Monday, December 9, 2013

It Isn't Nice to Block the Buses

Last Friday, the litigation group at the law firm I work for held its annual bash at a restaurant in the Marina.  It’s a very fun event where the associates present skits and videos making fun of the partners, made funnier by a fair amount of alcohol consumption.  Since the restaurant was several miles from the office, they chartered a bus for staff – attorneys had to get there on their own.

This was my first time on one of the huge white buses everyone calls “Google buses,” although in fact, lots of companies use them to transport their employees to and from work.  The wi-fi equipped buses (no one said anything to us about wi-fi, incidentally) have become one of the most visible symbols of the rapid gentrification that is destroying the cultural and economic diversity of San Francisco.  I told one of my coworkers that getting on it reminded me eerily of riding settler buses in Palestine, which I tried not to do, but occasionally it was the only affordable way to get from Tel Aviv or Petakh Tikvah to the village where I lived in the West Bank.

This morning, a bunch of people I know were involved in blocking a Google bus at 24th and Valencia, in the heart of the Mission District.  The Mission has been one of the areas hardest hit by recent gentrification.  Once predominantly Latino/a, the Mission has experienced waves of gentrification beginning with artists and queers in the seventies, drawn by the cheap rents and eclectic culture, and vastly accelerated during the first tech boom in the nineties.  According to the Cesar Chavez Institute at San Francisco State, “On Valencia Street, 50 percent of the businesses that existed in 1990, mostly local operations that catered to the low-income Latino community were gone by 1998. Rental evictions tripled, and owner move-in evictions quadrupled in just two years.”  Today, the Mission teems with white hipsters.  Every time I go to Valencia Street, I see a couple new upscale restaurants, many replacing bookstores and bodegas that have been there for decades.  Every long-term business I know of on that strip has been threatened by skyrocketing rents.

The blockade of the Google bus highlighted a few issues.  One, the displacement being fueled by the influx of techies with lots of money to throw around, driving up rents and housing prices by offering cash up front over the asking price, motivating developers to use whatever dirty tricks they can to get rid of long-term tenants or owners.  And two, and more directly, the fact that the companies which attract skilled workers partly based on their proximity to chic and lively San Francisco choose to invest in private transportation for their employees, rather than contributing to better public services for everyone.  At the same time, their buses hog city bus stops and tear up the roads.  Trust me, during the two strikes by Bay Area Rapid Transit, I considered jumping on one of the buses I saw picking up workers downtown – only problem was, I didn’t know where they were going.

The highly organized protesters surrounded the bus carrying signs proclaiming, “Warning:  Illegal Use of Public Infrastructure,” “Two Tier System” and “San Francisco, not for sale”.  It attracted a ton of coverage not only from local media but also from national and even international outfits including a pretty good piece from Reuters, and coverage in Slate, Salon, Huffington Post and even China Daily.  Yahoo and Bing had it up top, but I didn’t see it on Google.

Someone got off the bus and yelled at the protesters that “This is a city for the right people who can afford it. You can’t afford it? You can leave. I’m sorry, get a better job.” The video of that confrontation went viral and probably helped to generate some of the media frenzy, before someone at the Bay Guardian realized that the “Google employee” in the video was actually well-known labor organizer Max Alper.   

This led to another frenzy of coverage, some negative, calling the theater piece a “hoax” and some surprisingly positive, like the Wall Street Journal’s observation that, “However false, Alper’s stagecraft touched a nerve in San Francisco, where some longtime residents say wealth from technology companies is pushing up housing costs and altering neighborhoods.”

On Facebook, the discussions were heated, thoughtful and mixed.  Many people felt that the controversy over the staged video distracted from the issue of gentrification, while others felt it enhanced it.  Some people said the performance was too understated and should have been readily identifiable as theater.  Several activists I respect a lot thought it unnecessarily alienated the Google workers, who are not the source of the problem and might have been sympathetic, by painting them all as hostile and clueless.  Others said they immediately knew it was fake because no Google employee would be that polite.

In later media coverage, Max said that he had just been there to support the action and decided to stage the confrontation on his own.  One of the organizers, Deepa Varma, a lawyer with the group Eviction Free San Francisco, condemned it in the press, saying, “‘We didn’t know that was going to happen and it’s too bad because the point was really to connect the housing crisis to the tech industry.”  

If it’s true that the organizers didn’t know about something that became a focal point for the media, that’s unfortunate, and it’s a learning experience.  My guess is that at least some of the organizers did know – there were a number of groups involved in the action, and it may be that the communication between the groups left something to be desired.  I’ve definitely been part of actions where some of us did things that others weren’t that comfortable with, and it’s generally been a matter of unclear agreements.

