Saturday, January 10, 2015

It's Your Grandkids' Civil Rights Movement

If Oprah Winfrey were not so in love with Hollywood, she would not say something as stupid as that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has no leaders and no concrete demands.

The people who say that stuff must have their quotes sitting in a drawer to pull out every time there’s a threat of a viable movement in the present, because legitimate social movements can only exist in the past, and insofar as they can be rendered suitably photogenic for a major motion picture.  If they’re too messy (read complex), they either (1) don’t exist, (2) have to be dumbed down, or (3) are insane.

In the case of #BlackLivesMatter, the widespread accusations of leaderless chaos and fuzzy principles of unity are hard to comprehend, because the movement has some very visible spokespeople and a five-point program.  In contrast to the all-demands-welcome Occupy culture, #BLM has explicitly requested that everyone who wants to support their movement refer to these five demands:
  • We will seek justice for Brown’s family by petitioning for the immediate arrest of officer Darren Wilson and the dismissal of county prosecutor Robert McCullough. Groups that are part of the local Hands Up Don’t Shoot Coalition have already called for Wilson’s swift arrest, and some BLM riders also canvassed McCullough’s neighborhood as a way of raising the public’s awareness of the case.
  • We will help develop a network of organizations and advocates to form a national policy specifically aimed at redressing the systemic pattern of anti-black law enforcement violence in the US. The Justice Department’s new investigation into St Louis-area police departments is a good start, but it’s not enough. Our ride was endorsed by a few dozen local, regional and national organizations across the country – like the National Organization for Women (Now) and Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation – who, while maintaining different missions, have demonstrated unprecedented solidarity in response to anti-black police violence. We hope to encourage more organizations to endorse and participate in a network with a renewed purpose of conceptualizing policy recommendations.
  • We will also demand, through the network, that the federal government discontinue its supply of military weaponry and equipment to local law enforcement. And though Congress seems to finally be considering measures in this regard, it remains essential to monitor the demilitarization processes and the corporate sectors that financially benefit from the sale of military tools to police.
  • We will call on the office of US attorney general Eric Holder to release the names of all officers involved in killing black people within the last five years, both while on patrol and in custody, so they can be brought to justice – if they haven’t already.
  • And we will advocate for a decrease in law-enforcement spending at the local, state and federal levels and a reinvestment of that budgeted money into the black communities most devastated by poverty in order to create jobs, housing and schools. This money should be redirected to those federal departments charged with providing employment, housing and educational services.
No leaders?  Alicia Garza, Ashley Yates, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, Jameila White, Cat Brooks, Alexis Templeton, Brittany Ferrel, Zakiya Jemmott.  Maybe the reason Oprah Winfrey can’t see them is because they’re women?  Try Larry Fellows III.  Zachary Murray.  This is a leaderful movement.
BLM’s real offense is that they have embraced the slogan “This is not your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”  That ruffles a lot of feathers, because the grandparents’ civil rights movement has been cast as the gold standard of U.S. activism.  What the youth are saying may sound, to those who were part of the civil rights movement of the sixties (or want to believe or pretend they were), like a dismissal of their proudest accomplishments.  It’s not.  Millennial activists are not trying to deny the importance of what has come before; they’re just saying, “That was then, this is now, you did your part, we’re going to do ours our way.”

In the movie “Budrus,” about the Palestinian nonviolent movement, 16-year-old Iltezam Morar says, “All my life, I heard people talking about the First Intifada, the First Intifada.  This is my turn.”  Every generation of activists needs to make that break, find their own form of struggle.  In my day, it was all about affinity groups and six-hour direct action trainings.  I still think that’s a good idea, but it doesn’t fit so well with the quick click lifestyle.  Most younger activists are getting their training on the street.

The civil rights movement is a mythical yardstick for new movements.  It was never one thing.  As has been well documented in so many books and articles they would probably reach from New York to California, there were movements for Black freedom in hundreds of towns and cities in the fifties and sixties.  The “civil rights movement” included innumerable organizations, not all of whom liked each other, from the NAACP to SNCC to the Organization of Afro American Unity.  Many of the people who marched in Selma considered Ella Baker, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Diane Nash, Bob Moses and Ivanhoe Donaldson more significant leaders than Martin Luther King, Jr.  When Freedom Riders nicknamed Dr. King “De Lawd,” it was not out of respect.
People who suggest that the Black Lives Matter activists should be doing today what Dr. King did in 1965 ignore the fact that King and others founded Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, following a year of activism around the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which itself grew out of years of similar actions that failed to capture widespread attention and thus spark a movement.  By the time King was invited to the White House, he had been in jail numerous times.  In part because of the ability to spread information about actions quickly across distance, #BLM has been able to coalesce around its messages much faster.  In 1970, activists Carol Wilson and Patricia Jackson drove across country to spread literature and news about the women’s movement.  Now you can post a picture on Tumblr and the next day see someone across the world holding up the same image.

