Power, Dignity, Choice, and Bobby Seale

I have a favorite story that helps me understand and explain a fundamental aspect of how power works.

Of course power is complex, and of course there are countless major social theories about its operation in the world. But like other complex and rich social phenomena, it isn’t as if we understand nothing without knowing the words of these theories. We have a rooted sense in our bodies and minds of how power from our own experiences with it, either from having power enacted upon us, enacting it upon others, or watching it play out around us. When I taught Intro to Sociology every semester, I actually used to introduce this conversation by showing an episode of the Office, which lead to a conversation about Weberian authority. Important for us today: no one has authority unless the people below see them as legitimate i.e. bestow them some kind of authority. But I digress, because that is not exactly the example I want to talk about.

The real point I want to make here is the related idea that when you really think about it no one can actually make you do anything. Human beings always have some kind of agency. They may have a very limited (or constrained) agency, when faced with a very bad set of options, for example: do something or be killed. But they can always choose to refuse and be killed. You have not actually “made” the person do anything. You have given them a crappy choice. This difference is more than semantic.

Here is my favorite example to illuminate that further.

Color drawing of Bobby Seale, bound and gagged in a seat, pen and paper in hand.
Courtroom drawing of Bobby Seale by Howard Brodie. Held by the Library of Congress.

In the fall of 1969, Bobby Seale, at the time the National Chairman of the Black Panther Party, was on trial in Chicago. Seale was being tried in the aftermath of the 1968 convention in Chicago. The charge was using interstate transportation to incite a riot.

Originally Seale was the only African American on trial alongside seven others, a group that included Abbie Hoffman. The trial was a circus, which was to some extent intentional on the part of the defiant, countercultural defendants. Apparently one day two defendants wore judge’s robes to court and then wiped their feet on them. Eventually Seale’s case was severed from the other seven.

Bobby Seale and his lawyer asked for a delay for his portion of the case because his lawyer was sick and couldn’t represent him, but Judge Hoffman refused, saying that Seale could just be represented by the defense lawyer representing some of the others. Seale insisted on his right to represent himself in that case.

It would seem that this violation of his right to a lawyer outraged Bobby Seale and he continued to complain about it in an attempt to stop the trial from going forward without him being represented by his own choice of counsel. The judge, in turn, wanted to stop Seale’s outbursts and to keep the trial moving.

Of course in the United States due process requires that defendants must be present in order for them to be tried. What generally happens in this situation is that judges threaten to hold defendants in contempt of court, a crime which can include significant fines or jail time. Dear reader, you may have already gotten there: this does not actually solve the problem unless the defendant chooses to change their behavior to avoid further penalty because the defendant must still be in the courtroom for the case to go on.

Bobby Seale was a trained revolutionary, who did not expect justice to be issued in a US court because he sat quietly and waited for it. He was not moved by being held in contempt of court.

In this case, an extraordinary (and horrific) measure was taken. Judge Hoffman ordered that Seale be bound and gagged inside the courtroom. Even more extraordinarily however, this act could not quiet Bobby Seale. Even bound and gagged he found a way to use his voice to disrupt the unjust proceedings. The UPI headline read “Bound, gagged Bobby Seale still manages wild scuffle in court.”

They could not silence Bobby Seale, because no one can actually make another person do anything. Power must be consented to in some way, shape, or form for it to work. It can be difficult to risk, but we do have the choice to try it, especially when we can get together with others and train ourselves to do so. The judge could not make him be quiet, even using significant force.

Bobby Seale is still alive and free to tell the tale.  Do not consent if you do not believe it is the right thing to do. Power is not power without legitimacy and consent from those subject to its will. Whenever it feels like I have no choice, I think of Bobby Seale.

Luchar para Proteger el Bosque en Honduras

This article first appeared online in English on The Progressive’s website

Muchos en los EEUU están inconscientes de la conexión entre los y las refugiados huyendo de Honduras y la lucha allá por justicia ambiental.

Por Meghan Krausch

En un grupo de casas aisladas en un bosque de pino en las montañas de San Francisco de Locomapa, Honduras, en el territorio ancestral del pueblo Tolupán, asisto a la ceremonia para  levantar los espíritus de Juan Samael Matute y José Salomón Matute. El evento es cuarenta días después de su doble asesinato.

