Monday, February 8, 2010

Remembering the Stakes

One of the first actions I remember taking as a self-identified political radical was selling Marxist and anarchist literature at the age of 14. I would set up my little table on the high school campus at lunch-time or in the dim lobby of the Phoenix Theater at a punk show on Friday night. I’d sit there quietly, reading perhaps, waiting for a curious mind to wander over and engage me in conversation and leave with one of our titles (which we had picked up from AK Press, an anarchist book publisher based in Oakland). This was just after the 9/11 attacks, and while animosity towards radicals such as myself was on the increase (I routinely had books spit on, stolen, and thrown to the ground), young peoples’ interest in political ideas and history was also growing. As a result, I never had to make much of an effort to get folks to come over to the table; politics were already in the air.
To this day, radical political groups still use “tabling” as a tactic for gaining visibility for their group and raising consciousness by distributing political literature and other materials. Tabling is a great way to meet people, engage in dialogue and get revolutionary ideas into the hands of the general public, as is any form of face-to-face political outreach. However, over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a stark unwillingness on the part of many self-described radicals to actively engage with the public, especially when tabling. Whether it’s at an Anarchist Book-fair in San Francisco, or a public concert in New York City, I’ve witnessed a complete lack of interest on the part of “revolutionary” and “anarchist” organizations to network, dialogue, and strategize with strangers, such as myself. I view this as a larger trend in radical communities which is utterly hostile to anything that requires talking to people outside of our cliques about our politics and our organizations.
I and many people I work closely with are just as guilty of this as the next person. Often when someone, who’s not a fellow activist, asks me “what’s new”, I typically do not respond with the details of how I’m working to stop police brutality, or enrolled in a political education program to help white activists analyze white supremacy and organize to build multi-racial movements for liberation. I generally answer with a shrug and a “you know…just really busy with work.” I’m more likely to tell them to go see a new movie that I just saw than to come to our next meeting and get involved. I’m more likely to spread some gossip than the latest news on the war. And I know I’m not the only one who does this. And every time we do, what we are losing is a great opportunity to engage with people about the work and the ideas that we think are so important: the fight for justice and democracy. I can barely remember how many times I have seen my comrades sit in their uncomfortable chair behind a table of obscure political theory, frowning and counting the seconds until they get to pack up and go home. Then at the next meeting, we all complain that there’s “nobody here.” How many times have we tried to organize an event and waited until the last minute to call people, or not called people at all? How many times have we just relied on a single email to get the word out and then acted shocked when no one attends our little movie night/forum/workshop/meeting/rally/etc.? Do we really think that someone is going to read one hastily-worded email and sacrifice two hours on a Wednesday night to come to some meeting of a group they know nothing about?
I say these things not to attack anyone in particular. As I said, I’m guilty of these things all of the time. And as I mentioned earlier, when I first started tabling, I could rely on the current political climate to help me engage with people; people were already interested. Today, things are a bit different. There is no demand for revolutionary ideas. Not in any significant quantity at least. We have to realize this, take responsibility for not stepping up to reach out to the community, and change direction if we are to survive as revolutionaries in an era where Tea Parties seem to rule the day.
For me, what helps is looking back to those who came before us and went down the very same path that we are now walking. The path to liberation of all of humanity. Understanding that we are part of a proud tradition of community organizers, activists, workers, peasants, and rebels from every inch of this planet can help us gain some perspective on the task before us. What did our comrades back then have to do in order to win? In the face of such terrifying opposition in the 1960’s, how did students in the South defeat four centuries of legal slavery and segregation? In the face of death squads, how did radical labor organizers in the early 20th century fight for and win some of the basic rights and benefits that we all take for granted today such as the minimum wage, the weekend, and the eight-hour work day? Did they do it by shyly sitting behind a book table or calling 10 people the day before a big rally?
In Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, he describes some of the revolutionary working class organizations of the early 1900’s. In the famous Lawrence textile strike, 10,000 workers walked out of their jobs. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized mass meetings, parades, and set up a 50 worker organizing committee. Through this they also set up soup kitchens which could feed 50,000 people. In New York, female socialist organizations were famous for their incredible political outreach. In one day at the climax of one of their campaigns, female socialists “distributed 110,000 leaflets, sold 4,000 books, put out 40,000 stickers, and held 110 meetings.”
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) continued this tradition of mass-based organizing in the 1960’s in order to defeat segregation in the South. Jean Wheeler Smith said that “Bob (Moses) and a band of ten or so organizers, all under 20, could go into a community in the morning…find their contacts, establish sleeping quarters and some means to eat, get a church and turn out the community for a mass meeting that same night.” And while SNCC wasn’t always able to turn out tens of thousands of people to their events, what they emphasized was building relationships and engaging in the day-to-day work that may seem tedious, but pays off in the long run and helps build mass movements. People claimed that SNCC organizers were often “people you could sit down and talk with.” Now compare that with today’s radicals, who often despise talking with the uncultivated masses and too often dismiss those who disagree with them as “reactionary” or worse yet, “liberal.” (meaning hopeless). We’re much more content sitting behind our tables, snubbing our noses at all of those who “just don’t get it.”
But imagine if every tiny anarchist or revolutionary group across the country (and there are many, though they are mostly small) took these lessons and incorporated them into their day-to-day work. Imagine small bands of revolutionary organizers who went door-to-door, talking to people, developing relationships, building the leadership of working people, listening to the struggles of the majority of residents in this country, handing out thousands of leaflets and selling hundreds of books and holding mass meetings. After a few years, we might not seem so marginal or friendless anymore. Out of all the activists I have met and continue to be friends with, almost all of them are brilliant in their own way. They are friendly, smart, funny, personable, creative and fierce people who can accomplish just about anything. For some reason, however, these traits are rarely reflected in their organizing. Either because of the fear of rejection, a lack of confidence in their own ability to communicate, or a subconscious elitism towards the “apolitical masses,” the intelligence and friendliness of the best among us is not seen by most who encounter our organizations. Instead, many in the community see us just another bunch of activists- whiny, privileged, petulant children, if they see us at all, which they rarely do, because we’re far too busy embroiled in some meaningless political squabbling, either in reality or on the internet.
Lest this late-night, flu-inspired rant come off as another overly negative, morale-killing diatribe (something our movements really don’t need at this moment), let this instead be a time to reflect and reconnect with our traditions, and remember what is at stake here. Why do you want to change the world? Why do you do what you do? Why do you call yourself a “revolutionary” or “radical” or “activist?” For me, it has always been, and always will be, deeply personal. Because the stakes are our lives. Because this is the only sensible way to spend our lives. Because capitalism makes slaves of all of us and there’s nothing more I could want than freedom. And if I’m not willing to talk to someone, to put a book in their hands, to put work into building a relationship with them, to help them through the doubts and fears they may have, to make phone calls, to knock on doors, to stand in front of grocery stores, to ask questions, to invite everyone I know to participate in the events I help organize, to have the hard conversations with the people I disagree with, then I am throwing away everything I have learned and I am abandoning the most beautiful thing that I have in this world and that is the struggle for my own liberation, which ultimately means the struggle for everybody’s liberation. When we are too afraid to talk to strangers, we are letting ourselves down. When we won’t make those extra phone calls because we’d rather watch a movie and get drunk, we are letting our friends, family, comrades, and ancestors down. Because our own lives are at stake. Everything that is good and beautiful is under attack and no one can stop it but you. And in that struggle you grow, you love, you learn to fight and you learn how to be free.

