Welcome to Freedom School

A lot of folks thing that stairs are for
walking instead of an outside place to teach and learn. So, The Undercommons was started by the
Black Infinity Complex, Jan. 2016 at the JANSS Steps at UCLA, in response to the
global student movement against oppression and domination in all of its forms. The Undercommons currently meets in public at the JANSS Steps every Tuesday and Wednesday, indefinitely. In The Undercommons, we cultivate a coalitional space of revolutionary learning
on UCLA’s campus. In this maroon community of university, we come together across difference, to collude and collaborate, and to share the radical histories, politics and joys of
our community. Robin Kelley reminds us that unless we have
a space to imagine and envision what it means to fully realize our humanity
all the protests and demonstrations in the world won’t bring us to our liberation. Then The Undercommons is a type of intellectual harnessing of the nightmares in our lives, for the purpose of transformation of ourselves, our universities, and our societies. Thinking about ways that
we can could create a sustainable action within the community, that spoke to
not just the Michael Brown verdict as an isolated happening, but global white supremacy, and global imperialism to some
extent. Right? So we’re paid to read and write and study history, some of us, and so we felt like we should be able to construct – sort of a new framework of action for how to handle and develop and create the type of world that we want to live in. We’re theorizing on how to do this in the community, on how to deal with cops and violence, and – and food deserts and
things of that nature for about a year, until – and you know violence is erupting, there’s more state-sanctioned violence, there’s more global anti-black actions happening, things of that nature, so its definitely
accelerating. But then – the actions happen with the students at Mizzou, and the football team there, and there was this wave of not just black students but marginalized students, coming out and actively organizing against the institution and so we were inspired by Fred Moten and Steve Harney’s book The Undercommons: Fugitive Study & Planning and we decided to imagine a school without the restrictions, the hierarchy, the violence of western universities…
and we named it ‘The Undercommons’. Umm – heavily inspired by their book, but also with the understanding that its a moving idea, and it’s still in the process of being created; it will always be in the process of being created. Last year, at the end of the year we were theorizing on the question:
how do black lives matter? Not do they, but how, right? So usually
we’re like “of course black lives matter , you know we’re humans, they matter.” But that’s not the question. Professor Robin D.G. Kelley asked us that
in response to a critique that colleagues of mine had written up, and what he was trying to get us to understand was
the material value of black life in the US. So if we look at that history, from slavery
through migration and industrialization, and then de-industrialization, we have to
ask different questions about how black lives matter and how they matter now. What we think is
– as sporting and cultural producers right? Basketball players, NFL players, R&B, rap – the black body, black practice, and black imagination is extremely important both
monetarily and in terms of the construction of people’s racial, gender and sexual identities. The way that they use black
bodies to do that, that’s where they matter. So from that we were thinking about stuff like a cultural boycott, so when that happened it was like I think we thought maybe – we discussed that we should switch
gears to the student movements and so that’s when we decided to start thinking about: okay what’s that gonna be? what are we gonna do, is it gonna be a
protest? – we wanted it to be something sustainable. A sustainable
form of resistance. That’s when we thought of a freedom school. I’d like to say the historical basis for
the freedom school could range anywhere from John Brown’s movement during the
antebellum era to the Black Panthers who actually had their own version of freedom
schools – and a lot in communities of marronage that had been happening all over
the world. That is, runaway or fugitive, slave folks that broke out of their slavery
and created their own communities, created their own worlds. So we took a lot of those histories. We –
we’re basically employing a history of abolitionism that black folks and that
marginalized folks have had for centuries. So this spirit of abolitionism came through
within the Black Panther Party’s freedom schools and free breakfast programs and
stuff of that nature when they wanted to create their own world within the community
within the United-they called in the United “Snakes” of America [laughs] with three Ks. So they would have these freedom schools,
and they taught political education, they taught marxism, class struggle, etc. etc.,
and they would have free breakfast programs and other free food programs as well, where
they’d feed the community free of charge. So we’ve employed that as well in The
Undercommons, and the idea of a freedom school – loosely – which is to create a
school that’s counter hegemonic to the neoliberal university and the neoliberal
school structures that we’ve become accustomed to here, in that, we are trying
to counter the hierarchical structure of the university and reaffirm that everyone
and anyone can potentially teach or learn something within The Undercommons. We’re countering the idea that comes from
the myth of meritocracy in that the people that come here actually come here because
they worked that hard, that structural racism and classism – and sexism, etc. –
hasn’t played a primary factor in that. And so with that, we bring and we are
planning on bringing in more and more community folk, who aren’t in academia,
who may have wanted to come to university, or who may not want to be in the university
because we believe that that sort of space conjures up a type of dialectic that’s
necessary for us to move forward and create and reimagine our world. So that’s – that’s our freedom school. It’s beyond an extension of like ethnic
studies courses – as wonderful as ethnic studies courses are – we’re actually
challenging the very idea that these certifications, these awards, these PhDs
etc., are as meaningful as the West would claim they are. We’re challenging the idea that they could
save us from being murdered with impunity on the streets, and that they’re actual
markers of our knowledge and our capacity to formulate and theorize new things. So it’s – why would you create a freedom
school at a school, right? It’s because we’re not critiquing the
university, we’re rendering it illegitimate Because we don’t want to end the school, we
want to end the world that makes the oppressive system make sense. And so we –
we established that. And so that’s what it is.
