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/

sadness and struggle

I’ve been trying and failing to finish a lot of writing over the last few weeks. I have felt overwhelmed, with a lot to say, but at the same time not quite able to edit and polish and publish what I’ve got.

Today, after once again writing about 1,500 words without finishing a post, I finally picked up Cindy Milstein’s Rebellious Mourning and read the first essay, Benji Hart’s “Feeling Is Not Weakness.” In it, Hart talks about how sad and depressing it is to connect the dots on the systemic violent oppression of black and brown people. Hart says they feel guilty for being sad, because Hart knows one of the functions of the system is to create demoralization. Sadness makes it feel like this campaign of demoralization is working. In Hart’s words:

“I feel guilty for being demoralized. I should be angry. I should be fiery with unquenchable passion. I should be as relentless as the state. If I am sad, the state has won. If I am sad, the fight is over”(p. 20).

I too feel sad. And I had not realized until just at this moment that I have had writer’s block because I didn’t want to write anything out of my sadness. I didn’t want to let Husky, or city council, or Walker, or Trump, or whoever control my life and my successes and make me sad. I didn’t want the state or capital to win. But feeling sadness when confronted with tragic realities is what makes me human. It is what makes me strong. Hart puts it like this:

“Experiencing hurt around the realities my people and I face is more than understandable; it shows that I have not given in, not accepted the current, violent reality as inevitable, not forfeited belief in my own right to life.”(p. 21)

A compañera of mine put it another way:

“We’re in the heart of the Empire,” I said.
“You’re wrong,” she said, “the Empire has no heart.”

My sadness does not mean the battle is lost. It means I’ve refused to lose what’s at the core of struggle and what we struggle for: my dignity and humanity. My belief that better worlds are possible. My compassion for others. My willingness to see and face systemic injustice. My meaningful connections to people living precarious lives of all kinds. My hope that people can be better people, and that they can find the will and courage to stop enacting their power over others. It’s only when I become so cynical that I lose these things that the fight is over. Sadness is not the sign the battle is lost but the sign that it is still raging, and the sign that I am still willing to fight it.

a blue arm and a white arm hold hands across a paper background with foundation and charity names. the paper is torn to reveal the words "True Compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." - Martin Luther King, Jr

Art by Kevin Caplicki for the Poor People’s Campaign, available at Just Seeds Collective.

communication through bars is revolutionary

Today I was reading about Mutulu Shakur, who has spent over 30 years in prison, when I came across the following piece of information: Dr. Shakur was denied parole in one hearing solely because he participated in a phone call on speakerphone with a professor and their students. In essence, the act of speaking to people in an educational context became the reason that he was seen as a danger to society.

photograph of Dr. Mutulu Shakur in the sun against a concrete wall

Dr. Mutulu Shakur, August 2016

Dr. Shakur is the stepfather of Tupac Shakur and has served 32 years in federal prison for his involvement in a bank robbery which resulted in the deaths of 3 people and involvement in the escape of Assata Shakur. Shakur was denied mandatory parole in 2016 (after serving 30 years as a peaceful prisoner) and has currently initiated a lawsuit against the federal government.

For the last 3 years I have met with other local people twice a month to write letters to people in prison. This work has many critical aspects, some of which are immediately obvious, and others which are less so. Perhaps another day I can write more about the importance of writing a letter in the spirit of solidarity to a person who is literally living in a cage, and about the important and meaningful friendships that have grown from those letters. What I’m thinking about this afternoon is the way this work keeps me connected to the many shocking injustices of the prison system, and how much I continue to learn from it.

It’s worth reading the whole list of horrifying reasons Dr. Shakur was denied parole put together by his support committee. Apparently a prisoner cannot refer to themselves as a victim of COINTELPRO, although it is indisputably factually correct, if they want to ever be considered for parole, because referring to their victimization by the FBI makes them likely to reoffend.

Regarding the public phone call, no one disagrees that Mutulu called a professor who placed the call on speaker phone so that other faculty and students could listen to his comments. The problem is that the prison and parole board have not ever cited a rule that was violated by such a phone call, nor was anyone ever informed of such a rule (and how heinous is the idea of such a rule?). From the support committee summary:

“The February 2013 brief phone call, fully monitored, was the sole basis for rejecting the Parole Commission’s Hearing Examiner’s recommendation that Dr. Shakur be paroled in early 2015. No one has ever explained why any rule was violated or shown that Dr. Shakur or any other inmate has been informed that allowing someone to place his or her phone on a speaker is a rule violation.”

