Monday, December 15, 2008

Rethinking Leadership Paradigms

The other day I was reading an article by Merle Woo, which laid out the following proposition, “…the most oppressed shall lead in the movements for radical social change because being at the bottom, their perspective is the most clear, and, out of necessity, their conscious vision is a militant and collective one.” (Merle Woo in Sing, Whisper, Shout, Pray)

Running across this bold statement made me reflect on the paradigm embraced, or at least espoused, by most of the groups I have worked with over the last 20 years or so. I myself have taken the position articulated by Woo as pretty much unquestionable. But recently, I’ve started to think about whether one, this really IS our working paradigm, and two, whether in fact it should be. I want to stress that I’m not trying to attack anyone or misrepresent what is said or what’s meant by it, and I am not saying that this is necessarily not what we should strive for. What I am doing is looking back on some of the work I’ve been involved in, and asking myself what I’ve learned. I’m not at all interested in turning my back on the analysis of power and privilege within our movements, as well as in the larger world. I am interested in refining how we use that analysis to create movements that are powerful and sustainable.

One of the first objections that someone not well versed in the “unlearning racism” world view might make is that a model that says middle-class white people can’t be in leadership isn’t fair to them. I would try to explain to them that fairness doesn’t really exist in the society we inhabit, and that we who are white, middle or upper class and able bodied have been reaping the benefits of unfairness for so long, we need to put our personal feelings aside for the greater good. I would still say that, but I would also mention that most of the people I’ve explained that to over the years are not still hanging around social change movements. Well, you may say, that’s fine, if they aren’t willing to step back, they’re not really interested in change. That’s the part I’m not so sure about.

It’s not about fairness, it’s about efficacy. In my experience, people who are not the most oppressed but believe themselves to be capable of leadership will not stay in movements where they don’t feel their skills and energy are welcome. To be sure, some of them are people we wouldn’t want anyway, people who don’t have nearly as much knowledge as they think they have, people who if they did get to lead, would tell us why we have to use a marketing approach, or work within the Democratic Party, or whatever. But some of them are people who have a lot to bring to a social change movement, who do understand and recognize that it’s not always appropriate for them to be the spokespeople, who are happy to stuff envelopes and do the heavy lifting, but who also have strong opinions about what should happen, based on years of experience in social movements. They are not going to find it satisfying to be a cheering section for people who do know more about being oppressed, but may know less about building effective and sustainable movements. Since nothing requires them to stay, they are going to leave.

Just to keep this from sounding like a straw man argument, I want to give a concrete example. Since I’m not talking about my own experience, I have changed some of the details, but the basic facts are true. A friend of mine in New York joined a collective that was working to improve conditions for women in prison. My friend is a middle-aged white lesbian, from a middle-class background, who has worked as a teacher for a long time and been active in her union, as well as a lot of other political work. The organization she joined was initiated by a combination of young queer people of color and older white women, and nearly everyone except my friend worked for some kind of nonprofit. The group wanted its leadership should reflect the people most affected by the prison industrial complex: people of color, trans people, and former prisoners. My friend agreed with this. The group also decided that white women in the group needed to participate in an antiracist caucus meeting once a month. My friend went to it a few times and found the level of discussion not that interesting to her, as someone who has done a lot of reading and participated in a lot of study groups about racism. She’s very busy, works a full-time job and has meetings nearly every night. She ended up deciding that there wasn’t enough for her to do to in the group to make it worth going to three meetings a month – two regular meetings and the antiracist caucus meeting, especially since once the group got some funding, most of the work was being done from the office, which was only open during the hours when she was working. Last I heard, everyone but the three paid staff people had also left that particular group.

Now I am a fan of antiracism discussion groups; this example is not a way of dissing them. But they have to serve a clear goal of the organization where they are happening, and they should not be anyone’s primary work in the organization. In my friend’s case, what drew her to the group was a desire to work in a multicultural women’s organization and to oppose the incarceration state. She ended up feeling that she wasn’t doing either; she was mostly getting to know the other white women, and talking to each other about racism wasn’t actually making any difference for women in prison.

The flip side is that often – not always – the people who do stay will not be the people you want. They will be people who are glad for others to take all the responsibility and do the hard work while they reap the cache of being the cool white (straight, male) person. Stuffing envelopes is a lot easier than making phone calls to create networks, going to speak to other organizations, or creating action plans. If I can go stuff envelopes and make coffee a few hours a month and then tell my friends about what a good anti-racist I am, why wouldn’t I do it? The young women of color can work 80 hours a week trying to build the organization and move it toward its goals. And if they don’t succeed, no one can blame me because I was just respecting their leadership.

The next problem with defining our groups as led by the most oppressed is that it encourages lying. First there’s the petty form of lying – lying about our own oppression. People misrepresenting their class backgrounds is probably the most common, but we’ve all met white people who claimed to be people of color, straight people who “identified as” queer, “young” people who were pushing 40. But none of these is as big a problem as the much more common form of lying – lying about who is really the leadership of our movements. I’ve been to lots of meetings that were very careful to have young people of color running the meetings, with middle-aged white people calling the shots behind the scenes, planning the agendas, bringing the materials, getting the funding, ultimately even hiring the staff.

But of course, that’s okay, because they’re the “good” white (old, middle-class) people.

The problem with the “good privileged people” category is that it’s quite finite. I have nothing but respect for Tim Wise; he’s smart, funny, honest, a great speaker, an interesting writer. He is also making his living by being the best straight white guy in the country. You might be as brilliant and sincere and clear as Tim Wise, but you can’t be the good straight white guy, because he’s pretty much got the market cornered. White men who go to listen to Tim Wise and get inspired can’t sign up to become just like him, because face it, none of us want to be spending that much of our time listening to straight white guys talk about their privilege. So what do people who get inspired do?

A parable (please note that this parable is hypothetical/composite and NOT meant to be read as criticism of any actual people or organizations): Once upon a time there were some very good white people. They were passionate about ending racism, so they joined a group of mostly people of color. Then some of their white friends saw what they were doing and saw that it was good. So they wanted to join too. But then the people of color said, “Well, now there are so many white people, this does not feel like our group any more.” So the good white people said, “What shall we do?” and someone said, “White people are the problem. You must work with them, to spread the news about racism.” And the good white people created a workshop, and they saw that it was good. So they made an organization to do more workshops, and the people who did well in those workshops were encouraged to go out and make their own workshops and before long there was a whole workshop industry. And these workshops were turning out people who had learned a lot of theory and a lot of skills to deconstruct racist dynamics in organizations, but the problem was, there were not enough multicultural organizations for them to use those skills in. Because if everyone joined the same groups, then those groups would become white-dominated. So they formed their own organization, the Good White People’s Organization to End Racism. And suddenly it started not to seem so good. In fact, it started to feel almost white supremacist. Which of course was not their goal, so they dissolved it. And most of the Good White People went home and wondered what they could do about racism. And there they remain.

