get some roots on this stuff so you can see them.
Ritchie: Exactly. That was the other audience I was writing for—let’s ground this for people who are really intrigued and taken by and inspired by the beautifully written and conveyed ideas in Emergent Strategy, let’s ground them to understand that this means you need to actually be part of the abolitionist organizing in your community. Not that we just sit back and wait and see what happens—because what’s happening is terrible and beautiful in the ways that we’re resisting all at the same time, right? And so as conditions were evolving, the book was evolving. I began to understand, oh, this is actually how the right is organizing also. This is also how capital organizes itself. This is, therefore, even if we don’t believe this is the way to resist, we have to understand how they’re doing it, so that we can be aware, and govern ourselves accordingly. So I think it kept getting deeper and more iterative.
But the part about Detroit is that Detroit made me the person who would write this book. There’s no question about it. I came to the Allied Media Conference [AMC] quite by accident in 2007, and just kept coming back.
And I’ll make a confession I might regret later: I didn’t know who Grace Lee Boggs was then [my first year attending AMC]. And then I actually literally sat at her feet in that conference room because it was overfull and listened to her talk as someone who had come from the same materialist, rigorous, kind of left perspective that I came up in, and say, “Actually, this is how we need to be. We need to become different people to create the world that we want. We can’t create it as the people we are.” And I was just blown away. And the next year came, and I sat at a book table with her for an hour and a half. I feel like that was just the luckiest thing ever, and we just talked about organizing and INCITE! and anti-violence organizing, and the kind of prefigurative organizing she believed needed to happen. And so Detroit, and coming back to that conference and that space every year, is what helped me understand and become someone who was open to and transformed by thinking differently about how change is made.
And it’s interesting, cause, you know, I would send my workshop proposals, and they would get rejected because they were too policy-focused, and people kept saying “Andrea, we’re not issue-based here. We’re about the process of visionary organizing.” And I’d be like, “Yeah, but we have to stop police violence. So these are the policy things we talk about to stop police violence.” And people would gently and kindly be like, “That’s not what we’re about here. We’re about practicing the world we want.” And I would just come back every year to be re-grounded and re-formed.
So I feel like AMC was like a glimpse into what is possible, some kind of portal. In other words, Practicing New Worlds is deeply rooted in Detroit, and I’ll just say this last piece of insider baseball, which is that, as you know, there was a draft that everyone thought was final of this book. And then I went back and had to rewrite more about Detroit, and how it made me the person who could write this book, and about the AMC, and about the ongoing organizing in Detroit, and… well, it made it. There was a moment where the book almost didn’t make it into the world. And we pushed through the fracture. But that’s how important Detroit is to this book, that I was willing to say, “No, actually, I have to write about it. I really need this to be able to root it properly in how Detroit has rooted me.” So yeah, there’s a much more eloquently written love letter to Detroit in the book. But it felt so magical and so intended that I was able to be in this place, and be in conversation with so many of the people who were and are part of the organizing that informs Emergent Strategy and applies emergent strategies, and to kind of be in that iterative conversation.
brown: Yeah, I mean, for me there’s something about the physicality of being like, “Oh, you’re in the place where Emergent Strategy was completed, and that’s where you’re completing this, and Grace is all around.” But you know Grace is more than just Grace, because … the first time I came to Detroit I [also] didn’t know who Grace was, and everybody was, “Grace, Grace, Grace, Grace,” and I was just like, I don’t like anything that everybody is talking about this much. I was so resistant to her until I talked to her. And then I was like, oh, I get it. I’ve gotta change everything about how I think about everything.
The other thing I think you do beautifully in this book is you reveal connections between emergent strategy and Indigenous ways of knowing. And you know there’s so much about the original book for me that’s like, oh, this is just implied. Everyone’s gonna know this because everyone knows me, and they know where I’m coming from, and that’s enough, and yet there’s so much about it that was not explicit, and that was not laid out. And you do that. You talk about Indigenous ways of knowing and being in relationship. In one passage on page 65, you cite Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s description of the Nishnaabeg system of governance as an emergent system, reflective of the relationality of the local landscape, characterized by connectivity based on deep reciprocity, respect, noninterference, self-determination, and freedom for critical connections. Can you speak about the role such critical connections play in effective organizing and abolitionist organizing in particular?
