An Interview with activist Beck Levy: musician, public speaker, writer

In the class we took on nonfiction writing at Mills College, Beck Levy sat at the end of the table facing away from the windows, and the sun at her back made her dark curly hair shine at its edges. She wore a look of intensity on her face much of the time during book discussions—her green eyes sharp and wide, sometimes lined with colorful eyeliner; her mouth slightly open, ready to speak, to call out privilege or ignorance where most of us couldn’t see it. It was 2015. I was afraid of her because I sensed she was ten times smarter than I would ever be, and that she had answers to questions I hadn’t even thought to ask. I wasn’t wrong. I sought her out for the conversation below because her penetrating intelligence and political awareness make her an invaluable source of insight into what it means to live as an activist. Long before white people of our generation were activated by the campaign and now the presidency of Donald J. Trump, Beck was protesting the war in Iraq, doing banner drops, and staging die-ins.

Beck is open and warm. Talking with her over the phone in our three interviews, I got the sense that there is little she hasn’t thought about; she had an in-depth answer to most of my questions, with analysis to back up her opinions. She’s a polymath—a musician, public speaker, book artist, mental health activist, writer—but labels don’t stick easily to her because she’s also inclusive, and labels often work to exclude, to simplify. She’s not easily summed up, which is partially why she’s a good source of perspective right now, when everyone seems to be searching for “The Answer.” 

She knows things aren’t simple or easy, that to think there are solutions is to be naïve: We will never “solve” the problems of racism and bigotry, sexism and misogyny. But we can think more critically, we can work to be inclusive, to listen, to live at life’s intersections, and hope that these actions will encourage others to take up the fight alongside us.

Illustration by Judit
Illustration by Judit Orosz

The Rational: You see injustices very clearly. I’m wondering how you came to be so aware, especially as a white woman.

Levy: The first thing to point out is that I’m from D.C. I grew up in Maryland, but right over the line, and I was riding public transportation by myself from a very young age. When you are growing up in an urban setting from a young age you have access to a lot of culture, experience, and perspectives you might not have in a more isolated setting. [W]hen the Bush administration started, I was a young teenager and that really expedited my political consciousness. I started going to anti-war protests very quickly after September 11th and just plugged into that, and met a lot of like-minded people.

I’m laughing because it’s really wild to look back at that time right now. Me and a bunch of other high schoolers in the D.C. area […] met at protests, and organized and formed a coalition…sort of like a network of affinity groups. We would go to national [and local] mobilizations together. We also organized school walkouts and protests. We had a lot of support from the local D.C. activist scene. We got introduced to WPFW [a D.C. radio station] people, and did an interview on the air with them. Watching the way other groups organized made us take ourselves and what we were doing seriously, and so we had press releases for everything we did—I was the press contact.

Part of it was that we were in D.C. and so we felt we had a really clear channel to the forces that were ruining the world. Part of it was that we were at that age when you aren’t taken seriously by adults and you’re about to inherit a world—those realizations are really clear when you’re a young teenager. That was happening at the time when all this shit was going on [that] we didn’t want to happen. It just seemed so simple to us. It felt like the end of the world. You know how it kind of feels like the end of the world right now? It felt like the end of the world then. When you’re a teenager, you don’t have a good concept of time. Every moment feels like it’s going to last forever. You just don’t understand that there’s an ebb and flow, that circumstances change. The immediacy we felt was really intense. I skipped school to go to protests so much, I can’t even quantify it. I would skip school to go to protests downtown, I would skip school to go to protests at other high schools.

[The] Department of Homeland Security was created that year [2002], [and] shit got really serious for us organizing. It’s such a new department, and people often forget that…Tom Ridge was the first [Director] of the [Office] of Homeland Security and Blair High School—this high school in Montgomery County (right over the D.C. line into Maryland), had about 3,000 students—it’s just an enormous high school, and because of that it has an enormous auditorium, so Tom Ridge was going to use the auditorium for some type of event or press conference, which, in the D.C. area, at the time, was not unusual […] So, we found out that Tom Ridge was coming to Blair and we had members of our organization at Blair, and we all just skipped school and came to Blair to protest Tom Ridge, protest the Department of Homeland Security, and protest the War on Terror.