This is an oversimplification, but I think some of you will recognize the paradox. There’s a fine line between working on your own shit, and segregation.

The third problem with “leadership of the most oppressed” is that it leads to the oppression sweepstakes. This is what we’ve seen with a vengeance in the aftermath of the November elections: Obama’s victory combined with the passage of Proposition 8 and other anti-gay-marriage initiatives has given some white gay people (especially men, in my observation) the notion that gay oppression has suddenly replaced African American oppression on the oppression ladder. False, but worse than false, wrong-headed. And that leads some straight people to argue that gay people are not oppressed at all, or that oppression based on sexual orientation is not as bad as racism, which is also false and wrong-headed. And EVERYONE LOSES. (Deeg wrote an excellent statement on this for the latest UltraViolet (coming soon to a website near you). Read it here.)

Of course Woo’s statement doesn’t presume a strict hierarchy. She’s not suggesting that we rank the working-class white transwoman versus the college educated heterosexual African American woman. But the idea of a “last shall be first” approach can lead us in that direction. And that can also give oppressed people a stake in hanging onto their own oppression. I mean, face it, if my place in a social change movement is based on my status as most oppressed, and my place in that movement is a strong part of my identity, I’m going to have pretty mixed feelings if the movement becomes so successful that I’m less oppressed. Maybe that’s not a big fear in terms of racism and class oppression in this country, but I think it was a factor in drawing some white gay men with AIDS to become AIDS deniers in the nineties, rather than taking retrovirals and getting better. It is certainly a reason mainstream Jewish organizations are constantly on the prowl for “the new anti-Semitism.” (Once again, I do not mean to imply that gay men with AIDS are no longer oppressed or that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in our society.)

Finally, and probably most importantly, this leadership model can put an unfair burden on the most oppressed. If there is commitment to leadership by people of color, and a group doesn’t have many, then those who come in have to assume leadership whether they’re ready or not. If I come into a new group, I can sit at the back and check it out for a while, and no one is very likely to even ask my name, let alone urge me into leadership. Friends who are people of color have gone to check out groups and found that people are all over them. One friend reported that at her first meeting of a certain group, she was offered the chance to represent the group at a conference in Europe. While the attention might be flattering at first, most activists of color quickly realize that they’re being tokenized. They know people can’t be overwhelmed by their talent if no one even knows them, and no one wants to be chosen for the color of their skin (except maybe Clarence Thomas). On the other hand, sometimes people who are not that experienced find themselves very quickly pushed into leadership without the kind of mentorship that would help them use it successfully.

None of this means that we should forget about racism and other forms of oppression in our movements. It’s not meant to suggest that people of color, working class people, trans people, disabled people should not be the leadership of our social change movements. White people, class-privileged people, and men need to be very conscious of how much space we take up in mixed groups. When we think we’re sharing power, usually we’re dominating. Some years ago, there was a study which showed that when girls participate equally with boys in classes, everyone – male and female, students and teachers – believes the girls are talking much more than the boys. I don’t know of a study like that about racism, but I’m quite sure it would come out the same. I’m also willing to bet that in just about any racially mixed group, if you counted the minutes everyone talks, you would find white people talk at least three-fourths of the time.

We do need to step back, but we also need to be sure we’re giving all we can to the movements we are in, and think about how we can support many different types of leaders. I think we all need to consider whether rather than operating by an inverse hierarchy, it’s possible to build movements which model true democracy and equality.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

An Open Letter to Naomi Klein

Dear Naomi Klein,

Thanks so much for your incredibly brilliant work. With The Shock Doctrine, you have given me a great framework for understanding the current economic and political crises. Now, however, listening to you on Democracy Now three times in the last few weeks, I would like to make a suggestion.

Those of us who listen to DN! are well familiar with your critique, familiar enough to do it for ourselves. So next time they call you, why not say, “You know what? I don’t really have anything to add to what I’ve said the last few times I’ve been on. Here are some names of women economists and policy researchers you haven’t interviewed. Try to get one of them.” (In the event you don't have such a list, I'd be glad to share mine with you. I just interviewed two of them on KPFA-Pacifica.)

That’s step one. Here’s step two:

Get together with all the other really smart, well respected experts you’ve been on panels with recently. Make a video of yourselves laying out a progressive – not radical – program of action – things you would like to see the Obama administration do that they might actually consider doing (e.g., put Paul Krugman on the economic team; suspend or repeal the time limits for welfare recipients who can’t get jobs; sign the Employee Free Choice Act; don’t use a bailout of the auto industry to crush the unions; etc.). Post the video on YouTube and post the link on every blog or website you can post to. Ask every blogger you are in touch with to post the links on their blog. Make it go viral. Make sure the Obama team sees it. Demand a response from them.

Step three: Put out a press release letting the mainstream media and the alternative media know what you’ve done. Make noise! The story: progressive economic analysts are using the technologies popularized by the Obama campaign to change the direction of the Obama administration. Keep on them until they cover you.

Then go back on Democracy Now! to tell everyone how you accomplished your great victory.

This is not meant as an empty challenge. The administration is moving to the right so far so fast because they know the right is a threat, and they know the left isn’t. I am unwilling to spend the next four years the way I’ve spent the last eight – shaking my head and feeling hopeless while I listen to the news. The time for critique is past; the time for action is now.

Your sister in struggle,

Kate Raphael

Monday, November 17, 2008

Reflections on Elections

Election night caught me by surprise. A week or so before the election, I read an article that said that people were experiencing unprecedented anxiety during this election season. They were not able to sleep, and while not sleeping, were reading more and watching more news and pseudo-news that was increasing their anxiety over what might happen. I shared that sense of dread and anticipation. I was terrified about the election being stolen; I was terrified of what the reaction to that might be, and what the reaction of the government to any reaction by African Americans was sure to be. I was obsessed by the fear of what would happen to Barack Obama if he were elected, and how people would react to that and the reaction to the reaction … More than anything, I was terrified of a McCain-Palin presidency, quite simply afraid that the world could not survive it.

Through most of election season, I did absolutely nothing except read and talk to my friends. But in the last weeks I threw myself into the campaign against Proposition 4, a California ballot initiative attempting – for the third time – to force teens to notify their parents before obtaining an abortion. The polls showed Prop. 4 likely to pass, and I was terrified about what that would mean for thousands of girls like I had once been, who felt they could never tell their parents if they became pregnant. (Currently in California, a pregnant teen can qualify for “confidential services,” a wonderful category that too few Californians know about, which means she can get whatever services she needs [whether termination or prenatal care] without her parents knowing, and she can qualify for Medi-Cal based only on her own assets, not her parents’.)

