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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Venezuela and Tensions of the Left

March 03, 2014 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Change

Half Marx Half Kropotkin A while back there was a Reddit argument between a Marxist and an anarchist. They were having the usual debate about what happens when a movement takes state power. The anarchist said something along the lines of, “When you take the state do you promise not to execute me by firing squad.” (There is something of a history here.) The Marxist’s reply was something along the lines of, “When we take state power do you promise not to start an insurrection?”

“Touché,” said the anarchist.

I’ve been trying to keep one eyeball on the happenings and debates in and about Venezuela right now. By that I do not mean the composition of the people in the streets. The evidence of that seems pretty clear. I’m paying attention to the disputes on “the left.” I’m thinking a lot about how those disputes could actually make movements towards justice stronger instead of being weaknesses that can be exploited by those who are clutching onto their power and privilege.

As anarchists, we will always be suspicious of and critical of power. I will never accept hierarchy or coercion, even from those who seem to share many of my other values. I’ll never support police power and its abuses, even if I am in moderate agreement with their bosses. I will never be comfortable with a top down model of change. However, I am also very practical. So while I cannot support a top down model of change, I can nominally support a power structure that provides more room to move toward the society I want to see.

I think us anarchists have to look at power structures and ask some practical questions. Do the people, especially the most oppressed, support the power structure? Are we less restricted and repressed under this power structure? Is there more room for our transformational projects to take hold? If I can answer yes to those questions then I can be, at least, less against that power structure than another.

But I will never stop being critical and bringing attention to the inconsistencies and hypocrisies. And when those criticisms are greeted with absolute hostility, as though any criticism means being  traitor to the revolution, or at least on the side of the oligarchs, that is infuriating. It is especially infuriating because paying attention to our criticisms could actually strengthen the very movements that get so pissed at us.

Take this piece by José Antonio Gutiérrez D. He is not vilifying the government as a whole, but he is saying that many have been sucked up into its power structure and have become corrupt. He isn’t asking to undo what has been done or denying the positive things that have happened, but he is pointing out that some of the most radical democratic projects – like worker managed factories or real land distribution – have fallen by the wayside with disastrous consequences. Most importantly, he is pointing out the danger of resolving this crisis through more state power instead of through more people power.

Apart from the immediate measures (such as harmonizing the price of petrol, curbing the flight of capital, speculation and hoarding), it is essential to understand the real nature of the social contradictions facing the “process”. It is not enough to recognize that it is not perfect or that it naturally has contradictions. These contradictions and limitations must be identified, discussed, critiqued and corrected. We cannot just close ranks around them, justify them, nor even less so make a virtue of them and close our eyes to the impeccable “leadership” of the leaders.

The people today cannot be a passive agent nor nothing more than government shock troops: they must take back their capacity for political action, for acting themselves, with their own agenda, because socialism will not be built by the State. Decentralization, the autonomous development of the organs of people’s power and social control is an essential task in the present moment. There must be a transfer of power from the State apparatus to the popular movements and their organization

If I were to sum up my line of thinking at the moment, I guess it would be something like this. Centralized and hierarchical left movements should listen carefully to the criticisms of even the most pain in the ass anarchists. We are showing you your weaknesses, weaknesses that could be your downfall. (By downfall, I mean both the chance of losing power and the chance of becoming totalitarian.) And anarchists should be clear in their constant barrage of criticism that we also acknowledge – in so far as it exists – the community support and changes brought about by hierarchical movements.

I realize that this will be an uneasy and somewhat temporary truce. But at this time, we need each other. The world is less and less willing to accept any of the isms. When an anarchist criticizes a movement or government for authoritarianism or when a woman criticizes it for sexism, they need to be taken seriously without people getting defensive or dismissive. Those criticisms show you the weaknesses that need to be addressed. There is, unfortunately, very little room for error when trying to make a massive social change. There is, fortunately, less and less room to placate people by saying that their concerns will be dealt with later. We’ve all heard that before and we know that moment never comes.

So lets keep having that dialogue and critique and use it to make us stronger. Because the powers that we are up against are immense and we don’t have a lot of room to fuck up.

