Category Archives: Intersections

Rinku Sen’s Stir It Up #2 — Organizing in Practice

Second post on Stir It Up by Rinku Sen of CTWO (first post here) — this one on the nitty gritty of it all. Which being an academic now I find less exciting than when I was an organizer, though as much or more important than the other stuff I know. Anyway. In Sen’s opinion there has been a real shift in community organizing, and it’s during this shift and in this realm that I came of age really, so this rings true though I am discovering that there is more continuity than I had thought. She describes what she calls the ‘New Community Organizing Practices’, which certainly reflected some of SAJE’s work while I was there I think. Though we maybe took on more ‘winnable’ issues apart from gentrification itself, but no one has beat that yet have they… just held it at bay. Folks like LA CAN and Union de Vecinos have been doing that with might and brilliance for decades now.

In a significant shift in practice, community organizations are increasingly taking up the issues and constituencies mainstream groups refuse to touch. There has been significant innovation in three particular areas. First, groups have begun to organize the most marginalized people rather than those occupying the middle. The organizing of undocumented immigrants, victims of police brutality, and single mothers is indicative of this trend. Second, groups choose issues that enable the organizing of the worst-off, sometimes privileging those concerns over blander issues that might be more winnable. Third, political education has been added to organizing practice. (lxiii)

CHAPTER ONE: NEW REALITIES, INTEGRATED STRATEGIES

So a chapter here on the political and economic realities:

This chapter is about what I consider the central political and economic trends we need to take into account while we do our work. In the United States today, three trends in particular are relevant to every progressive group: the resurgence of conservative movements and the power gained by such movements in the United States since the early 1970s; the character and organization of the new economy, which is distinguished by the rising use of neoliberal policies and contingent workers; and the continued, unyielding role of racism and sexism in the organization of society. (1)

These are the underlying trends that organizing works needs to be tackling. So what needs doing? Another list:

  • Increasing Progressive Organizing, (18)

  • Addressing Core Ideas and Values: The base building, the development of sustained campaigns, and the research and media work are essentially techniques with no specific moral, economic, or political values attached to them; they are meaningless unless we also address the core ideas that shape society. (20)

  • Supporting Large Social Movements: We need to develop a movement orientation to our organizing. (21)

That’s a big one, but at the same time movement isn’t really something you can create — Piven and Cloward talk about this, and I think we all agree. So what is the role of the organizer in the meantime? Aldon Morris talks about Halfway Houses, Myles Horton thought about this in relation to Highlander. I like the below as well:

While we can’t control all the factors that enable a movement to develop, we can build our organizations in such a way as to be ready for movement work when the time is right. Most experienced activists believe that movements emerge from a specific set of conditions—rising expectations among the disenfranchised, a backlash against the status quo, or demographic shifts—in addition to explicit organizing. Being ready requires, in the first place, shifts in our work patterns and attitudes. For example, rather than figuring out how to do everything in one organization, we need to think more about how to create and support complementary organizations that work together to get the job done. Such a division of labor requires a deep understanding of and mutual respect for all the functions necessary to organize people, ideas, and money. (22)

CHAPTER TWO: ORGANIZING NEW CONSTITUENCIES

Organizing can mean a lot of things to different people, I like her simple list of what it is (and why).

By organizing, I mean an effort to build organizations that include at least these five elements:

  • A clear mission and goals
  • A membership and leadership structure, with a way for people to join and take roles
  • Outreach systems that concentrate on those most affected
  • Issue campaigns featuring multiple tactics, including direct action
  • Pursuit of changing institutions rather than individuals

These elements combine to produce power and a shift in how people are treated as a result. (24-25)

I also like this breakdown of the underlying principles, and the impacts these have on the work you do, how you do it, and who can work with you:

Four major principles form the basis of our organizing efforts. First, our organizing strategy, our plan to build or expand a particular constituency, holds implications for the way we structure our organizations. Second, every organization has its own culture, which has to be shaped and refined to make room for the participation of particular groups. Third, we need to match our recruitment methods to the people we want to reach. Fourth, if we use services to attract members, we have to be extra vigilant that service provision doesn’t take over the organizing. (26)

That last one? Hard. We used services around evictions to ensure we still had some members but still. Hard. This, though? It’s all about this:

Organizing is essentially the process of creating politically active constituencies out of people with problems by focusing on their strengths and the solutions embedded in their experience. It is the basic work of progressive social change. (47)

CHAPTER THREE: PICKING THE GOOD FIGHT

Choosing campaigns…breaking down the difference between issues and problems. All organizing manuals talk about this.

Webster’s dictionary defines issue as a conflict between two parties. Organizers distinguish issues from problems. Problems refer to large-scale systems that are too large and vague to help us focus on real changes worth fighting for. Identifying specific issues within large-scale problems helps us define clear conflicts to which our group can propose a resolution. Issues always have at least three elements: a constituency with a grievance, a set of demands that address that grievance, and an institutional target at whom the grievance is directed. If a group cannot identify these three elements with specificity, then it is probably still dealing at the level of problems rather than carving out issues. (48)

I loved the principles, but loved also this acknowledgement about the realities of people’s lives and how they don’t quite fit into easy traditional models to deal with it, and the benefit of wisdom gained over years looking back:

Students of color, women, and lesbian/gay/bi/trans (LGBT) students, arguably the most explicitly marginalized constituencies on their campuses, frequently resisted our characterization of “good” issues. They asserted, quite correctly, that they rarely had the luxury to choose issues. Issues were thrust on them by oppressive institutional policies and practices that forced them into a survival mode. Furthermore, they said, choosing issues creates a hierarchy among oppressions: groups have to make implicit, if not explicit, judgments about which issues are important enough to work on and which are not, who deserves liberation and who does not.

Today, I would suggest that those students create their own criteria for prioritizing issues. While it is true that some attacks must be answered, having clear criteria can help you respond effectively, as well as move beyond defense posture to victories that improve the quality of life. (50)

Some great lists for choosing issues — first from Midwest Organizing Academy and then CTWOs own. Go look at them.

CHAPTER FOUR: READY, SET, ACTION! (79)

There isn’t much new here that isn’t in in Miller’s or Hunter’s books. I do love the reminder though, 5 reasons why direct action is so important:

While the idea of direct action is often scary, using it can provide important benefits. First, direct action can clarify the stakes, presenting our take on an issue in sharp contrast to other proposals or the status quo. This kind of clarification makes it less likely that the interests of our constituency will be negotiated away by people who are not affected—a distinct possibility when liberal policy, research and lobbying groups are deeply involved in a controversial issue, whether it be welfare or immigration. (79-80)

Second, nothing is better than a well-timed confrontation to help targets feel the pressure, which leads to victories that weren’t forthcoming without the action.

Third, direct action demystifies the halls of power for a constituency, and the people occupying those halls start to realize it and treat us with more respect.

Fourth, face-to-face conflict can sometimes help protect the members of a group when they are under attack. The mere process of taking risks together, which direct action requires, helps to build the group’s sense of itself as a group. Actions can also help protect individuals who are having problems with the system by making it clear that they are surrounded by a whole group.

