I’ve been thinking a lot about advocacy the last couple weeks, in large part because that advocacy mindset keeps seeping into the movement building and organizing work that I’m involved in. I wrote a little bit about this in my post on the perils of DC activism. But then a friend sent me the Invisible Children video on their Kony campaign and I think it is time to expand a bit on what I was saying.
Like I said in the other post, I am not completely against advocacy.
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.
It is possible to have radical goals and still spend some of your time dealing with the power structures in order to help people in the here and now. But many of the people who do that work do not have a critique of the system. They think the system needs tweaking, but that it is the best we can do. Sometimes those people will run into so many roadblocks that they accidentally hit on something. But without a radical critique of the system, and of power itself, they end up being misdirected into doing things that are completely wrongheaded.
The Invisible Children video is inspiring in a lot of ways. And they get some things right. It all starts with a personal relationship, with someone coming face to face with a human being who would rather die than keep on living in constant danger of being kidnapped and turned into a murderer. Not being radical, his first thought was to go to the US government to fix things. Finding that they didn’t give a shit, he turned to educating and organizing everyday people. One by one they built awareness and relationships.
But then they used that strength to go right back to the power structures to ask them to fix it. I’m supposed to cheer the involvement of the U.S. government and military in Uganda? Ask an Iraqi or one of the millions of people being tortured in U.S. prisons how great they are. And what about the Ugandan government? Are we really supporting the government that wants to kill gay people, that murdered nine people during their elections, that regularly tortures and imprisons people on a whim?
The goal should not be to get enough collective strength to make power seeking thugs pay attention – whether they call themselves LRA or Senator. The goal should be to get enough collective strength to make power seeking thugs impotent.
Now, of course, you are thinking. But what should we do?
I don’t understand the situation in Uganda well enough to propose a solution. Neither do you. Neither do people in the US government, probably not in the Ugandan government either. I’m still trying to understand the situation in my own city well enough to avoid doing dumb shit that will make things worse. How arrogant would I have to be to think I could come up with the answer for Uganda? And that doesn’t even begin to address histories of colonialism, imperialism, racism, privilege…
The people in the communities of Uganda are the only ones who know their situation well enough to pose workable answers. That doesn’t mean we ignore people who are suffering. It means we support people in resolving their conflicts. But we need to do it on their terms and with the understanding that we come from a position of power and privilege, a position that the aim is to dismantle. We need to do it without turning to people who are responsible for equally heinous shit.