Support the People Not the CML

February 25, 2014 By: Mel Category: Politics

Evo MoralesWhat is going on in Venezuela right now has brought to the surface a lot of tensions between different parts of what is usually referred to as the left. That’s a good thing. And I expect I may write a few things about those conversations in the coming weeks. But I want to start with this quote my friend Navid put up on his FB page.

As an anarchist I still support the governments of Venezuela & Bolivia. Why? Because they are building popular governments & are in the process of distributing power to the bases. Anarchists & Libertarians that are living under neo-liberal governments & have produced no structural change to the way they are governed want to criticize & dismiss the work that the governments of these revolutionary movements. It would be nice if Evo Morales didn’t have to be a president. But because we are still living in a world with nation states, most of them republican, social movements & the governments they put in place will continue to struggle with the contradictions of distributing power through the state. Anarchists & Libertarians that want to take what they think is the ‘principled high road’ of not supporting & in some cases dismissing the work of the governments of social movements, I don’t think have a vision of how we can actually achieve a world without borders or states. I would love to be able to wish & dream this into existence but the fact is, there are steps, and none of them lack contradictions. We have to acknowledge reality & collectively deal with it. — Cexilia Poncho Rojo

I don’t know any anarchists who don’t struggle with the fact that we sometimes support state programs or political changes as a practical matter in the here and now. We understand the contradictions. You will find plenty of anarchists who protest for state funded housing and education. You’ll find plenty of anarchists who vote.  We get that we live in a world where it is expected that we will all live in states or participate in groups led by a charismatic male leader (CML).

But

As someone whose beliefs are fundamentally a critique of power, I will always raise an eyebrow toward anyone who pursues power. I will always be skeptical about what will happen to even the best intentioned person who attains power. I will always be vigilant in watching how people use their power. Because I believe that power corrupts. Most importantly, I make a very large distinction between the people, the social movements that bring someone to power, and the CML that becomes the face of that movement.

Evo Morales has an inspiring personal narrative. But the movement that brought him to office is what really counts. And when those people turn around and protest President Morales in order to force him to cancel an amazon road project, I have no internal contradiction about whether I should support the president or the people who put him in power.

It is the same for other social movements as well. I have respect for MLK, but I believe that Ella Baker was right that the movement made Martin, not the other way around. Ultimately, it is the people who are important, not the power center or the anointed face – as inspiring as that person may be. As a bonus, when you keep your focus on the people instead of the CML, perhaps losing that leader doesn’t put the whole movement into disarray.

It is an exaggeration to say that all governments and leaders are exactly the same. Some are definitely more responsive or more repressive than others. In so far as there may be people out there who are summarily dismissing the beneficial things these governments have done, Rojo’s criticism is valid. But in so far as I am expected to confuse support for the people with uncritical support for the CML, which is often what people seem to want, that just isn’t going to fly.

 

 

Harassment is About Power

August 22, 2013 By: Mel Category: Inequality

Yesterday it came out that San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is resigning in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal. Apparently he enjoys groping his employees. Also a groper is  Kentucky state representative John A. Arnold Jr. Just the latest in what is pretty much everyday news.

Earlier this week, Rolling Stone blasted Bloomberg for claiming to care about the safety of New York City children when 21% of the 145,652 NYPD street stops were of children. You might not think these things have much to do with one another. But they do.

I actually used to work for a law firm that represented plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases. There were bosses that busted into locker rooms while employees were changing. Bosses who liked to grope their employees. Bosses who conditioned promotions on getting their dicks sucked. Some all around charming dudes. (And yes. All of the defendants sued by the law firm were dudes. And all of the people who ever called for sexual harassment related consultations were women.)

Sexual harassment cases in the U.S., even the ones that should properly be called assault, are handled in civil court. If you get sued for sexual harassment, you may just have to pay a couple million dollars in damages. And I have to admit that winning those cases felt good. It was rare that someone actually lost their job for assaulting their employees. But watching some douchebag have to fork over millions of dollars does bring a certain satisfaction.

