Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” I first heard this quote on an episode of Parks and Rec, and I’ve liked it ever since. Lately, though I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote. I’m not sure when you’ll be reading this though so I’d like to provide some background on why I’ve been thinking about it so much over the past couple of weeks.
It’s December of 2021, Joe Biden was inaugurated in January. For radical dreamers and organizers like me, Joe Biden was obviously not my first or second, or third choice. He was representative of the status quo. He was the author of the 1994 Crime Bill. Joe Biden was the only presidential candidate quoted saying “nothing will fundamentally change.” That being said, to his credit, by November of 2020, he had formed a coalition! His agenda was significantly more progressive than it was when he was quoted, and he seemed committed to making the conditions for working people better. And so, like many other people who believe in the beauty of their dreams, I held out some hope, maybe not quite revolutionary optimism, but nevertheless some hope that the Biden administration would deliver some basic changes for people in this country (it’s also important to mention that Democrats control the House and Senate, in addition to the White House).
But if that had happened, I wouldn’t be writing this. What actually happened, was a more predictable outcome if you know anything about the American political landscape. Much of Biden’s agenda was blocked by a few “moderate” Democrats who are bought out by enormous corporations. The modern-day robber barons blocked basic protections for working people and action on the impending climate crisis. And Biden did nothing. Instead of fighting to get his agenda across the finish line, he succumbed to the demands of these robber barons, and so his agenda died. I could talk all day about my issues and problems with the Biden administration and my frustrations with electoral politics and its commitment to preserving capital, but that is not the point of this essay. I want to talk about Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote in the context of community. And what happens when a leader ceases to believe in the beauty of a community’s dream.
My relationship with electoral politics, like many people, is complicated. I don’t think we can fundamentally change our society through electoralism. Electoralism is an institution. Like many institutions in the United States, it is always going to prioritize the preservation of capitalism, settler colonialism, and white supremacy. However, it has the ability to make material conditions better for people locally and in the United States. Since I believe in the beauty of my dreams, I tend towards optimism, like many organizers. So when Joe Biden formed a coalition with the Bernie Sanders campaign and significantly overhauled his platform, I got a little excited. Finally, with the House, Senate, and Presidency, we would be able to deliver a (relatively) progressive agenda and make material conditions better for people in the interim while we work towards tearing down the existing systems in this country. I wasn’t the only one who got excited. In 2020, people organized to elect Joe Biden in greater numbers than seen before, and people turned out to vote in record numbers. Most notably, Georgia flipped for Joe Biden, and both senators elected from Georgia were Democrats. People of color, more specifically Black people and Black women gave Joe Biden this election. As a collective, we believed in the beauty of our dreams. We hoped that with a trifecta, This agenda might actually be delivered and people, for the first time in a while, would begin to see the government work for them. There might have been a certain naivety in that hope, but nonetheless, it was there. We believed in this dream, and we thought Joe Biden did too. With optimism comes disappointment, and our hopes were quickly dashed with the events that have happened over the past year. But Biden not delivering on his agenda is not why this quote has been nagging at me. It’s the despair I’ve seen, from radical dreamers and love-filled organizers, that have made me think about this quote. This despair is the same despair I felt when talking about the topic of universal healthcare when I first got involved with politics. The knowledge that some people don’t care about the lives of others and their right to live a dignified life was crushing to me. Admittedly I cried for a long time about it. It’s a scary feeling, to find out that your love and care for other people is not the majority opinion.
That’s how a lot of organizers feel right now. They feel abandoned, and scared. Scared about what is going to happen to people who desperately needed this agenda to become a reality. Scared about the future, and what this failure means for the future of electoral involvement. As I mentioned before, this election was historic in terms of involvement and turnout. And yet, the government failed to deliver, despite a mandate from voters. That does not bode well for skeptics’ future involvement in the electoral process. And I’m not going to try to sit here and say that these organizers are wrong in feeling despair. It is a scary time to live in the United States. Armed white supremacist militias are being put on a pedestal in a way that encourages their violence, the Supreme Court is in the process of stripping bodily autonomy from menstruators, and the federal government is refusing to act on voting rights while state legislatures demolish any remnants of the Voting Rights Act. Whatever democracy remained in the United States is eroding and no one in power seems to care. And what happens now is what I’ve been thinking about and am interested in exploring in this essay.
