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 the ‘Change’

If Education is Indoctrination, How Do We Refuse?

November 13, 2015 By: Mel Category: Change

For about five years now, I have been volunteering with an adult literacy program in DC. That is a couple hundred Monday nights that I spent reading (mostly) black history with my “learner.” (The program refers to him as a “learner”.)

I hope I’ve helped him. I know he helped me. There have been times in the last five years when there was not much in my life outside of work. Since my work life is in the nonprofit industrial complex, that means way too much time around valedictorians with hero complexes. But even when I didn’t have time for friends or anything else extra-curricular, I always had that time on Monday night.

Aside from the relief of being with someone who knows that a job is a way to put food on the table and not the whole of your identity, I learned a lot. I know more about Frederick Douglas, Fanny Lou Hamer, and even the history of black wrestlers. (Turns out wrestling is fascinating. Who knew?)

But I’m almost certain that I am going to stop tutoring. The reason is that my “learner” has a goal of passing the GED. So we stopped reading black history and started doing GED prep work. Meaning we stopped reading black history and started reading a bunch of Europeans.

I’m supposed to teach him Emily Bronte and Plato. I’m supposed to help him decipher blog posts by obnoxious, white yuppies. I’m supposed to help him take paragraph-long Dickensian sentences and make them sensical.

And the whole time I am doing it I just keep asking why. Why the hell does a person have to know that crap in order to be worthy to have a job?

I end up trying to teach him test-taking tricks and explaining that, while his answer makes a lot of sense, it isn’t what they want him to say. I end up trying to teach him enough of the white supremacist code to maybe pass a test, to maybe get a piece of paper that tells the world…..what? That he has been socialized sufficiently into European education and won’t shake things up too much?

I’ve been thinking about quitting for a while, but I keep hesitating. I hesitate for the same reason I end up doing a lot of things that I am not 100% in favor of. I don’t think my discomfort should stand in the way of what someone else says they need. So I find myself in this dilemma.

Not helping someone to jump through the hoops that may give them some material advantages doesn’t seem right. But neither does participating in the indoctrination process when I want to be participating in the exact opposite.

So what do we do when faced with choices like these? How do we find ways to help people get by in the here and now without becoming part of an indoctrination process that moves in the opposite direction of what we know needs to happen?

Thinking of Calling 911? Reconsider.

July 08, 2015 By: Mel Category: Change, Criminal Injustice System

Stats on foster careIn 2012, Prison Culture posted a little story.* The author’s friend wrote:

I saw a toddler running down Ashland barefooted and wearing very little clothing. No one was in sight. A month ago, I know that I would have immediately called the police. In light of recent events, I got out of the car and did my own detective work. I was nervous. The child was pre-verbal and I’m not good with small children, plus I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was painfully conscious, however, that calling the police might bring irreversibly negative consequences for someone — a family, the baby, me.

The good news is that I found another passerby. We wrapped the baby in my sweater and together we went door-to-door until we found the mom, who by that point was hysterical because she realized that her child was missing. Between the neighbors confirming the child’s identity and the woman’s expression when we walked up with the baby, we were pretty confident the child was hers.

Now contrast that story with two others from recent history.

You may have heard about Danielle and Alexander Meitiv. They have been fighting protective services for letting their kids go to a playground by themselves. Like a lot of incidents, it all started when someone decided to call the cops. Luckily for the Meitivs, they are suburban, white professionals with the resources for an attorney and a lot of public sympathy. They won’t be losing their kids.

Contrast that with Debra Harrell. Harrell let her child play in a park while she worked her job at McDonalds – a job that doesn’t pay enough to afford day care. When someone in the park discovered that the child was not there with a parent, they called the cops. Harrell was arrested. She lost her job. The state took her kids. She was lucky that her case received national attention. She got her job back and received the resources to fight. Many poor women and children of color are not so lucky. The “child welfare” system disproportionately chews up poor children of color.