In theory, the law firm I worked for also did employment discrimination cases. But we never took any because they were so impossible to win. Even when some guy called us because n$%%@r was spray painted on his door, we didn’t take it. That kind of harassment wasn’t a winning case.

Mind you, at the law firm where I worked, we regularly put in 15 hour days. We worked weekends. We got yelled at. We were expected to do personal errands for our bosses. We got calls at 3 o’clock in the morning to be asked about files (at least until my phone got cut off and I let it stay cut off). In other words, we were subject to the kind of harassment that a lot of people have to deal with on their jobs. Most of us have to eat a certain amount of shit to earn a living.

I don’t say that to make light of sexual harassment or shrug off our collective shit eating. I say it because it shouldn’t be this way. For anybody. For any reason.

Public discussions about sexual harassment frustrate the hell out of me. First you have to deal with those people who deny that it exists at all. Then you have to deal with the ones who say that it exists, but women should get over it. Or the ones that hear any report of employer abuse and say people should just get a new job – as though someone who had been unemployed for years and has kids to feed can walk away so easily.

But sometimes I am even more frustrated by the people who agree it is a problem. Because invariably the response is to turn to the criminal injustice system, to become like France where you can (theoretically) be sent to prison for a couple years. Or they just want to continue suing people for money. Always, they ignore the fundamental issue.

Harassment is about power. People who have power feel they are entitled to whatever they want. People who don’t have power, or at least have less of it, will suffer consequences for sticking up for themselves against the powerful. The way to end sexual harassment, or any kind of workplace harassment, isn’t to transfer a little power from a boss to the injustice system. The answer is in getting rid of the power imbalance to begin with. That isn’t to say that, with no bosses, there would never be conflict. But confronting someone with equal power doesn’t carry the same kinds of consequences and risks. And the sense of entitlement bread by power will be, if not gone, severely diminished.

Now lets bring this out of the workplace. Because harassment doesn’t just come from bosses.

There has also been a lot of news about street harassment lately. That isn’t just people saying obnoxious shit to you on the streets. For instance, my friend Mandie recently had some guy grab her waist while she was waiting in line at 7-Eleven. My most frequently experienced harassment comes from douchebags who think it is o.k. to touch my hair. And then there was that fucker a few months back who thought it would be cool to slap my ass. I share Mandie’s homicidal thoughts when things like that happen.

Some people have an overinflated sense of entitlement. And while it may be less obvious than workplace harassment, street harassment is also an assertion of power.  You wouldn’t slap your boss’s ass, grab the waist of some MMA fighter, or go up and rub a cops hair. There would be consequences. When you do things like that to someone, what you are saying is, “I am entitled to whatever I want. And what are you gonna do about it anyway?”

And really. What are your options? Retaliation will likely end with harsher consequences for the person standing up for themselves (worth it as those charges may be). Like the woman in DC who was being accosted late at night and, after she pepper sprayed the dude, had assault charges brought against her. The law isn’t made for everybody.

Which brings us back to that Bloomberg article. Because it isn’t only random dudes on the street that are harassing people. Police harass people, especially young men of color, every day. They can stop you, grope you, and say horrible shit to you on a daily basis. Not a damn thing happens to them.

There are women who are recording street harassment of women. And there are men recording street harassment by cops. But how many of them are out recording both? The fact that Hollaback is actually sharing information about street harassment with a govenrment agency doesn’t give me much hope that those women are making the connection.

Harassment – bosses of employees, men of women, cops of anybody they can get away with – is all about power. To try to use those very same systems of power to deal with the abuses is futile. It doesn’t help to “hold accountable” those in power. We need to be removing those positions of power and the sense of entitlement that goes with them. And we need to be making connections (though not equivalencies) between all the different power structures and hierarchies that create the conditions for abuse.

We won’t see an end to sexual harassment without getting rid of bosses. We won’t see an end to police abuse without smashing the injustice system. We won’t see an end to street harassment without ending the hierarchy that mets out power, privilege and entitlement based on an accident of birth.