As an outsider, I feel like the invisible theater unquestionably strengthened the action.  It exponentially increased the attention to the action, both in social media and mainstream press.  I have been on the receiving end of that kind of upstagemanship and I can empathize with frustration that people may be feeling who did the grunt work to make the action happen – made the signs, fliers, wrote press releases, all that good stuff.  But without them, Max’s theater never would have happened.  In terms of more substantive critiques, no one said that all Google employees feel the way his fictitious one did.  But I can absolutely attest that every single thing he said has been said to me, in all seriousness, and not only by tech workers or people new to San Francisco.  Calling the workers names or yelling at them that they were single-handedly responsible for gentrification would not be useful, but as far as I know, no one did that.

Did any of the Google workers respond to Max’s outburst?  Argue with him, tell him to shut up, get back on the bus and wait?  Did any of them tweet, “Good for the protesters bringing attention to need for public transportation?”  Not that I heard about.  The media mainly quoted someone named Adelle, whose handle is @FashionistaLab, tweeting, “it’s not nice to hijack ppl on their way to work!”  Which makes me want to sing Malvina Reynolds (“It isn’t nice to block the doorway …”)

If any of the workers were sympathetic to the protest, great.  This video is not going to stop them.  Maybe next time they hear someone say those things in earnest, they will call it out.  Maybe they’ll get involved with the Housing Rights Committee or pressure Google to spend money on public transportation for San Francisco instead of free wi-fi in the parks, which is only going to benefit the people with laptops or tablets to use it.

To all the activists, whatever their roles, I say, “Bravo!” (and count me in next time).

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Syria: The Next Nicaragua? (Activist Triumphs the World Forgot)

Going to war is habit for Americans.  Essentially, we’ve done it every twenty to forty years since we became a country, but really, if you count the wars waged against all the different Native American communities throughout the lands and especially if you count the quashing of slave revolts, the first 100 years of the United States was a time of more or less constant war.  And since the Civil War, rather than getting less warlike, we’ve actually gotten bloodier and bloodier.  For all the talk of peace dividends and the end of the Cold War in the nineties, Clinton bombed or invaded 12 countries during his eight years.

It's not very surprising that the US public doesn’t have much faith in the prospects of antiwar movements.  Our record of stopping wars before they started is pretty dismal, and only two have been noticeably shortened by the presence of a grassroots antiwar movement – the Mexican War and Vietnam.

That makes what has happened in the last two weeks pretty remarkable.

Last Saturday, the San Francisco Chronicle’s lead afternoon story was “Possible US-led attack on Syria sparks rallies.”  The article, from the Associated Press wire, covered demonstrations of 100 people in Houston, 200 in Boston and Los Angeles, two dozen in Arkansas and 40 in Chicago.  The 15 or so in Oakland didn’t make the cut.

Today’s paper contains this news: 
“More than 30 protesters gathered Saturday outside the federal building in Lincoln to oppose possible U.S. military action in Syria.  The Lincoln Journal Star reports that among the crowd was 32-year-old Haidar Kazem, holding a Syrian flag and a sign aimed at throngs of Nebraska football fans that read "Go Big Red, No 'Little' War.”
Excuse me, 30?  Need I detail the demonstrations of hundreds or thousands I’ve attended that have been completely ignored by the press?  Remember when the New York Times justified not covering Occupy Wall Street by saying there were only a few hundred people involved?  The baffling fact that the demonstration in San Francisco today, which drew at least 1500 people, didn’t get a mention does not lessen the marvel that the mainstream media seems to be beating the bushes for antiwar activity to report on. 

Even more extraordinary is that Obama and his team, who appeared all set a week ago to go it alone, despite being rebuffed by the British Parliament, suddenly backed off.  CBS News mentioned the US public’s 20% support of an attack as one factor in that decision.  Another was that 140 Congresspeople, led by the East Bay’s own Barbara Lee, signed a letter demanding a say.  It’s easy for us here, and I’m certainly one of them, to assume that we just vote for Lee to make ourselves feel good, that she and other progressives in Congress don’t have any real power.  Indeed, it usually seems that way, but lo and behold, one of the most out-there members of Congress set something in motion that – at least momentarily -- stopped the war machine in its tracks.

Obama has backed himself into a corner, because on one hand he drew a red line, so his ego and all that are at stake, but on the other he made this big speech about democracy and letting Congress decide, so if he can’t get Congress on board, then he will look bad if he does it.  Which makes a call to your Congressperson a little less futile than usual.

Obama and the media have told us we’re “war-weary,” and that’s kind of nervy.  Afghans are war-weary.  Iraqis, Pakistanis, Yemenis, the guys still stuck in Guantanamo.  Except for the troops themselves – who are actually speaking out against a new war themselves -- and the very small percentage of people who have a family member in the military, we have no right to be “war-weary.”  Weary of what exactly?  We don’t even hear about the wars most days.

Nonetheless, it seems like even the media folks who couldn’t wait to attack Iraq, while they are not challenging patently false assertions like the 1400 dead in the chemical weapons attack that the US officials are hammering like a drumbeat (the Syrian Human Rights Observatory puts it at 502), are saying, “Enough already.”  It seems like our taste for blood may be waning slightly.  And that’s a good thing.