Mainstream critics like Oprah want #BLM to hurry up and institutionalize, get an office, rein in its brilliant semi-spontaneous unpredictability in favor of choreographed nondisruptive protests, and lobby for short-term policy changes.  If I thought there was any chance that would happen, I would lay out the reasons it’s a terrible idea.  But I’m pretty sure the movement is just getting started.  Hopefully, the skeptics are just about done.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Dear fellow activist facebook friends:

We are in an unprecedented moment of energy and possibility.  In all my years of activism, I’ve never seen a time in this country where there were marches – big marches -- every night for weeks.  It’s inspiring and heartening and also a little scary and intimidating.  The scary and intimidating part for those of us who are not Black, and even more for those of us who are white, is the ever-present danger that we will overstep or misstep, miss our cue, give support where we shouldn’t or say something meant to be supportive that comes off as condescending, arrogant, appropriative, dismissive, dogmatic, ignorant, racist, idiotic, …  If you’re like me, you’re feeling this may be the moment you’ve been waiting for, and that you might end up being told you don’t have a place in it.

Doubtless we will be told that.  But here’s the thing – other people will tell us the opposite.  And that’s okay.  At times like this, a lot of things get said.  And a lot of them are true, and a lot of the things that are true are also contradictory, because there are many many truths.  I’ve read articles by Black people telling white people the only sign we should carry is #BlackLivesMatter.  And I’ve read things by Black people who don’t like #BlackLivesMatter.  I’ve read eloquent defenses of property damage and harsh condemnations saying it’s all white anarchists doing it and putting Black people at risk.  I’ve been at actions where organizers nearly came to blows over whether to have a die-in; some people felt it was too passive, and others that it powerfully symbolizes the incessant killing.

It’s tempting to just sit back, take it all in and not say anything.  That’s mostly what I’ve been doing, and it’s a comfortable position – hey, I’m just here to support and listen, it’s not my place to say anything.  But there’s a fine line between being respectful and dodging responsibility.

I appreciate so much the photos and news reports and links to great analysis my extremely attentive and prolific friends have been posting in the last few weeks.  I would be so much less informed without you.  I’ve also seen a few things in the last week that made me uncomfortable.  I’m not posting any links ’cause this is not about calling people out.  It goes without saying, you don’t have to listen to me.  If it resonates, great.  If it doesn’t, keep doing what you’re doing.  Don’t unfriend me and I won’t unfriend you.

Here are a few things I wish my facebook friends would not do:
  • Compare one group’s action to another’s, saying, “This is more moving than this.”  It’s not a competition.
  • Put down activists who choose nonviolence.
  • Put down activists who damage property, as long as they don’t jeopardize others.
  • Assert that those doing things you don't like at protests are cops, unless you know it, like in last night’s gun-toting CHP incident.
  • Call a white person being choked by cops an example of white privilege just because he didn’t die.  No one should be choked.
  • Suggest that college students who get raped get too much attention, because non-college students are slightly more likely to be raped.
  • Pit victims of US drones against victims of ISIS beheading.  They’re both war crimes.
  • Trash Malala Yousafzai as a Western puppet and then fawn all over her when you find out she’s a socialist.
  • Call spending two hours in handcuffs and not being allowed to go to the bathroom “torture.”
  • Post those privacy notices that don’t do anything.
I could go on but that’s enough.  Keep those links coming!  And see you in the streets (as soon as it stops storming).



Sunday, November 23, 2014

An Unlikely Defense of Anonymous

Many years ago, I was picketing Jessica McClintock’s boutique on Union Square in San Francisco with about 25 other people.  McClintock makes these prom/bridesmaid dresses that look like they belong in Gone With the Wind, and she had contracted with a local sweatshop to manufacture them.  The contractor had gone out of business and disappeared without paying the workers, who were all Asian immigrant women.  A group called Asian Immigrant Women’s Advocates, AIWA, helped the workers organize to convince McClintock to pay the back wages and accept responsibility for the conditions of the women sewing her clothes.  Several years after this particular picket, the workers finally won their demands.

AIWA had a lot of funny chants for these actions.  In addition to the old standby, “Jessie, Jessie, you’re no good, pay your workers like you should,” my personal favorite was “Greedy, tacky and unfair, I wouldn’t buy her underwear.”  Another one, adapted from what I believe was a then-popular football cheer, went “U-G-L-Y Jesse has no alibi, she’s ugly! She’s ugly!”  (According to Yahoo Answers, the cheer originated with a movie called “Wildcats” in which Goldie Hawn plays a football coach.  Never heard of it but think I’ll rent it soon.)  Now I was never a big fan of that one but in the mouths of Asian women workers, it was pretty clear that UGLY referred to not paying your workers, and maybe a little dig at the clothes, which are unquestionably hideous (see photographic evidence above).  But some men on the picket line decided to amplify the message, yelling, “Yeah, she’s downright homely.  I wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole.”  These men, I might mention, would not have been mistaken for Robert Redford on the street.

