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

Book Review – The Occupy Handbook

October 16, 2012 By: Mel Category: Book

The Occupy HandbookThe Occupy Handbook by Janet Byrne

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I hate this book.

I really tried to give it a chance. But I knew going in that any book about occupy that was compiled by someone described as “an editor who has worked with Nobel Prize-winning economists, Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, and leading political figures, financial journalists, academics, and bestselling authors” was going to be a shit show. And a shit show it was.

It isn’t that all the essays are crap. Some of them are quite good. The first section breaks down the financial crisis and brings in some history of previous people’s movements. The second section talks about occupy itself. The third section, the part that really sealed my hatred, is about what we should do now.

What are the proposed solutions? Campaign finance reform. Corporate regulations. Environmental regulations. Progressive taxation. Elect a different congress. Smart loans…Are you still awake? The only reason I haven’t passed out from boredom is that I want shake these people until their heads pop off.

Dear asshats who think everything will be solved if we just all rally around one magic, conservative/liberal bullet like ending corporate personhood. Please take your brilliant idea to someone sitting in prison for twenty years on a weed charge, with all the fabulous opportunities they have to look forward to when they get out, and tell them they need to set aside their pet issues (aka their life) and lobby for some bullshit bill. And if you wouldn’t mind filming that for me.

But the contributors to this book weren’t thinking about people in prison. They weren’t thinking about anything that doesn’t affect them. And who are they? There are 66 contributors to this book. Fifteen of them are women. One of those women is just an interviewer. Eight of them are co-authors with some dude. One of those women is Asian. There is one black man who contributed an essay. Three Indians (by which I mean grew up in India) are contributors. 61 of the 66 authors are white (though eight of those people are from Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Spain, or Turkey). 52 out of 66 authors have grad degrees. At least 35 of them went to school or taught at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, MIT, Georgetown, or Oxford.

This book is the antithesis of what occupy was supposed to be about. The book oozes status, hierarchy, academic circle jerks, and conservative/liberal “solutions” that nip around the edges of the system, but have no interest in actually changing it – much less getting rid of it. This book is the worst kind of racism, sexism, and classism. It is the kind that just erases anyone outside of their tiny, elite circle. It is the kind that wraps itself up in a pretty package of intellectualism.

The reason occupy has been so damn difficult is that the people involved had to confront head on all of the issues that this book ignores – often failing spectacularly. But at least there was some space for people who didn’t have the kind of pedigrees that the contributors to this book have. The reason occupy took off is precisely because it created a space for people to be heard, to negotiate directly with other people, to come up with ideas outside the usual bullshit that kept most of us at home drinking ourselves into stupors and yelling at our televisions.

The last thing we need is a bunch of essays compiled by some woman who creams her pants every time she meets a white dude with a PhD from an Ivy League school.

View all my reviews

Using Prejudice

March 22, 2012 By: Mel Category: Seeking, Stratification

I’ve been watching the fall of Rush Limbaugh with a certain amount of glee, but also with some ambivalence. I’m perfectly happy for him to get shit for calling Sandra Fluke a slut after testifying about contraceptives. But I am wondering why all his other equally offensive comments didn’t come with the same amount of backlash. Why did he go too far this time?

He went too far because he directed his comments toward someone who is put on a pedestal. I don’t mean her as an individual. I mean a young, white, college student who fits the idea of what is pure and good and needs to be protected. If Fluke was a prostitute,  if she lived in a trailer, if she wasn’t white, if the news media had been able to traipse out a parade of guys she had slept with, if she was trans, if she was a guy – then things would have played out very differently.

I was thinking about this the other day when someone was telling me how Occupy received good press in the beginning and then it turned, at least in the mainstream media. But that isn’t really true. Occupy wasn’t receiving much press until some white women in New York were kettled and maced by cops. The police had crossed a cultural line.

When a Hollywood movie wants to show us that the character is a bad guy, what do they do? They have him hurt a woman. If they want to show that he is a good guy, what do they do? They have the dude rescue some woman in distress. So when somebody attacks a woman who fits the mold of who is supposed to be rescued, all hell breaks loose.

There are some times when using sexism is about the only available option. The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo were able to protest when nobody else could. Not even the dirty war government of Argentina could mow down a bunch of mothers and grandmothers. But in protesting, they also reinforced the idea of  our role as mothers, of women as non-threatening.

So I have been thinking about whether or not it is possible to use stereotypes and prejudices without reinforcing them.