 

The Power of Denial

June 10, 2013 By: Mel Category: Change, Inequality

My relationship with my parents started a downhill slide when I reached my teen years and never recovered. My father was the type of person who never wanted to talk about anything. He would blow up once in a while. But mostly he handled the hurt – the hurt that he felt or that he dished out – by having a couple scotch and sodas and some cigarettes and refusing to talk about it. He was over it, or so he claimed, and you should be too.

(Hmmm. Wonder where I got my coping mechanisms from?)

My mother, on the other hand, would entertain the conversation. But she is unable to grapple with the fact that she is human and imperfect. So, when faced with something hurtful she has done, she will just deny it happened. Or she will deny that it hurt you. Or she will move the conversation to some hurt she is feeling, or some sacrifice she thinks she has made, so that she can deflect you.

I don’t expect people to be perfect. Maybe I expected it from my father when I was a child. I certainly don’t expect it from anyone now. But when the things that have caused you enormous pain are denied, when you can’t even speak of them, there is no way to move on. You can suppress them until you implode. You can let them build up until you explode. You can jump up and down screaming about them in the hopes that they will be acknowledged. But you can’t really let it go. You can’t repair the relationship, tear down the walls, work on building something better.

That blindness that my parents had wasn’t one-sided. I was blind to their pain too. It wasn’t only that they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, talk about it. I didn’t have the experience to understand it. There are some things that I will never experience and will never understand. And my reactions and rebellion, while perhaps understandable, were not always productive for any of us.

But the difference between me and my parents is that they had all the power. My father could determine what was and was not going to be spoken about. The only power that I had was to hold onto my anger and to refuse to speak at all. So that is the power that I took. And when I say that I refused to speak, I mean not one syllable. And when I say that I held on to my anger, I mean that I was one pissed off kid.

This doesn’t just happen in personal relationships. It happens in communities too. Like when you express the frustration of dealing with certain types of behavior and the response is to deny or deflect. It doesn’t have to be the individual that actually did the thing in question. It is equally frustrating to get that from people who refuse to believe what they haven’t seen, don’t want to see, are incapable of seeing. Or maybe they just don’t want to be honest with themselves about whether they, as imperfect people, have done some of those things themselves.

We all do shitty things sometimes. We make mistakes. But we should never forget that some people have the power to determine what gets heard, what is deemed important. Parents have the power to shut kids down. Teachers have the power to shut students down. Governments, media, and academia have the power to shut everybody down. Since all of those institutions have been mostly in the control of people who have a very narrow range of experience, some people have been shut down much more than others.

Not only does that just suck, we all suffer for it. Because, the thing is, power and privilege are blind. Or as Junot Díaz put is so perfectly in his keynote (below), “The funny thing about our privilege is that we all have a blind spot around our privilege, shaped exactly like us.”

More privilege. More blindness. The more you are similar to the people with the power, the more likely you are to see your life and your story reflected. And the more you will be blind to the fact that those stories do not reflect other people’s experiences. The more you have been conditioned to assume that the world will listen to you, the easier it is to talk. The more you have been shut down, the harder it is. The less power and privilege you have, the more you are forced to understand and hear the stories of those few people who do have the power and privilege. Which is why Sherman Alexie can very accurately say to Bill Moyers, “I know a lot more about being white than you know about being Indian.”

Nobody can really understand another person’s experience. The older I get, the less I think people can even really understand their own privilege. But perhaps we can all get to the point where we understand that we have privilege and blindness. Maybe we can recognize where the holes are, whose stories are not being told. Maybe we can stop denying other people’s experiences when they do tell their stories.

I really hope so. Because if we can’t manage to start listening to people, especially the people who are heard the least, then we are fucked. People need their truth/frustration/pain to be acknowledged so that they can move on. We need to understand who has more power in every state/community/group/relationship/situation and act accordingly. We all need to see the truths that power hides from us, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unconsciously, if we are to build something better. We need to stop getting stuck somewhere between privilege and pain.

P.S. If you have yet to watch that keynote by Junot Díaz, it is definitely worthwhile.

Kony and the Problem with Advocacy

March 09, 2012 By: Mel Category: Politics, Seeking

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.