Ritchie: I mean, first I just want to honor that the place that we’ve been writing from is Anishnaabe land. I don’t think it’s just the universe that, you know, had you drop Emergent Strategy at the time that you did, and that had me thinking and writing about emergent strategies in the same place that you did. I think that there’s ancestral knowing that’s being transmitted here.
brown: I agree.
Ritchie: And I’m deeply grateful to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson for writing As We Have Always Done, and sharing that with all of us in such a beautiful way, and all of Leanne’s writings and words, and for being OK with me using them in the book, quoting her in the book. She speaks so beautifully about a society built on relationship and reciprocity. And that’s also part of the Critical Resistance-INCITE! statement that literally guides my work. It’s such a beautiful last sentence that talks about building societies based on mutual accountability and passionate reciprocity. Those are the things that inspire me to fight and build.
Morgan Bassichis said to me at one point—
brown: Oh, Morgan, Morgan, I love Morgan.
Ritchie: Yes, Morgan is one of many teachers who has changed my life. Morgan and Ejeris Dixon and I were on the phone at one point in maybe 2010, when we had all been moving through different organizations and different formations, but we kept getting together on the phone kind of regularly for a period of time, to just talk about things that were coming up for us and the kinds of organizing that we were doing. And at one point Morgan was just like, “Listen, institutions come and go. Our relationships are what stay as we do this work.”
And of course, Ejeris has written about how our relationships are how we’re gonna survive. Let’s strengthen them. We talk about relationship-based organizing. I learned so much about that from Shira Hassan, and we continue to learn from that as we’re thinking at Interrupting Criminalization about coordinated community-crisis response or ecosystems of collective care—the notion that we’re trying to build networks and webs of relationships that can hold us, and recognize that we’re asking a lot of them to kind of clean up, or hold, the fallout of 500 years of racial capitalism on this Earth. It’s a lot to ask those networks to hold, but that’s all that’s gonna hold us.
I think there’s so much also that’s coming out through conversations like Kelly Hayes and Shane Burley, and Ejeris and other folks are having … about how we’re gonna survive fascism. It’s not going to be through policy or law or something, or voting harder. Really the only way we will survive is through relationship, and our relationships with each other, and the networks of care that we create—and that includes institutions. I’m not saying we abandon institutions, and, you know, solve all of our problems by passing the same $20 around in the mutual-aid project. We have to build institutions and community and ways of organizing and sharing translocally. But all of that is based on relationship. And as I’ve gotten older, or more years of organizing under my belt, it’s really been the relationships that have saved me. It’s been relationships that have grown me. It’s been relationships that have sharpened my analysis and skills. And it’s been relationships that have held me through hard times. And I just feel like we need more attention and care to those than we give when we are instrumentalizing people, when we’re focused on mobilization, mass mobilization, in a way that’s very shallow and not durable or sustainable or transformative.
So obviously, as with everything we talk about with these emergent strategies, they have to be undertaken with an intention. The intention has to be not just to focus on a relationship so I have a better network of friends, and we have, you know, regular brunch, and that’s great. And, you know, we share childcare, maybe. So that’s great. We go away together on vacation every year. That’s lovely, and it doesn’t stop there. Like, we’re building these relationships with an intention of transforming everything about the world around us, away from policing punishment, surveillance, exile, and abandonment, and towards mutual accountability and passionate reciprocity, with an intention of surviving and thriving, and the planet being able to survive and thrive in ways that are free from all forms of violence. But it does start with our relationships, with that larger intention. That’s been the part that has taken me 40 years to learn, and I really hope other people can fast-forward.
brown: I feel similarly. I mean, I also feel like someone who is like, theoretically, I can see that that is useful, but [I’m] actually putting my skin in the game, my time in the game, my money in the game, taking the risk to tell people, like, I wanna be in a lifelong revolutionary relationship with you. I wanna be in financial obligation with you as a community—like, I want us to be intentional about these things. Each time it feels like you’re opening up part of the floor. So it’s like we might all fall through something. But it’s like, this room is not working anymore. This thing always dawns on me: I’m like, the good people are doing this. And then there’s the right wing, right, and the right wing is also doing bottom-up organizing. You know, III [Weaver], of the Complex Movements Collective, said that early on: This is neutral until we set our intention behind it and decide to use it for good. But this is the way things move in the world, and so if we’re not shaping it, we are going to be destroyed by it, right?
And I wonder if you would speak right now to what are the most dangerous co-optations, or what are the most dangerous strategies that you see the right wing deploying?
