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Public Art of All Kinds, NY

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The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on the Lower East Side

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…

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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?

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:

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Housing co-ops:

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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:

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New YorkAnd 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.

 

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Environmentalism and Economic Justice in the Southwest: Laura Pulido

Laura Pulido is one of my heroes, and returning to Environmentalism and Economic Justice now that I have some disposable income to buy it…well. It’s brilliant. (Though actually I am realising I don’t actually have any real disposable income at all. Breaks my heart).  It brings together the theory that I believe most needs to be brought together, using the postcolonial and subaltern theory to look at struggles in the US and knocking apart some of the most frustrating aspects of writing around ‘new social movements’ and social movement in general. Then rebuilding it of course, in ways I find particularly useful and illuminating.

Subalternity is not often used in relation to the U.S. — this is how Pulido describes the economic structures and the role of racism in creating conditions of subalternity:

…subaltern environmentalism is embedded in material and power struggles, as well as questions of identity and quality of life. Dominated communities engaged in environmental struggles do not disaggregate their various identities and needs. Although they may engage in strategic essentialism, the practice of reifying aspects of one’s identity for political purposes, they recognize the multiple identities and the various lines of domination and power that need to be resisted and challenged. They build complex movements which simultaneously address issues of identity as well as a wide range of economic issues (production, distribution, and uneven development), thereby defying the various models and paradigms social scientists have created to impose meaning on collective action, in particular, environmentalism. (xv)

This is because for some communities, environmental problems are not just simple quality of life issues, rather:

From the perspective of marginalized communities, environmental problems reflect, and may intensify, larger existing inequalities and uneven power relations. (xv)

While Pulido celebrates the new, postmodern opening up to struggles beyond production such as identity, I love her argument against ditching political economy. Love that she looks to Watts as well as to Arturo Escobar to bring the two together. Because poor people of color experience a complex reality in which resistance is required along lines of both class and race among other things. We need to understand

how multiple forces interact in creating inequality and oppression, and how complex struggles form to overcome it. (xviii)

Elsewhere she writes this intersectionality:

Even though their struggles may be categorized as class conflict, racism, or patriarchal resistance, what is usually at stake are multiple forms of domination, exploitation, and resistance, that narrow applications of class may prevent us from appreciating. (5)

The two studies featured in this volume were chosen to complement the principal focus of environmental justice work at the time, on toxics primarily in urban areas. I like how this expands the focus — though of course, so much work has been done in the past eleven years to further develop this, as can be seen in The Colors of Nature or The Environmental Justice Reader.

A final ingredient is the focus on struggle, and that of course, it recognises that oppression also helps create the conditions for its resistance:

For oppressed communities, a dignified life means being able to live free of cultural oppression and racial and ethnic inequality. Hence, while culture and racism are critical to understanding oppression, they are also essential to illuminating the process of mobilization (xx).

So a good summary of the subaltern nature of environmental justice struggles:

This new form of environmentalism goes by a variety of headings: grassroots, popular, livelihood, resistance, environmental justice, and resource struggles. What they all share is a counterhegemonic, or subaltern, location — they exist in opposition to prevailing powers. (4)

New Social Movements (NSMs)

For NSM researchers, identity has emerged as as a key area of focus…understanding how individuals coalesce and fashion new collective identities is the crucial question in understanding the emergence of social movements.

I understand why she has to engage with this literature more broadly, it was the thing after all. But still I am frustrated with its limitations. Of course Pulido also brings in old favourites — on the transition to post-fordism, she looks to Stuart Hall (1991) to understand the new decentring of self and identity, and how we are made up multiple identities and positions, identify in multiple different ways. Gilroy is in here too on the complexities of it all.

Useful.

The claim that NSMs are only about quality of life issues, or the disagreement over whether racial struggles are NSMs or should be catagorised among older movements? Not so useful. Pulido writes:

The concept of NSMs has become problematic precisely because it has been so widely applied. In reality, its true value is in helping us see what is unique about a limited number of movements. (12)

The idea that some people have to struggle on multiple fronts? Obvious I would have thought, and yet…apparently not to everyone. But it is to subaltern scholars:

Subaltern movements are simultaneously about both material concerns and systems of meaning, thereby challenging the notion that identity issues are not of concern to those struggling to survive.

She quotes Arturo Escobar rather extensively (I love Escobar, haven’t managed to write about him yet, and will find it difficult precisely because of the desire to quote him even more extensively than I usually quote people, his book is full full full of underlining)

It is essential to recognize the importance of economic factors and their structural determinants. But just as crucial as the reconstruction of economies — and indelibly linked to it — is the reconstitution of meanings at all levels, from everyday life to national development. Social movements must be seen equally and inseparably as struggles over meanings as well as material conditions, that is, as cultural struggles…  Contemporary social movements in Latin America have a multiple character, as economic, social, political and cultural struggles.(Escobar 1992b)

She continues:

I would argue that the same could be said for the environmental struggles of the subaltern, regardless of their location. (13)

It works well, I think, to see the struggles of people in the colour and potentially the poor more broadly in the US in these terms, and I like the opportunities it opens up for broader alliances across race and nationality and particularly across national borders. I also think there is still a lot of work to be done here:

Activists are acutely aware that racism is manifest in every corner of society and that racist attitudes are deeply entrenched and institutionalized, but they have not developed a textured understanding of how racism interacts with various economic forces and hegemonic forms of cultural life. Instead, they have emphasized overt forms of discrimination… (17)

At the same time I think this is worth saying (and so eloquently):

It could be argued that for racially oppressed groups, racism is the primary axis of domination. All encounters of the oppressed–whether in the job market, at school, at home, or as a consumer–are experienced through racial subordination. Conversely, the racialized structure of the United States results in a benefit to whites. White privilege is so hegemonic that few whites are even cognizant of it. (18)

This stuff is… really hard, and I think people are all over the place in terms of how clearly they understand it and how well they are able to articulate it. It certainly shapes struggle though, and where communities are at. Pulido quotes Robert Bullard’s insight that African Americans really came to understand the importance of environmental issues only after linking them to civil rights and inequality.

