The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is amazing. Its very existence, its declaration of ongoing resistance against gentrification and displacement, and the many wonderful urban spaces to be found on the Lower East Side. A testament to all those who have fought to build community and to preserve it in that face of brutal development pressures driven by the commodification of land.
Ah, the Lower East Side…
For so long it was only known to me through Neil Smith’s work, his descriptions of the battles over Tompkins Square Park and a vibrancy in the squatting/camping/we-will-not-be-moved-from-these-spaces organising that I always found so inspiring.
I saw it on the map, saw this museum marked there and so we headed that way after the inspiration of Harlem — where better to go?
As a living history of urban activism, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) chronicles the East Village community’s history of grassroots action. It celebrates the local activists who transformed abandoned spaces and vacant lots into vibrant community spaces and gardens. Many of these innovative, sustainable concepts and designs have since spread out to the rest of the city and beyond.
We wandered through the small museum staffed by volunteers — hardly a museum, a wonderful community space of two rooms, one ground floor and the basement where a video is running. The walls of both are lined with pictures and stories of the people who squatted these buildings to create and save housing, transformed vacant lots into vibrant gardens and community spaces, developed movements to push for political will in support of bicycles over cars, as well as cycling lanes, bike racks and respect. This building itself was squatted, which is how this place can exist at all. Every community should have such an accessible shopfront space telling such important stories, with people wandering in and out.
I got a birthday present there! The Architecture of Change , edited by Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley, an amazing collection of 36 articles from DESIGNER/builder magazine describing movement and struggle around space, design, art, architecture, education and justice (so far, I am only a quarter of the way through) around the country. I opened it up and within the first few pages found a picture of the Vilchis brothers lounging around Boyle heights which made me so happy.
I was less happy that the article failed to mention Union de Vecinos, co-founded by Leonardo and one of the grassroots organisations in LA that I love and admire most. Opportunity lost, they have so much to teach. Ah well.
Tompkins Square Park is still a cool public space full of life and people (though perhaps too much concrete), a very different one than Smith described if I remember rightly (but so much bigger than I was expecting! So maybe my memory is faulty…but still closes at midnight, so no one is welcome to sleep here). And look, Charlie Parker Place.
A public park alongside a medley of community gardens, they are everywhere, and I was truly smitten. Especially after reading the love and fierce resistance it took to first build and then keep them.
I wish we’d have had more time here to see some of the other radical spots here, but we were heading over to Williamsburg to meet my cousin. We had a quick walk to the metro — and a quick stop in Bluestockings bookstore on the way. I sent them a lot of emails in my PM Press days, and their amazing selection did not disappoint. Two of the books I’ve worked on under Postcolonial Fiction (!) by Gary Phillips and James Kilgore — seeing that is such a pleasure:
On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:
Such cool city streets and a wealth of things to see and places to eat (omg the best pastrami sandwiches ever at Harry and Ida’s Meat & Supply Co), we loved this place:
And finally, a wonderful map of the radical spaces of the Lower East Side produce by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space — I wish we had had more time to explore! Get the pdf here.
Kung Fu! Finally we learn some lessons from one of my favourite things… Vijay Prashad’s Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asan Connection and the Myth of Cultural Purity lives up to its name, and provides much food for thought as it tries to uncover a useful antiractist ideological framework that destroys the standard binaries of Black and white. It starts (and ends) with the idea of polyculturalism:
Polyculturalism, unlike multiculturalism, assumes that people live coherent lives that are made up of a host of lineages–the task of the historian is not to carve out the lineages but to make sense of how people live culturally dynamic lives. Polyculturalism is a ferocious engagement with the political world of culture, a painful embrace of the skin and all its contradictions. (xii)
I like his use of adjectives, and of course this comes much closer to capturing the reality of our lives, the intersectionalities we all experience.
On Xenophobia as Opposed to Racism
Like Albert Memmi on racism, this book goes back a little ways to try and untangle what we actually mean by it. Back in the old days before the rise of slavery, what we faced was a little different. Prashad explores this through a look at the Indian Ocean where many cultures had come together to trade for many centuries:
It would be inaccurate to reduce this ethnocentrism or xenophobia to racism, mainly because there was little sense that the difference was predicated on the body (biological determinism) and that those who are biologically inferior can be put to work in the service of their biological betters. (4)
Thus, while there were ‘undoubtedly fear and feelings of superiority in the face of difference…’ (5) among the various cultural contacts and even empires that have arisen over our history, what has arisen in modern times is qualitatively different.
