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On the Front Lines in Charlotte

A conversation with Ashley Williams

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed, and what is still the same.

Sarah Jaffe with Ashley Williams:

Ashley Williams: My name is Ashley Williams. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina. I am a community organizer here and I work with trans folks of color. We do a lot of prison abolition- and gender justice-based work that involves direct action and political education. Then, I work for SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective as the North Carolina Coordinator.

Sarah Jaffe: In North Carolina right now we are looking at what some people are calling a repeal of the notorious anti-trans HB2, but the story is not quite that simple. Could you tell us about what went on with this non-repeal repeal?

AW: When I talk about HB2, I like to remind folks that HB2 started as a retaliation against the Charlotte City Council for including gender and sexual orientation into our non-discrimination ordinance. [A month] later HB2 was introduced and basically voted on. It moved through very quickly. Organizing in Charlotte and in North Carolina, we were all very surprised and concerned, but also ready to get to work. You saw a lot of direct action and rapid response work, but on the back end, we were trying to be more strategic and implement some political education, too, that looked like moving our community’s consciousness forward around trans identities and the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, on a trans person and contextually in North Carolina and the south and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

I think we did a lot of good and we learned a lot about what doesn’t work in terms of dealing with the right, the GOP, white supremacists, and also liberals. We have still been focusing our work around that. We had an HB2 teach-in or “Where are we now?” about a week before this non-repeal repeal. At that point we knew that trans folks were going to be harmed the most from this bill, as they have been throughout the beginning of even the talks on the non-discrimination ordinance. It was just a matter of time.

We knew that the NCAA had to make a decision about whether they were going to have the games for the next seven years in North Carolina. I was figuring that the legislature was going to give the NCAA a little bit of time if it was the case that they did not repeal HB2. We were closely watching and trying to prepare for some rapid response things. A lot of folks I know who work for the ACLU and at the legislature, the messages were mixed, even for the policy heads, even for the folks who spend a lot of time trying to understand the critical moment that night, where the GOP leads were like, “We have made a decision” and that is the only thing they said. No one really knew what to expect.

The next morning, folks were really devastated. We didn’t think that was the repeal that was going to happen. Although, we were more afraid of how liberals were going to take the repeal. We knew that if there was any hint of them saying, “This repeal is good” that we were going to have more work to do. Right now, that is where we are definitely at, trying to reconfigure some targets. For me, personally, I am not interested in going after Democrats or Republicans in a strategic way through direct action or anything, but I know that is still an opportunity for us to push folks and to inform our communities about who is running in the fall.

I am kind of interested in targeting the NCAA, for example, or some of these other associations who continue to bring business back to North Carolina, even in spite of what they said before. That is a big deal for me because the way I understand these economic boycotts long-term is that a corporation such as the NCAA is not going to not have basketball in states because of anti-trans legislation. They would lose too much money. I am thinking that these economic boycotts are going to become less sexy and less of a problem. They are just going to be non-existent. It is going to happen. I worry about that for states that are not North Carolina.

SJ: You had mentioned learning a lot of lessons about what did work and what didn’t work. I would love for you to expand on that a little bit about some things that were successful and some things that have been less so.

AW: Before HB2, there was a lot of resisting the nonprofit industrial complex in various ways, specifically resisting things like tokenization, which is probably one of the most prevalent things, and just trans-antagonistic practices of nonprofits. Because of HB2 passing, in the beginning, lots of money was coming into the state for alleged organizing, but none of the grassroots groups who dealt with the communities who were the most impacted—namely black trans folks—we were seeing none of that money. We were seeing none of those resources. What we did see were that those resources were going to the big dogs, like ACLU, HRC, and then EqualityNC, which is North Carolina’s HRC. There were also first attempts to work together and people were tokenized.

