How The Liberals Ruined Ferguson: An Interview With Robert Stephens II

This article appears in Issue One, which is available to buy in bookshops and online.

Maybe there are many like Robert Stephens, transient revolutionaries who achieve international fame for fifteen minutes then melt back into the struggle. But I doubt it. I first came across Stephens through his essay, ‘In Defence Of The Ferguson Riots’, in which he argues for violence as a rational response to capitalism. Back then, I was unaware that Stephens had gained notoriety for his own protesting style. During his first day at Occupy in New York, he was filmed having an emotional breakdown outside the bank responsible for repossessing his family home. The display – an unholy mix of Emma Goldman and Al Pacino – was brilliant propaganda. Stephens earned himself a character assassination by Tea Partyer Glenn Beck and an occasional role being black and intelligent on TV. Now, Stephens writes a blog – Orchestrated Pulse – and works at the Gap. He lives praxis. When things kicked off in Baltimore, Stephens handed out food to rioters. When he and his colleagues are exploited, Stephens organises.


Robert Stephens II: I’m in the process of rethinking everything. Here’s my introduction to this stuff. My dad was a preacher. I was middle class. But I had all this idealism, and I knew all these people who suffered, and I wanted to do something about it; I felt compelled to do something about it. When I was 17, I believed in Black Nationalism. All black people were going to get together, and shit was gonna go down. I’ll tell you a story of when the doubts starting kicking in. I was in high school and I was talking to white kids in the lunch-hall. I told them there was a black national anthem and they didn’t believe me. So I see one of my black friends, a guy called Prince, and I ask him, ‘What’s the Black National Anthem?’, and this brother goes, ‘Pimps and Hoes!’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson!’

Whitey on the Moon: What tradition did you inherit from your father?
Black civil rights. Reformism.

So your parents were Democrats?
That would be their persuasion. They were really engaged. My mom ran a black adoption agency. They didn’t want black kids taken into custody. That’s anti-establishment. There was a lot of Black liberation theology growing up. I grew up in church communities, and when I stopped being religious that created friction with the elders. I was at a panel at a black church recently and I explained how Obama is killing people and it’s wrong and we’re all complicit – and that obsessing over affirmative action is [adopts English accent] bollocks. ‘Structural racism’ is just a phrase. Anyone can say it. Obama says it. But you’ve gotta give specifics. The Black Panthers connected Vietnam with black oppression in America. That’s specificity. They saw that the Chamber of Commerce controls the police. That’s specificity. They attacked private property and saw black people didn’t have private property. That’s specificity. Obama’s never gonna say that. Plus, it’s important to understand the impact of situational factors as well as structural ones. There are black women like Michelle Obama who are situationally more powerful than white men in Appalachia, and her blackness can be used oppressively.

Can you give me an example?
‘Bring back our girls’. A year ago, it was this time to show how much you cared about black women, so you tweeted this thing – #ourgirls – as if you’re part of their struggle. No you’re not. You live in America. Michelle Obama was allowed to comment on this so America could exert control over the continent because it’s terrified of China’s presence in Africa. China is coming, and they’re scared. But for a lot of people it was an opportunity to express blackness and support that – and they were totally ignorant of how that was being used to legitimise imperialism. Obama is a perfect imperial agent right now. He can go to Africa and admonish the people for being lazy. Every time he’s there, he says that ‘colonialism is a thing of the past’ and ‘y’all are fucking up’, and that is the classic way of presenting Africa for an imperialist agenda. And his blackness allows him to do it. So the system is allowed to get away with extraction processes in Africa [of valuable metals – like coltan, which is used in mobile phones] that rest on colonialism. Obama perpetuates this through performances of blackness that weren’t possible years ago. That’s why I’m so repulsed by our obsession with images of blackness in the media, because the images of blackness are now just that: images.

When Obama says things like we have a problem in the black community with how we raise our kids, it sounds like thinly-veiled cultural contempt.
It’s straight-up racism! The reason why I’m not as responsive to ‘#BlackLivesMatter’ is that I’ve had to do so much work to come to grips with my own relationship to blackness, and I know the classist, anti-poor strain that underlines #BlackLivesMatter in the media and the world of non-profit organisations. Analysis has to be anchored in the material. I understand the patriarchy and white supremacy as discrete historical processes first, and then I theorise about them. This is how I understand history. It’s how I understand slavery. People don’t understand slavery. That’s why they view it in moralistic terms. White people weren’t even white when slavery began – they were Europeans. It was the end of feudalism – that was the material interest that drove them to create transatlantic colonialism, which created the West, which created white people, which created black people, which created America, and we’re bound by this shift in property relations. So when we say ‘black lives matter’ that is an affirmation of the existing system. Total radical liberation destroys blackness.

