Boots Riley: Power Is Not In Elected Office

Stylized photo of Boots Riley looking at viewer.

The following are excerpts from an interview by Patt Morrison of the LA Times published on July 18, 2018.

PM: There are many people who, like your character Cassius — Cash — who say, “Look, I agree with you, but I need to pay the bills, and if I have to cross a picket line to do it, so be it. I’ll take whatever they pay me, and I’m happy to get it.” What makes these people feel they have any power?

I think that people end up realizing, in those situations, that they are just pawns as well, and they’re by themselves. You can’t get much done by yourself. Speaking as someone who made a movie — and it took hundreds of people to make it happen — I can say that. And any movement that we see, any big change, does take other people.

I actually don’t think most people would make those decisions [like Cash]. I think some would relate to what he’s saying.

One the one hand, many movements have put being involved in social justice as an extracurricular activity, as something you do when you’re off work or on Saturdays or whatever. And people say, I can’t be involved in it — I got to pay the bills. And we haven’t been organizing in the way that helps people pay the bills.

If there is a different kind of movement, where it is organizing around those things, organizing around putting food on the table, I think we’ll have a whole different look at these movements. People shouldn’t have to get involved after work; they should be able to get involved at work.

PM: If we were to update a movement anthem — maybe from “We Shall Overcome” — could you write one? What would it sound like? What would it say?

It would probably be a song from my last album, a song called “The Guillotine.” It’s a metaphorical guillotine because [if] you use the guillotine for real, just more of them pop up.

It’s talking about the idea that we have the ability to have a society where the people democratically control the wealth that we create with our labor, so we don’t have someone ruling us in that way.

PM: Is this a system you’d ever take part in by running for office?

Nope. Here’s the thing: I know where the seat of power really is. And it’s not in the elected office.

PM: Where is it?

It’s in the ruling class, the folks that have the money. For lack of a more understandable thing, the 1%, you know. Those are the puppeteers. The folks in office are the puppets. If we can make a movement that can get to the puppeteers, then the puppets will do whatever we want.

Think about it like this: Affirmative action came in under [President] Nixon, and it’s not because he just had one contradiction where he had some progressive idea and was like, “Hey, let’s do this.” No, it’s because the ruling class was afraid of this movement that was building.

Let’s take it back to even the New Deal. It’s the biggest liberal reform we’ve had in the 20th century — that and the civil rights bill. But that didn’t come because of a big campaign to get FDR in office. That came because all throughout the South, and places like Alabama, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, there were mining strikes, shutting down mines.

In the Midwest at the same time, in the ’20s and ’30s, there were people occupying factories. On the West Coast, at that time, there were the longshoremen who were shutting down the ports to create there, for the first time, a union.

In that milieu, with revolutions going on all around the world, the ruling class was afraid of an actual movement, perhaps a revolutionary movement happening, and because of that, we’ve got the New Deal, specifically because that’s what the left focused on — movements that were able to withhold labor.

So if we’re looking for extreme changes like that, and we want elected officials to make big changes like that, we’ve got to stop focusing only on elections because then we’re going to get caught in this cycle.

Right now, the next time a Democrat gets in office, all they have to do is be two inches to the left of [President] Trump.

The evil genius of Trump is that he’s already got the Democratic Party and people who want him out to move to the right in order to get him out. You got people cheering on the CIA and the FBI, this false nationalism where people are cheering, “Let’s only use politicians that only take U.S. billionaires’ money.”

There are people that are doing this that know better. But the opportunism of electoral politics makes people lie to each other.

If you enjoy film we recommend “Top 10 Films on Woman Fighting Capitalism and Fascism” or for more discussions on electoral politics we recommend “The Lure of Elections: From Political Power to Popular Power.”