People were certainly tokenized before HB2 was a thing, just being a person of color and being a queer person wanting to work for a nonprofit, they were exploited at that point. But we saw a lot of the big dogs really screwing people over. Not only were we resisting the right, we had to resist, kind of inwardly, liberals, Democrats, people who were not talking about the kinds of repeals that would benefit black trans folks. You saw a lot of organizers going into communities not referring to how this is a trans-antagonistic piece of legislation. For us, that was a big deal, a major part of our organizing, especially when we talk about who is the most impacted from HB2. I think one of the lessons that we learned is working with the big dogs is not an option for us, or not a risk that we want to take.

It is no surprise that black trans folks are on the front lines.

I think around direct action, we mobilized a lot more folks and we were able to introduce people to the possibilities of direct action. We were doing anything from the Moral Monday protest gathering, all those folks on the lawn, but we would have pre-mobilization trainings that would bring people in who normally wouldn’t do a direct action, letter-writing campaigns, things that folks could do from their desks or from their homes. Our organizing got better around those tactics.

SJ: North Carolina has been ground zero for all sorts of repressive right-wing attacks for a while now. I am thinking of HB2 happening in the context of really atrocious voter suppression, which of course is targeted at black people in North Carolina and attacks on labor, attacks on teachers who are mostly women. I would love for you to talk about the way these things have all connected and what it has been like being under the boot of this kind of massive repression on all levels.

AW: It has been difficult. Our HB2 resistance, especially when we had to go toe to toe with people who we thought were on our side at one point, that definitely made us targets in our community. There wasn’t a lot of support there, but again, a risk we were willing to take.

So, something like Charlotte Uprising happened. About two weeks in, people started to ask, “What is Charlotte Uprising? Who are these people?” For us it was like, “Ooh! We get to talk about how we are black and trans and we get to talk about how when we resisted the corporatization of something like Charlotte Pride, it was very much tied to our issues and our demands around Uprising. That is actually when we started doing the Trans 101s in Charlotte. Other cities in North Carolina had done those things, but we hadn’t. It was good for us to do that and to be able to say, “Charlotte Uprising is made out of the folks who have always been resisting things in Charlotte” and we were able to talk about how it is no surprise that black trans folks are on the front lines, also behind the scenes, as we have been pushed so far to the margins. We have no other way to speak than to act, if you will. When I take a step back and think about all the stuff that we have done, that is a big thing for me.

SJ: Let’s talk about the Charlotte Uprising. It has been a little over six months since Keith Lamont Scott was killed and since the Charlotte Uprising began. Tell us a little bit about the past six months.

AW: The past six months . . . It still feels like a blur. It is that same group of around ten trans folks of color organizing all the things. Charlotte Uprising happened and then, one of our friends who is a black trans woman was brutalized in Charlotte and then, criminalized because hate speech legislation never protects those who are impacted by hate speech or acts that are hateful. We went into organizing mode around that, more specifically, but still doing Charlotte Uprising stuff. We feel like we haven’t had a break. I am tired.

Things were going really good until issues around money came up. There was money being poured into the state. There was also a bail fund that we were pulling money from. There is only one bail fund in North Carolina right now. We were pulling money from that, but we were also raising money for operational purposes. We were able to raise a lot of money for that. There was money being poured in. There came a time where the needs of the Uprising looked like “We need to house people. We need to get people out of jail. And we need to help people get lawyers in a way that requires money.” The fiscal sponsor that we were using for the Uprising, it was an issue. There was tension there. There was tension around how we were bringing negative attention onto the fiscal sponsor. For them, I think they were not going to allow us to use our money in certain ways. For us, it was a really big deal.

I think we also learned a lot about what it can look like to not work through the usual, “The police kill a black person. Nonprofits try to work with the grassroots folks, but they end up shitting on them. So, we have to figure something else out. Maybe that means that you don’t have all your money. All the money that you raised, you no longer can use it or the ways in which these organizations or fiscal sponsors or nonprofits operated with you were just transactional or conditional.”

We continue to support folks who are still in jail from the Uprising. There are some folks who are incarcerated namely because they don’t have addresses or they don’t have homes. So, the police can’t track where they are if they let them out. Then, folks who have just had really poor legal representation.