Most white children who enter the system are permitted to stay with their families, avoiding the emotional damage and physical risks of foster care placement, while most black children are taken away from theirs. And once removed from their homes, black children remain in foster care longer, are moved more often, receive fewer services, and are less likely to be either returned home or adopted than any other children.

Note the stats in that graphic. But a post about the terrifying foster care system is something for another day.

Most of us do not yet have alternate means of dealing with some types of violence. We need to work on that. For now, I certainly wouldn’t judge anyone for dialing 911 about a murder or a rape. But perhaps we can all agree that calling the cops shouldn’t be the first resort for everything that seems a little off?

Conservatives are supposed to be about personal responsibility. Liberals are supposed to be about social justice. Radicals are supposed to be about creating a better system. So what would be your excuse to call the police instead of taking responsibility, finding out what is going on, and trying to do the right thing? I suspect even some cops must get tired of being called for every bullshit thing. There have to be a few who would rather investigate murders than lock up mothers.

Surely this is one tiny (and yet not so tiny) thing that most people can agree with.


*Do read that whole Prison Culture post. It is good stuff.

What Do You Mean By Leader? Why Don’t You Just Say That Then?

June 14, 2015 By: Mel Category: Change, Nonprofits

There Can Be Only One - Image from Highlander movieHow is it that so many people are stuck in The Highlander method of getting things done?

Let’s just strike the word leader from our vocabulary. No more Oprah comments about leaderlessness in social movements. No more hand-wringing about the lack of replacements for non-profit leaders. And no more confusing leaderlessness with structurelessness.

Groups need vision, inspiration, decision-making, facilitation, public representation, resource procurement, planning, expertise, conflict management, and accountability mechanisms.

But it does not have to be that, the minute a group gets together, the biggest narcissist takes over. It is possible to find more equitable and long-lasting means of providing those things than picking a “decider.” Lots of people have successfully managed commons, navigated consensus decision-making, and still found ways to mitigate power imbalances. Not easy, but certainly not impossible.

Sadly, my experiences have been that – even in supposedly left nonprofits that explicitly support things like worker cooperatives – there is an automatic default to The Highlander Model. And in the non-professional groups that I have been involved with, people don’t take the time to carefully think through all the various responsibilities usually taken by the “leader” in order to make sure that we don’t end up with either a mess or an informal/hidden power structure.

So lets just get rid of the word leader and focus on what needs to get done and how.


Great. Thanks.

Robots and Revolution

September 03, 2014 By: Mel Category: Change

On Friday I put up a link to Kevin Carson’s post called Capitalism, Not Technological Unemployment, is the Problem. He says,

The problem arises, not from the increased efficiency, but from the larger structure of power relations in which the increase in efficiency takes place. When artificial land titles, monopolies, cartels and “intellectual property” are used by corporations to enclose increased productivity as a source of rents, instead of letting them be socialized by free competition and diffusion of technique, we no longer internalize the fruits of technological advance in the form of lower prices and leisure. We get technological unemployment.

In response, AR shared some links, including a short video on robots called Humans Need Not Apply. You really should watch it. It is hard to wrap your head around just how many jobs will disappear and how quickly it could happen. I’ll wait.

Of course, as David Graeber pointed out, many (if not most) of us are working at completely useless, bullshit jobs now. And we know it. But “the ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger.” And so we must continue to believe that our primary value is in our employability at something – regardless of how useless or even evil it is. 

Those of us who hit the accident of birth lottery spend a vast chunk of our waking hours renting our asses out to sit in office chairs. Some who were perhaps slightly less lucky take jobs keeping the masses in line. And the rest we just lock up. But we make sure to lock people up in a way that makes money for people whose asses are sitting in chairs.

Every time somebody talks about a jobs program, we should just show them that video. Every time someone talks about an education program – even a more practical one like the community college plug Robert Reich just did – we should make them read that Graeber post. We need to start believing that people have inherent worth. And if you cannot manage to do that, then you should at least be able to manage the understanding that none of the technology that some wiz kid invented to make life easier would have been possible without the people feeding and clothing that kid – not to mention the generations of knowledge all of it is based on.