Modern notions of “race” and modern, capitalist racist institutions render most of the fluidity of cultural difference moot. From da Gama’s arrival onward, traditions of xenophobia in the Indian Ocean world were transformed into the hidebound theories of race that emerge from Europe’s experiments with the enslavement of human beings for profit, most notably in the Atlantic slave trade, With the invention of race and the advent of racism, the Afro-Asian world would alter dramatically. (6)
He places the origins of these new theories of race here, where ‘Two sixteenth-century developments indicate the beginnings of raciology: the Iberian Inquisition and the slave trade’ (15). The Inquisition required tests for the purity of blood, and the justification of slavery, the fundamental difference of African peoples. These distinctions lie at the birth of a new era:
Columbus and da Gama operate as metaphors for how our world entered modernity: by the genocide in the New World (Columbus) and by the end to the cosmopolitanism of the Old World (da Gama). (35)
The antidote, as it were, consists in moving beyond all of this rather than embracing it — ‘raciology’ has not been limited to whites (though of course, they have wielded it in dominance):
The Brahmin accommodation to, and the Diopian reversal of, the Aryan Myth shows us how those outside the camp of whiteness nourished the categories of raciology, and, more specifically, of white supremacy. Atlantic racism, then, is not the special inheritance and legacy of those who deep themselves to be “white.” (19)
So we move from xenophobia through raciology to modern racism, and from there to fascism:
Fascism (in the European and U.S. core) and colonialism (in the Asian and African periphery) exemplify the highest stage of racist statecraft. (20)
I like this distinguishing of different kinds of racism, different kinds of fascism groups around a core of ideas:
While all fascisms are not identical, there is something Gilroy call the unanimist principle that unites most fascisms, whereby the “people” are one, division is not integral to social relations, and the members of a nation are interchangeable and disposable. Furthermore, the unanimist principle perverts the idea of democracy into a racial hierarchy of the population in which those who sit atop the totem are seen as chosen by God or destiny. (20-21)
Specifically for our purposes, fascism or a movement with fascistic tendencies has at its core hierarchy, racism and militarism. (21)
An oppositional politics requires a new model that will move beyond the challengers already failed — essentialised identity politics and multiculturalism:
The desire to go beyond skin does not necessarily mean to plunge oneself into the socially impossible world of individuality. We are social beings who make communities with an urgency…human identity is constructed…multifaceted and multivalent…(36)
On The American Ideology:
We have come some way since da Gama and Columbus, in analysing it, Prashad reworks the famous phrase from de Bois in ways that I am still thinking through.
neocolonialism was replaced by the theory of neoliberalism in which freedom came to mean liberty of the moneyed to act unburdened by notions of justice and democracy. Neoliberalism threatens us with the reproach of equality, and forbids us to create organizational platforms based on our historical and current oppression. To fight against racism is twisted into a racist act, for to invoke race even in a progressive antiracist agenda is seen as divisive.
The problem of the twenty-first century, then, is the problem of the colorblind. (38)
I am still thinking about whether I find this useful, or if it might not be better to cleave to the problem of the ‘color line’ from de Bois’s original formulation. Not that I disagree with any of the ways he formulates the problem of colourblindness, which seeks to understand racism as nothing more than wrong-headed individual actions rather than ‘the coagulation of socioeconomic injustice against groups.’ (38) I rather like that definition. I also like this description of its effects:
Color-blind justice privatizes inequality and racism, and it removes itself from the project of redistributive and anti-racist justice. This is the genteel racism of our new millennium. (38)
It sounds so elegant — I am not sure I quite know what the privatization of inequality and racism look like, I need to think about that more too. But it becomes a little more clear further on:
Since the state deems the differences within civil society as “nonpolitical distinctions,” it is able to arrogate for itself the role of being above those very distinctions. The formal democratic state can then manage difference with such strategies as “unity in difference,” or, much later, in the United States, as multiculturalism. (57-58)
Thus the state becomes a manager above the justice fray, and multiculturalism becomes its management method.
Beyond the color blind and the primordial is the problem of multiculturalism. (39)
Why problematic? Because this idea of multiculturalism arose to ‘undercut the radicalism of antiracism.’ The difference between the two:
The difference between antiracism and diversity management, then, is that the former is militantly against frozen privilege and the latter is in favor of the status quo.(63)
So we need something different, something that is not primordial and essential, something not colourblind, something not just a management of difference in support of a racial hierarchy with whites at the top.
The theory of the polycultural does not mean that we reinvent humanism without ethnicity, but that we acknowledge that our notion of cultural community should not be built inside the high walls of parochialism and ethno-nationalism. The framework of polyculturalism uncouples the notions of origins and authenticity from that of culture.
He draws from Robin Kelley’s idea of polyculturalism which plays with the idea of polyrhythms, bringing together multiple drummers…
A polyculturalism sees the world constituted by the interchange of cultural forms, while multiculturalism (in most incarnations) sees the world as already constituted by different (and discrete) cultures that we can place into categories and study with respect… (67)
This is a world that is changing, growing, becoming.
A broad antiracist platform would not (like liberal multiculturalism) invest itself in the management of difference, but it would (like a socialist polyculturalism) struggle to dismantle and redistribute unequal resources and racist structures.
Instead it concentrates on the project of creating our humanity. “Human” is an “unfinished product,” one divided by social forces that must be overcome for “human” to be made manifest. In the nineteenth century near Delhi, Akbar Illahabadi intoned that we are born people, but with great difficulty we become human (aadmi tha, bari muskil se insan hua). (69)
Coolie Purana — chapter title for this look at polyculturalism in action. There are lots of little awesome facts in here, like this one on the origin of thug:
“to cover up” in Hindustani, but came to mean “deceiver” in the nineteenth century when the British colonial officials identified certain brigands as thuggees. (70)
On the working class, where this idea of polyculturalism is rounded out and given a little more flesh:
not syncretic (two distinct entities melding with a consciousness of difference), but forged together from the beginning through the byways of Jamaica, the streets of Hartford, the avenues of New York, the dole queues of London, and beyond. Polyculturalism exists most vividly among the poor and working class. (71)
There are, of course, tons of examples. All of his are very different from the ones I grew up with, there is a lot that resonates but border culture is rather different that the crazy mixings that emerged out of the British Empire. I never knew this though:
from 1834-1916, British took almost half a million East Indian people to work as indentured labour in Caribbean and South American plantations. (87)
I’d never heard of Albertha Husbands leading domestic workers on strike — she was amazing, I found a little more from this article from the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian on women’s labour.