We still are organizing and going really hard around Rayquan Borum who was framed by CMPD. The community, as well as the police and the city government continue to paint as us these conspiracy theorists. But, we are still organizing. We can’t slow down. The black trans woman that I mentioned is facing court really soon, so we have been working really hard to make sure she has adequate legal representation and we continue to do our Trans 101s and rapid response things. But, what I would like to see for us who are still organizing—a lot of people are burned out and have not returned to action, even just to participate in teach-ins or anything. Again, the work is on those black and trans femme folks. It has been rough being gaslit and not having as many hands on deck. There were definitely interpersonal things that transpired that caused people not to want to organize right now in the same way that just went unresolved. I think for a small group of us, we are still kind of in the rapid response mode. We are still in crisis.

A solidarity press conference for organizer Gloria Merriweather. / Photo courtesy of Ashley Williams

SJ: The election of Trump shifts where people are looking in terms of where organizing is happening, where the more spectacular resistance is happening or not. It is always really important to remind people that especially in places like Charlotte where there was a brief period of time where the pictures were everywhere, the news was constantly paying attention. Then, the attention span dries up and the long-term effects of these spectacular moments of resistance, they are really hard and there is not any good answer other than people need long-term support.

AW: Yes. I also wanted to say something about the Charlotte Opportunity Task Force. A study was done and the outcome was such that if you were born poor in Charlotte, you will most likely stay poor for your entire life. This came out very close to the Uprising. The Charlotte Opportunity Task Force, which is the group that the so-called community and the city government put together to attend to these things, had this long report that talks about what they see the issues are. They aren’t using words like, “In Charlotte, the police kill black people” or “In Charlotte, a lot of folks go to community college, but they are not supported academically” or “In Charlotte, there is geographic segregation that is based on race and class.” It didn’t talk about the role that white supremacy plays.

The city almost spent a lot of money on a soccer field. Folks were like, “Whoa. How can you put money on a soccer field when all this stuff just happened this summer and no one is putting money into something that can better the racial relations in the city?”

Again, we saw those nonprofits—the organizations that have really close ties to the state—they popped up and were like, “We are going to raise a lot of money and heal Charlotte” in ways that our organizing is not legible to. I want to say they raised millions of dollars so that some organizations and individuals could come up with these plans and programs for Charlotte. Things that look a lot like the organizing we have already been doing. I feel really insulted acknowledging that we are never going to be as legible as something like the United Way in terms of implementing programming into our community with money that the city government gave us. They are not going to give us anything. They don’t listen to us. They don’t value our lives. We can’t participate in these things. I think that people have forgotten or maybe they don’t see the impact of the Uprising in the way that I see it.

SJ: I wanted to talk a little bit more about reproductive justice (RJ) and trans people’s place in reproductive justice, which gets lost a lot. I just got a press release today from Texas that the deal that the legislature there wants to make is a compromise where they drop the “bathroom bill” if they get to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, which is just so telling of the way that those in power will play one off against the other. I would love for you to talk more about your reproductive justice work and why trans people belong in reproductive justice work and why it is necessary to understand these two things as not two things at all.

AW: I don’t know if we are at the place where those two things are not two things. In order for those things to not be two things, we need folks on both sides acknowledging that and I don’t think we have that right now. I was really excited about being able to articulate how something like gender injustice is a matter of reproductive oppression using the language of RJ, but also something like the water crisis is reproductive oppression, again, using the same language, and the killing of Keith Lamont Scott. Removing a father from not only his family, but from his community, that is an issue for everyone and it is definitely an issue that everyone should be concerned with, that for me is still about control and exploitation.