I think this quote captures so beautifully what a lot of us as organizers are trying to do. We are trying to capture the imagination of the public and show them the beauty of our dreams. Right now, I’m not convinced that a lot of organizers believe in the beauty of their dreams. I’m also not convinced that many communities believe in the beauty of their dreams right now. I want to mention quickly that I don’t blame them at all. The situation is bleak, and it’s easy to turn to nihilism. Unfortunately, we have people right now, who believe in the beauty of their dreams way more than they should. White supremacists, robber barons, union-busters, police associations, fundamentalist Christian groups, all of these groups believe in the beauty of their dreams. Their dreams to the reasonable person are insane, violent, and dangerous. But that isn’t important. Their dream is utopia to them, and so they will do anything to achieve it. Without the beauty of our dreams to counter, the infectious optimism about their dreams begins to take hold, and that’s when we’re in trouble. Unless there is a community of people who believe so fiercely in the beauty of their dreams that they are willing to do anything to make the world a better place, this battle against evil will be lost before it even begins. Now, before you start crying as I have done many times, let’s look at times in which communities have believed in the beauty of their dreams, and accomplished amazing things. I’m going to talk about the labor movement of the early 20th century, radical resistance in the Jim Crow South, and queer communities during the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s and early 90s.
During what is commonly referred to as the Gilded Age, the American economy was exploding. Trade and production were up, and jobs were more available than ever before as infrastructure expanded across the country with the advent of freight rail and large multi-national corporations. From the Gilded Age rose household names the likes of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Ford, and Carnegie. These are the robber barons. The bosses of some of the world’s most monstrous companies, with wealth and influence that is incomprehensible, even in today’s world. They are the authors of violent worker exploitation. They are the gatekeepers of capitalism and enthusiastic henchmen of inequality.
Henry Ford, often credited with doubling the pay of his workers, and painted as a patriot and philanthropist, was image-obsessed. In an effort to prevent the mass exodus that was plaguing the company at the time (due to awful working conditions), he doubled the pay of his factory workers. To qualify for this pay raise, you had to work for the company for at least six months, maintain a clean home, and if you were over the age of 22, you had to be married. Ford even created a company-sanctioned police force to surveil its employees, ominously dubbed the “Ford Sociological Department.” They would reportedly even go to employees’ houses to ensure that employees are following the policies put in place by the Ford corporation. In addition, women weren’t eligible for this pay raise unless they were single, and men weren’t eligible unless they were married and their wives only worked at home as a homemaker.
In addition to all of this, Ford was a raging anti-semite and regarded labor unions as part of a larger Jewish global conspiracy. Ford insisted on Americanizing his workers and assimilating them into “American” (white) society.
Ford wasn’t the only bad robber baron! There are countless stories about all of the awful things these men have done. Andrew Carnegie, who founded Carnegie Steel (which would be the foundation for US Steel when it was bought by JP Morgan), would say one thing, and then act in a different manner. On paper, Carnegie wholeheartedly supported unions. After all, he was a self-made man from a poor family in Scotland. The poster child of unions. And after the Haymarket Riots, he even expressed sympathy towards the workers. But the story at his steel mills was very different. Shortly after expressing support for unions, Carnegie demanded that workers at one of his steel mills work 12-hour shifts, with their pay directly tied to the price of steel at the time.
Have you heard of the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892? Well, you’re about to. Back in 1892, Carnegie purchased the Homestead Steel Mill. This mill was going to be the epicenter of Carnegie’s empire. That being said, many of the steelworkers already working in the plant were part of the powerful Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. Carnegie, not liking the idea of a union in the heart of his empire, sent a letter to the mill. It basically said that since Carnegie was bringing in most of the new workers, it was unfair for the minority to rule the majority, and therefore the workplace was to be non-union. Carnegie then went off on his annual summer to Scotland. He put his number two in charge, Henry Clay Frick. Carnegie expresses his explicit confidence in a letter to Frick saying “We are with you to the end.” Frick went so far as to install barbed wire and detectives around the mill so that only non-union workers could gain access to the plant. At one point, gunfire erupted between the union workers and the detectives, resulting in seven dead union members. Since winter was beginning, union workers were forced to succumb to Carnegie’s demands and continue work at the steel mill, with a pay of 60% of that of the non-union workers.
Vanderbilt, who left almost $4 billion in today’s money to his son when he died was not worried about image. He was notorious for his aggressiveness and made a lot of enemies on the way to becoming the railroad titan that he is known for today. During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, in which many railroad workers on the B&O railroad went on strike due to poor working conditions, he told workers that the low wages were due to a depression in the economy and that they should continue to work. After a long strike, the men finally came to a settlement. When Vanderbilt refused to sign the terms, another strike was threatened, although nothing ever came of it.
