every day I get up and I do one thing to move in the direction of freedom

Every day I get up and I work on my long list of small tasks dedicated to moving us toward liberation, toward the revolution, toward supporting a comrade, toward righting an injustice. In times like these, every night I lie down to sleep and I wonder if I’ve done enough, if my small contribution can possibly be weighed against the thousands of lives lost that day to the combined weight of coronavirus, racism, capitalism, imperialism, settler colonialism, and heteropatriarchy. This is an ugly kind of math, and one that I can never win. How can the phone call I’ve made, the letter I’ve written, even the hours I may have spent or the miles I might have marched measure up to these lives? And yet, it seems to be the only kind of math I know how to do at the moment.

The more relevant kind of math, the one I know from decades of activism, is that change and movements are made for the most part by small, regular, granular level actions. While the scale of what we are organizing against is massive and horrific, what it takes to bring it down, I think, is steady work. Maybe it is wrong to use the term work here – maybe I mean effort. Or steady dedication. Chipping away at. After all, the systems of injustice and oppression are also made up of a series of smaller things: rules, people, policies, particular institutions, attitudes, habits, actions, and so on. They are not singular, enormous horrors but composites of smaller things too.

 I know I am not the first to say this; I am not saying this because I think it is news. I am saying this to remind myself and recall myself to this truth. I am writing for myself because I am writing myself back to this truth.

Because in the mode of crisis, it is hard to remember. And these days I feel I live in a crisis. This is no accident but part of both Trumpism’s strategy as well as endemic to capitalism. This week alone there was the tense national election in the US; the hurricane that hit my comrades in a Honduras already devastated and made fragile by narco-dictatorship and neoliberal plundering; and the surge of coronavirus cases in the ongoing pandemic. People close to me need support for other private troubles; the source of these troubles are almost all located in larger systems of structural oppression intensified by certain news cycles. In the crisis mode, it is hard to remember that I’m working together with others for big, long-term changes, and also small gains. It’s hard to remember that I exist in larger communities of talented, visionary, resilient people, and that we want it all – small immediate changes now, and big stuff, and everything in between even as I recognize no change will last forever. I am lucky to exist in communities with these people, I am honored to learn constantly from them, and overjoyed to have the skills and resources to be able to find ways to support their work.

Crisis is the vision of the right wing that does not value Black life, Indigenous life, or life itself; it is their mode. I was reminded by Hoda Katebi that we already have our own, better plans; I was reminded that, as Mariame Kaba says, “hope is a discipline”; I was reminded to listen to all the wisdom right around me insisting that even cracks of light in a dark time are necessary and vital forces.

I will continue to wake up every day and commit to organizing in movement with other people or somehow acting in solidarity with others or supporting my folks. I will continue doing one thing every day to build a better world, and I will know that in doing so, I am building some version of that world. This struggle is long and it will never be done but struggling together is how we get free.

An illustration of various masked people in shades of blue hovering across the image, connected to each other by white constellations. One person is holding a sign that says “the future is collective care,” one person is sitting in a wheelchair, and other people are holding megaphones.
“We keep each other safe in the streets by building connecting beyond the physical” by Molly Costello in collaboration with Lifted Voices.

stop apologizing for other people

Recently I’ve noticed a disturbing trend so I’m going to suggest a simple rule: stop apologizing for other people.

Stop making excuses for power, for whiteness, for masculinity, for heterosexism, for ableism, for colonialism. When you apologize for someone else you become part of the problem. You are working to maintain those systems instead of actively working to dismantle them as you should always be trying to figure out ways to do.

If people were sorry for their behavior, they would apologize for themselves. If you want to change a system, support those who are challenging power. Always. When you jump in to make excuses for someone else, a few things happen:

  1. The person perpetrating the micro aggression or oppressive behavior does not have to account for their own behavior.
  2. The person who has actually been harmed is silenced and shamed by seeing that you and others stand against them, regardless of what you actually say as you are making excuses. You may think that you are seeking a compromise, harmony or some kind of middle ground, but the effect of what you are doing is actually further alienating a person who has actually been harmed by sending the message that you (and others in the group) will stand with power and make excuses for it.
  3. You cut off the ability for anyone to learn and grow from their mistakes. Learning is a painful struggle. We could all work on not letting our own fears get in the way of others’ learning process.

Race, gender, sexuality, social class, ability, and nationality are all attributes that exist within systems of power. They are not individual characteristics that we possess in a vacuum and it’s impossible for any of us to be unaffected by the larger unjust systematic power imbalances around us. Working to decolonize ourselves, dismantle patriarchy, unlearn racism, and just not enact bullshit on each other in activist and other daily spaces is an ongoing process, and we are all going to make mistakes. But it is essential in that process to not only allow people to make mistakes but to point them out and even more so to support the person who is brave enough to point out the mistake since likely they are the one who has been harmed by it. It is not piling on to simply agree with or support a marginalized person pointing out a problem. All you have to remember is this: do not make excuses for power.

a brick wall with a graffito that says just "sorry about your wall"

a spell to breathe through it collectively

I feel a familiar pit of anxiety rise up in my stomach. Nausea threatens to overwhelm me. I try to remember to breathe deeply. I remind myself that I can do this. I can do this, because I have already survived worse. I can do this, because so many have already survived so much worse than I can even imagine, and some of those people are my friends. If my friends can face threats of their own deaths and continue on every day, without losing their senses of humor, without giving up, then I can do this.

