BEHIND THE MOVEMENT
THE SOUNDTRACK FOR DEFEATING GOLIATH:
INTERVIEW WITH RENALDO PEARSON
by Autumn Breon, Songs for Good Advisor
As we mourn the loss of the statesman, Civil Rights leader, and instigator of “good trouble” Congressman John Lewis, it’s important that we also acknowledge the leaders that stand on his shoulders. Leaders like Renaldo Pearson are literally leading us in today’s march to freedom. Pearson works tirelessly to fight corruption using grassroots approaches. As the Director of External Affairs for RepresentUs, his efforts bring together conservatives, independents, and progressives in an effort to pass anti-corruption laws across the country. Last summer, he walked over seven hundred miles to bring the world’s attention to the United States’ broken and corrupt democracy.
Pearson was influenced by civil rights advocates like Michelle Alexander to use his expertise in community organizing to dismantle America’s racial caste system. He helped organize one of the largest acts of American civil disobedience in 2016. The Democracy Spring protests demanded legislation to end voter suppression and reform campaign finance practices. These protests in which 1,400 activists were arrested led to results. Almost one hundred members of Congress nearly called for hearings on voting rights and Democratic House leaders released the “By the People” legislative package. The results of the 2016 Presidential Election could have understandably deterred Pearson, but the reality of voter purges and vulnerable voting systems further encouraged him to continue combating injustice.
In our conversation, we discussed the intertwined nature of marching, singing, and grassroots organizing. As we ruminated on the ecosystems of social justice, our dialogue was a meditation on ancestors like John Lewis and Dorothy Height. Pearson’s homage to freedom fighters is as apparent in his choice of role models as it is in his methods of organizing. As the next generation of freedom fighters lead us into the realities our ancestors dreamed of, advocates like Renaldo Pearson remind us of how far we have come and how far we still have to go as we continue to instigate good trouble.
AB: Last year, you walked 700 miles from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. to declare a state of emergency over our broken and corrupt democracy. Could you tell me more about that?
RP: August 6th was just a couple of weeks ago and it was the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. I launched #Democracy911 walk to Washington, DC to declare a state of emergency over our broken and corrupt democracy. I ended up taking 1.5-million steps from Atlanta to DC, which was the same number of voters purged in Georgia alone, between 2012 and 2016. It was the silence on this historic breach of democracy -- the unhinged voter suppression and unprecedented millions of voters purged from the rolls -- in the wake of the first presidential election (2016) without the full protection of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (coupled with the partisan gerrymandering, corrupting influence of big money in politics, two-party duopoly, vulnerable voting systems and foreign hacks) that compelled me to walk and ultimately get arrested sitting-in on the Capitol steps in civil disobedience to break this silence.
RepresentUs helped pass 23 anti-corruption and pro-democracy measures at the local and state level -- the most in U.S. history (in "red" and "blue" states alike). And over 80% of all voters (including 84% of independents) now want to see these reforms passed at the federal level.
Debates and national conventions are moot without fair elections (devoid of illegitimate voter purges, unhinged voter suppression, and vulnerable voting systems). And any proposed solutions to the issues at hand are moot without a fully functional democracy to advance them (e.g. a congress that truly serves the public interest via independent redistricting commissions to combat partisan gerrymandering, and publicly funded campaigns/small donor matching/vouchers to combat the corrupting influence of big money in politics). Generations prior did way more.
We just lost a titan, John Lewis, who was arrested over forty times and marched for the same reasons. That's the shame of it all. The walk was grueling. It was challenging, but I do not regret it. I met so many awesome people across parts. I met people that understood that in addition to our democracy being on the brink of failure, the corruption that we're experiencing is lethal at this point. Whether it's the unprecedented mass shootings we're seeing, the existential deadline of global warming, you name it. It was really powerful to see this Gen Z effort connect the dots between the corruption of the climate movement and the general corruption of the system. We really can't make any advances on any of these other fronts, including climate or environment, until we fix our broken and corrupt system. Fixing our broken and corrupt democracy is the Goliath and David's army must focus a slingshot if we're all to advance in earnest. Otherwise, we're going to continue to face diminishing returns on every other front, particularly at a time when the clock is running out.
AB: I see that you use grassroots campaign strategies to “defeat Goliath.” Why do you choose that approach to fight corruption?
