Helen here, with the final installment of my ‘Walking Archives’ series. See my first post here, and second here. Today I’ll focus on my experience sitting down with Mickey Ellinger, a core member of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee (JBAKC). As we chatted about JBAKC’s campaigns; I not only got some invaluable advice from a seasoned organizer but also got to pick Mickey’s brain about her thoughts on the walking archives.
One of the successful campaigns that JBAKC led was against the Richmond Cowboys who were an organized group of white supremacists within the Richmond police department.
When interviewing Mickey, I was especially curious about what kind of tactics they used to expose the Cowboys:
Richmond police were notorious for their brutality. There was a high profile case of them killing a couple of people. A civil rights lawyer took a lawsuit against police and in the course of that this group called the Cowboys revealed. We were a part of exposing that because we an organized force and not from Richmond. We did propaganda. Being outsiders was helpful. We disrupted a city council meeting agenda. This wasn’t the kind of thing that tended to happen in Richmond. This was shocking and got the press involved. We went to the police chief’s house in 83’ to protest, he lived in suburban neighborhood. People thought down on us and thought we were harassing him in front of his family. We were non-violent, but shocking and out of the ordinary. Big marches are great, but if you don’t have the troops, public shaming works real well. It upset the conventionally held view of the police. It has really changed the way the police department interacts with people. Homicide in Richmond has dropped and it’s nice to think some of our work helped out. It’s not like any one remembers, but it set things in motion, that’s all that matters.
I asked Mickey if she had ever seen herself as a walking archive to be accessed:
Interesting question. It’s getting to be a long time. I feel if we really were that smart we would have overturned racism and have socialism by now, we haven’t. We didn’t know everything but we knew some things. In a lot of ways documentation (of the movement) is more reliable than our memories. But then again there are other things that archives could never tell you. This makes me think about my own experience working with archives; I had a hard time finding the humanist side of things. Things like how we worked and interacted with the anarchists. And power dynamics. How did we make certain decisions, and come to conclusions about what actions we should take. How did we respect each other when people had different strategy ideas? What to do when people have disagreements? These are things that you don’t really see in the archives.
Did you ever see the people before you as walking archives?
Let’s just say being self-righteous is not contained to older people. I remember being in Berkley in the 60s and being incredibly uninterested in how they did it (organizing) in the 30s. Cause we say that what happened in the 30s didn’t work. Things are possible at certain moments you can’t predict them. What you do is just keep trying to organize and sometimes some combination of what is at stake will resonate with people and all of a sudden a mass movement will pop up for a minute. Various things cause mass movements to come and go. Take occupy for example, which was tremendously important. It wasn’t all the way there, but things happened as a result. I remember in the mid 80s when the Sandinistas in Nicaragua lost the election. An older woman I knew said that she hadn’t felt this bad since they lost the Spanish civil war. That really put things in perspective for me.
Looking back do you have any other advice for people organizing around anti- racism/fascism in this day and age?
I found that you have to make a life out of it. Think about what am I capable of doing all my life. How do I make being an organizer something I can sustain? What do I need and how do I do it? You can’t over throw inequality by pitching tents in Oakland (referencing Occupy), but you saw that some people went back home and others, who were inspired, asked themselves, ‘how can I do this for the long haul’. It’s the coolest thing (organizing). You meet the best people and live the most satisfying life. You got to just keep organizing and organizing until the combination of factors line up. I have been doing this for 60 years.
Mickey Ellinger is working with two other people on a book about the successful organizing campaign to keep City College of San Francisco open and accredited in the face of attacks by the forces of corporate education. She also writes for News From Native California about language revitalization and other ways in which Native people in California are reclaiming their culture.
Thank you for checking out my series on the Walking Archives! Collecting and preserving history is definitely not easy, but is incredibly rewarding. I would like to thank Professor Borges for the inspiration to embark on my own engagement with the Walking Archives. I hope my experience inspires others to do the same. We have so much to learn from the walking archives around us. I would also like to thank Lisa and Mickey for their time and encouragement!
I feel that without historical context to our actions our movements lack depth. Why rebuild the wheel when we have generations of organizing efforts to consult and build off of? It’s been 50 years since the civil rights movement, but we see that hatred and racial terrorism is much alive in the United States. Within the past couple weeks alone we have witnessed multiple white supremacist terrorist attacks. This makes me think about where the movements before us have failed? It makes me wonder where these movements succeeded. How did historical narratives of a post-racial society become commonly accepted? I found that questions like these can be answered through engagement with histories that are living and breathing!