The winner of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights Journalism Award — and native South Floridian; she penned her first lefty piece, a review of Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth, as a student at the frou frou Fort Lauderdale high school Pine Crest — is a radical.
Her latest, The Beginning of the American Fall, for which she won the RFK journalism award, follows her work in 2011 when Occupy was just emerging and the BP oil spill in the Gulf had energized a lot of Americans, radical or not. A collage of essays, comics, and journalistic observation, American Fall opens with “How I became politicized,” a brief account of when McMillan’s “life changed,” and follows with a graphic list of U.S. “conditions in 2011″: more than 54 percent of the U.S. discretionary budget was spent on imperialist aggression; six million Americans had lost their homes; average college tuition in the U.S. had risen by 900 percent since 1978; two hundred species per day became extinct; the earth’s average temperature had risen by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1920; and that’s just a few.
Looking at the list, it’s easy to feel helpless, to regress into the do-nothing state to which we’re so well-accustomed (McMillan would say well-trained.). It’s also inspiring/reassuring to know McMillan (also a Salty Eggs contributor) and others like her exist. While some of us carry out a bourgeois existence with mild agitation, say, the frustration that comes with right-wing relatives, McMillan puts herself on the front lines of engagement for workers’ rights, the environment, and all the social justice issues that shape struggles against inequity.
However, she didn’t for a time, after feeling disheartened that the massive, world-wide Gulf War protests failed to stop military action. It served as a wake-up call for those who thought (think) spending your weekend protesting a BP gas station or Walmart was (is) an effective way to communicate discontent. For her, the only way to make a difference and help people and help the planet, she has come to understand, is to organize, be flexible and more mobile (as a movement), and ultimately destroy capitalism. Occupy in its original manifestation fizzled because, while holding territory was a good strategy in the beginning, it’s impossible to hold ground forever. Flexibility and mobility are key; and Occupy has demonstrated this and thus its potential for longevity with its latest efforts to buy and forgive debt. “That’s genius,” McMillan said about the Occupy tactic in an interview earlier this week. “Can people buy their own debt?” she wondered. That’s a great question.
McMillan appears 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18, on the “Comics and Social Change” panel at Miami Book Fair (Centre Gallery, building one, room 1365). The panel, moderated by DC Comics/Vertigo editor Joan Hilty, will also feature Marjorie Liu, Dan Parent, Ellen Forney, and Riva Hocerman.
When did you conceptualize The Beginning of the American Fall?
It’s was when Stop the Machine was being publicized, in June or July. That was the thing in Washington at Freedom Plaza. I decided to go, and I contacted the Cartoon Movement and they hired me to do a 10-page cartoon journalism project around it. In the meantime before it started, Occupy Wall Street started getting planned. That happened in September and Stop the Machine happened in October.
Can you tell our readers about Cartoon Movement?
It’s an Amsterdam-based editorial cartoon and editorial-cartoon website that gets funded by the government there. I did the first 10 pages for them, and then showed that to publishers and Seven Stories [Press] wanted to make a book out of it. Next year they’re also publishing a collection of my cartoons as a graphic novel.
Why do you describe it as a collage? And why this format as opposed to a graphic novel or group of essays?
It’s not one straight narrative. It’s telling a story but also bringing in political points and reflections and observations, so it’s not just strictly a graphic novel, which I think of as fiction. This is more like reporting, but also it’s very politically partisan. It doesn’t pretend to be objective journalism, but it does have a journalistic element. So comics journalism is the closest label I can put on it. It also has blocks of text that don’t fit the comics category so I thought of it as a collage.
I think the mixture allows people to enter the subject in different ways the more simple combination of stories and concentrated words is more welcoming to people who just want to learn about the subject, and then the sections in the back are more for people who want to learn about the subject in a way that would maybe help them participate or get more deeply into it.
Is a lot of the art based on photos?