Now, I’m telling you all of this to give you a brief overview of the bleak situation facing workers at the turn of the 20th century. This is not a history book, and I encourage you to do more research and dive deeper into the issues facing workers and the labor movement at the time.
So how did workers respond to these capitalist behemoths? Strike, strike, strike. As I mentioned above, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was one of the largest labor strikes in the 19th century, with thousands of workers participating. It disrupted the railroad industry so effectively that President Rutherford B. Hayes had to bring in federal troops to prematurely end the strike. The federal troops and police were responsible for over 100 deaths over the course of the strike.
At the turn of the 20th century, after the Haymarket Riots and the end of the powerful Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor was created. AFL for short, this federation was an association of a myriad of different unions, aimed at providing better strike practices and better collective bargaining to workers around the country. Now, some context is important, especially when talking about unions, whose makeup and structures have changed over the decades. The Knights of Labor were a large group of union workers responsible for many successful strikes in the late 19th century. They approached union organizing from a political standpoint, remaining inclusive and largely holding labor as a political, rather than a stand-alone issue. The Knights of Labor ran into issues with public opinion and membership when the blame for the Haymarket Riots was largely pinned on them. Throughout the history of the United States, organizations die when the white electorate no longer finds them palatable. That’s what happened with the Knights of Labor. In fact, I chose these three issues specifically because the majority of the United States did not support the people involved. Not elected leaders, not white moderates, sometimes not even members of their own community. This is an essay about how believing in the beauty of one’s dreams, while specifically targeting and naming the systems in the way of those dreams, can yield big returns and make a better future winnable. Now, back to the labor movement. While the Knights of Labor were relatively inclusive and explicitly political, the AFL’s beginnings were quite different. For the first few decades of the AFL’s existence, it tried to not repeat the “mistakes” of the Knights of Labor. For one, it tried to remain strictly non-political, affirming that labor was a labor issue, not a political one. It also regularly excluded non-white members from involvement, seeing unskilled laborers as unable to execute complex strikes and collective bargaining campaigns. Later in its life, the AFL merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, another federation of organized labor, this one much more inclusive and radical, however. Together they formed the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of labor organizations in the United States. The AFL-CIO still exists today, and you may be familiar with its work. The AFL-CIO of today views labor as a purely political issue, one that can and should be solved through direct action, political endorsements, and court battles.
While there was much left to win, the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries proved a couple of things. First, it proved that an organized movement of ordinary people can take on the ruling class and win real protections for themselves. They did this by targeting the ruling class’s most prized possession: capital. Second, it proved, like most social movements in history, that the ruling class will do anything to protect capital. During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, workers began destroying B&O railroad equipment when they realized that a flat-out strike wasn’t working. Vanderbilt and his colleagues became so enraged with their assets being used as part of the strike that he got President Rutherford B. Hayes to authorize federal troops to be sent to violently end the strike. Yet again in the name of capital, Carnegie’s second in command authorized the detectives he hired to use deadly force against the steelworkers striking against the mandate that the mill be non-union, despite pro-union sentiments issued by Carnegie about other companies.
While these two things might seem somewhat bleak, considering that this labor movement did not do as much as future labor movements in securing better conditions for working people, I’d push against that viewpoint. Had the Knights of Labor not been unapologetically radical and militant, and had the AFL not been as persistent in its organizing as it was, the labor movement of the 1920-30s, and the favorable public opinion of unions, would not exist. It is these movements, the subversive, radical movements, that lay the groundwork for future progress for people in this country. It is the people who believe in the beauty of their dreams, who win in the end. The visionaries, the organizers, the steelworkers who cannot afford to put food on the table, those who have nothing to lose, who dream the biggest, and therefore have the potential to change the world.
Now, moving on to a different snippet in history. I’ll move chronologically so that I don’t give you whiplash trying to read this. This time we are talking about radical resistance to white supremacists in the Jim Crow South. There are many things I could talk about when it comes to resistance in the Jim Crow South. For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to focus on radical and revolutionary actions/people/movements that existed during this time. Again, I am not a historian and this is not a history book. I encourage you to do your own research if you want more context about the time periods I am talking about.
