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William Upski Wimsatt, Author of Please Don't Bomb the Suburbs, Talks Tea Party and Missouri's Progressive Potential

Categories: Books
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William Upski Wimsatt
In 1994, a 21-year-old graffiti artist from the southside of Chicago named William Upski Wimsatt published Bomb the Suburbs, an introspective, non-fiction account of race, politics, art and social change during hip-hop's golden era.

Almost two decades later, Upski -- that's his old graffiti tag, not his middle name -- has seemingly changed his tune, titling his latest work Please Don't Bomb the Suburbs: A Midterm Report on My Generation and the Future of Our Super Movement.

The book is Upski's coming of age story, chronicling his years as an author, political activist (he is the founder of the League of Young Voters and the co-founder of the Generational Alliance) and "social entrepreneur." It's also a manifesto for progressives in the twenty-first century -- written with palpable enthusiasm after the 2008 presidential election with a plan to build on the newly stoked political passion in what had formerly been a disaffected yet apathetic generation.

You can hear Upski speak tonight at 7 p.m. at the Regional Arts Commission in the Delmar Loop (his visit coincides with one of the last displays of the gallery's impressive Screwed Again mural), but we caught up with him yesterday for an interview.

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What are your thoughts on the Tea Party? They seem to be trying to do the same kind of activism you're pushing, albeit with the polar opposite end result in mind.

The Tea Party is the most successful vertically integrated movement in America right now. We're trying to build a counter-force to it, but I'm a huge admirer. It was a really smart move by a bunch of huge money people to invest in building it into a political force. Now the grassroots feels like they own it. I'm an admirer of what they've built and how they've built it, and we need to take it seriously and build a real counter-force.

Is there anything progressive movements can learn from them? In your book you talk about how you're a big admirer of Van Jones - should liberals adopt those types of aggressive "gotcha" tactics and fight fire with fire or should they take the higher ground?

We need a variety of tactics. The Tea Party took a page out of our book - they all read Rules for Radicals [by Saul Alinsky] and I think the big picture is we need to turn the Titanic, and what the Tea Party is focused on right now is voter turnout. They're using very sophisticated voter organizing techniques. That's what their entire focus is right now. It's not disrupting meetings -- that was last year. We need to meet them at the ballot box is what we need to do right now, and Missouri is one of the absolute most critical states, as it always is.

Reading your blog, I was particularly struck by one of your posts defending Obama and trying to convince people that "change" isn't going to happen overnight. But you also write that, "The over-arching reason the Obama administration isn't listening to us more is because we -- the organized left -- are not actually as powerful a constituency as we think we are." Do you still believe that? And who do you think he is listening to?

If you do a power chart, we're maybe in the top ten. But if so, just barely. There's Wall Street, there's military contractors, there's the right wing, there's the lobbyists of every major industry, there's the Tea Party in the right wing, which is much more powerful than us right now -- they're running candidates for U.S. Senate -- and then there's us. And we're complaining that we're not being heard enough. Well, we have to build more power. It's that simple.

The president represents the country. The president has to listen and try to do what's right for the country. He has to listen to the most organized and powerful interest groups and right now we're barely in the top ten. So we need to move up the power chart and, yeah, we'll be listened to more. Just because the president's conscience might be more with us, if we haven't done our jobs and out-organized the tea party, then we shouldn't be surprised you know that we're only getting half a sandwich.

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photo by Keegan Hamilton
A portion of the Screwed Again mural at the Regional Arts Commission
Is it because the interests that make up the progressive movement are too fractured? You have environmentalists, gay rights and everything else -- pick your cause -- and it seems everybody has one policy interest that they work toward instead of looking at the bigger picture.

Yes. Traditionally, the left has been focused on resisting individual bad things and the right has been taking over the government and doing everything they want so that we spend all of our time playing defense. That's kind of the thesis of my book. Our generation, we've done all these great things, we need to grow up and get power and take responsibly, and we need to build a super movement that connects all these issues because we're all getting screwed by the same set of billionaires and their yahoo followers.

Frankly, the artist community is critical to that. The super movement, it doesn't exist yet, it's coming into being. We have to imagine it and imagine a new way of doing business and I think St. Louis, as much as anywhere else in the country, is ground zero for that to happen. It is a red state and there's a huge amazing creative community. There's also a vibrant progressive community there, and if we can get it right in St. Louis, then we can get it right in Missouri and we can build a model to really change the country. That's where the action is. It's not D.C., it's not in New York or California or Chicago. If we can get it right in Missouri, then we can totally transform this country.

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