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"Please Don't Bomb the Suburbs is a book for middle-aging youth activists who are still passionate about fighting for a revolutionary new society, but recognize the importance of a visionary long-term, sustained movement in achieving change. Simply put, Billy Wimsatt has grown up. [...] And he wants us to grow up, too."
--Pete Redington, CounterPunch
"Wimsatt's level of sincerity and enthusiasm is refreshing and bracing, and the book stands as a reminder that anybody who wants to help improve the world can find plenty of ways to get busy, and also have a great time doing it."
I got off the bus just before midnight on 125th and Lenox—the picture of a white traveler lost in Harlem. Except I wasn't lost. I had lived and worked in Harlem for the past six years. Despite its wide, impersonal avenues, it was starting to feel like home. Struggling to carry four bags from three weeks of travel, I lumbered down Lenox to 121st and made a right onto my block. As soon as I turned the corner I got a bad feeling.
Most of the streetlights were out, and I could see outlines of figures in the shadows. My house was at the far end of the block. On the way, I had to pass a darkened schoolyard and a remote section of pavement shrouded behind a row of trees. I could see a big group of guys walking toward me. They took up the whole sidewalk. I could hear their voices. I could feel their energy. In a moment they would see me cross underneath the faded orange streetlamp. I imagined them seeing me—a white guy dressed in rumpled business clothes, pulling a suitcase on wheels, with a laptop case and two other bags slung over my aching shoulders and back.
Normally I would feel comfortable. I have been living in urban neighborhoods for most of my life. I often walk home at two or three a.m., by the projects, the hot corners, down dark alleys and side streets. I show respect for everyone. I expect respect. And I never think twice about my safety. But for some reason, in this moment, with my bags and my laptop, an animal fight-or-flight instinct took hold of me. I felt utterly vulnerable and defenseless. I considered crossing the street. Pride stopped me. I will not be afraid in my own neighborhood. I will not be afraid of young men on my own block.
That's what I told myself. But my imagination was racing. The tension toward white people moving into Harlem was strong enough to taste. Rents were tripling and quadrupling. Black Harlem families who'd been here for generations were being forced out. White babies could be seen in local parks, pushed in strollers by black nannies. Normally the white and black residents of Harlem just stayed out of each other's way, walking past each other on the sidewalks without acknowledgment. But anger boiled beneath the surface. Lines at the local food bank stretched down the block, young and old waiting for hours to get a bag of groceries. Under circumstances like this, could a band of rowdy, possibly drunk, neighborhood guys on a Friday night simply walk past me on an isolated, dark street? Wasn't this the perfect opportunity for revenge?
They were coming closer. We would meet in the middle of the darkest stretch of pavement, underneath the trees. I should have crossed the street when I had the chance. Why did I have to take my laptop with me? What if it got smashed on the sidewalk? Damn, I forgot to back up the files. I have to remember to back up the damn files! The thoughts I have at times like this. And then they were upon me. Seven or eight of them. Midtwenties. Swaggering, some with their shirts off. Slowly their faces came into focus.
It was my roommate Jameel and his friends, calling me by my graffiti name from the old days. "What up, West Rok?"
He introduced me around to his friends, mostly B-boys visiting from Chicago. They had just finished a barbecue at our house, and were headed out to a party. Did I want to come with? Naw, I need to get home and get my life together. We gave each other dap, talked for a while, and parted ways. "I left you some barbecued chicken in the fridge," Jameel called as we were walking away.
I shuffled along the sidewalk feeling so many things: relief, humiliation, joy.
Barbecued chicken sounded good. I looked up at the sky and started laughing.
How did this happen? I was always the white hip-hop kid. When did I grow up into the tourist-looking white guy fearing his own friends in his own neighborhood?
Adulthood Hits You Like Whoa
At its heart, this book asks a simple question: What does it mean to be a grown-up at this pivotal moment in history? How do you embrace the good aspects of growing up and leave the bad ones alone? And how do each of us as adults find our calling, live up to our potential, and meet the challenges of our time?
