BroadSnark

Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, anarchist, atheist who likes the letter A
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Book Review – Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther

March 13, 2014 By: Mel Category: Book

Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black PantherMarshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther by Marshall “Eddie” Conway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Coincidentally, I finished reading Eddie Conway’s book on March 4th, the day he was finally released from prison after 44 years. I’m still thinking about it. I’m particularly thinking about how bad we are at learning from other people’s experiences and how much even one man’s story has to teach us.

Change takes risk and sacrifice. Eddie Conway lost his freedom for 44 years. He isn’t alone. Others lost their lives to violence or sometimes to just plain giving up. And there are other sacrifices. Sometimes it isn’t clear that they are worth it. For instance, Conway talks about being absent from the lives of his children. It wasn’t just because of prison. He was absent before prison because he was always busy with the movement.

Community support is fundamental. The Black Panthers obtained the support of their community in Baltimore by providing free breakfasts to children and setting up a community health clinic. In prison, the group Conway was involved with remained popular across divisions because they always advocated for the benefit of all the prisoners.

Success is the seed of your destruction. The more successful you are, the more you will become a target of the state. That is especially true if you provide services to the community that the state is not. The state will do anything to destroy you. The state will lie. The state will spy. The state will falsely imprison and kill. Even widespread community support cannot save an organization that the state is determined to destroy.

Information is essential. Even with community support, a media narrative can take off. Even die-hard supporters could start to doubt. One of the most successful prison rebellions involved prisoners who climbed up to windows where they could grab the attention of the community. Once the people most affected are allowed to speak, people see the truth. But the media is designed to create the white noise that drowns those people out.

Movements eat themselves. The image of the Black Panthers that was sold by the media attracted the kind of people who were easy targets for agent provocateurs. Anarchists have that same problem. We need to find ways to be disciplined in our organizations and to deal with the fact that agents will always be among us. We also need to deal with well-meaning but overzealous, unstrategic, and destructive people who help the state to discredit us.

I started this off by saying how bad we are at learning from other’s experiences. What I was specifically thinking about was Green is the New Red. It is a great book in many ways. But what made me furious was that the young, white kids involved seemed utterly shocked at the level of oppression that came down on them for their actions. I don’t know how anyone who had read even a page of history could have been shocked. I don’t think anyone should be taking actions – especially very confrontational actions – without understanding what they are getting into.

So read some history and know what you are facing. Conway’s book is a good place to start.

View all my reviews

Please Don’t Come

January 06, 2012 By: Mel Category: Change

Lawyer changes plea to pretty please with sugar on top.I’m hearing various rumors that occupiers are planning to descend on the capital for national actions. I don’t want to belabor the points I made in my previous post about activism in DC, but I just have to plead with you.

Please don’t come.

For the first time since I have been living in DC, I am seeing people coordinate about local issues in a big way. Small organizations that don’t get near enough support are getting attention. Occupiers are turning away from national campaigning. Links are being built. The seeds of workable solidarity networks are being planted. But we have a long way to go.

And if you come here, all our energy will be sucked right back into supporting you rather than doing what we need to do for our community. We just aren’t ready. Bad things happen when activists don’t do the relationship building and humble work of learning how to be allies instead of colonializers. If you don’t believe me, just read this post on racialicious.

Chomsky is right on this one. So are Mike Davis and Silvia Federici.

the movement should not be too eager to produce programmatic demands and should concentrate, instead, on making its presence more visible, on reaching out to other communities, and on ‘reclaiming the commons.’ This is beginning to happen with the migration of the occupations into the neighborhoods, which is essential to reconstruct a social fabric that has been dismantled through years of neoliberal restructuring and the gentrification and suburbanization of space.

Some of the coolest things that are happening in places like Seattle and the rest of the country are happening on a micro level. That’s where we should all be focusing our efforts right now. If people really feel like they need to do a national action, how about the proposed national assembly in Philadelphia? Maybe our Phili peeps have enough capacity to divert their attention.

But please, let DC focus on DC for a while.