The key to …  inclusion rest on linking environmental issues with the social justice concerns of minority communities… (Bullard 1993a)

I’m wondering for how many other issues this might be true, and what this means for white consciousness. But the point is well made:

This is critical to understanding the dominant discourse of subaltern environmental struggles in the United States. Racism and the struggle for equality are the entry point for marginalized groups in the United States; livelihood is the entry point for Third World communities. (19)

Positionality

I found Pulido’s thinking here so so useful in thinking about positionality in a robust and useful way, something I feel like I’ve been stumbling around my whole life with gradually increasing clarity:

I argue that the issue of positionality is most important in distinguishing mainstream and subaltern environmentalism. Activists of all sorts may be involved in the same environmental issue and even have the same political line, but mainstream and subaltern actors hold different positions within the socioeconomic structure that, in turn, frame their struggles differently. It is important to realize that positionality does not refer to a specific person or group per se but is rather a position that can be filled by any individual.

Contrary to mainstream efforts are the actions of subaltern environmental movement who, because of their position, are not in control of the economy and, in general, do not benefit from a continuation of the status quo. For these individuals, environmental issues are important in that they affect their livelihood or impact their health and physical well-being. Consequently, not only are they more physically and socially vulnerable, but they may require a change in the prevailing social relations tor each a satisfactory solution. Hence, on a very fundamental level, participants in subaltern struggles encounter environmental concerns not only from a different perspective, but also from a different structural position that may entail entirely different solutions and course of action. (28)

It emerged so clearly in both our organising and my own research the ways that these structural positions demand recognition in both strategy and goals in ways that people outside the struggle often do not understand:

Due to their position, the subaltern are not able to distance themselves from the political or economic consequences of either the problem or the proposed solutions. (29)

I think the key here is, does someone, do you benefit from the maintenance of the status quo? If you do, better said where you do because almost all of us have aspects of our identity that do not, then it is certain you’ll have some blindspots. It is nice to see it so clearly explained why there cannot just be one axis. But also the way Pulido grounds her work in economic relations, so she is also able to:

recognize how economic relations are mutually constituted by racism and issues of identity. A materialist analysis is crucial in identifying the structures and forces leading to the formation of subaltern environmental struggles. (31)

And highlights some of the key questions in looking at movement and thinking about resistance:

The task is to identify the ways in which racism, cultural oppression and identity interact with economic forces to create unique forms of domination and exploitation. (32)

Above all this book explores how important culture is to these positions — and the ability to find strength there:

For subaltern groups, quality-of-life issues are expressed within their economic projects. “People fight not only for more but for the possibility of defining a way of life expressive of deeply held values” (Plotke 1990, 93)

Given the development of white supremacy, these values are often key both to imagining alternatives, and to challenging the constantly promoted superiority of whiteness.

Racism must be challenged in the economic, social and cultural spheres.

Consequently, while the UFWOC’s [United Farm Worker of California] movement is a class conflict, it was also an antiracist struggle. It was antiracist in its efforts to counter the racialized division of labor, a racist class structure, as well as the larger racist ideology which rendered rural Chicanos as a despised population. (32)

Again this is part of identifying the multiple modes of oppression, of fighting on all fronts:

When poverty, racism, and culture come together to oppress people, they also interact to create unique forms of oppression that become the basis of resistance. Each of these factors must be countered individually and collectively, and one of the first steps in attempting to do so is the creation of an affirming, collective identity. (33)

Some axes, some definitions

Gender

I struggled a lot with why I have not focused on gender in my own work, and again Pulido nailed exactly why I did not and why I was uncomfortable with doing so artificially — in the struggles she studied gender was not articulated as an axis of domination and resistance, so she chose not to include gender as its own axis as it were. While ever present as an issue, Pulido writes:

Emphasizing this line of inquiry, however, would have take the analysis in a different direction, emphasizing unspoken forms of consciousness and interaction. … the fact remains that gender was not strategically used by the organizations in either understanding their oppression or mobilizing against it. For this reason I did not make it a separate category. Instead, it us interwoven throughout the discussion and reflects not only individual gender consciousness, but its intersection with other dynamics that create fully textured lives. (33)

Poverty

The definitions found here are great, especially in the ways that they build on — while also moving beyond — traditional Marxist understandings:

In short, there are many ways to be poor and economically marginal which are beyond the bounds of class. Understanding the specific conditions and relationships which give rise to poverty and inequality is essential in order to analyze them and ascertain the motivating force of struggles. (34)

Looking at Northern New Mexico, and its underdevelopment it becomes more clear just how this works, and how this is connected to space and place:

Because they have been relatively exempt from the homogenizing forces of modernity, such communities often carry the illusion of a traditional lifestyle…

It is imperative to understand the role of capital in the creation of places. (35)

This does not discount the importance of class, or the division of labour as an important analytical category in all advanced economies, but it explores the complexity of this as it intersects, or too often overlaps far too perfectly, with race. While there may be contradictions, too often

there may be an almost perfect fit, leading to a racialized division of labor. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than among California farmworkers. (37)

Like Harvey’s more flexible reading of Marx, Pulido emphsasis the relational aspect of class, an individual can occupy more than one class position. At the same time there is often a collective relationship rather than just an individual one.

Of course, neither poor people nor workers automatically constitute a class. Only when people unite to struggle on issues related to production, the appropriation of surplus value, and domination — only when they exist in opposition — do they then become a class. (39)

This raises the question of domination and power, and resistance to it.