A lot of these are based on photos. I took a lot of pictures at the events, to get the poses right and the buildings. I definitely used photos as references.
We have our two chapters down here in Fort Lauderdale and Miami, and we also have a chapter in New York. It’s a group that was around 20 years ago. I was involved in it then. First it was focused on the anti-imperilast struggle in Haiti and against the exploitation of the assembly workers there, especially factories that were making Pocahontas T-shirts and were paying workers seven cents an hour. We did a lot of action around that. After the situation in Haiti changed, we expanded the group to become more forcused on imperialism over all in a lot of different places.
So we did that for a few years and then it disbanded for various reasons. People went their separate ways. And then two years ago, some of us who had been working in that 20 years ago got together and thought it was time to restart it because it seemed like there was a lot of discontent bubbling under the surface in the United States and a readiness to get involved and organize against the system. So we started it two years ago. When occupy started that was one of the things we participated in, but we do a lot of other things, too.
Can you tell me why it was hard to get used to the General Assemblies, and why it was effective at preventing mansplaining?
I wasn’t used to the consensus model. I was more used to the democratic model. Basically the majority opinion would prevail. When I was working with the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade, it was even more structured in the sense that we had specific people leading meetings who were trying to uphold a group line and struggling for the rest of the people there to agree with that line and act on it. It was pretty centralized. So I was more used to that kind of structure, where the political line was already defined and there was already a common goal articulated before even coming together. A meeting would have a common purpose that we would efficiently try to accomplish.
Whereas in Occupy it seemed like it was all over the place. People were politically very diverse. Nothing was agreed upon at the beginning, it was trying to start from scratch and trying to forge some kind of unity. It seemed like a very inefficient and endless process with a lot of frustration because when everybody is allowed to speak, you have a lot of people talking about stuff that doesn’t seem relevant or it seems like a diversion or it seems like personal complaining or endless distraction. Anybody can bring anything to the conversation. But there were aspects of it that I also really liked, especially the progressive stack which worked by the person taking the list of people who were to speak and putting the people who were traditionally conditioned to be more silent, basically women and people of color, at the top of list. So it would facilitate people who were marginalized to speak out more because when they were called upon, they would be put first.
Also, there weren’t always time limits put on, but when there were time limits put on, I thought that was good because there is this mansplaining phenomenon where men, especially white men, are conditioned to think whatever they have to say is the most important thing in the world to be said, so they’re going to say all of it. They’re not really trained to listen as well as those of us who aren’t trained to speak so much.
You say that we encourage a radical rather than a liberal approach. Will you break down the differences and why the former is preferable to you?
I equate a liberal approach with a reformist approach, a loyal opposition approach that might try to mitigate the effects of the environmental crisis by pressuring the system to make it a little less omnicidal. But a radical approach, for me, is generally one that sees the system as the problem and unreformable, so we need to get rid of the system itself and replace it with something completely different in order to solve the problem.
Do you think the U.S. population has been slower to address issues and mobilize than other countries?
The U.S. is one of the most powerful imperialist countries in the world. And it’s the most repressive and the most violent. It’s also the most brutal worldwide in terms of extracting profit from the rest of the world. People in power in the United States have found a way to pacify the population, partly by sharing a little bit of the crumbs of the spoils, which they’ve stolen from around the world, with the rest of the population here to make us have a higher standard of living, to create the illusion of a middle class, and to make people feel like they have some stake in the system.
As a powerful imperialist country, it has exerted ideological hegemony over its population and basically brainwashed them into believing that our interests are the same as their interests, that we have national interests when we really don’t have national interests. We have interests that align with the oppressed around the world, but we’ve been trained to believe our interests lie with the ruling class of our own country, which they don’t.
With Asia’s purchasing power and emerging democracies looking toward European models of governance, do you think U.S. hegemony still exists?