But I love this point about struggle in Trinidad — the leaders approach was ‘that in struggle cultural forms would be reshaped to accord with the need for popular dignity.’ Rastafarianism is one example. (87)
I like to be thinking with terms that allow for this change to happen, this growth and becoming are part of the term rather than bending or breaking it. Prashad argues that this bottom-up lived experience of polyculturalism is often greater than its leaders understand…
The will of the polycultural working class, then, drew from, and exceeded, the attempts by Gandhi and Garvey to retain the boundaries set up by imperialism. (95)
It’s not always that simple of course, and some of the dangers and obstacles are explored in the chapter on Merchants — starting with the importance of place to culture and identity:
If there is nothing else to own, at least I own my own body and I have my ‘hood. The anti-Jewish and anti-Korean tendencies in the ‘hood come from this profound desire for dignity among the working class who labor for others, but who do not have the means to produce the services to run their own territories. (115)
When the working poor has lost every other asset, it holds on to its place of residence and life as the most precious resource ever… a subaltern nationalism, one that demands the protection of territorial sovereignty as the only resource at one’s command. When all else has been stripped away, it is land (place) that must be defended.
And it is often the immigrant who is seen as colonizer, against whom the battle rages… (121)
The final chapter, the hopeful chapter, the chapter I realised I had no idea Bruce Lee had written a book and was ashamed of that. Quoting Lee’s The Tao of Gung Fu: A Study in the Way of Chinese Martial Art, Prashad writes:
Kung Fu, Bruce pointed out in his sociology of the art, “serves to cultivate the mind, to promote health, and to provide a most effective means of self-protection against any attacks.” It “develops confidence, humility, coordination, adaptability and respect toward others.”
I am educated further on the women stars in martial arts world — Pauline Short, Ruby Lozano, Graciela Casillas (Bellflower!), Judith Brown. Prashad quotes Jim Kelley, describes solidarities — Aoki with the Black Panthers, Ho Chi Minh in Garveyite Halls in Harlem and swapping stories about it with Tobert F. Williams, Nkrumah hanging out with Stokely Carmichael. Quotes Nehru speaking at the Bandung conference, 1955:
There is nothing more terrible, there is nothing more horrible than the infinite tragedy of Africa in the past few hundred years. When I think of it, everything else pales into insignificance; that infinite tragedy of Africa ever since the days when millions of them were carried away in galleys as slaves to America and elsewhere, the way they were treated, the way they were taken away, 50 percent dying in the galleys. We have to bear that burden, all of us. We did not do it ourselves, but the world has to bear it. We talk about this country and that little country in Africa or outside, but let us remember this Infinite Tragedy.
To end with a little inspiration:
History is made in struggle and past memories of solidarity are inspiration for that struggle. Indeed, the Afro-Asian and polycultural struggles of today allow us to redeem a past that has been carved up along ethnic lines by historians. To remember Bruce as I do, staring at a poster of him ca. 1974, is not to wane into nostalgia for the past. My Bruce is alive, and like the men and women before him, still in the fight. (149)
Like all edited collections, Environmental Justice contains a wealth of information on very different struggles and places, but I liked how it brought together politics, poetics and pedagogy. From the introduction by Joni Adamson, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein (3-14), this starts with some of the basic history, as how environmental struggle emerged has shaped it and is as much part of the complexities of its definition as anything else:
In the last several decades, environmental justice movements around the world have grown out of convergences between civil rights movements, antiwar and antinuclear movements, women’s movements, and grassroots organizing around environmental justice issues.
It’s defining moments, cited in every background:
1987 report sponsored by the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (UCC-CRJ), that ‘found race to be the leading factor in the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities and determined that poor and people of color communities suffer a disproportionate health risk.’ (4)
1991 – First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C.
Environmental justice movements call attention to the ways disparate distribution of wealth and power often leads to correlative social upheaval and the unequal distribution of environmental degradation and/ or toxicity. (5)
Another good definition [from Environmental Justice Literature to the Literature of Environmental Justice, Julie Sze, 163-180]:
Environmental justice is a political movement concerned with public policy issues of environmental racism, as well as a cultural movement interested in issues of ideology and representation. Environmental justice challenges the mainstream definition of environment and nature based on a wilderness/ preservationist frame by foregrounding race and labor in its definition of what constitutes “nature.” It places people, especially racialized communities and urban spaces, at the center of what constitutes environment and nature (Sze, 163).
Soenke Sehle rephrases this as she writes about pedagogy, I love both of these definitions as they bring together people and place, networks and connections:
One of the core challenges of environmental justice education is to translate the mantra of ecology (all is connected) into a web of concrete relations that includes not only ecological but cultural, economic, and political processes. Different concepts of nature correspond to actual contradictions between different and competing notions of environmental politics. (338)
There is more on the differences between the environmental and environmental justice movements, also between city and country, city and sprawl:
Much of mainstream environmentalism goes hand in hand with an uncritical acceptance of the ongoing cultural, economic, and political shift toward suburbia: many environmentalists have yet to embrace the city as an ecologically sound alternative to the sprawl at the heart of ongoing suburbanization and are, it seems, quite unlikely to do so anytime soon.
Even though the history of ecology is closely intertwined with the history of empire, environmentalism as a social and political concern is often given an exclusively “metropolitan” genealogy, omitting experiences of colonial (settler) states and histories of popular resistance. (334)
These themes of city and wilderness, colonialism and empire and struggle, are picked up in different ways by all of the different pieces in the book.