The only example I can think of so far is Budrus. (If you have not seen the movie about one of the towns in Palestine that is fighting that Israeli wall, you should.) Women were not involved at first. But the daughter of one of the leaders convinced her father to let the women protest.  Faced with the Israeli bulldozers she thought, correctly, that they would be more hesitant to run over women. It worked.

In the case of Budrus, they were both challenging their role in their community and using sexism at the same time. But that seems to me to be pretty rare. And it is such a difficult line to walk.

It isn’t just reserved for gender roles and stereotypes either. Dave Chappelle has an amazing ability to use stereotypes to deflate them. I love the skit he did on whether or not white people can dance. But Chappelle has said that one of the reasons he quit the show was because of “the realization that his racially charged comedy was too often lost on an audience a little too enthusiastic about repeating the N-word.” In other words, he was afraid he was just reinforcing the stereotypes and prejudices he was trying to challenge.

Can people use prejudice to fight for justice? Or is it always destined to backfire in the long run?


Occupation and Motivation

November 17, 2011 By: Mel Category: Seeking, Stratification

Pic comparing the "99%" to starving African childrenI hate this picture.

I get the point that they are trying to make. The “99%” at the occupy protests are privileged, white, college kids who just want loan forgiveness. They aren’t really the people most suffering in the world.

It is true that many of the people who are participating are relatively well off. I’ve written about how the conversation needs to widen. I was disappointed that the occupy movement completely ignored the prison hunger strike, clearly people who are worse off than most in those parks.

I understand the frustration that so many people only open their eyes to injustice when it affects them. But what should we do? Do we dismiss people because their awakening is belated? If we want things to change, we need most people on board. Maybe some of those people will sell out, just like a lot of former hippies did. But not all of them will. Once you have experienced police  violence, you aren’t likely to forget it. Once you expand your knowledge and circle of relationships, that is not so easy to undo.

What else does that picture say?

It says that poor, POC are just sitting helpless? They are just waiting for someone to come and rescue them? Horseshit. Have you seen the Bolivian protestors who stopped a government planned road through their land? Have you seen the pink gang in India? Or how about the women’s only village of Umoja. Why do people feel the need to portray the poor without any agency? Why do people feel the need to draw a line between the struggles of the poorest and those of the relatively comfortable?

Conservatives do this shit all the time.  The Heritage Foundation loves to talk about how well-off poor people in this country are. According to Heritage, most of our poor have air conditioning and televisions, so they aren’t truly poor and should just shut up. These are the same people who would like nothing better than to erase all POC from the occupy movement.

The other thing that this picture says it that, unless you are truly “the wretched of the earth” you have no business advocating for yourself. It says that acting in your self interest is wrong. It says that people who have never starved should act only out of selflessness.

Does a rich, black person not get to advocate for an end to racial injustice? Does a privileged, white woman not get to advocate for an end to gender discrimination? Does a prisoner who hasn’t been raped not get to advocate for an end to the prison system? Are we all to seek out the most oppressed and only advocate on behalf of them? Doesn’t that indicate our belief that they can’t advocate for themselves? When does one cross the line from helping to having a messiah complex?

In The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin’s novel about a future anarchist community, the worst insult you can say to anyone is to call them an altruist. Altruism indicates an imbalance of power. You can only be an altruist if you have more than those you are “helping.”  I want a world based on mutual aid, respect, and equal power. I want a world where altruism is impossible.  So how does that fit into a world where power and privilege is currently so uneven?

I think people often mistake selfishness with self-interest. True self-interest does not damage the people around you. True self-interest recognizes that, if I do something that negatively effects my community, it will likely come back to bite me in the ass. Like Thich Nhat Hanh says,

Anything you do for yourself you do for the society at the same time. And anything you do for society you do for yourself also.

The trick is being able to differentiate between what is selfish and what is self-interested. In order to do that, we need to understand the people around us and how things effect them. We need to see systems for what they truly are.

We should all be examining our motivations constantly. But do not think that because something seems selfless or altruistic that it means the motivations are pure. Altruism often comes from people who want to feel superior, who want to pat themselves on the back. Selflessness can come from an unwillingness to examine the obstacles that you face in this world.

I’ve come across far too many male feminists who want to white knight their way into vanguardist stardom to cheer when people want to fight for “the other.”  The truth is that it is sometimes easier to fight on someone else’s behalf. When you fight the oppression that you experience, you have to face your own personal pains. And you have to face that you are not completely in control of your destiny. In order to get where you want to go, there is a whole system that you have to go up against. It’s a daunting realization.