Don’t Be Like Che

March 17, 2011 By: Mel Category: Change, Violence

Che Guevara is everywhere.  He is on t-shirts, sneakers, bags, bedazzled boots, and even children’s books. The bedazzled boots don’t really bother me so much.  Not likely that the person wearing those has actually read any Che and they probably won’t be mistaken for someone who is about to go traipsing through the jungle to start a foco.

It is all the attention from the radical left that really irritates me. At first I thought, maybe they just don’t know what he was about. Maybe they’ve never read his work. Maybe they don’t know what he was doing in Bolivia. But as I watch some of the people who love Che, I am beginning to see that they probably like him for exactly the reasons that I don’t.  Because I keep seeing people in our communities emulate all of Che’s most problematic characteristics.

Guevara was a privileged, white kid from Argentina whose parents were about as close to blue blood as you could get. He eventually became politicized, hooked up with Fidel Castro in Mexico, and joined Castro’s revolutionary movement – a movement that had lots of support, even amongst many of the middle and upper classes who now claim to have always hated Fidel. It was a revolution rooted in community, history, and cultural understanding. And it was the only thing Che was involved with that wasn’t a total failure. (I’m not romanticizing the revolution here, just acknowledging that they achieved their goal.)

After the revolution, Che was in charge of the economic policies in Cuba. And he fucked it up royally. This is not my opinion.  Guevara got on Cuban television and told the people he had designed “an absurd plan, disconnected from realty, with absurd goals and imaginary resources.” (Castañeda 216). He did some other awful things in his post-revolutionary Cuba days. He was instrumental in setting up the labor camp where dissidents and homosexuals were sentenced to hard labor for their ”crimes against revolutionary morals.” (178)

Guevara decided to go back to what he thought he did best. He took off for the Congo to participate in the anti-imperialist fighting there. Che should have known better. Even as Castro’s BFF, the fact that he was not Cuban was an issue during the Cuban revolution. Now Che was off in Africa, a place he knew jack shit about, trying to lead troops of Africans.  Many were incredulous at best. Egyptian President Nasser “expressed his astonishment and attempted to dissuade him, explaining that a white, foreign leader commanding blacks in Africa could only come across as an imitation of Tarzan.” (283)

The Congo mission was a failure, as Che himself admitted. But instead of learning from his mistakes, he headed to Bolivia to start a continent-wide South American revolution. Nobody seems to be sure why Bolivia was chosen. The country had a relatively popular elected president. The people had been through a revolution only fourteen years earlier. The 1952 revolution led to some land reform, a lot of food shortages, and the virtual economic takeover of Bolivia by the United States. Nobody in Bolivia wanted a revolution repeat.

The communist party in Bolivia was not supportive. Che claims they backed out. Mario Monje, Secretary of the Communist Party of Boliva, claims that the Cubans lied about Che’s intentions.  Either way, when Che saw he had virtually no local support, he should have turned around and went home. But he did not. He and his group, virtually no Bolivians amongst them, planted themselves in a country not their own and determined to start a war. So here he was, some white dude from Argentina, wandering around indigenous communities in Bolivia and trying to instigate violence that would force those campesinos to take his side.

The campesinos were having none of it. Let’s try to imagine how many times in the last 500 years those people have seen some conquistador come in and claim they were there to save them. This group of outsiders knew nothing about the community. Che and his crew did not know the people or the language. They were so ignorant that they were trying to teach themselves Quechua. Too bad they were in a place that was Aymara and Guarani. And when the news got out that a bunch of outsiders were starting shit, Guevara just lied and claimed that the majority of the movement were Bolivians.

Every single month, Che’s diary of Bolivia tells how they were having no luck in recruiting locals. It tells how the people were informing on them. It tells how they took locals hostage, took their animals, forced the locals to feed them, and made the locals targets of the military. Again and again, Che describes how terrified the people were.