This is a coming-of-age story about me and my generation, Generation X (born 1961–79), and the generation after mine, the Millennials (born 1980–2000). We both grew up on hip-hop. My generation grew up on raw political hip-hop. Y'all grew up on guns-and-bubblegum hip-hop. But that's okay. We both got slapped out of our faces by September 11. We were profoundly shaped by the Bush and Obama years, Iraq and Afghanistan, climate crisis, financial crisis, student loans, the BP oil mess, and Hurricane Katrina. We began to flex our political muscle against Bush in 2004. We swept Republicans out of Congress in 2006. And in 2008 we elected a black community organizer from the South Side of Chicago as president of the United States of America.
Overall, the Millennials are light-years more politically and professionally astute than we ever were. They are growing up in the worst economy since the Great Depression. Sixteen-year-olds, without blinking, will send you a resume and a PowerPoint presentation from their phone. And still can't get a job! They are growing up with the existence of a strange new phenomenon: an organized and strategic progressive political movement. In fact, Millennials are statistically the most progressive generation in U.S. history. I am proud of them. And I'm scared they're going to take my job.
(Note: I use "my generation" to refer to both Generation X and the Millennials, together.)
The Most Progressive Generation in History
So yeah. Young people are the most progressive generation in history. Look at the preceding chart of voting patterns from young people over the past twenty- five years.
In the 1960s and '70s, young people were halfway decent politically. In the '80s, we fell for Reagan's charm. In the '90s, we started to be semi-okay again. But then in 2000, we voted at only 41 percent. And we voted in equal numbers for George W. Bush and Al Gore. What were we thinking?
By 2004, things began to change. A lot of us realized we could no longer afford to ignore the whole voting/electoral politics game, or take it for granted. On November 2, 2004, we voted for Kerry over Bush by 9 points. In the 2006 midterm elections, we voted for Democrats over Republicans in Congress by 22 points. In 2008, we voted for Obama over McCain by a whopping 34-point spread (66–32).
What this means in simple terms is that if we keep going like this, a progressive vision will shape the future of our country. Every two years, there is a national election. And every two years, a few million more of us enter the electorate. If progressive folks—by which I mean you and me—play our cards right, we can begin to repair this country over the next ten to twenty years. We are the Clean-up Generation. We have been left with a huge mess by previous generations. It is our responsibility to clean up the mess so we don't pass it on to our kids.
I have no illusions that everyone is going to read this book. I didn't write this book for everyone. I am writing this book with a specific purpose for a very targeted audience. My realistic goal is to reach 50,000–100,000 key cultural and political "influencers" between the ages of fifteen and forty-five. My goal is for these leaders to develop a deeper sense of the history of the past twenty-five years, and a fearless, deliberate vision for how to navigate the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Statistically speaking, there are probably more than a million people between the ages of fifteen and forty-five who have been connected in some way to the political and cultural movements of our time. They have read books, written blogs, gone to rallies, organized voters, joined a campus group, recorded an album, performed a spoken-word piece. I figure if even 5,000 of us read this and become more strategic players, the 5,000 will influence the 50,000. The 50,000 will influence the million. And the million will transform this country. At least a little bit.
Question: Where do you see yourself in these circles?
Please keep in mind, this book is written for two audiences at the same time: the seasoned forty-two-year-old leader in the inner-most circle, and the bright-eyed seventeen-year-old in a Freshman 101 course who grew up in a small town, didn't listen to hip-hop, and has never encountered a progressive movement in his or her life.
If all of this is new to you, then I want to say a warm welcome to the movement! A whole new universe is about to open up to you. It might seem like a foreign language at first, but you'll catch on soon enough. As you'll see, you have a place in this conversation. In a very real way, you—the new people, the young people—are the ones who will decide whether or not we succeed. Your role is the decisive one.
