An Interview with Debra Sweet: Let’s Make History!

Revolution Newspaper | September 29, 2015

Debra Sweet, Director of World Can't Wait, has joined the Rise Up October Steering Committee. Revolution newspaper conducted the following interview with Debra, who is working out of the national office of #RiseUpOctober and has her finger on the pulse of the emerging movement for massive protest on October 24 in New York City and for actions on October 22 and 23. She is on the #RiseUpOctober Steering Committee along with Nkosi Anderson, Nellie Hester Bailey, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, Carl Dix, Alice Howell, James Lane, Rev. Jerome McCorry, and Travis Morales.

Revolution: Give us a sense of how things are developing for this historic event.

Debra Sweet: We are challenging people to become organizers for Rise Up October right now. Carl Dix recently shared this: “An NYU student working on #RiseUpOctober recently said: ‘I believe silence, like inaction, is consent. Anyone who is not participating in the sparing of lives, the urging of new practices, they are complicit in the deaths that we see reported.’ She is right. Let’s heed her words and together make history!”

Revolution: Give us a feel for what’s happening at the National Office.

Debra Sweet: People are getting in touch with us to get into this. I recently spoke with a Black student organization at Princeton, and they are forming a contingent and will be there. Also, we just heard from an NAACP at Hofstra University asking can they bring a bus.

Some important new developments are: We raised our first $10,000 of our goal of $100,000 in the first weekend of our crowd-funding project.

Revolution: Stop right there for a sec and give our readers the URL where people can go to donate.

Debra Sweet: It is https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/riseupoctober-stop-police-terror#/, but there’s a quick, easy one to remember: igg.me/at/riseupoctober.

Revolution: OK, we’ll pause for a moment to give people a chance to donate… And we’ll come back to this. OK, go on…

Debra Sweet: Also, Carl Dix will be the "Keynote Elect" at a major Night for Justice at NYU on October 1, promoting #RiseUpOctober. That event is at the Kimmel Center for University Life, 60 Washington Square South, 7 to 10 p.m.

And, as your readers know, Steering Committee member Nkosi Anderson is featured in a powerful interview in Revolution newspaper/revcom.us speaking about how his faith tradition and moral convictions have led him to throw in with this historic effort (see “Interview with Rise Up October Steering Committee Member Nkosi Anderson: ‘Hey, enough is enough! We need to put an end to police terror and fight for a better world.’”).

Revolution: What’s happening in the faith community?

Debra Sweet: Here’s an interesting story: Some people have been involved in the discussion within the Unitarian Universalist Church nationally over the controversy surrounding the Beverly Unitarian Church in Chicago, Illinois that took down their “Black Lives Matter” sign when racists objected and threatened them (see “Open Letter to Beverly Unitarian Church—Which Side Are You On?” at revcom.us). Some of these people have argued you have to stick up for principle whether or not it’s easy. So this has been part of the mix and this controversy has been reverberating. Some of them had been talking about needing to take more of a stand, and one of them picked up a palm card for Rise Up October on the subway and had been invited to a planning meeting. I think maybe they saw that as an “omen”—something telling them they had to go to a planning meeting for Rise Up October, and they came. They are taking important responsibility to house people, particularly family members of people killed by police, who are coming to NYC for the march.

Another church had a meeting to plan how to participate in the march—they decided they want to house some families and that they need palm cards for services on Sunday to get out so parishioners can get them out at work and in neighborhoods where they live.

New people are signing on from the religious community in NYC including, recently, the Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski from Cathedral of St. John the Devine. We are working with people from the Micah Institute connected to Union Theological Seminary, and reaching out to the religious community, challenging them to organize people to provide housing.

Revolution: That sounds really important. Also, I know from the beginning families of people killed by police have been a driving force in this. How is that developing?

Debra Sweet: Families have been a driving force so far. Many are still in acute grief. There are people involved in this who lost family members in 2015. But many are saying they are doing this to stop it from happening again to anyone. There is an 11-minute video at igg.me/at/riseupoctober that features really moving, powerful testimony from many of them.