Racism

Race is socially constructed. Of course. She uses Peter Jackson’s definition of racism (1987) which I hadn’t come across before (I don’t think?)

…a set of interrelated ideologies and practices that have grave material effects, severely effecting black people’s life chances and threatening their present and future well-being (1987, p 3)

But expanded beyond the Black/white binary of course. I like this definition very much. Another key:

In order to be effective, a racist ideology must become so pervasive and natural that it becomes hegemonic, and therefore, rarely questioned. (43)

Interesting too, how this becomes transferred to behaviours:

Although much of our racial discourse centers on the words “color” and “skin” — and although many people continue to be racist based solely on the idea of phenotype — skin color has essentially become a signifier for behavior considered objectionable by the dominant group. (44)

and both become tied up with neighbourhood and place, as described by Charles Mills.

Identity

As NSM literature demonstrates, the formation of a collective identity is a necessary first step in building a movement. People, regardless of how oppressed they might be, do not inevitably have a common identity. A shared identity must be cultivated and refined through interaction and struggle with other groups. (46) … while an affirmative identity will not necessarily lead to mobilization, it is, at the least, crucial to retaining one’s dignity in the face of oppression. (47)

The point is how to make it an affirming, positive identity, and as inclusive as possible…it would be good to think more about that and I think some people are. Strategic essentialism is part of this perhaps. For those who complain endlessly about identity politics:

Obviously, the creation of an affirmative identity can never be fully distinguished from resistance because the action and consciousness required to build such an identity, even if it simply allows one to live with a shred of dignity, is an act of resistance and an exercise of power in itself. It is the power of self that is the crucial first step in imagining the possibility of resistance or another reality. In my study of subaltern Chicano environmental struggles, ethnicity was the primary form of identification, and culture provided much of the raw material for that identity. (47)

The question, as I say, is how this is developed through struggle and conscientização so that it builds towards alliances, solidarity, broadening of movement.

Ethnicity

Quotes Aldrich, Carter, Hone and McEvoy (48):

Ethnicity is the identity which members of the group place upon themselves, race is a label foisted on to them by non-members… While racial identity may be a crippling disability, ethnicity acts as a positive force for the protection and promotions of group interests.

I never thought of it like this… I have so much more reading to do I know. I still think of it as defined on the immigration forms I helped people fill out long ago.

Anyway. To end. Without getting much into the struggles themselves, whose inspiration fills the bulk of the book and I loved and might find time to write more about.

Bringing it all together?

So how does Pulido connect political economy to these concepts, these axes of domination and subordination? She describes three cultural concepts that are helpful:

  1. Bauman’s concepts of differential and hierarchical culture (1973).  Anglo-American culture is regularly seen, described, taught as better than others, part of the necessary struggle is that subaltern cultures turn this on its head.
  2. Values, beliefs and material culture… different cultural forms exist in subaltern struggles which can become outward symbols and expressions of cultural differences and ways of proclaiming that there is an alternative. Examples are UFWOC’s use of La Virgen de Guadalupe, or Ganados anchoring their economic development project in wool and weaving.
  3. Praxis. She defines this in a unique way (to me, I am wonderig if this is how it is used in postcolonial studies) and I like how it brings together resistance, culture and material struggle:

Praxis is action. It is the social relations that actually create a culture. It is the stuff of which culture (and life) is made. Praxis usually refers to practices of which people are not overtly conscious but which appear to be the natural way of doing things. An illustration of praxis is how people organize their family life. Praxis is critical to understanding domination, mobilization and resistance. … In order for a movement to be successful, it must begin where people are. It must begin with the familiar and everyday. One reason that both of these case studies were successful was the emphasis on praxis, which allowed people to feel comfortable in new experiences and situations. (55)

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Manning Marable on the Second Reconstruction

Manning Marable’s Race, Reform and Rebellion is a most solid history of struggle and resistance over the past sixty years.

The title reflected the general historical parallels between the “first Reconstruction” following the U.S. Civil War, occurring from 1865 to 1877, and the dramatic political struggles represented by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Both of these turbulent phases of U.S. history were periods of intense political conflicts and ideological debates about the future of African American people within U.S. democracy. (vii)

Manning Marable pulls no punches either.

More than any other modern nation in the world, with the possible exception of South Africa, the United States developed from the beginning a unique socio-economic structure and a political apparatus which was simultaneously racist, stubbornly capitalist, and committed to a limited form of bourgeois democracy: a racist/capitalist state. (4)

This is a brilliant and detailed book, so I’ve just pulled out some of my favourite facts and quotes from it, but highlighted Marable’s divisions of history, and his characterisations of each period, giving what he argues is the flow of recent movement.

First Reconstruction:

I still haven’t read W.E.B. Du Bois on this, I am still promising to make this failing good. But to turn to Marable’s work, there is some awesomeness in here as background to more modern struggle. Like the fact that in 1865, in Washington D.C., Sojourner Truth led a boycott of public transportation facilities to protest segregated street cars.

In 1865, the first bus boycott.

Again it highlights how many rights were erased over a period of only a few years — that we have not been steadily moving forward as I feel we are taught, but catching up to a period just after the Civil War. In Alabama, 181,000 blacks were eligible to vote in 1900, two years later there were only 3,000 registered black voters.