In this case, the mere act of speaking to others outside the prison walls becomes reason enough for continued loss of civil rights. Even the apparent involvement of Danny Glover at the event was not enough public pressure to turn the tide (or perhaps that’s exactly what irritated the parole board enough to cause the retaliation). The message is that prisoners can and will be punished for communicating with people outside of prison in public ways. But even so, it’s shocking to see that the prison has so much control that it does not need to provide any justification for this, even in such a high profile case.

This case and details are not only a good lesson on how the prison works, but they touch close to the local work we do, too. I sent Mutulu a birthday card last year, and received a nice note back. I’ve participated in similar phone calls myself at public talks given on campus, as an audience member, and have considered organizing these kinds of events as well. And another reason for Dr. Shakur’s parole denial is one that we deal with regularly: how to close a letter.

“Mutulu often signs off his letters with the words ‘Stiff Resistance’ and this indicates he may once again engage in violent crimes if released.”

The Hearing Examiner stated:

“The Commission not only finds these statements incompatible with the goals and conditions of parole supervision, but also concludes they are evidence that you have not disavowed yourself from the same set of beliefs you had when you were convicted …”

What is noticeable here is that the Commission looked past literally volumes of public statements and writing made by someone that would clarify and provide clear context on what they are thinking, in this case an explicit disavowal of violence as a means toward social change, and instead focused on a two word salutation and decided to interpret it in a vacuum. They will, it seems from their own statement, accept nothing less than a disavowal of all the political beliefs Dr. Shakur had when he was convicted. In other words, they are not looking for him (or other prisoners) to disavow violence or certain actions, but rather to disavow political resistance entirely. They are looking for complete submission, even in letter salutations.

But prisoners also demonstrate their refusal to submit and their continued meaningful political resistance precisely through communicating with us. It’s a way of maintaining their selves, their dignity, and their humanity inside of an institution that is specifically designed to strip them of all of that. Mutulu uses “stiff resistance;” another friend of our group, Sean Swain uses “stay dangerous” and has mounted three campaigns for governor while on the inside. Communication beyond bars is a radical tool or it would not be punished so radically. And if this is the punishment that occurs in a high profile case like Mutulu Shakur’s, with a website, support committee, and some connection to Danny Glover, one should imagine much more arbitrary denials and worse repression that occurs among the rest of the prison population.

Prisoners take enormous risks in simply communicating with us. As people who walk freely on the outside, it’s essential not to forget, underestimate, or waste these risks, and to understand that they are precisely how we know our work is revolutionary and meaningful.

prison_birds_hearts

 

Ongoing assassinations and violence in Honduras: Carlos Hernández

A selfie of Carlos Hernandez wearing a white Oxford shirt.

Carlos Hernández, killed in his law office in Tela, Honduras, on April 10, 2018.

Last week, another person two degrees of separation from me was assassinated in Honduras. His name was Carlos Hernández, and he was killed in his law office in the municipality of Tela. He was the lawyer of one of five people who have been criminalized for defending the water in their community as part of an encampment they have sustained since May 2017 against intense persecution. I have met all five of them.

 

I have visited their encampment.

He is not the first person to die in relationship to their small community’s struggle.

It is unlikely we will ever know exactly who his killer is, and even less likely that person will face any judicial process because rates of impunity in Honduras for homicide are estimated at over 90%.

It is heavy to feel so surrounded by death. I cannot imagine how it would feel if I were actually living among it daily, breathing in its possibility at every turn. The violence is so frequent even among the people to whom I am directly connected that I fear that my friends and family are becoming tired of hearing about the deaths and death threats to my compañerxs in Honduras, and will stop being willing to act. I do not wish to center myself, but rather hope to connect myself personally as an act of solidarity, enabling others to also feel personally connected and invested in the lives of others.

Carlos Hernández was young. He was the lawyer for the mayor of Arizona, Arnoldo Chacón. Chacón is one of 5 members of the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ – Movimiento Amplio por Dignidad y Justicia) who have been formally accused of “usurpation” for stopping the state of Honduras and the company INGELSA from developing a hydroelectric dam on the Río Jilamito.

