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

Revolution in the Echo Chamber

April 09, 2012 By: Mel Category: Seeking, Stratification

Organizing for radical change means building relationships and networks. It is natural that we start building with the ones we already have. We don’t need to start from scratch. And connections built on years of shared experiences are probably going to be stronger than ones based just on philosophical beliefs or political aims.

The thing is, in a world that is so divided by gender, age, race, religion, class, culture, geography, and so many other things; our networks are often filled with people very much like us.

Sometimes that’s o.k. I don’t think it is a huge tragedy that a punk collective is mostly white dudes. And sometimes homogeneity is absolutely essential. An organization of people returning from prison is going to reflect who is targeted for criminalization. A day laborer collective is going to be made up of day laborers. If those kinds of organizations are run by a bunch of people who don’t have those experiences, then they are guaranteed to turn into a shit show.

But if you are trying to do something bigger, you can’t be in an echo chamber.

I posted a comment in my last Things You Might Have Missed about the amount of white dudes in ZNets new International Organization for a Participatory Society. I was going to leave it at that and never think about the organization again. But someone tweeted me that I should tell people about it because “more diverse membership is essential.”

Yes. If their aim is worldwide revolution – if they claim to be “anti-sexist” and “anti-racist” and “bottom-up” – then they should have a membership that actually reflects the world. When they got together and saw that their limited network didn’t get close to bringing in even a teeny sampling of perspectives, they should have Stopped Right There. Because they are clearly not ready for the project they are trying to take on.

This isn’t just about “diversity” as some feel good, warm fuzzy bullshit. It is that each of us has experienced the world in a very different way. And if you are trying to do something on the scope of worldwide revolution, you better damn well make sure that you are hearing and speaking to as many different experiences as possible right from the start.

It does not matter how many books they read or how much internal work they have done to combat their inner racist or inner sexist. It is next to impossible to create an organization that will reflect or attract people who they don’t really understand. It isn’t just that I look at all those dudes and roll my eyes. It is that their limited experiences do not give them the tools to create something that is going to make me want to join them.

That would be fine if they wanted to start a punk collective or Kropotkin reading group. It isn’t fine for this.

This isn’t the first time I have criticized organizations for this kind of thing. Invariably, there is somebody who tells me that I should jump in and make it better. So I shouldn’t be surprised that I was asked to publicize this project so that they can get more diversity.

Not going to happen.

I don’t believe something that starts off fundamentally wrong can be fixed so easily, probably not at all. More importantly, I am sooooooo tired of people asking for those of us who are not white dudes to spend all our precious time fighting through their organizations. How come you think you get to sit around planning the revolution, but my time is supposed to be spent making your shit more “diverse?”

That isn’t how I am going to spend my time. I’m going to be here working through my own limitations and privilege. I’m going to work on strengthening the networks I have and building relationships across all those divides. Maybe someday, with enough patience and humility, I might be able to think about taking on something with the kind of grandiose goals that IOPS has.

Any of you who want to step out of the echo chamber and join me are more than welcome.

Occupation to Conversation

October 06, 2011 By: Mel Category: Change

When I first heard about Occupy Wall Street, I thought it had real potential. Wall Street is a target that a lot of people could get behind. I could see people rallying around a campaign against that Giant Vampire Squid, Goldman Sachs.

Of course “one demand” didn’t really materialize. Instead the occupation of Wall Street has spawned dozens of demands. And many of those demands have a distinctly, conventionally liberal bent to them. I was disappointed. Without a short-term, winnable goal that crossed the usual political divides, I couldn’t see the occupation going anywhere. Once you bring in a standard list of lefty demands, you alienate a whole lot of that 99%.

Regardless of my disappointment that one clear goal did not materialize, I’ve been happy to see the Occupy movement grow. But I have still been unable to get myself really exited by the whole thing. I just couldn’t see where it was going.

But after reading Holly’s post on Pervocracy and Manissa McCleave Maharawal’s post on Racialicious, I am beginning to see the potential again. If I see it as a conversation, rather than a campaign, then it begins to look a lot more promising.

So today I went down to McPherson to check out Occupy DC. I was expecting a sparse crowd of mostly scruffy, white kids and I wasn’t suprised. I don’t want to make any harsh judgement about that.  I’m sure some people were down at Liberty Plaza supporting the October 2011 folks. But I kept wondering what the homeless dudes who occupy McPherson park every day of their lives think about the kids who started camping out there.