Fifth, direct action offers fun, creative, and effective ways to get your message out. (80)

It is definitely the campaign that makes the action meaningful, and the political education and critical consciousness that needs to be built with it that creates real change.

Still, no matter how successful any individual direct action is, it is meaningless outside of a campaign. Campaigns indicate sustained intervention on a specific issue; they have clear short- and long-term goals, a timeline, creative incremental demands, targets who can meet those demands, and an organizing plan to build a constituency and build internal capacity. Within campaigns, different tactics accomplish different goals. There are tactics for building a base, recruiting allies, educating the larger public, and proving a point, in addition to those that pressure targets. Campaigns require planning and discipline, the ability to think about life in six-month, one-year, or multiyear terms. Many organizations do great actions but cannot sustain a defined campaign that pursues a specific set of demands that fit into their larger vision. (81)

I do like these too, having now participated in numerous protests in this country where not a single damn one of these ever happens, despite my own protests:

There are three important principles in using direct action effectively. First, each action has to have a clear purpose grounded in an irrefutable need and expressed in the action’s specific target and demand. Second, the best actions are heavily choreographed. Third, direct actions are always part of a larger campaign.

This grows long, I just want to capture key points to think about later, to compare to others. So what follows are just the chapter headings and the principles that encapsulate CTWO’s best practices:

CHAPTER FIVE: LEADING THE WAY

There are four key principles of leadership development. First, successful organizations distinguish between leadership identification and deeper development. Second, they formalize their leadership development programs, using popular education methods and grounding development in the daily work of the organization. Third, they pay attention to the race, class, gender, and cultural issues embedded in leadership development. Finally, they actively plan for the renewal and regeneration of leadership, from supporting an individual in avoiding burnout to managing leadership transitions well. (98-99)

CHAPTER SIX: TAKE BACK THE FACTS

There are three basic principles for conducting research for organizing purposes. First, consider the ways in which you can combine your research with outreach and issues development. Second, use human sources rather than paper as much as possible. Third, figure out whether you are better off doing your research internally or creating a partnership with another organization. (118)

Research is close to my heart, and I’ve a stack of things to get through on action research and PAR but I will add a second paragraph:

To use research to work on issues, we have to know where we are in the issue-development process before starting the research. Are we choosing an issue, reframing it, or developing a campaign plan? Choosing an issue requires a research process that determines what the constituency cares about, whether a solution is available, and whether we can craft an issue that meets our criteria. Reframing an issue requires detailed data, sometimes stories but often hard numbers, that dispute or discredit information put out by the other side. Developing a campaign plan requires tactical research—gathering specific information about targets and potential pitfalls embedded in our demands. (121)

CHAPTER SEVEN: UNITED WE STAND

There are four key principles to remember here. First, a group has to distinguish between different forms of collaboration and choose the one that matches its goals and capacities. Second, each partner in a collaboration has to have substantial self-interest and similar politics, although the need for political negotiation is ongoing. Third, organizations need to bring resources into an alliance or network, and those contributions have to be structured to equalize power and credit among the partners. Fourth, these formations work best when one party is responsible for staffing them; long-term alliances and networks require their own staffing and infrastructure. (136)

There is so much more here, I think, about alliance building. Particularly for me, how this is done to scale while still being grassroots led and in a world of scarce resources/lack of time/inability to travel because of immigration status or family commitments or poverty. I think anyone working at a national scale struggles a lot with this, even more so at an international scale.

CHAPTER EIGHT: Speaking Truth to Power

There are five key considerations in expanding organizational media capacity: crafting a strategy that adjusts messages and materials according to the audience; developing sharp, polarizing messages based on shared values; recognizing the importance of designing our own print, radio, and electronic media; understanding the media and building relationships with reporters, including challenging outlets when necessary; and, finally, using people within our own organization as sources. (150)

CHAPTER NINE: EDUCATION FOR ENGAGEMENT

If we are going to engage in political education, we need to keep four principles in mind. First, clarity about the purpose of our political education will help define the approach we take and the questions we ask. Second, we need to avoid dogmatic rhetoric by grounding our political-education work in fact and inquiry. Third, we need to balance education with our primary goal, political organizing. Fourth, varying the medium of education will keep people engaged. Fifth, exploring solutions will help prevent our members from becoming depressed after political-education sessions. (167)

CONCLUSION: Community Organizing—Tomorrow

This is just me being lazy, recapping it all with two copied paragraphs. But I myself need to remember things like this, and it’s hard, so a nice way to end.

There’s a lot to pay attention to: changes in the economy, implications of identity, the connection between local communities and global trends, the tactics of the opposition, as well as how our organizations are shaping themselves. Paying attention is about being self-conscious in the best sense—having a heightened awareness of what’s going on with us and around us. It does not mean knowing everything about everything, but it does mean expanding our notion of what is relevant to our work.

But being aware without a commitment to action divorces us from real life and keeps us from distinguishing what requires our attention from what doesn’t. In this age of rapid information diffusion, that is a dangerous thing. Much of the information coming our way catalogues the horrors of being a regular person, the terrible consequences of the policies that control our lives. Without a commitment to taking action that will improve conditions, we don’t demand the kind of information we need to make changes, and we become paralyzed by what we know. (183)

Action is required.

[Sen, Rinku (2003) Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizin and Advocacy. San Francisco: Chardon Press.

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Origins of Fear…from Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

Cora rarely thought of the boy she had killed. She did not need to defend her actions in the woods that night; no one had the right to call her to account. Terrance Randall provided a model for a mind that could conceive of North Carolina’s new system, but the scale of the violence was hard to settle in her head. Fear drove these people, even more than cotton money. The shadow of the black hand that will return what has been given. It occurred to her one night that she was one of the vengeful monsters they were scared of: She had killed a white boy. She might kill one of them next. And because of that fear, they erected a new scaffolding of oppression on the cruel foundation laid hundreds of years before. That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast. The whites were right to be afraid. One day the system would collapse in blood (206)

Loved this book.

[Whitehead, Colson (2016) The Underground Railroad. London: Fleet.]

Essential Writings from Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke…damn. This collection is so due to be updated (hold on a second, it has been! A new collection, The Winona LaDuke Chronicles, came out this year). Published in 2002 this reader already represents decades of struggle and wisdom, imagine what that must look like now? She is still fighting at Standing Rock, still going strong to defend lands and peoples, still writing and speaking. It is humbling to read these words.

From ‘Building with Reservations’, speaking to architects and educators she described this:

If I were to describe the architecture of my community, I would describe it both as an architecture of poverty and an architecture of what is sacred. … But there is this sorrow–I have to say sorrow–that exists when you are stripped of the cultural integrity of your house, of your architecture, and given something that does not resonate. Sure, it provides a shelter, but as you all know, a house is more than a shelter: it is a home, it is something that reflects you. So that is the architecture of poverty in my community.

