BroadSnark

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
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Archive for the ‘Seeking’

Work Less. We Need You.

May 23, 2017 By: Mel Category: Seeking, Stratification, Work

It seems like everyone I know is in one of two situations. Either they are un(der)employed and trying to figure out how to get some hours/money to survive or they are working far too many hours and trying to figure out how to fit any kind of a life into a workday.

I used to work appallingly long hours. It started because I was severely underpaid and had little choice. But it continued because I had internalized the idea of a “hard worker” being a good thing. I succumbed to the expectation that people are supposed to fit their life around their work, rather than the other way around. I also wanted independence. Work seemed like a better route to independence than housewife, the only other option on offer.

There were some rewards for all that “hard work” and long hours. It might almost make you believe in the pull yourself up by your bootstraps nonsense. Of course, not everyone can do it. While I was getting raises and promotions for being “indispensable,” my coworker was struggling just to get to the office on time. She was a single mother who lived in a part of Liberty City where the buses, when they were working at all, only ran Monday through Friday during rush hour. Ostensibly my raises and promotion were a result of all those long hours. But the reality is that requiring long hours to “get ahead” is a way of privileging certain people without seeming to.

Even a forty hour week is too much. It worked o.k. for my father, when I was small.  He was able to work full time, still have a social life, and participate in his community. But that is because he had a stay at home wife, a support staff in his office, a periodic housekeeper, and various babysitters for us kids. In other words, he had a cadre of women doing much of the work for him. Once his business was crushed by the big box stores, life changed. No more stay at home wife. No more support staff. The community participation stopped. He had a stroke and was never really able to work full time again.

So if you are feeling like you are somehow failing, if you think you need some self-help bullshit about how to manage your time better, you don’t. There is nothing wrong with you. The reason we have so many exhausted, sick people hanging by one last nerve is not that we are all inadequate. It is that the grind is killing us.

When I entered the nonprofit world things got even trickier. Suddenly, it isn’t that you are giving all your life hours to make an owner even richer. It is that you are dedicated to a cause. When the people you are ostensibly helping seem even worse off than you, how can you justify cutting them off?

Ironically, one of the first nonprofits I worked for was an organization in California that helped people who were caring for someone with a brain impairment. I worked long hours. I was tired, stressed, and cranky. I spent zero time trying to be a part of the community. I didn’t treat people the way they should be treated. While I was supposedly helping caregivers, I had a life which would not have allowed me to do any caregiving. So how was that really helping anyone?

What I have come to see is that the more we work at our jobs, the worse off we are as a society. Our work structure is designed to provide cover for continuing discrimination and inequality. It is designed to prevent us from being able to participate in the life of our communities. It relies on a cadre of women – disproportionately poor women of color – whose struggles are mostly invisible. It is exploitation that we are all complicit in, whether you hire someone to clean your house or are so busy that you need to rely on the poverty wage workers who make your fast food. I began to understand what Nancy Fraser refers to as a “crisis of care.”

Between the need for increased working hours and the cutback in public services, the financialized capitalist regime is systematically depleting our capacities for sustaining social bonds. This form of capitalism is stretching our “caring” energies to the breaking point. This “crisis of care” should be understood structurally. By no means contingent or accidental, it is the expression, under current conditions, of a tendency to social-reproductive crisis that is inherent in capitalist society, but that takes an especially acute form in the present regime of financialized capitalism.

In short, Capitalism cares only about production and marginalizes the relationship building and care that our lives actually depend on. If our communities are falling apart, it is because the time we need to nurture the relationships that make communities strong is being stolen from us. I don’t see how we will resolve any other problem unless we can tackle this one.

Clearly, this is a systemic issue that will require collective action. But one of the first steps has to be reprogramming our own thinking and pushing back on the theft of our time and well-being.

It is not easy to break the cycle. It might even be a little terrifying. We have been programmed our whole lives to believe that one false move will land us on the streets. The reality is that some people really are in such a precarious position that they have little room to push. But that isn’t true for all of us. And the more collective hours we can recover, the more time we will have to do things to open space for the people who don’t have it now.

A good start is to push back against all the voices, including the ones in the back of our heads, which tell us to judge people for not being hard working enough. Push back when people start every conversation by asking what a person does for a living. Don’t work overtime if you can afford not to. Find ways to decrease your material needs or alternate ways to meet those needs. Refuse to get on emails outside of work hours. Take every minute of your vacation (if you are lucky enough to have it).