We better get a massive change in attitude, a revolution in how we perceive who deserves to live and how we perceive those who prevent things from being shared. And we better get it quick. Or there will be a lot more of us in prison. There will be a lot more of us as guards. There will be just enough of us pushing papers while our insides atrophy to keep things passive.

Or perhaps, if we cannot be allowed to live human and pursue things that are actually of value, we will all just start dying of hopelessness like the Russians seem to be doing.

How Consumers Choose Their Corporate Masters

August 11, 2014 By: Mel Category: Change

Protester with Boycott BP signNonprofit Quarterly has a piece about how nonprofit nursing homes outperform for-profit ones. It got me thinking about the categories that we put organizations into and the criteria by which we judge an organization’s worth.

Here we have for-profit vs. nonprofit. The evaluation looks at outcomes for patients, as it should. But we don’t have much about how the workers are treated. Nursing assistants are absurdly low paid. The median wage is $11.97 per hour. In Minnesota, a main argument against the minimum wage was that nursing homes would have to close if they were forced to pay their workers $9.50. In New Jersey, nursing home workers cannot afford health insurance.

Those nonprofit nursing homes may have better health outcomes and they keep higher levels of staffing. But that doesn’t mean that they treat their employees well or pay them a living wage. It doesn’t mean that the people who work there have any autonomy or democracy in their workplace.

What about food labels? I’ve written before about how workers are ignored in the movements for a better food system. Nothing about an organic or free-range label tells you how the humans are treated. A label of local doesn’t tell you much when people haven’t even decided how far away local actually is. How much does fair trade tell you really? Fair in comparison to what?

The Human Rights Campaign has an annual Corporate Equality Index. It measures things like whether or not a company has a sexual orientation discrimination policy or offers same-sex partner health benefits. HRC has consistently given Wells Fargo a 100% human rights rating, presumably encouraging GLBT people to bank there. Meanwhile, Wells Fargo is a major investor in private prisons and their racist, predatory loan practices were a key driver in the foreclosure crisis.

What about pressure campaigns against giant companies? There are multiple current campaigns against Coca Cola. Each of them run by a different organization. When one organization wins something, they wrap it up and congratulate Coke and tell everyone they can start buying from them again. No thought to the other campaigns that keep going. No thought to how the greenwashing may actually keep a company in business.

Boycotts? What happens if I boycott BP, but I’m still buying gasoline from Exxon or Shell? Is that really helping anybody? What about boycotting Starbucks, but still buying coffee from another chain whose workers don’t have a union? What if your local indie coffee shop treats their workers like shit too? What about boycotting Walmart but still buying from Target, which is just as anti-union?

I’m not saying we should give up trying to make ethical choices. I’m not saying you are a shit if you ever buy anything from someplace that does horrible things. There is no way to avoid completely interacting with organizations that, in a better world, would not exist. But can’t we at least get it together enough to evaluate them in a way that isn’t so disjointed, that is based on more than just some narrow set of issues? Can’t we look at purpose, size, democracy, profit, community involvement….everything? And can’t we be smarter about what kinds of things we boycott and what we offer as alternatives?

Don’t tell people to leave Wells Fargo for Bank of America. Don’t just find any old credit union either. Don’t care only about environmental issues and ignore workers. Don’t assume that nonprofit means anti-capitalist or that people are treated well. Don’t start a campaign to boycott one organization in an entire sector that runs the same way. What is the point in that?

Consumer choice can help. I feel most hopeful when I am surrounded by co-op people who are trying to build the new world inside the old. But not all decisions that are made out to be ethical are. And we aren’t going to consumer choose our way into a revolution, especially not if we are just choosing between Walmart and Target.

On the BRICS Bank and Missed Opportunities

August 04, 2014 By: Mel Category: Change, Politics

BRICS summit photo opYou have probably heard about the new BRICS bank. There were a lot of celebratory posts on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I can’t say that really surprised me. But I am a little disappointed.