I think it does. I think it’s being contested more by other countries that are trying to exert their own imperialist interests and aspirations like China and Brazil and India. But the U.S. is still the most violent and militarily aggressive power, and even when other countries are roped into its projects, it still has influence over those projects. Like when the U.N. goes somewhere, and there is an alliance of nations, it’s usually because the U.S. wanted it to happen.
In the book, you write that, in Occupy D.C., police won round one when they extended permits to camp out. What do you think was behind that?
That was right after the incident in New York when the police pepper-sprayed those four women. It made the protests much larger and it made people angry and people participate in Occupy Wall Street. So they decided to do the opposite. They would just let the encampment keep going and hope people get cold and tired and leave. That it would lose steam if they left it alone. And it kind of did happen that way, a little. There was a big expectation of a confrontation, of being thrown out of the park, and people were nervous about it and feeling very defiant and debating if they should resist and get arrested, or go along with it. So all that energy of opposition was diffused by them just saying, “go ahead, stay through the middle of the winter.”
They’re never going to take a totally hands off approach, though. When they realized that people weren’t going away they decided to go the opposite direction and had the conference call on how to push all the Occupy encampments out by force. They just do whatever they think will work at the time. And we have to be ready to respond and also not be put in a position where they can do whatever they want to us. I think the idea of camping in the middle of a town was good, but it quickly became kind of stagnant and not very effective.
I think what’s happening now, people trying to figure out ways to be more mobile and flexible and doing a lot of different things is probably better than trying to continue to hold ground, which is impossible when they have all the armed forces at their disposal that they want.
While at Stop the Machine, why did you choose to work on the environment committee and why is that the issue you most identify with?
To me it seems like the most urgent problem the world faces. If we don’t solve the environmental crisis, then nothing else is going to matter, we will be in such a terrible state that any other activity we do is going to be impossible.
But I do think at the same time, I’ve come to see the environmental crisis is an effect of capitalism. So there is no solving it outside the framework of getting rid of capitalism. I focus on it a lot to get people who are anti-capitalist to see the urgency of it and take it up as an issue, and I also think it’s important for those who do see it as an important issue, the environmentalists, to realize that this is an effect of a system. To solve it they have to get rid of the system, they can’t reform it or use consumer choices or lifestyle choices as a way to try to solve this problem. They have to target capitalism as the problem.
Do you think anti-capitalists forget about the environment? That they often focus on workers’ rights or something else?
I don’t think they forget about it. But there are a lot of people who are focused on issues that are kind of reformists. Focusing on the environment is not enough. Capitalism can only be defeated by the working class. We need to address the struggles of the working class to hurt, weaken, then defeat finally capitalism. Even while it’s not directly addressing environmental issues, if workers are being organized to fight capitalism, that objectively will bring us closer to defeating it and solving environmental issues. I don’t think [the environment] has to be always at the forefront of what we’re talking about. But there are a lot of other things that people talk about that don’t get to the root of capitalism. Like the anti-war movement, for example, is very understandable to be against imperialism and war, but if that’s the only thing a group focuses on, then I don’t think that will have a hope of defeating capitalism because it’s not addressing the fundamental contradiction between capitalism and the working class.
You wrote about how people responded to demands placed on Occupy. There was an article in The Nation at the time that asked, why so many demands for demands? Why do you think there were demands for demands, and why did people within the movement agree or disagree with that?
I think people inside of it saw the complete diversity of it, and they liked that. They felt if demands were made it would drive away people who didn’t agree with those demands or who had different priorities. They wanted people to work together who were frustrated with the system overall. I think they tried to make room for all those demands with the different committees that were at Stop the Machine. I think there were 10 or 20 different committees people could join to talk about issues that they wanted to talk about. But no one wanted to impose a specific list of demands on the entire group because that would necessarily limit it and maybe split it apart.
But I think the demand-for-demands people had different reasons for doing that. A lot of liberals wanted to pin it down so they could divert the entire thing into organizing for the Democratic party, or for institutions like unions, or to follow along in the interests of some of these more established groups. They wanted to co-opt the whole thing. And others who didn’t have that agenda still made a demand for demands because I think they didn’t understand that it was an outpouring of generalized frustration.
