It was towards the end of the closing session of the New Orleans Netroots Nation 2018 live stream on Facebook when a group of activists took the stage suddenly. Holding signs reading “#BlackAssCaucus”, a member began to speak before the podium and stunned the liberals/progressives in attendance both physically and virtually.
He told us all to do better. To be more inclusive. To reach out beyond our privileges and safe havens. It was straight up ballsy and inspiring, to say the least.
I had to reach out.
Ashton Woods is a Black Lives Matter – Houston activist. He was the man who spoke truth to those wanting to speak truth to power that afternoon.
Most cordially, we chatted about the event, his speech, his activism and other pressing issues. The passion. The intelligence. The confidence. He’s a shining example of bravery in the face of opposition.
Bill Arceneaux: What was running through your mind, moments before taking the stage at Netroots Nation 2018?
Ashton Woods: The biggest thing on my mind in those moments is that this is yet another avoidable mistake for Netroots. I mean that they have the tools that were given to them by myself and so many others to make huge improvements to the conference.
BA: How long have you been an activist and what made you become one?
Ashton: My activism started age at 15 when I was navigating through my freshman of high school. I had been questioning my sexual orientation and in the process of coming out, I helped to start a GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance)… one of the first in New Orleans high schools. But, what made me become an activist has a lot more to do with my skin tone than it does my sexual orientation. Racism, white supremacy and power structures that stem from it are what activated me.
BA: What steps can Netroots Nation, The Democratic Party and every other progressive group in this country take to become more inclusive?
Ashton: Hire Black folks, especially women… hire more POC (people of color) in general. When I say this, I mean people who have direct experience with much of the subject matter that each entity or progressive group may have to address. Another thing to do and this is important: LISTEN. Listen actively when someone from a marginalized group tells you that what you are doing and saying does not feel good. Listening allows you to avoid GASLIGHTING people by denying their lived experience and centering yourself. Inclusion is more about equity than it is about equality and that means that we need to be in the room, AT THE TABLE making decisions that are “inclusive” and not just there as diversity hires –> tokenism.
BA: How did the idea for the “Black Ass Caucus” come about? Was it planned with convention organizers? Will there be more speeches and/or events to come for the group?
Ashton: To make it plain, my first Netroots was horrible and is what led me to take part in a larger disruption of Bernie Sanders. That year Tio Oso ran a community center near the convention site of NN15 and she along with others organized Blackroots to counter the fact that EVERY caucus and session that had to do with race was labeled POC and that any Black centering or AAPI or Latinx centering proposals were rejected. Because of this we had to be innovative and from that year forward, Netroots sought to make improvements and implement changes but by the time they made it to NN16 in St Louis attendance had dropped. More improvement came last year in Atlanta and at the same time some things were a bit off, it was the vitriolic reaction from many white people when we disrupted NN17 during Stacey Evans’ keynote. We were demanding that if this space were truly progressive, people who do things like try to harm public schools should not be allowed to speak, let alone receive our support. The Black Ass Caucus came about at this year’s Netroots because all of the Black (Black is capitalized to denote race and respect) centering programming were scheduled to overlap each other. It was like a competition of sorts until a group of folks reorganized the schedule and we were able to attend sessions as a unit and it worked really well. As you can see, Netroots does the bare minimum, passes it off as a major improvement and we have to light fires under their asses to go back to the drawing board every time.
BA: Last month, I conducted an interview with a member of the Monuments Relocation Committee, tasked by our Mayor to recommend what to do with the taken down Confederate statues. It’s a hot button issue across the country. Are there indeed different sides and perspectives to understanding people on this, or just one? In other words, is it clear cut as to who is right and wrong, or is there a blur in some cases?
Ashton: To be completely honest, ANY mayor who has to commission a committee is a coward for allowing revisionist white supremacist history to keep a stronghold. It should not even be a discussion, the Confederacy was a rogue nation-state formed from acts of treason against the United States. They lost. Do you see statues of enemies that we have gone to war against standing in their honor on American streets? Do you see streets named after Nazis? Different perspectives can exist, yes. However, it is blurred when one perspective is a reflection of the power structure and the other is that of the marginalized. It IS clear cut and the answer is to remove and destroy these symbols that were erected to taunt Black folk while we have been terrified by their living descendants.
