November 11th, 2011 | by RUTH BROWN Arts & Books | Posted In: Books

Hillbilly Nationalists, Oregon's Black Panthers and the Occupy Movement

10 minutes with author and social justice organizer James Tracy

panther
Oh, those Occupiers, just a bunch of white, middle class college kids in thrift store clothing, right? Maybe not, says James Tracy. He's the co-author of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times, a new book which uncovers the little-known stories of the poor and working class white Americans who organized and fought against racism, inequality and Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s. Tracy, who is a "social justice organizer" in the Bay Area and will be appearing at Powell's this Sunday to promote his book, says today's Occupy activists can learn from their stories of mobilizing across class and racial lines.

WW: Tell us a little bit about Hillbilly Nationalists and how it came about.
James Tracy: The book is about working class white people who flipped sides form working with racists like the Klu Klux Klan and George Wallace and started working with the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords and Martin Luther King.

The book came about—both [co-author] Amy [Sonnie] and I were working on the same subject separately. We were both community organizers and grappling with the same questions that are very current today around how to build alliances that last for social change, especially around how do you work simultaneously for economic justice and for racial justice. Both of our mentors at the time—my mentor was an ex-Black Panther Party member and her mentor was a former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—told us about these histories and got us fascinated, so we were working on it for a while, then this friend said, "Hey, you guys are working on the same book project!” So I called her for three weeks straight and begged her to work on the project with me and that was seven years ago.

Part of the book explores activism in Oregon in the late '60s and early '70s; what did you learn researching this part of the country?
The Young Patriots and the Black Panther Party were trying to build a west coast network, and Eugene seemed to be a place to do that because there was a lot of student activism at the time, there was a campus there and there was Chuck Armsbury, who was a working class guy from Kansas who also happened to be a Rhodes scholar and a professor there. So in Seattle, Aaron [Dixon]—he was the head of the Seattle Panthers—basically ordered a bunch of guys from L.A. to move into Oregon and start a Black Panther Party chapter there to complement the Patriots and build a rainbow coalition.

Tracy, left, with co-author Amy Sonnie
And of course that history, just about everything else, was cut short by violence within the movement and also done to the movement, so it never really had the chance to bloom fully. It would have been very interesting to see what that alliance might have brought to Oregon—especially the rural areas that even today have a fairly high White Aryan Resistance membership.

People obviously still view protestors as predominantly middle class liberal arts students—the Occupy movement is a great example of that. Do you think it's still an unfair characterization?
Absolutely. In my experience, I see a lot of working class people often minimize their own experience to be part of a larger movement—especially working class white people, but not confined to that by any stretch of the imagination. All the questions that are coming out of the Occupy movement basically boils down to how do you achieve a lasting team and lasting alliance out of a group that is one half the newly precarious, and the [other] people who’ve been under the boot of oppression for hundreds of years. Really it comes down to: this is a creative moment. If people can come up with lasting and serious ways of building this alliance, then there’s a chance that change can be made. And if not, well, we saw what happened around the Seattle occupation movements in '99. They’re looked back on as a moment in history where the good fight was fought, but nothing really came out of it.

So touring around the country to promote this book, you must have seen a lot of the Occupy protests in each city. What's the most interesting thing you've noticed?
It’s really interesting to see the experimentation that’s been going on, as far as tactics go. You’re seeing a really healthy development, where you see in New York where it all started, people are starting to move away from just occupying Wall Street and do tenant defense work and foreclosure defense work, and walking picket lines, and reinventing their tactics; showing a sophistication around tactics that I think hasn’t really been there for a while.

The second thing I’d say is that six weeks ago, the only thing that was in the media about the economy was debt ceilings and "blame the poor" rhetoric, and now we have a national conversation around corporate accountability and what kind of world we want to live in. So even if the occupations go away or turn into something very different, I think we have the occupiers to thank for a very different public dialogue.

GO: James Tracy and Amy Sonnie will be at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Sunday, Nov. 13 at 7:30 pm. Free. All ages.

 
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