The one thing I wasn’t worried about was Proposition 8 passing. First of all, I don’t really care about gay marriage, and not just because I haven’t had a girlfriend in seven years. When I was in college, I thought marriage was an archaic institution that was on its way out, and one of the big disappointments of my adult life has been watching more and more of my alternative friends go through various kinds of marriage rites. In terms of the pragmatic reasons people give for why marriage is so important, there are much better ways to get health care for all, a just immigration policy, support for children and old people, than tying them to what type of sexual or romantic relationship someone happens to be in. And secondly, I was sure that Prop. 8 wasn’t going to pass. All along, the polls showed it behind though gaining, plus the youth vote was going to be a big factor in this election, and according to everything you hear, youth don’t care about people’s sexual orientation.

I spent most of election day holding a No on 4 sign 100 feet away from my polling place. I was standing next to the people holding No on 8 signs, who were much better organized than we were. All day people ‑ mostly African Americans, because most of the neighborhood is African American – drove or walked by and gave them the thumbs up, and a lot of them asked me, “Which one is Prop. 4?” And when I told them, some of them said, “Oh, I don’t know about that, I have a daughter.” I gave them our talking points and hoped that in two minutes I could convince them their daughters would be safer if they could make their own decisions around what to tell them about their sex lives. Even a lot of the No on 8 people asked me which one Prop. 4 was.

So my first surprise on election night came at 8:01 here, when the numbers flipped from 207 to 274 and the banner started to roll: “Barack Obama elected president of the United States.” I was not by that time surprised at the news, because we had been watching it for an hour and a half and we knew that he was going to win. I was surprised by the sheer elation I felt. Two friends and I walked out onto the balcony and started screaming, hoping to start a collective cheer but only resulting in someone calling down from upstairs, “Is everyone okay?”

And then the other returns started coming in and the first surprise was a good one – Prop. 4 was losing. When early returns showed Prop. 8 ahead, we didn’t worry too much – it was early, these were early voters, it didn’t count San Francisco or Alameda County … but as the night wore on and the numbers stayed pretty much the same, I was shocked to realize how devastated I was. Because this wasn’t about marriage. You can decorate it any way you want, but it comes down to the fact that people don’t think we’re as good as they are. A majority of California voters don’t think that I should have the same rights they have, and the fact that marriage is not a right I am interested in exercising doesn’t matter. We went to the Castro and wandered around, watching the huge TV screen they had set up in the street, and it was a bizarre mix of overpowering joy and gnawing sadness. Bizarre because neither was anything I would have told you that morning I would be feeling.

A week or so before election day, I had decided I was going to vote for Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney for President. After all, Obama was going to carry California, and McKinney’s platform was everything I could ask for. I had to turn off every debate after a few minutes, because I couldn’t bear hearing Obama rant about the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, the need to send more troops to Afghanistan and Pakistan, or his unwavering commitment to Israel’s military strength. Then I went to New Orleans. On Sunday, I went to a second line in Central City, and just about every person there was wearing Obama on their body. A woman had on an Obama dress, Obama’s face wrapping around her curvaceous body in a halo of glitter. Someone was giving out fans proclaiming, “Vote First & Be the Change,” which provided a surprising amount of information about how to protect your voting rights. To all of those people, it would have made no difference that McKinney is also African American. To virtually all of them, a vote for McKinney would have been a vote against Obama, and a vote against Obama meant you didn’t want a Black man to be president. Because they have had the experience of voting for a Black person who couldn’t win. I voted for Obama because, very simply, I feel that African Americans have the right to be disappointed by a president they chose.

I know very well that African American politicians can be just as disappointing as white politicians. I lived through the Willie Brown era in San Francisco and am living right now in the hugely disappointing Ron Dellums era in Oakland. The only Black girl in my elementary school was Lynn Wilder, whose father Doug became Virginia’s first Black governor, and trust me, it wasn’t a good period for the state.

When Obama named Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, people in my circles immediately started sending around information about Emanuel’s hard-core Zionist background, the fact that his father was in the Irgun (the infamous Jewish terrorist movement in pre-1948 Palestine), and I got annoyed because it seemed like an inverse of the sort of “But is it good for the Jews?” mentality I grew up with. The chief of staff is responsible for a lot more than Israel/Palestine policy and nothing that Obama has said in the last six years has left any doubt about how good his administration was (not) going to be for the Palestinians. But then I learned that Emanuel is an ultra-successful investment banker, was the largest recipient of campaign donations from hedge funds and financial institutions … it’s not good news. Neither is the fact that one of Obama’s top economic advisers is Robert Rubin, who as Clinton’s treasury secretary started off the deregulation that set up the current financial and economic crisis.

Yesterday I went to the big rally in San Francisco to protest the passage of Prop. 8. It was a pretty good unity event, with speakers like Rev. Amos Brown, an African American former county supervisor who has at times been pretty anti-gay. There were great signs like “No More Mr. Nice Gay”, “Another Str8 Against H8” and “Two Nice Girls In Love = REALLY SCARY.” There were also some really offensive ones like “Black Is the New Gay.” You might think that all the white guys carrying that sign would at least pause to wonder why they didn’t see any Black people carrying it, or if not, you might at least think the fact that a Black lesbian yelled at them that they didn’t have Black skin so they have no idea what it’s like would cause them to think, but not so. We argued with them until we were hoarse and frustrated, but they just couldn’t get what’s wrong with expropriating someone else’s struggle. There were also a lot of signs saying, “Chickens Have More Right Than Gays” or “Chickens 1, Gays 0,” referring to the passage of Proposition 2, giving farm animals the right to turn around. Next time I go to one of these things, I’m going to carry a sign saying, “Queers Rights = Animal Rights.” (Some Israeli friends of mine are in a group called One Struggle, that is a largely queer anti-occupation animal rights group.)

Despite all these conflicts, I feel hopeful. I can’t help it. It feels like a huge cloud has lifted. I believe Obama is a supreme opportunist. I read Dreams from My Father a few years ago, and the person who wrote that book was a lot more progressive than the guy who is about to be president. So I believe he changed his politics to get elected, and that makes it hard to trust him.
The good thing about opportunists is that they sway with the wind. And that means it’s up to us, the progressive movements, to create a huge wind.

Code Pink plans to demonstrate at his house in Chicago for the next two months. That’s a mistake. But it’s not a mistake because Obama shouldn’t be pressured or criticized, or because, as one friend said, “Obama hasn’t done anything yet.” He has done plenty. His appointments speak loudly, as do statements he made during the campaign. It’s a mistake because one, it’s something only a small group of full-time activists can do, and two, they have not built broad support for such actions. It will make people who like Obama, especially African Americans, see the left as old racist nay-sayers, and will make Obama feel embattled before he gets started.