I can understand why people would be happy to have any challenge to the World Bank/IMF, US/European chokehold on the world economy. It is lovely that there isn’t only one game in town. But it isn’t as though the BRICS bank is based on better principles. It isn’t as though their development projects are going to be beacons to social justice.

But it isn’t actually the BRICS bank I want to talk about per se. I was listening to Patrick Bond in this interview about the bank and the “inter-imperial rivalries” that it is an outgrowth of. It got me thinking about missed opportunities.

Everybody knows about divide and conquer. I hear plenty of people talking about how we are divided. Just try googling “divided working class.” But rarely do I hear people talk seriously, and strategically, about divisions between elites.

And there are a lot of divisions between elites. Many revolutions are less insurrections by the oppressed than they are disputes between elites. Sometimes, like in Colombia, the people who were dragged into the disputes were screwed when the elites decided to ban together. But other times, like in Mexico, people were able to exploit the rifts between elites and make some changes. Not perfect changes, obviously, but they got something.

It isn’t just applicable to war. How do the old car companies feel about Google now that they are getting into the car game? Why do Google and Facebook care whether or not the cable companies win on net neutrality? How do you think former Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG people feel about being losers in the game they were playing with Goldman Sachs?

I’m not suggesting we spend all our time trying to figure out what these people are doing. Our efforts need to be focused on building at the community level. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot keep our eyes peeled for opportunities that may come up because these greedy, ego-maniacal, sociopaths are constantly at each others throats too. And so are a lot of the local thugs – politicians, developers… – in our towns.

Looking to exploit those rifts would be a lot more productive than cheering when someone who is mildly less of a dick gets a little bit larger piece of the power cudgel with which to beat us.

Hijacking the Sharing Economy

July 21, 2014 By: Mel Category: Change, Inequality

Forbes cover of Airbnb CEOThere have been a slew of articles lately about how services like Airbnb and Lyft signal the “rise of the sharing economy.” Forbes says it is “unstoppable” and includes a cover that asks “Who wants to be a billionaire?” The Wall Street Journal profiles Airbnb’s founder as a young upstart who is rocking the boat of all those stodgy hotel chains. The economist wants cities and their pesky worrywarts to get out of the way.

Maybe the most interesting piece was in Wired. Wired thinks that this “sharing economy” has gotten people to trust each other. After all, as one Lyft driver said “It’s not just some person off the street.” These people have Facebook accounts and credit cards. They have online ratings. It isn’t like they are picking up hitchhikers (god forbid) or a person so poor they don’t have a MasterCard (gasp). These people must be o.k. right? You won’t be picking up anyone sketchy like John Waters.

And then there is this

Lyft cofounder John Zimmer goes so far as to liken it to time he spent on the Oglala Sioux reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. “Their sense of community, of connection to each other and to their land, made me feel more happy and alive than I’ve ever felt before,” he says. “I think people are craving real human interaction—it’s like an instinct. We now have the opportunity to use technology to help us get there.”

You know what. People are craving real human interaction, but a ride that you pay somebody for is not that. Is Zimmer claiming that the connection to the land he romanticizes was brought about by fee for service car rides? Am I really supposed to listen to some millionaire wax nostalgic about time spent on a reservation with the lowest life expectancy in the country and teen suicide rates 150% higher than the U.S. national average

Kevin Roose’s response to Wired was that The Sharing Economy Isn’t About Trust, It’s About Desperation. Roose is right that the economy sucks, but I would hardly call the people profiled in the articles above “desperate.” If you have a luxury car or a house in San Francisco to rent out and you think you are desperate, you lead a very sheltered life.

In The Case Against Sharing, Susie Cagle describes how someone at a conference of these sharing economy climbers actually had the nerve to quote Audre Lorde. But when labor researcher Veena Dubal told them that rideshare companies contribute to a culture of precarious work and are therefore hurting workers, the reaction from these sharers was less than generous.