Thank people who actually take off when they are sick. Support paid sick days for everyone. Applaud publicly those who prioritize their family and community in actions and not just words. Call out anyone who criticizes people who actually have their priorities straight. Build a support system that makes risking your job a little less scary. Be there for others so that they can take risks too. Be the one who helps those trying to live without wage labor, not the Petty Crocker who resents anyone that isn’t working as much as they are.

When you have a moment of guilt or fear, think about how this system is designed to make it impossible to have a reasonable life. Think about all the people who could benefit from a drastic shift in culture and expectations. Ask why, if you leave work early or get on Facebook at your desk, employers say that you are stealing time. Yet it is totally accepted that an employer expects you to be on email 24/7, schedules meetings during lunch hour, or takes advantage of lax overtime exemption laws to make people work late for free.  Get pissed. Remember that you aren’t just pushing back for yourself. Remember that time is not money, time is life. They are stealing your life.

No matter how you earn your living, you aren’t doing anyone any favors by abandoning your loved ones, community, and health to the organization. No person can work 40 hours a week or more, support their loved ones in the way they deserve, be an active member of a community, be aware of what is going on in the world, be conscious about the systems they support, take care of themselves, create beautiful things, and find time for the joy that makes life worth living. Too many of us are sacrificing all the most important things on the altar of work. We need to look at our lives differently. Or as Fraser puts it

“The idea that you could build a society that assumes every adult is a person with primary care responsibilities, community engagements, and social commitments. That’s not utopian. It’s a vision based on what human life is really like.”

You can (and should) read the whole interview here.

My Two Cents on Getting Involved in Movements and Activism

December 07, 2016 By: Mel Category: Seeking

Photo of sign that says Occupy Everywhere and Never Give it BackEven before Trump was elected, more people were asking me for advice on getting involved in something besides electoral politics. After all the questions and chats, I have a few thoughts to add to my earlier post for the Newly Disillusioned.

Take Care of Yourself

I know it can seem selfish and that advice about “self care” has become eye-rollingly ubiquitous. But if you cannot take care of yourself, then you are no help to anyone. If you drive yourself into the ground and need people to pick you up off the floor, you are taking them away from things they could be doing to make things better. If you are in a constant stream of bad relationships (romantic, friend, colleague, comrade…), then you are sucking energy away from yourself and everyone else. You will hurt more than help if you are overflowing with unexamined rage, prejudices, and privilege. None of us will ever be perfect, or perfectly able to take care of ourselves, but personal responsibility and self awareness are prerequisites to useful action.

Help Those Closest to You

The mindset of just “take care of your own” and screw everyone else is part of how we got into this mess. At the same time, if you cannot be relied on to help the people you love, how can anyone rely on you for anything? Besides, when you know someone well, you are in a better position to understand what they might need. When you “help” people you don’t know, it often goes terribly wrong. (Hello nonprofit industrial complex. I’m talking to you.) All of us will need help and support at some point. All of us will get sick, lose loved ones, and have our hearts broken. Most of us will have times where it is a struggle to just get by. We need to be able to rely on each other so that life’s tragedies don’t derail us completely. The more we can rely on each other, the less people can control us through fear of destitution.

Expand Your Circle

Just make sure that those closest to you are a diverse enough group that you are also supporting some of the most marginalized people in our society. Our society is so stratified and segregated that many people don’t have any relationships outside of their own race, class, age, physical ability, religion…  Poor people tend to know poor people. Professional/managerial class people tend to know other people like themselves. The further down you are on our societal hierarchy, the harder it is to be able to meet your basic needs. If all the college-educated professionals are only helping each other, we have a problem. For those of us who have had it relatively easy, sometimes the best thing we can do is make it possible for someone else to fight the system that is crushing them.

Let People Help You

I have an amazing group of friends who are all loath to “burden” anyone with their problems. I get it. Taking care of yourself is important. There are always people out there who have things worse than you do. Everyone seems to have so much on their plate. How can we possibly ask more of them? The thing is, we cannot succeed without functioning support systems. And we cannot have functioning support systems if the most reliable people are never willing to ask for help when they need it. Mutual aid requires that we all be willing to both give it and receive it.