P.S. That pic comes from afriPOP with African reactions to the video.  This piece on Clutch is worth a read too.

Sex, Age, Consent, and Power

January 05, 2012 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Core, Sex, Stratification

Mel at SixteenJust after I turned sixteen, I met this guy who would end up being my boyfriend for about a year. He was twenty-two. He didn’t think I was that young at first. I never lied to him, mind you. He just didn’t ask me the night we met. I regularly passed for older in clubs, buying cigarettes, whatever. That’s me at sixteen in the pic. I have a bag full of snacks, several packs of cigs, and a jug of rum. (Clearly, my hobbies haven’t changed much. Except I mostly drink vodka now.)

By about a year and a half after that pic was taken I will have been kicked out of school, kicked out of my house, working two jobs, and taking care of myself. Which is to say that I wasn’t a particularly young sixteen. And my boyfriend wasn’t a particularly old twenty-two. He was just coasting, living with his brother, and figuring out what to do since a motorcycle accident ended his army gig.

I was not the only one of my friends who dated guys quite a bit older than them. In fact, I’m having a hard time remembering people any of us dated who weren’t quite a bit older than we were. Some of my friends were passing as 21 when they were 15. If they had dated guys their age, they would have looked like pedophiles.

Not surprisingly, my parents were not pleased with my choice of boyfriend. My father found his phone number one day and called him. To this day I do not know exactly what he said. My boyfriend, ironically, was always trying to get me to repair the relationship with my parents. Whatever my father said to him was something that he thought would have set me off. So I can only assume that my father threatened him. He moved to Chicago soon after.

Now you may be thinking that my parents were just worried for my well-being. They weren’t monsters. I’m sure they were concerned. But I am also sure that they did not think for one minute that I was being taken advantage of. While most kid’s parents were always on the lookout for “the bad influence” (including my parents when it came to my sister), my parents knew that I was too strong-willed for that. The year before they said to me, “We know nobody makes you do anything you don’t want to do.” True then. True now.

So when I read about people being prosecuted for statutory rape, or just vilified for having relationships with people much younger than they are, I take a personal interest. My first reaction is often, “I wonder what the supposed victim has to say about all this.” Lately, I’ve come across a ton of stories that involve people with big age differences.

Let’s start with this guy. A twenty-two year old man was friended on Facebook by someone pretending to be a fourteen-year-old girl in order to get information about the guy’s brother. He arranged to meet the fake fourteen-year-old for sex. The police were waiting for him. He’s going to jail for three years. Now, even though I suspect the guy is probably a cretin, I still don’t think he should be going to jail. I’m not cool with prison, but especially not sending someone to prison for a crime they wanted to commit. And we can’t even judge the maturity of the “victim” since there wasn’t any.

What about this woman? She was a high school teacher. She had sex with one of her soon-to-be-former students on prom night. He was a week away from his eighteenth birthday. She is going to spend five years in prison for that. Are we really saying that the boy had no free will? A week later he would have been eligible to enlist in the military. That is just mindbogglingly outrageous to me.

Then there is this woman. She had sex with three of her daughter’s tween friends and is now facing eighty years behind bars. I think what this woman did was wrong, not least because her daughter is going to need some serious therapy. This woman needs some therapy too. But eighty years behind bars? And when you compare that with say, the police officers who were acquitted of rape charges in New York…

That is not to say I don’t get seriously repulsed by some of the stories I read. Why would a forty-nine-year-old man be getting a thirteen-year-old fucked up so that he could grope her? What kind of fifty-two-year-old would be trying to get with a fourteen-year-old? What about thirty-four and thirteen? And I have no words for this cop who molested an eight-year-old autistic girl.

When exactly does someone cross over from being a child, incapable of consent, to an almost adult with possibly poor judgment but the ability to make decisions for themselves? For me, the pivotal age was fourteen. Everything changed for me that year. For other people it will have been different.