It was mayhem. They weren’t expecting us, at all. They weren’t prepared. It was this period of time where we were transitioning from an implicit police state to a total police state, I guess. It was just crazy. We did banner drops inside [and] outside the school. We fucking took down the American flag and replaced it with a black flag—it was bananas. Through that, I met people who I’m still friends with today, who are still radical today. I also found out that there was an anarchist bookstore in D.C.—called the Brian MacKenzie InfoShop. I worked there one day a week. I’d always been a big reader and kind of a nerd and a loner, so I just read a ton of stuff there. That’s the best way to sum up my political awakening.

The anti-globalization movement was still active at that time, so I was able to draw the connection between the economics of free trade and globalization and the economics of the war machine. I had a lot of really enlightening experiences like getting beaten up by the police. Also, the InfoShop was in a part of town that was right at the beginning of being gentrified. I started seeing how black communities were policed. I got exposed to a lot of shit in the three-year period between 14 and 17 that completely dictated who I was to become for the rest of my life.

[Our coalition] was called Students for Peace and Justice – SPJ. […] We definitely contained a spectrum of political opinions, but the people who were organizing things and were the movers and shakers were identified as revolutionary communists and anarchists—I identified as an anarchist. I forgot to mention that we all did Food Not Bombs, which is a decentralized, activist thing where anarchists take food that would otherwise have been wasted and do public feedings in public places for people who are experiencing homelessness or anyone at all who wants to eat for free. It’s a demonstration of how wasteful capitalism is and how even just a little bit of funding away from the defense budget would be transformative for people who are experiencing food insecurity.

We also did die-ins [in the suburbs]. A die-in is a type of protest that seeks to bring the war home in terms of making people think about the violence that people in other countries are suffering as a result of U.S. imperialism. Usually, it’s a bunch of people laying on the ground pretending to be dead somewhere while someone else distributes anti-war materials. Sometimes there’s someone pacing around, hectoring the audience on a megaphone while people lay around. Sometimes people are outlined in chalk. Sometimes it’s just that there are chalk-outlines of bodies and info on how many people have been killed. We tended to take it to a kind of next level where we had a lot of fake blood and [stuff].

The Rational: You were an activist long before many white people of our generation realized there was anything to actively fight against or to try to reform. What do you think of the mass white “resistance” of previously politically inactive people instigated by the election of Donald Trump?

Levy: I go to a therapist who is like this really badass, old-school activist who is queer and was involved in ACT UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power]…she told me that one of the ways that white supremacy often manifests itself is through a sense of urgency. I thought that was really interesting because…that really ties into this most recent activation of white people in response to the election. There’s a lot to legitimately be furious and activated by in terms of the election. The sense of urgency that white people have brought to it should probably be deconstructed, and I think has been deconstructed by people way more qualified to do it. The main issue is that things have been wrong for a very long time. Since the first white colonists came to this land. The Black Lives Matter statement on the election concluded with, [“The work will be harder, but the work is the same.”] That’s something that every white person who’s newly activated should sit with.

There’s also some really great writing by women of color, particularly black women, in response to SURJ – Standing Up for Racial Justice – [it] is a group for white people who normally self-describe as being there and organizing themselves in order to just show up when black leadership tells them to, but in practice it ends up playing out in more messy and complicated ways. [It] often manifests as groups of white people in white-only spaces, talking about racism, which is suspicious and suspect. Also, just in terms of answering questions about the problems of white mobilizing and white organization, I have a lot of opinions and perspectives on it, but I am less well-qualified to comment than black thinkers and black activists who are doing the great challenging writing on that topic.

The Rational: The white community who are very new to this, newly awake to their privilege – many of them thought everything was pretty much OK. We all definitely need to be listening to people of color especially right now, but I also think we need white people to talk to white people because if we leave all that work to people of color we’re asking way too much.

Levy: Oh, yeah. I totally think that expecting black women to carry the entire weight of the world is really fucked up, although it is what historically happens and is happening. I just think that there’s a way that white people can take the ideas of black activists and represent them as their own, rebrand them, and extract credit from them. Since white people have more of a platform than black people, that results in credit not being given and the platform not being extended. I’m not saying that’s something that happens in every case, it’s just something that is absolutely a big problem and something that I try to be really conscious of when I’m talking about this stuff.

Back to your original question, people genuinely not realizing that there was a problem before now is a symptom of a lot of things. One is the idea that progress is linear, and we’re always getting closer to justice, which is not true. Another is the product of really intentional decades of segregation that insulated white people from the realities happening outside of their bubble. Another is the tendency of people in liberal democracies to not feel responsible for creating change if they aren’t personally affected by it.

