Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Movement and the Moment - Part III - Creating a Spirit of Joy

Since I sent around the second part of The Movement and the Moment, a number of people have asked me, “Did I miss the part where you said what we should be doing?”

So no, you didn’t miss that. I didn’t include that because, honestly, I haven’t got a clue, but I have been thinking about it, and your questions made me think more. And I’ve actually come up with some things I think are … well … better to do than others.

So here are a few recs, FWIW.

1. I continue to believe, with the passion of a cultist, that doing something is better than doing nothing. I’m sure some of you are saying, “Well duh,” but this is actually a fairly unpopular position in parts of the left these days. Parts of the Palestine solidarity movement in particular, and the antiwar movement (such as it is) as well, in this area, have done close to nothing for a couple of years now, and it’s not because they are burned out, not because they don’t have ideas, and not because they don’t spend hours and hours and hours in meetings. It’s because they truly believe that doing nothing is better than doing what might turn out to be the wrong thing. This is a position I have just never been able to understand. As I’ve said many times before, it’s very hard to know what the right thing is, especially when you are in the moment. Because in fact, the right thing is not one fixed point in space that you have to get your hands on, but a set of responses to ever-shifting social and political conditions. What would have been right two years ago is probably less right now. Things that I was very skeptical about – the Free Gaza boats, for instance –turned out to be the absolute right tactic for the moment. But the assumption some people are making that what we need to do now is put all our energy into funding and populating and launching more boats, is not a given. It’s one option, and it’s a tried and true one – if something works, keep doing more and more of it until it clearly has diminishing returns. But that’s not always the best idea. A friend told me a mutual friend who is a leader in Palestinian nonviolent resistance cautioned, “We do not want the resistance to be more expensive than the occupation.” I think he meant in terms of human life, as well as in terms of money. Huwaida Arraf, one of the lead organizers of the Free Gaza Movement and someone whose strategic sense I trust a lot, wrote that she feels the best thing that came out of the attack on the flotilla has been the increased interest in BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions). It might be hard for some of us to accept that rather than glomming on to the newest sexy thing, the best thing we can do is continue slogging along at the unglamorous work we were already doing.

2. I would suggest that if we can think of tactics that haven’t been tried, we try them. A friend and I did that a year ago, coming up with a type of street art that hasn’t been seen before, at least in our area. It builds on types of things we’ve done before, and we still sometimes do the things we have always done – putting up posters, etc. – but this new form of DIY has caught the imagination of people who were feeling pretty demoralized and had some unexpected successes. Now my friend is a little irritated with me because I keep saying, “Okay, but we’ve been doing that for a year now, what are we doing next?” but I think it’s important to keep trying to evolve. One commitment I’ve made to myself is to try to do at least one new thing every year for the rest of my life.

3. As much as possible, we should embrace opportunities to promote transnationalism. I think a lot of movements think they are doing that now, but we could do it much better.

There are two types of transnationalism in western countries today, and they tend not to have much to do with each other. (Actually, there are three but the third is academic transnationalism, such as transnational feminism and transnational queer theory, and I don’t know enough about those movements to comment on them.) One is the alliance of mostly college educated, politically sophisticated activists who travel a lot. It comprises anti-capitalist convergences, protest tourism, the solidarity delegation industry, the international labor movement, as well as random individuals and groups going to places like Bolivia, Palestine, Cuba and Chiapas to live and do solidarity work and skills sharing. Many of these folks will tell you that an international workers’ alliance is right around the corner, something I think our friends in Arizona and Michigan would be pretty skeptical to hear.

The second is the transnationalism of people who are living in western countries while rooted in parts of the “developing world.” These are the migrant and immigrant work forces, who have an intrinsic transnationalism that is slowly transforming western countries, and that’s part of what Tea Parties and Red State nationalists are reacting against. For people like Sarah Palin, whose idea of transnationalism is being able to see Russia from her back yard, not to mention people in Kentucky who have never even been to Canada, the presence of neighbors who watch soccer and call it football, who wear unfamiliar headgear and speak languages they’ve never heard of, makes them feel like they’ve been shoved into an unfamiliar world where they can’t find a place.