BA: Have you seen Blindspotting? This is a movie that deals with identity amidst an ever-evolving and gentrifying landscape. When I think of gentrification, I can’t help but think of Manifest Destiny. Is that a good comparison? Why are cities so prepared to lose their culture and long-term residents in favor of short-term gains?
Ashton: I have not seen the movie, but being from New Orleans and living in Houston I don’t just see Manifest Destiny I see its child… CAPITALISM. Cities are prepared to lose their flavor for a strong tax base. Gentrification can take place in many ways. Think about the family in a historically Black part of any city behind on property taxes being evicted because some developer paid their tax and now owns the property. That property is transformed into a townhome and Karen moves in driving property taxes up for other families on limited income and other situations. More folks lose, but the cities win every time Karen pays the property tax on her 500k townhome that was built on land purchase for 2k. Of course, there is more to it than that, but this is an example that comes to mind.
BA: On my way to the grocery, I see “Blue Lives Matter” signs in yards. I also see “Thou Shalt Not Kill” too. Juxtaposed, it would appear that both are directed at one idea of a community in particular and not at everyone/anyone. Like a form of intimidation, done up with “good intentions”. Why is it so hard for people to get behind the idea that black lives matter? Why must they counter in aggressive defense?
Ashton: Humans are not blue and cops are volunteers who get paid to do a job that requires the enforcement of state/institutional racism. We aren’t saying that Black Lives Matter as an appeal to convince white people to see us differently. It’s about the demand for respect and that our humanity is more than what folks have attempted to relegate our Black bodies to being… OTHER. There is nothing intimidating about the flags and the faux Christian signs. When we say that Black Lives Matter, it is an affirmation of Blackness and it is about us being good to ourselves. Black people teaching other Black people that we matter. We don’t need permission for that. We don’t need approval and we see the white fragility in it…White Fragility comes to mind when this comes up. I have written about it a few times and this is an excerpt from my post Hey White People:
“When we speak or post about you and whiteness in any venue, especially social media, it really isn’t intended for you to share or express your opinion about the subject matter. Seemingly, you appear to have this need, a need to have a say, to give permission in order for our Black words and thoughts to have weight. The FACT is that your opinion is not the one that matters, we say what we say without need of your acceptance or approval. Our posts, blogs and other expressions regarding our experiences with you (even this one) are not an invitation for you to opine a counter-argument. What Y’all like to do is spew vitriol, show your fragility and tell us how we should view our experiences. You don’t get to tell us how we process the experiences of our blackness and you can keep that white gaze bullshit to yourself. We did not give you permission to defend yourselves to us. We really don’t want to hear it, you don’t get come talking that “not all white people” bullshit while trying to claim acceptance of our experience with your racist ass counterparts.
“I accept your views and all. But there is a way to deliver it. Quite frankly, truth also hurts that black people kill each other all the time and never flinch. But when white people do it, we’re all supposed to feel guilty? It doesn’t work like that.” – Random Becky
Tell me the last time you went into white only spaces an attempted to correct your cohorts like you attempt to do in black spaces. You don’t get to tell us how we should speak about an issue, you don’t get to tone police us. You don’t get to gaslight us. NO, You don’t get a say on how we say or do anything. You are being told NO, and you probably should have gotten used to it years ago. Unfortunately, your whiteness is set up in a way that being told no is not a viable option for you.”
BA: Are there any campaigns or projects you’re currently working on? Have you considered running for office yourself?
Ashton: I am working on several things while returning to college to complete my degree in Sociology. My central focus has been the midterm election, voter protection, Education and a few other things I have up my sleeve. As far as running for office, I am giving strong thought to throwing my hat into the ring for a municipal seat in Houston.
BA: What can progressive New Orleanians do to make gains in the midterms and how can that momentum be kept up after?
Ashton: In New Orleans, it may be advantageous to block walk the neighborhoods campaigns don’t normally get to. Hire folks from the local areas and train them to be precinct chairs, election judges, and how to run campaigns to support their candidates in the future. Most importantly this is an opportunity to teach people who to talk to and where to go when issues arise. Many of our problems stem from access, build space and expand access.
BA: If you could share one quote to motivate others, what would it be?
Ashton: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
― Assata Shakur