Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Archive for November, 2011

Occupy, Unions, NGOs and the Perils of DC Activism

November 30, 2011 By: Mel Category: Politics, Seeking

The CapitalI moseyed over to Occupy K Street last night for the general assembly and the action committee meeting. Not much to say about the GA – except maybe to mention that there was a serious shortage of women. Of the two that spoke, one offered to take notes and the other was reporting back from the committee that cleans and does dishes.  I’ll let you make your own comments.

The action committee meeting was much more interesting. If you have been following a certain blogger (who I most definitely would never, ever socialize with – please don’t ban me too) then you know that the action committee is exhibiting some of DCs most common ailments.

There are a whole lot of people in this town who make their living in orgs that lobby. That includes me, by the way. I work in the advocacy department of the Oxfam International Secretariat. I don’t lobby. I make sure people get paychecks and that their insurance doesn’t get cancelled. (There. Full disclosure. Happy now?)

I don’t actually think lobbying is very useful. I do think the watchdog role we play has some use. My peeps watch the World Bank and IMF. But I stay the hell away from all that shit in my spare time. I’m sure a lot of the people down at occupy are like me. They are paying their rent by working in an org that they hope doesn’t do more harm than good and are happy to have an outlet for the stuff that might matter. The revolution will not be funded and all that.

The thing is, it is extremely difficult to get out of the professional, policy, advocacy, pro-democrat mindset in this town. And not everyone is just paying the bills. There are a lot of climbers in DC. That includes lots of people in organizations that you may think are warm and fuzzy.

Happily, the first part of the action committee went pretty well. While we were still talking national politics, the general tone was that democrats and republicans are equally responsible for our mess and should all be targets. So far so good.

But then the conversation turned to actions sponsored by SEIU et al. While the committee separated itself from them to some extent, we were still basically talking about actions that will inevitably connect Occupy with organizations that spend money and energy to elect democrats to office.

One minute we were talking about how fucked up it is that the democrats are having a $1,000 a plate fundraising dinner. The next minute we were talking about supporting (however nominally) an organization that funnels millions of dollars to democrats in order to get access to the halls of congress.  (How’s that been working out for you, SEIU?)

Orgs that focus on the political process drain all our energy. They are part of the problem. Any organization that is taking our money and giving it to political candidates needs to be a target. They are screwing us. The idea of marching on K street with a bunch of lobbyists (albeit more benign ones) makes my brain hurt.

Nonprofits shouldn’t get a pass either. We spend too much money on the political process as well. We can’t support candidates, but we spend a lot of time on policy. I should note here that, while the Oxfam International Secretariat is not unionized, Oxfam America is represented by…wait for it… SEIU.  (It may be very awkward in the office tomorrow.)

I’m not saying that nobody should ever lobby for anything. People have immediate and pressing needs. Sometimes a minor reform can actually help somebody without increasing the state’s power. Changing the crack to powder cocaine sentencing discrepancy does not challenge the racist prison industrial complex. Though I’m sure those people getting out of prison a bit early are glad someone did it.

But that is not radical change. And people need to recognize that being reformist and radical at the same time is damn near impossible.

The capital occupies this city. It is just too tempting for activists to focus on big, sexy targets like congress, especially in a town where so many people move here specifically to focus on national and international politics. Then we have the continuous stream of outside protesters that come in needing coordination, support, and places to stay.

It weakens us.

All the time that we spend on protesting the national government or supporting the constant stream of demonstrators to the capital is time we do not spend on local DC issues. We live in a city that has hideous statistics. Three out of four African American men in DC will spend time in prison. Our illiteracy rates are through the roof. Our AIDS rates are astronomical. Unemployment may be as high as 50% in some areas.

And by allowing ourselves to be sucked into the national political scene again and again we lose so many potential allies that would work with us if we were focusing on their daily struggles.

Another thing I noticed last night, and that I have noticed in lots of activisty spaces in DC, is the rather narrow age range present. I was probably one of the oldest farts there. We live in a city that is packed with people who have experience with everything from CORE to ActUp. Where are they at?

It seems to me that a lot of activists get burned out on the national protest scene. It is emotionally draining and shows very little results. A person can only do that for so long. Some of those people go off and work in small orgs focusing on local issues. Those people need our support and we need their experience.

I don’t know how we avoid getting caught in the national, international, labor, NGO, lobby black hole. I’m not sure if the reform v. radical or agitating v. organizing conflicts are resolvable – or even manageable. And I have no idea if we can actually get more people in on this conversation. But I don’t see where things are going if we don’t try.