A study released last week purports to find that “the absence of a strong and visible anti-war movement, the way there was during the George W. Bush Presidency” is due to the desertion of Democrats following the election of Obama.  Now the authors’ data documenting a decline in participation by identified Democrats seems solid, but I dispute that there was a “strong and visible” peace movement during the period of the Bush presidency they’re looking at, which starts in 2007.  My recollection is that our ability to pull out more than a few hundred people plummeted in the six months after March 19, 2003, and that by 2006 the antiwar movement was more or less dormant.  I credit the decline much more to the perception that demonstrating just doesn’t do any good – that when millions out in the street couldn’t stop the Iraq war, the balloon essentially popped.

Now is a good time to blow it up again.  It actually turns out that the record of movements for stopping wars in recent times is not quite as poor as we think.  Historian Lew Rockwell reminds us that 
“Popular pressure against U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua [in the 1980s] not only blocked the dispatch of U.S. combat troops, but led to congressional action (i.e., the Boland amendment) cutting off U.S. government funding for the U.S. surrogates, the contras.”
Rockwell further points out that during the consumerist eighties, the dead period following the activist sixties and seventies, “the Nuclear Freeze campaign … organized the largest political demonstration up to that time in U.S. history, and drew the support of more than 70 percent of the public. In Europe, much the same thing occurred, and in the fall of 1983 some five million people turned out for demonstrations against the planned deployment of intermediate range nuclear missiles. Reagan was stunned.”  Rockwell posits that this led Reagan to pull back from Cold War rhetoric and seek an arms control agreement.   

I was part of those movements in the eighties and I never before thought about how successful we were.  When people talk about successful social movements, they don’t talk about Central America.  That’s partly because for many of us, our goal was an end to US imperialism, if not social revolution at home, and we didn’t get that.  It’s also because the media never credited us; they continued to make fun of us as a throwback to the sixties.

But we did do it, and we can do it again.  Today.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Only Thing We Have to Fear

Remember when we had nothing to fear but “fear itself”?

Okay, that was an effort to stop a run on banks, maybe not intended to express a broad social outlook.  Nonetheless, it conveys an important proposition:  the role of government is to calm the public, convince us that everything is under control.  It suggests something I learned in civics class long ago – that a democratic government derives power from trust rather than fear.

We live in a very different time.  The role of government, for quite some time, has been to create a climate of fear.  Rather than keeping people calm, our government exists to fan the flames of fear – fear of the threat from Outside, fear of one another, and fear of government reprisal if we step out of line.  In fact, it doesn’t much matter which we are more afraid of – Them or The Others, as long as we are sufficiently afraid.

The fact that we are a fear-based society creates a paradox for those who are trying to alert us to the menace of government overreach:  their revelations may end up helping the institutions they are trying to bring down.

Laura Poitras, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange are willing to spend their lives in exile, burying every keystroke on their computers in layers of encryption.  Laura Poitras, in an extraordinary interview with Peter Maass, says she avoids using a cell phone and spends a day cleaning or securing her electronics before she travels.  For the work she does, that makes sense.  For many of us, it doesn’t.

I predict that the revelations will lead to a heightened security culture in movements, and in my opinion, that’s part of what the government wants.  Some activists, especially young ones, in my experience, like the idea of being involved in something dangerous.  It makes activist drudge work feel exciting and important, and knowing the security culture – whether it’s PGP (Pretty Good Privacy, a no-doubt-passé encryption software) or Guy Fawkes masks – is like a secret handshake.
But for those of us who are stopping by meetings or actions between our paid job and our volunteer job, our first paid job and our second, or our paid job and putting the kids to bed, it adds a level of complication we don’t have time for.  I barely – as lots of you know – get around to answering emails from friends and family.  I certainly don’t have hours every day to spend downloading, updating and learning to use encryption software.  I don’t want to dismantle my cell phone at a meeting to plan a public demonstration or a banner drop.  I think masks at demonstrations make us look shady and scary.  And the Guy Fawkes thing is just creepy.

For my coworker, who tends to be paranoid anyway, the exposure of the NSA’s spying program convinced him that if he signs an online petition he’ll go to prison.  He’s an extreme case, but it’s not hard to convince ordinary Americans that the cost of political activism is too high.

The NSA and their ilk don’t care if I don’t join a demonstration because I don’t want to encrypt my computer, you don’t join because you don’t like the people telling you to encrypt your computer, Debbie doesn’t join because the people encrypting their computers suspect her of being a government agent, and Tom doesn’t join because he’s afraid the government will put him in prison.  As long as we all stay home, they’re happy.  If enough of us don’t, that’s when they get busy using their security culture to turn our security culture against us.  I’m not going to go into how that happens – I’ve written about it plenty and so have many others.  It happened with Occupy.  It happened with the“Anti-Globalization” movement of the early 2000s.  It happened with ELF and ALF and you can bet it’s happening somewhere now.