Your alternative to identity politics, which is accessible and immediate, is to understand the material historical process of slavery, which is a bit harder to agitate around.
Black Nationalism buoyed me – it gave me my swagger. That was what kept me going, I was like, ‘One day we’re gonna rise the fuck up and we’re gonna fuck these crackers up’ – that’s what I thought. That was really important. Diddy was a God to me. Kanye was a God to me. People at school thinking of words to describe me would say, ‘Black’. Cos after junior year, I wasn’t taking shit. That was emotion. That was the rage. But at a certain point I had to move beyond it. It was only later that I learnt that it wasn’t because white people hated black people that they created slavery. There was this emerging market that was proto-capitalism and slavery and colonialism were essential to servicing that market. And it still exists.

I heard the most offensive thing the other day. Hanif Kureishi – a British writer – was talking about the origins of slavery on the radio. He explained it completely with psychoanalysis, saying it was down to an innate human drive to humiliate people.
Get the fuck out of here! Here’s the problem: black people believe that. We’ve internalised that, so we think we’re morally superior to white people. It helps us develop confidence in the face of wicked oppression. At some point, you have to come to terms with Barack Obama and Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. It’s not a moral thing. We are not better than white people. In fact, we are socialised and groomed into the categories that they set up. We are Western. There’s a lot of post-colonialist theory which people have misread and then try to argue that they’re not Western. But I am.

So you don’t believe that ‘truth lies with the oppressed’?
I do and I don’t. You have to be able to look at slavery as a discrete historical process that continues to this day and now you are indicted in it. If you perceive yourself as this mystical being that is somehow the vessel of truth through your oppression, how then could you be implicated in slavery? We’ve internalised these magical properties to the extent that when we enter a space, we automatically redeem that space. It’s not about the quality of our ideas. There’s a difference between critical engagement and paternalism. We have this paternalistic attitude, which is a real impediment to the substantive development of marginalised and oppressed people. Because I don’t have to canvass. All I have to do is show up and be like, ‘Black people, you’re already radical, right?’ No need to organise. No need to compromise. No need to think. No need for much of anything. Just get some black people involved. That’s how we let people get away with bad arguments about police body cameras; we don’t critically engage one another. And that is paternalism.


Was Ferguson a genuine turning point?
Hell no! There were too many liberals! They’re ruining everything. Self-aggrandising, no-count, petit-bourgeois, careerist liberals! They have been doing everything they can to quell the rebellion. DeAndre Smith [the rioter who drew attention to the ticketing system in Ferguson, in which black people were targeted for fines by the police in order to make money for the state] should be on the cover of every single thing. Him and his people. The real people. I went to a Ferguson panel and they never mentioned the riots – not one time. DeRay McKesson [named on Fortune’s 2015 “World’s Greatest Leaders List” for his work with Black Lives Matter] was there. When I asked him about it afterwards, he said, ‘Umm … we don’t call them riots, we call them uprisings. Riots suggest they were unplanned and uncoordinated’. They were unplanned and uncoordinated, and it’s okay to call them riots!

But how do you replace DeRay with DeAndre in the mainstream media? Within the American legal framework, DeAndre is a rioter – he’s a criminal.
That is what I would do. I would use my legitimacy. I would use all of this privilege, my legal degree, to funnel all the attention to these types of people – that’s my role. When I’m using DeAndre Smith, it’s as much about the image as it is about the content. The image of him standing outside the burnt-out QuikTrip store and the clothes that he’s wearing – all that matters. And then here I come, with a different image, to use how I’ve grown up to legitimise this because I believe in the substance of it. That’s the idea – that’s the image – that has potential, not me and my middle class swagger talking about this and that.

Are you impressed by any of the organisations that have emerged out of Ferguson?
They say the words but they don’t have the power. What non-profits do is that they take grassroots movements and they liberalise them. You need leverage. You need rupture. You need destruction. Derrick Bell [a Harvard law professor and originator of Critical Race Theory] has this interest convergence theory. He says things only change when it’s in the interest of the powerful – that’s how you get your concessions. You have to create ruptures to threaten their interests in order that they temporarily align with your own. This is how you achieve progress. People do not have that kind of understanding. We’ve been de-radicalised by colleges. We’re told dialogue is the solution to social problem. That’s not how it works. There are entrenched social classes that have specific interests. And until you challenge those – which is what DeAndre did – you won’t get progress.

Because of globalisation and deindustrialisation, we can’t affect the economy through direct action like we used to be able to. So what do you target?
I’ve got friends who are organising around FedEx. If they’re successful around one distribution point, then they can cost corporations millions of dollars – just for a few hours of shutdown because FedEx’s distribution methods are so integral to global capital.