Children of the '80s
Looking back, the children of the '80s were in many ways a Lost Generation who grew up in a backward and confusing political time where anything left-of-center was seen as irrelevant, extreme, or a punch line in a political-correctness joke. There were no out gay people in either of my high schools. The Democratic Party was a tired old mule. Hip-hop was the only vibrant and hopeful social movement that we had. I wore an "Upski" belt buckle with no sense of irony, and my friends and I came to school wearing clocks around our necks trying to look like Flavor Flav. The Internet wasn't big yet. Thankfully, there are no pictures.
During this time, politically, young people were the most conservative segment of the population—voting overwhelmingly for Reagan in 1984. It's no accident we were called Generation X—endless articles were written about how conservative, apathetic, and obnoxious we were. Survey after survey showed we had rejected every aspect of the '60s (except the drugs) and were only interested in making money. Crack wars, AIDS, deindustrialization, and the prison boom were unraveling what was left of urban social fabric. The Wire and worse was the prevailing reality in most urban communities.
Gentrification hadn't exploded yet (white folks were too scared to even drive through black and brown neighborhoods, let alone live in them). White flight and suburban sprawl were wrecking the urban tax base. The War on Terror hadn't been dreamt up yet. My God, we were still supposed to be fighting Russia! This was before the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres. The major public violence involved black and brown kids killing each other and white kids like Kurt Cobain killing themselves. Looking back, a lot of the stuff we did back then seems immature and unstrategic. Yet, during those "lost" years, we were laying many of the bricks for the new progressive era. At the time, we were wandering in the wilderness, taking our political cues from Spike Lee movies, and MTV.
Please Don't Bomb the Suburbs is an intimate personal history of America's cultural and political movements from 1984-2010. From the death of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington to the rise of Barack Obama. From the golden era of hip-hop to the dawning of a new progressive age. From "No More Prisons" to the green-collar economy. From the Battle of Seattle to the Coffee Party movement. From getting arrested and booked at the police precinct to using sophisticated data to organize a voter precinct. From juvenile delinquents to JDs. From B-boys and B-girls to MBAs. From anarchists to the PTA. From pissed-off voters to grown-up community organizers who win elections, wear suits, sustain marriages, raise kids, and take on the ultimate responsibility: governing the United States of America in the midst of an all-out war for the soul, control, and the future of our country.
This is a book about how far we've come, about remembering the last twenty- five years, and about preparing ourselves for the next twenty-five.
Which leads to a scary question: how can we step up our game before we find ourselves cast as extras in one of those end-of-the-world sci-fi thrillers we love to watch—The Day After Tomorrow, The Book of Eli, Minority Report, The Road, Avatar, 2012, or Children of Men? Popular books in recent years have titles like The World Without Us, The Long Emergency, and Collapse. One of the most common cultural themes is the scenario in which human beings in the next hundred years or so annihilate ourselves—in really cool ways with lots of flooding and screaming and explosions, just like the video games we love to play.
Wait ... what?
Is it just me, or is there an eerie fiddling-while-Rome-burns quality to modern life? At the very least, there is a bizarre disconnect. On the one hand, there is a public conversation now and some actual trends that could plausibly wipe out civilization as we know it (not to mention most of the Earth's other species). On the other hand, we're all supposed to go on acting like everything is normal and okay. Can you please take out the trash? What's up with Miley Cyrus's hair?
I mean, let's take stock for a second: we're running out of oil, water, fish, trees, animals, topsoil, and icebergs. We've got close to seven billion people now (compared to one billion in 1800, two billion in 1930, and 4.5 billion when I was born). We're headed for more than nine billion by 2050. Everyone wants to live like Americans, the pinnacle of civilization, with our fancy cars, houses, and shiny new things ordered on Amazon.com. Meanwhile, we're clear-cutting the Amazon.Rain.Forest.ForRealY'all. And we're playing a game of global warming/nuclear chicken.