I let the feelings come, I let the fear in, but I try not to let it control me. I try instead to control it with my breath. And with my memories and thoughts of everyone I know who is braver than me. I’m afraid of the unknown, of the future, of what will hurt, but usually, it’s just about going through and then it will be over. I can do this. Breathe. I want to be able to do this, I can’t control it, but I can decide to do it. I can do this.

And with each repetition, it gets easier. And with each story we tell ourselves and each other, we get stronger. We get more resilient. We can do this. We don’t have to pretend not to be anxious, not to be scared. We just have to remember to breathe. And to do it anyway.

Dandelion growing out of concrete with words that say "Cultivate Resistance"

Graphic by Luke Thomas available at https://justseeds.org/graphic/cultivate-resistance/

a meditation on tools

In the United States, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

In Japan, the nail that sticks out gets hammered in.

Audre Lorde famously admonished white feminists at a conference in 1979 that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Black and white line image of a hammer, screwdriver, and wrench.

If you are neither the wheel or the nail, you might start to wonder about your commitments to justice.

It might not be an honor to be the last one standing.

Does that make you a tool?

 

Losing the University

The university was never meant to be a place for liberation and social justice, but from its start was built for straight, white, able-bodied, cis-male elites. Rod Ferguson reminds us in his work We Demand that the fact that many of us associate universities with something else – with diversity, with the possibility for envisionining anticapitalist politics, with social justice movements – is in many ways the product of student struggles. Universities themselves have resisted these associations. Ferguson recalls for us that in 1970, four students were killed at Kent State University by the National Guard. Ten days later, police shot approximately 400 bullets into a women’s dorm at Jackson State University, killing two students. The reaction to these murders by dozens of college presidents was to “petition their state legislators not to curtail but to augment police powers on their campuses”(15-16).

The point is that I know the university is not nor has it ever been this romantic perfect place. I remind myself of that fact constantly. I was never planning on making a life here in academia in the first place; I didn’t feel like it was my life’s mission to teach undergraduate students and I have always felt like there are much better and more direct ways to make social change than education. This makes it easier to remember that the university has always been flawed, it wasn’t meant for anyone other than straight white male elites, and if some of the rest of us have managed to increasingly arrive in the past 100 years, especially the last 50 years, it has been for the most part, an anomaly. And it has been the fruits of our struggle. They didn’t want us here in the past and they don’t want us here now. They have never wanted us here. Ferguson says

For university and political elites, then, the social categories ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ were never meant to inspire appreciation for the student movements, movements that might shed light on social inequalities and recommendations for transcending them. “Tolerance” and “diversity” were instead ways of saying “Society must be defended”—that is, protected from the student, who was understood to be a criminal from the start. (2017: 23)

In other words, it is not necessarily a tragedy to lose this place because there are and have always been other ways of doing this. Marginalized communities have always found ways to educate themselves, and those ways, being designed by and for liberation, have more liberatory potential than any institution which has always fought to keep us out.

But knowing all of that doesn’t seem to be helping me feel less sad right now. It doesn’t seem to be helping me much at all. The fact is that I feel I’ve benefitted enormously from my time in and around universities and it seems like many of my most marginalized students have done so as well. While these other forms of learning and education, free schools and free universities and popular educational models which I’ve been a part of, can be much more liberatory in the end, I’m afraid they will still be much more limited in their reach than the good ol’ public university in its heyday was. (Because was is really starting to seem like the operative concept here.)

Ironically, I mean, I wouldn’t even know about free schools without my exposure to the university… that’s certainly not true for everybody. And it needn’t be true. But I think it points to why I feel hope lacking in this moment. I feel a light going out. And sure, that light was really dysfunctional in the first place but it was granting wide access and possibility and acting as a funnel, at least for many students, to something much better, to much more critical ideas and action. How many of us were radicalized in the university? Of course there are other sites, other methods, other ways, but undeniably, this sucks.

The loss of access to critical thinking, to liberal arts, to social justice oriented classes throughout Wisconsin (and probably eventually elsewhere), is without a doubt, a loss of something, for some folks, who were in fact benefitting. Even if we do succeed in creating liberatory alternatives, it’s hard for me to imagine they will have the same reach and impact as the public university in its heyday. But I could be wrong. Perhaps I just need to dream bigger. I hope so. Perhaps I just need to get started on the experiment.

Black and white screenprinted poster of a soldier holding a sign that says "I just wanted to go to college." Text at bottom of poster says "End the poverty draft. Stop the war economy."

Image created by Eli Wright at Justseeds Collective for the new Poor People’s Campaign.

memorializing the thankless work of revolution

Winnie_Mandela_190814

Last weekend, just days before she died, I watched a documentary about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. I wrote these words: “totally inspiring woman and many lessons to learn about how thankless the work of continuing the struggle and holding the line can really be, especially when done by women and women of color, or marginalized members of the group more generally. This woman was really sold out. One random key thing to remember: Nobel Peace Prize was also given to de Klerk when it was given to Nelson Mandela, in case you needed a reason to feel that prize was discredited.”

I am no expert on the South African freedom struggle, but the obituaries published in mainstream newspapers (to say nothing of the comment section! yikes!) only deepened my horror at how Winnie was treated. The NYT lead with a photo of this incredible woman with her ex-husband Nelson Mandela and the Washington Post was little better leading with the phrase, “Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of Nelson Mandela and for decades one of South Africa’s most prominent and polarizing figures, died April 2 at a hospital in Johannesburg.”  She struggled to be her own person even in death.

Her story resonated with so many other Black women’s stories I’ve read and learned about over the years in particular. RIP Winnie, may we listen and learn something important from what you were here to tell us.