Clearly, a bigger age difference matters. But it matters less and less as people get older. We might raise an eyebrow at the celebrity couples with huge age differences, but we don’t generally assume that they are criminal. We might think they are damaged. We might think they are immature, having a crisis, in denial about their age, or incapable of having a healthy relationship. But I would hope that we wouldn’t come to definitive conclusions based on a picture and a couple birth dates.

I’m thirty-eight and can hardly imagine being attracted to a twenty-year-old, much less a tween. But my inability to comprehend how someone my age would do that hasn’t erased the clear memory of how powerless and angry I was at being dismissed and coerced as a teen. My parents abused their power to force me into not doing something they didn’t want me to do. To me, it is essentially no different than parents who force their teen daughters into marrying someone they don’t want to marry.

What this really comes down to is power and consent. In some situations, there is a power imbalance regardless of age. A teacher has power over a student. A cop has power over pretty much everyone. A boss has power over their employee. A guard has power over their prisoner.  As someone who believes that the ideal is for all relationships to be relationships of equals, I think we should be aiming to get rid of power imbalances. Instead, we usually end up restricting relationships in order to preserve positions of power. That seems a little back assward.

But we also have to confront the fact that things like age and physical strength also involve imbalances of power. And imbalances of power make consent a very tricky thing. Sadly, as I’ve written about before, most of us are pretty bad at consent in even the best of situations. Which means there are no easy answers. But people don’t like ambiguity, especially when it comes to sex or young people.

So I guess my question to you all is – How do we prevent abuses of power, both by the kinds of adults who molest children and by the kind of adults who dis-empower and coerce young people?

The Power to Take

November 21, 2011 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Core, Politics

A former Israeli president just got seven years in prison for rape. The disgraced former head of the IMF has been accused of sexually assaulting at least two women. And now it appears that DSK was having orgies arranged in a prostitution scandal that involves police and other government officials -possibly paid for by private corps trying to get in a little extracurricular lobbying.

Herman Cain is accused of sexually assaulting at least one woman and harassing many more. There are stories about cops raping women all the damn time. We have coaches raping little kids.

So often, the response to all this shit is shock and disbelief. At worst are those fuckers who call rape and assault “harassment” or “sexual relations” or some such nonsense and then promptly deny that sexual harassment exists. (LOL to Coates response in that last link.) At best you might have someone observe that power corrupts. The fact that power corrupts seems pretty obvious to me. It does. But a better question is,

Why do people pursue power in the first place?

People pursue power in order to take the things they want without having to consider other people. They pursue power to lessen the likelihood of having to suffer any consequences for acting on their most violent, greedy, selfish desires.

I’m not saying that all people who pursue power are rapists. Maybe assaulting women isn’t your thing. Maybe you want to take other people’s land and get away with it. Maybe you want to be able to call in the military to protect your oil wells. Maybe you are just convinced that you are the smartest person in the whole damn world and, if you had power, you wouldn’t have us pesky plebeians getting in the way of your plans for saving us.

I’m never shocked when powerful people abuse others. I’m shocked when they don’t.

I Believe You

October 27, 2011 By: Mel Category: Stratification

Image of black women hearing harassmentA recent post over on Womanist Musings reminded me of something I have been meaning to write about. The post is essentially about how white, radical feminists are blind to other womens’ realities. They declare the world to be one way, based on their experiences, and expect all people to act accordingly.

It is infuriating when people erase or deny your life experience and feelings.

The most frustrating thing about my mother is that she will never concede to having done anything wrong – ever. She has her version of events and that is all there is. My sister and I could stand in front of her with video and forty two eyewitnesses – including Honest Abe, Gandhi, and Moses – and she still would not veer from her version of events.

My mother and I have a tenuous relationship based on occasional emails and a visit every four or five years. My sister hasn’t spoken to her since 1999. It is impossible to have a good relationship with someone who denies your reality. It is impossible to work with someone who remains willfully ignorant in order to protect themselves from the fact that they are not perfect.

We all see the world through the lens of our own experience. But that doesn’t mean that we dismiss all other experiences. When somebody tells you that they experience the world differently, your response should not be, “That is not how I experience the world and therefore you are wrong.”  Your response should be, “I believe you. Now how is it that we can experience life so differently?”