How in the hell does this sit with notions of democracy? Understand this, and much becomes clear I think. Marable writes:

The Jim Crow system of racial exploitation was, like slavery, both a caste/ racial order for regimenting cultural and political relations, and an economic structure which facilitated the superexploitation of blacks’ labor power. Unlike slavery, Jim Crow was much more clearly capitalistic, since white owners of factories did not have to purchase entire black families in order to obtain the service of a single wage-earner. However, in both caste/ racial relations, both systems were dependent on the omnipresence of violence or coercion. (10)

Quotes W. E. B. Du Bois — such an incredible quote, and the best possible explanation of why standpoint theory is important:

This the American black man knows: his fight here is a fight to the finish. Either he dies or he wins. If he wins it will be by no subterfuge or evasion of amalgamation. He will enter modern civilization in America as a black man on terms of perfect and unlimited equality with any white man, or he will enter not at all. Either extermination root and branch or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This is the last great battle of the West.
— from Black Reconstruction, p 703 (p 11)

I know I am more interesting in continuation, in how movements grow and build off of the work of the past, with the support of elders in the struggle. I look at the lives of people like Ella Baker, organisations like the Highlander and SCEF and how important they were over decades. Look at all of the many people and institutions in place making the Montgomery Boycott possible, for example, and that it really sprang out of the active work of women’s groups and Jo Ann Robinson, as well as some leadership from E.D. Nixon as claimed here.  This means I am a little wary of  claims that there was little popular protest for segregation between the end of WWII and the Montgomery County bus boycott in December 1955 — and for this reason also little studied. I think maybe now we realise we didn’t know how much protest there was because it was little studied, but by that I don’t mean to lessen the impact of the repression brought during this period or deny there was a huge increase in the mid-50s:

The impact of the Cold War, the anti-communist purges and near-totalitarian social environment, had a devastating impact upon the cause of blacks’ civil rights and civil liberties. (17)

I didn’t know or had forgotten that in 1944, Blacks in South Carolina formed the Progressive Democratic Party to challenge white democrats, had organized chapters in 39 of state’s 46 counties. Carried some momentum after the war. Marable argues it had slowed down by early 1950s, still an important early movement.

I also can’t say how nice it is to see the damage of anti-communism spelled out:

In the face of growing racist opposition, the NAACP counseled continued reliance upon the Truman administration, legal challenges to segregation laws, and a general policy which spurned direct action. The failure and tragedy of this conservative approach to social change was in its parochial vision and tacit acceptance of the Cold War politics. By refusing to work with Marxists, the NAACP lost the most principled anti-racist organizers and activists… The anti-communist impulse even affect CORE, to its detriment. (25)

Marable describes how CORE had ‘all but ceased to exist’ by 1954, after the red scare. (26) It would continue to be haunted by a fear of communism. Marable looks as well to the impact of the government’s prosecution of Du Bois.  Despite his acquittal all his works were removed from libraries and universities. He had his passport withheld by the State department. During it all,

The NAACP Legal Defense lawyers made no overtures to provide assistance. The central office contacted NAACP local chapters with strongly worded advice about “not touching” Du Bois’s case. (27)

It makes me so frustrated to read, even now distanced as I am. I am glad this was said:

By serving as the “left wing of McCarthyism,” Randolph, White and other Negro leaders retarded the black movement for a decade or more. (31)

There must be more analysis of this turn to the right…but then having read Walter White’s autobiography it is perhaps not altogether surprising.

There is the class composition of white reaction:

In 1955-59, White Citizens’ Councils were initiated in almost every southern city, comprised chiefly of middle-to-upper income whites in business, white-collar professionals and the clergy, who vigorously opposed desegregation. (42)

And then one of the more useful characterisations of black nationalism over time that I have read:

Since the 1850s, a significant portion of the African American people have tended to support the ideals of black nationalism, defined here in part, as a rejection of racial integration; a desire to develop all-black socio-economic institutions; an affinity for the cultural and political heritage of black Africa; a commitment to create all-black political structures to fight against white racism; a deep reluctance to participate in coalitions which involved a white majority; the advocacy of armed self-defense of the black community; and in religion and culture, an ethos and spirituality which consciously rejected the imposition of white western dogmas. At certain historical moments, such as in the 1850s and the 1920s, a majority of the black working class, rural farmers and the poor were in their political and social behavior extremely nationalistic. (53)

Brilliant. It encompasses Marcus Garvey, of course, later dominated by the the Nation of Islam. A brief note on the genius of Malcolm (Marable’s book on Malcolm X also high on to-read list)

Malcolm X made the simple distinction between desegregation and integration which Farmer, Rudolph, Wilkins, Marshall and other Negro leaders could never grasp. “It is not a case of [dark mankind] wanting integration or separation, it is a case of wanting freedom, justice, and equality. It is not integration that Negroes in America want, it is human dignity. (55 — Malcolm X and James Farmer, ‘separation or Integration: A Debate’ Dialogue Magazine 2 (May 1962))

Anyway, on to Marable’s descriptions of the Phases of the Second Reconstruction:

We Shall Overcome 1960-1965

The Second Reconstruction actually began in earnest on the afternoon of 1 February 1960. (59)

He dates this from the first sit in, by students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Izell Blair.

Black Power 1965-1970

This witnessed a key theoretical and strategic movement, partially embodied in King’s move in 1966 away from reform, towards an understanding:

that America’s political economy of capitalism had to be transformed, that the Civil Rights Movement’s old goals of voter education, registration, and desegregated public facilities were only a beginning step… (101)

For Manning 4 pivotal factors explained the rapid collapse of the Jim Crow system during the 1950s and 1960s:

(1) the outbreak of the Cold War…which resulted in international pressures for American governments to abandon support for their undemocratic and irrational policies of racial domination;

(2) the independence from European colonial rule of Caribbean and African states…

(3) the great migration of five million African American sharecroppers and working people from the South into the urban ghettoes of the Midwest and Northeast between 1940 and 1970, a migration that transformed the political character of urban society and deeply influenced the patterns of American popular cuture, sports, education and social relations; and

(4) most important, the growth of popular democratic resistance movements, led by King and thousands of local activists, that used the nonviolent, direct-action protest techniques of Mohandas Gandhi’s satyagraha. (210)

Black Rebellion: Zenith and Decline 1970-1976

An interesting return to class here, I like that the intersectionlity is highlighted here:

Most historians fail to observe that the massive efforts waged for desegregation and, to a lesser extent, for Black Power, were basically workers’ movement. Black workers had comprised the great majority of those who had sacrificed during the local battles to uprrot Jim Crow. (112)

Again there is noted the move of Bayard Rustin and A Phillip Randolph to the right of labor over the 1960s, but interesting in the ways that this opened up space for new leadership in the movement, challenge and change.