We have a Bring 100 Families of Victims of Police Murder to #RiseUpOctober task force that includes some families themselves—but also people who want to make it possible to bring families here. Some of these families are out in the communities raising funds to get to New York City. In Atlanta, the family of Alexia Christian, killed on April 30 of this year, is going out in the community and raising funds to be in New York. The police murder of Alexia Christian has attracted international press coverage. Other families have their bus tickets now and are doing fundraising for the trip, including hot dog sales and bake sales. But this cannot be all on them, and raising the funds to bring 100 families of people killed by police to NYC requires major funds.

The task force working on this recently had a conference call with some 40 people including people from Northern and Southern California; Seattle and Tacoma, Washington; Utah; Houston, Texas; Chicago, Waukegan and Zion, Illinois; Atlanta; Cleveland; and from a number of cities in North and South Carolina, including Charlotte and Greensboro. 

This is all part of posing to all of society: WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?? Everybody who agrees with the simple demand that POLICE MURDER AND TERROR MUST STOP should be there on October 24. During the conference call, a number of family members spoke movingly about the situation overall in the U.S.; about what happened to their loved ones who were murdered by police; about the cover-ups and the perjury; about the attacks on the character of those whose lives have been stolen. 

Families wrestled with "what is it going to take for people to open their eyes and see" what is happening, and how the work being done to raise funds with groups and people for Rise Up October and the 100 Families can begin to impact this now—building up to October 24. Families discussed the need for us "to be clear on our focus—Rise Up October in NYC October 22-24: Which Side Are You On?" Thousands and thousands and thousands need to be in NYC for this national mobilization.

Alice Howell, the grandmother of Justus Howell who was murdered by Zion, Illinois police, is on the National Steering Committee, and she and I welcomed the family members on behalf of the Steering Committee. I emphasized that we've got four weeks to put families "on center stage" to have all of society confront the reality of thousands killed by law enforcement in the U.S. And I made the overarching point: significant outreach needs to be done to people, organizations, the progressive religious community, professional organizations, unions etc. to "open their wallets, to open their hearts, and their pocket books" to make 100 Families for Rise Up October possible.

Alice Howell said, "There is no price tag on stolen lives—multitudes need to stand with families..." And Alice discussed a range of fundraising activities she has been involved with her daughter, Latoya, including major programs featuring Carl Dix (initiator of Rise Up October with Dr. Cornel West, and Rev. Jerome McCorry, faith initiative leader with Rise Up October) and one-on-one meetings with former Congresspeople. Latoya told us about the work to secure buses to go to NYC from Illinois; reaching out to organizations, and the need to surmount obstacles; and how she was reaching out to families in a number of cities in the Midwest. 

I emphasized that while $100,000 crowd funding goal is critical, more is needed given all that will be required. But that $100,000 crowd funding campaign is crucial

There were a number of family members on the phone call from the Carolinas, and there are collective efforts being taken up right now to raise $10,000-$15,000 for at least 50 people (as a starting conception, could be more...), including numerous families who have lost loved ones to murder by police, to be in NYC October 24. People in on the call from Northern California, including family members, shared their experience raising funds for Rise Up October 100 Families Project: They had BBQs—one raised $400 selling hot dogs. The people who did it said, "It was a simple thing—and it wasn't just hot dogs—people donated a lot more than just for the hot dogs" so families could be in NYC.

Revolution: Everyone who hears these family members speak, at least anyone with a heart and a conscience, feels very challenged and inspired to act.

Debra Sweet: Yes! And also, these family members are levers to get the word out in society. Yesterday, for example, Gloria Pinex called a press conference to speak publicly about the conspiracy to cover up the murder of her son, Darius Pinex, in Chicago, that was front page in the Sunday Chicago Tribune. Along with demanding justice for her son, she called on people to join her in NYC on October 22, 23 and 24 for Rise Up October—Stop Police Terror! And challenged people: Which Side Are You On?