We kind of just figured out in terms of the timing and all of that, but that was the
idea. Of making it a freedom school, and a
perpetual space of resistance. That’s hours and hours and hours of work,
I mean we had probably been discussing The Undercommons for months, and what’s key
is to have a group of organizers that are differently positioned black people. So to have queer folks, black cisgender
women, black cisgender men in that space, across different class
positions was really important in terms of the theorizing. So it was – looking at historical examples
of freedom schools and how they functioned, and what were some of their problems and
challenges, also what were some of the things that worked. Looking at the text
‘The Undercommons’ and discussing that collectively, writing independently about
what we thought the space should be, and then coming together, merging those ideas
and challenging eachother, until we got to a consensus about what we wanted the
space to be – or what we envisioned it to be in terms of a
foundation, because we really don’t know what a new world would look like, right? So
we can’t be so arrogant to think that we could theorize at the jump, but its to set
up the conditions of possibility for a new world is really what The Undercommons
is about. I think our method of disruption is very
very important, but moreso than that this particular space – ’cause we
disrupt the traffic flow, right? The bottom of JANSS steps is like the bottom of these
major steps on the campus, and this is a very divided, spread out campus, you know?
We have medical students who have never been to Bunche Hall or um, or people in YRL
who’ve never been to the field, right? It’s a very divided campus. But JANSS steps in
particular and that kind of area is like the meeting – the converging point – of all
these people, right? So, yeah, it’s a great point of disrutpion but also it is – it is
a great point of – not accessibility, but visibility. It’s a point of visibility
because I think what a lot of people like to assume when we think of ‘fugitivity’ is
that we’re in hiding all the time, and this is not the case. We’re not hiding with our
university, we are very very much visible. We have a speaker out there, we’re playing
music, we got dancing, and sometimes we got instruments. This is a project of visible
fugitivity which, in effect, works to further delegitimize the university in
terms of – in terms of professionalization, in terms of order and stuff. And stuff like
that. Does that make sense? Interviewer: It does. Yeah, yeah, so we’re practicing a new –
well I wouldn’t say it’s new, ’cause this has been done in history before, but it’s
new for this time period, for this space – a new form of fugitivity. And it’s –
and it’s in your face [laughs]. We knew we wanted – it was very important
that it be public. And then we had to make some practical
decisions and also some theoretical ones in terms of the kind of disruption that we
wanted to make spatially and politically,
right? So some of the practical concerns
were: we wanted – we knew we needed to be loud. A part of taking up space is not just
actual physical space but sound – um – I think Professor Theresa Johnson calls it
sonic reclamation. So we knew we needed a place where we could
be public and be loud, but not do it in such a way where they could easily come and
say “Hey you’re disrupting classes,” and then shut us down, right? So like a space
like this quad here – in front of Bunche, right next to classes, so if we were really
loud here, we’d get shut down. So we knew that wouldn’t work. And then we were thinking about – alright
so we got JANSS steps, there’s no classes real close to the bottom – at the top you
have the library, and you have Royce – so at the bottom of the steps it wasn’t, um,
it was central. A lot of traffic down the steps, but it wasn’t like a central spot
where the university is performing its
classes. So we could be loud, we could disrupt space
because people moving through that don’t recognize that as being a regular function
of the steps, right? So then we made the decision to do it at
the bottom of the steps, and then we kinda further theorized on it: “Okay, so how do
we interact with the steps, do we just sit in the grass, do we go in the actual plaza
and do it?” – ’cause we had a thought of doing it in the quad area, and just using
the grass area. But those are already ways in which the university wants us to
interact with the space right? So they want us to walk down the stairs and
walk up the stairs and go to class. And then they put these little grassy areas out
so that we can sit with our little closed groups and then, you know, talk and chat
and drink coffee and tea and shit. Um, so, but what we wanted, is we needed to
disturb people’s visual and spatial modes of thinking. And the way to do that is you
block some fucking stairs. I mean, and you saw that today. Everybody that said
something about us blocking the stairs has been a cisgender white man. Every single
one. Because they woke up in the morning and they were thinking ‘the stairs work
this way, the sidewalk works this way, patriarchy works this way, sexism works
this way – and so that’s what it does spatially, is you get up and now something
in your life is disrupted – and for people of color that’s every day, you know? If I get up and walk in the street, like
Mike Brown did, I could be dead. Because a white man didn’t want me using the street
that way. You know? But now we’re on campus collectively, and we’re letting you know as
soon as you visualize the interruption in your daily life, now you look up and you
say “What’s going on?” And so your indifference becomes annoyance, and your
annoyance may become curiosity, and your curiosity may become knowledge. It depends. Some peole come through there and they’re
just annoyed, and that’s fine. But some people are annoyed and then maybe ask
questions, they read our sign, they listen, and so then it could potentially politicize
people. So us occupying JANSS steps is sort of like
a subversion of that history, a subversion of the history of those steps and sort of
reclaiming it as people of color, as a space for our own, and reclaiming it as a
space – sort of like – a marron community of the university – someone who is a part
of the community of the university but seeks to, like, deconstruct – disassemble,
like, the mechanics of the system of oppression that the university embodies. It was a sort of word of mouth process.