It is important to recognize the power and privilege that you have. It is essential to be constantly examining your own motivations. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that only some people can act in ways that are self interested. We shouldnt make the mistake of thinking that it is always admirable when someone takes up anothers cause.

All struggles for justice are interconnected. The more power and privilege you have, the more responsibility you have to make sure your actions aren’t fucking other people up. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t get to fight for your own self interest. It means you have to be careful to identify what that interest is.

Occupying the Narrative

November 10, 2011 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Seeking

Kids Protesting on Bank Transfer DayDemonization of the occupy protests is in full swing now. The violence in Oakland was just what some people needed to start the narrative change that we are beginning to see. The Washington Post is running stories about occupy violence. Fox news accused occupy protestors of knocking over an old lady. (Complete bullshit, of course.) There are stories about evil drug users and sexual violence galore. Or you could just read The Heritage Foundation’s little wrap up.

I was going to write about how frustrating it is when things are going well and some buttheads come along and get into unwise confrontations, losing us immeasurable good will.  I was going to ask how we can keep clueless people or sabateurs from doing things that media will use to demonize everyone. Basically, I was going to write about how to deal with bad actors.

But that is a trap. Those things need to be discussed. We need to keep people safe, preferably without involving police. We need to block people who are out to sabatage us. But we are never going to be able to control everyone’s actions or prevent people from doing dumb things near us or in our name. We will never be able to control the national media narrative. It isn’t in their interest. Chris Hedges is right.

It is vital that the occupation movements direct attention away from their encampments and tent cities, beset with the usual problems of hastily formed open societies where no one is turned away. Attention must be directed through street protests, civil disobedience and occupations toward the institutions that are carrying out the assaults against the 99 percent. Banks, insurance companies, courts where families are being foreclosed from their homes, city offices that put these homes up for auction, schools, libraries and firehouses that are being closed, and corporations such as General Electric that funnel taxpayer dollars into useless weapons systems and do not pay taxes, as well as propaganda outlets such as the New York Post and its evil twin, Fox News, which have unleashed a vicious propaganda war against us, all need to be targeted, shut down and occupied. Goldman Sachs is the poster child of all that is wrong with global capitalism, but there are many other companies whose degradation and destruction of human life are no less egregious.

So instead I would like to focus on some of the things we are doing right, the things we need more of.

The picture above comes from what might be the cutest protest ever. A bunch of parents took their kids out for bank transfer day. Adorable children holding handmade signs telling banks to share is total win. And bank transfer day itself was a resounding success.  650,000 people joined credit unions last month, more than all of last year. Even some rich people are dumping BOA.

How many people in this country are paying rent to slumlords for unsafe buildings without heat and water? This Harlem resident marched down to Occupy Wall Street and got a cadre of protesters to help her stand up to her landlord. That is some real shit that people can get behind.

Far too many people don’t have homes at all. Many of them are staying in the same parks with occupy protesters – like this guy who seems to have found a new mission in life. As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out, living on the street has made homelessness a little more real for many of the participants. But some are taking it to the next level and actually trying to help protect the homeless encampments that are always under attack.

There are whispers of debt strikes beginning. Bloods and Crips are now best friends. Man’s best friend is running things in Denver.

But I think my favorites have the be the direct actions in response to foreclosures. This woman re-entered her foreclosed home, with the help of some activists. Occupy Atlanta moved their encampment to a police officer’s home that is about to be foreclosed upon. And the occupy foreclosures movement looks poised to keep growing.

The media is unlikely to pick up on these things with as much relish as they do violence. So we are going to have to publicize the shit out of them ourselves. But when you have gorgeous visuals like those kids marching, or heartstrings-tugging personal stories about elderly people without heat, it isn’t very hard to get people interested in the story.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have to talk about how to deal with violence and sabatoge. It is especially important for us anarchists, who have to deal with much of the bullshit being done in our names (or at least blamed on us). It wouldn’t hurt for us to post videos of clean-up crews going in and fixing what was broken or shots of us blocking people from doing dumb shit. But we can’t let that become the predominant narrative.

So lets take the focus off of the encampments and the minor skirmishes between protesters and police (by which I do not mean ignore police brutality). Let’s get the focus back on the real conflict – everyday people banning together to fight powerful forces that they can’t stand up to on their own.

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?