Samael y Salomón fueron asesinados el 25 de febrero en el bosque de pino que defendían ellos junto con unos otras y otros miembros de la comunidad Tolupán.  Como parte del Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad y la Justicia, ellos y ellas se han opuesto a la tala desmesurada por empresas privadas, quienes reciben asistencia directa de la agencia hondureña el Instituto de Conservación Forestal (ICF).

Samael y Salomón son el séptimo y el octavo asesinato de esta comunidad extremamente empobrecida históricamente, la cual está profundamente dividida por la lucha por el derecho a la tierra y por la intervención del dinero empresarial en la política local. Líderes del Movimiento han sido amenazados y judicializados por sus esfuerzos a defender el bosque. Al mismo tiempo, sus asesinos caminan sueltos por la comunidad, y el Ministerio Público sigue declarando que “no hay novedades” en el proceso judicial de los asesinatos.

Ahora que caravana tras caravana de refugiados salen de Honduras, muchas personas también quedan, enganchado en una resistencia fuerte contra los proyectos extractivistas. Estas están apoyadas acá en los Estados Unidos por militantes que llaman la atención al papel de los Estados Unidos en hacer crecer la crisis hondureña.

La Ley Berta Cáceres, originalmente presentada en 2016 por el Congresista Hank Johnson, Demócrata del estado de Georgia, subraya el papel de la policía hondureña en la corrupción y los abusos de los derechos humanos. La ley reclama la suspensión en la “asistencia en materia de seguridad de Estados Unidos a Honduras hasta que cesen las violaciones de los derechos humanos por parte de las fuerzas de seguridad de Honduras y hasta que los responsables de estas violaciones  sean llevados ante la justicia.” Cáceres, una hondureña destacada por su trabajo con el Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas Nacional de Honduras (COPINH), fue asesinada en 2016 por hombres contratados por una empresa que pretende construir una represa en el territorio de la puebla Indígena Lenca.

Las y los participantes hicieron esfuerzos extraordinarios para asistir a la ceremonia de dos días en honor a Samael y Salomón, viajando por horas a pie o abarrotados en camionetas. Había vecinos, miembros del Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad y la Justicia de San Pedro Sula, dos observadoras internacionales, y el Consejo de los Ancianos del Pueblo Lenca, quienes vinieron de sus propias tierras en Intibucá, Honduras, para compartir el liderazgo de la ceremonia con una delegación cristiana local.

En el centro de la reunión estuvo Ramón Matute, un familiar de las víctimas. Él reporta que recibe regularmente amenazas de muerte desde las mismas personas que mataron a su padre y a su hermano. Muchos en la comunidad dicen que la policía hondureña son poca asistencia, aunque Ramón es uno de los 38 miembros de la comunidad que fueron otorgados “medidas cautelares” en 2013 por la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, debido a sus altos niveles de riesgo como defensores de derechos humanos.

Samael y Salomón están enterrados uno al lado del otro en una sola colina, adornada por una pequeña palmera y flores decoran las nuevas cruces. Hay banderas y pancartas señalando la continuidad de la lucha por los derechos humanos y la justicia ambiental, y un anciano se balancea una olla de barro llena de incienso.

En la ceremonia, Ramón habla del martirio de su padre y su hermano, y de la lucha para defender el bosque, el agua, y el territorio ancestral del gobierno y las empresas privadas que los quieren explotar. Compromete con Pascualita Vásquez, la líder espiritual del COPINH quien guía esta ceremonia, para fortalecer la relación entre sus pueblos y trabajar conjuntos para recuperar y proteger sus tradiciones, su dignidad, y importantemente, su autonomía.

La violencia y la represión han crecido en Honduras desde un golpe en 2009, pero las cosas se empeoraron después del fraude electoral del Presidente Juan Orlando Hernández en Noviembre 2017, donde más de treinta personas fueron asesinadas por las fuerzas del estado, sin asumir responsabilidad.