These companies are just exploiting our desire for connection and co-opting the real sharing and solidarity economies. Renting is not sharing. A business model that makes a couple of people billionaires and chases thousands of out of a city through gentrification on overdrive is not an economic model that should be romanticized. And there is absolutely nothing new about an economy based on sharing. It is a hell of a lot older than the economy we have now.

Gift economies are ancient. Workers started talking about workplace democracy since they started experiencing the workplace. Mutual aid societies have been essential survival tools for people all over the world. What are interesting and front page worthy are not the billionaire stories. What we should be paying attention to is the growth of the solidarity or social economy.

When artists start a co-op bed and breakfast in New York so that they can survive as artists, that is attention worthy. So is a time bank in Maine or a free store in Baltimore. What about hundreds of people gathering in Jackson to talk about “cooperative restaurants, child and elder care coops, cooperative grocery stores, cooperative factories, farms and more, all collectively owned and democratically managed by the same workers who deliver the service and create the value.”

Don’t be distracted by these “sharing” businesses that make a lot of money for their founders and a little bit of money for the relatively well off. Their new economy is the same as the old one. It leaves most people out in the cold – literally. The real sharing economy isn’t making anyone a billionaire. The real sharing economy means genuine relationships, workplace democracy, and social justice.

Reparations and Aspirations: In Response to Coates and Connolly

June 25, 2014 By: Mel Category: Change

Acoma Pueblo New MexicoThanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates, people are talking about reparations. Which is great. But we appear to be dancing around what facing our history would necessarily mean for our future. And we don’t appear to be able to talk about doing anything outside of lobbying the very same political system that got us here.

One reason reparations seem impossible is that we cannot wrap our heads around a conception of justice that is meant to repair harm. We live in a society focused on retribution, not restoration. We send people to prison for decades for selling weed. We let poor women die in prison because their kid skipped school. We put the mentally ill in solitary confinement. We barely blink when the imprisoned are raped by guards, even juveniles. As a society, we stopped talking about rehabilitation a long time ago. Now we only talk about “paying” for crime and compete with each other to see who can be more cruel “tougher”.

Is it really surprising that people are afraid of what justice would look like?

What if, instead of retributive justice, we had restorative justice? In a society where people can only think in terms of retribution, an honest accounting is impossible. In a restorative justice process, an honest accounting is the first step toward repairing the harm done to individuals and the community. A restorative justice process is meant to transform the participants in a positive way and decrease the chances of future harm. Unlike our current system, the aim of restorative justice – including reparations – is not to make the perpetrator(s) suffer.

To talk about reparations is to acknowledge our need for an entirely new conception of justice, one that applies to all of our society. But we also need a hell of a lot more than that.

I found myself nodding in agreement to part 1 of N. D. B. Connolly’s response to Coates’s article. How did reparations to Israel from West Germany turn out? Not so great for the Palestinians. How often are relatively wealthy black people participants in the subjugation of poorer black people? A lot. What happens when you try to address one injustice without addressing the others? A mess. What became of our government’s attempts to look at the history of its crimes? Nothing much.

Our systems are systems of subjugation. Success within our society is dependent on oppression. It is essential but not sufficient to try and repair the damage done by slavery and white supremacy. We live in a complex hierarchy where your position is determined by your race, hue, ethnicity, gender, class, possessions, sexual preference, physical abilities, mental abilities, certifications… If all reparations try to do is bring more black people into the current definition of success, we will fail miserably. There will still be workers having their paltry wages stolen by McDonalds. There will still be migrant farm workers dying of sun stroke. There will still be poverty and an epidemic of teen suicides on reservations. We will still be drone bombing brown people in countries around the world.