Devon Peña from a roundtable on environmental justice on economics, culture and value:
Under the capitalist system we have a very complex set of struggles that are emerging around the commodification and privatization of water. You see, for the Pueblo Indian and the Hispano Mexicano alike, water was not a commodity. It was not the exchange value that was important. So that water was treated not as a private property right, that you could sell and separate from the land. Rather, water was seen as a communal value and an ecological value that sustained a way of life in place. (22)
We need to find a pathway to ecological sustainability and social justice. My answer to that is that those ways are already there. In thousands of local efforts to create democratic workplaces, to create production processes that aren’t based on the destruction of the environment or the worker…. I urge my colleagues at the table to think how environmental justice is, in a way, moving away from the literature of toxicity to the literature of sustainability. (23)
It is hard, no? To move from toxicity? Because it kills, it kills people and it kills communities. I like this call though, to do both. To identify what is destroying lives, and to theorise how we might rebuild them, what we need to create something better. This is Terrell Dixon on the challenges involved — because toxicity works to destroy what is needed to create something better:
I emphasize that what we can call the toxicity chain is not only physical, that the way we have degraded our environment, our own bodies and those of other citizens, also creates a web of mistrust where government and corporations come under suspicion. The result is deep divisions along lines of class, ethnicity, and gender. once they see how all of this stems from how society works, or fails to work with toxicity, students come to recognize how toxicity fractures the potential for community. (24)
I like that this book tries to embody the different ways of knowing and being in the world. It is full of academic articles, but these come after the roundtable of activists, the words of people in struggle. This foregrounding of community voices is also key to environmental justice struggle and engaged scholarship. From Mei Mei Evans:
Personal testimonies have been the lifeblood of the environmental justice movement, bearing witness as they do to the material effects of policy-making, not on the corporation’s or the government’s bottom line, but on human lives. These witnessings, in other words, are not abstractions or analyses; rather, they are the chronicle of the consequences of environmental injustice. (29)
From here on to specific stories. A handful, and not even representative. The story of Point Hope, Alaska made me sick, a painful anger and sorrow in my stomach. A physical thing. This is where the logics of technology for profit divorced from any ethical frameworks of sense of responsibility to human beings or the earth lead.
In 1957, far away from Point Hope, nuclear scientists at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) established Project Plowshare, a national program to explore “peaceful” uses of nuclear bombs. Plowshare intended “to highlight the peaceful application of nuclear explosive devices and thereby create a climate of world opinion that [was] more favorable to weapons development and tests.” In order to create favorable world opinion Plowshare advocates proposed the use of nuclear bombs for civilian construction projects. Nuclear bombs could improve a “slightly flawed planet” to allow for easier extraction of natural resources and to create waterways. (106)
They wanted to test this, and settled on using bombs to create a new harbor at Cape Thompson, 30 miles South of Point Hope. I found a graphic online.
The Atomic Energy Commission called the plan to create the harbor at Cape Thompson “Project Chariot.” The original Project Chariot plans called for the equivalent of 2.4 million tons of TNT to excavate the mile by half-mile harbor and the mile by quarter-mile entrance channel, an amount of TNT 160 times that which was dropped on Hiroshima. (106)
I can’t even write that without wanting to throw up. Project Chariot was not actually carried out as planned, instead they used the site to study how radioactive materials dispersed through waterways. The military and defense implications of that are clear. And ugly.
To find out, the USGS scientists constructed twelve plots demarcated with two-by-fours. On some plots they sprinkled the radioactive sand transported to Alaska from the Nevada Test Site…. On other plots the scientists sprinkled pure forms of radioactive isotopes… (Edwards, 107)
After the experiments they bulldozed everything into a huge mound. They didn’t tell the Inupiat tribe hunting and fishing in the area anything.
The tribe is still fighting. The many forms of cancer that emerged? Doctors would consistently blame those on lifestyle choices, like smoking. The complicity, or perhaps just blindness, of doctors is visible in case after case. They are so geared to seeing medicine as an individual problem, health something we must take control over as if we lived in neutral spaces. But there are no neutral spaces.
There is a lot more to find if you begin digging into the generation and disposal of nuclear and other toxic waste. Like the way we are dumping toxic waste on the Pacific islands. This made me physically sick as well, not least because this is the kind of thinking facilitated by development capitalism:
Here, at different times, the previous colonizers and others in the nuclear arena (governments and commercial operatives) have proposed that nuclear and toxic waste be thought of by Pacific Islanders as a form of development — as a way to enter the global economy. It has been presented as their niche market, as they say in globalization discourse. (Kuletz, 130)
I didn’t know how the Western Shoshone at their annual protests of the Nevada nuclear test site (whose sands were used to poison Point Hope) created solidarity around the issue of nuclear waste, inviting people from Kazakhstan (victims of the USSR’s bombing tests) and the Pacific Islands. This Fourth World indigenous network gives some glimmers of hope.
In describing the Marshall Islands’ decision to accept waste from the US, as opposed to all those nations part of the Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific Movement (NFIP), it is interesting how Kuletz describes a new geography:
We need to see this situation spatially because it is quite literally a reorganization of space (not to mention identity) linking the Marshalls to the United States and thereby breaking the unity of Pacific Island resistance to Western neocolonial power. Space here is organized along missile corridors, training theaters, and restricted zones, as well as the construction of radioactive contamination zones, such as the Bikini Atoll or the Kwajalein lagoon, which has been polluted by depleted uranium as a result of the missile tests. (Kuletz, 137)
I found much to think about in terms of what I am working on in ‘Sustaining the “Urban Forest” and Creating Landscapes of Hope: An Interview with Cinder Hypki and Bryant “Spoon” Smith, by Giovanna Di Chiro. I very much like the format of interviews as a way to bring activist voices into conversation. In describing Baltimore — and these divisions of race and class that are so central to environmental justice, that are capable of fracturing community:
Baltimore, Maryland, one of the nation’s oldest industrial cities, is characterized by its residents as a “city of neighborhoods.” The friendly descriptor “neighborhood” invokes the notion of commitment, connection, belonging, and investment; the positive side of “community.” However, “neighborhood” also signifies the potent racial divisions — sometimes degenerating into communalism — that characterize the city’s social climate. Baltimore’s neighborhoods are primarily delineated by race and income, and residents of each neighborhood clearly recognize the unofficial boundaries that demarcate the separate sections of the city. (de Chiro, 286)
And a few words on how to move forward:
I don’t think we can transform broad political systems until we know we can transform a little bit of our own neighborhood. (Cinder Hopki, 298)
…you know how you referred to neglected and abandoned urban areas as “geographies of sacrifice”? As a poet, that term really catches at my heart. I think of all these wastelands that we’ve polluted…I would like to say that art and greening can help create “geographies of possibility,” and “geographies of hope.” (Hopki, 306)
I really liked the poetics section, I like reading about novels. Yet it always makes me feel that I would rather be the novelist than the critic, that I would be better going to the source. I have a longer list, now, of books to read, starting with Solar Storms by Linda Hogan. My next post is looking more closely at the chapter on ecocriticism by T.V. Reed but really, this section set me working harder than ever on the short stories and new novel. You know, the things I do in my free time. Being a self-supporting writer seems even crazier than becoming an academic. But both feel far away, though I did earn $10 this month for a story.