Things You Might Have Missed

November 30, 2011 By: Mel Category: Misc

I’m going to kick off with the lulzy item. That would be this manboobz post on us women with our slutty clothes. I can’t even hate these people. They are too funny.

I thought this post about buy nothing day was really interesting. While I understand the anti-materialist sentiments, the messages that come across tend to be sexist, racist, and classist.

If I’m feeling optimistic, and being a happy drunk I am, I have to think that stories like the one about this old dude being targeted by drug warriors for selling water purifiers has got to signal the beginning of the end of the drug war. I mean eventually they have got to go so far overboard that we all snap, right?

I do not agree with everything in this piece, not even close, but I really hate how we have let certification/education (university degrees) become some sort of faux social justice issue. Fuck asking for free education until you are forty. Start asking why you need alphabet soup at the end of your name to earn a living wage. Ok?

Interesting post on the lack of farmers in the U.S. The romanticization of farming doesn’t usually confront the fact that few farmers want their kids to be farmers and few farmer’s kids want to farm.

The DC Trans coalition has a meeting coming up on December 3rd.

The economist explains how the ability to shun people encourages them to be cooperative.

Mike Davis talks about car protests. I suffered through a couple of these in Miami. They are a pain in the ass, but they get attention.

And in Occupy news

If you are not following Charles’s posts on Occupy K Street, you should.  I expect I will have something about this SEIU bullshit tomorrow.

Finally, I’m sure I will annoy some of you, but I was not impressed with that Naomi Wolf piece being passed around. Short on fact, in my opinion. I’m not alone. But I am happy to be convinced. Go for it.

What Choices?

November 28, 2011 By: Mel Category: Criminalization, Stratification

A couple months ago, the Positive Force book club read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. One of the book club members thought that Alexander had gone too far in comparing the drug war to Jim Crow. He pointed out that it is far different to be discriminated against based on some accident of birth than it is to be discriminated against based on a choice that you made to break the law.

I don’t think Alexander was suggesting that Jim Crow and the drug war are exact equivalents. She made the case that the drug war was part of a continuum. Chattel slavery and Jim Crow were tools for economic exploitation and social control. Once one form of subjugation was no longer viable, a new form came to take its place.

The conversation got me thinking about choices and how often we are mistaken about what choices we think we had or what choices we think other people had.

Could a person have chosen not to do drugs or sell drugs. Maybe. But what if you had few other options for employment? What if you simply have no compelling reason not to be high all the time? Even if I agreed that it should be illegal to use or sell drugs, which I don’t, I would still ask why someone made the decisions they did. I would still ask what choices people perceived they had, why their choices are illegal, who made them that way, and to what purpose.

I still ask those questions when people do things that I actually think are wrong – violent things, cruel things. Whatever choices people make that cause themselves or other people to suffer should be examined.

We don’t all have the same choices in life. Sometimes it is perception. Often, as is the case with many of the people who end up in prison on drug charges, the options have been intentionally narrowed. Our drug laws were created in large part and are enforced selectively to criminalize very specific people. Once you criminalize/demonize someone, it is so much easier to take away their rights. And that serves some people’s interests quite nicely.

Looking at the social and historical circumstances and at the institutional processes that led someone to make a decision does not absolve them of responsibility for their decision. It doesn’t ignore their agency. It puts their decision in context. And context is everything when it comes to choices.

No Mascots

November 23, 2011 By: Mel Category: Photos

Sign that says "Mascots are not allowed without exception"

I love mistranslated signs. This one was on Playa Chacala in Mexico. If you did not know, mascota is the word for pet in Spanish.

Things You Might Have Missed

November 22, 2011 By: Mel Category: Misc

Cat looking at rubber duck and saying "How Intriguing"I thought this article about the connection between authoritarianism and sexism/racism was really interesting.

It would make such a difference if pop culture showed racism in the complicated ways that it actually plays out. This piece on racism in Sons of Anarchy is worth a read.

I don’t know what is more appalling – this article about forced sterilizations in Peru or this article about the recent suicides in California prisons. (And note the part about notifying the families of their loved ones deaths with a fucking recording.)

Before I got called off to the occupation of Franklin, I was watching this impromptu concert arranged by one of my PF pals. Iif you have a few extra bucks, are a fan of punk rock, and have not already donated; they are still trying to raise money for the Positive Force documentary.

This post about the work that amazing and gorgeous women are doing all around the world is inspiring. And they are right that the video about land grabs in Colombia is a must watch. It is an hour long, but it is totally worth it. Take the time.