In part 2 of Connolly’s response to Coates he makes some suggestions on what we should do about our toxic system. Unfortunately, despite his recognition of how problematic is the “tendency…to propose modest solutions within established government structures,” that is just what he did. It isn’t that I am against reinstating felons right to vote. It is that we should be talking about prison abolition. It isn’t that I don’t recognize the problems with the castle doctrine and stand your ground. It is that the castle doctrine and stand your ground have little to do with the epidemic of police violence (and police kill many more people than vigilantes do). It isn’t that I cannot see the value of removing the need to show discriminatory intent. It is that suing for discrimination does nothing to transform our injustice system or to put our workplaces in the control of the workers.

No amount of constitutional amendments or court cases are going to transform our government and economic system to one that is not based on hierarchy and subjugation. We need to think bigger. We can have a society based on cooperation and mutual aid. We can have community control and direct democracy. We can abolish prisons, democratize the workplace, and dismantle the military industrial complex.

I know many of you think I am too radical (or maybe delusional). But there is no other way. We cannot repair any part of our damaged society without a radical transformation of its values and institutions. Conversely, for those of us who have been working for radical changes, we cannot be successful unless we face the white supremacist core of everything we are trying to change.

You cannot, for example, talk about the prison industrial complex without acknowledging that it is part of a continuum from slavery to present. The thirteenth amendment said “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime.” And today we have millions of people, disproportionately of color, laboring behind bars for pennies an hour to make some of the richest companies in the world even richer. And if that 37 cents an hour isn’t enough to cover your overpriced commissary tampons for the month – too bad for you.

Perhaps this seems overwhelming. Perhaps you are wondering where would we even start. The good news is that we have already started. You just might not have noticed yet.

There are already restorative justice organizations all over the country. There are already schools taking different approaches to conflict resolution. There is already a movement for change being led by tens of thousands of people who are incarcerated. We already have workers who refuse to just roll over for the owners, workers who are taking control and democratizing their workplaces. We even have communities with truth commissions.

No real radical change has ever come from above. The kind of change we need has always started with communities, churches, communes, and street corners. Processes that are grounded in community are based on and build relationships of trust. They are processes where the people are participants and not just spectators. And if our movements are rooted, they have a chance of withstanding the inevitable onslaught by those who don’t want real justice.

Also, processes that are grounded in community can adjust to local history and circumstances. Because restorative justice in Birmingham is going to look very different from restorative justice in Acoma Pueblo. We need to talk about what happens on reservations and on the Mexican border too. We need to remember that the history of the United States is not only the history of following Europeans as they crossed the continent. It is not just the history of that portion in the East that we call North and South.

There can be no repair without a radical transformation of our society. There can be no radical transformation of our society without an honest accounting of where we have been. And there can be neither repair nor transformation from the top down. In fact, we should be aiming to eliminate the hierarchies that got us into this mess to begin with.

Unincorporate the Worst Company in the World

June 02, 2014 By: Mel Category: Change, Politics

Adbusters has a new thing. They are asking us to vote on the worst company in the world. The idea is to have a campaign to revoke their corporate status. They are calling it the birth of the corporate charter movement.

I think this is a good idea.

People need reminding that corporations are created and sanctioned by the state. They need reminding that incorporation is, by definition, government protection. Why should anyone get limited liability? If there is any time when that is appropriate, when should it be?

I don’t have any hope that we will be able to take down Goldman Sachs. But I think this is a really important public conversation to have.

Airbnb – Profiles of Gentrification

April 21, 2014 By: Mel Category: Change, Culture, Inequality

Sign for New DC construction "Meet you at the top"I’m going to an event in New York this June and I was thinking about using Airbnb. But then I saw this article.

As many as 7,500 San Francisco housing units are kept off of the rental market and are instead set aside for users of Airbnb and services like, KALW reported.

Activists with the San Francisco Tenants Union identified 1937 Mason Street, a three-unit building, as apartment housing set aside entirely for vacation rentals, the radio station reported. To make matters worse, the former renters there were ousted with the Ellis Act

The Ellis Act allows San Francisco landlords to “go out of business” and kick everybody in the building out. Sometimes the units become condos. Sometimes the landlord kicks everybody out to make room for Airbnb.