Work with People You Like and Trust

It is tempting to think that people who show up for the same protest or organizing meeting have the same values you do. It is tempting to think that people who seem to share your principles can be relied on when it really counts. But experience has taught me that is not the case. Sometimes it is the conservative friend, the one who thinks your actions are foolish, who bails you out after. If you get involved in movements and community groups, you will meet all kinds of frustrating people. There will be racist, feminist women and misogynist, anti-racist men. There will be elitist union reps and homophobic environmentalists. There will be people who say lovely things and show up for every protest, but cannot be relied on to do anything that doesn’t come with fame. Take stock of who you know and what they are trying to do in this world. Think long and hard about who you really think would have your back in an emergency. Keep those people close.

Do Things With Joy

I have a tendency to do whatever needs to be done. Agendas? Sure. Meeting notes? Sure. Collecting money? No problem. It isn’t a bad thing. You don’t want to be the person who is never willing to do grunt work. There are far too many of those people already. But if you find no joy in what you are doing, then you will not keep at it long enough for it to make a difference. We are all so busy. We all have to spend so much of our lives on obligations, especially to our paying jobs. The best way to make sure that our extracurriculars are successful is to make sure that they bring us the joy, community, and sense of possibility that we all crave. There are so many things wrong and so many ways to be a part of trying to change them. It may take a while, but you can find something that won’t feel like another job.

Small is Big

When something newsworthy happens, there is an immediate effort to start identifying the charismatic, (usually) male leader who supposedly brought it into being.  When we hear about the bus boycott, we hear about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. We don’t hear about all the people who worked at their job, took care of their family, and then put in just a little extra driving carpools or knocking on their neighbor’s door. We don’t hear about the thousands of people who really make things happen in small ways. Heroic figures can be inspirational, but they can also be paralyzing. If you think any effort needs to be fame-worthy or it is worthless, then you won’t do anything. Besides, the fame seekers are often motivated more by ego and savior complexes than anything else. Don’t undervalue the little things. The little things are more important than they might seem.

In Short

There is no end to the struggle for justice. It isn’t as though, if you can just get through a few hundred sleepless nights, we will arrive at utopia. If you really want to work for a more just world, then you just signed on for a lifetime job. We don’t need more people who make speeches all day and leave the child rearing and cooking to someone else. We don’t need more people who burn themselves out after six months and contribute to the constant churn in our organizations. We need strong, grounded people who take care of themselves and others. We need collaborative, organized communities that provide foundation and protection. So just start where you are at, find good people, keep your ego in check, and try a little something.

Dipping a Toe Back In

October 16, 2016 By: Mel Category: Seeking

toe-in-water-772773_1280You may have noticed that I haven’t been writing much lately. It has been hard to prioritize. It isn’t just the full-time job or that I am prioritizing framily and community over the solitude needed to write – though those things play a huge role. It is also because I started to wonder why I was writing.

What I love about writing is how it helps me think things through. It forces clarity and brings up questions I didn’t even realize I had. And I like thinking things through publicly on this blog…sometimes. When it was good, people helped me to see things that I had not thought of. I found a lot of kindred spirits, some of whom became friends that I cherish.

But sometimes I let myself get sucked into debate with people who were not trying to grow or build anything. Sometimes I found myself wasting time being the female opinion for dudes who weren’t really capable of even attempting to see things outside of their own experience. Sometimes I wasted precious time on haters and trolls who just liked to stir up shit. It is so easy to get caught up in other people’s agendas –  to wake up and realize you just spent days, weeks, or months being responsive to everything except the things you most want and most value.

I want to write again, but I’m going to be careful to use this blog for the good parts – finding like-minded people, finding people who want to work on similar things, opening a conduit for information about the areas I’m working on, and having genuine discussions with people who have different experiences.

To that end, I thought I would share some of the things I’m working on (or planning to in the very near future).

  • A book on Grand Juries
  • A creative/community space that is child friendly
  • A DMV (District, Maryland, Virginia) media project
  • Making things (I’m painting again!)
  • Starting a Diaspora pod (or some other alternative to Facebook/Twitter that isn’t for profit)

The grand jury book is the first priority. If any of you know folks who have served on grand juries or have some expertise in that area, please ask them to get in touch with me at mel (at) broadsnark.com

So what have you all been up to?

 

Some Thoughts on Voting for the Newly Disillusioned

August 03, 2016 By: Mel Category: Core, Seeking

I’m seeing quite a few people in my Facebook and Twitter feeds who have just now realized that the political system is not the path to what they are looking for. They are feeling angry, cynical, and lost.

