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.

What Terror Looks Like

More than one year after the post electoral crisis, the terror created by the murders of protestors is still palpable here. Many readers of this blog will be familiar with these killings because you participated last year in an open letter to the families of the victims.

A few days ago Karen Spring wrote this excellent essay on the continued impunity for the killings.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the events of December 2017 & January 2018 are hardly in the past for many Hondurans. These killings were mentioned to me without prompting at some of our site visits, and my general impression both from these weeks on the ground and following social media is of a people where terror has genuinely taken root. I keep thinking of the many histories I’ve read or watched about societies existing under terroristic regimes, and realizing that in this moment I’m visiting one of those societies. And knowing that my friends and others live in it every day.

Nor are these impressions and facts far removed from the United States. Impunity for murdering protestors and the terror it spreads is creating an exodus of people arriving everyday at our border. To say nothing of the direct and indirect support for this terror provided by the US government itself. One example: the US provides funding, training, and “vetting” for various police and military forces implicated in human rights abuses including murder. We are funding terror.

The Songs of the Grandmothers

On Saturday I had the honor of hearing the songs of the grandmothers of COFAMIPRO, the Committee of Families of Disappeared Migrants of El Progreso. These women told us the stories of looking for their lost daughters and sons, who have been lost along the dangerous migrant trail between the US and Honduras or who lost contact with their families once arriving in the US. Rosa Nelly Santos told us about the heartbreaking work of repatriating remains, and how since 2000 she has walked with other mothers along the path wearing pictures of their children and asking around, hoping to find clues of where they were last seen. About the caravans, Rosa Nelly told us that they do not celebrate or agree with the migrant exodus because they would prefer to have people be able to stay in Honduras, but the most important thing is that no one disappears on an exodus. They may still die; but they will not disappear .

The women sang two songs they have written themselves: one for standing outside public offices demanding rights and recognition, and the second for when a person is found. It said “we don’t get tired of waiting.”

Together in a small circle, our Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective delegation cried with these women. We saw their pain, and held it with them for a few moments . We left them reluctantly in a flurry of hugs and smiles, always promising to share their stories.

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

Just Call Me They

The work of being trans is constant. It is tiring. It is exhausting. And it doesn’t really have to be that way. Is it too much to ask people to pay attention to me as a human being when they interact? To use my pronouns, use my name, and to do both correctly a majority of the time? It is not too much to ask, because how can I keep going in a world where that is too much to ask of the fellow human beings with whom I interact?

Taking people seriously as human beings starts with recognizing and learning how we are referred to in speech. This is not a preference. This is not a special request. This is a normal request for being treated with dignity like a human being and let me tell you, it is hurtful and embarrassing and offensive and infuriating and disempowering all rolled into one when it almost never happens. It is dehumanizing.

Let’s start with the name. I am a white person born in the US; unlike a great many people who must never even hear their names said correctly let alone spelled accurately, I belong to the dominant culture. Even so, my very white Irish German name, Meghan Krausch, is apparently not white bread enough and so I have spent my entire life checking every program, table of contents, and website in which it has ever appeared to see if they got it right. It has not gone well. For this and other reasons, I tried dropping the second half of my first name. But no, people cannot just call me Meg either. They want to try to call me Meghan anyway, usually failing.

Why am I going on about my name? Because I think this is related to people’s issues respecting each others’ pronouns. We insist in imposing our own cognitive schemas on other peoples’ selves. We do not take the time to copy down someone’s name as it is given to us, or to listen when they say it, or look at how they sign their own name. Instead, we are in a rush to fit people into a pre-existing box (in my example: ‘oh! I know that name: Megan’).

So as my name is violated in print, as others’ names are violated even more often and viciously, I am misgendered constantly. In situations where I might expect it, in situations where it was an honest mistake, and in situations where there is no excuse.

I get that there is a social transition. I get that this requires resocialization. And I do in fact understand how deep that socialization goes. I really, really do. In fact, I understand more than most people how early we are socialized to believe in the gender binary; I would argue that we are introduced to the binary before we even leave the womb. I am not sure I even believe that anyone can be perfect at using nonbinary pronouns in a society which is still cissexist.

But it is devastatingly apparent to me that most of y’all don’t even try.