There is the 1972 Gary Convention — the largest black political convention in U.S. history. Marable sees this as the zenith. About 3000 delegates attended from all strands of the movement, as well  a total of around 12,000 people over the whole of its course. He writes:

The collective vision of the convention represented a desire to seize electoral control of America’s major cities, to move the black masses from the politics of desegregation to the politics of real empowerment, ultimately to create their own independent black political party.

What almost no nationalists and only a very few BEOs recognized before maneuvering for political power were the many structural crises which confronted America’s major cities. (121)

Some of the flowering of this could be found in the documents collected in Eyes on the Prize, some of the sterling work and words of new black mayors. But Marable notes that no one then knew the real condition of the finances of the cities, what the fate of these efforts would eventually be.

This was part of the decline, and then there was white reaction. A campaign around ‘law-and-order’ by Nixon and friends, because

‘It was clear that many white American shad to be prepared ideologically to accept the massive violation of civil liberties, the denial of human rights, and the illegal executions which were necessary to blunt the rhetoric and reality of black militancy.(124)

They more than succeeded.

From Protest to Politics: The Retreat of the Second Reconstruction 1976-1982

This is just sad and depressing. I stopped wondering why we are nostalgic for the 60s and 70s a while ago, after reading Angela Davis’s autobiography where she is so sure the revolution will come any day, after reading book after book full of people who believed a new world was possible and was on its way. I don’t think anyone in my generation could really believe that, though perhaps today’s youth are managing.

There is a rather fascinating aside about Reverend Jones and the People’s Temple, which flirted with politics, with AIM, which registered and turned out voters in California.  Then it relocated to a 3,000-acre estate in Guyana called ‘Jonestown’ with 1000 American citizens living there. Investigate by a Congressman, who was then murdered with his party then the whole camp committed suicide. This story has so many parallels with Ti West’s The Sacrament, which we watched not so long ago. But that is a digression.

There’s a decent discussion of problems with sexism, the prevalent view that racism was specially damaging to black manhood, which meant women needed to support their men rather than fight their own struggles. So this period did see a great flowering of black feminism, a true gift to struggle. Here there is discussion of bell hooks and Angela Davis, lights in a dark time.

There’s the growth of the Klan through the 1970s and into the 80s.

Then there’s the defection of Rev Abernathy and Hosea Williams to Reagan’s camp. That shit is crazy, I was too young to know just how crazy. This constant bleeding to the right.

Reaction: Black Society and Politics Diring Reagen Conservatism 1982-1990

This was a grim time, but there is some helping thinking through the larger picture behind what was happening here. The solidifying of class boundaries:

But opportunity in a capitalist society is always a function of social class position, which means ownership of capital, material resources, education and access to power. For the unemployed, the poor and those without marketable skills or resources, for those whose lives were circumscribed by illiteracy, disease and desperation, “race” continued to be a central factor in their marginal existence. (184)

The intersection of race and class. There is an interesting look at the difference between ethnicity and race. Ethnicity, Marable argues, ‘was derived from the cultural synthesis of the population’s African heritage and its experiences in American society…’, while on the other hand:

Race is a totally different dynamic, rooted in the structures of exploitation, power and privilege. “Race” is an artificial social construction, which was deliberately imposed on various subordinated groups of people at the outset of the expansion of European capitalism into the western hemisphere five centuries ago. the “racial” consciousness and discourse of the West was forged above the bowels of slave ships… (185)

So what does this mean then, for African Americans and others in the U.S.:

Race, therefore, is not an abstraction but an unequal relationship between social aggregates, which is also historically specific. the subordinated racial group finds itself divorced from the levers of power and authority within the socio-economic order. ..The racial group’s political status is marginal or peripheral, as full participation and legislative representation are blocked. Finally, racial categories are constantly reinforced in the behaviors and social expectations of all groups by the manipulation of social stereotypes and use of the legal system to carry out methods of coercion. (186)

And what does it mean for whites?

White power, privileges and prerogatives within the capitalist economy and the political and social system do exist. Whiteness is fundamentally an index of the continued patterns of exploitation of subordinated racial groups which create economic surpluses for privileged groups. to be “white” in racial terms essentially means that one’s life chances improve dramatically over those of nonwhites, in terms of access to credit, capital, quality housing, health care, political influence, ad equitable treatment in the criminal justice system. (186)

There is also this curious feeling that I have heard so often expressed in so many different ways — the most recent and the most brilliantly memorable being Paul Beatty’s The Sellout:

No black American could ever be “nostalgic” for Jim Crow. Nevertheless, the absence of a personal background of struggle casts a troubled shadow over the current generation of black Americans who are poorly equipped to grapple with the present complexities of racial and class domination. (188)

Marable argues the existence of two central crises in the 1980s and early 1990s — the external:

federal government’s retreat from equality and consolidation of mass conservatism.