Not surprisingly, Guevara was turned in. He was murdered. Bolivians went on to have their own revolution, a relatively peaceful one. They elected an indigenous man, leader of the once-scorned coca growers union. And unlike with the post-Obama-election liberals in the United States, Bolivians have continued to raise hell every time they don’t like the policies that their government is supporting. Turns out those campesinos didn’t need some conquistador to come in and do it for them. Imagine that.

Every time I see some privileged person protest touring, I think of Che. Every time I hear about some insurrectionists starting shit in other people’s neighborhoods, I think of Che. Every time some twenty-something white dudes audaciously roll into a room like they have all the answers – summarily dismissing the experience and knowledge of everyone else there – I think of Che. Every time I see some supposed radicals who can’t recognize how inappropriate it is to “lead” or “save” or “help” the poor people or black people or brown people, without bothering to ask their opinion about it, I think of Che.

I do admire Che’s willingness to give up so much of his privilege, to suffer and sacrifice for his beliefs. But a person can never give up all their privileges. And he certainly didn’t lose the false sense of superiority that comes with having been told all your life that you are at the top of the food chain. We don’t need more arrogance, racism, cultural insensitivity, machismo, violence, and sexism. That might get your mug on a t-shirt someday, but it isn’t going to make the world a better place.

Imagine if Guevara had not made a new man the center of his philosophy.* What if he had stuck around to fix his fuck ups in Cuba? What if he took care of his official and unofficial kids? How cool would it have been if he had recognized that he couldn’t impose his beliefs on others? How amazing if he had said that it is time white dudes stopped trying to be in charge all the damn time? Now that would have been fucking revolutionary.

______________

* Guevara’s pep talk to the troops, “This type of struggle gives us the opportunity to become revolutionaries, the highest form of the human species, and it also allows us to emerge fully as men; those who are unable to achieve either of those two states should say so now and abandon the struggle” (Guevara 208). Apparently, I am unable to attain the “highest form of the human species” (not being a man). Guevara seems to have put himself in that category, above all the rest of us riffraff. How nice for him.

Castañeda, J. (1997) Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara. NY, NY, Vintage Books.

Guevara, C (2206). The Bolivian Diary. NY, NY, Ocean Press.

On Snow and Relationships

February 03, 2011 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Politics

We have had a couple good snows this winter.  That means that I’ve had to navigate snow and ice covered sidewalks without breaking my neck.  Bad enough for me, who is generally steady on her feet when sober, but others really just have to forget about going anywhere until the snow melts.

It is a contentious issue around here.  Shoveling the sidewalk is supposed to be the responsibility of the people in front of whose building the sidewalk is, or at least so says the city.  There are lots of people who just never do it.  I know exactly which buildings in my neighborhood will be impassable year after year.  Now a DC council member has introduced a bill to impose penalties on those people who don’t get their sidewalks cleared within eight hours.

The proposed bill kicked off a fierce debate.  Why should residents have to clear the sidewalks when they belong to the city?  What if someone is out of town? What about the elderly and disabled? Will fines be imposed on them?  If not, who decides who is disabled and so exempt? Do those sidewalks just go unshoveled?  Can we trust the enforcers to implement the law fairly?  They don’t have a very good track record.

Do you know how we could know who is out of town or elderly or disabled and needs a bit of help? We could know that if we actually talked to our neighbors.  Do you how we could ensure that the sidewalks are clear so that those elderly and disabled could get through? We could coordinate with our neighbors.  Do you know how we make sure some city bureaucracy doesn’t bury us in tickets and fines? We could dispense with the bureaucracy altogether.

Charles Eisenstein did a talk recently on the gift economy.  He explained how gift economies create ties and obligations between people.  Gift economies are about strengthening community.  Cash economies, in contrast, separate people.  You give me a service.  I pay you for it.  Now I owe you nothing.  I have no obligation to you.  Isn’t this really the same dynamic?  I paid my taxes and now have no obligation to know or help my neighbors.  The city will do it. If my neighbor acts like a douche, I can hide in my apartment and have somebody else confront them.  All of it is to avoid the human relationships and obligations that any just society would have to be based upon.