I’m not saying whistleblowers shouldn’t keep blowing the whistle.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t keep listening to what they have to say.  I’m just saying we have to figure out how to absorb it and keep moving forward.  The fact is that all the prodigious spying that Homeland Security AND the Wall Street banks engaged in didn’t prevent Occupy Wall Street from pulling off huge disruptive actions.  All across the country, people planned actions, including major port shutdowns, in General Assemblies in public parks, and no one was sent to Guantanamo.  (In one infamous infiltration case, police involvement led to the charges being dismissed against Texas activists.)  For all their sophisticated spying equipment, the government was no match for the people, and it never is when we believe in ourselves.

What it was able to do, as so often in the past, was use fear of counterintelligence to drive wedges between activists.  In Oakland, core organizers assaulted each other in public, and a media collective branded a Palestinian activist a terrorist.  COINTELPRO?  We’ll never know, but if so, security culture didn’t help us – and Occupy Oakland was a hotbed of security culture.

For activists, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Listening to Black America

I have been wanting to write something since the Zimmerman verdict came down.  Wanting to write about why these cycles of extrajudicial killing and judicial legitimization keep happening, why the national "we" (as opposed to most of you) keep being shocked by them, why we keep demanding "justice" through the criminal courts while knowing that those courts exist to perpetuate injustice.  Mostly wanting to write about how it can possibly be that a majority of whites (nearly 60%, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll) believe that we have achieved a "color-blind" society - or more precisely, that "America is a nation where people are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

I've been wanting to write about the protest movements that so predictably rise up around these killings and how and why they fail to demand or deliver real change.  About what it will take for the whole country to become North Carolina, with its "Moral Mondays" -- weekly civil disobedience actions by a multiracial coalition at the state Capitol.

But when I sit down, I put my hands on the keyboard and nothing comes out.  I finally realized, my hands might be telling me that this is a good time for well-intentioned white people to shut up and listen to what Black people are saying.

Here are two of my favorite things I've read in the last couple weeks.  I would love to see yours.
The eerie intersection of Trayvon Martin and Fruitvale Station
By Wesley Morris on July 25, 2013
The collective reaction to the Zimmerman verdict is striking. These protests and demonstrations aren't directed solely at another race, at white people (black people know Zimmerman is also half-Peruvian and that the president is half-white). The outrage is directed at a system that's demonstrably harmful to non-white people. It's the institutions and all they've wrought that people are sick of. We don't yet live in the world the Supreme Court thought we did when it struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act and weakened the case for affirmative action. More than ever, we live in a time of racism without racists, just racist laws, racist policies, and racist ideas.
This is how the writing on Mad Men can be so sagacious and imaginative about life in America for one set of characters and so casually insulting for another — not because its mastermind, Matthew Weiner, is a racist but because auteurist television is capacious and permissive enough to subscribe to the institutions of racism, the racism you sense, the racism you breathe, the racism that makes you turn to your friend and say, "That just happened, right?" There is n-word racism. Then there are the lingering, toxic particles that centuries of n-word racism leave in the air. We all breathe them, but we don't always like to talk about it. So it is heresy to mention that, say, the strategic use of Planet of the Apes in the same Mad Men episode that featured Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination might itself be heretical. It's still hard to talk about negative depictions of race in culture without comments sections and Twitter feeds turning infernal. We're breathing the same air, and yet we're not.
Perceptively, the president picked up on the central frustration with the calls for a national conversation. Lots of people want to talk, but fewer want to listen. This is also how it has always been at the movies and on a lot of television. Hollywood tells the world what life is like for black Americans without black Americans being able to say what life is like for themselves....
Read the rest 

Who Will March for Marissa Alexander?

By Marissa Jackson
I, too, stewed and brewed in the immediate wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal. I worried a lot, as I always have, about my two burly black younger brothers, knowing that their prestigious college degrees and multicultural groups of friends will not save them should some vigilante feel intimidated by their existence and decide to shoot them to death. I worry about my husband, who speaks mostly French and recently arrived in the United States from a country where blackness is the norm--what would happen to him if he were stopped and frisked? Would he know how to behave, or would he freak out, unintentionally committing suicide-by-cop? But I also felt in my stomach a deep grief for black womanhood, and a jealousy of sorts, that our oppressions will never mean as much as those of our brothers. I felt absolutely browbeaten over the sobering reality that if Trayvon Martin’s life meant nothing, than the lives of my sister and I mean less than nothing--even to members of my own community.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Revolution Will Not Be Hacked

It used to be that every time I went to a meeting to figure out some action we could take to raise awareness about something or other, there would come what I called the “helicopter moment.”  That was the moment when someone said, “It would be really great if we could charter a helicopter and” … parachute onto the field of the Super Bowl – land in front of City Hall during the mayoral inauguration – drop the ashes of people dead from AIDS …. 