And finally the section on pedagogy. I loved this, the discussions of creating a curriculum and thinking through how to teach environmental justice brought to life far better the key ideas and themes as well as the central debates than any literature review I have read. And as a teacher, I loved thinking about ‘Teaching for Transformation’ as explored by Robert Figueroa, and the openness of Steve Chase’s article on teaching environmental justice at Antioch. I loved how they built off of popular education, and how Chase turned a moment of crisis is turned into a moment of learning that we all can share and use to improve our practice. This was invaluable.
All together I love the ways that this volume embodied a holistic approach — not just in bringing together politics, poetics and pedagogy (which would be a lot), but in bringing many voices and worldviews and struggles together through talks, testimony, articles and interviews. It is definitely a volume to learn from.
Adamson, Joni, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein (2002) Environmental Justice: Politics, Poetics and Pedagogy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Environmental Justice: A Roundtable Discussion with Simon Ortiz, Teresa Leal, Devon Peña, and Terrell Dixon, by Joni Adamson and Rachel Stein (15-28)
‘Testimonies’ – From Mei Mei Evans (29-31)
Radiation, Tobacco and Illness in Point Hope, Alaska: Approaches to the “Facts” in Contaminated Communities, Andrea Simpson, 82-104
The Movement for Environmental Justice in the Pacific Islands — Valerie Kuletz, 125-144
Sustaining the “Urban Forest” and Creating Landscapes of Hope: An Interview with Cinder Hypki and Bryant “Spoon” Smith, Giovanna Di Chiro, 284-307
Notes on Cross-Border Environmental Justice Education – Soenke Sehle (331-349)
Mindscape by Andrea Hairston is quite an incredible book, I can’t believe it’s her first. Maybe I do, because I confess it just might have taken me a little while and some work to get into it, but damn. I loved this story of hope and struggle and culture and ideals and love and death and some freaky alien future earth. It’s complex and complete with Ghost Dancers and ‘ethnic throwbacks’ in a supposedly postracial world that still hasn’t quite got there (because whiteness still seems like it’s getting in the way), technology and healers and spoken combinations of German and Yoruba. It’s also full of heat and action, symbiogenesis (taking me back to Butler) and plenty of deep thoughts on language, race and struggle. From my favourite character, Lawanda, who sticks to her talk despite being looked down upon for it:
Survival be havin’ words to call home, havin’ idioms and syntax to heal the Diaspora. In your cultural rhythm and rhyme, that’s where the soul keep time. (51)
Her lover, the Major, responds in his intellectual way:
Consider that language, despite science fantasy projections, is essentially conservative, hence our ability to communicate across generations. Even the hippest multi-channeling gearhead uses two-thousand-year-old metaphors, slang (such as “hip”) from 1900 that’s now standard, as well as jazzy, take-no-prisoners inspeak that leaves the rest of us down a corridor as the portal collapses. The battle over language, over naming and experiencing the universe, over what constitutes reality is always fierce. Ethnic throwbacks are ideal warriors in these gory cultural skirmishes. (78)
It’s still one hell of a battle, in SF as much as anywhere.
This novel is all about change through struggle, about launching yourself into the unknown and risking everything to change a world of deep pain and horror. It’s about the people who ground you while that change is happening, and the words and culture and songs you hold on to.
I love when things in life coincide, disparate things coming together at the right time — like reading this at the same time I reached the excerpt from a 1986 interview with Bernice Reagon–member of NAACP and SNCC and the Freedom Singers and Sweet Honey in the Rock, she’s amazing–in Eyes on the Prize: The Civil Rights Reader.
Funny because look here, in the epigraph for Book IV, Hairston quotes Reagon: ‘Standing in a rainstorm, I believe.’
Reagon’s interview has been one of my favourite parts so far in wading through this massive collection a day at a time. She brings together music and tradition to show the ways that these two things only truly become your own through struggle. They root you in the strength of your past, and uplift you in the movement for the future. Mindscape was full of the power of music and harmony to sculpt human and alien reality both. There is Mahalia Selasie (see what Hairston did there?) and her gospel choir working along with everyone else to create a better future, helping one lost soul after another. To heal, to open, to change. Bernice Reagon on music:
Growing up in Albany, I learned that if you bring black people together, you bring them together with a song…. Now the singing tradition in Albany was congregational. There were not soloists, there were song leaders.
Like the struggle in which you find your true self:
I know a lot of people talk about it being a movement and when they do a movement they’re talking about buses and jobs and the ICC ruling, and the Trailways bus station. Those things were just incidents that gave us an excuse to be something of ourselves. (143)
She was in Union Baptist Church after the first march, when asked to sing, she added the word “freedom” to a traditional song. She tells us:
I’d always been a singer but I had always, more or less, been singing what other people taught me to sing. That was the first time I had the awareness that these songs were mine and I could use them for what I needed them to.