And then you have the architecture that is sacred. Next to some of these houses, you’ll see a sweat lodge, or you’ll see a miichwaap, which is like a tepee, but it is used for smoking meat. The most beautiful thing to me is when I consider the fact that a lodge that is used for one of our ceremonies is based on the mirror of a star constellation; it reflects where the poles are located. That, in its essence, is sacred architecture. I think that that is the most beautiful thing in our community. (46-47)

I’m pretty obsessed with with ideas of home, of architecture, I love this redefinition of poverty in architecture which we are in fact seeing in gleaming steel and concrete across all of our cities in the form of luxury apartments built for the global market. So different than pieces of shit HUD homes on the reservation, I don’t mean to compare them in any other sense beyond their bankruptcy of creativity or human feeling.

She talks later on about the importance of culture, the way that in universities it is treated as anthropology and folklore rather than literature and something vibrant and lived. She writes

In my life and in the life of my family, many of us in our community find that those teachings are not about the process of going back, but that’s kind of the mythology that surrounds the view of native people… It’s not about that at all. It’s about recovering that which the Creator gave us as instructions, and then walking that path… (173)

It provides an alternative — not to be appropriated but to be learned from — of systems that value balance and ‘a good life’ over profit. Like this:

There should be beauty in “process,” whether it is harvesting with intelligence, whether it is the use of recycled materials, or whether it is observing energy efficiency. (53)

It is particularly explicit in the essay on ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Environmental Futures’, a term I know has been problematised, but which lays out a different basis and a better source of expertise for our thinking about how we relate to the world around us:

Traditional Ecological knowledge is the culturally and spiritually based way in which indigenous peoples relate to their ecosystems. This knowledge is founded on spiritual-cultural instructions from “time immemorial” and on generations of observation within an ecosystem of continuous residence. I believe that this knowledge also represents the clearest empirically based system for resource management and ecosystem protection in North America, and I will argue that native societies’ knowledge surpasses the scientific and social knowledge of the dominant society in its ability to provide information and a management style for environmental planning.  (78)

It is based around a very different idea of success, of life’s meaning.

“Minobimaatisiiwin,” or the “good life,” is the basic objective of the Anishinaabeg and Cree people who have historically, and to this day, occupied a great portion of the north-central region of the North American continent. An alternative interpretation of the word is “continuous rebirth.” This is how we traditionally understand the world and how indigenous societies have come to live within natural law. Two tenets are essential to this paradigm: cyclical thinking and reciprocal relations and responsibilities to the Earth and creation. Cyclical thinking, common to most indigenous or land-based cultures and value systems, is an understanding that the world (time, and all parts of the natural order-including the moon, the tides, women, lives, seasons, or age) flows in cycles. Within this understanding is a clear sense of birth and rebirth and a knowledge that what one does today will affect one in the future, on the return. A second concept, reciprocal relations, defines responsibilities and ways of relating between humans and the ecosystem. (79)

I don’t know how different, in fact, Minobimaatisiiwin actually is from what most people outside of these traditions would term a fulfilling life, but we have still bowed before money and power as measures of success and as enough justification for any number of terrible things. She describes a very different understanding of development, light years removed from that which now prevails but without question one way, perhaps the only way, to step back from the precipice of ecological disaster:

By its very nature, “development”–or, concomitantly, an “economic system” based on these ascribed Indigenous values-must be decentralized, self-reliant, and very closely based on the carrying capacity of that ecosystem. (80)

And this is, indeed, a very good question:

I believe there is a more substantial question meriting discussion: Can North American society craft the social fabric to secure a traditional management practice, based on consensual understanding and a collective process? (82)

I am taking these out of order here, thinking about how this all connects to our relationship to the earth, that perhaps many of our problems emerge because we have been so divorced from place:

Implicit in the concept of Minobimaatisiiwin is a continuous inhabitation of place, an intimate understanding of the relationship between humans and the ecosystem, and the need to maintain that balance. These values and basic tenets of culture made it possible for the Cree, Ojibway, and many other indigenous peoples to maintain economic, political, religious, and other institutions for generations in a manner that would today be characterized as sustainable.4 (80)

She returns later to this topic:

Native environmental groups have a commitment and tenacity that springs from place. “This is where my grandmother’s and children’s umbilical cords are buried … That is where the great giant lay down to sleep … That is the last place our people stopped in our migration here to this village.” Our relationships to land and water is continuously reaffirmed through prayer, deed, and our way of life. Our identity as human beings is founded on creation stories tying us to the earth, and to a way of being, minobimaatisiiwin, “the good life.” (57-58)

It is not just positionality and the structural oppression faced by indigenous communities, but this connection to place that drives experience, meaning and struggle.

All this to say that Native communities are not in a position to compromise, because who we are is our land, our trees, and our lakes. This is central to our local and collective work. (62)

There is a lot about land in here, and what has destroyed traditional connections to it:

The governance of this land by traditional ecological knowledge has been adversely affected by genocide, colonialism, and subsequent circumstances that need to be considered in the current dialogue on North American resource management, the role of the environmental movement, and indigenous peoples. (82)

She describes the two worldviews at play:

The conflict between two paradigms-industrial thinking and indigenous thinking-becomes central to the North American and, indeed to the worldwide, environmental and economic crisis. … For many indigenous peoples, the reality is as sociologist Ivan Illich has suggested: development practices are in fact a war on subsistence. (86-87)

Capitalism, industrialism…can the two be separated? But it is definitely a war and this seems to be exactly the idea that we might belong to the earth that is being decimated. The clearances and enclosures in Europe were to the same end.

Akiing is the word for land in our language, and in the indigenous concept of land ownership or the Anishinaabeg concept of land ownership, it is much more a concept that we belong to that land than the land belongs to us. … land tenure itself and concepts of land ownership are of course a concept of culture–they are a concept of your teachings, a construct of how you are raised and how you live in your community. (138)

Important to always remember that these things are not natural or self-evident but constructed. And the creation of the US is definitely one of predator…I am pondering how this might help us think about the political economy of land.

Indigenous people traditionally have been the people who have lived on the land, but the predator/prey relationship that exists between America and the land is one that has caused the constant erosion and taking of the indigenous land base in the Americas. And it has caused the constant erosion and the taking of other people’s land outside of that context as well. (143)

Again mobility, predation, frontiers, all those things that capital needs, as opposed to connection, balance, care…

One of the challenges that we have in America is that America is built on conquest, not on survival. It is a society, by and large, based on the concept that there is always a West, always a frontier. There will always be someplace to go. We don’t necessarily have to give thanks for where we are because we’re moving.

That is the challenge..This conceptual framework between one worldview and another worldview, indigenous and industrial, or land-based and predator….the predator world-view. It is, in fact, manifest in how we live here. And every ecological crisis we have today is a direct consequence of that… (180)

From the land to rights as Native women, I loved her speech ‘I fight like a woman’ from the UN Conference on Women in China, 1995.