Georgia Ferrell is the mother of Jonathan Ferrell. On September 14, 2013, in Charlotte, North Carolina, Jonathan Ferrell—a 24-year-old Black man—was injured in a one-vehicle accident. When he knocked on doors seeking help in an upscale white community, police were called. When they came onto the scene, they shot Jonathan 10 times, killing him! Georgia Ferrell has endorsed the CALL for Rise Up October, and she issued this statement today:

“We have to keep this struggle alive. I'm working hard here fighting for justice. We have to put those officers behind bars. This is an attack on our children! We have to keep praying, and we have to keep fighting to stop them. If we stop... if we rest for a moment... it starts all over again. We have to be in the forefront. My parents marched for equal rights, to be treated right. Why in 2015 is this happening? I want to let the nation know what's going on. We need a new future. People in authority don't stand up and speak for the people. No one in authority has stood up and said innocent people are being killed. Jonathan was seeking help! The President says nothing. When Freddie Gray is killed by police and young people stand up, the President says the kids are ‘thugs.’ I'm a Christian and a parent. If Jonathan was doing anything wrong I'd say so. He needs help and the police fire their guns. This must be stopped. I'm flying to NYC for Rise Up October. I've put the word out for funds. And I am using my own money. I am very excited about Rise Up October. We need to do this!”

Revolution: That’s very inspiring and should be a challenge to everyone reading this. So let’s share that URL to donate again, and also can you give people a phone number to call and be part of all this right now?

DebraSweet: That quick, easy-to-remember URL to donate is igg.me/at/riseupoctober. And people can call 646-709-1961 right now to get involved. Also, there are materials and information at three important sites: riseupoctober.org; stopmassincarceration.net; and www.revcom.us.

Revolution: Talk about how the fundraising is going. You mentioned that you raised $10,000 in the first weekend of the crowd-funding campaign.

Debra Sweet: First let me emphasize how important this is. A significant amount will go to bring families of people killed by police—“Stolen Lives families”—to NYC. And for transportation—buses to take people to NYC. Some will also go for publicity for Rise Up October. This needs to be seen by millions of people. We need to buy newspaper ads, print posters, and get the word out to millions. We are aiming to buy ads. This very public crowd-funded campaign is, number one, telling people this is serious and for real, and a way to get people involved.

The first weekend, the $10K we raised included a $5K challenge donation from someone in the faith community in the Bay Area.

Here’s an experience to share: At one meeting that was called to involve people and reach out in NYC, someone went around with a laptop and collected online donations—as much as $100 and $150. We don’t just want pocket change. People don’t have that on them in cash so if we’re serious we have to have them get out their cards and go to igg.me/at/riseupoctober and donate.

Fundraising is not a sideline, it is a way people can take a stand to stop police terror NOW and to make the national outpouring Oct 22-24 in NYC powerful. And it is important to donate through the crowd-funding site. There are “perks” there—like signed copies of books by Cornel West. But you can also get recognition for something like sponsoring a bus or a family. One couple donated $500 to sponsor the travel of one Stolen Lives family member.

Also, while it is critical we get large donations, small donations are important as well because the number of donors makes an impact on people with significant financial resources. So no matter how much you can donate, do that now. We need 1,000 donors—yes we need the money but we need that number of donors. We won’t do this unless we talk to a lot of people.

Revolution: So when people get to one of those websites you mentioned, riseupoctober.org, stopmassincarceration.net, or revcom.us, they need to get palm cards and the Call for Rise Up October—with an impressive list of signatures. But they also need to get people to the crowd-funding site.

Debra Sweet: Right! You can text that URL—and get people to donate now. Text people the URL: igg.me/at/riseupoctober. They can donate, they can watch the 11-minute video of highlights of the very powerful program in NYC on August 27.

Revolution: Your take-home message is?

Debra Sweet: We’re challenging people to become organizers right now, to stop police terror, come onto the streets of NYC and change history. Begin right on the spot with a substantial online donation—and then share the link on social media and call your friends and tell them you donated, and challenge them to donate. This all comes down to: Which Side You Are You On?

This interview was published on revcom.us on September 29, 2015.