Ritchie: I think it’s exactly what we’re just talking about. The focus on relationship.
brown: I mean, it trips me up, Andrea. Sometimes it trips me up to be like, oh, they’re also focusing on relationships. And [the right wing is] doing it better than we are in some places. And they don’t actually care about truth.
So it’s like they’ll just follow whatever the relationship most wants, which creates the most toxic condition[s], whereas I feel like on the left, you know, I feel like those of us who are trying to practice emergence—we’re focusing on the relationship. And also the truth is really important. So it’s relationships to each other in relationship to the truth.
Ritchie: Absolutely, absolutely. But I think, you know, I’m not a student of the right. I just want to be clear that I’ve been taught by students of the right. But people who are students of the right have been pointing out for decades that the right has been able to achieve the result we see now, where, again, we just see the tip of the iceberg, we see the judicial appointments, we see the laws, we see the occupation of government institutions. And we think that’s where the fight is. That’s not where the fight is. The fight is when someone loses a farm or loses a family member. Someone comes over and brings tea, and sits and prays with you and brings you what you need and gives you a home, a place, a sense of belonging, and directs your rage towards the rest of us. That’s the other thing—they’re very good at directing rage: If you’re mad about anything, don’t be mad at me, be mad at them and go hurt them.
Sometimes we turn it a little bit inward. So I think that’s where it is. The right’s strategy is to tell people to literally go and be disciples. Go wherever you are, and bring people into this way of thinking, this nostalgia for the good old days of white supremacy and cis-heteropatriarchy, convince them that anyone who’s different from them is trying to take from them. And that conversation isn’t just happening from the bully pulpit of the presidency or the congressional floor. It’s happening in the break room. It’s happening at the diner. It’s happening at the corner. It’s happening on social media. It’s happening everywhere. And I think that’s where we have not not focused on being in authentic relationship and loving relationship with each other and showing up for each other in those ways. And I think there’s a lot of loneliness and isolation and fear in our communities, and where we have fallen short is [in] responding to that. And instead, we’ve been like, “Let me give you some words. Let me give you some facts.” And people need to know that someone’s gonna be there for them at 3 a.m. when they need them, and if the pastor, the right-wing pastor, is the one who’s there, then they will believe anything that pastor says, including, you know, things like white people vibrate at a higher frequency that doesn’t catch COVID or whatever. Like literally, it’ll be in a place where your relationship is so strong that facts actually don’t matter anymore.
And I think that’s the part that we have to really understand. I think there’s a lot of conversation right now about narrative shift. Which I have a whole rant about, which I can save for another time. But I think the idea that we can shift how people think, outside of the relationships formed through organizing, and that it’s just about a well-crafted op-ed placed in a paper record that’s gonna change people’s mind… That’s not how people’s minds are changed. And also most people are not reading The Washington Post. They’re listening to each other. They’re talking to each other. They’re reading the church bulletin. They’re reading what is being said or circulated at the mosque or at the temple, or at the dinner table, and that is where I think the scariest parts of how these strategies are being deployed by the right is happening.
I also think they’re learning, they’re seeing that dual power strategies are the way to go, that you wanna build the world that you want over here, and fight the world that is, at the same time. And they’re doing prefigurative organizing. They’re doing visionary organizing. They’re creating communities that are in the image of the world they want. And they are really clear that being decentralized is the way to be more effective and less easy to target. And so it’s like you say, it’s the way change happens.
brown: Yeah. And it makes me think that’s not the only step because, you know, the beautiful thing about decentralization is that it means the more people that we spread a good message to, the more people have it. When I come in contact with someone who is completely dissociated from facts, the more I am steeped in a worldview that can include them, the more possibilities there are. And I’ve been really in that practice lately. And so I’m just sort of like, OK, you want a lot of the same things I want. But you’ve been disconnected from reality. And I want these things to be rooted in reality. How can I, from a decentralized place, invite you to look through the lens? Which feels so different from sitting and just being like “them versus us.” “They” do not touch “us.” Part of what I’m interested in is, how do you awaken people who are like, “Influence me.” And I’m like, I don’t want to influence you. I want to awaken you.
Our time has flown by. I have still more questions, but I wanted to see if you had questions.