It was a flight of fancy, an expression of the wish we all shared that we could somehow break out of the mold of ritualistic protest people have gotten so good at ignoring.  But I would always get irritated because people would spent more than a minute talking as if we could actually get a helicopter, and if we could, that we could actually do what we imagined with it.  I was irritated because it distracted people from the discussion at hand, but also because it pointed up how difficult it is to interrupt the dominant conversation.

I was also irritated because you can get three, maybe four people in a helicopter, and there were generally at least ten of us in the meeting.  The helicopter idea is that a few people with a grand gesture can make change, the modern version of Deus ex Machina, the ancient Greek method of quickly wrapping up a play by having the gods come in and fix everything.  What we needed was not the helicopter ex machina, but the Movement ex machina, and that’s even harder to accomplish.  If we could have gotten everyone on Market Street to form a helicopter with their bodies, that might have been something worth doing.

About fifteen years ago, the helicopter moment morphed into the hacker moment.  Brainstorm long enough, and someone will say, “We should change their [the Corporation, the FBI, the Army, …] website so it says …”  Or we dream of changing those electronic signs that run across the screen in BART stations (oh, how thrilled I am that I’ll be seeing those signs again, now that the BART strike is temporarily over) so the people looking up to see when their train is coming see “Support the Guantanamo Hunger Strikers” or whatever.

I still roll my eyes when those conversations start because one, we don’t know any hackers.  The conversation will go on and on about what we’re going to do with their websites, and ultimately we are going to have to come back to the discussion of what we can really do and it’s not going to look as glamorous. 

And two, if we did know hackers, we would go to them and say, “We want you to do this,” and then what?  It wouldn’t be our action, it would be theirs.  We would be replacing the joy of collective power with the smugness of being in the know.  The goal would obviously not be to get the people who saw the message to join us – how could they? but simply to admire our (or actually our hacker friends’) skill and boldness.  It’s the ultimate transformation of political action into a spectator sport.

That’s why Anonymous, which started out hacking BART’s website to protest a killing by BART police a few years ago, started calling demonstrations.  And in fact, the demonstrations – which were not attended by that many people, actually – had a much bigger impact than the hacks.  BART overreacted by shutting down train service and – gasp – even shut down cell phone access during the protests, which sparked more international outrage than the killing did.

We’re currently in a prolonged national hacker moment.  It started with Wikileaks and Bradley Manning, now it’s Edward Snowden.  These are brave and smart guys, and for sure, they have provoked discussion about issues like secrecy, surveillance and the legitimacy of whistleblowing, maybe even about targeting civilians and mistreatment of prisoners, though I haven’t heard nearly as much of that.  Manning has certainly inspired activism here – the Bradley Manning contingent in the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade was the biggest queer antimilitarist action we’ve had in decades.  Julian Assange has rallied support in Europe, and no doubt Snowden will too wherever he lands.

The problem is not these guys and what they’ve done but the mythic stature being accorded to people who are in a very rarified position.  The fascination with Edward Snowden’s mad dash across the world is understandable, but ultimately feeds the idea that only a few people with inside information have the ability to change anything, and the role of the rest of us is to cheer for them and wait for their next revelations.  Young men like Snowden and Manning, whose quest for heroism led them to join the military and the security apparatus in the first place, now find heroism in bold acts of martyrdom.  They become celebrities in a society already obsessed with celebrities.

I have been re-reading Emma Goldman's autobiography, Living My Life.  After spending a year in prison for “inciting to riot,” in 1893-94, Goldman found on her release that she had become a celebrity.  She writes, “I knew of the American craze for celebrities, especially the American woman’s hunt for anyone in the limelight, be it prize-fighter, baseball-player, matinee idol, wife-killer, or decrepit European aristocrat….Every day brought stacks of invitations to luncheons and dinners.”

Movements have always used celebrities, but they are not built by celebrities.  What these young people, sadly, are missing is the experience of the movement AS THE CELEBRITY, of seeing that we, who have no unique skills or information, can make a splash simply by combining all of our ordinary talents and information. Look at the Egyptian people, out in the streets again.  Most of us don't know one of their names, but we sure know the name Tahrir Square.

Snowden himself said, “the Obama administration is not afraid of whistleblowers like me, Bradley Manning or Thomas Drake. We are stateless, imprisoned, or powerless. No, the Obama administration is afraid of you. It is afraid of an informed, angry public demanding the constitutional government it was promised — and it should be.”

That’s a lovely sentiment, and it’s probably more or less true.  Yet it casually combines two words that do not, in our era, go together.  An “informed” public is not necessarily an “angry” public.  Today, in fact, the more “informed” people are the more resigned they become.  I've heard outrage in the press over the revelation about "PRISM" and the NSA's commandeering of phone records, but I haven't seen any expressions of public anger.  In the wake of Snowden’s revelations, the pundits pun, the bloggers blog, but where are the activists?

