Archive for category Root Causes

Notes on Racism from Occupied Oakland

Oakland is Occupied (art by

Today was my third day at Occupy Oakland, an Occupy encampment that started October 10 in front of City Hall in Downtown Oakland.

On my first day, I brought a group of meditators to sit for peace. A mostly white group, one of the people who attended talked to me privately about how they would have felt safer and more comfortable sitting with us had our group represented more diversity. I agreed, and committed to making more connections with communities of color who meditate.

On my second day, I walked in to a scene at the plaza steps where an African American man was screaming at white folks, “Go home!” As a video camera followed him around, he lunged at people as other men held him back and tried to calm him down, worried police would use his anger as an excuse to intervene violently. “You aren’t from here!” he screamed. “You don’t represent Oakland!” An African American woman was also there speaking with calm fierceness about how it was problematic for white people not from Oakland to claim space in the middle of Oakland as “theirs” to occupy. As she described it, this way of thinking isn’t different from the white people who displace people of color through gentrification in Oakland, or the white settlers who stole the land from the Ohlone through colonization.

On my third day, today, I marched through the streets of Oakland with other queers in solidarity with the Occupy encampment. Police showed up at the beginning of the march to escort us through the streets, and a mostly white group of folks told the cops to go away. As the anger escalated, some people of color stepped in to try to mediate. I turned to a friend, “I worry when white folks escalate anger at police, when we aren’t the ones who are going to feel the brunt of police brutality.” We ended the escalation by marching off without police escort. The police escorted anyway, with about 8 cop cars with lights on blocking the whole road behind us. “Leave it to queers,” I said, “to be sure our march comes complete with flashing lights and an entourage.”

On the march, I spoke with a person who had attended the people of color caucus yesterday. “A bunch of white folks showed up and demanded to be there. Even when we tried to escort them out, they wouldn’t leave.” I shared that I was planning to attend the white anti-racist working group that was meeting this evening, because I’d heard about the incident and had witnessed other incidents myself. “It would be amazing to have a wall of white folks outside of our meeting with signs. ‘Feel excluded? Talk to me about it.’ It would be great for them to be able to express their frustrations, but not in a way that’s really painful in our meeting.”

I walked up to the meeting for white allies. About eight of us standing were around, introducing ourselves. Then another four walked up. A crowd of eight ambled over and were suddenly twenty strong. We made a circle, and kept expanding it until almost fifty white anti-racist allies were sitting in a circle to discuss how best to support anti-racism and people of color at Occupy Oakland. I loved that folks were thinking about change at all levels: We need to respond to this particular request from the people of color caucus. We need to foster white anti-racist training workshops. We need to engage white people drawn to Occupy Oakland in the struggles of people of color in the surrounding community. We need to support more white anti-racist leaders in taking up major roles within Occupy Oakland.

Oakland is historically a site of significant anti-racist organizing — the Black Panther Party was founded here in 1966. Yet the stories coming out of other Occupy sites also indicate that when we work together under the umbrella of “the 99%,” that we absolutely must do the work to heal racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, and other oppression.

We don’t become the 99% by declaring it so. We become the 99% by doing the work to heal what has previously divided us.


Where were you on March 19, 2003?

I was on a cruise ship near the Bahamas when George W. Bush declared war on Iraq eight years ago today. Bush declared war because of the potential threat to the American way of life. Coming off a cruise ship made clear that this “American way of life” was  about my ability to live in relative affluence both on the cruise ship and back at home, all while being served by the rest of the world.

My first and only cruise vacation was a gift from my mother to help me through one of the most difficult periods of my life. I was in the midst of a deep depression and trying to find some way to come back to life after a painful end to a relationship with an alcoholic. I remember the anticipation of this vacation, the daily, hourly, by the minute reminders I would give myself that I had at least this one thing to look forward to. It was the carrot that kept me going through an otherwise dark chapter.

The cruise itself was surreal. At the time, I was reading about Jean Baudrillard’s concepts of simulacra and simulation – that in these postmodern times we have replaced real experience with simulations of reality. Like Disneyland, the cruise ship was a great example of hyperreality – an “obviously fake” version of reality that makes us feel like our normal lives are real, when in fact those “normal lives” are not real either.

The cruise ship “is meant to be an [opulent] world, in order to make us believe that the [rich people] are elsewhere in the ‘real’ world, and to conceal the fact that real [opulence] is everywhere, particularly among those [rich Americans] who go there to act [opulent] in order to foster illusions of their real [opulence]” (Baudrillard, p. 172). It allows Americans to say, “I’m not normally into being pampered, but for 4 days of my life I deserve it.” This masks the ways that Americans are continually pampered in comparison to most the rest of the world, and that our “way of life” depends on people in other countries serving our needs. [March 26, 2003]

On the cruise ship, war was not real. There was no mention that the country we would be returning to would now be at war. And because my daily life as a U.S. academic was largely disconnected from the daily reality of the rest of the world – I returned to a life where war was not real.

Today, I am thinking about the stories of the U.S. during World War II – with rations and Rosie the Riveter, or the Vietnam war – with mass protests and massacres at Kent State and Jackson State. How public and present war seemed in the daily lives of everyone in the U.S. then.

And I am struck that many days can go by – days, weeks, months – and I do not remember that the U.S. is at war. I still live a life where war is not real. I don’t believe I am alone, and that there are many of us who are disconnected from the day to day reality of war.