Positionality:

As one woman, Corrine Kumar from the Asian Women’s Human Rights Association explained simply, “From the periphery of power human rights looks different.” (205)

A challenge to mobile, global power to look those it is destroying in the eye:

Vicki Corpuz is an Igarok woman from the Philippines, head of the Cordinera Women’s Association. … “We found that a lot of our problems were related to trans-national corporations and institutions. And we thought it was time to get more accountability from them. We can do basic empowerment work here – but all the decisions are actually made elsewhere. They should have to look at us in the face when they make those decisions.” (208)

The need for indigenous peoples (as true of other struggles) to operate at a global level…

It was several years ago Mililani Trask, Kia Aina or Head of State of the Native Hawaiian Nation changed her mind about work. “The real reason why all Indigenous people have to be apprised of, or involved in the international arena is because their individual land-based struggles will be impacted by these nation states and international interests.” (209)

More on militarism — I love this quote, hate what the US and others are doing on other people’s lands…

Militarism is a form of colonization which takes away from our lives. That future is without hope for us. But, we will fight for our rights. I believe in nonviolence and civil disobedience. I am ready to go to jail, to take blows or die for our cause, because I believe in the struggle for the freedom of my people. I don’t want your sympathy, I want your support, your strong and collective support against the oppression of your government. What are need is your resistance.” Penote Ben Michel made this plea at a 31 January 1987 conference in Montreal on militarism in Labrador/Nitassinan. (230)

I am furious with Geroge Dubya all over again. I volunteered to do precinct walking for Kerry in Vegas I was so furious with that man. Might have campaigned for her, though, if I’d been a little more woke, though I still might have bowed to the dual party system.

This is from her acceptance speech for the nomination for Vice Presidential candidate, running with Nader.

I am not inclined toward electoral politics. Yet I am impacted by public policy. I am interested in reframing the debate on the issues of this society — the distribution of power and wealth, the abuse of power and the rights of the natural world, the environment and the need to consider an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in which all decisions made today will be considered in light of their impact on the seventh generation from now. That is, I believe, what sustainability is all about. These are vital subjects which are all too often neglected by the rhetoric of “major party” candidates and the media.

I believe that decision making should not be the exclusive right of the privileged. (267)

All of that. We need all of that.

This is only a sampling of some of what I loved most/have been thinking about most recently. There is so much more here, and of course so much more written since this was published.

[LaDuke, Winona (2002) The Winona LaDuke Reader: A Collection of Essential Writings. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press.]

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Karen Tei Yamashita: I Hotel

I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.

Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.

I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:

Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.

But why save an old hotel?

Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…

This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or  left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.

Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?

By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated  by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)

We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.

I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?

As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)

The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)

[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]

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Reading I, Daniel Blake: Screenplay and Film

I, Daniel Blake was my first screenplay, I found it quite a fascinating read after watching the film and reading lots of interviews and watching lots of Loach’s other films and writing a film review (another thing done! Whew). I might have done all of this in the wrong order, but I liked seeing where things started and comparing that to where things ended up. I liked seeing where they had stuck tightly to the script, and where actors had improvised lines. I liked how Laverty wrote their lines, disjointed, like speech actually comes. I liked seeing the sections cut, and the pieces added. You get a much better sense of the process of making a film, the collaboration involved — the extras in here, interviews and bios, add even more insight. And of course, as I always love most about reading, you can linger, go at your own pace. Sometimes I resent how films hurtle you through space and time, or like this one, drag you towards an ending you know will momentarily blot out your sun.

And of course, it was as powerful, though I didn’t cry quite as much because I find words a kind of buffer between events and my tear ducts though not my emotions. I liked that too. Still, this ending…it gets me.

Katie

They call this a “pauper’s funeral” because it’s the cheapest slot, at 9:00. But Dan wasn’t a pauper to us. He gave us things that money can’t buy. When he died, I found this on him. He always used to write in pencil. And he wanted to read it at his appeal but he never got the chance to. And I swear that this lovely man, had so much more to give, and that the State drove him to an early grave.

And this is what he wrote.

“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user…. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief… I’m not a National Insurance Number or blip on a screen… I paid my dues, never a penny short, and proud to do so. I don’t tug the forelock, but look my neighbour in the eye and help him if I can. I don’t accept or seek charity. My name is Daniel Blake. I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more and nothing less. Thank you.

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Organizing Manual from Daniel Hunter: A Movement to End the New Jim Crow

The organizing guide to Daniel Hunter’s Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow contains a note on the copyright page that this emerged from conversations with Daryl Atkinson, Chris Moore-Backman, Michelle Alexander and Dr Vincent Harding, makes me so wish I had been a fly on that wall. Daniel Hunter is an organizer and strategist with Training for Change, and James Lawson gives it a brief preface. It is short and sweet and tries to answer the question of what to do with the realities described by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, how do we build a movement to end it?

Hunter starts each chapter with a story that holds a lesson. Nice. Every chapter is filled with clear headings and clear points. Every chapter ends with next steps that summarise the main points and gives you the questions you need to be asking yourself. This makes it easy.

I. Roles in Movement Building

It starts out debunking some myths about movement, which I really like.

Myth: Movements are like a lit match.

The myth that movements “Suddenly appear” misses the critical process of building up networks ready to act and ways to communicate broadly. The myth ignores the necessary tasks of leadership building and visioning. While sparks are important, without those critical pieces, movements will not tun into a fire. (6)

Myth: Movements are built by heroic figurehead leaders (6)

Myth: Movement require complete internal unity (7)

Myth: Movements succeed if they mobilize large, mass actions.

…movements don’t win because of singular actions. Movements need ongoing resistance…require sustained pressure. (7)

I like too the understanding that there are different roles in this great struggle to change the world. It’s good to understand where you fit, to know that might change (I might have added that in there, most of us aren’t organisers for all that long), and to respect the others. He gives this minimum of four: helpers, advocates, organizers and rebels, just as a starting point. I also like that he connects each to structural change — that’s really key, and hard to do for a lot of folks. I don’t know why I liked the warning labels best but I did, there’s lots more description.

Helpers — great, but need to understand structural issues, not just personal ones

Advocates important, sometimes take over and take away ‘clients’ power and agency.

Organizers — awesome, might get stuck in a stuffling organization, only try to get what they think is ‘winnable’ even if people want to try for more. That goes for the others too. I really like this line:

‘Organizers understand that shame festers and breeds when people experience something as a personal failing they cannot overcome. (12)

rebels — can become too attached to marginal identity, reduced to simply tactics without an end game, can become self-righteous.

Just to reemphasise that a Key part of movement building is the moment when pople understand not just through eyes of individual responsibility, but larger structural issues.

2: Building Strong Groups

I like how this chapter unpicks the reality behind Rosa Parks, what really happened the day she refused to change her seat, the role of Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council, the various people involved not all talking to each other, Robinson’s frustrations and her immediate jump to action regardless of what Dixon or others said. I never knew a lot of this until I read Danielle McGuire. The lessons learned:

Prioritize relationship-building in every way you can , organize one-on-one meetings, recruit people outside your circle. Develop a shared power analysis — I really like his triangle model — there’s a very cool worksheet here to help structure a workshop.

Knock out those damn pillars! Analysing them, thinking this way helps us understand what we can do, gives us back our own power. I often don’t like analogies and metaphors, I’m not sure I like this one but appreciate the point:

Elimate the smog inside of us: Some have likened oppression to smog. Without a choice, we all inhale smog. It is in our body. The toxicity fo oppression is in each and every one of us. It makes us callous to the oppression of others — and even of our own selves. We must detoxify ourselves…create a culture that stands on higher prinicples. (36)

And finally, empower leadership from the oppressed — I write about that all the time. This decentralised method also allows innovation and experimentation, national groups in the spotlight don’t usually have this ability.