I get it. I’ve been there.

I was crushed when Bill Clinton gave us welfare “reform,” NAFTA, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I was one of those people everyone blames for the 2000 election because they voted for Nader. And, even though I had long before become cynical, I really hoped that Obama at least kinda meant all that stuff he said about civil liberties. Other people maybe picked Howard Dean or Ron Paul, but many of us have had at least one moment of political hope followed by inevitable disappointment.

Of course we have. We have been trained our entire lives to focus our attention on the shiny circus of Big P Politics, especially presidential elections. We are taught it was LBJ and FDR that made things better. It is as if all the people who went door to door, marched, organized strikes, wrote, exposed corruption, and took direct action did not even exist.

The good news is that now you are free. There are millions of things you can do and millions of people who also think things suck. Now that you have safely eliminated presidential politics from your arsenal of tactics that work, you can put your energies towards better things.

I’ve spent a lot of the last decade reading about social movements – from the kids involved in the civil rights movement to the anarchists in Barcelona. And I’ve spent a bit of time, though not nearly enough, participating in them. I don’t have a magic formula for you, but I do have a basic path that has started to form in my head. It goes something like this.

  1. Imagine how you want your life to be and what is standing in your way. Figure out what you want your world to look like. It doesn’t have to be precise or perfect, but you do need something to reach for.
  1. Find other people who want the same things that you do. Build communities of trust and support. (That trust and support part is crucial.)
  1. Plan direct actions. Ideally they should provide for immediate needs and disrupt the systems of oppression.
  1. Identify the obstacles that you will face and prepare for them, figure out how you will defend yourselves.
  1. Act
  1. Review the action. Figure out what went well and what didn’t. Reassess. Adjust. Make sure all your people are taken care of.
  1. Rinse and repeat.

That doesn’t mean that voting can never, ever be a part of what you are doing.

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” – Emma Goldman

All due respect to Emma (and I love her), her statement is kind of a case for voting. After all, it has been and still is prohibited for a whole lot of people (former felons, for instance). And it is not true that voting never matters at all. Voting for someone who is less likely to mow you down in the street is a totally reasonable defense strategy. Voting a terrible prosecutor out of office is a legitimate tactic. If two dudes are running for town sheriff and one is a sociopath, we might consider voting for the other guy.

But then we should go right back to working on ending the position of sheriff or prosecutor entirely. We should learn how to build community for ourselves rather than constituencies for people with their own agenda. We should learn how to resolve conflict ourselves, not empower violent authorities to run systems of oppression and retribution.

It is a lot harder to do those things than to stump for a candidate and vote every couple years. But we can only get out from under these people if we take responsibility and represent ourselves. I screw up every damn day in every way imaginable. But that is why it is called a struggle. And it is so much better to be struggling – to be a better person, to build alternate systems, against oppressive structures, with my community –  than to be looking for some kind of savior to come along and make it better.

Now that you are free of the constraints of electoral politics, what are you going to do?

Victims, Villains, and Heroes

September 14, 2012 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Core, Seeking, Stratification

Clint EastwoodWhen I first started delving into the drug war and criminal injustice system, I saw it as a process of dehumanization that I couldn’t ignore. While I had friends who were caught up in the system, as one of the least targeted people, the only connection I saw to my personal life was what I had learned as the grandkid of holocaust refugees.

People ask how atrocities could happen and a whole society be blind to them. While I don’t want to make comparisons between concentration camps and prisons, it isn’t hard for me to see how a whole country could have shut their eyes. People are tortured, raped, and murdered behind bars in this country now and most of us don’t even notice.

But the more I learned about how this particular dehumanization works, the more I realized the special role that I play in it. I’m the victim that excuses the violence.

If you have never read Ida B. Wells on lynchings, you need to. Despite the fact that the majority of black men who were lynched were not even accused of rape, the defenders of lynchings always used the rape of white women as their cover for murder – or as one Southern newspaper put it “the barbarism which preys upon weak and defenseless women.”

How ironic that white men used the rape of white women as their excuse. How many of us in the colonized world are a product of the rape of black and indigenous women by white men – what the Mexicans like to refer to as La Gran Chingada (the great rape)? But women of color are not generally the victims of our national narrative. They are mostly invisible.