There is a growing campaign out there against street harassment. And I must confess to you that I have been snarky and dismissive of it at times. The only people I feel harassed by on the street are those adolescent activists hired by Greenpeace and HRC. (No I am not going to stop and listen to your spiel or give you money, especially not you HRC.)

When I saw this video of Emily May, Executive Director of Hollaback!, I was just annoyed. To me it sounded like she wants the whole world to be like the little town she grew up in. When she talked about wanting everyone to be able to say hi to each other without feeling threatened, I thought she was describing some provincial, waspy universe of horror.

Still, I kept reading things and talking to my friends about it. It soon became clear to me that other people are experiencing street harassment much differently than I am. It isn’t just our interpretations. It isn’t their imaginations. They are getting harassed more and more threateningly.

A while back, there was an article in the Washingtonian. It was one of those feel good stories about a downtrodden boy trying to make good.  When he was on the streets, the boy

learned the rules of street life:  Never put your hands on a white woman.  Never hit a young girl.  Never shoot a kid.  Never steal from your own family.

If he did all that, he was told, he’d stay alive.

I don’t think those instructions were about moral judgment.  They were more a judgment on what crimes people would pay attention to and which ones wouldn’t be pursued. Some women are targets in ways that some of us are not.

Native American women are twice as likely to get raped. Hundreds of First Nations women have gone missing with hardly any effort to find out what happened. Even after a decade of tireless activists bringing the Juarez femicides into the international spotlight, the murders of those women are still not being properly investigated.  But you can bet your ass that if some young, middle class, blond girl goes missing her face will be a fixture on the 24 hour news cycle.

There’s a hierarchy out there, and the further down it you are, the more danger you are in. To quote criminologist Steven Egger,

The greatest similarity I found among all serial killers, not just the killers of prostitutes, is the vulnerability of the victim. In almost all cases, we’re talking about a victim who is available, who is from a powerless group of society and who tends not to have a lot of prestige.

So is it really a big surprise that I don’t experience the streets the same as other people? Of course, I don’t. Race, class, and age all factor in with how free people feel to interact with me or to try and intimidate me. There is a power relationship there. Few are going to harass someone who they perceive to have power over them in some way – whether that is the physical power to kick their ass or the power of being the kind of victim that cops are likely to pay attention to.

So, women, I believe you. I believe that street harassment is reducing your quality of life, that the constant reminder of those power relations grinds down on you, that it is important to you to make it stop. And I support you.

I don’t understand your experiences exactly. I’m unlikely to make this an issue that I devote a lot of my time and energies to. And I definitely cannot support criminalizing the behavior and adding to the hideous issues we have with the prison industrial complex. But you will get no more snarkiness and eye rolling from me. And I’ll be keeping my eye out for you on the streets.

You would be amazed how different the world can look if you are just willing to believe people. And if you can’t even be bothered to do that, then you have a lot of nerve expecting people to have anything to do with you.

P.S. The image above comes from this post about Street Harassment of Black Women

Clarity Through Microcosm

March 31, 2011 By: Mel Category: Politics, Stratification, Work

I used to work for a hotel in Miami called the SeaView. It was owned by stockholders who had condos in the building. In a crunch, some of the condos were rented out. But generally only the parts of the building that were purely hotel rooms were for the public. The interesting part is who the stockholders were.

The penthouse was owned by Dwayne Andreas. At the time, Andreas was chairman of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). That would be the food, feed, and fuel company that The Informant worked for. It was Dwayne’s kid that was found guilty of price fixing. And it is ADM that that hears that ka-ching every time congress votes for more ethanol subsidies.

ADM got to price fix and collect all those subsidies because Andreas gave huge wads of cash and other nifty gifts (like cheap condos) to politicians (Democrats and Republicans alike). This bipartisanship was evident in the hotel. We had both Republicans and Democrats who were stockholders there. Bob Dole was one. Business and media were well represented among the owners too. David Brinkley had a pad. So did the Hoovers and the Duponts.