The Rational: And Donald Trump made us all feel personally affected by it?

Levy: Yeah, I think that white people for the first time in a while felt like, ‘Oh, shit, my life could get fucked up from this.’ Even if it’s not like, ‘I directly see the specific effects these specific policies could have on my well-being,’ It was white people being like, ‘I like to think of myself as not a racist and not a sexist and not an Islamophobe, and this person is making it really hard for me to go on like that because they are going to purport to speak for me and represent me to the world, and in order to keep thinking of myself as a good person, I have to actively distance myself from them.’ Every white liberal got to feel really good about themselves for eight years. As long as you didn’t have any Yemeni friends, you got to feel like the racial utopia was at our fingertips and you had a part in creating it.

The Rational:  In the summers of 2015 and  2016, I felt a lot of pain and lack of any kind of agency when it came to the shootings that were being televised of black men by police, and black women, too––though I heard less about their stories. I definitely felt a building sense of anxiety because there’s such a big disconnect between those events and how we get to a place where we’re not having these things happen. It feels like stepping into a space where so many people have been in this pain for so long would be an intrusion.  

Levy: Just kind of working backwards—you’re definitely not the only person who I’ve heard say, ‘I don’t know how to find an entry point for things like organizing against police killings of black people because it feels like an intrusion.’ What I think is at the heart of it is that, ‘I’m afraid that I will step into this space where I’m uncomfortable, and I will be wrong. I will be made to feel uncomfortable. I will have to make mistakes and be called out for those mistakes. I might be called racist.’ That is part of white people’s anxiety in getting involved in this stuff and is maybe a reason why white people don’t show up to Black Lives Matter marches. If you think about it, black people have been showing up to white-led activism a lot, being a minority, and not being sure if they’re welcome or how to participate, and it’s way higher stakes for them. It’s ok to just enter, ask, and do a ton of listening. Ask how you can be supportive, and maybe be told things that are painful to hear, like, ‘I don’t feel like telling you how to be supportive, figure it out.’

The way that the police have been terrorizing communities of color—you can draw a direct line from the militarized forces that would hunt down slaves to the police departments of today. There’s absolutely a direct line between those two white nationalist organizations. I don’t think there’s a problem with – no matter what type of organizing you’re doing – incorporating resistance to police terror into your organizing. There are really clear connections between whatever your issue is and that because it’s about land. It’s about black people – not all black people, but, black communities that are most vulnerable to police violence – being forced into and driven out of various neighborhoods, and [being] historically looted, having their labor extracted for wealth that they can’t access, and being victim to environmental catastrophes as a result of industry that white people profit from. All of these things relate to the way that black life chances are stolen, whether it’s at the end of a gun that a police officer is holding or because of untreated asthma [they have as a result of] environmental racism. Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as an unnatural shortening of life. It seems so simple and so obvious, but when you think about it, there’s just no reason that, using that definition of racism, it can’t be a part of any type of organizing.

[A] lot of people of color and black people in particular have been putting a lot of effort into telling white people how to participate. There are all types of articles about like, ‘As a white person, here’s how to be an accomplice in our fight against white nationalism,’ [and] right down to advice about what to do when you come to a community meeting for the first time. So, I’d say…the first advice is to listen to black people. Don’t reinvent the wheel. That’s part of white urgency, thinking like, ‘I’m going to apply my mind to this problem and solve it.’ How ‘bout, just listen. And then after you listen, trust and believe. Other aphorisms that come to mind that I’ve absolutely not invented but I’ve gleaned from, attempting to, as best as I can, listen to black writers and black thinkers [are]: ‘Stay in your lane,’ and ‘Don’t make everything about you.’

You don’t have to worry that your particular oppression isn’t going to be dealt with if you’re fighting for the liberation, wellness, and livelihood of people who are more vulnerable to institutional violence than you. If people who are more vulnerable than you are safe and well, then you are also going to be. Grassroots is the opposite of trickle-down.   

The Rational: You are not a pacifist. Tell me more about that.

Levy: So, Black Panther, Fred Hampton, said it best when he said that, “We say it’s no longer a question of violence or non-violence. We say it’s a question of resistance to fascism or nonexistence within fascism.” [Quote corrected to match speech transcript.] That’s probably the best and most legendary way of answering that question. Truly, what a beautiful turn of phrase. I think of violence as being a precondition of the moment, and so opting out of violence is kind of like opting out of capitalism—it’s the sea we’re swimming in. So, I wouldn’t ever call myself a pacifist because of that.