As a white woman it is my job to be a victim to excuse the bloodthirst. The boxes people have tried to cram  me into my whole life – weakness, dependency, purity – are really just about playing that role. If you refuse to be defenseless. If you refuse to be appropriately dependent. If you refuse to be fallen. Then there is hell to pay. It isn’t just about control of women and their sexuality. It is that our role as victims is key in a narrative that holds up the authoritarian system.

If there are no victims and no villains then what need do we have for heroes? Our heroes are, of course, violent. Usually, they wear a uniform. Sometimes they might take it off for a night to do their lynchings undercover. But whether it is a cop or a soldier or a vigilante, we accept the armed and violent hero only because we believe in the helpless victim.

The racialized and genderized victim/villain/hero narrative undergirds everything. It is part of the lynchings of 100 years ago. It was there when we were accusing Chinese men of defiling white women to get opium laws passed. It is built into the criminal injustice system that targets men of color. It is part of every war that we fight, the way we use women as an excuse to bomb countries.

And what does it do to the people who are trying to live up to their role as hero by picking up those guns? In order to fit into that hero/man box you have to become a killer. You have to be broken down until whatever it is in you that recognizes another person’s humanity is gone. There is no coming back from that, certainly not for the thousands of soldiers who come back and kill themselves. Not likely for the prison guards either.

I’m not trying to infer equivalency between the experiences of someone sitting in solitary confinement and what is going through the head of the person who put them there. I’m not saying that a white woman’s fight to get out of the victim box can be compared to being lynched. The full weight of the system does not hit us all evenly.

Nor am I saying that people are never victimized, that some of the people in prison have not done horrible things. But most of those people have also been victims. We can all be victimized, villainous, or heroic. The system needs to wedge us into narrow categories in order to feed itself. It needs to provide a narrative that makes it seem like the armed thug’s job is something besides protecting the power and privilege of a handful of people.

We need to understand the connections. If we don’t, we will inevitably end up fighting against one part of the narrative while upholding another.

White women who fight the violence against them in a way that supports, rather than challenges, the racist criminal injustice system will never make life better for women. Black men who fight the criminal injustice system but hold a view that tries to put black women on the same purity pedestal that white women are chained to will never make life better for black people. Anti-authoritarians who don’t understand the role that racism and sexism play in upholding the state will never see it smashed.

For me, understanding the connections means being a really terrible victim. It means refusing the accept the villainization of men – especially men of color. It means refusing to accept the heroization of people with guns – even the ones I may have some sympathy for. It means focusing on the criminal injustice system and the war machine and any other victim/villain/hero narrative that keeps this state alive.

Because if we break those narratives we all get out of our boxes, real and metaphorical. We break the fear. We stop so much of the torture and violence and suffering.

No more victims. No more villains. No more heroes.

Big Tents, Little Bridges, Vested Interests

August 24, 2012 By: Mel Category: Core, Seeking, Stratification

Bridge in the Japanese Garden in San FranciscoThis piece over at Cubik’s Rube reminded me of something I have been wanting to write about for a while. James is worried that the atheism+ idea that Blag Hag wrote about, and that I linked to on Wed, will be just one more divide in a movement that already has plenty of “splits, schisms, and dichotomies.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about big tents and factions since the group I was working with disintegrated. I think one of our core problems was that we tried to be too much of a big tent, or at least we went about it the wrong way. We knew that people in the group had different political views, theories of change, and ways of working. We had different backgrounds and life experiences – age, gender, race, class, religion. And rather than tackling those differences head on, we avoided talking about them. It was a huge mistake. And we ended up bleeding people anyway.

If you spend any time studying social justice movements from the past, you will soon learn how many of them fell apart or were co-opted because different groups sold each other out. White workers threw black workers under the bus with the unions. Black men threw women under the bus with voting. White women threw women of color under the bus with the feminist movement. Trans people got thrown under the bus by the GLB community. And on and on.

And in the end, while there may be a few beneficiaries here and there, we all lost. We find ourselves fighting the same battles all over again. Clearly, we can’t just all break off into little affinity groups that only think about ourselves. Our liberation is tied together in a very real way.

At the same time, whenever you get people together that have wildly different backgrounds, privileges, interests, communication styles… you are going to spend a huge amount of your time just keeping the group together. If you don’t spend the time, you will lose people. But if you spend all your time dealing with those things then people will feel like you aren’t moving toward your goal. And you will lose people that way too. Not to mention that the most marginalized people will be FUCKING EXHAUSTED trying to beat their heads against everyone else’s blindnesses.