Um, I had a friend who is a part of the Black Infinity Complex and he sent me a
message like, “Hey we’re starting up The
Undercommons!” I’m immediately interested because it seems
like a space in which #1: I can meet other people of color, which is pretty difficult
[laughs] already on this campus and like, within – being a grad student in a
particular department. Often I kind of like, get stuck in the
department and don’t really branch out and talk to other people. So, I thought it was a really exciting
opportunity there, and I’d been wanting to get more involved with like ideas of
activism or using sort of my scholarly work and weaponizing it, I guess? Um, and this is exactly the space that has
people who are interested in doing the same thing, and are interested in, like,
that kind of project. I think that this is a space that a lot of
people are interested in, like, challenging those – those perspectives, learning more
about themselves and other people, society and trying to figure out solutions for that
sort of stuff within our own disciplines. And I think The Undercommons as an academic
space is really important because it’s a space where we can take what we learned
from our own disciplines, from our own bubbles, and bring it into essential space
that we can share with other people. Um, so that’s how it fits in with like, a
university setting, but I think much in the same way it should fit into L.A. There’s particular politics in L.A., and
there’s particular ways in which people identify with themselves, their spaces, the
other people – and if we can, sort of, create a space where we can all come
together and share that information and work together collectively toward
liberation, I think that’s amazing. And we could, you know, do some – like,
it’s the beginning of some real grassroots transformative politics. We do critique the university. We did
that today, in terms of the march – but we don’t find the university to be legitimate,
we do find the university to have stuff. Important stuff like money and books and
other resources, because they wouldn’t guard it so much if it didn’t mean shit to
anybody. Um, so our relationship to the university is a criminal one.
Interviewer: Ok. We want to steal what we can. We want to –
and that might sound like “Oh, you’re breaking laws,” but it’s an intellectual
theft, you know? The, uh, they don’t ask very much of us,
in terms of students of color. They want us to come here, and they want
to put our faces on brochures, and they want us to satisfy a version of diversity,
so that white people can figure out – so that white people can learn how to work
in a corporate world with people of color. That’s all we’re here for, right? Um, and then we come here – where the books
and the money is – and we use it to do radical, fugitive study.