All under Reagan. The internal?

the ordeal of the African American family, neighborhood, cultural and social institutions, caught in the vise of violence, crime, social destruction and drugs. (188)

The 1980s, he argues, saw a fundamental political shift:

for black Americans, the central political characteristic of the 1980s was the conservative reaction to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the apparent capitulation of both political parties to a more conservative and repressive social order. (194)

With a brief aside about Larouche (I had almost forgotten about him!), the reality of this shift must be faced:

In the 1980s, more than anything else, Reaganism represented a break with the half-century-old notion among both Democrats and Republicans that the state had a political and ethical obligation to reduce the vast chasm separating the society’s wealthiest classes from the poor and the unemployed. (203)

Into the Wilderness: the Twilight of the Second Reconstruction 1990-2001

God this period is grim, I know, because I’ve lived through it. I read through this section, got through it, continued on.

The New Racial Domain: The Politics of Racial Inequality

Things are continuing pretty badly. Marable flags up one of the key characteristics of our modern era:

The cardinal characteristic of the New Racial Domain of post-Second Reconstruction America was the hegemony of “color-blindness” and race-neutrality. (250)

This is one he talks much more about elsewhere. And with this we reach the end of the book, though not the struggle.

[Marable, Manning (2007) Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945-2006, 3rd edition. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.]

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Peet & Watts: Liberation Ecologies

How did I go so long with learning about liberation ecology, or reading Arturo Escobar or understanding the ways in which they renovate Marxism with the plethora of new ideas emerging from struggle in the developing world, particularly around environmental justice. The context?  ‘…a new emphasis on nature-society relations in fin-de-siecle atmosphere…’

— collapse of many actually-existing socialisms
— resurgence of environmentalist concerns articulated explicitly in global terms
— rise of political ecology (2)

I found this introduction incredibly rich, incredibly brilliant, and quite hard to get through. But in a nutshell, it was worth it entirely as this is the goal:

Looking to help create ‘a more robust political ecology which integrates politics more centrally, draws upon aspects of discourse theory which demand that the politics of meaning and the construction of knowledge be taken seriously, and engages with the wide-ranging critique of development and modernity particularly associated with Third World intellectuals and activists such as Vandana Shiva, Arturo Escobar, and Victor Toledo. … new theoretical engagement between political ecology and poststructuralism on the one hand, and a practical political engagement with new movements, organizations, and institutions of civil society… (3)

I love Vandana Shiva — she transformed by thinking, and Arturo Escobar is doing the same. Victor Toledo is now on my list. So back to the origins of political ecology:

Political ecology — the effort begin in the 1980s to “combine the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy… [which] encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources” (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987: 17).

Key scholars: Susanna Hecht, Harold Brookfield, Anna Bramwell, Susan Stonich, Michael Redclift and Ram Guha. A key text for future reference is Blaikie and Brookfield’s Land Degradation and Society. for all of them, poverty is the central variable in ecological deterioration, not population, market distortion or mismanagement. I though simultaneously ‘hurrah’, and also ‘it’s not rocket science’, but apparently for many people it is. I suppose poverty is not nice to look it, and its solution demands structural change.

What I love most about this chapter is how it summarises various currents of thought, containing wonderful matrices of the phases and major figures in the literature — here is development, which I am still fairly ignorant of:

Peet and Watts Development discourseThere is also a good summary of social movement theory, one that is so much more satisfying than say, Tarrow, Meyer & Tarrow or Gamson, not least because it finally gives a good summary of the traditional Marxist view:

‘The productive transformation of nature is the primary activity making possible the whole structure of human existence… from a dialectical view, societal dynamics emerge from contradictory oppositions in the material reproduction of existence, conflicts between the forces of production and a limited natural environment for example, which result in crises. These moments of contradictory crisis are, for classical Marxists, the contexts in which class existing “in-itself” engages in intensified political struggle and becomes class “for-itself,” that is a group with collective identity, a collective agent which forces necessary social and environmental transformations. In Marx’s own words, class is the main form of social engagement, and control of the means of production its primary terrain of struggle (Marx 1970). (28)

Because, after all, the point of all of this is liberation.

They look at the ways in which Gramsci broadened its theoretical power, first through idea of hegemony, state force and ‘common sense. Second, in describing that:

transformative human actions do not result automatically from material contradictions; they are mediated by subjective meanings and conscious intentions. Material changes… may create higher propensities for transformative action and limit the range of it possible outcomes, but ideological and political practices are relatively autonomous and are literally the decisive moments in the transformation of material conditions into political practices. (28)

They point towards Cohen (1982) and (1985) for a good critique of both. Summarise part of Marcuse’s (1964) contribution through his search for a substitute revolutionary subject to play the leading role previously assigned to the proletariat. The way that this challenge was taken up by the “new working class” theorists — Aronowitz (1973), Gorz (1967 – this is sitting in my piles), Mallet (1969), who see welfare state capitalism providing new strategy for labour. These contrast with Poulantzas (1973) and Wright (1979) who reject humanist Marxism to concentrate on classes defined as effects of structures, as well as those theorising the “new intellectual class” — Gouldner (1979) and Szelenyi and Konrad (1979) who look beyond workers to critical intellectuals as the motor of revolutionary change. For all of them, however, Cohen argues that their

presupposition remains production relations key to society and social movements (29)

This helps fit everyone in to a bigger picture, but you can imagine the density of the text. A chapter you will want to keep coming back to.

On to the Post-Marxists, who:

argue that production is only one arena for collective resistance, that groups other than the working class are now significant sources of social movements, that greater attention has to be given to active processes of human agency. (29)

The ways that these are

Very different from ‘resource-mobilization paradigm’ (Gamson, Oberschall, Tilly), where ‘conflicts of interest are built into institutionalized power relations. Collective actions involve the rational pursuit of interests by conflicting groups.

I have an immense frustration with that kind of analysis, it feels so good to have it put within this much broader context as just a small current — because it feels such a big current in much of the social movement literature itself.