At that meeting, they did what they usually do. They said, “Bernice, would you lead us in a song?” And I did the same first song, “Over My Head I See Freedom in the Air,” but I’d never heard that voice before. I had never been that me before. And once I became that me, I have never let that me go.
Reading this is pure joy, no? This is the moment that change happens.
I like people to know when they deal with the movement that there are these specific things, but there is a transformation that took place inside of the people that needs to also be quantified in the picture. (144)
This is what PauloFreire and MylesHorton and Ella Baker and Septima Clark (and I’m getting to the ladies soon, I promise) were all about, and the process that we are enveloped in through Hairston’s novel. Only there’s sex and violence and you never quite know what is going on and it’s all a bit complicated and there are a lot more ants.
I confess, I fucking hate ants. I could have done without the ants, but I honour their place in Mindscape’s mythologies. She does one hell of a job worldbuilding. Just two more quotes — and I confess I singled out the more political bits because that’s how I roll, but it is not especially how the novel rolls so don’t worry. These points are just in there because it’s people working through why things are the way they are, and this shit explains it. Why don’t I have quotes about music? I don’t know, maybe because it’s woven throughout. But I liked this:
Look, ethnic throwbacks do culture not identity politics. We don’t put stock in color. Race is how the world see you, ethnicity is how you see yourself. (121)
I smiled at the next one, I ask this question all the time:
The Last Days… People be past masters at imaginin’ the end of the world–Armageddon, Ragnarök, Götterdämmerung, Apocalypse Now, the Big Crunch–doom and gloom in the twilight of the Gods–but folk’re hard put to imagine a new day where we get on with each other, where we tear it up but keep it real. Why is that? It’s an ole question, but I gotta keep askin’.
— Geraldine Kitt, Junk Bonds of the Mind
I appreciated that in this novel nothing comes easy, least of all love (whether that be for one person or all of them). No one is perfect, but somehow people manage to pull it together and the point of it all is to imagine a new day. It’s inspiring, so maybe I’ll just end with a quote from Septima Clark, who fought all her life for justice and equality and who also knew that your humanity is found in struggle and in change.
But I really do feel that this is the best part of life. It’s not that you have just grown old, but it is how you have grown old. I feel that I have grown old with dreams that I want to come true, and that I have grown old believing there is always a beautiful lining to that cloud that overshadows things. I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift, and this has come during my old age. (Ready from Within, 125)
I love this book, and not just because this term ‘slow violence’ encapsulates so brilliantly what I have been fighting my entire life — particularly visible in fighting slum lords who made their money by providing tenants with rats, roaches, lead-poisoning, mould, asthma, rashes, depression, harassment, fear, overflowing toilets, uncertainty and a horrible dingy water-stained shade to life twenty-four hours a day seven days a week for years. But this kind of violence becomes visible in so many ways in the lives of people and communities where I have lived and worked. It has shaped so much of who I am, it is the violence of poverty and powerlessness — until a stand is made against it. Nixon writes:
…we urgently need to rethink–politically, imaginatively, and theoretically–what I call “slow violence.” By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales. (2)
Given how media and public attention works, how do we gain attention for slow-moving accumulating disaster? Especially important and requiring both thought and action because:
it is those people lacking resources who are the principle casualties of slow violence. Their unseen poverty is compounded by the invisibility of the slow violence that permeates so many of their lives (4)
This is also complicated because such environmental struggles are never ‘pure’, but form part of larger social and cultural struggles.But again, returning to their scope and duration, one of the greater challenges is that of scale:
how can we imaginatively and strategically render visible vast force fields of interconnectedness against the attenuating effects of temporal and geographical distance? (38)
…slow violence involves more than a perceptual problem created by the gap between destructive policies or practices and their deferred, invisible consequences. For in addition, slow violence provides prevaricative cover for the forces that have the most to profit from inaction…doubt is… a bankable product. (40)
It is this terminology and thinking through of slow violence that I find most useful, but I enjoyed the varied stories through the book as Nixon explores how slow violence is described and made prominent through
the complex, often vexed figure of the environmental writer-activist. (5)
He looks at their work as a way in to this, a way to act upon this:
To confront slow violence requires, then, that we plot and give figurative shape to formless threats who fatal repercussions are dispersed across space and time. The representational challenges are acute, requiring creative ways of drawing public attention to catastrophic acts that are low in instant spectacle but high in long-term effects. To intervene representationally entails devising iconic symbols that embody amorphous calamities as well as narrative forms that infuse those symbols with dramatic urgency. (10)
“the normalized quiet of unseen power.” This normalized quiet is of particular pertinence to the hushed havoc and injurious invisibility that trail slow violence. (6 — quote from ‘Wordly Humanism v. the World Builders, Counterpunch 4 August 2003)
and adds an interesting comparison this with Fanon’s work on violence, and how different this understanding of violence is as it
addresses environmentally embedded violence that is often difficult to source, oppose, and once set in motion, to reverse. (7)
Not that it is anything but complementary. In both
For if the past of slow violence is never past, so too the post is never fully post: industrial particulates and effluents live on in the environmental elements we inhabit and in our very bodies, which epidemiologically and ecologically are never our simple contemporaries. (8)
It is this very time scale that makes it so difficult to grasp and force action around. Others who have sought to grapple with it include Johan Galtung who coined the term ‘indirect or structural violence’, and sought to widen understanding of what constitutes violence from personal violence to include and ‘foreground the vast structures that can give rise to acts of personal violence and constitute forms of violence in themselves.’ (10)
structural violence is a theory that entails rethinking different notions of causation and agency with respect to violent effects. Slow violence, by contrast, might well include forms of structural violence but has a wider descriptive range in calling attention, not simply to questions of agency, but to broader, more complex descriptive categories of violence enacted slowly over time. (11)
Just one example is how we too often look at, talk about, understand war. It is bracketed in talking of casualties between firm dates, but things like land mines, agent orange, depleted uranium all stretch out those casualties through years and decades. A whole chapter here describes Gulf War Syndrome — much of this violence is ‘invisible’ to certain or all views, purposefully hidden or erased while other views and perspectives are privileged.