RP: Because ultimately, democracy comes down to two institutions, One is the institution of democracy and that's what we're calling out. The process is corrupt right now. The other institution is the people. Whenever I'm depressed about the institution [of democracy], I can turn to the people for inspiration because ultimately, you don't have a democracy without the people. That's why the grassroots strategy will always win and that’s you cannot win without it. Even the Declaration of Independence has the famous line about how government is formed by the consent of the people. We as the people have the power to alter any form of government that gets in our way. I really don't see any other way of winning anything the people want without the people involved. I think it's important that we remember that lesson. I think we kind of faltered with that bit. We saw the election of Barack Obama and folks thought, “Hey we’ve arrived.” I attended Morehouse College, so I was baptized in the history and ecology of the civil rights movement. People are at the core of that history. The power of the people is always more powerful than the people in power. That's the message of that walk. That's the message of the movement that continues today.
AB: You chose to march seven hundred miles. The act of marching has played such an important role in non violent resistance: John Lewis and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Detroit Walk to Freedom in 1963, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Why do you think that marching is so vital as a form of nonviolent resistance?
RP: Marching shows the will of the people. You can’t silence that. Even if you take my voice away, I'm standing out here for a cause with a sign or a message in solidarity. It's important to register what Dorothy Height called “righteous indignation” and to send signals to those of us who many times get discouraged by the weight of oppression and injustice. It's important to send signals that we are not islands. Marching brings all of that out.
AB: Speaking of Dr. King, he described songs as “the soul of a movement.” We were talking about John Lewis as well and he said that “a movement without song is like a bird without wings.” What do you think about the role of music in a movement?
RP: It's the universal language of the soul. It really is. Even if we can't unite because of echoing and competing voices screaming out during a march, there’s usually a good number of folks that can sing a song together even if they've never met. That brings me to an important point to make about songs marching and everything we've addressed so far. Civil disobedience and the importance of the importance of that First Amendment right to assemble is as American as the American Revolution.
AB: Civil disobedience is how this country got started.
RP: This is something I had to constantly remind people! Those who are not aware of their history are doomed to repeat parts of it right? So let's be aware so we repeat the good parts and understand that civil disobedience is in our DNA. Look at John Lewis's example of “good trouble.” Without it, we wouldn't have had the Voting Rights Act which literally paved the way for a Barack Obama. The three points you’ve raised (grassroots organizing, marching, and singing) are all tools that go along with civil disobedience.
AB: What did you sing while you were walking?
RP: We sang “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”
[singing] “Won't take nothing for my journey now, keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on, hold on, keep your eyes on the prize, hold on”
AB: What effect did music have on you when you were tired or growing weary?
RP: I needed them. I started to really give in to the oppressive heat that came with that journey. On those back roads of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, the songs were everything. I had my phone with me the whole way. On those back roads, there were times where I thought my life was in danger. When I think about Ahmaud Arbery, that could have easily been me several times. I needed the songs because they connected me to and reminded me of the ancestors who endured so much more.
I listened to many of the songs from the [civil rights] movement and when I wanted some motivation I'd listen to some hip-hop and Trap Music sometimes. I had a lot of gospel music on repeat. Music helps you feel the highs and the lows.
AB: You described music as this lingua franca. Even as you describe your memories of exhaustion and the climate during your 700-mile walk, those memories seem just as vivid as your memories of the songs you sang and listened to. Why do you think that songs have the power to change how people think and act?
RP: Because they remind us of the common fabric of humanity. They remind us of what Dr. King said when he said in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” We're all caught up in “an inescapable network of mutuality.” Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Songs remind us of that. The best songwriters remind us of that when they write lines that feel relevant to our lives. Songs can remind us that at the end of the day, we’ve got more in common than we don't.
AB: What does Songs for Good mean to you?
RP: I think songs for good is a downpayment on reminding us how important it is to have music as a part of the movement. We have not yet come close to the repertoire that was developed for songs representing the civil rights movement. I think Songs for Good is a good instigator and downpayment. It’s a catalyst to push us towards leaning in on the songs and poetry that inspire change and to fill in the gaps in our hearts.
Click for more about RepresentUs and their all-out effort to protect the 2020 Election and Renaldo's 700 mile Democracy 911 walk.