El gobierno de los EEUU reconoció a Juan Orlando oficialmente como ganador de la elección disputada, cuando aún no terminaron es escrutinio, así mismo, EEUU  ayuda con entrenar y financiar las fuerzas de seguridad en Honduras. El efecto desalentador de esta violencia se nota por toda la sociedad hondureña en donde, como me comentó una persona: “No tenemos la oportunidad de salir de un luto antes de que estamos entrando en otro.”

Respondiendo de cómo defensores y defensoras de derechos humanos y del medioambiente logran seguir, enfrentado con tanta violencia, la cantautora y periodista Karla Lara, quien era amiga cercana de Berta Cáceres, me cuenta que ella ve la espiritualidad como “una estrategia de lucha, porque la cultura dominante es la cultura de la muerte.”

“Tengo estos pequeños altares de Berta,” dice Karla. “No había hecho los altares antes. No sólo yo, sino muchas personas, estamos buscando una espiritualidad que nos protege. Hay un entendimiento político de la espiritualidad, de la necesidad de protegernos.” Ella describe un rito cotidiano de pasar el humo del palo santo por toda la casa, y especialmente de “pedir a Berta que nos de la capacidad de lectura estratégica política, porque eso es la ausencia más grande de Berta: su capacidad de analizar todo.”

“Tenemos que hacer un compromiso de hacer bella esta lucha y reivindicar la alegría,” dice Karla.

Hay bastantes razones para estar triste mientras soltamos los espíritus de Samael y Salomón, quienes en vida fueron tomadas simplemente por avaricia. Sin embargo el énfasis está en las flores, en las comunidades juntándose a través de distancias grandes, y sobre todo en la posibilidad de una vida con dignidad.

recipe for activism

If you are upset by the way things are in the world and you want to change them but you don’t know how or you are afraid of what it may take, look for inspiration. Find others who are engaged despite what they may lose, find others who act despite what they don’t have, find others who know how to do it because they’ve done it before.

Try to meet and learn from these people in person.

If the state of the world troubles you, the only thing that will change it is joining together with other people. Doing that  (even though it might seem scary) can produce joy and some inspiration in and of itself.

There are always people resisting, joined together in struggle, and it’s amazing how inspiring their actions are once you find them.

accompaniment at the graveside

Over the last several days I have been in Honduras with Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective, meeting with the Movimiento Amplio por Dignidad y Justicia (MADJ, Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice) in several different sites and contexts.

It is not an exaggeration to say that many or maybe even all the folks we have met with have been through hell. We visited the Dignified Encampment for Water and for Life at Pajuiles, where participants became choked up telling us about how they were attacked brutally in August 2017 by members of the community further up the hill, who believe they will benefit from the dam project and who have been paid by the company . These water protectors, members of MADJ, also pointed to the nearby home of Geovanny Diaz Carcamo, who was brutally assassinated in front of his mother in the street in the post electoral conflict, January 2018.

From there we met with Magdalena, the widow of Ramón Fiallos, and other members of the Dignified Encampment in Defense of the Jilamito River. Ramón Fiallos was killed when he was shot with live ammunition at a protest and left without medical treatment. Magdalena told us how three days before his death, Ramón told her “If we have to die, I will die for a better Honduras with pride.” She told us that his words inspire her, and that through his death she has learned to lose her fear.

In the Tolupán community of San Francisco de Locomapa, we stood in solidarity alongside a fresh grave. Just one month ago two members of MADJ were murdered defending their pine forest, to which they have territorial rights recognized internationally as an indigenous tribe. The mountainside was burning all around us, an act of aggression against those resisting deforestation and looting, as we stood together. Here in this heavy place we were told by survivors that the struggle is very hard, but no one is crying. Everyone participating understands the risks and is ready to pay it. Words are hard to find in describing this moment standing with a small tribal community that has had 7 of its loved ones murdered over a struggle for natural resources since 2013.

Through these places we have been guided often by Martín Fernández who, as the effective longtime General Coordinator of MADJ, lives his life under ever present death threats. Everytime I say goodbye to Martín, I worry it will be the last.