Slow violence of landscape and maps:
In the global resource wars, the environmentalism of the poor is frequently triggered when an official landscape is forcibly imposed on a vernacular one. A vernacular landscape is shaped by the affective, historically textured maps that communities have devised over generations, maps replete with names and routes, maps alive to significant ecological and surface geological features. A vernacular landscape, although neither monolithic nor undisputed, is integral to the socioenvironmental dynamics of community rather than being wholly externalized–treated as out there, as a separate nonrenewable resource. (17)
This made me think so much about writers like Oliver Rackham describing the changing countryside of England through processes of enclosure, and of course this is equally true of conquest and colonialisation around the world. Nixon continues:
I would argue, then, that the exponential upsurge in indigenous resource rebellions across the globe during the high age of neoliberalism has resulted largely from a clash of temporal perspectives between the short-termers who arrive (with their official landscape maps) to extract, despoil, and depart and the long-termers who must live inside the ecological aftermath and must therefore weigh wealth differently in time’s scales.
More than material wealth is here at stake: imposed official landscapes typically discount spiritualized vernacular landscapes, severing webs of accumulated cultural meaning and treating the landscape as if it were uninhabited by the living, the unborn and the animate deceased. (17)
There is so much here, the imbrications of the cultural, spiritual, physical, environmental, political…I like this poetic acknowledgement of different relations to the land.
Our perspective on environmental asset stripping should include among assets stripped the mingled presence in the landscape of multiple generations… (18)
I also love this, more resonant with indigenous struggles but also with asset-stripped inner cities and barren countrysides:
I want to propose a more radical notion of displacement, one that, instead of referring solely to the movement of people from their places of belonging, refers rather to the loss of the land and resources beneath them, a loss that leaves communities stranded in a place stripped of the very characteristics that made it habitable. (19)
Slow violence of Neoliberalism
Neoliberalism’s proliferating walls concretize a short-term psychology of denial: the delusion that we can survive long term in a world whose resources and increasingly unshared. The wall, read in terms of neoliberalism and environmental slow violence, materializes temporal as well as spatial denial through a literal concretizing of out of sight out of mind. (20)
There is some (but I would have looked forward to more I think) about walls, boundaries, what can be imagined and what can be said.
From a postcolonial perspective, the most startling feature of environmental literary studies has been its reluctance to engage the environmental repercussions of American foreign policy, particularly in relation to contemporary imperial practices. (33)
Some smart things about capitalism, that I have found echoes of in Jason Moore’s work (Capitalism and the Web of Life, which I am only partly through and also love)
capitalism’s innate tendency to abstract in order to extract, intensifying the distancing mechanisms that make the sources of environmental violence harder to track and multinational environmental answerability harder to impose. (41)
And then a number of profound thoughts around various writers and struggle and how connections have been and can be made between them. Perhaps my favourite is this mural found in County Mayo of Ken Saro-Wiwa, connecting the struggle of both communities against Shell Oil with his poetry translated into Gaelic…
Dance your anger, Dance your joys, Dance the guns to silence, dance, dance, dance…
A quarter century ago, Raymond Williams called for more novels that attend to “the close living substance” of the local while simultaneously tracing the “occluded relationships”–the vast transnational economic pressures, the labor and commodity dynamics–that invisibly shape the local. (45)
A call I hope to respond to alongside (but probably not nearly as well) as the many writers looked at here — which has generated a whole new list of books I hope to read (and numerous essays, and the below is by no means the full list but this gives you a brief idea of the scope):
Animal’s People by Indra Sinha, in a context of the Bhopal distaster, how this compares to Chernobyl
Abdelrahman Munif Cities of Salt — five novels exploring petroleum industry and deal between Saudi Arabia and the US
Genocide in Nigeria (and others) by Ken Saro-Wiwa, on Shell Oil in Nigeria
Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed on Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and the planting of trees
Anna Tsing – Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection
Richard Drayton — Nature’s Government, on Kew gardens, and network of imperial gardens, and the ideology of improvement
Jamaica Kincaid on gardens! Woot!
Ramachandra Guha – Environmentalism: A Global History
There is more on megadams, the American pastoral and its problematic nature, wandering and etc etc.
While the economic crisis has hit all of us, and hit us hard, Greece is a country riding the edges of bankruptcy, even after the intervention of the IMF and the European Union.
This intervention has come at a high price, requiring Greece to slash its national debt at a brutal cost to its own citizens.
To find out more about the impact of the crisis on the lives of people and how they are responding, I recently spoke to Antonis, who is from Greece and is a fellow graduate student at the London School of Economics.
ANDREA:Tell us a little about yourself.
ANTONIS: My name is Antonis. I’m a student here in London and I’ve lived here for quite a few years. But I’m originally from Greece. Since the revolt of 2008, together with some friends, we’ve been covering what’s been happening in Greece in a blog, the Occupied London blog. We were also running a journal, an anarchist journal, called Voices of Resistance from Occupied London. But I think our project was one where the blog completely overtook the journal itself, so that’s what we’re focusing on at the moment.
ANDREA: Would you just say a few things about how concretely the crisis has affected Greece, and how it is affecting people in their everyday lives?