There’s a lot of potential there. But Baltimore’s economy doesn’t face outwards in the same way. So what do you go for?
That’s why you start with building in the community. Building self-esteem. Providing things they need. And coupling that with an analysis. The reason why your trash doesn’t get picked up is because of x, y and z. The reason why there are these abandoned apartments is because of …

What about the Baltimore resident who is thinking, ‘I’m gonna throw a brick at a police car or rob a store tonight’? Did you come into contact with those people?
I was encouraging people to do that – indirectly, just below explicitly. [laughs] You don’t know who did what. A lot of people were scared. But a riot just happened. There’s not gonna be any beef tonight. That’s the thing about the riots – they change the fabric of a community. People were ready for different things to happen. The people who I suspect were involved in looting were responsive when you pull out the food and when you start talking. And I say, ‘I’m here cos y’all did x, y and z things last night.’ Some of them would be excited about that. And then I said, ‘If y’all keep doing that, more and more people will come and support you.’ I had this one speech telling this guy how I respect their struggle out here. And he was like, ‘I’m out here selling dope!’ And I was like, ‘How am I gonna respond to this?’ This is real life. That was so loaded for me as an interaction. I was like: OK – it’s one thing to intellectualise that situation and be like there shouldn’t be drugs prohibition, but there is and so he’s probably terrorising his community selling drugs.

You don’t find your ideal revolutionary in the crowd. They don’t come readymade.
That’s why the Black Panthers terrified everyone: they organised known criminals – like Huey Newton. They hung around the pool halls. And that’s who we were interacting with for the most part.

In the UK, we’ve got unions, radical parties and grassroots organisations – we have the institutions – but America’s got the rupture.
Like, we’ve got rupture but we haven’t got people day-in and day-out in the community. We need people figuring out what these guys need and then doing it and tying the political analysis to that. That’s how the Black Panthers started. They were like, ‘Fuck the police killing us. We’re gonna follow the police and shoot them if they threaten us.’ This is a war zone. Would you go into Iraq and tell people to go limp if ISIS grabs you? Civil rights methods don’t work now. Civil rights worked because there was a propaganda war with the Soviet Union.

Baltimore must feel like vindication because you’ve said for ages – like many people – that it’s not the people with the guns, firing the shots, who are the problem.
Baltimore validated what we both know: that discrimination is rooted in the material reality of this stage of capitalism, in which people are disposable in ways they haven’t been in the past. I was having that conversation out there in the street. When I went to the protest ground, I was talking to people about the labour theory of value. People think ‘black capitalism’ is the way forward. But you’re always dealing with the pressures of an international supply chain. Even Kanye couldn’t succeed as a black capitalist! That was one of my persuasive points. As rich and exposed as he is, Kanye didn’t have access to the international supply chains so he couldn’t sell his clothes at the right price points. He talked about it openly. And I’m like, ‘If Kanye couldn’t do it, what makes your delusional ass think you can run store in direct competition with Walmart?’


Your pen name is Rob the Idealist. Idealism doesn’t fit easily with compromise.
My idealism is based on sacrifice, because that’s how I believe we can move the needle towards radicalism. It’s gonna take short, medium, even long term compromise. Part of the progress is allowing for negotiated settlements. Radicalism threatens the power structures in real ways, and I believe that is the only way you get change. Those changes that happen are the negotiated settlements. Where I switch from idealism to pragmatism is in defining those negotiated settlements. With body cameras, the system is attempting to recoup people and to stifle the burgeoning rebellion. The idealist in me says we need to eliminate the police at every level of society. The pragmatist in me says body cameras don’t count as a negotiated settlement.

You need to offer a different negotiated settlement.
Exactly, and that’s what I’ve been doing in my writing recently. We need to provide services that bypass the police, on issues like domestic violence. Compromise is part of what it takes to win. How can I win while still speaking the truth? I need to have mental freedom, and I can’t have that working for most non-profits. They won’t accept it, they’d beat it outta me. I’d rather work at the Gap and try to organise. Idealism, in a sense, is an escape. It’s important – it anchors me. There are moments where I can’t live that out. But I have to define the terms on which I compromise – that’s why I don’t vote. Y’all aren’t paying me enough to vote for this shit.When I last talked to you I was struggling to think of what the hope was that I was gonna give to people. Cos here I am with basically a nihilistic understanding of the world and the best you can hope is to destroy as much of it as you can. What hope is there in that? And I discovered that the hope is in being poor and working and having to sell our labour or die. There’s solidarity in that.

That’s not filling me with a lot of hope.
But that’s what bonds us. Getting over the shame of working at the Gap or the shame of being poor. Whereas everybody else is offering these moralistic things, I’m like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’ I’ve done all the things you think you need to do to be successful and I’m telling you it’s not about that.

—Sam Thompson

One Response to “How The Liberals Ruined Ferguson: An Interview With Robert Stephens II”
  1. Down wit capitalism says:

    Fuck The Gap

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