As a group we have accompanied and met with these communities, humbly trying to offer some comfort through listening attentively to their stories and sharing in their pain as human beings. We have committed to share these stories with an often indifferent public in the United States who knowingly or unknowingly benefit from this theft of resources and life. None of it has ever seemed like enough. But I have written before about the small powerful webs of solidarity and continue to hope that although it is not, and can never be, enough, solidarity with others is the most powerful tool we have.

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How to take action in solidarity with the Honduran people

Regular People Are Deporting Each Other – Or Not

Last weekend I read about immigration lawyers and journalists with US and EU citizenships being denied entry to Mexico. Interpol alerts were placed on their passports because they were involved in assisting the masses of asylum seekers on the US-Mexico border.

We live in times of terror.

There are a lot of people who have to be involved to make a system of terror like this run and keep running. According to the LA Times, it’s highly likely that judges needed to approve the “alerts” be placed on these peoples’ passports. Judges who needed to somehow find it OK to refuse people the right to move across borders because they were assisting others with their human rights; judges who swore to uphold the first amendment and then flagged the passports of journalists. They did not need to participate in this. But that means there were also attorneys who presented the government’s case to the judge. There were people in the courtrooms at the time who have said nothing about this happening, regular people like perhaps a stenographer who have participated in keeping their mouths shut rather than whistle blowing. Even when something happens in judges’ chambers, documents go through a lot of hands.

There are the immigration officers who carried out the orders.

I haven’t even started on the folks carrying out all of this when it comes to the actual asylees, the adults and children who we know have been suffering on our border. I’m talking about the ones participating in the asylum interview bottleneck. The ones turning the locks on the cages. The ones building the cages. The ones actually making money on the cages. There are actually hundreds of thousands of participants in this. It isn’t just Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump, who I think readers of this blog will probably find to be beyond any sense of shame.

I keep thinking of Eichmann organizing those train schedules to make sure all the trains could move everyone around Nazi Germany, and of everyone else involved in running the train system. Bureaucracies are made up in part by individual people and their individual actions, and they are a necessary part of these systems. And while it’s easy to forget, bureaucracies are not faceless.

But I try—I try, because it’s hard–to also think about the forgotten and even intentionally concealed history of everyday resistance that so many people have taken part in throughout history too. I try to hold out hope that we can again find and cultivate those memories, at least among some of ourselves.

Shaun Slifer_Sabot

“Slow It All Down” Shaun Slifer – Text and Image from Justseeds: “As an icon of working class history, the story goes that sabots were thrown into early industrial machinery when workers’ demands weren’t met. The term saboter, however, originally referred to the noisy footsteps of clog-clad rural workers, and thus their low-rung, unskilled labor within newly mechanized industrial factories. The word evolved from there to mean the slowing or bungling of a job on purpose: work stoppage.”

Worrying about Others Is Nothing to Fear


Every day I think about my friends in Honduras and I worry about them. I wonder what they’re doing and if they’re OK, and I wonder if they’re worried about today or tomorrow. Then I worry and wonder about my friends in Argentina who I haven’t seen in a little longer. I feel bad that I owe them a visit and I am concerned that I have lost touch with some of them. But most of all I worry about how much they’re being affected by the deepening crash of the economy, increasing social repression, and overall sense of crisis reaching infamous 2001 levels. I also think about how I owe my good friend in prison a letter, and I wonder how he’s getting along too, and I hope that he knows that my longer than usual stretch without communication doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking of him often.

I feel connected to these folks, and my worries are personal rather than abstract. The problems they face—in the form, often, of risk to their lives—are elements of large social problems of the kind many of us read and hear about in the news. The visibility of these problems happening to people who are faraway makes both the people and the problems seem invisible. But they are not abstract social problems. They are everyday problems faced by real humans. They are the concrete problems faced by my living breathing friends, even if these concrete problems are overwhelming oppressive social structures.

It seems to me that I also know many people who have refused to face or even acknowledge these problems. Their reaction, it seems to me, is one of fear. They fear, perhaps, becoming sucked in to the sense of worry that I described above. They fear, perhaps, becoming overwhelmed by the extent of the world’s problems. They fear, perhaps, their sense of helplessness. It is true that “you can’t help everyone.”