A few months ago, I attended the Renewing the Anarchist Tradition (RAT) conference in Baltimore. One of the sessions was called Beyond Street Protests.  We talked about different projects that people were working on or thinking about.  One of the people there was from Pittsburgh and talked about anarchists trying to build community by helping out their neighbors.  The subject of shoveling sidewalks came up.   There was a bit of joking around about brigades of anarchist sidewalk shovelers.  I mean it isn’t like you can change the world by shoveling your neighbor’s sidewalk.

Or is it?

Putting “I” Back Into Your Vocabulary

May 14, 2010 By: Mel Category: Change

Considering the amount of people who seem to do nothing but talk about themselves on their blog, Facebook or Twitter accounts, you may think I’m crazy for suggesting that we don’t have enough “I” in our lives.

But hear me out.

How many times have you heard people bitch about the anonymous “they” that should have taken care of some problem.  Why haven’t “they” shoveled the sidewalk?  Why didn’t “they” help that poor person?  How are “they” going to protect me from the other “they.”

We’ve been trained to be that way, of course.  And our language is perfectly set up for avoidance of responsibility.  You don’t have to say “I broke it.”  You can say “it broke.”  No responsibility here.

During this winter’s snowmaggedon in DC, a local blogger complained about an incident with DC police.  There was a very drunk man walking in the road and falling down.  The blogger flagged down a cop.  The cop did nothing.  The blogger was upset that the cop wouldn’t even check to see if the guy was o.k.

Why didn’t the blogger just check to see if the guy was o.k.?  Great to be a concerned citizen, but why does concern only go so far as to try and get someone else to do something about it?

We’ve all gotten so accustomed to thinking that someone else will handle things that we aren’t using our common sense or common decency.  I understand the hesitancy.  Changing means taking on responsibility.  It means putting yourself at risk.  It means learning how to deal with difficult people.

But the alternative is handing your power over to people who may or may not ever try to use it to help and will often use it to hurt.  So how about a little less “they” and a little more “I” or , even better, “we?”

Does Culture Disappear?

April 26, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc, Religion

I often hear people express fear of losing their culture.  Sometimes, I sympathize with them.  I sympathize with indigenous people who are fighting for their dying languages.  I sympathize with the French farmer who led a revolt against McDonalds.  And I sympathize with Jews who – after surviving inquisitors, pogroms, and the holocaust – fear losing their culture to secularism and intermarriage.

But more often, the people who fear losing their culture don’t invoke much sympathy in me at all.  I have little sympathy for those who see immigration as a threat to their culture.  I have little sympathy for those who want to hang confederate flags to celebrate their culture.  I have little sympathy for people who defend misogynist, homophobic, racist or other hateful practices in the name of culture.

When I ponder the question of whether or not culture can disappear, my first response is – damn, I hope so.  I hope the culture of racism disappears.  I hope the culture of patriarchy disappears.  Rape culture, homophobic culture, materialistic culture…I hope all of it disappears. Of course, pondering those cultural relics just goes to show how difficult culture is to get rid of.  Culture, good and bad, is pernicious.

Culture mutates like a virus.  And it is that infinite mutability of culture that makes arguments about protecting culture completely nonsensical.  The fear that people have of losing their culture depends upon the belief that culture is isolated and stagnant.  It depends upon a belief that what you practice as your culture today is what it was yesterday and what it should be tomorrow.

Not true.

What is Jewish culture?  To my mother it means having Friday night dinner and celebrating the high holidays.  To my friend it means making obligatory visits to the holocaust museums and eating lox at kosher delis.  But to Hasidim on Miami Beach it means wearing the same clothes Jews wore in the Eastern European ghetto.  They have decided that preserving their culture means freezing it in a moment in time.  Why that moment?  Jesus was a Jew.  Why not wear loose robes?  It would make a lot more sense in Miami.  I mean wool in 90 degrees, oy vey.

What is authentic culture?  Is pizza authentically Italian when tomatoes are indigenous to the Americas?  Is apple pie authentically American when apples are indigenous to Central Asia?  Is the horse culture of the Plains Indians authentic, even though they only had horses after the Spanish brought them?