After McPherson I went down to Liberty Plaza and, as I feared, found the usual suspects. I don’t want that to sound disdainful. I know and like a lot of those usual suspects. But the crowd did not represent my community, not even a little. And I am not the only one feeling like that.

I have written many times before that the first step is to start having conversations across all our divides. If the occupy movement is turning into a public conversation, that is great. That is exactly what we need. But we don’t just need to be “inclusive,” we need to center the most marginalized people or we will get nowhere. We need to have those conversations with the people who won’t be likely to show up at an Occupy event.

So how are we going to do that?



Step One – Understanding

March 08, 2010 By: Mel Category: Seeking

On Saturday night, I went to a friends birthday party.  The party was at a club in Temple Hills, Maryland.  Temple Hills is 85% African American.  It took the bfriend and I three tries before we found a cab willing to take us there.  (FYI – It is just outside DC and an easy 10 mile drive.)  When we finally did find one, the cabbie spent the whole drive telling us what a dangerous place it was.

On Sunday, I attended A Continuing Talk on Race (A.C.T.O.R.) at Busboys and Poets.  Ironically, this month’s guest was Rawn James, Jr.   He was there to discuss his new book, Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation.  The group discussion centered around exactly the kind of de facto segregation in 85% black Temple Hills or 79% white Santa Cruz (where I lived the six years before moving to DC).

And on Sunday night, I listened to Womanist Musings on blog talk radio.  The subject was bridging the divide between women of color and white feminists.  Renee asked, as she has been asking for some time, how we can more effectively work together.

Divisions, and how to work across them, have been on my mind a lot lately.  Two recent posts have been about collaborating across the divide and focusing issue by issue.  But I think I may have gotten ahead of myself, because we are unlikely to work together successfully without first understanding one another.  And in order to understand one another, we have to listen to each other.  Too often, we aren’t even putting ourselves in the same room, much less having conversations.

I’m not talking just about racial divides.  Political affiliation, economics, geography, religion, food, education, philosophy, music, clothes, cars, books, heroes, villains…  We seem to have a nasty tendency to let small differences (and not so small differences) become impassible chasms.  Sometimes the divides are rooted in prejudice and fear.  Sometimes, like one participant on Sunday admitted, it is just the ease of being with people you know and understand.

We are all (to some degree) uninformed, misinformed, bigoted, suspicious, petty, defensive, and closed-minded.  It may be easier to live in a neighborhood where everyone looks the same or to only get news from people who think like you.  It’s easier to shut out the things that challenge or offend.  It is easier to stay within your comfort zone than to risk exposing your ignorance or exposing yourself to other people’s ignorance.

But we can’t always just do what is easy.  And insulating ourselves only ensures that we stay uninformed, misinformed, bigoted, suspicious, petty, defensive, and closed-minded.

To be clear, we all need safe spaces.  We all need friends, family, and neighbors that we feel comfortable with.  We need people who know us well enough to overlook a bad day or a stupid statement.  We need places where we don’t have to navigate the daily minefields inherent in a society that is so separate and oppressive.  And the more a person feels the weight of those minefields on a daily basis, the more they need that space.

But we also need safe spaces for crossing the divides, because those minefields will not disappear on their own.

So expose yourself to different people and different ways of thinking.  If you are liberal, follow some conservative or libertarian blogs.  If you are white, follow some black blogs.  If you are a man, follow some women’s blogs.  Don’t be a troll.  Don’t read people just to find fault with them.  Don’t look only for opportunities to debate.  Look for opportunities to find common ground.

Get out there and make yourself uncomfortable.  Talk to people that you don’t normally talk to.  If you live in New York, spend time in Oklahoma.  If you live in Minnesota, spend some time in Miami.  If you’ve never left your country, do it now.  And I don’t mean go stay in a resort where they make sure you are not exposed to anything even mildly jarring.

If you look, you will find other people who are willing to put themselves out there, even when it is uncomfortable.  You will find people who will take the time to understand where other people are coming from and to explain where they are coming from.  You will find people willing to be open and honest no matter what kind of abuse or ridicule they suffer for it.  You will find people who create safe spaces, virtual and physical, that make the conversations possible.

Thank those people.

Cherish those people.

Be those people.

I strongly suspect that, if we focus on understanding each other, collaboration will follow.