On Habermas…I have to read more

Habermas (1984) differentiates system, in which people operate under strategic rationalities following technical rules, and lifeworld, with its communicative rationality oriented towards consensus, understanding, and collective action. For Habermas social movements of resistance emerge when commodifying systems colonize lifeworlds: resistance struggles are as much against dominant rationalizes as they are against institutional control. (29-30)

and the strain of social movement theory focusing on the urban — that community, housing and urban movements are now the drivers of change rather than the workers, particularly Castells (1977):

urban social movements respond to the structural contradictions of the capitalist system; but these contradictions are of a plural-class and secondary nature, involving various deprivations, rather than the working class struggling to control the productive apparatus. Thus protest movements organize around common interests on a variety of terrains of struggle, often in opposition to the state and other political and sociocultural institutions, rather than the economically ruling class directly.(30)

This describes how Castells argues in The City and the Grassroots (a magisterial work that I really loved, have yet to really grapple with) that social movement as agent of transformation is unthinkable in Marxism (Peet and Watts disagree) and

‘that social change happens when a new urban meaning is produced through conflict, domination, and resistance to domination.’ (30)

Here too we have Laclau and Mouffe, Castoriadis, modified by Touraine. All people I need to think about more — especially Castoriadis and Touraine also sitting in piles as yet unread.

This is a broad brush look at primary theorists in these different areas, the articles that follow a rather fascinating look at struggles around the world through a political ecology lens.

Theory for liberation.

[Peet, Richard and Michael Watts (1996) Liberation Ecologies: environment, development, social movements. London & New York: Routledge.]

 

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Celebrating National Parks and #Altgov Tweeters

Not Smokey, Wokey! If only I knew how to credit this facebook meme celebrating the #altgov resistance tweeters

@alt_fda @AltNatParkSer @altUSEPA @RogueNASA @Alt_NIH @altNOAA @AlternativeNWS @AltForestServ @altusda @RoguePotusStaff

A couple more on my facebook feed today (28 Jan)

and even a Tolkien joke throw in!

A few ways to stop the destruction of our beloved national parks:

And finally, in all seriousness…

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God I Enjoyed The Sellout by Paul Beatty

If only I enjoyed all prize-winning books a fraction as much as this one by Paul Beatty. I laughed out loud reading this on the long plane journey home, and I needed some laughter for that journey back to a wintry reality far from my family. Now this is the LA I love — complex, mixed up, full of chickens and kitchen gardens and farms too, hell of segregated, violent, funny, and pretty damn woke.

LA always hurt like hell too.

All that, and then there’s the language, oh the language.

When I was ten, I spent a long night burrowed under my comforter, cuddled up with Funshine Bear, who, filled with a foamy enigmatic sense of language and Bloomian dogmatism, was the most literary of the Care Bears and my harshest critic. In the musty darkness of that rayon bat cave, his stubby, all-but-immobile yellow arms struggled to hold the flashlight steady as together we tried to save the black race in eight words or less. (11)

That might just be my favourite passage, though tinged with jealousy because I always wanted a Care Bear and never did get one.

So later on he’s smoking up some homegrown (those names for his gardening genius elicited a lot of laughter I can tell you) in the Superior Court, amazing, and hello Clarence Thomas:

All I know is that the sour-faced Justice with the post-racial chronometer won’t stop looking at me. His beady eyes fixed in this unblinking and unforgiving stare, he’s angry that I’ve fucked up his political expediency…

There he is, Chamaeleo africanus tokenus hidden way in the back among all the shrubbery, his slimy feet gripped tightly around the judicial branch in a cool torpor silently gnawing on the leaves of injustice. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the black working-man’s motto, but now the entire country can see this one, our collective noses pressed to glass in amazement that he’s been able to camouflage his Alabama jet-black ass against the red, white, and blue of the American flag for so long. (20)

Oh shit, that is beautiful. Beautiful, and yet it gets even better (though maybe just because I’m obsessed with these lines, with the geographies of life, belief, language, opportunity):

You can assimilate the man, but not the blood pressure, and the vein pulsating angrily down the middle of his forehead gives him away. he’s giving me that crazy, red-eyed penetrating look that back home we call the Willowbrook Avenue Stare, Willowbrook Avenue being the four-lane river Styx that in 1960s Dickens separated white neighborhoods from black, but now, post-white, post-anybody-with-two-nickels-to-rub-together-flight, hell lies on both sides of the street. The riverbanks are dangerous, and while standing at the crosswalk waiting for the light to change, your life can change. Some drive-by homie, representing some color, clique, or any one of the five stages of grief, can stick his gauge out the passenger-side window of a two-tone coupe, give you the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare and ask, “Where you from, fool?” (22)

Damn, ‘the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare’? And ain’t that something about how these dividing lines stay with us, long after they’ve been rendered invisible by the flight of wealth and resources.

I was talking with my friend Debbie Humphrey, doing an about how writing fiction compares with writing a thesis on racism and struggle. An interesting question I’m still thinking about, probably will always be thinking about, but in trying to describe what this novel means to me…well. It does things academic work could never do, plays with possibilities and with feelings. Plays with how you might recover a community’s pride and identity through just drawing a line — and how that might be a positive thing, not a violent turf thing. Interesting question in LA because turf…I fucking hate so much how LA is full of lines, dividing up identity and the drug trade, our youth defending territory to the death. And so many of them die. They die in this novel.

I loved that awkward shaky paint line and that fake freeway sign reclaiming Dickens after white planners had erased it from the city’s official landscape.