When I visited the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, our guide felt the need to explain to us why the pueblo houses had modern looking windows and doors on some of them.  “We shop at Home Depot too,” she said.  Clearly, some previous visitors had been disappointed that the Acoma people were unwilling to forgo modern conveniences so tourists could have an “authentic” experience.

When people try to hang on to culture, they are trying to hang on to culture caught in a moment in time, as interpreted through their memories or imaginations.  It isn’t real.  It isn’t possible. It isn’t desirable.

Don’t get me wrong.  It saddens me when I hear about lost cultures.  It saddens me to know that people in Tierra del Fuego only have a few native speakers left and that their language is dying.  But what is sad about lost culture is not that it is lost, per say.  What is sad is that, all too often, culture is lost because of force.  When the Navajo adopted the horse and changed their culture of their own volition, it was not sad.  When the Navajo were sent to schools to beat the Navajo out of them, that was not just sad, it was criminal.

The difference is force.  It is power.

Each individual must be free to chose which cultural things they think are useful and which they don’t think are useful.  If the things you are hanging on to are seen to be valuable by others, they will stick around.  Otherwise you just have to accept that not everyone shares your loves and values.  It’s a difficult thing to accept, but what else can you do?  Force acceptance down the barrel of a gun?

Of course, when people talk about losing their culture, what they often mean is they fear losing their identity.  They fear losing a label.  They fear losing a connection to a group and history that makes them special.  I can understand that fear.  But who you are is not so fragile.  Culture is not so fragile.

Here is the truth.  Many of the things that you cherish today will not be cherished, or even remembered, by future generations.  Many of the beliefs that people hold today will someday seem as strange and archaic as believing the world is flat.  You cannot stop that process.  That’s just life.  New cultural beliefs will form and their production will require cultural destruction.

But culture often survives in some small way despite itself.  In Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, there are many families descended from Spanish conversos.  There are Northern Mexicans who have been lighting candles on Friday nights for years, unawares that their tradition has roots in their Jewish heritage. And some of these people are rediscovering that heritage.  Hundreds of years of oppression and silence and yet a little flame remained.

Culture is stubborn.

Poor Man Can’t Eat, Rich Man Can’t Sleep

December 28, 2009 By: Mel Category: Inequality

I used to shoplift as a kid.  When I was about fourteen, I was busted with a purse full of makeup and banned from Rite Aid for life.

My father was unusually rational about the whole incident.  Clearly, all the crap I had in my room could not have been purchased with my babysitting money.  And my parents weren’t giving me money to buy clothes or makeup or anything else.  I don’t think my father had lost his business or had his stroke yet, but it was only a short time away.  I suspect he was feeling guilty or inadequate about not being a good “provider”.

So instead of my parent’s usual tirade and grounding my father simply explained to me that I was hurting people.  He said it probably didn’t seem like a bit of makeup from a huge company would even be noticed, but thousands of people doing what I did added up.  And that company, he said, wasn’t going to let their profits suffer.  They were going to raise prices or lower wages to make up for it.

I never wanted to hurt anyone.  And I never stole anything again.  But if I were starving and couldn’t see another option, I would steal.

I confess my past (and possible future) thievery because of a post last week on The Freethinker.  Apparently, a Yorkshire vicar told people that they should shoplift if they need to. A couple of us godless actually had to side with the vicar on this one.  Not surprisingly, others objected.  One commenter, Ash Walsh, pointed out that

Criminality only entrenches poverty. If a Thief gets a Criminal Record, the Thief will find it a lot more difficult to get a job thus starting a poverty cycle that is difficult to break out of.

That is absolutely true.  But why do we place the blame squarely, and solely, at the feet of the thief?  Doesn’t the community also bear some responsibility?  If the thief was stealing out of necessity, the community failed in providing its members with the things they need to survive. If the thief (like my fourteen-year-old self) just didn’t see the harm they were doing, then the community failed to educate them.   If the thief didn’t care that they were doing harm, then the community failed to teach them morals.