There is not a natural affinity between the transnational communities in the U.S. and the transnational left. In my memory, the anti-capitalist convergence in Seattle in 1999 included more activists who traveled there from the Global South than transnationals from the Global South living in this country. For one thing, most transnational people in the U.S. are not anti-capitalist; many of them are here because they hope that capitalism will afford them a better life. For another, their cultures often (though certainly not always) have a heavy influence of religions which are opposed to or uncomfortable with values like queer liberation and abortion rights which are touchstones for the (white) left. And many, though again by no means all, immigrant communities are pretty insular and suspicious of outsiders – even outsiders for whom they are often mistaken by white people.

For the most part, what I might call enforced transnational communities are not interested in movement-building. They are interested in living their lives. But they can be organized into movements for social change, one because organizing is much more possible in cohesive communities, and two because they have a lot of interest in seeing things get better economically and less repressive politically. The immigration rights movement of 2006 very effectively organized the Latin American transnational communities, while making few inroads into Asian and African communities (at least in the SF Bay Area). The movement that organized the recent day of action for immigration justice seemed to have much shallower roots in those communities (again speaking only about this area), and more of its base among the white left and the nonprofits who work in immigrant communities. The movement to protest police killings, of which Oscar Grant’s has the most publicized in this area, is primarily African American and white, while the movement to oppose raids by ICE/Migra is primarily Latino with a smattering of support from progressive organizations. Organizing in the Arab/Muslim communities around special registration and targeting by ICE has generally been quite separate from Spanish language organizing, though there has certainly been some crossover.

The transnational left is the one sector that is somewhat involved in many of these struggles. We could and should work harder to bring these various movements together in a more consistent and collaborative way. But one of the things that means is not flitting so much from action to action and group to group, but hanging around for the debriefs and the arguments and the prayer breakfasts. It means going places that make us feel uneasy, or even threatened, like mosques and churches. And it requires staying put for long enough to build and sustain relationships. QUIT! (Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism) has certainly seen big changes in the movement for Palestinian liberation in this area in terms of their willingness to acknowledge us and say the Q word, and that is because we have been there consistently since early 2001. I know there is an immigration justice group in Chicago that is multiethnic and has a lot of queer members and has taken on some queer issues. It seems like half of the hard-core antiwar organizers I know are out of the country at any given time, which might be why we have no anti-war movement in this area.

4. This piece is especially for those of us who are journalists or bloggers: We need to emphasize the small stuff. We need to shine at least as much light on the smaller acts of resistance that people are doing every day as we do on the big flashy once-in-a-blue-moon actions. The mainstream media is certainly most guilty of our obsession with size, but the left media is also very guilty, and even the micromedia – the blogosphere – plays a significant role in this. So for instance, while I admire the folks that commit their lives to activism, traveling to Washington to get arrested in Congress every few months, or living in a tree, or going on boats to Gaza, giving the bulk of air time and print space to those folks pretty much ensures that the movement will stay small and fringey.

In addition, we need to fight the tendency only to cover movements when they experience severe repression. The attack on the freedom flotilla was only possible because the previous eight boats to Gaza, six of which succeeded in breaking the blockade, were all but ignored by the mainstream Western media. Those boats carried famous people and journalists, a former Congresswoman and Tony Blair’s sister-in-law. Yet everyone at my job who asked me about the flotilla was shocked to hear that there had been previous voyages.

Most people are not going to go on a boat to Gaza (and though they now seem to be urging people to sign up, lots of people who wanted to go on the flotilla couldn’t because there wasn’t room). Most people are not going to do anything they think risks years in prison. But lots of people will put a sticker on a package of Israeli cheese at Trader Joe’s, especially if you go with them the first time and show that it can be done. Many people would give an hour to walk a picket line or go door-to-door getting people to put up single payer signs in their windows.