7,500 units is only about 2% of the 376,942 total San Francisco housing units counted in the last census. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot. But when you look at it in the context of the massive displacement in the Bay Area, the situation becomes clearer. Colorlines reported that

Between 1990 and 2011, median rental housing prices in San Francisco neighborhoods in the late stages of gentrification increased 40 percent. What’s more, the rental price increases and housing crisis have fueled the displacement of blacks and Latinos from both cities.

Between 1990 and 2011 the proportion of black residents in all Oakland neighborhoods fell by nearly 40 percent. Perhaps more stunning, black homeowners were about half of north Oakland’s homeowners in 1990. By 2011 they were just 25 percent of the neighborhood’s homeowners.

Washington DC, where I live, has been getting whiter, more expensive, and more unequal as well. We have “the fourth-highest gap between richest and poorest residents of large U.S. cities. While the poorest 20 percent of D.C. residents make on average under $10,000 per year, the top five percent make over $530,000 per year.” This income inequality is playing out in the housing market in a huge way.

According to the most recent data compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in DC is $1,412 a month, the second highest in the nation. To afford rent in DC without spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, a renter would need to earn $27.15 an hour, over three times DC’s $8.25 hourly minimum wage. In other words, a minimum wage earner would need to work 132 hours a week to pay rent in the district. Since 2000, DC has demolished at least nine public housing properties, which coincides with the city losing more than half its low-cost housing units in the past decade. Meanwhile, DC’s homeless population has quadrupled since 2008.

So I started thinking about who exactly is benefiting from Airbnb in my town.

Airbnb Profile Airbnb Profile Airbnb Profile Airbnb Profile Airbnb Profile Airbnb Profile Airbnb Profile Airbnb Profile Airbnb Profile

Best I can tell, of all the profiles I randomly clicked, not one of them seemed to be from this city. Only one of them might not be white. It seems likely that they own their properties, especially that real estate agent. They travel all over the world. They surely make way more than $10,000 per year. And they live in neighborhoods that are newly infested with bougie bars and luxury condo projects with slogans like “meet you at the top.”

I’m not putting those profiles up so that you can hate on those people. The truth is that they aren’t all that different from me. I am not from DC. I have a college degree. I’ve been able to travel some. I work for the anti-poverty wing of the non-profit industrial complex in an office full of people who aren’t from this city and have never been poor in their lives, people who look a lot like those profiles. If I had decided to climb the ladder or if my parents had a little money, I’d probably be them.

I talk about privilege blindness a lot and this is one of those moments when my own smacks me in the face. It never occurred to me to think about who Airbnb was marketing to, how much privilege is required to participate, or how it is contributing to the disasters that are happening in cities all over the country. In fact, I thought it was a great thing to avoid staying at the big evil chain hotels. But if the Best Western is hiring locals at union wages and your Airbnb is run by a landlord who kicked out a bunch of residents to make more money, that chain hotel starts to look a lot better.

We cannot end oppression with consumer choice. Some decisions may cause a little less suffering than others and that is reason enough to try to make ethical life choices. But the system is designed for the benefit of a few people and most of those people will probably not even see the havoc they are causing. They will, in fact, think they are doing something great.

Check out this letter from Airbnb’s cofounder and CEO. Do you think when he tells his employees not to “fuck up the culture” he is referring to the culture of those people who are getting pushed out of DC/San Francisco/New York to make room for the young white professionals who like to rent out their $300,000 condos for extra cash when they travel around the world?

When those of us who have the privilege of choices think about making those choices ethical, we need to realize that we are going to be blind to many (maybe most) of the effects of our actions. We need to realize that having the space to think about the ethics is a privilege. Maybe, if we shut up and pay very close attention to the most marginalized people, we can start to see how much the world is designed for people like us at others expense. Maybe we will all learn that the most ethical travel decision would be to decide to do it a lot less and to spend that time and money in our communities working toward smashing the systems that make ethical choices impossible.

I needed a reminder. Maybe some of you all did too.