The ARD spoke with Walidah Imarisha, a writer, poet, activist, and academic in Portland, Oregon. Walidah is the author of Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption and Scars/Stars, a collection of poetry, and co-edited Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements with adrienne maree brown. The Director of the Center for Black Studies at Portland State University, she is deeply involved with anti-police and anti-incarceration movements, including Justice for Keaton Otis and the successful Sundiata Acoli Freedom Campaign.
• Support or join a chapter of Critical Resistance.
• Support or join a chapter of the Anarchist Black Cross Federation.
• Support Ed Poindexter and freed political prisoners Dr. Mutulu Shakur and Sundiata Acoli.
Q: How do science fiction and poetry connect to your academic and political work?
For me, they are different manifestations of the same core, which is to understand the world better in order to change it for the better. I think different genres allow us to explore different pieces. They allow us to tap into different parts of ourselves or the audience. But at the core, all of my work is about understanding this world, understanding how power has worked, and then imagining new relationships to power in a better, just future.
Every time we try to imagine a world without prisons, a world without oppression, a world without war, without borders, that is science fiction, because we’ve never seen that world. But we need imaginative spaces because we can’t build what we can’t imagine. Without the ability to imagine something different, we are trapped within the parameters that the system has set for us.
Q: What does imagining alternative futures look like three years after the George Floyd Rebellion?
This struggle against policing, against incarceration, and against these carceral mechanisms of control through which these systems perpetuate themselves is a fight that Black communities have been waging in this country for centuries. It’s important to have that long memory. That’s part of why I’m both a futurist and a historian. When you see this as a protracted, ongoing struggle for liberation, you see the patterns of this. It is imperative to recognize that a system’s pushback is not a defeat. It’s actually a measure of how successful you’re being. The pushback against the 2020 Freedom Summer and the movement and ideas in it was so immediate and swift because it was such a cultural shift.
We are in a moment of backlash. We have to make that part of our plan. For non-Black people, and especially white folks, learning from the Black liberation struggle is imperative. Learning the lessons that we know, that struggle is protracted, but also that we can be creating those futures we want right now. It’s not a choice between “Are we moving towards total liberation?” or “Are we trying to love each other and build systems that take care of each other now?” It’s always a “Yes, and.”
Q: Has your community influenced your perspective on struggle as a protracted process?
I feel incredibly honored to be mentored and be in community with liberation activists from the 60s and 70s, especially former Black Panther Party members. I certainly learned as much or more through that mentorship and those connections than I ever learned in formal education settings. We have political prisoners, to this day, from the 60s and 70s. Ed Poindexter is the current longest-held Black Panther political prisoner at 52 years.
It’s important to directly reach out to political prisoners to make sure people know they are not forgotten and that their sacrifices and ongoing work are honored. Something that everyone who’s involved politically can do is to talk about these political prisoners and tie them to your organizing work. This is not something separate: “Okay, well, we do environmental justice, and this has nothing to do with us.” This absolutely is fundamentally tied to your work. It’s tied to reproductive justice work, to healthcare and housing and education. Political prisoners are fundamentally connected to any sector in which we are working for liberation, and we need to be talking about that because this is how a system maintains itself.
If we are not holding our political prisoners, then we are allowing the system to take them from us. And we cannot afford to have that happen. Connect with local organizations supporting organizing in prisons. Critical Resistance has several chapters. ABC, the Anarchist Black Cross, do a lot of support work for political prisoners and they have a lot of guides online about regulations about what you can and can’t send into prisons.
Q: What is your relationship with anarchism?
There is a very concerted campaign that has been highly effective to connect anarchism with this notion of chaos and destruction and wanting things to burn and the idea that there’s no structure or organization. I think that’s the exact opposite. For me, anarchism is about creating systems collectively that can fully support everyone that is in that community, that aren’t about compelling people to do things but are about us coming together because we want to create systems and societies that fully nurture every part of us.
Q: Do you believe that’s possible?
The fact that this white supremacist, heteropatriarchal capitalist system has to work so hard every day to keep us in a state of fear and disconnection shows that that’s not our natural state. If it was our natural state, we would not have to have all of these systems of coercion in place.