But no one is going to do anything if they feel like it doesn’t do any good. If people feel that the small actions they can take are totally insignificant, they are going to go home and watch Dancing with the Stars, and why not? Time is scarce. Which leads to the next thing.

5. We need to infuse our actions with joy and creativity. Easy to say, hard to do. I went to see a movie about Grace Paley last week at the Jewish Film Festival. It was a wonderful movie, and the best thing about it was the huge smile she had on her face every time she was at a protest. Whether it was ten people marching up and back outside a draft center, or five thousand women weaving webs around the Pentagon, she always looked like she was having the time of her life. And you felt her spirit pulling you with her.

Creating that spirit of joy requires first, that we find things to do that are fun for us. Second, it means making it fun and irresistible to join in. On Xmas Eve, I told some friends that I was going to Macy’s to put informational cards in the pockets of jackets and purses, so people who bought them or gave them as gifts would get a little extra present when they opened it up. My friends, who are not that kind of activists, were skeptical about whether they wanted to do that. But they came with me, and once they started, they used up all the cards we had and had a blast. It means having food and drink at meetings, and having them in rooms that are warm enough and have chairs that are not uncomfortable.

Ronit Avni, producer of the movie “Budrus,” asked me recently about the first time I was in the village. I recalled that Ayed took us to see the land where the Wall was to be built, and then we went back to his house for lunch. His wife had made an incredible feast for about 20 people – Israeli, Palestinian and international activists. I could still taste it as I described it for Ronit. A few days later, I mentioned it to another friend who was there too, and her eyes lit up as she said, “musakhan,” the name of the dish we ate. In Palestinian culture, as in my own, food is love, and by feeding us so lovingly, Naami and Ayed made us feel part of their family. And that meant that when it came time to step up and commit to the struggle in that village, those of us who didn’t have to, whose lives did not depend on it, were ready to do it.

I recently interviewed my friend, author Elana Dykewomon, and one thing she said was, “As revolutionaries, we need to make sure we all have comfortable beds to sleep in, because you can’t make revolution with a bad back.” Of course, there have been many people in many countries who made revolution by sleeping on the ground in the mountains, never sleeping in the same place twice, struggling with asthma like Che Guevara and migraines like Emma Goldman, but Elana is right that the less we have to do that, the better off we will be.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

How Oakland's Leaders Started a Riot

In April 2001, about six months into the Second Intifada, an Israeli human rights activist named Jeff Halper wrote an article called “How to start an uprising.” He explained how the Israeli government created the conditions for Palestinian unrest, which it then used to justify increased repression and oppression of Palestinian society. He described how they created a powderkeg by strangling the Palestinian economy and confining people in a virtual prison while stealing their land and portraying them in the media as the terrorists. Ariel Sharon then lit the fuse when he marched onto the Temple Mount with 1,000 soldiers, and the army (then controlled by the Labor party under Ehud Barak) added accelerant by firing a million bullets at nonviolent protesters in one week.

If Oakland’s political leaders didn’t read that article before last night’s demonstration in response to the Johannes Mehserle verdict, they should have.

Here’s how they started a mini-riot:

First they - not by themselves, of course, but as part of a system that is based on denying equal rights to Black and Brown people - created a tinderbox of high unemployment, political disenfranchisement and police harassment. Tony Pirone and Johannes Mehserle lit the match by killing Oscar Grant in cold blood and in plain view of dozens of witnesses; BART management and the DA’s office (no doubt in consultation with the mayor and other political leaders) accelerated the blaze by not charging Mehserle for weeks and keeping Pirone on the payroll for more than a year; the court helped by moving the trial to LA, where the judge allowed all the African Americans to be kicked off the jury and a number of whites with family members on the police force to be seated.

Okay, you might say that all of that was the result of long-term systemic injustice and not under the control of Mayor Dellums and police chief Batts and all the others. And you would be right, except that they have had a full year to offer African American youth in Oakland something that would make them part of the life of the city, they’ve gotten stimulus money that could have been used creatively to employ people who have never had a chance to start innovative community-based projects for health, literacy, training, entertainment – you name it – and they have not done it.

