Twenty years ago today Nov. 30th, I was part of the Direct Action Network that successfully shut down the World Trade Center summit that was negotiating global capitalism in the interests of ruling classes and crushing human rights and dignity around the world.
Joining together with unions and people’s justice movements from around the world and activists from throughout the U.S. and feeling our collective power, beyond anything I thought possible, changed my life.
Seeing tens of thousands of people in the streets, with many of us in highly organized affinity groups, working together in clusters to take effective direct action and practice self-governance was incredible.
Seeing thousands of people get trained in non-violent direct axion in the months and days leading up to the multiple day direct action, helped me see the possibilities for movement-based educational workshops.
Feeling the energy of coordinated, high impact, mass direct action, as I walked with my affinity group in the pre-dawn mist of Seattle going to the intersection we were responsible for occupying.
Feeling the incredible energy of victory as word spread through the communications teams the we had successfully shut down the WTO, that anarchist and socialist anti-capitalists were making world news and changing the story, that another world is possible.
There was a “this changes everything” energy about what was possible for our movements.
So grateful for everyone who brought their leadership to make all of that happen, and to those sharing about their experiences today to help us draw our lessons and insights for our work today.
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!
As most of you know, as a young man I worked for President Salvador Allende as a translator so I could literally write a book on this month’s dramatic developments ( I already wrote one on Chile https://amzn.to/376G5Hn ). But I’ll keep this relatively short. In any case, this Al Jazeera piece is an excellent primer for beginners.
“Chile Has Awakened” is one of the slogans resounding in the streets this past month. For 40 plus years Chileans have been inundated with government propaganda, from Pinochet and then by his civilian successors, that Chile was special, that it was an oasis, that it was a miracle, that it was a global model, and so on and so on. Chileans have tired of the BS as their average salary is stuck at around $100 a week while the prices rival those of the U.S. The outcome: the most unequal economy among developed countries!
In 1980, dictator Pinochet imposed an abortion of a “constitution” that restricts many civil rights (like collective bargaining) and other anti-democratic measures. After Pinochet was forced from power a succession of “center-left” administrations tinkered with the constitution and, worse, accepted their roles as managers of an economic system forced on Chileans at the point of bayonets covered in blood.
The current administration led by right wing billionaire Sebastian Piñera (his second time in power), as expected, conducted no reforms. Ironic it is that the military-written constitution just died as it should have two decades ago during the first post-Pinochet civilian government — one that lacked the cojones to make the changes. I suspect that Piñera will also be forced to reform some of the more odious aspects of the economic model, probably in the area of education, pensions and labor law — all of them currently horrific for the average person.
Why will these changes be made under a right wing regime? Simple. Millions of Chileans escalated protests over metro fares a month ago into something resembling a wholesale uprising topped off by a general strike earlier this week. It’s a civic rebellion that garnered support from a whopping 80 percent of the population.
The ballon had finally burst and on Thursday night, really at 3 am Friday morning, a cross-ideological agreement was reached among the political class to capitulate to protest demands and to green light a two-step constitutional plebiscite and eventual re-write.
That’s a pretty stunning victory and, frankly, the major political parties of the opposition– including an emasculated Socialist Party (of which I was a member)– can claim no credit for this turn of events. The street protests were spontaneous and leaderless but somehow could bring a million people into the streets of Santiago.
There are lessons here for Americans who whine a lot but to whom it has never occurred that street protest and, yes, peaceful disruption and/or civil disobedience are indeed legitimate tools of any citizenry.
If you have followed the Chile story, you also know that not all the protests were peaceful. The initial repression was fierce. Tanks and troops in the streets, and one of Latin America’s most brutal police forces, the Carabiñeros were fully unleashed. Rubber bullets and even live ammo were fired point blank through the tear gas barrages and the cops stooped to targeting the eyes (!) of dozens of protesters. Two dozen people were killed. Hundreds injured. About 7,000 arrested.
The Chileans, especially the youth, fought back. They threw rocks at the cops, built barricades, lit bonfires, and smashed windows. Others took to looting. How amusing it has been to watch more comfortable and conservative Chileans express horror at these outbursts of street violence and called upon the govt to smash the “delinquents.” These are in great part the same sectors who sat silently as Pinochet murdered and tortured thousands and saddled Chile with two generations
of economic aggravation. No violence there, you see.