A lot of people are trained to think that you have to immediately come up with a solution. That you can’t complain unless you have something that you want or you can’t complain unless you are going to come to us with a demand or a proposal for a solution. But I think people have been inactive for so long, for so many decades, that they didn’t know what their solutions were. They just knew that they were suffering and they wanted to make it known and they wanted to come together around it and figure it out. They didn’t want to immediately define what the problems were, or what the roots of the problems were, or what the solutions were because they couldn’t.
On page 38 (see right), was that a real exchange? She says men are inherently violent, which isn’t true, and that women are inherently cooperative, which also isn’t true. But how does patriarchy come up at an environment committee meeting anyway?
That was actually a guy. It’s hard to tell, but that was a man. But it kind of irked me that a man is telling a group of people, that were mainly women actually at the time, that the root of the problem is patriarchy and then defining for women what their nature is.
Now that I know it’s a man, I see your response and linguistic choices as a counter to that assertion, specifically your use of the word “smash.”
Exactly that’s why I responded that way. I mean, I can be aggressive and confrontational. I’m not inherently sweet or nurturing. I responded that way because I didn’t want a man defining the character and nature of women.
Why did you take a break from activism?
When the Gulf War started, there were protests organized all over the world. It was clear that the majority of people in the world didn’t want it to happen. People were out in the streets, active, and yet it made no difference and it happened anyway. So that depressed me a lot. And I felt like nothing we did was effective. And we were just protesting out there. I didn’t really know what else people could do. I felt like the whole work of the left had been useless.
Describe the bind workers have been placed in?
Workers have been deprived of their means of subsistence, they don’t have access to land or any way to survive that doesn’t involve submitting to the capitalist-run economic process. We have to work for capitalists in order to eat and have a place to sleep and just to exist. So whatever serves capitalism, we’re forced to participate in that and do it, which includes killing the planet and poisoning our own food and making our children sick by doing things that are going to make them sick. We’re in this bind that we can’t escape the system without destroying it. But while it exists we have to participate in it while we know it’s detrimental to our lives and our health. So you see situations, for example after the Gulf oil spill, where oil rig workers were demanding their jobs back and that oil rigs open back up again; even though some of them were killed by the explosion, and they knew they were unsafe, and the areas where they lived were being polluted by it, and the people were being poisoned. They could see that but they were compelled to demand that the oil rigs open back up because they had no other way to survive. That’s the situation we’ve been placed in.
You gave a fake name to the New York Times once. What’s the story behind “Robin Banks”?
I think it was 1988, there was a Democratic convention in Atlanta and a bunch of us went there to protest the convention. But also the Ku Klux Klan was marching one day there. There were tens of thousands of people protesting against them and there were only, like, a dozen of them. But the police had to protect them and made a big circle around them. Someone took a picture of me yelling at the police and they were from the New York Times. They asked what my name was so I gave them that name and it appeared in the paper.
There’s a strain of purity within the ultra-left or radical movement. There’s a lot of talk of not voting and that voting doesn’t make a difference. I don’t think that’s true. Are there not certain concessions that voting helps us attain that are a matter of life and death? Abortion rights and the exclusion of pre-existing conditions from healthcare come to mind. Voting affects people. Why do some on the left think voting and fighting the bigger fight are mutually exclusive.
I have some sympathy with that, and I wouldn’t say it’s evil to vote or anything. But I do think we can’t have any illusions about it, and I think that’s what most people do have. The majority aren’t seeing it like you are, like we can maybe win a few concessions while still waging the more important fight. Most people think that voting is their primary political activity that they can do, and that it’s the only way they can change anything. There are probably a lot of times when voting makes a difference. But emphasizing that it doesn’t make a fundamental difference is more what I’m trying to do.