These community members have sustained “Camp Dignity in Defense of the Río Jilamito” since May 2017, defending their water and community from attack by a foreign company. All 5 of the accused, along with the many other members of the community who have participated in the encampment, have been subject to threats and attacks over this time period. Yet they persist. They arrive, daily, in shifts, making sure the camp is tended at all times. They make food for each other, take care of each other, make decisions together, and they confront the alliance of government and private capital which not only criminalizes this care-taking activity but dares to call it usurpation.

I first met these community members after they had completed just a few weeks of their encampment, at the end of May 2017. The camp is humble but cozy, and the reception they gave to our large Witness for Peace delegation of 22 U.S. citizens was deeply welcoming. We ate soup together, we chatted, we played games, and took pictures. They found enough chairs for all of us and hardly a chair for anyone else, and we could not manage to convince anyone to swap places and take a seat in our places. Of course. It would be rude to sit while an honored guest was standing.

Picture is of a banner, sign, and Honduran flag that cover barbed wire and make up a barricade

Barricade at Camp Dignity in Defense of Water and Life at Rio Jilamito

The people who spoke that day to us are the very same people who have been criminalized and whose lives have been threatened since then. I would like to use their names and to show their faces to humanize these every day rural people who have decided to take such enormous risks to protect the water in their community, but I am afraid that it may put them in more risk. I would like to humanize them, to counter the implicit suggestion that they are terrorists for impeding economic development – to which they did not consent and from which they will not benefit – but the very act of doing so may harm them further.

The assassination of Carlos Hernández can only be understood as part of a larger system of structural and political violence which runs deep. He was killed in a country which has recently inaugurated a fraudulent President, and this presidency and regime (and the support it receives from the United States) is inseparably related to the skyrocketing rates of violence. (I plan to write more about exactly how all of this is connected but have linked to some excellent existing analysis above by Radio Progreso, Jesse Freeston, Sandra Cuffe, and Ryan Morgan to get that conversation started here.)

Even in the face of incredible odds and almost unthinkable danger, the community at Jilamito continues to maintain their active resistance to INGELSA and its hydroelectric dam project. Their resistance shows us all that it is possible.

 

Click here for a list of concrete actions you can take in solidarity with people in Honduras.

How to Take Action in Solidarity with the Honduran People

image is of the altar for Berta Caceres at Utopia in Honduras
  1. Ask your Congressional Representative to Co-sponsor the Berta Cáceres Act or thank them for already doing so. The bill asks that the United States suspend all “…security assistance to Honduran military and police until such time as human rights violations by Honduran state security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice.” It is widely and strongly supported by Hondurans working for justice.
  2. Donate money or time (however small the amount) to an organization like Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective or Honduras Solidarity Network that works in solidarity with social movements on the ground so they can continue to do their work throughout this crisis, including accompaniment work. Avoid giving money to charity-focused organizations that do not seek to empower Hondurans to have autonomy over their own institutions.
  3. Organize a fundraiser for an organization like those above.
  4. Write an email to the US embassy telling them how disappointed you are in their position after informing yourself on the position of the US government in Honduras.
    US Embassy in Honduras Charges D’Affaires Heide Fulton: BronkeHM (at) state.gov
  5. Find and support local justice work in your community because these struggles are about more than just Honduras.
  6. Find ways to publicly let Hondurans know you support them in their struggles. This increases theur visibility by letting the Honduran government know there may be international pressure for certain humsn rughts abuses, and it is simply encouraging for people who have been marginalized to know that others are thinking of them and taking public actions (even pictures) on their behalf.
  7. Pay attention to what is happening in Honduras and tell people you know about it as well. Help others around you understand the connection between US foreign policy and the crisis in Honduras – this is a crisis created and perpetuated, in reality, on US soil, and we can change it by organizing on US soil as well. A few good resources are the Honduras Solidarity Network, Democracy Now!, NACLA, and the Upside Down World.

Last updated April 9, 2019.

Stop Telling Me I’m Brave: On Courage and Being Set Apart

As feminists we know it’s important for us to have each other’s backs in a shitty heterosexist world. We have often done this by reassuring each other that we are strong and brave people. The thing is, after the year I’ve had, I’m not sure telling our friends over and over that they’re brave works the way it’s supposed to.