I’m extremely amused that the colonies are now bailing out the colonizer, although they have no friggin business doing it when their people are starving.

And finally, in occupy news:

The Power to Take

November 21, 2011 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Core, Politics

A former Israeli president just got seven years in prison for rape. The disgraced former head of the IMF has been accused of sexually assaulting at least two women. And now it appears that DSK was having orgies arranged in a prostitution scandal that involves police and other government officials -possibly paid for by private corps trying to get in a little extracurricular lobbying.

Herman Cain is accused of sexually assaulting at least one woman and harassing many more. There are stories about cops raping women all the damn time. We have coaches raping little kids.

So often, the response to all this shit is shock and disbelief. At worst are those fuckers who call rape and assault “harassment” or “sexual relations” or some such nonsense and then promptly deny that sexual harassment exists. (LOL to Coates response in that last link.) At best you might have someone observe that power corrupts. The fact that power corrupts seems pretty obvious to me. It does. But a better question is,

Why do people pursue power in the first place?

People pursue power in order to take the things they want without having to consider other people. They pursue power to lessen the likelihood of having to suffer any consequences for acting on their most violent, greedy, selfish desires.

I’m not saying that all people who pursue power are rapists. Maybe assaulting women isn’t your thing. Maybe you want to take other people’s land and get away with it. Maybe you want to be able to call in the military to protect your oil wells. Maybe you are just convinced that you are the smartest person in the whole damn world and, if you had power, you wouldn’t have us pesky plebeians getting in the way of your plans for saving us.

I’m never shocked when powerful people abuse others. I’m shocked when they don’t.

The Occupation of Franklin

November 19, 2011 By: Mel Category: Seeking, Stratification

The Franklin School building in DC was occupied today.

The building was being used as a homeless shelter until 2008, when the city closed it down just before winter. The plan was to sell it to a developer who would turn it into a boutique hotel. Homeless advocates, including Eric Sheptock, fought like hell to stop the closure. You can read his story here.

It took about three hours for the police to pull the occupiers out of the building and haul them off. Until then, supporters did what they could to rally the crowd, document what was going down, and block the exits to make it a little more difficult for the police to get them out – at least not without witnesses.

It makes no sense, in a city with one of the highest populations of homeless people in the country, to have a building sitting vacant while people are sleeping on the streets.

A passerby, who asked us to explain what was going on, agreed. He was “one of the lucky ones” who was able to get a home voucher before they cut the local rent supplement program. He commented that, in other cities, people said occupiers were violent, inferring that was not the case tonight. I said, “They always make it look like that.” Let’s see if that will be the case tonight.

Below are some pics I took.

* Update: Read the statement from Free Frankin DC

Remember When All the Dudes Were Hot

November 18, 2011 By: Mel Category: Culture, Stratification

Some economist named Glen Whitman wrote a post called Pan Am and the Economics of Hot Flight Attendants. In it he claims that deregulation lowered air fares and made paying for hotness in your employees prohibitively expensive.

Since I have read that piece, I have been racking my brain to think of a similar situation for dudes. Is there a career out there where hotness was required of the dudes and where we are all decrying the current lack of hotness?


Megan McArdle, responding to the post, theorizes that a whole bunch of things (like unions and anti-discrimination laws) made it impossible for airlines to fire people if they gained a couple pounds or hit the ripe old age of thirty (Oh, the horror!). Moreover, as more women were flying, less airline customers cared “whether the stewardess has a nice rack.”

A lot of people complain that there is too much sexualization, that everything is about selling sex. I actually think there might be too little sexualization. I don’t necessarily care that someone wants attractive people pushing their product. I care that the definition of attractive is what a middle-aged, white, heterosexual man with the maturity of a fourteen year old is supposed to like.

Our world institionalized and socialized prejudice and economic privilege. It ensured that most people with money to spend were going to be middle aged, white dudes who would certainly hide it if they were gay. So it stands to reason that the airlines would hire the employees that those people were supposed to like.

Which makes me wonder. If there had been no unions or anti-discrimination laws, but only the growing economic power of women and POC – along with the growing visibility and acceptance of homosexuality – would flight attendants look much different than they do now? (Hello scantily clad rent boys flying shuttles to circuit parties.)

It is an impossible question, of course. Because the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, unions, and all the rest had a direct bearing on the economic power of the people I am talking about. But the point I am trying to make is that the idea of what is beautiful is subjective, cultural, and individual.