My point: with enough hard work, organizing and risk taking in the street you can stare down whomever is in power. Chileans know what real dictatorship feels like and they lost their fear a long time ago. When one “democratic” admin after another punted on deep reform needed and so many dreams were deferred, they awoke and vigorously took their destiny into their own hands. And they have won an important political and social victory. They did it in spite of a supposedly democratic political class, not with it.
Americans ought to try the same one day. They might be surprised by what they could accomplish.
The Haidmaid’s Tale television series producer Warren Littlefield says that Offred’s story “presents a chilling vision into an increasingly likely potential future.”
I suggest that this insistence on relevance is more indicative of a desire to *be* predictive, to believe that media like The Handmaid’s Tale can tell us something about the world and where it is headed—that order is possible. We want prediction. The more uncanny The Handmaid’s Tale seems, the easier it is to believe a television show will help us out of this mess. That it conveniently inoculates viewers from responsibility for the atrocities it references is part of its intense appeal.
The prophecy is parochial: it is for Americans, but only some Americans. It is about localized fear, not about heightening awareness about suffering around the world. It’s about how totalitarianism may come home to roost—not about the ways that Americans may have ignored it or allowed it to take root elsewhere. It’s about how painful it would *be* to become enslaved, not about the legacy of American slavery and its impact on people living right now. It’s about white guilt, but unattractively translated into a kind of performative ritual of vicarious suffering, made all the easier for being sanitized within the screen and only enacted in the safety of clumsily crafted red dresses that signal an incomplete kind of “wokeness.” It’s the “me” generation seeing the only way to process guilt as a spectacle of re-enactment without responsibility for owning the original cause or ongoing pain of the actual victims right around us.
The kind of thrill that Atwood and her crew experience when they see the show as “predictive” or “realistic” is that they have successfully translated some of the pain so many are experiencing in the world today into a more palatable format that exchanges responsibility for trauma into performed victimization and requires, as a result, only “resistance” without any of the complexities of shared blame.
The Stephen Miller emails bring up some important issues that I see often in strategic discussions of anti-fascist politics.
That is, I often see people debating whether traditional fascists or overt white nationalists represent the “real” danger, or whether they are a vanguardist fringe full of FBI informants, while the really dangerous white supremacists are those in the corridors of power making policy as liberals and conservatives.
The problem is that white nationalist ideologies pull from much more every day racism, and they are enabled by the kind of color blind white supremacy that also wants to pretend that White Nationalism is a phantom that doesn’t matter.
Miller’s emails include making recommendations from VDARE, American Renaissance, and “Camp of the Saints” and advocating a return to the 1924 immigration act. They show that open, organized white nationalism has come to the center of US power through Trumpism. These are emails he sent an open white nationalist in 2015 and 2016 while he was an aid to Jeff Sessions, former Attorney General of the U.S. Now he is writing presidential speeches and writing US immigration policy.
It is not a figure of speech, or hyperbole for emphasis to talk about Miller as a white nationalist.
I’m grateful that the first time I heard of “OK, Boomer” and was responded to with “OK, Boomer”, I was having a friendly and beautiful debate with a 13 year old member of the Democratic Socialists of America, about socialist electoral strategy. I said “Yes, we want Bernie Sanders to win the primary,” and then we debated with me saying “We have a responsibility as socialists to defeat Trump and work to elect whoever wins the Dem primary, while fighting for who we want, Bernie and/or Warren”.
It was awesome to have a brilliant, passionate 13 year old socialist, the son of friends of mine, tell me “OK, Boomer” in a debate about socialism and social change.
My inner 15 year old anarchist, smiled and said, “You use to say the same thing.”
My 46 year old self said, “Thank god for our capacity to evolve our politics and strategy, and thank god for radical youth pushing for us all to stay grounded in vision and militant action, as well as developmental strategy of what is as we work for what can be.”
Note: I know I’m not a boomer. I’m a hardcore Gen Xer who worked for years as a video store clerk and was part of building up the Gen X anarchist Left. But for some in Gen Z, me and anyone over 25 can be called a Boomer. And with the dismissive attitude of a teenager – it’s a cultural experience!
I’m fine with “Ok Boomer.”
I know it substitutes generation for all other forms of domination in assigning responsibility for a wrecked planet. And I know that it is ageist in a particularly American fashion.
But all slogans and memes are shortcuts by definition. And in any case I don’t read it as signaling, as some people do: a vengeful totem feast by the young.
Maybe it does however (in the exceeding mildness of its phrasing) announce a radical paradigm shift long overdue – that everything that the middle decades of the 20th-century United States thought of as constituting the good life has to be radically re-thought or rejected before it totally destroys us.
