During the Occpy Wall Street, groups of activists organized a spaced called the people’s library. Thousands of books and magazine were organized to be available for free to whomever wanted to come to the encampment and find literature and radical scholarship that could help them make sense of Occupy or the issues behind the movement. The People’s Liberary inspired dozens of other projects in across the country where local activists tried to make books and other media available as part of collctive liberation efforts When the encampment in Zucotti park was finally demolished by the police, most of those books were confiscated and ended up in the landfill.
We recently sat down to talk to someone who is working in Albuquerque New Mexico to build a project with similar goals and aspirations. Fiadh is an activist who has created the The People’s Library of ABQ. She has been an anarchist organizer in many different spaces for a while now, but within the last year decided to create a lending library of radical books and zines. The People’s Library ABQ describes itself as “a community project of leftist theory anarchist history and radial education. We have books about queer, feminist, antiracist theory, indigenous resistance, transformative justice, philosophy and revolutionary thought”
We sat down with Fiah to discuss her inspirations for the project and to learn how it works, and how she would like it to grow in order to offer works that inspire the radical imagination to a broader audience.
You can watch the full interview at our YouTube channel:
What’s striking about Democratic proposals for police reform, aside from the awful optics provided by Pelosi and Schumer (best forgotten), is that proposals that would have seemed to most people pretty bold and forward looking a few weeks are already being met by charges that they don’t go far enough (they don’t). But the “obviousness” of this awareness shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Instead we should recognize a real win for all the folks involved in the protests – a shift in mass consciousness so that now the real conversation isn’t about whether chokeholds should be legal (duh, no), but what “defining the police means,” what that would like in action, what new resources and types of “first responders would take the place of police,” etc.
There’s a new spirit of possibility in the air, new worlds being not just imagined, but discussed, and to this we owe the protestors – the kids on the ground – a world of gratitude.
I’ve seen too many posts implying that opening up the economy/getting back to work is simply an effort to boost the profits of the rich. Invariably, these posts come from folks on “the left.”
I won’t debate the truth in that claim, but if this is all that gets posted, seen, shared, communicated, then no wonder that many folks who don’t have the relative “luxury” of working from home, who are weighing the differences between food, housing, medicine, etc, get turned off. For many people, the need/desire to get back to work is about survival, and probably on another level, about self respect. We ignore this at our own peril.
Certainly, there are important questions that we should be asking about what is and should be normal, and I know many people, also on the “left” who are asking those questions and really doing the work.
Let’s not obscure that and push people to the right with a meme or post that’s too glib by half.
Some thirty years ago, Cesar Chavez staged his last major hunger fast. This fast went on for thirty-six days. In his statement issued at the end, Chavez said he had begun the fast because he had to do penance; he was ashamed of himself. For all his years as an organizer, he said he had not truly comprehended the pain and suffering of farmworkers due to exposure to pesticides. He felt he had not done enough to make people aware of the immensity of the problem.
So after his debilitating ordeal, Chavez went on to speak to numerous audiences across the country, repeating the stories of farmworker children, such as Johnnie Rodriguez, who died after a two year battle with cancer; or of Felipe Franco, who was born without arms and legs to a farmworker mother who had been showered with toxic chemicals in the field. Most importantly, he wanted people to realize that, to the extent to which we all rely on pesticides and cheap farm labor to provide our food, we are also responsible for the suffering of children like Johnnie and Felipe and thus have a responsibility to prevent more pain. Chavez wrote in his statement:
“The misery that pesticides bring will not be ended by more studies or hearings. The solution is not to be had from those in power because it is they who have allowed this deadly crisis to grow. The answer lies with me and you. It is for all of us to do more. We will demonstrate by what we do and not by what we say our solidarity with the weak and afflicted. I pray to God that this fast will encourage a multitude of simple deeds by men and women who feel the suffering and yearn with us for a better world. Together, all things are possible.”