Waiting for the next installment of “Where in the world is Edward Snowden”?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bradley Manning, Not the Pride Committee, Embodies Spirit of Stonewall

In the spring of 2004, I got an email from an acquaintance asking if I wanted to be nominated for LGBT Pride parade grand marshal.  I was surprised, because I never thought of myself as grand marshal material. In point of fact, I've never been very much in tune with "marshals" - grand or otherwise.  "Marshal" sounds too much like "martial" for my taste, and the marshals at demonstrations are always telling me to stand inside the yellow line or something.

But I agreed because, first of all, I understood that it wasn't about me, it was a way of spotlighting the work of queer folks in support of Palestinian liberation, and more broadly, of anti-assimilationist queers opposing U.S. militarism in all its manifestations.  And second, I assumed I wouldn't win.  I was already back in Palestine when I got the notification that I'd been elected.  I ended up concluding that I couldn't afford to come back for the parade, but before I did, the mayor cancelled a scheduled reception at City Hall, apparently in fear of what I might do.

The Parade Committee came in for plenty of abuse for honoring a "terrorist" but they basically shrugged it off.  It didn't hurt them at all.  What it did do was make a lot of people who had been feeling less and less included in the mainstream queer community feel a little more connected.

Unfortunately, the rampant militarism and dissent-squashing of the last ten years has not spared our community. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the Parade Committee Board had voted to rescind the election of Bradley Manning as honorary grand marshal.

Manning recently admitted to leaking documents to Wikileaks including the "collateral murder" video showing an air assault on Iraqi civilians by a US helicopter crew.  The Parade co-chair cited a contention that Manning's actions had jeopardized American soldiers, which has never been proven.  We all know that the only way to protect US soldiers is to get them out of Afghanistan and all the other places where they commit atrocities like the ones Manning revealed.

Bradley Manning is openly gay and was bullied in the Army because of that.  As I discussed in a previous post, his sexual orientation and gender fluidity were exploited by the persecution and for a long time unacknowledged by his supporters, most of whom are straight.  For the last two years, though, there have been Free Bradley Manning contingents in the SFLGBT Freedom Day Parade, as well as in other Pride parades around the world.
I wrote the following letter to the Pride Committee and urge all of you, especially if you're queer, write your own (eek! looking at their website I just realized a friend of mine is board vice president now!). Send it to them at, and feel free to call them as well at (415) 864-0831.

Dear Pride Committee,

As a former Community Grand Marshal, I am outraged that you have nullified the vote of the Electoral College to name military whistleblower Bradley Manning as an honorary grand marshal.

When I was elected in 2004, in recognition of my work in Palestine, there were plenty in the community who criticized the Pride Committee for that choice. I was really proud of the way that then-Executive Director Teddy Witherington stood up to those critics. He was no supporter of my politics, and I had been deeply critical of his efforts to commercialize and restrict the Pride celebration. But he wasn’t standing up for me or my politics. What he eloquently defended was the democracy of the process and the diversity of our community. He recognized that while I might not represent his ideals, I did represent those of many queer people, who had a right to be heard and honor whom they chose.

Your cowardly decision to cave in to pressure from militaristic and authoritarian forces betrays this legacy. It betrays the best in queer history, from Harry Hay to Harvey Milk to Stephen Funk, who were all anti-war activists. It betrays the very history that the LGBT Liberation Day Parade commemorates. The Stonewall Rebellion was made by gay people who fought back against injustice, not those who acquiesced and followed orders.

The modern queer liberation movement was inspired by the civil rights movement, the feminist movement and the movement to end the Vietnam War. Bradley Manning acted in the tradition of the soldiers who revealed the atrocities at My Lai and the sexual harassment at the Tailhook Symposium.

The queer community should be – and is – proud to claim him as a symbol of our continuing struggle for all liberation.
You have no right to silence our dissent and rob us of our place in Pride.

Please reinstate Bradley Manning as a honorary grand marshal.


Kate Raphael

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Gay Marriage, or why I hate the equals sign

We need to ask ourselves why same-sex marriage is building support, even among conservative Republicans, at the same time that:
  • Tennessee is about to punish poor kids who don’t do well in school by starving them.  
  • 16-year-old Kimani Gray has become the latest symbol of the non-stop assassination of young people of color by police
  • 41 states have introduced 180 laws to restrict voting rights in the last two years.  A majority of African Americans in Michigan are living under unelected leadership appointed by their governor through emergency powers.
  • William Bratton, who brought “Stop and Frisk” to New York and Los Angeles, is on the march in Oakland.  Bratton says that cities who don’t use stop and frisk are “doomed.”  In New York, over 85% of those stopped and frisked were Black or Latino, and over 90% were not breaking any laws.
  •  At least 41 of the prisoners in indefinite detention in Guantanamo are on hunger strike; some advocates say it’s more than 100.  Ten of them are being force-fed, in violation of international law.  Most of them were cleared for release years ago.  The military is refusing to give press access to the hunger strikers.
  • Obama and Kerry are poised to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, despite the major spill when a pipeline broke in Arkansas last week.