And let us throw in another conundrum while we are at it. In that atheism+ post, she inserts a long quote about how many of the people who have gotten involved in the atheist movement are people who are not affected by any other type of prejudice/oppression. Being an atheist is the one little speed-bump on the otherwise smooth road of their lives. And they are wholly uninterested in having their other privileges questioned.

It is pretty much impossible for me to work with anyone who can only see their little corner of the universe and stay willfully blind about everything else. That doesn’t mean I won’t talk to them. I just can’t work with them. But as infuriating as it is for me to deal with people who can only see the one thing that affects them, it would be so much worse if they were coming in to white knight on some issue that they have not experienced and do not understand.

As (I believe it was) @manowax said at the Words, Beats & Life teach-in, “You have to have a vested interest to make change.” If atheist prejudice is the only thing that those people can see that they have a vested interest in, then that is what they should focus on. It is when something isn’t just an “issue” but your everyday life that you will see it through to the end. What choice do you have?

It reminds me of the beginning of this civil rights roundtable when they ask the participants to talk about why they are there. James Baldwin talks about being “born a negro.” Poitier says, “I became interested in civil rights struggle out of a necessity, to survive.” Belafonte talks about inheriting the struggle from his parents and grandparents. But Brando talks about Rosa Parks and Heston about talking to people at cocktail parties. Baldwin, Poitier, and Belafonte spent their lives struggling for their rights as human beings. Heston went back to cocktail parties and shilling for the NRA.

So there is nothing wrong with spending your time on the things that affect you, but somehow we also have to find ways to help people see how all the different struggles are connected. At the very least, we need to figure out how to stop throwing each other under the bus.

I should say here that I don’t think there is anything wrong with getting involved in a struggle where you are not the most affected. But I do think we need to understand how that struggle is connected to our own. We should be very careful about how we get involved and realistic about how dedicated we are to the issue, to the people, to the community. We can’t just drop in for a year and then skip out to a masters program, patting ourselves on the back the whole way.

So where does that leave us?

I think we should stop trying to have big tents. We need to focus on understanding our interests and how they connect. We should be building small, close-knit groups and a lot of little bridges.

In other words, stop seeing different experiences, backgrounds, and struggles as divisive and start seeing them as connective. Blag Hag is a bridge between feminists and atheists. Not all atheists are going to examine their other privileges. Not all feminists are going to examine theirs. But many will understand. That bridge is the beginning of how we are going to stop throwing each other under the bus.

We don’t need to worry that our movements will be divided. Large organizations only erase differences that shouldn’t be erased and grow hierarchies that shouldn’t be seeded. Successful social movements of the past have usually been made up of small, tight-knit communities and groups. They have been made up of people with long relationships and a lot of earned trust and respect. It wasn’t a thousand people who started the freedom rides. It was a handful. But that handful sparked something and others followed.

I think it is o.k. if we work on the issues that most affect us and with people that we like, understand, and respect. But we all have to take on the work of pushing to understand how the struggles are connected. And we have to make sure that we aren’t taking the easy way out by avoiding the uncomfortableness that comes from working with people whose cultures, experiences, marginalizations, etc. are difficult for us. We need to constantly be confronting ourselves.

The good news is that most of us are a part of many communities and struggles. So we can all be bridges. We can all work on the things that most affect us. We can all help each other to understand how those struggles are connected. We can work towards the same thing from different angles. Our work will be stronger for it.

Small Acts of Resistance

August 13, 2012 By: Mel Category: Seeking

I’m reading this book called Freedom’s Children right now. I only just started it, but it relates to all the thinking I have been doing about motivation and participation in activism. The author interviewed thirty people who were children or teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s.

Maybe one of the reasons we find it hard to stay motivated with activism is that sometimes we think too big. We don’t always have to be aiming for thousands at a march or the total collapse of the banking system tomorrow. We need a culture of resistance that can build over time.

When I read about nine-year-olds who poured water on soda fountain counters when faced with discrimination or teens who removed the “colored, do not sit beyond this board” signs from buses, I feel oddly motivated. All those small acts seeded something.

Focusing on small acts won’t just motivate us who are already involved. It might also help more people to get involved – people with limited time or resources. I’m not talking about buying some greenwashed product. I mean small acts that challenge the system, but that are part of everyday life and don’t require spending 3 hours at a meeting every week.