My friend and I told them to stop, that the chant was not an excuse for misogyny.  I don’t remember if they did or didn’t.

I do remember what happened when we tried to talk to some straight men at an antiwar march in 1991.  This was during the first US invasion of Iraq and they were carrying a big cartoon cutout depicting George HW Bush f**king Saddam Hussein in the ass (raping? sodomizing? hard to know what to call it, but we did not want to look at it).  We told them it was homophobic and offensive.  They’re response was something very pithy like, “Get lost, bitches.”

My friends and I used to get in knock-down-drag-out fights with members of the so-called “Revolutionary Communist Party” back in the eighties and nineties when their official position was that gay people were a product of bourgeois decadence and would go to reeducation camps after the revolution.  During one of those arguments, the poor guy who had made the mistake of trying to sell us his newspaper told my friend Daniel to “stop thinking with his genitals.”

I could go on and on but you get the point.  I’ve never been part of, nor heard of, a social movement that didn’t have to struggle with misogyny, homophobia, ableism (oh, sorry, we can’t hold our meetings in an accessible space), racism, classism, fat oppression.  There are two simple reasons for that: the movements take place in our society, which is rife with all those ways of hurting one another; and they are made up of human beings, who are (mis)educated and affected by our society.

These moments reeled through my head as I read the hit piece on Anonymous in the current issue of The Nation, which was one of the more widely shared links in my activist circles at the end of last week.  Like many of my friends, I was initially gratified to read all the dirt Adrian Chen dishes about the hacker group.  I’ve never loved technofixes for social problems.  I’ve written before about the problems I have with hacking as a major form of activism:  it’s solitary, covert and expert-driven.  The very Anonymous nature of Anonymous and its ilk make it virtually impossible for them to spark a movement, because where would you find them? For those of us who are not supergeeks, there’s no way to join.  And yes, the people who are supergeeks are most likely to be young, white men who play the kinds of video games that produced GamerGate.

I don’t like Guy Fawkes masks; I think they’re creepy and I don’t want to be in street actions with people who don’t trust me enough to let me see their faces.  I also don’t like people who claim to “be” the movement or its leaders, as I have heard Anonymous people do – or more accurately, people who claim to be Anonymous, because of course we cannot know who really is Anonymous.

So it was very tempting to join the chorus of, “Look, see, they really are Nazis and misogynist trolls,” let’s disavow them.

And yet, in a cooler moment, I feel Chen goes too far.  His piece is called, “The truth about Anonymous’s Activism,” but it should be called “Some (more) truths about Anonymous’s activism.”  It’s interesting and important to know that one of the first Anonymous groups “invaded the online teens’ game Habbo Hotel and formed their matching avatars into a giant swastika while spewing racial epithets.”

Anonymous, by its name and its principles, is a loose network with no gatekeepers and no accountability.  That’s a good enough reason for me not to work with them, and to discourage anyone who listens to me from doing it.  But as the examples I started this piece with attest, Anonymous doesn’t have a monopoly on people sincere activists shouldn’t be associated with.  People were raped at Occupy camps.  One of the founders of Common Ground became (or turned out to be) a government agent.  Moreover, many respected activists have dubious pasts.  Dan Ellsberg worked at the Pentagon.  Ed Snowden donated to Ron Paul’s campaign.  Diane Ravitch promoted charter schools.  The question can’t be who they were, it’s got to be who they are now.

Hacking is well-known as a male-dominated and white-dominated culture and much of Anonymous seems to fit right in.  But hackers are also doing some of the most innovative and accessible community-building projects around, in the form of “hackerspaces” where they share skills, equipment and space, often free or very cheap.  Noisebridge in San Francisco has an anti-harassment policy on the website for its 5200-square foot space which “contains an electronics lab, machine shop, sewing/crafting supplies, two classrooms, conference area, library, darkroom, and kitchen.”  Oakland’s “inclusive hacker space”, SudoRoom, is part of a new “collective of collectives” that just got a glowingwriteup in the East Bay Express.  I’m eager to check it out although the one time I was there for a meeting, when I think they’d just moved in, I found it about the moldiest place I’ve ever been. 

Anonymous has done some messed up things and they’ve done some very good things (like exposing evidence of the Steubenville rape and taking down the sites of credit card companies that refused to process donations to Wikileaks).  I think denouncing Anonymous at a time when the FBI is using it to stir up fear and justify bringing more “intelligence specialists” to Ferguson is a mistake. Call them out on their shit, yes, but don’t hit them when they’re down.  But we outside agitators need to stick together.