I know that my experience does not translate to everyone, that there are millions of soldiers on active duty and millions of families who live in daily anguish that their loved ones will be killed or injured in the line of duty. Yet my disconnection from the reality of war persists, and it surprises the me who is normally compassionate, anti-violence, and politically active. I suspect there are a number of ways that my disconnection (and the disconnection of others) is actively cultivated as a method for heading off massive anti-war protests.

I write this today as the military strikes of Operation Odyssey Dawn begin in Libya, and in solidarity with the folks I was hoping to march with today in San Francisco against war. While a number of life circumstances conspired to keep me from marching, I write this in the hopes that others who also find themselves disconnected can join me in finding ways to reconnect with what is real – both the reality of war and the reality of our daily lives. Eight years later, and I still find myself on the cruise ship.


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White Anti-Racism in New-to-Me Social Movements

I am excited to be part of the 2011 class of anti-racist white folks participating in the third Anne Braden Anti-Racist Training Program by the Catalyst Project.

I just completed a move to San Francisco in part because I sought more training and connection with this kind of work. In small town Durango, Colorado, I felt disconnected from a larger movement and any sense of history of social change work that I was part of. I felt alone, isolated, like I was one of just a handful of people who cared about anti-racist work as part of the larger struggle for any kind of social change.

It’s amazing to be immersed among so many people committed to anti-racist organizing, so soon after my move to San Francisco (I started the training less than 48 hours after I arrived). I didn’t anticipate the way that I would be challenged by being immersed in new issues that are of primary interest to white community organizers in the Bay Area – issues like the anti-imperialist movements for global justice that have grown out of the Seattle WTO protest in 1999, Jewish Anti-Zionist and Palestine solidarity work, and anti-war work organizing with soldiers and veterans.

In small town Durango, these issues are present but not central to the issues we struggled with as a community. Part of that feels like our isolation from state, national, and international politics – it can feel disengaging to be several hours and mountain passes away from decision makers on these issues. Part is also the make-up of our community – Native American sovereignty and Latino immigration issues were the pressing issues that people of color were organizing around.

But I also have felt a certain internal laziness about learning more about these issues. They are complicated by a lot of different voices. They require taking a strong side. Many of these issues have a long history that must be understood – sometimes hundreds or thousands of years.

I am realizing that  it’s not that I struggle to take a side on anything. I struggle to take a side when I can’t actually have conversations face to face with people who are most affected. I have really fought to unlearn binary ways of thinking about the world. Now if I can’t hear multiple sides and understand the complexity of how different people are viewing an issue, I feel paralyzed to take a side just based on my gut reaction or what one person is saying.

I sometimes feel like an ineffective ally because I need to know more to take a strong position, and I have only a limited capacity about how much new information I can take in at a time. I am trying to give myself some space for learning, understanding, and finding my own way on these new-to-me issues. It’s hard when I feel internal pressure to impress my new radical anti-racists friends by being down with all the right politics.


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Am I Pro-Globalization when it comes to Immigrant Rights?

What Part of Legal Immigration Don't You Understand?

What Part of Legal Immigration Don't You Understand?

Immigration is one of the most tangible social justice issues of our time. Overt discrimination against a set of people that is encoded into policy and law. Among my immigrant friends, even those who have jumped through all the right hoops to get all the right paperwork still find themselves unsure that if they leave the country, they will be allowed back in.

These are the stories that break my heart when talking about the injustice of immigration laws. But people entrenched in the anti-immigrant camp aren’t budged from their positions that “these people need to follow the law to get here legally” and “these people are taking our jobs.” So I’m always curious about analyses of immigration that demonstrate the near impossibility of legal immigration (as the cartoon above from Reason does so well), and arguments from a pro-capitalist and pro-globalization perspective.

Ben Casnocha asks: “How do we make further progress toward the ideal of all people of the earth starting the race at the same point? Here’s an answer you won’t hear from guys like Peter Singer or Jeffrey Sachs: immigration. Or, to continue the globalization idea: more globalization, though a globalization that includes the free movement of people, not just goods and ideas.” For proponents of free trade, this seems like a logical extension of their core values.

Although the argument is interesting, it’s at odds with my core values. Placing capitalism at the center of the argument for immigration concerns me. Yet it’s hard to deny how many of my immigrant friends came here for economic reasons. I’m still grappling with how to make sense of a pro-globalization argument for sound immigration policy. Thoughts?


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Pushed out of Political Movements

The Color of Violence

In the violence against women movement, most of the best critiques of the institutionalization of rape crisis centers and shelters comes from women of color. In The Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology, women of color critique our over-reliance on the criminal justice system to respond to domestic and sexual violence, when this system clearly reinforces violence against communities of color. White women in the movement years ago had a choice – do we collaborate with cops or with women of color? When we chose the cops over women of color, we effectively ended our connection to the women’s movement and solidified our institutional status.

The number of women of color still organizing around violence against women speaks to their commitment and their resilience. This is often in the face of active disempowerment and marginalization.

From Another Anonymous Person of Color:

Yes, but there’s a summary effect that happens to people of color in political movements. When a person of color raises a concern, even if it sounds unconstructive or emotional, it’s generally done because that person cares about a problem and believe in a political movement, or else they’d be in Toastmasters. White people, who some claim also care, show that care by minimizing the concern through deflection, mocking and other forms of intimidation. A person of color who had the courage to say something becomes frustrated with the lack of concern and willingness to defend a way of life rather than act against it, and that consternation is used as another weapon against him/her. Pretty soon, the original speaker is marginalized and disempowered — effectively politically killed off and disappeared.


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