I was thinking about Chavez’s words as I read about the two trillion dollar stimulus package passed by Congress to boost the US economy and provide relief for unemployed workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. As James Harrington–an organizer who worked with Chavez—points out, there are about 4 million undocumented workers, many of them farmworkers, who are not eligible for cash relief. And there are close to another 30 million poor people who are not eligible because they have not filed income taxes recently. Many of these people are likely to work in service or hospitality industries that have had to cut back or close down. Its not clear we are sheltering the most vulnerable among us with this package, but we are certainly propping up some of the biggest industries, with almost $500 billion in loans for airlines and manufacturers.
But I think the realization that made me most understand Chavez’s need for penance was thinking about the shelter-in-place regulations going on in many hard hit states. My social media is filled with funny memes and videos about people going stir crazy at home or dealing with their children. Yet, there are millions of working class people who can’t share in this humor because their work is considered essential: grocery store and pharmacy clerks, postal and special delivery drivers, truck drivers, sanitation workers, water and electric utility workers, and of course, public health workers in hospitals. They have to show up so the rest can work from home. Many of them are starting to realize that they are at a greater risk of exposure and have not received from their employers training to protect themselves, or hazard pay, or even masks and gloves. Some of them are starting to strike now, at Amazon and Whole Foods and other retailers, to improve these dangerous conditions. But I can’t get over the feeling that my well-being, and that of millions of other middle class people, depends on the labor of many people who were probably already struggling paycheck to paycheck to get by.
Of course, Chavez didn’t wallow in guilt and self-pity—his realization of the farmworker’s suffering was a call for him to think strategically and to act. First, he came to understand that the use of pesticides was the result of large agribusiness looking to make a quick profit rather than protect the health of workers: “The wrath of grapes is a plague born of selfish men that is indiscriminately and undeniably poisoning us all.”
It is undoubtedly the case that Covid-19 is a plague born of selfish men. Our top leaders in Washington last week were discussing the need to relax quarantine restrictions lest the economy suffer more damage—weighing human lives less than profit making. But more poignantly, we’ve seen how profit motives in New York City have shut down hospitals and, thus, reduced the overall hospital bed capacity over the last twenty years. The most blatant case of selfish greed is that of the large US manufacturer of ventilators, Covidien. In 2014, Covidien swallowed up a competing smaller corporation that had a contract with the US government to build thousands of newly designed and relatively inexpensive ventilators. Covidien then pulled the plug on the contract, saying it was not profitable to make the ventilators, even though the Centers for Disease Control were hoping to stockpile them for future emergencies.
So as Chavez said: “the solution is not to be had from those in power.” I’ve been so impressed to read of all the different mutual aid project erupting across the country in which people are stepping up to collect food and other goods for vulnerable people in their own communities. They are creating thick networks of assistance and developing skills for more organizers.
But more will have to be done. It’s said that physical distancing could become a regular occurrence, not only in dealing with a resurgence of Covid-19, but with other viruses that are expected to become pandemics in the future. We are going to have to yearn and dream for what we will need in a better society. If this experience teaches us anything, it is that we need a much more accessible and equitable public health care system, and better social welfare services, than the US currently offers.
This radical imagining means confronting both political parties that have but profit before people and the corporations that fuel political ambition. However, this is precisely the strategy Chavez envisioned. In an essay written in 1970, he said:
“The attacks on the status quo will come not because we hate but because we know America can construct a humane society for all of its citizens—and that if it does not, there will be chaos…The power class and the middle class haven’t done anything that one can truly be proud of, aside from building machines and rockets. It’s amazing how people can get so excited about a rocket to the moon and not give a damn about smog, oil leaks, the devastation of the environment with pesticides, hunger, disease. When the poor share some of the power that the affluent now monopolize, we will give a damn.”