A better approach would be to target every Democratic congressperson or senator for the next two months. That is something everyone can do wherever they live, in whatever manner works for them, and it puts the people who depend on our votes on notice that we’re watching them, not just Obama. For eight years, we in San Francisco have heard from Nancy Pelosi’s staff, “It’s not us, it’s the Republicans. We’re with you. If only we had the majority, we would do what you want. If only we had the White House, we’d make change.” Okay, you’ve got the majority and you’ve got the White House. Let’s see it.

The left needs to get it together, and fast. The people who work on every issue, from health care to green jobs to prison abolition to housing rights to welfare, need to get together and come up with a 100 days agenda for the new administration and the new Congress, and we need to get it out there using all the communication technologies whose power the Obama campaign proved.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is the constitution. All the big civil rights groups have announced campaigns to “Restore the Constitution”. Well the constitution is more than the Bill of Rights, though goddess knows, that is something that needs to be restored in a hurry. The preamble to the constitution says something about promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Civil rights are more than freedom of speech and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. Civil rights include the right to housing, the right to food, the right to some leisure time, the right to education, the right to love whom we choose and marry them if we insist, the right not only to survive but to thrive. If we can convince the ACLU and CCR to make this part of their 100 Days to Restore the Constitution campaigns, and if we all unite behind that campaign, then I think we have a chance to get things off to a better start.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ehud Olmert, the Newest Dove

Packaging old ideas as new ones is something the Israeli leadership are experts at. If you look at every supposed peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, beginning in 1993 through two weeks ago, you’ll find that every one of them says just about the same thing, and more importantly doesn’t say the same things. The Israelis are encouraged in this approach by their U.S. backers, who are even more gifted at recycling. Every U.S. administration since Nixon’s has vowed that it was going to be the one to solve the “Middle East Crisis,” and they’ve all gone about it the same way – arm Israel to the teeth, back every war crime they commit, threaten the Palestinians for daring to assert any rights at all, and then at the nth hour, find an Israeli hawk to have a “change of heart” so they can sell it to the Palestinians as a miracle from on-high, too good to turn down.

It’s never worked yet. If it works this time, which is unlikely, it will only be because the Palestinians have been beaten down to an unprecedented level in the last eight years. For the first time, the Israelis and U.S. have succeeded in sparking serious internecine fighting in Palestine, especially in Gaza. This has been largely accomplished through the siege of Gaza, which has left people literally starving, without power for weeks, lacking access to basic medicines and desperate for any way to make a living. In other words – Iraq.

Last week, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave an interview to the leading Israeli newspaper in which he castigated himself for his previous right-wing views and said Israel must give up 95% of the West Bank plus 5% of Israeli territory and “most of” East Jerusalem in order to make peace. He claimed that "What I'm telling you now has never been said by an Israeli leader before me."

That claim is flatly false. Remember Camp David 2000? Ehud Barak offered 93% (or so) of the West Bank, plus a portion of Israeli territory to make up for what they weren’t getting, plus “nearly all” of East Jerusalem. The Palestinians, so the legend goes, rejected this “generous offer,” demonstrating once again that they were not “partners for peace.”

Three years ago, in 2005, it was Ariel Sharon who had had his epiphany and gone from right-wing hawk to moderate peacemaker, leading a breakaway movement from the Likud party that formed Kadima. Olmert was one of the first to follow him. Two years earlier, Sharon had rocked the world by using the word “occupation,” committing himself to the creation of a Palestinian state under the U.S.-promoted “road map.” The result? The completion or construction of over 250 miles of Apartheid Wall, isolating 78 villages and annexing nearly 50% of the West Bank; and rapid expansion of settlements in the West Bank, in contravention of agreements under the road map.

Not to be a complete cynic, I believe Olmert has had a significant change of heart. Where he was once a hard-liner, he now believes it is necessary to compromise. But this change did not come about as suddenly as he now represents. In 2003, Olmert, then mayor of Jerusalem, gave another frank interview to Yediot Aharonot, this one endorsing Sharon’s policy of “unilateral disengagement.”

“We are approaching a point where more and more Palestinians will say: ‘There is no place for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All we want is the right to vote,’” Olmert said at that time. “The day they get it, we will lose everything.” He added that “I shudder to think that liberal Jewish organizations that shouldered the burden of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa will lead the struggle against us.”

If Olmert gave too much credit to Jewish activists in toppling South African apartheid, his use of the analogy is important. The fact is that more and more Palestinians have indeed begun saying, in the last few years, “All we want is the right to vote”; the “one-state solution” which had very little support in the Palestinian territories in 2003, has become a mainstream, if still minority, position in 2008. And use of the word “apartheid” to describe Israeli policy has become more common by the international community, including small but growing numbers of Jews both inside and outside of Israel.

Given these facts, what is remarkable is not Olmert’s statement, but that the offer to the Palestinians has not sweetened, eight years after the collapse of the Oslo process and the start of the Second Intifada. The fact that it hasn’t speaks to the success of the very hard-line policies that Olmert now supposedly castigates himself for.

It turns out that we don’t have to speculate or read between the lines of Olmert’s self-provided hype to find out what he really meant. In doing some research for this essay, I turned up a surprising article published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on September 27, one day before the Yediot interview appeared.

Haaretz reported,

“Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday rejected an Israeli peace proposal, which included withdrawal from 93 percent of the West Bank, because it does not provide for a contiguous Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

“Nabil Abu Rdainah, Abbas’s spokesman, told the official Palestinian news agency WAFA that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan showed a ‘lack of seriousness.’”

“The centerpiece of Olmert's detailed proposal is the suggested permanent border, which would be based on an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank. In return for the land retained by Israel in the West Bank, the Palestinians would receive alternative land in the Negev [desert], adjacent to the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians would also enjoy free passage between Gaza and the West Bank without any security checks, the proposal says.

“A senior Israeli official said the Palestinians were given preliminary maps of the proposed borders.

“Under Olmert's offer, Israel would keep 7 percent of the West Bank, while the Palestinians would receive territory equivalent to 5.5 percent of West Bank. Israel views the passage between Gaza and the West Bank as compensating for this difference: Though it would officially remain in Israeli hands, it would connect the two halves of the Palestinian state…

“The land to be annexed to Israel would include the large settlement blocs, and the border would be similar to the present route of the separation fence. Israel would keep Ma'aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, the settlements surrounding Jerusalem and some land in the northern West Bank adjacent to Israel.

“Since Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently approved more construction in both Efrat and Ariel, two settlements relatively far from the 1949 armistice lines, it is reasonable to assume that Olmert wants to include these settlements in the territory annexed to Israel as well.”