Here's what I have to say: will someone please stop this roller coaster? I want to get off. Will someone please grab the steering wheel of this Titanic? I want to go back to shore. Mayday! Mayday! All hands on deck! We need to turn this ship around! Hello? Anybody there? Are there any adults up there driving this ship?
Um, yeah, that would be us.
It's like when your parents get older and you have to take care of them. They become like children again. You have to tell them what to do. That's the situation we're in as a generation. And that's the situation our kids and grandkids are going to be in with us.
At some point, someone needs to stand up and behave like a real adult.
When I started this book, right after the 2008 election, I had spent more than twenty years helping build a youth movement in the United States—since I was a fourteen-year-old graffiti writer in Chicago calling all-city meetings to hit up the train yards with political messages.
I believed that working to strengthen the youth movement was the most strategic thing I could do to change history. For several reasons: One, young people have time and energy. Two, young people are smart, idealistic, and willing to take risks. Three, young people have played a central role in leading every major historical change movement in history. Four, older people are gonna die. I'm not saying that to be mean. It's just a cold hard fact. Young people are going to die too, but hopefully not for another sixty years. Political organizing is good training for future leadership. Someone who's in college right now is going to be president in thirty years. Could be that quiet Latina woman sitting next to you. Finally, five, as a field, youth organizing is so neglected and underfunded that a little bit goes a long way. Youth politics is like an undervalued stock. It's a smart investment with a lot of upside. So whip out those pocketbooks!
Every three to five years, I've seen wave after wave of young visionaries, artists, activists, and organizers "graduate" from the youth movement. As I watched each successive group of my homeys disappear into the normal adult world, I made a conscious decision to stick around, serve as institutional memory, and try to help the generations coming up behind me to improve their game.
The longer I stuck around, the more my game evolved—from hip-hop to journalism to social entrepreneurship to prison organizing to philanthropy to electoral politics to the green economy. My story is almost like a Where's Waldo? of movement evolution over the past twenty-five years. While some people may see a string of random causes, I see one movement for the survival of life on Earth. We need all the tools in the toolbox to tackle such a multifaceted challenge.
Along the way, I have probably met as many people in as many different sectors of the movement as any living person. Over the past twenty years, I've worked with dozens of groups; published five books in collaboration with hundreds of people; worked as both a funder and a fundraiser to move more than $8,000,000; worked on the Obama campaign in a key swing state; helped create the League of Young Voters and the Generational Alliance (a national alliance of youth organizations). Together, we mobilized thousands of young people, played a role in passing more than a dozen laws and swinging more than a dozen elections, including a House race, a governor's race, and a Senate seat. The Senate seat was the most satisfying. Right after I left the League, our group in Minnesota helped Senator Al Franken win by 312 votes.
I was starting to do pretty well as a youth organizer. I was really starting to get the hang of it. Then a terrible thing happened to my youth organizing career. I turned thirty-six.
This brought about a small midlife crisis. I was no longer a youth in any way, shape, or form. I knew it was time to move into the adult world. But what did that really look like? Getting a job, settling down, buying a house, having kids. It sounded okay. Not bad, actually. But there had to be more! Maybe writing a book would help me put the clues together. Worst-case scenario, I had some good war stories and an oral history to pass on to the next generation.
Excerpted from Please Don't Bomb the Suburbs by William Upski Wimsatt Copyright © 2010 by William Upski Wimsatt. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Part I The Hip-hop Generation Comes of Age (1984-1996) 33
Part II Building the Movement (1997-September 11, 2001) 59
Part III Dawn of a New Progressive Era (2002-2008) 78
Part IV We Elected Obama. Now What? 111
Part V What Does It Mean to Be a Grown-up? 146
Part VI Management for the Movement 158
Part VII Future of the Movement 183
Afterword: More than a Book 198
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