But here’s where they bear direct responsibility for dumping buckets of turpentine on an already smoldering fire.

First, they allowed, or even encouraged, the media to hype and hype and hype the threat of violence for weeks in advance of the verdict, and to film the cops practicing draconian riot-control tactics using dangerous new equipment bought with Homeland Security money. This sent a clear message to young people in the community that once again, they were guilty before they stepped out of their houses. The media whipped up the threat to white people into hysteria that led to every state office building in the Bay Area being closed down at 3:00 p.m. on Thursday. At 5:30 on Friday evening, during our Women in Black vigil near Montgomery St. BART in San Francisco, there were still cops prowling around, “just in case” of a demonstration (I’m not making that up – they told me that’s why they were there).

Next they played the nonprofits and the well meaning street peace groups off against independent activists and community people who don’t identify with those groups. The people doing the 6-8 rally were the good protesters, and everyone else were bad protesters. The nonprofits did their part by worrying so much about how to keep people from doing things that they didn’t give people anything to do with their energy. No one wanted to stand around listening to speeches for two hours. There was no march, so guess what people who wanted something active to do did? You got it – went to face off with the cops.

Then they brought literally tens of thousands of cops into downtown Oakland, armed to the teeth and packed in like sardines. They outfitted them with riot masks and face shields, giving them the look of an army of Darth Vaders. They huddled with each other, targeting people they decided were trouble. A friend of a friend was busted for no reason, on such a whim. This in itself would have likely been enough to spark some confrontations, because for young people who had just been told –again – that their lives are not valued by this society, the presence of this armed camp was a slap in the face. What I saw and filmed as I was wandering around was mostly young African American men ranting at cops who remained stone-faced and silent. Some of the young men were quite sincere in trying to explain how it feels to be in their situation. The individual cops were restrained, yes. They stayed calm and did not rise to the bait. But the mere fact that they were there was a provocation.

As soon as the permitted rally was over, they declared an unlawful assembly, announcing “Anyone who is in this area, regardless of your purpose, is in violation of section 409 of the Penal Code and is subject to arrest.” Of course, to me it sounded like “blah blah blah” but I heard it very clearly on the news. I ended up giving a ride to a guy who came out of work (he works at Earth Justice) at 9:00 p.m. only to find the BART station closed. Great way to get people to leave the area – close off their exit routes.

Whenever the police are engaged in crowd control maneuvers, there’s this thing they do that I’ve never understood. For no apparent reason, about 200 of them suddenly go running down the street, straight at the back of whatever crowd they’re (allegedly) trying to control. As I say, I have no idea what the purpose is supposed to be, but the only thing it actually accomplishes is to create panic. It also obviously pumps up the adrenaline of both cops and crowd, the exact dynamic that caused the tragic killing of Oscar Grant.

What should they have done instead? I’ll tell you. They should have kept most if not all of the cops at home, saving all those millions spent on overtime and paddy wagons and jail space for schools and summer camps and youth job programs. And any cops that were out there should have been in regular uniforms, not riot gear. If all those heavily armed robots had not been on the street, there would have been no looting and no windows broken. I can absolutely tell you that from experience, and from my limited knowledge of psychology.

Yes, there were people who came from Berkeley and San Francisco and probably Walnut Creek, and even maybe a few from Oakland who planned to loot and break windows. That’s what they do, it’s what they believe in. Some of them are even friends of mine, but in this context, they’re the disrespectful assholes who spraypainted “Oakland is our amusement park tonight” on the side of a building –NO IT’S NOT, GUYS! But even those people, or maybe especially those people, would not have bothered destroying stuff if there hadn’t been an audience or anyone to give them counterattack.

It’s true that if the cops and the City had not been out in force, if they had not been guilty of overplanning, and there had been one window broken, the media and the white pundits would never have let them hear the end of it. What the media and the pundits are not pointing out, now that it has passed with the tedium of a badly scripted play, is that all that overreaction did not prevent any looting or property damage. The businesses that wanted to avoid having their windows broken knew what to do and did it – they boarded up. I watched a Vietnamese restaurant throwing up plywood sheets over their storefront as their last customers walked out with bags of takeout. It took them about 20 minutes and doubtless saved them a thousand bucks and a lot of heartache.