Looking around for articles that highlighted speculative fiction responses to pandemics, I ran across this piece from Alan Yuhas from a few years ago. Yuhas mentions some obvious things such as Camus’s The Plague and The Walking Dead, etc, but what I found most interesting was a mention of Italian Renaissance writer Boccaccio and his story collection the Decameron:
“Going back to the pop culture of the Renaissance, Boccaccio’s Decameron tells the story of 10 young people who flee the Black Death to the country, where they tell each other funny stories, dirty jokes and the 14th century equivalent of romantic comedies. After a horrifying, surreal introduction that describes the remnants of Florence in the throes of the plague, Boccaccio tells stories of people who, rather than fixate on death or turn on each other, form a little society that celebrates what’s good in life. He reminds us, as do the heroes of The Plague and 28 Days Later, of a lesson that’s too easily forgotten: life lurches on, and we should keep trying to lurch with it.”
Boccaccio wrote these stories in the early 1350s after the plague of Florence that wiped out about half the population. What Yuhas’s description neglects to mention that the Decameron is actually a piece of utopian literature. Massimo Riva uncovers a bit of this in a recent interview when the Decameron was starting to spike in popularity at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdowns:
Beyond the obvious similarities of the book’s protagonists escaping to a villa and Americans holing up in their homes, what themes should contemporary readers look for when reading Boccaccio’s text today?
I would point to the ethical dilemma the ten young protagonists face in their decision to (temporarily) abandon the city. This decision can be interpreted in two different and somewhat opposite ways: as an escape from the common destiny of those who can afford a luxurious shelter (similar to the doomsday bunkers that very rich people build for themselves today); and as the utopian desire to rebuild together a better, more ethical and harmoniously natural way of life, out of the ruins of the old world.
The Decameron is not only utopian in the way it describes these young people setting up a new social arrangement in the midst of their quarantine; but the stories they tell each other are–in addition to stories of pleasure, romanticism, and so on– tales that criticize the Church and the moral hypocrisy of feudal leaders. In a sense, the Decameron is a series of reflections on the collapse of the feudal order and a celebration the rise of the bourgeosie in Italy. Of course, the utopia being celebrated in the Decameron is now the one on the brink of collapse (and hardly turned out to be a utopia for many millions of human beings). But there is a bigger lesson here.
What this should remind us is that moments like this Covid-19 pandemic are occasions for us to engage in some radical imagining about the limits of the old social order and for new skills, habits, perspectives, and forms of solidarity. These old utopian stories should warn us that going back to normal after shocks like this is not possible, or even desirable.
So how do we now gather to tell these necessary stories for the building of more collectively liberatory society?
The problem with individualism is this: eventually, you have to go to sleep and that is when they will shoot you in the head. See Fred Hampton for a historical example of that.
I have friends that are far-left individualists, kente cloth capitalists, and others who don’t have labels, who say they are ready for the revolution. They are ready, because they have guns and they have gone to the shooting range and they have practiced.
When they talk this way I typically stare. I stare not because I am anti-violence, I stare, because I have read The Art of War by Sun Tzu, The Prince by Machiavelli , On War by Clausewitz (I read SOME of that one)…in any uprise of violence at this current time, the left will lose. It will lose badly.
The Far Right (which includes present-day Republicans) has more people, more discipline, and more weapons.
In an armed fight, disabled people will die, older people will die, children will die, and those who hesitate will die.
90% of the fraction of the people the left has who has the stomach to kill, will die, and that means all us will have to move, die, or be locked up.
You know I am not an alarmist. You also understand that I have been great at deducing future actions by observing present and past actions.
So my point is that what we need to do, instead of preparing for a battle, is to organize for peaceful political change. We need cooperatives up and running, so when the fire sale of the United States is over we have examples of a better way, instead of hoping the wealthy’s robots won’t enslave us for our universal basic income.
I guarantee we will lose in a violent battle. Accelerationism theory is only going to work well for those with an escape hatch: a passport, a trust fund, and a Ph.D. or other credential that allows a person to wax poetically in the ivory tower in another imperialist country after this one has burned to the ground.