And so the relationship to the university is criminal, and the relationship to the,
um, outside of the university, to groups fighting for liberation, to communities of
color, to poor folk, to marginalized people of different sexes, genders, and class
statuses, and races, our relationship to them is:
that’s our community. So, what we’re here to do is ‘steal’
resources from the university and create versions of knowledge – so it’s not only
one set of knowledge – in communication with, in collaboration with, community folk
and activists that aren’t here, and to develop strategies and tactics for
liberation. Then, to distribute that work to those folks that are – that are doing
that work on the outside. It’s in the hopes that the space is
revolutionary for these folk, and different people with layered forms of
oppressions on them. Because it’s a space of critical study and
critical learning, and so what we stress during our sessions in The Undercommons and
during our study hall, is an openness, a patience, and a certain type of precision
when we talk about violence and trauma, and things of that nature. So, um, at the crux of it all, The
Undercommons is an extremely loving space. We love eachother. We love everybody
there, and I think that baseline really, um really sandwiches – or engulfs everybody
that comes into the space that has dealt with instances of violence against their
sexuality, or against their identity, or or against their gender… in their
classroom, or within their family – within their blood family – or within their chosen
families, or anything like that, on the streets or by cops, um – so at the base of
it The Undercommons is – is a beloved community full of love, yeah. It’s developed into something far more
powerful and epic than we could’ve ever imagined. Only because of the way – of
people’s response to it. We couldn’t have imagined people, um, to
have felt so much at home within this ‘Tuesday, Wednesday’ space from 12 to 3 PM
You know what I’m saying, on the steps, and if you’re out there it’ll be real hot
or real cold or raining, etc. etc., but there are a contingent of folks – at least
20 to 25 people, sometimes 50, sometimes 150 – that will come every week and
participate, and – and eat from The Undercommons, and feed at The Undercommons. I don’t want to be a stagist, but the
possibilities that it’s provided now, is that it’s created a community of critical
people. Um, and not just academics, right, but critical people that are community
people that are activists, that are students, faculty, so – a grassroots, loved
community, um, where people can get critical education, and they can organize
resistance. And, um, I think that we may not have
realized how important that was, like the healing – like the healing aspect of it. So it’s a space of organizing, it’s a space
of critical education, but I think what we maybe didn’t expect is that it’s a – well,
somewhat we did, but – that it’s a space for people to come and heal. Because the
university can be an incredibly violent place, and there’s people that come out of
class, you know, frustrated or crying from some aspect of white supremacy that’s
been proferred as legitimate knowledge. People can come to our space and we could
debrief on it and they can find healing and they can find community. So that’s definitely something – I guess
the prominence of that, of the role of it being a loving space for marginalized
people I think is affecting the space in proportions that we might not have
theorized initially. But the study hall was supposed to have that function, so we knew
that it needed to be a loving space because we got that critique from people that we
shared the idea with. So, and we moved forward on that. Also, now that people know that the space
is there, it’s – other groups have issues that they wanna organize on, now that they
know that there’s a space for people, they can do it, you know?
Interviewer: Right. So it’s the, um, it’s a visible community
of resistance. I see these spaces developing quickly, um,
and dynamically, and radically, and – not outside of critique, and not outside of
faults, and sloppiness sometimes, or reactionarism.
But I hope, um, that students and workers and – and staff members and family members
and the youth, young and old, and white and black, etc. etc., right? I hope that they
take up this idea of fugitive study and fugitive planning, and being in the
university, but not of the university. Or being in the institution but not of the
institution. I hope they take this idea and they run
with it, and they use it to create what they’ve been dreaming of. We started getting feedback from students
that are like, “Yo, The Undercommons has saved me in graduate school,” right? Um,
“It’s so – it’s so wonderful to have a space to release our frustrations,” etc.
etc. Um, so definitely that, definitely the response from some of our beloved faculty.
Robin D.G. Kelley just wrote about us in the Boston Review – which, should be out,
or it’ll be out soon. And he praises us. Of course, we know that our work is a work
in progress, and he knows it as well, of course, but – but, yeah, Kelly Lytle
Hernandez, a contingent of supportive faculty that we really couldn’t have
imagined as well. And Harvard Law – the students at Harvard Law are trying
to start an ‘Undercommons’ as well. Um, students at UCSD are interested in
starting an ‘Undercommons’. Um, we have connections with students in
India, we’re about to make connections with students in South Africa, so its
becoming very much an international project which was the original intention, to be
clear. But it’s happening faster, and much more dynamically than I think any of us
could have ever expected. And in the process, as organizers, ’cause
it’s not just the original organizers, like we’re a body of dedicated students –
at least ten to fifteen – we’ve all formed a beloved community and we’ve learned so
much about organizing with eachother against this violence and for our life…
really. I’m really excited about The Undercommons
and like, what the possibility of its future iterations are. So in terms – I
guess I have to, like, talk about it on different levels. In terms of what’s
happening on the campus, what I would like The Undercommons to be first and foremost
is a more inclusive space. I think slowly but surely more undergrads are
getting involved but it seems very much like, a small group of graduate students
have sort of, like, come together, and I want it to be a space for everyone in this
– you know – local context to get involved. So not just graduate students, but
undergrads. Not just students, but people who live nearby, you know? Local
activists, local community members, all that sort of stuff. Which means, I think,
that we also can’t have exclusively an an Undercommons space on university
grounds, I think we have to like, go into communities, create a space like this, as
well. So I hope that that happens in the future. Other things are, um, expansion.
So I know a lot of other universities are catching hold of this idea and trying to
adopt it for themselves which I think is great. Um, so I would like to see
‘Undercommons’ exist – I was gonna say in every university and I would like that,
but I would like to see an ‘Undercommons’ in every community.

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