But I wouldn’t trade my constant sense of worry and obligation for the disregard or the protective ignorance or the fear or whatever it is that stops people from engaging. Despite the fact that injustice will never be solved, I know that I am connected horizontally in relationships with others that are mutual, loving, and creating alternatives everyday to the systems which tear us down. I am engaged in nurturing myself and others. I know that I am not hiding from reality.

Every week I try to do what I can. It is overwhelming, and so I try to work first on the corner of the giant puzzle of injustice closest to me, while keeping the whole picture in front of me and making sure that my piece will still be able to connect. I work on always increasing my network of solidarity and especially its diversity. And I try to hand puzzle pieces to passersby, who happen to know me but no one else, and get them involved too, and I guess this for me is also part of how solidarity works.

Sometimes I fail, but every day I worry and I make all the room in my life I can to change the world. I reflect, I criticize, and I work at it. I know that I am obligated to others because my humanity is bound up in theirs. Without them, I am not fully human.

The Refusal to Die Quietly

Many of us in the US may have seen and been shocked by images or stories of the migrant caravan’s march to the border on Sunday and the repression they faced. It can be hard to understand what’s going on, particularly because historically we haven’t received good information here in the US about Latin America. For example, although the United States has a military base in Honduras, none of the major news outlets has a reporter based there. If we are very honest though, it is also true that part of not knowing what is going on with other people in places “like Honduras” is part of not wanting to know what is going on. Sometimes as human beings we don’t know the details about the rest of the world because we don’t connect the dots that we can see.

I want to share in full the quickly and powerfully written testimony of my friend Amelia Frank-Vitale who witnessed Sunday’s experience on the border between Mexico and the US. Amelia lives in San Pedro Sula, studying the effects of deportation there, and has accompanied the caravan on part of its journey. Amelia witnessed Sunday’s teargassing:

“today was heartbreaking. my country, the one with the most powerful military in the world, used that power to overwhelm a group of people in search of safety and a better future for themselves and their children. I know, I know. the US is in no way the promised land. But, people deeply believe that their lives would be a touch easier, they could breathe a bit calmer, if they could just make it to the other side of that damn ‘fence.’

there was no getting there today. first, mexican police blocked off street after street, dividing the group and confusing what had been planned as a straightforward, peaceful protest near the pedestrian crossing point. instead, after trying to dialogue with the police, people split off, using side streets, no one totally sure where they were headed, but all hoping to be able to get near (or through) the check point.

when one group neared the ‘fence,’ the US border patrol and armed police fired tear gas and rubber bullets. that group dispersed. on the other side of the canal, well into Mexican territory, the US once again fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd. this time, they hit people. there are at least five people wounded from impacts from rubber bullets and spray-paint can-sized gas canisters. this includes a foreign journalist and [my friend].

when I saw my friend bleeding profusely from the back of his head, all I could think was – fuck. my country did this. i took him to the hospital, he got some stitches, and he will be fine. thankfully. but seriously, this is the response to a few thousand people in flip-flops, many of them pushing baby carriages, trying to get in to the US?

my eyes still burn and I have that rough cough that comes from inhaling tear gas. but mostly, i feel heart broken and angry. at one point we traipsed across the canal that is (was?) the Tijuana river. There’s a small stream of waste water and a good part of the canal bed is kind of sticky muddy with sewage sludge. after walking across Mexico, people literally walked through shit today for a peek into the United States. That they were met force and cruelty by my country makes me so very ashamed.

I’ve heard reports that the march, and the actions of the caravaneros, wasn’t peaceful. that’s bullshit. peaceful is not a synonym for submissive. peaceful doesn’t mean you have to put your head down, accept shit, and thank the people stepping on your neck. people changed routes, jumped over fences, climbed up hills, and scrambled onto a parked freight train. a few people threw a few stones. some of them tried, desperately, to climb the wall. the only group of people using real force today, the only people really threatening violence, were the border patrol and police.”