I got this job right after the Uprising, working for SisterSong. I was happy to get the job, but I was a little worried about how I was going to remain accountable to my black trans folks who I continue to organize with. For me, they have really been supporting me on ways that I can bring RJ to them and help them see that RJ has a lot of work to do, but there is a lot of opportunity. I have done nothing but be transparent about where I think things are right now. I just read the first couple pages of Loretta Ross’s new book. She is one of the folks who really birthed, if you will, this movement for reproductive justice along with other people. She wrote the book with another person. I read the first couple of pages and in their introduction, they have a section for gender and language. I was kind of like, “This language centers cis folks and their experiences with their bodies.” It said things like, “We acknowledge that not everyone’s body has the capability to get pregnant and that there are folks who might not want to get pregnant who are women and trans folks.” Then, it would still kind of fall back on “There is something to say about how cis women experience reproductive oppression.” I think that is true, but I think there is a better way to frame who is the most impacted. For me, that is not cis women.

The nonprofit industrial complex puts this precarious stuff on organizations, makes them try to look different on paper from another organization or that makes them compete for funding. I think those things have negatively impacted everyone’s organization who wants to do something good in the name of reproductive justice. But, yesterday, I was at CLPP, which is a RJ conference in Amherst, Massachusetts, and there was a black trans woman on the panel. I saw how folks were responding to her in a trans-antagonistic way; she spoke about how bringing two trans women to a conference is not centering them, because they are surrounded by cis bodies. She also talked about the very real fear of organizing with cis folks. I was really excited that she shared those things in ways that I think people can’t hear from me because I am a non-binary trans femme. So, people are just like, “No, no, no. You are definitely still a girl.”

It is hard. I met other non-binary folks who work for RJ organizations and we spent a long time talking and connecting about “How does this feel to do this work? It feels like it is all about the body.” Which it is. We know that folks experience violence at the site of their bodies, but how can we keep it growing? I think that continuing to make trans issues a side issue is not going to get us there. Or, it could be that RJ is just like, “Look, this isn’t about trans women.” I think trans folks would appreciate that, too.

SJ: I want to wrap up because you gave this really excellent talk that I was watching on Facebook at a conference recently about bodies and direct action. I would love if you could give us a very, very abbreviated version of that conversation.

I wondered what it would be like if we thought seriously about direct action as a performance of resistance.

AW: I wrote that paper because I was so sick of, in activist spaces not being seen as a dancer and in dance spaces not being seen as an organizer. I wanted to bring my two worlds together and show that they are not separate worlds. I wanted to show folks that we are all movers. As long as parts of our bodies are moving, we are inherently movers and there are performances happening all around us.

I used some frameworks that dance gives me, dance studies and performance theory, to think about what people are doing in direct actions. For me, interlocutors is what I call folks who are direct action practitioners. I think that with their bodies, they are positing that the state has to stop killing black people and that in some senses they can’t kill black people, in ways that we show non-compliance in direct action. Then, I think, too, people who are non-state audiences, folks who are on their way to work in the morning and are like, “What is this line of people in the road?” or folks who are “Why are you always doing the things that you are doing?” I think we are saying to them, “Join us. You should be a part of this, too.”

I think direct action is really effective and I am excited about it as a tactic. I love training blockades and I love talking to people about, “What are the possibilities if we treat direct action like a performance? Does it mean that we would prepare differently? Does it mean that we wouldn’t prepare?” I am thinking of something called “Chance Dance” that John Cage is known for. There is a moment at the beginning of the performance that a choice is made around which performance it is going to be. For me, direct actions are similar to that. We can’t always know what is going to happen way ahead of time. We have these skills. We have these techniques, but we are going to have to decide how to use them in the moment. For me, it is the same language. It is the same thing.

It is also that art has the ability to reach folks in ways that other methods do not. I wondered what it would be like if we thought seriously about direct action as a performance of resistance. And, art is something that is really close to black organizing.

SJ: How can people keep up with you and your work?

AW: You can follow me on Twitter @Ash_Bash23 and you can be my Facebook friend. You will probably get a message about a teach in or actions coming up. I am also thinking about getting back into writing more seriously. Folks should look out for that.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.