Some of the stockholders got occasional shit for being extra cozy with Andreas. New York Magazine wrote about Bob Dole’s Sugar Daddy. And Brinkley got heat for becoming an ADM pitchman. But mostly nobody really knew who Andreas was. Nobody ever called to inquire about the high profile visitors to the hotel. Nobody protested outside. We had no need for anything more than one very sleepy security guard at night. I watched Andreas, Dole, and Brinkley take off unmolested to go eat at The Palm and decide our fates.

And while the rich white dudes of business, government, and media were out schmoozing; the rest of us held down the fort at the hotel. The nicer jobs – management, office staff, front desk, supervisors – tended to be held by Asians, Light Latinos, and Europeans. The housekeepers were Haitian women. As a front desk person, I was allowed to walk in the front door. The Haitian housekeepers had to use a back door.

Dwayne Andreas had a private jet and his own personal pilot. There were cars and drivers, of course. Management and office staff drove to work. The cars ranged from Mercedes to clunkers. I took the bus, but since I lived on the beach it only took me 30 or 45 minutes to get home. The housekeepers I worked with at night also took the bus. But they had three buses and a sometimes two hour commute home. Bad enough on its own, but a lot worse when you consider that they had to have other jobs to barely get by.

What got me thinking about all of this was a post over at Eye of the Storm.  It describes how Chuck Schumer was overheard briefing all the other senators on what they should say when their media conference call started.  It was the commentary about these powerful people being told exactly what talking points they had to parrot out to the media that brought back the SeaView.

I was working there in 2000 when the election fiasco occurred. Gore’s people stayed there for a while. Then Bob Dole swooped in to do media while the Republicans arranged the election for Dubya. The party used to fax Dole’s talking points to our hotel office. I got a kick out of reading them. But I got an even bigger kick out of seeing how much control the party had over someone who was once a skip away from the presidency.

I always thought that hotel would make a great book or documentary. Every strata of society was represented. All the relationships and machinations were blatantly obvious. It is hard to hold the illusion that government, media, and corporations have separate interests when they just went out for steaks and share the same pool boy. You can’t really believe that Democrats and Republicans are much different when none had any qualms living in a place where the people who cleaned their shit couldn’t walk in the front door. And you can’t believe that elections mean much when someone as high up as Dole could basically be replaced by a very talented and congenial talking bird.

Homeland Security’s Power on US Mexico Border Challenged

April 15, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics, Stratification

* Update Below

You have undoubtedly heard about the border fence being built on the U.S. Mexico border. You may not have heard what is being done in order to get it built.

When congress enacted the the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, they gave the head of Homeland Security absolute and unreviewable authority to violate any state or local laws in order to get the border fence up.

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary of Homeland Security shall have the authority to waive all legal requirements such Secretary, in such Secretary’s sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads under this section.

Just to be clear, the head of Homeland Security gets to define what the law means. She can do whatever she wants. Her decisions cannot be challenged by a court unless the challenge is directly related to a violation of the constitution.

In this case, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, decided that his mandate was to do whatever was necessary to build the fence and maintain the fence. Expanding his mandate from building to maintaining means this power goes on into perpetuity. He refused to state what laws he was violating (simply that he was violating a bunch) and never clarified how far this legal no mans land extended.

The federal government was sued by the County of El Paso, Frontera Audubon Society and others. Lower courts ordered that the government did have the authority to wave all local laws in carrying out the instructions of congress – problems with water services or endangered species be damned.

There are many who don’t give a hoot whether or not U.S. citizens have their property taken away or get caught on the wrong side of the fence. And there are many who don’t care whether those citizens can receive water and other basic services or whether or not endangered species die. But even those people should surely be concerned if congress can give one person or agency carte blanche to ignore whatever laws they see fit, at their discretion, with no check on their power.

This unprecedented infringement on private, local government, and state rights is coming before the Supreme Court for review tomorrow. The petitioners argue that judicial review should be a requirement. Let’s hope they hear it.

For links to all the relevant documents in the case, check out Turtle Talk.

* The Supreme Court is refusing to hear the case. Looks like Homeland Security can do whatever it wants.