Chapter 3: Creating Effective Campaigns

Another awesome drawing on what a campaign actually looks like.

I have to say, I have never met anyone in the UK who would consider anything but the first damn drawing. Until recently hopefully.

You pick a goal — Hunter gives a range of campaign goals that could be considered to chip away at the system explored in The New Jim Crow, like stopping prison construction and reducing incarceration rates, improving prison conditions, ending re-entry barriers and increasing direct services, tackling the contributing structural issues, and fighting for alternatives to incarceration. The structural issues are important, especially as they intersect with deportations, or with issues of race, class and gender. This needs ongoing discussion and education — he suggests a ‘newspaper game’ to collectively build knowledge by pooling articles.

He describes the process for collectively choosing the campaign, the importance of having a target:

The people who can make the changes are usually quite happy to avoid doing so….. Change will not happen… unless the target is faced with direct, persistent pressure. It;s therefore crucial to identify the appropriate target … the person or people who could implement a new policy. (51)

You can see the old Alinsky influence in a lot of this despite the total difference in style, God I miss people who understand picking targets.

I like the continued emphasis on the tensions between picking campaigns that are winnable without losing sight of the revolutionary goal of what he calls ‘storming the castle’, achieving the broader structural change we need. There’s also some good stuff in here about thinking about allies, recognizing where they are in relation to your politics. moving people from opposition to at least neutral positions.

I also like the emphasis on thinking about how to create alternative institutions, what do we actually want, rather than just what we are against. We need to do this way more, as well as continuously build towards deeper change. Hunter writes

effective campaigns are ones that promote and instill new values. To do that, we should look for all available opportunities to represent the highest moral values of humanity in our words and actions, and encourage others to do the same. (60)

Some of us might need a little more humour here, perhaps, but it’s a serious thing.

He also describes the need to make sure you are growing as a campaign, moving and recruiting outside your easy, comfortable circles, that you are self-reflective on your own role, where you fit within oppressive systems and contribute to them. It all seems simple, it is still very far from most people’s practice. And finally — another key point, particularly in differentiating this book from much traditional civil rights organizing as Alexander notes, as well as many organizing in the Alinsky tradition:

It requires that we build a new public consensus that values each and every human being’s worth and dignity–especailly poor people and people of color who are demonized, whether as felons, criminals, or any kind of “other.” (63)

This is not an easy battle, but it is one we must win.

[Hunter, Daniel (2015) Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow. Denver: Veterans of Hope.]

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Solidarity Blues: Richard Iton on Race, Culture and the Left

Richard Iton’s Solidarity Blues was so good for thinking not just about how race and the American left have articulated, but the nature of the left in general. I use that word ‘left’ often, struggle with it, often distinguish between an elite left and a grassroots left (you all know which one I’m for). Iton takes a step back, to look at the broader ideas in motion:

I attempt to understand how the forces of individualism and collectivism interact in different contexts. (5)

This is much broader than the ‘left’, starts to capture some of the things that happen outside of movement. But I like his broad understanding of the left as well, looking at it in three different aspects:

  1. the conventional conceptions, labor movements and socialist parties

  2. the availability of a certain set or type of public goods

  3. the prevalence of a certain sensibility or set of cultural values. (6)

I like too, this case for just how different America is from the other ‘developed’ nations and how it contrasts with other countries where:

certain things are taken for granted: comprehensive health care, inclusive voter registration procedure, affordable higher education, and a certain standard of public safety. (7)

Not in the US as everyone knows. Which begs the question:

Why so slow, so reluctant to provide public goods?

the answer — constructions of race — and instead of choosing to allow race to disappear or lose its significance,

at every opportunity the choice has been made to remake race in some potent form at the cost of community. (22)

So, to summarise Iton’s arguments on the articulation of race with these three principal aspects of the Left.

Labour Movements and Socialist Parties

Labour movements are sustained by a collective identity of labour opposed to capital. In the US, this collective identity was fractured by race in three principal ways — that follow one from the other and that in themselves show the complexities of this I think.

  1. the popular identification of organized labor with racial progressivism (an association that was accurate at times and ironic at others)

  2. the energies consumed by internecine battles within the labour movement between nativist and racist constituencies and those advocating a more inclusive movement

  3. the decisions made by nativists, racists and their opponents to forego challenging the racial status quo and organizing immigrant workers, in the belief that a successful labour movement could be sustained without the participation of those groups, and that these issues and constituencies  could be dealt with at some later point… (25)

This helps explain the rise of someone like Samuel Gompers in the AFL — fucking Samuel Gompers, the UK has some responsibility for him too as he was born here. He promoted a focus on today’s battles rather than a broader struggle or movement — small wins, craft unions, the exclusion of people of colour, such an ugly politics that wasn’t arguably even practical given it created large pools of strikebreakers. He actually fought while in the cigar makers union to have white labels placed on cigars made by white labour so racists would know and could but white and union.

No wonder you get Du Bois writing that the  ‘AFL not a labor movement, but monopoly of skilled workers’.

There are some brighter lights, though they may have shone briefly. Hurrah, for instance, for the Western Federation of Miners, founded in 1893 in Montana (Montana! No longer somewhere such a movement could blossom I think). From them grew the IWW in 1905 — and of course Iton notes the greater homogeneity of the west coast and how it shaped their politics, it was easier not to be racist. But still. While Iton argues their importance was more symbolic, he does quote Dubovsky:

so feared were the Wobblies that probably no group of labor agitators before or since has as suddenly or disastrously experienced the full wrath of state and national authorities. (51)

On the whole though, Labor’s record in the US is dismal.

labor’s job is to ensure that its constituency can control the circumstances of its existence. Organized labor in the United States has largely either been afraid to do so, or, because of internal and external compromises, been unable to do so. (78)

Where it has been successful in building solidarity, Iton notes, it has actually been along racial lines rather than lines of work or labour.

Southern Politics and Parties

Nothing establishes better the broad weaknesses of the left, and how racial conflicts have prevented it from creating a more collectivist society, than a hard look at the impact of Southern ‘Democratic’ party politics. Iton summarises his argument that it created a:

  1. constant division of leftists activists over issue of whether organizations would be interracial, segregated, or separate but coordinated.
  2. popular rejection of those movements which have pursued interracial alliances …IWW, UMW, CIO
  3. …the race issue has just been a problem to be solved at some future date (84)

Jim Crow disenfranchised Blacks, but also increasingly poor whites, concentrating power in Southern elites against which the whole country has been held hostage through the Democratic party.

 

There was, of course, that brief period when Lenin in the 2nd congress of 1920 directed the Communist Party to support the self-determination of oppressed peoples within nations — this included the Irish and  African negroes as revolutionary groups, which ensured that the CPUSA  for a time did its best to pursue equal rights for blacks, and in South proposing in proposed a black belt nation. In the North, party activists began doing grassroots organizing work with tenants, particularly around rent strikes and the unemployed councils. In 1936 they formed the National Negro Congress, and at this time also began reaching out  to other race communities, such as Mexican farmworkers.