Throughout the months the caravan has been traveling, I have found myself increasingly anxious about what will happen to these refugees/caraveneros once they arrive here in the US and the potentially deadly violence they will face on the border. I suspect it’s easy for a lot of us, from our variously privileged vantage points within the US, to worry about the possibility that people will be killed in a large standoff like this one. We know that permission to shoot has been granted. Although we might admire their bravery, we might then be tempted to take our worry and to be concerned at the risks the folks in the caravan are taking by approaching the border en masse like they did on Sunday.  It’s certainly true that there are people who are blaming the migrants for the use of force, although none of them might be reading this blog.  But would we feel better if these folks died en masse quietly in a shelter in Tijuana? What about if they died back in San Pedro Sula, as Amelia has also written about? What about if they died silently, individually on the migrant trail?

As they have been asserting all along, the migrant caravan/exodus is once again banding together for safety and visibility. Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans are dying regularly as a result of US policies whether we see them being attacked on the news over Thanksgiving weekend or not. What is powerful about the migrant caravan is that we are being forced to see it.

 

On the Murder of Jemel Roberson

JemelRoberson

Jemel Roberson with his son Tristan.

This man was murdered by the police.

His name is Jemel Roberson.

He was clearly identified as security and had successfully just stopped a shooter from killing others, without killing that person. This, it must be said, is something most of us wish the actual police would do.

It is obvious that in this country a Black man can never be considered a “good guy,” no matter what he does.

It is obvious that Black Lives do not Matter.

It is obvious, or it should be, that this is not about bad apples, or individual police officers, but that it is about an institution of policing which at its very core targets Black people and Black communities.

It is time for a change.

It will take many of us to participate in this change. Paolo Freire famously said “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” Find ways to act (and there are many possibilities), even if these acts seems small. Black lives depend on it.

Lessons from the UW-Superior “Halloween Axe” One Year Later

Just over one year ago, everything changed for me and many others in the community of Superior, Wisconsin. Without faculty, student, or staff input, three administrators were able to eliminate and threaten a full one-third of the academic programming at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, including most of the liberal arts in which it offered majors and most of the critical disciplines on campus. A few months later, an eerily similar list of program eliminations was announced at UW-Stevens Point. A newer, more final version of these cuts was announced yesterday. The Stevens Point proposal will be the first direct implementation of UW administrators’ new power to fire tenured faculty without declaring financial exigency.

Perhaps at the end of one year of mourning UWS, it’s time to move on to the next i see human but no humanitytragedy. After all, we were not the first victims of austerity measures in higher ed, and unfortunately we won’t be the last. Plus it’s over. The drastic cuts at UWS, along with the clumsy and deeply damaging restructuring of the entire 2-year college system in Wisconsin, have already happened. And Wisconsin has even finally ousted Governor Scott Walker in favor Tony Evers who was the lone voice of opposition while on the UW Board of Regents. But on this one year anniversary, it also seems useful to ask what can learn? How do we pick up the pieces and survive, both as local communities and within the more decentralized community of academia? A few things are for certain: the devastation of higher ed is not confined to Wisconsin, and the election of Tony Evers won’t be enough to roll back the damage done to the once great system of public higher education in the land of milk and honey.

In personal terms, the last year has been one of massive upheaval on both a private and professional level. I was driven out of my tenure track job in my fourth year which in turn meant geographic relocation. I sold my first house shortly after buying it, and started over in a new city, yet again. I was not alone in this. As I began to speak out publicly against the unethical and unconscionable decisions and public statements made by the university’s top administrators, I did not anticipate the level of absurd and petty harassment that I faced throughout the year for which there was no formal remedy.

The more that I was harassed, along with a few others who were also singled out, the more that a climate of fear seemed to prevail around me. Much of what happened to me was risky to speak about in writing or online. Let this be lesson #1 for others: open the lines of communication often and early between departments and among faculty, staff, and students, so that it is harder to single people out. Make time and spaces for in person meetings. Check in with people regularly who are on the forefront. Be aware that distancing yourself from people makes it easier for them (or you) to become targets for administration. Pay for personal memberships to the AAUP and/or a labor union (regardless of the status of legal bargaining rights) because their experience and assistance is invaluable in this situation.