The problem with the way sex is sold now is a problem of whose narrow definition of beauty still reigns supreme. The problem with the way sex is sold now is that it still reflects very real power imbalances, economic and otherwise.

I’m not particularly attracted to skinny, blonde, white women under thirty. I’m not the only one.

Occupation and Motivation

November 17, 2011 By: Mel Category: Seeking, Stratification

Pic comparing the "99%" to starving African childrenI hate this picture.

I get the point that they are trying to make. The “99%” at the occupy protests are privileged, white, college kids who just want loan forgiveness. They aren’t really the people most suffering in the world.

It is true that many of the people who are participating are relatively well off. I’ve written about how the conversation needs to widen. I was disappointed that the occupy movement completely ignored the prison hunger strike, clearly people who are worse off than most in those parks.

I understand the frustration that so many people only open their eyes to injustice when it affects them. But what should we do? Do we dismiss people because their awakening is belated? If we want things to change, we need most people on board. Maybe some of those people will sell out, just like a lot of former hippies did. But not all of them will. Once you have experienced police  violence, you aren’t likely to forget it. Once you expand your knowledge and circle of relationships, that is not so easy to undo.

What else does that picture say?

It says that poor, POC are just sitting helpless? They are just waiting for someone to come and rescue them? Horseshit. Have you seen the Bolivian protestors who stopped a government planned road through their land? Have you seen the pink gang in India? Or how about the women’s only village of Umoja. Why do people feel the need to portray the poor without any agency? Why do people feel the need to draw a line between the struggles of the poorest and those of the relatively comfortable?

Conservatives do this shit all the time.  The Heritage Foundation loves to talk about how well-off poor people in this country are. According to Heritage, most of our poor have air conditioning and televisions, so they aren’t truly poor and should just shut up. These are the same people who would like nothing better than to erase all POC from the occupy movement.

The other thing that this picture says it that, unless you are truly “the wretched of the earth” you have no business advocating for yourself. It says that acting in your self interest is wrong. It says that people who have never starved should act only out of selflessness.

Does a rich, black person not get to advocate for an end to racial injustice? Does a privileged, white woman not get to advocate for an end to gender discrimination? Does a prisoner who hasn’t been raped not get to advocate for an end to the prison system? Are we all to seek out the most oppressed and only advocate on behalf of them? Doesn’t that indicate our belief that they can’t advocate for themselves? When does one cross the line from helping to having a messiah complex?

In The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin’s novel about a future anarchist community, the worst insult you can say to anyone is to call them an altruist. Altruism indicates an imbalance of power. You can only be an altruist if you have more than those you are “helping.”  I want a world based on mutual aid, respect, and equal power. I want a world where altruism is impossible.  So how does that fit into a world where power and privilege is currently so uneven?

I think people often mistake selfishness with self-interest. True self-interest does not damage the people around you. True self-interest recognizes that, if I do something that negatively effects my community, it will likely come back to bite me in the ass. Like Thich Nhat Hanh says,

Anything you do for yourself you do for the society at the same time. And anything you do for society you do for yourself also.

The trick is being able to differentiate between what is selfish and what is self-interested. In order to do that, we need to understand the people around us and how things effect them. We need to see systems for what they truly are.

We should all be examining our motivations constantly. But do not think that because something seems selfless or altruistic that it means the motivations are pure. Altruism often comes from people who want to feel superior, who want to pat themselves on the back. Selflessness can come from an unwillingness to examine the obstacles that you face in this world.

I’ve come across far too many male feminists who want to white knight their way into vanguardist stardom to cheer when people want to fight for “the other.”  The truth is that it is sometimes easier to fight on someone else’s behalf. When you fight the oppression that you experience, you have to face your own personal pains. And you have to face that you are not completely in control of your destiny. In order to get where you want to go, there is a whole system that you have to go up against. It’s a daunting realization.

It is important to recognize the power and privilege that you have. It is essential to be constantly examining your own motivations. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that only some people can act in ways that are self interested. We shouldnt make the mistake of thinking that it is always admirable when someone takes up anothers cause.

All struggles for justice are interconnected. The more power and privilege you have, the more responsibility you have to make sure your actions aren’t fucking other people up. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t get to fight for your own self interest. It means you have to be careful to identify what that interest is.

The Fam Circa 1895

November 16, 2011 By: Mel Category: Photos

Family Pic Circa 1895

That is a picture of my father's family. I'm not sure who the people are exactly. I think it might have been taken in Russia before the pogrom chased them out. We totally need to bring that look back.