I totally get why some folks would be like, ‘I’m a pacifist,’ because, to them that means, ‘I’m anti-war.’ I just don’t find it to be a useful shorthand because, for people who have to fight, often physically, to defend their lives, it just seems insensitive and self-righteous and with tones of moral superiority. A lot of people who call themselves pacifists, if you dig, would say, ‘Of course, I believe in self-defense.’ I don’t think that self-defense vs. pacifism are stable categories.

Things are really complicated and nuanced, but I’m an anarcho-communist. Definitely hardline, militant, anarcho-communist.

The Rational: And what does that mean in your daily life?

Levy: Well, in some ways it doesn’t affect my daily life at all because, like I said, we’re all swimming in the same sea. It does mean that when I am involved in resistance, I think about whether or not it’s resistance that pushes us towards a horizontal society, that places personal autonomy as the highest value and the community as the fundamental social unit rather than the individual. For me, it all comes back to capital. Any time I’m trying to analyze a situation, I’m like, ‘Ok, what’s happening here with power? What’s happening here with capital?” So, that’s my lens.

The Rational: Have you applied that lens to animal rights and the food system, and how those things are linked to climate change?

Levy: Oh, sure. That was one of the original reasons I became vegan…fifteen years ago. I was really concerned about climate change when I was a kid. The elementary school I went to [had] like, really aggressive Earth Day celebrations. We would have school-wide contests about like, ‘Best Drawing About Saving Water,’ or whatever. It was really part of my consciousness. […] I had an unarticulated understanding of climate change…as having something to do with the smoke that came out of cars. I went vegan because I found out – and I don’t remember how – that the agriculture industry was hugely responsible for [climate change], and that a huge amount of resources go into producing one hamburger.

Environmental reasons were a big factor in me deciding to be vegan. As I got older, I started understanding the critique of lifestyle politics [as] not necessarily a way that change was going to happen. I think this is what the expression, ‘There is no ethical consumption under capitalism,’ means; the idea of voting with your dollar—it isn’t really clear how that would make change. People often say like, ‘Well, if everyone became vegan, then the meat industry wouldn’t be able to function,’ but that’s not going to happen. If your individual act doesn’t wage that outcome, it’s hard to rationalize that as being a huge force of social change.

Another thing that happened as I became older is that I became really disillusioned with how white veganism is, and [I] got more of a sense of how messed up it is that groups like PETA would compare the slaughter of animals to slavery, and how that actually just feeds into very classic racist caricatures that animalize black people.

Food is a very personal thing. The types of food we eat, the types of food we have access to, and the types that our families’ cultural and religious traditions connect to—that’s all very personal and part of the fabric of our lives. It’s really presumptuous to assume that because factory farming is so brutal, and the meat and agricultural industries are doing such violence to our planet that the answer is for people just to rip their food choice and traditions out of their lives and replace it with, I don’t know, a veggie burger, or whatever. That said, I’m still vegan, and I’m not sure if I ever won’t be vegan, and I still really identify with animals, but being vegan is a personal choice in my life and it’s not something that’s part of my politics.

The Rational: What does the media get wrong about mental health?

Levy: The mental health and disability community is very organized and very well-spoken. Advocacy is having a louder voice than it used to and I don’t want to discount or minimize that in the critique that I’m about to give.

The media and mainstream society have a really faulty model of what mental health and mental illness [are]. In my opinion disability is constructed in part by its environment. The example that’s commonly used in disability studies is that using a wheelchair is only a handicap in a society that uses stairs. That same principle applies to mental health in a lot of ways. Having depression, or attention deficit disorder, or something [else] is only a disability in a society that demands that you structure your days a certain way and that you perform certain types of labor in order to live and earn a living and have a right to live. That doesn’t get talked about, pretty much at all: The ways in which poverty and diminished life opportunities interact with mental health is also not talked about. Intergenerational trauma as a result of institutional violence doesn’t get talked about. A recent meme on Facebook is like, “It’s easier for people with mental illness to buy guns than to buy health care,” and that was a really depressing thing to read. People clashed with that pretty quickly and said that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it, and that we absolutely deserve health care, but that juxtaposing it with gun laws in this way is not particularly helpful to people who are struggling.