Anyone who was seriously interested in looting would have known that any other street in the East Bay was a better bet for it that night than downtown Oakland. You could probably have knocked over banks in Fremont and Hayward that night and gotten away with it, since nearly every cop in Alameda County was in that ten-block area of Oakland. So the people who chose to break the windows of Footlocker and Subway in downtown Oakland did it because they wanted to provoke a reaction. If the police had not obliged them, they would have gone home and the less privileged kids who followed their example, whether lured by the appeal of new shoes or the excitement of the conflict, would not have been left to pay the price.

If Oakland's leadership, political and civil, spent as much time trying to prevent the periodic recurrences of the Rodney King-Sean Bell-Oscar Grant killings as they spend trying to prevent people's anger at injustice from overflowing in unproductive ways, we might not be doomed to keep playing out this pathetic scenario over and over again.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Movement and the Moment – Part II, Defining the Moment

Marx was wrong. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s undeniable. He was not all wrong, but he was seriously wrong.

He was not wrong, of course, about his historical analysis, and he wasn’t wrong about what was going to happen in the immediate future of capitalism. But he was wrong about the inevitably of socialism and he was wrong about capitalism’s inability to adapt to the challenge of an organized proletariat.

Okay, so maybe that’s old news. But why, then, do leftists continue trying to deny it? If there is one reason why global capital has been able to proceed unfettered by meaningful resistance, it’s that leftists in the capitalist countries persist in trying to cram the 21st century reality into a nineteenth century solution.

The people who sell Socialist Worker at demonstrations, and those of us who secretly sympathize with them, are the Luddites of our time.

Luddites were not were not irrationally opposed to technology. Eric Hobsbawm, the British Marxist historian, calls them “simple-minded laborers … smashing the machines which they thought responsible for their troubles,” but that is unfair. They correctly saw that the machines were taking away their livelihood. They were simply deluded in believing that they had the power to hold back the march of capital and its brainchild, mechanization. If we do not want to be described by some twenty-fourth century historian (aboard the Enterprise, no doubt) as “simple-minded activists smashing at the banks they thought were responsible for their troubles,” we need to acknowledge that we have no power to stop the consolidation of capital.

What we might have the power to do is push forward the historical process we’re in, if we can figure out what it is. In Wiccan circles, we sing a song that goes, “Even though it is the darkest hour, no one can hold back the dawn.” The Luddites forgot that, or they didn’t realize that they were at the dawning of the Industrial Age. So what age is dawning now?

I imagine a cell of radical dinosaurs hunkered around the campfire at the La Brea Tar Pits, plotting to overthrow T-Rex, when out of nowhere, along comes a meteor and punches a massive hole in the forest. So what do the Socialist Brontosauruses do? Do they continue trying to organize the foliage-growers and rodent-hunters or do they go help rebuild tar pits for the displaced pterodactyls? Or do they look at what is seeping through the hole in the earth and try to figure out how to turn it into food and shelter, maybe getting there before the ruling dinos do? Well obviously, they didn’t do that, or we would not be here today, but we’re supposed to believe in evolution, so theoretically, we can learn from their mistakes.

There are big historical shifts, like the Industrial Revolution and the rise of nation-states in the Renaissance, there are small shifts, like the difference between Carter’s foreign policy and Reagan’s, and there are medium shifts, like the creation and breakup of the Soviet Union. I maintain that we’re in a massive shift right now. Massive, but not unprecedented. It’s easy to imagine that things are more terrible now than they’ve ever been in history, because we know so much more about conditions in so many places. But in fact, it’s hard to believe that things are worse now than during the Plagues in Europe, or the slavery era in Africa or the famines in Ireland, or the nuclear bombing of Japan. Like many times in the past, it’s a time of great crisis and a time of great promise. When people sound the death-knell of life on the planet, I can’t help recall the predictions of total collapse on Y2K which so many leftists embraced with thinly veiled glee. I called it the Millenialist Bug. Whether you’re a religious or secular apocalyptic, it’s comforting to believe that it’s out of our hands, that the world is about to have its way with us and all we can do is try to ensure we’re standing on the right side when the end comes.