I call this article surprising because it seems not to have been covered in the international press at all. Considering the hoopla with which previous episodes of this saga have been met, I don’t know what to make of the silence greeting this round. Is it just that the world has gotten tired of supposed breakthroughs that are clearly not? Olmert’s lame duck status? I don’t know, so I’m not going to spend time guessing. Instead, let’s look at what he actually said.

First, he presented “preliminary maps,” but didn’t commit to anything – a position that must feel quite familiar to Abbas, who was the chief negotiator at Camp David, when Israel also presented various maps but no concrete offer of borders. Since Olmert is saying that the border would be “similar to the present route of the separation fence,” and the “separation fence,” aka the Apartheid Wall, is built 80% on Palestinian land, leaving 16% of West Bank land on the western (“Israeli”) side, it’s hard to see how such a plan could give the Palestinians 95% of the West Bank, even if Israel were not planning to hold onto settlements like Ariel, some 25 kilometers inside the Green Line.

Second, according to Haaretz, Israel would receive the settlement blocs immediately – or more accurately, retain them, but would not hand over any Israeli territory to the Palestinians, nor establish the free passage to Gaza, until “the PA,” i.e., Abbas’s Fatah faction, takes back control of Gaza from Hamas. So in fact, the Palestinians might never get contiguous territory.

Third, the Palestinian state to be established would be expected to be demilitarized, without an army. The Palestinians have demanded that their security forces be capable of defending against ‘outside threats.”

Olmert’s principal claim to a radical change of views is on the question of Jerusalem – which was deliberately left out of his negotiations with Abbas, as a concession to the right-wing Israeli religious party, Shas. Where for most of his career he championed a unified Jerusalem under complete Israeli control, he now supports some kind of partition. This, again, is in the interest of winning the “demographic war”: "Whoever wants to hold on to all of the city's territory will have to bring 270,000 Arabs inside the fences of sovereign Israel. It won't work," Olmert said. So obviously, his proposal is to keep the “temporary” Wall that runs through Jerusalem in perpetuity and turn it into a border.

To understand why this is not such a big breakthrough, one has to be familiar with the political geography of Jerusalem.

The center of the city is the walled Old City, a densely populated 0.9 kilometer area, divided into four quarters: Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter and Armenian Quarter. The Old City houses the Western (Wailing) Wall of Herod’s Temple, the holiest Jewish site, Al Aqsa Mosque/Haram ash-Sharif, the third most sacred site in Islam, and the Via Dolorosa and Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which comprise the Stations of the Cross. Under the armistice of 1949, the Old City and the areas east of it were Palestinian areas under Jordanian control, and the areas to the west were annexed by Israel.

When most people imagine Jerusalem, they visualize the golden Dome of the Rock or Orthodox Jews praying at the Wailing Wall. What we call Jerusalem, however, comprises 125 square kilometers (43 miles) sprawling to the west and the east. It includes ancient Palestinian villages, stately old Jewish neighborhoods, new modern suburbs, farm land, high-rise pre-fab tenements filled with immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Bedouin sheep camps. To the Palestinians, all the villages between Bethlehem to the south and Ramallah to the north are part of Al Quds (“The Holy”), which the Israelis call Yerushalayim. Israel since 1967, but especially since the beginning of the Oslo peace process in 1993, has been confiscating Palestinian land and building new (illegal) settlements in the outlying areas of Jerusalem and the international press obligingly calls them “neighborhoods” or “suburbs” of (Jewish) Jerusalem.

At the time of the 1948 war, the population of Jerusalem was about two-thirds Jewish, with the vast majority of Jews living in the western part of the city. The partition plan of 1947 called for Jerusalem to be an international city. Under the Armistice of 1949, Israel annexed the territory west of the Old City and Jordan ultimately annexed the eastern areas, including the Old City. Between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews had to leave the Old City at that time, and tens of thousands of Palestinians were forced out of West Jerusalem. (The exact numbers are very confusing – generally reliable Palestinian sources say 64,000-80,000, but the British Mandate census recorded only 65,000 Palestinian Arabs in all of Jerusalem in 1948. Probably, this is yet further testimony to the many possible definitions of “Jerusalem.”) One of the most notorious massacres by the Israeli forces was at the Jerusalem village of Deir Yassin in 1947. Other depopulated Palestinian villages in Western Jerusalem included Liftah, which was famous for its citrons, a citrus fruit used in the Jewish festival of Sukkot (which happens to begin tomorrow night).

Currently metropolitan Jerusalem is home to about 750,000 people, of which roughly 64% are Jewish. The government is continually expanding the borders of Jerusalem to include more Jewish areas, in its effort to maintain demographic superiority to support its claim to the city. At the same time, it has declared Palestinian villages such as Azzariya and Ar-Ram, which have always been part of Jerusalem, to be in the West Bank, and enclosing them on the West Bank side of the Wall. House demolitions, refusing building permits to Palestinians, denials of residency permits for spouses of Jerusalemite Palestinians to live in the city, construction of settlements in East Jerusalem and the Old City, and the construction of the Wall, are all tools in this demographic war. Olmert has until now been a prime supporter of this policy of “Judaizing” Jerusalem. As recently as June 2008, he defended increased settlement construction in East Jerusalem in the face of Condoleeza Rice’s criticism of the policy as “unhelpful” to the Annapolis peace process she was trying to kick-start.

Now remember that the Old City is 0.9 square kilometers, out of a total of 125 sq. km, and you will understand why it is easy to believe that Olmert is indeed proposing to offer the Palestinians “nearly all” of East Jerusalem. I’ve walked along the Wall in Jerusalem, and it’s probably less than a mile from Damascus Gate, the eastern edge of the Old City. Even with Israel retaining settlements like Har Homa, Pisgat Ze’ev, Ma’ale Adumim, Mevaseret Tzion and Gilo, the Palestinians would still no doubt be getting some 90% of East Jerusalem. This is roughly the same deal that was offered at Camp David in 2000. The late Israeli scholar, Tanya Rinehart, looked at the map and said that what the Israeli and U.S. negotiators did was label the village of Abu Dis “Jerusalem.” They didn’t lie – Abu Dis, is _part_ of East Jerusalem. I expect that in the coming weeks, Condi Rice and Tony Blair will step up to tell the Palestinian negotiators that Olmert’s conversion is a dream come true and they need to sign now and ask questions later. If they don’t, the international press will report once again that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

What the Palestinians will not be getting under an Olmert Plan, as they would not have under the Camp David plan, is the Old City and sovereignty over their holy sites. Nor will they be getting a border on the Green Line (the internationally recognized armistice line from 1949). If Muslim Palestinians cannot go pray at Al Aqsa Mosque, and Christians cannot walk the Stations of the Cross at Easter, nothing is going to convince them they are in Jerusalem, and no Palestinian leader who tries to do so is going to stay in power.