Fuck a career. I’m a revolutionary. I’m in this shit for life. It’s time to BRING IT!

1 comment:

  1. My discovery of this post was timely; just today I was struggling with my own "activist elitism" as you've mentioned. I was working along side fellow classmates with a group of young high schoolers on understanding issues of gender dynamics. Yet once we'd all had our chance to tell an anecdote about "sexism," I couldn't help but be appalled by (what I considered) their gross misunderstanding of what it meant. Even some of the older girls helping me facilitate brought up how they "hate[d] it when girls or feminists just rant and act like guys don't have problems," and that they "think its dumb when girls pull the sexism victim card." Though I didn't entirely disagree with all implications of their comments, I immediately found myself in a state of shock and irritation over how little they understood, or how little they had noticed about sexism. I was so annoyed by their ideas (and frankly, misinformation) around sexism that I unconsciously thought of myself as 'on a different level' than they were. In that moment I saw myself as a progressive individual with the clarity to notice and process prejudice when they did not. The problem isn't this frustration, but the fact that in my frustration and elitism I ended up not even explaining the history of the women's rights movement or the actual statistics about, for instance, the pay gap. Personally, I know that my abilities and effectiveness as a radical are uprooted by the "activist elitism" that I can feel. Its a shame that it can be so hard to get past this tendency, but good to know that the power that comes with reaching out is worth it. Though this is only one small piece of the issues you brought up, it has been the hardest for me (and probably others) to deal with.