We need to work together. We need to cooperate. Being reactionary is not going to be helpful. We need more time, this is not about stating that what we have is OK, or repairing what is not broken, because the system is not broken, it is working as it is supposed to. This is about giving us more time, because I don’t want us to die or even worse — be forced to live in what I fear is coming.
As part of our third installment of the This is What Democracy Looks Like: A Genealogy of Movements film series, we are going to view “American Autumn”.
We will be in Milam Hall 318 on the Oregon State Campus at 6pm.
This is a grassroots documentary looking at the early days of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It illustrates the ways in which Occupy tried to connect the dots between so many different structural injustices. As Ronnie Schieb notes in this Variety review:
“Thus, in addition to airing grievances directed against banks and Wall Street by activists, professors, marchers, singers and comedians, the docu takes aim at student debt, covering marches protesting the skyrocketing cost of education; sits in on protestors seeking to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that increased the power of moneyed interests in elections; and interviews those involved in environmental protection and climate-control issues. The docu includes footage of an anti-foreclosure group, the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending, as it interrupts the auction of a foreclosed home.”
Looking back at the Declaration of the New York General Assembly, its easy to see how the movement began by critiquing the undue influence of corporate money in the US political system, and the cascade of problems that follow the money trail:
“As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.”
Many people look back, almost 10 years later, and wonder if any of this noise made any difference. The cynical among my students, for instance, think it was a failure. I often have to remind them that there was a massive repression against Occupy, coordinated on a nation wide basis, just a few months in. Someone in power thought this was a threat.
But its also clear that so much of our political space today would not be as possible without the openings in the radical imagination created by Occupy: issues like student debt, minimum wage to living wage increases, houselessness, and the interest in democratic socialism represented by Bernie Sanders and AOC.
“But today, Occupy Wall Street no longer looks like such a failure. In the long run, Occupy invigorated ideas and people that influence today’s American left and Democratic politics.Occupy was in many, many ways a shit show,” Nicole Carty, a Brooklyn activist who was a facilitator at Occupy, told me. “But it deserves props, it really does, for unleashing this energy.”
Last year I said, “If not Bernie then Warren.” Her campaign is finished, even if she tries to limp on to South Carolina. I am sad to see her go, but a fourth-place finish means it’s over for her. Biden is finished as well but will stick around until Super Tuesday.
Now watch as the “Never Bernie” elites come out in force and in desperation. They will try to herd voters behind Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and then Bloomberg. In effect, they are telling Democratic voters to beat Trump you need to nominate uninspiring, mendacious, vindictive candidates.
I’m not saying Bernie can beat Trump, but I argue he has a better chance than these tools and representatives of the ruling class. Bernie inspires people. He inspires young people, Latinos, the working class. He is the only one left who can draw working-class white men away from Trump and into the Democratic fold.
If you think that Bernie being a socialist will hurt him, do you really imagine Trump won’t use that against whoever might be the nominee, including Bloomberg? In his case, it will be a steady stream of explicit/veiled anti-semitism of Bloomberg being a globalist and part of an internationalist conspiracy to rob Americans of their guns and freedom. Or how about Buttigieg who is completely unvetted and untested and has a new scandal coming out about his past statements and actions every day. Or Klobuchar, who is about as inspiring as her salad comb.
When Trump says Bernie is coming for you, all he needs to say is that’s right, “I am coming to give you all healthcare and take away all your medical debt.”
In 2016, I said the Left needed to unite behind Clinton because Trump was such a danger. Now liberals need to unite behind Bernie. He’s the only logical choice going forward.
Throughout history, anti-semitism has been used by ruling classes to culturally position Jews to be seen as “above” other oppressed and exploited people, to be seen as the ones really pulling the strings. For Jews as a concept and actual people, to then be targets of other working class and poor people’s anger and resentment.
