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


William Upski Wimsatt - IMAGE VIA
Image via
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.

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.

A portion of the Screwed Again mural at the Regional Arts Commission - PHOTO BY KEEGAN HAMILTON
  • photo by Keegan Hamilton
  • A portion of the Screwed Again mural at the Regional Arts Commission
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.

Indie rock inspired by Upski? - WWW.ARCADEFIRE.COM
  • www.arcadefire.com
  • Indie rock inspired by Upski?
Indie rock inspired by Upski?
I don't know if you've heard the new Arcade Fire album The Suburbs, but the music channels the same disenchantment you felt in 1994 and have now disavowed to a certain extent. Why is that sentiment still resonate in popular music and why have you moved on?

Well, you know rock music has generally been decades behind hip-hop. Are Arcade Fire a rock band? I don't know I haven't heard the album. Did you read Bomb the Suburbs? It wasn't really about the suburbs or bombing for that matter. It was a celebration of hip-hop and urban life and like an argument for genuine integration. I really didn't have much to say about the suburbs in Bomb the Suburbs other than they are government subsidized white flight program. So, it's not at all surprising. Is [the record] a political critique?

A political and social critique, I'd say, with the suburbs and urban sprawl as the central images.

Sprawl still exists. Segregation still exists. Many suburbs are still extremely exclusive and homogenous and soul-deadening places. That's all true. A lot has changed in fifteen years, but a lot of the patterns are of course still the same. Now they've come to cities -- the suburbs and suburban mentalities have come to cities in a big way with much more gentrification and big box stores and defensible public space -- basically apartments that have fences around them instead of stoops that facilitate neighborhoods. When suburbanites move into the city they don't know any better and they want fences not stoops. Poor people are then pushed out to the suburbs where it's just like the hood, but they don't have as much access to transit or jobs or basic services.

Why aren't we seeing those types of social/political statements in hip-hop anymore?

It's really interesting. Kids today, if you tell them hip-hop used to be this politically charged art form, they're like 'Huh?' 'cause it's been kind of this commercial medium for so long that's just about individualistic, you know, swag and gun play. It's like basically two decades ago that hip-hop was like a really politically relevant art form. Basically, it's been taken over by the music industry, and basically two decades ago there was a conventional wisdom in the music industry that political rap doesn't sell and so all the political rappers lost their record deals and that has never changed.

Has street art -- Banksy and the people he's influenced -- and that sort of social commentary helped fill that void?

Interestingly, I don't think street art has become more political either. Street art is not any more political now than it was twenty years ago. It's actually totally fucking weird because twenty years ago the music and culture was much more political and there was no political organizing to go with it. Now there's political organizing but the culture is not very political or is de-politicized for the most part.

I'm thrilled to hear Arcade Fire is making social commentary of some kind. I actually don't even know what to say about that. The fact that the music industry created a consensus that that political music doesn't sell shouldn't have much bearing on what blows up now in the post record industry age. There are all these political rappers that are just underground but you do need the machinery to some extent. The realities are there are very few spaces left in our culture where underground political culture has the soil to thrive. The Internet is probably the best soil.

I was just about to say -- isn't the Internet the most vast, fertile space possible for that? I know you've embraced it- you're on Twitter and your 12 Week Plan (to mobilize voters for the 2010 midterm elections) is web-based -- what kind of response have you gotten from those mediums?

I think probably the most successful thing we have is the ballot.org, which the 12 Week Plan connects people to. You make your own local voter guide. I'm talking with some folks in St. Louis and also in the suburbs in St. Charles and O'Fallon interested in making their own progressive voter guides. It's amazing. For almost no money, we created a tool that people all over the country, or at least hundreds of places, that people make for free and they can share it on Facebook and go into the voting place with a smart phone and use it to vote. It's influencing thousands of votes at the local level all over the country for almost no money. That's kind of where the action and the exciting stuff is now. What you can do with the Internet, it's as exciting as what we were doing with a spray can 25 years ago.

UPDATE 9:05 a.m. -- Just received word that Upski's visit to the R.A.C. tonight will be accompanied by live musical performances by local hip-hop artists Nato Caliph, Tef Poe and Corey Black, a DJ set by 18andCounting (Stan Chisholm) and live art by Screwed Again artists Justin Tolentino and Daniel Burnett. Check the details over on the event's Facebook page.


Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.