The Rational: The National Institute of Mental Health reported that, “In 2015, an estimated 3 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. This number represented 12.5% of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17.” How young were you when you began to be hospitalized for mental illness?

Levy: That is so sad. I don’t look at statistics like that super often and that is super sad. Thank you for telling me about that. I was first hospitalized when I was twelve and I’ve reflected on that in a number of different ways. My understanding of why that happened has evolved and probably will continue evolving over time. One thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how I could have just as easily ended up in juvenile detention or jail if I wasn’t white, or if I lived in a different zip code—all these different factors in why some people go to a hospital and other people go to jail. I wasn’t violent towards other people or threatening to harm anyone else, but I definitely had behavioral health issues, and mental health issues. When you’re a kid like that, jail is the front-line, first resource for mental health in this country. I’m just so grateful that that’s not where I ended up, not that a hospital is a safer or more healing environment than a jail in some ways, especially if you’re there because you don’t have any other choice.

The Rational: You’ve written that a privileged (white) person who survives a suicide attempt will likely be taken to the hospital, but in the same situation non-white and/or underprivileged people will likely be taken to jail. How can communities build their own, more effective support systems?

Levy: The first thing that people need to do is stop calling the cops. Introducing a police officer into any situation is generally going to make it worse and put any brown person in the area at risk of arrest or death. Sometimes when you say, ‘don’t call the police,’ people immediately jump to well, ‘what if there’s a serial killer with an axe over my head?’ – these really hyperbolic scenarios. For one thing, in a lot of these [suggested] scenarios, if you call the police, they’re just going to come find your body at that point? But also, that’s not the most common situation in which the police are called. A common situation in which the police are called is when a white person feels uncomfortable. People call the police for all kinds of situations, but I feel like the most direct action people could take if they’re sad about the unequal way that white supremacy affects who’s hospitalized and who’s jailed is to not call the cops.

The other thing would be, if you want to be an advocate for people with mental health problems, or if you want to be political in your survivorship of mental illness, center people who are the most affected by the prison industrial complex in your work. If your mental health advocacy is about imprisonment, it’s going to affect people who are less affected by [the prison industrial complex]…if you center your reform around the people who are facing the most abject forms of oppression like torture and confinement, then [your efforts are] going to benefit everybody.

The Rational: What do you think of the claims that Trump is mentally unfit for the job of president?

Levy: Oh, lord. It’s probably true, but that’s not why he’s unfit. He’s unfit because he’s a white supremacist, rapist oligarch. Everything about his administration and the entire political structure that enabled it and continues to enable it is unfit. I’d say the mental health stuff is pretty fucking low down the list. I don’t really pay that much attention to democratic shenanigans, like these gestures towards getting him out of power. I would love to see bad things happen to 45, for sure, but I think what you’re asking is, does it hurt mentally ill people when people attack or criticize Trump as being mentally ill, and I think the answer is absolutely yes. I love that prominent psychiatrists have been outspoken in saying that it’s actually unethical to diagnose people who are not your patients. It’s not particularly useful, ethical, or even medically true to be like, ‘Oh, this guy has narcissistic personality disorder, or early stage dementia or something.’ It does hurt people with mental illnesses or people with neurological conditions. That said, I’m not sayin’ he ain’t off his rocker. I’m just saying it doesn’t seem like the right tack.

The Rational: What was also underlying in that question for me was that, when I hear people claiming Trump is mentally ill, it seems to me that they’re correlating mental illness with lack of intellect.

Levy: Oh, yeah, I agree. Incompetent. Totally. It seems like there’s a whole constellation of reasons why it’s harmful. I mean, equating mental illness with abuse of power—for sure, there’s a huge intersection between power dynamics and mental illness, but again: people living with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of abuse of power than the perpetrators of it. So much of the public dialogue is wasted [on] these really frivolous things, like ‘he has dementia,’ like ‘is he incompetent and stupid?’ like ‘did he commit witness intimidation?’ Probably all of the above, but more importantly, this is a white nationalist who is consolidating power and acting with impunity. Let’s definitely focus on that.

Sarah Hoenicke is the managing editor of the Rational. She lives with her partner in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she’s working toward her Master of Journalism degree at U.C. Berkeley and revising her first novel. Her work has appeared in the Rumpus, the LA Review of Books, Guernica, BOMB, Gulf Coast, Brooklyn Mag, and many other publications. Sarah and Beck met while studying in the English Department at Mills College.