Ruling classes have promoted and used anti-semitic conspiracy theories of power, to obscure who actually has power and how power operates systemically – systems can be resisted through popular movements, conspiracy theories fracture the energy that could be put into resistance, into a thousand mazes.
Trump and other white supremacists champion the state of Israel not out of solidarity or respect for Jewish people, but for what the military power of Israel can do to advance U.S. empire’s interests against Palestinian, Muslim and most Jewish people – all of whom are subhuman in the eyes of the white supremacists.
The executive order of Trump to equate Jews as a nationality and Israel their state, is not to protect a single Jewish life. Only ask “why are the right wing racist forces of Trump and others. more concerned about non-violent campus-based movements for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel’s apartheid system against Palestinians, then they are about white supremacist attacks on synagogues around the country by people in their own ranks?”
Trump does not love Jewish people. Trump does not oppose actual violent anti-semitism. Trump and other white supremacist want to practice the strategy of anti-semitism, by weaponizing Jewish identity to attack the Left, pit Jews against other oppressed and exploited people, and use Jewish lives as shields to cover their continued consolidation of power.
We must fight anti-semitism, be in solidarity with and look to leadership of Jewish people and organizations fighting this executive order – and remember that Israel does not equate to Jewish people, the international movement for Palestinian self-determination is a human rights effort, not anti-semitism.
We have a responsibility to remember the long history and current reality of Left Jewish leadership – from the anarchist and socialist labor movement to the Civil Rights and anti-war movements to going to jail today in mass civil disobedience against ICE concentration camps under the banner “Never Again”, to remember, as Trump and the white supremacists want to erase Jewish culture and history and equate being a Jew as being a defender of apartheid in Israel and therefore useful scapegoats and pawns that serve the racist rights agenda.
We grow more powerful, more powerful then we ever imagined, every moment and every day we refuse their divide and conquer strategy and embrace and build cultures of vibrant solidarity and work for collective liberation.
Bloomberg apologizes for “stop and frisk;” Kamala Harris backs away from her record as a prosecutor; Cory Booker voices regret for heavy handed police tactics in Newark; Biden attempts to blabber his way out of accountability for his role in passing the “crime bill.”
It is a big deal that these candidates feel compelled to define themselves in relation to mass incarceration and police terror.
This is a huge victory for Black Lives Matter, the protestors who marched in city after city, and everyone who spoke out (and speaks out) against state terror. They forced the issue onto the agenda and the world is an immensely better place for it.
The faction of the left focused on punching nazis will miss this, but it is a gigantic affirmation of what radical movements and people of conscience can do.
How can we talk with people in our lives during the holidays about our values? How can we challenge the ways that systems of oppression show up during the holidays with family and longtime friends, while also inviting people into liberation values and culture? How can we practice deep love for our people, stay humble about our own learning journey (past, present and future), and work to build the progressive racial, economic and gender justice majority throughout our lives?
I was asked to lead a workshop on having conversations with their families over the holidays about oppression and liberation. A workshop for social justice-oriented people from around the country who work in progressive religious institutions.
We started off identifying what feelings come up thinking about this. People shared out: anxiety, fear, pain, anger, sadness, nervous, as well as excitement for the opportunities. Most people shared that there’s a combination of homophobia, transphobia and racism in their families, families of color and white families.
We then identified where we felt these feelings in our bodies. In our gut, shoulders, throat, chest, sweaty palms, fast heartbeat, people shared. We took time to get grounded in our bodies and breathe together. To notice the places where we feel tight, constricted, nervous, and breathe into our bodies and into those places. To let our bodies relax and open, as part of opening up to possibilities for how we can engage.
Many agreed that it felt like they consistently played the role of the “uptight, radical killjoy” as familiar dynamics played themselves out, year after year. Many also shared that they enter these spaces on edge, and on guard and that dynamics of racism, homophobia, and transphobia usually begin with someone making comments and jokes that they then respond to, and that it rarely goes well – meaning, the social justice person is brushed off as being too uptight, too sensitive, and they end of feeling marginalized in their family.