Olmert _has_ made a major change in his outlook. He used to support ethnic cleansing, and now he supports apartheid. In both cases he is driven by a fear of the ultimate catastrophe – democracy. As for the Palestinians, they remain between the Dome of the Rock and a hard place.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Rachel Corrie, Ben Linder and Me

April 5, 2008

Tonight I'm going to an event for the premier of a book, Let Me Stand Alone, the Journals of Rachel Corrie (actually, I didn't, but my intentions were good). I haven’t read the book, and I know enough about Rachel to know that this is probably a misperception, but the title of the book rubs me the wrong way. It gives the impression, especially to those who will hear about the book but never read it, that Rachel’s life has meaning because she did something alone, when in fact, what she is known for is something she did as part of a movement, something she could not have done on her own. More generally, it feeds into the American idea that it’s extraordinary individuals who make a difference, rather than groups, what might be called Dr. King Syndrome. It’s the same response that I had to Cindy Sheehan when she issued her (short-lived, as it turned out) farewell as the “face of the peace movement” (see my Open Letter to Cindy at

Everything, our media, our literature, our history, is reduced to the actions of individuals. This may be nice for the few who become those icons of personal achievement (though it’s certainly not nice for Rachel Corrie or Casey Sheehan, because they’re dead, and it wasn’t nice for Cindy because it led to a nervous breakdown and a life-threatening illness), but it makes the masses of people feel both that they cannot make a difference, and that they do not need to make a difference.

I remember when I had first started participating in and organizing direct action, primarily against U.S. intervention in Central America, I was talking to a close friend of my mom’s, who has since died. She was impressed with my commitment, but even more, she was impressed that I had friends who had been friends of Ben Linder’s in Seattle. For those of you – probably most of you, at this point – who do not know who Ben Linder was, he was a young Jewish American who went to Nicaragua as an engineer, to help electrify rural areas. The government of Nicaragua at that time was the popular/Marxist Sandinistas, and the U.S. was financing and arming the “contras” in their guerrilla war against the Sandinistas, and Ben was killed in a contra raid in Jinotega in 1986. A lot of U.S. citizens had by that time spent time in Nicaragua, picking coffee and cotton, volunteering in clinics, building houses and schools, and Ben was the first (and last, as it turned out) to be killed. And though his name is barely known now by people who didn’t know him, he was in the eighties at least as well known as Rachel Corrie is today. (And as with Rachel, the U.S. government did nothing to help his family find out what happened to him or to hold anyone accountable for killing him.)

So this friend of my mom’s had heard about Ben and she was opposed to the contra war, and she said she would be willing to participate in civil disobedience, but only if she knew it was going to be worth it. And I struggled with how to convince her, because the truth is, you never know what your actions are going to be worth. Would Ben think that his sacrifice was worth it, if he knew that before the nineties were a year old, the Sandinistas would be voted out of power? Would he think it was worth it now, because Sandinistas have regained power in some areas of the country? Would Rachel think her sacrifice was worth it, if she knew that a few months ago in Gaza, police controlled by Hamas violently broke up peaceful demonstrations commemorating the death of Arafat? Would either of them think their sacrifice was worth it, even if they knew that eventually the lands where they gave their lives would be free and prosperous?

I hope not. I hope that if either of them knew they would be killed, they would have made different choices on those fateful days. Among internationals working in Palestine, we honored Rachel’s life, but we didn’t encourage people to follow her example. When I was recruiting people to go Palestine, if I ran into anyone who said, “I want to be the next Rachel Corrie,” I would say that that person should not be allowed to go, because we are not in the business of recruiting martyrs.

At the same time, who am I to say that their sacrifices were not worthwhile? We have no way to know while we are in the throes of struggle, what is going to be the tipping point. There’s a fallacy which goes along with the culture of stardom, I think, that says that there’s one way to accomplish our goals and we all need to do the same thing. Thus you read books by the people who led the “Troops Out Now” movement claiming that they were the ones who ended the Vietnam War, and ones by people who chanted “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh” insisting that no, it was them, while the Silent Majority who stayed home and watched them all on TV saw them all as one bunch of crazies. Lately, everyone in the antiwar movement is talking about “what is effective?” and I sometimes get the feeling that they think there’s one right answer that is hiding just around the corner. We don’t always remember to ask, what is the effect we want to have?

Some people claim that leafleting is more effective than direct action, because it reaches people directly. But how do we know what effect our leaflets have on people? We don’t follow them around so we have pretty much no idea how many of the people who take a leaflet even read it, and how many of those learn one thing from it, and how many (or how few) of those are motivated to do anything. Occasionally, you give someone information and they come back and ask for more, but that’s very rare.

On the other side of the spectrum are the people who only want to do actions that really impede the making of war in some way. Those people are usually putting a lot of energy into figuring out how to outwit the authorities, and they are easily stymied by the fact that the authorities have more resources than we do. At a meeting I was at today, someone observed that the San Francisco police have gotten very fast at dismantling the lockboxes that activists use to prolong blockades, and so he said we need to come up with better lockboxes. I think a better message to take is that we’re not going to win a war of equipment, that we need to stop relying on equipment to make up for the fact that our actions don’t involve enough people.

Then there are people whose main goal in any action is to get positive media coverage, but that’s a big crap shoot because we have pretty much no control over what the media do and don’t cover. On March 19 we got a lot of mostly good coverage, but that wasn’t because of us and how great our action was, it was because March 19 is the one day a year when the media looks for stories about the antiwar movement. It’s like being veterans on Veterans’ Day. We could do the same action next week and get no coverage at all. I know this is true because the group I was part of, which was one of the media stars of the day due to our highly photogenic orange jump suits and hoods, did almost the same thing on January 11 and not a single news outlet responded to our press calls. The wide variety of available media nowadays gives you more possibilities for getting coverage, but also makes it harder to make a dent. It used to be, if your demonstration got on one local television station, a significant percentage of people in the area would see it. Now even if you get on all the TV stations and CNN, most people will not see it because a majority of people who follow current events at all are getting their news from the internet.

The struggle against apartheid in South Africa is considered the epitome of a successful movement that used direct action, and when people think of that struggle, they are always thinking of the huge protests at places like Berkeley and Michigan. They don’t remember, or they don’t know, that there was daily civil disobedience at the South African embassy in Washington for an entire year, and some of those actions had movie stars getting arrested, and some of them had dozens of people, but some of them had five priests or twelve students. At U.C. Berkeley; a different group did direct action every day during one quarter – one day the teachers, one day the disabled activists, one day the queers …. People in many countries protested when South African athletes participated in international sports events, and boycotted South African cultural events. Not one of those actions would have made much difference by itself, but all together, they won the day.