More importantly, I love that this book focuses on young people, often very young people. One of the ways we fall down horribly in the activist community is making spaces unwelcoming for people with kids, or just impossible for caregivers to participate. That’s not just a problem because we lose those caregivers. It is also a problem because we lose those kids.

The first person to refuse to give up her seat was not Rosa Parks. It was a fifteen year old named Claudette Colvin. There was a children’s crusade where elementary schoolers marched and were firehosed and attacked by dogs. Imagine the power behind that and imagine what kind of person you become when you are in the struggle starting at eight or nine.

I’m not sure exactly how this plays out in the day to day – how my behavior needs to change. But I am definitely going to start paying more attention to small acts and small people.

 

Some Thoughts on the GA Prisoner Strike

July 30, 2012 By: Mel Category: Criminalization, Seeking, Stratification

Sadly, most people don’t seem to be paying much attention to all the prisoner strikes that have been happening across the country. In Georgia, two prisoners went without food for more than 47 days. You really need to watch this video.

One of the things that struck me about that interview was the part at the end where Bruce Dixon talks about how it is not just race but also class that increases a person’s chances of being in prison.

African Americans, who are one eighth of the nation’s population, make up over forty percent of this nation’s prisoners. Latinos, who are another one eighth, make up an additional thirty percent and their numbers are climbing. So that means that between blacks and Latinos, who make up one fourth of the nations population, are three fourths of its prisoners…

Back in the days of Jim Crow, Jim Crow was inflicted on all black people regardless of class.  The enormous numbers of African Americans who are in prison now are not your African Americans who have been to college. A college educated black man now stands perhaps one third the chance of going to prison than he did 25 or 30 years ago. Whereas a young black man who is a high school dropout has six times the likelihood of going to prison than he did 30 years ago. So the prison state visits its afflictions upon us not just based on race but by a combination of race and class. The prison state targets lower economic class blacks and Latinos.

In The South it is a little different too. I should say. I’m from Chicago, from The North. When you go to the criminal courts building in Cook County in Chicago you hardly see a white face. In The South they actually do

lock up white people – poor white people – but there is a significant percentage of whites in the prisons in Georgia. Lastly I should say too that there are white prisoners among the leaders of this prison strike and the hunger strike. The prisoners standing up for their rights are black, brown and white –  something which is the opposite of what we hear or think of when we think of prisons in the United States. Prisoners are standing together across those lines.

At one of the events I was at about mass incarceration, someone asked how to get white people to care. Of course, by white people, they meant a certain kind of white person. Michelle Alexander responds to a similar question during this talk as well.

As an advocate, I had thought of my job as how do you persuade kind of those mainstream white voters to think differently. And much of advocacy has been geared towards (civil rights advocacy I mean) has been geared towards how do we make that group of people think differently and care about our issues, our concerns, and our needs. Well I think at this stage of movement building, my own view, is that the first order of business is how can we get our communities to care about each other. That the first order of business is consciousness raising and developing a sense of care, compassion, and concern within the communities most affected by it before we really even begin to address kind of those mainstream white swing voters that we are ultimately going to have to persuade through our advocacy work. And I say this in part because one of the things that I have been really struck by in my own work on these issues is that, with Jim Crow, African Americans were stigmatized, but they had their own businesses. They had their own churches, theaters, workplaces. There was a sense of solidarity within the community. There was a degree of racial solidarity and community. Well mass incarceration has turned the black community against itself, has turned communities of color against itself. And I think we first need to begin to build unity and a common understanding of the nature of this system and kind of an agreement of what must be done about it.

She goes on to talk about lessening the stigma in communities and working with former prisoners and their families. I agree with her for the most part. But I’m not sure that Alexander focuses enough on class when she is thinking about what needs to be done. What I mean is, she does not say that there is a class divide that needs to be bridged when you are talking about getting communities of color to care.

She also completely misses talking about what people in prison can do, are doing, and have historically done. And just like in that Attica uprising in 1971, the Georgia prisoner strike cuts across racial divides. All white people are not middle/professional/managerial class swing voters. There are a lot of “poor white trash” out there that are directly affected by the system. When people talk about how to get white people to care, they seem to write those people off. We’ve been so convinced that poor white people are hopeless.

We should be paying attention to these prison strikes. They are a very important part of how we are going to end the prison state. We also need to be careful when we talk about the most affected. We need to consider that those people are going to look different in different places, that class is a major factor in incarceration, and that classism is a major obstacle to ending it. We shouldn’t just write off the poor white people who are targets. And we sure as hell shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that those liberal, white voters are going to be more likely to tip scales in the right direction. I think they are – for the most part – going to be dragged kicking and screaming.