And if our system of retribution ensures that a thief has virtually no opportunity to turn their life around, then the community has failed yet again.

I was lucky.  My father felt some responsibility for what had happened and so reacted with compassion instead of just harsh judgment.  And it wasn’t just him.  Had the manager of that Rite Aid called the cops, I might have ended up in juvi instead of home with my parents.  Things could have gone very badly.

But all too often thieves receive no compassion at all.  They are dehumanized and vilified to the point that we accept whatever is done to them.  We don’t blink when someone gets a life sentence for theft or shot by people “protecting” their property from “looters” after Katrina.

We live in secure buildings in gated communities with alarms and trained dogs.  We authorize armed guards, police, and mercenaries to shoot anyone who breaches security.  We are terrified of being robbed by our fellow citizens.  And all the while, the biggest thefts are happening behind the scenes and are perfectly legal.  Where’s the guard to protect your pension from Goldman Sachs?

Not long ago, a would be robber in Long Island was thwarted by the owner of the store he was trying to rob.  The store owner showed him some compassion, gave him some money and bread, and didn’t call the police.  Months later, the robber repaid the store owner and sent the man a letter saying that he got his life back together.

I’ll bet they both ate that day and slept really well that night.

In Defense of Graffiti and Teen Angst

October 30, 2009 By: Mel Category: Misc

This Week in Race published a post titled Does It Still “Take a Village?”: Multiple Perspectives on a Chicago Encounter.  In it, Stephen tells how he witnessed “three young Black boys — maybe 13 years old — tagging the station walls with spray paint” in a Chicago subway.

Stephen decided to confront the boys and got an earful of cursing in return.  He was torn about what to do.  Should he have reported them to the authorities?  Should he have ignored them?  He didn’t want to be the great white savior, but he felt a responsibility to do something about the boys behavior.

Several people were asked to respond to Stephen’s dilemma, but amazingly nobody challenged the basic assumption Stephen was making.  All the responders seemed to agree that graffiti was degenerate behavior that needed to be corrected.  At best, the boys had “gone astray” and at worst they were “ignorant thugs.”

Is graffiti really a sign of thuggery?

Graffiti is beautiful.  (If you don’t believe me, check out some graffiti archeology.)  Graffiti is social commentary, self expression, public conversation, or grassroots support.  It’s free public art in opposition to a culture that commodifies everything.  For many artists, it is also part of an historic tradition.

Granted, Stephen said these kids were tagging and not painting works of art.  But art is in the eye of the beholder.  And if tagging isn’t art, what is it?  It is a way for kids to make a mark, to say “I’m here and I exist.”  Who among us didn’t do that growing up?  Even my friends who didn’t tag still wrote “Tammy is here” on bathroom walls, folders, sneakers, blue jeans…whatever was handy.

And who can blame kids for wanting to shout that they exist in a world that ignores them so completely – unless, of course, they violate some rule or social convention?   I’m not so old that I don’t remember what it is like to be a kid and have nobody listen to you.  The whole world wants to judge you, mold you, try to make you into whatever serves their interest.  If anybody needs a means of self expression it is a teenager.

True, I would not want someone tagging the outside of my house.  But who is more degenerate, the kid who tags or the society that constantly values property over people?  How many people are happy to spend money on police to keep graffiti off their walls but don’t want to spend a dime on education or other social programs to give those kids options?

Adults are often incensed that kids don’t respect authority like they used to.  But why should they respect authority, particularly when it doesn’t usually respect them? I’m 36 years old now and I can say with absolute certainty that, when I look back on my sixteen year old self, 90% of the adults I was supposed to listen to didn’t know shit.  And I was right not to pay a damn bit of attention to them.

Happily, many of the responders did point out that kids were unlikely to listen to any adult unless there was a previous relationship of trust.  Kids have plenty of people jumping in to tell them what they should do or not do.  What they don’t have is people who listen to what they have to say.

Who knows, those kids you want to save may see the world even more clearly than you do.