In researching this post, I found this story about nonbinary or genderqueer K-12 teachers who use the honorific Mx. There was a lot that resonated, but thing I identified with most was the teacher who said this:

“I had moments where I thought: I’m too much work, I’m asking too much of my colleagues and students, and that as a teacher I’m there to serve, and part of serving others is not always putting yourself first.”

I fight this impulse every day. Of course “they/them/theirs” is a political choice, just like not eating meat or riding my bike instead of driving. But it also feels like home. It feels comfortable. It feels like not faking being a girl and being worried that I would be caught as a fake. And it’s no more of a political choice than using “he” or “she” or eating meat or driving a car, which are also all political choices.

The work of being trans is constant and exhausting only because other people make it that way. It doesn’t have to be anything other than just being.

Here are some resources for those who have questions about trans pronouns, being good accomplices, and what to do when you screw up:

transsaurus-rex

cite Black theorists

cite-black-women_3_orig

Cite Black Women t-shirt from the Cite Black Women Collective

On page 8 of Keeanga-Yamahta Taylor’s book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation she says something that stopped me in my tracks: “Black revolutionary Stokely Carmichael and social scientist Charles Hamilton coined the phrase ‘institutional racism’ in their book Black Power.”

Although I understand the phrase institutional racism so well that I have actually taught its definition and usage regularly, this is the first time that I have ever heard its origin, and specifically that its origin is attributed to Stokely Carmichael. I am dumbfounded.  Of course, there can be no question that I am to blame for this. But there is also a much larger question here about sociology. I use and teach “institutional racism” in the ways

Stokely_Carmichael_in_Alabama_1966

Stokely Carmichael in Alabama in 1966

that sociologists around me use it, and the ways that I learned it. I have never before heard it attributed it to anyone specific, much less to Carmichael and Hamilton or the Black Power movement. We seem to have simply claimed it as something we do, as part of our larger systemic way of looking at the world. In fact it’s often used interchangeably with “systemic racism.” And that may well be a good and important thing. But it should not come at the cost of erasing the contribution of Black scholars, Black people, and Black movements to our theorizing and scholarship. While we can and do debate the ownership of any one person to a word, no one hesitates to cite Judith Butler when they use the phrase “gender trouble” though these words surely had other connotations and meanings before and after this scholar. We cite Marx when we simply refer to “capital” or the “means of production” and sometimes Foucault gets all of “power.”

This is a question of our citational practices and how they reify existing power structures. This is about how we continue to actively create a white academy. Sara Ahmed discusses this (and provides one alternative possibility) in her nourishing book Living a Feminist Life, which does not cite any white men:

Citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings. My citation policy has affected the kind of house I have built. I realized this is not simply through writing the book, through what I found about what came up, but also through giving presentations. As I have already noted, in previous work I have built a philosophical edifice by my engagement with the history of ideas. We cannot conflate the history of ideas with white men, though if doing one leads to the other then we are being taught where ideas are assumed to originate.

It is for this reason, among others, that the Cite Black Women campaign was created. As the Cite Black Women’s Collective says, “It’s simple. Cite Black Women.” But also: put in the work. Find the citations and place Black women in the center of your syllabus and your sociological research and even your informal political thinking. The collective has a praxis:

  1. Read Black women’s work
  2. Integrate Black women into the CORE of your syllabus (in life & in the classroom).
  3. Acknowledge Black women’s intellectual production.
  4. Make space for Black women to speak.
  5. ​Give Black women the space and time to breathe.

And a rad t-shirt (pictured above), which supports the Winnie Mandela School in a working class, Black neighborhood of Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. I’ve already briefly discussed how amazing Winnie Mandela was on this blog. The collective has also organized conference events (including ASA)  and #CiteBlackWomenSunday.

Look, this is not just about “you.” I certainly need to do better at this too. The fact is, unless a person has been making a conscious effort to do this for several years now, it’s likely that many of us need to be putting some work in to do better at this. The point is that we all need to do the work because it isn’t going to happen without it – no one is going to start getting the credit they deserve for their contributions to our discipline and to our thinking without all of us practicing the racial justice that we preach. Here is a short list of Black scholars who influenced sociology to get you started.

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.”