Interview by Dyan Neary
Jordan Flaherty is an award-winning journalist, producer, and author. He has appeared as a guest on a wide range of television and radio shows, including CNN Morning, Anderson Cooper 360, CNN Headline News, RT America, the Alan Colmes Show on Fox, and News and Notes on NPR. He is the author of the books No More Heroes: Grassroots Responses to the Savior Mentality and Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six and has produced television documentaries and news reports for Al Jazeera America, Al Jazeera English, teleSUR, The Laura Flanders Show, and Democracy Now.
Can you talk about your first encounter with the savior mentality, and what prompted you to start distinguishing between different approaches to activism and social justice?
I think we all grow up with this savior mentality. It’s the model of change we’re taught in our schools, and in our culture. As I mention in the book, Batman is the perfect capitalist savior hero, spending his money on himself instead of giving it away. Our popular stories have a damaging effect on our expectations for how change happens. But I think the savior dynamic really became clear to me living in New Orleans in the months after Hurricane Katrina. I saw thousands of white volunteers descend on New Orleans, bringing racism and privilege with them. I heard these 23 year-old white volunteers say that they were going to “teach organizing” to working class Black people in New Orleans.
You name Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Zapatistas, and Tahrir Square as examples of uprisings that have consciously challenged the savior dynamic. What are some other movements that are pretty consistently getting it right?
As a journalist, I’m very fortunate to get to spend time with brilliant organizers, reporting on their struggles. For example, Southerners On New Ground (SONG), a multiracial LGBT organization in the deep south that works on issues that aren’t always considered LGBT issues, but should be, like immigrant justice. Of course, I’ve been inspired by indigenous resistance, especially the movement at Standing Rock. In general, a useful question to ask of any organization is who are they accountable to, and what does that accountability looks like.
I found your critique of both “the new imperialist feminism” and “carceral feminism” particularly relevant now, with some of the contingents involved in women’s marches since the election also advocating for policies that will invariably lead to stronger police presence and incarceration. What are your experiences navigating the framework of identity while trying to advance these points?
I want to be clear that my analysis of carceral feminism and imperialist feminism comes from women of color organizers and scholars, especially the organization INCITE!, and also writers like Victoria Law and Naomi Murakawa. I’m deeply indebted to the wisdom and analysis of people of color who have been leading these struggles.
For me, as a white cisgender male, I try to always question how my levels of privilege affect my work, and how I can use this privilege to support people of color movements. With this book, I tried to be critical of how privilege has gotten in the way of myself and others who may have the best of intentions, but often not the knowledge or experience. But I also tried to lift up examples of those who have done better, like former Teach For America (TFA) recruits who rejected the savior mentality and ended up organizing against TFA from the inside.
In your final chapter, you discuss the prison-industrial complex, a subject very near to my own heart and life’s work, and abolition vs. reform in the interest of effecting change. Is it ever possible to reconcile these conflicting visions? How can we advocate for reform to improve the lives of some of our most invisible and underserved citizens, while ensuring that we do not fortify the system itself?
Philosopher André Gorz names this “non-reformist reforms,” and I think the clearest example of this is the work of the survival programs of the Black Panthers. They brought immediate changes to people’s lives, but did it in a way that also put pressure on the state, and built an organization outside the state. They brought a systemic, anticapitalist analysis to everything they did, and they were always led by, and accountable to, their community.
Can you talk about a situation where you had to let go of some of your own ideas about what a better world would look like in the wake of some injustice, in the interest of what those most affected were telling you they needed?
I think I’ve often defaulted into the savior mentality, without realizing it. In New Orleans, post-Katrina, I could relate to the (mostly white) anarchists that came to town, seeking revolutionary change. But I listened to Black community organizers that were critical of all these volunteers. A powerful saying that Black organizers in that moment would use was, “Nothing About Us, Without Us, Is For Us.” Looking back, those white volunteers ended being the first wave of gentrification, taking jobs and housing from the displaced Black community, and ultimately contributing to further displacement.
Are there other examples of saviorism you’ve encountered over the years, but did not have the opportunity to address in this book? Any issues you’d like to talk about or wish people would examine or engage with?
I think, as a person with privilege, I’ve too often been more invested in winning arguments rather than building alliances. I’ve been thinking recently about ways to remember that I may be wrong. Or, that even if I’m right, there are a lot of things more important than proving a point.
I’ll avoid the word “hero,” but who/ what have been some of your biggest influences over the years?
I don’t think I understood what organizing was until I moved to New Orleans. I’ve learned so much from Curtis Muhammad, a veteran of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, from McComb Mississippi. Shana griffin*, a Black community organizer and scholar from New Orleans. Charhonda Cox, a union organizer from New Orleans, now in Houston, Texas. Norris Henderson, from Central City New Orleans, who spent 27 years behind bars after a false conviction, and was organizing his fellow prisoners the entire time. The brilliant poet Suheir Hammad, from Palestine by way of Brooklyn. Too many others to name, though I do my best to credit them in my book.
Any last thoughts?
This is a crucial moment in history. There are millions of people suddenly aware of the systemic injustice in our society – the formerly comfortable white people that a friend of mine recently called the “newly offended”. Those of us committed to social change need to find a way to guide them to effective and accountable work for liberation. The decisions we make now will decide how effective this resistance is.
Dyan Neary is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker from New York City. Her work has appeared in Elle, the New York Times, GO, In These Times, Zmag, and the Indypendent, with a focus on human rights, health, and environmental issues. She has worked as a staff writer for the Earth Times and Conference News Daily, providing on-site coverage of international United Nations summits. She is currently a graduate student and teacher in the English department at Florida State University, and is working on a novel.
*Note: Shana griffin, mentioned above, spells her name with her last name all lower case.