Street art from a few years ago - some things never get stale
Whatever else it is or isn’t, the marriage rights movement is not the “new civil rights movement.”  Civil rights are for everyone.  Marriage is about broadening the class of people eligible for certain privileges, most having to do with who gets your stuff when you die, and how much they get taxed for it.  Every possible benefit of marriage – health care? immigration? could be more effectively established by demanding genuine equality for everyone.

The marriage cases are also not comparable to Loving v. Virginia.  Loving decriminalized relationships between whites and non-whites.  It was more analogous to Hardwick v. Georgia than Hollingsworth v. Perry.

I don’t have anything against people getting married – hey, I’m going to a gay wedding later this month.  But what does it mean to demand equality in a country that is so fundamentally unequal?  Once you have your equality, what are you going to do with it?  Buckle down to abolish the prison state and raise the minimum wage?  Fight for teacher unions and against high-stakes testing?  Don't you see that they're just trying to buy off those of us they think are acceptable, to recruit us into the war against people who aren't? 

The Human Rights Campaign just had to apologize to one of the speakers at the rally on the Supreme Court steps last week.  Just before Jerssay Arredondo went on stage, a staff person told him not to say he was Undocumented, because it would "hurt their image" and "distract from the issue."  Might want to take that equal sign off your facebook profiles.

My friend Elana says:  “Sometimes there's a neon sign: if this is the result of your actions, you better rethink those actions.

Come on, my queer people – start rethinking!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Anti-Feminist Mystique?

I think I must be the worst feminist journalist/blogger in the world, or at least the country.

It’s tempting to pretend that I was just too cool to write about 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique’s publication, but the truth is I had no idea.  I somehow managed to get left off the list for review copies of the reissued volume, no one invited me to be on a panel on its impact, and goddess knows my friends weren’t talking about it.

In fact, the date might have slipped by me altogether if I hadn’t bought a Kindle last week and celebrated by spending even more money on a subscription to the New York Times.  So yesterday, on my way to work, I read an article by Janet Maslin reflecting on the book’s impact, and it had links to a piece that had appeared a couple days earlier and that referred to another piece – you get the picture.

Everyone, it seems, was celebrating this momentous day except for contemporary feminist activists.  Amitai Etzioni diaried (is that a word? Why not if “diarist” is?) about it on The Daily Kos.  Historian Peter Dreier wrote about it on The Huffington Post and Truth Out.  New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Gail Collins, who wrote the introduction to the 50th Anniversary edition, hosted a video round table and gave an interview to The Atlantic.  (The Atlantic, incidentally, has had no less than six articles about the book in the last few months, most by men and fairly uncharitable).  Third-wave feminist Kathleen Parker wrote a snotty “Who needs it?” column in The Washington Post.

So what’s left to say?  Not too much except that:

(1) A surprising number of the major pieces were written by men, and many of the ones by women – especially the hostile ones  – mainly quote men;

(2) Nearly all the comments on the aforementioned video debate – which is highly entertaining and I recommend it – are by irate men who clearly have not read the book but think they know what it says;

(3) It’s amazing how much outrage the book still provokes – again, mostly by people who never read it, as Stephanie Coontz documented in her book A Strange Stirring; and

(4) People are, as always, quick to condemn prominent feminists where they would be more forgiving of almost any other icon who was but a product of her time.

I only saw Friedan in the flesh once.  She came to speak at my college.  All the feminists on campus were there.  A Black woman – that’s how they identified then -- got up and asked a question, I don’t remember exactly what it was but basically she was taking Friedan to task for ignoring the specific oppressions of women of color and poor women.  Friedan reacted like a skunk whose tail had been stepped on.   

“Don’t make me the enemy,” she screamed. 

 The woman she was screaming at, a friend of mine, ran out of the room in tears, followed by other Black women who gathered around her.  I and some of their other white friends followed.

“That’s why we’re not in the movement,” I heard one Black woman say to the woman who’d been the target of Friedan’s venom.

I was so humiliated.  I couldn’t believe she’d done that – this woman that we all looked up to.  It was just a terrible day all the way around.  It was doubly shocking because obviously that wasn’t the first time Friedan had been challenged on racism.  It’s kind of like how angry Bill Clinton used to get when feminists criticized his policies or his mediocre record on appointing women to high positions.  You always think that years of being publicly criticized would make people grow a tougher skin – or maybe even be able to listen and hear what people are saying.

Given that experience, it’s surprising that I feel like defending Friedan now.  Or maybe it’s not.  Maybe I’m remembering times when I didn’t behave well in public.  Or maybe I’m thinking ahead to a time when something I did or said that seemed groundbreaking is going to seem antiquated and even counterrevolutionary.