ANTONIS: Obviously it’s had a massive effect on every single level — the political, the social and the everyday — all around. And it’s happened very rapidly. Its very hard to explain in a few words how big the change is because its something we are still assessing. People are still trying to grasp what has actually happened.
But to see the difference in the everyday reality in the country and in people’s mentality, even from December (which was the second to last time I visited) to March this year (which was the last time I was there) is tremendous. To put it quickly, pretty much everyone, or at least most people I know who work in the public sector (and the public sector is huge), are facing the same sort of decrease in their wages — about 20 to 30 % of their total wages, anywhere between the two roughly. And they probably are faced with even higher cuts in their pensions — if you ever get to get a pension, the way things are going.
The private sector is about to go through the same kind of process and the cost of life overall has increased tremendously. Just to bring one example out of many: the cost of gas, from August 2009 to what they predict it’s going to be in a couple of months (in August 2010) has gone up by about 150%.
ANDREA:So how are people reacting to this? I know there was a general strike just a few weeks ago…
ANTONIS: Four weeks ago… There’s been a few general strikes actually; the one on May 5th was the fourth in 2010 if I’m not mistaken. Which is not that much, by Greek standards, you would usually have at least a couple of general strikes in a year anyway.
ANDREA:And so when you say general strike, is it really everything that shuts down?
ANTONIS: Pretty much. Airports completely shut down, transport is completely out. And the largest part of the public sector. Not the private sector, and of course one of the sectors where people are pretty much bullied into working is the banking sector, and that’s why the people who died on May 5th were actually in the bank working, they were forced to work, and threatened with being fired if they did not stay in the bank working. So the answer to that is yes, one reaction has been these relatively frequent general strikes. But then, the atmosphere in the country after May 5th has changed dramatically, people are very scared, they’ve been very taken aback by the level of violence on that day.
They are expecting more trouble even though this summer is probably going to be a dead period because nothing ever happens in Greece in the summer: It is way, way too hot for any kind of action! But come September … we are expecting, quite realistically, that anywhere between September and December the country is going to default; it is also most of the economists are predicting this, so of course it will be interesting to see what happens then.
ANDREA: So you don’t think that Germany will step in again, or that the rest of the European union will bail them out?
ANTONIS: It seems like it’s pretty much inevitable, that Greece’s default is something just waiting to happen and they are trying to allow it to happen in the most painless way for them, not for the people in Greece of course.
ANDREA: So what kind of alternatives are people talking about, are people thinking about long term change at this point, or that this is an opportunity to have a different sort of economy or different way of life aside from capitalism, is that being discussed?
ANTONIS: I guess there are two kind of tendencies toward which people are moving. One is individualization and a kind of despair: you hear a lot of stories, very personal stories about people going on anti-depressants after looking at the prospects of what is coming ahead. And of course this is really bad. But at the same time there is another tendency, of a lot of people trying to organize, to work collectively. There are a few projects being planned at the moment and they are going to be rolling out in the next few months, to head toward a more self-organized economy at least on a very local level. So people are talking about anything from self-organized bakeries to self-organized soup kitchens. Which on the one hand is emergency relief, but on the other people are really trying to avoid, I think, these projects taking the character of charity. We want them to be more of a solidarity thing, so it’s going to be emergency relief for now, but also a structure that could live through the entire crisis itself and into the future.
ANDREA: So you’re going to be working in a bakery, right?
ANTONIS: That’s the plan.
ANDREA: So how did you set that up?
ANTONIS: I mean it’s still very much on paper, it’s just an idea we’ve been having. But we just said, you know, hell, we have to build on the ideas that we had and the experiences that we had from comrades abroad, in different projects abroad, the cooperative movement in this country but also in the States, as far as I know, it’s huge. So we can build on this experience, and build on the experience of, say, the Italian self-organizing autonomia movement. And we’re trying to combine the two, and of course many of us have seen that large part of the population is coming to the threshold of starvation, of bare survival, and so you have to kick in at that point and try to address these people and their needs. Again, like I said, absolutely not as some sort of top-down charity and “we’re here to help you” kind of attitude, but to organize with them.
ANDREA: So just one last question, if you could tell a little bit the story of December Park?
ANTONIS: This park is quite amazing, the history of this space. It’s what used to be an abandoned parking lot only a few meters away from where this kid Alexis was shot in December 2008, and of course his assassination triggered the revolt of December, so symbolically it’s very important. An abandoned ex-parking lot was lying there unused for many years, and a few months after the revolt a group of people came in, mostly local residents, and said “we are going to take over the space.” Athens has very few green spaces and very few public spaces, so they said, “we are going to turn this into one.” In a way, this is not too far from the kind of guerrilla gardening that you’d maybe see in New York and other places, but at the same time very specific to the Greek situation, a very strongly political space. So people have done a really amazing job in transforming the ex-parking into one of the nicest spots in Exarcheia, and ever since it has been very lively. Many political demonstrations start and end in this park, and of course it has attracted a lot of notice from the police: there has been at least three major raids by now. In the last raid more than 70 people, and two dogs, were detained by the police.
ANDREA: Two dogs? [laughing]
ANTONIS: Yeah. [also laughing]
ANDREA: That’s not funny at all…[still laughing]… so basically over the summer you’re going to work to build something…
ANTONIS: That’s the idea, and the main thing, and this is where I want to utilize the blog and any means of communication we’ve got with other people abroad, is to build on the experience of other people and other movements that went through something even vaguely similar to this. So Argentina is very important to us, Italy historically is very important to us, but also the States and the UK in relation to this kind of cooperative movement are important to us as well.
ANDREA: All right, so I suppose we’ll be checking back in with you in September?