It plays with that idea (and who hasn’t heard this idea?) that everything was actually better back in the day, when segregation kept all classes living close together. When segregation meant that everyone knew damn well they were all in it together, and kept them fighting for the race as a whole. Plays with the idea that something was lost when some of segregation’s walls came down, and everyone with a nickel fled. What it might look like if  some sleight of hand were to make it seem as though it were being recreated as it once was. A trick highlights segregation’s continued reality and shows that its existence requires clarity to inspire resistance. It asks hard questions (without actually asking questions, because, you know, this is fiction with a story to tell and a lot of satire along the way) about what so much struggle has actually won, and where we’re at now. Asks questions about the nature of change itself, what steps lead to liberation and what steps to a new form of old oppression.

It plays with the power of making a ubiquitous and politically correct racism visible again, naming it, showing it for what it is by insisting on a (faked and slightly half-assed) return to older, harsher forms whose clarity made it easy to know what you were fighting and have inspiration to fight. Slavery. Official white-only schools. Hominy (that name!) demanding he be considered a slave, demanding regular whipping — it embodies so many of the costs of racism, and shit, the Little Rascals? So vile and yet, this is where fame and money and work as an actor were to be found… The opposite side from the Nicholas Brothers of the damage done to artists through Jim Crow. Damage that continues in carefully colorblind language and tokenisation.

Yet the solution to this need to be whipped? Hilarious, and gives me some faith things are a bit better. Because, you know, there are places you can go for that, and no one will judge.

It plays with urban farming and self-reliance. With the trials of being raised by a political father. With the good and bad of philosophy, activism, struggle. It manages a lot of pain and knowledge, reflections on life and our heritage and our responsibility.

That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book–that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you. (115)

Amazing to manage all of that, and still…be full of laughter. There’s more I should say, so much more here, will be so much more waiting for me when I re-read it, but now I got some rewrites to do. One more blog and that will be me for a while.

Patricia Hill Collins: The Ethos of Violence

I have been thinking a lot about violence, it is one of the great contradictions of our humanity I think, and Patricia Hill Collins doesn’t shy away. Seems a good subject for the day of Trump’s inauguration, which feels like an act of violence in itself. His comments on (and actions towards) women, on the disabled, on the poor, on people of colour, I can’t even…

Interesting that unpicking the violence of US society makes sense of it all in a way that many liberals haven’t quite grasped I don’t think.

Understanding how an ethos of violence constitutes a deep structural root of U.S. society requires viewing violence as a necessary and ever-present feature of oppression. (189)

Because this society was founded on oppression,  violence has been central to this country’s founding through conquest and slavery, as well as being found in the intimate spaces of our relationships. It has always been present, and yet

Given it’s socially constructed nature, surprisingly little attention has been focused on how power relations shape definitions of violence.

Instead there is a focus on its most simple aspect, as seen in the Oxford English Dictionary:

the exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to persons or property; action or conduct characterized by this treatment or usage tending to cause bodily injury or forcibly interfering with personal freedom.

Everyday understandings of violence see it as being an intentional act of causing physical pain or injury to another person (189).

But violence works in and through power relations, it is both visceral and structural.

Definitions of violence that take power relations into account refute these formal, abstract definitions. Racism, sexism, class exploitation, heterosexism, age and citizenship status each have distinctive organizational patterns across their domains of power whereby violence takes a specific form. For example, the gendered violence that women encounter takes the form of rape and sexual assault…The violence associated with class exploitation … is more likely to be within public policies that contribute to differential rates of infant mortality or that send poor and working-class kids off to war. (189)

The further I read in ‘The Ethos of Violence’ the more I see the distorted faces and even more distorted words of those who supported Trump’s rise to power:

Violence can be better imagined as a more dynamic concept whose complexity lies not just in its socially embedded nature in contemporary power relations but also in its ability to shape those same power relations. Violence may be such a naturalized or taken-for-granted dimension of U.S. society that it operates as a saturated site of intersectionality. In other words, violence operates as a form of conceptual glue that enables racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism to function as they do. Thinking about violence within the context of intersecting power relations suggest three distinguishing features of violence that might help us develop a more nuanced and contextualized definition: (1) the power to define violence; (2) the symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech; and (3) the routine nature of violence. (190)

To look into each of these three definitions:

The power to define violence

First, the interpretation of any given act as “violent” lies not within the act itself but in how powerful groups conceptualize it.(190)

She looks at the Rodney King beating, differences between protection of women as rape victims, Mumia…today we still have the daily murders of Black men, women and children to show just how true this is. It is the power of definition that allows a public discourse and policy regime to continue as if this did not matter. Because they have defined it not to matter.

Social institutions regulate behavior via sanction and censure and also advance interpretive frames for analysing it. These frameworks encourage the public to interpret violence in ways that support the vested interests of more powerful groups. In other words, these frames help the public interpret what often is identical behavior different, depending on who is engaging in it. (191)

The symbiotic relationship between violent acts and speech

The division between speech and actions is also part of the ethos violence.

The use of words to humiliate, threaten, harass, belittle, destroy generally fall outside of the definition of violence and are often protected . Prejudice is not seen as violence. Discrimination is not seen as violence. Representation is not seen as violence.

Trumps’ speech is so vile, yet for those maintaining this separation, it is not seen as violent.

I myself can experience it in no other way, I am bewildered by this disconnect.

Violence as routine

Violence is seen in the daily micro-assaults on the basis of race, racial profiling, how women avoid certain spaces at all times or certain times of day…it is ubiquitous, shaping our lives in myriad, countless ways. And we are so used to it, we don’t see it for what it is.

America has long declared war on the least powerful people within its borders. This state of ‘normalized war’ predicated on the acceptability of violence targeted toward select groups remains unrecognized because it too is routine. (196)

This, all of this. How is it taking us so long to unravel, understand, and demolish violence? Again, this is all about power and intersectionality, how it affects  who  is heard and who is believed. How it benefits a group of people to shut their ears and eyes to reality and drag a country off down a terrifying road…