It’s not what one person does alone, or what one group does alone, but the times when in spite of all our divisions, we manage to support one another, that we should be proudest of. Let us all stand together.

Monday, March 31, 2008

After the Anniversary Comes the Fighting ...

March 30, 2008

Another March 19 has come and gone, leaving those of us who organized protests of five years of war to muse about what we accomplished.

The actions here in San Francisco were pretty successful. We had more people participating than we have had in the last four years, though unsurprisingly, not close to the numbers who came out in 2003 when the war first began. There were 165 arrests, most of people who chose to be arrested, and that was a lot more than any single action in the last four years as well. Which in itself is interesting, because in the 1980s, when the U.S. was involved in covert wars in Central America that hardly anyone knew about, we used to occasionally have actions where 500 people got arrested.

It’s not that getting arrested is the be all and end all of activism, it’s just that it’s one indication of how much personal risk people are willing to take to express their opposition to a government policy. I always assumed that the more egregious the government’s actions were, the more people would be willing to engage in resistance that carried some risk to themselves. But in fact, the opposite has proved true, and I think there are a lot of reasons for that.

First, it’s been several generations now since there was a major example in this country of mass nonviolent action actually being effective in changing policy. In the eighties, the civil rights struggles of the fifties and sixties, and the antiwar actions of the sixties and seventies, were still fresh in a lot of our memories. There were even people who had been involved in the labor movements of the thirties who were participating in those actions. But people who are 35 and under today don’t even know about most of the movements of the eighties which used direct action: the anti-nuclear movement, the movement against the contras in Nicaragua and the death squads in El Salvador, the sanctuary movement, even the anti-apartheid movement in its grassroots community aspect. It seemed a couple years ago that the immigrant rights movement would provide a modern example, which like the Black civil rights movement, might have rippled to create an activist awakening among other communities. But, for reasons that not being a part of that community, I can only speculate about, that massive uprising quickly dwindled to a movement of the hard core.

Second, a friend pointed out, with cable TV, there are so many more options for what to watch, and that’s compounded by the nearly limitless resources of the internet, while in the sixties, seventies and eighties, everyone was watching the same news. The opportunities to opt out of news altogether mean that even the rare glimpses of the Iraq war on the mainstream television news go unseen by a majority.

At the same time, the overwhelming barrage of disturbing images and stories from all corners of the world causes people to shut down. A few weeks ago, I was listening to the Winter Soldier hearings at work, and when people would come into the center where I work alone on Fridays, I would tell them what it was. “What’s a war crime?” asked one man, a 30-something African American who is a supervisor in the records department. I explained briefly and he was momentarily shocked: “We’re doing that?” But then he said, “I like to maintain a positive outlook, so I can’t think about things like that.” My coworker who came in at 3:00 p.m., a 60-something working class Jew and life-long leftist, said something very similar: the news is too upsetting, and she is done thinking she can do anything about it, so she tunes it out.

On March 19, I was part of a group of about 30 people who walked around in orange jumpsuits and hoods (and a few of us in masks of prominent politicians) doing theater in areas heavy with shoppers and tourists. Many people came up to us and said, “Thank you for being out here,” which at first was gratifying but quickly became deeply disturbing. What will it take, we started to ask each other, for people to move from saying, “Thank you,” to saying, “What can I do?”

I used to think that actions would do that, that people might not decide they could do what we were doing, but seeing us take action would motivate them to think about what they were willing to do. In fact, I think that once that was true, and I think the consumer mentality that the ruling class has worked so hard to promote over the last twenty years has destroyed that possibility. Whether it’s a vigil, a blockade or a die-in, people see it as the same as a billboard, a street band or religious fanatics ranting at them – part of the ambience, something maybe trying to elicit a reaction, but not an invitation to DO anything.

It is, of course, hard to convince people to participate in activism when you can’t point to any specific action and say, “Look at the effect it had.” When I told an Israeli friend who is also a U.S. citizen about the March 19 actions, she pissed me off by saying, “That doesn’t do anything. If everyone stopped paying taxes, that would do something.” It pissed me off because one, there is no chance that _everyone_ is going to stop paying taxes, or even that a lot of people are going to do it. It is extremely difficult to actually stop paying taxes; you can’t have an over-the-table job, you can’t have a bank account, and you can’t own any property. So only a few people are going to do it; a few people already do, and it’s a noble act of conscience but not something that actually hurts the government as much as the government can hurt them. And second, it puts the cart way before the horse. If “everyone” was about to stop paying taxes, we certainly would have been able to get the 68% of everyone who opposes the war to come out to a peaceful demonstration, and we can’t even do that. The point is not the specific act, but that we have to figure out something we can get everyone who opposes the war to do, and that in itself is a monumental task which we are nowhere near being able to accomplish.

The warmakers have made it clear that they don’t care what people think. Cheney said it flat out in the runup to March 19: “We don’t make policy based on opinion polls.” They do care, though, what people do, at least if what those people are doing makes it hard for them to continue governing. So the $64,000 question is, what is there that masses of people would actually do that the government would care about? It would not necessarily be one thing, but some set of things which would signify actual resistance, not resignation.

We can’t just sit around waiting for everyone to stop paying their taxes, but we do need to reframe the concept of resistance. One thing we need to stop doing is equating resistance with demonstrations. I think demonstrations are important, but they are only one kind of resistance. There are people who are never going to go to a demonstration, because, as my friend Jean says, they are just convinced that’s not something people like them do. So we need to open up discussions which will elicit “culturally appropriate” (credit to Jean again) forms of resistance for different communities. But that’s not going to happen by itself, and it’s not as easy as it sounds because anything that is effective is going to come in for repression. If enough people start hanging “Stop the War” signs in their windows that the government feels that’s a threat they can’t ignore, they’re going to outlaw hanging signs in windows.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that if that happened, fewer people would be willing to do it. Repression can energize resistance as often or more often than it discourages it, because people figure that the government doesn’t repress things that aren’t making a difference.

The other day, I got an email at work, from a secretary forwarding a job from the attorney she works for. I’m not sure whether it was the secretary or the attorney, but one of them had as her epigram the quote from Gandhi, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” I thought, if someone who works at a big corporate law firm chooses that tag line for their email, maybe we’re closer to winning than I thought.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Are we the ones we're waiting for?

March 16, 2008

For the last four months I’ve been focused on March 19, the fifth anniversary of the second war on Iraq, and now it is here. My goal was to reinvigorate a militant anti-war movement this season, and I would say that it looks like we have done that. Direct Action to Stop the War II, a group (or grouping, which remains to be seen) initiated principally by people who were involved in the shutdown of San Francisco in March 2003, has pulled in a couple hundred people, mostly in their 20s, who haven’t been involved directly in organizing for the last several years, and they have good energy. On the other hand, while a lot of people have come to meetings and plan to participate in actions, despite very good intentions, we have somehow not succeeded in getting a lot of them involved in doing work, with the result that it still feels like a few people are taking most of the responsibility, a lot of us have too many different responsibilities to fulfill them all well, and the very ambitious actions feel a little underorganized.