I don’t believe it. People are going to suffer, people are going to be forced to move, but, sadly, that’s been the case many many times in human history. Climate change is how the first people ended up on this continent, right?

Does that mean we don’t try to reduce carbon emissions, lessen our footprint, and all that? No, of course not. But it means that we recognize that usually, political changes come about as adaptations to new geophysical conditions, not the other way around. So I propose that we look at the new geographic and demographic conditions taking shape, and try to imagine what adaptations to those conditions might look like. And that might suggest political paths that are with the tide rather than against it.

So one of the new geographic conditions is that an increasing number of people have national identities which are not tied to the place where they live. Combined with that is the rise of transnational identities, some of which are religious, some cultural and others related to other social classifications. This shift in primary identity creates a lot of anger and nervousness in people who have grown up believing (because it’s been drilled into them) that loyalty to the nation we live in is the highest value that there is. And that translates into reactionary social policy not only in places like Arizona, but also in places like Iran, where openly gay people are considered “West toxified,” in Switzerland, where mosques are being banned, in Cambodia, where feminist activists are imprisoned, in France, where schoolgirls are forbidden to wear hijab, and in Sudan, where women are flogged for wearing pants.

I think one big historical shift we’re on the verge of is the disappearance of national borders. Or they might exist as more or less fictional boundaries, like in much of Europe now – something that determines which soccer team you root for (or whether you call it soccer or football) but doesn’t have too much to do with where you can live or work. And to the extent that is true, it’s sure to be scary to people who have never had a passport.

What are people afraid of, that makes them seek policies like the Arizona laws calling for profiling of immigrants and banning accented English? In its most distilled form, they are afraid that these “newcomers” (many of whom are hardly new, but that’s not here nor there – what they stand for is new) are going to force them out of their homes. And that’s something we should be able to empathize with, even while we reject both their analysis and their solutions.

So while boycotting Arizona, blockading their borders, marching against their policies, ostracizing their sports teams are all legitimate and satisfying responses to hate legislation, we also have to look at those opinion polls saying that 58% of people in the country support those policies. And while the accuracy of opinion polls can be questioned, that number is probably not off by that much. That raises a few interesting points. One is that if we don’t figure out how to calm those fears, we are soon going to be boycotting nearly every state in the country, including our own, which is hard to do. Another is that given the demographics of the country, some of the people who support anti-immigrant legislation are immigrants themselves, and many more are the children of recent immigrants. Which means that much-heralded date in 2024 when people of color become the majority in this country cannot be counted on to produce a more compassionate society.

If indeed, borders are about to become more fluid, then it doesn’t make sense to continue promoting statist solutions to social problems. So one thing the left needs to do is let go of our attachment to the state and start envisioning forms of social organization that can remain constant while the population around them is ever in flux. Another thing we need to confront is how to create a sense of security in a rootless world. For that we can certainly look to immigrant and migrant communities, who have shown remarkable abilities to replicate the institutions of “home” often in a series of new locations.

I am the last person to suggest that we should make common cause with the Tea Parties or the Minutemen. But what I do suggest is that we are as nostalgically attached to the salvation offered by the state as they are to that of the nation. And possibly, if we can find a way past our own nostalgia, we might discover a way past theirs.

I wrote the above yesterday, after thinking about it for the last several weeks. Then this afternoon, I heard Peter Ward, author of The Flooded Earth, on the radio predicting that borders will be erased because of flooding. He also suggested that countries will respond by using nuclear weapons to safeguard their borders. If, however, we look at what happened to Europe, when the Berlin Wall came down, it seems more likely that the surge of refugees across borders will result in new regional forms of units of government. But certainly, it is on us to lay the historical groundwork for the latter, rather than the former.