When you call someone brave you pretty much mean to say that they’re doing something that you’re not sure you would do in their situation. And that’s a compliment, but it also pushes that person away from you by making them different. When I spoke out openly about my experience as a stalking survivor and the incredible failures of the institutions that were supposed to protect me, it started to feel less like “brave” was about having my back and more like no one else was “brave” enough to have my back.

It started when I was doing things that did not feel like they even involved a choice, let alone courage. What I learned in surviving stalking is that even if you think you don’t want to go on, you pretty much do because there just aren’t that many other choices available. With the exception of suicidal depression (which I’m not minimizing, but I didn’t have), you will have to get out of bed sometime. I missed more days of work than ever before, but still I couldn’t just stop going altogether. I wasn’t so out of it that I couldn’t calculate those risks. I kept putting one foot in front of the other and showing up. Surviving.

My acts are not what I would characterize as “brave” necessarily. They are acts of resilience, like the acts that human beings who have survived worse things before me like intimate partner stalking, colonial wars, and daily racist police violence. Human beings are, at the end of the day, apparently pretty good at surviving some pretty terrible things, but that doesn’t make us all brave, and being called brave, when I was busy just surviving stalking, was almost like salt in the wound. Because all I felt, all the time, was fear.

I advocated, loudly, for my safety in my campus workplace. And, because I am a feminist activist, I did this in a way that I hoped would benefit future stalking victims and tried to point out how inevitable it is that this problem would happen again. I published my story with a major web outlet clarifying why I thought we needed better procedures on our campus not just for myself but for all of us, and called out my campus for their shameful disregard of the safety of my body and their refusal to “set a precedent.” I went forward with this story publicly even after I was issued an ultimatum insisting that it needed to be published anonymously or it could not be published. In each case, I was told by my friends and colleagues that my actions were very brave but in each case, I felt like I was simply doing the only right thing.

When my friends were calling me brave, it really felt like they were just letting themselves off the hook for not taking actions that were similar to mine or, worse, for not joining me in solidarity in the ways that they might have been implicated. I do not think my friends consciously meant anything negative when they told me I was brave. I think they really meant it. But what it usually means to say someone is brave is – what I heard–was, “oh wow, you have so much courage. I could never dare to do that.” What I needed to hear was: “man that situation sucks! Let me join you in this struggle.”

As a feminist method of support, bravery seems to work okay when we assign the label to ourselves. The women who wrote the groundbreaking All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave obviously got a lot out of it. There were times when I liked the idea too, but only when I decided on my own to do something that I felt was brave. When the idea of bravery backfired, it was when someone else called me brave. Like a lot of terms, there’s a big difference between applying it to yourself and having it applied to you by someone else.

The concept of bravery though is one that always sets people apart. It’s an idea that’s usually associated with extraordinary individuals. Extra-ordinary. And maybe that’s why it hurt me so much, because I was already feeling so isolated. Bravery just seemed to set me even further apart from the pack.

But there are other reasons to avoid setting people apart, even when they haven’t necessarily survived something traumatic. If we want to build social movements that will change the world, we will need groups of people, not a few extraordinary individuals. I don’t dispute that to do this work we will have to be brave, but maybe we need to stop calling each other brave. Instead we have to find ways to be brave together. The first step to doing this will mean not holding each other up on pedestals too tall to reach but alternatively trying to learn how we can better support and understand each other’s necessary and chosen risks. Here in the United States the cliché is that one person can change the world but the reality is that it takes many people to change the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not boycott those buses on his own. Assata Shakur didn’t break herself out of jail. Although in the course of history we’ve exalted only these single individuals, their names would mean little without the movements full of other people around them. If they had been set apart in their own time as singularly brave individuals, as merely exceptional people, we wouldn’t even know who they were today because nothing would have been accomplished.

I know by telling me how brave my actions were that my feminist friends were trying to be nice and supportive. I can see that I was moving from surviving to advocating and that people wanted to pat me on the back for that forward movement. But what I want is to change the world, and for that I need my friends to join me, not laud me. I want my acts, just like my feminist ideals, to become ordinary, not extraordinary.

solidarity is our weapon

“Solidarity Is Our Weapon. International Women’s Strike.”