‘By 1935…11 percent of the party’s roughly 27,000 members were black, and in the South, blacks composed an even higher percentage. (118)

Change in CP policy led widespread abandonment of earlier causes, but this isn’t really mentioned. It does help explain some of the automatic connection between race equality and communism that is still so prevalent today, though I mostly think this has been a convenient labeling to facilitate isolation and repression. Of course, it meant the red scare had an even greater impact on those fighting for racial equality. Like Gerald Horne, Iton writes of this period after WWII, which saw:

a unique collapsing of the realms of racial and class politics…the effective end of the traditional left in American politics and a further truncation of the acceptable range of debate concerning economic issues and alternatives. (125)

The radical politics emerging from the Great Depression could have been a time when working classes came together, but instead they split over race. Party politics since then has not sought to challenge current attitudes, but work within the very limited gains staying within them can achieve… White privilege was just a little too strong I suppose. Old FDR himself maintained a 2nd home in Warm Springs Georgia, and promoted himself in 1932 election as a “Georgia planter-politician’.

And now? Iton cites Robert Greenberg’s 1985 study of Macomb ,Michicgan and the switch from Democrat to Republican among white working to middle-class Americans

These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics. . . . Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything else that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a place a decent place to live. (129)

Bloody hell.

Beyond the Left

Iton describes how race conservatism has allowed rights to vote to be curtailed, slowed and reduced medicare and medicaid, opposed fair employment practices committee, ensured no best practices taken from Europe as US the only superpower post WWII. But this is a question that continues to pester me:

While I do not want to overstate the importance of the cultural politics of the post-McCarthy era from a progressive standpoint, the inability of the American left to survive the era that produced the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism says something about the American left, as well as American society. (218)

For Iton the why is at least partially found here:

the characteristically American resistance to collective strategies reflects an attachment to the rights and prerogatives of individuals over and above and particular communities. (234)

This of course emerges from Turner’s ‘frontier thesis, or Louis Hartz or Seymour Martin Lipset’s work.  But this doesn’t go deep enough, why this push towards individualism?

The liberal individualism Hartz and others have cited has been rhetorical residue remaining after the battles among the competing “we” claims promoted by different ethnic and racial communities. In other words, while an examination of the speeches of politician might reflect a particularly American preference for individual liberties, the unstated realities have often been shaped by the ethnic and racial calculations made by different groups. (235)

This has never been dealt with by the left in its goal to appeal to the broadest number of people and rejection of the call to help with the ‘maintenance and relaization of a collective sensibility and human civilization.’ (245-246). There is more to dig into here about the way that race has structured capital (see Cedric Robinson), or about how racism has help form a concept of whiteness tied to privilege (as does David Roediger), but the result has been tragic. The book ends with this thought:

The particular and exceptional extent to which the American left has been removed from the main stage of American life has been a direct function of its inability or unwillingness to transcend these hurdles in an especially demographically diverse context, and a result of the popular attachment to a realm — race — that can generate few larger meanings, resilient identities, or practical moralities. (246)

 

Iton, Richard (2000) Solidarity Blues: Race, Culture and the American Left. Chapel hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.

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Grandma’s Story: Trinh T. Minh-Ha on Storytelling and Truth

Grandma’s Story is the final chapter of Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism by Trinh T. Minh-Ha. My favourite chapter I confess because it opened up horizons, and also sang with the words of Leslie Marmon Silko among others, whose words I have always loved.

It is written beautifully, interspersed with stills from film, the language difficult, rewarding. It works to overflow, expand, burst open the limits of Western intellectual thought the way that stories do without trying.

Why this battle for truth and on behalf of truth? I do not remember having asked grandmother once whether the story she was telling me was true or not. (120)

It is a language of possibility, of what is still unknown (and there is so much we don’t know).

If we rely on history to tell us what happened in a specific time and place, we can rely on the story to tell us not only what might have happened, but also what is happening at an unspecified time and place. (120)

It is a language of the interstices, freed from boundaries.

On the one hand, each society has its own politics of truth; on the other hand, being truthful is being in the in-between of all regimes of truth. Outside specific time, outside specialized space. (121)

And it is bigger than we are.

Truth does not make sense; it exceeds meaning and exceeds measure. It exceeds all regimes of truth. (123)

Above all, it is not ours, but builds on and also builds our communities and our connections.

Storytelling, the oldest form of building historical consciousness in community, constitutes a rich oral legacy, whose values have regained all importance recently, especially in the context of writings by women of color. (148)

And so we repeat our stories, tell them as fragments of the whole and as the whole itself, always changing as living things change, depending on circumstances, depending on who is speaking and who is listening, depending on many things that cannot be separated out. It is this unity in flux, this complex fluidity that can embrace the world and our place in it in multiple different ways that renders useless so many conventions of western fiction separated so starkly from western academic work or philosophizing.

But it is particularly difficult for a dualistic or dualistically trained mind to recognize that “looking for the structure of their narratives” already involves the separation of the structure from the narratives, of the structure from that which is structured, of the narrative from the narrated, and so on. It is, once more, as if form and content stand apart; as if the structure can remain fixed, immutable, independent of and unaffected by the changes the narratives undergo; as if a structure can only function as a standard mold within the old determinist schema of cause and product. (141)

This chapter struck me so forcibly after reading Barbara Fields on race and ideology, which forced me once again to confront the ability of people — most problematically white people — to maintain widely contradictory beliefs about others, often completely at odds with lived experience. This embodies the power of certain narratives shoring up power and privilege, as well as the inability of dualistic thinking to really grapple with them, the need to look in many places for a way of communicating that can build the world we hope to see.

Minh-ha also describes a very different way of working within the wider community, of relating to others. Imagine how much more powerful the kind of story embodied by theorising could be if this were true, as it should be true of all those who are in the struggle to transform the world:

I memorize, recognize, and name my source(s), not to validate my voice through the voice of authority…but to evoke her and sing. (122)

And transform the world we will.

Each woman, like each people, has her own way of unrolling the ties that bind. (148)

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Barbara Fields on Class, Race and Racism

A classic and groundbreaking piece from Barbara Fields, ‘Ideology and Race in American History’ is such a brilliant piece of work, a foundation that made so much other work possible on the concrete and changing historical formations of socially constructed ideas of race. A fight that still needs fighting because this is still true:

It is my intention to suggest that Americans, including many historians, tend to accord race a transhistorical, almost metaphysical, status that removes it from all possibility of analysis and understanding. Ideologies, including those of race, can be properly analyzed only at a safe distance from their terrain. To assume, by intention or default, that race is a phenomenon outside history is to take up a position within the terrain of racialist ideology and to become its unknowing-and therefore uncontesting-victim.

The first false move in this direction is the easiest: the assumption that race is an observable physical fact, a thing, rather than a notion that is profoundly and in its very essence ideological.(144)

Thus the construction of race must be studied in its social and ideological context.