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More info on the Black Agenda Report

Communication. Understanding. Action.

July 23, 2012 By: Mel Category: Seeking

One of my most deeply held beliefs is that people shouldn’t just jump into things without spending a lot of time understanding the situation. And that goes a bazillion times more when we are talking about the actions of activists who are working on issues that affect others more than themselves.

Perfect understanding is impossible. We can’t be paralyzed by our lack of it. But if you find yourself imagining how the most affected people might feel, pondering how to get them involved, or fretting about why those who were involved are not any longer…

For fuck’s sake! Stop what you are doing!

Yet, as deeply as I believe that, I found myself caught in rescue mode, providing life support for a group that no longer had any of the things that drew me to it to begin with. I’m ashamed that I didn’t see it sooner.

I’m still processing all the things that went wrong, but it is clear to me that we tried to skip right to the action part and neglected to build the communication and understanding that would have made it work. It’s always a difficult balancing act. The problems are so huge and so urgent that they just scream for action. And it is working with people that builds the kinds of relationships where communication, understanding and trust become possible. That pull towards a certain kind of action is hard to fight.

But we really need to fight it. Doing something is not always better than doing nothing. And building relationships is not nothing. In fact, it is the core of what we need to do – an almost impossible task when so many of us have been brought up isolated, segregated, mistrustful, and socially retarded.

In short, I fucked up and I am sorry. I’m particularly sorry to those people who have been waiting for me to fulfill commitments I made and then dropped because I was trying to rescue something that I shouldn’t have been.

Live and learn.

Dear Reformists, You’re Welcome

July 20, 2012 By: Mel Category: Core, Politics, Seeking

You're WelcomeThe problem with people who focus on reform is that they don’t seem to understand how reform actually happens. They want to focus on influencing the people in power by gaining access. That almost never leads to change, or at least not the kind of change that we need. Reform happens in one of two ways:

1. You find an insider who agrees with you and they perceive that they can do something without suffering any political consequences. That is incredibly rare. And the only things that don’t lead to political consequences, like a loss of political contributions, are things that are not going to significantly change our lives.

2. The people have already decided to ignore or challenge the rules and reform becomes self preservation. If enough people decide that they are not going to bow down to the powers-that-be then the powers have two options. They can increase repression or they can change the rules to reflect what the people have already decided to do. Otherwise, their power is completely delegitimized.

My aim is to delegitimize the state. If the state wants to make some reforms in order to hold on to power a little longer, and those reforms help some people, that’s cool. My aim doesn’t change. And since my aim is not reform, I am not going to stop pushing when reform happens. Reform is not an end, but a delay. That doesn’t mean we vilify reformists for delaying the evolution. The only way to ensure that we don’t replace a horrible system with an even worse one is to be patient enough to have most of the people on the same page. That takes time.

But reformists need to stop vilifying radicals as well. That isn’t only because of their misunderstanding of how change happens. It is also because they are not appreciating how much the uncompromising rabble-rousers outside help them. The more radical we are, the more reasonable they seem. The more reasonable they seem, the more access they have. Without us, the people who want to use “insider strategies” aren’t going to get a foot in the door.

Lets take the civil rights movement. The minds of people had changed. And the people most affected by racism decided that they were no longer going to obey. There were sit-ins, bus boycotts, freedom rides. And because so many people’s minds were already changed, many joined those first few. Now, not only was the United States embarrassed on a worldwide scale (claiming to be a beacon of freedom while attacking peaceful protesters with dogs and hoses), but they risked a complete breakdown of authority. So the laws changed. Do not kid yourself that they changed because of the huge heart of the people sitting in the Whitehouse. Perhaps other leaders would have chosen the full-scale repression route, but ultimately it was self preservation.

What’s more, the existence of more revolutionary groups pushed the state to work with the part of the civil rights movement that was asking for justice within the current structure (as opposed to the part that wanted to bring the whole thing down). While you could argue that the Civil Rights Act had serious political consequences for democrats, ultimately it legitimized the state. If you don’t believe me, try having a conversation with a liberal about social justice and why it was direct action and not something LBJ signed that ended segregation.

So next time some reformist gives you crap for being “unrealistic” or “not serious” or “naive” or some such bullshit just say “you’re welcome.”