My situation culminated at the end of the year when I should have been able to focus on supporting anxious seniors with their thesis presentations and nervous first year students with finishing classes. I was actually accused of committing “fraud” against the university. For what? I don’t know. How was the case resolved? I don’t know. I can only assume I was cleared because I was never reprimanded in any way. I was summoned to a meeting (at a time I was unavailable), I was not allowed to bring a witness, I was told I could not be given any information about the accusation in advance, and then I was informed that I had failed to comply. When I requested a copy of the report I was told it did not exist because it was submitted online. With some anxiety, I packed up the most important things in my office and took them home in case the university continued to ignore any semblance of due process and made a decision to suddenly terminate my employment. I tried to thread the fine line of my legal obligations to a workplace that clearly did not feel the need to observe basic legal obligations to its employees. Lesson #2: the university will not do the right thing (but you will survive somehow anyway). 

This story probably sounds extreme as you read it, and you may be thinking “that could never happen at my university.” But people never seem to think it’s going to happen to them, against all the evidence. Let that be lesson #3 from the Halloween Axe: it can happen to you, and you should already be organized to stop it. A great example of this problem is UWS’ own Dean Yohnk, the Dean of Academic Affairs at UWS who sold himself to UWS as a liberal arts champion less than 2 years earlier and then participated in these cuts. Yohnk managed to somehow parachute out of UWS and into UW-River Falls still as an advocate of the liberal arts. This is major head in the sand thinking on both sides. According to Yohnk, he had no part in the cuts and wanted to get away from that environment. So you go to another school in the UW system, still headed by Ray Cross and the Board of Regents? Good luck with that. And what is the hiring committee at River Falls thinking to accept someone who just lit a match and ran from the next door neighbor’s house? Lesson #4: be informed about the news in higher ed so you know what campus environment someone is coming from and you are prepared to understand their role in it when they arrive on your campus. And lesson #5: wishful thinking is dangerous. Don’t do it. Dramatic neoliberal austerity measures can happen at your university and they will, unless you organize against them. Let’s throw in lesson #6 here: elites network across campuses so we should too.

Actually, another thing to learn from what happened at UWS is lesson #7: these cuts have probably already started at your university or in your state. They don’t just fall out of the sky. They are ideological and they are part of a much longer game plan that takes many years to come to fruition. Look at all the planks in the plan to kill the Wisconsin Idea that needed to be laid before the final blow could be dealt to UW-Superior:

 

  • Act 10 eliminating collective bargaining rights for public workers;
  • weakening and effectively eliminating tenure protections throughout the state so that faculty throughout the university can be fired regardless of tenure without formally declaring financial exigency (not to mention the chilling effect);
  • changes to the hiring of chancellors and hiring committees (these have the effect of chilling efforts to call for resignation of current chancellor(s) because faculty are afraid that whoever is hired next will be worse, as they are assured of having no voice in the process);
  • dramatic changes to Chapter 36 and essentially eliminating the role of faculty in governance of the university;
  • free speech rules implemented via the legislature severely limiting the possibility of student protest on campus;
  • implementation of faculty post tenure review.

The cuts at UWS were only possible after all of this had been implemented in addition to devastating system wide budget cuts over a period of six years. There are many lessons to be drawn from this fact, but one important one for me is lesson #8: we have to somehow fight every austerity measure, even if it’s a losing battle. Don’t hand over an inch, because we are really always fighting the next battle. If we accept one measure without comment or struggle (as we did with many of these, knowing the Regents, legislators, administrators and often public were aligned against us), the right wing ideologues hell-bent on eliminating higher education will know that we aren’t organized to fight the next austerity measure. During my time in Wisconsin, I watched the implementation of several of these rules go on without comment or struggle from faculty who little imagined how they would be impacted later. And the result was that when the Halloween Axe fell, most of the faculty didn’t really understand what had happened to their tenure in Wisconsin, or what had happened to shared governance, or how would it actually affect them and not just their least favorite colleague. They knew enough to be scared but not enough to know what their rights still were or on what grounds we could fight. There was just too much catching up to do. Learn from our mistakes and find out what the reality is on your campus before there is a crisis. And inform and organize your colleagues now.