We stepped back and I asked how many of us think about all of this in relationship to the most extreme reactionary person in our families and friend circles? Nearly everyone said yes.
Just as we tend to do this in our personal lives, we also tend to do this in our justice work throughout society. And, while we need to confront and engage the reactionaries, we are also working to build social justice/Left power. It’s important to remember there are many people in our families, friends and communities. While focusing on the most reactionary, the most racist, the most homophobic, and putting most of our energy on engaging them – we’re often not paying attention to others in our family and community who may be closer to us politically, who may be more open to what we’re saying, who may be on the sidelines but could be brought forward into these conversations if we engage them – meaning both sharing and listening.
This could be one-on-one conversations, or with people you feel close to in other ways and want to open up to them about values and parts of yourself that you haven’t shared yet. This could be asking people what they think about x, y and z. And often this is about listening to what other people are sharing, listening to their heart, and exploring what’s interesting and exciting or what they’re challenged by and struggling with. Making connections through music, movies, sports, and culture. Showing that you respect and care about others by engaging them on what they care about too. And then sharing what’s important to you, as much as possible in ways that are inviting people in. Talking about our values proactively – something we experienced that both expresses our values and that we’re excited about. Generally, in our families and with our friends, people care about us, and so sharing something proactively when asked “how have you been or what are you up to” is a way for people to know us deeper and hear about our work and values in positive ways.
And when we do engage with the most racist, homophobic, reactionary people in our families, it’s critical to remember that it is also the people around the conversation who we are also speaking to. For others in our family to see someone speak out, for the reactionary comments to not go unchallenged in ways that can signal unity and agreement.
My Mom didn’t change my Grandfather’s mind when she said his homophobia and racism were wrong, but it changed my life as a five, seven, ten year old kid, and positively impacted the lives of others in our family, none of whom spoke in those dinnertime discussions.
Just as we want to build a progressive majority in the country, we want to move people in our lives forward for collective liberation – for their and our healing, for more positive/justice-rooted culture in our families and communities, and for winning the structural, cultural, political, economic changes we are committed to and working for.
Sometimes in my family it was long debates about politics, about racism, about homophobia. Sometimes it was making social justice values clear and then rather then continue the debate about immigration, asking people who rarely spoke to share about what’s going on with them and asking people what they thought, when I knew they were more progressively aligned, but could use the encouragement and support to share their thoughts.
I also realized that while I was focused on being right, I often missed opportunities to listen more deeply and with more compassion. I realized that I was turning my rage for systems of oppression against people in my life who were expressing conscious or unconscious alignment with those systems. But I had to ground myself in historical and systemic understanding that systems of oppression are working everyday to get out people, our families, our communities, to internalize their worldview, values, and vocabulary as common sense. And that while we need to find ways to challenge that common sense, to also remember that supremacy systems use racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, as ways for people to make sense of their pain, embody their pain and express their pain. The more I asked questions and opened my heart to the pain underneath, the more I connected with people who I felt distance to, and the more I grew as a liberation organizer, working to move people, build a progressive majority and keep my eyes on the prize. The prize of winning social justice policy and legislation. Of winning social justice elected leaders. Of winning and advancing a racial, economic, and gender justice progressive agenda – economically, politically and culturally.
In the workshop we reflected on questions to help move us get grounded and be more effective:
How do you want to engage people in your families? Who? How? What are your goals for having these conversations with your families (biological and chosen)?
How do you want to feel afterwards? What impact do you want to have? What would success look like, feel like?
Think of a time when someone has said something to you about oppression that raised your consciousness and moved you forward for liberation. What did they say? What insights can you draw for conversations you want to have?
What can help you be grounded and in your power when talking with your families (biological and chosen)?
With love for our families and communities, with rage for supremacy systems, let’s keep building, practicing, growing, listening, and feeling whole in who we are. For our families, friends and communities, let’s get free!