Yesterday was the first of two actions we organized for this anniversary, a rally and blockade at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond (a city just north of Berkeley). The rally was organized mainly by community groups which have for a long time been battling Chevron on environmental issues, and are now fighting a proposed expansion of the refinery. It drew a good crowd – estimates differ of how good, my estimate was 800-1,000; the Chronicle said “more than 300”, other activists put it somewhere in between and I imagine the organizers would say 1,500. There was great music and spoken word mixed in with the speeches, few of which I heard because I was involved in doing a lightning direct action training/orientation for about 20 people who were just plugging into the blockade yesterday. This was my first experience with a super-short training (just under an hour) and I have to admit, you can get a lot in if you’re really focused.

One thing that was kind of disappointing about the rally and the march that followed was that most of the community participants were white (though there was prominent leadership by two African American men), in a community that is overwhelmingly African American and Latino. Even more disappointing was that very few people from the Richmond community participated in the blockade. Neither of these facts was shocking, given that the sponsoring organizations in Richmond were groups like Communities for a Better Environment and Richmond Greens, along with West County Toxics Coalition, an environmental justice group. A friend, who was arrested in yesterday’s action at Chevron, pointed out that at the same time there was a community-wide mobilization in the African American churches that brought out 1,000 volunteers for a day without killing – Richmond has one of the highest murder rates in the state. The fact that we (or at least I) did not even know about this parallel action in the same small city highlights the fact that it is harder than we sometimes want to admit to bridge the huge cultural and political divides that exist in our society.

Last week, there was a panel on direct action as part of a larger strategy for anti-war movement building. At one point, a woman who identified herself as “poor and old” spoke up to say, “Convince me, and others like me, that we should take the risk to participate in your direct action.” Asked to restate the question, one of the panelists said, “She is bringing up the point that many people who are poor can’t take the risk of participating in actions where they might be arrested.” The woman shook her head. “No,” she said, “I want to take the risk. I want you to tell me why I should take the risk.” This exchange (which I’m totally paraphrasing and hopefully not further mischaracterizing) really made me think.

The statement that the panelist made, that people who are poor and/or people of color can’t risk arrest by participating in civil disobedience/direct action, is invoked so often in movement circles, it’s like a mantra. While it’s true that it’s a lot easier for people with class and race privilege to blithely throw ourselves into the arms of police, the mantra irritates me. The fact is that poor people and people of color have done direct action a lot more than rich white people have. If you make a list of campaigns that utilized civil disobedience or direct action, or if you look at one of the lists that others have made, 80% of the campaigns are going to be ones led by people who were either poor or of color or both. To name just a few: the campaigns against apartheid in South Africa (both here and there); the civil rights movement; the labor movements on every continent; the occupation of the refineries in Nigeria a few years back; the rebellions against privatization in Argentina and Bolivia; the first Palestinian Intifada. To say that people can’t take the risk of direct action is to let ourselves off the hook. What I think the woman at the panel was getting at is that most people won’t take the risk because we’re the ones who are asking them to, and they have no reason to trust us, or to think that our interests are theirs.

The flip side is that only a tiny fraction of the people who can well afford to take the (minimal) risk involved in doing direct action in San Francisco or Richmond are going to take it. And for this we also let ourselves off the hook, by telling ourselves that they’re not doing it because they don’t agree with us, they’re in favor of the war, they’re unenlightened or they’re disempowered. But it’s not true. Over two-thirds of people in this country oppose the war; in the Bay Area, it’s probably closer to 85%. In March 2003, something like 20,000 people participated in the direct action in San Francisco, which was unprecedented. That was 10% or less of the people who had participated in marches against the war before it started, less than 0.4% of the population of the Bay Area.

I’m not trying to say that most of the 6,000,000 people in the Bay Area could be convinced to risk arrest or engage in some other form of active resistance. But a lot more of them could be than the 500 or 1,000, or less, who are going to do it this year. And they too are not going to do it because of us, because of what my friend Gopal calls our “self-marginalizing behavior.” Most of them are not going to do it because we’re not going to ask them. We’re not going to ask them because we think they’ll say no, or because they’re not the people we want, or because we look down on their lifestyles or their fashion sense. We might hand people a flier at BART on Tuesday or Wednesday, but few people decide to join an action, especially one that carries an unfamiliar risk, because some stranger hands them a flier. They might do it if a coworker asked them, or a family member, or someone in their church choir or someone in their cancer support group. But I’m not going to ask my coworkers, because they’ll say no, and I’m not going to ask the women in my support group because I think they’ll think I’m weird.

At a meeting of Direct Action to Stop the War in January, one of the few African American women there said that in her community, the attitude toward the anti-war movement is “What have they done for us lately?” I looked around the room and I thought, honestly, a lot of the people there have done a lot. There are quite a few people in this grouping who work for community based organizations, for free or for pay. There are union organizers, teachers, counselors, nurses, people who work on immigration rights, people who work on housing rights, people who work against gentrification. What those people haven’t done, though, is bring the people they’re working with in those community-based organizations to this anti-war organizing. I don’t know if that’s because they’re embarrassed to invite people to an almost all-white, class-privileged group, or because they have invited people and they don’t want to come. I know one friend said some of her friends said they didn’t want to go because everyone is white, and she said, “Well, if you come, they won’t be.” But they didn’t.

Alliance building across race and class is really difficult in this country, and it seems to me that it gets more difficult all the time. I’ve been in a lot of groups that have tried to do it over the years, and most of them failed. But one reason we fail is because we don’t acknowledge how much time it takes. If we’re serious about building alliances with people who don’t know or trust us, that’s what we’re going to be doing for the next six months or a year or more. We’re not going to be able to build the alliances and organize a major anti-war action in four months. We can’t go to a community where we’re not known with our agenda, and say, “Want to do this?” We have to go with no agenda, to support what they are doing. After we’ve been around for a while, shown ourselves to be reliable, then we might be able to say, “Hey, you know what else I’m doing?” and then maybe some of them would say, “Well I might be interested in checking that out.” And then again, they might not.

But we need to realize too that if we did that, we would not be organizing creative, militant anti-war actions, and that feels pretty important right now too. So maybe –I’m not saying it is, but it’s possible – it’s better to just admit that we’re not who we wish we were and concentrate on doing what we can do. Or maybe, we should think about the risks we have not been willing to take, and what it’s going to take to get us to have that conversation with our families, our doctors and our accountants.