There are so many more things I learned in the last year as an academic, as an organizer, and as a community member of Superior than I can share in a single essay. I’m still mourning UWS and I’m honestly pessimistic about the long-term future for the community of Superior and northern Wisconsin more generally because something beautiful has in fact been lost. But I also know that marginalized communities can and do find innovative ways to survive and even, within pockets, thrive. Long term stability and permanence are myths that should never be counted on, especially within the dual realities of capitalism and climate change. While I mourn UWS, and while I mourn the broader closure of access to the public university to so many, I also look toward free schools, community run schools, and other models of more liberatory education. The public university has never been the only model of education so I choose to finish here with lesson #9: our dreams should always be too big for their institutions.

Everything for Everyone!

Art by Ali Cat. Leeds at Entangled Roots Press licensed Under Creative Commons License “CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.”

Happy Birthday to Me

This year I decided to step out of my comfort zone and ask everyone for a big gift. I will admit that I was inspired by Facebook’s prompt to start a fundraiser, but as an incorrigible nonconformist, I did not start a fundraiser. Instead, I asked all of my FB friends to engage in some form of social change action in my honor.

Here were the rules:

  1. Choose a form of social change/resistance to participate in before Oct 31.
  2. The idea is to “take one step up” from wherever your current level of political engagement is, so actions that count should be something that you would not otherwise do. (Ex.: Voting is a good action if you were not planning on voting and don’t usually vote, but not a very good gift if you were already gonna do that. The same goes for donating money.)
  3. Post what you did as a comment on this thread, or if you prefer send me an email about it.

It was a big ask, but I received some truly humbling birthday gifts:

  • I have joined Alliance at UWS to help advocate and learn more about my LGBTQ+ friends.
  • I will attend my first Witness for Peace Midwest board meeting in November and, if all goes well, lead my first delegation in March.
  • Sent out over 100 emails to “BFs” in Duluth and sent in a Letter to the Editor to the Duluth News Tribune to campaign for Keith Ellison
  • And another for Keith: just signed up to do GOTV for the Keith Ellison campaign
  • Last night, I spoke publicly at City Council about the economic degradation and impact thereof related to NW Jacksonville.
  • Raised funds and did a walk for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
  • I’m speaking at a labor and disability rights event, I’ll step it up in your name! Just know I get in the most trouble when I ask, what would Meghan do? And I ask this question often!
  • Researched and donated to Trans Women of Color Collective.
  • I’m embarrassed this was outside my comfort zone, but I went to a showing of a film “Doctrine of Discovery: the domination code” by Steven Newcomb at a local community center and signed up to receive emails on how to help spread the message. It has to do with the federal governments (and European) policy of domination of indigenous peoples and the religious ideologies they rely upon to justify their actions. I truthfully would most likely not have gone if you hadn’t made your birthday request! It was important for me to see.
  • Recent traumatic events in my family and seeing rape culture play out on the national stage have been very triggering of my own trauma of when I was raped at 17. And for my daughter staring down similar demons, and for every other person who has survived sexual assault, abuse, or rape – I am going to stop running. I’m going turn around and tell my 17 yr old self everything I’ve been telling my daughter. And I’m going to take every bit of power back that the fear has held over me and use it to file a police report and name him. The statute of limitations expired years ago, I doubt he’ll ever know I reported as there’s not potential for charges so I don’t think they would even do an investigation. So that is how I’m taking your challenge of one step up. I’m going to name him and file a police report.
  • I’m going to teach Constitutional Law through Duluth Community Ed, for free, so that people with money are not the only people who understand the constitution, in addition to my work on criminal justice reform (for example Warrant Resolution Day to keep people out of jail)
  • I recently started helping a lawyer friend translate documents from Spanish for immigration cases she works on.
  • Engaged in deep discussion with someone pushing a political candidate I don’t care for.

My idea was that we live in an individualist society and political action is, well, hard. We could all use a little bit of a push and also some mutual support to engage more in our communities, to do something we’ve been meaning to do, and to know that what we’re doing really counts for something. I wanted to create another little web of solidarity and light in this world which can seem so dark. I hope that others will be inspired by these ideas and actions whether you are a seasoned community activist or just getting out there or something in between, because as one of my friends said, we could all use a little inspiration.

Fearless by Alina Tauseef

Art by Alina Tauseef