The first thing I’m going to focus on is young people’s efforts to register Black folks in the heart of the South. Back in 1964, the Congress Of Racial Equality or CORE set out to register Black folks in Florida, in the center of old plantation land. Student organizers involved in CORE registered over 3,500 people to vote over the course of the summer. Of course, if you know anything about the Jim Crow South, you know it wasn’t that easy. They experienced violence by white agitators, were bombed, and received countless death threats. In addition to those obstacles, they encountered resistance even within the Black folks that CORE was trying to register to vote. These Black community members feared the real threat of violence by white supremacists should they choose to exercise their right to vote or even attempt to register. It took a lot of persuasion by the student organizers to convince many of the Black community members to register to vote. Remember that part, I’ll explain why it’s important later in the essay.
The next part I want to get into is the everyday resistance of working-class Black folks. These are not the big events but rather small, everyday things, that made it difficult for white supremacists to continue on with their violent rhetoric and actions. In North Carolina, at a tobacco plant where the women working on the factory floor were not allowed to speak with one another, they would break out into song. Not only was singing the song in the first place a form of resistance, the contents of the song often ranged from indignation about the discrimination they faced, or utopian ideas and the imagination of a world in which they are free from wage work and have everything they need to live a dignified life. In Birmingham, a racist bus driver was known for regularly pulling a gun on Black folks on the bus. Reportedly, he intentionally drove by a Black woman’s stop and proceeded to kick a man off the bus who advocated for the woman and against the explicit racism practiced by this white bus driver. So, the folks on the bus began to ring the bell for every stop, and instead of getting off at each stop, berated the bus driver for his violent showings of white supremacy. These everyday actions, although seemingly insignificant, represent an important part of radical resistance in the Jim Crow South. These folks believed they deserved dignity and peace, and so through their daily actions, they resisted against those who stood in the way of that promise of dignity. Everyday resistance, carried out by everyday people, is what builds movements. Resistance, revolt, and subversion, are woven into the Black experience in the United States. Simply existing as a Black person in the United States is a subversive action. It is a threat to capitalism, it is a threat to colonialism, and it is a threat to white supremacy. Because of this, daily resistance is required against the individuals who gleefully uphold these systems. It takes believing in the beauty of one’s dreams to topple the violent systems that endanger Black folks in the United States.
Now let’s look back to the work of CORE, remember how I said that student organizers had a hard time convincing Black community members to register to vote? I want to tie this to the present day and Ms. Roosevelt’s quote for a moment. Something that has become abundantly clear over the past decades of political resistance is that if you (as an organizer or revolutionary) don’t believe in the beauty of your dreams, it is going to be impossible to convince your community that your dreams are worth fighting for. CORE organizers believed fiercely in the beauty of their dreams. They believed that Black folks had a fundamental right to vote, and they weren’t willing to let Klan members and their violence get in the way of that. The students faced brutalization and violence, and yet, they continued to register Black community members to vote. This staunch belief in their dreams is what showed the community members that there is something here worth fighting for. That Klan members should not get to dictate the life of Black folks, and that Black communities across the South deserve peace and dignity. These incredible organizers only accomplished what they did because they believed in the beauty of their dreams.
Before we move on, I’ll leave you with a little anecdote that I like bring up whenever someone brings up riots and how ineffective they are. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. Following this, there were mass riots and protests. This is known as the Holy Week Uprising. Over 20,000 people were arrested as they rioted against the government and white supremacist systems that enabled the assassination of MLK. On April 11th, the eighth day of the Holy Week Uprising, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed. Revolutionary resistance towards white supremacy and the belief that all folks deserve to live with dignity forced people in power to do something about it.
I’m sure I don’t have to explain the evils of the Reagan administration, but just in case, I’ll provide a little bit of context. The AIDS epidemic was raging through queer spaces all over the country. The epicenter was in New York City. The Reagan Administration did not respond, in fact, they ignored the problem entirely, leaving queer people to fend for themselves against a disease that really was, at the time, a death sentence. So, being abandoned by their own government, queer people took to the streets en masse. They employed various organizing tactics with different degrees of success. The queer movement of the late 80s and 90s was largely radical and revolutionary, with a heavy focus on the concept of respectability politics and anti-assimilationism (a great queer theory book for anti-assimilationism btw is Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions). The most notable organization to come out of this movement is ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). You may recognize their items by the bright pink triangle, a symbol for homosexuality used in concentration camps in Nazi Germany, that has since been reclaimed by queer people. ACT UP focused on direct action against the Reagan Administration, pharmaceutical companies, and other government entities that were intentionally ignoring the AIDS epidemic.
You may be familiar with one of ACT UP’s most successful messaging campaigns. On the back of jackets, organizers would paint the pink triangle and the following words, “IF I DIE OF AIDS—FORGET BURIAL—JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE FDA.” The chilling imagery that it invoked is what made it such a successful messaging tool. It directly addressed the institutions that were refusing to take action on this issue, while also naming the anger felt by many of the queer people in New York and around the country.