Race is a product of history, not of nature. And as an element of ideology, it is best understood in connection with other elements of ideology and not as a phenomenon sui generis. Only when set next to contemporary ideas having nothing to do with race can ideas about race be placed in the context of the ideological ensemble of which they form a part.(152)

I am still not as familiar with this early period as I should be. Fields looks at Walter Rodney’s study of the Portuguese, and the complex relationships between Europeans and the people along upper Guinea Coast:

They were capable, as are all human beings, of believing things that in strict logic are not compatible. No trader who had to confront and learn to placate the power of an African chief could in practice believe that Africans were docile, childlike, or primitive. The practical circumstances in which Europeans confronted Africans in Africa make nonsense of any attempt to encompass Europeans’ reactions to Africans within the literary stereotypes that scholars have traced through the ages as discrete racial attitudes. (148)

I think this is a key point, and one that bears repeating because I still find it shocks me every time I see anew the extent to which human beings are capable of being perfectly at ease with a common sense view of the world that incorporates completely conflicting views.

The idea one people has of another, even when the difference between them is embodied in the most striking physical characteristics, is always mediated by the social context within which the two come into contact. This remains true even when time-honored tradition provides a vocabulary for thinking and talking about the other people that runs counter to immediate experience. In that case, the vocabulary and the experience simply exist side by side … An understanding of how groups of people see other groups in relation to themselves must begin by analyzing the pattern of their social relations-not by enumerating “attitudes” which, endowed with independent life, are supposed to act upon the historical process from outside, passing through it like neutrinos to emerge unchanged at the other end.

The view that race is a biological fact, a physical attribute of
individuals, is no longer tenable. (148-49)

The sarcasm in here is something to relish. She later writes:

Precisely because ideologies consist of contradictory and inconsistent elements, they can undergo fundamental change simply through the reshuffling of those elements into a different hierarchy. (154)

This echoes Stuart Hall’s idea of articulation, and how formations change over time. Similar also, perhaps, to his focus on understanding the work that changing, and highly conflicted constructions of race performs is this:

In the end we cannot resolve the problem quantitatively, by the addition of example and counterexample. We can resolve it only by posing the question “What kind of social reality is reflected-or refracted – in an ideology built on a unity of these particular opposites?” … If ideology is a vocabulary for interpreting social experience, and thus both shapes and is shaped by that experience, it follows that even the “same” ideology must convey different. meanings to people having different social experiences.(155)

But this argues a more complex understanding I think, where very different understandings and experiences of race exist  depending on personal history, experience and positionality — which opens up room in thinking about alliances and where change can happen. I wrestle so much with the relationship between class and race, the pitfalls and possibilities of solidarity along class lines rather than the continuous fracturing along lines of race, and so found her views on their nature and articulation particularly interesting:

Class and race are concepts of a different order; they do not occupy the same analytical space, and thus cannot constitute explanatory alternatives to each other.15

class is a concept that we can locate both at the level of objective reality and at the level of social appearances. Race is a concept that we can locate at the level of appearances only. A material reality underlies it all right, as must be true of any ideology; but the underlying reality is not the one that the language of racial ideology addresses. … because class and race are not equivalent concepts, it is erroneous to offer them as alternatives to each other; and because any thorough social analysis must move simultaneously at the level of objective reality and at that of appearances, it is self-defeating to attempt to do so.(151)

This creates a very different view of white supremacy — not in the totality of its effects but in how it is understood and…er…practiced (?) by different groups. She writes:

White supremacy is a slogan, not a belief.29 And it is a slogan that cannot have meant the same to all white people. Those who invoke it as a way of minimizing the importance of class diversity in the South overlook this simple but basic point….

But white supremacy was not simply a summary of color prejudices. It was also a set of political programs, differing according to the social position of their proponents. Prejudices fed into them, naturally; but so far from providing a unifying element, they were as likely as not to accentuate the latent possibilities for discord. (156)

This is actually a rather hopeful understanding of white supremacy perhaps, one that can be levered apart, maybe dismantled little by little. Maybe. Though it’s complicated, right? A holistic view also shows how multiple aspects of life prop up understandings of white supremacy, and even life experience does not necessarily challenge that.

But racial ideology constituted only one element of the whole ideology of each class. And it is the totality of the elements and their relation to each other that gives the whole its form and direction; not the content of one isolated element, which in any case is bound to be contradictory. (158)

Thus:

Racial prejudice is sufficiently fluid and at home with contrariety to be able to precede and survive dramatic instances of interracial unity in action.37

Pretty depressing. It highlights the necessity of work in the Freirean tradition where action is always followed by reflection. But how better to describe some of those who have brought Trump to power and continue to support him in face of everything:

The racialism of the black-belt elite, after all, carried with it the luster of victory. That of the white common people became ever more tightly bound up with the rancor of hard blows and final defeat, as they watched the basis of their proud independence eroded by economic and social forces with which they were finally unable to cope. Their rancor became pervasive in the cultural atmosphere of the South and lent itself to demagogic manipulation by politicians seeking to turn it to electoral advantage. But it could never be fully assuaged; quite the contrary. Arising from a bleak day-to-day experience to which the slogans and rituals of white supremacy offered no material solution, that rancor only grew larger the more it was fed. (159)

This kind of gives me chills it makes so much sense — especially the extra-chill factor of the bolded bit.

A racialist ideology harnessed to a ruling-class will, intention, and capacity to dominate both blacks and whites may be characterized by a patronizing tolerance, while that of a rednecks’ movement to unseat their white masters may be virulent and homicidal.38 … Historical analysis cannot distinguish these positions as “more” and “less” racist. Rather, they represent the different shape of the space occupied by racialism in different ideological ensembles. To think of them as different quantities of the same ideological substance is fundamentally mistaken. (160)

Academia and the non-profit world are both rife with examples of ‘patronising tolerance’, I find so useful this understanding of the distinction between the two. We have to look to history to understand the shapes of these ‘spaces occupied by racialism’, always a key to US politics from its beginnings with slavery.

Slavery thus became a “racial” question, and spawned an endless variety of “racial” problems. Race became the ideological medium through which people posed and apprehended basic questions of power and dominance, sovereignty and citizenship, justice and right. (162)

This is echoed in Roediger, who has done some of the best work in understanding how this space has been shaped. His work also supports Fields’ argument that it just didn’t have to turn out this way, that this was not in fact what most people wanted.

While the freedmen were being hustled into the market economy at the well-intentioned (though not always disinterested) initiative of various groups of Yankees, the white yeomanry was also being drawn into that economy: in their case, through a combination of indebtedness and complex changes in law and social usage that followed in the wake of the Civil War. Both groups, as more and more studies make clear, would have preferred a different outcome.52 Secure tenure of land and peace in which to pursue essentially self-sufficient farming, with only incidental resort to the market, would have suited their desires more than conscription willy-nilly into the world of commercialized agriculture, with its ginners, merchants, storekeepers, moneylenders, and crop liens. There never was much chance that they would get the kind of world they wanted. (166)

Fucking capitalism. Zombie capitalism even. I don’t think she gets the credit for the term, and I am not sure this is dialectical enough for me, but I love this imagery:

It is not that ideas have a life of their own, but rather that they have a boundless facility for usurping the lives of men and women. In this they resemble those creatures of horror fiction who, having neither body nor life of their own, take over the bodies and lives of human beings. The history of racialist ideologies provides excellent examples. (153)

I will end where Field ends:

Race is neither the reflex of primordial attitudes nor a tragically
recurring central theme. It became the ideological medium through which Americans confronted questions of sovereignty and power because the enslavement of Africans and their descendants constituted a massive exception to the rules of sovereignty and power that were increasingly taken for granted. And, despite the changes it has undergone along the way, race has remained a predominant ideological medium because the manner of slavery’s unraveling had lasting consequences for the relations of whites to other whites, no less than for those of whites to blacks. There are no tragic flaws or central themes in which to take shelter, however reluctantly. There are only acts and decisions of men and women in a society now past, and a responsibility which, because the outcome remains provisional, we are obliged to share with them. (168-169)

Barbara Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History,” in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward. Ed. Morgan J. Koussar and James McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, 143-177)

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Robert F. Williams on White Racism

While the bulk of Negroes With Guns deals with self-defense and the story of trying to organise for political, racial and economic equality in Monroe, North Carolina, Robert F. Williams also gives some real thought to the problem of white racism. Know your enemy. He writes:

What has happened and continues to happen in Monroe,
N.C., illustrates an old truth: that words used in common
by all men do not always have a meaning common to
all men. Men have engaged in life-or-death struggles because
of differences of meaning in a commonly-used word. The
white racist believes in “freedom,” he believes in “fair trial,”
he believes in “justice.” He sincerely believes in these words
and can use them with great emotion because to the white
racist they mean his freedom to deprive Negroes of their
basic human rights and his courts where a “fair trial” is that
procedure and “justice” that decision which upholds the
racist’s mad ideal of white supremacy. On many desperate
occasions when our constitutional rights were denied and
our lives were in danger, we called on the Justice Department
and the FBI to investigate the Monroe situation, to protect
our lives and to restore our constitutional rights-in
other words, to administer justice. And they always refused
our request. (54)

It can still shock me, I realise, to read those words written decades ago and realise how true they still are. These words still ring with emotion in the mouths of Trump supporters, don’t they. Without understanding this dissonance, there is no other way to explain patriotic white discourse around ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ and ‘justice’, when at the same time children are being shot dead and nothing happens to their uniformed (or even non-uniformed) killers. When the NRA can defend to the death the right to carry any kind of arms whatsoever with no controls at all ever. Unless you are Black.

An aside to say that Robert F. Williams actually formed a chapter of the NRA while they were training with guns. That has a sweet taste to it, though some bitterness too.

I appreciate a section with the title:

Minds Warped by Racism

Because you can see it, and it is not pretty. Williams continues:

We have come to comprehend the nature of racism. It is a mass psychosis. When I have described racial conditions in the United States to audiences of foreign newsmen, Cubans and other Latin Americans, they have been shocked to learn of the depths of American race hatred. (72)

I, too, am still continuously shocked. Stretching from the hatred directed at Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin to those gloating white faces over bodies that had been lynched and burned, it can only be a kind of psychosis. That is too easy a word really, it needs more unpacking from the likes of Fromm and others. But it begs the question of an adequate strategy in its murderous face. Williams asks:

Why do the white liberals ask us to be non-violent? We are not the aggressors; we have been victimized for over 300 years! Yet nobody spends money to go into the South and ask the racists to be martyrs or pacifists. But they always come to the downtrodden Negroes, who are already oppressed and too submissive as a group, and ask them not to fight back. There seems to be a pattern of some sort of strange coincidence of interest when whites preach a special doctrine to Negroes. Like the choice of theology when the plantation-owners saw to the Christianization of the slaves. Instead of the doctrines which produced the rugged aggressively independent and justice-seeking spirit that we associate with Colonial America as the New England Conscience, the slaves were indoctrinated in the most submissive “trust-your-master,” “pie-in-the-sky after-you-die” form of Christianity. (75)

Even Martin Luther King would tire of this liberal refrain. Nor did he have an entirely easy relationship to strict non-violence. The very real threat of violence meant that many communities he visited armed themselves and sat watch to protect him, as they did for the youth of CORE and SNCC — Cobb writes of this across the South. Williams was not alone in his assessment of white violence, and the means to prevent it.

This is one of the more eloquent statements on self-defense, and the challenge even this poses to white liberals, that I have read:

This fear of extermination is a myth which we have exposed in Monroe. We did this because we came to an active understanding of the racist system and grasped the relationship between violence and racism. The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system. The Afro-American militant is a “militant” because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system-the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself. When people say that they are opposed to Negroes “resorting to violence” what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists. We have shown in Monroe that with violence working both ways constituted law will be more inclined to keep the peace. (76)

I put my favourite part in bold, but I like all of it. I like the acknowledgment that it is through lack of challenge that the system perpetuates itself, which means all of it needs to be challenged. I like the questions this raises for piecemeal change — not that we don’t need small steps to move forward, but that we should understand that they are steps. I feel that he understood both the potential and the limits of the Montgomery bus boycott before most commentators and civil rights leaders did (Ella Baker is one clear exception to this of course, I know there were others):

The Montgomery bus boycott was a victory-but it was limited. It did not raise the Negro standard of living. It did not mean better education for Negro children, it did not mean economic advances. Just what was the issue at hand for the white racists? What sacrifice? Remember that in Montgomery most white Americans have automobiles and are not dependent on the buses. It is just like our own experience in Monroe when we integrated the library. I called the chairman of the board in my county. I told him that I represented the NAACP, that we wanted to integrate the library, and that our own library had burned down. And he said, “Well, I don’t see any reason why you can’t use the same library that our people use. It won’t make any difference. After all, I don’t read anyway.” Now, this is the attitude of a lot of white Southerners about the Montgomery bus boycott. The white people who control the city didn’t ride the buses anyway. They had their own private cars, so it didn’t make any difference to them. But when Afro-Americans get into the struggle for the right to live as human beings and the right to earn the same amount of money, then they’ll meet the greatest amount of resistance, and out of it will come police-condoned or inspired violence. (77-78)

The limits came from how little it challenged the true structures of Black oppression — though it is terrifying really, even now, just how hard they had to fight for such a small change.

An inspirational chapter title:

“The Future Belongs to Today’s Oppressed”

And finally, the fact that Williams never did give up on the struggle, nor on white people. His theory, that they needed an honest look at themselves:

Whenever I speak on the English-language radio station in Havana (which broadcasts for an audience in the United States) I hope in some way to penetrate the mental barriers and introduce new disturbing elements into the consciousness of white America. I hope to make them aware of the monstrous evil that they are party to by oppressing the Negro. Somehow, I must manage to clearly reflect the image of evil that is inherent in a racist society so that white Americans will be able to honestly and fully see themselves as they really are. To see themselves with the same clarity as foreigners see them and to recognize that they are not champions of democracy. To understand that today they do not really even believe in democracy. To understand that the world is changing regardless of whether they think they like it or not. For I know that if they had a glimpse of their own reality the shock would be of great therapeutic value. (85)

An honest look is still what is needed. Wendell Berry too talks about the need for a double consciousness required from this level of injustice inflicted on another groups of human beings, the illusion-building needed and the distortions that it has caused. But instead of taking a hard look, those who most need it have elected, and continue to support a president handing out nothing but lies.

Not that we all don’t need a good long look in the mirror on a regular basis.

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