Either way, it’s hard not to scream when I read something like Ashley Fetters’ “4 Big Problems with The Feminine Mystique,” in The Atlantic.  Fetters begins with “It’s racist. And it’s classist.” (quoting the estimable bell hooks for the specifics) but quickly moves on to quote biographer Daniel Horowitz to support the claim that, “It’s founded on a lie.” The lie in question is Friedan’s choice to deny her past as a union organizer and “radical leftist” (Horowtiz’s phrase).  So are we supposed to disrespect Friedan because she was concerned about working class women, or because she wasn’t?  Or are we just supposed to disrespect her -- because?

(Because I know how very interested you are in the minutiae of my life, let me just mention that this is the first blog post I've been able to do completely from home, having finally gotten my place wired on Saturday.  It's fabulous.)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

16-Year-Old Protester Killed as Bahrain Uprising Turns 2

It's hard to believe that a year ago, I was in Bahrain. I haven't had time or strength to write anything about that, but wanted to share this update from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. It's so sad that one year later, people are still being killed by the regime in their freedom struggle. Yet inspiring that they continue to rise unabated. When people say, "Well, no wonder the Occupy/Decolonize movement died down, look at how violently it was repressed," I can't help thinking of the Bahrainis. According to the NYT blog, at least 88 people have been killed since the beginning of the uprising two years ago today. Bahrain's population is roughly equivalent to that of the city of San Francisco. What if 88 Occupy protesters had been killed? And our government continues to arm to Bahraini monarchy.

All I can say to my Bahraini friends is, I continue to be amazed and inspired by you all.



February 14 Summary
of an

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights Releases below a summary report of the first major day of protests to mark the second anniversary of the pro-democracy movement. At the time of writing, major protests are still ongoing through the night in Bahrain. European arms are assisting in the brutal repression that already claimed the life of one young, unarmed and peaceful protester today.


Date: 14 February 2013

(Bahrain) – The human rights situation is rapidly deteriorating in Bahrain on the second anniversary of the pro-democracy movement. Security forces in full riot gear have swarmed the streets with armored vehicles and helicopters; many streets are filled with tear gas. The government’s response has been, throughout the day, wildly out of proportion to the largely peaceful demonstrations.

Since the earliest hours of the day around dawn, protesters took to the streets in large numbers, groups of hundreds gathered in all parts of the country, the vast majority of which were peaceful. Protesters have established roadblocks of their own to prevent riot police from driving at high speed into the villages. The security forces used consistently excessive and disproportionate force against protesters across Bahrain throughout the day.


Photo: Hussain Al-Jazeeri photos

Due to the culture of impunity being practiced by Bahrain authorities and the continued use of excessive force, a 16 year-old protester, Hussain Ali Al-Jazeeri, died this morning as a result of a close-range direct hit from a police officer’s shotgun to his abdominal area which led to sever lung injury & pneumothorax. He was shot while he was peacefully protesting in the area of Daih. There is no evidence that AlJaziri was representing any kind of threat to the policeman who fired on him and killed him. Al-Jazeeri died in the ambulance before reaching the hospital. This video shows the medic who was trying to rescue Al-Jaziri in the ambulance ( ). The Bahraini riot police continue to use the birdshots against the peaceful protests in Bahrain even after 2 years, during which dozens were killed with shotgun, including the first man who was killed on Feb 14, 2011, Ali Mushiama.

Photo : Above : Shotgun Injuries, Below: Extensive use of Teargas

Dozens of injuries were documented today, including tear gas suffocation, shotgun pellet injuries, fractures and bruises. The number of shotgun pellets injuries have rapidly increased today. Many of those injuries were in vital areas of the body including the face and chest.

Photo : A protestor getting arrested.

The Bahrain authorities arbitrarily arrested a number of peaceful protesters during the day. In an attempt to prevent information on human rights abuses from spreading; agency photojournalists Mazen Mahdi (DPA), Hassan Jamali (FP) and Mohammed Al-Shaikh (AP) were arrested this morning while they were covering the protests despite the fact that they have valid ID; they were released several hours later without any explanation of why they were arrested.

Due to the fact that there are many protests organized during the night and in the coming days, the BCHR fears that the escalation of the violations will continue. The security forces continued the widespread use of pellet shotguns, despite the fatality that occurred this morning.

The birdshot canisters, which were found on site where AlJaziri was killed today, are from Cyprus Victory Starlight cartridges. In other areas, Italian manufactured weapon (Benelli M4 Super 90 shotgun) and German-owned South African Tear Gas canisters were spotted as being used against protesters.

The BCHR also calls on the United States, the United Kingdom, the UN and all other allies and international institutions to put pressure on the Government of Bahrain to stop its use of excessive force in response to the continued peaceful protests, and to consider a meaningful solution to resolve the persistent political issues of instability in the country.

The BCHR calls on the European Governments and other ally Governments to Bahrain to stop supplying the government of Bahrain with arms that are used against peaceful protesters, which cause severe injury and death among them.

Read more in BCHR two-year anniversary report:

Deaths and Detentions:
Documenting Human Rights Abuses During the Pro-Democracy Movement in Bahrain