ACT UP and their actions are not really what I want to talk about, although I think a brief overview of the organization is a necessity for understanding the larger context of the state queer people were in during the turn of the 21st century. What I want to talk about is community care during the AIDS epidemic. When left for dead, queer people came together to create radical communities focused on love and care.
The definition of mutual aid is an action that is taken to create a mutual benefit for the people involved. In the context of political organizing, mutual aid is often a form of community care in which individuals from a community financially, or otherwise, help other members of their community. Mutual aid is a deeply political action, and often makes up the work of most community-based organizations. Mutual aid renounces abandonment and insists on the community’s survival despite the government’s repeated efforts to extinguish this sense of communal responsibility. While it’s not all that can be done, at its core, mutual aid is radical.
During the height of the AIDS epidemic, the Shanti Project (a community care organization based in San Francisco) set the standard for community care during the AIDS epidemic. They collaborated with hospitals, research institutions, and people with AIDS to cobble together the resources needed to care for the sick and dying of their community. Shanti worked to secure housing for people with AIDS who were at risk of becoming houseless and offered in-home care to the residents of those living facilities. In addition to this, Shanti was able to provide counseling for both the AIDS patients and their loved ones as well. The approach that Shanti took when caring for AIDS patients set the standard of care for large mutual aid projects. Not only did it provide for AIDS patients medically, but it also ensured the dignity of the patients and their loved ones, affirming that everyone is entitled to a dignified life, not just the bare necessities.
So, what does all this mean? What does this have to do with what Eleanor Roosevelt said? Frankly nothing. These people were not thinking about Ms. Roosevelt’s quote when they were organizing for a better future. I, on the other hand, have been thinking about this quote an awful lot. What does it mean to believe in the beauty of your dreams? What does it take to get others to believe in the beauty of your dreams? These are all questions I have been asking myself lately.
One link between these three moments in organizing history and today is the absence of leader support. The leaders then, and the leaders today, do not believe in the beauty of our dreams. For one reason or another, whether they believe it isn’t feasible or they don’t want us to exist, the leaders refuse to believe in the beauty of our dreams. Often, this is how it works in the United States, change comes from the bottom up. That’s why I’m writing this right now. To encourage you to look elsewhere for your organizing.
Electoral organizers did an incredible job of electing Joe Biden. It was not an easy task at all, building a coalition that turned out in record numbers and engaging in the electoral process like never before (A word to radical people like me: don’t vilify progressive electoral organizers. They are often incredibly skilled at what they do and share a common pursuit of dignity for all people. Instead, invite them in during what is obviously a scary time, and show them the beauty of revolutionary politics <3). The vast majority of these organizers are staunch defenders of working people in this country, and truly want what’s best for them. The policies they fight for would make material conditions better for working people in the United States and I firmly believe that most of the organizers that worked to elect Joe Biden and the Democratic trifecta truly worked in good faith and are compassionate folks.
And so, if you’re scared, or angry, or upset, I want to invite you in. I want to invite you to believe in the beauty of your dreams. I want to invite you to believe that a better world is possible. But I want you to understand, we are the ones responsible for building this better world. The world as it exists now is not one in which we can realize the full beauty of our dreams. We are sitting in the burning skeleton of the imperial core. Where enslavement has been written into the very piece of paper that is supposed to guide the rest of our legislation. Where each National Defense Authorization Act drips with the blood of the victims of the violent colonialism that the United States perpetuates.
We will not win because we asked the ruling class to give it up. The more we yell, the more they set ablaze. In order for us to win the dreams we so long for, we will have to build a world in which those dreams are fully possible. So, I invite you, to be radical, loving, compassionate, and to believe in the beauty of your dreams. When people believe in the beauty of their dreams, the only thing that can stop is the limit of their imagination. It is our duty to fight for one another. It is our duty to identify the systems causing the hurt, capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy. It is our duty to dream in such a way that our new world rids humans of these evils. Love is not a popular movement, and so it is the responsibility of the lovers and radical dreamers to latch onto their beliefs in pursuit of a better world.
And, for the final time, I invite you in, I encourage you to think about this better future, and then I encourage you to ACT.
With love and solidarity,
Books to read!!
Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon
Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions by Larry Mitchell
How To Blow Up A Pipeline by Andreas Malm
Rules for Revolutionaries by Becky Bond and Zack Exley
Freedom Is A Constant Struggle by Angela Davis