Regardless, young people have the right to express their anger, grief, and profound sense of loss for the unimaginable future they face as they figure out how they will do so. In that sense, “Ok, Boomer” as “Get the fuck out of the way” seems entirely appropriate.
During the last few years, it has been a matter of extreme frustration to me that I have been able to do little to prevent our country from “going off the rails.” I saw what was coming four years ago, warned people about it, and had virtually no influence on anybody that didn’t already share my views
In the last few weeks, I have started to make peace with my ineffectiveness as a political actor when it comes to current events. My influence, such as it is, will be manifested over a long period of time, for the most part through the activity of the students I have taught, but also through my writings, my postings on social media, and the data base on Bronx and New York History I have created with my colleagues through the Bronx African American History Project
To explain why I think this way, I want to share two things that took place in the Great Depression that would have their greatest influence over thirty years after they were done
The first was an initiative of the Federal Writers Project, created by the Works Progress Administration, to conduct oral history interviews with more than 2,000 formerly enslaved people who were still alive during the great Depression. These interviews, conducted by scores of young scholars, were placed in the Library of Congress and were neglected for more than twenty years because historians of slavery, overwhelmingly white, only trusted written documents and were only willing to use as source for their accounts of slavery journals and letters of slave owners, newspaper articles, and a small number of published memoirs of former slaves. However, in the late 60’s and early 70’s with the rise of the Black Studies movement, these interviews were not only “discovered” they were transformed into the major source for an explosion of published work on what slavery looked and felt like to its victims. In the process students and the general public were given the first honest portrait of how Black people not only endured demoralizing and dehumanizing treatment, but resisted it in ways small and large.
The second legacy I want to refer to is a Footnote that a Supreme Court Justice, Harlan Stone, placed in a 1938 decision involving federal regulation of milk products. Frightened by the rise of Nazism and of Nazi like and white supremacist movements in the US, Stone suggested, in his now famous Footnote 4 that it was the responsibility of the Federal Jurists, appointed for life, to assume the role of “defender of minorities” as elected officials might well be prone to oppress minorities and deprive them of their rights. For many years, as the nation was preoccupied, first with economic problems and then with war, Stone’s comments attracted little attention. But in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when Civil Rights issues became the focal point of national politics, and in the 1970’s, when Affirmative Action became a hot button issues, federal judges, including judges on the Supreme Court, used Footnote 4 as a rationale for taking an aggressive stance in defending minority rights, especially in the interpretation of the 14th Amendment, that had never before been done in the Court’s history! Harlan Stone’s once neglected Footnote had helped change the course of US History
These two stories, which guide my teaching and my research,give me confidence in speaking out and recording oft neglected voices even if they might not change the world around me. Some day., who knows, historians and activists may see in this legacy a guide to action that with help them change the world they live in.
We are entering into the thick of presidential electoral politics as the Democratic party narrows its contenders to take on Trump. There are pundits looking to see what can be learned about the mid-term elections of 2018 for creating a “Blue Wave,” and others wondering if the impeachment proceedings will lead to electoral turmoil before November 2020.
One of the argument strains going on on center-left circles is, of course, the old binary of reform vs. revolution, and whether the pronouncements of Bernie and AOC amount to “real” socialism, or whether Elizabeth Warren represents a more “measured” reform path compared to Bernie, etc.
A few weeks ago I found this video of Roberto Unger, the social theorist and philosopher at Harvard Law, and former advisor to Lula in Brazil. What was interesting for me was a metaphor that he uses at about 5:30 into the video.
He says one the barriers to radical social change is a legacy of movements that claim that a “revolution” is like the practice of architecture. By this, I think he means that make radical social change you need to first begin with a deep understanding of the conditions and materials you have at hand and build a blueprint for action. Your blueprint determines your endpoint and the strategy to achieve it.
Unger wants to substitute the idea of revolution as something like musical composition. Instead of knowing exactly where you want to go, you move forward by thinking of the progression of notes and how they follow. This doesn’t mean that the same notes need to follow from what has come before, but you ought to see each note as building forward from what came just before it. This doesn’t mean you can’t take radically new directions, but you see that such things happen as following from a progression of steps.
I take it this means that that radical social change can happen incrementally, like notes in a song; and that we shouldn’t get overwhelmed because we can’t imagine what the endpoint should be and don’t have a grand theory to explain how to start the revolution right now.
Is Unger’s music metaphor helpful in thinking about how we might move ahead to think about revolutionary change?