Ritchie: I’m curious, given how much we’ve talked about Detroit, and how it’s a root of this [work], it’s a place where emergent strategies are practiced. I talked with shea howell a lot about how that in some ways feels like a possibility and a product of the systematic, organized abandonment of Detroit. The state was not super present, and so people had to rely on relationships, they had to practice critical connections and networks. Because that was it, that’s all [there was]. If there was a school closing, people said, “We’ll take over the school, and the kids will invite the neighbors in to teach us different things. We want to be taught, and we’ll do it together.” I’m curious now that you’re in Durham [North Carolina]—which I also talk about in the book, with kai [lumumba barrow], around how Harm Free Zones were able to land a little bit more sturdily in Durham, because there was a community of practice already. I’m just curious if you’re seeing things move around emergent strategies similarly, or differently, in Durham as you did in Detroit.
brown: I appreciate the question. When I looked at Durham, I was like, I think I could continue my practice there. Because Alexis Pauline Gumbs is here and and is part of the infrastructure, because Prentis Hemphill has moved here. Because there’s all this long-term organizing here by Spirit House and other folks. There’s tons of people from Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity here. And, you know, there’s been these real concerted, smart efforts to be like, “We’re gonna elect someone in for the [district attorney]. We’re gonna go for the school board.” There’s been a lot of this thinking on multiple levels. But I do think it’s really interesting to see how emergent strategy develops differently when it’s not a crisis scenario or a different kind of crisis—like it hasn’t been an economic fallout. The moment that I’ve moved to Durham is one where it’s like a huge boom. The year that I moved here, someone in realty [told me] 180 people move here a day. That was in 2021. Right? So it was like the opposite [of], like, the moment when I moved to Detroit, where the population has been steadily shrinking for 40 years, and we don’t know if it’s ever gonna turn around and grow again. So I think the thing that is a little harder here is actually getting people to sit down for some of that hard relationship work.
I also think I entered Detroit from an organizer perspective. I was coming to work on the U.S. Social Forum. I came here to Durham as a writer. I’m not trying to jump straight into the middle of anything. I’m really trying to listen and learn. And in that listening and learning I hear so many people asking the question: How are we gonna handle conflict differently here? We can see that something’s not working. And so I’m feeling really curious because I can feel the activation myself with like, Is that an invitation? Is that a call? Is there like a set of mediation trainings? Or is there something, you know, like, do I invite Shira [Hassan] and Mariame [Kaba]? So I can feel something percolating in my mind right now. Is there something to offer? But I have found myself really in listening mode mostly since I’ve gotten down here, and I can see that is thriving.
The other thing that’s happening that’s very interesting is a lot of people are buying land. So like, I would say amongst the people that I know here there’s probably 300 acres of land that are being supported and held by Black, Brown, queer folks in the South. We recognize the precarity of the situation down here. We recognize that at any moment, things could go way right. And we need to be safe. And so there’s something about getting in deep relationship with the land and learning how to live on and with it that is unfolding, and that feels really interesting. It feels kind of like what Detroit was doing within its city realm. Right? It’s like, how do we grow here? How do we get comfortable with the country? Learn the snakes, figure it out.
Ritchie: I mean, what’s interesting in our final minute, though, is that one thing the organizers that I was talking to were saying about that kind of experiment was, how do we protect our emergent strategy-based experiments when the state perceives them as a threat? And I think that was the thing about the state evacuating from Detroit. [The state] is sort of present in Durham, and, you know, more than once someone said, during the interviews I did, Acorn was destroyed in Octavia’s Brood. And so beyond decentralization, how are we figuring out how to protect the things that we’re building and practicing from the state? And from the right? And I think that’s the question that we need to still be continuing to practice around. So I’ll stop there.
brown: Andrea, it’s always incredible for my brain to talk with you. You’re such a visionary person. So I’m gonna stop us here.
Andrea Ritchie is a Black lesbian immigrant survivor who has been documenting, organizing, advocating, litigating, and agitating around policing and criminalization of Black women, girls, trans, and gender-nonconforming people for the past four decades. She is cofounder of Interrupting Criminalization and the In Our Names Network, a network of more than 20 organizations working to end police violence against Black women, girls, trans and gender-nonconforming people. In these capacities and through the Community Resource Hub, she works with dozens of groups across the country organizing to divest from policing and invest in strategies that will create safer communities. Ritchie is co-author, with Mariame Kaba, of No More Police. She is a nationally recognized researcher, policy analyst, and expert on policing and criminalization. Ritchie lives in Detroit, Michigan.
adrienne maree brown is a writer, editor, activist, social justice facilitator, coach, speaker, and doula. Her books include Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, which she wrote and edited, and Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, which she co-edited. They are a YES! contributor, and the creator of YES!’s exclusive collective column “Murmurations.”