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Can the Youth Brigade Stop a GOP Takeover?

We check in with author, firebrand, and voting activist William Upski Wimsatt.

| Sat Oct. 23, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

A decade ago, when I first met William Upski Wimsatt, he was a 27-year-old, shit-talking graffiti artist out promoting a book called Bomb the Suburbs. In it, he declared that hip-hop would liberate America from the suburban mentality—which was all about escaping from people of color, the poor, and having to deal with urban social ills. "I want to live in an America without ghettos and suburbs," Wimsatt wrote. At a reading, I watched him jump around the stage, bouncing his Jew-fro and screaming at the 20 or so young people that made up his audience. I don't remember what he said, but he made me feel like a giant capable of blowing up the system in order to end poverty and racism in America.

In subsequent years, Wimsatt tried to transform his verbal bombs into political actions, but he couldn't find any meaningful channels for changing government policies. "To change history, you need to build organizations," he declared in his sophomore effort, No More Prisons. Putting his money where his mouth was, Wimsatt went on to cofound dozens of political organizations, including The League of Young Voters (originally called The League of Pissed Off Voters) and Generational Alliance. This year, he's been volunteering with TheBallot.org—a national database of progressive voter guides in each state, as well as the Coffee Party—a lefty grassroots counterpunch to the tea party movement.

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A month ago, Wimsatt called me to say he'd written a new book, Please Don't Bomb the Suburbs. Say what? Was Wimsatt caving in? After Glenn Beck's relentless attacks had led to the resignation of his friend Van Jones? I decided to get Wimsatt on the record about his book, which he calls "a blueprint for building a Super Movement 2020—a 10-year plan to build progressive power."

Mother Jones: In Bomb the Suburbs, you ask people to take risks, call it out, and be real. So I'm confused as I read Don't Bomb the Suburbs. Are you now saying young people need to worry more about building their resumes than speaking truth to power?

William Wimsatt: We totally still have to take risks, and probably bigger risks. But smarter risks. When I was younger, the risk was going out and doing graffiti and writing political messages and trying not to get arrested. Being the one who stands up at a meeting and pisses everyone off by laying it out on the table. Those are good risks, but this is not Daniel Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon Papers. First, he had to get a high-level job in the Pentagon. He probably had to spend decades with a lot of people he didn't like very much, making compromises, and not having so much fun. So, it's a balancing act.

MJ: But I don't see massive numbers of people sacrificing their careers to take that kind of risk? Do you?

WW: I see a lot of folks sacrificing and taking risks. The Trail of Dreams folks for instance—undocumented students from Miami who walked to DC. They went to a Klan rally in Georgia. They went to Arizona and hugged Sheriff Arpaio! They're going around the country documenting stories of families broken apart by local 287(g) laws. That's courageous because they could be deported at any time. We're at a moment in history where brave action is needed on a mass scale.

MJ: So where should progressives position themselves in order to make a difference?

WW: Most of us grew up being told that power corrupts; you shouldn't have power. You should become a teacher or writer or work in the nonprofit sector. In order to change the country, we need good people everywhere—business, real estate, law firms, and religious institutions. I think we've thought of what leads to social change way too narrowly.

MJ: So, election 2010: Which hopes or fears do you think will get young people to the polls?

WW: Issues are overrated. There are a million big issues. The biggest is simply knowing that we matter and our actions make a difference. There are millions of young people who voted for Obama, who will vote again, but they need to be told when the election day is, where their polling place is, what's on the ballot, and why it matters. It's that easy. That's why we created TheBallot.org: to make it easy for people to create and share their own local progressive voter guides.

MJ: You just came back from the national Coffee Party gathering. How would you describe the momentum?

WW: The Coffee Party had a huge burst of energy this spring. We had 1,000 events in a month and CNN was covering our actions almost every day. We surpassed the tea party on Facebook: We now have more than 300,000 Facebook friends and a very active community that's doing Coffee Vote. And we had over 100 Coffee With Congress meetings about financial reform and getting money out of politics. But there was no infrastructure or funding to sustain us. We were all volunteers. The national convention we just had in Louisville was pretty impressive. The media isn't covering us every day, but we're a lot more sustainable as an organization now. Post-election, the focus is on restoring democracy in the wake of Citizen's United.

MJ: Is the left doing enough to fight climate change and provide pathways out of poverty?

The League of Young Voters, 2008.

WW: Hell no. I think future generations should get a lawyer and sue the shit out of us! But we did get Congress to pass the biggest green jobs bill in history and the biggest anti-poverty program in a generation as part of the stimulus. The stimulus needed to be way bigger. We needed to pass a climate and energy bill. But a movement is taking off, from community gardens to wind power surpassing coal as an employer. I see lots of people carrying eco water bottles and cloth bags to the grocery store. We're taking great baby steps! We just need to keep our morale up.

MJ: Do you think Millennials have embraced racial justice and poverty issues?

WW: They're trying! The Dream Act folks are impressive—undocumented kids doing direct action. ColorOfChange.org and Presente.org are the hottest thing out there. Platinum rapper Nas made a song about Fox News. Energy Action organized the biggest lobby day in history for green jobs. Student groups won an $80 billion victory to bypass bloodsucking loan companies and increase Pell grants. Is it enough? No way. But we have to celebrate every victory so we can build on it.

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